Monday, January 28, 2013

Pasta Mia

Pasta Mia in Adams Morgan was one of those places that had been on our list for a long time but we kept putting it off because it seemed too difficult to deal with.  It doesn't take reservations and is notorious for slow turnover leading to long lines of hungry people.

Pasta Mia is also one of those "rules" places.  What do I mean?  Check out the photo below:

While I totally respect an establishment's right to set out its own rules, it definitely is a bit of a turn off when there are so many restaurants in town that are just easier to deal with.  However, my love of pasta is so strong that I'll gladly wait in a line, bring cash, and not ask for substitutions.

Our friends M and A live in the neighborhood and had been to Pasta Mia a couple of times. We relied on their expertise and had a great dining experience.  First victory?  Arriving around 8:30 p.m. during the winter. This was late enough that the first rush of people was on its way out.  Also, I think cold temperatures may slightly deter people from going because they don't want to stand outside. 

Second victory? Letting M and A order the appetizers.  They warned us that the caesar salad and prosciutto and mozzarella were giant enough for 4 people and they were right.  We could have split this 6 ways easily.  Also, this caesar salad is $6.00.  Talk about cheap eats!

Everything at Pasta Mia is giant.  Go hungry or don't go at all.  Seriously.

The scale of these photos is hard to decipher, but trust me when I tell you that these plates are ginormous.  Even the biggest eater will be taking home a metric ton of leftovers.  We stretched each pasta dish into several meals.  If you're thinking of sharing, remember the $16 minimum per person on food.

Yes, the portions were giant and the prices reasonable ($17-ish for 3 days worth of pasta), but it was also pretty darn good.  B's pappardelle with bolognese was the perfect hearty dish for winter.  Yelpers decry the fact that Pasta Mia doesn't make its own pasta but whereever they get it from, it's got a nice snap to it. You just need to go in understanding that this is a red sauce Italian joint, not a temple of haute cuisine.  The prices are also about half what you'd pay at a place that makes its own pasta (see, e.g., Filomena).

My penne amatrice with spicy tomato sauce and pancetta was kick-you-in-your-teeth spicy and just the way I like it.  It made for very excellent leftovers the next couple of days.  I don't really like parmesan cheese dumped all over my pasta, but I was afraid to ask them to leave it off.  This just seems like a place that it's better to keep your mouth shut and eat.

Is the chef at Pasta Mia going to win a James Beard award? Absolutely not.  Is it a pain in the pitoot that they don't have a website, don't take reservations, and are cash only?  Absolutely.  But, if you want pasta portions bigger than your head in a no-frills atmosphere with cheap house wine, this is your place.

Second Thoughts from B

Most of us were dirt poor when we were in college.  (I used to think ALL of us were once poor college students but the Whole Foods next to GW put an end to that illusion).   Accordingly, most of us took great pride in finding ways to keep our bellies full while still saving a buck.  Tell me if any of my favorite tricks sound vaguely familiar...
  • The stand we all called "Buck Fitty" charged, you guessed it, $1.50 for a large sub sandwich
  • Creative use of carrots can double or triple the capacity of your Mongolian BBQ bowl and as long as it all fits, it costs the same
  • Restaurant supply warehouses are often cheaper than Costco... as long as you are ok buying rice by the ton
  • Stand around the right concession stand after an event and the leftover popcorn and pretzels are often given away for free
These were things you learned and passed down to the underclassmen.  But, only to the kids you liked because these were hard fought victories.  The secret place to park for free, the vendor who would slip you an extra-large helping of mystery meat, the somewhat odd but undeniably charming pasta joint with enormous portions.

Yeah, Pasta Mia is that kind of place that I would have adored as a poor college student and shared with only my favorite people.  You feel just a little cooler to know about it.  Not because it is the best in town, but because it is such a deal.  So for all of you who remember fondly those days when you signed up for a credit card to get a clean tshirt (and avoid another day of laundry), Pasta Mia is your place.
Pasta Mia on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Energy Kitchen

Are you tired of your burgers and fries being served with a whopping side of calorie-laden guilt?  We are too. That's why we jumped at the chance to go to a menu tasting at the brand new DC location of Energy Kitchen. Energy Kitchen (a chain with locations in NY, NJ and FL) explains its business model like this:

"We take the guesswork out of eating healthy by offering a completely guilt-free, fail-proof menu. There are no hidden temptations, no hidden calories and, best of all, no regrets. Everything on our menu is grilled, baked or steamed, never fried, and always under 500 calories."

Calorie counts for each item are listed on the menu board.  Unlike at most fast food places, you don't have to cover your eyes or pretend you don't see the calorie count listed next to that burger you're craving.  While other places offer low-cal items, I've never been to a place that only offers low-cal items.
Energy Kitchen is a fast food joint and its simple, no-frills interior reflects that.  They only offer diet sodas in the soda machine to keep you from blowing your caloric wad on 1,000 calories of soda.  I hope they follow through on their stated goal of offering more natural soda options for those of us who don't like chemical Cokes.

Speaking of chemicals, we got a chance to chat with Founder and President Anthony Leone and asked him whether the lower calorie dishes we were enjoying were "real food" or more akin to a frankenfood-like Lean Cuisine. Leone told us about the grass-fed beef, whole wheat buns, and lack of artificial flavors in the smoothies. All of this is great news, but if the food tastes like straw, nobody will want to eat it.  We're happy to report that the food was delicious.

The tasting offered us a chance to try small portions of a variety of menu items.  Don't worry, the portions shown aren't the portion sizes you have to eat at Energy Kitchen to keep the calorie count down!  We liked each of the "super sides" we tried (corn and edamame salad, black bean and mango salad, and Asian broccoli slaw).  While really good, I wasn't super excited by these items because it's not a huge stretch to make a low-cal vegetable salad.  I really wanted to see if they could make the typical calorie gigantors (burgers and fries) taste good for under 500 calories.

In the burger category, we sampled the BBQ Turkey burger (turkey burger topped with turkey bacon, fat-free cheddar cheese and chipotle BBQ sauce).  It packed a ton of flavor into 468 calories.  The Classic Sirloin Burger made 90% lean sirloin taste decadent.  They use their signature E.K. Special Sauce (sort of like Thousand Island with a kick) to jazz things up.  Perhaps most surprising was that we liked the veggie burger the best.  The patty is an Energy Kitchen-made blend of rolled oats, broccoli, carrots, celery, corn, edamame, peppers, onions and green peas.  It sounds a little weird, but we found it to be the most flavorful of the burger bunch.

The things that had me doing a happy dance were the fries.  I freaking love french fries.  I've tried making them at home in healthier ways and I always miss the real thing.  I was shocked by how much Energy Kitchen's baked fries tasted like the real fried deal.  The sea salt fries (pictured below) are only $1.99 and 198 calories per serving. 

I order sweet potato fries almost everywhere I go.  I've had so many sweet potato fries, it's a wonder I'm not orange and 450 lbs.  I actually liked the Energy Kitchen baked version better than the full calorie fried version I had at the new Maddy's Tap Room the night before.  Energy Kitchen is testing out sweet potato fries in the DC market and I give them my full endorsement to keep them around.

In the drinking department, we sampled the Protein Punch smoothie (strawberries, bananas, mangos, fruit punch, strawberry protein and non-fat vanilla yogurt), the Vaccinator (bananas, strawberries, orange juice, vitamin C and non-fat vanilla yogurt), and the Peanut Better (all natural peanut butter, bananas, water, chocolate protein, and non-fat chocolate yogurt).  All were thick and had a nice smooth texture (no chalky taste).  B was a big fan of the two fruit flavors while I was giddy over the Peanut Better.  Peanut butter and chocolate is my favorite flavor combo and I was psyched to get it for 252 calories (16 ounces).

We were a little skeptical of Energy Kitchen's model before we tasted the food.  Once we learned that the food is delicious and stands up to the marketing (Fast Food, Not Fat Food), we were converted. We are thrilled to welcome a low calorie fast food option to the neighborhood (it's at 19th and L, by the way).

Second Thoughts From B

Call me the skeptical one.  I was convinced that the servings would be too small, the flavors too weak, or the calorie savings would come from a chemistry trick.  I am happy to say that I was wrong on all accounts.

But before we get too crazy, let's make one thing clear.  If you are looking for the best burger, fries, and shakes in town and don't mind the indulgence, then Energy Kitchen probably isn't the place for you.  However, if you love a good burger joint but can only rationalize a visit for a special occasion, this might be a game changer.

Let's start with the shakes and smoothies.  I don't have a big sweet tooth so going healthy wasn't too hard for me.  Do I love a great shake?  Yeah.  Do I dread the dairy bomb they often leave in my stomach?  Yeah.  So all things considered, that's a win for Energy Kitchen.

What I lack in a sweet tooth, I make up for in my salt craving and fries are a excellent expediters of crispy, salty heaven getting into my mouth.  The baking not only removed some of the guilt, it also allowed me to taste the potato (a novel concept).  Another win for EK.

As for the burgers, they tasted healthy.  You could tell that many of the components lacked some of the fat that make us crave them.  But, they were far from flavorless and certainly better than some full calorie duds I've had in the past.  The best thing is that I'll remember the burger far longer than my waistline will.  If having a healthy burger means more fries and shakes, sign me up. 
Energy Kitchen  on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


It's not enough these days to open a regular old restaurant in a regular old permanent space.  You've got to have a secret password or a secret menu or a pop-up tribute to Willy Wonka's three course meal chewing gum to really make a splash. 

Hogo (a new rum-focused bar from the Passenger's Tom and Derek Brown) has thrown its hat into the ring by offering Temporary Works - a diner-like restaurant hidden at the back of the bar.  To get there, walk through Hogo's main (dark and moody) bar space to the brightly-lit back room where you can grab one of the seats at the counter.

Temporary Works will feature a rotating selection of chefs and cuisine.  Through the end of January, you can take a culinary trip to Hawaii courtesy of chef Javier Duran's dishes.  Citing a lack of Hawaiian food in the District, Duran devised a short menu of Hawaiian classics including SPAM musubi and mixed plate.

After ordering a couple of very stiff glasses of rum punch, B and I ordered dinner.  I chose the mixed plate with a burger topped with a fried egg and gravy.  Unable to decide between the beef and pork gravies, they gave me a little of both.  The burger/egg/gravy combo seems like it was drawn up by someone suffering a major hangover, but it was delicious for the clear-headed as well.  The steamed rice and macaroni salad (typical mixed plate sides) were also as good as we remember from our Hawaiian-food loving days in L.A.

B made short work of the kahlua pork short ribs with cabbage and gave the macaroni two thumbs up (surprising for a guy who normally steers clear of mayo-based salads).

If you want to get your Hawaiian fix, get to Hogo before the end of the month.  Starting February 1, the menu changes to Jewish soul food.  While we're not quite cool enough to be on the cutting edge of the hipster trends, we are happy to reap the benefits of having this rotating restaurant in our neighborhood. 

Second Thoughts From B

I'm guessing that more than a few of you are reading this right now and thinking, "what is Hawaiian food?"  Even with a Hawaiian foodie President, the island's cuisine is known mostly as a stereotype or joke (I'm looking at you SPAM).  In other words, Chef Duran was spot on when he identified it as an under-appreciated cuisine.  Perhaps there is a reason that every TV cooking competition these days includes a Hawaiian.

Growing up 3,000 miles closer to Hawaii, I'm guessing that my experiences with Hawaiian food is slightly more extensive than the average Washingtonian, but it is still embarrassingly minimal.  J and I enjoyed the bounty of Ono Hawaiian BBQ as poor students in LA, but that was more for the enormous portions than anything else.  It is also like saying we know Mexican food by going to Chipotle.

As people who like to explore the culinary scene in DC and abroad, it is rare that we get to explore flavors that are completely different.  Usually it is a modern spin on something or the fusing of two disparate cuisines or traditional fare done with fancy techniques and local ingredients.  Sure, Hawaiian food is strongly influenced by Japanese and European staples, but it is also unique.  And that is rare in these parts, so check it out while it lasts.
Hogo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

Happy New Year!  On New Year's Day, we decided to take advantage of the slower holiday crowds and go to a restaurant that is normally packed to the gills.  We walked into Pearl Dive Oyster Palace for an early dinner and were seated right away.

Pearl Dive is the newest of the Black Restaurant Group places and the first in Downtown (it's on 14th Street Restaurant Row in the Logan Circle neighborhood).  We've written about B's love for Black's and our meal at BlackSalt.  Pearl Dive has a more casual feel than Black's with about the same noise level and bustling bar scene as the boisterous BlackSalt. 

Since Pearl Dive has "oyster" in the name, we had to start with an oyster dish.  The waiter recommended the Tchoupitoulas hot oysters: a sinfully rich blend of oyster confit, blue crab, Tasso ham and roasted corn.  If you don't like oysters, try this dish.  It's a great foray into the oyster world and doesn't taste slimy in the least.  I also like the name Tchoupitoulas.  A few years ago, I went to New Orleans about a dozen times for work.  The local guys I worked with (all Louisiana railroad men) taught me how to pronounce the name of Tchoupitoulas Street so I wouldn't sound like such a tourist (it's sort of like chop-it-too-luhs). They also swore that the locals call it "T-Chop" for short.
Pearl Dive gets a round of applause for their fantastic bread basket.  I loathe when restaurants put out crappy bread baskets, so I want to make sure I point out the awesomeness of their Addie's Rolls and cornbread muffins (first basket is free and they'll charge for the second, third, fourth...)

I took another waiter recommendation for my entree and ordered the "Que Sueno de los Gatos" which translates loosely to "what cats dream of."  I'm not a cat person so I don't claim to know what they dream about, but I know I've been dreaming of this dish since I had it.  This seafood stew with shrimp, redfish, squid, mussels and saffron milk was simply outstanding. To be honest, I usually order seafood stews and mussel dishes so that I can sop up the sauce with the bread.  The seafood portion, for me, is the afterthought.  This dish showed me that the seafood can be the star.  Each piece was perfectly cooked and delicious.  That doesn't mean I didn't use every last bit of that bread to sop up the saffron milk broth. We may have even asked for extra bread....

The waiter told B that this wood grilled Gulf Coast redfish with sage-native pecan butter and stone grits is the most popular dish on the menu.  After one bite, we could see why.  Jeff Black and his team know how to grill a fish like nobody's business.  The pecan butter added a rich and silky finish that knocked it out of the park.

I pretended to look at the dessert menu but B knew that when I heard "peanut butter and chocolate" we were going to be having the Peanut Butter Black Bottom Pie.  Dark chocolate ganache, pretzels, peanuts, chocolate chips, peanut butter mousse, caramel glaze.  Did someone invade my dreams and create my perfect pie?

Pearl Dive set such a high bar for meals in 2013, I'm a little worried we're in for a let-down from here on out.  Good thing it's a short trip over to 14th Street when I need my seafood fix.

Second Thoughts From B

Before I sat down to write this post I went back and read what I wrote about Pearl Dive's sister restaurants.  I now have the problem of having nothing new to say.

I'll be the first to admit that my vocabulary (even when counting the words I make up) is not particularly impressive.  And having to describe the consistent excellence of Jeff Black's dishes is becoming more than a little challenging.  How many times can I say that his seafood creations are perfectly cooked, mouth-wateringly seasoned, delicate yet bold, balanced and thoughtful?

Ordering a dud for once might actually be refreshing.  What can't this guy do?  Next you're going to tell me that he's ruggedly handsome, married to a supermodel, is a scratch golfer and is solving the country's debt problem in his spare time.  Is it possible to have a crush on a chef?  I think I need an intervention.
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on Urbanspoon