Thursday, December 27, 2012


Last year about this time, we were eating our way through Italy.  Ever since that trip, we've been searching for great Italian food in DC.  Dino in Cleveland Park was recommended to us as a way to fill the Italian culinary void.  When two of our buddies were visiting and staying at the nearby Marriott Wardman Park, we whisked them out of the Woodley Park Culinary Wasteland (that's WPCW . . . it's going to catch on like NoMa, just watch) and up the street to Dino.

The dish we came to Dino for was B's favorite dish in all of Italy: deep fried Roman-Jewish style artichokes.  We haven't found them on any other menu in DC and salivated at the thought of recreating such a great Roman memory.  Dino's version was close-ish, but not quite there.  These artichokes were baby-sized and had a different texture than the mammoth artichokes in Rome's Jewish quarter.  Still fun to try, but didn't hit the mark.

We have a hard time turning down burrata (mozzarella and cream) when we see it on any menu.  Dino's version was a little zippier than most thanks to the red pepper puree and tapenade served with it.

B's lasagna was the soul-warming homemade variety that is perfect on these cold winter nights.  It had a very powerful bacon flavor, which may be perfect for you if you're one of those "everything is better with bacon" folks.  If you're not, or if you have food allergies or gluten restrictions, Dino has a lot of helpful notes on the menu denoting special dishes.

The pappardelle with ground wild boar was more exciting on the menu than it was to eat.  The boar imparted a nearly overpowering sweetness that needed to be balanced out by something saltier or spicier.

We liked dessert more than the rest of our meal.  The chocolate torta with a buttery spiced walnut crust was ridiculously good and I couldn't keep my fork away from it.

B loved the apple pancake with spiced Tuscan batter and house-made vanilla bean gelato.

Dino did not transport us back to Rome, but it was a pleasant night on the town with great friends capped off with two of the more memorable desserts we've had in a while.

Second Thoughts From B

Of all the wonderful things we ate in Italy, fried artichoke is what I miss.  Was it the best thing?  Maybe.  Was it something that I've yet to find in the States?  Absolutely.

You can find great pasta, great pizza, great cheese, great wine, great most anything Italian around here.  We are certainly not wanting for many things.  Yet somehow, great fried artichoke remains elusive.

This is the second place that Google has identified (Bethesda's Food Wine & Co was the first) and the second one that only reminds me how good the artichoke was in Rome.

But enough nostalgia and unfair comparisons, and back to Dino.  I feel that there was a lot more excitement reading the menu than eating the food.  It wasn't bad, in fact, it was quite good.  Rather, the ideas on the page were excellent and raised expectations to unreasonably high levels.  Kind of like our trip to Italy...
Dino on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Shenandoah National Park

While we're spending some vacation time hiking the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu, we leave you with some thoughts on a more local hiking destination: Shenandoah National Park.

As much as we loved our Old Rag Mountain hike, we understand that it isn't for everyone.  After all, we paid a price for those spectacular views:  10 miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain, scrambling up rocks and through narrow crevices, and a brutal 0400 wake up call (what does the 0 stand for?  Oh my God it's early!).

Fortunately, there are plenty of other options in the region's National Park.  Yes, I know that there are technically lots of National Parks in the DC area, but when I think of that title, this West Coaster thinks of Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, etc.  By that measure, Shenandoah is "the" National Park in the area.  Fortunately, it is a good one.

Most visitors enjoy Shenandoah not more than 100 feet from Skyline Drive.  That's a good starting point but there is so much more.  After all, why restrict your excursion into nature by staying behind glass and on pavement?  Recently, we were joined by our hiking buddy Commie (his name is Comstock; he's not a Communist) for a 3 day stroll through the backcountry.  We chose a roughly 20 mile loop that started at Bootens Gap and included time in and around Jones Mountain, the Staunton River, and President Hoover's Rapidan Camp.

There are two things that make hiking in Shenadoah particularly nice.  There is plenty of access to water (i.e., less you have to carry) and all the trails are extremely well marked.

This particular hike was especially scenic and for a three-day weekend with pleasant (though at times rainy) weather, surprisingly empty.  The one area where we did see a few more people was at Rapidan Camp. 

I may have been in the minority but I loved having a splash of history and culture along mile 14 of our journey.  If nothing else, it was nice to get a chance to take the packs off, sit on a bench and get out of the elements for a while.  But if you're a bit of a nerd like me, you will be fascinated by this pre-Camp David presidential retreat that hosted President Hoover on nearly every weekend during the early years of the Depression.  The mental image of the President, Vice President, and Cabinet standing knee deep in the river with fishing poles and discussing the national crisis is... well... interesting.  It should also be noted that the cabin has hosted many other Presidents, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, and other dignitaries through the years.

But, back to nature.  As mentioned earlier, much of our hike passed by beautiful streams and ponds, including the one above that made for a refreshing dip.  And if you're not walking near water, you're most likely on a ridge that has breathtaking views.  On our second night, we were lucky enough to snag a camping spot along one of these ridges (and on the famous Appalachian Trail (AT)).

Not a bad way to spend a weekend when you have such beauty to greet you in the morning.

J Says

I don't know if B brainwashed me or what, but I really love spending a weekend away from civilization in the form of a backpacking trip.  After just two days, you feel as refreshed as if you've been gone for a week.  There's just nothing like being away from everything, including my beloved iPhone. 

As B said, Shenandoah has everything you'd want in a National Park and us Washingtonians are lucky enough to have it within easy driving distance.  If you're not ready to venture out on the trail overnight, there are lots of day hikes that you can cap off with an actual meal in a restaurant along Skyline Drive.  I suggest calling a ranger and getting suggestions for a hike or talking to someone in the book section of your local REI.  We've found all of our best hikes this way and they'll teach you how to beat the crowds. 

I hope your holiday season is filled with plenty of time with friends and family and just maybe (if the weather permits) a walk in the woods!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

New Fortune

On our way back to DC after a great hike at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, we stopped at New Fortune in Gaithersburg for dim sum.  New Fortune is the kind of dim sum place we're used to: huge with a traffic jam of carts in the aisles.  They serve dim sum on the push carts from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week.  This is really handy if you're in need of dim sum on a Wednesday (most places only serve it on the weekends).

The staff members at New Fortune were super friendly.  Before we had even taken our seats, a waitress noticed me eyeing the ham sui gok (football dumplings) on the cart and rushed over to bring them to us.  Within seconds, we had a table crowded with our usual dim sum favorites.

I surprised B by ordering off of the cart o' random vegetables (I usually stick to the starches at dim sum) and it was the best thing we ordered.  Their Chinese broccoli (gai lan) was outstanding.  We were happy with the other dishes too, though some were a little off on the dough to meat ratio (heavy on the dough side).

I'd probably rank it behind Mark's Duck House in quality but just in front of Hollywood East because the dim sum palace atmosphere is worth extra points.  We didn't wait for a table at 11:30 a.m. but I've heard you may be in for a wait if you go after church lets out on Sundays.  We were in and out in about 25 minutes and on the road back to DC with a brick of tasty dim sum in our bellies.

Second Thoughts From B

In my mind, New Fortune was the mirror image of the stereotypical dim sum place.  The ladies working the carts were disorientingly friendly.  The water and tea service was outstanding.  The gai lan cooked perfectly.  These are all areas that other restaurants struggle with yet the basic dumplings which form the backbone of any dim sum experience were a little off.

Since we're on vacation and I'm a normally glass half full guy anyway, I'll focus on what New Fortune did exceptionally well and as J said, that's the gai lan.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that never in the history of the world has someone gone to a restaurant because of excellent gai lan.  It is a side dish at best.  Something that adds a little color to the table and an opportunity for our mothers to tell us to each our vegetables (or roughage as my mom likes to say).

I've eaten more than my share of gai lan through the years, but I'm particularly scarred by my experiences in China.  Traveling from city to city with my extended family, we had dim sum every morning.  At 7am.  Often in a stuffy hotel ballroom that was struggling with the ambient heat and humidity of a Chinese summer.  Nothing like waking up way too early, wandering into a sauna, and having a giant plate of hot vegetables placed in front of you while your grandmother takes mental notes on who is eating what.  Not that I'm complaining, but it turned my insides green.  I'm the wrong kind of doctor, but that doesn't seem right.

For the last 15 years, I haven't seen gai lan the same way.  I still like it but I've never been particularly excited about it.  Its either too hard or too stringy or too bitter or too heavily coated in sauce.  Much to my surprise and their credit, New Fortune made me do a double take.  My chopsticks kept finding their way back to the pile of greens instead of the dumplings.  Quite a feat.
New Fortune on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

National Christmas Tree Lighting

Last week, we had the pleasure of attending the 90th lighting of the National Christmas Tree at President's Park next to the White House (not to be confused with the Capitol Christmas Tree in front of the Capitol Building).

It was very exciting to see President Obama and family light the tree.  After the former tree was felled by a storm and the 2011 tree died of transplant shock, it was nice seeing a healthy-looking and not scraggly 2012 tree.  Let's hope this one lasts for generations to come!

Musical performances by acts such as Colbie Caillat and Jason Mraz got everyone in the holiday spirit.

James Taylor's rendition of Winter Wonderland gave us happy chills (to go with our "we've been standing in the cold for hours" chills).  Is there a more soothing voice on the planet?

Neil Patrick Harris (a.k.a. Barney wait-for-it Stinson) did a fabulous job as host, keeping the show moving and interjecting his own special blend of humor.

We highly recommend braving the cold next year to attend the tree lighting.  If you're interested, here are our top tips for maximum enjoyment:
  • Enter the online free ticket lottery in late October (have all of your friends do it to increase your chances).
  • If you get Standing Room Only tickets like we did, don't be deterred because you can still see the stage if you go early enough.  They also have giant screens to help you see the action up close.
  • Send at least one member of your party to get there right when the gates open.  I arrived at 2:30 p.m. for the 3:00 p.m. gate opening and was at the very front of the Standing Room Only section.  B arrived at 4:00 p.m. and had to wait in a ginormous line, but was able to wriggle his way up to me.
  • Dress very, very warmly because you'll be standing in one spot for hours.
  • Before the show (between 4:30 and 5:00 pm), if the seats aren't all filled, they will allow Standing Room Only people to fill the seats.  Look for this and be ready to move.  We were happy with our standing spot, but lots of standers were able to snag seats.
  • Don't leave once the President lights the tree! He does this at the beginning of the show but then comes back later to speak.  So many people left right after the Obamas lit the tree and they missed all the fun stuff.
  • Again, dress very, very warmly so you don't have to leave before the show is over!
Happy Holidays to you!

Second Thoughts From B

Whether you like the President or not, you can't deny that he can draw ridiculously high-powered talent to play shows in DC.  Better yet, many of these opportunities are free.  Let's look at that last photo for a second.  In addition to the aforementioned James Taylor, Colbie Caillat, Jason Mraz, and Neil Patrick Harris, the first family is joined on stage by The Fray, Ledisi, American Idol winner Phillip Phillips, Babyface, and Modern Family's Rico Rodriguez.  Heck, even Santa Claus himself joined in! 

It may be dismissed as a touristy and crowded mess in the cold, but not only are we happy we got to go, we'd love to do it again.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

TaKorean at Union Market

Part 3 of our series "What To Eat At Union Market" (here's Part 1 and 2) takes us to TaKorean.  Like DC Empanadas, TaKorean is a DC food truck that has taken up permanent residence at the market.  Capitalizing on the Korean taco craze made famous by LA's Kogi Truck, TaKorean serves a variety of tacos with a Korean twist.

On this visit to Union Market, I ordered the bulgogi (beef) tacos topped with kimchi slaw, lime crema, sriracha and sesame seeds (hold the cilantro, please).  There is a lot going on in these tacos but it all works together surprisingly well.  If you're spice averse, you can order a milder slaw and leave off the sriracha.

TaKorean offers beef, chicken and carmelized tofu taco fillings and I can enthusiastically recommend the beef.  I tried the tofu from the truck once and found it to have a strange, almost anise-like flavor.  It wasn't my jam, but I do like that they have tofu as an option.  Since you can mix and match tacos, I'll likely give the tofu another go on our next visit to Union Market.  If I still don't love it, I know I'll have those awesome bulgogi tacos to comfort me.

Second Thoughts From B

As we learned in kindergarten, sharing is caring, and I'm happy to report that J cares about me.  That means I got two bites from her three TaKorean tacos.

You could take that one of two ways.  It is either "only two bites?" or "two whole bites!"  Having that I'm in the latter camp and thoroughly pleased that I was able to taste the wonders of Mexican-Korean Food Truck Fusion, you know those things were good.

Another way you could tell TaKorean knows what they are doing?  Soon after I took my second bite, they pulled a Keyser Soze and were gone.
TaKorean (Food Truck) on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 3, 2012

Rabieng Thai Restaurant

Earlier this year we wrote about Duangrat's Thai Restaurant in Bailey's Crossroads, VA and mentioned that Duangrat's has a sister restaurant around the corner named Rabieng.  Rabieng is the more casual little sister of Duangrat's serving "Thai country comfort cooking."

The restaurant is small and cozy.  On our visit a few months ago they were playing Christmas music.  Never too early to get into the spirit I guess?

We ordered a couple of appetizers to get the Thai party started.  I ordered "Tidbit" because I liked the name.  Luckily, the dish (crispy rice cakes with peanut coconut sauce) was as fun as the name.  The rice cakes provided a crackly bed for piling on the deliciously tangy peanut coconut sauce.

Even more fun was a special "street snack" item that consisted of rice noodles tossed in a sticky sweet tamarind sauce.  They described it as something close to rice krispy treats.  While I don't think it resembled the rice krispy treats of my youth, I really enjoyed this salty-sweet combo.

The waiter recommended one of the specials for B: a crispy-coated fish tossed in a sauce that was delicious and easier to remember several months ago but has since slipped from B's memory.

I ordered the special pad thai topped with softshell crab.  I was expecting the standard, safe pad thai dish but was really impressed with Rabieng's version.  The flavors were really bold and each ingredient tasted fresh and perfectly cooked.  This was definitely one of the best pad thai dishes I've had and I order pad thai like it's going out of style.

Our meal at Duangrat's left us wanting more, but the little sister Rabieng delivered a stellar performance.  Our advice?  Skip the fancier Duangrat's and go around the corner (in a sort of hard to find side alley strip mall) and go to Rabieng. 

Second Thoughts from B

Wow, it has been a long time.  Yes, a long time since we posted, but that's not what I meant.  I was thinking along the lines of: wow, it has been a long time since we ate at Rabieng. 

On one hand, you could say that time has dulled any details from my memory (true).  On the other, you could say that only the really strong impressions remain (also true).  So let's go with the glass half full version.

Looking through the filter of time, I can't remember a single thing about my entree.  In fact, if we hadn't taken a picture of it, I wouldn't have the slightest clue what I ordered.  That basically means it wasn't bad, but it didn't rock my world either.  Moving on.

I do remember lots of crispy, tangy, sweet, and very orange appetizers, and I remember them well enough to still be able to taste them in my mind, as evidenced by mouth starting to water as I type. That's a pretty good sign that we'll be back.  In fact, I'm willing to wager that the following conversation is on the horizon:

J: Where do you want to go to eat?
B: How about that crispy orange appetizer place?
J (without missing a beat): You mean Rabieng!  Let's go!

My memory of the past isn't so good but I'm pretty confident in my prediction for the future.  Maybe I'll even remember my entree next time.
Rabieng on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 19, 2012

Buffalo and Bergen at Union Market

After our tasty DC Empanadas at Union Market, we were in need of something to drink.  We grabbed a stool at the counter of master mixologist Gina Chersevani's Buffalo and Bergen soda fountain.  The soda fountain wasn't 100% open when we visited.  They were serving a limited menu of sodas and knishes, and had a ways to go in the decorating department.  However, the two sodas we tasted are a promising sign of things to come.

We tried one pineapple soda and one cherry soda.  At $5 a pop (no pun intended), we were pleased that these were not your run-of-the-mill sodas.  Each had a complex and completely unexpected progression of flavors.  Is that cardamom in my cherry soda?  What's that firey kick at the back end of my pineapple soda?  Gina proudly explained the wild amalgamation of ingredients (including bay leaf and cardamom) that go into her creations.  These are ingredients that sound terrible on their own, but she makes them work.

People on Yelp are freaking out about the use of Harris Teeter soda water in the sodas.  I agree that it would be preferable to have olde timey soda fountain equipment to complete the experience and I can only assume that the H-Teet water is a temporary thing during this "pop up" phase.  So give them a chance to fully open before you get your panties in a bunch, people. 

Gina Chersevani has proven herself a legend in the DC drink scene with stints at Rasika, PS 7s and Hank's on the Hill.  I have no doubt she'll shine just as brightly with Buffalo and Bergen.

Second Thoughts from B

Whether it is sports or politics, the strategy is always the same during an interview.  When in doubt, use a cliche, just like Crash Davis taught you.  Every player and manager will tell you that they are taking it "one game at a time," just like every press secretary these days will tell you how their boss cares about the people on Main Street rather than those on Wall Street.

The food industry is no different.  I've not been to culinary school but I'm convinced that at some point between saute and sous vide, a veteran chef pulls each student aside and says, "Always tell people that you put love into your dishes."

As we were about to leave Buffalo and Bergen for a pre-Superstorm Sandy evening, Gina Chersevani asked if we'd like to take home some of her short rib with maple jus knishes.  It didn't take long for us to accept such a kind offer (and add something to the tip jar).  Gina explained that she put so much love into these knishes that she'd rather give them away than see them in the trash.  It sounded like a cliche but was straight from the heart.

As the storm blew through the city, we were both stuck working from home in the warmth and safety of our condo.  We also got to indulge in these not-so-little balls of love.  I didn't grow up with knishes but they tasted, no... felt, like home.  You know you've found comfort food at its best when you have to describe it with feelings rather than flavors.

As for the sodas, you could tell that they were made by someone who understands flavor because they had the same level of complexity as a well-executed entree.  Still, I had a bit of a hard time shelling out $5 for a soda.  I don't know why, but $7 for a fancy ice cream soda seems more sensible.  So I guess next time I'll have my knish and soda a la mode.
Buffalo & Bergen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

DC Empanadas at Union Market

It took us a couple of months to make our way to the new (or newly revitalized and reopened) Union Market in Northeast DC, but it won't take us long to go back.  The bright and airy space isn't completely finished (more vendors are on their way), but there is a lot to love there now.

After cruising around the market and picking up some lamb sausage from Border Springs Farm and bison steaks from another purveyor, we followed our rumbling stomachs to DC Empanadas.  The duo behind DC Empanadas has been rolling the streets of DC in their blue food truck for a while but have now put down roots in Union Market.

The menu features an assortment of freshly fried empanadas for $3.50 each or 3 for $9.00.  These are bigger than the mini-emps at Panas and perhaps a tiny bit smaller than the jumbo-emps at Julia's.  I think they are the perfect size for tasting a couple of different flavors.

We tried the Speedy Gonzalez (a mild Cheese Empanada filled with Queso Blanco, Asadero Cheese and Mozzarella Cheese), El Matador (Chorizo, Potatoes and Spices) and the Daily Special "Pollo de Don Carlo" chicken in white wine sauce empanada.

Though they provide hot sauces for dipping, we found the empanadas to be stars on their own.  The crust is perfectly flaky and you can tell that a lot of love and effort goes into developing the flavors of the filling.   DC Empanadas just took first place in our empanada-loving hearts.

Second Thoughts from B

Who doesn't like fried food other than our doctors and our waistlines?  Seriously, who?  I feel like Jimmy Fallon asking that baby who doesn't like more cash in the Capital One commercials...  Unfortunately, unlike more cash, having more fried food has some serious downsides (so says the guy who works at the National Institutes of Health).  So if you're going to do it, do it right.

DC Empanadas makes it worth your while.  Not only are they beautiful on the inside, they are beautiful on the outside too.  Unlike other empanadas that treat their casing as a convenient transporter of meats and veggies, these golden pockets of joy could be eaten empty.  They are buttery and light and just the right thickness.  Of course it helps that they are fried to order and delivered piping hot (again, unlike other empanada vendors who choose the reheat or hot lamp routes).

I don't know if the food truck version of DC Empanadas can live up to the Union Market offering.  My stomach hopes so (and my waistline is worried).
DC Empanadas on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Fast Gourmet

A few years ago we told you that the best fried chicken in the area is in a former gas station in Maryland.  Now we're here to tell you that some of the best sandwiches we've had are at a gas station in DC.

Fast Gourmet is tucked behind the service counter at the gas station at 14th and W streets NW.  You can't tell from the outside, but inside is an actual restaurant with lots of tables.

The menu runs the gamut from empanadas to rotisserie chicken to sandwiches.  I was eying the fish tacos special but they were sold out by the time we placed our late afternoon lunch takeout order. I scrambled to come up with something else and settled on a meatball sandwich with sweet potato fries and a steak and cheese sandwich with regular fries.

We were blown away by how much we enjoyed these sandwiches.  The bread was the perfect balance of toasty and moist, and the fillings tasted like someone put a lot of time and effort into seasoning the high-quality ingredients.  Our only complaint was that the sweet potato fries were really far on the sweet side.  Stick with the regular fries and you'll be happy.

Don't let the gas station exterior fool you.  Fast Gourmet is legitimately fast and gourmet.

Second Thoughts from B

I feel that locals are going to read this post and have one of two very different reactions:  "Duh!" and  "Huh?"

Some of you are familiar with, and therefore, probably frequent patrons of Fast Gourmet.  Our rave review will not come as a surprise.  You've known about this gem for years and while you like being in the know and seeing Fast Gourmet get a little love, you'd probably prefer it stay a relative secret.  After all, once the masses (or worse, the President) discover it, things usually change for the worse (see: Ray's Hell Burger).

On the other hand, you could be in the "Huh?" category.  Gas station food is usually a last resort of Slim Jims and bad coffee.  Sandwiches that aren't prepackaged mush are a revelation.  Sandwiches that are mouthwateringly good are mind blowing. 

So unless you reside in the White House, head over to the tastiest gas station in the District.  Regardless of which camp you come from, your "Duh!" or "Huh?" will quickly become an "Mmmmmm..."  On this election day, that's at least one thing that we can all agree on.
Fast Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Old Rag Mountain

Being stuck at home for several days thanks to Hurricane Sandy makes us especially appreciative of the power of nature... not just the destructive power, but also its awe-inspiring beauty and therapeutic effects on the soul.  Washington, DC isn't just a city of power and culture, it is also an area surrounded by natural wonders worth exploring.  And since we've been cooped up on telework for the last few days, we thought it would be nice to create a miniseries of posts dedicated to fresh air and stretching your legs in the great outdoors.

Any discussion of hiking in the Mid-Atlantic region should begin with Old Rag Mountain.  Located within a 2 hour drive of DC on the eastern side of Shenandoah National Park, this approximately 9 mile loop tops most nature lovers' to-do lists.  And rightfully so.  The trail is an enjoyable, yet challenging, combination of well-groomed paths, strenuous switch-backs, rocky scrambles, and unparalleled views.  The only downside is the crowds.  Disneyland-sized crowds.

Everything we read about the trail said to arrive no later than 7 am.  Being the overachievers that we are, we arrived at 5 am.  Yeah, you read that right.  5 am.

We were going to do Old Rag on a weekend at the peak of the fall colors.  That meant going down to Culpeper the night before, staying in a motel, and arriving at the trail before the crowds showed up.  On the drive down, however, we learned that there would be a spectacular meteor shower (Orionids).  This altered our plans.  Now the goal was to be on the trail early enough to see the stars and a meteor or two.  In other words, 5 am.

Mission accomplished.  Stumbling out of bed at exactly 3:59 am, we got to the Old Rag parking lot a little after 5, hit the trail (almost a mile from the lot) by headlamp by 5:30, and arrived at the first overlook for sunrise.  Was it worth it?  Oh yeah!  And yes, we saw a few meteors.

We can't tell you much about the loop's 2 miles of switchbacks to get to the overlook (it was dark) but we can tell you that the next 1.5 miles of scrambling was lots of fun.  If you go, be prepared to squeeze and contort your body in yoga-esque ways to get up, over, and through the rocky terrain.  It isn't rock climbing, but you will need to use your hands and knees in many areas.

This is where you'll most appreciate your efforts to arrive early.  The benefits of solitude while in the wilderness are obvious.  Less obvious is the fact that those who sleep in will be in stop and go traffic throughout their climb.  I can't imagine coming all that way to escape the city just to find the frustrations of rush hour traffic on the Beltway.

After you scramble to the summit, the rest of the way is mostly wide open trail and fire road, which is an alternate out and back route for those who want to summit without the scramble.

By the time we were back at our car it was 11:20 am.  There, we were met by hoards of hikers of various ages and physical abilities just arriving at the trail.  After seeing no more than a dozen or so people on our hike, we encountered several hundred on the road between the parking lot and the trailhead.  I think I'd rather endure another few hurricanes than be stuck on a trail with half the Delmarva population in front of me.

J Says

Like B said, Old Rag is a fantastic combination of rock scramble, hiking, and scenic views.  If you want the scenic view to be of the mountain and not the butt of the hiker in front of you, go early.  Did we emphasize this enough?  OK good.

I highly recommend driving out the night before and staying in a cheap motel in Culpeper (the Best Western was clean and comfortable and only $90). Not only does it make the wake-up time more manageable, you can also grab a relaxing dinner in town (for us that meant Taco Bell and Cold Stone Creamery), tour the local Walmart, and go to bed early.

I'll leave you with a wardrobe tip: wear durable pants.  Due to all the scrambling, you're going to be sliding on your behind a lot.  Nobody wants to do the second half of the hike with scraped up legs (from wearing shorts) or a hole in their pants.  A pair of hiking pants or thicker workout pants should do the trick.

Happy hiking!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Palena Contest Results

The results are in and one of our readers is now $100 richer and on their way to a great meal at Palena!  But before we announce who won (as if you won't ignore all this and scroll down to the bottom), a special thanks to everyone who entered.  You certainly made J giggle more than a few times and everyone knows that I appreciated all the lamb love out there.

We spent way too much time selecting a winner.  While cronyism may rule this town, I disqualified myself from any job in local government by de-identifying the comments, having J select the ones she liked, and throwing those into a random number generator.  After all that, we produced our winner.  Congratulations to (drum roll please)... Gabriel Bayley!  Step right up and claim your prize (in other words, email us with your contact information).

Friday, October 19, 2012


Do you want to win $100 toward your dream dinner at Palena? We thought so!  Read on....

Palena is James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Ruta's homage to "cucina genuina" or genuine cooking.  The Cleveland Park restaurant is really 3 spaces in one: 1) the Dining Room (fine dining prix fixe menu); 2) Palena Cafe (more casual a la carte experience); and 3) the Market (featuring imported and artisanal products used in the restaurant, as well as coffee, and ready-to-eat sweets and savories). 

The folks at CityEats recently gave us $50 toward our meal in the Dining Room at Palena. I logged on to CityEats to make our reservation and check out the menu. Palena requires a credit card to confirm the reservation and charges a no-show fee if you don't cancel your reservation 24 hours prior, so make sure you either stick to it or cancel!

If you're not familiar with CityEats, it is an online reservation site that works in collaboration with the Food Network to bring you a one-stop site for your dining needs.  In addition to booking reservations and checking out menus, you can read professional and user-submitted reviews, browse drool-worthy food photos, and get the inside scoop on each restaurant before you book. 

When we arrived for our 8:00 p.m. weeknight reservation, the bar and Cafe area were bustling, but the Dining Room was quiet and sufficiently walled off from the noise next door.  The Dining Room has two menu options:
  1. $75 menu where you select 3 courses from about a dozen options and get to choose a dessert from a list of a half dozen choices; and
  2. $95 set menu of 5 courses plus dessert.  You get the five courses and dessert listed on the menu and you can't substitute things from the 3 course menu to mix and match (we heard a fellow diner ask if he could).
We were impressed that the wine pairing for the 5 course menu is $51.  That's a steal compared to many wine pairing prices around town.  We also loved that they offer half bottles of wine and we were pleased with the one we ordered, but the prices on the half bottles were steep (I think the cheapest was around $55).

For maximum flexibility we ordered from the 3 course + dessert menu.  I had the Fall Salad (butternut squash, mushrooms, greens, cheese); medley of mushrooms (mushrooms, polenta, cheese in a rich tomato sauce); duck breast (with juniper sauce); and the dark chocolate torte. B had the consomme (oxtail broth, mushrooms, vegetables); lobster roe saffron pasta; cod (which he pronounced perfectly cooked but too salty); and a pear dessert.

With the addition of complimentary items including two amuse bouche, a bread basket, a pre-dessert sorbet, and a selection of sweets with the check, Palena put us into a completely blissful food coma. 

Second Thoughts From B

It was certainly a treat to be able to take advantage of CityEats' generous offer at one of the few places that remained on our DC bucket list. At the same time, it is a challenge to provide an unbiased description of our experience.  If we're too complimentary, then people will think we were bought out.  Too harsh and we must be over compensating...

As I sat there enjoying the refined atmosphere and thoughtfully constructed plates of food, I debated how I would characterize my experience.  I apologize to our non-sports loving readers out there but in my mind, Palena seems to be a "professional hitter."  Let me explain.

The title of professional hitter is given to a player who goes to bat with a plan and executes it well.  He knows his strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the other team.  He thinks about the game situation (outs, runners on base, inning, score, etc.) and determines the best approach.  Even if he fails, he makes the other team work during his at bat.

While it may seem that being a "professional hitter" is high praise, it is also somewhat of a backhanded compliment.  Professional hitters sacrifice bunt, allow a runner to steal, hit the ball to the opposite field, or hit a scoring fly ball.  Superstars don't need to do that.  They just hit homeruns.

On this night, I don't think Palena was a homerun.  A month from now, I don't know that I'll remember anything in particular about my meal with the possible exception of the pear dessert.  It was, however, a lovely evening of good food and excellent service that provided the perfect mid-week escape. 
Palena on Urbanspoon

$100 to Palena can be yours!
Now that you've had a chance to check out our thoughts on Palena, it's your chance to win your dream dinner in the Dining Room.  Check out the menu on CityEats here and leave a comment on this post or tweet us (@twodc) by 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, October 23rd a description of what you would order at Palena.  We'll choose a winner and announce it on TwoDC next week!  CityEats will give our lucky winner $100 credit toward their meal in the Dining Room (listed as Palena Fine Dining on the CityEats site).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Nice 'n' Greasy Steak 'n' Cheesy

Michael Landrum, father of the Ray's the Steaks and Ray's Hell Burger empire, is a guy that does what he wants.  He was famous for not having websites for his restaurants (now he does) and not taking credit cards (now he does in some locations, thank you!).  Mr. Landrum's "do what I want" outlook is perhaps nowhere more apparent than this little spot in the strip mall on Wilson Avenue in Arlington.

This place has changed formats more times than I can count.  For a while it was doing take-out for Ray's Hell Burger.  Then it became the sit-down table service version of Ray's Hell Burger.  Then last year he closed the "Hell Burger Too" concept and opened "Steak and Cheese" serving steak and cheese sandwiches (not Philly cheesesteaks, according to Landrum).  Then Landrum closed Steak and Cheese a month later and went back to the "Hell Burger Too" concept.  In May, Landrum opened "Nice 'N' Greasy Steak 'N' Cheesy" in the space but also kept the Hell Burger menu items.  Confused?  Us too.  We never know quite what we're going to get when we walk into this place and that's what's fun about it.

The space is stripped down and focused totally on the food.  They weren't doing table service when we were there, but I don't pretend to know if that's a "normal" thing or if they sometimes do table service.  They do take credit cards and that makes us happy campers.  We ordered at the counter, zoning in on the new menu items (though it was really hard to pass up our favorite burgers).

B ordered the Spicy-As-Hell Chicken Sandwich (chicken breast marinated in Ray's famous blend of burning hot spices with pepper jack cheese, charred jalapenos, hell fire mayo, lettuce and tomato on a potato roll).  It was indeed spicy as hell.  I took one bite and instantly had tears streaming down my face.  Beyond smacking us in the face with spice, it was a good chicken sandwich, but still a chicken sandwich.  The onion fries were as delicious as they look.

I ordered the Shock G steak and cheese sandwich featuring 1/3 lb of sliced "premium heart of rib eye," American and provolone cheeses, and grilled onions on a toasted Lyon Bakery sub roll. Because this wasn't coronary-inducing enough, I added charred jalapenos ($0.50 extra) and "groove grease."  Groove grease is a secret concoction of yumminess that defies proper description.  It's greasy, groovy, a little spicy, and I really don't think I want to know how many calories it has.

This was a truly epic sandwich.  It was messy and hard to eat, but I couldn't keep my eyes from rolling back into my head with each delicious bite.  It's not trying to be a Philly cheese steak, it's trying to be a high quality steak sandwich and from my grease-covered point of view, it succeeds.

Second Thoughts from B

You win some and you lose some.  While I clearly won by ordering the onion fries (more on these in a second), I lost the sandwich battle to J.  Unlike my beloved New Jack Zing at Ray's Hell Burger that uses heat to balance out the creamy, salty, and savory elements in the sandwich, the Spicy-As-Hell Chicken Sandwich was spicy layered upon spicy.  It felt more like a dare than a meal.  And since I'm not an aspiring Fear Factor contestant, all I did was slurp down gallons of water and covet J's plate.

Back to the onion fries though.  Putting a gourmet twist on common foods is not a new idea.  However, the common foods tend to be tired, if not dreadful, foods that inspired childhood nightmares.  Chefs like to embrace the challenge of making mouth watering versions of things that you'd otherwise stay away from.  On the other hand, Nice 'n' Greasy Steak 'n' Cheesy took a guilty pleasure - Outback Steakhouse's Bloomin Onion - and made it better.  How?  No clue.  Like you, my dear reader, I thought the Bloomin Onion was not to be tampered with.  Sent from the Almighty as a gift to us mere mortals who craved a bit of joy in our otherwise drab existence.  To elevate fried and greasy perfection is simply divine.  Now if there was just an anti-coronary option...