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 is located exclusively on donrockwell.com. (For an extra shot, click on the link and enjoy the full thread.)
Teavana (Tysons Corner) – After being denied by American Girl Bistro (no, really – I sat there and sipped a glass of ice water because the kitchen was closed at 4 PM on a Sunday while my charming young dining companion enjoyed a Cookies and Cream milkshake with her adorable little namesake doll, Mahira, who even had her own little six-inch tall chair and tiny cup of tea (kids make my heart just melt, and there’s nothing I can do about it)), I stopped by Teavana for a pick-me-up on the way out of Tysons Corner Centre because I knew I had a couple hours to go before dinner. Teavana is an Atlanta-based, mall-strong tea store with 150 locations nationwide. Ordering a large cup of darjeeling to go, I was very impressed with the massive tin of tea they pulled from behind the counter, then dismayed by seeing the retail price: $20 for 2 ounces. Again impressed by how thoughtfully the tea was steeped into my cup; again dismayed when I received the bill: $5.24 for a paper cup full of tea ($4.99 + 25 cents tax). But you know what? This was a really pleasant cup of Darjeeling (Darjeeling de Tromphe, they call it), and I’d consider getting it again, even at the price. Coverage intitiated as Good with the caveat that it’s very much of an upscale (i.e., extremely expensive) mall tea retailer; not really a Starbucks-type operation – there was no seating in this particular location. I’ve traditionally bought my teas through the mail from Upton Tea Imports in Boston – a company every tea lover should be intimately familar with (if you enjoy tea, I promise you that you’ll thank me for introducing you to Upton). Still, for me to walk out of a mall essentially raving about a paper cup full of hot tea says something about this SFTGFOP-1 (and if you’re a tea lover, you’ll know precisely what that means) from Teavana, although my instinct tells me this is a less serious version of Upton.
Pesce (Dupont Circle) – I’ve been craving simple seafood lately, and so my friend and I went to Pesce, a restaurant that I was extremely surprised she’s never tried before. Chef Tom Meyer was in the kitchen, and we secured a beautiful four-top right at the front window – I believe this may be my favorite table in the restaurant. The prices at Pesce seem like they’ve crept up over the past couple of years (this is becoming quite noticeable to me lately as a general industry issue), and Pesce’s website is very out of date: It appears that things haven’t been updated in over a year, as they mention they’ll be participating in Restaurant Week 2010, and no wine on the list is younger than 2007. Please, Pesce, take an afternoon, and update your website – this is really important in this day and age, and not doing it is costing you more money than you think – it should be especially easy since you have no fixed menu to upkeep. Service was lovely, and still exhibits aspects of classic French bistro protocol, our bottle of 2009 Chateau Reynier Bordeaux Blanc ($40, retails for about $20) was served at the correct temperature, with good stemware, and was just wonderful with all three items. The first, a little bowl of PEI Mussels with Tomato and Chorizo ($10) was zesty, with just enough sauce for Pesce’s surprisingly good Sunday-night bread to soak up. Better still was the Shrimp and Octopus Hash ($14) which at first glance appeared small, but that was only because it was served in a large, flat bowl; it was a good portion, and had really deep, complex flavors accentuated by the small-diced mango and bouillabaisse-like scents in the saucing. A whole Branzino ($27) stuffed with rosemary rounded out this fine showing for Pesce, maintained in the dining guide as Excellent.
New Heights (Woodley Park) Where do I start with the disclaimers? How about here and here. Nothing more needs to be said except that you take this “review” with the appropriate grain of salt. On Tuesday evening, Eric Ziebold, his charming wife Celia, and I all met at the New Heights bar for dinner, and other than a couple of “must haves” for Eric, we decided to let his former sous chef at CityZen, Ron Tanaka, cook for us. This is, incidentally, the first meal that any of us three had enjoyed under Ron’s tenure there, and with Kavita working the bar, it was comped (though rest assured, I pay a stiff price in return). We all started with a smokey Yellow Lentil Soup ($10) with sherry vinegar (which lent depth to the soup), micro mirepoix and bacon, a beautiful Salad of Braised Endive ($10) and grilled radicchio had innocent-looking candied walnuts furtively playing off the sumac vinaigrette, fantastic cylinders of Pork Trotters ($11) with savoy cabbage, caraway and grain mustard (if you like Bistrot Lepic’s, try these). Then, we split off and I had Mediterranean Sea Bream ($23) with fingerling potato confit, piquillo pepper, and parsley taragon, while Eric and Celia had The King of the Show, and probably the best dish of any type I’ve had all year: Ron’s Moulard Duck Confit ($25), with white beans, sun dried tomatoes, and kale, an updated version of a cassoulet-like presentation that was out of this world. “It’s like it had some sort of crispy disk of duck right underneath the skin,” Eric mentioned before adding that he’d like to get another order to go! A little cheese course was followed by Fried Apple Pie ($9) with toasted poppy, vanilla ice cream, and cabernet gastrique. Course after course of extra-base hits was accentuated by the Duck Confit home run, and when I mentioned to Eric and Celia that I might need to recuse myself in considering New Heights for the restaurant of the week award, they basically scolded me. “It wouldn’t be fair to Ron or Kavita not to,” they said, and they’re right. In a week filled with excellence with fully four Excellent restaurants from which to choose, New Heights was clearly the best of a strong field. It is raised back to a high Excellent (I’m being conservative here – try it for yourselves and see), and marked as Noteworthy for being the best restaurant in Woodley Park for many years, within walking distance of two of DC’s largest hotels (the Omni Shoreham and the Marriott Wardman Park) I promise not to over-pimp New Heights, but don’t be surprised if they eventually get raised to Outstanding (which will still remain in Italic in the Dining Guide); the restaurant is not set up to be Superlative without some fundamental changes. I do hope that diners try it for themselves and report back honestly about their meals on donrockwell.com (I will leave all posts unmoderated (which I pretty much do anyway)) – my reluctance to say much leaves the internet with virtual silence about this excellent restaurant which deserves much more recognition than it currently gets. For the great chef Ron Tanaka and his Duck Confit, for the best gin program in the city (with over 50 different gins), for extremely reasonable prices given the area, for the new panini press at the bar offering grilled artisan cheese sandwiches on homemade bread with compound butters and house made chips for $6 ($6.50 with homemade bacon jam), and for the relentless toil of GM Kavita “Sling a Pour” Singh who works over 70 hours per week without adequate recognition in the restaurant media (NB Please consider hiring an AGM so I can see you sometime?), New Heights is DCDining.com’s Restaurant Of The Week.
X.O. Taste (Seven Corners) – Wow, even *I* was surprised at how much I’d downgraded X.O. Taste after my last meal here. This evening, after working on donrockwell.com for over four hours, I was starving at 1 AM, and nothing was open outside of Annandale. It was time to give X.O. Taste another try. I didn’t have a current menu (the prices have increased here yet again), and the kindly host walked me through a very specific set of needs – when I said I wanted the Steamed Flounder, she warned me that it was $30. Oooch! So I told her that I was hungry, but wanted something healthy – a fish perhaps, and I didn’t care if it was frozen. I wanted rice, vegetables, and a minimum amount of MSG, and wow did she come through for me in a big way – stir-fried white fish atop white rise with minimal (albeit noticeable) oil, and some chinese broccoli on top – I couldn’t care less if they culled this from their freezer because it was a lot of food, satisfying as all get-out, and I was stuffed *and* not feeing overly bloato when I’d finished my carryout at home (which took all of ten minutes). The price for this? $11.95. Thank you very much to the kind lady at X.O. Taste for taking care of me, and based on this one late carryout order, this restaurant is raised from a week good to a strong good, but raised several notches in the Seven Corners dining guide where I’d considerably lowered it before. I just may get this exact same dish next time. Also marked as Noteworthy for being open until 2 AM, seven days a week which I’ve taken advantage of numerous times. It’s not often I leave a 20% tip for carryout (actually, I don’t ever remember having done so), but I did on this evening.
Artie’s (Fairfax) – Artie’s has always been overrated by certain restaurant critics, and considering how much it has gone downhill in the past few years, the importance of a current review could not be greater, especially when even the best reviews can become out of date within weeks or months. There are no longer any such things as “definitive reviews of record.” Now, the best diners can hope for is honesty, humility, experience, and willingness to backtrack and reevaluate, rather than to rely on a ten-year-old certificate sitting in a restaurant’s window, gathering dust, talking about a chef that retired years ago. Artie’s is a local chain that exhibits the catastrophic mediocrity of national chains, right down to the beer list. Look at these beers they had on offer this evening – On tap: Miller Lite, Stella Artois, Blue Moon, “Artie’s Lager,” and “Arties IPA,” the latter two coming NOT from Sweetwater Tavern’s brewery operation, but from Old Dominion. In the bottle? Budweiser, Bud Light, Heineken, Corona, and Guinness. The wine list is equally bad, with “wines” such as Sonoma Cutrer taking center stage. Service is the same friendly, but robotic, “yes sir, no ma’am, how are we doing this evening, how is this tasting, are we still working on that” spiel that works for 90% of the situations, and absolutely fails in the remaining 10%. Think otherwise? Do something outside the norm (hold onto your menu for awhile, or put a credit card on the table for a couple of minutes – and see what these automata do – it’s like confusing the Borg. They’re nice kids, but pre-programmed and not very good at thinking quickly on their feet). The previously reliable, refreshing Chopped Salad ($7) has devolved into something I’d expect to see on an airplane, and the Pecan Crusted Trout ($17) was a large, split portion, unfortunately served with candied pecans, overdressed with somewhat thick chardonnay citrus sauce with good acidity and a nice flavor, a fine little pile of arugula dressed with lemon (again, good acidity), and tainted by a bizarre portion of gooey, unhealthy, parmesan potatoes which didn’t match anything at all on the plate. Nevertheless, the fish itself saved the meal, and along with the friendly attempts by the staff, makes it easy for me to maintain Artie’s as solidly Average. I can’t in good conscience go below this because I’ve seen what’s down there, and it gets a whole hell of a lot worse than this. Fortunately, just not for me. The sad thing is: Artie’s is most people’s idea of a good restaurant. The bar area is one of the nicest in Fairfax County; it pains me to think there are legions of restaurants worse – much worse – than this.
2 Amys (National Cathedral) – My eyes lit up, and my heart skipped a beat when I walked in and saw my two dining companions sitting at the left end of the bar at 2 Amys, even having a seat saved for me. In so many ways, this is like a bright, clangy version of Taberna del Alabardero’s bar (Taberna’s bartender, Manolo, spooning up tapas, and knowingly, lovingly, pouring wine with a wink and a nod). I wanted vegetables and healthy food, and got it, well, sort of, tonight at 2 Amys. The food was right in front of us, so all I had to do was point: Carrots with Pistachios ($6), Eggplant with Smoked Ricotta ($6), a Charcuterie Plate ($15) of 3 meats, in this case 3, 2 Amys house-cured versions of lomo, capocolla (sort of), and lardo, all of which were a bit (okay, more than a bit) over-ripe, but delicious, and then a special Pizza ($13.95) of a runny egg (sliced up into the entire pizza), with a crust topped with fingerlings (!), bottarga, and grana. Our young dining companion was thrilled with his root beer float (and pepperoni pizza). Maintained as Excellent and Noteworthy for too many reasons to mention. A lovely meal at 2 Amys, thanks to the staff – in particular, the bar staff – and quite honestly, a certain je ne sais quoi that somehow manages to keep calling me back to this way-too-bright, clangy atmosphere that I’d normally try to be fleeing from.
La Chaumière (Georgetown) – There are few gestures of friendship greater than when a man asks you to take out his wife for her birthday. While having dinner at New Heights, Eric Ziebold asked me if I could take Celia out to dinner Friday evening because he couldn’t get off work. She was going to be in Georgetown, and the obvious choices were Citronelle Lounge, or La Chaumière. “I’ve never been to La Chaumière,” she said, and that sealed the deal because I knew she’d like it – every French person I’ve ever taken there has. I called on Thursday for a Friday table for two at (of course) 7:30, and (of course) none were available, so we got one at 8. A gentleman with a light French accent was on the phone. “Name?” Rockwell. “First name?” Don. <silence> “Are … you the blogger?” Well, shit. I keep thinking how pretentious it is to use fake names, but if you really care about anonymity, then it’s best to do so. I’m glad I didn’t because I ended up chatting with GM Martin Lumet for several minutes, and we have much in common with our love of French wines. He knows of Eric, and was flattered that his wife wanted to have her birthday dinner there, and also said it would be no problem to bring a bottle of wine and pay corkage. Anonymity or not, we stood and waited for about 20 minutes for our table to clear (See! Being known doesn’t guarantee everything!) before being seated – during the wait, the congenial hostess (who used to live in Fabron, Nice, and who speaks like a native) graciously brought us two glasses of champagne while we waited. “Believe me, we’re in the business and we both understand,” Celia said. (There is absolutely nothing a restaurant can (or should) do to keep an earlier table from lingering over dessert and coffee, and the wait is a price that diners should be happily willing to bear – it is merely a cost of civilized dining. The only reason I mention it at all is to point out that it wasn’t a service issue; it was a random blip on a full Friday night. It happens, and if it does happen to you, please don’t automatically blame anyone. Patrick Orange has been the chef here for many, many years now (over 15, I believe; La Chaumière has been open since 1978). He grew up near the Champagne region of France, but married an Argentinian, so you can find Latino influences here-and-there in his cooking. We started with a bottle of 2009 Lafont-Menau ($46), a Pessac-Leognan from Celia’s native region of Bordeaux (you don’t buy a Burgundy for a Bordelaise). It went beautifully with a platter of Palourdes Fraiches ($8.25 for 6), an excellent price on a hard-to-find dish. These were good and tough, with clean shells and assertive brininess. We pretty much were going to split every dish, but Celia started with a Boudin Blanc ($8.95) a house specialty of chicken and pork sausage, and I had to get the same thing I get every time I come here, Quenelle de Brochet ($10.25), also a house specialty of pike dumpling in lobster sauce (insider info: the same that’s used in their fine lobster bisque, so don’t order both!). We didn’t discuss a favorite, but we seemed like we were both gravitating towards the dumpling, and I highly recommend this, even as a larger, entree portion. We kept hearing murmurs from Eric that he might be able to get out by 10, so we waited to fire our entrees of Magret de Canard ($20.75), marinated duck breast in black currant sauce, and my daily special of a Lapin Roulade, figuring both would pair well with a bottle of 1988 Leoville-Las Cases I brought with me (a stunning, nearly perfect showing for this wine which I had standing up for several months to release the fine sediment, and a masterful cork-job by Martin, having overcome a few genuinely dicey moments with aplomb). Eric enjoys eating outside the norm, so we ordered him what I thought was going to be another classic dish here, Tripes a la Mode Caen which is a classic Calvados preparation, but what came out was tomato-based and looked more like a menudo (aha! There’s that Argentinian influence in Patrick’s cooking!) He says more people prefer this style of tripe, but he keeps about six orders of the real thing around for those who specifically ask for it. Patrick came over and sat down to chat for quite awhile, and although we offered him a large glass of the 88 Bordeaux, he smiled and said, “I’m from Champagne,” as Martin brought him a flute filled with bubbly. It was a wonderful, leisurely, very French dinner that was exactly as I’d hoped it would be – the perfect restaurant for this occasion, and if I were to recuse myself, this would nudge out Pesce for the restaurant of the week. Between Pesce, New Heights, 2 Amys, and La Chaumière, it was a strong week, breadth-wise, and really makes me appreciate the number of opportunities I have to dine at such lovely restaurants. La Chaumière is maintained as Excellent which is exactly where I would expect it to be the next time I go. It’s also Noteworthy as being one of the last torch bearers for several classic French dishes in this area. (One day they will quite possibly disappear, as so many others have, and when the renaissance of pure French cooking occurs (and I’m talking about Escoffier here, and I promise you it will occur, it’s just a matter of when and where), I have my fingers crossed, hoping that they don’t “modernize it” or “give it a contemporary twist,” because it doesn’t need one (other than for cost-cutting measures). We need a Frank Ruta / Johnny Monis type of French fanatic in order to pull this off. Eric, what about you? Nah … too much Asian influence; you’re not going back. Gerard? Don’t you wish you were thirty years younger? I have La Chaumière ranked below BourbonSteak in the Georgetown section of the dining guide, and that’s because BourbonSteak is a lavish, expense-account restaurant with an extraordinary atmosphere and $15 cocktails. There are many criteria that go into ranking these restaurants, but the one that matters the most is a very simple question: “If someone else was paying, where would you want to have dinner?” Of course I’d rather go to BourbonSteak. That having been said, not all of the cooking at BourbonSteak is as good as it is at La Chaumière – no way. Some of it is (how do you not make a sensational $68 Lobster Pot Pie, for example) – but I’d be surprised if BourbonSteak had any one person in their kitchen who was a notably better chef than Patrick Orange. This gentleman has been doing fine work for a long, long time.
Crisp & Juicy (Arlington) – I can’t vouch for all eight area Crisp & Juicys, but the Arlington location has been consistently good for me over the years. A carryout order of two Whole Chickens ($10.35 each) and four large Fried Yucas ($2.99 each) was right in line with how this fine hole-in-the-wall has been for me in the past. For the first time, I tried the Arroz Chaufa ($6.35) here, and since they’re using their own tasty chicken as a base, this dish is automatically better than the norm. These types of fried rice dishes can be dangerously oily, and this was to some degree, but nothing over the line. It was a lot of food for under $45, and a good evening for the Lee Heights Crisp & Juicy which is maintained as Very Good in the dining guide.