Monday, March 30, 2009

L'Academie de Cuisine - Couples Cooking Class

It should be no secret that J and I enjoy food. If we splurge on anything, it would be for a nice meal from time to time. But we also enjoy cooking. While neither of us are particularly masterful in the kitchen, we both are comfortable and adventurous.

This is why we were very excited to take a cooking class for couples. Using a gift certificate that we received for L'Academie de Cuisine, we signed up for the "Romantic Dinner for Two" class taught by Chef Oliver Friendly. The class was held in the Gaithersburg location (the main location is in Bethesda). Each of the 24 attendees were partnered in six teams of four to make (and eat!) a three course meal over the three hour class.

Chef Friendly was true to his name (which is not a stage name) and blended technical knowledge with entertaining anecdotes from his time as a student in L'Academie and throughout the world of food. Among the highlights were personal stories of celebrity chefs (of note, Gordon Ramsey), memorable blunders (don't burn the sesame seeds unless you want to eat a pound of them), and kitchen initiations (spending an hour, soaking wet in the freezer). He was far from intimidating yet earned the respect of the most experienced members of the room. While the evening might not have been the advertised romantic night out, it was exactly what we were looking for. At the same time, other couples who were less involved and looking for a less interactive experience, seemed to enjoy it as well.

The class was more than just following a recipe while being entertained. We learned practical techniques (sound knife techniques and the proper way to separate an egg, cut an onion, and season soup) as well as new ways to approach a meal (preparing stock, constructing sauces and soups, and the chemistry of cooking). The menu included: potato and sorrel soup, Maryland Rockfish with sauteed mustard greens and carrots with a tarragon wine sauce, and vanilla crème brulee. Nearly all of the ingredients were freshly purchased from local farmers markets.

I think the soup was probably the most useful dish since it was taught with the idea of future concoctions with a variety of substituted ingredients. That said, the soup was also the dish I'm most excited about remaking. It was clear that the creamy soup was freshly made with quality ingredients. Also, the sorrel which I'd not heard of, much less cooked with, was a great addition (it has a fresh tart/sour flavor).

The fish was my primary assignment for the night and while good, it was something I'm used to cooking at home. The most instructional element was the creation of the sauce, something I'd also like to try for myself.

J made the crème brulee. Again, this is something we've done at home but was fun to do again.

The Sous Chef (or just J) Speaks

I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous about attending a class at a professional cooking school. While I can hold my own in the kitchen, my skills are less than polished. I cook sort of like I type: my fingers are never in the right places but I get the job done quickly. My nervousness subsided as soon as Chef Friendly began to speak. He is down-to-earth and far from intimidating. There were some missteps along the way (I coated my wedding rings in egg as I attempted to separate the eggs with one hand) but by the end of the class I was eagerly volunteering to torch the crème brulee. I had a really good time and learned a lot.

I normally review each dish and describe in detail the textures and flavors. For me, however, this class was less about the food and more about the learning experience. Don’t get me wrong, the food was outstanding and it was a real treat to get to sit down to a three course meal after all of our hard work. B and I really took advantage of the opportunity and jumped right in. Chef Friendly even thanked us for being so interested and engaged. By getting over my fear and getting my hands dirty (very literally) I took home several valuable kitchen techniques. I’m eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get into the kitchen to test out my new skills.

The class fell short of expectations in only one respect. As it was advertised as “Romantic Dinner for Two” I expected to learn how to work together in the kitchen as a couple and divide tasks to conquer challenging recipes. There really wasn’t any focus on the “couples” aspect of the class but I think B and I have that part down pretty well. Our teamwork is definitely one of our strong suits. As demonstrated all of 30 minutes ago – I’m writing this 40,000 feet in the air – we currently hold the world’s fastest time for Synchronized Airport Security Screening (I dare you to try to get your shoes off, laptop out, metal items off, and boarding pass in hand faster than us). The point is, it would have been nice for the class to put a bit more emphasis on the couples part as we sometimes step on each other’s toes in the kitchen. Overall, it was a great class taught by a very enthusiastic and comical chef.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ray's Hell Burger

The second stop on the D.C. Burger Tour 2009 was Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia. Ray's is the burger brainchild of Michael Landrum, owner of Ray's the Steaks (Arlington) and Ray's the Classics (Silver Spring, MD). Ray's Hell Burger opened one week before Good Stuff Eatery in July 2008 but is completely devoid of the hype and PR machine that Good Stuff's Spike Mendelsohn employed (see previous post here). Ray's is so low key, it doesn't even have a sign (or a website).

The Scene

At Ray's, the focus is clearly on the food. The dining room is bare bones with framed posters of B-level horror films on the walls. It's cash only (my one complaint) and you place your order at the register tucked in front of the open kitchen at the rear of the restaurant. After ordering, the search for a table begins. There are probably only enough seats for about 30 to 40 people in the dining room, and at peak times, it can be tough to find one. Fortunately, the burgers are absolutely worth the trip to the ATM and the hovering required to snag a seat. I like the rolls of paper towels on the table (a necessity for the juicy burgers) and the free self-serve hot chocolate.

The Meat

Ray's is all about the burgers. This is not a place for vegetarians or those who insist on having fries with their burgers (no fries but there are tasty sides such as mac and cheese and tater tot-esque potato bites).

To drink I had a cheerwine float. Ray's has several flavors of ice cream and since they were out of vanilla, they made my float with caramel praline ice cream. Cheerwine is a cherry-flavored soda that tastes a lot like Dr. Pepper. The praline ice cream/soda combo was delicious.

For the main event I ordered The Mack (American cheese, beefsteak tomato, lettuce, pickle, red onion, and Ray's Hell Sauce - a tangy special sauce). I had it cooked to the recommended temperature which was a little pinker than I'm used to.

Wow. That was a good burger. The bun was sweet, the meat was flavorful, and the Hell Sauce added just the right amount of tang. As you can see, it was huge too. I cut it in half and attempted to tackle it in two pieces, but still ended up making a giant mess.

B ordered the New Jack Zing (blackened burger with cajun spices, pepper jack cheese, grilled red onions, sauteed peppers, roasted garlic, jalapenos). B's first words after biting into this burger were something along the lines of "holy crap, you have to taste this!" After finishing the burger he shook the hand of the cashier and thanked the chef. It was that good.

Second Thoughts From B

I've had some good burgers in my life but Ray's might be the best burger joint I've been to. There are certain times in life when you simply can't manage to put together a logical stream of words. For me, that includes agony and ecstasy but is usually limited to biting cold temperatures, severe pain, and Ray's Hell Burger.

J's was simple but perfect. The other time we went, I got a fantastic savory burger, and the New Jack Zing is like nothing I've ever tasted. You've got the satisfying contentment of a big, good burger along with bite and "zing" from the tangy ingredients and sauces. Basically, I couldn't be more enthusiastic and struggled all night with ways to express myself. But one thing is sure: you won't find a better burger than those at Ray's.
Ray's Hell-Burger on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Co Co. Sala

Co Co. Sala is a chocolate lounge and boutique located in Penn Quarter. We've dined at Co Co. Sala three times for dinner and once for brunch. Each time we've been very impressed. It's a great place to take out-of-towners and for this dinner we were joined by my sister and brother-in-law.

The Concept
Co Co. Sala (the name refers to Coffee, Chocolate, and the Italian word for lounge "sala") is divided into two main rooms. You enter into the bar/lounge room which has low tables, a chocolate display case, and bar. A separate dining room (pictured above) provides a somewhat (and this is relative) quieter space. Plan your visit carefully if you want to be able to hear your dining companions because a DJ spins on weekend nights, turning the atmosphere from sleek lounge to pulsating club.

The menu is divided into Co Co. Bites and Dessert Experiences. The Co Co. Bites are tapas-sized savory items, such as mac and cheese and sliders. The Dessert Experiences are three course dessert menus with different themes (Italian, Indian, Aztec, and Childhood Favorites). These can be augmented with two other savory dishes. A full wine list, cocktail menu, specialty hot chocolate, and coffee selections complete the experience. On this visit, we ordered a little bit of everything and it was all beautifully presented and very tasty.

The cocktails are pricey ($10-$12) but worth it. I had the Reve (pear vodka, amaretto, diced pear, pineapple juice), my sister had the Disia (pear vodka, lychee puree, rosewater, fresh lime juice), and my brother-in-law had the Diletto (ketel one vodka, fresh basil & strawberries, balsamic drizzle). I had a sip of each and they were all so interesting and made using top notch ingredients. The Reve tasted just like a fresh pear (with a strong kick!). B had the Jasmine Red Flower Green Tea.

Co Co. Bites
The four of us shared 8 Co Co. Bites and were impressed with the variety of flavors and textures. From the salad menu we had the Manchego & Baby Arugula Salad and Lobster Salad. The Manchego Salad was served in a square-shaped block and was a tangy mix of dressing, arugula, mandarin oranges, manchego cheese, and nuts. The Lobster Salad consisted of large chunks of lobster served atop a cornbread-like base and encased in sliced cucumbers.

Next we had the Bacon Mac & Cheese topped with a slice of chocolate-covered bacon and the Mac & Cheese Tart. The tart was the most interesting mac and cheese preparation I've ever had. The flaky buttery pastry shell held together the creamy mac and was topped with a disc of crispy cheese. It was a completely unexpected combo of textures that worked very well together.

The Blue Cheese Beef and Tandoori Chicken Sliders were tough to split four ways but worth the effort. The Tandoori Chicken patty was a huge burst of spice and flavor and was one of our favorite dishes.

Last but not least was the Crispy Louisiana Crabcake and Tuna Tartar. We used the crispy taro chips to scoop up the fresh tuna and it was fantastic. The crabcake was mostly crab and little filler. Another very well executed dish.

We ordered the Co Co. Grown Up and Aztec desserts. The Grown Up began with a mini boston creme doughnut and cappuccino panna cotta.

The main dessert was milk chocolate, a peanut butter and banana foster split, a mini co co. cupcake, and a malted shooter.

For a savory break from all of the sweetness, we added on the cheese course, which was a mini grilled cheese, tomato soup, and cheese fritter.

The final course was a mint chocolate chip cone and strawberry cheesecake lolly with poprocks.

The Xocolatyl, or Aztec experience, began with churros, cinnamon creme, and dulce de leche dip.

The main dessert was a hot chocolate souffle with fiery chocolate center and kahlua soother. The souffle was probably the most unexpected dessert as it had a spicy center. It sounds weird but it simply worked as the heat carried through each dish and was an interesting contrast to the other sweet and cold bites.

The cheese course was a spicy/sweet pepper cheese enchilada with guava sauce. I wish I wasn't so full at this point because the enchilada was delicious.

The final course was a chocolate infused horchata and a mexican wedding cookie.

My sister described this meal as a "party in my mouth" while my brother-in-law commented on the complex flavors saying "the food was as loud as it was small."

Second Thoughts by B

I hope that the phrase, "a picture is worth a thousand words" is appropriate here because it would take at least that many to adequately describe a Co Co. Sala dining experience. We were there for 2.5 hours and any time that we stopped eating long enough to speak, it was always to marvel at the wonderful and often unexpected flavors in front of us.

Besides the artistic and thoughtful presentation of each dish which should be clear in the photos, no dish delivered a single "flat" flavor. Every bite was filled with a harmony of dynamic and distinctive tastes and textures. While some may not appreciate this style of dining, anyone that likes to dine instead of eat and values quality over quantity would do well to take a trip to Co Co. Sala. Go with an open mind and curious palate, and you should leave with a whole lot more than a full stomach.
Co Co. Sala on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 14, 2009


When I think of Oya I think of the beautiful interior, the sushi rolls and their prix fixe 3-course menu. On this particular trip we had the pleasure of dining with a law school friend who was in town to argue a case before the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The noise level at Oya makes conversation a little difficult so it's probably not ideal for catching up with old friends.

Oya's dining room incorporates fire (a wall-length fire place on one side), water (a waterfall window separates the dining room from the kitchen), and sleek white leather furniture. It's as sexy a room as you'll find in D.C. and would give many trendy Vegas lounges a run for their money. If only Oya's service was as beautiful as its dining room. I've been to Oya 5 times and each time the service has been strange. From completely aloof to overly intrusive, the wait staff could use some additional training.

More Than Just a Pretty Face?

A pretty interior can only take a restaurant so far. The food has to back it up. There are several dishes I really love, such as the spicy tempura shrimp sushi roll, tofu ramen, and banana bread pudding. On this particular visit I decided to try something new but wish I hadn't strayed from my old favorites.

We started with edamame which was served hot with a generous dusting of rock salt. B eats edamame like it's going out of style, so I'm glad he snapped this picture before digging in.

I ordered from the prix fixe menu and started with a butternut squash and walnut salad. The salad was a nice balance of squash and lettuce coated with a tangy dressing. What really took away from the dish were the whole cloves of garlic tossed throughout. I didn't expect to find garlic cloves in the salad so I bit into one thinking it was a crouton or piece of dried fruit (it's really dark in the dining room at Oya!). After that, the garlic flavor overwhelmed the rest of the dish.

My main course consisted of scallops with pad thai noodles, hen-of-woods mushrooms, and truffle jus. There were only two scallops but they were cooked to the right consistency. The dish as a whole was underwhelming, as the sauce that coated the noodles lacked flavor. I think the presentation could have been much improved by adding a small splash of color.

B started with the white wine flight which featured 3 small glasses of different sweet white wines.
He then ordered several "small plates" and started with his favorite sushi roll, the Typhoon Roll (crispy shrimp tempura, spicy crab salad and spicy mayo).

Next up was the Chicken Yakitori (caramel, ginger, bean sprouts and chicken). The chicken was very tender and had a unique sweet caramel sauce.

He also had the Chilean Sea Bass (sea bass, miso, edamame, beurre monté served over a braised short rib). This was the waiter's number one recommendation and it was a unique combination of flaky fish and salty beef.

For dessert we shared 3 small scoops of coconut-lime sorbet. The flavor was great but it had a weird chalky texture that left me reaching for the water glass after each bite. That's what I get for trying to go lo-cal on my dessert.

While this visit to Oya was more enjoyable for the company rather than the food, we'll keep returning for the menu items we've grown to love. I ventured too far out of my Oya menu comfort zone on this trip but am glad I tried other menu items to have a better idea of what I do and don't like.

Second Thoughts from B

First, thoughts on my food. I love the Typhoon Roll. It is very busy with elements of sweet, savory, and spicy combining nicely with tender, crunchy, and even slimy. Somehow, you can taste each ingredient while also enjoying the overall combination. The Chicken Yakitori's main feature was the caramel sauce which featured a creamy favor but lacked punch. The sea bass/short rib combo was well conceived, but the execution of the flavors again could have been more bold and distinctive in order to take full advantage of the contrast of meat and texture.

Overall, I think J nailed it. Oya has consistently offered very good food (even though this night was a mixed bag) in a beautiful room with service that tends not to match. In the past we've had absentee, if not rude, service. In this case, our waiter was overly attentive to the point it was annoying. With that said, it speaks highly of the food that we keep returning.
Oya Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Good Stuff Eatery

Good Stuff opened on Capitol Hill last July and has gotten an inordinate amount of press for a burger joint thanks to its owner, the hat-wearing young chef Spike Mendelsohn (runner-up on Top Chef Chicago). With all of the hype, I expected to taste a burger the likes of which would inspire a Jimmy Buffett-style song. Solid burger? Yes. Paradise? Not quite.

Not Your Average Burger Joint

I loved the interior of Good Stuff. From the giant cow bell to the charging station for laptop-toting diners, it really felt like a neighborhood kind of place. They definitely try to take advantage of Spike's fame with an oversized picture of him as you enter and articles about him strewn about the walls. I found the set up of the counter area to be a bit backward though. You walk in the door to a crowd of people waiting for their food and have to walk past them to get to the cashier. After a few moments of awkward "did you already order or are you in line?" conversation, we got to the right place. You place your order with a cashier and are then given a vibrating buzzer that lets you know when your order is ready. A little bit more confusion was had when our buzzer went off because the shakes were ready, but not the food. A few minutes later the buzzer went off again for the burgers and fries. We stopped by the condiment bar and filled tiny plastic cups with interesting mayos (sriracha, old bay, and mango mayos are available) and ketchup, and then headed up the stairs to dine at the large farmhouse table.

Your Average Burgers?

I wanted to keep it simple so I ordered the Farmhouse Burger (Natural farm raised beef topped with tomatoes, thinly sliced onion, lettuce, pickles, and good stuff sauce served on a Pennsylvania Dutch bun). We shared an order of Village Fries (topped with fresh thyme, rosemary, and cracked pepper). To drink I had the toasted marshmallow milkshake, which I had been waiting for months to try.

The first thing that struck me about my burger was that it looked almost exactly like the Little Hamburger at Five Guys. It was about the same size (not large... I just compared it to something called the "little hamburger") and had the same wrinkly bun. Don't get me wrong, I love Five Guys, but I guess I expected to compare this burger experience to a gourmet burger place like Ray's Hell Burger (review) rather than a fast food joint (albeit a very good fast food joint). This burger outshone Five Guys in the taste department thanks to a hefty beef patty but it was nothing that caused me to break into song. The fries were flavorful but a little too fat for my taste. The star of my meal was that gorgeous marshmallow shake. I'd gladly suffer through its digestional havoc again in order to taste the creamy marshmallowy goodness.

The picture of B's burger below will quickly set apart our vegetarian readers from our meatatarian readers. To my veggie friends, stop reading now. To the meat lovers, see below.

B's burger was the Colletti's Smokehouse (Applewood bacon, sharp Vermont cheddar, fried Vidalia onion rings, and chipotle bbq sauce). I didn't taste this coronary-on-a-bun so I'll let B do the honors.

Second Thoughts from B

Don't get us wrong, we very much enjoyed our trip to Good Stuff. You won't go wrong by going there and we'll certainly be back. However, I think that our expectations matched the considerable hype, which ultimately did us a disservice.

Yes, my burger was smaller than I expected and yes, the bun was somewhat underwhelming. However, there were a few things that did stand out. First, the BBQ sauce had a good, sharp bite to it and I appreciated that bold flavor. Second, this was a quality burger... as in meat. Sometimes when you get a burger that is covered in sauce and cheese and everything imaginable, the patty gets lost. The thing I appreciated the most was that the burger itself remained the foundation of every bite. It was thick and very flavorful.

I'm surprised that J didn't say more about the mayo bar. I thought very highly of the fries and the different dipping options. My particular favorite was the mango, which offered a nice counterpoint to the saltiness of the fries and spice of my burger's BBQ sauce. However, I loved the fries so much that I found myself not wanting to mess with perfection by dipping them in anything.
Good Stuff Eatery on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Java Green

Java Green has been on my list since a vegetarian friend came to visit from California and raved about this organic eatery in the heart of downtown. We took advantage of the spring-like temperatures and took a Saturday morning stroll to Java Green.

The restaurant is a self-proclaimed "organic eco cafe" with a wide variety of vegan organic offerings and environmentally friendly packaging. The menu has a Korean flair reflecting the heritage of its owners. It caters to a niche market and has a steady stream of regulars that the owner greeted by name. For B and me, it felt like a trip back to our old home in Santa Monica, CA. We may have been the only diners that had not just come from yoga class. You place your order at the counter and the food is brought to your table. B's food came to the table a good ten minutes before mine did. The various kitchen stations need to work on their synchronization.

B ordered the Curry Noodles with Spicy Tofu: buckwheat noodle, creamy curry sauce, carrot, potato, broccoli, edamame, and spicy tofu. To drink he had a Pink Lady Frappe: ice blended with nut milk, strawberries, raspberries, agave, and whipped cream. The face B made after trying the Pink Lady was not a good one. The drink lacked flavor and tasted like goopy nothingness with a hint of berry. The Curry Noodle entree was a bigger hit.

I had the Chicken Chili Wrap: sundried tomato wrap, soy "chicken," spinach, onion, cucumber, carrot, hot cherry peppers, and chili java sauce. The wraps are served with your choice of blue corn chips or a pickle.

My wrap was very spicy! I had to refill my biodegradable water cup many times to combat the heat in my mouth. I loved the java chili sauce that was almost like a spicy sweet teriyaki glaze. The veggies were very fresh and had a nice crunch. The wrap was a little on the chewy side and the soy chicken has a texture that may take some getting used to. I appreciated the use of organic ingredients and the non-greasy fresh taste. Java Green is a refreshing oasis in a region not known for healthy all-natural cuisine.

Second Thoughts from B

As J said, there was part of our Java Green experience that was like going home. While both of us still enjoy a good steak, we also have been exposed to a lot of vegetarian, vegan, and raw cuisines. If this is a first for you, don't expect it to taste like anything you're used to. While every effort has been made to develop equivalent flavors and textures, vegan options just won't taste exactly like meat. What is important to remember is that even though the vegan replacement doesn't taste like the real thing, the vegan option isn't necessarily better or worse... it is just different.

I thought both my noodle dish and J's wrap were very well constructed dishes that were full of flavor, all while being healthy and environmentally/animal conscious. As long as the uninitiated can keep an open mind, Java Green compares well, or even surpasses, similar dishes using meat... I would just be wary of the frappes.
Java Green on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 6, 2009

Crepes A-Go-Go

After a long week at work we wanted to take a walk and try a new place for dinner. We walked up to the Dupont Circle area to Crepes A-Go-Go. This creperie has two locations: Dupont Circle and Gaithersburg, MD (not to be confused with the Crepes A-Go-Go in Berkeley, CA).

The atmosphere is very casual. You place your order at the counter and they bring your crepes to your table. The cashier was very chatty and, when asked for recommendations, rattled off a list of a dozen of his favorite savory and sweet crepes. B and I each ordered one of his suggestions. I had a cheese, spinach, and mushroom crepe with monterey jack cheese. B had the sauteed chicken crepe with bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and cheddar cheese. Both were cooked to perfection with a slightly crispy crepe shell and fresh ingredients inside. The spinach and mushrooms in my crepe were not drowned in butter which was a nice change from many other creperies I've tried. It was decadent without being greasy.

For dessert, B had the strawberry, kiwi, and honey crepe dusted with powdered sugar and served with a side of real whipped cream. I had a hard time choosing among the 52(!) different sweet crepes and ended up taking the cashier's suggestion and ordered the King Samm (Almond powder, banana, coconut, nutella, and whipped cream). This crepe was close to perfection. The crunch of the crepe and the coconut paired with the creaminess of the nutella and banana was excellent. If this is what France is like, I'm booking my plane ticket now.

I would highly recommend Crepes A-Go-Go for a casual night out on the town. It is moderately priced (crepes average $6) and the atmosphere is laid back and lacking the attitude of some creperies. If you're dining alone this is a good place to go as there was a wide variety of local newspapers available to read.

Second Thoughts from B

Whether you're new to crepes or an old veteran, there are two things that will jump out at you when going to Crepes A-Go-Go. The first is the endless menu. Sometimes this can make for a difficult time selecting your perfect combination, but as J mentioned, the staff is more than happy to guide you. The other thing is the quality of the ingredients. We ordered four different crepes which probably included 20+ different elements and each was fresh and prepared to let its individual flavor shine.
Crepes-a-Go-Go on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 2, 2009

Playing in the (Nation's) Backyard

One of the many reasons we love this town: Having the National Mall as our playground.

What better way to forget a long day at work than to build a snowman in the shadow of a national monument? We took advantage of the rare snowfall and had a blast crafting this snowman together.

Second Thoughts from B
Sometimes the National Mall is a track for a morning jog. Sometimes it is a park for a game of ultimate frisbee. But tonight it was a winter wonderland... I love this town!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Must See Tourist Attractions

For the first few years that you spend in DC, you will shift between tourist and tour guide. As time goes by, you'll find yourself developing your own tour itinerary of personal favorites that mixes iconic monuments with lesser known gems. Here is a list of places our guests usually find themselves when they visit us, along with a few hints and suggestions.
  • White House. You can't come to DC and not take the obligatory postcard photo but beyond that, there's not much to see. Keep in mind that there is no front and back (it was designed to have two fronts) so you may have to circumnavigate it to get the photo you're looking for. Tours for large groups are available through your congressman.
  • Capitol Building. I never get tired of looking at the Capitol dome. There are times living in DC where you turn a corner or cross a street and there it is... it takes your breath away. It is one of those things in Washington that doesn't get old for me. But beyond ogling at it from afar, we suggest getting a tour. The best way to do this is to contact your congressman and request one. Don't think this is an imposition. They have staffers who spend most of their time on constituent services, which basically means tour guide. Check your representative's website for information, where many have online forms to fill out. It is just that easy! Also keep in mind that a visitor center just opened on the east side of the Capitol that is worth seeing, especially if you aren't planning on taking a tour.
  • Lincoln, Vietnam War, and Korean War Memorials. All located together, this is a great 3 for 1 stop. Each, however, has its own feel. Surrounded by his two most famous speeches (some of which you may remember from elementary school) and the spot upon which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream Speech, you can't help feel the history and power of the Lincoln. The Vietnam War and Korean War Memorials are on either side of the Lincoln and ofter interesting counterpoints to how they honor sacrifice. Vietnam's minimalist design inspires a contemplative mood while Korea's literal design allows visitors to put themselves in the trenches. You'll have to make up your own mind which you like better, but most people prefer one or the other. Either way, since both wars are so recent, the feelings of you, your guests, and/or those around you are quite powerful. Consequently you may see letters and mementos, some of clear value and significance, left behind.
  • Washington Monument. Pope Sixtus V reerected ancient Egyptian obilisks in Rome to serve as navigational markers. Whether that was the intention of the Washington Monument by DC's planners or not, it can be seen from much of the city and is helpful when you're trying to get your bearings. But beyond being an imposing presence on the city's skyline, it also provides the best viewpoint. On the morning that you want to go to the top, go to the visitor center (east side of the monument) to get a free ticket. Keep in mind that this can be pretty popular in peak season, so plan to get there early. A good alternative to the view from the Washington Monument is that from the top of the Old Post Office Building. Located on Pennsylvannia Ave. (at 12th street), it is not as high or as iconic but at the same time, does not feature big crowds or require tickets. Similarly, the roof of the Kennedy Center offers a nice perspective over the Potomac, not to mention world-class talent and free performances every day at 6pm.
  • Jefferson and FDR Memorials, and the Tidal Basin. You've probably heard about DC's famous cherry blossoms. They were originally a gift from Japan in 1912 and planted around the Tidal Basin. Every spring (usually early April) they will bloom with beautiful pinkish-white flowers that only last for a couple of weeks, which makes planning a trip a bit of a challenge. There is also a festival that includes parades and kite shows. Less seasonal features of the Tidal Basin are the Jefferson and FDR Memorials. The Jefferson is a personal favorite of mine for its setting and architecture (inspired by Rome's Pantheon). Unfortunately, it is not visited by as many people as it should because nearby parking is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. However if you do make it there, be sure to enjoy the view through the cherry trees that allows Jefferson to keep a constant watch over the President in the White House. The FDR Memorial is hidden among the trees on the west side of the Tidal Basin. It is broken into four areas that each depict one term of Roosevelt's presidency. Note the symbolism of the water to accent turmoil, war, chaos, peace, etc. Also, be sure to visit during the day since the night time lighting is not sufficient to appreciate much of the text.
  • World War II Memorial. One of the newest, and certainly the most noticeable addition to DC is the WWII Memorial. If you haven't been to DC and walked the monuments since 2004, make sure you make time to do so. To be honest, I was among those that questioned how it would fit among the iconic Washington and Lincoln memorials. However, the use of water and white granite fits perfectly and does a nice job of honoring sacrifice, teaching history, and adding to our capitol city.
  • The Smithsonian. Face it, you won't come close to seeing everything. There are 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo, most of which are in DC. However, there are a few things working in your favor. First, all the museums are next to each other and second, they are all free. This allows you to hop in and out at will. For example, in one well planned hour you could drool over the Hope Diamond in the Natural History Museum, see the Wright Brother's airplane in the Air and Space Museum, and stand at the base of the actual Star Spangled banner in the American History Museum. And that doesn't even mention all of the great art and cultural museums... Finally, the Smithsonian also offers classes, seminars, and tours through their Resident Associates program which is worth taking advantage of if you're local.
  • Arlington National Cemetery. Cemeteries aren't everyone's idea of a good time but I don't find Arlington to be creepy or depressing. Reverent, peaceful, and beautiful are words that come to mind. Arlington came about as the practical solution to a Civil War problem. President Lincoln, needing a place to inter and honor the thousands of dead soldiers, chose the estate of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General. Don't miss the Tomb of the Unknown and the changing of the guard ceremony,and the Kennedy grave sites (Robert, too). Adjacent to the cemetery is the Marine Corps Memorial (sometimes referred to as the Iwo Jima Memorial) which is worth a stop.
  • Library of Congress. In my opinion, this tops Washington's underrated attractions list. The main reading room is one of the most impressive interior spaces I've seen.
  • National Cathedral. Taking 83 years to build and completed in 1990, the Cathedral may be the last of its kind considering that the private funding and masonry skills required to build such a structure are no longer available at this scale. Built on the highest point of DC, the views from the towers are quite good on clear days but the true attraction is the building itself. Featuring thousands of unique sculptures and grotesques (commonly referred to as gargoyles), in addition to the beautiful stained glass windows, the National Cathedral is an interesting blend of old and new. Examples include a stained glass window containing a moon rock, a sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. (he gave his last sermon here), and a grotesque of Darth Vader. It should also be noted that many political and other dignitaries have been memorialized here, and President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, are buried here (among others).
Finally, a couple of general tips to consider...

Get your walking shoes on. Be realistic about how much you and your group want to walk. Parking and public transportation access isn't always optimal at many of the most popular spots. Make sure you consult a map beforehand if there is any doubt because distances on the Mall can be deceiving. It is quite easy to point to a monument and say, "It's not that far to the..." Case in point, it is over a mile from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and almost 2 miles to walk all the way around the Tidal Basin.

There are many tour mobile types of companies to choose from, many in the $10-30 price range. Another option that we enjoyed with our families in town was the hiring of a private tour bus. Again, there are many to choose from and so long as you have a large enough group, the price per person can be rather reasonable. Besides keeping your friends/family together, it is great to be able to customize the itinerary to cater to your group's interests.

Monuments at night. Consider going to the monuments at night, especially the marquee ones. The crowds are down considerably which makes parking easier and lessens the chance of getting mauled by tour buses full of 8th graders. Plus, the lights on the white surfaces of the White House, Capitol, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and WWII make them that much more majestic. Keep in mind, however, that some monuments are poorly lit and don't do well at night, most notably FDR.

Do your homework. Many of the monuments and attractions are littered with symbolism and personal stories. Some of this you can figure out and some of it you can't, but the more you know, the more interesting your visit will be. I highly suggest taking a tour, talking to a guide, or reading up on the sites before you go. It'll make you a more engaged tourist and more educated tour guide.

Obviously these lists are highly subjective so depending on your interests, you should also consider:
  • Supreme Court. Don't forget the third branch of government! Certainly worth a photo op outside those magestic columns, seeing the Court in session is the real attraction. Unfortunately for locals, the Court's schedule isn't set to provide for those of us with jobs. But if you're in town on vacation, make sure to check the website for information.
  • Pentagon 9/11 Memorial. It is not the easiest to get to because of security reasons but is a very well done tribute to this tragic event.
  • Air Force Memorial. Rising above the horizon like a plane taking off, it offers another great venue to look over the city.
  • Botanic Garden. It might not be a must see for everyone, but it'll probably be on your way, it is extremely well done, and it is a great natural respite from all of the history and culture you'll be digesting in DC. It is also a nice place to warm up and/or dry off on those cold and stormy days.
  • Ford's Theatre. See separate post.
  • Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Where your money gets made. Learn manufacturing techniques, anti-counterfeit measures, and see what it would be like to be Scrooge McDuck.
  • Mt. Vernon. About 20 miles from DC, see where and how our first president lived.
  • Old Town Alexandria. If visiting Mt. Vernon shows you what an 18th century plantation is like, Old Town will remind you of 18th century town-life.
  • Rock Creek Park. When you need an escape to nature, find DC's answer (it is twice as big) to New York's Central Park.
  • Great Falls. Combines a historic site with breathtaking natural beauty.