Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Osteria Elisir

As the song goes, "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run."  I don't know if Chef Enzo Fargione is a Kenny Rogers fan, but he certainly pulled a Gambler-style move with his restaurant Elisir on 11th Street in Downtown.  Fargione (formerly of the shuttered Teatro Goldoni on K Street) opened Elisir near the end of 2011 as an Italian fine dining concept with tasting menus and the average check around $130.  Fargione came to realize that the expense account Italian restaurant concept wasn't going to work.  He closed the restaurant for about 10 days and rebranded it as Osteria Elisir with a more country Italian feel.  With the new decor come lower prices and more simple, home-style cooking.

Only a few weeks into the new concept and it seems to be a good move.  Case in point, we live up the street from the restaurant and never bothered to try it under the old concept.  And we eat out A LOT.  Once the restaurant was revamped, however, we tried it on the second night.

Overall, we had a really good experience with Osteria Elisir.  We loved the huge open kitchen and that Chef Fargione was working the line and checking each dish on a Saturday night.

While we enjoyed a wide variety of dishes, the one we managed to photograph was the Roman-style fried artichoke.  As we wrote in our post on Dino, B has been searching for "the one" artichoke to bring him back to our trip to Rome.  This one was dressed up with a sophisticated (and potent!) creamy anchovy garlic sauce, but at its core was a taste of that great meal in Rome's Jewish Ghetto.

I have a few quibbles with Osteria Elisir that I think will get worked out as they find their identity:
  • In their rush to redecorate a whole restaurant in a short span, I think they had some misses. The rope lighting, fake fruit, fake flowers, etc. looks a lot like they ran into a Home Goods and bought everything in sight.  Some of it works, some of it doesn't.  Please ditch the rope lights!
  • The service was very helpful but the pacing was very European.  During the 25 minute-plus waits between courses, we felt like we were right back in Italy.  Or worse... Spain.
  • If you are going to charge $6 for an accompaniment for your bread basket, please make it a healthy serving.  The ricotta we got to go with our bread was served in a comically tiny dish (however, it was tasty ricotta).
I don't think any of these things should keep you from checking out Osteria Elisir.  We're glad Chef realized it was time to "fold 'em" and reinvent his concept.  Smart thinking from a guy who certainly showed he knows how to cook.

Second Thoughts From B

J wrote her half of this post last week and has been hounding me ever since to finish it.  She has even co-opted some of our friends to crack the whip.  Hopefully whatever dribble falls out of this brain of mine makes up for the wait...

A few months ago I helped organize a training course on "effective communication strategies" for several of our senior scientists.  Among the things that the instructor emphasized was the concept of identifying a single message.  Since most audience members won't remember more than one or two things from any presentation, paper, interview, etc., he reasoned that it was critical to control that sole take-away idea.

I think restaurants are not dissimilar.  After a few days of separation, my thoughts on a place usually boil down to one or two distinct memories.  Maybe it was a mind-blowing sauce or an absent-minded waiter.  It could be a particularly loud group of diners or an inedible dessert.  Sometimes it is more general like a comfortable dining room or a series of familiar flavors. Regardless, without J's super-human memory or this blog's archive, I'm not going to remember every single dish, interaction and emotion from every meal I've ever had.

I'll let you decide if my delay in writing this post was intentionally meant to better solidify my thinking about Osteria Elisir (it wasn't), but I will say that I do have a few distinct memories from our time there.  First, as J said, it was clear that they were still working out the kinks but the potential was there.  Second, every single thing on the menu looked like something I'd enjoy.

While I'm generally easy to please and have been known to let the server decide which direction I'll go, I usually can narrow things down to two or three of dishes I'm most interested in.  Not so at Osteria Elisir and this was not a small menu either.  It could be that the chef is particularly gifted at designing a menu and describing appetizing dishes but it seems more likely that this is a reflection on the offerings themselves.  Either way, I'm curious and willing to investigate further.  And doesn't that seems like a pretty good take-home message?
Osteria Elisir on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


I have a serious ramen problem.  I would probably eat it every day if I could.  There's just something so comforting about a giant bowl of noodles in soul-warming broth.  My absolute favorite bowl of ramen is the Hakata Classic (with extra noodles and endorphin sauce) at Toki Underground.  But, for the days when I can't wait hours for a table, I'm glad there are other ramen places popping onto the scene.

Daikaya on 6th Street NW (next to Graffiato) had been rumored to be coming forever.  They built the restaurant from the ground up.  Seriously.  It was a dirt lot a couple of years ago.  After a long wait and approximately 86 bazillion articles and tweets about when it would open, Daikaya finally began serving ramen on Valentine's Day this year.

The 40 seat ramen bar on the ground floor is open but the 90 seat izakaya section will open upstairs later this month.

We went after 9:00 p.m. on a rainy weekday and scored one of the two booths with no wait.  Aside from the booths, there are seats at the bar and a few communal tables with stools.  I hear they are working on more coat/purse hooks (a key feature in my book).

The menu is limited, placing the focus squarely on the ramen.  We ordered the only appetizer, gyoza, which were about the same as all the other gyoza in this town.  If you've had one, you've had these.

There are four types of ramen to choose from: Shio (salt); Shoyu (soy sauce); Mugi-Miso (barley-miso); and Vegetable Shio (salt with vegan stock).

I ordered the Shoyu and liked the roast pork and soy-marinated egg a lot.  I also thought the noodles had a nice snap to them.  The balance was thrown off by too many bean sprouts that imparted a strong sprouty flavor and a heavy soy sauce component.  I know it's a soy sauce ramen, but I stopped tasting the complexities of the beef/pork/chicken broth after a few slurps and felt like I was slurping soy sauce.  I read somewhere that it takes a while to figure out the balance of the Shoyu broth and I think they need more time to figure it out.

B was the big winner with his Mugi-Miso ramen.  The barley-miso broth was deliciously complicated and interesting.  This is more like the Toki broth that I've come to love and I'll be ordering this bowl o' noodles the next time we eat at Daikaya.

Will there be a next time?  Definitely.  I think Daikaya has a lot of promise and I like its convenient location and lack of crazy long wait times.  If you do encounter a wait for your table, you can grab a drink next door at Graffiato (psssst....they have prosecco on tap!).  They are also now open at lunch time in case you get a noodle hankering while you're at work.

Have you been to Daikaya yet?  What did you think?

Second Thoughts From B

Depending on your position on noodle soup, I'm either lucky or cursed.  Thankfully, I'm on board and enjoy our frequent sojourns to the ends of the earth (Cambodia, Wheaton, etc.) to find J's favorite comfort food.

While I do love a hot bowl of ramen or pho or Campbell's, I'm clearly not the connoisseur that J is.  As long as it is hot and salty and has some form of noodle-like substance, I'm a happy camper.  This is not to say that I don't recognize the good from the great.  Toki Underground and others certainly deserve the praise they receive.  It is more to say that I don't need a chef's touch to be happy.  Therefore, speed, availability, friendly staff, and cost are bigger factors for me.

In Daikaya, you have all of those things, plus J-approved ramen, within a short 15 minute walk of our place (and less than 5 minutes from Gallery Place-Chinatown's metro stop).  Sounds like a winner to me!
Daikaya on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 4, 2013


H Street NE has so many great restaurants, it can be hard to choose. However, since most of the popular H Street places don't take reservations, it can be mighty tricky trying to pick a place for a group of friends to meet for a quick dinner prior to a show at the Atlas Theater.

The need for quick and easy led me to H&Pizza, a new-ish kid on the block, that makes individual-sized pizzas fast. I hate to say it's the "Chipotle of pizza" (the "Chipotle of ____" is as played out as "____ is the new black") but it's a similar concept.

You can tell the very friendly pizza topper what you want on your pizza and what kind of crust you want it on (traditional, whole wheat, or multigrain) or you can choose from one of their suggested combos. They've got everything to top your pizza from shrimp to strawberry balsamic finishing oil to vegan cheese.

All the topping options overwhelmed me so I ordered the pre-designed Farmer's Daughter (spicy tomato, housemade mozzarella, hot sausage, farm eggs, spinach, parmesan, red pepper chili oil). You can ask for them to make the farm egg topper runny or scrambled (the answer is runny, duh).

B went a little crazy and ordered a side salad, Moonstruck pizza, and a dessert pizza!

The Moonstruck was topped with "mushroom truffle" (is that a truffle truffle?), goat cheese, roasted mushrooms, fig marsala, red pepper chili oil, and crushed black pepper.

The dessert pizza, which we shared with friends, was nutella, sweet ricotta, strawberries, powdered sugar, and pecans. You really can't go wrong with this combo (though I'd vote for fresh strawberries or at least something less syrupy).

We left very impressed with H&Pizza. First, it's hard to beat the prices. $8.64 for a pizza packed with gourmet-ish toppings is a steal. It's only $6.82 for a simple pizza with dough, sauce, cheese. Second, it was good pizza. It wasn't the very best ultimate fantastic pizza in DC but it tasted high quality and the crust had a nice crispy/soft combo texture going on. Third, the people were really nice. We went on a Friday night and the place was packed full of people (including a huge group of Gallaudet students having some sort of meet-up). The staff handled the crowd really well and our pizzas came out of the oven in minutes.

My only complaint is the space and set-up is a bit awkward. It would be nice if you could pay for your order while you are waiting for your pizza to come out of the oven. Having everyone crammed into the small space near the pizza oven didn't work well. There is also little counter space to put your tray o'pizza while you're trying to move from the pick up area to the cashier area. It all felt a little jumbled and confusing. Finally, the ventilation system could use some work. There was a thick haze of smoke in the air and my winter coat smelled strongly of smokey pizza fumes for days.

Logistical hiccups aside, I recommend H&Pizza for a quick and easy bite on H Street NE.

Second Thoughts From B 

In my defense, I arrived at H&Pizza after a long day at work which caused me to skip lunch. Despite my huge order, I would have made my 16 year old self proud by polishing off everything with ease (not to mention gusto!), plus a few slices of J's pizza. I don't say this because I'm proud of my most recent gluttonous exploits. Rather, I want the readers to know that my thoughts on H&Pizza were heavily influenced by a rumbling tummy.

Just like no one should call Chipotle fantastic Mexican food, I don't think you'll confuse H&Pizza with gourmet pizza. You probably wouldn't even put them in the same class as some of the District's more accomplished pie slingers like 2Amys, RedRocks, or We, the Pizza. But in a country that loves the freedom to make choices, as well as immediate results for a cheap price, this place is a winner.

Since we so unpatriotically forfeited our right to create our own pizza and went with items on the menu, I can also say that H&Pizza is more than an oven at the end of a toppings buffet. I was impressed with the quality of ingredients and the contrasting flavors and textures that demonstrated more culinary expertise than your average college pizza joint. And the people were nice. Say what you want about my hunger bias, I am confident that the people were nice. H &pizza on Urbanspoon