Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco, CA

Because of three people, my dining companion and I spend five hours trekking to Swan Oyster Depot in Nob Hill. Call me crazy, but just don’t ever call me apathetic (pathetic is fine; just not apathetic). We found a parking space *way* up high (it is in the Nob Hill neighborhood), but only about three blocks away. Even though it looks flat, if you see that intersection where the person is crossing the street, and take a right there? You’ll be walking up at a 45-degree angle. You’ll also be waiting in line – justifiably, I will add.

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To make the line seem longer, right through that glass window on the left side of the restaurant is a tantalizing display of today’s offerings.

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Swan Oyster Depot is nothing more than a counter, with no seats other than what you see at the bar, so when it fills up, it fills up quickly and with a vengeance – I don’t know what the seating capacity is, but it couldn’t be more than fifteen.

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When you finally get in (the wait isn’t *that* long), you’ll note the knickknacks of a very old establishment – in this case, over one-hundred years old – which include the James Beard “America’s Classics” award they won in 2000, and a motley menu featuring the day’s seafood. Note, by the way, the vehemently written sign about not having a website.

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On the bar in front of you, you’ll see Swan’s napkins, a brief history of the restaurant, and a better-than-expected wine list, which breaks down into two possible choices: a bottle of Muscadet, or a few glasses of Anchor Steam ($6).

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Swan isn’t built for dining; it’s built for eating. Eating quickly, and eating well. That quote by Bourdain (in the center picture above) isn’t at all wrong, and quite frankly, I think Swan Oyster Depot deserves a James Beard Award not just for being an “America’s Classic,” but for “Outstanding Restaurant in America,” although this is an owner-driven restaurant which may not even make it eligible. How much of an owner-driven restaurant?

The first thing we ordered was Smoked Salmon ($13 – when I saw the size of the plate, I panicked, thinking we got the $24.50 item, but there must have been something else listed that I didn’t see) and six Malpeque Oysters ($18-ish). The salmon came out right away, and it was as good as any smoked salmon I’ve ever eaten – there was some *extremely* potent horseradish on the bar as well – so potent that you need to beware of it, using only a few fibers. The Malpeques didn’t arrive, so I figured that Swan was following the trend of “serving things whenever they’re plated” – I was wrong.

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Next up was a half-dozen Cherry Stone Clams ($14), and these were the best Cherry Stone Clams I’ve ever eaten: batting two-for-two. As good as they look – that’s how good they were.

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Then, a cup of Clam Chowder ($2.75) that was perhaps my favorite thing in the entire meal. It was so good that we ordered an entire *quart* to take home (I think that was $20, and worth every penny). Alongside of that, a Prawn Cocktail ($14.50), and if you could say this meal had one weakness, this would have been it. These were great; they just weren’t life-changing; the clam chowder, on the other hand, was something akin to a religious experience.

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Back to the owner-driven part … a gentleman who was clearly in charge (there were probably a dozen people working the counter, about one for each diner), asked me if we’d like anything else, and that’s when I thought to mention the Malpeques, which never arrived. He *immediately* asked who took the order, and to be honest, we didn’t quite remember, and even if we had, he asked the question in a way that oozed menace, and goodness knows I wouldn’t want to get an employee in trouble just because an order was forgotten, so we simply said we weren’t sure. Don’t get me wrong – this guy wasn’t going to scream at the person (at least, not in front of the customers), but he was going to make *very* sure that this didn’t happen again on this evening. He was starkly polite – picture a manager of an old-school New York City deli, and you’ll have the exact countenance. In fact, Swan Oyster Depot reminds me of a deli more than any seafood restaurant I’ve ever been to in my life, with the possible exception of Durgin Park in Boston, but when I first went to Durgin Park in the 1980s, it had already lost the battle to becoming a tourist trap, so … deli. (In fact, Durgin Park has gotten *so* touristy that it’s now owned by, gulp, Ark Restaurants, which has an $80 million market cap trading on the NASDAQ.)

Within one minute, a half-dozen Malpeques appeared, with a sincere (but unnecessary) apology from the manager, and should I even bother to say it? Okay, let me take a different tack: I invented a saying, long ago – “The bigger, the blacker the blotch, the badder the bivalve,” meaning that oysters should ideally have a pearly white interior shell, and when you find ones that have large, black blotches, they’re usually the bad apples – still perfectly edible; just not the best of the bunch. Well …

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About the non-blotchiest Malpeques I’ve ever come across. Not only were they blotch-free; they were just plain free: They were not added to the check. How’s that for putting the customer first?

All this food came out to just over $100 before tip (this accounts for the oysters being removed, but also accounts for the quart of clam chowder, so $100-110 was the “true price” of this sensational meal – on a whole, the best raw seafood I’ve ever eaten, and a restaurant experience unlike any other. To quote that great American statesman, Anthony Bourdain, “If I died eating at Swan’s counter, I would die a happy man.”

And of course, as I flew into a panic when the manager told me Swan Oyster Depot was cash-only, he reassured me that there was an ATM across the street, just as he has done a thousand times before.

PisS – There is a very slang, somewhat crude, French word for “men’s urinal” that I have never before seen used in a real-life situation, not in DC, not in California, and not in probably twenty visits to France. Until now.

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Kabob Palace, Crystal City

I have decided that Kabob Palace in Crystal City has better food than Ravi Kabob.

Whether I’m right is open to debate, but that has become my opinion.

I’ve been to both restaurants over a dozen times each, and Kabob Palace has won me over. The service is always polite and friendly, too, but I’m talking strictly about the food. My goodness, I had a Keema (ground beef and potatoes) there the other night (it’s a Thursday-night special) that was *magnificent*, and it cost something like $10.95 for a huge portion, with chole (get the chole as your vegetable), salad, rice, and bread straight from the tandoor. It sounds like a lot of starch (potatoes, rice, and bread), but somehow, it doesn’t come across that way when you eat it.

I urge people to go here on Thursday evenings – even at 4 AM – and try the Keema. It will be crowded, and you’ll be waiting in line, yes, even at 4 AM. I update the Dining Guide several times per week, and people probably haven’t noticed that Kabob Palace is numero uno in Crystal City, with nary a challenger in view.

The Keema comes with one little tub of green sauce – you won’t regret asking for 1-2 extra tubs of sauce, even if it costs you something. You may not use them, but you may (and you can always take them home, and use them on something else). One tub gets completely lost in the dish – I prefer take-out, because I like to dump everything into a mixing bowl (with the (possible) exception of bread), and eat it like a dog. I use a fork, but that’s about the only difference between me and the dog.

When you’re in line there, peek over towards your right, at the range-top, and note the size of some of the pots with stews burbling away in them – you could bathe an infant in one of them. Have you ever looked inside of a Pho kitchen, and seen the size of the Pho pots? These aren’t *that* big, but they’re several-times larger than the ones they use at Ravi (not that this is good or bad; it’s just interesting).

I think they may also own Shisha Palace Cafe, next door, which is also open 24 hours. Note that in the former Cafe Pizzaiolo space on 23rd Street, there’s a third “kabob house” (I’m loathe to call Kabob Palace a “kabob house”): Grill Kabob. I look forward to someone reviewing it, but it won’t be me, because you’d have to pry me away from Kabob Palace.

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Hazel, Shaw

I’ve stressed for years that I don’t review restaurants; I review meals, and you all know by now that I have to call things as I see them, without any external influences. With that in mind …

Last week, I walked into an empty bar at Hazel, just as they were opening, and had a really nice, wonderful bartender who took good care of me all evening long. I *love* Hazel’s wine list, because it’s divided up in plain English – in a way that the non-wine connoisseur can figure it out without having to fear making the wrong choice. Having perused their menu, I knew I wanted a white with high acidity to stand up to their food, and so from the “Tart & Funky” section, I ordered one of Hazel’s two-most inexpensive wines on the entire list: a bottle of the recently-falling-out-of-fashion “Orange Wine” (which I happen to love) – a 2015 Meinklang, “Graupert” Pinot Gris from Burgenland, Austria ($40). I fell in love with this winery the first time I had it, because it’s not only a Vienna exurb (yet in an extremely rural area, mere miles away from the Czech Republic), but it also employs biodynamic practices – a philosophy which I embrace, not because of its wacky adjuncts, such as “harvesting by moon cycles,” but because they do so much else that makes so much scientific sense, so if you can swallow the kooky aspects of biodynamic viticulture, there’s an awful lot of logically sound methods at play. For a more detailed discussion about Burgenland, Graupert, and biodynamic agriculture, I would refer you to one of these experts, who are just out of my league when it comes to anything more than cheeseburgers: They’re the cream of the crop, and they’ll be able to help you sort through any questions you may have.

The wine was just as I thought it would be: tangy, acidic, Pinot Gris – barely recognizable as such, and smartly classified under “Orange Wines” (not to mention “Tart & Funky”). I don’t know who the F&B Director is at Hazel, but whoever it is, you have all my respect for fashioning such a smart, legible wine list, with good bottles starting at $40. Thank you for your hard work on this. I obviously can’t vouch for the list as a whole, but if this one wine is an example, it is *exactly* where I would place it, and even though it costs double-retail, I have *no problem* paying you for your expertise. Please write me and let me know who you are, as I wish to keep tabs on you going forward.

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Hazel’s food menu, divided into four sections (Vegetables, Bread & Batters (cf: Tail Up Goat), Fish & Shellfish, and Meat & Poultry), is also well-organized, and makes the diner’s life easy when it comes to decision making:

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I think I had Rob Rubba’s cuisine when he was (briefly) Chef de Cuisine at Tallula, but I’m not sure – there was a brief period of time at Tallula when chefs were going in-and-out like fruit flies (and I knew that losing Andrew Market was a huge mistake – arguably the best meal I had at Tallula came under his supervision). Anyway, this meal at Hazel may, or may not, have been my first experience with Rubba as Chef de Cuisine – I just can’t remember.

My meal here was a decidedly mixed bag, and I realize that I’m in a minority of just about “one” by saying so, as Hazel is receiving near-consensus raves and plaudits. Was my experience a one-off? Or, was it because I hadn’t eaten all day long, and my biology was just hangry-weird by this point? Or, was it just bad timing, possibly due to a miscommunication which may have been partly my fault? Read on …

The bartender who waited on me was positively delightful, and I’m kicking myself for not being able to find my receipt so I can praise her by name – she was a young, gregarious, woman of color who was working on a Tuesday evening, and I hope this review finds its way back to her, as she deserves recognition for her excellent work, both at understanding the restaurant, and also at making the customer feel like a welcome friend.

I ordered three courses, and she made it a point of telling me that the kitchen will course things out for the diner – my first course was very obvious, but there was (looking back) some confusion about my next two courses – I mentioned something about her picking which should be second and third (since, depending on the prep, either could have been second or third), and I don’t think I made myself clear, in which case, this is absolutely diner error, and no one’s to blame other than myself.

Course number one was the Atlantic Fluke Crudo ($15) with avocado, radish, shiso, and grapefruit ponzu. An absolutely delightful dish, both in terms of visual appeal, and also on the palate, the only possible nitpick I can find – well, there are two – is that the fluke *might* have been a little less spanking fresh than I’d normally want. Fluke is a very mild fish, and this particular fluke had a touch of the sea which caught my attention – nothing major, and it might even have been the grapefruit ponzu or shiso which imparted a slight aftertaste that deceived me; texturally, it was magnificent, and the only thing it could have been was “a little bigger.” At $15, this dish wasn’t cheap, but boy it sure was delicious, and I’d get it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I urge people – if they don’t mind paying $15 for a small-to-medium plate of crudo – to get this as their first course at Hazel (preferably with a bottle of the exact same wine I had). I took a picture of my second and third courses, and I really wish I had a picture of this, because it was the absolute star of the show.

My second course arrived right when it should have: Rabbit Nuggets ($14) with “Thai Flavors”, and curry mustard condiment. These were six “rabbit-tots” served in a paper bag (hopefully in order to keep them warm, and not just to look trendy – it served the purposes of being both). These were extremely rich, fairly heavy nuggets, and the “curry mustard condiment” came across to me as being from Southern Thailand – in fact, it came across as very much of a Massaman curry (peanut-based), even though I have no idea whether or not there were peanuts in the sauce – it sure tasted like there were. I enjoyed my first two tots at a leisurely pace, and began to notice they were getting quite heavy on the palate – not necessarily a bad thing, but “a thing” nevertheless. My bartender advised me that 2-3 courses are enough for an average person: I had ordered three, and I could already tell I wouldn’t have room for dessert, even though I wasn’t halfway through my meal.

Up until this point – this exact point – I was very much enjoying my meal, but then things just went downhill. My third course arrived less than five minutes after my second course had been served – I had only eaten two tots out of six – and I was in the unfortunate situation of having both in front of me, both needing to be eaten while they’re hot. The third course was the Gnocchi Bokki ($15), with pork-kimchi ragù, sesame seeds, and smoked pecorino. “Bokki” (and the related term “Bokkeum,” which you’ll also see on this menu) is Korean for “stir-fried.”

In front of me now were two courses that clashed as much as two courses could possibly clash, and I didn’t know what to do: Should I finish my rabbit tots, and let my stir-fried gnocchi get cold? No, that didn’t make much sense. But neither did anything else that I could think of. I want to stress that, looking back, I sincerely believe that I had mistakenly conveyed to my bartender that I wanted the courses together, even though that was the last thing I wanted.

Anyway, as you might imagine, “rabbit with peanut sauce” does not go with “gnocchi with kimchi,” and when I say “does not go,” I mean “pizza doesn’t go with hot fudge” – that’s how awful the combination was. To rub salt in the wound, kimchi does not go with pecorino: not in any way, shape, or form, and even within that single dish, the clash in flavors was almost too much to bear: It was quite literally disgusting. Why did I order it when it was clearly spelled out on the menu? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why.

Here’s a picture of what I had in front of me, and yes, that “white stuff” on top of the gnocchi in kimchi and Korean red-chili sauce is indeed pecorino cheese, to go along with my rabbit tots in what was seemingly a Massaman curry sauce (I got more peanut than mustard):

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I had about 2/3 of my dinner remaining, and it had instantly become something very close to inedible. I went back-and-forth – concentrating on one, then the other, then trying to mix the two, and was almost literally choking down both items – especially the Gnocchi Bokki, which was one of the most poorly conceived dishes I’ve had in a long, long time – there was nothing that could have saved this dish: It was horrible. Not quality-wise, mind you; just the complete, total clash in flavors – I went from being so happy, to being so miserable, all in a matter of minutes. (There’s a very good reason that Koreans don’t eat cheese with their Kimchi Jaeyook Bokkum: They don’t enjoy vomiting.) But I was starving because I hadn’t eaten all day, and knew I wouldn’t eat again that night, so I just choked it down, and left in a state of something not far from nauseated. I took the rest of the wine home with me, and enjoyed it later that evening, left my kindly bartender a good tip, and headed on home, wondering what in the hell had just happened.

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Essy’s Carriage House, North Arlington

I finally made it back into Essy’s Carriage House today after probably close to twenty years.

Nearing the 1 PM lunch hour, there were about five other tables in the restaurant, and mine was the only one that didn’t contain at least one person over the age of 70 – this is a restaurant that aims at senior citizens, treats them well, and shows them respect.

I was almost stunned at how expensive the lunch menu was – aside from a small appetizer section, there were some sandwiches in the mid-to-upper teens, and then, half the menu was entrees ranging from the low-to-upper $20s, with a few cracking the $30 barrier (keep in mind, this is an old, somewhat decrepit, Arlington institution, and not a particularly high-rent space – I suspect they own the land.

Not wanting a sandwich, and repeatedly seeing the promotion of their lump crab on their menu, I was torn between the Crab Cakes ($28) and the Crab Imperial ($29), and asking the Mâitre d’ for his opinion, and having been told both were good, I went with the Crab Imperial. Since it was lunchtime, I didn’t feel the need to get anything else, other than a glass of Diet Coke, which came in an ice-filled pint glass, and was not refilled throughout the entire meal – I don’t know if refills are free or not, but I do know the gentleman running the floor was very polite and cordial.

The Crab Imperial arrived, and consisted of a rather classic version of this dish – which I adore – baked and serve in a scallop shell, alongside of an ice-cream scoop of mashed potatoes, and precisely 14, frozen, green beans, saved by a light marinade of white onion and something which glistened a bit.

The Imperial was covered by a thin coating of something yellow which vaguely resembled Hollandaise Sauce, but I’m not entirely sure that’s what it was. It was made with 100% lump crab meat (although I don’t know from where) that had, at the minimum, tiny specks of red and green pepper, a bit of mayonnaise and possibly egg stirred in, and maybe some lemon juice among other things. It was a solid, honorable rendition of Crab Imperial that probably had a comparable amount of crab to two small-ish Crab Cakes.

It would be mildly jerk-ish off me to mention that the scoop of mashed potatoes tasted like it was made with margarine, especially considering there were about a half-dozen foil-wrapped pats of butter that came with my little basket of sliced baguette. The entree also came with a very typical, very old-school green salad with vinaigrette dressing in a little tub on the side which I used for dipping. I normally don’t eat salads such as this, but this force me to do it.

That’s about all there was – there was nothing special about this, and there was also nothing wrong with this (mashed potatoes being a nit-pick, as I suspect many people wouldn’t even notice the margarine-like flavors).

I wish I had more to offer, but that was my lunch, and when the bill came, the total, including tax, was $32, so the Diet Coke was perhaps included with the meal. Incidentally, Essy’s Carriage House is open on Christmas Day, and has the Crab Imperial for exactly $10 more – probably due to increased demand – they’re serving until 10 PM.

In the Dining Guide, I had Essy’s ranked way too low in North Arlington, and I wonder if that’s the reason it was nominated for a review (was it?) – I subsequently raised it a number of slots, and while it will never win any awards, it’s a solid restaurant which caters to senior citizens, and is really beyond any bare-knuckled type of criticism. I’m glad I went, and enjoyed my lunch while not having any sort of culinary epiphany.

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Comet Ping Pong, Chevy Chase, DC

(See the Jun 27, 2011 Review here.)

Aiming to go this Sunday or next and show support!

Don’t worry about showing support; worry more about getting a seat.

I stopped into Comet Ping Pong last night, after two Tweets (made with the blessing of James Alefantis) which, for me, were a bit on the controversial side, thinking I’d be walking into an empty restaurant; I could not have been more wrong.

There was a gentleman working the front door who had been hired from a security agency, just to make his presence felt, but there were also some people eating outside on the patio, some others waiting at the door to get inside the full restaurant, and a completely full bar area, with several people (including me) standing against the wall waiting to get a seat – I probably waited at least twenty minutes for a single seat to open up, and another girl would have taken it if I didn’t need it (I offered it to her repeatedly, but she said she had another friend coming, and that it was okay – if it wasn’t difficult for me to stand right now, I would have never taken her up on it).

Comet Ping Pong’s bar was as busy at 6:30 PM on this Wednesday night as I’ve ever seen it during the week (they were, according to James, closed Monday, but apparently things went swimmingly last night). The bar offers 15 interesting beers in bottles and cans, in the $5-7 range with one outlier at $3 (PBR) and another at $8 (Victory Dirtwolf Double IPA), then four British pint drafts at $7, and several wines by the glass and bottle. I also counted 66 bottles of liquor on their two small mixed-drink shelves behind the small bar, but this is, for the most part, a place to have a hipster brew.

Comet Ping Pong’s menu (that’s a 180K .pdf file) is larger than I’ve ever seen it, I hadn’t been in a long, long time, and I went back to an old favorite, the Comet Hot Wings w/ Dipping Sauce ($7). You get a plastic tray, lined with paper, with six, jerk-style wings in a thick, creamy, horseradish-based dipping sauce that’s something like a pudding in texture. Even though the sauce provides some nasal-toned heat with the horseradish, its cool creaminess helps to neutralize the jerk-like heat generated by the chicken, which I suspect is due to Scotch Bonnet (Habanero) pepper used as part of the rub. These are really delicious wings, hot but not super-hot, and very different from what they once were under Carole Greenwood (but similar to how I remember them from a few years ago – they’ve been jerk-style wings for years now). The quality of the chicken itself was better under Greenwood, but this is still a quality product, and one which I would gladly get again, and am happy to recommend to you.

I hadn’t eaten anything all day, but the wings curbed my hunger. I compromised by ordering a Chopped Salad ($9) with chopped romaine (that’s the “chopped” part), chickpeas, radicchio, provolone, Savoy cabbage, no salami (which was optional), and oregano dressing. This was a diptych salad, with half on the left (the provolone, chick peas, et al), and most of the greens on the right – why they do this, I’m not sure, but it worked well enough – it was dressed reasonably well, and was a good combination of flavors. The chopped salad from Comet Ping Pong was better in the past, but there was nothing wrong with this, and I’m glad I got it, without feeling the need to urge others to do the same.

As part of the compromise, I ordered two  Tomato Pies to go ($8.95 each) with Comet Tomato Sauce and Fresh Mozzarella. Comet used to bottle their own tomato sauce at Toigo Orchards, and they still may be – it was Carole Greenwood who started this (there are pictures of this on her chat), and they still may be using Toigo – I suspect they were using Toigo’s surplus of non-perfect-looking tomatoes in order to make this wonderfully fresh sauce. I only ate two pieces while they were hot, and this is very good pizza, without hitting the heights that it hit under Greenwood’s baton – my biggest problem is the outer periphery of crust, which is just too big for its own good, and the pizzas themselves seem to have gotten an inch or two smaller in diameter over the years – they’re pretty small pies, definitely individual-sized (they’ve always been individual-sized, but now they’re even smaller).

I had a really nice dinner at Comet Ping Pong (which included a few of their $5-7 beers – well-stored Great Lakes Beers are *always* welcome in my life). Most importantly, I’m happy to report that Comet Ping Pong was *rocking* last night – it was swamped with loyal customers, showing solidarity against terrorism, and proving that while there may not always be safety in numbers, there *is* confidence in numbers, and this was on full display last night – there wasn’t a worry in the house, and I can assure businesses in the area who are worried about this, that you have nothing to worry about (other than competition from Comet Ping Pong). Folks, please don’t forget that these other surrounding businesses took a hit as well – please throw your support their way if you’re in the area; Comet is doing just fine!

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China Chilcano, Penn Quarter

China Chilcano is open every single day, from 11 AM until closing: It’s open 84 hours a week. It’s safe to say that this restaurant better have some serious depth of staff, because you’re not guaranteed of the “A Team,” or even the “B Team,” at any given meal – that is an absolutely brutal schedule to keep, and there must be a very high number of employees here. A lot of people made a lot of noise when Koji Terano came here to run the ceviche bar, and when Carlos Delgado came here to run the kitchen, but if you play the odds, you shouldn’t count on them being here when you are.

From 4-6 PM, Mon-Fri, China Chilcano features “Pisco Hour,” with a few drink and food specials, most of which are a couple of dollars off the regular price. I arrived just before 6 PM one evening, and my first order was from the special Pisco Hour menu: a Pisco Sour ($5, usually $12 – there’s your bargain here) with Macchu Pisco, lime, an inch-thick coat of egg-white foam, and 5-6 drops of Amargo Chuncho bitters dotting the top, then formed into a spiral with a straw – it’s a nice looking drink, and if you leave it tilted long enough, an undercurrent of Pisco Sour will emerge from beneath the viscous egg whites, providing an exciting, chilled sip of liquid to enjoy before licking the moustache off your top lip.This is a good drink, and although I’ve never been a huge Macchu Pisco fan, it’s a good value at $5, and has a really nice flavor. My bartender, Lydia, really knew how to shake a Pisco Sour, and made a double – one for me, and one for my neighbor at the bar – apparently, there was a mix-up, and my neighbor didn’t get the drink she wanted (I didn’t get any details, but it was nobody’s “fault”), and Lydia was going to throw it out; I told her that I was most likely going to order two, and for her to simply give it to me and put it on my bill. My neighbor warned me that she’d taken a sip, but I didn’t care – I think it’s a sin to waste a perfectly good drink, and it was going to be thrown away, so I insisted on paying for it, and enjoyed it about ten minutes later with an order of Atún Picante ($10, usually $12 – the big savings at Pisco Hour are on the drinks). This “spicy tuna roll,” made uramaki style (an uramaki roll is one with the rice on the outside – they’re often called “inside-out rolls”), had the potential to be *very* spicy, as it was made with tuna, cucumber, avocado, cilantro, puffed quinoa, and the kicker: aji limo, which is a Peruvian Lemon Drop Pepper, the purée from which will bring tears to any man’s eyes. The very first bite I took was a fingertip of aji limo, and it lit me on fire, and left me wondering if this ample, eight-piece roll was going to be over-the-top. ThinkFoodGroup has a way with novel flavor combinations, so I still had hope that, if I had an entire piece in a single bite (which is exactly how this roll is designed to be eaten), the other ingredients would tame the heat, and sure enough, they did. It was a brilliant combination of flavors, and the lemon drop pepper purée was mercifully neutralized by things such as the avocado (the primary fire hydrant), the oil from the tuna, the cool cucumber, the egg white in the Pisco Sour, and I really enjoyed the dish – at $10, and even at $12, it’s a fine plate well-worth ordering, and I recommend it regardless of whether it’s Pisco Hour or not. One memorable condiment was the “ginger” on the side of the plate, which wasn’t ginger at all; rather, it was sliced-and-piled daikon radish – a lovely surprise that brought a smile to my face.

Pisco Hour had ended, so I finished my meal ordering from the regular menu. I’ve always enjoyed Cusqueña ($6), as it’s a fairly rare lager with malty overtones, so I finished my meal with this beer – I vehemently disagree with Beer Advocate’s low rating of this beer. Yes, it’s mass-produced, and tastes like it, but it also has a nice, malty flavor and is better than, for example, Fat Tire (another malty, mass-produced beer, albeit a light ale). Whenever I see Cusqueña, I’m usually at a Salvadoran-type restaurant, and often get it – I really should have gotten something more novel here, but I was in the mood for a cool one, so I went with my gut and stuck with beer.

There are three “classifications” for the food items at China Chilcano: Chifa (China), Nikkei (Japan), and Criollo (Spain and West Africa), and I was careful to get one thing from each. Koji Terano wasn’t working the ceviche bar on this evening, but someone still made a pretty good Atún Picante described above (and which, ironically, is something you’re more likely to see from Koji’s “counterpart” (I figured that was a better word than “arch enemy”), Kaz Okochi, because of the saucing involved).

The Atún Picante was obviously marked “Nikkei,” and for my second course, I went “Chifa” and ordered one of the four Sui Mai offered: the Concha ($12 for 7 dumplings), made with scallop, pork, jicama, shiitake mushroom, and tobiko. These were presented in a semi-traditional woven basket, and were worth ordering for their intelligently chosen flavor combinations. The biggest problem a purist might have with these is that the dumplings weren’t cooked to an al dente texture – they were more fully cooked: not quite “floppy,” but I’ve had sui mai countless times at countless Chinese restaurants, and these were towards the “fully cooked” end of the bell curve. However, the doneness of these dumplings wasn’t a deal-breaker, and the flavors were knit together well enough where I’m happy to recommend this dish.

As I worked my way through the Sui Mai, the serene feel of the bar area became quite tense. Earlier in the meal, I had seen one of ThinkFoodGroup’s upper-level employees at the other end of the restaurant, who mercifully left me alone (much appreciated). All of a sudden, the previously quiet atmosphere became infused with electricity, as if the entire staff had quaffed five shots of espresso apiece – then, I heard a deep, bellowing, Spanish-accented voice behind me and to my left. There was apparently a staff meeting taking place in the bar area, and only once in my entire dining career do I remember the entire staff leaping to attention the way they did on this evening: One evening, long ago, I was having dinner at Gerard’s Place, Gerard Pangaud’s outstanding little restaurant just off McPherson Square, and all of a sudden, Yannick Cam came walking in, with one of the most beautiful girls I’d ever seen, and took a table. Thrown into a panic, the servers began looking at each other with a “What do I do?” expression, and the entire “feel” of the dining room became one of “motion” – it was the exact same thing here, as if there was an ionized charge in the air. China Chilcano is a bustling restaurant during normal rush hour, but I purposely went during a more serene time, and the change in atmosphere was both palpable and dramatic. As one of the bartenders was filling a round of Pisco Sours, I broke the tension by joking that I would have another Cusqueña after they’d finished panicking. He laughed, and said something about “when Big Papa comes” – the entire scene was quite amusing.

To be followed by La Increíble y Triste Historia del Cándido Papa Grande y de su Presidente Desalmado.

I wanted to try a third selection from the Criollo section, especially given that this is most likely in Chef Carlos Delgado’s wheelhouse – recall that he came from Ocopa, at one time the best Peruvian restaurant in DC. What else would I get other than Aji de Gallina ($16), according to the menu, “Peru’s most precious dish,” an Aji Amarillo Chicken Stew, with fresh cheese, pecan, and rice – the descriptors don’t do this stew justice. Since it is, in origin, a long-cooked stew, I got it to go, figuring that letting it sit wouldn’t hurt it, and might even help it (there is actually one drawback to doing this which you won’t think of: the cardboard container is rough-hewn on the inside, and actually absorbed a fair amount of the deep, turmeric-yellow liquid from the stew – because of this one thing, I advise not getting the Aji de Gallina as a carryout item. That said, I really enjoyed this stew, and it’s quite a simple dish at heart, with its deep, mustard color coming from the mild Aji Amarillo chile. There are, I believe, five species of chiles, and the Aji Amarillo is a Capsicum baccatum – fear not: This is a mild spice, and would register close to a “1” on a “1-to-10” Scoville scale.

China Chilcano is an excellent choice for diverse groups of diners, as Peruvian cuisine tends to be quite mild – mixed in with overtones of Chinese and Japanese, there is something at this restaurant for (if you’ll forgive the cliché) diners from 8 to 80 – it might be a bit noisy for senior citizens, so that’s something you should keep in mind. Still, China Chilcano is maintained strongly in Italic, has a $10 parking lot within two blocks (901 E St. NW), and is one of your best dining options in Penn Quarter – it is currently my favorite ThinkFoodGroup restaurant (Minibar notwithstanding) by a sizeable margin.

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“The Don Rockwell Idiot Kit” – Coffee and Coffee Equipment for Complete Novices, Mail-Ordered from Qualia Coffee in Petworth

I cannot recommend The Don Rockwell Idiot Kit enough for people who know absolutely nothing about coffee, but wish to become experts with a minimal amount of work. Read that entire thread, especially the first post, and get on the phone to Qualia Coffee – by the end of the week, you’ll have everything you need to brew the best coffee in your neighborhood.

I knew nothing, zero, zilch, nada, about how to brew good coffee, and I can now comfortably say that I drink coffee that’s as good as anyone, and it’s *waaaay* less expensive than going to Starbucks – it’s a night-and-day difference.

Purchasing this kit from Qualia Coffee will not only enable you to go from “nothing” to “everything,” literally overnight, but it will also be supporting one of Washington, DC’s most valuable small businesses. I’ve never met Joel, don’t even know what he looks like, and have absolutely no financial interest in this kit – I just thought it was a good idea for him, and I care about supporting small businesses who in turn care about quality.

Here’s a recent thread about coffee makers – towards the bottom, I refer to “The Don Rockwell Idiot Kit” with its Baratza grinder (I bought the more-expensive “Virtuoso” model, and I can never go back) – I cannot emphasize enough how much I love it.

Make the call – if you aren’t absolutely thrilled with everything you buy, write me … I’m almost positive I won’t be getting very many letters, other than letters of thanks. And if I were buying someone a gift who loved coffee, but was just starting out? A no-brainer.

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Dönnhoff: The Most Underpriced Wines in the World

Every so often, you hear something that sounds too good to be true, and the vast majority of times, it is – it turns out to be a fraud; but once in a great, great while, you hear a claim like this, then ignore it, and then … it turns out to be true, and you kick yourself for having waited.

The greatest white wine grape in the world is none other than Riesling, in particular, Riesling from Germany. And there is no greater expression of German Riesling than the wines of Helmut Dönnhoff – arguably, the single-greatest maker of white wine in the world, and absolutely the most underpriced.

When you look at Burgundies going for $5,000 a bottle and more, then Bordeaux going for $2,000 a bottle and more … then take a  look to the Northeast, where the greatest white wines in the world are created in miniscule quantities by a quiet, humble man named Helmut Dönnhoff – whose very best Spätlesen are, ridiculously, still under $100 a bottle, this, when they’re made in annual quantities of “thousands of bottles,” sometimes “hundreds of bottles,” allocated for the entire world.

Ask any German wine lover to name the best five producers of German wine in the world: Dönnhoff will be on every single list.

These wines, one day, will cost over $1,000 a bottle. Mark my words. Oh, they’ve gone up in price – in the late 1990s, they could have been had for $20; now, almost twenty years later, the price has increased to something closer to $100. Rest assured that twenty years from now, they will be priced at multiples of where they are right now, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see the better ones going for over $1,000 a bottle.

People ask me what to purchase for the long-term, and I have yet to see one single person who tried a Dönnhoff, and didn’t sit there in contemplative silence after they took their first sip.

Remember the name Helmut Dönnhoff: It will be mentioned in the same breath as Lafite-Rothschild, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Henri Jayer, Coche-Dury, and the other very greatest producers of wines in the world, and will be priced accordingly. With such limited production, with world population growing, and growing, China and Russia *still* having not discovered them … when they discovered Burgundy and Bordeaux, the prices doubled, tripled, and quadrupled – now, it’s just a matter of time for Dönnhoff: the greatest Rieslings made on the planet.

The one word most-often used to describe Dönnhoff’s wines is “nectar.” And if you haven’t experienced them, get in now, because the prices should be ten times higher than they currently are. The beauty is: You can even afford to *drink* them now, while you save the rest for your retirement – not to enjoy during your retirement; to *fund* your retirement.

The secret is out, with my apologies to the wine-loving cogniscenti (it wasn’t going to last forever).

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All Purpose, Shaw

I went to All Purpose this weekend at around 7 PM – the restaurant was fairly full, but with no wait, and there were seats open at the bar.

Let me start out by giving the highest possible praise to my *wonderful* bartender Kyle, who raised the quality of my dinner all by himself – he noticed when things were going wrong before I said anything, and proactively took action to make them right. He knew the ingredients in the dishes, and was just one of the best top-to-bottom bartenders I’ve encountered in quite awhile – he was great.

I wanted to begin my meal with a cocktail, so I asked which Gins they had, and they only had three: Beefeater, Green Hat, and Catoctin Creek – one of which is mass-produced and innocuous; the other two of which are almost undrinkable in my experience. Nevertheless, I ordered a Gimlet with Green Hat ($8 + $2 supplement for something) because I’ve only had it a couple of times; unfortunately, I didn’t notice which of the five stripes it was (Green Hat makes five gins, each one having a different colored stripe). I like Gimlets – which are essentially Gin and Lime – because they allow the Gin to shine through. Unfortunately, this must have been the Navy Strength Green Hat because it was overwhelmingly strong. The lime juice appeared to be squeezed in-house, but was done so earlier, poured from a plastic container, and a deeply macerated cherry was curiously added on top, which I’ve never before seen in a Gimlet – it was a pretty lousy drink, all things considered, but it was mostly my mistake for not sticking with Beefeater. Like Bombay (regular Bombay; not Sapphire), Beefeater is an industrial, but perfectly inoffensive and decent Gin that I usually get when regular Bombay isn’t available, and I want something neutral – this drink was mostly my fault, but I’m not happy with All Purpose’s selection of Gins.

After my cocktail, I switched to a white wine which took care of me all the way through my meal: a 2015 DeAngelis Trebbiano Blend ($9) from the Le Marche region – this medium-bodied, dry white has a fine supporting backbone of acidity (albeit very high-toned acidity) that was more than enough to stand up to all my courses. I should add that awhile before I went, I asked someone deep on the inside of this restaurant what dishes they were most proud of, and ordered exclusively from the list I got in return. All Purpose has a mostly Italian, very workable wine list, with almost 50 wines by the bottle, ranging from $35-70, seemingly averaging in the $45-50 range; you can expect to pay about $10-12 for pleasant, drinkable wines by the glass, and $7-$11 for each beer on their medium-sized, well-chosen list, with 4 luxury beers priced well into the double-digits.

I began my meal with a nearly delightful Sicilian Tuna Mousse ($10), served in a bocal with salsa verde, (pickled) baby celery, and four thin slices of well-toasted bread for spreading – just enough bread to provide for a liberal spreading of the mousse. This was a very good dish, and would have been excellent had it not been doused with finishing oil – I suspect the mousse is made earlier in the day, and finished a la minute with the salsa verde – something very much like a nutless pesto – and the oil, which (combined with the upcoming courses) contributed to making this meal heavier than it should have been.

Spaghetti Squash “Aglio e Olio” ($12), a large platter of shredded spaghetti squash with brown butter, lemon, herb-roasted ricotta, and breadcrumbs that drew questions from both sides of me (“What is that?”). This was an oily plate of food, and lacked seasoning – “Aglio e Olio” means “garlic and oil,” and while I got a lot of oil, I got virtually no garlic. However, in one bite, I took what I thought to be a quarter-sized wheat crisp – lo, it turned out to be a piece of crisped garlic, so there it was after all. The highlight of this dish – by far – was the herb-roasted ricotta, which had the same look and texture as thinly sliced vanilla meringue, and I mean that as the highest of compliments – this was wonderful, sheep’s-milk (possibly goat’s-milk) cheese presented in a novel fashion, and saved the dish from failing – I took about half of it home, having it the next day, and since it theoretically had lemon in it already, I added a few much-needed grounds of lemon sea salt, making it a much better plate of food. Although I reheated it in my microwave, it was actually much better on day two because it was simply too hot when it was served, and the oil in the dish retained the heat throughout the meal – it was markedly better at a slightly cooler temperature, and certainly with the added seasoning – I didn’t enjoy it at the restaurant; I enjoyed it at home.

With my Squash, I had the Crispy Fried Mushrooms ($14), an intricate dish of four sliced, cremini mushrooms with smoked mozzarella stuffing, and chives, sitting atop a puréed avocado ranch “dressing.” I say “intricate” because the insides of this mushroom would fool most people, as it fooled me, into thinking there was some veal in it, but it was a vegetarian dish; the only problem was the breading which was bland and desperately needed some seasoning – the same problem which plagued the accompanying squash. More “interesting” than “good,” I would consider getting this again if the batter changes, and if I had a second person to split it with – as it stands, it’s priced out at $3.50 per fried mushroom – not unreasonable for what you get, but also not something one person wants to stuff himself on.

After these three courses, I was pretty well stuffed, so I got half of my Spaghetti Squash to go, and ordered a Buona Pizza ($18), with tomato, huge slices of pepperoni, mozzarella, chili honey, basil, and grana – also to go. I paid my bill, walked back to my car, opened the pizza box, took one bite of the cornicione, whispered a four-syllable word, and headed home. Over the next 24 hours – including that same evening – I played around with the pizza, and have several conclusions:

1) The cornicione, or “periphery of the crust,” badly needs work: It’s way too big – an inch long, and about a half-inch thick, and is dense and has a flavor not much better than a decent cracker. If you don’t mind spending $18 on a pizza, only to ignore the end crust, you may well like these pizzas; for me, the crust is an integral part.

2) The honey in this particular pizza conglomerated around the rim of the crust – I don’t know if someone used a squirt bottle in a circular motion, and the centrifugal force forced it outwards, or if it just crept towards the end in the oven, but there it seemed to be conglomerated.

3) The toppings were busy, but excellent, and the middle part of the pizza was delicious – even better at room temperature than it was when hot, because you could taste the honey; at full heat (or close to it), the cheese tended to overpower the more nuanced toppings.

I’ve officially initialized coverage of All Purpose in Italic in the Dining Guide, and have it currently ranked as one of the Top Five restaurants in Shaw. This will undoubtedly change in the future, but for now, I can’t rave about All Purpose, which is trying to be “Etto-ish” in nature, but not pulling it off quite as well. Still, All Purpose is a good, 2 Amys-style restaurant that can improve if the kitchen stays focused; the service I had was top notch, so there isn’t much room for improvement there. The wine list (by the bottle) is quite good, but the bar needs work.

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Restaurant Alain Llorca, La Colle-sur-Loup, France

Having stayed in the Hostellerie de Messugues in St. Paul de Vence (do note the tourist attractions in that thread), with it being end-of-season and the hotel’s restaurant shut down, we were able to snag a half-pension at Restaurant Alain Llorca, having a pre-fixe, three-course menu for the ridiculous price of 30€ each.

Technically, the restaurant is in the neighboring village of La Colle-sur-Loup, but it was literally a three-minute drive from our hotel on the outskirts of St. Paul de Vence.

The catch is that, while Restaurant Alain Llorca is a Michelin one-star, our meal was a set three-course, with no choice as to what we ordered (certainly we could have gotten something else, but not for 30€, and I blew the bill to Kingdom Come by ordering a 50€ bottle of white wine from their large, not particularly well-priced wine list, driving the total bill up to something more like $125 total – such is life.

Our wine was a humble Vin de Pays, and not a particularly good one – oh, it was a pleasant table wine I suppose, but it was something you could walk into Nicolas and purchase for 10€, I suspect. It was a wine I didn’t recognize, and although I was thinking it would be a Sauvignon Blanc, it turned out to be a blend, mostly of Chardonnay, and was really not what I had hoped; nevertheless, it carried us through the meal, and I could have *always* turned to the sommelier for help, and I chose not to.

Our first course was a Terrine de Rouget – a terrine of red snapper, and was bountiful to excess. Served in a sauce reminiscent of a classic ratatouille, there were probably three medium-sized filets in each terrine, and we could have eaten just this.

The breads were made in-house, and were excellent – we had our choice of a mini-baguette, olive bread, and pain de campagne, all three of which were first-rate.

The second, main course was Ombrine Cuite au Naturel en Croûte d’Herbes, Pappardelles Liées au Pistou de Basilic, an *extremely* fancy way of saying “Drumfish over Pappardelle in Pesto,” and it was the one dish cooked to order – it was fabulous, although at this point in the trip, we were craving red meat.

At this point, we were positively stuffed, but out came the dessert tray, filled with over a dozen pre-made selections. I ordered Baba au Rhum, which shocked the daylights out of my dining companion because of the straight rum poured on top of the butter biscuit, and my friend ordered a Chocolat Nougatine – a decadently rich heap of dark chocolate.

For the price, the meal and atmosphere could not be beat (bear in mind this price *included tax and tip*, and also included amuse-gueule and mignardises – one of which had the “deepest” Pop Rocks I’ve ever had: It felt as if they were inside our brains going off) – this was a groundling’s meal at a legitimate Michelin one-star restaurant, but there was nothing to complain about. We rolled back to the car, packed to the gills, and swearing never to eat again.

On the way out the next day, we ran in and took a picture of the patio on which we sat, overlooking the ramparts of St Paul de Vence. There were a lot of really interesting cars outside (it’s a hotel also, and there was some type of car convention) – not ultra-expensive like at Monaco, but interesting nonetheless: Here’s the patio, and our little Fiat next to one of the cars:

Llorca IMG_2560

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