Foti’s, Culpeper

It had been over two years since I’d been to Foti’s, and on a Sunday afternoon, I felt like going for a drive – Foti’s opened at 5:30, and I timed it so I’d get there right when they opened. It was me, and one other four top in the restaurant.

With ample parking available outside (being Sunday at 5:30), I pulled up right in front, marveled once again at how lovely Culpeper is, remembered taking the photo of Janal Leather, walked up to the restaurant, and noticed the daily specials on the A-frame sign outside – one of them was lamb. ‘Hmm, local lamb,’ I thought to myself.

I took a table for two along the wall near the bar, having the entire restaurant to myself to survey, and my Alice Munro to keep me company if I got lonely. Here’s a good lesson for those of us coming from the DC area: I wanted an aperitif, but didn’t feel like dropping the dollars on Champagne, so I ordered a glass of Prosecco ($8) before looking at the menus. But then once I did look at the menus, specifically the drink menu, I noticed that there were several sparkling wine options that were in this price range – how many restaurants in DC will serve you *any* sparkling wine in proper stemware for $8? But then, Foti’s pleasantly surprised me in several different ways on this evening.

Sipping my Prosecco, two things jumped out at me on the menu, especially because I saw that lamb dish on the A-frame (whenever I see something multiple times on the menu, it “means something,” although it’s never entirely clear what (it could be anything from “that’s what their supplier had a lot of,” to “they bought too much and need to sell it”). Either way, they want to sell it, so I’m usually happy to help them.

It occurred to me that I’ve hardly had any peaches this summer, and seeing them in early September at a place like Foti’s jabbed me like a pin. Local Peach and Baby Spinach Salad ($11) tossed in a vanilla vinaigrette with sweet and sour onions, crumbled goat cheese, and toasted almonds garnished with candied orange zest is quite a mouthful, but I saw three things only: fresh peaches, fresh spinach, and goat cheese; the rest I could work with or around. And sure enough, it was a great late-summer salad with farmers market-quality produce, the only extraneous ingredient for me being the slivers of almonds, but those are easy to deal with (and they did lend a texture). This gave me flashbacks to the brilliant grilled peaches with vanilla syrup I had late last summer at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, although that dish was one of the singularly great peach preparations I’ve ever eaten.

This took me through my glass of Prosecco and into a Les Roucas Sauvignon Blanc ($7) from Minervois. Where are you going to find full pours of wines such as this anymore for $7 at non happy-hour prices? Foti’s wines by the glass list is one of the best in the area at this point, mainly because DC-area restaurants have all raised their prices, post-recession, and for some reason, Foti’s forgot to.

Enter the Grilled Lamb Steak ($23), ordered both because of the A-frame and also because of Chef Maragos’ Greek heritage. Served with oven-roasted potatoes, ouzo-pickled cucumbers, tomato-braised local beans (are you paying attention to all this?), and tzatziki. I was asked how I wanted the lamb cooked, and said “Medium-rare, or however the kitchen likes to prepare it.” Medium-rare it was, and this lamb was just sensational – cut into large, bite-sized strips, and just so perfectly Greek with the potatoes and tzatziki.

These potatoes seemed freshly roasted even though I don’t see how that’s possible – perhaps they were partially cooked, and then finished to order. Regardless, there was none of that brown-around-the-rim mushiness you get at so many restaurants that pre-cook their potatoes (oof, The Prime Rib just popped into my mind). This was pretty much a perfect dish, and even though it wasn’t *that* much food, I just wasn’t all that hungry, so got it wrapped to go. By the time I hit the Washington beltway, however, the dish was entirely gone, thanks to Foti’s wonderful breads – rarely has there been a better road treat than the second half of this lamb course.

I asked my server if this was locally raised lamb, and he stuttered a bit. “Perhaps it’s Australian,” I said, trying to help him out a bit. “Yes, the owner actually just made a special dinner for some Australian friends of the house, and he bought a lot of lamb,” he said. I don’t know why, exactly, I thought this was either local, or from very far away, but it had a “somewhereness” to it that screamed a sense of place.

If you look at Foti’s menu online, you’ll see that I ordered two of the most expensive items. This restaurant is downright cheap considering its quality, and as the rising tide of economic recovery has pushed DC-area restaurants into bolder and bolder pricing, Foti’s has remained quietly back in the previous decade. You should go there now, for an early Sunday dinner – the chef was there, the restaurant was empty, the meal was a bargain, the food was fantastic, and it’s hard to believe that I’ve been coming to this restaurant now for over eight years. It almost feels like an old friend, an old friend I hadn’t seen in far too long.

It’s no secret that I feel Foti’s went through a (very) rough patch, but after this meal, that seems like a distant memory.

Foti’s rests strongly in Italics in the Dining Guide.

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Penn Station East Coast Subs, Reston

I stopped into the Reston Penn Station East Coast Subs, a franchising operation that was founded in 1985 in Ohio, and now has at least 275 “units” nationwide.

Today, area franchises are in Fairfax (convergence of 236, 29, and 50), Reston (Plaza America Shopping Center with Whole Foods), Haymarket (Haymarket Village Center with Wal-Mart), and Richmond (W. Broad Street with Sam’s Club). They certainly aren’t shy about cuddling up next to the big boxes.

The moment I walked in, I knew I was in Sysco City – when you’re halfway down the line, you’re faced with a wall consisting of industrial-sized, gallon plastic tubs of items like Heinz, Hellman’s, etc. These are proudly displayed as *decoration* – I guess they’re trying to impress the consumer with their commitment to quality, but this consumer was, at best, repelled knowing the mediocrity I was about to dine on.

Penn Station offers their subs in 6″, 8″, 10″, and 12″ cuts, and I opted for a 10″ Steak and Cheese with a Large Diet Pepsi. Although I don’t remember the individual prices, and discarded my receipt, the total with tax (and maybe tip; I can’t remember if I threw in cash) came to $11.80. It was more than enough food, and I should have gotten something smaller for lunch.

The defaults with the Steak and Cheese were thin strips of steak, cooked to well-done, and provolone; options were sautéed onions (yes, and there were many), fresh mushrooms, (yes), banana peppers (yes, too many), spicy-brown mustard (no), mayo (no), and pizza sauce (yes, and it was Dei Fratelli which came from one of those industrial plastic jugs).

I’m always happy when I stumble across a diamond in the rough; it was not to be on this day. That this franchise currently has 275 units says more about America than it does Penn Station East Coast Subs. One and done.

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Boss Shepherd’s, Federal Triangle

The Northeast corner of 13th and E Street has been several things over recent decades. I first remember it being developed as our city’s second Dean & DeLuca, although instead of being a store, it was just a high-quality, quick-serve lunch spot. Working in the Rios Building nearby, it was the best lunch option in Federal Triangle by far (these were the days when you could park your car in the little parking lot off of Constitution Avenue, right in front of The Washington Monument – that lot is long-since grassed over).

Unfortunately, Dean & DeLuca closed down, and the space eventually became John Harvard’s Brewery & Ale House, a Massachusetts-based rendition of Elephant & Castle, which was remarkable only for being so unremarkable.

Then came Bluepoint, an attempt at Surf & Turf, but the basement location “around the corner” from the action did not serve tourists well, and the cuisine was not special enough to lure the lobbyist crowd up Pennsylvania Avenue.

On July 21, 2014, Boss Shepherd’s opened in this location. To me, the name sounds like something that might be a bar in Petworth, but as soon as I walked down the half-flight of stairs and entered the restaurant, I turned to my companion and said, “Toto, we’re not at Kansas Avenue.” Do you see what I did there?

Boss Shepherd’s is more Woodward Table than it is Drafting Table. The dining room looks wonderful, and you could be at home here in a suit, or a decent pair of jeans. On the far wall, there’s a lovely bar, and that’s where I made my home on this evening. The word is not out about Boss Shepherd’s yet, and so the restaurant and bar were both nearly empty – sitting in front of one of the two flat-screens, I had Roger Federer all to myself in a civilized atmosphere that shows great promise.

I sat down, and began watching the tennis match. In no way do these two flat-screens intrude upon the rest of the restaurant – it’s a large space, and diners won’t even really notice them, but this place will do a brisk happy hour from 4-7 PM, and bar patrons will be glad they’re here. I ordered a draft of Atlas Brew Works District Common ($7), and settled into my bar stool.

Fried Chicken ($24), a delicious, 12-hour-brined half chicken, served with pan-baked buttermilk biscuits cut from a sheet, and fairy-tail eggplant only on paper; they’d probably run out of this heirloom variety of eggplant, but came up with another farmer’s market-quality vegetable. I’d much rather see a restaurant run out of a daily delivery, and be able to replace it with something comparable, than to stick with a rigid menu and serve lesser produce. This dish was served with three ramekins of sauces: honey, for my biscuits; a very neutral, smoked egg-yolk sauce, for my white-meat chicken; and a mild-to-moderate chili-pepper sauce. There are plenty of entrees on this menu that sound enticing, but you will not go wrong in ordering this fried chicken.

On the side, I got Braised Greens with Virginia Ham ($6) because nothing goes better with fried chicken than collard greens, but I was surprised to see just how underseasoned they were – with the ham, I thought they would have more than enough salt, but they didn’t. Texturally, the greens were correct, and all they needed was for me to take that ramekin of chili-pepper sauce, and turn it upside-down, right into the center of the bowl. Now, just a little salt and pepper added to my egg-yolk sauce, and I have a perfect southern dinner.

When I finished my beer, my super-nice, old-school bartender Fitz asked me if I’d like another, but I noticed two barrels of whiskey, and asked about them. Well, don’t lock too much stock into these barrels because you’re not actually getting a barrel pour; because of DC law, the barrels are lined, and individual bottles are poured into them, so it’s more for an effect than anything else. Still, I ordered a glass from one of them – a Catoctin Creek Copper Fox Rye ($14), and Fitz didn’t bother with pretense; he poured it from a bottle. In one motion, I brought the glass to my nose, and took a little whiff just as I took a sip, and just as my eyebrows started going up. “This is water!” I said, in my best David Foster Wallace accent. He looked down at my glass, then back up at me, and for just a split-second, just the tiniest split-second, he bore the countenance of, ‘Okay, I have a crazy bar patron on my hands,’ before I said, “No, really, try it and see. You know what? It’s ice tea!” And as soon as I said that, he knew *exactly* what the situation was, and both he and a barback tried not to laugh (the other gentleman was having an exceptionally difficult time not laughing). Apparently, for decoration, the manager had put some iced tea into the bottles, and kept them near the front door (or something like that), and they had mistakenly brought over one of those decorative bottles to the bar. Also for a split second, I had thought that I was having a stroke, or something of the sort (have you ever been expecting one taste, and got something completely different from it? This was that moment, and it’s invariably confusing whenever it happens.) I was actually *glad* it happened because in the interim, Fitz had given me a taste of something I really liked. Well, I changed my order to a glass of George Dickel 9 Year Barrel Select ($14), and the planets were once again orbiting in the right direction.

The DC area has seen hundreds of new restaurants open in the past year and a half, but how often have we seen brand new restaurant groups form? Creative Eats is a new group formed by several power players: Paul Cohn, Greg Casten, and Bill Jarvis. Founder Paul Cohn was with Capital Restaurant Concepts (J. Paul’s, etc.) for thirty years (!), Partner Greg Casten is an owner of ProFish (which is your seafood pipeline), and Bill Jarvis is an attorney and long-time supporter of the hospitality industry. Partner, GM, and Sommelier Daniel Mahdavian most recently opened B Too, and AGM David Cohn came from Georgia Brown’s. This is a pretty serious lineup of heavy-hitters running Boss Shepherd’s, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see more – perhaps a lot more – of this restaurant group in the future.

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Ghibellina, 14UP

(See the July 20, 2014, Review here.)

What’s interesting if that I have some very knowledgeable diners agreeing with me about the pizza, and others basically saying that I’m crazy – that it’s okay, but not even close to being the best in DC. When I made this call about Comet Ping Pong, and then Pupatella, I didn’t get this type of resistance – this tells me that there may well be consistency problems, and in a restaurant this size, that wouldn’t surprise me.

One diner (who knows what he’s doing) mentioned a “soggy undercrust,” and that’s the antithesis of how I would describe the pizzas I’ve seen here; if anything, the pizzas I’ve praised have had almost *too* much char.

Consistency is everything at a restaurant of this size, especially if someone like me is claiming that they’re doing something at a certain level. Disagreements duly noted and recorded (and, to complicate things further, go to this July 25th Pupatella post … there’s no inconsistency, as Pupatella is in Virginia – they’re not competitors at all, and I feel we’re lucky to have both).

When someone tells me that a restaurant serves the best pizza in town, and when I agree with that, and tell it to the world, then I must hold that restaurant to a higher standard.

I went to Ghibellina last night, on Labor Day – probably Jonathan’s night off, but there was a packed bar area nevertheless due to their outstanding happy hour bar specials from 4-6:30. If you haven’t taken advantage of these, you really need to.

Starting off as I did once before, I ordered and sipped on a Frizzante ($6, all prices here are happy hour prices), prosecco, gin, strawberry simple syrup, and lemon. I can’t be certain, but I don’t think they’re using Damrak gin any longer – their online menu, if I’m not mistaken, is not quite current. Regardless, for $6, this was nearly as refreshing and well-made as before, but it didn’t wow me.

I then switched to a glass of Prosecco ($5) which was well above the norm in quality. A very good prosecco, served in a high-quality champagne flute, for $5? Yes, you should take advantage of Ghibellina’s happy hour at your earliest possible opportunity (select 20-ounce draft beers are only $4, including the Atlas Rowdy Rye PA).

Dinnertime! Diners can now choose from numerous pizzas during happy hour, and I chose the Salsicce e Cipolla (a ridiculous $8.50), sausage, provolone, wood-roasted onions, oregano, peperoncino, and grana. I ended up eating only one-quarter of the pizza (which diners cut themselves with a pair of scissors – I love this), and took the rest home, having half later that evening, and the final quarter for lunch the next day. So I got to try it at three different times – the half pizza was well-heated and crisped in a good, hot oven, and the final quarter was eaten at room temperature, so I got to really examine this pie in three very different ways.

When claims are made as to The Best at something, scrutiny needs to be tightened. Consistency means a lot, and in some sense, you’re only as good as your worst pizza on your worst day. I have to say that I liked, but did not love, this Salsicce e Cipolla. It was extremely well-charred on top, but had very little char on the bottom (an odd combination), the tomato sauce was sweet, and perceived as even sweeter by the wood-roasted onions which were sweet to a fault. While the sausage was very good and interesting, albeit somewhat pink (from nitrates?), the grana did not seem to be of the highest quality, but that could have also been the overall combination of flavors which just didn’t pan out. The flavor and texture of the crust was delicious, and was the high point of the pie.

Having now had several pizzas at Ghibellina, I can comfortably say that this was my least favorite. Was it because it was Labor Day, and the first shift was taking a break before busy season starts up? Are they offering too many different pizzas at happy hour instead of only serving a couple and executing those to perfection? I had this pizza on my first visit to Ghibellina, and loved it then, so why didn’t I love this? Primarily, it was the overall flavor which was less than the sum of its parts. Have the ingredients changed? Was an inexperienced pizzaiolo at the station? I don’t know.

All I can say is that to claim a restaurant “has the best pizza in town,” especially in this pizza-soaked city, the pizzas have to be both magnificent *and* consistent, and it’s the consistency that was lost on this visit. This was a good pizza, and for the money, was an amazing pizza, but taken on absolute terms, it was not a great pizza. Right now, I don’t feel comfortable saying Ghibellina has the best pizza in the DC area – I think it has the *potential* to serve some of the greatest pies, and rest assured that if Jonathan is overseeing things, it will, but this is a high-volume restaurant, talented cooks need days off, and the diner has no way of knowing what is going on. Jonathan will be cursing at me when he reads this – especially because I’m writing this about a Labor Day visit – but I’d be remiss if I reported on anything other than the actual experience. Honestly, I’ve had some fantastic restaurant meals on Labor Day proper in years past – crowds are thin, and if the chef is working, it’s like you unearthed buried treasure.

Above all, everyone please keep in mind: This is not a bad review by any means; it’s merely expressing doubt about Ghibellina’s pizza being “The Best.”

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Ravi Kabob I, Arlington

(See the December 29, 2010 Ravi Kabob I review here.)

I stopped into Ravi Kabob at around 10 PM on a recent evening, and there was still pretty much of a full house, and a line of 2-3 people in front of me.

I ordered, to go, two orders of Chicken Curry ($9.50), a blue-chip dish here that’s always good, using dark-meat chicken in a reddish-brown curry sauce, served with rice and thick lentils, optional salad, and an oval of Ravi’s wonderful bread.

This meal did not disappoint, and lasted us for nearly two days. Ravi Kabob over the years has not lost a beat, and if I recall, I’ve never had a bad meal here. Yes, the gentleman at the cash register is still as hostile as ever (he didn’t smile, or say thank you, or acknowledge me in any way when I left a 10% tip), but in no way does that detract from the quality of the food.

I also stopped into Ravi Chatkhara, and was surprised to see an empty restaurant, with menus that look more like something you’d find at a Pakistani-owned sub shop more than anything revelatory. That said, I’ve still never tried it, and I have a fair amount of confidence in their cooking skills at this institution.

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Dulce Bakery and Empanada Shop, Fairfax

After picking up Matt from hanging out with his friends, he said he was hungry (it was around 4 PM), so I asked him if he wanted dinner, or a snack – he waffled, so I pulled into a parking lot, and asked, “dinner at Saba, or a snack at Dulce Bakery and Empanada Shop?” A snack it was, although it turned out to be a pretty burly snack.

We originally went in for a couple of empanadas, but I also wanted to try a salteña. Normally $3 each, you can get two, plus a can of soda, for $6, so we went with a Cheese Empanada + Chorizo Empanada + Diet Coke ($6), and Two Chicken Salteñas + Diet Coke ($6), got them to go, and after about ten minutes, they were ready.

Eating the salteñas in the car, I warned Matt about possible drippage, and wow, was this warning appropriate. I’ve had juicy salteñas before, but never anything like these. If you turned them, point down, I’d say they were nearly one-third full with broth, and both of us paid a dear price once we got about halfway into them.

I’m a little surprised these owners are Bolivian because these salteñas were not quite like any I’ve had. I was grateful that they used dark-meat chicken, but there was no olive (pitted or otherwise), and no egg; just chicken, peas, potatoes – essentially a chicken stew, most likely ladled into the salteña with a lot of juice. The pastry crust was somewhat granular (think shortbread, not croissant), dark in color, and sweeter than normal; the stew used dried, powdered spices that tasted a little cheap (like chili powder), and these salteñas were merely “good,” not great.

The empanadas had a slightly more appealing crust, but still had that granularity thing going on – the chorizo was pretty well loaded with what almost looked like sloppy Joe meat, and the cheese was Queso Fresco-like with good saltiness and a nice little tang on the finish. I preferred the empanadas to the salteñas, although not by much – they were both well-worth the price. As for the cans of Diet Coke – they found a home in my refrigerator for later consumption.

Employees at Dulce are extremely nice, clearly Latino, and putting out a product with love, even if it isn’t the Best In Class. Note that they also provide wedding cakes (with enough notice), and have a display case full of interesting treats, including blueberry empanadas. If it’s greatness you seek, you’ll not find it here, but there’s also nothing keeping me from returning.

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Trapezaria, Rockville

I ordered the Mount Olympus cocktail (House Infused Cucumber Vodka, Fresh Lime Juice & Ginger, Infused Simple Syrup) which was tasty but sweeter than I would prefer.

We started with the Trio of Dips opting for the Melitzanosalte (Puree of roasted eggplant, parsley, garlic, olive oil & vinegar), Tyrokafteri (a delightful spread of feta cheese, roasted red pepper, olive oil & thyme), and Taramosalata (Mashed Potato, red caviar, olive oil & fresh lemon juice). Normally we would have gotten the Hummus but we just got back from a trip to Israel and are totally hummus-ed out right now. All three were very good, although the Fava put them all to shame.

I stopped by Trapezaria for lunch last week, and came away dumbfounded by the amount and quality of food I got for the money.

Walking in the door, I was convivially greeted by a gentleman who gave me a table for two, by the divider railing, just on the other side of the bar area. This was a good table, except that the air conditioner (I believe up above) was blasting out cold air, and I felt like I was sitting in front of a compressor unit. This may have been “that one unfortunate spot” that’s directly in the pathway of the vent; regardless, I ignored it, and proceeded to open – with irony - Troilus and Cressida.

An equally friendly lady greeted me, and asked me if I’d like a drink. I broke my personal 6 PM rule, and ordered – also with irony – a Helen of Troy ($11), made with St. Germain, Pinot Grigio, fresh basil, and a splash of soda. Like lekkerwijn, I thought my drink was just a little too sweet, and that “splash of soda” was a pretty small smash because I detected zero carbonation. It was okay, and pleasant for half a glass, but I never did finish it.

I really only wanted an entree, but also wanted to try a little something small just to taste, so I got one dip – the Tyrokafteri ($6), as lekkerwijn described, “a delightful spread of feta cheese, roasted red pepper, olive oil, and thyme.” Honestly, I didn’t think it was all that delightful, and it was ferociously strong, really just mashed up feta, with just enough red pepper to turn it orange, and served refrigerator cold with an ice-cream scoop. A few bites, and I knew I was pretty much done with it. I recommend for solo diners to order something a little less overwhelming – the Tyrokafteri belongs in the trio of dips; not by itself (sort of like blue cheese belongs on a cheese plate; not by itself). It was served, however, with freshly baked pita, cut into wedges, that was delicious and still very warm.

If, at this point, you think this is going to be a negative review, you’re wrong. These first two items were incidentals, and largely a result of me not ordering well. For my entree (which was essentially my entire meal), I ordered a daily special of Sauteed Filet of Sole ($12) with green beans and lemon potatoes. While this may sound somewhat ordinary, it was anything but; I would say that for $12, it was the best fish dish I’ve had in memory. Both sides of the fish, each one split, provided four ample filets of perfectly cooked sole. It was every-so-lightly breaded with an egg batter on the top side only, and the batter was so thin and subtle that someone scarfing down their food might not even notice it, but it was beautiful, almost like a thin tempura, and made a great dish something even better than that. Both the fish and the roasted, bite-size pieces of potato were amply covered in a reduced lemon sauce that is what I dream about in Greek restaurants, but so rarely find. Tart, thick, and full of flavor, it amplified both of these items, and was perfectly complemented by the green beans which were lightly mixed with an elegant tomato sauce. What a great, satisfying, filling plate of food this was for $12!

Nearly all the pita and dip remained, so I packaged them up and took them with me. That evening, after letting the dip sit out all afternoon, I had it with a couple of beers, and *then* it was just what I wanted – it wasn’t the dip that was the problem; it was the time of day and my body chemistry (I usually go light for lunch – and even the fish by itself was really too much for me even though I somehow managed to finish every bite).

I have maintained Trapezaria in Italic, and moved it up to the #1 slot in North Rockville in the Dining Guide. I don’t think the restaurant is as transporting as you’ll read elsewhere (the entire time you’re there, the ample windows remind you that you’re smack in the middle of downtown Rockville), but it is an excellent restaurant, and I urge people to try it for lunch – the prices are low, and it was nearly empty. And gosh that lemon sauce was delicious.

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Sauf Haus Bier Hall, Downtown

Wedged between Public Bar and Shake Shack, in the nebulous area between Dupont Circle and Downtown, is the month-old Sauf Haus Bier Hall, the hottest, noisiest place I’ve been to in years. Read on …

If you got a knock on the head, and woke up inside of Sauf Haus on a busy night, you might briefly think you were at Eighteenth Street Lounge. I passed a young customer-counter outside, then walked up long flight of stairs to get there (it’s on top of Shake Shack), and immediately got in a three-person line for what turned out to be a surprisingly nice unisex restroom. As I reached the front of the line, a rather desperate-looking young girl asked me if she could go in and quickly wash her hands, and I said of course (props to her because she really was in there for about fifteen seconds, giving me a thankful nod on the way out).

But it’s odd to me why someone here would want to wash their hands because this place is a *dive*! There is but one plausible explanation which I shall address in a moment.

Sauf Haus was packed, and I mean Eighteenth Street Lounge packed, so I was stunned to see one, single barstool available, and nabbed it pronto (thus not seeing the rooftop patio and bar). It was very hot in there, perhaps eighty degrees, so a cold beer was starting to sound awfully good.

This was a very young, boisterous crowd, probably averaging in their late 20s, and with very few people over 40. Umm …

Which is why I was so surprised – no, make that shocked – to see their beer selection. All-German, and 16 taps pumping out ice-cold half-liters and liters of some very worthy beers – names like Stiegl, Franziskaner, Weihenstephaner, Hoffbrau, and Spaten (which my auto-correct just changed to Spittoon). Honestly, I thought I counted 18 taps when I was there, but everywhere I fact-checked online says 16, so we’ll go with that number for now.

Not immediately realizing how German this place was in spirit, I ordered a “pint” of König Ludwig Dunkel Weiss ($8), and got served my beer perfectly poured into a Weizen glass. Yes, it was served too cold, but it was hot enough in the bar where you wanted your beer nice and frosty.

I’m not sure how many decibels were flying around Sauf Haus last night, but have you ever seen those conversion tables? The ones where 30db equal a quiet library whisper at 6 feet distance? Well, this would have come out somewhere between a motorcycle and a sandblaster – I was shocked to see the sign that said “60 Maximum Capacity,” although the room was not all that large, so 50 people bouncing their shouts off the walls can make a lot of noise.

They have sausages on the menu here which, I believe, are locally sourced, but the thing that attracted my attention (recall now the young girl washing her hands) was the large, blue, circular plastic tray on my left which contained the single largest pretzel I’ve ever seen. This pretzel was so big that if you unraveled it, it would probably be about a yard long, and it had the thickness of a russet potato, or a girl’s arm.

Looking at the menu, I saw these pretzels in addition to the sausages, and they sell three sizes: 1) two little ones, 2) a one-pound pretzel, and 3) a two-pound pretzel. Yes, a two-pound pretzel – for twenty dollars! Apparently, these are baked at Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe, and having been to Heidelberg dozens of times before, I believe it. I’m assuming the pretzel on my left was the two-pounder, but quite frankly, I’m surprised it only weighs two pounds.

I finished most of my beer, then hopped off my barstool, headed back down the stairs, and went out into the night.

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Cork Wine Bar, 14UP

I hope our city’s young 14th Street dwellers remember the time when Cork was one of the few good dining options on 14th Street; now, these pioneers have been “joined” by a good dozen other medium-high-end restaurants within walking distance.

What used to be an impossible seat was a piece of cake on Sunday evening. My young dining companion and I walked in at around 6:30, and chose a seat indoors instead of outside on the patio (although it was a beautiful evening, and we could have gone either way).

And we’re glad we did because our server, Cierra, was a hoot and a half – during the course of our meal, she said several genuinely funny things that had us both laughing, even after she walked away. She was great, and a huge asset to the restaurant.

I asked if they had any mocktails, and she said that although there were none on the menu, they could make us one. I asked for a Mocktail ($5) with ginger, and the bartender whipped up something with ginger, perhaps some nutmeg, and a couple other things. It was absolutely delicious, and as refreshing as could be, and I ended up getting a second one later on.

Cierra advised us on 4-6 dishes between us, and we split the difference at 5:

* Avocado ($10) with pistachios, toasted pistachio oil, sea salt, and grilled bread

* Grilled Asparagus ($10) with burrata, olive and red pepper puree, and basil

* Crispy Lemon and Black Pepper Dusted Calamari and Rock Shrimp ($12) with caper remoulade

* Pan-Crisped Brioche Sandwich ($11) of prosciutto, fontina, and sunny-side up egg

* Roasted Eggplant Flatbread ($11) with goat feta, pickled onions, mint, and lemon zest

Note several things:

* Cork keeps it simple, with minimal mixing of the native ingredients

* This menu has barely changed since the restaurant opened in January, 2008

* They bring out each dish when it’s ready (unless you request otherwise)

* Everything we ordered was priced between $10 and $12

Although Cork had two superstar chefs in Ron Tanaka and Rob Weland, current Chef Kristin Hutter – who may or may not have been working on this Sunday evening – is perfectly capable of making these dishes. This restaurant is a formula, and the chef can be – almost – something of an afterthought. These dishes are not difficult to make, and a good line cook could handle them. That said, on nights when the restaurant is screechingly busy, you need a pro in the kitchen to make things happen.

The menu is virtually the same, but the dishes themselves are quite different. It had been far too long since I’d been to Cork, and the difference in the execution was crystal clear. Each chef has their own style, and Khalid and Diane have apparently given the kitchen greater latitude than I would have ever imagined.

Highlights were the fritto misto which was just as good as any rendition I’ve had here, and the sandwich which was perhaps better than any rendition I’ve had here, although the fontina on it was a bit overpowering (if you don’t mind this, you’ll love the sandwich – break the egg just before eating it, spread the yolk evenly on top of the bread, and eat it with a knife and fork).

I was a little disappointed in the burrata sitting in the unpleasant olive and red pepper puree, and surprisingly, in the bruschetta which had an over-concentration of toasted pistachio, and avocados cut and distributed just a bit too clumsily (I’ve had this dish countless times in the past, and this was the weakest version – a more even sprinkling of sea salt will help).

Matt and I were pretty well stuffed, but Cierra – who could talk a leopard into buying spots – urged us to try the Summer Peach and Blueberry Crisp ($8), with vanilla bean ice cream and cardamom caramel, and both of us were *so* glad she did. Cooked peaches can be wonderful, or they can be slightly bitter with acidity, and these were wonderful because the crumble was positively laden with butter which worked beautifully in what turned out to be the highlight of our meal. Served in a very hot iron mini-skillet, the fruits were buried underneath a buttery crumble with brown sugar, the whole thing topped with a dollop of high-quality ice cream. Given the quality of these fruits, the recipe, and the execution, this is one dessert that you should go out of your way to get. And the caramel! Even if you’re a savory person, and tend not to order desserts, consider this a “fruit dish” and just get it – it will be one of the best desserts you have this summer, I promise. This is the one must-order item we had on this evening, and we were clashing forks, each trying to get the last bite.

While I was waiting for the dessert, I ordered an Herbal Tea ($4), and was presented with an elegant wooden box that allowed me to take my pick. Cork uses the French company Palais des Thés for their teas, and I got a sack of Linden Blossom Tilleul with my own little white teapot, short and stout.

Oh, and one other thing:


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Blaze Pizza, Bethesda

I had lunch at the Westfield Montgomery (formerly Montgomery Mall) Blaze Pizza today at around 11:45 (they opened at 11, and I was ticket #9). If you’re standing outside, facing the Cheesecake Factory, go into the entrance on your left (do this despite the daunting construction) – It’s Bobby’s Burger Palace on your right, and Blaze Pizza on your left.

There were 13 employees I counted working the restaurant (this means there are probably a couple others), and including a family of 5, there were 8 of us in the restaurant, so the combination of “just opened” and “pre-lunch” meant they were overstaffed at this particular moment.

The two restaurants that popped into my head were Chipotle Grill and Subway. Chipotle, because they’re probably the most disruptive restaurant of our generation, establishing (if not inventing) the “quick-serve” or “fast-casual” model that *everyone* is trying to emulate, some with more success than others. Subway, because as I was standing there, meandering down the line, I stared at some of the ingredients (and I’m thinking right now of the sliced pepperoni and sliced olives), saying to myself, ‘Ugh, I’m in Subway.’

Just as in Shake Shack the other evening, the employees were delightfully friendly. I ordered a Link In ($7.65) with sausage, red peppers, sautéed onions, mozzarella, and red sauce, and along with the other Signature Pizzas, this was the most expensive single item on their menu (there’s no doubt they’re doing some trailblazing with the pricing of their whole pizzas – $7.65 for an 11″ pizza is dirt cheap, but you should be aware that their food costs are almost surely less than $2.50 – since all the Signature Pizzas are $7.65, some will make more money than others, but everything is The Same because the key issues here are 1) ticket time and 2) overall sales, assuming any particular item doesn’t gouge them too much.

The oven has flaming, gas-powered heat sources in the back, the left, and the right. Although the menu claims my pizza is cooked at 810 degrees and is done in 3 minutes, on this particular occasion, it just wasn’t that hot, and it took closer to 5 minutes than 3 (I did not time it, but it may have been on the far side of 5 minutes, and at one point, the pizzaiolo even held the pizza off the oven, in the air, and near the flame to get it cooked evenly (interestingly, I saw Edan Macquaid do this very thing at Range when I was sitting directly in front of him – “Why are you doing that?” I asked him. “Why do you think?” he replied). Anyway, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, who cares – it’s fast, the crust is very thin (with a wisely constructed raised lip around the periphery to prevent spills and drippage), and if they can put out orders in less than 10 minutes or so, nobody will really care. The cashier (friendly) tried to upsell me with a salad and/or a soft drink, but I wasn’t in the mood (make no mistake about it: Those types of “Would you like a?” questions at the register are company-directed upsells).

As for the pizza, it’s about what you’d think it would be – barely enough food for an adult meal, stingy on the toppings, and enough to keep the average person satisfied until dinnertime. The breakthrough here is the quick-serve format for pizzas, and I suspect that Blaze Pizza will do just fine – the quick-serve format is a proven winner, and other than hamburgers, pizza is probably the most widely sought food in America (this is just a guess, but I guarantee it’s in the top five). Personally, I have no need to return, but I wasn’t repelled either, so I would willingly go again if I were in the mall with someone who wanted to try it, but I also bear no delusions that I’m getting anything of higher quality than any other fast-casual joint.

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