Thursday, June 30, 2011


Whether you're a diehard Top Chef fan or you've never watched an episode, you can find something to love at Graffiato - Top Cheftestant Mike Isabella's new restaurant on 6th Street behind the Verizon Center.

It's hard to get better press for the opening of your new restaurant than to be a finalist on Top Chef All-Stars. (Not that Mike's resume needed it after being the executive chef at Jose Andres' Zaytinya) His runner-up finish a few months ago caused people across the area to wait on the edge of their seats for him to fling open the doors of his new Italian-inspired restaurant. I, for one, jumped on Opentable as soon as I heard the announcement that opening day would be June 23rd. Luckily we scored a reservation for dinner on their first Sunday of operations.

This isn't some generic restaurant that Mike slapped his name on. It's like Mike in restaurant form: loud, casual, slightly goofy, with a focus on rockin' food. Case in point, I don't know whether Mike picked out the t-shirts that the waitresses wear, but the v-neck was so low. Maybe it's related to that awkward Top Chef moment where Padma said she wanted to motorboat Mike's cousin Antonia? Moving on...

After waiting a few minutes in the downstairs bar area and watching Mike dart around the kitchen like his hair was on fire, we were led upstairs to our table.

The upstairs dining room, featuring a second open kitchen, was packed. As we got settled, Jesse Sandlin from Top Chef: Las Vegas (Mike's season) sat down at the table next to us. Bryan Voltaggio was also in the house (according to Twitter) earlier in the evening. What a night for a Top Chef fan!

Graffiato is in full compliance with the new DC law mandating that every new restaurant serve small plates. OK, maybe it's not a law, but it sure feels that way. However, so many dishes on the menu looked tasty that I was glad he went the small plates route that allows diners to sample a variety of things. We each ordered the Chef's Tasting Menu. For the reasonable price of $45 per person, we were treated to a parade of eight dishes plus bread and two small desserts.

Starting off the evening were the blistered sweet peppers with smoked paprika and capers (top, right) and the honey glazed cipollini onions with rosemary and onion seeds (bottom, right). The dishes were served with an above average bread basket (it better be when you charge for it) with olive oil "jam" and a ricotta mixture that tasted like lemon cheesecake. The peppers were great spread on the bread and they had such a fun tangy flavor that I almost forgot I don't like capers. The onions were the star of the evening. The sweet honey glaze made them melt in our mouths and the accompanying cloves of sauteed garlic went down like candy. Fresh breath be damned, this was a fantastic dish.

Next is what I can best describe as a pig on a cake plate. The selection of three hams was a pork lover's dream. I was especially fond of the ruby red prosciutto.

Because Mike Isabella doesn't always like playing by the rules, he put a pizza on his Chef's Tasting Menu. Forget the tiny bites of fanciness served on a tiny spoon. At Graffiato, tasting the menu means tasting one of their wood fired pizzas. We tried the Countryman, topped with black truffles, fontina, and a duck egg. The egg is served runny and your server will break the yolk at your table and spread the egg evenly around the pizza so everybody gets a bite. The crust was light, but the flavors bold. Even B, who has a serious aversion to eggs, gave it two thumbs up.

The pizza was served at the same time as a bowl of wood roasted mushrooms. Not the most memorable dish, but a good break in between the pizza and pasta courses.

From the pasta menu we enjoyed the sweet corn agnolotti which elicited a fist pump from B. Perfectly pillowy pasta delicately wrapping its arms around the juice from fresh sweet corn. Pine nuts added a crunchy element that turned this dish up to an 11.

If you're a Top Chef lover, hold on to your chair because here is the famous PEPPERONI SAUCE!!!!!!! This sauce was never going to live up to the hype that Gail Simmons bestowed upon it . . . and it didn't. It was fun and perfectly good, but did not change our lives. B said it tasted like something you made by blending up the pepperoni from a Domino's pizza. We did, however, love the chicken thighs as they were as perfectly cooked as you'll find anywhere.

By the time the next dish hit the table, we were feeling more than full, but I'm glad we made room for the wood oven octopus. What a fun preparation of a notoriously chewy dish. The wood oven gave it a crackling crispiness without drying it out. Is there a magician lurking in that wood oven?

We had no business eating dessert after stuffing ourselves silly, but somehow the nutella cookies and chocolate gelato disappeared. A little too much focus on chocolate for B, but I'm a happy camper where there is chocolate involved.

I have to hand it to Mike Isabella for taking his time and doing Graffiato the right way. It's not a giant Top Chef advertisement. You won't see his picture plastered on the wall. The food is legitimately good and reasonably priced (especially given his fame over the last few months). Bravo sir, bravo.

Second Thoughts from B

J and I have now eaten at restaurants owned and operated by three Top Chef contestants, Bryan Voltaggio (Volt), Spike Mendelsohn (Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza), and now Mike Isabella (Graffiato). While they are all very different, the common thread is that the restaurants from these "celebrity chefs" have all borrowed heavily from their reality show personas.

Bryan Voltaggio was portrayed as the sophisticated and thoughtful older brother of eventual Season 6 winner, Michael Voltaggio. Appropriately, those are the exact words I'd use to describe his menu. Similarly, Spike's outgoing, hip, and casual personality is well reflected in his neighboring fast food restaurants that cater to young staffers on the Hill. That he appears larger than life on TV and on the walls of his twin eateries is no surprise to anyone.

That leads me to Mike Isabella, who came off as a cocky jokester on his first go around on Top Chef, but added an element of refinement and maturity, not to mention real talent, on his All-Stars season. In many ways he blends Bryan's cool sophistication with Spike's irreverence. It is a potent mixture indeed.

What I liked about Graffiato is that it severed the link between the fine dining experience and truly outstanding food. This is not to say that the service or the environment is lacking in any way (other than the poor pacing of dishes that is almost predictable for a restaurant in its first week). We were eating white tablecloth-quality food on metal chairs, in a loud industrial concrete room, with boobs flying by my head. I don't know who wrote the rule that you need to wear a tie to eat well, but Graffiato has no such requirement. Baseball caps, shorts, and flip flops were standard attire.

Mike Isabella has brought rock and roll to fine dining. It is like Green Day or the guys behind South Park making it big on Broadway. Graffiato breaks the unwritten rules of dining in all the right ways. Sure, there is something nice about dressing up and having a great meal in a beautiful ballroom, but that doesn't mean it is wrong to disassociate those two experiences. I hope we always have both options, but it does make me wonder if our kids will someday make fun of us for dressing up to go out to eat. After all, a three piece suit or a dress and heels were once the standard attire at baseball games. Food for thought.
Graffiato on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Shake Shack

When NYC import Shake Shack opened its doors near Dupont Circle last month, the lines stretched down the block. We decided to let the opening craziness die down a bit before checking out DC's newest in a long line of patty purveyors.

Shake Shack has drawn comparisons to local favorite Five Guys and California native In-N-Out. We decided to do our own taste test, and ask two burger experts (my parents) who are familiar with both Five Guys and In-N-Out, to join us for our first Shake Shack run.

Here are their thoughts:


Mom: I thought it was a good burger, but there are a limited number of options on it compared to Five Guys where you can get mushrooms and lots of other stuff on your burger for no charge. I loved the bun at Shake Shack - soft and not cut all the way through - very clever.

Dad: See Mom’s comments - there's a reason we've been together for 38 years.


Mom: I liked them better than Five Guys, but they were mushy on the inside. I love In-N-Out’s fries, but only if they are well done. I don't care for Five Guys fries, so I think Shake Shack's were better than that.

Dad: A bit mushy but I'm a crinkle-cut fan. I do like the spice on Five Guys Cajun fries.


Mom: Really good for the first couple of sips - chocolate peanut butter, but the second half was bitter and didn't have any peanut butter flavor - just dark chocolate, which I don't like. Not blended well, maybe?

Dad: Much more interesting than In 'N Out, but they need to be thicker. Not a fan of the bitter edge of dark chocolate. The many options at Shake Shack give it the nod.


Mom: Shake Shack wins this one. Place is cute and more interesting than the others.

Dad: Don't really care. I'm there to eat. It was fine, but that's not a deal-breaker for me.


Mom: Seems more expensive than the other two but has more choices on the menu as well as

Dad: Seems pretty much in line. Fifty cents to a buck difference won't make me choose one
over the other.

Rank the following: In-N-Out, Five Guys, Shake Shack

Mom: I like different things about each one, but I still think I would go to In-N-Out first, then Five Guys, then Shake Shack.

Dad: I know it's sacrilege for a native Californian, but I've never really been impressed with In-N-Out burgers. I like their shakes and fries, but the burger patty is just too small - even with a Double-Double. I really like the variety of toppings at Five Guys - and their patty is substantial. Big minus for no shakes though. The Shake Shack burger was much better than In–N-Out, and I love the not-fully-split bun.

Any Other Words of Burger Wisdom?

Mom: Shake Shack didn't wow me, but I would go again and try a different shake. Since it's
called Shake Shack - the shakes need to be excellent and mine wasn't.

Dad: If I'm going to splurge and have a shake instead of a Diet Coke - I would go to the Shack... but I would ask for the shake thick. When I'm not looking for a shake I'm heading to Five Guys for the choices of toppings. Everyone should take the hint and don't slice all the way through your bun though. However, not sure you could get all your "topping goodness" in the partially-split bun.

Thanks Mom and Dad! I generally agree with their comments on Shake Shack. The burger was good, but nothing extraordinary, and I like the variety of free toppings at Five Guys. The fries were just ok. Instead of a shake, I ordered a Concrete - a mix of frozen custard and toppings. My Presidential Sweet Concrete featured vanilla custard, peanut butter, marshmallow and caramel chocolate chunks. The first few bites were fantastic but after I ate the very top layer, I was left with a lot of vanilla custard and no toppings. Either the blender wasn't working or the custard to toppings ratio is off. I'll likely be back to Shake Shack to give their shakes a go, but it needs to be a mind-blowing shake to tear me away from my favorite Milky Way Malt at Good Stuff Eatery. Only time (and my shake-loving tummy) will tell.

Second Thoughts From B

In case Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and his Oversight Committee are reading this, let me start by disclosing any possible conflicts of interest: I've been eating In-N-Out burgers, fries, and shakes for 20+ years and even own a t-shirt. The unique aroma of In-N-Out is my personal Pavlovian bell. In fact, I'm salivating right now. (T.M.I.? Sorry.)
Still, my overt bias towards the burgers of my homeland does not prevent me from acknowledging the merits of Shake Shack and Five Guys.

Like everyone else, I loved the Shake Shack bun and appreciate the partial split. I thought the shakes were high quality, but not worthy of the franchise's name, and the fries were disappointing.

As for my burger, I loved it. It is that odd looking mass pictured above. You may be wondering what that fried meatball-looking thing is. Ironically, that would be a vegetarian "patty" made of mushrooms and cheese, and then deep fried. Placing it on top of a standard cheeseburger makes it a Shack Stack and adds a powerful flavor punch.

Unfortunately, after inhaling this caloric monster with much vigor, I then looked at the bill and saw that it cost $8.75! Compare that to my beloved In-N-Out Double-Double for under $3 or a Five Guys burger for around $5. What's more, any burger on the Good Stuff menu can be had for under $7 and the greatest burger in the world (according to me anyway), Ray's Hell Burger's New Jack Zing, is served for around the same price.

So after spending all this time comparing Shake Shack to In-N-Out and Five Guys, should we instead be comparing it to the city's burger elite? Sure, I ordered the most expensive burger on the menu, but the double Shake Burger is still $7.25. In the league of fast food burgers, I think Shake Shack holds its own (though I'd personally opt for both In-N-Out and Five Guys, in that order). But when compared to Good Stuff, Ray's, and other upscale burger places, I feel Shake Shack is in over its head.

Perhaps New Yorkers have the same primal attraction to Shake Shack as I do for In-N-Out. Barring that, I don't see how it competes at this price point.
Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 24, 2011

Toki Underground

With as many great dining options as we have in downtown, we have generally avoided the trek to the H Street NE corridor. However, we could no longer ignore the call of all of the enticing new restaurants that have helped H Street NE blossom into a full-fledged dining destination.

As I've said approximately 573 times, I really love noodles. When I caught wind of the opening of Toki Underground, a ramen house, I was thrilled. Chef Erik Bruner-Yang is the only chef in the area turning out Taiwanese ramen. Every night his 20 seat hipster haven on H Street is packed. Wait times easily exceed an hour on weekends.If you want to check out Toki Underground, pay close attention to the photo below. The door to Toki is located next to the entrance to The Pug bar.

Look closely for Toki's blue logo on the door or you could end up walking up and down the street unable to find it.

Once you push open the door, you're greeted by a massive graffiti art mural and a steep set of stairs that lead up (yes, Toki Underground is upstairs) to the man orchestrating the waiting list. He'll take your name and your phone number, leaving you free to wait it out at a nearby bar or wander the street checking out all of the new restaurant options. Our 45 minute wait flew by as we wandered through a nearby Rite Aid challenging each other to find the silliest items for sale. Have you ever stopped to flip through the romance "novels" for sale and staged your own reading in Aisle 5? Hilarious (to us at least).

Once your phone finally rings and you're led into the ramen haven, you can't help but giggle at the interior. Skateboards act as foot rests and fun Japanese-style character dolls eye you from plastic cases along the walls. The music is loud and, at times, feels like you're trapped in a W Hotel lobby, but it helped fuel the restaurant's hipster vibe.

B often looks to me to order the dishes that I've read about at a new restaurant. In this case, I said "You're getting a cocktail with a pork belly skewer on it. It doesn't matter what's in it." Always a good sport (and never one to turn down pork belly), B had fun sipping his Toki Monster with bourbon, pepper honey liqueur, scotch, and the pork belly skewer.

Toki serves five different kinds of steamed or fried dumplings and, if the steamed seafood dumplings are any indication, you'll be happy with any of them. They were bursting with identifiable pieces of seafood (not some gray or pink mush), and had a great house-made teriyaki -style sauce.

One of the specials for the evening was corn with five spice butter and cotija cheese. I thought B was going to fall off his stool when he tried the corn. He was on the verge of a happy dance, proclaiming it some of the best corn he's ever had.

The real happy dance emerged when I slurped the first noodle out of my bowl of Toki Hakata Classic ramen. After so many blah noodle dishes at other restaurants, I heard angels singing when I tasted Toki's noodles. Perfectly sticky yet with enough bite to keep them from being mushy, they were textbook. The broth packed a punch that was only accentuated by the generous dash of Toki Endorphin Sauce - Toki's take on my favorite sriracha sauce. A word of caution: that sauce is HOT! B dared me to stick my tongue in the little plate of sauce and after a cocktail, it seemed like a good idea. Please don't try this at home. My tongue was on fire for an hour!

B didn't have time to do a happy dance while eating his Chicken Curry Hakata ramen. He was too focused on slurping. Occasionally he'd lift his head from his bowl to smile and then quickly return to slurping. This is not a place to take a new date if you want to talk and get to know each other. Chances are your date will be fixated on the ramen.

While we loved the pork and chicken flavors of our ramen dishes, vegetarians can try the Masumi Vegetarian ramen that uses a kombu broth and is loaded with veggies.

I looked longingly at the warm cookies and milk being devoured by our stool neighbors but we were too stuffed to try dessert. We ordered extra noodles in our ramen and it proved to be too much for my belly to tackle. Don't worry little cookies, I will be back to order you soon. Seriously, I was ready to go back to Toki the very next day. If this place was located near our house on H Street NW instead of NE, I'd be that creepy girl perched on the stool on the corner every time you went inside.

Second Thoughts from B

At the risk of sounding pretentious, we've literally traveled the world sampling great noodle soup, and in our experience, Toki Underground is about as good as it gets. J talked about me wanting to do the happy dance... she DID the happy dance. She loves noodles to the point that any 3rd grader would ask her, "If you love them so much, why don't you marry them?" Luckily for me, human-noodle marriage is illegal in most states.

Toki's non-noodle offerings ranged from very good to outstanding, and certainly point to a chef that is far more than a one trick pony. While the chef could certainly run a successful operation by producing great noodle soup, his mastery of other ingredients and flavor profiles is impressive. Pretty much everything we ordered could have made me very happy on its own.

But just like Shaq would make most NBA players look small, the noodle soup at Toki Underground overshadows the rest of the menu. I will admit that, unlike J, my excitement for good noodle soup is not exponentially different from the iconic ramen packages of my college years. Still, I know the greatest when I taste it and this is it.
Toki Underground on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Maine Avenue Fish Market

The Maine Avenue Fish Market is one of those places you'd whip out in a contest of "Are you a real Washingtonian?" It would go something like this:

Washingtonian Wannabe:
I've eaten at Ben's Chili Bowl 456 times! I've been to the every museum in town and even know about the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. In fact, I was at the Zoo when Tai Shan was born!

True Washingtonian:
But have you been to the Maine Avenue Fish Market? Have you fought the crowds of hungry people for the best crabs? Have you taken home a bag of fresh seafood and a healthy dose of fish smell?

Washingtonian Wannabe:
The Maine Avenue what? Where is Maine Avenue?

To help out the Washingtonian Wannabe and anyone else who has yet to experience the "real DC," here's a quick rundown on the Maine Avenue Fish Market. Apologies for the Droid pictures. Sometimes I fail in my duty as camera carrier...

The Market is located on Maine Avenue SW on the waterfront tucked near a freeway overpass. You're likely to smell it before you see it, as the dozen or so vendors stocking all manner of sea creatures, combined with the crowds and their trash, lead to an olfactory experience that's hard to describe. Our friend Matt thinks it smells good. I think he's weird. If you're driving, cross your fingers that you'll luck out with a street spot. You don't want to try parking in the chaos that is the parking lot. We saw a guy in a giant truck drive right up onto the sidewalk and park (Yes Alix, he was from Maryland). It is crazy.

Each vendor is located below ground level making this a less than ideal place to sport your new miniskirt. As you walk the Market, you'll see everything from Maryland crabs to octopus. You can buy whole fish and have them cleaned on site. If you're willing to wait for a spell, they'll also cook your crabs in giant vats of bubbling water and douse them in an alarming amount of Old Bay seasoning.

This is one of those places where you just have to act like you've been there before. It helps to watch the regulars order so you can learn the process, but most of the guys will answer your newbie questions if you're nice. The main decision points are 1) the kind of seafood you want, 2) how much of it you want, 3) whether you want it cooked, and 4) whether you want it seasoned. Most vendors have set up separate lines for cooking the baskets full of crabs so you purchase them first and step to a second line to send your new ocean friends into their final Jacuzzi.

On this visit, we skipped the true DC (or Maryland) experience of picking blue crab and opted to take home 3 pounds of freshly-cooked Alaskan snow crab legs from Jessie Taylor Seafood. These delicious morsels were then surgically dissected and thoroughly enjoyed on our building's roof terrace at sunset. I couldn't have scripted a more perfect summer night.

Second Thoughts from B

Before we start getting hate mail for being hypocrites, let me put this out there up front: J and I are still earning our stripes as true Washingtonians and we know that opting for Alaskan King Crab over the Maryland Blue is not helping our cause...

Now that that is out of the way, let me tell you a story that may help explain our selection. When I was 13 my family visited a friend named Chips (who later officiated our wedding) who lived in Kake, Alaska. If you've never been there, you've probably never heard of it. It is a town of about 700 Native Alaskans located on one of the small islands in Southeast Alaska. Warm people, beautiful country, and fantastic seafood.

One day we went out on Chips' boat and pulled up a crab pot (cage that sits at the bottom of the ocean with a one-way opening) that was bursting with crab. After finding a secluded cove (not hard to find in a town of 700), we built a bonfire and boiled the crab in fresh seawater. At that point, the all you can eat feast began. Empty shells were flying through the air as we all devoured the freshest crab meat we'd ever come across. It is a perfect memory, and unfortunately for J, a story she has heard more than a few times.

That was the first time I had crab, and is probably why I love it so. While the environment at the fish market couldn't be more different than the peaceful, serene waters of Kake, the crab and the experience (I'm referring to eating with my hands outdoors, not the experience of fighting for position at the market) were close enough to evoke memories of my time in Alaska.

And as for the whole "true Washingtonian" thing, we promise to go back soon for the Blue Crab. Stay tuned!
Jessie Taylor Seafood on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 17, 2011

Paul Simon at DAR

In our ongoing quest to take advantage of all opportunities presented to us by the great city of Washington, J and I have checked off another item from our bucket list: see a concert at DAR's Constitution Hall. At the same time I was able to check Paul Simon off of my personal list of great artists I want to see live.

And the great Mr. Simon - all 5 foot 2 inches of him (maybe that's why J likes him) - did not disappoint. We went in expecting a hippie sing along and we got it. Hit after hit was played with the same youthful energy that you'd expect to find 40+ years ago.

J and I splurged on "box seats," which are simply a boxed off area in the front of the balcony. The box was originally designed to hold four permanent chairs but these fixtures have been removed and replaced with five movable chairs. Seating within each five person box is first come, first served. Considering that the floor to DAR is not on an incline to aid sight lines, and that J is shorter than Paul Simon, getting box seats was perfect. While I take it for granted, the chance for J to see anything on stage at a concert is quite a treat.

But as good as it felt to see Paul Simon, as well as sing and dance to songs many of us grew up with, the highlight was something completely unscripted. If you've not heard about audience member Paul Fournier stealing the show, check out this video on YouTube. What you don't see is Paul Simon forgetting the lyrics to his hit, Gumboots, and after taking a cue from Paul Fournier in the front row, waving him to the mic (much to the chagrin of the very large bouncer guarding the stage). Not only did our superfan know all the words, he could sing a bit too, which was a visibly pleasant surprise to Paul Simon.

The Paul Fournier Experience (apologies to Jimi) further reinforced the communal vibe in the room. All artists aim to make a connection with the audience. When Paul Fournier literally broke that barrier, we all became part of the show... thousands of voices singing back up to the great Paul Simon. What a wonderful night!

J Says

It's true, I am shorter than Paul Simon. As B mentioned, this usually means I can't see anything at concerts. Floor tickets? Standing room only? Forget it! Why do I want to pay oodles of money to stare at someone's back? The seats B chose at DAR were absolutely perfect for the vertically challenged population. From our perch on the balcony I had a clear sight line to Paul and his band.

The Paul Fournier Experience was so moving, I was nearly in tears. It was so amazing to see someone living out their lifelong dream. Hooray for awkward (at least dancing) attorneys!

Seeing Paul (Simon, not Fournier) brought me straight back to road trips with my family where singing along was not optional. Paul Simon's tapes were on regular rotation in the car (along with Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, and CSNY) and his songs remind me of those childhood days where my biggest worry was whether I'd ever grow big enough to beat my sister in a battle for the front seat (update: still hasn't happened). Thank you Paul and Paul for a magical evening.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

PAUL Bakery

My friends tire of me being so optimistic and sunshiney. They say they like reading my "bad" reviews better than my glowing reviews. Despite this odd encouragement from my friends, I don't take much pleasure in ripping a restaurant a new one, especially when the restaurant is a new one. With that in mind, I'll refrain from calling PAUL Bakery the crappiest breakfast experience we've had since 14K, and just say that they need improvement.

PAUL is a bakery mega-chain (over 450 locations) originating in France in 1889. They bake bread and pastries in their giant ovens each day.

The space, located at the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue is cute and inviting, and helps to fill the void of restaurants located right near the National Mall. We were excited about PAUL's arrival in the neighborhood because it opens at 8 a.m. on weekends, and breakfast is a really difficult thing to find downtown (outside of hotels).

Our anticipation turned to disappointment as we arrived just before 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday and realized they were out of nearly every pastry on the menu. We were told it would be 30 minutes before they had more. I made the mistake of looking at the menu before looking at the display case and had picked out nearly a half dozen options on the pastry list that looked enticing. PAUL was out of every single one of them. No regular croissants at prime time on a weekend? Not even one pain au chocolat? Boooooooo. I don't want a ham and cheese sandwich for brunch.

We settled on two of the only pastries they had in stock: an apple pastry and almond croissant. B described the apple pastry as "fine," but was more excited by his fresh-squeezed orange juice than his pastry.

The almond croissant was flat as a pancake and had absolutely no flake to it. It was soggy and sad. The flavor was great, but if you'd blindfolded me and asked me what I was eating, I would've guessed it was bread pudding.

Having fallen in love with the macarons at Laduree during our Paris weekender in February, I had to try one at PAUL. This jumbo-version failed to live up to the high standard set by Laduree and its large size threw the texture off. Instead of light-as-clouds, it was dense-as-door knobs.

Hoping that we just hit PAUL on a bad day, I asked the cashier why they were out of most menu items at 10:30 a.m. She told me that they had been slammed with visitors the day before and it affected their baking schedule. Does that mean they bake the pastries the day before? Maybe that explains my soggy croissant? Either way, someone please give us a reason to go back to PAUL. It saddens me to think that there is a bakery in the neighborhood that's open early but isn't worth the effort it takes to walk there. To live up to my unicorns and sunshine reputation: at least the orange juice was good!

Second Thoughts from B

What a beautiful bakery. PAUL evokes all of the charm of Paris, but unfortunately, none of the flavors. You know those pastries you get at hotel breakfasts, conventions, and business meetings? On this particular morning, they could have come from PAUL. (To be clear, we're talking the Marriott pastries not the Motel 6 pastries wrapped in plastic that have enough preservatives to survive Armageddon).

While in grad school, I shared lab space with a proud Frenchman named Arnaud. Our days in lab overlapped with a time in our nation's history when "Freedom Fries" seemed like a good idea to people. Needless to say, Arnaud took a lot of good natured grief. His standard response was, "You're just jealous."

And as was the case about many things, Arnaud was right. France has a lot to be jealous about. Unfortunately for the citizens of DC, we've got one of the lesser exports in PAUL Bakery. It reminds me of that other French contribution to our city... the roads. They look pretty but don't work out as planned. C'est la vie.
PAUL Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tackle Box - Cleveland Park

We're not shy about our love for Tackle Box in Georgetown. In fact, even the ever-frugal B wasn't mad when I bought FOUR Groupons for Tackle Box in a 6 month period. While we love Tackle Box, we don't get all jump-up-and-down-excited about schlepping to Georgetown. So, ever since I heard the old T-Box was spinning off a new Metro-accessible location in Cleveland Park, I've been staring out the car window wistfully every single time we drive up or down Connecticut Avenue. I'm like one of those creepy "open open open" moms in the Mervyn's commercials.*

* Just realized this is probably a California thing and you have NO idea what I'm talking about. Awesome!

Imagine my sheer delight when we got an email inviting us to check out the newly-opened Tackle Box in Cleveland Park. Free food and open bar at one of our favorite restaurants? I might have squealed.

The cool thing about Tackle Box is its focus on sustainability. We like to know where our seafood is coming from and try to make sustainable choices, but it isn't always easy when restaurant servers can't answer your questions. Tackle Box's commitment to serving sustainable seafood means you can rest easy knowing your fish isn't from an over-fished population.

The Cleveland Park location is noticeably larger than its Georgetown brother with lots of picnic table seating options.

A very large bar area serves up dangerously delicious drinks such as the Cleveland Park lemonade spiked with a healthy pour of vodka.

At the back of the restaurant is a gleaming kitchen ready to fill hungry tummies with lobster rolls (my favorite) and fried shrimp (B's favorite).

The menu at the Cleveland Park location seems more extensive than the Georgetown menu. It's possible that the Georgetown menu is equally as large but I never get past the lobster rolls. In Cleveland Park, you can fill any seafood desire with whole lobsters, grilled fish, and sandwiches. Landlubbers can still find tasty treats with the wood grilled portabella burger, local grass fed beef burger, or chorizo sausage.

If raw is how you like it, check out the oyster shucking area near the front of the restaurant.

We were lucky enough to sample the steamed Maine lobster with grilled corn on the cob and coleslaw. The lobster was sweet and, when dunked in the drawn butter sauce, felt like summer time on a plate.

B went nuts for the wood-grilled tilapia with lemon garlic aioli. Tackle Box offers a number of sauces to choose from, and we're happy to report that we liked the aioli as much as our usual favorite, basil walnut pesto. Go for the grilled broccoli if you're looking for a fun vegetable side dish.

The oysters flew into people's bellies so fast that we didn't get to partake, but I was able to snap a photo of the plump beauties served in a bowl of ice with lemon, cocktail sauce, and oyster crackers.

You might be thinking that you can't believe a word we're saying because the food was free. However, past experience is the best indicator of future success, and we've put our money where our seafood-loving mouths are many, many times at Tackle Box. The seafood is fresh, the people are friendly (xoxo Idrissa, our favorite cashier in Georgetown), and now you don't have to have a popped collar on your pastel polo to enjoy Tackle Box.

Second Thoughts from B

I'm hesitant to heap any more praise onto Tackle Box. Not because they can't live up to it - clearly they can - but because after a while it seems too good to be true. Instead, I'd like to point out that there is no place we seek out more and no place we recommend more often. In fact, we can't seem to have house guests without taking them to Tackle Box (except the silly ones who are convinced that they don't like seafood - I'm convinced they've never had Tackle Box).

Normally J gets a lobster roll and I order whatever Idrissa tells me to. The man with the golden smile has never led me astray, but usually I'm enamored with the bluefish. At the Cleveland Park grand opening, I was equally excited about the lobster and tilapia offerings. Tilapia is another favorite of mine so that's no surprise. Lobster on the other hand is something I rarely order. I usually prefer the flavor and texture of crab, which tends to also be cheaper. But this lobster could make me a convert. Served with some of the best corn on the cob you'll ever eat and I was in heaven (I was also in need of some dental floss).

The new location is larger and more accessible. The food, at least at this grand opening, has not been hurt by the expansion. Now if they could only find an Idrissa to greet us every time we show up...
Tackle Box on Urbanspoon