Ghibellina, 14UP

(See the March, 12, 2014, Review here.)

I had a friend in town, and went to Ghibellina to try their world-beating pizza, perhaps the best in all of Washington, DC right now.

After waiting for awhile, she had a San Pellegrino Grapefruit Soda (*) while I had a Frizzante ($12), Via dei Milleri Prosecco, Damrak gin, fresh strawberry, simple syrup, and lemon, and by the time we were halfway finished we got a seat at the bar.

As it turned out, we didn’t test the kitchen on this evening. Mark Kuller once told me, “If you don’t make good charcuterie, it’s much better to source it well,” and this was the case at Ghibellina.

We started out with the full monty: Varietá di Salumi Artigialani ($24), a plate loaded with the entire assortment: culatello, finocchiona, salami toscano, salsicce cinghiale, and the lone house-made item: fegatini which was also the best item on the plate.

“I could stop eating right now,” I said when we were finished.

But we’d already ordered Antipasto d’Estate (for two) ($24), Burrata cheese, balsamic-roasted cippolini onions, marinated rapini, sweet peas mash, and some unannounced button mushrooms. While the charcuterie was well-sourced, this dish was flawed, under-seasoned, under-salted, and lacking punch. Every single item was bland, and essentially, a “Burrata for one” was stretched into a “Burrata for two” due to all the condiments - which added about $10 to the price.

We saw the pizzas coming out, looking on covetously, knowing we could have ordered better. But, you still have to try different things in a restaurant, and on this evening, we had a good time, but only a decent meal that scarcely tested the kitchen with its talented chef, Jonathan Copeland. While Ghibellina didn’t lose any ground in the Dining Guide, we probably ordered some of the least rewarding things on the menu here.

We returned a week later, hoping to get at some of that terrific pizza, but ended up putting our names on a list, and subsequently found a table at Etto (so we called and removed our names – a shame because I really wanted that tremendous pizza again).

While this is technically a “review” of our meal, it’s really not. I know what Chef Copeland is capable of here, and it’s a whole lot greater than purchased culatello, as good as it was.

(*) It says something about me – I’m not sure what – that it gnaws at the inner depths of my core that I can’t remember how much the San Pellegrino cost.

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Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, Clarendon

After a painful visit to the Apple Store, I stopped in for a light meal at Fuego.

It was hot out, so I wanted something light and quenching, ordering a La Constancia Suprema, a 4.5% ABV American-styled lager from El Salvador (essentially a club soda with a bit of alcohol in it).

Using Zora Margolis as my guide, I mimicked two of her orders, and was handsomely repaid for my efforts.

Empanadas de Vegetales ($8) were exactly what a vegetarian should aim for here: three delicious empanadas, stuffed with just the right amount of roasted squash, corn, huitlacoche, goat cheese, epazote, and avocado salsa, all in proportion with one another. This is a perfect dish to experiment with the various dipping sauces even though the yeasty empanadas do just fine on their own.

Followed by an order of two Lengua Tacos ($7), slow-braised beef tongue on house-made corn tortillas, with salsa rojo, habanero, and verde – the tortillas here stay in the background, as they so often *don’t* at other restaurants, and let the braised tongue take center stage.

Both these dishes were wonderful, and although I wasn’t hungry, I realize I’d never tried the desserts here, so I ordered a Fresh Lime & Coconut Tart ($7), a light, creamy tart, mercifully short of a whip, on graham cracker crust and a drizzle of caramel around the plate – it was the perfect ending to the best meal – and really, the first excellent meal (basket of chips notwithstanding) – I’ve yet had at Fuego.

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B Too, 14UP

I had driven nearly 1,500 miles in the past week, and had just rolled in from Morgantown, dropping off my two teenage companions in Fairfax. I was exhausted, my back was hurting, and I needed to tinkle. It was nearly 4 PM – should I go home and shower, then plop down into bed?

Nah, I drove straight downtown to B Too for happy hour.

I pulled up a bar stool as they were setting up for dinner service, then sucked down a Belgian Mule ($7 at happy hour).

After I began to unwind, I began thinking about dinner since I hadn’t eaten a thing all day. I switched my drink to the house Sauvignon Blanc ($5 at happy hour), a 2012 from the French négociant Nicolas, and ordered food from the regular menu, starting with a Wilde Champignon Wafel ($13.50), a wild-mushroom waffle with porcini, enoki, and oyster mushrooms. As soon as my waffle hit the bar, I knew I had a winner – it was absolutely beautiful, both the ingredients and the presentation, and with the sauce, tasted every bit as good as it looked. A sensational vegetarian dish, this was a full level up from what you’d expect at B Too, and is more akin to something you might find in a Michelin starred restaurant. I urge everyone who hasn’t tried this to get it. Even if you don’t think you’re in the mood for mushrooms, just trust me and order this. When my bartender took the order for my next course, I said, “I think I’ll just have about five of these.”

I switched over to the house Merlot ($5 at happy hour), a 2011, also from Nicolas, and ordered two small plates: Gebraiseerd Varkenbuikje ($12), fried pork belly with Belgian pickles, braised leeks, broccoli purée, and tiny pickled onions; and Patat In De Pel Met Zure Room ($8), the most dramatic name for a baked potato I’ve ever heard, roasted in B Too’s “Josper oven” (which uses a mixture of charcoal and electric heat), crème fraîche, chives, bacon, and crispy onion. Both dishes came out within five minutes of the order which means everything was pre-cooked (you can hide this with the pork belly, but not with the baked potato which had turned brown). The pork belly was chicken-fried, and came out in a large, rectangular wedge. A very heavy dish, somewhat short on salt, it’s best attacked cut up into tiny bites and nibbled in concert with its vinegary accompaniments. The potato was a sloppy, guilty pleasure, loaded up with gooey toppings – I don’t want to think of how many calories were in this, but I did come very close to finishing it, even as I left a few bites of pork belly on my plate.

So, a tremendously good first course, followed by a merely decent second course. I’d say the meal averaged out as “very good,” but the waffle was so extraordinary that it, alone, was worth the drive of doom from Fairfax.

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Moby Dick, McLean

I’ve been going to the McLean Moby Dick for over twenty years, and it took until long after their expansions (there are now seventeen DC-area locations) for it to show any signs of wear, but for the past few years, it has been in noticeable decline.

They still have their weekday lunch specials which feature one long-cooked Persian dish each day, and on Wednesdays it’s the Khoresht Gheymeh Bademjan ($7.99), long-braised cubes of beef with yellow lentils, a cylinder of eggplant, onions, tomato sauce, and spices served with basmati rice, a small tub of Must-o Kheyar, and a half-slice of their namesake bread (which stopped being puffy, like Moby Dick himself, quite awhile ago; it’s now as flat as a pancake).

I’d rather a casserole be too mild than too seasoned, and this Khoresht Gheymeh Bademjan was mild to the point of blandness – I resisted reaching for the salt shaker, but it needed seasoning badly, and the yogurt on this particular day was quite dilute; it is sometimes thick and rich, even in current times.

The McLean Moby’s always asks for the last four digits of your phone number when you call, and I’ve been using the same digits for twenty years (even though that phone number has long-since been retired). “Ten minutes?” the gentleman asked. “I’ll be there in five,” I said, but then it took another twenty to get the order. From recent experiences, the McLean location does not begin preparing your order until you arrive and pay, and on this day, my ticket was stuck in back of a long queue – I waited long enough to finish an entire glass of Diet Coke, get a refill, and wait some more.

There is a “Tips” jar here, and I generally put in a dollar, but today I had no cash, and there’s nowhere for you to enter a tip on your credit-card receipt. Might this have sped things up? I don’t know, but I would have left something if I’d had the chance.

With the onslaught of Amoo’s, just up Old Dominion Drive in Chesterbrook, my visits to Moby Dick have become more sporadic, and on this day I was reminded why. Still, at $7.99 for a fairly large platter of food, of very good quality except for the seasoning, the lunch specials here are well-worth exploring if you haven’t tried them. I understand I’m being a bit hard on Moby’s here, but that’s only because I knew it in its glory days – considering there are seventeen locations, the quality is still high.

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MoMo’s Nepalese Food, Springfield

I had several things here the other evening, among them Lamb Choila ($7.99) which was one of the oddest plates of food I’ve had in awhile. It’s possible they’d forgotten this dish, and rushed to prepare it, but what I got was a trilogy of lamb cubes, seemingly roasted, then perhaps warmed via wok, and coated in a turmeric-y curry paste. That was the normal part.

But the two items on the side were Funkville: dry rice, and marinated soybean seed.

I’ve had a variation of the dry rice at Himalayan Heritage, but this was perhaps even more extreme. Essentially, it was a pile of paper, each piece about the size of a squashed-flat rice kernel. The appearance, texture, and flavor all were that of … paper. If someone had handed me this, and told me to eat it, then told me I had just eaten paper, I would believe them if I didn’t know what it was. What is the function of this dry rice?

“Watch out for the texture,” my server told me about the marinated soybean seed. This looked like a marinated couscous salad, except that the “couscous” had a texture somewhere in between unpopped kernels of popcorn and black watermelon seeds. The flavor was perfectly fine, but these were *so* resilient that if you had a loose filling, it would be possible to lose while using your molars (the only teeth you could possibly use to chew this). I think I could get used to these soybean seeds because the flavor was really very nice, but it might take a bit of time.

Do we have any resident Nepalese experts who can answer a simple, one-word question: Why?

The menu at Momo’s skews strongly towards Indian over Nepalese, but the Nepalese undercurrent is a strong one. A word of warning: Don’t come in here looking for beef. :)

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Virtue Feed & Grain, Old Town Alexandria

(See the June 10, 2011, Review here.)

I stopped into Virtue Feed & Grain yesterday for the first time since the divorce with Eat Good Food Group, and was surprised to see how much the menu has contracted.

I only had a bowl of Seafood Chowder ($7) with coconut milk, which was the soup of the day, and a Diet Coke, so most of my perception was visual, along with menu study.

The Chef de Cuisine is now Santiago Lopez, who was previously Executive Sous Chef at Cafe Tu-o-Tu in Georgetown. This was one heck of a promotion for Chef Lopez.

My bartender was as nice as could be, and this is still a lovely restaurant, but you can tell it’s just not the same – this has not been in Italic since the Armstrong’s left, and I see no reason to raise or lower my rating based on yesterday. The patio seating in the alley was open yesterday, and in this weather, you couldn’t ask for a more pleasant environs to dine al fresco.

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The Happy Tart, Del Ray

clayrae, on 20 Mar 2014 – 5:01 PM, said:

Hello fellow DonRockwellers! The Happy Tart is going strong in Del Ray, we celebrated our two year anniversary in January!

Here is a sneak peak of what we having coming up for Spring and the Easter Holiday:

Starting this weekend, and through April we will have Hot Cross Buns, Easter Cupcakes and Easter Sugar Cookies.

We will also be doing special cakes for Easter,  a Chocolate Sacher Torte Lamb Cake, and a Coconut Lemon Easter Bonnet!

Ordering will open April 4, check back for more details and let me know if I can answer questions about what we do!

I stopped into The Happy Tart last week for the first time. What a delightful bakery, and what a great location – just a few steps removed from the action, but still so full of life – this bakery screams “Del Ray” and is a wonderful addition to an already-wonderful neighborhood.

None other than Rachel Horoschak herself (our own clayrae) sold me my Apple Turnover ($3.00). Walking out, I regretted not trying more things to sample, but I was in a hurry and wasn’t thinking long-term.

By the time I actually enjoyed the turnover, it was the following morning with my coffee, so it was a day-old pastry. Yet, I still enjoyed it very much, and perhaps most importantly – I don’t think I would have had any idea this was gluten-free. This was three dollars very well-spent, and I’m looking forward to returning to The Happy Tart for a broader sampling of their wares.

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Del Ray Pizzeria, Del Ray

One thing I believe to be true about Del Ray Pizzeria …

May we please pause for a moment, and each pay our own silent tribute to Claudia Gomez?

One thing I believe to be true about Del Ray Pizzeria is that they may have the strongest beer program in Del Ray (Evening Star Cafe would be in the running as well). I began my early dinner with a draft of Natty Greene’s Old Town Brown ($6.50) – a somewhat thin, but flavorful brown ale that isn’t nearly as fearsome as it looks, but also lacks a bit of depth – I’m glad I tried one; I didn’t go back for a second.

Since President Obama dined at Del Ray Pizzeria, they naturally have a section of the menu (entitled “President Approved Pizzas”) devoted to his orderings, and I suspect they’re all best-sellers, too. A Large (14″), Thin-Crust “Barack My World” ($19) was, I suspect, renamed after his visit. Homemade red sauce on homemade crust, with mozzarella, pepperoni, and house-ground sausage, this was – both in name, and in reality – a glorified sausage-and-pepperoni pizza. For a thin-crust-pizza, the dough was somewhat French-bread like, and thicker than I thought it would be. The pepperoni seemed like standard-issue, thin-sliced Hormel, but the sausage – scattered thinly in fine crumbs – was a step up. In execution, the pizza should have either seen a hotter oven, or should have been cooked longer because some of the grated mozzarella hadn’t fully melted out of its grated shape. (the kitchen should be vigilant with this). If I were in Del Ray, and were choosing between this and any of the national chains, I would choose this every time, but this was nevertheless pizza designed to serve masses of people, and wasn’t a destination pie.

Note that Del Ray pizzeria also offers gluten-free pizza. They don’t offer delivery that I’m aware of, but if they did – keeping a two-mile radius enforced – I suspect it would be fruitful: there are a lot of people living in this area, especially considering high-rises are limited.

For my second beer, I tried a draft of Terrapin Rye Pale Ale ($6.50) – get it? RyePA? – and this was more to my liking. I love the taste of rye in my drinks, and it was enough to offset any pale ale hoppiness that might otherwise intrude upon my happiness.

Del Ray Pizzeria has lots of TVs, with lots of different sporting events on – I was enjoying the UVA-Hopkins lacrosse game, sitting next to a huge UVA lacrosse fan. This restaurant is almost in sports bar territory, and it was kind of fun.

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Palena Cafe, Cleveland Park

(See the March 8, 2014 Review here.)

The following course was oven roasted sea bass with coriander and lime that was the best piece of fish I’ve eaten in years. A crispy buttery salty crust atop a moist, perfectly done thick filet, with some roasted vegetables alongside.

After picking up some wines at Weygandt Wines on Friday, I stopped into Palena Cafe for dinner, grabbing the last seat at the bar just as a trio of people got up to get their table. I opted not to pay the $25 corkage fee, despite having a trunkful of wine, and order of Palena’s list. Note: I was parked in Sam’s parking lot (the one right there), and both Weygandt and Palena stamped my ticket, giving me 1-hour of free parking each, and allowing me to park for free for the 2-hour duration I was there (it would normally have been $4/hour).

I started off my meal perusing the menu and sipping a really well-proportioned, nicely stirred Campari and Soda ($8). It was then I decided to order of the “main dining room” menu, and mimic a dinner from The Real Thing, instead of “just” the cafe (there are always about three items available from the main dining room’s menu on the cafe’s menu).

For an appetizer: Crudo ($16) of Tasmanian Sea Trout, served with blood orange sabayon, ginger, and pumpkin seed. Man, this was a wonderful, elegant plate of crudo, taking the Tasmanian Sea Trout sashimi, and one-upping it by adding the very restrained amount of sabayon (sweetness), and the “pumpkin seed” which was, yes, a few seeds, but also a few slices of unimaginably flavorful roast baby pumpkin (saltiness). This is the kind of dish I would eat every single day of my life if I was a multi-millionaire with a personal chef.

For the second part of the Crudo, I would have normally switched to a white wine, but I was sitting in front of the the Haus Alpenz-imported Dolin White Vermouth, and knew that it would go perfectly with what I was eating. An aperitif-sized glass with two rocks, and I had the perfect food-wine pairing. Don’t forget Dolin (instead of that IPA) when you’re starting off a meal.

And for my entree, I got the Striped Bass ($26) that weezy had. Slow-roasted with cardamom, bay leaf, and lime, and served with kumquats (!), glazed carrots, and baby bok choy, I am in full agreement with weezy about how great this piece of fish was. An unimaginably delicious rub, accompanied by the most elegant sauce imaginable – it was spice on silk, and one of the best fish presentations I’ve had in a long time.

This dish called for a glass of wine, and I went with a carafe (at least 1 1/2 glasses) of 2012 Paolo Scavino “Sorisso” ($15) from Langhe, a perfect blend of 40% Chardonnay (heft), 40% Sauvignon Blanc (tang), and 20% Viognier (aromatics) that sang a duet with my kumquats (stop laughing).

The food portion of this meal (the crudo and the striped bass), while reasonably ample, contained what I would bet is less than 1,000 calories. Not only was it perfect, it was also the epitome of health food.

So of course I got a carryout order of Cookies, Nougat, and Caramel ($10), and let me tell you that Pastry Chef Aggie Chin has rewritten the definition of nougat. I wasn’t sure if the top-and-bottom “lining” of the nougat was paper to pull off, but it wasn’t; it was edible film, encasing the best nougat I’ve ever eaten in my life. And thanks to the lord, there were about four pieces of it in the dessert plate. Do not overlook this great plate of treats when you order dessert here!

And yet another mind-blowing showing from Palena Cafe, technically, the main dining room. It is more important to document every single time Frank Ruta scratches his shoulder, than it is trying to run around and hit every strip-mall ethnic dive in town. Thank you to Palena Cafe for yet another magical evening.

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Lupo Verde, 14UP

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

After an excellent meal at Ghibellina, I was strongly swayed that there may be a new king of the 14th Street Shuffle (the Dining Guide Shuffle, that is). Further proof that DC’s Italian Renaissance is in full-swing. People are talking about this-and-that neighborhood, but the biggest change in DC’s dining scene of late has been the explosion of high-quality, moderately upscale Italian restaurants.

And Lupo Verde, at least downstairs at the bar, positively screams Italian.

If you’ve never had a Na Biretta beer, get one, and if you like a lot of malt, get the Na Biretta Rossa ($9) – this is like Moretti La Rossa, but better, and on steroids. Excellent quality, and a very cool-looking bottle to boot. I would get this again in a heartbeat, but there are four Na Birettas on the menu, and I’m eager to try the other three.

It took forever for me to get my appetizer, probably close to half an hour, but when it arrived, I knew what took so long: I cannot imagine the labor that went into the Torta di Cozze ($9), and they’ve got boulder-sized testicoli offering this on a 14th-Street menu. Nominally a “Mussels Cake,” this was an incredibly elegant little plate of warm, shelled mussels, sandwiched between two small wafers, with a half-melted scoop of Burrata, a little Parmigiano, and a drizzle of leek sauce. While not a large dish, and perhaps more delightful than delicious, this was not a nine-dollar plate of food; get it now, or pay more later – assuming it can possibly remain on the menu.

Lupo Verde has a nice little wines by the glass list, but I went straight for the house white: Pinot Grigio on Tap ($8) from Piemonte, and it was a solid (not perfect, but solid) match with the Torta di Cozze – ideally, you’d want something a bit fuller bodied and bone dry.

I recently had a very good spaghetti carbonara at Rose’s Luxury, so I thought I’d try Lupo Verde’s Carbonara ($14) to compare – there was no comparison. Lupo Verde’s is made with homemade paccheri, guanciale, eggs, and Pecorino(-Romano?), and the paccheri is a wonderful vehicle for this classic Roman dish. This was, without question, the finest carbonara I have ever eaten. Like the Mussels Cake, it was a fairly small portion, but it was also a fairly small price – my server came down and almost apologized that the dish, served in a metal bowl, is presented merely warm, not steaming hot, because “that’s the way they eat it in Italy,” he said. Maybe, but the dish was plenty hot enough for me, and I was entranced by its execution.

Lupo Verde’s house red is also from Piemonte: Sangiovese on Tap ($8), and while this was a perfectly nice wine, especially for the price, I would counsel having it with a less-delicate, perhaps tomato-based dish, or charcuterie, and I would again recommend a full-bodied, bone-dry white with the Carbonara.

Although I was getting somewhat full, I knew I hadn’t eaten very much – these were not large courses – and since it was early, I knew I’d be wanting something later. So I got a plate of Three Cheeses ($13) to go which came with slices of bread, walnuts, and apricots. I apologize for failing to note the cheeses, but if you’d like, you can piece the order together yourselves: Lupo Verde is currently offering a total of four DOP (Denominazione Origine Protetta) cheeses, and I got the three that weren’t Castelmagno. That was about the most non-helpful thing I’ve ever written, but the portions were fair, and although the cheeses are stored in plastic wrap, they were in perfect shape (on a similar note, my beer had gone several months past its expiration date, but it, too, was in perfect shape).

It is important to recognize that I have now tried only two cooked courses at Lupo Verde, and I am not reviewing the restaurant; I am reviewing the individual meal. And I’m going to come right out and say that these were the two most refined dishes I can ever remember having on 14th Street. Needless to say, coverage is initiated, strongly, in Italic, and Lupo Verde, based on this one meal, is a legitimate contender for the 14th-Street crown.

Yeah, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

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