Tuesday, January 31, 2012


We've made no secret of our crush on Brasserie Beck, the casual younger sibling of the esteemed Marcel's. For B's birthday, I booked a table at Marcel's to see if Robert Wiedmaier's French-Belgian fancy restaurant could compare.

Since 1999, Marcel's has been delighting diners with its impeccable service and menu of rich, hearty French classics with a Belgian spin. Marcel's has also become famous for its $65 three course pre-Kennedy Center menu that includes car service to and from the show. While we didn't test it out, we'll have to keep that in mind the next time we think of driving to a show and forking over $20 for parking.

We didn't take any photos of our experience, but I can set the stage with one phrase: fleur-de-lis. Apparently whoever designed Marcel's thought that "French restaurant" means you have to work in a fleur-de-lis pattern in every square inch. It wasn't over-done to the point of being cheesy, but once we began to notice the abundance of fleur-de-lis, we saw them everywhere. From the menu to the walls, it was one big game of "I spy a fleur-de-lis..."

Our server Rebecca was fantastically attentive and guided us through Marcel's somewhat complicated menu. At Marcel's, you choose between four, five, six, or seven courses. The menu is then broken into the following sections: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, cheese, and dessert. Complicating matters further is the fact that you can order from any of the menu sections. For example, if you order five courses, you can order 3 from the second course menu and two from the fourth course menu. It's all up to you, and all adds up to somewhat of a headache. You can also change the number of courses as you go, so if the seven seemed like a good idea at the beginning, you can wave the white flag and head for the five course menu as you get too full to continue. Is your head spinning yet? Yes, mine too.

The food at Marcel's was very good but just not anything to jump up and down about. It was hard to point to specific flaws in the dishes, but we left feeling full though uninspired. It wasn't one of those Jose Andres-like meals that you discuss all the way home. I tend to be able to rehash every dish of a great meal for months (or even years) afterward, but I don't remember much about what we ate at Marcel's last month aside from the fact that I liked the duck I ordered. It was good, the service and atmosphere were great, and I'm glad we tried it once.

While Beck is a place that you can return to again and again, Marcel's is more of a "checked it off the list" type experience that we're unlikely to duplicate.

Second Thoughts From B

I'm either very secure in my marriage or I've turned into the stereotypical clueless husband because I'm about to yawn at my birthday dinner that J probably spent a great deal of time selecting.

Don't get me wrong, it was a lovely evening. The food was very good and the service was excellent. But it felt generic. Ouch. Not what you want to hear when visiting one of the city's elite restaurants. It was memorable in that it was a nice meal but in a town overflowing with great and memorable meals, Marcel's simply blends in and will probably be forgotten.

Well, not completely forgotten. Aside from the dizzying array of fleur-de-lis (what is the plural?), one particular thing will stick in our mind. In contrast to the jacket-required dress code, the staff at Marcel's is notably forward thinking regarding technology. Recognizing that the next generation fine dining experience is fully plugged in and connected 24/7, Marcel's accommodates those of us who must chat on the phone while eating.

When we arrived, a gentleman sat and chatted on his phone at the table next to us while his wife looked bored. As we started in on dessert, a table across the dining room started playing a youtube video (at full volume) on repeat.

There are times that people are so obnoxious that everyone is frozen in disbelief. This was one of those times. Thankfully, by the time video number 3 was playing, we were walking out the door.
Marcel's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ashby Inn

You may have heard about a little Inn way out in Virginia serving amazing, locally-sourced food. No, not that Inn. I'm talking about the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia. While it may not be as famous as Patrick O'Connell's Inn at Little Washington, that's exactly what we loved about it. It felt undiscovered and the food Chef Tarver King is serving is perhaps the best kept secret in the region. At the Ashby Inn we got inventive food made from local ingredients, served by a fantastic staff, in a beautiful room. If that wasn't enough, the meal was 30% off thanks to Savored (described in mind-numbing detail by B here)!

Since the drive between DC and Paris will take you about an hour and a half, we booked a 5:30 reservation so we could safely drive home before the food sleepies set in. If you really want to live it up, book a room at the Inn so you can take advantage of their wine pairings and great cocktails.

The Ashby Inn offers a choice of the a la carte menu or a 5 or 7 course chef's tasting menu. The menu is constantly changing (almost daily we were told) so the dishes we loved may not be available when you go, but you're sure to find something equally delicious.

We opted for the 7 course tasting menu because our waitress assured us that the portion sizes were not giant. We actually ended up with 9 courses when you count the assorted "snacks" (pictured below) that begin the meal and the little pastries that come with the check.

The snacks were a seriously addicting pecan bacon brittle, curried semolina "fries" that made B emit a weird squeaking noise (from delight, I think), a silky smooth hummus with fermented lemon on a poppy cracker, and the classiest shrimp chip we've ever had.

I'm so glad we opted for the 7 course menu instead of the 5 course because one of the two extra courses was this gorgeous butternut squash crudo with smoked maple vinaigrette, raisins, pistachios, and fromage blanc. I have never seen B get so excited about a vegetable dish. He was encouraging nearby tables to order the 7 course menu so that they wouldn't miss out on the squash!

After a spicy black eyed pea soup (that was yummy but not too photogenic), we cooled down our mouths with a decadent black truffle risotto with focaccia crumbles, parmesan, and ham balsamic. The creativity of each dish was matched only by the inventiveness of the plates they were served on. Each course came out on a different and whimisical plate (many handmade).

The steamed black cod with red currant, jasmine, watercress emulsion, ricotta, and parsnip was the perfect light and airy follow-up to the risotto. I loved the tangy punch in the face that the red currant provided.

The next dish was as fun as it was delicious. When it first came out, we thought it was a giant overcooked steak. We soon learned that it was a hot lava stone on which we got to cook a tender piece of beef. Served on the side were grits with black garlic, mushrooms, toasted stilton, and dashi. I think we giggled the whole time we were cooking and eating this one. Pure fun.

Usually by the time the cheese course of a tasting menu arrives, I'm feeling uncomfortable. However, thanks to reasonable portion sizes and efficient service, I was feeling great when our server brought out the cheese course of whipped sottocenere (a very rich and creamy Italian cheese) with quince gel, focaccia toast, and fried hazelnuts.

I even saved some room for the dessert of black chocolate sponge cake, roasted barley ice cream, chocolate espuma, and vincotto. This dessert was a little off-putting at first glance. Black cake that looked like a lava rock served with beige ice cream and a dusting of gray powdery stuff? Despite it's unique appearance, it was amazingly tasty. I make a lot of dishes using barley but I've never tried barley ice cream. While I think it's probably best left in the hands of professionals, I'm tempted to try it at home.

As we bid goodbye to the Ashby Inn and headed back to DC, we were giddy at finding such an incredible restaurant, in a beautiful setting, at a discount! While the Inn at Little Washington is still high on our DC Bucket List, I am tempted to pass up the difficult reservations and sky-high prices to get another taste of Ashby's local Virginia magic.

Second Thoughts from B

While this blog is dedicated to everything that J and I do as a couple in DC, it is clear that the thing we do the most is eat out. After each post, it is my job to update the "Food for Two" list of culinary adventures and every time I marvel at the number of different places we've tried. For those scoring at home, this is food post number 255!

So I think it is fair to say that we've tried a lot of the DC area's offerings which makes it that much more exciting when we agree that our experience at the Ashby Inn was one of the best. It really had everything that we love: an undiscovered feel, attentive and knowledgeable but not stuffy service, local and seasonal ingredients, playful and inventive dishes, contrasting flavors and textures, and a big discount.

But B, couldn't you get all of that without the 90 minute drive? Perhaps. But driving through the peaceful countryside and watching the setting sun shed warm lavender light on the hills beyond cannot be replicated by the finest of dining rooms. Neither could the charm of the main street shops in nearby Middleburg. And if quaint country charm isn't your thing, there's always the Leesburg Outlets.

Funny story about those outlets while I'm on the subject... We mentioned recently that we recently spent a couple of weeks in Italy. As we were about to return home on a plane from Venice, we came across a 20-something local girl who worked at the airport. Upon learning that we lived in Washington, she started gushing about her love of DC. Immediately our minds were filled with all of the things that we love about this city, so we asked her what she liked so much. We expected to hear about the monuments or the museums or the political power. Instead, she told us about spending an entire day at the Leesburg Outlets after spending the previous day at Pentagon City Mall.

So maybe our adoration of the Ashby Inn is just a case of the "grass being greener on the other side." Like our Venetian friend who craves American malls, J and I don't get a whole lot of Ashby Inns in our neighborhood. It is possible that residents of Paris, VA view it as routine and long for the burgers at Five Guys that seem to be omnipresent in the city. It is possible that this meal wasn't as special as we remember. But I seriously doubt it.
Ashby Inn & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Duangrat's Thai Restaurant in Baileys Crossroads (VA) has one of the most memorable names of any place we've blogged about. It also has one of the most memorable stories. In 1980, Ed and Pookie Duangrat opened a small Asian market. In 1987, they opened a restaurant around the corner from the market. Today, the market is still open and supplies the restaurant and its new sister restaurant Rabieng around the corner from Duangrat's Thai. If the market and two restaurants don't provide enough Thai excitement for you, there are Thai classical dance performances in a dinner theater on the upper level of Duangrat's.

Duangrat's is a gorgeous restaurant. It is decked from floor to ceiling in rich red tones and colorful murals. The wait staff dress in traditional Thai silk clothing. On the Friday evening we were there, the service was incredibly attentive. A team of no less than five different staff members served us quickly yet unobtrusively.

To begin our Duangrat's feast, we ordered the garlic salt and pepper calamari tempura. I'm not one to get excited about calamari, but this was outstanding. Hands down the best calamari dish I've had. The light batter was shatteringly crispy and had a very spicy kick to it. We demolished the whole bowl (including the crumbs) at record speed.

At the top of the "Signature Entrees" list was the Chiangmai Chili Pork advertised as panko-breaded strips of tender pork loin wok-tossed in their "scintillating signature chili-garlic sauce" with green beans and asparagus.

When I took my first bite, the taste that immediately came to mind was cinnamon Teddy Grahams. I know that is completely random but it was something about the sweetness of the breading that shot me back to elementary school lunch hour. As I ate the dish, the Teddy Graham flavor gave way to a more complex spicy-sweet combination. Overall, I liked it and I'm glad I tried it once, but I don't think I'd order it again.

Predictably, I ordered the drunken noodles. They were a good, yet not particularly amazing, rendition of the dish I've ordered 6.4 zillion times.

The calamari and the atmosphere were enough to encourage us to come back and give Duangrat's a second try. Although, next time we may try to spread our love to the rest of the family and visit nearby Rabieng for "Thai country comfort cooking." If the mood is as comfortable as Duangrat's, we will be in for a nice evening.

Second Thoughts from B

Oh Duangrat's... you started off so well. What happened? First the glowing online reviews, then the vibrant decor, then the bowl-lickingly good calamari. Half way through the meal J and I were congratulating ourselves for finding our next favorite Thai restaurant.

Then the wheels fell off. Good but odd pork and disappointingly average drunken noodles. Maybe it wasn't you. Maybe it was us. Had our expectations grown unrealistically high or did the meal peak prematurely? Would we feel differently if these same dishes came from a kitchen that hadn't already shown its considerable talent? It is hard to say at this point and hard to know if we'll be back to ever figure it out.

We are not professional food critics that try half the menu before coming to a conclusion. We aren't even amateur food critics. We are just a young couple that loves to eat out in a city with far more options than we'll ever get to try. Our impressions will be made on that first visit. 3 dishes out of 100 menu items will come to represent our thoughts on a restaurant. And like a 10-1 college football team missing a chance at the title game, one blemish can taint an experience and make us forget all of the success that was enjoyed. Considering all of the good things at Duangrat's, that's a sad thing to say, but it is also the reality of raised expectations.
Duangrat's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 19, 2012


We meet a lot of people that grew up in the DC metro area who comment on the fact that we've seen and done more in our time here than they have. Some of that is because we actively seek out new experiences, and some of it is because we came to DC as adults and don't have our favorite places pre-established from childhood. Nevertheless, it is sad for us to hear that many locals have never toured the Capitol, been to the Smithsonian, or eaten at Ben's Chili Bowl. Washington is a world class city that draws millions of people to it every year. For locals to say that they've never found one afternoon to see what all the fuss is about just kills us.

But before we throw stones, we must admit that we, too, have missed some iconic gems of this vibrant city. Tops on the "we're ashamed that we've never been" list was HR-57. We can't blame ignorance (it was recommended to me within my first couple of months here) and we can't blame opportunity (it is only a couple of miles away from our home and is a favorite of many of our friends). It was just one of those things until M and A, pulled us out of the house for a great evening of food, wine, and jazz.

HR-57 takes its name from a 1987 House Resolution (H.Con.Res 57) that designated jazz as a "rare and valuable national American treasure." Chances are, my dad or the babysitter from Jerry Maguire authored the bill. Really, they are the same person... but that's another story.

After grooving for 18 years on 14th Street NW, HR-57 moved to a new location on the H Street corridor in April of last year. Finding their new digs too small, HR-57 is moving to a larger venue down the street later this year.

Modeled after the speakeasys of the 1930's, HR-57 allows patrons to BYOB (though who listens to jazz with a can of Coors Light?) for a small corkage fee. Armed with several bottles of wine, our group camped out with the Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson Quartet and let the hours slip away.

The highlight of the evening wasn't the wine and wasn't the jazz (the instrumentalists were quite good but the vocalist wasn't our favorite). Rather, it was a moment late in the evening following a break. While 3 members of the quartet heard "take 5," the pianist took 15. Jokingly, the audience was solicited for help. At least, I thought the offer to play on stage was a joke...

What a surprise when our buddy, who we'll call B2, jumped out of his chair and volunteered to play with the band. Not knowing that he's a rather good pianist, we assumed this was a byproduct of the BYOB policy. As B2 was leading the band in a jazz standard, the actual piano player returned, saw things were going fine, and settled into a chair to continue his text messaging.

The point of the story is that HR-57 seems to be at its best when it is casual, communal, and unscripted. It is cool and comfortable, and very much a part of DC's rich cultural fabric... and one more thing we can check off our list. Can you?

J Says

I am so thankful to M and A for getting our butts to HR-57. It had been sitting on our list for so long that I stopped seeing it whenever I looked at the list for something to do.

Since we had a fabulous dinner prepared by M and A, we did not partake in HR-57's culinary offerings (fried chicken, greens, red beans, and crepes for dessert). However, I snuck a peek at the other tables and the food looked pretty tasty. HR-57 is also in walking distance of so many great places to eat on H Street that you can have a dinner and music date without breaking the bank or crisscrossing the city.

Even though I took a jazz appreciation class in college (and B says I didn't get a "real" degree!), I'm not the world's biggest aficionado. This did not stop me from having a great time. I was bobbing my head along to the beat and, before I knew it, it was 1:00 a.m. I don't think you need to be a super jazz fan to love HR-57 and it's uniquely DC, completely cool, atmosphere.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Taqueria Poblano

After a couple of weeks of (amazing) Italian food, B and I were in the mood for something completely different. Mexican food instantly came to mind as a nice change of pace from noodles and bacon. We needed to run an errand in Alexandria so I googled "best Mexican food Alexandria," because I remembered reading about a good taco place. Google led us to Taqueria Poblano in the cute Del Ray neighborhood.

In addition to this small taqueria, Taqueria Poblano has another location in Arlington. Check the hours before you go because the Arlington location is closed Mondays at lunch, while the Alexandria location is closed all day Tuesday.

We were seated quickly in the bright dining room. As we ate, we watched our friendly server interacting with the other tables and got the distinct impression that this place has a lot of regulars.

I went in with low expectations because I'm that annoying person that complains about the lack of great Mexican food in DC. Things started off well with the house-made chips and zippy salsa, and improved when I took the first bite of the shrimp taco (pictured below on the right). What a nice balance of tangy (red onion escabeche), creamy (avocado dressing), and spicy (thanks to the habanero salsa I added on top). The shrimp was perfectly cooked too. Taco purists will scoff at the use of the flour tortilla, but I'll admit that it was a great tortilla. $5.25 for one taco is steep, but if you're going to pay $5.25 for a taco, this is a great one to order.

The "LA Style Crispy Taco" with chile-braised shredded beef was like an instant 3,000 mile flight back home. It's not "authentic Mexican food," but it is 100% authentic LA Mexican food. From the grease-glistening crispy shell to the tender shredded beef, the flavors and texture were spot on. This is not haute taco, it is taco truck taco, and I loved every bite. The $3.75 price is steeper than I'm used to paying for a taco, but cheap when you consider the airfare to LA.

While B declared me the "big winner" for the tacos I ordered, he was quite pleased with his Baja fish taco (left) and his special o' the day steak taco (right).

Taqueria Poblano also has quesadillas, burritos, and enchiladas, but I don't think I'll ever get past the taco section of the menu. The next time I need a taste of home, I'm heading to Alexandria for a couple of tacos washed down with a house margarita.

Second Thoughts from B

Our frustration with the DC area's Mexican food is well documented. I think it is fair to say we were resigned to overly-Americanized TexMex and Chipotle, so Taqueria Poblano was a very, very pleasant surprise.

In my mind, Mexican food isn't supposed to be fancy. Tablecloths, fancy drinks, utensils, and even chairs are not necessary. Many of the best tacos I've had were enjoyed standing under a tree on some side street next to a smoking truck or food stand.

Unlike so many of its competitors, Taqueria Poblano has added the restaurant to the taco without diluting those raw flavors of the world's greatest street food. I could taste a hot and dusty day in the concrete jungle of LA. I could feel San Diego's ocean breeze and hear Tijuana's energy. All packed in a bright little restaurant in Del Ray. What a great find!
Taqueria Poblano on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Italian Perspective

If you've noticed a lack of posts from us, it's because we spent the last few weeks indulging in all that Italy has to offer. As we get back to DC life, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the things we learned in a place that clearly knows its way around a kitchen.

Wine doesn't have to be expensive. The house Chianti was routinely excellent and about the same price as a large bottle of water.

We tried plenty of arancini but couldn't find anything that we liked more than Taylor Gourmet's risotto balls.

There is no reason to settle for the tourist menu when you can use a handy app (we loved EatRome and EatFlorence) to find a "locals" spot.

Nothing was better on a cold day than hot stew on fresh bread (think: bread bowl) served by Italian grandmothers. If this isn't a food truck in DC, someone needs to get on that.

Italy's Surgeon General needs to step it up with the "smoking will kill you" warnings. Second-hand smoke certainly kills a great meal.

Simple prep and fresh ingredients. Even in the fanciest kitchens, that's all you need.

When you have high quality dry pasta, it can be made to taste like it is was made fresh that day.

Of all the amazingly beautiful things we saw, the produce stands held their own.

It is hard for us to admit, but there is a thing as too much bacon.

Deep frying an artichoke is not a good idea. It is a great idea.

Gelato just tastes better in Italy. Even when it is cold outside.

Touring the many sites on foot makes you feel better about the huge amount of calories you'll consume that day. And nothing beats a good pair of travel walking shoes (but the Italians' ability to walk in high designer heels on ancient cobblestone streets is astounding).

The concept of "slow down and savor each bite" is pervasive in Italy. We could learn a lot from them.

There's no place like home (and your own bed and shower).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy 2012

Happy New Year from the Eternal City!

May 2012 bring health and happiness to you and your loved ones.