Thursday, December 23, 2010

Kennedy Center - National Symphony Orchestra: Handel's Messiah

It is no secret that you can enjoy a pre-theater menu without actually having tickets to any post-meal performance, but in our case, the night didn't end at the Westend Bistro. This year, with about 20 inches less snow on the ground, we were successful in our attempt to see the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Handel's Messiah at the Kennedy Center.

There are many things we love about Washington, D.C. and this night illustrated two of the big ones. I'm sure there are many people out there who take for granted D.C.'s centralized downtown area. This isn't a novel concept for most of the cities of the world. I assure you however, it doesn't get lost on people from Los Angeles. Because of many reasons that I won't get into, LA is a giant conglomerate of many city centers, none of which are particularly tied together.

Having easy access to innumerable cultural opportunities in downtown is something no one should take for granted. The fact that world class music, dance, and theater is just down the street at the Kennedy Center - and at a hundred other venues around town - is really an embarrassment of riches.

I'm not going to pretend to know a whole lot more than the next guy about classical music. But I do know that I appreciate the occasional night on the town that expands my horizons and allows me to soak in a little culture (not withstanding the kid in the front row with a giant hamburger hat). And when it is combined with holiday festivities, all that much better.

D.C. does the holidays right. Of course I'm talking about Christmas, but the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day aren't exactly pushovers either. As nice as it may sound now, there is something missing when new fallen snow is replaced by sand and palm trees on Christmas morning. The cold in the air, the lights in the trees, and the decorations in store windows all transform this city into the Christmas that I always sang carols about but knew nothing of.

As we head home for the holidays, best wishes from our family to yours. Enjoy this wonderful city and we'll see you in the New Year.

J Says

Like B mentioned, growing up without snow made the majority of the holiday songs seem irrelevant. Who can get excited about snowmen and fireplaces when it is 70 degrees outside? That's why we've tried to embrace winter in Washington. Yes, I still complain when my face freezes, and I use the seat warmer in the car so much I'm surprised I haven't melted my pants. But, embracing the highs and the lows of winter makes Christmas feel that much more special.

Places like the Kennedy Center glow with holiday excitement. From the kids in their holiday finest (or, hamburger hats) to the grandparents helping their annual traditions live on, I love the magical feeling in the air. As the crowd rose to sing the Hallelujah Chorus, I felt very thankful to live in such a festive town. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pre-Theater Dining: Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert

Last year, we attempted to see Handel's Messiah at the Kennedy Center but Snowmageddon the First struck and cancelled the performance. Loyal readers may remember that we ended up eating German food and playing Beatles Rock Band. Determined to get our hallelujah on, we joined our buddies M and A for a repeat attempt this year.

In looking for a restaurant for dinner, I noticed that Eric Ripert's Westend Bistro had a $35 three course pre-theater menu. While I don't get weak in the knees over Eric Ripert like some people do, I was looking forward to checking out his restaurant located at the Ritz Carlton hotel on 22nd Street.

The restaurant had a sleek, dark atmosphere that is lousy for taking photos, but makes for a great date spot. The pre-theater menu is available every day from 5:30 to 6:15pm and features 3 selections for each of the 3 courses. Don't be afraid to ask for the pre-theater menu, as it wasn't provided to us when we were seated but was brought out quickly, and without attitude, after we asked.

I really enjoyed my three courses: potato and apple salad, garganelli pasta with house-made sausage, and a warm chocolate cake with caramel ice cream. The portions were very generous for the $35 price tag and the service was efficient yet friendly. If you're looking to save a little cash but still want to check out fine restaurants, keep an eye out for pre-theater menus. If you can handle eating at grandparents' hour, it is a way to get the Restaurant Week deal without the Restaurant Week crowds and service issues.

Second Thoughts from B

We've talked a lot about Restaurant Week on this blog. In short, we love the idea but are often disappointed in the execution. From the diner's point of view, it is a chance to preview a place before committing a king's ransom for the pleasure of dining there. For the restaurant, it is a showcase for new clientele yet is sometimes treated as an annoying obligation rather than an opportunity.

The happy compromise may lie in the pre-theater menu. Once known as the "early-bird special," diners are able to sample a fine restaurant without the chaos of Restaurant Week, and attitude that sometimes comes with it.

And doesn't pre-theater sound so much better than early-bird special? Kudos to the person that re-branded that term. What was once a marketing tool to get grandma to Denny's is now a main feature of high-brow society to the point that a place like Marcel's provides car service to the Kennedy Center as part of their pre-theater package.

At Westend, I enjoyed the House Salad (hearts of romaine covered in a garlic vinaigrette), the Short Rib (truffled potato puree, roasted vegetables, and peppercorn sauce), and the chocolate cake. For $35, I'm happy to report that each item was rather memorable. The salad was extremely simple, but refreshing and flavorful. The short rib dish was richly flavored but was all about texture. The meat was so tender it could pass for some people's mashed potatoes. On the other hand, the actual potatoes were like eating a cloud. Finishing with a bite of warm, chocolate goodness sent us off into the cold night with smiles on our faces.
Westend Bistro on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mr. P's Ribs

In keeping with the food-on-wheels theme of the week, we present Mr. P's Ribs. While Mr. P's bus might still be on wheels, we didn't get the sense that it would be rolling out of the Safeway parking lot on Rhode Island Avenue, NE any time soon. Mr. P's bus looks like it has been there for a while and has no intention of moving. In fact, when we pulled up to the empty parking lot on a rainy Sunday evening, we were pretty sure the bus was closed. B, always the braver one, hopped out of the car and went up to the window. Mr. P and company flipped on the lights (more on that later) and greeted us with a warm smile.

Tim Carman, formerly of the Washington City Paper and now of the Washington Post, wrote an excellent story on Mr. P and his bbq operation. For background, check the story here. The menu, written on a hodgepodge of white boards and scraps of paper, features bbq, fried fish, and an assortment of sides and desserts.

B didn't need to look at the menu. He was a man on a mission. He came for bbq pork ribs and a few minutes after arriving, we were headed home with a weighty styrofoam container packed with rib goodness.

Since I like side dishes as much as ribs, I took their suggestion to order the mac and cheese and brown sugar yams.

And because I am the biggest softie in the entire world when it comes to dessert (and kindly old bbq men in a bus), we came home with one of each dessert on the menu: carrot cake, mini sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler. After hearing that the other desserts would be lonely if I only took home the carrot cake, I crumbled like the topping on the peach cobbler. As B rolled his eyes, I happily snatched the bag of desserts and made my way back to the car.

Since B is the rib expert, I'll let him tell you whether they are worth a trip to a sketchy parking lot. What I'll tell you is that you won't find a nicer set of folks in town. Even if I didn't like the food (I did), I'd go back just to pay them a visit.

Second Thoughts from B

It was a cold and rainy night, and J was still suffering from the post red-eye cross-country flight from the night before (as was her 5am chauffeur). Where we went to dinner - or was it technically lunch? - would be our outing for a day that was otherwise consumed by naps, laundry, and football. But where to go?

I stumbled to the computer to find something that would be appetizing and a bit of an adventure (and not require complete cognitive function). Turning to Yelp, I scanned their list of highly reviewed DC restaurants and knew immediately that I hit the jackpot with Mr. P's Ribs.

I have no idea who Jason H. of Arlington, VA is, but wherever you are, thank you.
"This place is called Mr. P's Ribs for a reason. It is not Mr. P's Chicken and waffles or Mr. P's Hot Dogs and Lemonade cart. Review the place for what they are known for. This is the best NC barbecue you will get in DC."

Your words were my guiding light, and the reason we came home with 10 pounds of ribs.

I've spoken before of my love of ribs and bbq in general. I'm happy to report that Mr. P lived up to his reputation. While the lousy weather killed their business (which probably meant that we didn't get ribs straight out of the smoker), the sauce was exactly how I like it: sweet and tart with a touch of kick. It was smoky and complex and pour down your throat good.

Mr. P is not about anything other than food that tastes good. Translation: don't go there if you're counting calories. The mac and cheese was more like cheese and cheese, and the brown sugar yams could have passed for pie. But like the good Sir Jason of Arlington proclaimed, get ye to Mr. P for thyne ribs which hath been touched by the hand of our Lord, and ye shalt be blessed.

Seriously though, you won't find nicer folks (in a bus or anywhere) and you won't find a better deal for quality bbq in the District. $38 at Mr. P's provided enough food for two dinners (I'll do the math for you: 4 full meals). All you have to do is be up for an adventure and seek the man in the bus in the Safeway parking lot. Like Tom Boddett, he'll leave the light on for you... provided that his generator is up and running.*

*We got to meet Mr. P himself because, as the lights kept flickering on and off, he exited the bus to get more gas for his generator.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Big Cheese

One of the many fun things about food is how you can trace your life through different food phases. When I was in middle school, I came home almost every day and made a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread (slathered on each side with margarine) with a Kraft Singles American "cheese" slice melted in between. I'd grab a regular Pepsi, and happily dunk my sandwich in ketchup while watching TV before starting my homework. This was my first introduction to "cooking." Courses in Kraft macaroni and cheese and Costco taquitos followed shortly thereafter.

Even though I've slightly (and just slightly) outgrown the Kraft Singles sandwich phase, I still adore grilled cheese sandwiches. So when The Big Cheese truck hit the streets for its debut yesterday, B and I braved the frigid temperatures and headed to L'Enfant to check it out.

First, the truck. Eagle eyes might recognize this truck as the former Rebel Heroes truck that used to roll through Arlington serving banh mi. Apparently, despite favorable reviews and a loyal following, the mobile banh mi business didn't pan out. Rebel Heroes sold their truck to veteran restaurant manager Patrick Rathbone who turned the truck into a grilled cheese wonderland, complete with the cutest food truck logo in DC.

On the day we visited, the truck was serving 5 varieties of grilled cheese sandwiches, one dessert sandwich (Nutella and banana), tomato soup, and drinks. Though the regular "Barely Buzzed" sandwich with cheddar was calling me, I embraced my new love of more interesting cheeses and tried the Mt. Fiji with brie, apples, and honey. It was a melty, crunchy, messy sandwich that hit the spot on one of the coldest days of the year.

B tested out the Appalachian which featured swiss cheese and mushrooms. It was a little skimpy on the mushrooms (see below), but it was great when dunked in the piping hot tomato soup.

At $6.50, this isn't the cheapest sandwich on the block, but the use of high-quality ingredients helps justify the cost. I've read that he uses bread from Lyon Bakery and cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

Since it's the first week, I won't harp on the negatives, but I would recommend that the head cheese gets someone to assist him in his truck. He's trying to take orders, make sandwiches, and take money all at the same time, and this equaled a nearly 20 minute wait time when there were only 4 people ahead of us in line. In this weather, that is some serious devotion to grilled cheesiness. We saw many people bail out of line and head across the street to the Eat Wonky and Sauca trucks. I believe in the power of grilled cheese and want this truck to make it big. Go get ye some grilled cheese!

Second Thoughts from B

Grilled cheese gives me the warm and fuzzies too. My version, from childhood and today, is whole wheat bread, a large schmear of butter, and the sharpest cheddar you could buy. Little did I know that the sandwich I've been making since I could see over the stove would cost me $6.50 and frostbite today.

After scurrying away with our warm bag of yummy, we drove to the Mall and parked on 7th street with the Washington Monument to our left and the Capitol to our right. We enjoyed the flood of cheesy memories while enjoying a view that no 4-star restaurant can match.

The Big Cheese doesn't offer anything that hasn't come out of my kitchen before. But it is the fact that I've made hundreds of grilled cheeses that makes me look forward to our next visit to the Big Cheese. Sometimes you just can't turn down fond memories when they arrive at your doorstep.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Kaz Sushi Bistro

If you don't think food can be sexy, sushi master Kaz Okochi and his team at Kaz Sushi Bistro will change your mind. This guy can work magic with a piece of fish, but it isn't just sushi that benefits from Kaz's touch. Delicately fried calamari set atop a bed of greens enrobed in a sweet pineapple sauce bore no resemblance to the rubbery circles so often served at restaurants.

So you don't think brussels sprouts can be sexy? They are when Kaz caramelizes them and pairs them with a tangy ginger dressing. These were melt in your mouth amazing.

OK, so the tofu with sweet miso sauce wasn't the sexiest or most interesting dish we've ever tried, but the tofu was fresh and silkier than a pair of stockings.

This isn't the kind of place where you want to order a California Roll and call it a day. Let Kaz and his sushi all stars select the fish for you. They know what is freshest and most amazing that day. After the series of appetizers, we shared the "Kaz Sushi Tasting 009" consisting of 8 pieces of chef-selected nigiri and one roll. The nigiri ranged from the exotic (flounder fin and salmon belly) to the familiar (sweet shrimp and tuna), and each piece was dotted with a unique sauce to kick it up a notch. I'm going to be bold and say it was the best nigiri I've ever had. The roll (in this case, a spicy scallop roll) was what all other rolls should aspire to: the perfect balance of fresh seafood and rice.
If you're feeling really adventurous and are looking to splurge, pull up a chair at the sushi bar and order the "Ultimate Sushi." The chefs will keep serving you their favorites until you tell them to stop. So much sexy, it just might be illegal.

Second Thoughts from B

When I told J that I wanted to take her out and have a date night, I didn't know that Kaz's seafood creations would be such a culinary aphrodisiac.

But let's keep things PG. We recently wrote about allowing culinary artists to be creative and surprise you by taking advantage of tasting menus. This is an excellent example. I'd never had salmon belly but you can be sure that I'll be ordering it off of any menu that features it from now on.

We've visited Kaz on three different occasions and each time he manages to expand our appreciation for sushi with exquisite flavor combinations, exotic ingredients, and perfect textures. This is sushi done right. Exceedingly fresh and with attention to detail. And I suppose that makes it sexy.
Kaz Sushi Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Grille at Morrison House

I have a hard time passing up restaurant Groupons. I like to buy them for the places we frequent (Nando's and Tacklebox) but I also try to use them as a tool for finding new restaurants. When the Groupon for The Grille at Morrison House hit my inbox, I was intrigued by the promise of a five course chef's tasting menu for only $32. I had never heard of The Grille or the Morrison House, but I'm always up for an adventure. My friend Victoria suggested that we each purchase two and make a double date out of it.

The Morrison House is a Kimpton brand hotel tucked just off King Street in Alexandria. It oozes old fashioned charm as soon as you walk in the door. The hotel is so pet friendly that it features a chalkboard near the door welcoming each guest's pet by name.

The Grille is made up of several dining rooms and is located next to the Piano Bar that hosts jazz musicians and sing alongs. As the night progressed, the music and singing from the Piano Bar grew to an all out hootenanny. The drinks in the bar must be plentiful!

The five course menu started with a complimentary bite that tasted like a cross between tuna tartare and Pringles. For someone who loves Pringles as much as B does, this was not a bad combination.

For his first course, B chose the Umami (yellowfin tuna sashimi, pickled red onion, seaweed salad, warm dashi broth). While nicely executed, it was a bit too similar in composition to the amuse bouche (minus the Pringles).

I started with a toasty warm bowl of squash soup. It was served with a smattering of seeds on the side and we were left a bit perplexed as to whether we should scrape them up with a spoon and toss them in the soup. I ended up chasing the seeds around the plate with a spoon for a bit before giving up and focusing on the soup.

B's next course featured foie gras served along side an interesting textural combination of pickled cabbage and huckleberry compote. Though we don't usually like foie gras (I know, that is sacrilege coming from food nerds like us), B was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed this dish.

While I left all the foie to B, I gobbled up the tender braised pork cheeks served with lardons (fancy pants name for "big fatty bacon chunks"), frisee salad, and roasted shallots.

Next up for me was the Progression of Scallops which started raw (diver scallop crudo), moved into tart and modern territory (cold smoked scallop with lemon gelee), went traditional (seared scallop with bacon espuma), and finished on a warm and cozy note with a baked scallop gratin.

The Jackson Pollock below is B's lamb. B ordered the lamb. Again. The End.

Before dessert, we were each served a cheese plate that was most memorable for the sprinkling of honey "dust" on top that had an interesting grape nuts-like texture and gave the dish a sweet flair.

My dessert was actually a combination of four desserts all featuring coconut as the main ingredient. From a pina colada concoction (that hovered in between sippable and spoonable) to a classic macaroon, it was coconut heaven.

B's apple crisp dessert lacked the drama of my coconut dish but since it disappeared in about a minute, I'm going to assume that he enjoyed it.

I give major props to The Grille at Morrison House for accepting four Groupons in one sitting and being as pleasant as can be about it. This was a great example of where a Groupon experience leaves you with a positive impression of a restaurant that you didn't even know existed before Groupon shined its bright light on it. While we'd be much more tempted to go back for the tasting menu if it cost $32 instead of $65, I'd be happy to return for a smaller meal or perhaps (after a few rounds of drinks) a sing along in the Piano Bar.

Second Thoughts from B

When it comes to splurging on a meal, restaurants that feature tasting menus are right up our alley. We enjoy the opportunity to taste many different dishes and allow the artists in the kitchen to wow us with their skills.

I find it odd that people spend a lot of money to eat the food of a well-known chef, yet handcuff their talent by asking them to hold certain ingredients while adding others. If you're going to drown the dish in salt, why not just go to McDonalds and have them do it for you? Would you commission a painting and then tell the artist to add some red here and a tree there?

Sure, tasting menus may mean you'll have to endure some misses and try things you'd normally not select, but that is the fun for us. In fact, some of our most memorable meals have resulted from tasting menu dishes featuring ingredients that we'd never order on our own. Komi's goat, Hook's beet salad, CityZen's cheese plate, Poste's tomato salad, Volt's vegetarian courses, and everything from Minibar, immediately come to mind. (And yes, even the old favorites like lamb have a chance to be reinvented in new and surprising ways)

Now I might consider adding The Grille's foie gras to the list of memorable surprises. Let me be clear, I'm not saying that The Grille is necessarily in the same league as the other restaurants, but other than the Dim Sum Brunch at Cafe Atlantico, I don't know of any other place that will feed you and surprise you for around $30 (thanks Groupon!).

So next time you find yourself at a nice restaurant, put yourself in the hands of the chef and remember the words of Julia Child... don't be afraid!
Grille at Morrison House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I confess: I wanted to try Booeymonger just because I like the name. We were in the Chevy Chase area with rumbly stomachs and the sandwich shop with the catchy name called out to me.

Booeymonger is a local chain of 4 sandwich shops (the original in Georgetown and locations in Ballston, Bethesda, and Chevy Chase). The Chevy Chase location now shares space with a Fro-Zen-Yo self-serve yogurt shop, but we skipped the yogurt in favor of the sandwiches.

With fond memories of my sub from the Italian Store dancing in my head, I ordered Booeymonger's Italian Sub with Italian ham, Genoa salami, mortadella, hot peppers, lettuce, tomato, italian dressing, and provolone cheese on a baguette. While packed with flavor (and perhaps a little too much salt), the ingredients seemed fairly run-of-the-mill. A solid sandwich but nothing I'll be dreaming about.

B fared better with the Manhattan (grilled roast beef, spinach, bacon, house dressing, and cheddar cheese on a baguette). The bread was much tastier when served warm and isn't cheese always better when it's melty?

While I still think the name is more interesting than the sandwiches, it is a decent lunch option if you're shopping til you drop in Chevy Chase.

Second Thoughts from B

Booeymonger is the quintessential work day sandwich shop with a funny name. No more, no less. It is a tad overpriced, somewhat over salted, not particularly imaginative, probably less than healthy, but has a large selection of tasty sandwiches. It is something worth looking forward to when you're on the clock and in need of a quick lunch between the Board meeting ending at noon and the report that is due at 2. It probably even passes for a nice bite to eat while spending the day at the mall. Just don't confuse it with your favorite weekend sandwich shop or deli.
Booeymonger on Urbanspoon