Thursday, March 29, 2012

Noodles & Company

Since noodles are my second favorite food (behind ice cream), I was thrilled when we were invited to the new Noodles & Company in Woodley Park to meet the company's head chef, Tessa Stamper, and enjoy a complimentary sampling of her favorite menu items.

Noodles & Company is a national chain (headquartered in Colorado) with 284 restaurants and (rapidly) counting. They have 20 restaurants either open or opening soon in the DC metro area.

It is a fast-casual concept anchored by the all mighty noodle. The menu is divided into American, Asian, and Mediterranean sections, featuring noodle dishes from each type of cuisine. I think this throws people for a loop when they first hear about Noodles because many people (me included) tend to be skeptical of places serving a mishmash of cuisine from across the globe. But, if you can work past your first reaction, I think you can find items in each of the menu sections that will tempt your tastebuds.

Because you (sadly) can't exist on noodles alone, Noodles & Company offers the "& Company" part of their menu featuring soups, salads and sandwiches. Noodles also lets you customize the dishes to suit your preferences. They can tone down the spice, take out the mushrooms, and will give you a new dish if you don't like what you ordered.

We liked the philosophy and the friendliness and were pretty impressed with the food. Here is a rundown of the dishes we sampled.

Apple Spinach Salad

Typical yet tasty combo of spinach, apples, bleu cheese, and nuts. It was nice to hear that they used to use strawberries instead of apples but made the switch because of the seasons. For a national chain, the dishes at Noodles are surprisingly local and seasonal.

Wisconsin Mac and Cheese

The company's #1 seller featuring an ooey, gooey mix of cheddar and jack cheese with enough cream to make it dangerously delicious. B, ever the salt fiend, thought it was a little on the bland side for his palate.

Truffle Mac and Cheese

Because even fast casual chain restaurants are getting into the trufflepalooza, Noodles offers this grown up version of mac and cheese. I was skeptical, but actually really liked this dish. The truffle oil wasn't too overpowering and the addition of meaty portabella mushrooms really made it stand out.

Thai Curry Soup

Our Asian adventure started with this yellow curry coconut broth packed with veggies. I liked the flavor of the broth but thought it needed more of a kick. If you like things really spicy, the restaurant has bottles of sriracha on hand.

Japanese Pan Noodles

Probably my favorite dish of the night. Fat udon noodles carmelized in a sweet soy sauce. The carmelization on the noodles gave them a fantastic texture. Also, the tofu (prepared in house) was nicely cooked without being fried into a squishy mess like so many places do. If you don't do tofu, you choose from a variety of other proteins to add to the mix.

Indonesian Peanut Saute

One of B's favorites, this dish feature a spicy peanut sauce tossed over rice noodles imported from Thailand. A surprising level of heat and depth of flavor for a chain restaurant dish.

Pesto Cavatappi

Chef Stamper said the pesto cavatappi is a hit with kids who have just graduated from the buttered noodles phase (FYI, buttered noodles is also a menu item). Us big kids also liked the fun curly pasta and creamy pesto sauce.

Penne Rosa with Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

B couldn't get over how well-cooked the chicken was. The tender chicken in its crispy cheese blanket was a good contrast to the spicy tomato cream sauce.

If you haven't stuffed yourself silly on your noodle journey around the globe, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with their signature krispies or cookies.

Noodles & Company is a welcome addition to the strip of Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park that I often refer to as the "restaurant wasteland."

It's not molecular gastronomy or fine dining, but it also isn't pretending to be. It's the kind of place you take your little kids to because nobody will flinch when your kid dumps their entire bowl of mac and cheese on their head. It's a perfect place to rest weary feet after a day of shopping. It's not breaking new culinary ground but it is consistent, fast, fresh, and flavorful. Some days, that's all you need.

Second Thoughts from B

In the beginning, there was food. And the food was fresh. And then someone created the frozen meal and powerful preservatives, and today's fast food chain was born. Now the pendulum has swung back to grandma's garden fresh fare, accompanied by the condemnation of the places we all grew up loving as kids.

I understand the backlash, but I also miss the fried flavorfest found at every drive-through in the country. After all, we both love McDonald's enough to make it out Valentine's Day tradition. Unlike some people, I don't think that McDonalds & Company is the devil. But I don't want to be eating there multiple times a week either. As I get older (debatable if this means more mature or just slower metabolism), I just can't drop 8000 calories a day like I could in high school. That's why I'm excited that the health conscious fast casual restaurant concept is emerging.

Blending the convenience, affordability, appeal, and menu options of many fast food restaurants with an eye towards healthful living is a business model I can embrace. Admittedly, Noodles & Company doesn't make their noodles or sauce in house, but it was surprising how much consideration went in to buying from local producers, using seasonal ingredients, and cooking food to order. The fact that Chef Tessa was originally a dietitian and that the company is based in the very active state of Colorado comes through loud and clear.

So while I will always love the frozen and then fried McNuggets that may or may not be chicken, it is nice to have the same convenience in a more guiltless form. I'll never turn my nose up at my old friends Ronald, Grimace, and the Hamburglar, but it's good to have options like Noodles & Company.
Noodles & Company on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

West Wing Tour of the White House

J is going to turn the big 3-0 in May. In the lead up, she has created a "30 before 30" list. Some things are silly, like sitting in the big green chair in Georgetown and some are admirable, like conquering her fear of snakes at a local Petco. Some are great for her husband, like learning how to cook rack of lamb, while others cause him pain, like doing the 200 situp challenge (why did I agree to join? I turned 30 several years ago!). Some, however, are just plain cool, like taking a tour of the White House. Not the garden tour that we did a while back... we're talking inside.

Thanks to a friend who works at OMB (that's the Office of Management and Budget for those outside the Beltway) and also gives White House tours, we were able to get a behind the scenes peek at the West Wing. Cross it off the list!

While we were forbidden from taking pictures inside the West Wing, you already know what it looks like. Is there a DC-based movie or TV show that doesn't re-create the Oval Office? It looks just like that, but brighter. Much brighter. Saying it is well-lit is a massive understatement. Makes you think: maybe that's where John Boehner goes to tan. I kid...

The other thing we noticed about the Oval Office was the bowl of fresh apples on the coffee table. A result of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move initiative perhaps?

In addition to the Oval Office, our tour included a look at the Cabinet room and a whole bunch of doors that lead to very important things: the Press Room, the Situation Room, and the Rose Garden. While soaking in the history and power oozing from the walls, it was important to notice what was literally on the walls. It wasn't surprising, but it was breathtaking to see all of the famous portraits and historical scenes captured in oil. It was like walking through a history text book. This was contrasted by the litany of photographs depicting the public events and tender moments that make up Presidential life.

But the President and all the powerful people who frequent this famous office building are human, so not everything we saw was grand. There was the small kitchen advertising items not unfamiliar to a school cafeteria... and there was the bathroom. A throne for a king; the ultimate seat of power, right? Nope. Everyone who complains about government excess, let me tell you that chances are, the bathroom at your workplace is probably nicer, and almost definitely bigger, than that in the West Wing.

Frankly, it is embarrassing. I can just imagine foreign heads of state using this tiny space. In total, the entire space is probably less than 50 square feet. I understand we're in tight economic times, but can't the most powerful men in the world get a magazine or a toilet paper holder (there was a half used roll sitting on the tank)? I've seen nicer facilities in a McDonald's. Quite the contrast with the awesome stately power of the Oval Office just steps away...

J Says

Of all of the things on my 30 before 30 list, I was most excited about the White House tour. For some reason, the White House fascinates me more than any other building in Washington. Perhaps it's the unique combination of living museum and living space.

I was speechless as we walked through the (smaller than I pictured) halls of the West Wing. Imagining all of the important people that have walked these same halls, looking at the collection of art and memorabilia from around the world. I was wide-eyed the whole time.

While other things on my list will have tangible physical benefits (thank you 200 situp challenge), the West Wing Tour will be imprinted in my memory for a lifetime.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ford's Theatre: 1776

We've written more than a few times about Ford's Theatre. Intimate space, historic venue, unique thing about DC... you've heard it all before. We're fans. (If you just can't get enough, read this and this and this)

Chances are that when you look at the production schedule at Ford's you will find a lot of performances that are heavily rooted in American history. 1776 is no different. Originally premiering on Broadway in 1969 and winning the Best Musical Tony, 1776 clearly has some credentials. And since we were both raised loving musicals, we jumped at the chance to see it.

The story centers on the month prior to the creation of the Declaration of Independence, featuring familiar characters named Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson debating the merits of revolution with other patriots whose names have faded through the years. It is a story of competing interests and hard fought compromise, issues that are just as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago.

Many say that the mark of great compromise is that all sides feel somewhat dissatisfied. I felt that was true of 1776. It was part historical drama and part musical. In fusing the two, neither aspect was particularly great. Personally, I loved the dramatic and often humorous interplay between each of the colonial representatives, and feel like a better American for seeing 1776. Then again, I'm a sucker for American history.

On the other hand, I felt that the musical numbers were often clustered together and separated by extended dialogue, making the performance feel choppy. In addition, the lack of songs involving the full company in favor of solos and duets was a missed opportunity in our eyes. From the dramatic side, I thought the actors did a commendable job illustrating the era's challenges and perspectives. However, they did suffer from a story which tried to build dramatic tension around a decision point that we all know so well (though that didn't prevent the movie Titanic from being a hit).

While I won't be voting for 1776 to be the revival of the year, we very much enjoyed our evening at Ford's. We came away thoroughly entertained and educated. Not bad for a Monday night.

J Says

While we were sitting at Ford's reflecting on the productions we have seen there, I sheepishly admitted to B that I snoozed during the historical play "The Heavens Are Hung in Black" but was wide awake and tapping my foot during "Little Shop of Horrors."

1776 fell somewhere in the middle on the excitement spectrum between "The Heavens" and "Little Shop of Horrors." When the cast joined in big production numbers, it was fantastic and left me wanting more.

I think 1776 is a great fit for a school group that wants to learn American history in a more fun and exciting way. Judging by the audience, a lot of school groups had the same idea.

The show runs through May 19, 2012, so there is still plenty of time to get your revolutionary history geek on.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fuel Pizza

Downtown DC has a lot going for it: free museums, great restaurants, pretty monuments, etc. One thing that is lacking, however, is an abundance of restaurants that deliver. In our delivery area there are a couple of Chinese places, Papa John's, Domino's, and a Thai place or two. With the exception of the randomly awesome deep dish pie we had delivered from Alberto's, the pizza delivery options are not exciting.

Fuel Pizza recently opened on K Street and instantly boosted the neighborhood delivery pizza landscape. Fuel was started in Charlotte by guys who wanted New York style pizza in North Carolina. They now boast 9 locations and will be opening their 10th near the Verizon Center soon. The K Street location (in that old 2 story Burger King spot near 16th street) is their first foray into the DC market. They earn major bonus points from me for offering easy online ordering and local delivery.

You can go on their website and schedule your pizza delivery in advance. For example, if you know you're going to be home from work at 8:00 pm, you can go online that morning (or the day before even) and order your dinner so it will be home when you are. My favorite part? You can add the driver's tip on your credit card online so you don't have to worry about having the right amount of cash on hand. So convenient.

All this talk about their awesome delivery service is pointless if their pizza sucks. Luckily, we very much enjoyed our large cheese pizza on hand-tossed NY-style crust. It wasn't fancy but was exactly what we needed after a long day at work.

My two quibbles with the order were:
  1. the pizza wasn't very hot. It was warm but I wish they invested in some of those fancy Dominos-style heated bags.

  2. the spinach salad was way too small for the $6 price tag.
Fuel also offers calzones, strombolis and wings. If you want to do an Adam Richman-style challenge, order the "#!^%@&< Hot" wings. Word on the street is that they are #%21%5E%@%3C-ing hot.

Second Thoughts from B

You don't get pizza delivery because you want a mind-blowing culinary experience. More than likely you had a long, hard day and don't want to do anything other than sit on your couch in your pajamas and stuff your face like a college freshman. While I'd like to think that we have refined the process through the years, the fact remains that maximizing convenience is the name of the game.

Fuel seems to have embraced this wholeheartedly. Winner, winner, pizza dinner.
Fuel Pizza on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 16, 2012

El Centro D.F.

We wound up in this underground Tequileria at El Centro D.F. thanks to another 30% off deal through Savored. El Centro D.F. is a Richard Sandoval (Zengo, Masa 14) and Kaz Okochi (Kaz Sushi Bistro, Masa 14) collaboration that is heavy on the Richard Sandoval and non-existent on the Kaz. I didn't see any trace of Kaz's Japanese influence in the space or on the menu.

The restaurant is divided into 3 spaces: a main floor casual taqueria, the below-ground Tequileria, and the rooftop bar.

The server we had was just plain odd. He was an over-sharer that felt the need to tell us every detail of why something didn't go right. For example, "Oh, they brought you the wrong side dish? Well I keyed it into the computer correctly, it must be that we are out of the dish you ordered and so the kitchen made the decision to substitute it for something else and that is why they brought you the wrong thing." Well all of this chatter would have been fine ("debatable," says B) if he was right. But he wasn't. They were not out of the dish I ordered, they just screwed up.

When we saw others tables getting baskets of chips and we asked for one, he rambled on about how he should have reminded us that the restaurant does not provide chips and salsa unless the diner requests it. Ok thanks buddy, but can I have some chips?

From over-sharing to adding an extra shot of liquor to our drinks (and charging us for it) without asking us, it just was not a good service experience.

The food was better than the service. B loved El Centro D.F.'s creamy take on tortilla soup...

and was pleasantly surprised by the Jalisco shrimp and crab enchiladas.

My tacos al pastor with pork shoulder and grilled pineapple were good, but not good enough to merit the $12.95 price tag. You can go to a casual taqueria and get 3 tacos al pastor for $6. Sure, you're paying a premium at El Centro for great atmosphere and table service, but I'm not sure it is worth it. Also, at El Centro you can't mix and match your tacos (at least you can't if you're ordering from the Tequileria menu), so if you like to eat a variety of flavors, you're better off going to a regular taqueria.

The D.F. in El Centro D.F. stands for "Distrito Federal" which is the name used to refer to a capital city (and the nickname for Mexico's capital, Mexico City). While we ate, I kept thinking that we'd be better off at our other favorite Distrito Federal eating cheaper tacos and drinking horchata instead of a $16 margarita.

Second Thoughts from B

When you're getting 30% off, it is hard to be grumpy about an experience (as long as it doesn't end in food poisoning). In other words, that $20 off the bill buys a lot of good will. So while I was happy enough with our time at El Centro, the clunky service (J didn't mention the long delays in getting food followed by the too quick clearing of half eaten plates) doesn't make us want to rush back to pay full price.

The room might be the most memorable part of El Centro. It seems to be a strange fusion of fallout bunker, Temple of Doom, Aztec ruin, and secret underground dance club. Whatever it is, it is very cool (and very hard to take good pictures in). Unfortunately, I don't think it is $20 per plate cool.
El Centro D.F. on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Food and Fun Two Go: Miami

First we shared every detail we could remember about the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. Now we're back to tell you what you can see and eat in Miami when it's not Festival time.

If it's your first trip and you want to be in the center of the action, there is no better place than Ocean Drive in South Beach. We stayed at the charming art deco Beacon Hotel (below). While it wasn't the fanciest hotel we've ever been in, it was clean, the room was spacious, and the location can't be beat.

And... the hotel was just steps away from this:

The hotel also provides beach chairs and towels so you can pack light and avoid those pesky airline bag fees. When we weren't stuffing our faces at the Festival, we played on the beach and wandered around town to see the sights.

Miami is full of beautiful people. Many are wearing very little clothing (we felt like we were dressed in Victorian outfits compared to the normal attire seen on the streets) and many have been artificially enhanced1. Even the mannequins get in on the fun2!

We were starving when we arrived from DC and immediately Googled a place for lunch. While Yelp does not always lead to good things, it found us a winner in this case. Puerto Sagua is a little Cuban restaurant serving incredibly tasty food in a very casual (some might say dingy) atmosphere3. The service was fast and friendly and we loved every bite of the ropa vieja4 and paella we ordered.

Our waitress said the paella would not be big enough for 2 people to share and then proceeded to bring out a giant vat of paella. She must be used to people with giant appetites because we took about a pound of paella back to our hotel room's fridge.

A B&J trip would not be complete without the obligatory stop at a Best Thing I Ever Ate restaurant or three. First up was Joe's Stone Crab, a 99 year old Miami institution. Joe's is only open during stone crab season (October - May) so we were lucky to hit it during its peak. Not only are the stone crab claws gorgeous, they are delicious5. The claws are served ice cold and easy to open, and are paired with an addictive mustard dipping sauce. Did you know that stone crabs can regenerate their legs? Joe's only removes one leg of the crab and leaves it in the water to regenerate the missing leg over a period of 12 to 24 months. A renewable resource found right offshore in Miami6.

Another Best Thing I Ever Ate pick was Fratelli la Bufala7. Scott Conant said this Italian chain has the best calzone he's ever eaten. We were satisfied but not blown away, and wouldn't consider it a "must try" destination.

If there is one restaurant that is a "must try" in Miami, it is Michael's Genuine Food & Drink8. Recommended by Anthony Bourdain and every other chef on the planet, Michael's serves amazingly delicious seasonal, local cuisine in a totally fuss-free atmosphere.

We were difficult clients and Michael's handled us with such grace. We wanted to squeeze in dinner before our flight home so we arrived at Michael's too early and carrying luggage. The hostess allowed us to stow our luggage under a staircase and showed us to the bar where we sipped cocktails while waiting for the staff to finish their pre-shift meeting. B was enthralled with the giant ice cube in his cocktail9. That's one big cube!

As soon as the restaurant officially opened, we were seated and greeted by Brandon. He was awesome. He recommended great dishes and was so sensitive to our time constraints. You could tell he absolutely loved each dish he served. So much so that he actually took us up on our offer of a bite of the crispy pig ear appetizer. He is our favorite waiter of all time10.

Wait, did I rush over that crispy pig's ear part too fast? Yes, we ate crispy pig's ears and LOVED them. Salty, spicy, crunchy, chewy and not at all squirm-inducing. Just amazing. Also amazing was the burrata cheese with heirloom tomatoes hiding in the back left of this photo:

I know I'm using a lot of frilly adjectives to describe Michael's Genuine but we had a fantastic experience. We're talking best meal of the last few years candidate. This place had 3 different chefs select 3 different desserts on a single episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate. MGF&D is serious business and it was the perfect way to cap off our sun-filled fiesta of food11.

Second Thoughts from B

You may have noticed a few pesky numbers floating around J's summary of our time in Miami. This is what happens when you pair a lawyer and scientist... you get a mutual love of footnotes. These are some of the random things that crossed my mind as J took us down memory lane:
  1. There were lots of beautiful people wearing little more than a handkerchief tied together with dental floss. Unfortunately, there were also a lot of not so beautiful people with just as much... shall we say... self confidence? We're originally from LA. I grew up near Venice Beach and the set of BayWatch. I also worked in Hollywood for a few years. The point is, you'd think I'd be desensitized to all of this... Nope!
  2. Seriously Miami? We need mannequins with triple D's in the windows? Let's be clear, this was one of many t-shirt shops, not a sex store in the red light district.
  3. It is located right across the street from the Jersey Shore house if that's your thing.
  4. To quote Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise after a rendezvous with a young Brad Pitt (it was on cable recently... I don't have the movie memorized), "I finally get what all the fuss is about!" That ropa vieja at Puerto Sagua was unlike any I've had before. The different layers of flavor were tremendous. It was like eating a filet mignon for the first time after having nothing but meatloaf all my life.
  5. Delicious? Not where I sat. They were pretty and they are sustainable, but flavorful? Not so much. There are few things I love more than crab. I love the sweet ocean flavor and unique texture. I also love the challenge of figuring out how to obtain every last ounce from the shell. But for as much crab as I've eaten, I've never felt the need to augment the natural taste with sauce. These stone crabs however, though fresh, tasted like nothing. It was like eating crushed ice. Cold and mostly flavorless. Thank goodness for Joe's fantastic sauce, but I'll take Dungeness or King crab any day.
  6. Stop the train! We're going to talk about Joe's and not mention the Key Lime Pie??? As mediocre as I thought the stone crabs were, the key lime pie more than made up for it. My father--the vanilla king of the world (seriously, he goes to ice cream shops and restaurants and orders a plain scoop of vanilla)--rarely changes his dessert routine. But when he does, it is often for a tart piece of pie like key lime or lemon meringue. This version of key lime might just make his head explode. Just don't tell him that you can get it shipped to you...
  7. Yawn.
  8. I could grab a thesaurus and use every superlative I could find to describe Michael's Genuine. Or, I could tell you that just halfway through the meal J and I were ready to crown it as our favorite restaurant in America.
  9. I'm not much of a drinker (understatement of the year alert!), but when a cocktail is constructed with as much thought and complexity as the ones at Michael's Genuine, I could change my mind. It was like a finely constructed liquid meal.
  10. Brandon was awesome. He read us perfectly. From accommodating our time constraints to being an active participant in our dining experience, the guy was simply outstanding.
  11. Michael's Genuine answered the prototypical hypothetical question: what would be your last meal? After eating there, I certainly felt like I had died and gone to heaven...
Puerto Sagua Puerto Sagua on Urbanspoon
Joe's Stone Crab Joe's Stone Crab on Urbanspoon
Fratelli la Bufala Fratelli la Bufala on Urbanspoon
Michael's Genuine Michael's Genuine Food & Drink on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rogue 24: Rogue Sessions with Jennifer Carroll

We told you about sandwiches in an alley and now we're here to tell you that you can get the finest of fine dining in an alley too. Skeptical? So were a lot of people when former Vidalia chef RJ Cooper opened Rogue 24 in Blagden Alley (near the Convention Center and near the alley housing SUNdeVICH).

Chef Cooper took an old garage and converted it into a showcase for avant garde cuisine. The kitchen is set smack in the middle of the dining room allowing diners an inside look at what it takes to prep a 24 course meal. Cooper is famously brash and picky about diner behavior and I'd heard tales of the "dining contract" people were asked to sign in the restaurant's early days. The contract banned cell phones and cameras from the dining room and set out a host of rules about making and keeping your reservation. Though the contract is gone, I was not about to pull out the camera with Chef Cooper standing 2 inches (literally) away from me all night. We saw other diners taking occasional photos, but for us it wasn't worth it. Don't worry though, I drew two pictures of Rogue 24 so you can see what it's like.


After getting Rogue 24 up and running smoothly, Chef Cooper underwent open heart surgery in January. While Cooper recuperated, Rogue 24 teamed up with Gilt City DC to host a series of Rogue Sessions where an allstar lineup of chefs took the helm. Each Rogue Session featured a mixture of dishes from Chef Cooper's menu and new dishes by each visiting chef. Everyone from Jose Andres to Bryan Voltaggio took their turn at Rogue 24 during Cooper's recovery.

We were thrilled to score a table during Top Chef contestant Jennifer Carroll's recent run. We loved her tough as nails attitude and kick-butt food on Top Chef. We are pleased to report that her food lived up to its reputation and it was a joy to watch her very intense yet friendly demeanor in the kitchen.

Our table was just inches away from the expediting station where Chef Carroll spent much of the night overseeing each dish. It was also fun to catch Chef Cooper in the kitchen in what must have been one of his first nights back to work. They were both friendly and willing to answer questions. One of the best parts of Rogue 24 for us was the way that the dishes are brought out by a rotating roster of servers and chefs. For example, the chef who just made our ox tongue with mostarda, liquid bread, and bitter herbs brought out the dish and explained it to us. This enabled us to ask questions and learn what goes into such a complex menu. The experience suffered during a few dishes when certain servers were difficult to hear and understand. For us, we enjoy these molecular gastronomy journeys when we get to learn a little bit about what we're eating.

The 3 hour adventure was full of hits (octopus with eggplant and chickpeas, rabbit with squash, sage, and mustard seeds, shabu shabu with hen o' the wood mushrooms, onion and bullion) and some "I'm glad I tried this but I don't need to eat that again" (powerfully stinky blue pecorino with dates and preserved walnuts). The pacing of each of the courses was speedy enough that we didn't fall asleep, but spaced enough that we didn't feel rushed. Each course was one or two bites so we didn't leave uncomfortably stuffed, but we also were not ready to go out for pizza after. The sommelier was friendly and didn't look down his nose at us one bit when we didn't do the wine pairing and stuck to one bottle of wine for the night (It was a Wednesday, after all).

As we walked home I told B that I'd most remember Rogue 24 for the overall experience and not the food. It wasn't that the food was subpar, it's just that the theater-like atmosphere is bound to leave a bigger impression.

Second Thoughts from B

First off, let's all take a moment to applaud my adorable wife for her artistic flair. Let's also acknowledge the fact that her stick figures are anatomically correct, at least in so far as the arms and legs are not all growing out of the same point. She's been working hard on that. Ok, back to Rogue 24...

J is right. Long after we forget the subtle nuances and surprising details of each dish, we'll remember interacting with the chefs and watching them work inches from our table. You could be Iron Chef "floor reporter" Kevin Brauch and not get this close to the action. I was all set to have Alton Brown yell at me for an explanation of the latest dish's foam.

For people who geek out about food, the Rogue 24 experience is not to miss. It is like pulling back the giant green curtain only to reveal a wizard that is just as amazing as you initially thought. The kitchen ran like clockwork with amazing professionalism and flair, and surprisingly devoid of any of the drama that we've come to expect from watching food-based "reality" shows. I asked Chef Carroll, who has a TV reputation as being short tempered, how she'd handle someone screwing up. With a mischievous smile, she reminded us that there was a room in the back.

Thankfully for all the diners and all the staff, there was no need for a blow up. With the exception of the occasional, "Did you catch what he just said this was?" I really enjoyed this edible show. It is clearly not something you'd do regularly, but like an opera for the ears and an art exhibit for the eyes, Rogue 24 felt like the highest form of art for the mouth. Bravo!
Rogue 24 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Food and Fun Two Go: New York City

For the food obsessed, there is nothing quite like a trip to New York City. The number of dining choices, from the dirt cheap to the high end, are enough to make your head spin. A few weeks before each trip to NYC, the food-related anxiety starts to set in. How are we going to pack all the restaurants I want to try into 2 days? Will I pick the right places? What if I "waste" a meal on something subpar? Sound familiar? Ok, maybe I'm just a weirdo.

Before a trip I always reach out to friends both actual and virtual (via Twitter) for recommendations. For this trip, my friend Jess sent us a great list of her favorite cheap eats. While scanning the list, my eyes locked on "Peanut Butter & Blackberry Jelly Doughnut" at Doughnut Plant.

Approximately 25 minutes after arriving in New York, I was stuffing my face with said doughnut. I'm happy to report that it was delicious and the creme brulee and blueberry cake doughnuts were stellar, too. We washed it all down with a cup of spicy chai and a jug of fresh squeezed OJ, and took a sugar coma walk through the pretty High Line park.

Following a game at Madison Square Garden, we set our sights on my greatest source of stress: Saturday night's dinner. There were so many restaurants I wanted to try with so many complicated reservations policies. After a ton of research, I eventually chose Talde, Top Chef contestant Dale Talde's brand new restaurant in Brooklyn. Since Talde doesn't take reservations, we hopped on the subway with the goal of arriving by 5:00 p.m.

Sadly, the NYC subway system had other plans for us. Weekend construction meant that trains were running on different lines or not running at all. After inching along the tracks for 45 minutes, I called an audible and we bailed somewhere in lower Manhattan. As my Talde dreams slipped away, I came very close to having a meltdown in the middle of the sidewalk. All that planning and menu researching, and I was stuck in an unfamiliar part of town with no plan for dinner.

Thank goodness for B who swooped in with a hug and with his iphone, and began to name restaurants in the area. As tears began to well in the corners of my eyes, I mumbled the only restaurant name that could salvage this night: Momofuku. I looked at B and said "get me to Momofuku please." Now, as B pointed out, there are several different Momofuku restaurants in New York City. I didn't care which one, I just wanted to get to something David Chang-related and I wanted to get there quickly. With B's phone as our guide we hoofed it at least a mile to Momofuku Ssam Bar.

I feared a nightmarish wait for a table (no reservations accepted), so I walked in to put our name in and sent B around the corner to put our name in at Momofuku Noodle Bar. The food gods must have felt sorry for me because the wait at Ssam Bar was only five minutes! I called B and he hurried back from Noodle Bar (which was quoting a one hour wait before 6:00 pm), and we were seated at Ssam Bar with a nice view of the open kitchen.

We had a ridiculously good meal of shared plates. Chang's famous steamed pork buns were as delicious as advertised, but my heart skipped a beat when I tasted the spicy pork sausage with crispy rice cakes. I would never have ordered this dish if our waitress hadn't promoted it, and I will forever be grateful to her. I have a thing for mochi (squishy rice cake) and spicy food. Put them together, and pan fry the mochi so they are crispy and squishy, and you have my idea of the perfect dish. That is my Best Thing I Ever Ate nominee for the "spicy/savory" category. I'm still dreaming of it, and I'm going to recreate it at home thanks to the recipe being widely available online.

Feeling a skillion times better after dinner, I practically skipped across the street to Momofuku Milk Bar. B and I ordered a cereal milk shake, slice of crack pie, cornflake-marshmallow cookie, and blueberry & cream cookie. We took our loot back to our hotel room and had a dessert-fest. We oohed and aahed over the crack pie and promptly fell asleep by 9:30 p.m. Night owls we are not (but we did wake up before 5 a.m. to catch our train).

On Sunday, after a fabulous breakfast of Momofuku cookies, we braved the subway again and made it to Chinatown. Our destination was dim sum at Oriental Garden. It's a good idea to go early as it is a small place and gets packed by midday.

We deliberately chose Oriental Garden for its small size. A smaller place generally means that dishes don't languish on the carts getting cold. There was a constant turnover of piping hot, fresh dim sum dishes. We'd rank this as one of the better dim sum meals we've had recently.

After stuffing ourselves with dumpling deliciousness, we walked over to Ground Zero to the National September 11th Memorial. You need to go online and get free timed entry tickets in advance. Also, be prepared to wait an hour in line (with tickets) to go through security.

The memorial was stunningly beautiful. From the two pools in the footprints of the twin towers to the tree (pictured below) that was found in the World Trade wreckage, everything was a gorgeous, yet solemn reminder of that awful day.

After the Memorial visit, we went over to the Brooklyn Historical Society where B became the first person to ever spend 2 hours in a 200 square foot museum exhibit. Nobody loves the Brooklyn Dodgers and their history more than B.

We capped off our whirlwind weekend with a burger at Top Cheftestant Angelo Sosa's Social Eatz restaurant. Best burger of our lives? Maybe not, but the atmosphere was fun and it was an easy cab ride to Penn Station for our train trip home.

New York, as much as your "Greatest City in the World" advertising and attitude irritates me, I have to admit you are home to some fantastic eats and cultural sites. I'm already researching restaurants for our next trip. Any "must eat" places to add to my list?

Second Thoughts from B

Chicago Tribune columnist, Mary Schmich, famously advised, "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard." You may remember the line from the 1999 Baz Luhrmann song called, Everybody's Free (To Feel Good). For whatever reason, that statement has always stayed with me.

The idea is that NYC is a one of a kind place that everyone should experience (that some brilliant PR firm twisted this into the Greatest City in the World tagline). Fundamentally, I couldn't agree more. There is an energy in the city that is unlike anything I've ever experienced. Maybe that comes with millions of people living on top of each other. Or maybe it is a result of the dizzying amount of entertainment and cultural options that are always at your fingertips. Or maybe there is something to be said about the greatness of this city.

The other piece to Mary Schmich's line is the notion that NYC will make you hard... that something about being there speeds you up, makes you cynical, or strips your naivete. I think this is very true and perhaps it comes from the same reasons that makes the city great: overcrowding, unlimited access, and being surrounded by greatness.

What we are not told is how long it takes for NYC to make you hard. I know plenty of people who have lived there for years, yet maintain their easygoing demeanor that seems so foreign in the streets of New York. For me, however, a weekend is enough, and that's probably why I don't idolize the Big Apple as much as others do. You could say that I'm not tough enough, but I'd say that I don't want to be that tough.

Regardless, I need my trips to New York to be short and sweet. A weekend is perfect, and that's just another reason why I love DC. Being a relatively easy train ride away allows us to indulge and then retreat to the relative calm of the District.

Thankfully, I've married someone who is a planner (can you tell?), who makes sure that we get our money's worth out of our time in New York. The "never waste a meal" mantra allows us to see a lot without being enslaved by a rigid itinerary or frantic pace. Over the course of several weekenders, I feel like I've thoroughly experienced New York ("lived in" would be an overstatement) without it making me hard. That was the point, right?

This particular trip to NYC was harder than most. Between a shady DC taxi driver, subway construction delays, and shoddy hotel service, we could have easily declared the weekend an epic fail. But with so many highlights to choose from, I'm sure that the challenges will quickly fade in our memories. They'll be replaced by a dangerously good blueberry cake doughnut, a uniquely cool urban park, a dish full of flavor and texture that made my wife's head explode in a good way, a slice of pie more addictive than the drug its named after, a memorial that truly honors the memory of thousands, and the 1955 World Series banner hanging in a small historical society building in Brooklyn. Not bad for a trip that lasted about 36 hours...

Doughnut Plant:Doughnut Plant on Urbanspoon
Momofuku Ssam Bar:Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon
Momofuku Milk Bar:Momofuku Milk Bar on Urbanspoon
Oriental Garden:Oriental Garden on Urbanspoon
Social Eatz:Social Eatz on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 1, 2012

South Beach Wine and Food Festival

Sun, sand, and tipsy celebrity chefs. No, it isn't the weird dream you had last night, it is the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. Every February, chefs descend on Miami for a four day "chef's spring break" full of cooking demos, celebrity chef-hosted parties, wine tastings, and general merriment.

Tickets to various events are available to the general public, but it is advisable to purchase them well in advance (they go on sale in October) because most events sell out. Even at hundreds of dollars a ticket for some events, people flock to the festival in droves each year.

For our Valentine's Day trip, B planned a Miami getaway to coincide with the festival. In addition to an amazingly impressive lineup of chefs, the location can't be beat. The main event, the Grand Tasting Village, is steps away from the ocean.

In addition to the Grand Tasting Village (more on this later), the festival features various events ranging from a food truck fiesta on the sand to a brunch hosted by Paula Deen. We purchased tickets for the Saturday night Best Thing I Ever Ate: Late Night Bites and Sweets party in a tent on the beach at the Ritz Carlton.

We didn't know exactly what to expect heading to the party and made the mistake of eating dinner beforehand. I feared long lines for tiny appetizers and booths running out of food. Instead, we were greeted with a tent the size of several football fields lined with booths dishing out generous portions of comfort food and sweets. While the event was packed, we rarely waited more than a minute to try a particular dish. There were so many options that it kept the crowd spread out.

In addition to sampling amazing food (the spicy sundae from NYC's Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was a hit, as was the coconut cake from South Carolina's Daisy Cakes) and sipping great cocktails, we chatted with Food Network stars Robert Irvine (so buff) and Sunny Anderson (so down to earth) and danced the night away to a live band.

At 2 a.m. we headed back to our hotel to rest up for Sunday's Grand Tasting Village.

When we arrived at the Grand Tasting Village, we were given a wristband and a wine glass in a holder that you put around your neck. This leaves your hands free to eat and high five chefs. Wardrobe tip: wear sandals (it is on the sand), a loose fitting outfit, and lots of sunscreen.

You also receive a bag to hold all the cool samples you get, such as a custom spice blend:

We initially thought the best part of the event would be the unlimited food and drinks.

While the food was plentiful and the drink selection unbelievable, the best part was the lineup of non-stop cooking demos by the celebrity chefs. Throughout the day the crowds packed the tents to get a personal view of their favorite chefs.

Michael Symon was as warm and engaging as any celebrity I've ever seen. He was full of practical tips and hilarious stories. Fellow Iron Chef Morimoto even stopped by to say hello.

The unexpectedly hilarious duo of Robert Irvine and Michael Chiarello (along with commentary by Double Dare host/Food Network host and producer Marc Summers) spent most of their time telling embarrassing stories about other Food Network stars (more on that below).

As the day went on, and the alcohol continued to flow, cooking demos gave way to R rated stories and hilarious banter. Reuniting Worst Cooks in America co-hosts, Robert Irvine and Anne Burrell was more roast than anything else. As she has said on her show, "... adding a little white wine makes everyone happy..."

Ever wanted to see a tipsy Paula Deen try to make her "titties dance" like Robert Irvine? No? Too bad because here you go:

As the eating, drinking, and book signings drew to a close, Anthony Bourdain took to the stage with his "Dirty Wheel." Bourdain asked the audience to either come up with a good question or ask him to spin the Dirty Wheel. The wheel would land on a category such as "Travel Tips" or "Poop Joke," and Bourdain would answer a question in that category.

Bourdain was what you'd expect: raucous, inappropriate, and hilarious. He (predictably) railed on Paula Deen and her partnership with a diabetes drug manufacturer and told a lot of funny stories from his travels around the globe. Perhaps most surprising, and most refreshing, was the way he absolutely melted when talking about his daughter and his wife Ottavia (who came on stage for a quick wave). He instantly switched from bad boy chef to beaming husband and father.

Before we left for Miami I was worried that we'd be wasting a lot of money standing in long lines to eat mediocre food. While we did stand in some lines and not everything we ate was Top Chef-worthy, I would absolutely spend the money to return to the SOBEWFF. Seeing the brightest stars of the food world in such a candid and casual atmosphere was something I'll never forget. Thank you to B for planning such a fantastic adventure!

Second Thoughts from B

When we take big trips (Paris, France rather than Paris, VA), we try and keep a running journal. It isn't so much the rambling prose of a 13 year old girl as it is a list of bulleted highlights of things we want to remember. Here is my list from this weekend of fun in the sun at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival:

Celebrity Chef Observations

  • Everything Michael Symon said made me nod - either the "yeah, I totally agree with that" or the "ah ha, that's how you do it" version.

  • Sunny Anderson, in her Sonic Cherry Limeade shirt, was all sorts of fun. It took her 2 minutes to make me a fan. Would it be stalkerish to Facebook friend request her?

  • Geoffrey Zakarian seemed to have no interest in mingling. It would have interrupted his cigar.

  • Next Food Network Star winners, Melissa D'Arabian and Jeff Mauro still have some work to do to build their fan base. We saw both wandering around without many people looking to talk to them.

  • Robert Irvine is as gracious of a celebrity as you get. He made the genuine effort to get to know each of his fans (or at least convincingly pretended to be interested).

  • I've always wondered if Anthony Bourdain simply speaks his mind or actively tries to be provocative (read: piss people off). I'm happy to report that seeing him in person makes me lean strongly to the former.

  • Hard to tell whose clothes were tighter: Robert Irvine's shirt or Top Chef contestant Angelo Sosa's baby blue pants.

  • Top Chef contestant and DC chef Spike Mendelsohn and Baohaus owner, chef Eddie Huang, were hanging out with Anthony Bourdain and assisted his act by asking a planted question about Paula Deen.
They said what?

  • Anthony Bourdain (in response to a f***, marry, kill question from the audience): Bobby Flay is not the kind of guy I'd want to bring home to mom but he's pretty, so I'd f*** him. Mario Batali is a provider and would cook me breakfast. I'd marry him. Guy Fieri... He works hard but I can't stand his shirts. I'd kill him.

  • Paula Deen (to a shorts-wearing Bobby Flay): I've seen nicer legs on a chest of drawers.

  • Robert Irvine (about Anne Burrell): She eats Skittles by the handful and could kick the crap out of any one of us.

  • Robert Irvine (about Geoffrey Zakarian): He gets his toilet paper imported from Europe and stores it in the refrigerator.

  • Michael Chiarello (about Geoffrey Zakarian during an Iron Chef challenge): He started crying that Robert Irvine took all the wood to cook with, so he left to get a mani-pedi.

  • Michael Chiarello (on Robert Irvine's shirts): He shops at Baby Gap.

  • Morimoto (while demonstrating how to filet a fish for sushi): Cut off the skin just like this. It is easy... for me.

  • Top Chef contestant and DC chef Mike Isabella (on the timeline for his new restaurant in Georgetown called Bandelero): Probably April... or May. Well, let's say June or July.

  • Mike Isabella (on Angelo Sosa): He's around here somewhere. Probably drunk. That's his thing.

  • Spike Mendelsohn (on Eddie Huang, who did a pop up at Toki Underground): We're trying to get him to open a place in DC. H Street would be perfect.

  • Paula Deen (on her husband's recent oral surgery): The doctor gave him Viagra so he'd have something to hold on to.

  • Paula Deen (on her diabetes): I've stopped drinking sweet tea, which for a Southern girl is saying something. Just by doing that I've cut out 1 cup of sugar a day.

  • Anthony Bourdain: Not treating your server well should be one of the 7 mortal sins. I could never be friends with a bad tipper.
Food and Cooking

  • Out of everything we ate at the festival, the spicy/sweet combination from the Big Gay Ice Cream truck's Awesomesauce Sundae and Ginger-Curry Shake was by far the most eye opening.

  • Michael Symon: If you are cooking without salt, your food tastes like crap and your friends secretly hate you.

  • Michael Symon (referring to added sugars and chemicals in low fat food): Eating low fat stuff will make you fat.

  • Morimoto: Don't add wasabi to your soy sauce when eating sushi. Wasabi amounts should be controlled by the sushi chef.

  • We've never seen so many people with tattoos of pigs and never eaten so much pork belly, pulled pork, bacon, etc.

  • Hey Fiji water company, what is artisan water? Does some water sommelier turn on the tap in Fiji for you before you load up tankers and ship water across the ocean to sell for $5 a pop? I'm confused. Still, the fresh doughnuts from the Donut Divas and corndogs at your booth were pretty awesome.