ABC Canteen, Fairfax

(For the Dec 4, 2015 Review, click here.)

Having had such wonderful tamales on my previous visit to ABC Canteen, I made a return visit for lunch to explore in more depth. At the very top of their menu is the Fish & Chips ($7.95), three large strips of cod, with a sturdy, tempura-like batter having a pale, golden hue that’s optimal for flavor, texture, insulation, and handling – it’s easy to pick these cod strips up and dunk them in the house-made tartar sauce without loss of integrity. They also came with some thin-cut, fairly typical frozen french fries that I thought had one shake of salt too many – I would urge less exuberance with the salt-shaker, and allow the diners to self-adjust as needed. If you like fish & chips, you’ll enjoy this fish and tartar sauce, while being left wishing for more distinctive chips. A Fountain Soft Drink ($1.85) allows for unlimited refills (depending on the time of day, and my current need for caffeine and/or sugar, I auto-adjust the ratio of Diet Coke to regular Coke – almost always, I stick with Diet Coke, but on this day I cheated by adding a couple ounces of high-test for a cheap, temporary fructose buzz.

The Tamales ($2.50) are still chicken or pork, and I got four of them to go – three chicken, and one pork – and I’m not sure why I was surprised to open the container only to be stared down by four unadorned corn husks. I mean, what else was I expecting? The corn husks being the perfect protector, I nibbled my way through this order, making it last over the course of two days. Without any adornment, the tamales might be (might be) a touch dry, so if you get them to go, make sure to get a few containers of sauce to add – I did this, and was glad I did. The tamales remain terrific, and are reason enough to frequent ABC Canteen.

On the following day, I got a text message from my young dining companion asking me if I wanted to have lunch. I knew just the place, not far at all from Woodson High School and his home turf: ABC Canteen – straight down Pickett Road, left on Lee Highway, and you’re there. On my first two visits, I had flown over with drones on reconnaissance missions; now, I had the infantry and strong air support backing me, and the two of us carpet-bombed the menu. I started with another Diet Coke ($1.80), because you need to cut corners where they’re expendable, and I certainly don’t need empty calories from soft drinks.

Chicken Wings ($10.50 for 12): Get them. We had a choice of BBQ or Buffalo sauce (Buffalo), and blue cheese or ranch dipping sauce (ranch) – Matt adores chicken wings (he’s 18), and we both really liked these – it hurt for me to show restraint, but I saw how much he was enjoying them, so I let him have the lion’s share. There seemed to be an even mix of wings and drumettes in the order – I suspect if you prefer one over the other, all you’d need to do is ask, but I don’t know this for a fact.

Both of us got a Steak Mojo Sandwich ($7.50), a surprisingly elegant sub, smaller than a foot-long, featuring much higher-quality steak than is the norm (this was actual steak; not Steak-Umms), a light touch of Monterey Jack, Sriracha mayo (faux-Mojo sauce), lettuce, and tomato, all neatly served on a relatively short, flat, toasted sub roll – this was not a sloppy sandwich at all, and wasn’t the type of gooey, saucy steak-and-cheese that leaves you feeling guilty for having downed.

Perhaps the highlight of the meal was a justifiably vaunted, highly touted order of Hush Puppies ($2.50), which were delicious for reasons I wasn’t expecting: the flour inside was pale, and there were no kernels of corn; the batter and the fry-job were both perfect, and the texture, consistency, and halbtrocken palate presence were absolutely appropriate, and these were a perfect accompaniment to our sandwiches.

Note that there are combos on the menu which include soft drinks – at the time of this writing, I have no idea whether or not I ordered them or got the discounts (I just now noticed, and don’t much care, but thought it was worth a mention).

ABC Canteen is strongly maintained in Italic and remains recommended – it’s an independent restaurant worth your time and effort: The food here is good, the restaurant is squeaky clean, and the service is extremely friendly and thoughtful. I again want to stress that this is very, very close to the intersection of I-66 and Nutley Street.

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Rye Bar, Capella Hotel, Georgetown

On an absolutely *frigid* Monday evening, I drove to Georgetown, only to find K Street blocked off, and I was diverted onto the Whitehurst Freeway, where I was spit out near the Key Bridge. Turning right on M Street, I drove down past Wisconsin Avenue, only to find police cars blocking every side street to the South (someone very important was dining somewhere in South Georgetown Monday night, and I don’t think all this was for me).

I parked on Wisconsin, and scampered down to the Capella Hotel, teeth chattering by the time I got there. Walking into The Rye Bar, I saw the center seat at the five-seat bar empty, so I nabbed it.

The bartender was young, albeit a seasoned restaurant worker, and I got mixed signals from him all evening long. When I asked him to make me a non-alcoholic cocktail of his choice, I sensed an air of resignation (I suspect the average bar tab here is fifty dollars); yet, he made me a terrific drink – essentially the same drink I’d had on the two previous evenings, except this time it was vigorously shaken, and served up in a Margarita glass. Of the three different variations on this exact same cocktail, I liked this one the best – I also noted that it had about five different ingredients in it, so it was not a simple drink, and the pinkish-orange color came not from orange juice (although there was some in there), but a bit of cranberry juice to go along with lemon-infused simple syrup, etc.

The selection of liquors at Rye Bar is fantastic – it’s expensive as sin, but they’re using expensive liquor, and that $22 Manhattan is barrel-aged for two months downstairs before being siphoned off. If you want top-end Ryes, Bourbons, Gins, Tequilas, et al, this is the place to come if you don’t mind paying for it.

Here to get Ruta On The Cheap, I opened the menu and found just a few items of bar food, although I’ve heard that, in the general case (but not always), you can get The Grill Room’s dishes in Rye Bar – I would certainly call first to be safe. Here’s their menu, the last page of which contains the Bar Bites (made in the same kitchen as The Grill Room):

RyeBarMenu-112315

When I saw the menu, there was never any doubt what I’d be ordering: The Grill Room Burger ($22) was a *dead ringer* for the Palena burger of old, and I mean I couldn’t tell the two apart, and there’s also no doubt that this is one of the greatest hamburgers you’ll ever eat. Ordered medium-rare, it came on a house-made sesame bun, with house-made mayonnaise, topped with truffle cheese, and served with house-made pickles. Alert, alert! Frank Ruta is capable of making crispy french fries! Much to my chagrin, the mushy, soft, mashed-potato like fried potatoes on the old Palena Fry Plate are gone, and have been replaced by – yes, crispy! He can do it after all! – shoestring fries cleverly served in faux-newspaper. I actually thought these fries were the weak link on my three consecutive meals here, being just too salty for my taste, and crispy to a fault – and yet, crispy they were. I’m proud of you, Frank – you’ve learned well over the years. :)

If you miss Palena’s burger, come to Rye Bar, because here it is – the exact same thing. To think that this sandwich debuted for *nine dollars* at Palena! I can’t say I didn’t take advantage of it, so I have no regrets; just sorrow, but that’s mollified knowing I can still get his cooking here at Capella Hotel.

Along the way, I got another drink – the same – and this time I watched as the bartender walked me through it. I know this isn’t au courant in this decade’s mixology theory, but I *love* tiny ice crystals in my shaken drinks, and I got them in this – just enough to notice for a few seconds before they melted away into nothingness.

I wanted to get a “Movie Night” dessert, but to my surprise, the bartender told me the kitchen had closed (I was surprised because I glanced at my cell phone shortly afterwards, and it was 8:48 PM). Well, it was an empty Monday night, and was about 15 degrees outside with a nasty wind chill, so all is forgiven. Instead, I ordered the Cookies & Confections ($12), and got it to go. This turned out to be about 15-20 of the little mignardises (with a few that I hadn’t yet seen, such as Killer Brittle), and is worth every penny. I actually have a few left for this evening, but Matt is arriving, so the odds of me finishing them are something between zero and nil.

After three visits, I’m still not sure how much non-alcoholic cocktails cost because I was only charged for one drink, and it was only $4. To make sure it was okay, I thanked the bartender, and told him I’d leave it on his tip, and I tipped him well. On my way out, I glanced over my right shoulder, and the hostess was still at the host stand in The Grill Room, probably waiting to say goodnight to the last customers.

Rye Bar’s one huge advantage over The Grill Room is that you can get Palena’s cheeseburger – remember that little trinket, because it’s every bit as good as you’ll remember from days gone by.

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The Grill Room, Capella Hotel, Georgetown

(For the Jan 4, 2016 Review, click here.)

“Oh, my *God*!”

Earlier in the day, I had told my young dining companion that I wanted to take him to a super-deluxe, special meal to celebrate his first semester in college. He said, “What about Corduroy?” (we’d just been to the bar on Christmas Eve), and I replied, “Something even more fancy – it’s been a long time.”

So he cobbled together whatever he could from his suitcase, and we drove down to Georgetown on an empty Sunday, late afternoon, and pulled up only a block away from the Capella Hotel. As we walked into the lobby, I saw Matt look around, and as we passed The Rye Bar, I heard him say, under his breath, “Oh, my *God*!” – he had never really been into a five-star hotel before, and he felt like he had been thrust into The Twilight Zone. We walked up to the host stand, and were seated at a two-top near the patio, where the heated torches were burning – at this hour, we were the only people in the restaurant.

Our server asked us if we wanted still or sparking (both come in a carafe, and both are gratis), and we told him we’d both like a non-alcoholic cocktail, whatever they felt like making. We both got very similar drinks to the one I’d enjoyed the night before – with ginger and citrus being the primary flavors. The prior evening, mine came in a highball glass on the rocks; this time, they came in a cocktail glass with one of those giant, fancy ice cubes you sometimes see (I love these things, and think they make a definite difference in the quality of the drink – they may sound incredibly pretentious, but they really do work).

I urged Matt to get the Boudin Blanc ($20, see the previous post for details of the dish), which he did at my entreaty, and he loved it. I only got a couple bites, but the dish seemed very similar to what it was the night before – I didn’t get any oyster mushrooms, but Matt said they were in there. He, too, thought the chestnut ravioli were outrageous – these ravioli are so good that a legitimate, evil perv-fantasy would be to take a bath in them, eating your bathwater as you lie there.

I got all sentimental about Palena and ordered the Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi ($17) with Honshimeji mushrooms, wild rice, sweet potato, and fonduta. I *loved* this gnocchi for several reasons, not the least of which is that there was so much of it. It seemed a bit denser that what I’d use to enjoy at Palena, but not in a clumsy way at all; just a style choice, and with the mushrooms? This was a killer gnocchi that should be on everyone’s bucket list. It was just so elegant, while at the same time being so, so satisfying.

For the mains, Matt ordered the New Zealand Venison Loin and Pipe Dreams Pork Belly Duo ($32) with stewed hominy, Honey Crisp apples, and roasted kale buds. This was a busy dish (in a good way) whose ingredients were like turning the pages of a book you just can’t put down – every bite found something new and interesting to ponder; unfortunately, by the time it got to me, the lion’s share had been consumed, and I got mostly scraps, but enough to see what this was all about – the pork belly was *extremely* fatty, which acted as an offsetting force to the deeply charred, lean, venison, and it was possibly the most complex dish being offered on this evening (from a diner’s point of view) – it was the only one with co-stars, and the somewhat unique ingredients made this a dish you almost need to order twice in order to really appreciate.

I kept it simple and ordered one of the items off the “From Our Grill” section: a Thick Cut Berkshire Hog Chop ($36). All the grilled items are served with oven-roasted potatoes, Fall vegetables, spiced red onions, and with a warm, anchovy, balsamico vinaigrette. As advertised, this was a *thick* cut of pork – I’d say over an inch thick in parts, and what’s interesting is that just from a taste perspective, the saucing bore a strong resemblance to the teriyaki sauce I had the other evening at Hula Girl. This was arguably a more Hawaiian dish than what I’d had in Shirlington last week, and I have no doubt this was intentional.

Oh! The bread plate! This time it came with focaccia-like slices, but also some sweet cornbread and, most importantly, some of the best biscuits I’d ever eaten. Matt took one bite of his biscuit and made an audible hum; I had my first bite maybe five minutes later and made a similar sound. They were buttery, flaky, cubical, correctly seasoned, and awesome. So much so that we asked for an extra order to help us through our main course. However, entirely due to the biscuits, I ended up with some pork to take home (with which they generously added two *more* biscuits). Somewhere in the middle of all the fun, I had a second non-alcoholic cocktail – perhaps because I was recognized as having been there the night before, and perhaps because I was fine-dining with a teenager, our beverages were not on the bill.

We were stuffed, but dessert was mandatory – not just one to split like we usually do, but one each: We were *dining* this evening, and we could not have ordered two more diametrically opposite desserts, both equally great.

Daily Dose of Vitamin C ($12) was something of a cold citrus soup (or, at least it turned into one). Made with Meyer lemon sorbet, candied kumquats, yogurt snow, black pepper meringues, and champagne sabayon, it gave off the illusion of being a bowlful of health. Not decadent at all, but wonderfully refreshing after the hog chop, my only regret is that it was physically impossible to get every last drop of this without a finger swipe, and that can’t be done here (although I did pick up the venison and gnaw on the bone).

The Chocolate Dessert ($12) is a composed plate (they’re actually all composed plates) with a rarely (if ever) seen Manjari torte, cashew blondie, passion fruit caramel (isn’t this sounding good?), caramelized white chocolate crema, and coffee ice cream. It doesn’t really sound all that chocolatey, but it was, and other than the temperature (it seems like most desserts here are small, collections of items served at room temperature or slightly below), was vastly different than the citrusy bowl of delight which sat across the table from it.

I wanted to surprise Matt with the mignardises, and they were slightly different on this evening – we both bit into our pâte de fruit, on this evening shaped to look like a giant nonpareil (remember those things you used to buy at a movie theater?), and immediately looked at each other and started smiling, the Pop Rocks exploding inside of our heads as we just shook our heads in awe.

This visit was a mere formality – The Grill Room is raised to Bold. Once again, I stress that this is a Michelin one-star dining experience, and can safely say that The Grill Room is one of the very greatest restaurants in the Washington, DC area.

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The Grill Room, Capella Hotel, Georgetown

Chestnuts and Oyster Mushrooms

DonRocks, on 11 Oct 2015 – 2:46 PM, said:

Elli Benchimnol is doing the wine program.

Pool Boy, on 11 Oct 2015 – 7:45 PM, said:

Has Keith already departed?

DonRocks, on 11 Oct 2015 – 8:50 PM, said:

Maybe not.

Elli and Keith are good friends. I heard from Elli (Terry Theise is coming into town, and she needed his email), and she said, “When are you coming in to see me at The Grill Room?” (I was supposed to go on Friday, but I have to take my visitors to the airport, so Terry abandoned me!) Anyway, I took that to mean that she was there – but that doesn’t mean Keith isn’t, and it doesn’t necessarily mean she is – they could be easily working in tandem. It’s also quite possible Elli is working the bar whereas Keith is in charge of the wine program.

At this point, you all know as much or more than I do!

Keith is running the wine program, Elli is running the cocktails program.

I stopped into The Grill Room last night, and in keeping with my New Year’s Resolution which will probably last another day or so, had the bartender make me a Non-Alcoholic Cocktail ($8) with ginger and citrus – I was asked if I wanted it neat or on the rocks, and said “however they want to make it” (rocks) – it was really good, and I ordered a second one.

A bread basket arrived with what might (or might not) be Panorama bread, sliced, with good, creamy, salted butter – just right, and with a crunchy crust and mie that did its job in swiping up every drop of sauce in the dishes.

Robert Wiedmaier may want to come here and try the Boudin Blanc ($20), exceptionally wicked because it came with chestnut ravioli, (locally foraged) oyster mushrooms, and celery. It was a phenomenal, treble-spiced Boudin Blanc, but made even greater and balanced by the bass tones of the ravioli, which were not only stuffed with chestnuts, but also had chestnut flour – they were dark brown in color – and the oyster mushrooms were just out of this world. This is the type of dish that you wish you could have about ten of during your Christmas engorgement; as it was, it was amply sized but oh my *goodness* what a tease. Why did it have to end?

Because there was more coming. The Florida Red Snapper ($36) was slow-cooked with bay and cardamom, also with locally foraged oyster mushrooms (getting these in your back yard, Frank?), chrysanthemum leaves, and pickled ginger. Served in a fairly deep bowl (as all Grill Room’s dishes seem to be – Frank is a “brodo guy,” and a self-proclaimed “bread-swabber” – the sauces here are by no means excessive, but there’s generally a couple swipes-worth left at the end of the dish, and it’s a crime against humanity to let it go to waste). A lot of people might see this dish as expensive for the quantity you get – it’s a medium-large piece of fish, but by no means a feast – but the quality was so high that it justifies the price, especially when combined with everything else in the package: the atmosphere, the service, etc. The fish was delicious, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t order it for the oyster mushrooms in order to make a themed meal. I also feel like I now know – really, know – what Florida Red Snapper is supposed to be like, both in taste and texture.

I’d had a couple slices of the bread, a few bites with butter, a few bites with sauce, so I was pleasantly full at this point, but you can’t come here and not order one of Aggie Chin’s desserts (refer to the “crime against humanity” thing up above) – we *must* support such a high level of talent, and so I did when I ordered the “Mont Blanc” ($12 (all desserts are $12)), which I assume is named as such because it’s “part-French, part-Swiss, part-Italian” (the tunnel underneath Mont Blanc leads from Italy to France, but it’s only about 20 km away from Switzerland, and the dessert in its classic form (here, the <<aux marrons>> version) also resembles the snow-capped mountain itself – the highest mountain in the Alps). This is a small, arranged plate of chestnut parfait, chestnut chocolate cream (are you starting to pick up on the title of this post?), milk chocolate ice cream (Switzerland), and chestnut hazelnut cake. Although this dish has been modernized visually, it still clings to its classic roots, right down to the “spaghetti strands” of puréed chestnut on top.

And we can’t forget the mignardises that came at the end: a chocolate lollipop, a pear financier, blood orange mimosa pâte de fruit, a grapefruit-champagne macaron, and the legendary caramel.

Uncertain of the specific criteria the Michelin inspectors in France must check off (they absolutely have a laundry list), I can only guess, but I can safely say that in terms of atmosphere, service, wines, and food, The Grill Room easily merits a Michelin star.

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Simply Fresh, McLean

This is an interesting situation for me as moderator, and if we had an existing thread for Boss Hogs (we don’t), I’d probably mark that as closed and give Simply Fresh a clean slate. Chef Rana (Rana is her first name) took over Boss Hogs in June, 2015, and changed it to Simply Fresh – both the interior and the patio look *nothing* like I remember Boss Hogs looking like, so unless I’m not remembering correctly, she really gave it a redo.

I was driving in McLean, and was planning on going somewhere else, but I saw the sign for Simply Fresh, and it looked brand new to me, almost like some sort of grand opening, so I parked on Elm Street and marched on in, shocked at how nice looking the restaurant is now. It’s still a cafe, but it’s very clean, and looks like it just opened last week (the cashier told me it’s been open since the summer, which surprises me).

The cashier is a young gentleman, and Rana is his mom (I’m assuming from the language on their website (they have a second website, apparently for online ordering) that she’s the owner as well as the chef). Since he’s attached to the restaurant, and since there’s such a diversity of items on the menu, I trusted him, and flat-out asked him what he liked. “I really like the lamb,” he said, and so the lamb it was.

This is where it gets even more interesting for me, because last night I went to Hula Girl in Shirlington, and had what amounted to a blue-plate special with their steak teriyaki. As it turns out, the Roasted Lamb with Potatoes ($12.99) made these two restaurants, in my mind, somewhat alike – the lamb, too, was a blue-plate special. The dish was like something my mom would have made (if she was Greek) – a few slices of fully cooked leg of lamb, high on the flavor meter, accompanied by large, bite-sized chunks of roasted potatoes, and a side salad – both dishes (this one, and the one from last night) were meat-starch-salad, were about the same size, and were about the same price; the only thing different – vastly different – is the atmosphere of the two restaurants: Hula Girl is a bright, noisy bar; Simply Fresh is a quiet, workaday cafe.

I had just gotten some always-needed cardio, and was starving – I knew halfway through the dish that I was not going to be terribly full, despite it being a perfectly reasonably sized portion of food. Knowing that the Orange Bowl was starting at 4PM, and that I’d be plastered in front of the screen (I’m watching and typing at the same time), I wisely got a second dish to go for later in the day, which was a “special” listed on the chalkboard out in front of the restaurant – however, the exact same dish is on their regular menu, so it was more marketing than anything else. I figured the Roasted Chicken with Potatoes ($9.50) would be the same plate of food as the lamb, and other than substituting chicken for lamb, it was. An uncut, half-chicken was well-roasted – rubbed, moist, and super tasty – whether or not you get the chicken or lamb depends solely if you’re in the mood for chicken or lamb – I can recommend them both as good, hearty plates of food – nothing you’ll remember in a month, but solid.

Just having finished the chicken dish a few minutes ago (I didn’t even need to heat it up), I realize that this was my final meal, and final write-up, of 2015, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do to celebrate the New Year, than to support a local, family-owned, mom-n-pop (or, in this case, mom-n-son) restaurant – Hula Girl, too, despite it’s pomp and circumstance, is pretty much of a mom-n-pop; just in a completely different style (and most likely with some investors).

Simply Fresh (the sign says, “Simply Fresh – barbecue & more”) has BBQ, and a couple girls walked in and picked up a $100+ order, undoubtedly to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Simply Fresh is big on breakfast, and across from the counter on the right, where you order your meal, it also has a counter on the left, with a pastry display case and an Illy coffee setup – this is probably where the cashier is in the mornings (have a look at this breakfast menu, and file it away in your head for future reference). They’re open 7 days a week at 7AM each morning, except for Sundays, when they open at 8AM – I would not hesitate to try the breakfasts here. It’s a pleasant, albeit somewhat stark, place to eat, and you won’t regret coming here, although it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a clunker or two on the menu (when one person does all the cooking, it’s hard to do *everything* well).

Over the next hour or so, I’ll be either cursing at the TV or jumping with joy (Clemson is down 17-16 at halftime to a resilient Oklahoma Sooner team), and then, when it’s over, I’ll forget about it (unless Clemson wins), and I’ll be spending this evening doing exactly what I want to be doing, given that I can’t be with the people I want to be with: staying home, not having a drop to drink, relentlessly practicing a Beethoven sonata, maybe watching a rerun or two, and being thankful for this wonderful community. Happy New Year, everyone! I hope that 2016 brings you everything you wish for, and please remember always how grateful I am to have you in my life.

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Hula Girl, Shirlington

The exact opposite of what usually happens to me, happened to me tonight when I walked into Hula Girl. Usually, I may have a bias (a bias, not a prejudice) before I go to a restaurant, but as soon as I walk in that door, the bias gets vaporized.

Tonight, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Hula Girl, and no preconceived notions. However, when I walked in, I was immediately assaulted by four words: “loud, bright, sports bar.” I assumed the position, with my non-expectations significantly lowered based on what I initially saw – if it wasn’t for the surfboards on the ceiling, I wouldn’t have even known I was in a Hawaiian-themed restaurant.

My bartender may well have been an owner. I say this not because he might have been Polynesian, but because he went the extra mile with his extraordinary friendliness and courtesy. More on that later, but if everyone who works at Hula Girl is this customer-oriented, then they’ve done some serious staff training, because this guy was great.

I began my simple meal with a can of Maui Brewing Company Mana Wheat ($6). I’d never had this beer before – I’d never seen this beer before – and although it seemed to have some characteristics of mass-production, I still enjoyed it. At 5.5% ABV, it pours like a Blonde Lager, with hints of grain on the nose – I don’t think I’m imagining this just because it has “wheat” in the name, but I’m not going to rule that out either because mass-produced beers can add things that play with your mind (they produce at least 75 beers, so I’m assuming their production is on the high side).

Looking over the menu, there wasn’t all that much that seemed Hawaiian to me, but there was some. The one thing I remember the most about the food in Hawaii was the shockingly great quality of their produce, and unfortunately, that’s just not something that’s easy to replicate in Shirlington. So instead of chasing leprechauns, I decided to go “Hawaiian-themed,” but also to remember where I was: I got the Steak Teriyaki ($16).

The dish consisted of two square cuts of very tough, well-marinated steak, two scoops of good, short-grained rice, and most importantly, a side salad (you have your choice of a green salad or a mac salad) that correctly balanced out this very simple dish of meat-rice-salad. The rice mixed well with the teriyaki sauce, but most importantly, the salad consisted of romaine which has the crunchy texture you want with this dish, and not “leafy greens” which would be soft and flaccid. While nothing in this dish was great, the combination worked, and the crispy lettuce brought it all together. This was something like you’d expect as a blue-plate special, and you’d walk out pretty pleased.

So I don’t get people’s hopes up, I want to reemphasize that the steak was very tough, albeit flavorful, and it stood up well to the teriyaki sauce. The short-grained rice was good enough to almost tempt me into ordering the Spam Musubi afterwards, which was only three dollars, but I decided to exercise some restraint and be content with what I ordered – there’s always a “next time,” and to my surprise, Hula Girl – based on this one meal – merits a next time. Nothing gets a rave, but it was solid, and my bartender displayed a level of service that makes me want to come back. He was going out of his way to access the tough-to-reach corner of the bar and pour my beer for me, despite my protests, and he was wonderful.

It’s not possible to “rate” a restaurant based on a single beer and a steak teriyaki lunch plate, and I suspect Hula Girl will never be great, but it could be a solid addition to Shirlington, and there’s nothing about tonight that will keep me from returning. It was crowded, and that made me happy.

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Wiseguy NY Pizza, Rosslyn

I ordered a whole pizza from the Rosslyn location of Wiseguy NY Pizza, and it seemed to confirm a trend I’ve noticed (which will undoubtedly raise the hackles on Nuri, but I’d be negligent if I didn’t at least mention it).

Almost without exception, the slices that I’ve gotten from here have been delicious when eaten in the restaurant; almost without exception, the whole pizzas I’ve gotten from here have been merely “decent” when eaten at home. Also, the further I get away from “plain cheese,” the less I like the pizza – so there seems to be two separate factors at play: 1) slices vs. whole pies, and 2) simplicity vs. complexity.

A New York Supreme ($25.99) is a very substantial, eight-slice pie with generous amounts of Grande Mozzarella, green peppers, mushrooms, pepperoni, red onions, sausage, and tomato sauce. I also got a Fountain Boylan’s Soda ($2.73, (?)) which I made 2/3 Diet Cola, 1/3 Regular Cola – drank down about half a cup, and filled it back to the brim before heading out.

Wiseguy states that their whole pies are “65% bigger than others 14″ Large Pizza,” and some simple mathematics resolves to an 18″ pie (their single-slices come from 20″ pies, which I assume would be challenging to package).

Okay, here’s the non-fun part: This was not a great pizza – everything about it was pretty ordinary. It was a *clear* step up, up, up from the national chains, so don’t even make the comparison, but I’ve become convinced that Wiseguy’s strength lies in its slices, not its whole pizzas. When the whole pizzas cool to room temperature, the cheese also becomes a lot less appetizing – they reheat well enough in the oven, but I’m just not crazy about the toppings – the meats in particular are very salty – and the crust just seems to lose something when it’s not eaten then-and-there, in the restaurant. I’ve probably been to Wiseguy closer to ten times than five, and I’ve ordered a wide array of pizza – slices, pies, simple, loaded, and have decided that I have a strong preference for simple slices eaten there, instead of loaded pies to go.

Why is this? I don’t know, but I detected a similar thing with Flippin’ Pizza many years ago, after several visits – the difference is that Wiseguy is absolutely better than Flippin’.

Nuri, I’m sorry – I wouldn’t even write this, but I promised myself that I’d make a game effort to write up my restaurant meals, and I’m desperately trying to keep up. I know you’re not going to be happy about this, but it’s what I experienced, and anything less than this report would be a lie, and (in my eyes) would be disrespecting our readership, you, and the fine work that you’ve done – I know of no New York slice in the DC area that I enjoy more than Wiseguy – some types of food are best eaten on-the-spot, and I believe Wiseguy pizza is one of them. That is a characteristic, not a flaw (think about a great, fresh baguette which dries out towards the end of the day).

The service, just as it has always been, was friendly and welcoming – whatever you’re doing in terms of training your staff seems to be working – I don’t think I’ve ever had an unpleasant experience at Wiseguy NY Pizza.  The system didn’t allow me to leave a tip on my credit card, so I asked the cashier to change a twenty, and told him to keep a five (“It’s Christmas,” I said, wanting the staff to know they’re appreciated.)

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Chaia, Georgetown

“This is it,” I thought to myself. “This is the best taco I’ve ever eaten in my life.”

I had read about the lines at farmer’s markets for Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern’s taco stand, but didn’t really know much about it. The other day, I decided to go see for myself, and I am *so glad* I found out early on about Chaia.

First, the location: Chaia is on Grace Street, which is just a few feet off of Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, south of Georgetown Park Mall – it’s *right there* off Wisconsin, and even has a little sign directing pedestrians to “tacos and beer” – don’t let the words fool you.

Having read their website before I went, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for, and I also had a pretty good idea of what I was going to order. One thing of great importance: Chaia is a daytime-only taqueria: Tuesdays through Saturdays it closes at 8PM, and on Sundays, it closes at 6PM – it’s closed altogether on Mondays. Please don’t forget this, or you’re going to show up and find a closed taqueria.

And they serve beer, too – in keeping with their “hyper-local” theme, the two breweries they sell are Port City Brewing and Atlas Brew Works. Don’t make the same mistake I did: Donnie Boy just *had* to have a beer with his tacos, and for no particular reason, so I started off with a plastic cup of Atlas Brew Works Rowdy Rye ($5). Why in God’s name I did this, I don’t know – Chaia sells cold-pressed juice from Misfit Juicery and seasonal shrubs, and non-alcoholic beverages are what you should be paying attention to here, unless you *really* like hop-laden beers at the opportunity cost of something truly special. Read on for another reason not to succumb to the temptation of ordering a beer.

I got the Market Trio ($11), saving all of twenty-five cents from the à la carte taco prices of $3.75. You should ignore this special, and order however many tacos you want, and get whatever sounds good. Still, three tacos were just about right for me, and gave me a chance to try three different versions, the top three on the list:

1) Mushroom with feta, red sauce, and cilantro

2) Smoky Collards with queso cotija, tomatillo salsa, and pickled radish

3) Creamy Kale + Potato with pepperjack, polano crema, green sauce, and pickled onions. On this one taco, I sprung for a fried, pasture-raised egg ($1.50, available weekends only) – I’m a sucker for eggs and potatoes together, since they conjure up memories of diner breakfasts..

I’d gotten my beer first, and nursed it throughout the meal. Note that you’re not allowed to go out on the patio if you order beer, so if you want to eat outside, keep it non-alcoholic.

Wanting to enjoy the egg while it was hot and runny, I ate my tacos in the order 3), 1), 2), and as I was about one-third of the way into the Kale and Potato taco, I paused, and said to myself, “My God, this is the single greatest taco I’ve ever eaten.” I know it’s California-style, and that it’s vegetarian, but I don’t care – this was not only the best taco I’ve ever eaten, it was the best quick-serve food I’ve ever eaten (think what that’s saying). The corn tortillas are unbelievable, and the combination of ingredients on this taco was perfect. Do yourself a favor and *get the egg* with this – I could not believe what I was eating, and even cheated a little bit by dripping some of the egg yolk onto the other two tacos (only a few drops, as I didn’t want to flirt with ruining perfection).

Read that previous paragraph as many times as you need to read it – get this taco, and get it with an egg. In fact, get *three* of these tacos, and get *each one* with an egg. It’ll set you back $15.50, and you’ll love yourself (and me!) forever and ever.

The Mushroom taco was next up, and it was fantastic as well, with thinly sliced mushrooms that picked up everything because they were so thin. A few days ago, I complimented the Wild Mushroom Taco at Virtue Feed & Grain – allow me to paraphrase my dear friend Terry Theise: ‘I like tortilla chips, and I like truffles, and I also have no problem recognizing which of the two is better.’ It’s the same situation here: Virtue’s Wild Mushroom Taco was tasty bar food; Chaia’s Mushroom Taco was a great and profound taco by taqueria standards – there’s a huge difference between the two, and if you like mushrooms, get over here and order this – it would also be terrific with an egg.

Then came the collards, and this is why I should have gotten a cold-pressed juice: the collards are, by nature, bitter, and the rye-based beer was loaded with bitter hops – it was bitter on bitter, and literally left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, even as I was driving over the Memorial Bridge to get home it was still there, in a pronounced way. This is a *very* collard-greenish taco, and you have to really love collard greens to love this (think about the collard greens you get at barbecue shacks, without any of the pork they usually put in them). I’m not saying ‘don’t order this,’ merely that you should be prepared for a blast of collard greens, and if that’s what you’re in the mood for, then you’ll really enjoy it.

As a boxed set, for $11, this was a fantastic meal, and I cannot recommend Chaia enough, both for vegetarians, and also for lovers of California (San Francisco, not Los Angeles) taquerias. This food was fantastic, and I contend that the first taco was the single greatest taco I’ve ever eaten in my life. I don’t like putting pictures into my reviews, because I think it’s lazy, and ruins the surprise for the reader when they get to the restaurant. However, in this case I’m going to make an exception, because this food is so beautiful, and tastes so good, that you’ll be surprised no matter what I publish. Here you go:

Chaia

Enjoy your meal, and thank me later. Chaia is strongly initialized in Italic, and is one of the very greatest taquerias this city has ever known. It’s also quite possibly the best quick-serve restaurant in DC, and happens to be the only one currently run by women. You’re going to love this place.

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Yona, Ballston

Eight years ago, 2 Amys had become entrenched with a reputation as Best Pizza in DC, and I went out on a limb in saying that Comet Ping Pong had surpassed it (inspired by JeffC and Waitman) – Carole Greenwood was making extraordinary pizzas, and I wrote that post with a great degree of trepidation, knowing that I was essentially kneecapping a legend in Peter Pastan, long-overlooked for a James Beard Award. This was confirmed, about as objectively as it could be confirmed, by the Fab Forno Smackdown.

Comet’s reign was short-lived, as Carole left the restaurant – at various times, the unofficial crown went to Ghibellina, the original RedRocks, Local 16 (really, Local 16), Pizzeria Orso, possibly Seventh Hill Pizza, and for quite awhile, Pupatella. If you asked me right now who had the best pizza in the DC area, I don’t think I could tell you. Nevertheless, even though Pupatella clearly had the best pizza in the area for quite some time (and still might), I just couldn’t bring myself to place it above Willow in the Ballston Dining Guide, because Willow – even though it didn’t necessarily make any individual item better than Pupatella’s pizza – was just a more “complete” restaurant. This is why The Inn at Little Washington is ranked in Bold despite not having the absolute best food in the area, and despite costing between $158-248 just for the food. Would I want to go there, as much as any single restaurant in the area, if someone else was paying? *Yes!*

“Where in the hell are you going with this, Don?”

Bear with me. Over the past ten years, U Street started becoming surpassed by the up-and-coming 14th Street, and a new restaurant strip had been born. The name “U Street” didn’t accurately describe where these new restaurants were sprouting up. “Midcity” was an ancient name, but had lost its meaning over the decades, and was just too big to describe this one strip – I decided that a search for a new name was in order, just to delineate the restaurants on 14th Street from those on U Street – after tossing the idea around for awhile, I decided on 14UP, because the new 14th Street restaurants were concentrated between U and P streets – anything south of P was generally considered Logan Circle (even though it’s Thomas Circle). Nobody uses this name but me, but people at least know what I’m referring to when I use it.

“Great. Now would you please tell us what you’re babbling about?”

Patience. In Sacramento, CA, people get into boats, and take a series of canals and bays, all the way down to San Francisco, where they just sit there, in McCovey Cove, waiting for a home run to come sailing out of AT&T Park, after which people dive into the bay, fighting each other like NBA players jostling for a rebound – it’s hard to justify, but suffice it to say it’s kind of a “social thing,” sort of like tailgating, but when you say “McCovey Cove” in San Francisco, people know *exactly* where you’re talking about – there’s absolutely no doubt.

“And, of course you realize you’re writing a post about Yona, right?”

I’m getting there. I went to Yona the other evening, and began my meal with what is apparently their most popular drink, the Lucy ($10), a delicious aperitif made with shochu, cardamaro, Asian pear, and a shiso leaf (which demonstrates the limitations of the coat-closet bar that Yona has – it’s actually pretty funny seeing a bartender shaking a drink inside the tiny little cubbyhole bar inside the door on the left, but Yona just has no room for a bar in the dining area – my recommendation to diners is to self-muddle their shoulda-been-muddled shiso leaf as best they can with their straw immediately upon receiving the drink – it really does add some nuance instead of just being decorative).

By looking at Yona’s fairly sophisticated drinks menu, you would have no idea about the bar, but take a look next time you go, and remember – it doesn’t really matter if a drink is shaken behind a $20,000 zinc bar, or inside a coat closet – the bartender was shaking just fine, and I liked the Lucy enough to have a second.

Yona is getting a lot of publicity for its small plates, and deservedly so (sitting by the pass, you can notice a *lot* of things, including the owner walking in to a hushed reverence among his staff and clientele). But I wanted some ramen on a clean palate, so, daring to be different, I went with a bowl TonkotsuShoyu Tare ($15) with chashu, kikurage, menma, beni shoga (which grows on a hill: the Beni Hill), negi, sesame seeds, nori, soft egg, and I just set a record for most hyperlinks in a dish description. All three ramens here are undoubtedly worth your attention, so I’ll just tell you that, stylistically, this bowl carries its supposedly ample fattiness with dexterity and finesse, and has a fairly deep, penetrating redolence of soy sauce – if that appeals to you (it absolutely appealed to me on this evening), don’t hesitate to try it. I very much look forward to trying the other two ramens as well.

Knowing I’d want a snack later, I got an order of Steamed Buns ($10) to take home, made with delicious, novel, oxtail katsu as their centerpiece, a fascinating fennel kimchi. and roasted garlic purée, these buns were wonderful, and left me searching for anything to quibble about (the price is on the upper end of the dial, but not off the dial).

“Well, this all sounds wonderful, but why all the feinting?”

Because Wilson Blvd. and N. Quincy Street is Nowhere-Land in terms of restaurants, or at least it was until recently; now, however, it’s a magnet and a mecca, and can no longer be considered simply “Ballston” (Ballston is the Metro stop and the mall). No, the southwest corner of this intersection has become more specific, just like 14th Street did over the past decade, and should be known as “Isabella Cove.” (*) And, for the same reasons that I had Willow ranked so highly in Ballston despite the obvious greatness of Pupatella, coverage for Yona in the Virginia Dining Guide is initiated in Italic, and based on the totality and completeness of the restaurant, I have ranked Yona as the #1 restaurant in Ballston. Congratulations to Yona’s opening team – you’re off to a fine start.

If you didn’t recognize me, you will soon enough, because I’m going to be a regular.

(*) “But why ‘Isabella Cove?'”

Because Isabella rows Salini. And don’t forget his scull and crew.

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Virtue Feed & Grain, Alexandria

(See the Mar 20, 2014 Review here.)

I’m not much into listicles, but I counted on this one during Christmas Day; at 4:55 PM, with the Golden State – Cleveland game five minutes away from tip-off, I found myself standing outside in the rain, in front of a dark, locked-up Union Street Public House.

Screenshot 2015-12-27 at 12.59.22

Desperate, I asked Siri where the nearest sports bar was, and got some ridiculous answer that was about twenty minutes away. I was caught completely off-guard, trapped, and doomed … until I turned around.

There, in front of me, across the street, was an open Virtue Feed & Grain. I walked over there, and saw the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen: three flat-screen TVs behind the bar, with plenty of empty seats. I walked in, asked the bartender if they’d be showing The Game, and positioned myself right in front of the TV set – my Christmas evening had been saved, and there really *is* a Santa Claus.

I’m sorry to put a lump of coal in your stocking, but like so many other “microbreweries” from several years past (Lagunitas, New Belgium, Deschutes, Harpoon, Stone – yes, even Bell’s), Great Lakes Brewing Company has gone over to the dark side. A bottle of Great Lakes Elliot Ness Amber Lager ($7) was lifeless, bland, and a shadow of what it was just a few years ago. The good brothers at Beer Advocate are going to learn – if they haven’t already – how incredibly *easy* it is to begin a review website, relative to how incredibly *difficult* it is to keep it up-to-date once you have it populated. Gentlemen, you can throw that 100-point rating straight out the window. Knowing absolutely nothing about their production figures, or whether or not they’ve been sold, or had an infusion of investment capital, my personal experience has shown me that Great Lakes is a brewery in decline, and that statement is partially based on multiple trips to the Midwest over the past several years. As recently as five years ago, I *loved* this brewery; no longer.

The menu at Virtue Feed & Grain no longer mentions Santiago Lopez as their chef, so I don’t know who’s running the kitchen at this point. However, under the (perhaps false) assumption that there might be a Latino influence in the kitchen, and seeing some Latino-influenced items on the menu, I decided that would be the basis of my dinner. But first, I had some business to tend to, in the form of Baker’s 7-Year 107-Proof Bourbon ($8) served neat, one ice cube on the side, and thanks to both Jake Parrott and Josh Raynolds for their rapid-turnaround help in ordering.

After “a glass or two,” it was time to eat something, so I ordered the Wild Mushroom Tacos ($12 for 3), and I now ask myself if I chose the single-best thing on the entire menu, because these tacos were wonderful. Not the tortillas themselves so much as the filling – it was a mushroom-lovers delight (incidentally, have you noticed how preponderant mushrooms are on restaurant menus these past few weeks?), and went perfectly with the Bourbon. Don’t read too much into what I’m about to say: They came accompanied with a bowl of rice, and there was something “unusual” about this rice that I simply could not place, despite trying my hardest for over thirty minutes. At first, I thought that there was a touch of rancidity in the oil; then, that something had just started to ferment; finally, I concluded that it was inconclusive, and it could have been something as simple as kidney beans mixed with bits of red pepper – there were also some corn kernels, and maybe a very light application of oil, but not much. I pride myself in being able to peg scents and flavors, but at the end of the day, I’m still left wondering what it was about this rice that has me so perplexed (I finished every bite, mainly in a vain effort to try and satisfy my curiosity). But, forget the rice, because it was just a side dish: The tacos were the star of the show, and deservedly so – this is a great dish for vegetarians.

I nursed these tacos, along with my “one or two glasses” of Baker’s, for the entire basketball game, making sure to leave a generous tip for the bartender, but I knew I’d be hungry later, so I also ordered a Chesapeake Crab Cake Sandwich ($16), figuring that I’d have it for lunch the next day if not later in the evening. Virtue has a single crab-cake appetizer for $14, and it’s a better value springing for the sandwich since it comes with a cast-iron-seared brioche bun, and an order of hand-cut fries (you also have the option of pasta salad or seasonal vegetables). Eaten much later, and not reheated, the fries were at room temperature so cannot be judged fairly, but they were still very good, and I can verify that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the oil. The sandwich, despite also being at room temperature, was very tasty, seemingly consisting mostly of claw meat, and fairly priced at $16.

This was a much different experience than my previous visit to Virtue Feed & Grain in March, 2014 – the ship has righted itself, at least somewhat, and … I’ll come out and say it now: My previous trip was a disaster; not so any longer.

And they have three flat-screen TVs behind the bar!

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