Kinship, Mount Vernon Square: The First Six Months of 2016

Between January and June, I went to Kinship fourteen times, and developed a strong sense of how the menu changed to reflect the seasons (primarily), and the creative mind of the chef (secondarily). It would be fruitless to recount each course from each meal, so I instead wish to convey a “sense” of Kinship, from a diner’s perspective. Having gathered fourteen menus, I had absolutely *no* idea as to the correct order of them, and literally spent hours (multiple hours) piecing together my meals via the menus, subtle changes on the menus, a few receipts, and my credit card bills (I had no intention of coming here so many times, but it just kept calling me back, and got voted for a member-requested review, so I was left with everything in disarray, starting from next-to zero). On June 16th, I had my final meal in a restaurant for the summer – I’m taking three months off – no restaurants, no alcohol, only trace carbohydrates except sweet potatoes – and my next meal at a restaurant will be on September 18th, before I embark on a surgical strike of the many restaurants that I have forsaken of late: I have quite a bit of catching up to do, and catch up I will, hopefully writing two reviews per week until I’m satisfied that I have regained the mastery of DC restaurants that I have now temporarily lost, or at least misplaced. One will be decided by vote; the other decided on by me, based on the many restaurants I have neglected recently.

I hope it says something that for the first six months of 2016, I could have gone anywhere I wanted to for dinner; yet, I chose to dine at Kinship 14 times, without an expense account, using my own money, and I wasn’t going to say anything about it to anybody. I had no intention of reviewing the restaurant (in fact, Eric specifically requested that I take the time I’d normally spend writing a review, and come back in for a nice meal instead). It also says quite a bit that I was able to piece together the menus in the correct order (at least, I *think* they’re in the correct order), based almost entirely on small changes between the seasons. For example, when White Alban Truffles came off, Black Perigord Truffles went on. When Whole Roasted Turbot came off, whole roasted Dover sole went on. It is from these tiny changes that I was able to sleuth my way back into some semblance of order, and I’m now comfortable that I have my meals correct (or close to being correct) – all without taking any notes, or getting any help from the restaurant. The seasonality of Kinship is remarkable.

While I’m not going to dote on each drink and each course, I will say that Kinship is on the fast track to becoming the most important restaurant Washington, DC has ever known. I say this having never set foot in Métier: You’re getting Cityzen-level cuisine from a hell-bent, driven genius who, this time around, has an equity stake in the restaurant. And you can walk in wearing a decent pair of jeans if you wish, and feel just as welcome as if you were dressed in black tie. Most people think Eric and Celia only have one child; I’ve witnessed first-hand that they have two. I won’t embarrass Eric and Celia by making any grand proclamations (although I suppose I just did), but I will say that this is where I choose to dine when I’m not running all over town and country reviewing meals.

I apologize for the rough notes, and I’ll be happy to fill in any questions – I thought it was more important to produce *something* than nothing at all, and this should be considered a historical document; not a review. I will fill in the rest of it later; right now, I’m too damn tired, and I’m just going to put it up in first-draft form.

1) 1/13 $242.60

Half-Bottle of Delamotte Champagne ($60), Torchon of White Mushrooms, Maine Lobster French Toast, Path Valley Farms Sunchokes, Kinship Roast Chicken, Sticky Toffee Pudding, 2 Decaf Coffees ($4) with Toffee


2) 1/17 $112.40

Small Bottle Sparkling Water ($5), Gimlet with Hayman Old Tom ($12), Oeuf à la Brick au Thon, Hungarian Sauerkraut, 1 Glass 2014 Jean-Paul Brun L’Ancien Beaujolais ($14) + 1/2 Glass ($6), Coffee ($4) with Toffee


3) 1/29 $149.50

I’ll figure this out later.


4) 2/05 $145.50

Kinship Spritz ($6) with Cocchi Americano, Dolin Blanc, and Blanc de Blancs Sparkling, a glass of 2014 Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais “L’Ancien” ($11), 12-Ounce Martin Ranch Dry-Aged Ribeye, a fuller-bodied red for the second part of the steak, a glass of 2014 Phillipe Plantevin Côtes du Rhone “Le Pérussier” ($9), Decaf Coffee ($4) with Toffee, which I took home, since I got an order of Valrhona Guanaja Custard Cake


5) 2/12 $129.50

1 Glass Chateau Monfort ($12), Fairytale Pumpkin Salad, Warm Smoked Pavé of Salmon, Ruby Red Grapefruit Terrine, 1 Glass Guirauton ($9), Double Order of Sunchokes To-Go (a man must have lunch the following day)


6) 3/10 $101.70

1 Glass Trienne Rosé ($10), Takenoko Tempura, Chesapeake Bay Rockfish, 1 Glass 2011 Tyler Bien Nacido Chardonnay ($20)


7) 3/15 $164.60

Sicilian Spritz ($6) with Salted Blood Orange Cordial, Grapefruit, Club Soda, and Lime, The Bee Sting ($6) with Coffee-Infused Honey Syrup, Ginger Beer, and Lemon, Torchon of White Mushroom, Scallop Navarin, Maine Lobster French Toast, Double Creek Farm Rabbit, Black Rock Orchard Apple Confit, Decaf Coffee with Toffee, and a second Sicilian Spritz


8) 3/25 $144.40

Baby Beet Pot au Feu, Grilled Japanese Kuroge Beef


9) 4/2 $142.70

A glass of Francois Dilligent Champagne ($18), Maine Sea Urchin, Duck Ballotine, a glass of *perfectly aged* Littorai Pinot Noir – it might have been a 2000 “Thierrot Vineyard,” but this was fully mature (more mature than you’d expect from a 2000), and truly special to the point of being profound in its clarity ($35), Kinship Ambrosia


10) 4/17 $218.80

Bottle of Jean-Claude Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé ($55), Goat Cheese Bavarois, Scallop Navarin, Herb-Roasted Bounty Hill Farm Rabbit, Rhubarb Clafoutis, and a glass of the 2014 Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais “L’Ancien”


11) 4/19 $179.80

Bottle 2014 Gilbert Picq & ses Fils Chablis ($48), Takenoko Tempura, Louisiana Crayfish Panna Cotta, Petit Pois à la Française, Warm Pavé of Skuna Bay Salmon, 2 Decaf Coffee ($8) with Toffee


12) 4/23 $54.40 (Discounted Check, $50 Tip + Cash left for staff)

Torchon of White Mushrooms, Tongue Salmis, Goat Cheese Bavarois, Mango Crème Choux, Glass Sparkling Rosé, Glass Dessert Wine, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Soufflé, Coffee ($4) with Toffee (to go – was gone later that evening)


13) 5/8 134.70

Wolfhound ($14), Sorrel & Butterhead Lettuce Salad, Warm French White Asparagus, Glass Domaine Pichot ($12), Valrhona Custard Cake, Glass Raventos ($14)


14) 6/16 $183.60

Island Time, Garden Party, Chick Pea Falafel, Chesapeake Bay Softshell Crab, Roast Chicken, a second Island Time and Garden Party, and Whipped Chocolate Nougat


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Boundary Road, H Street Corridor

I’ve been to Boundary Road three times recently – nothing is easier for me than turning right out of Union Station, and heading east to the H Street Corridor when I step off the Amtrak from New York City – and on two of these occasions, I wound up at Boundary Road, with its relatively new and talented chef, Luke Feltz.

On both of the first two visits, I went straight for the wares of Charm City Meadworks, delicious Meads brewed in Baltimore. On the first trip, I had a can of “Retire by the Fire” ($8), made with vanilla, cocoa nibs, and cloves; then, on the second visit, a can of “Wildflower” ($8), which is almost quite literally the Champagne of beers (technically “honey wines”), before ending my meal with a glass of “Rosemary,” ($6), poured from a larger bottle.

General Manager Mary Kate Wrzesniewsky is good friends with one of Charm City’s founders, and as a result, has an “inside pipeline” to their full armada of outstanding Meads – this meadworks (it would be wrong to call it a brewery) should be noted by and familiar to every person in the Baltimore-Washington area who considers themselves devoted to the culiinary arts.

Highlights from my first two meals here were the Beef Tartare ($13), Quark Pierogi ($10), and Veal Sweetbreads ($14), each of the three exactly what I had hoped for; none of the three overly critiqued, because I was zombified from traveling and wasn’t doing “official” reviews – just four hours before my second visit, I had just finished a multi-course lunch at Betony, and was completely frazzled by leaving my cell phone in a New York taxi (which, incidentally, a good Samaritan returned to me!), and no one could fairly evaluate a restaurant after an afternoon of such tumult; on both visits, I merely wanted to relax and unwind after multi-hour train rides, and that’s exactly what I did, with my mind largely turned off.

On my third visit, however, I decided to really pay attention and roll up my restaurant reviewer’s sleeves, testing the kitchen every which way but loose with a full-blown, five-course meal, and it was on this third visit when I fully realized the precocious talents of Luke Feltz – a chef who recently replaced his good friend (and talented peer), Brad Walker, and a chef who must be considered one of the brightest young talents in DC’s rapidly changing pool of kitchen artistry. After I wrote my review, I read and inserted the comments Chef Feltz wrote in response to my query about the meal, and I’m interspersing them verbatim after my own, so you can get the untainted thoughts of both diner and chef – with neither being aware of what the other had written:

Cured Cobia ($9) with pistachio-caper relish, chartreuse, green strawberries, and bottarga – The use of sliced, green strawberries in this dish was emblematic of the nuances that separate Boundary Road from most other “ingredient-heavy” restaurants – Chef Feltz doesn’t shy away from using multiple ingredients in a dish, but the process appears to be carefully and consistently thought out. These little, green strawberries, for example, lent the perfect acidic counterpoint to the cobia – not only were the greenish strawberries more acidic and less sweet than you’d find later in the season, but they were also firmer, the firmness – instead of being contrasting and mushy – easily standing up next to this rather muscular predator which is lower in oil than most fish. Note also the use of pistachio in the relish, which contributes to the overall perception of taut firmness in this austere first course, with the capers and bottarga subtly dialing up the salinity into balance without any need for salt.

Feltz: The cobia was cured with Green Chartreuse and a little fennel and chili. I think Green Chartreuse pairs really well with a touch of subtle heat and the fennel complements both flavors nicely with the fish. Honestly, putting chartreuse with fish was a complete shot in the dark. My roommate and I did a pop up here at BR and we had some extra cobia that I wanted to stretch out a bit and chartreuse just popped into my head. I’ve recently been getting into using underripe fruits/veggies as an acid component instead of something vinegar or citrus-based, hence the raw green strawberries. I was playing around with cured green tomatoes with pistachios and capers and that led to the pistachio-caper relish. Bottarga ups the umami and mint freshens it up a bit. 

Spicy Chicken and Ramp Sausage ($12) with pea shoots, celery leaves, and roasted lamb-fat ranch – The most fascinating thing about this dish was the “inside meets outside” equality of what was on the inside the sausage casing, and what was on the outside, and this is another example of small nuances creating balance in a dish. The chicken inside the sausage was met with equal force by the lamb fat in the ranch dressing, and the scent and finish of the ramps found their jumeaux in the pea shoots and celery leaves – recall from my Tail Up Goat review just how forceful pea shoots can be, and also notice how surprisingly similar these two dishes are, despite their fundamental, visual differences in both form and conception. Everything on the plate fell within a narrow set of parameters – meat with herbs – and even the ranch dressing didn’t deviate far from this blueprint. In an abstract sense, and perhaps even in a basic sense, this dish was essentially a study in spiced meat, constructed to look like a primitive.

Feltz: Chicken and Ramp Sausage – we serve a half chicken cooked under a brick for a entree and it’s quite a lot of food, so I recently started removing the tenders and saving them to make sausage. Charred ramp leaves get pureed into white wine as the liquid binder so the sausage gets some of that grilled flavor without actually being grilled. Got a lamb in last month, roasted all the fat and saved it for a rainy day. Midwest roots dictate that I have do a twist on ranch dressing once a year. 

Northern Neck Asparagus ($13) – with burnt bread romesco, almond milk, ramp oil, and duck egg yolk – Perhaps the most intricate dish of the evening, with the duck egg yolk masquerading as the Knight on a White Horse – this composition was unquestionably difficult to execute in terms of taming disparate flavor profiles, as there were several obvious fault-points where clumsiness had the potential to rear its ugly head, rendering all other junctions meaningless if not something worse than that. This was the dish that removed any tension or doubt I had about upcoming courses, because I knew someone in the kitchen was tasting things, and ensuring that everything coming my way was in balance – if you can pull off something this complex (and I ask you to again read the ingredients) without any rough edges spiking out, then you’re in possession of – not just technique, but also a palate. This was the one dish about which I felt obligated to give some input before I left – I thought there was perhaps more sauce than was needed – and wanted to convey that while things were still fresh on the chef’s mind. It was a “comment; not a complaint,” as the diner always has the option to leave some sauce behind, especially with asparagus as the primary ingredient, and the sauce on the bottom.

Feltz: Asparagus – this dish was inspired by Bar Tartine. I saw their combo of burnt bread sauce and almond milk puree (they do it with carrots) and I thought it sounded awesome. The burnt bread sauce is basically a romesco, except everything is burned or charred-bread, bell peppers, dried chiles, garlic, and sweet onions. Then, like a classic romesco, it gets almonds, sherry vinegar, lemon juice, and I use pumpkin seed oil instead of olive oil. The almond milk sauce is thickened with a potato, honey, lemon, and some blanched ramp bulbs. I added the caramelized spring onions to the dish to recognize the classic “calcots and romesco” inspiration. I can see how there would be too much sauce, but I like to play with my food sometimes, and putting it on the bottom lets the eater play around with the quantities of both sauces to find a combination that suits him or her. On their own, both sauces are good, but together, they’re delicious. Finally I chose asparagus because I think chefs often go too light with flavors for asparagus-citrus, fish, herbs, egg, ham and cheese, etc. but it can really stand up to the intensity of that burnt bread sauce. 

Confit Trumpet Mushrooms ($22) with morels, peas, shoots, ginger perry butter, and smoked-goat labneh – After two selections from the “Appetizers” section of the menu, and one from the “Grains” section (the asparagus), I was getting quite full; yet, I wanted to try one additional dish for a thorough sampling of Boundary Road, and got a vegetarian item from the “Entrées” section. The “ginger perry butter” intrigued me, but the “smoked-goat labneh” sealed the deal, and the mushroom confit it was. Although this was a vegetarian dish, it was too ample and hearty for me to finish in the restaurant – more importantly, it’s not some “pacify the vegetarian” dish; this was well-conceived, and showed great respect and concern for vegetarian diners – note that the asparagus dish was also vegetarian, and that there are several other vegetarian items on the menu – Boundary Road should be short-listed for any vegetarian diner so long as they don’t mind dairy. Mushrooms can, of course, be a physically heavy dish, and so this was, but the weight is counterbalanced by a strange, almost alien, set of flavors that I couldn’t pin down. The labneh, when it began to melt over the caps, was especially satisfying, going from near-solid to quasi-sauce in a matter of minutes, and the ginger perry butter was something I’d never before experienced. Even within a single bite, the flavors were going in-and-out like an accordion, disappearing mid-palate, only to show up again during the finish – if I were guessing the ingredients in this dish double-blind, I’d fail miserably, even though any oddities came through as an undercurrent rather than a primary force: Even though there was a vortex of things whirling around, it was all contained within a sea of familiarity, so everything exotic played a secondary or tertiary role in the dish. These confit trumpet mushrooms could be scarfed uncritically, or scrutinized endlessly – this dish allows the diner to make that choice.

Feltz: Mushrooms – one of the first real things I cooked as a youngster was mushroom risotto, so I’ve been wanting to do mushroom entree for awhile. Again going back to playing with your food, the smoked goat labneh is on the side, not in a fancy drag, brush, or whatever, so the eater can put as much or little is desired on the shrooms. Fenugreek has both sweet and bitter qualities and those are seen in two forms-a powder in the labneh and fresh leaves with the mushrooms. The secret here, though, is fermented mushroom stems. I save all my mushroom scraps and ferment them instead of making stock. And they all have different flavors. Shiitakes become straight umami, like Worcestershire sauce on crack. Beech mushrooms, however, develop this seaside salinity, like they have been flavored with the ocean breeze. Turn that into a puree, throw a spoonful in with the veggies and you get a flavor that no one can quite put a finger on. 

Scoop of Ice Cream ($4) – I was done. And I mean, I was *done*. If I were a poet, I’d have been John Donne. I’d have been John Donne, undone. A full dessert was out of the question, so as something of a refreshing palate cleanser, I got a wafer-thin, scoop of strawberry ice cream, desperately trying to justify a tie-in with the green strawberries I had, seemingly a month before. When a restaurant makes their own ice cream, and does it well, it can often be better than a grandiose composed dessert, and this was nothing more than a crescent of simple, very well-made strawberry ice cream which actually made me *less* full when I was finished – the little jolt of sugar, combined with the sweet coolness of the ice cream propped me up just long enough to walk to my car, sated, sated and happy, knowing that I was comfortably going to help another young, underrated chef get his or her start in the mean streets of the DC restaurant world. Remember the name Luke Feltz – he’s young, talented, and my read, not having had much discussion, is that he is very intelligent and capable – with the ability to combine flavors in a thoughtful manner that has both coherence and a discernible logic behind the combinations.

Feltz: Finally, the strawberry ice cream is very straightforward. No egg, no heat, just strawberries, dairy, sugar, and a gentian liqueur. 

Boundary Road is safely and confidently maintained in Italic in the Dining Guide, and has established itself as one of the very best restaurants on H Street.

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It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true: The Washington, DC Restaurant Guide is the largest single-city restaurant guide in the entire world.

Michelin Paris boasts of having 600+ restaurants; I counted our DC Guide and stopped when I got to 700.

This does not include our Virginia or Maryland guides, which would double that number.

And it does not include restaurants which have closed – which we keep track of for historical interest – which would triple that number.

Nor does it include New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or what will soon be our newest Restaurant Forum: Houston, Texas.

The figure only includes restaurants open in DC proper, and I have personally been to the vast majority of them – having lived in Washington, DC for almost 50 years – and not once have I ever accepted anything for free. Perhaps just as importantly, I don’t have an expense account, so I’m forced to think about how much things cost when I write reviews for diners.

In short: You can trust what I write as being impartial, objective, and without agenda.

Things are only going to grow from here – I look forward to seeing our new members on

Much appreciated if you’d spread the word with a simple click.



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Bouchon Bistro, Yountville, CA

  On 1/12/2016 at 6:17 PM, DonRocks said:

The Bouchon in Yountville has *terrific* bread – they serve epi with perfectly salted butter, yum.


Dinner at Bouchon last night was very good while falling short of outstanding (which is what you should normally expect at a Bistro or Brasserie, but having the seasoning somewhat “off” at a Thomas Keller restaurant hurts more than it normally does, especially when it’s *so* easily correctable).

The two-tops against the entrance wall are close enough together where you could eavesdrop if you wanted to, but also far enough apart so that you don’t feel scrunched up against your neighbor.

The 2015 Triennes Rosé a pale, dry Rosé from Provence, sold at $10 a glass, is made from primarily, if not all, Cinsault. The bottle itself reveals a more precise location of being from the Department of the Var (there’s a sneaky way to tell this just from codes written on the bottle), so this wine – which might be a Côteaux Varois (and they make wonderful Rosé there) – retails for something around $13 per bottle, and sells on the list for $40, or about triple-retail:

Screenshot 2016-05-24 at 17.40.10 Screenshot 2016-05-24 at 17.39.06

And it was triple-retail that I happily paid, because this is fine example of a pale, bone-dry Rosé from the Southeast of France – at $40, even if they’re making $30+ on every bottle they sell, it’s a good wine to get here, as it goes with a very wide variety of dishes – it served us throughout the entire meal (which actually turned out to be very simple and small in terms of number-of-courses).

Before the meal, we were brought (to our surprise) some roasted pistachios, in shell, which were served alongside the always-tremendous epi – the classic “stalk of wheat” variation on the classic baguette. The bread and butter at Bouchon has always flirted with simple perfection, and so it was on this evening; the pistachios seemed unnecessary and almost odd, although we certainly had the option not to eat them.

We’d planned on getting some apps, maybe splitting an entrée, having some cheese, and maybe splitting a dessert, but after having the chicken at Kinship, my dining companion wanted to try it here, and our delightful neighbor (on my right) had the leg of lamb, and enthusiastically extolled its virtues, so we dove straight into the main courses:

Screenshot 2016-05-24 at 17.48.34

Poulet Rôti ($29.75) is served atop Petits Pois à la Française and chicken jus, and is (according to our server) par-roasted before dinner service, then finished to-order in the oven, the second step taking about twenty minutes. It must surely be brined or injected, because the deepest part of the breast meat was delightfully moist and perfectly salted – it just could not have been any better, and this is what was on the very top, so diners tend to eat it first. We were both fighting over the breast meat, which is probably one of the most difficult things to cook well. Unfortunately, there is often a white meat – dark meat sacrifice, and so it was with this half-chicken: The dark meat was simply too salty – not to the point of being inedible, but to the point where it was too salty, and there was no doubt about it. However, with the mildly seasoned Petits Pois, it added some salt to an arguably undersalted (but otherwise fantastic) side dish. Salt issues aside, this was a *fine* example of roast chicken, and one which I will gladly order again in the future.

Gigot d’Agneau ($35) was four cuts from a cylinder, stacked atop one another, and served in a bowl on top of lots of chickpeas, a trivial amount of piquillo peppers, some spring onions, and lamb jus. The salting issue here was easily fixed: the lamb was slightly undersalted, and all I needed to do was ask my server for a little sea salt, add a single scoop evenly distributed over all four rounds, and the lamb instantly went from being very good to excellent. If you don’t really like chickpeas, you should think twice about this dish, because there are a lot of them, but they were well-cooked, well-seasoned, and lent a North African flavor to the lamb, which was otherwise not really a North African dish. Although both of us preferred the chicken, both of us also enjoyed the lamb, and depending on your personal preferences, you could have flipped a coin between these two dishes.

I hate to be a simpleton, but after these two entrées, we were pretty well stuffed, and just didn’t really want any cheese or dessert – we weren’t starving to begin with, and these entrées were hefty enough to do the trick. A good showing once again for Bouchon, a restaurant that I’ve now been to several times, and which I have consistently enjoyed.

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Craftsman and Wolves, San Francisco, CA

After a grueling, seemingly endless day of travel, I made it even longer by picking up my checked bag, heading up to the Air Train at SFO, heading to the BART Station, taking it to 16th and Mission, and schlepping to one of the three outlets of Craftsman and Wolves, at 746 Valencia Street, where I’d be spending my next two hours.


Craftsman and Wolves is the brainchild of William Werner, a 2016 James Beard Finalist for Outstanding Baker – and if this visit was indicative of the three outlets on a typical day, Werner deserves the award (he didn’t win this year).

Never have I had a better breakfast item than The Rebel Within ($7.25), an innocuous-looking muffin which wasn’t even all that big:


Really? $7.25 for a *muffin*? Yes! And it was worth every penny and more – a beautifully textured muffin, made with Asiago, sausage, green onion, and, of course, The Rebel Within: a soft-cooked egg:


How good was this? Better than either I, or my photographs, can possibly tell you. So good that when I saw they were running out, I bought one to save for my friend who was meeting me later (they have to heat them up, and grab the container of mineral salt to serve with it). Sure, this was the best thing I had here all day – this was one of the tastiest, most delicious things I’ve ever eaten – but what followed were no weak siblings:

Stone ($7) of whipped coffee, coconut, Gianduja, and yuzu was atop their wonderful house-made granola, and beautifully plated on silver foil:


And it, too, contained a surprise on the inside:


I thought I was familiar with all sorts of French desserts, but there is pretty obscure stuff up in Brittany (Bretagne). Many of us have had pastries that are similar to the Kouign Amann ($4.75 topped with fresh blueberries, and filled with house-made blueberry jam), but I don’t think I’ve seen this exact dessert before – it’s pronounced “Queen Aman,” and is undoubtedly many hundreds of years old in etymology:


You know, even a cut picture may not look like all that much:


but this is an example of a camera being unable to capture texture, and the texture of this dessert was *perfect*. Just the right amount of chew, moisture, glaze, and it was just perfectly executed – the blueberries, as much as I can’t believe I’m saying this, and as great as they were, were almost incidental.

In addition to a pot of Formosa Oolong Tea ($3.50), I also enjoyed a house-made Iced Tisane ($3) with strawberries, chamomile, spearmint, lavender, and possibly one-or-two other things (they lost me at “strawberries”):


And finally, speaking of strawberries, which are just coming into season here, I’m not a squatter unless I pay my own way, so of course I was going to get some Strawberry Jam ($13) to go:


Craftsman and Wolves is as good as any bakery I’ve been to in America. It deserved to be a finalist for the James Beard Award, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a perfectly legitimate choice as a winner. I can’t vouch for the other two locations, but if you come here, order The Rebel Within, at all costs (get here early because they run out), and you’ve got my address so you can send me my thank-you note. :)

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Saltbox Seafood Joint, Durham, NC

I had high hopes of writing a multi-part, serial story about my trip to North Carolina, starting with the Prologue (the background behind my trip), moving forward to Part One (the hotel where I stayed on the first night), and onward for the next week or so, but as so often happens, my best plans get waylaid because of 1) my injury, 2) enormous time administering the website, and perhaps most of all, 3) my refusal to write poorly – I would rather not write at all, than write poorly.

So, seeing as though three months have passed, it’s pretty obvious that this is one serial that will never be written: I did the very beginning, I’m going to need to summarize the middle, and now I’m going to write the final installment, which should have been about Part Ten.

Anyway, my successful attempt to flee the snowstorm ended up lasting about a week, and during that time, I visited four different 2015 James Beard Semifinalists:

The Chef & The Farmer (Vivian Howard), Kinston, NC – I liked this restaurant so much that I had *four* consecutive meals here. Having purposely over-ordered the first night, knowing that there wouldn’t be much else in Kinston (population 21,667), this was the first time I’d ever had, or even seen, Tom Thumb, and that might be because Chef Howard seems to be its chief proponent – a $13 appetizer, it was such a large amount of rich food that I had it for lunch the following day. Then, I had dinner here again the next night, and over-ordered a second time so I could have lunch the following day again. The closest major city is Raleigh, 80 miles away, and The Chef & The Farmer is absolutely worth the drive from there.

Mateo (Matthew Kelly), Durham, NC – Mateo is a fairly traditional Spanish tapas restaurant, and it’s substantially better than Jaleo – probably the best tapas I’ve had in America with the clear exception of Coqueta in San Francisco, and also possibly my second visit to Amada in Philadelphia. I stuck with several traditional tapas so I could make a fair comparison (patatas bravas, gambas, tortilla Española), and all were very good to excellent; more importantly, there was this:


Nana’s, (Scott Howell), Durham, NC – I was the only person dining at the bar on this evening, and found out that Scott Howell will be opening (if he hasn’t already) a steakhouse. The bread here is excellent, and I would direct diners to any local fish, and anything that says “cast iron roasted” in the menu description. I knew I’d need some bread in the morning, and asked if I could purchase a baguette (they really are good) – the chef was there, and was kind enough to give me one, free of charge, since it was the end of the evening, and I had enjoyed a fairly ample meal. Good, solid Southern cooking and worth your time to visit.

Scratch Bakery (Phoebe Lawless), Durham, NC – Phoebe Lawless is known for her pies and her “donut muffins” (which I thoroughly enjoyed), but I also bought a little something to take home – a souvenir of my trip: a jar of “Bacon Jam.” Well, you can just imagine – it was the only thing in my refrigerator for a couple of months, save for the occasional leftovers and six-pack. And it was just jammed full of bacon, too – with tax and tip, this little jar was something like $14, and it was worth every penny. At one point, I had Nana’s bread, (the fading remnants of) Mateo’s ham, Scratch’s Bacon Jam (unopened), and a half-bottle of Sherry I had purchased, all in a neat little photo – not bad for leftovers!


Well, I had killed two birds with one stone, averting the snowstorm, and dining at four different James Beard semifinalists, all in one week. Where do you go from here other than “back home?” I’ll tell you where: You go to the restaurant of a chef with whom you’ve been talking online for years, but have never met – a courtesy call on my way out of Durham, before heading back to Washington, DC. A quick lunch, and then a long drive in front of me.

Never did I realize that when I checked out of my hotel on that final morning, I had yet to eat the *most amazing meal of my entire trip*.

Saltbox Seafood Joint
Chef Ricky Moore

The name Ricky Moore probably isn’t familiar to many of our readers, but that’s only because enough time has passed where you’ve forgotten: Chef Moore used to head the kitchen at Agraria (now Farmers, Fishers, Bakers) at Washington Harbor.

Ricky moved back down south a few years ago, and even though I’d never met him before, we’ve kept in touch via Facebook. I knew he had a little restaurant in Durham, so I decided to finally pay my respects and say hello on my way back to DC, and headed to his restaurant, Saltbox Seafood Joint, for lunch.

I pulled up into the (snow-covered) gravel parking lot of what can only be called a *dive*. A seafood shanty in the truest sense of the word, in a little shack the size of a frozen custard stand.

Saltbox1 Saltbox2Saltbox4

I walked up to the ordering window, and there were two gentlemen working inside, one taking orders, and the other cooking – I didn’t know which one Ricky was, so I asked, and then introduced myself – after many years of writing each other on occasion, we finally got a chance to shake hands in person.


Ricky knew I was coming, but it didn’t matter – he didn’t even cook my food; the other gentleman did. There was no special treatment, no extra food, and nothing for free – I was treated like a regular customer, and insisted on paying for everything, figuring I’d have a pleasant meal before beginning my long drive back home from Durham.



The meal I had at Saltbox Seafood Joint was, without question, not only the greatest meal I’ve ever had at a seafood shanty (and I’ve been to some awfully good ones) – no, it was my favorite meal of the entire trip. Yes, this simple little seafood joint made me happier than any of the four James Beard Nominees I tried – you can’t compare the experiences: Saltbox has no wine list, no servers, no AGMs who walk out in the middle of service; it’s just a simple little shack, and it’s serving perhaps the best fried fish I’ve had in my life, chowder like I’ve never experienced before, and *the* best hushpuppies I’ve ever eaten. It was the kind of food that makes you hate the biological fact that you get full, because you want to continue to enjoy it for hours on end, but it’s impossible. For $23, I got enough food for two meals, and this was a feast that I’ll remember for the rest of my life:

Chowda ($6)
Fried Triggerfish Roll ($13)
Hush Honey’s ($4)

Saltbox8 Saltbox9

The mollusks in the chowder, the honey at the bottom of the hush puppies, the triggerfish that was *so* fresh, and the sauces that were perfection. Does anything more really need to be written to describe what you see here?

Saltbox Seafood Joint: Not just worth a visit if you’re in Durham; worth the drive from Washington, DC. If I had my choice of a last meal between a Michelin 3-star restaurant in Paris and this? You know what? I’d probably take the Michelin 3-star in Paris. But I’d think long and hard before making that choice. This should be a future James Beard Nominee – not for an “America’s Classic,” but for “Best Chef, Southeast.”


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Smokin’ Jarhead – Former Marine Ron Johnson’s Smoked Meats for Catering, Parties, and General Delivery in the DMV

Ron Johnson, aka “Smokin’ Jarhead” is a former marine, now offering some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten, and absolutely some of the very best barbecue you can find in the Washington, DC area.

A couple months ago, I bought three Full Racks of Ribs ($24) from Ron, and he delivered them to my front door, where they were waiting when I got home. Between me and my son, one of them didn’t survive the evening; the second didn’t last the week, and the third is still in my freezer, waiting for Matt to come home from college in a couple of days – the ribs freeze, reheat, and are 90% as good even after being frozen and reheated – all the more reason to stock up.

Ron doesn’t have a brick and mortar location, and he doesn’t have a “food truck” in the traditional sense of the word; he has this huge smoker that he puts on a trailer, and brings over to catered functions anywhere in the DMV – extra delivery charges begin after 40 miles, which easily covers all of DC and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Ron will smoke anything from ribs, to brisket, to pulled pork, and just about anything else, and he’ll bring the food to your door with a minimum order. Let me emphasize again: These are as good as any ribs I’ve ever had in the DC area, and that includes places like Johnny Boy’s, Buz & Ned’s, Chubby’s, and The Pit Stop – in other words, the Best of the Best.

It’s unusual for me to be raving about a place that doesn’t have a brick and mortar shop, but I did the same thing about Pupatella, eventually going on to declare them the best pizza in the area, which they were for a time – it’s the same thing with Smokin’ Jarhead: Just because there’s no storefront means nothing when he’ll bring your order to your door for you. If you’re having a Memorial Day cookout, or a 4th of July barbecue, or any other type of house party, he’ll arrive at your house with his smoker in tow, and everything will be cooked right there – no grocery store, no cooking, no cleanup – everything is done for you, and his prices are rock-bottom low.

I really don’t know what else to say: On short notice – one, perhaps two days, you can have the best barbecue in the area delivered right to your home. Call on a Tuesday for a Friday delivery, and the ribs will be waiting on your doorstep when you get home from a long week at work (this is exactly what I did; I’ve never actually met Ron – I paid him through PayPal, and the ribs were on my front porch when I got home the next day). If you’re having guests over for a party, get him and his smoker over there too. I recommended this to one of our members once, who has since turned into a repeat customer, and this is a quote from him:


Ron continues to blow me away with the quality of his smoked meats. Ron dropped off a sizable rack of pork ribs two days before the Super Bowl. As usual, Ron was a perfect gentleman towards my mother and stuck around for a few brief moments to discuss what he’s been up to, interesting things he’s been smoking (Ron, you have *got* to let us know when we can taste your smoked oysters). After he left, we stuck the foil-wrapped ribs in the fridge. We were saving these for the SB after all. I followed the reheating instructions on, which has you wrap the ribs in two sheets of aluminum foil, drizzle about 2oz of chicken stock on the ribs and then seal the foil sheets. Roast in a 225 degree oven with the rack you’re cooking on positioned in the upper-middle section of the oven. Heat until ribs measure 155 degrees in the center with an instant-read meat thermometer.

The ribs turned out perfectly this way, as if they had just come hot off the smoker. The smoke flavor was there in full force, and the ribs had a gentle, but solid bite to them. Not falling off the bone, but a real meaty sink-your-teeth sensation that still provided the distinctive melt-in-your-mouth texture that only expert Pitmasters can do. I expected the texture of the bark to suffer a bit from reheating, and it did, but only a bit and it certainly isn’t any fault of Ron’s. The bark still provided a solid punch of smoke that good bark should. I’ll experiment in the future with different reheating methods to preserve the crunch of the bark. Ron had graciously accepted my request of a dry rub applied to the ribs instead of sauce. P.S.: Ron, I’m not sure what your normal procedure is vis-a-vis dry rubs vs sauce, but I got the impression from the spot-on seasoning and flavor profile that the dry rub is your normal method. If I’m wrong, please correct me!

Overall it was a hearty and immensely satisfying meal that had me and my party guests chowing down to the very last scraps of meat on the bones. I continue to recommend Ron for anyone in the area looking for expert barbeque by an expert Pitmaster.

All you need to do is write Ron on his Facebook page or contact him via his business card (below), and tell him what your needs are, regardless of the size of your order. He’ll give you a quote that’s reasonable enough that you’ll wonder why you waited so long to do this. Ron should be in constant demand, and have a two-month backlog – that is how good his product is.

Here are some facts about his meats: As a rule, he uses inexpensive cuts because the true flavor comes from his dry rub and the smoking process, but he will use whatever meats you request, so if you have a favorite butcher who makes a special cut of ribeye, or a favorite fishmonger who sells wonderful oysters, (I’m making an assumption here) he’ll go there, purchase them, and smoke them for you – either at your premises or at his, followed by a delivery or drop-off. Things like hams, chickens, sausages, and turkeys are no problem, and he’ll be more than happy to cater to vegetarians as well – the smoker has obviously seen meats in it before, so it would be impossible to keep kosher-vegan, but that’s about it in terms of limitations. Some more factual information from Ron himself:


 I make up my own rub with a variety of spices, such as garlic powder, smoked paprika, salt, allspice,chili powder, Cayenne, and brown sugar.(I can’t give all the ingredients, I’m hoping to start selling it next year).After I rub the ribs I wrap them in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

For ribs I use a combination of hickory and cherry or Apple wood. For those you had I used hickory and cherry. I cook the ribs for a total of 8 hours at 225 degrees, smoke for 4-5 hours. Then I wrap them in aluminum foil with beer (usually Yuengling; don’t need anything dark like a stout) it’s more for tenderizing than for taste.

My delivery area is the immediate DMV, anything outside of 40 miles there is a small added charge. For catering and/or large orders I will need a 2-week notice. The best way to see where I am or get in touch with me is through my Facebook Business Page or my email – I try to reply to all emails within 24 hours or less:

The only other thing I want to emphasize is that supporting Smokin’ Jarhead will be supporting a former Marine who was placed in harm’s way to help defend our country – if you’re looking to support our nation’s veterans, then getting your event catered by Smokin’ Jarhead is a win-win for all involved.

One last thing: This is Ron’s full-time job; not some hobby he does on the side. He’s a professional in every sense of the word, and will bend over backwards so that you’re happy. If you trust me as a food critic, I’m happy to put my reputation on the line by recommending Ron Johnson – it will be one of the safest things I’ve done. Support this great man – email him him right now while it’s on your mind, even if you’re not ready to place an order.

Look at this smoker!

IMG_20150430_081154845_HDR.jpghttps_3A_2F_2Flh4.googleusercontent.com_2Fi7STLMH7T__rp56H0gwy7kzJqNmC_VVxzGEFfus3KO4_3Ds0-d.jpgIMG_20150917_184304081.jpg <— This could (and should) be your backyard at your next party!

And what emerges from that smoker? Have a look:


I’m proud to have a chance to support our country’s veterans like Ron Johnson, but you can rest assured that if I didn’t believe in his product, I wouldn’t be writing this review, which is obviously a rave – that’s why I included the pictures, so you can see for yourselves that I’m not just, erm, blowing smoke.

Here’s Ron’s business card – I urge you to give him a try, even if it’s just for a single rack of ribs (get dry rub – there are pictures on his Facebook page of pre-sauced ribs, and I got my order of sauce on the side so I could use exactly how much I wanted, when I wanted. It’s really good sauce, too, but you don’t want your ribs pre-sauced – whatever he uses in his rub is fantastic).

If you need an ice-breaker, tell him you’re a friend of mine.


One final word: It’s not too late to remember Operation Honor Our Heroes this Memorial Day weekend – they *desperately* need both money and volunteers), Contact Christi-Ana Crews (my personal assistant) and help however you can. *Please read that post*!

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Grandale Vintner’s Table, Neersville, VA

A friend of mine and I went out for a beautiful drive Sunday afternoon on this splendid 80-degree day, touring the mansions of Potomac (we decided *not* to go downtown to DC during this Cherry Blossom Festival weekend), and ended up over at White’s Ferry. She’s a visitor, and was delighted by the old-fashioned charm of White’s Ferry – it had been several years since I’d been on it myself, and I’d forgotten just how much *fun* it is if you don’t have to wait too long to get on (I wonder if there’s a website anywhere that shows up-to-the-minute wait times – if so, would someone please start a White’s Ferry thread in the Visiting Washington, DC forum, and include the website information there? I think White’s Ferry is a fine tourist attraction, and merits its own thread).

We approached the Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets (another topic that merits its own thread in the Visiting Washington, DC forum). and had a decision to make, it being around 3:30 PM: should we head left, and hit the Udvar-Hazy Center (another topic that merits its own thread in the Visiting Washington, DC forum (I’ll shut up now)), :) or should we attempt an early dinner at Grandale Farm? It was *the* perfect day *and* we had time to make that our destination, and indeed, we chose the pleasures of the table over aeronautics and space flight (I mean, wouldn’t everybody?)

Seeing the entrance to Grandale was like seeing an old friend, even though I’d only been once before – it it was anything like I remembered it being, we would have a splendid meal, with competent kitchen work, and perhaps even get to dine on the patio (at this odd hour, it seemed like a reasonable bet). We also called to see if we needed a reservation (it’s open straight through the afternoons on Sundays, with no break between lunch (or brunch) and dinner. Do note that this is *not* a B&B; it’s a working farm that happens to have a restaurant attached to it, so don’t come hoping to snare a room, although there are numerous charming B&B’s nearby, so you’re certainly thinking on the right track.

Well, just like an old friend, Grandale was still there for us, but as old friends often do, it had changed radically – not necessarily for the worse, but it is a very different beast now than it was just two short months ago: The changes were implemented on Mar 1, 2016. Many things are the same, a few are better, and a few are worse. Chef Author Clark (not a typo) has been cooking here for the past ten years.

First of all, the restaurant is no longer called “Grandale Farm” – the name is now “Grandale Vintner’s Table.” In addition to the restaurant, there is now an elaborate, tourist-friendly, tasting room in a separate building – mere steps away from the restaurant – that would make for a very pleasant weekend outing. There are more-and-more of these sprouting up in Virginia, and with the right spirit, this could make for a fun lead-in for dinner at the restaurant – there’s a very pleasant patio/picnic area out back as well, and a light-snack menu is offered in the tasting room (which I assume is prepared in the kitchen, and walked over on an as-needed basis. I didn’t take note of many prices, since I was merely interested in an overview, and since they serve primarily their own wines – as well as a dozen-or-so well-selected craft beers, my take-away was that this might be an enjoyable experience, although I really have no idea what it costs – all of their own wines, sold under the “868” label, are in the mid-$20s per bottle (the winery is called 868 Estate Vineyards – in all honesty, the last time I was here, about four years ago, I didn’t even know they made wines). Since I told them I’d be dining next door, they were happy to give me free sample pours of what I was seeking: something dry and white, or perhaps pink, with good acidity to stand up to our meal, but also light and pleasant enough to enjoy on an 80-degree sunny day sitting on the patio. They had just run out of the Sauvignon Blanc (which I was told might have been the best choice), the Riesling was fermented with too much residual sugar remaining, and the Viognier was the better choice than the Roussanne due to its florality in the bouquet coupled with equal perceived acidity as the Roussanne, although either could have worked – the Viognier it would be. Many Viogniers, even ones from Granddaddy Rhône Valley, are a bit too much for me after one glass; this one was a perfect food wine, and could last through an entire meal as it was fermented completely dry.

One lesson I learned from my previous visit here was: stick with produce, but, it being mid April, pickings are slim, and my server’s advice was to stay local – the greens, the pork, the goat cheese, and a few other things. We built together a meal to share around what seemed like the wisest choices. The menu here is very different than it was before – it’s more expensive, has a more “scattershot” feel, and plays into the “share plates” tactic which is quickly becoming a local trend in many places – Grandale Vintner’s Table only had two items in this category, which they say are for “2-4 people,” but we bypassed both.

After having gotten our perfectly served Viognier ($25), and having had our questions about “local and seasonal” answered, we were ready to order, and asked our serve to bring everything whenever it was ready, and that we’d share everything. We ordered three items that complimented each other reasonably well, and went with the wine wonderfully.

The Mesclun Salad ($10) features a plate of greens “brought to them by a local couple about once a week,” our server told us. It was accented, lightly, with candied pecan, strawberry, and goat cheese, and mercifully *very* lightly dressed – barely dressed – with a champagne vinaigrette, allowing the greens to remain front-and-center on the stage. We both agreed that the only thing we would have changed about the salad was to have tripled the amount of strawberry (I think there was only one, cut into slices) and goat cheese (there was only one dab of goat cheese, about the size of a grape) – even if they need to charge a couple dollars more for the salad, it would benefit from both of these; otherwise, this was a wonderful showcase of fresh greens dressed with a light hand, and is something you should try if you’re here.

The one gripe I have with Soup du Jour ($6 for a bowl) is that it seems to be different every time I order it. On this visit, it was a chicken-tortilla soup “with white bean,” but it should have been “with corn,” as there were only about ten beans in the entire bowl, but there were dozens of corn kernels. This was a thin, somewhat dilute broth that would have benefited from more seasoning, even just some black pepper – it had a slight kick to it (and there was a small amount of dried red powder at the bottom of the bowl), but overall, it was merely a decent, innocuous soup that had an adequate amount of ingredients in the bowl – there were some in every single bite – but with a broth that was just a bit too thin and bland.

Local Pork Confit ($30) with pumpkin apple butter cornbread, broccolini, and what was termed a “blueberry Asian BBQ” was pleasant enough, with strips of pork confit, but it really pushed the price point at $30 – you get more pork on your average pulled-pork sandwich than you got on this composed plate, which came with a square of barely average cornbread, the entire plate garnished with the pumpkin apple butter, and the blueberry sauce which clearly contained mesquite (and that was the only “Asian” thing about it). The flavors knit together very well, and we happily finished not only the entree, but all three things – the one thing that saved this meal was the cost of the Viognier: $25 for an entire bottle of good, enjoyable table wine kept the price of the meal in the $70s before tip, the patio was beautiful – especially the background – and the service enthusiastic and pleasant.

Yelping for Truffles

Oh dear, and then came dessert. We said we were pretty full, and had about an hour drive to get back, but we’d like to at least look at the dessert menu. Our server replied that there were three desserts being offered, and she could just recite them. The first two were typical desserts (I don’t remember exactly what they were – maybe a cheesecake, and a flourless, gluten-free, molten chocolate cake) at typical dessert prices (I don’t remember what they were, but they were within the norm), but it was the third thing that made our jaws drop. “And then we’re also offering a free dessert for people who are active on Yelp or Trip Advisor,” our server said. “Chocolate truffles. A box of two – I could give you each one so you’d have four total.” She didn’t come straight out and insist that a review was written, but I told her I’d be happy to review the restaurant, and that the truffles weren’t necessary, much to her surprise – I get the impression she’d never before heard that reply.

“Are you sure you don’t want them?” she said “No, it’s fine – but thank you anyway,” we replied.

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The Dabney, Blagden Alley

I went to the The Dabney right when it opened, and liked it well enough, but what I experienced there this week was a restaurant that has started to come into its own – the entire experience being at a much higher level.

Even when it opened, The Dabney had a strong beverage program, but not what it is now. Paying homage to The Dabney’s commitment towards “local,” I started out with a draft of Right Proper Ornithology, brewed right up the street, and weighing in at a refreshingly light 3.9% alcohol – a Grisette – closely related to a Saison in that it’s meant to keep you light on your feet, and can be had in multiples during a single sitting.

Here’s a slight mistake I made so you don’t have to: I began my meal with an order of Pumpernickel Toast ($4), topped with ricotta, smoked honey, and charred Spring onions. The mistake was not in ordering this delightful bread course, but in forgetting that The Dabney serves you a complimentary slice of grilled ciabatta, with flavored sorghum butter that is, in itself, a wonderful course, and more than enough to satisfy any bread cravings a single person may have. Remember this if you go there alone, but don’t neglect the Pumpernickel Toast just because of this, because both bread plates are delicious.

Then came the 1-2 punch of the main course: Lacquered Quail ($25) with Chesapeake Oyster Stuffing (inside the deboned quail), brown butter, greens, and golden raisins – the only bones that remained were the legs, so you could pick each one up and finish off the dish. It was fantastic, and even better with a side of Ember-Roasted Young Potatoes ($8) – make sure to turn your head towards the kitchen when ordering, because the wood-burning fire is raging, several feet high, and these clearly picked up some of the smoke, and were served with pork sausage, sour cream, and mustard. The two dishes as a combination worked brilliantly, and I couldn’t help myself in getting two different reds: a Beaujolais, and a Chinon.

The Beaujolais ($12) was a 2014 Château Cambon, which, although not from a single village, had a reasonably full body and a delicious palate presence. However, even this fine example of Gamay was dwarfed by the Chinon ($11), a 2014 Fabrice Gasnier “Les Graves” – a single-vineyard, 100% Cabernet Franc with a body that would put many a St. Emilion to shame. This is a red wine I could drink every day and not get tired of, and I made sure to save half a glass of it for my dessert, which I knew in advance would be chocolate.

Devil’s Food Cake ($9 (all desserts are $9)) came with Sour Cream Ice Cream, Pumpernickel Streusel (closing the circuit from the first course of the dinner), and Candied Ginger, and went splendidly with the Chinon. Has anyone noticed that we’re having an ice-cream spurt in town of late? We’re seeing flavors now that we’ve never seen before, and we’re seeing them at many, many restaurants. Ten years ago? It was 2 Amys; now, there are fully two dozen restaurants serving homemade ice cream filled with heart and soul.

My bartender was fabulous, and this meal at The Dabney solidifies the restaurant in my mind as one of the very greatest newcomers on the scene (I had some doubts after my first visit, but no longer). Well-worth the time and effort to get into Blagden Alley early, right at 5:30 when they open.

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Grapeseed Bistro & Wine Bar, Bethesda

On Friday evening, I *finally* got out to one of Grapeseed’s Friday-night Dinners, a multi-course menu that, in this case, coincided with their 16th anniversary – it was a “Best Of,” four-course, prix-fixe menu for $45 ($11.25 per course). Chef-owner-star-athlete Jeff Heineman often gives members of a meaninful discount when attending these meals – all you have to do is join, and it doesn’t cost you a dime to do so.

After having a seat at the bar, I wound down with a happy-hour $5 wine: an Adras Godello – Grapeseed offers a select group of wines (decent wines) which are five dollars for a generous glass from 5-7 PM.

This, before finding out that Scott Johnston had bought me, as a gift, the wine pairing to go with the tasting menu (thank you, Scott!), so I had plenty to drink with my meal for the entire evening. That’s the type of warm, friendly nature that Jeff Heineman helps to foster on – although I could hardly conceal the joy on my face when I found what Scott had done for me, it didn’t surprise me one bit. That’s the way the website is with each of its members, and the only way for you to really know is to join and find out for yourselves. I always tell people to write me if there’s a problem, and in eleven years, there have been almost no letters in my mailbox, other than ones lauding the community for being so knowledgeable and kind, and the discussion on such a consistently high level.

And so, the tasting menu it was, and I was starving because I hadn’t eaten all day. Grapeseed’s four-course Friday-night Dinners are a steal, and if you haven’t tried them, you’ve really missed out. For many years, I’ve had two restaurants – Passage to India and Grapeseed – ranked #1 and #2 in Bethesda in the Maryland Dining Guide, and have been unwavering in my support of them; yet, their reputation among DC-area food lovers are just not very high, similar to nearly every other restaurant from the Maryland suburbs with the possible exception of some Chinese restaurants in Rockville, and some informal, inexpensive mom-n-pops in Beltsville; regardless of the reasons, I can say with great confidence that these two are among the very best restaurants in Montgomery County, and the Friday-night prix-fixe dinners are an inexpensive way to familiarize yourself with the caring, family-run atmosphere of Grapeseed, at nearly Restaurant Week pricing – this, with more food, and better food.

After relaxing with my Godello (and to tell you the truth, I have not found one single Godello that even remotely resembles the glorious wines that I had in Galicia, Spain in 2007 when I traveled over there with Gerry Dawes, visiting winery-after-winery. The curmudgeonly Gerry is the world’s leading authority on Spanish food and wine who lives outside of Spain, and if you think that hyperbolic accolade sounds impossible, you simply haven’t yet met Gerry – the man knows *everything*, as he has made the county and its culture his only purpose in life. If you want a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Spain, and don’t mind paying real money for his expertise, I would urge you to at least contact him – tell him you’re a friend of mine, and see what he has to say.

I began my meal with a Peruvian dish: Peruvian Causa (a potato-based dish), with House Made Ossabaw Prosciutto (aging for two years), avocado, and crab. At an average of $11.25 per dish, you wouldn’t expect the first course to be so bulky, but the potatoes allow it to contain some heft while judicious portions of the Prosciutto and crab act as flavoring agents more than primary ingredients. Grapeseed seems to lack a full-time saucier to integrate the dishes, so my one knock on the restaurant is that certain things are “ingredient-driven” and combinatorial rather than they are down the street at Passage to India, where saucing and long-cooking are two integral components – two such very different restaurants, both wonderful in their own way. My first “tasting wine” (technically a three-ounce pour; in reality more like four, which often happens here with diners) was a Galerie Sauvignon Blanc, much more pungent, and with better supporting acidity, than a typical Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which tend to be flabby and put their hot climate on full display; not here. Look for this wine on their menu when you order, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised – I, myself, was silently thanking Scott Johnston, and I still had three wines remaining (the price of a wine tasting to accompany the meal is something of a pittance: $20)

Next up was a wonderful piece of Black Sea Bass with Bouillabaisse sauce. I hadn’t glanced at the menu, but noticed a roux-like substance on one of the crostini, mentioning that they must be trying to imitate Bouillabaisse Marseillaise, and sure enough they were. This dish was halfway between a fish dish with sauce (it was, after all, a good-sized portion of black sea bass), and a bouillabaisse (as it was served atop a hot broth, almost making it into a soup should the diner wish to cut their fish). After taking a tiny nibble of each ingredient, I mixed everything together with gusto – exercising caution not to cut up my fish in order to keep it warm, deciding instead to cut-and-soak each individual bite as I went along. The wine was a Genio Espagnol Monastrell Rosado which went perfectly with the seemingly sriracha-flavored aïoli substituting for a true roux.

The crescendo continued with an Elephant Trunk Sea Scallopwith lobster mashed potatoes, and pine-nut lemon vinaigrette – the lobster mashed potatoes being the star of the show here, as there was a hefty portion of lobster in the mashed potatoes – I was surprised to receive only one small scallop until I realized the generous portion of lobster meat, and think this dish could have tolerated a second scallop, but again, after reminding myself that these averaged $11.25 per dish, there was no legitimate complaint I could register, especially after seeing the potatoes. Pairing with this was a Two Sisters Chardonnay – a $50+ bottle at retail which amplified the butter in both the potatoes and the vinaigrette. The wine alone was worth close to the price of the dish.

Finally, Duck Confit with House Made Gnocchi, Tomato Jam, and Ramp Butter, served with a Lake Chalice Pinot Noir which is one flavor I had been missing all evening – a fruit-driven Pinot Noir from New Zealand that turned a white-wine meal into a red-wine finish. I made sure to save half my wine for the dessert which I knew I was coming, and would put as an extra charge on my bill: Chocolate Crẽmeux (I’m a sucker for red wine with chocolate, three mounds of mousse-like chocolate drizzled with salted caramel and devil’s food crumb – this could have tolerated (perhaps even benefitted from) a darker red, but also went just fine with my New Zealand Pinot Noir.

Thanks especially to Scott Johnston, the bill for this meal was somewhat ridiculous, and if you’ve missed out on Grapeseed’s Friday Night tastings, you’ve been doing yourselves a disservice. Go, and go at your first opportunity – coupled with their bar happy hour which runs from 5-7, you can eat here like a king at a pauper’s ransom, especially if you start early.

Grapeseed is not a fancy restaurant in the least – it’s a neighborhood tavern where people are welcome in t-shirts and jeans, and has been serving this level of food for sixteen full years – it is one of Bethesda’s great culinary treasures: a Cheers-like bar where people remember your name on your second visit, and where you always leave feeling satisfied, and wondering if you’re sure you paid enough for your meal, especially if you got one of these Friday-night specials. What an exemplary neighborhood restaurant this is!

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