Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kora Restaurant

We ended up at Kora Restaurant in Crystal City thanks to a Village Vines deal that B will explain. The first thing we noticed upon entering Kora was this:

No, it wasn't early in the morning or after closing time. This was the scene at 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening. Not a good sign.

Kora is located in the old Bebo Trattoria space on Crystal Drive. Some people have suggested that the space might be cursed given that Bebo generally had horrendous reviews for its service (we can vouch for this being true) and owner/chef Roberto Donna had that pesky little felony tax evasion issue. Chef Morou Ouattara is trying to erase any lingering memories of Bebo and bring his trattoria vision to life. Morou formerly ran the acclaimed FarrahOlivia (his take on American, African, and French cuisine) until it closed in 2009. He recently reopened FarrahOlivia for dinner on Wednesday through Saturday in a private room inside Kora. Perhaps all of the empty tables were the reason for the change, especially when Kora's neighbor, Jaleo, was packed to the gills.

While we have plans to check out FarrahOlivia, this night was focused on Kora. We thought that since only a few tables were occupied that we'd have great service. However, great is not a word I'd use to describe it. We waited a long time for everything and watched as servers stood chatting with each other in the dining room. I don't blame them completely, they were probably bored.

We shifted our focus away from the service and concentrated on the food. Imagine the perplexed looks on our faces when the Beet Salad (roasted beets, arugula, walnut, Gorgonzola, and orange) was placed in front of us. See any beets in there? Hidden under the pile of arugula were five very small beet chunks. While this salad was refreshing and tasty, I'd say "beet salad" is not an accurate description.

The Caesar salad, on the other hand, was taken from "eh" to "yay" by the focaccia croutons.

As a noodle lover, I was excited by the pasta tasting that allows you to select 3 of their pastas (but not the waiter-recommended lasagna) as your entree. The idea was so much better than the execution. First, it was ridiculous trying to eat pasta off of tiny flat plates. The watery sauces were sloshing all over the place and noodles were hanging off the edge. Second, I hate to say it, but the pastas were just not that good. The best of the bunch was the tortellini with butternut squash and saffron cream sauce, but even it was a little too pumpkin pie for my taste... and I love pumpkin pie! The spaghetti with homemade meatballs was not any better than our out-of-the-box version at home and the quinoa linguini with vegetables had almost no flavor. I usually will overlook the flaws of a dish and gobble it up anyway, but this pasta was so unexciting I found myself pushing it away after a couple of bites of each.

B listened to Tom Sietsema's review and ordered a pizza. He was the big winner. The shrimp, tomato, mozzarella, prosciutto, and pineapple combination was a bit on the salty side from the mass of prosciutto but was balanced out well by the pineapple. The crust (benefiting from Bebo's old wood pizza oven) was crisp without being burned to death.

Was the pizza good enough to bring us back to Crystal City for another visit? Not when we have so many pizza favorites in the District calling our names. After our meal, I can't say I'm shocked by the empty tables.

Second Thoughts from B

I can't really argue with much of what J said. The food was inconsistent and never outstanding and the service was perplexingly inattentive. At least the delicious bread basket was lined with facts about Italy which made for good reading while we waited...

But you know what turns an OK dinner into a great evening out? A coupon, that's what. Want to hear the details? Are you sure? There is math is involved.

OK, you asked for it. Prepare your slide rules, because class is in session.

As you know, we're big fans of Groupon and their many competitors. Recently we found which features a special for Village Vines (not to be confused with Vineyard Vines and their Easter egg colored clothing). Village Vines allows you to dine at various restaurants for 30% off your total bill regardless of how many people are dining with you. The cost is a flat $10. To spare you the math, this means that you're saving money for all bills over $30. But who eats at nice restaurants for $30? More likely, if your bill is $60 like ours was, you've just saved $10.

But back to They are offering $100 credit at Village Vines for $40. In other words, now you're getting 30% off your total bill for $4 rather than $10. So now we are saving $16 off of that $60 bill.

Are you still with me? If so, see if you can follow this: Village Vines had a $2 reservation promotion this past weekend. With our purchase, we could make a reservation for $0.80. This means that on our $60 bill we saved $19.20!

I understand that for some (like J) this might be a hellishly confusing word problem that has haunted you since the 8th grade. If that's the case, just trust me, by combining these deals, we saved a lot of money. And since it is a percentage off, the nicer (and more expensive) places are the best bargains. There's nothing like a good coupon to rescue a not-so-good restaurant.

Third Thoughts From J

I'm not going to pretend I understand what B just wrote. I didn't get it the couple times he explained it to me as he was purchasing the coupons. I became a lawyer to avoid math and married B, in part, because he calculates all the tips for me. Now that you're convinced I'm an idiot, just take our word for it and check out and save some money.
Kora Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hill Country Barbecue

If there is one style of food that sparks heated battles, it is barbecue. I've seen people get very fired up defending the 'cue from North Carolina, Memphis, St. Louis, or Texas. Whether you like it dripping in sauce, tickled with vinegar, or dry rubbed til Tuesday, there is a restaurant out there for you. Hill Country (a New York native) is throwing their oversized hat into the ring and bringing a taste of Texas to Penn Quarter.

As Texans like to remind you at every opportunity, "everything is bigger in Texas." Not surprisingly, Hill Country is gigantic. The restaurant spans two cavernous floors and is one of the only places in Penn Quarter that you can hear live music as you dine.

Hill Country says that it is "inspired by the grand old meat-markets-turned-barbeque-joints of Central Texas" and, accordingly, carries the meat market theme through the ordering process. When you arrive, you're handed a meal ticket/menu and led to a table. A server will help you out with drink orders and point you over to the market area where you move from station to station to order your food.

At the barbecue station, they wrap your order of meat up in butcher paper and throw it on the scale. You can then mosey on over to pick up sides or desserts. All along the way you present your meal ticket for stamping. With so much movement from station to station, I can see it being very easy to walk away from your meal ticket. Don't. It'll cost you a minimum of $50.

After finishing your meal, you take your ticket(s) to the cashier for payment. The ordering system is helpful for large groups, since each person gets a separate meal ticket, but it feels unnecessarily complicated for just the two of us.

After navigating the market area, we made our way back to our table to unwrap our bundle o' meat. We ordered the "Two Step": 1/2 lb brisket, two pork spare ribs, two beef ribs, half of a chicken, and 2 16 oz sides (we opted for mac n' cheese and collard greens).

Out of all of the items in the Two Step, I was most looking forward to trying the jumbo beef ribs. However, they had run out of the beef ribs earlier in the evening. They subbed in two extra pork spare ribs, which did not strike me as a particularly fair exchange since the pork ribs are cheaper (and smaller) than the beef ribs. But after diving into the meat pile, I quickly forgot about the beef ribs and realized we certainly did not need any extra food. We ended up with enough left over for a full meal.

I'll let B give you the play by play on the meat (he's the 'cue master in our family). I give Hill Country points for the drinks served in mason jars. Neither side dish was the best I've ever had but, as a combination, it all worked very well together. In true Texas BBQ style, they give you a stack of white bread slices to sop up your meal. As if you needed anything else to take up space in your stomach.

Overall, I have positive feelings about Hill Country. Yes, it's a little cheesy and the ordering system is crazy, but it is such a refreshing change of pace for Penn Quarter. Just when I thought I'd blow my top if another tapas asian-fusion white table restaurant popped up, Hill Country comes stomping down 7th Street with its big, loud Texas twang. Welcome to the neighborhood, y'all.

Second Thoughts from B

I've spent enough time in Texas to know that I don't quite understand it. I'm kind of like the Billy Crystal character in City Slickers. I'm intrigued yet out of place. I can try to jump on that horse, throw on some boots, and yell "yee haw," but I'm still the goofy guy in the baseball cap that draws the stink eye from Curly.

Still, I know that I love barbecue that barbecue loves me, and I don't think you need to play the part to say that. While I am sure real Texans will dismiss Hill Country for its New York roots, a la that Pace Picante Sauce commercial, this California boy thinks it isn't a bad representation of the real thing.

They've got the "big" thing down, from the meat to the sides to the mountain of a man guarding the velvet rope (and checking for meal tickets). The flavors are big too. The meat is smoked with Texas post oak that you can taste in every bite, and it is heavily seasoned with a peppery dry-rub that is making my mouth water as I type. The pork ribs were fatty and flavorful, while the brisket was a bit lean and dry for my taste. The chicken was a surprisingly nice addition to our table and the mac and cheese should have been called cheese and mac. In other words, you may need to bring your own defibrillator...

All in all, Hill Country compared favorably with some of our experiences in Austin and San Antonio. And since it is close enough to the real thing, and close enough to walk to (and stumble home from), I'm sure we'll be returning real soon.
Hill Country Barbecue Market on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pi on Wheels

When I first read about Pi on Wheels, I wasn't convinced the concept would work. Whole deep dish pizzas from a food truck? Wouldn't they take forever to cook or be pre-cooked and soggy? Who wants to buy a whole deep dish pizza for lunch? After one trip to Pi on Wheels, all of my fears were erased.

Pi on Wheels is a genius marketing idea for upcoming Penn Quarter pizza restaurant District of Pi - the first outpost of Pi Pizzeria outside St. Louis. While they put the finishing touches on the restaurant, they're rolling around town in an adorable green pizza truck giving lunch crowds a preview of District of Pi. From what we tasted, I plan to be one of the first people in the door once they open.

Pi on Wheels doesn't do slices but instead serves 9" deep dish pizzas that are perfect for 2 normal people, one competitive eater, or one person who likes leftovers. The pizza was a perfect size for B and I to split for lunch.

The truck normally carries 4 varieties of pizza (2 meat and 2 veggie). Each pizza will set you back $12 which is a couple of dollars cheaper than the pizzas at the restaurant will be. The truck takes credit cards which is a huge bonus for people like me who never seem to have cash on hand.

You're in for about a 10 minute wait for your pizza which leads me to believe they do some sort of fancy half-cooking technique before they load the pies on the truck. Whatever they do to it, the result is a hot pizza with a crust that is unlike any deep dish I've had before. It's not the butter-soaked chewy crust or the denser-than-a-Real-Housewife crust you might be familiar with. It's light and crispy and delicious. I'm famous for my rants about the nasty cornmeal dust stuff that a certain pizza chain used to put on the bottom of their pizzas, but Pi's use of cornmeal really adds to the flavor and enhances the texture.

While deep dish pizza is a little awkward to eat while sitting on the edge of a planter at Metro Center, we made it work. I look forward to indulging in their pies in the comfort of their new restaurant and checking out the cookie pi (house made cookie with caramel, fudge, and walnuts served with a choice of vanilla, cinnamon, or salted caramel ice cream). Is it too early to get in line?

Second Thoughts from B

There is no doubt that Pi's pies are a tasty addition to the DC food truck scene, but the thing that concerns me (other than the less than interesting truck design) is the portion size. For a workday lunch, stuffing yourself or bringing home leftovers are not always appealing options. That means most of us will be looking for a lunch date.

Since the majority of Americans are extroverts, this shouldn't be a big problem. But coming from the world of research science where introverted behavior is the norm, I can appreciate the fact that the size of the pizzas from Pi on Wheels could be prohibitive for some.

But at the risk of being one of those people who ignore the challenges of introverts living in an extroverted word, I'd encourage everyone to use the buddy system and share a pizza. With the weather warming and the flowers blooming, an outing with a friend over freshly made pizza is all that much more delicious.
District of Pi on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ted's Bulletin

There are some places you go to because the food is good and others that you tolerate because you like the atmosphere of the place. At Ted's Bulletin, I'm happy to report that you can get good food in an irresistibly adorable olde timey atmosphere.

Ted's is the comfort food purveying cousin to Matchbox and DC-3, and everything about the place screams old fashioned comfort, including the baker making fresh "pop tarts" in the front window...

and the fixtures reclaimed from the old Philadelphia Civic Center. It's undeniably adorable and unlike any place we've been in DC.

With this much atmosphere, it wouldn't be a surprise if the food didn't measure up. However, we found Ted's menu of comfort food classics (and a few original twists) to be worthy of a return visit.

I could drink an unsafe amount of their "adult" milkshakes spiked with alcohol. Indulge in a boozy grasshopper (mint) shake or a creamy white russian. If you don't wish to imbibe, Ted's serves non-alcoholic classic shakes too, complete with the metal cup and fun swirly spoon.

If there's one thing I love more than olde timey places, it is peanut butter. When I locked eyes with Ted's peanut butter bacon burger, I couldn't look away. Fearing a heart attack, I got B to agree to share this innovative serving of burger bliss with me. Look carefully my friends, that is peanut butter (not mustard or mayo) smeared on the bun. To offset the creamy thickness of the peanut butter, the burger is served with a side of spicy roma tomato jam. It was a winning sweet and salty combination, but I would have made it with chunky peanut butter to give it a more interesting texture. Definitely a must try for any die hard peanut butter fan.

Since we didn't know how we'd like the peanut butter burger, we opted for the safe grilled cheese and tomato soup combo as our second entree. It was a good execution of a classic but nothing to do the Dougie over.

After the shake, burger, and grilled cheese, we definitely had no business ordering dessert but we couldn't go to Ted's without testing one of their signature pop tarts. It was served piping hot and tasted like a less processed version of the kid favorite. Maybe the fact that this item is on the dessert menu says something about what we feed kids for "breakfast" in this country. That's a rant I'll leave to Jamie Oliver.

Second Thoughts From B

I guess I'll be the bad guy here. Ted's food was just ok for me and if I were to return, it would be for the atmosphere and location. I'll give them credit for tasty twists on the traditional milkshakes and hamburgers but the grilled cheese, tomato soup, and pop tart were all pretty average... and could be made at home.

I fully subscribe to the idea that you "eat with your eyes" and by extension, the atmosphere of a restaurant and its overall cool factor certainly comes into play. I remember watching my mother cook and being confused by her frustration that an otherwise delicious dish didn't have enough color. But we also eat with our mouths and for me, that is where Ted's came up a bit short.
Ted's Bulletin on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Adventures in Mall Food

Normally a quick stop at a mall food court would not merit a blog post, but this was no ordinary adventure at the Pentagon City Mall. But first, who decided that it would be a good idea to herd thousands of middle school and high school kids into a rather average mall on a beautiful Saturday in Washington? Really, they flew in from across the country to loiter in front of a Panda Express? This has always baffled me, even when I was one of those bratty 8th graders dumped into this very mall many years ago...

Anyway, back to the food court story. J and I must have been awfully hungry to venture into the adolescent mosh pit that is the food court level. After dismissing several options because of laughably long lines, we settled on Kelly's Cajun Grill, partially because of the free samples that they were passing out on toothpicks. While J asked the lady - who we will call "Kelly" from now on - what the sample was (bourbon chicken), I quickly devoured my sample, placed the toothpick back on Kelly's tray (not anywhere near the chicken samples), and went to get in line. Suddenly I hear Kelly shriek, "Mister, hello!" Not knowing what she meant or even who she was yelling at, I looked in the direction that Kelly was pointing and saw that my toothpick had been thrown on the floor next to the trash can. Apparently, I committed the cardinal sin of free samples at the mall when I returned my toothpick to Kelly's tray. Who knew there were such a strict "no give backs" protocol?

But as much of a surreal experience as this was, I have to thank Kelly. Because of her tantrum, we decided to spend our money elsewhere. That "elsewhere" turned out to be Sala Thai, which turned out to be a revelation. While we might have been grading on a mall food court curve, J's pre-prepared drunken noodles were some of the best she's had in months. I also lucked out when I ordered the daily special of fried fish in a spicy coconut sauce. The sauce was dynamic (when was the last time you didn't have a one note sauce in a food court?) and the fish was made to order. Thanks for the tip Kelly!

J Says

Lots of people ask me how we have the time to eat out so much or how we budget for our restaurant adventures. The truth is, sometimes we don't have time and we don't want to spend a lot of money, so we end up eating in mall food courts. I'm not one to turn my nose up at Panda Express' orange chicken or a slice of cheese pizza from Sbarro (their recent bankruptcy announcement saddened me as it was my favorite food court pick as a kid).

On this particular day we had just completed ultimate frisbee practice (don't laugh, we're also in a skeeball league) and we were starving. Instead of searching out something new and blog worthy, I made a beeline to Panda Express. As B noted, the line was so full of teens you'd think Justin Bieber was dishing up the chow mein. While I was sad to see my orange chicken go, we stumbled on a gem.

Now I don't want you to go to the mall and search out Sala Thai and expect it's going to be the best thai food you've ever had. But, if you're searching the racks at Nordstrom and hunger strikes, don't be afraid to brave the masses of teeny boppers and head over to Sala Thai for a drunken noodle of a good time.
Sala Thai on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

DC United

When it comes to soccer/futbol, J and I sure know how to pick 'em! Consider the last three games we've attended:
  • DC United vs. LA Galaxy: the game was tied by the home team on a controversial penalty kick with no time remaining on the clock
  • USA vs. Algeria: in the final game of group play, the U.S. scores in stoppage time to defeat Algeria and advance to the knockout round of the World Cup
  • USA vs. Slovenia: after falling down 0-2, the U.S. scores twice (and arguably a third time) late in the second half to salvage a tie
Whenever our team in any sport is losing, J's rosy prediction is that they will pull it out in "dramatic fashion." Clearly, in the case of soccer, she couldn't be more right.

We've talked about the United in a previous post, but now that we are World Cup veterans, how does the scene at RFK compare? The answer is, surprisingly well.

Obviously the stakes aren't as high and the level of play is not as sharp, but for a team that is rebuilding and a league that is still growing and establishing itself, Major League Soccer has a lot to offer.

As the United will readily point out, they are four-time MLS champions. Not bad when there have been only 15 MLS Cups awarded. This history of excellence has built a tremendously loyal and dedicated, not to mention vocal, fan base that sets the tone for the entire event. As avid college sports fans, this is something J and I very much appreciate. While we're not yet rabid enough to throw ourselves into the middle of the Screaming Eagles, we are drawn to United games for the energy they bring. It might not be the World Cup, but the commute sure is easier... especially if every game is guaranteed to end in dramatic fashion!

J Says

The Nationals have the flashy new stadium (with Shake Shack! coming soon) and the racing Presidents and Clint. The Caps have leather lunged fans, a central downtown location, and a winning team. The Wizards. . .well the Wizards just suck.

RFK Stadium isn't exactly new or in a hip neighborhood, but the DC United and their passionate fan base make the trip worth your while. When the play on the field is good, you don't need all the amenities to distract you. Soccer is fast-paced and who can resist joining in a rousing rendition of "Deeeeee Ceeeeee United!"

For pre-game dinner options, I recommend checking out the food trucks often parked in Lot 8 (check Twitter before the game) or grabbing a bite at one of the many restaurants along Barracks Row (a few Metro stops away from the stadium at Eastern Market). Legend has it that Ben's Chili Bowl has a stand in RFK, but I wasn't able to confirm that on our last visit. If it's true, you can't go wrong with a half smoke.

Enjoy the game, and Let's Go DC!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Malaysia Kopitiam

It is with a heavy heart that I announce that I am giving up my quest to find a reasonably priced, very good, casual Asian noodle restaurant in downtown DC. I wish I could say that my quest has ended because I finally found "the one" but that's not the case. As a loving wife, I really can't bear the thought of dragging my sweet husband to another disappointing noodle experience because "I read somewhere that this one is supposed to be good" and "maybe this is the one I've been looking for!"
With that introduction, I bet you can guess how we felt about Malaysia Kopitiam. After being disappointed by the new neighborhood noodle house and devastated by the fire at the house o' delicious roti canai, I decided that we should give Malaysian food a try. Malaysia Kopitiam is located in a basement next to a strip club, so you probably don't want to come here if you're into that whole "atmosphere" thing. But since we really like quirky places, we were undeterred. The presence of 8 kazillion Washingtonian Cheap Eats awards on the wall (12 are shown in the picture below but there are more) gave us hope and reminded us of our beloved Adam Express that has the exact same newspaper award photocopied and posted at least 15 times.
After the blissful roti canai experience at Banana Leaves, we had to try Malaysia Kopitiam's version. It was fine but nothing close to Banana Leaves. The roti was a little soggy and the curry had a nice punch, but B wasn't reaching for the bowl to take a swig like he did at Banana Leaves. Budak (you might remember him as falafel guy or, alternatively, as "official co-tester of whatever generic pan-Asian place we covet") chose the fried tofu. It had an odd honey flavor and was squishy rather than crispy. Do yourself a favor and go to Busboys and Poets and order the coconut tofu bites instead.
After flipping through the extensive picture menu for a long time, I was hovering between the penang prawn mee noodle soup and the mamak mee goreng stir fried noodles. On the recommendation of our waitress, I tried the soup. It was enjoyable, but certainly not anything spectacular. The shrimp in the soup weren't deveined, which is always a little off-putting, and the broth, while flavorful, was missing the promised spicy kick.
For B, the waitress suggested the chicken rendang (curry chicken simmered in thick curry gravy with coconut milk). I didn't try it, but I will say that it was the least attractive plate of food you'll ever find.
Budak's dish, the fish cake hor fun (stir fried rice noodles with fish cake, bean sprouts, and spinach) was greasy and almost completely flavorless. Usually I'm blinded by the presence of fat noodles and will happily gobble them up, but one taste of this was enough.

All of this probably would've been overlooked if the place was a promised "cheap eat" but we spent over $50 (2 appetizers, 3 entrees, 1 non-alcoholic drink). On the walk home I told B that I was giving up my quest and instead of encouraging me to push through and keep trying, he thanked me.

Second Thoughts from B

What a sad, sad post. When did J become Eeyore?

In fairness to Malaysia Kopitiam, our disappointment comes from heightened expectations and a steady stream of less than impressive experiences. The frustration has been building for years and this might just have been the straw that breaks this camel's back. So in an effort to turn that frown upside down or make lemonade out of lemons or whatever, I present to you a top 6 list of reasons to visit Malaysia Kopitiam.
  1. Opportunity to get your very own "Restaurateur of the Year 2002" staff t-shirt

  2. Unlimited tap water refills with the most attentive water boy since Adam Sandler

  3. Hard candy from Kyrgyzstan (only available when you bring Budak)

  4. Opportunity to completely butcher the impossible to pronounce name of your dish when ordering

  5. Can't beat the location for a post-lap dance date with Candy, Barbie, or Caroline

  6. Random "fact" quotes on the menu such as "Pork is favorite meat of the Chinese. Typically they do not eat beef as the cow is considered an indispensable beast of burden"
Malaysia Kopitiam on Urbanspoon