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.)
Pearl Dive (14 UP) – Just after 7 PM on a bone-chilling Sunday evening, we walked in and grabbed the last deuce at the restaurant. A quick scan of the pricey wine list sent me to Chablis, and when I got my chance to order, that’s what I did – first with the hostess (who may have intervened after noticing we’d waited a bit), then, a few minutes later, when our server asked if we’d like a drink. “We just ordered a bottle of the Chablis,” I said. “Which one?” he asked. “The only one on the list,” I replied, honestly trying to make his job easier (unfortunately, someone confused it with Champagne, so out came the ice bucket and frosted hideosos (and I must have sounded like a pretentious tool when I said “The only one on the list” because there were three sparkling wines; only one from Champagne)). After being seated for, I don’t know, 20 minutes or so – an interminable length of time when you’re trying to get your first drink – we got our 2009 Simonnet-Febvre Chablis ($38). The mix-up was perfectly understandable (Chablis, Champagne, Chardonnay, etc., it can happen), but it was enough to send this young staff into la-la land, off-balance, and off-kilter. We said we’d split both of our dishes, a Seafood Gumbo ($22) of oyster, four good, deveined shrimp placed at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, and local crab, and a C.E.B.L.T. Po-Boy ($14) with fried catfish, the ever-important over-easy farm egg, Benton’s bacon, lettuce, and tomato, served with aptly named “dive fries.” The gumbo – carefully portioned – was salty, the fries saltier still, and the sandwich small and unmemorable. Along with the rice, the grilled baguette, and the basket of bread, this became a very starch-heavy meal. Pearl Dive is unfortunately downgraded from Very Good to Good – I really don’t have a choice after this meal – and moved below Estadio, Bar Pilar, and Cafe Saint-Ex in the 14 UP dining guide, but it is nevertheless maintained as Noteworthy for its architecture and interior design (both of which are important and lovable), its fun menu, and for being “the” happening place in 14 UP (aka Little Baltimore) right now. On this particular evening, it was kids serving kids, and as both supply-side and demand-side mature, Pearl Dive could also mature into something special, assuming they mature in lockstep; otherwise, one will abandon the other. I’m sorry for this less than glowing review, because I really like the spirit of this restaurant and it’s exactly the type of place I want to support in the future (unacceptable noise level notwithstanding (I’m sorry to sound like an old fart, but absence of linens, carpeting, etc. is every bit the plague on dining that sous vide is)); nevertheless, for the money, on this particular evening, things should have been better. Please also note that “Good” doesn’t mean bad.
Kotobuki (Palisades) – I’m convinced that Hisao Abe has an unplumbed fetish for Nordic women in white stockings. After a long run of pretty drab meals here, Kotobuki finally came through for me with good, neighborhood-level sushi. And yet, despite this being the first good meal I’ve had here in a couple of years, the sushi standouts were just as they were before: light-colored seafood, for whatever reason. The scallops and flounder were very good, and a touch better than the watery escolar, which was in turn much better than the flavorless, dried-out salmon. A roll of yellowtail and avocado was excellent, and much more interesting than a spicy white tuna (escolar) roll which was made spicy only by a shake of powder. While the light-colored seafood remained the strong point, it was accompanied on this evening by the sushi rice which was better than I’ve had here in a long time. Even though Kotobuki’s “inexpensive sushi” is 50% higher than it was a few years ago (remember, for a long time it was $1 per piece, before going up to $1.25, and now $1.50), it’s still the best in DC at its price point. Raised to a stronger level of Good, perhaps a weak Very Good, pushed up a couple notches in the Palisades dining guide, and maintained as Noteworthy for being the best budget sushi meal in town, as well as for being the lovable pillbox it has always been.
Yechon (Annandale) – Where do you go when you’re hungry at 4:30 AM? You could do a lot worse than Yechon, whose newish carryout menu is now quite large, and with a remarkable array of dishes. It can also be very expensive if you’re not careful what you order. I had two criteria: cheap, and filling – thus, the satisfying Yukgaejang ($9.95), a shredded beef soup with spicy sauce, vegetables, and egg and, for the next day, the lesser Jaejangguk ($8.95), stewed beef in simmered broth with vegetables. I’m pretty sure Yechon is pretty liberal with the MSG, and as usual, I was thirsty several hours after the meal. Maintained as Good, and also Noteworthy for being one of the best restaurants in the area open 24 hours a day, and for it’s warm, wood-based atmosphere.
Old Europe (Glover Park) – I’ve been coming to Old Europe off and on for twenty years – including for my mom’s birthday dinner perhaps eleven years ago with Karen and Matt (just imagine how important these four people were to me), and not once have I had a better meal than what I had this evening. Matt had his mug of Root Beer (an expensive $3.50, cheerfully refilled), and I, my huge, beer-hall sized one-liter mug of a seasonal special of Einbocker Winter Bock ($14, although it showed up on the bill as a Spaten Festbier – regardless, it was a wonderful, malty beer that I adored – along with the DC Brau Thyme after Thyme, this is one of two beers I’ve recently had that I really want to hunt down). We split three items, three ways, asking them to go ahead and bring them all at once: an appetizer of Karthoffer Puffer ($6.00), potato pancakes with homemade apfelsauce, wonderfully fried, and as good as any potato pancakes I’ve ever eaten (a bold statement, to be sure). an appetizer of housemade Wildschweinwurst ($10.00), wild boar sausage with pickled red cabbage and corn, and an entree of something “famous,” but something that I haven’t tried in many a year: Hossenpfeffer ($29), two fine legs of wild hare, sauerkraut, and magnificent potato dumplings, everything served with a tray of sliced white rolls, rye, wheat, and pumpknickel with real butter. It was a wonderful richly satisfying feast that left both of us stuffed, and also with juuuust enough room for dessert: Carrot Cake, and Black Forest Cake ($6 each), decent, if slightly dry, housemade renditions of these classics, the carrot cake a touch better due to moistness and its correctly made creme anglaise. There were no real flaws in this dinner anywhere – and please do note the stunning regimental beer steins upon entry (I know quite a bit about WWI regimentals, and these are the real things, sitting in the right corner cabinet as you walk in. In World War I, German gave out beer steins to its soldiers, just as a basketball team might give out t-shirts to its team members – these are dated, 1906, 1912, etc., and that date reflects the graduating class of the soldier, who also has his name etched onto the stein. The lid (a cannon, for example), reflects which division the soldier was in (a cannon reflects “infantry”). It’s all very historic, and quite important from that context. I’ve gotten sidetracked here – the food was all very good at the absolute minimum, ranging up to excellent. You’d have to go to Hagerstown and visit Schmankerl Stube to even come close to this quality. To my surprise, upgraded to Excellent, and marked as Noteworthy for being the best German cuisine in the entire DC region by a fair margin, as well as the oldest, established in 1948. A wonderful dinner, with wonderful, friendly service. Based on this visit, moved above Town Hall, Surfside, and the wine bar at Bistrot Lepic in the Glover Park section of the dining guide (that last one was a tougher decision). A very impressive showing for Old Europe – so much so that I asked the manager whether they had gotten a new chef (no, they hadn’t; it was just a perfect night for them). Bravo!
Little Serow (East Dupont Circle, Previous Minibite) – The first time (a few weeks ago) I waited outside at 5:20, I felt like I needed to so that I could pay Johnny Monis proper respect in visiting Little Serow; this time, I waited outside at 5:20 because I selfishly wanted to. Once again, a meal as good as the first, with several different items on the menu, and a (happily) honored request made by my server, asking me if I’d like Johnny to try a couple new courses on me that he’s thinking of putting on next week’s menu. I’m not sure how to say this in Thai, or Issan, or whatever it is, but – yes, omakase! I confidently place myself in your hands, and this time with the drinks as well (although I couldn’t resist starting with a single glass of that lovely sparking Gruner Veltliner). My love and respect for Little Serow is deep and abiding, from the splendid little drinks program, to the impossibly gracious, enthusiastic staff, and of course, for the gutsy, fearless Issan cuisine. I suppose I’m no expert in judging whether or not this is authentic Issan cooking, but if it’s not, then something really weird is happening because this is nothing like I’ve ever encountered. I love Little Serow so much that I’m thinking of taking my son here for his 15th birthday even though I’ve already warned him that he won’t be able to take some of the spicing (he doesn’t care, and he got pumped at the thought of it). Maintained as Outstanding (it will never be any higher than this because it isn’t trying to be), and of course, Noteworthy for any of ten different reasons – just pick one, and be grateful that this restaurant is here. At the end of the meal, I walked back to the kitchen, and got the attention of Johnny, who walked over and graciously extended his hand to me. I got down on one knee, bowed my head, and gave him a full-fledged Tebow, then stood up, shook my head in disbelief, looked him in the eyes, and simply whispered, “awesome.” Yes, my friends, it was supposed to be funny, but it’s also called Respect – Respect with a capital R. I understand this is a vegetable-heavy menu (a good thing because you can stuff yourself and still eat healthy here which I love more than I can say), but I once again counsel that this $45 prix-fixe is going to be much more expensive within several years. Remember my prediction about Minibar right after it first opened, and pay heed to what I’m saying now about Little Serow – something, at some point, is going to have to give. Go now, friends, go now, and get there at 5:15. For the second time this month, Little Serow is DCDining.com’s Restaurant Of The Week. Thank you, Johnny Monis, for having the courage and foresight to open this fine restaurant when you did in 2011.
Kaz Sushi Bistro (Downtown) – It’s very typical for Matt (my son) and I to hop in the car, not having any idea where we’ll end up for dinner – it’s usually dictated by his hunger level, and the ability to find parking. Fortunately, we arrived near International Square at 6:28 and nabbed one of the meters, so we walked one and a half blocks up to Kaz. Kaz and I have been talking a lot lately (please see the article written about him by Tim Carman this week) about the state of Japanese cuisine, and he has been doing a lot of self-reflection and soul searching. Well, he wouldn’t have needed to search very deeply on this evening because for the first time in a good, long while, I ordered the way you should order at Kaz Sushi Bistro: a lot of different small plates, and the more experimental, the better. And the meal on this evening was just terrific, the best food I’ve had here in quite some time. During the course of the dinner, along with my little pitcher of Masumi Sake ($13 – sakes here are high-quality but too expensive) and Kaz Red Ale (brewed by Echigo, and again too expensive at $11, brewed by Echigo) – these two drinks were 33% of the bill) we split Caramelized Crispy Brussels Sprouts ($6) with ginger dressing [on the greens underneath], Chawan Mushi ($7), a traditional Japanese custard soup with seafood and vegetables, Tebasaki ($7.5) Nagoya-style crispy chicken wings [actually, four drumsticks], Aghe Dashi Tofu ($5.50 for four cubes), a Shitake Croquet ($7 for eight pieces), and two maki: Salmon Avocado Roll ($5.50) and Walu with Chive (overpriced at $9). The only miss was the croquet because of the sweetish tomato sauce, and the maki which were just too densely packed. That having been said, having had this back-to-back right after last night’s dinner at Little Serow, it might surprise some readers to hear that food-wise, Kaz was nipping at Little Serow’s heals on this evening. Little Serow is a better overall restaurant because of the service, the exceptional drinks program (though Kaz does have good sake and beer in its own right), and the baffling nature of the cuisine, but as far as sheer quality combined with innovation (and please, let’s not forget just how innovative Kaz Okochi has been over the years), these plates of food may not be siblings, but they are cousins, with Kaz’s probably straying further from Japan than Johnny’s does from Thailand. A comparison between the two, especially at the Izakaya level, is not at all absurd even though I understand it may sound that way at first. Kaz Sushi Bistro is solidified as Excellent, and is Noteworthy for being the first truly creative Japanese cooking employed in the Washington, DC area. The best meal I’ve had here in awhile reaffirms my fondness of this restaurant, and Kaz should be very proud of the institution that he has built – he deserves much more love and respect from restaurant critics than he currently receives. Go there and see for yourselves – you’ll thank me if you do. Well done, Kaz, well done. Total bill for two hungry men (one of them drinking): $70 before tax and tip – yes, that’s Restaurant Week prices for cuisine that’s superior to 99% of all that you’ll find during Restaurant Week. I thanked Kaz on the way out, and he later texted me, asking me why I didn’t tell him I’d arrived. The answer is simple: I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable writing such a glowing review if I had. Thank you, Kaz Okochi, for having the courage and foresight to open this fine restaurant when you did in 1999.
La Caraqueña (Falls Church) – For a quick, carryout lunch, I don’t know why I don’t think to call La Caraqueña more often. In something of a rush, I phoned in an order for two grilled arepas – the Carne Mechada, which I suspect is their best seller, and the Reina Pepeada, which is something I’ve never thought to try here. The Carne Mechada is fine – long-cooked, stringy, stew meat – well-seasoned, but ultimately more useful as an entree ladled over some potatoes or rice, maybe with some long-cooked green beans; on a grilled arepa, after the second or third time you’ve had it, it gets a little monotonous (and I mean literally monotonic; I absolutely do not mean “boring” because it’s not). On the other hand, the Reina Pepeada was California-thrilling, looking like innocent guacamole, but with distinct flavors of good, tender chicken, avocado (the primary visual component), and surprisingly, egg. I don’t see how I could have enjoyed this arepa any more than I did, unless it was bigger. These arepas are fairly thick, but also pretty small in diameter, and at over $19 for two of them (including tax, but not tip), they remind me that La Caraqueña really pushes the upper bounds of acceptable pricing considering their location. For me, it’s worth paying a few dollars more to support good cooking such as this, but I do take notice of the bill whenever I come here. Maintained as Very Good to Excellent and Noteworthy for having the best arepas (really, the best Venezuelan cooking, and also the best salteñas) that I’m aware of in the DC area. As I type this, I realize that every single restaurant I’ve been to this week has been marked as Noteworthy – I suppose it’s because I go out of my way to seek out the interesting, the unusual, and, well, the noteworthy. Maybe it’s time I try somewhere boring for a change, just to stay grounded, and to keep things in perspective? Nah.
Bollywood Bistro (Fairfax) – A few months ago, I had a pleasant dinner at The Wine House (across the walkway), but still hadn’t visited Bollywood Bistro. We were fortunate enough to get the last table on a Saturday night, and were treated to a very good meal with surprisingly gentle prices on drinks (beers here are in the $3s which in this day and age is pretty remarkable). We ordered a fair number of plates, and asked them to bring them out whenever they were ready, and there really wasn’t a clunker in the bunch: Assorted Pakora ($6.95), Makhan Palak ($10.95) with cheese, Bharta ($9.95), Garlic Naan ($3.50) Pudina Paratha ($3.50), and Olive Raita ($3.95) were all things I’d order again (although the olive raita was just raita with a few slices of olives thrown in). The one expensive miss was the Goat Boti ($15.95), not because it was bad, but because there just wasn’t enough meat for the money (there were perhaps eight tender and flavorful bite-sized cubes, skewered, which sounds like a goodly portion but it really wasn’t). Both vegetarian entrees were ample, and better than typical versions of these dishes which I tend to order fairly often. Bollywood Bistro is raised to Very Good (which is probably where it has been all along), and pushed up a notch in the Fairfax portion of the dining guide. Also, it is noteworthy for being the only restaurant of my week that isn’t specifically noted as noteworthy.