Bistro 1521, Ballston

On 8/14/2017 at 1:55 PM, DaRiv18 said:

We ate there over the weekend, it is worth a visit.  The bar program is biggest strength.  We found the menu, even as it has expanded from the previous iteration, was waaay too pork and chicken-centric, one member of our group was disappointed there was no grilled fish items.  Another lamented there were too few veggies options to balance the meal.  But, I understand they will expand the menu in about a month.  Service is not on par with the bar program, yet.

I would recommend the Ukoy, Sisig (to share amongst like 6 people), Ihaw-Ihaw Special, and Kare-Kare.  Bicol Express was excellent as well.

The bar program is still a big strength at Bistro 1521 – their beer selection is crammed full of “local” brews (enough to make this grizzled veteran wide-eyed), and their wine list is workable, with fairly priced wines by the glass. Our bartender, David, was a very nice person who offered to go back and get my friend a taste of Banana Ketchup, which he’d never before heard of (banana ketchup is a staple condiment in the Philippines, and is often sold under the label of, believe it or not, Heinz (aside – one of Australia’s largest players in the Vegemite market is Kraft, who recently began selling a product that’s Vegemite mixed with cheese, called Cheesybite!). I’ll take banana ketchup over regular ketchup any day of the week).

On 9/19/2017 at 1:44 PM, NolaCaine said:

I agree that spicy wasn’t spicy except for a direct bite of red chili; green chili wasn’t spicy at all.

I have a relatively penetrating knowledge of Filipino cuisine, having studied it for years, and having taken part in numerous Filipino family functions among other things (you do not leave these things hungry, I assure you). One attribute about most Filipino foods is that they’re generally quite mild; in fact, spiciness is the exception (although it is highly regional, and there are some spicy dishes) – another attribute is that the Filipina home cook will often have a massive jar of MSG crystals at the ready – they use MSG like we use antibiotics, but this is mostly for home cooking. I’m surprised the bar at Bistro 1521 didn’t have bowls of Pulutan or Tenga ng Baboy, but this did used to be an Applebee’s, and they know their Ballston clientele might not go for such tawdry things.

I began my meal at Bistro 1521 with a 10-ounce snifter of Grapefruit Sculpin IPA ($9) made by Ballast Point Brewing Company – a San Diego, CA-based brewery with an outpost in Daleville, VA; but don’t be fooled by the homey “small-town, craft brewery shtick” – Ballast Point was sold for over $1 billion to Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 company worth over $41 billion. I *really* hate that the consumer must research each individual beer to determine whether or not they’re essentially buying Budweiser – someone should publish an annual guidebook to this that you can take to the supermarket; alternatively, retailers and restaurants should do the work for the consumer. This beer was as boring and soulless as you might imagine – yes, you could taste hints of citrus, but so what?

My friend started with a glass of 2016 Trencalos Sauvignon Blanc ($8) from the Castilla region of Spain (there are numeros typos on the wine list at Bistro 1521, e.g., “Reisling,” and there was one here, too). This was a generic Sauvignon Blanc with enough acidity to cut through the mildly zesty notes in the appetizers and her entree – you could tell it was a Sauvignon Blanc, but it would take someone like Gerry Dawes to know it was Spanish, much less Castilian.

I’m grousing about both of these drinks, but they’re really no different than what you find at 95% of restaurants, so don’t blame Bistro 1521; the blame goes much further up the chain than this. Hell, the Original Sin lies with Procter & Gamble.

Both drinks were served in good stemware and at the correct temperature, with friendly, prompt service, and there isn’t a whole lot more this restaurant could have done.

Our appetizer was an order of Lumpiang Shanghai ($5 at happy hour; normally $9) – two very good lumpia, halved, and nicely presented with appropriate dipping sauce (which worked much better than the banana ketchup). These were very good lumpia, arguably the highlight of the meal, and although I’d never pay $9 for two of them, they’re worth getting at the $5 happy-hour price.

I’d finished my glass of beer, and despite ordering a “red-wine” course, wanted to stick with white, so I got a glass of 2016 Domaine Bellevue Unoaked Chardonnay ($9) from Touraine, France. I’ve had this wine numerous times, and knew what I was getting in advance – compared with my friend’s Sauvignon Blanc, I would recommend that others tend towards the Sauvignon Blanc due to its crispness, but I also knew that my dish was going to be somewhat stolid, and not needing any type of zing from my wine.

With her Sauvignon Blanc, the classic Filipino dish with the funny name, Bicol Express ($17), specifically marked “spicy.” This was a stir-fried dish of “sliced,” pinkish pork, coconut milk, ginger, peppers, and shrimp paste, served with a small bowl of steamed, white rice. We both agreed that the dish had good flavors, and only the mildest hint of spice – and the Sauvignon was the wine of choice here. Up above, I said the lumpia was “arguably” the highlight of the meal; this was the other argument – although this dish won’t win any awards, it tasted good, and was well within the spirit of Filipino home cooking. I can recommend this for people to try – not necessarily for Filipino nationals, but for people looking to transition into the cuisine.

They say never to order an entree for one of the side dishes, but I did anyway. Mechado ($23) was presented a *lot* like an American pot roast, mashed potatoes, and greens dish, basking in a thick gravy – except this was braised short ribs, grilled asparagus, “Mechado sauce,” and mashed purple yam. It had the feel (if not the look) of something you’d get at a hotel banquet, but was actually quite enjoyable, the one exception being when it cooled to room temperature: The Mechado sauce brown gravy, which had been thickened with corn starch, separated and clotted – there seemed to be a similar, but less dramatic effect, with the shrimp paste in the Bicol Express; however, the Mechado gravy became mildly disgusting once it broke. Nevertheless, it was a good dish, and every bite of food was finished on all the plates. I won’t recommend this to people, and would urge the restaurant to stay closer to its roots, instead of trying to guess what Ballston residents might be looking for in a restaurant. Let them come to you: Word will get out, I promise.

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Milktooth, Indianapolis, IN

A new, and now by far the best, breakfast/brunch spot in Indianapolis:

“Milktooth Chef Named among America’s Best New Chefs” by Liz Biro on indystar.com

There were two semifinalists from Indianapolis for the 2017 James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes award (all five finalists were from Chicago). One of these was Bluebeard, reviewed both here and three posts above in this thread. However, if you want breakfast at Bluebeard, you’re out of luck, as it’s open only for lunch and dinner. Milktooth, however, is open only for breakfast and lunch, and is *the* restaurant to go in Indianapolis to find an outstanding breakfast (Bluebeard and Milktooth are nearly across the street from each other).

Chef Jonathan Brooks has set up an extremely casual, high-volume operation that feels much more like Shapiro’s Deli than any sort of fine-dining establishment. Tank-top and shorts? No problem! I took a seat at the bar so I could watch the cooks, who were operating in high gear at around 1 PM on a Friday afternoon.

My delightful server, Jess, took my order – I got a Large Glass of Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice ($3.50), and something similar to what Washingtonians might see at Tail-Up Goat: House Salmon and Cream Cheese Rillettes on House Challah ($14). Fourteen dollars seemed expensive for what might be akin to lox and cream cheese on a bagel, but this was more than that, and served in the style of Tail-Up Goat’s “Bread Courses.”

While I watched three of the cooks, mesmerized by the high-heat, high-speed, high-risk ballet they were dancing, I saw with my left peripheral vision a figure, creeping towards me very slowly – I turned, and it was Jess carrying my orange juice – very slowly, very carefully, as it was filled slightly over the brim, and one false movement on her part would have meant a spill, but she somehow didn’t spill a drop. I thanked her, bent down, and slurped my first sip, and it was perfect – I was now staring down sixteen ounces of fresh-squeezed perfection, and already deciding whether I would chug it and order a second one, or quench my thirst with water instead (I opted for the latter so as not to be a sea slug).

A couple minutes later, my Rillettes arrived – this is one case where a picture does some damage to the final product, because it had been pea-shooted to death. Now, I like pea shoots, but one of the three cooks, during their ballet, had grabbed a fistful of pea shoots with too much gusto, and the condiment was over-stacked. Not a problem, because I just pushed most of it aside, and made myself a little side salad, while enjoying a terrific rillettes on bread that was almost surely baked that morning. It was a great, knife-and-fork, open-faced sandwich. I should add that there are many more items on Milktooth’s menu which are more complex and interesting; I merely ordered what I was in the mood for, but their menu has just about anything you can think of – do take some time and look at their food menu – they have a good selection of beer and wine also.

Do not judge this fine open-faced sandwich by this poor photo!

It’s remarkable that Jess didn’t spill a drop, and be sure you’re aware that the rillettes sandwich was *much* better than it looks here. Both Bluebeard and Milktooth are two of about six very, very serious restaurants now in the Indianapolis area – this is slowly but surely becoming an important dining city, no doubt helped by the Convention Center. On my way out, I took $6, handed it to who appeared to be the head cook, and asked him to split it between the three of them – they deserved this and much more.

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Bluebeard, Indianapolis, IN

On 7/2/2012 at 1:30 PM, And said:

New additions to Indianapolis restaurant scene:

Bluebeard In the southeast cultural district of Indy, Fountain Square, contemporary Italian-inspired cuisine featuring the best in local produce. The building also houses a wholesale bakery, Amelia’s.

-Andy

On 8/6/2014 at 7:57 PM, seanvtaylor said:

Recognizing that this is from 2012, but I just had dinner two nights in a row at Bluebeard, and Wow! I was exceedingly impressed, but think that the menu is much more squarely American than Italian-inspired at this point–and that incorporates the fact that one night I had radiatore bolognese as my main course. This is a big-league restaurant–perhaps the Woodberry Kitchen of Indianapolis, though not as big and with slightly different ambitions.

Dinner 1 started with their bread basket, served with garlic oil, anchovy butter, and honey butter. The bread was from Amelia’s and delicious, and the anchovy butter was unreal. I ate too much of it, enjoying it all of the way. I then had their melon salad; this is a dish that I feel that I could easily whip up at home with a watermelon, a canteloupe, and a cucumber–except theirs had coppa and curtido, and basil and mint, and manchego, and a white balsamic viniagrette. This is one of the best dishes I’ve eaten this year. I then had the radiatore–a massive, mid-western portion with their butcher-block bolognese–a mystery meat mixture that was spicy and rich. It was too much, so I took it back to my hotel and ate it as a snack and later as an early breakfast, cold by that point, of course, but still flavorful and better than my options at Starbucks and Panera.

Dinner 2 kicked off with pickled herring–a tasteful preparation, not over-the-top large, so just the right way to start the evening. The octopus confit was very good–I’m not sure what the confit-process added, as the octopus seemed closer to a classic sous-vide preparation (if there is such a thing for octopus). It came in a nice broth with corn and (what I think) were partially sun-dried tomatoes. I finished with lamb-belly buns–exceedingly spicy with dragon sauce, cooled slightly with pickled radish and pickled, umm, pickles.

The cocktail program is substantial and worthwhile, with friendly and knowledgeable bartenders.

I’d say, “I wish that we had a place like this here,” but we do–a number of them. It’s just really nice to see this place out in Indianapolis–what appeared to be a really good food town, in my too-brief stay.

I had dinner at Bluebeard this week, and Sean’s description is just about perfect. Instead of adding to the general description, I’ll add some more data to support it:

Bluebeard has a wonderful drinks program, and it was my own fault I didn’t turn myself over to them – I knew what I was ordering (sort of), and if I had it to do again, I’d get one of their $7 (!) house made Gin and Tonics to start.

A general rule-of-thumb when someone sets foot in Indiana is that they only need a two-word vocabulary: “Three Floyds” (who, by the way, has opened what is reportedly an excellent brewpub (with good food) in Muncie). I started with a pint of Three Floyds Necron 99 ($6) which was tapped earlier that day. It was very much of a well-made IPA (I didn’t know this when I ordered it), hop-forward, and not my style of beer despite its obvious quality. If you like IPAs, then grab this should you see it, but I drank it relatively quickly because I knew it wouldn’t go with my food (Bluebeard had ten fascinating beers on tap; this was the only Three Floyds, and this is what I specifically asked for).

My first course also was just put on the menu yesterday for the first time, and is the first time this year I’ve seen butternut squash (autumn is on its way). A small Butternut salad ($13) was an ingredient-driven, farm-fresh, composed plate that looked unbelievably good. This may have been a personal thing, as I was somewhat salt-deficient, but it came across to me as a bit skimpily dressed, and while the ingredients were all just about perfect, I think it could have used a bit more seasoning to bring everything together. Still, you can tell it was a terrific salad just by looking at the picture – it contained cubes of butternut squash placed inside endive leaves, bacon, goat cheese, pecans, basil, shallot, and bourbon maple bacon vinaigrette which lent an undertone of bacon to the dish as a whole. It was an honorable salad, a very, very good salad, but just a touch on the bland side for me to call it a “great” salad.

 <— This was just as fresh as it looks.

Having knocked back my Necron 99, I wanted one more drink to carry me through the meal. I love Chinon, and equally love the producer Couly-Dutheil, but haven’t had much Chinon Rosé. A generous glass of 2016 ($13) was disappointing – very much like a grapey Spanish rosado rather than a pale, bone-dry Provençal rosé. This wine is a vin saigné – literally a “bled wine” … the wine is “bled” (or siphoned) off the top of the vat, and the pink wine on top is made into a rosé. This has the added benefit – especially in lean years – to make the remaining wine in the vat darker in pigment (the pigmentation agents have more mass, and drop to the bottom of the vat, thus making a more concentrated red). Vin saigné is a *much* cheaper way to make rosé, and truthfully, it shows in the end product (which is pleasant, but never, ever profound). I knew this was 100% Cabernet Franc – the menu even said so – thus, it would be impossible for it to be anything *other* than vin saigné. In no way were either of these drink “errors” the fault of Bluebeard – I knew exactly what I was ordering, and the fact that I didn’t love the selections falls on me and me alone. For them to even have either of these two offerings speaks volumes about their beverage program – they’re both quite uncommon to see in restaurants.

Up until this point, things were more “impressive” than “great.” However, that was to immediately change with my entrée: a Papardalle ($32). with butchershop Bolognese (more on this in a moment), tomato sauce, Parmesan, and herb oil. I asked my wonderful bartender about this Bolognese dish, and he said it’s one of their classics – something that’s generally on the menu in one form or another – I had a long day of travel (and after all, I’m 1/4 Bolognese), so it hit all the right notes for me as comfort food. They served it with a basket of sliced bread, baked at their bakery next door – something akin to a thinly sliced baguette, but slightly airier. While $32 seems like a *lot* of money for a pasta Bolognese, let me start by saying that this dish was enormous – enough for two people – and the Bolognese didn’t seem spooned on; it seemed ladled on. Picture being at Nonna’s house in Bologna for Sunday dinner — “Nonna can I have seconds?” “Sure!” “Nonna, can I have thirds?” “Sure!” It was all I could eat, and there were a couple fork-fulls of house-made papardelle left on my plate, because I was stuffed to the gills: and I only had one little piece of their bread, too. The Bolognese sauce was thick and meaty, meaty, meaty, with a predominant undertone of fennel – if you don’t at least “like” fennel, you probably won’t like the flavors of this great sauce. There was plenty of papardelle, too, perhaps not *quite* as al dente as I wished, but I was so busy plowing through it that I hardly noticed – it was a sensational dish, and one which I could eat often. Do not let the price scare you away from ordering this – it was just fabulous, one of the best Bolognese dishes I’ve ever eaten.

 <— This photo may not look that big, but it was a *huge* plate of food (that’s a pasta-twirling spoon).

So technically, I only “loved” three out of four things I had at Bluebeard, but I fell in love with the restaurant – I could see what was behind the bar (they have a first-rate beverage program), and I could see some of the other plates arriving as well. The comparison with a “small Woodberry Kitchen” is quite apt, and accordingly, Bluebeard was a semifinalist for a 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef – Great Lakes – their talented, fully deserving chef is Abbi Merriss.

Bluebeard is now the best restaurant I’ve ever been to in Indianapolis, which is saying something, as I’ve been here about a half-dozen times, and have really sought out the best and the brightest, as well as hitting up the classics such as Shapiro’s Deli (which now has an IND location) and St. Elmo’s Steak House (where you’ll most likely go only one time).

Bluebeard has a lot to be proud of, and a great future ahead of them.

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Ray’s Hell-Burger, City Vista

(Click here for the May 21, 2011 Review.)

I went to the City Vista (and only remaining) location of Ray’s Hell-Burger last night. We each got a large The Funky President ($10), one order of French Fries ($3.50, enough for two), and a Diet Cheerwine ($3).

It had been quite awhile since I’d had a Hell-Burger, perhaps going on two years, and I’m happy to say that these burgers seem to be as good as ever. “The magic is in the meat,” and these really taste like someone stuck a steak in a grinder, ground it, and cooked it up as a patty. “The Funky President” is served with aged Vermont Cheddar and a slice of tomato, and it’s just a great combination of flavors.

I used a little Gulden’s mustard as dipping sauce for my fries (I know, I know), and the sandwich itself was terrific when dabbed in the Gulden’s. The fries seemed like they were lightly dusted with Old Bay Seasoning, were long and thick – almost steak fries but not quite – and were served fresh from the fryer.

My only “beef” with the meal is the aesthetics of how the burgers are served – in a little recycled-cardboard oyster-shell. The problem with this is that the substantial grease from the burger drips and pools, and is pretty unappealing. It’s also partially absorbed by the paper, but if it were served on a plate – even a paper plate – the fries could pick up some of the juices from the burger. (Now that I’m typing this, I realize I could have put the fries underneath the burger in the oyster-shell and approximated the same result.)

Anyway, the consensus is that this was a terrific burger-and-fries meal, and even though I’m sorry Ray’s Hell-Burger is no longer in Arlington, you can still get there from the 14th Street Bridge in ten minutes without traffic. I would still recommend this to anyone coming in from out-of-town.

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One Block West, Winchester, VA

Along with The Inn at Little Washington and The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, I know of no restaurant in Northwestern Virginia equal to Ed Matthews’ One Block West, which is sadly closing on Aug 5, 2017. When I heard that One Block West was closing, and knew that I hadn’t yet even been there, I realized that it was because of people like me that it was closing – I always knew in the back of my mind that this was a great restaurant, based on feedback I received from trusted diners, but I’d never experienced it for myself, and I never quite knew *how* great it was – Winchester, VA is losing a culinary treasure.

Chef Ed wrote me after our meal, and told me that the menu that evening was “inspired in large part by a stroll through my home garden Saturday morning before coming to work.” That sounds like the boatload of BS many restaurants feed diners as a marketing tactic, but in this case, it was the absolute truth – it was obvious that basil was an important part of this meal, and the link that tied together all of the first courses.

I could rave, poke, prod, and urge everyone to get out to One Block West this week, but it won’t do any good, because neither hell nor high water could stop Ed from moving out to Oregon later this month. I reminded him that the total eclipse would be passing through his new home, and he seemed happy at having it as a bonus, but when I urged him not to leave the culinary field, he put his finger on his throat, made a cutting motion, and said, “I’m done,” adding that every restaurant in Portland had called him when they heard he was moving out that way. It’s their loss, it’s our loss – the only person who’s going to be happier because of this is Ed Matthews, who will finally have a chance to live the life he deserves. “I hope you become a realtor and make a fortune,” I told him, when I realized that he Really. Is. Done.

Before I went out to One Block West, I asked Ed what the tasting menu would be, and he said he wasn’t doing any more tasting menus, but when I arrived, he told me that he cobbled one together, and was offering it to others in the restaurant as well. What a meal this was – a meal which I’ll never forget, and a reminder that words alone do not support a business.

This post is a profound, albeit inadequate, show of my respect and gratitude towards Chef Ed Matthews: one of the great culinary geniuses ever to have graced the Washington, DC region.

The wines we had were perhaps my two favorite Virginia whites: one bottle each of Thibault-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay Sparkling Wine, and Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc. With dessert, we each had a wonderful glass of Calvados (what else should you have with a Clafoutis?)

Note: I asked Ed to take pictures of each dish before sending them out, so I wouldn’t have to fumble around with my iPhone during dinner – he was gracious enough to email them to me so I could use a copy. These are the actual dishes we were served:

Scallop Crudo – Scallop, Sweet Corn, Tomato, Basil Oil, JQ Dickinson Salt, Basil:

Wahoo Napoleon – Tomato, Half-Grilled Wahoo, Tomato Vinaigrette, Cilantro Aioli:

Insalata Caprese – House-Made Mozzarella, Pesto Oil, Balsamic-Marinated Cherry Tomatoes, Basil:

Thai Lamb Salad – Cold-Sliced Grilled Lamb (Lamb Marinated in Thai Basil, Mint, and Lemon Balm), Greens, Cilantro, Thai Basil, Cilantro, Cucumber, Carrot, Peanuts, Thai Lime-Fish Sauce Dressing:

Peach-Thai Basil Sorbet

Duck – Grilled Moulard Duck, Flageolets, Caramelized Tomatoes:

Cherry Clafoutis – Clafoutis, Blueberry Mascarpone, Crème Anglaise,  Blueberries, Pickled Blueberries:

When we waved the white flag, we were told that only one course remained: the Clafoutis. I joked with our server that I was a Clafoutis snob, and that a true Clafoutis should always be served with unpitted cherries, knowing full-well that in a restaurant, that’s not the reality. We were, of course, served our Clafoutis with our cherries having been pitted. Until my final bite – that son-of-a-bitch somehow managed to sneak *one* unpitted cherry into the back of my dessert, just because he could. Hilarious and remarkable!

I’m raising One Block West to Bold in the Virginia Dining Guide, and that is how it shall be retired.

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Sushi Bar at Sushi Ogawa, North Dupont

Let me start by saying I’ve never been to Japan, and I’ve never been to Masa.

That said, for my personal preference, Japan is second only to France for my favorite cuisine, and I am very much of a sushi and sashimi hound – it’s just about my favorite thing (along with foie gras, caviar, etc.)

I had, without much doubt, the best Sashimi-Sushi Omakase I’ve ever eaten on Wednesday night at the Sushi Bar at Sushi Ogawa, and I’ve been to most of the great sushi specialists in the U.S. and Vancouver.

The only option is a $100 omakase, and I highly advise all diners to call and see if Chef Ogawa will be working before they commit to this meal.

My friend made the reservation under her name, and I have no reason to think I was recognized, but boy, this sure seemed like more than the “12-14 courses” they advertise. I don’t rule out the possibility that I was spotted, but regardless, I’m spotted at most other top Japanese restaurants in DC, and nobody has put out sashimi and sushi like this before, not even the great Sushi Taro.

I had made an exception to my own unwritten rule (the only other one-visit Bold I’ve ever made has been Elements in Princeton, NJ), and initialized Sushi Bar at Sushi Ogawa as such (this was absolutely the best meal I’ve had in 2017, my dining partner said it was by far the best sashimi-sushi she’s ever eaten, and I’ve spent nearly 8 weeks this year in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles), but just to be prudent, I’m going to wait for other people to chime in.

There are numerous Michelin 3-star sushi restaurants in Japan, but I honestly cannot envision any sashimi-sushi-driven meals being much better than this, even though I’m sure they are. Still, this raised the bar for me, personally, by a fair amount. About the only thing that fell short of excellence was the crème brûlée (it was fine, but Koji Terano can rest easy).

If you go with another person, treat yourselves to a .720ml bottle of Eikun “Big Hawk” Junmai Ginjo sake ($65 on their list, and it will carry you through the entire meal).

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German Restaurants

This is posted out in front of German Gourmet in Bailey’s Crossroads:

German Gourmet is an absolutely fantastic German enclave – the best German market in the area (that I’m aware of), and terrific prepared foods. Yesterday, it was Bratwurst with sauerkraut and mustard, and they were fantastic – butterflied, so the juices co-mingled with their excellent roll.

Of course, when I walked out, my bill for the Bratwursts was over $70, because I was unleashed in their aisles of beer, wine, etc. – they have one of the very best selections of German beers of anyone in the DC area, and unlike many small, ethnic markets, their beer is all fresh – every bottle well before the expiry date.

I don’t know why I didn’t have German Gourmet in Italic, but it’s every bit as good as The Swiss Bakery or The Italian Store​​​​​​​.

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Little Sheep, Eden Center, Falls Church

So, how big is Little Sheep Hot Pot?

Big. In fact, *really* big. It was really big five years ago.

Based in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China, Little Sheep Group posted 2 percent of all Chinese dining-out expenses in 2010. Think about that for a second.

And then, it got *REALLY* big.

In 2011, Little Sheep Group was sold to the massive, $10+ billion Yum! Brands, Inc. (the owners of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc.) for $587 million, and it’s now a wholly-owned subsidiary – they recently opened their first Little Sheep Hot Pot in Eden Center.

Ironically, you’d *never* know it was a giga-chain.

This restaurant is somethng like Mala Tang, except it has big, *big* money behind it. It’s well-organized, family-friendly, and is designed for groups (definitely not the solo diner; unless you want a lot of leftovers).

Ordering involves a simple, 5-step checklist, where you check off your broth, your meat, your seafood, your vegetables, and your starch – whichever ones you want.

The broth is $2.95, and the extras are what cost the money. I *strongly* advise going with the “original” or the “Yin and Yang”; not the “Spicy” – it’s too much.

I got the Yin and Yang ($2.95), and for my meat, ordered the Dry-Aged Spring Lamb ($8.95). Tong Ho (a massive pot of Chrysanthemum Blossoms, $4), and Fresh, Thick Noodle ($4). Since it’s their soft opening, they threw in a generous little plate of Fatty Steak (Gratis).

Considering I made a quick decision, I was very happy with everything I ordered, but you can do even better if you look at the menu before you go, and add even more vegetables – maybe some large mushrooms, taro root, and the like. It’s the meats and seafood which will really set you back; not the vegetables. My hot pot, including tax (but not tip) was $23.05, and it could have *easily* fed two people, with leftover broth – one person gets the same amount of broth as four people. That amount also included a Diet Coke with unlimited refills.

All the meats seem to be frozen, and the non-seafood in particular are those thin, Steak-Umm-like things – the real treasure here lies in the vegetables. You definitely want some starch (noodles, potatoes, etc.) to thicken the broth as it reduces. The base broth seems to contain every kind of pod, twig, root, spice, nut, and berry known to mankind (the picture below is of the broth before I put a single thing in it – you can easily see that unless you’re a bonafide chili-head, you don’t want the entire thing to be spicy).

Here are some pictures to give you a better idea of what to expect. Do not let the “chain” aspect of this throw you off – it’s perfectly fine hot pot, and it was packed this afternoon for a late lunch on President’s Day.


 

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Ad Hoc, Yountville, CA

I can’t believe that as many times as I’ve visited Napa, I haven’t been to Ad Hoc. This is Thomas Keller’s “take what we serve,” family-style restaurant in Yountville, just down the Street from The French Laundry (pssst, that link will magically work in the next couple of months).

At first glance, Ad Hoc seems frightfully expensive for what you get, but it isn’t at all, and in fact, I can’t wait to go back. There’s a different, family-style, set menu served each night of the week, and since we went on a Monday, here was ours (there’s no difference going on a Monday than any other night, in terms of price, quantity, or quality – at least, none that I know of):

 <— This is $52 per person, which may seem expensive, but I’m going to try and explain why it’s a very good value.

People were grumbling about Eric Ziebold’s “Whole Chicken” for $56, even though that was for *two people* – well, Ad Hoc’s menu for two people is $104, and you’re getting “Fried Chicken,” so how am I possibly going to explain this?

Very easily. It’s been well-established by now that Ziebold’s chicken at $56 is a ridiculous bargain, considering what you get with it, and this set menu, at $52 per person, is also a very good deal (I won’t go so far as to call it a “ridiculous bargain”) – considering that it’s 100% of the food that you’ll be eating on this evening – and every single thing is fantastic! Or at least it was for us.

Wine, of course, is extra, but Ad Hoc’s wine prices are fair, and their wine list is expertly chosen – with this set meal, you have to go (or “you’re best-off going”) with a Rosé, since a Rosé is sort-of half-way between a red and a white, and will overlap both white courses and red courses – remember your Venn Diagrams from Geometry:

 <— Except that the overlap is much greater than this picture shows.

So, they naturally had a couple of Rosés to choose from, and our request for our server was simple: Bring us the palest, driest Rosé from France, preferably from the Southeast of France, that you have. He knew instantly which wine to pick, and that brings up another point: Our server knew every ingredient in every dish that we had on this evening, and also knew the wine list back-and-forth. Thomas Keller trains his staff very well, and you just don’t see this kind of knowledge in a lot of restaurants – this is worth a lot to the diner, even though it may be something that gets overlooked.

Our Grenache Gris: a 2015 Domaine de Figueirasse ($40) from the Languedoc region of France. “Do you know if this wine was bled off the top of the vat?” I asked, and he said, “No, its gently pressed..” How many servers are even going to know what “vin saignée” is? Bled Rosé can be fine, but pressed Rosé is just a better wine making method – I could write a 5,000-word thesis on why this is so, but it just is. Oenophiles are reading this right now, nodding their heads, and admiring our server – every single one of them.

This is an all-organic winery that was founded in 1905, and this is the wine you should be getting here with anything that isn’t a dark meat, such as beef or lamb – you’ll be happy, I promise!

Our meal began with a bread course (house-made bread (don’t forget, Keller’s bakery is essentially right next door) with the same, wonderfully creamy, salted butter you get at Bouchon. With it, came a perfectly dressed County Line Chicory Salad with eggs mimosa, pickled red onions, French Laundry garden radishes, and creamy garlic dressing – and when I say “perfectly dressed,” I mean that this salad could not have been dressed any better, and contained exactly the correct amount of dressing.

We took our time noshing on our salad, and even though the restaurant was completely full, we didn’t feel rushed in any way. Only when we were finished, and not a moment before, were the plates cleared, and within moments the main course and two sides arrived, and oh did they look good – and they were every bit as good as they looked. This is some of the best Buttermilk Fried Chicken I’ve ever eaten, and ironically, about the only better fried chicken I’ve had was in the next county over, but we’ll get to that shortly. The batter is dredged in buttermilk, and the chicken is served with Cauliflower Gratin and Mushroom & Carrot Ragout. I strongly suspect my dining companion will have more to say about these two side orders. Don’t let the picture of the chicken fool you – this was a huge amount of fried chicken, and we had some to take home for lunch the next day – you’ll have leftovers from this meal unless you play Offensive Tackle for the 49ers.

And there’s still more to come. One of the only truly generous cheese courses I’ve encountered in quite awhile (aren’t you sick of getting little slivers of cheese?) By the way, here’s a dirty little secret: Many retailers mark up their cheeses by (be sitting down when you read this) 100%. Cheese is not that expensive at the wholesale level – when you see cheese that’s $20 and $30 a pound, don’t blame the cheesemakers, and don’t blame the wholesalers; blame the retailers. Why do you think you see so many Groupon offers from cheese retailers, advertising 50% off their cheese? Do you think it’s because they want to lose money? Let that one sink in for awhile, and store it in your long-term memory. Back to the meal: *Look* at this amazing Andante Dairy’s Tomme Dolce, served with the most *amazing* Corn Pone and House-Made Mixed Berry Jam!

I

You’re *still* not finished, because there’s a dessert course – in our case, two jars of Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crumble and Whipped Chantilly, one of which is pictured here, turned over after being half-eaten – we thought coffee would hit the spot, so we got a French Press of Decaf Coffee with our dessert ($5 total, and worth it).

Well, I don’t know if I’ve convinced you that this dinner is worth $104 for two people (not including extras), but for my palate and budget, it was worth it and then some. Ad Hoc is a wonderful restaurant, that has many of the niceties that a Thomas Keller institution can provide – and don’t forget, he spends an *awful* lot of time in Yountville, which is essentially a one-street town. Ad Hoc is wonderful, and worth a trip from San Francisco – *absolutely* worth a trip if you’re in Napa or Sonoma counties to begin with.

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Rasika, Penn Quarter

I’ve been to Rasika many times in my life, perhaps a dozen or so. Although the restaurant has gone from being “just another good restaurant” to “one of the toughest reservations in Washington, DC,” stylistically, it doesn’t seem like it has changed much at all, except for a small amplification in flavor intensity many years ago, when it was still close to its birth year of 2005. The one exception is that I had a fine meal at Rasika on my previous visit, which is mentioned on the restaurant’s web page itself.

I wonder how many people remember that the talented Sebastian Zutant left Komi to become sommelier at Rasika when it first opened: Although award-winning Chef Vikram Sunderam has remained with Knightsbridge Restaurant Group throughout its lifetime, Rasika’s drinks program – which can easily account for half of the diner’s final bill – has changed over the years, and on my most recent visit, the services of Zutant have never been missed more, as Rasika batted 0-for-3 in the beverage department.

Getting a prime-time table at Rasika now requires making a reservation several weeks in advance – unless you’re fortunate enough to find a cancellation – but even at an off-time, you’re not guaranteed to find a table, as I found out when I walked in recently. Hoping to sit in the dining room, my choices were either to wait a couple of hours, or snag the only remaining seat at the bar, so the bar it was.

Wanting to unwind and begin my meal with a cocktail, I raised an eyebrow when I saw the Champagne Cocktail ($12) which is exactly what I was in the mood for. Unfortunately, the Champagne Cocktail at Rasika is made, not with Champagne, but with Prosecco, which is akin to advertising Kobe beef and selling Angus in its place. Still, I knew what I was getting into, as the menu clearly said the Prosecco was served with Ginger Syrup and Candied Ginger, and I knew the sweet ginger would mask any deficiencies in the Prosecco – I asked my *wonderful* bartender (and I’ll be referring to him again) if the drink was on the sweet or dry side, and he told me it was sweet, so I asked for a reduced dose of ginger syrup, and the cocktail he made me was in perfect balance – I’d suggest that, unless you’re in the mood for a sugary drink, you ask your server to go light on the ginger syrup. The only thing wrong with this cocktail was the name of it, which can be permanently fixed by the restaurant in a matter of seconds; until that happens, just be aware that you can buy entire bottles of Prosecco – at the retail level – for $12.

I wanted a snack to have with my cocktail, so I also ordered a piece of Mint Paratha ($3), and it was of average quality, with good texture and cooking; the only ding was that was a bit bland, but this isn’t supposed to be the center of attention.

For my appetizer, I ordered a curious item: Dover Sole Chutneywala ($15) – curious, because it was the only Dover Sole they had on the menu, and it was extremely thin. Wrapped in a banana leaf, it was dressed in a mild curry (or, more accurately, chutney) of coconut, mint, and cilantro, and accompanied by a little Kachumber on the side. I don’t quite understand how Rasika is able to serve such a small portion of Dover Sole, because this is expensive fish and there must be some minimum amount that a restaurant has to order – but Knightsbridge Restaurant Group may order larger portions of Dover Sole for its eight restaurants (economies of scale and all that). This was somewhat skimpy, and the Kachumber was of average quality, but the dish as a whole was novel.

I had finished my cocktail and wanted some wine before the appetizer, and having read the description of the dish, I went straight for a glass of Elena Walsh Gewürztraminer ($14), also something of a surprise because it was the only glass of Gewürztraminer on the list, and it was from Italy (Alto Adige to be exact) – it definitely piqued my curiosity. Unfortunately, the second I took my first whiff, I must have unintentionally scrunched up my face, and my bartender must have seen me, because he said, “Your appetizer will be right out, sir.” But that’s not why I scrunched up my face (and I didn’t know he was looking!); I knew from the very first smell that this wine had undergone malolactic fermentation – this is a secondary fermentation which turns malic acid (think: tart, green apples) into lactic acid (think: yogurt) – lactic acid is *not* something you want in your Gewürztraminer, and I was more than a little disappointed that out of all the Gewürztraminers in the world, this is the one Rasika selected to serve by the glass – it had a distinct bouquet of milky acids, and I was terribly disappointed. It wasn’t a “bad” wine, but the nature of the acidity was amoral – here, of all places, with their heralded “Modern Indian” cuisine, I wanted a white wine with a bit of grip to it, and I got a glass of flab – possibly a distributor close-out.

It had been awhile since I’d been to Rasika, and I over-ordered on purpose, thinking I’d enjoy it for lunch tomorrow as well. I’ve been criticized before for ordering “too traditional” at Rasika, so I wanted to be sure not to do that this trip. For my main course, I got Ananas Gosht ($20) – Ananas means pineapple, and Gosht means lamb, and this came with lamb, cashew nuts, pineapple, mace, and cardamom. Thinking this would be a red wine course, I ordered a glass of 2013 Jean Yves Perraud “Domaine de Foretal” Julienas ($12), Julienas being one of the more floral villages in Beaujolais, and the wine being 100% Gamay. There was only one thing wrong with this wine, and it was a deal-breaker: My bartender pulled a bottle off the shelf, and poured my glass, and it was about 75 degrees in the restaurant – the wine was about 20 degrees too hot. (And people are angry because Rasika didn’t get a Michelin star?) Refer back to the fourth paragraph where I mentioned my wonderful bartender. He asked me how the wine was, and I said it was good, but would he mind putting the glass in the freezer for about ten minutes? He didn’t bat an eye – he immediately said, “There’s absolutely no need for that – I’ll just open another bottle,” and he opened the (temperature-controlled) bottle storage underneath the back of the bar, pulled out a brand new bottle, opened it, poured it, and … it made all the difference in the world. He went above the call of duty opening that bottle – I would have been perfectly content just having mine cooled down for ten minutes (by now, I’m so used to asking for this, that it no longer bothers me that people don’t know how to serve red wine). I thanked him heartily, and made sure to leave him a good tip at the end of the night – his name was Dwight, by the way, and I wouldn’t mention his name if he wasn’t excellent.

As for the Ananas Gosht, I wish I could compliment it as much as Dwight – aside from having a single, paper-thin pineapple slice on top of the dish, the pellets of lamb were tough and tasteless. Precisely one week after I went to Rasika, I went to Raaga, an Indian restaurant you’ve never heard of before, because it’s an unknown dive in Falls Church. There, I ordered a Chicken Kolhapuri ($14.95). I urge fans of Rasika to go to both restaurants, get one dish of each to go, and compare them side-by-side – the results will either delight or depress you, depending on what your motivations are, and it won’t be a close call. Darn it I wanted to like this lamb dish, but it wasn’t in the stars, so to speak.

Well, of *course* I got three side dishes: a distressingly charred Eggplant Chili Garlic ($8) – the only inedible dish of the night because it wasn’t only burned, but it was scorching hot, and eggplant with skin-on retains heat for a long time; Zucchini Tamatar Kofta ($8), which was probably my favorite dish of the night, the zucchini dumplings made with mustard seeds and onion seeds, and an outsized portion of Cucumber Raita ($4), best-suited for a party of two, but I knew exactly what I was getting when I ordered it – it was slightly above-average Raita, but nothing memorable. The next day, for lunch, the Raita tamed the Eggplant – I was genuinely hungry again for lunch, and rather than choking down the eggplant when I was full, I was able to enjoy it the next day when I was hungry.

In summary, a typical visit at Rasika for me – why people are outraged that Rasika didn’t get a Michelin star is beyond my comprehension – it isn’t even close to being a one-star restaurant. It’s a good Modern Indian venue that’s one of the best choices in Penn Quarter. I even have it ranked ahead of Masala Art and Woodlands in the Multiple Locations Dining Guide, although I’m not entirely convinced it should be ranked higher than Woodlands. I guess if you want some wine with your Indian cuisine, it’s one of the best Indian restaurants in the area, but this visit made me miss Passage To India and Indique, both of which I’ve neglected now for far too long.

Ashok Bajaj is a brilliant restaurateur, and I hope he finally gets the recognition he deserves at the national level – taken as a whole, his set of restaurants is nothing short of spectacular. Nothing would be more fitting than if he won the James Beard Award this year for Outstanding Restaurateur in the United States.

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