Baby Wale, Convention Center

(For the Dec 12, 2013 Review, click here.)

My most recent visit to Baby Wale was during Happy Hour, and I took advantage of Happy Hour pricing throughout the meal, assembling more food than I was able to finish for $22. Happy Hour pricing is displayed on the left side of the parentheses; regular pricing on the right.

If you participate in Restaurant Week, you should be paying close attention here.

I started off with a glass (probably a 12-ounce glass) of Lost Rhino Tmavy Dark Czech Lager ($5 / 7), a wonderful, malty, 6.2% ABV brew from Ashburn, and kept it coming throughout the meal. Since I was sticking with the Happy Hour menu, and this was mostly elevated pub food, beer worked just fine from start to finish.

While I always enjoy a drink or two before dinner, my body tells me when it’s time to order – I get an S.O.S. saying, “Uh, hey, uh, listen, this liquid is nice and everything, but could you expedite a little more substance down here?” And so I pay attention.

The Lobster Bisque ($4 / 7) was recently discussed here, and I’ve had a hankering for it ever since. I’ve had better versions than this one, which was on the thin side, but I think it’s cut a little bit at Baby Wale compared to the version at Corduroy, which seems to be thickened some more – I may be wrong on this, but that’s been my perception. I vague remember that Corduroy used to thicken their bisque with a bit of foie gras, but I may be conflating this with another dish. Regardless, it was wonderful, and I didn’t want it to end.

Next came a Mortadella Pizza ($10 / 14), and I was shocked at the size *and* the beauty of it – the pizzas at the old Corduroy bar simply were not this good. If you haven’t had a pizza at Baby Wale, I highly recommend giving it a try – it’s unlike any other pizza in the area, and hard to describe. You can tell it’s not a pizzeria, but you can also tell that a chef is making these, both in terms of crust, cooking technique, and toppings. Rather than describe it, I’ll enclose a picture:

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Doesn’t that look good? Well, I’d only finished one slice of the pizza when my next two items arrived: a Squash Blossom Pupusa ($3 / 5) and two Crispy Filipino Style Spring Rolls ($5 / 7), both of which were terrific. I’ve been enjoying these lumpia for about thirteen years, and they’re still right on point.

Anyway, after the soup, the pupusa, two spring rolls, and a slice of pizza, I’d eaten plenty, so I not only asked for a carryout box for my pizza, but also ordered a second pizza to go (that’s how much I liked the first one): a Oven Roasted Cherry Tomato Pizza was on the menu, but I was told that instead, they were serving a Shiitake Pizza ($10 / 14) – well, that works with me! So I had a *lot* of really good pizza at home, which I enjoyed both as a late-night snack, and throughout the next day.

This was, by far, the most polished meal I’ve yet had at Baby Wale. They’ve gotten everything together – when it first opened, I was worried about it, but those fears were unfounded. This is some of the best bar food in the city, and Baby Wale remains *strongly* in Italic in the Dining Guide. I love this place – it’s like Comet Ping Pong, but it hasn’t been overrun by little kids.

Here are the regular and Happy Hour menus. Take note of the Sapporo Style Ramen – this could be one of the sleeper dishes in DC.

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Garrison, Barracks Row

I stopped into Garrison for a very early dinner, and came away thinking that the food coming from this kitchen is upper-upper-Italic in quality, even though the restaurant isn’t necessarily shooting for anything higher than that (i.e., the dreaded “B” word), and it’s also impossible to issue that highest of ratings without several visits to a restaurant that’s at least several months old. Read on …

I wanted to sip a beer before doing, or thinking, about anything else, so my bartender, the extremely talented and promising Jessica Moyer, who studied under Gina Chersevani, and later became the Bar Manager at Toki Underground (yes, *the* Bar Manager) poured me a Numero Uno Summer Cerveza ($6) from Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick – very much of a session beer with both flavor and body (these are starting to become more prevalent at area restaurants, as restaurants are starting to understand that diners want to be quenched without being hopped to death or inebriated before the meal even begins (do I sound like Rodney Dangerfield?)

Gina herself was there, helping Jessica set up, and we spotted each other and began talking. “Well, as long as my cover is blown, why don’t you make me a G&T, I said?” She dismissed my statement, and said, “How about one of my summer Gin drinks?” I didn’t even need to ask – Gina is one of “those” bartenders who you just turn yourself over to, and let her take care of you. She’s gotten better-and-better over the past ten years, and has truly become a master bartender. She also has two of the most adorable little girls you could ever want to see with little Gianna and Francesca – their pictures are absolutely delightful, and enough to make the gruffest of men break into a smile. I actually didn’t realize until just this moment that Gina didn’t charge me for the drink – that will be rectified the next time I see her – I know she doesn’t want to hear that, but I have to. I apologize for not noticing before now.

Anyway, Jessica recommended several things to me, noting that the produce is *extremely* good right now. One of them, the Heirloom Tomato Salad ($15) with burrata, vanilla, and mint, was the best tomato salad I’ve had in 2015, without any serious contender in the running. Yes, it’s that good, and if you listen to only one thing I tell you, it’s this: Go to Garrison *this week*, while this Heirloom Tomato Salad is still on the menu, and order it. I don’t think I’ve ever paid $15 for a tomato salad before, but this had at least a half-order of burrata on it, so while not “officially” a Burrata appetizer, you can get an ample portion of it with the tomatoes. Drop all plans you have, get over to Garrison this week before the salad changes, and after your first bite, remember me asking you to please tell your friends about our community. That’s the best way you can thank me, and I promise you that you’re going to want to thank me.

Per Gina’s recommendation, I ordered the Poppyseed Gougères ($7), and they were about the best gougères I’ve had in memory – nothing else being served at any restaurant compares to these – certainly not the oversized mutation at BLT Steak or even the highly touted cone at Central. There might be something lurking out there at a place like Fiola, but I doubt it. Listen up: I’m not telling you to make a special trip just for these Gougères, but seeing as though you’re going to be there anyway for the Heirloom Tomato Salad, I’m telling you: Order the Poppyseed Gougères since you’re already there. The cone is easily enough for two, but even if you’re a solo diner, order it anyway, and take home half for breakfast the next morning. They won’t survive the night, but they’ll still be more than good enough. There are two items that you should and *must* order this coming week. Let me know how they are.

I had grandiose plans to have an extended meal here, but as luck would have it, I had to leave on very short notice. However, I had already put in my order, so I changed it to go, paid my bill, and waited for it to come out. Rob Weland, who had previous come out and chatted with me (Gina and Rob both look great, by the way; I’d never met Jessica before, but she’s young and pretty enough so she looks great too), was probably miffed that he had to package up his incredible Sweet Corn Tortellini ($14 for a half-order, $23 for a full-order) with stracchino cheese and chives – likewise his Whole Roasted Eggplant ($13) with tomato, yogurt, dill, and hazelnuts. I’ll get to both dishes in a second, but even though I didn’t see Rob again, I guarantee he was more upset about the tortellini than the eggplant.

But he shouldn’t have been upset, since even though I needed to leave in a hurry, I got caught in traffic, and went to work on the pasta dish driving west on I-695. I felt terribly that this dish, which is undoubtedly plated beautifully, was forced to suffer the fate of being served in a cardboard box, to be eaten with the fingers of someone driving a car. Nevertheless, I could picture pretty much exactly how it could have been plated, and this dish was so good that even tossed down like it were an order of fries from McDonald’s, it was one of the greatest pasta dishes I’ve had in many a year. Each piece of house-made tortellini was a work of art, stuffed with corn that was grown less than one mile away, and probably picked that same day. Mixed with the stracchino cheese inside of each tortellini, it provided the perfect filling, while the whole thing sat atop a pool of fantastic chive-flecked butter (the texture of the pasta and the texture of the butter are what was undoubtedly freaking Rob out – but I got to both of them before the texture had changed, so I saw exactly what was presented, presentation aside). Each separate piece of tortellini was a work of art, and I could “dunk to taste” in that delicious pool of butter – think about it: house-made pasta, cooked to a perfect al dente; literally farm-to-table corn, ground up and mixed with spanking-fresh stracchino cheese; and a beautiful, chive-laced butter dunking sauce: each tortellini had a little concave section on top that held exactly as much butter as I desired (don’t forget, an alternate name for tortellini is ombelico, or “belly-button,”) so it was the perfect mix of summer flavors, and truly one of the great pasta dishes I’ve had in a long, long time. If this combination of flavors appeals to you even just a little bit, then this is pretty much a must-order dish. Corn, farm-fresh butter, al dente pasta containers, ridiculously fresh, stretchy cheese – it was just awesome. And let me tell you: I’ve had pieces of sashimi that were less expensive than each tortellini, and I *still* feel that these were a better value – it would require something on the order of an o-toro or just-scooped uni to have greater intrinsic value than these bites of tortellini. Do yourself a favor and get a full-order to split with your dining companion – it’s a slightly better value.

The eggplant, which was served merely warm, could have easily survived, and perhaps even improved, had it been left out overnight; but it wasn’t. This was the only dish of the evening that didn’t blow me away, and it’s due to my personal prejudice rather than any fault of the dish itself: it’s a fairly spicy dish, and nowhere on the menu does it indicate that it will be so. There’s nothing wrong with spicy eggplant (these were quite possibly North African spices), but I was a little surprised to encounter them on my first bite; once I knew what I was in for, I recalibrated my palate, and enjoyed them very much. The dish was not harmed at all by transport, but I do think that these eggplants – clearly in the ground within the past day or two – were harmed by the spicing. Their delicacy was masked, and this while this was a great “spicy dish,” it was a waste of such freshly picked eggplant to use in this type of preparation when lesser examples could have shown almost as well. Another personal prejudice is that I love yogurt with dishes like this (among other things, it tames the spice), and I would have preferred more – note that if I had eaten this dish the way I was supposed to, that is, in the restaurant, I could have simply asked for a little tub of yogurt, and they would have happily served it to me, so this was my fault as well. All this said, there are a *lot* of people out there who love spicy food (I do too, but just not at this level of refinement), and if you’re one of them, you’ll probably cherish this eggplant, as it was about as fresh and good as it could have been under the circumstances.

Do I sound like I’m impressed with Garrison? Well, if I don’t, that means I’m a terrible writer. I urge readers of this review to go *this week* and get both the heirloom tomato salad and the gougères, or at least some type of summer produce – the clock is ticking, and time is running out on the tomatoes. Rob told me, “We have a lot of work to do,” but I warned him (after having tried the tomatoes) that I was going to be telling people to get the heck in there. Right. Now. What a display of local-and-seasonal cooking! I think the crowds – which are inevitable – are only going to harm this wonderful cooking, and I hope more than hope itself that I am completely wrong about this. Go to Garrison this week.

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Urban Thai, Crystal City

In Crystal City… My waitress from a different restaurant was Issan and told me Urban Thai has Issan menu (like Little Serow’s style). She says it’s excellent. Funny, she hasn’t heard of Little Serow and when looking at Yelp pictures she said “It doesn’t look Thai, it looks modernized Americanized”.

Has anyone tried Urban?

I went for you.

My friend got her standards: Tom Kha Gai ($5.25) and Pad Woon Sen ($12.95) – I took literally one bite of each, and liked them both. It needs to be emphasized that I literally had one sip of the broth for the soup, and one piece of the chicken (no noodles) for the entree – based on these teeny samples, I would order either in the future.

However, I got two things that I thought might exist on a separate Issan menu if they have one: Urban Style Duck Curry Puff ($6.25) and Nam Tok Beef ($8.95). About the curry puff – they’re fairly common, but have you ever seen one with duck? I don’t think I have, and this is clearly made in-house, with a napoleon-like pastry sitting as the top layer – this is was a multi-layered puff, and extremely sophisticated in presentation (standard plastic tub of cucumber, raw red onion, and sweet vinegar notwithstanding). Great puff! Get it! And the Nam Tok Beef is a small, room-temperature salad, something like what you’d see at many a Thai restaurant in the area. This is, in fact, on the *separate E-SAN ZAB VER menu!” Did I not mention that there is indeed a separate menu?

It’s described as “Grilled, marinated beef frank [*] steak with red onions, cilantro, and scallion tossed in spicy chili lime dressing, and has a similar flavor and spice level as a typical Larb Gai (in other words, it’s spicy as hell, but won’t knock you into the next room – also, bear in mind it has little cubes of beef and not ground pork).

(*) Having now had this, I can safely say that this is indeed a typo for flank; you’re not going to get a hot dog, don’t worry.

I asked the lady working the register if they had a separate Issan menu, and she confirmed that they did, and was kind enough to make a copy for me – she emphasized that they’re soon to come out with yet another, which features “the short-grained rice” (I didn’t know what she was talking about, because the rice that came with the food was very short-grained). It couldn’t have been sticky rice because they already have that with the mango dessert. The only thing I can think of is the dry rice that Himalayan Heritage serves, but that’s only a guess.

Here’s the menu:

Urban Thai’s Special Thai Menu

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Urban Thai’s Super-Secret E-San Zab Ver Menu

scan (4)

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The Riggsby, East Dupont Circle

I got the last seat at the bar at a crowded Riggsby, and immediately got an odd impression about the bartender. This was going to be an unusual evening – I felt it.

He handed me the cocktail list, full of ordinary wines a touch too expensive for my blood, but I flipped it over, and there were some graphics showing some of the more upscale drinks; the problem, is that both the graphics and the text were so faded that they were barely readable. Strike one.

But I wanted a Gin & Tonic, and that was the one list in the top-right corner, touting that it was made with Hendricks Gin and Fever Tree Tonic Water – I don’t love Hendricks in my G&Ts, but I can live with it, so I ordered it. You’re out of Fever Tree Tonic Water? Oh. Normally, I’d say Strike two, but you’d just been First Bitten the day before, so, no pitch. And plus, you told me you had their Ginger Beer, so I looked below it at their Moscow Mule.

A picture of a beautiful copper tankard was accompanied by the description that the drink was made with a “high-quality” vodka with Fever Tree Ginger Beer, a little lime juice, and a wedge of lime – sounded good to me, so I went with it. Oh, you don’t serve these in copper tankards like you have them pictured? Well, I’d say Strike two, but that’s not really you’re fault, so no pitch. Sure, why not.

So I started my meal with a Moscow Mule ($8), and the vodka he used was pulled up from under the bar and poured like he was trying desperately to empty the bottle. The lime juice was measured, however – I thought it was supposed to be the other way around? It was a *strong* drink, but it didn’t taste bad, and after all, it used Fever Tree Ginger Beer. But what was that vodka? It was in a blue bottle, and I became curious.

I nursed my drink while perusing the menu, and by the time I got to the bottom, I was ready for another, and when he asked me, I asked him what type of Vodka he used in that first drink. He pulled the bottle up from underneath the bar, and held it before my eyes: Skyy. Strike two, my friend: this is a $14 bottle of rot-gut, and it’s no wonder you were trying to get rid of it – what happened to the “high-quality vodka” in the description? Well, at least it was an $8 drink.

He told me I could have it made with any of their shelf vodka’s … Tito’s, Ketel One, Grey Goose … okay, better. This one, I got with Ketel One. And he measured the vodka, and short-poured me – filling the measuring cup only about 3/4 of the way before taking a scoop of ice so large that there was ice 3-4 inches above the top of my glass which needed to be whisked off. The rest of the drink was made normally, but it’s amazing how small of a cocktail you can get when your glass is absolutely full with small ice cubes. It tasted like a mocktail with no alcohol in it. And damned if I didn’t get charged $12 for the drink. Strike three. He knew what he was doing; he was just anti-customer, or so I thought.

I ordered my meal, a Schnitzel “a la Holstein” ($29), and asked what it came with – “warm, German potato salad,” he said. Okay, it sounded potentially acidic, but I took my chances, and with it, I ordered as a second side order, something from the bar menu: Chorizo-Stuffed Mushrooms ($7) which took him aback – I guess people aren’t ordering these things as sides with their meals, but it sounded like it would go just fine with my meal, so I verified with him, yes, I’d like it with my meal; not as an appetizer. No problem.

A short while later, everything arrived from behind me, and I could see why my bartender had raised an eyebrow – my entree and its “German potato salad” had been cooked to order; my chorizo stuffed mushrooms were made earlier in the day and reheated – they were dried out, and really did look like pass-around canapes, or bar snacks. But the flavors were all there, and they did, in fact, go with everything else.

The schnitzel itself was delicious, but pounded more thinly than I’ve ever seen a schnitzel presented before – I was hoping for something nearly twice this thick for $29. So they not only get you with a high price, but also with deceptively small amounts of meat. Still, the batter was delicious, the schnitzel was cooked very well, and it came with some anchovies (for some much-needed salt), capers, and a runny egg. Every so often I’d spear a new potato from its iron skillet sitting next to my plate (this was my “German Potato Salad” – it was halved new potatoes, with a little onion on the bottom and cooked with some jus, perhaps from the schnitzel, and they were *delicious* – a nice surprise in a meal where I felt like I was getting nickled-and-dimed. Likewise, I did the same with my chorizo-stuffed mushrooms, which were about the same size as the potatoes – yes, they were older and dried out, but when put on my plate and cut in half, they went very well with my other two items.

Right when the food came, my bartender asked me if I’d wanted another drink, and I told him I was thinking about a glass of wine. He thought for a moment, and said, “I’ve got something for you to try,” before pouring me a generous glass of Vermentino ($11), which is exactly the wine I would have chosen for myself. I complimented him on his call, and he began to warm up. So I enjoyed my rather expensive meal (the final bill was $73.70 before tip), then asked for the check. I reached for my wallet and mouthed the words, ‘Oh, my God.’ He saw me do this, obviously read my lips, and knew something was wrong. I had forgotten my wallet in the car.

Embarrassed, I explained this all to him, and handed him my keys and iPhone, saying I’d be back in five minutes.  (I did have the wits about me to take my car key off the ring.) No problem, he said, and I showed up a bit later, left a $15 tip, and all was well. “I could tell something bad had happened when I saw your face,” he laughed. So, all’s well that ends well, and I enjoyed my meal even though I was out $88.70. And the bartender wasn’t such a bad chap after all.

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2 Amys, Cathedral Heights

(For the Apr 25, 2011 Review, click here.)

There are three people in the DC area whose lack of James Beard Awards show what a travesty the entire process is. One of them is Cathal Armstrong, whose time may now have come-and-gone, but who should have absolutely won the award sometime during the past six or seven years for Restaurant Eve.

Another, perhaps even more egregious oversight, is the great Peter Pastan, chef of what was easily one of the Top 3 restaurants in Washington, DC back in the 1990s: Obelisk – ahead of its time, and with *Frank Ruta* as its Sous Chef. Perhaps even more importantly, he opened 2 Amys, arguably the most important restaurant in the history of Washington, DC. Between these two restaurants, Peter Pastan deserved to have won Best Chef – Mid-Atlantic, if not the National Award for Outstanding Chef. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the pantheon of DC-area chefs, and our young demographic has forgotten what an influential trailblazer he was (and continues to be) – he was perhaps the very first chef in the area to truly care about deeply regional Italian cooking.

It had been too long since I’d been to 2 Amys, and while driving up Nebraska Avenue yesterday, I gave a brief glance down New Mexico Avenue, thought momentarily about Al Dente, and then continued driving towards 2 Amys. I found a great parking space on Macomb Street, walked in, and grabbed a seat at the bar, where the always reliable Debbie Johnson was, just as she seemingly always is.

2 Amys is a wine restaurant, but I really wanted to refresh myself with a beer, so I started with a draft of Reissdorf Kölsch ($7), brewed by Brauerei Heinrich Reissdorf in Köln, and it was exactly what I wanted – low in alcohol, high in taste, cold, and refreshing. I finished it before taking a single bite of any food, then getting a 1/4-liter carafe of the 2 Amys House Rosé ($11), currently from the 2012 vintage, and made from 100% Sangiovese grapes – it’s not quite a rosé so much as it is a “bled red” (only a wine geek would chuckle at that), but it went perfectly with every single course I ordered, and I ordered with gusto – the fascinating items on their menu made sure of that. Look at this awesome selection of small plates!

In no particular order, because they were all served within minutes of each other, and I nibbled and picked at each, all of which, by the way, were served at room temperature and assembled before my very eyes. This is the strategy of dining at 2 Amys’ bar: Look things over, point at what looks good, and ask questions. You’ll be as happy and as amazed as I was:

Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart ($7) – I saw, in front of me, a rectangular tart, perhaps 15 inches long, 5 inches wide, and 3 inches high – uncut – and knew I had to have it. It was flaky pasty crust, filled with goat cheese which hadn’t been whipped into air, and topped with slices of heirloom tomato. This was primarily a goat-cheese dish, as that comprised probably 75% of the tart, and it was a healthy slice – perhaps about 1/5th of the entire tart, so it was very rich (as quality goat cheese generally is). Considering the powerful, unctuous nature of my other three dishes, this served not only as a wonderful vegetarian plate, but also as a much-needed palate refresher between bites of the other three dishes, which were even richer and more filling.

“What is that with sage on it?” I asked Debbie. It was noisy, so I didn’t hear every word of her answer, but she said it was fennel (I thought sure it was yellow pepper, but sure enough, it was fennel), and when she added, “It’s actually a lobster dish,” she had me. Lobster Salad with Fennel Braised in Orange and Saffron ($10) was the food-lover’s dish of the night – it was awesome, the barely cooked (if cooked at all) lobster accented with vanilla, and added to the yellow-pepper-looking fennel just before serving. I’d never seen this dish before, and come to think of it, I’d never seen any of the four dishes I had last night before. How does someone come up with this? Is it in some obscure cookbook? Does Chef Pastan just think of these things? My goodness, it was … amazing.

These final two dishes are where things got over-the-top rich, as they were finished with really good olive oil, but were also extremely rich to begin with. This is my fault for being an overzealous food maggot, but there’s no way I wasn’t going to order them, so sue me:

Romanesco Cauliflower with Capers, Olives, Pine Nuts, Spicy Bread Crumbs, and Tuna Spuma ($7) was just downright evil, and was most likely illegal in several states. It was *so* rich, and along with the three slices of delicious, homemade bread I received, could have easily been a meal by itself, especially a lunch. It was all-over decadence, and hard to believe that the only meat in it was tuna in the spuma. Quality ingredient followed quality ingredient, all mounded together into a large pile on the plate, and it was just so rich that I struggled mightily to finish, but finish I did.

And finally, Oven-Roasted Swordfish Belly with Lemon, Bay Leaf, and Green Sauce ($9), the green sauce resembling something of a *very rich* pesto, the slice of swordfish belly – perhaps a 3-inch by 2-inch rectangle which didn’t look like much, but it was – sitting innocently on top, with two lemon slices beneath. The richness of this dish forced me to pretty much wave the white flag of surrender, and only eat the fish, just barely dabbing it into the green sauce. The last time I had swordfish belly even resembling this, it was at Woodberry Kitchen, but even there, it was grilled.

These four dishes came to a *total* of $33, and was more food than I could finish. How much is Restaurant Week again? If you’re a Restaurant Week pigeon, you owe it to yourself to read this post over, and over, and over again, until it finally hits you that you can get a meal that is better than 99.99% of Restaurant Week dinners, in terms of quality – absolutely – but also in terms of *quantity*. I had not eaten a thing all day when I arrived, had exercised earlier in the day, and could not finish my meal. I only ate one piece of bread, and while I finished the “big ticket” items such as the swordfish belly and lobster, there was just no chance of me being able to swab up all the rich sauces – something which I *always* do. No chance – this was just too much rich food.

As my mom always used to tell me, “Donald, your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” and boy did that hold true in this case. You know, lately, I’ve been saying that Oenotri in Napa, California, where I’ve now been at least four times, is “like 2 Amys, but a little better.” But that’s not true; it’s “like 2 Amys, but a little less rustic.” Another restaurant I recently went to that reminds me of 2 Amys is Pizzeria Bianco (for the second time) in Phoenix. And I have no doubt that Chef Pastan is flattered by these two comparisons; one thing that surprises me is that, although I’ve seen Johnny Monis here in the past, I’ve never seen Frank Ruta here, and this is exactly the type of food that Frank Ruta respects and enjoys.

2 Amys is one of our city’s great treasures, and is arguably (not definitively, but absolutely in the conversation), arguably the greatest and most important restaurant in the history of Washington, DC. And if you don’t think so, think again, keep educating yourself, and keep coming here. The stroller crowd is pacified, yes, but the toughest of culinary critics are, too. Thank God for Peter Pastan.

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El Rancho, South Arlington

First, let me say that there are two El Rancho restaurants in Northern Virginia: One in Backlick Plaza in Springfield, and a second on Columbia Pike in South Arlington. They used to be under the same umbrella, but as you can see, that is no longer the case:

Screenshot 2015-08-04 at 13.27.36

The website for the South Arlington restaurant is here, and the website for the Springfield restaurant is here. To put into perspective just how similar the two restaurants are, the South Arlington restaurant still uses a menu that refers to Springfield’s website – the ownership change must be fairly recent. Anyway, this thread is about the South Arlington El Rancho on Columbia Pike.

I’ve been here several times, and it is definitely a working-man’s restaurant (and I say “man” with a purpose, because you do see a lot of Latino workers here, refueling after a long day on the job).

The Pollo a la Brasa is decent, but on my most recent visit, I got Carne Asada ($11.69), a grilled steak platter with choice of two sides – I ordered Yuca Fries and Black Beans and Rice, and it came with a tiny plastic tub of pico de gallo and some of the pink dipping sauce for the yuca.

If you’ve been to area Salvadoran-owned restaurants (*), you can probably picture pretty much exactly how this food was, except that the portion sizes are more modest than you’ll often see (a lot of times when you order Carne Asada, you have leftovers for the next day; not so in this case). The steak is invariably cooked to well-done, the yuca is often somewhat mushy in the center, and the black beans and rice are always good. And so it was.

I’m really straining to come up with something interesting to say about this meal, but this was food that you eat; not food that you dine on. It’s tasty, satisfying, filling, and (fried yuca aside) not at all unhealthy. The problem, of course, being that other than beans and rice, most other sides at these restaurants are either “fried” or “saucy” or both, so you’d have to double up on the rice and beans in order to make this a healthy meal, and even then the beef was pretty darned salty.

Well, I managed to write a few paragraphs about not a whole lot. El Rancho is a perfectly decent Pan-Latino restaurant that’s clean (not always the case, mainly due to age), and has very polite employees who don’t speak a lot of English. For me, if I’m hungry, and in the area, and don’t feel like analyzing what I’m eating, it’s a repeat.

(*) I believe the owners here are from Ecuador.

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Barrel and Crow, Bethesda

Fried chicken & waffles

The fried chicken was the dish of the night. Truly great. Try this dish.

After a long afternoon at Walter Reed, visiting a friend of Matt’s, I took some time off and went to dinner – Barrel and Crow was only a five-minute drive, and I nabbed a parking space almost right in front of the restaurant.

I pulled up a bar stool right in front of the Orioles game, and watched Manny Machado spear an impossible screaming short-hop grounder before seemingly *taking time to adjust his sunglasses* before throwing the runner out – this, while sipping on a Left Hand Brewing Co. Sawtooth Ale ($7), an amber, 5.3% ABV session-like beer with malt and hops in *balance* (bartenders: Do you notice a pattern here?) Sometimes I wonder if Machado has such a gun for an arm that he’s going to make an arrogant mistake one day in an important situation – regardless, I’ve never seen anything quite like him at third base. Between Machado and Andrelton Simmons, we’re witnessing two of the greatest infielders of all-time.

For an appetizer, a bowl of Gazpacho ($8) with Chesapeake crab and corn salad as a garnish at the bottom. This was a dark, oily, spicy Gazpacho that relied on what might have been Old Bay seasoning for its zip, the little beads of oil, perhaps olive oil, making the rounds at the top of the bowl. This was a technically interesting Gazpacho that worked better for me on paper, as I thought it was a bit spicy for its own good, but there’s no question the quality was there.

After having Nick’s chicken at Old Angler’s Inn, and after hearing the raves about it here, I had to get the Fried Amish Chicken and Waffles ($18) with compressed watermelon and cherry-tomato salad, two quarters of a Belgian waffle topped with peach compote (not the strawberry-rhubarb compote you see above), and also a little tin of Pennsylvania maple syrup. I love this chicken, and a dirty-little secret about it is that it’s actually cooked sous-vide before being fried (how else can it come out so fast?). Sous-vide is a technique that I find largely abused in the industry, but it is a perfectly legitimate cooking technique when done properly and with restraint, and Nick knows how to do it with chicken. There’s almost no way to tell, even when you get into the depths of the breast meat. A few hints about how to best enjoy this dish: the salad is best when separated: chase a bite of salty chicken with a bite of compressed watermelon (I’m not a big fan of compressed watermelon in general, but it works here). And dunk the cherry tomatoes in the peach compote resting in the pockets of the waffles (think about it: tomatoes and peaches go very well together, and this is not a sweet peach compote, so they complement each other nicely). Dab the waffles in the syrup to taste. A wonderful presentation of a half-chicken that screams summer on a plate – I really liked it a lot, sous-vide chicken and all.

I also ordered four items to go from the Bar Menu: two orders of Buffalo Wings ($9 each) with Chef’s spicy Buffalo sauce, blue cheese, and celery; Onion Rings ($7) – pickled and tempura-fried onion rings with bacon & buttermilk sauce; and Maryland Crab Beignets ($9) with Old Bay tartar sauce. I’d love to tell you how they were, but I only got a brief glimpse of the chicken wings, and literally didn’t even see either the onion rings or the crab beignets, as they were being devoured in the back seat by two hungry teenagers – all four things were gone in the time we drove from Bethesda to Fairfax. I heard some oohhs and aahhs and some snorting and some raves about the crab beignets in particular, but they didn’t even save me a single bite. All I know is that Matt said all four things were good, and that both teens (who both have good palates) really liked the crab beignets.

Barrel and Crow was initialized in Italic purely as an educated guess; now, I can safely say it merits that ranking in the Bethesda Dining Guide. Of special note: The beer selection is fantastic.

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Bawadi Mediterranean Grill & Sweets Cafe, Bailey’s Crossroads

I’ve driven past Bawadi (formerly Samedi Sweets Cafe) many, many times in the past, but have never been in, so I thought it was high time I scoped out the scene.

When I opened the door, I was greeted by an automated recording triggered by the door opening. Presumably this was a one-sentence greeting, but I was joking to myself that it was really saying, “If you don’t understand this, then turn around and get the hell out of here!”

I walked straight to the sweets counter, but couldn’t help noticing the somewhat meager lunch buffet. However, I peeked inside the food warmers, and a lot of the things looked really good – there were, for example some plain grilled meats to go along with traditional stews – perhaps a dozen things in all. I asked the lady behind the sweets counter, and she said the weekday price is $9.95, and from what I saw, that was definitely a bargain.

I ordered two things to go: a Kanafeh and a Nammoura, and although I don’t know the price, the total came out to something like $7.78 – I just gave the lady $9.00. She thoughtfully packed the sugar syrup for the Nammoura in a separate tin, and I didn’t even put it on until the next day (Nammoura is the Lebanese name for this extremely common Middle-Eastern treat, and I’m not sure I’ve ever had a bad one – especially when it’s doused in orange-blossom or rosewater syrup).

Unfortunately, the Kanafeh (the one that looks like it has shredded carrots on top which is actually shredded, toasted wheat), is a cheese-based dessert, and the cheese at the bottom of mine was not the freshest. While not completely over-the-hill, it was not as “new” as I would prefer, and after eating half of the dessert, I flipped it over, took a whiff, and decided not to finish – it wasn’t *bad*, mind you; but I’d had my fill, and I’ve had this dessert many times when it was just compelling; this just wasn’t worth the considerable calories given that it wasn’t outstanding.

On my way out, I opened the door, and got a different greeting, one which I imagined to be something like, “And stay out, white boy!” I smiled, got into my car, and drove down Route 7.

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Rice Paper, Eden Center

I arrived at Rice Paper at 12 noon, meeting a friend for lunch at 12:15, and noticing there was only one table, a two-top, left in the restaurant. I didn’t want to chance being shut out (this time next month, my friend will have two children instead of one), so I went ahead and let a gentleman seat me.

Sitting alone for awhile, and knowing we had to be gone by 1 PM, I went ahead and ordered myself a drink, and made an executive decision by getting a cold salad for us to split. Soda Sữa Hột Gà ($4) is a Beaten Egg Soda, and seems to be a lemonade-based, slightly carbonated drink, slightly thickened by beaten egg whites (it’s certainly possible there was some yolk in there too). If you want to try something new, this is light, refreshing, and only moderately sweet – this is a great soda.

Feeling pressure from a completely full restaurant, I ordered us a Gỏi Ngó Sen Tôm Thịt ($11), a Young Lotus Salad with Shrimp and Pork. My friend arrived several minutes after the salad, and we enjoyed a fairly sweet salad, not comprised of the round, clock-dial slices of lotus root you’re accustomed to seeing, but rather with very white-colored stems (or stalks), marinated in a sugared-down vinegar, and coming with middling, somewhat granular-textured pork, and decent, lightly steamed shrimp. It was “okay,” but not something I’d rush to order again because it tasted like every other sweet, vinegary Vietnamese salad you’ve had a million times in your life, with nothing about it emerging as outstanding.

Being nearly nine-months pregnant makes you want a light, cool lunch on a hot day, and so we ordered Gỏi Cuốn ($4) two garden rolls, cut in half to make four pieces, and these, too, were pretty much standard-issue garden rolls – quite good, but nothing out of the ordinary (nor were we expecting anything out of the ordinary, as we were ordering extremely “safely”). Some things take precedence over duck testicles, which is what I had the last time I was here.

And to round out a light lunch sampling, Cơm Chim Cút ($10), Marinated Roast Quails on Jasmine Rice – this was the one outstanding dish of the meal, the quails extremely generous in quantity, perfectly marinated, and with the skin beautifully crisped and the dark meat inside succulent and flavorful. This is number 40 on the menu, and I highly recommend it to diners at Rice Paper – quail is a very low-profit item for restaurants, and $10 for this dish was more than just fair; it was flat-out inexpensive.

To summarize, we didn’t really test the kitchen at Rice Paper, but the one really “culinary” dish we ordered was a complete winner – it couldn’t have been much better, and even the large scoop of Jasmine Rice was very well cooked. As we left Rice Paper at 1 PM, there was a line out the door of perhaps 7-8 people – this is the most popular restaurant in Eden Center right now, and for good reason.

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Et Voila!, Palisades

(For the Jan 22, 2012 Minibite, click here.)

Out of the many times I’ve visited Et Voila! in the past, two things really stuck out on my most recent visit:

1) Claudio Pirollo is not merely Belgian; he’s also half Italian – there are numerous Italian influences on this menu.

2) Et Voila! is greatly missing the departure three years ago of co-founder Mickael Cornu, the co-owner/pasty chef.

I began my meal with that rare beer which makes me want to find where to buy it at retail, that refreshing beauty with slightly more malt than hops, and an ABV in the 5-6% range – an amber, medium-bodied, session beer (at least in terms of today’s definitions) that is quenching and perfect for a hot day. A bottle of Palm ($7) isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s what *I* want to drink on a regular basis, and I would love to find out who’s distributing it in this area. I want Palm as my “house” beer.

But Chef Pirollo’s cooking deserves wine, not beer, and so I got a bottle of 2014 Château Montaut Rosé ($28), a Côtes de Provence from the town of Pierrefeu du Var, in the Department of the Var (Cedric Maupillier’s boyhood department in distal Southeast France – Cedric is currently the Chef de Cuisine at Mintwood). This wine is less than a year off-vine, and was so new that even though it was an extremely pale, very dry Rosé, it maintained an almost sticky-fresh bouquet of fruits, and needless to say, went perfectly with both of my first courses.

I was brought a small bucket with four pieces of sliced bread which I very much doubt was made in-house. It seemed par-baked and frozen (you know “that” texture that these breads have – a bit firmer towards the crust, a slightly “off” flavor and texture, and never really perfect anywhere in the slice. Well, I’m used to it in these parts, so it doesn’t bother me, but when you have an in-house pastry chef (I actually hadn’t yet realized that Mickael Cornu was no longer at the restaurant), this is not something that you want to see. The butter was in a nearly frozen rectangle (ice-cold butter doesn’t bother me in the least, and I just don’t understand why it bothers some people – break off a little piece of bread, cut off a little piece of butter, put it on the bread with your knife, and there you go. You don’t need to butter the entire piece at the same time, and I’m not sure why people think you do – I rather like the contrast in textures and temperatures with warm bread and cold butter.)

At this point, it is extremely rare when I see a European dish on a menu that I’ve never had before (in Asian restaurants, this still happens fairly often). But I believe that I’d never before had, and quite possibly have never before seen, or even heard of, Tartare de Truite ($13.50 – the online menu’s prices are out-of-date), Trout Tartare (!), with some blots of black-olive tapenade, a beautiful rectangle of tomato gelée atop the loaf of tartare, and some leaves of mâche as garnish (which they call a “Mache Salad” on the menu, but it’s not). What a great dish this was, both in presentation, freshness, and flavor – this dish alone is enough to earn something close to permanent respect for Chef Pirollo, and I urge curious diners to go here and try this. My server told me this is a river trout from Virginia, and that makes sense because although it was cut into small pieces, and appropriately dressed, it tasted like it was just pulled from the water. I’m pretty sure this was a first for me. Bravo, Chef.

For my main course, Rockfish Filet ($27.50), a thinly sliced, skin-on, slice of pan-seared wild rockfish that had me, upon first glance, dubiously asking my server if he was sure this was rockfish. Well, it was, and it was absolutely delicious – the truth is: I hadn’t had well-prepared, wild rockfish in awhile, and I’m not used to seeing it look this beautiful. The skin was perfectly crisped, and the meat underneath was moist, tender, and just wonderful. It was served atop a slightly too-hot Caponatta (a Sicilian version of Ratatouille, although I’m uncertain this was a traditional recipe (it was covered by the fish, and hard to dissect; plus I was enjoying my dish so much that I didn’t want to)), three rectangles of Barbajuanwhich is essentially “fried ravioli,” these being stuffed with a trivial amount of ricotta, the entire dish with a small amount of Caponatta jus as a base (not poured on top). Yes, this was somewhat expensive for a relatively small piece of rockfish, but the quality was extremely high, and this dish was worth every penny. Again, I emphasize that both of these courses went beautifully with my $28 bottle of Rosé, of which I drank half, and took the rest home – you’ll be doing well here if you do the same thing with this wine – it’s less expensive by the bottle, and you don’t need to finish the entire thing at the restaurant. Note also the Italian overtones in this dish with the Caponatta and Barbajuan – almost everyone assumes that Et Voila is a Belgian restaurant, but it’s more of a Belgian-Italian hybrid, and that is to its advantage, giving its cuisine a richer depth of flavors and giving the chef a larger palette to work with.

I wish I could say my dinner – wonderful up until this point – had a happy ending, but the Profiteroles Choux Pastry Balls ($9) that I’ve had, and raved about, several times in the past here, were shockingly disappointing, and it was at this point in the meal when I knew that Mickael Cornu was no longer at the restaurant. At one point during the dessert course, I mustered the courage to asked my server, “When did the pastry chef leave here?”, not even knowing for sure that he did. “Oh, you mean Mike, the co-owner?” he replied. “Yes,” I said. “About three years ago,” he told me, and sure enough, when I got home that evening. I’ve certainly been here at least once in the past three years, but this was just glaring. The choux were very good – good enough where they could have been made in-house, but other than that? This was nothing I couldn’t have made myself at home, and I say that with deep lamentation in my voice, because even though Profiteroles is a dessert that kids in France can find in bowling alleys (seriously), here, they were a thing of wonderment – with this astounding, dark, chocolate sauce (not syrup; sauce) atop the little French ice-cream sandwiches. The ice cream in this rendition was freezing cold, overly dense, and smelled like Häagen-Dazs, but *not* the Häagen-Dazs of old; the industrialized, sell-out Häagen-Dazs of today which is no better than numerous store-bought ice creams you can find at your local 7-11. This was not good ice cream, and the chocolate syrup (not sauce; syrup) tasted like something that came out of a plastic squirt bottle. Make no mistake, this wasn’t a “bad” Profiteroles; it just wasn’t “the best Profiteroles you could possibly hope to find in the entire Washington, DC area,” which is something that Et Voila could have claimed for many years. Surprisingly, their menu boasts a Pastry Chef: the ironically named Alex Malaise (I apologize, Chef Malaise, that was a super-cheap low blow – for all I know you’re on vacation, and this has absolutely nothing to do with you (and that would also explain the bread, which could have been made in advance and frozen), but please be aware that I noticed in a big way, and I didn’t even realize that any changes had been made).

Before I received my rockfish, I asked if I could get a couple carryout items for lunch the next day – things that would keep well overnight – and I specifically said not to worry about presentation. So I ordered a Salade de Betteraves Rouges ($10.50) which came with two or three types of chopped, bite-sized, heirloom red beets, caramelized pear (which was either not included, or was such an afterthought that I might have mistaken it for a beet cube), toasted pecan nuts (which I didn’t notice were there until I read the menu afterwards, and sure enough, I found a tiny one), and goat cheese gelée which were lovely, small cubes of feather-light, pillow-like goat cheese that had an almost gnocchi-like texture. It came with a plastic tub of a dark, reddish-brown, thickened, vinegar based dressing, and (forgetting the presentation) was just too expensive for what I got – had I ordered it in-house and received the standard presentation, I would probably think differently. And I also think that it isn’t fair for a diner in a restaurant, in this situation, to be overly critical when ordering carryout – it’s not what the staff is trained to do, and they essentially did me a favor by making it.

Also for carryout, a Pâté de Campagne ($9.95) which is always good at Et Voila. Enrobed with a strip of charcuterie that I want to say is caul fat, but it’s not – it’s more like a fatty strip of meat without any webbing. This is a good, clearly house-made pâté, laced with pistachios, and served with all the trimmings: cornichons, pickled cauliflower, a small green salad, and a slice of grilled bread to go along with the standard bread-basket slices. This came with the exact same dressing that the beet salad came with, and I’m not the biggest fan – it’s a bit overpowering on the vinegar end of the spectrum. This isn’t a pâté that you’ll remember for very long after the meal is over, but it’s always reliable here, if not exciting. If you like Pâté de Campagne, you won’t go wrong in ordering this.

ETA – Oh, wow, I just read my Jan 22, 2012 Minibite (see the top link), and I mentioned the bread there, too. So this wasn’t the first time I noticed – I didn’t realize this until just this moment.

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