Ghibellina, 14UP

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

When someone tells me that a restaurant serves the best pizza in town, and when I agree

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), Tyrokafafteri (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 Tyrokafafteri ($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 Tyrokafafteri 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:

Print

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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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Shake Shack, Tysons Corner

The Tysons Corner Shake Shack is, for the moment, extremely difficult to find if you’re inside the mall (if you’re outside the mall, don’t even bother).

The best instruction (also for the moment) I can give you is this: Head for the 2nd floor mall entrance of Lord & Taylor. There, you’ll see the mall-ish equivalent of a boarded-up Shake Shack, with tiny little signs instructing you to ‘walk through the bathroom area and go to the courtyard.’ And indeed, patrons are forced through a labyrinthian course, passing the mall restrooms, and winding up at a door which leads outdoors to the “plaza” (I suppose one day it will be a “plaza”). For now, 2nd floor entrance to Lord & Taylor, and you’ll most likely find it after a minute or two.

The only entrance to Shake Shack is currently from the outdoor, elevated plaza, and at around 8:30 on a Wednesday night, there were about 20 customers outside, waiting or eating, and 2-3 inside, where it was absolutely frigid. The inside must have surely been in the 50s – I didn’t think air conditioners could get this cold unless they had compressors (and maybe this one does).

I didn’t want to rush through my meal, so I ordered a couple pints of ShackMeister Ale ($5.25) which they were out of, and were instead offering two pints of Shack IPA ($5.25) – both of these are brewed for Shake Shack by Brooklyn Brewery, and as much as I don’t particularly care for IPAs, this was refreshing, ice cold, and very good, with an amber color and ample body framing an relatively balanced IPA.

Rest assured, Shake Shack is being heavily secret shopped, and the employees are doing everything (well, almost, see below) in a way that will get them high points on the checklist. There are two types of customer service: the type that’s virtually free to the company, and the type that costs the company money. It takes no extra time or effort to smile, or to say “thank you,” or to be generally pleasant, and that’s what Union Square Hospitality Group does so well (as does Great American Restaurant Group, and for that matter, McDonald’s (when was the last time you didn’t encounter a courteous drive-thru employee at a McDonald’s?)). The employees at the Tysons Corner Shake Shack positively ooze friendliness, and are just about perfect at this “free” type of customer service.

My order for two beers was ready in exactly 6 minutes (and yes, USHG, the food handlers were wearing gloves ), and the gentleman who handed me my tray said, “Enjoy your Shack IPA!” in the friendliest way imaginable. I counted an incredible 16 (!) kitchen employees, and there may have been a couple more than this. I took my beers, went outside, and perused the menu which is divided into 3 columns: left, food; center, sweets; right, drinks and dogs (they have dog biscuits).

The deck had speakers, and was playing (I won’t say “blaring,” but it was certainly energetic) an upbeat, poppy hip-hop track which circulated the festive atmosphere in the air. After I finished sipping my first IPA, I was ready to order, and got up to go back inside holding my second beer. Keeping in line with the friendliness theme, a gentleman with a broom and dustpan politely asked me, “Do you mind if I sweep under your table, sir?” Points given for an upbeat, cheerful staff, that’s for sure.

Shake Shack is serving frozen crinkle-cut fries, and I don’t ever need to have those again, so I went for a Shack-cago Dog ($4) which was (take a deep breath) “Dragged through the garden with Rick’s Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt, and mustard.” And also a plain old Double Hamburger ($5.90) with nothing on it but Bacon ($1.25). The menu (linked to up above) said:

“All burgers are cooked medium unless otherwise requested.”

I was very pleased to see they’re cooking to medium, but also wanted to see if they could get a subtle difference right, so I asked for mine medium-rare. Remember those two types of customer service I was talking about up above? The type that costs the restaurant nothing, and the other type – the type that costs the company money? Well, this was testing the other type – potentially throwing a wrench into the assembly line. The cashier’s surprising response?

“We cook all our burgers to medium-rare.”

Okay, I knew that was BS, he knew that was BS, but he didn’t know that I knew that was BS, so in his mind, monkey wrench avoided with a two-second little-white lie. Also, there were no special cooking instructions on my ticket, so I was to be served a medium-rare burger like everyone else who doesn’t make a special request. The order was ready in 9 minutes.

One more piece of advice for anyone ordering similarly to the way I did: save some of those pickled vegetables from the Shack-cago Dog – they make a wonderful burger topping, and there’s so many of them that they’ll spill over onto your tray. Actually, this reminds me: my bun was cut all the way through (i.e. it was in two pieces, and I didn’t realize that), so when I took my first bite of hot dog, the entire thing went ker-plat!, and I was left holding my bun while the hot dog and vegetables were resting in my paper tray. No harm done, but it was pretty funny – the entire thing, and I mean the entire thing, fell out.

Anyway, here’s a picture of the center portion of my medium-rare hamburger:

IMG_1077

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Brookland Pint, Brookland

I walked into Brookland Pint – the sibling restaurant to John Andrade’s Meridian Pint and Smoke and Barrel - last night, not realizing just how much publicity it had gotten pre-opening. Well, it’s safe to say, “The word got out.”

The bar was a mob scene, and I walked through a completely full (but not at all raucous) dining area to wash my hands. Brookland Pint has a completely co-ed restroom area, with individual, private toilet rooms for either sex, and communal sinks and hand dryers (which is very European). There are only a handful of restaurants like this in DC, and every time I come across one, I’m taken out of my element for a brief moment – I like it!

Walking back to the large bar area (with a patio that was also completely full), I couldn’t get a seat, so I stood and waited for my drink order to be taken. Brookland Pint has draft beer only (save for two bottled, gluten free beers), and there are fully 24 of them, all in a row, and none of them had obvious labels on the taps last night – it was remarkable that the bartenders could tell them apart, but they did.

I ordered a Riot Rye (6.2% ABV, $6 for a nonic pint) by Monocacy Brewing Company in Frederick, and grabbed a stool at one of the tables near the bar. Sipping my beer, watching the Nats (who pulled out their third straight walk-off!), and waiting for a bar seat to open, I kicked myself for yet again ordering a “Rye P A,” always thinking that the rye will somehow compensate for the IPA hoppiness, and it never does. I am just not a hophead, and am starting to think I have a character flaw for disliking hop-heavy beers as much as I do.  With this whole “American Craft Beer movement,” there really isn’t much for someone like me to drink – get me to Munich, London, or Prague, please. Personal foibles aside, the Riot Rye was well-stored, well-poured, and exactly what it should have been, with a wonderfully clean, refreshing aroma – I could have just sat there and whiffed the glass, but the Nats were doing enough whiffing for me, heh, heh.

Just as I finished my beer and was ready to order another, a bar seat opened up, and I nabbed it. Determined to find something malty, I ordered a 10-ounce tulip glass of 2012 Oxbow Oxtoberfest (5.5% ABV), a barrel-aged saison from Oxbow Brewing Company in Newcastle, Maine. At the same time, I ordered my dinner because I knew that the kitchen would be slammed, and things were going to be backed up (if someone told me that 750 people had walked through the door yesterday, I would believe them). Although I expected a hint of smoke from the beer, I wasn’t prepared for what hit me – the beer smelled of aged ham, and although it was pleasant, I had to really work to get through the glass. I sipped, I watched the Nats go into extra innings, I sipped some more, I overheard bartenders warning customers that the kitchen was backed up with open tickets, and I sipped some more.

I was thoroughly enjoying just being there, in such a vibrant setting, but I could also see that the bartenders were under duress. That makes sense, I suppose, but I would hope that customers could see and understand just how crowded they were, and there was no way for the restaurant to know this was going to happen – you don’t predict crowds like this, you just can’t. My meaty, ham-like beer was growing wearisome, and just as I was about to choke down my last few sips and order an Apple! Cider!, something terrible happened: my bartender – as nice as could be – came over and apologized that the food was taking so long (it really wasn’t taking that long – I hadn’t even noticed!). He then placed a beer in front of me, and said, “This one’s on us.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to do that,” I said, “but thank you very much. Which beer is it?”

“It’s the one you just had.”

Ark.

My food arrived shortly thereafter, and it was a mixture of interesting and very good – very good especially considering that I guarantee the kitchen, from a distance, looked like everyone in it had been bitten by fire ants.

Some people I respect say that, while most Banh Mi in Falls Church aren’t worth the trouble, the ones at Bánh Mi DC Sandwich stand apart from the crowd (they don’t; they’re the same crap you get everywhere else). The best Banh Mi I’ve had in the area have been at Ba Bay (now closed) and Dickson Wine Bar, with a nod to the old Dino for their Tuscan Banh Mi which I respected, but ultimately didn’t care for.

At Brookland Pint, The Banh Mi ($13) with roasted pork, chicken liver pâté, pickled veggies, cilantro, and chiles on a baguette, was not very authentic. Then again, neither were the ones I’ve had at Dickson Wine Bar or Dino, but they were honorable … and so is this. In fact, it’s not just “honorable”; it’s very good, with roast pork you would actually look at (when’s the last time you’ve dared to have a face-off with the meats in an Eden Center Banh Mi? You just don’t. You eat it with the bread closed, and say to yourself, ‘this is really tasty!’ (And then you finish it and begin your next one – to quote Jake Parrott, “The only filling banh mi, is a second banh mi.”)) The chicken liver pâté is house-made, and works well in this sandwich (it’s also available as an appetizer, and based on this, I would certainly recommend getting it). That said, it’s something of a dominator because they spread a generous portion, and it finished longer than even the chiles did – if you like chicken liver pâté, and don’t mind it being at the forefront, you’ll like this sandwich. The roast pork was quite fatty, but at least it wasn’t processed (there’s that “authenticity” thing again).

With any sandwich, the diner can choose from fries, sweet potato wedges, coleslaw, or side salad, and based on my one experience, I would urge everyone to get the sweet potato wedges. They arrived at room temperature (remember, the kitchen was backed up), but the quality was clearly there, and I would be shocked to find out these weren’t fresh. In fact, if these are frozen, I want to know the source so I can buy some for myself (the vast majority of sweet potato fries (not wedges; fries) you get in this area are frozen). Serve these hotter, and you have a $13 meal that I can heartily recommend to everyone except Banh Mi purists. The baguette, I believe, comes from Gold Crust Baking Company, and is not a hindrance in the least.

This would have been plenty of food, but I also ordered some Deviled Eggs ($7), primarily because I was intrigued by the toppings of garam masala [NB: check menu spelling] and toasted coconut flakes. These added a kick, but not a kick in the nuts – the deviled eggs were zingy, but still within acceptable parameters. The only criticism I have (and it’s one that can be easily addressed) is that they were most likely taken from the refrigerator, and hadn’t thrown off their chill, but they did throw off some condensation in the form of water on the plate. I am quite certain this will not be a long-term problem.

Congratulations to Brookland Pint for what was surely one of the busiest opening nights in Washington, DC history. Apparently, they hit capacity at 7 PM, and God only knows what time the crowds began to thin.

At one point, late in the meal, I looked up to my bartender – busy, frazzled, and without time to even think – and said to him, “You’re going to be tired when this night’s over.”

“I’m already tired,” he said.

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Restaurant Week Summer 2014: Pizzeria Orso and Willow Rocked It

During this past week, I went to Pizzeria Orso and Willow two times apiece. On one visit, I got the three-course Restaurant Week menus for $35.14, and on the other visit, I ordered a few small plates a la carte (this was at both restaurants). The results:

Pizzeria Orso

Visit One – Knowing it was Restaurant Week, I got to the bar early, and yearning to be a hipster, I ordered a shot of Jameson ($7) and a bottle of Highland Brewing Company Gaelic Ale ($5, sorry folks, I don’t do PBR or Natty Boh) from Ashville, NC. Truly, the Jameson brought out a malty component in the Gaelic Ale, so it was a nice pairing. Then, things started appearing (I was fingered by Will Artley): a daily special of Risotto with Shrimp, Asparagus, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes which was absolutely delightful and the highlight of the meal, a trilogy of Lamb Meatballs, each served in its own little compartment with a few little extras (a reduced sauce, halved cherry tomatoes, etc.), and a delightful Grilled Butternut Squash and Lentil  Salad  that amplified the simplicity of the squash. I added these up, and put everything dollar-for-dollar on the tip in addition to the normal tip amount. Needless to say, there was attention to detail with these dishes, but I looked around, and they were the exact same thing others were getting (I have absolutely no moral problems accepting the chef’s recommendations as to ‘what’s good tonight’ *as long as* I pay for it all.

Visit Two - My second visit was on Saturday, and Matt (my son) and I got the Deal of the Century: Pizzeria Orso’s Restaurant Week special: 2 appetizers (anything on the left page – which does not include salads), any 2 pizzas, and any 2 desserts for $35.14 … *total*. That’s thirty-five dollars for two diners! I again started with the Highland Brewing Company Gaelic Ale, and then we split everything else: Grilled Octopus with artichoke purée and white bean ragu, Spring Corn Agnolotti with smoked eggplant and pea sauce, a Fun Guy pizza with wild mushroom, mozzarella, fontina and parmesan, a Crudo pizza with tomato, basil, mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, and shaved grana, a Tiramisu, and a Carrot Cake. For $35.14, I felt like a thief having had all this food – it’s the best Restaurant Week deal I’ve ever seen, and if they run it in the future, *get it*.

Willow 

Visit One – Yeah, I had the hipster thing going on again, with a shot of Jameson and a pint of Bell’s IPA (I don’t remember the price of these drinks), but when I did get around to eating, I opted for the Restaurant Week menu ($35.14). For my app, entree, and dessert, I got the Summer Picnic Salad - a fantastic salad (with watermelon), the picture of which was the thing that originally enticed me to come in, and then one of the best renditions of Fried Chicken I’ve had in the area. While only two pieces, it was something closer to a half chicken because of the way it was butchered. I believe this, or some variant of it, is on Willow’s regular menu, and I cannot recommend it highly enough: Get it the next time you come in and sit at a table – I promise you’ll thank me. And for dessert, Peach Shortcake. For $35.14, I could not have been happier, and while I’m typing this, I’m literally salivating thinking about that fried chicken.

Visit Two – On Sunday, I stopped in again because it had occurred to me to do this article (two restaurants, two visits each, one visit, RW; the other, not – seemed like a good idea to me). I started with a Pimm’s Cup ($10) – delicious, but boy I could swear it was made with celery soda instead of the advertised ginger drink (regardless, the final outcome was worth ordering). Then I got three little plates from the “Nosh Bar Menu” which, surprisingly, filled me up to the point where I couldn’t finish them all: the always-wonderful Gougères ($6.50), one of the best food items in town for the money, and a monstrous plate of about eight baseball-sized cheese puffs (I suppose they’re more adequately called cheese puffs, but when they’re “on,” they’re darned close to being large Gougères), served with a ramekin of addicting black truffle sauce. If you’ve never had these, do yourself a favor and get them. Then, Polyface Farms Deviled Eggs ($5.50), a surprisingly generous order of perfectly made (albeit too cold) halved eggs – it just needed a good fifteen minutes to warm towards room temperature. Finally, the most sophisticated dish I had all week, and surprisingly, the only real miss of the week (albeit not by much): the Trio Of Corn ($9) which was flan, somewhat spicy grilled corn off the cob, and corn ravioli. The only reason this was a miss was because of a lack of adequate seasoning which, in reality, means “salt.” Between the flan and the ravioli, there was plenty of butter in this dish, and *lots* of fresh corn flavor – what more could it possibly need than salt? And, perhaps a better question: Why didn’t I simply ask for a salt shaker? It’s a good question, and I don’t have a good answer for it.

Well, there’s my Restaurant Week for Summer of 2014. Two restaurants that deserve merit badges for both their Restaurant Week menus, and their a la carte small plates, despite them being absolutely slammed all week. I could not have been happier with Pizzeria Orso or Willow – two of the best-kept secrets in the DC area (you can’t really call Pizzeria Orso a secret, but its lunch special certainly is, and I haven’t even gotten into that).

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