Thursday, December 27, 2012


Last year about this time, we were eating our way through Italy.  Ever since that trip, we've been searching for great Italian food in DC.  Dino in Cleveland Park was recommended to us as a way to fill the Italian culinary void.  When two of our buddies were visiting and staying at the nearby Marriott Wardman Park, we whisked them out of the Woodley Park Culinary Wasteland (that's WPCW . . . it's going to catch on like NoMa, just watch) and up the street to Dino.

The dish we came to Dino for was B's favorite dish in all of Italy: deep fried Roman-Jewish style artichokes.  We haven't found them on any other menu in DC and salivated at the thought of recreating such a great Roman memory.  Dino's version was close-ish, but not quite there.  These artichokes were baby-sized and had a different texture than the mammoth artichokes in Rome's Jewish quarter.  Still fun to try, but didn't hit the mark.

We have a hard time turning down burrata (mozzarella and cream) when we see it on any menu.  Dino's version was a little zippier than most thanks to the red pepper puree and tapenade served with it.

B's lasagna was the soul-warming homemade variety that is perfect on these cold winter nights.  It had a very powerful bacon flavor, which may be perfect for you if you're one of those "everything is better with bacon" folks.  If you're not, or if you have food allergies or gluten restrictions, Dino has a lot of helpful notes on the menu denoting special dishes.

The pappardelle with ground wild boar was more exciting on the menu than it was to eat.  The boar imparted a nearly overpowering sweetness that needed to be balanced out by something saltier or spicier.

We liked dessert more than the rest of our meal.  The chocolate torta with a buttery spiced walnut crust was ridiculously good and I couldn't keep my fork away from it.

B loved the apple pancake with spiced Tuscan batter and house-made vanilla bean gelato.

Dino did not transport us back to Rome, but it was a pleasant night on the town with great friends capped off with two of the more memorable desserts we've had in a while.

Second Thoughts From B

Of all the wonderful things we ate in Italy, fried artichoke is what I miss.  Was it the best thing?  Maybe.  Was it something that I've yet to find in the States?  Absolutely.

You can find great pasta, great pizza, great cheese, great wine, great most anything Italian around here.  We are certainly not wanting for many things.  Yet somehow, great fried artichoke remains elusive.

This is the second place that Google has identified (Bethesda's Food Wine & Co was the first) and the second one that only reminds me how good the artichoke was in Rome.

But enough nostalgia and unfair comparisons, and back to Dino.  I feel that there was a lot more excitement reading the menu than eating the food.  It wasn't bad, in fact, it was quite good.  Rather, the ideas on the page were excellent and raised expectations to unreasonably high levels.  Kind of like our trip to Italy...
Dino on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Shenandoah National Park

While we're spending some vacation time hiking the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu, we leave you with some thoughts on a more local hiking destination: Shenandoah National Park.

As much as we loved our Old Rag Mountain hike, we understand that it isn't for everyone.  After all, we paid a price for those spectacular views:  10 miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain, scrambling up rocks and through narrow crevices, and a brutal 0400 wake up call (what does the 0 stand for?  Oh my God it's early!).

Fortunately, there are plenty of other options in the region's National Park.  Yes, I know that there are technically lots of National Parks in the DC area, but when I think of that title, this West Coaster thinks of Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, etc.  By that measure, Shenandoah is "the" National Park in the area.  Fortunately, it is a good one.

Most visitors enjoy Shenandoah not more than 100 feet from Skyline Drive.  That's a good starting point but there is so much more.  After all, why restrict your excursion into nature by staying behind glass and on pavement?  Recently, we were joined by our hiking buddy Commie (his name is Comstock; he's not a Communist) for a 3 day stroll through the backcountry.  We chose a roughly 20 mile loop that started at Bootens Gap and included time in and around Jones Mountain, the Staunton River, and President Hoover's Rapidan Camp.

There are two things that make hiking in Shenadoah particularly nice.  There is plenty of access to water (i.e., less you have to carry) and all the trails are extremely well marked.

This particular hike was especially scenic and for a three-day weekend with pleasant (though at times rainy) weather, surprisingly empty.  The one area where we did see a few more people was at Rapidan Camp. 

I may have been in the minority but I loved having a splash of history and culture along mile 14 of our journey.  If nothing else, it was nice to get a chance to take the packs off, sit on a bench and get out of the elements for a while.  But if you're a bit of a nerd like me, you will be fascinated by this pre-Camp David presidential retreat that hosted President Hoover on nearly every weekend during the early years of the Depression.  The mental image of the President, Vice President, and Cabinet standing knee deep in the river with fishing poles and discussing the national crisis is... well... interesting.  It should also be noted that the cabin has hosted many other Presidents, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, and other dignitaries through the years.

But, back to nature.  As mentioned earlier, much of our hike passed by beautiful streams and ponds, including the one above that made for a refreshing dip.  And if you're not walking near water, you're most likely on a ridge that has breathtaking views.  On our second night, we were lucky enough to snag a camping spot along one of these ridges (and on the famous Appalachian Trail (AT)).

Not a bad way to spend a weekend when you have such beauty to greet you in the morning.

J Says

I don't know if B brainwashed me or what, but I really love spending a weekend away from civilization in the form of a backpacking trip.  After just two days, you feel as refreshed as if you've been gone for a week.  There's just nothing like being away from everything, including my beloved iPhone. 

As B said, Shenandoah has everything you'd want in a National Park and us Washingtonians are lucky enough to have it within easy driving distance.  If you're not ready to venture out on the trail overnight, there are lots of day hikes that you can cap off with an actual meal in a restaurant along Skyline Drive.  I suggest calling a ranger and getting suggestions for a hike or talking to someone in the book section of your local REI.  We've found all of our best hikes this way and they'll teach you how to beat the crowds. 

I hope your holiday season is filled with plenty of time with friends and family and just maybe (if the weather permits) a walk in the woods!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

New Fortune

On our way back to DC after a great hike at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, we stopped at New Fortune in Gaithersburg for dim sum.  New Fortune is the kind of dim sum place we're used to: huge with a traffic jam of carts in the aisles.  They serve dim sum on the push carts from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week.  This is really handy if you're in need of dim sum on a Wednesday (most places only serve it on the weekends).

The staff members at New Fortune were super friendly.  Before we had even taken our seats, a waitress noticed me eyeing the ham sui gok (football dumplings) on the cart and rushed over to bring them to us.  Within seconds, we had a table crowded with our usual dim sum favorites.

I surprised B by ordering off of the cart o' random vegetables (I usually stick to the starches at dim sum) and it was the best thing we ordered.  Their Chinese broccoli (gai lan) was outstanding.  We were happy with the other dishes too, though some were a little off on the dough to meat ratio (heavy on the dough side).

I'd probably rank it behind Mark's Duck House in quality but just in front of Hollywood East because the dim sum palace atmosphere is worth extra points.  We didn't wait for a table at 11:30 a.m. but I've heard you may be in for a wait if you go after church lets out on Sundays.  We were in and out in about 25 minutes and on the road back to DC with a brick of tasty dim sum in our bellies.

Second Thoughts From B

In my mind, New Fortune was the mirror image of the stereotypical dim sum place.  The ladies working the carts were disorientingly friendly.  The water and tea service was outstanding.  The gai lan cooked perfectly.  These are all areas that other restaurants struggle with yet the basic dumplings which form the backbone of any dim sum experience were a little off.

Since we're on vacation and I'm a normally glass half full guy anyway, I'll focus on what New Fortune did exceptionally well and as J said, that's the gai lan.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that never in the history of the world has someone gone to a restaurant because of excellent gai lan.  It is a side dish at best.  Something that adds a little color to the table and an opportunity for our mothers to tell us to each our vegetables (or roughage as my mom likes to say).

I've eaten more than my share of gai lan through the years, but I'm particularly scarred by my experiences in China.  Traveling from city to city with my extended family, we had dim sum every morning.  At 7am.  Often in a stuffy hotel ballroom that was struggling with the ambient heat and humidity of a Chinese summer.  Nothing like waking up way too early, wandering into a sauna, and having a giant plate of hot vegetables placed in front of you while your grandmother takes mental notes on who is eating what.  Not that I'm complaining, but it turned my insides green.  I'm the wrong kind of doctor, but that doesn't seem right.

For the last 15 years, I haven't seen gai lan the same way.  I still like it but I've never been particularly excited about it.  Its either too hard or too stringy or too bitter or too heavily coated in sauce.  Much to my surprise and their credit, New Fortune made me do a double take.  My chopsticks kept finding their way back to the pile of greens instead of the dumplings.  Quite a feat.
New Fortune on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

National Christmas Tree Lighting

Last week, we had the pleasure of attending the 90th lighting of the National Christmas Tree at President's Park next to the White House (not to be confused with the Capitol Christmas Tree in front of the Capitol Building).

It was very exciting to see President Obama and family light the tree.  After the former tree was felled by a storm and the 2011 tree died of transplant shock, it was nice seeing a healthy-looking and not scraggly 2012 tree.  Let's hope this one lasts for generations to come!

Musical performances by acts such as Colbie Caillat and Jason Mraz got everyone in the holiday spirit.

James Taylor's rendition of Winter Wonderland gave us happy chills (to go with our "we've been standing in the cold for hours" chills).  Is there a more soothing voice on the planet?

Neil Patrick Harris (a.k.a. Barney wait-for-it Stinson) did a fabulous job as host, keeping the show moving and interjecting his own special blend of humor.

We highly recommend braving the cold next year to attend the tree lighting.  If you're interested, here are our top tips for maximum enjoyment:
  • Enter the online free ticket lottery in late October (have all of your friends do it to increase your chances).
  • If you get Standing Room Only tickets like we did, don't be deterred because you can still see the stage if you go early enough.  They also have giant screens to help you see the action up close.
  • Send at least one member of your party to get there right when the gates open.  I arrived at 2:30 p.m. for the 3:00 p.m. gate opening and was at the very front of the Standing Room Only section.  B arrived at 4:00 p.m. and had to wait in a ginormous line, but was able to wriggle his way up to me.
  • Dress very, very warmly because you'll be standing in one spot for hours.
  • Before the show (between 4:30 and 5:00 pm), if the seats aren't all filled, they will allow Standing Room Only people to fill the seats.  Look for this and be ready to move.  We were happy with our standing spot, but lots of standers were able to snag seats.
  • Don't leave once the President lights the tree! He does this at the beginning of the show but then comes back later to speak.  So many people left right after the Obamas lit the tree and they missed all the fun stuff.
  • Again, dress very, very warmly so you don't have to leave before the show is over!
Happy Holidays to you!

Second Thoughts From B

Whether you like the President or not, you can't deny that he can draw ridiculously high-powered talent to play shows in DC.  Better yet, many of these opportunities are free.  Let's look at that last photo for a second.  In addition to the aforementioned James Taylor, Colbie Caillat, Jason Mraz, and Neil Patrick Harris, the first family is joined on stage by The Fray, Ledisi, American Idol winner Phillip Phillips, Babyface, and Modern Family's Rico Rodriguez.  Heck, even Santa Claus himself joined in! 

It may be dismissed as a touristy and crowded mess in the cold, but not only are we happy we got to go, we'd love to do it again.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

TaKorean at Union Market

Part 3 of our series "What To Eat At Union Market" (here's Part 1 and 2) takes us to TaKorean.  Like DC Empanadas, TaKorean is a DC food truck that has taken up permanent residence at the market.  Capitalizing on the Korean taco craze made famous by LA's Kogi Truck, TaKorean serves a variety of tacos with a Korean twist.

On this visit to Union Market, I ordered the bulgogi (beef) tacos topped with kimchi slaw, lime crema, sriracha and sesame seeds (hold the cilantro, please).  There is a lot going on in these tacos but it all works together surprisingly well.  If you're spice averse, you can order a milder slaw and leave off the sriracha.

TaKorean offers beef, chicken and carmelized tofu taco fillings and I can enthusiastically recommend the beef.  I tried the tofu from the truck once and found it to have a strange, almost anise-like flavor.  It wasn't my jam, but I do like that they have tofu as an option.  Since you can mix and match tacos, I'll likely give the tofu another go on our next visit to Union Market.  If I still don't love it, I know I'll have those awesome bulgogi tacos to comfort me.

Second Thoughts From B

As we learned in kindergarten, sharing is caring, and I'm happy to report that J cares about me.  That means I got two bites from her three TaKorean tacos.

You could take that one of two ways.  It is either "only two bites?" or "two whole bites!"  Having that I'm in the latter camp and thoroughly pleased that I was able to taste the wonders of Mexican-Korean Food Truck Fusion, you know those things were good.

Another way you could tell TaKorean knows what they are doing?  Soon after I took my second bite, they pulled a Keyser Soze and were gone.
TaKorean (Food Truck) on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 3, 2012

Rabieng Thai Restaurant

Earlier this year we wrote about Duangrat's Thai Restaurant in Bailey's Crossroads, VA and mentioned that Duangrat's has a sister restaurant around the corner named Rabieng.  Rabieng is the more casual little sister of Duangrat's serving "Thai country comfort cooking."

The restaurant is small and cozy.  On our visit a few months ago they were playing Christmas music.  Never too early to get into the spirit I guess?

We ordered a couple of appetizers to get the Thai party started.  I ordered "Tidbit" because I liked the name.  Luckily, the dish (crispy rice cakes with peanut coconut sauce) was as fun as the name.  The rice cakes provided a crackly bed for piling on the deliciously tangy peanut coconut sauce.

Even more fun was a special "street snack" item that consisted of rice noodles tossed in a sticky sweet tamarind sauce.  They described it as something close to rice krispy treats.  While I don't think it resembled the rice krispy treats of my youth, I really enjoyed this salty-sweet combo.

The waiter recommended one of the specials for B: a crispy-coated fish tossed in a sauce that was delicious and easier to remember several months ago but has since slipped from B's memory.

I ordered the special pad thai topped with softshell crab.  I was expecting the standard, safe pad thai dish but was really impressed with Rabieng's version.  The flavors were really bold and each ingredient tasted fresh and perfectly cooked.  This was definitely one of the best pad thai dishes I've had and I order pad thai like it's going out of style.

Our meal at Duangrat's left us wanting more, but the little sister Rabieng delivered a stellar performance.  Our advice?  Skip the fancier Duangrat's and go around the corner (in a sort of hard to find side alley strip mall) and go to Rabieng. 

Second Thoughts from B

Wow, it has been a long time.  Yes, a long time since we posted, but that's not what I meant.  I was thinking along the lines of: wow, it has been a long time since we ate at Rabieng. 

On one hand, you could say that time has dulled any details from my memory (true).  On the other, you could say that only the really strong impressions remain (also true).  So let's go with the glass half full version.

Looking through the filter of time, I can't remember a single thing about my entree.  In fact, if we hadn't taken a picture of it, I wouldn't have the slightest clue what I ordered.  That basically means it wasn't bad, but it didn't rock my world either.  Moving on.

I do remember lots of crispy, tangy, sweet, and very orange appetizers, and I remember them well enough to still be able to taste them in my mind, as evidenced by mouth starting to water as I type. That's a pretty good sign that we'll be back.  In fact, I'm willing to wager that the following conversation is on the horizon:

J: Where do you want to go to eat?
B: How about that crispy orange appetizer place?
J (without missing a beat): You mean Rabieng!  Let's go!

My memory of the past isn't so good but I'm pretty confident in my prediction for the future.  Maybe I'll even remember my entree next time.
Rabieng on Urbanspoon