Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Jam Cellar - Swing Dance Lessons

You're probably thinking "Swing dance lessons? What is this, 1997?"  Yes, it's been a few years since the swing craze swept the nation, but swing is alive and well every Tuesday night in DC.  B learned to swing dance in LA at the height of swingmania and, at every wedding we go to, he tries to swing me around the floor while I cling on for dear life hoping the song will end quickly. 

When it came time to write my 30 Before 30 list, I decided to add "take a beginner's swing dance lesson" so that I can keep up with my fancy footed husband.  Some quick Googling led me to The Jam Cellar, an every Tuesday swing dancing event in a gorgeously restored 18th century  mansion overlooking Meridian Hill Park.

The Jam Cellar offers a free lesson every Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m.  If you want to stay for the main event, a DJ-led dance at 9:00 p.m., it will only set you back $6.  If you really want to get into the swing of things, you can sign up for a 4-week set of lessons for $50 (includes dance admission).

Of all the things on my 30 list, I was perhaps most nervous about this swing dance lesson.  Sure, I fly through the air on the trapeze without fear, but I get really nervous about partner dancing.

The lesson was taught by Andy, who immediately put me at ease with his easy-to-follow explanations and carefree attitude.  Right when I was feeling pretty good, Andy announced that we'd be partnering up.  No problem, I thought.  I can dance terribly with B and it won't be so bad.  After a quick spin with B, Andy announced we would be switching partners. Wait, what!?  Apparently this is standard partner dancing lesson protocol, but I'm glad I didn't know about it before the lesson.  I probably never would have gone in.  Luckily, the other partners were great sports (and about as new at this as I was), and we had fun fumbling our way through the steps until it resembled something like dancing.  Each time I took a turn with Andy, I just grabbed on tightly and let him swing me around a lot.  I think once or twice I even put my feet in the right place!

Our 30 minute lesson turned into an 60 minute lesson as Andy taught us variations on the basic steps.  Not bad for a free class!  By the end, I felt confident enough to head upstairs to the big kids' dance and fumble my way through a couple of songs. 

Every time that I'm totally freaked out by something and force myself to try it, I end up glad that I did it.  The same is true for dancing at The Jam Cellar.  The atmosphere was welcoming and the price was right.  I may never be ready for primetime, but you may find me on Tuesday nights at The Jam Cellar, stepping on B's toes in the corner of the room.

Second Thoughts from B

To be perfectly clear, J's tongue is firmly planted in her cheek when she referred to me as her "fancy footed husband."  While I'm not completely oafish, I'm far from comfortable on a dance floor.  Rhythm, much less impromptu movement that some would call dancing, doesn't come naturally to me.  Perhaps that is why I like swing dancing.  I know just enough to feel comfortable, and as long as I follow the script, I'm passable.

There was a window of time when swing dancing and the related culture was cool.  The movies Swingers and Swing Kids coincided with popular music inspired by 1930's big band.  Zoot suits, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra were regularly found at parties.  And during all of this, any guy willing to learn a few basic steps would have no shortage of attractive girls asking him to go dancing every Friday night.  I was in college at this time, and needless to say, I went to my fair share of bars, clubs, and rec halls that were cashing in on the swing dancing fad.  However, by the time I met J, the national fascination in swing had faded, and my one advantage on the dance floor was lost.

Much to my surprise and delight, J added swing lessons on her 30 before 30 list.  Immediately, I had visions of grandeur.  Like Jon Favreau's Mikey, I'd shock everyone with my slick moves and sweep J (playing the part of a young Heather Graham with ease) off her feet.  I was sadly mistaken.

Within the first minute of our lesson I knew I was in trouble as our instructor taught us a completely different version of swing as the one I knew in my previous life.  Now I found myself stepping on toes, counting out loud to stay on beat (with minimal success), and apologizing to everyone who had the misfortune of being partnered with me.

But we muddled through with our supportive instructor and more than a few gracious dancing partners.  At the end of the night, we left this beautiful dance space with our egos mostly intact and a new hobby to cultivate together.  Not bad for a Tuesday night.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Belga Cafe

When you live in sniffing distance of your favorite mussels and beer in town (Brasserie Beck), it's hard to get enthused about other Belgian restaurants. However, we've been to Belga Cafe probably 5 times and have left happy every time.

Belga is smaller and homier than Beck and, in our experience, has warmer service. It has a great cluster of patio tables for watching the action on Barracks Row, and boasts a beer menu nearly as thick as Beck's.

Oddly enough, at both Beck and Belga, I've had a waiter/waitress offer, unprompted, to give me the glass my beer was served in. So now I've got three Belgian beer glasses and a Beck cloth napkin at home, and I did not steal (or even ask for) a single one of them.

In our admittedly limited view of Belgian fare, the true test of a menu is the mussels and frites (which reliably photographs poorly, so we didn't even try). We've written about the bivalves at Beck, Granville Moore's, and Mussel Bar (and have been enthusiastically encouraged to go to Mannequin Pi's in Olney, but still have not mustered the motivation to drive that far).

Belga's mussels are really good, but we've got an issue with the way they are served. Instead of putting the mussels in a wide, shallow pot or pan, Belga piles them high in a deep, narrow bowl. This means that the broth (my favorite part) is buried beneath a Jenga-tower of mussels, keeping me from dipping bread into it until I've eaten so many mussels that I'm too full for bread. Since I really only order mussels so that I can eat the frites and dunk my bread in the broth, Belga's serving strategy is not my favorite.

While I won't turn down a chance to eat at Belga, and we've been happy with the non-mussel dishes we've tried, I don't think Beck and Dr. Granville Moore are in danger of losing their top tier status in my book.

Second Thoughts From B

I don't know that I've ever walked out of the house with the intention of eating at Belga Cafe. That we've ended up there as many times as we have must be more than a coincidence. I can think of 3 restaurants in the DC Metro area that serve mussels that I prefer to Belga's. So why is it that whenever I'm on Barracks Row my first instinct is to swing by Belga?

I honestly don't know the answer. Frankly, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But something does draw me there. Is it the friendly atmosphere that seems to encourage a leisurely meal rather than a mere pit stop for refueling? Is it the sophistication of a proper European-style cafe? Or is it the result of several happy memories with good food and better friends? It is a mystery.

As a scientist, it isn't in my nature to be satisfied with the unexplained. I feel like I have to be able to logically break down what it is about Belga Cafe that makes me want to keep coming back. Chalking it up to chance, voodoo, or Jedi mind tricks just doesn't satisfy me... but clearly, something about this little Belgian cafe on Capitol Hill does satisfy me, and for now, that will have to be enough.
Belga Café on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 12, 2012


When we lived in Santa Monica, we had a favorite Italian restaurant across the street called Fritto Misto. I've been searching for the DC version of Fritto Misto ever since we moved here. Key ingredients are: 1) walking distance, 2) cozy feel, 3) freshly-made pasta, and 4) reasonable prices.

When Tortino opened recently, I was certain that it was going to be our Fritto Misto. Tortino is Chef Noe Canales' first venture into restaurant ownership after working in the kitchens of Cafe Milano, Al Tiramisu, and Tosca. It is tucked in a little rowhouse on 11th street (walking distance and cozy!). While Tortino's sign is hard to spot, just look for the "Luis Beauty Salon Unisex" sign and the Christmas lights and you'll know you're in the right place.

While we waited for our friends to arrive, we snacked on a plate of calamari that was perhaps the best-seasoned calamari we've had. The delicate breading had a spicy touch that made it hard to put our forks down. By the time our friends arrived, there was nothing left but a couple of crumbs.

B and I shared the three color salad with goat cheese, tomatoes, almonds, and lemon dressing. Not memorably amazing, but good as far as standard salads go.

I had a hard time deciding what to order and our waiter was not a lot of help. He (and the rest of the staff) seemed flustered and overwhelmed during our visit. He recommended every dish on the menu equally. I finally settled on the chesnut gnocchi with lamb ragu and ended up wishing I was eating the dish B ordered. The gnocchi were so small that they had a weird dry texture and the lamb ragu was a little too far on the sweet side of the spectrum. This dish was a miss for me, but our very hard to please friend loved every bite of the pasta dish he ordered.

B fared much better with his linguine with seafood, white wine and cherry tomato sauce. This dish is reportedly the chef's favorite and with good reason.

Tortino nailed the walking distance and cozy feel elements and performed well in the freshly-made pasta department (if you don't order the gnocchi). The reasonably priced category is debatable as the pasta dishes range from $13 to $18. The service was comically bumpy in places, but we're chalking that up to it being a new restaurant. While it's not my Fritto Misto, I am happy to have Tortino as a new neighbor.

Second Thoughts from B

When J and I write a food-related blog post, the process is as follows: I load the pictures, she provides the narrative, and then I add my perspective. The passing of the baton from one stage to the next usually comes in the form of an email or gchat that simply says, "[Restaurant name] is ready for you."

This morning, when I received "Tortino is ready for you," I immediately thought to myself: What the hell is Tortino? Needless to say, that's not the lasting impression any restaurant would like to be giving.

As J pointed out, there were high and low points. I loved the "hole in the wall" idea of the place (i.e., only locals know about it), but was disappointed by the restaurant's space that felt like a literal hole in a wall. It reminded me of the before picture from one of those home renovation shows. It was clean, but about as interesting as a rec hall. I also loved the warmth of the staff and their efforts to please, but it was obvious that most of them were new to the business.

I loved the calamari which was not only seasoned beautifully but cooked with a deft touch. The texture was perfect. However, the dipping sauce was either out of a bottle or made to taste like it was. I was very happy with the quality of my dish which far and away outshone the decor and service. However, the prices indicated a more polished product and seemed like a stretch.

If Tortino is able to work through some of these growing pains, I see potential. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The good news is that talent in the kitchen will help make people overlook the other missteps. But for it to become our Fritto Misto, or for me to even remember it as one of our local dining options, it needs to be the total package.
Tortino on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 9, 2012


Our evening at Urbana was certainly memorable. While the hidden underground dining room (part of the Hotel Palomar off Dupont Circle), the good food, and the 30% off from Savored were very nice, what will stand out in our memory when we think of Urbana is the very interesting woman who was dining at the table next to us.

I don't know how else to say this. The lady had ginormous fake breasts covered by a very tiny red dress. This woman looked so completely out of place in DC that every single staff member and every single guest walked by her table (next to our table) at least once during our meal to gawk. This woman makes Ice-T's wife Coco look demure. So, while the comedy of watching people trip over themselves to get a look at our dining neighbor sticks in our head, I don't want to let the boobs overshadow the food....

I really enjoyed the arancini (risotto balls) served in a bath of cheesy fondue. B said he liked them more than Taylor Gourmet's risotto balls! That's blasphemy to me, but they were pretty yummy.

The carrot soup was surprisingly complex and delicious. Carrot soup isn't something B would normally order, but our waitress (taking a break from giggling at the giant boobs) highly recommended it. We do too.

To take advantage of Urbana's wood oven, we ordered salsiccia pizza with sopressata, onions, artichokes, and italian sausage (hold the olives, thank you). We liked the pizza but it doesn't stand out in DC's crowded pizza scene.

What stood out (even further than the giant boobs) was the house-made egg pasta with an "intensely spicy" blue crab ragout, chili threads, and marjoram. While we might debate the intensely spicy label, there is no debating that this dish packed a flavor punch. This pasta was a winner.

Very much enjoying our evening of people watching, we wanted to linger over dessert. The waitress promised that they make their own fantastic gelato. She was right again. The coconut, pistachio, and chocolate gelato plate rocketed us straight back to Italy.

While the boobs are why we'll remember Urbana, the food was good enough to merit a return trip. I can't wait to find out what interesting people we'll see next!

Second Thoughts from B

The 13 year old boy in me is itching to come out. J just set me up to talk about boobs and balls (risotto, of course). Let's see if I can hold it together and act my age.

Dungeon-like hotel restaurants tend not to be culinary hotspots. But when a place boasts about its homemade pasta and gelato, that's a good start. After all, there are few things I love more than boobs fresh, handmade pasta, and there is nothing that J likes more than balls ice cream. Yikes, that was close. Moving right along...

Let's focus on those risotto balls. What is more blasphemous: that I like Urbana's better than Taylor's or that J likes Taylor's better than anything she tried in Italy (see the evidence here)? In my opinion, the key to a great risotto ball is balance. The whole thing is about contrasting textures, so balance is key. Do I sound like Mr. Miyagi? Speaking of balance, how could that woman balance herself on those crazy high heels while being so top heavy drunk?

Clearly I'm not cut out for the high road here so let me sum up before I get in trouble. The fact that we remember anything about our meal at Urbana is a testament to a kitchen that can be accurately labeled as a hidden gem.
Urbana on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Five years ago, B and his parents had a fantastic dinner at BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant. I promptly put it on my list of restaurants to try once I moved to DC and then I forgot about it. Fast forward five years, and we finally made it to BlackSalt for dinner.

You enter the restaurant through a bustling (but not stinky) fish market. There is a large bar area with tables and then a somewhat quieter, but not much quieter, restaurant in the back. Since we didn't have a reservation, we were seated in the busy bar area.

The menu features a rotating selection of fresh and sustainable seafood options. If you see something in the market that you don't see on the menu, let them know and they will prepare it for you.

B started with a beet salad that came close to matching his favorite beet salad of all time at the late Hook restaurant in Georgetown.

I started with the bigeye tuna tartare. You can't go three feet in DC without running into a tuna tartare appetizer and, while it is completely overplayed, I have a soft spot for it. I'm glad I went with my (boring) gut because BlackSalt's tuna tartare was the best I've had. The creamy avocado, toasted cashews, and zippy chili aioli elevated this from snoozefest to dance party. I want another one.

For his entree, B ordered the Atlantic big eye tuna in a ginger soy broth. Tuna with a ginger soy sauce is also slapped on nearly every seafood menu in town, but again, BlackSalt knocked it out of the park.

One thing I loved about BlackSalt is that they have appetizer-sized portions of entree-style dishes. For example, the seared dayboat scallops with potato gnocchi are listed on the starters menu and the appetizer size was the perfect amount of food for me. You can also ask to have any of these starters made into an entree-size portion. Flexibility to suit the littlest or biggest appetites.

I admit to ordering this dish just for the gnocchi, but ended up being wowed by the silky smooth scallops and tangy pancetta vinaigrette.

Because it is a felony in my book to turn down peanut butter and chocolate desserts, I ordered the chocolate peanut butter crunch cake with caramelized bananas and peanut butter brittle. High five to the pastry chef at BlackSalt for creating this winner. Also, high five to our waitress who didn't look at us weird when I asked for a box to take half the dessert home to savor later.

I don't know why I waited five years to try BlackSalt, but I won't be waiting another five years to go back.

Second Thoughts from B

As much as any single meal I've had, Black's in Bethesda opened my eyes to how great food can be (read about it here). BlackSalt, like its Maryland sibling, is also a game changer. As J said, the menu offerings are not going to make you fall out of your seat, but the execution will. In my experience, you won't get seafood that is consistently fresher or better prepared.

As someone who loves seafood, it kills me to hear people say that they hate eating fish. Rather, I would suggest that they hate eating poorly prepared fish. If you're one of these people, I'd encourage you to wander down to the Palisades (or Bethesda) and let them change your mind.
BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant on Urbanspoon