Corduroy: Minibites, January 15, 2012 – January 21, 2012

Minibites are delicious samplings of Don’s culinary adventures, condensed, distilled, and always meant to be savored with your Monday morning coffee.

The DCDining.com Restaurant Guide, i.e., Le Grand Champ, is located exclusively on donrockwell.com. (For an extra shot, click on the link and enjoy the full thread.)

Et Voila! (Palisades) – I continue to be somewhat haunted by my early miss of this fine neighborhood restaurant which I believe has become a bit less expensive in recent months. Et Voila was pretty clearly short-staffed on this evening, with the weary host doubling as bartender (it’s important for diners to remember that sometimes, what seems to be perfunctory service can be a result of fatigue). It has been several visits since I’ve had anything less than a good dish here, although this time around, the bread was poor – seemingly frozen and reheated. Still, a lovely three-course meal of Soupe de Marron ($8), Truite Grillée, Tombée d’Epinards et sa Sauce au Champagne ($19.50), and Tarte aux Poires Grand Mère et sa Glace à la Bière ($8) added up to $35.50, or a whopping 38 cents more than the Barnumites around this city have been paying during Restaurant Week. Maintained as Excellent.

Northside Social (Clarendon) – Just as I finish making a plea for independent coffeehouses last week, I walk into a jam-packed Northside Social at 1 PM on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, and wait like everyone else, inching along the wall which is peppered with impulse items including bags of Counter Culture coffee. I remember back when this was (the much more grungy and lovable) Murky Coffee, I complained that Counter Culture tended to be under-roasted, and (then-owner) Nick Cho asked me the poignant question, “Have you ever had a bad cup here?” No, I hadn’t, and I’m convinced that’s because it takes professional equipment [see comment below] to extract the most out of a light roast such as Counter Culture – the drip coffee at Northside Social is much hotter than your typical home brew, and I think it takes either heat, or pressure, or both, to squeeze what you need out of these beans. Along with my coffee, I had an apricot and date scone that was just about perfect. Upgraded to Very Good with the excellent coffee offset by an atmosphere that just leaves me cold.

Smoke and Barrel (Adams Morgan) – Fighting the savage road construction on 18th Street, I somehow snared the last parking space, almost right in front of Smoke and Barrel. They were serving a brand new beer from draft, DC Brau’s “Thyme After Thyme,” and apparently, the brewery big-wigs were at the bar because it was the first day of release. Let me tell you: if what I had was any indication of what this beer is going to be like, then I’m going to be actively hunting it down – it’s nut brown in color, flavorful but full of balance and finesse, with just a hint of thyme in the nose. I really hope the bottled version will be something resembling this outstanding draft edition. And sigh, that’s where it ends because both the food and service on this evening were sub-par. I won’t go into all the gory details because this is a new restaurant, but between chicken wings, a hamburger, and a damning sampler platter of all four meats plus four sides, I’ll be polite and initiate coverage as “Average” with two important footnotes: the Bourbon list is strong, and six or seven years ago, this would have been the best beer program in the Washington, DC area (think about it: when Birreria Paradiso first opened, there was nothing in this city – my how times have changed).

Cedar (Penn Quarter) – I really tried my hardest not to become a victim of Restaurant Week, but I failed. There was a large protest going up Pennsylvania Avenue, and a rolling barricade forced me to park on Constitution. I almost went to 701, but was a bit underdressed, so walked past America Eats Tavern, stared in disbelief at the ridiculously priced menu, and took a pass on the $58 Lobster Newberg. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t been to Cedar in awhile, so I ducked in only to find a full dining room on a Tuesday night that was every bit as well-dressed as you’d see in 701 – Cedar has extended their Restaurant Week until the end of the month (gee, I wonder why), and they were packed. Sipping a beer, I saw the plates that people were getting for their $35.12, and almost got up and left, but then I asked myself where I’d go, and resigned myself to the bar menu which just didn’t appeal to me because it isn’t very healthy (I’ve been impressed with the food at Cedar in the past, but not their bar menu). Well, I ordered the House-Braised Pork Belly BLT ($12) with smoked tomato fondue and basil aioli – with salad instead of fries –  and, as I feared, essentially got a mayonnaise sandwich on pleasant brioche bread. I’m not going to demote a place for their performance during Restaurant Week – even if it is an entire month –  but if I did, Cedar would no longer have it’s Very Good ranking.

Freddy’s Lobster and Clams (Bethesda) – It says a lot about our city’s dining community (and, equally importantly, our restaurant media) when people can stand in line for an hour, and drop $20 on a deep-frozen lobster roll lunch, and Freddy’s was virtually empty at 7 PM on a Wednesday evening. “If you order it warm [with butter] instead of cold [with mayo],” bartender Chris Cunningham told me, “you need to eat it here and not order it as carryout,” and so for the first time, I did. Beautiful, fresh lobsters, swimming in the restaurant’s wonderful pool that very same day, barely cooked for precisely six minutes, served with butter and salt, on a brioche-tasting, thick-cut, white bread, for fifteen dollars. This small sandwich, which would offend gluttons grown accustomed to receiving larger portions of frozen, trucked-in lobster, was the best lobster roll I’ve ever had in my life – in DC, in Maine, in Boston, or anywhere else. Maintained as Very Good (because that’s all it tries to be) and more importantly – please read the next few words 100 times if you need to – as Noteworthy for serving what I believe to be the only fresh lobster roll in the Washington, DC area, as well as having an outstanding beer program. For having the audacity to serve me such a perfect, wonderful sandwich, Freddy’s Lobster and Clams was almost surely going to be named DCDining.com’s Restaurant Of The Week – it was their award to lose … and, as much as it pains me to say – they did. I went back for a second dinner on a busy Friday evening with a party of four, and the service was forgetful, the calamari was terribly oversalted, and none of the three lobster rolls compared to that glorious piece of perfection I’d had two nights before, the meat being more overcooked and somewhat tough. I feared this might happen, and my fears came true. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that Freddy’s, I believe, serves the only truly fresh lobster rolls in town: the lobster you eat in your roll was alive and swimming in the tank earlier that day, and has never been frozen.

Red Hook Lobster Pound Truck (Whereabouts Unknown) – I’d heard rumors in the past that Red Hook’s lobster meat arrives in the DC area deep frozen; and yet, their menu specifically advertises, and I quote, “Fresh Maine Lobster meat.” So I sent them a Tweet, and said, “Red Hook Lobster Truck (@LobstertruckDC) – since you’re advertising “Fresh Maine Lobster meat,” could you arrange a tour for me?” Their response: “@DCDining a tour of the truck?” My response: “No, the actual fresh, unfrozen meat at its source – I need to fact check a piece. (Thank you!)” Their response: “@DCDining well the fresh, unfrozen meat is available for tasting in every one of our lobsters rolls!” In other words, ‘No, you can’t have a tour of our [“Fresh Maine”] lobster meat at the source.’ Well, why not? A couple questions for you, Red Hook: 1) Where are your lobsters processed? 2) Is the meat ever in contact with freezing temperatures? Show me that your lobster meat is truly fresh, and I’ll eat there every day for a week.

Trummer’s on Main (Clifton) – Trummer’s is running a happy hour special until the end of January from 4:30-6:30 at the bar, with half-priced beers, wines by the glass, and bar food. Arriving right at 4:30, I had an insanely priced meal – $5 glasses of Barboursville sparkling wine, a $3.50 wedge salad with Maytag Blue and bacon, cradled in a half-head of mini  lettuce (if this was iceberg; then I want to know what it is because it was wonderful), a $5 pulled pork shoulder sandwich with house-fried, root vegetable chips accompanied with a $6.50 Joel Gott Cabernet Sauvignon. If these prices sound crazy, well, they were, and the bountiful, friendly service was just as enthralling as the architecture, the beverage program including good pours in good stemware, and everything else about this restaurant that I’ve come to love. The food was flawed, yes, with too much cumin-like spice in the pork, over-salting in the chips, and just too much Maytag in the salad, but my goodness, I spent $33 for $66 worth of dinner, and I know very well what it takes to pull off this level of service at 4:30 on an icy Wednesday, not even knowing what type of tips you’ll receive from cheapskate bar patrons. Trummer’s on Main is maintained as Outstanding, and if the food had been better, would have been restaurant of the week based on so many other things that it does right.

Luke’s Lobster (Penn Quarter) – I searched in vain for Red Hook’s truck which their website said would be at Navy Memorial Saturday at lunchtime (as I type this on Sunday, their website still says the truck is there). Finally, I gave up and went instead to Luke’s. Unlike Red Hook, the menu at Luke’s made no reference at all to “fresh” lobster, or even “Maine” lobster (although it did say Maine “Style”), so no expectations were raised. For $15 (the same price as Red Hook and Freddy’s), I got a small split-top roll, with a fair amount of meat, lightly dressed with mayo and a touch of lemon butter. Subsequently I checked, and Luke’s website makes it perfectly clear that the lobsters are from Maine. Frozen or not, this was a tasty little sandwich that could become an expensive addiction. I’m your father, Luke. Maintained as Good, and pushed up a notch in the Penn Quarter dining guide.

Corduroy (Convention Center) – I really don’t know why I stress out about these things, but I do. Saturday evening rolled around, and I had lost sleep over which restaurant was to be named weekly champion: should it be Et Voila for the food, Freddy’s for that one, perfect lobster roll, or Trummer’s for ambiance and service? I could easily see any of the three winning the award depending on which criteria I decided to emphasize; instead, I completely wimped out and broke the tie on the high end. Originally, I’d ordered the $30, three-course bar menu (which remains one of Washington, DC’s great restaurant values), and added a Tuna Tartar ($13) with mountain potato and crispy shallots. Towards the end of that lovely tuna dish, Chef Power sent out a tasting portion of his Seared Barnegeat Light Sea Scallops with unbelievably good Anson Mills Antebellum grits – the combination of the two flavors was lights out (think “butter and cream” in the grits), and at that point I realized that I hadn’t even begun my three-course menu. Since my first course was going to be kabocha squash soup, I was pretty sure that nothing had yet been fired, so I asked Pichon to change my order to a single entree – Tom Power had made the gesture of sending out that tasting portion, and I was going to return the respect by ordering high-end. Broken Arrow Ranch Antelope ($39) with chestnut puree and a glass of red Bordeaux. Oh, the chestnut puree. I suppose it’s possible for life to be better; I’m just not quite sure how. Maintained as Superlative, and with my thanks for making my life a little easier, Corduroy is DCDining.com’s Restaurant Of The Week.

And here’s a teaser for the opening restaurant in next week’s blog entry: a start-to-finish disappointment at what is arguably the hottest restaurant in all of DC.

If you enjoy this blog (or even if you don’t), please send your feedback to donrockwell-at-dcdining-period-com – I read and reply to every single letter I get, as they mean a lot to me.

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One Response to Corduroy: Minibites, January 15, 2012 – January 21, 2012

  1. Don says:

    When I was writing the section about Northside Social, I spent about twenty minutes searching for my old online conversation with Nick Cho, couldn’t find it, and gave up.

    I definitely misspoke when I wrote “professional equipment,” and not surprisingly, member jondagle picked up on it, and wrote a very thoughtful rebuttal here:

    http://www.donrockwell.com/index.php?showtopic=12702&view=findpost&p=202408