Masala Art – Minibites: February 5, 2012 – February 11, 2012

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

The Restaurant Guide is located exclusively on (For an extra shot, click on the link and enjoy the full thread.)

Masala Art (Tenleytown) – During the Super Bowl, Masala Art delivered (literally) in a big way. In protest to the second-most caloric day of the year for Americans, I militantly decided to stay vegetarian, and ordered from Masala Art a vegetarian’s delight. A Chicken Tikka ($5.25) for the wee one was the exception, and the chicken looked quite good although I didn’t budge from my stance. Charbroiled cubes of chicken in yogurt and saffron marinade, looking lovely and loosely fibrous, they were (reportedly) spicier than normal. The buzzer went off, and adult swim began. Three vegetarian dishes of Lassoni Corn Palak ($10.25), creamy spinach with corn tempered with garlic; Paneer Nain Tara ($11.50), velvety cottage cheese cubes in onion gravy with black sesame seed; Dal Panchrattan ($9.95), a mix of five different lentils was accompanied with Rock Salt & Cilantro Nan ($3.25) and a Missi Roti ($2.95), chick pea flour bread with ginger and ajwain, Raita ($3.75), and two orders of Pickle ($1.75 each), each of the vegetarian entrees accompanied by Pulao rice. The corn was hand-cut, with bites often containing odd-shaped, multiple-kernel wedges; the cottage cheese was brilliant and downright granular it was so fresh (luscious, silken, and notchy as opposed to rubbery, bland, and spring-back); the lentils thin, but very complex in their meltdown; the rice unfortunately oily and definitely the weak point of the meal; the pickles probably jarred but high-end (which, even for jarred pickles, can be pretty high). Masala Art delivered, all right, and they scored a touchdown of their own right in the middle of the Super Bowl. Unbeknownst to all, I’d downgraded this restaurant to Very Good after my last carryout meal here (which was a pick-up order – this can be a very fine restaurant, but I have seen consistency issues); this solidly raised them back to Excellent, and to pull this off during the Super Bowl was remarkable, with only a 45-minute wait, too. A masterful performance by Masala Art, right in the middle of all the crazy din. I hate to kill off the starlet in the first part of the movie (refer to Janet Leigh in Psycho), but based on the overall strength of the food – everything but the rice was exceptional – and the speed of delivery during Super Bowl Sunday, Masala Art is’s Restaurant Of The Week (but only by the thinnest of margins – read on …)

St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar (Cleveland Park) – After hearing murmurings about this second branch of Dupont Circle’s basement “Belgian beer bar” opening, I decided to give it a try for myself, and issue an unbiased opinion (I’ve never been to the original, and knew almost nothing about it). It’s in the old Sabores space, so is essentially a sunroom, cheerfully staffed and decorated with chalkboard menus for all to see. I was extremely leery about all the draft beers that St. Arnold’s offered (a wide selection is nice, but puts the onus of responsibility on the restaurant to flush the lines daily, and to keep the beers in top shape), so I chose not to invest my money to find out their bar practices (which may be just fine), and instead ordered from bottle: a Westmalle Dubbel ($11, 7% ABV) was one of 15 bottled beers offered, fully 12 of which are in the double digits (you might want to re-read that again). I sipped it in a frat-house atmosphere at the bar, complete with F-bombs being dropped left-and-right with vigor, and the bartender joining in the din (no worries – I was a frat boy once, too, so I don’t have a problem with this). There are fully twenty variations of wan, Prince Edward Island Moules-Frites, all of which are $18, and I ordered the Saint Arnold’s House Specialty made with house beer sauce, caramelized, shallot, garlic, and thyme, and (get ready …) duck fat! Yes! That’s proudly listed as these rowdy dudes’ house special sauce, and it was … okay. Not bad, but I was not dunking either my uniform mussels (mussels are becoming this decade’s chicken nuggets), or my horrific, industrial “French Bread” (did you really call it that, Fritz H?), or make use of the generic mayonnaise or ketchup. You know what? Price aside, the Belgian bottled beers here are Noteworthy, and St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar is easily initiated as a strong Average in the dining guide because of the beers rescuing the mussels from a potentially deeper cull. And for all the readers who criticized Frank Ruta for never learning to master how to make crispy fries, well, guess what? You can find just what you’re looking for right here at St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar, glaring catacorner out their greenhouse-like windows at Medium Rare, with Dino next door, perched safely above the din.

Pupatella (Arlington) – Minibites has three very different components to its rating system. First, there’s the standing in the dining guide (Average, Good, etc.) which reflects my opinion of the restaurant as a whole. While more-recent visits are weighted higher than older visits (for obvious reasons), if I’ve been to a restaurant twenty times, then this rating is already pretty well-calibrated coming in – if you haven’t yet noticed, most restaurants I visit are “maintained as…” instead of “upgraded to…” or “downgraded to….” I’ve been doing my homework for the better part of a decade, and unless there is a major issue (new chef, very first visit, etc.), these ratings are massaged, tweaked, and gently kept up to date; one exception to this is the Superlative category, in which there is absolutely no room for slippage (the Outstanding category – the second-highest – can be considered a snapshot of a moat, and the only way to know if someone in the moat is swimming towards the castle, or away from the castle, is to know where they’ve been before) – an off-night at a Superlative restaurant will result in a downgrade every single time, and should not be taken as an indictment.  The second component is “Restaurant of the Week,” and this reflects one thing only: “Which meal did I enjoy the most?” It’s not about what the best restaurant is; my personal enjoyment of this one, single meal is the only thing that matters (a few weeks ago, for example, I awarded this to a total dive place in Harrisonburg instead of The Source even though The Source is a higher-rated restaurant. Any restaurant can win this, no matter how lavish or decrepit it is – it’s highly personal, and based entirely on how I feel when I walk out the door. Finally, there is the “Noteworthy” category, and this has to do more with distinctive characteristics than quality. Ben’s Chili Bowl, for example, is absolutely a Noteworthy restaurant. It could be because it’s the only Sudanese cuisine in the area, or maybe because the patio has beautiful views of the Blue Ridge mountains. Three very different rating criteria, each with a distinct meaning which brings me to my most recent meal at Pupatella. I long ago lost count of how many times I’ve been to Pupatella, but there have been exactly three meals I haven’t loved: the very first visit, and the two most recent visits. All three times involved ordering pizzas either with smoked mozzarella (which just seems overly smokey to me) or burrata (a cheese which I adore served with salt and olive oil, but for some reason not as a pizza topping). A special appetizer of Fried Brussels Sprouts ($5) mixed with green apples and balsamic glaze was the star of the evening, but just a touch overdressed, and a Panino ($9) with (really good) porchetta, prosciutto cotto, marinated red onions and cherry tomatoes came across as a bit dry with the bread a little too dense for my tastes. On this evening, Pupatella slid down just a touch in the Excellent category, but remains Noteworthy for its fun, completely unpretentious atmosphere (where you stand in line to order, get a beeper, and even bus your own tables), and more importantly, for having the best pizza in the Washington, DC area right now (and yes Enzo and Anastasia, you can quote me on this one!) – even tonight, when I didn’t love the toppings, the crust was fantastic. You will undoubtedly see Pupatella as Restaurant Of The Week sometime in the future, but I just can’t do it this week.

Victoria Gastro Pub (Columbia) – Thursday nights are half-price bottles of wine at Victoria Gastro Pub, and there is a lot of wine to choose from: their beverage list is forty (that’s four-zero) pages long, dominated by beers, but the passion clearly carries over into the descriptors of each wine (even if the wines themselves are not uniformly excellent). A bottle of JJ Vincent Pouilly-Fuisse ($46 discounted to $23) was served at a perfect temperature and lovingly poured by my friendly bartender, and the description on the list described the wine quite accurately. Since it was a white Burgundy, I let that dictate my order and got a very Burgundian dinner, starting off with a gutsy appetizer of Escargot (a very good value at $8) served outside of shell with roasted garlic, lemon brown butter, nebrodini mushrooms, and gremoulata. Doesn’t that sound like a great combination? It was, and it went just perfectly with the Chardonnay. For my main course, the Lobster Grilled Cheese ($16) with Maine lobster and Brie fondue – it’s very much like a warm lobster roll despite its description, and like the escargots, was just stunningly good with the Burgundy. If you get this sandwich (and many people do), I recommend the jalapeño potato chips instead of fries (and instead of paying the $2 upcharge for the duck-fat fries) – as tempting as it may be to get the fries, you want the crispiness of the chips, and the slight zing from the jalapeño to cut through the soft, fatty texture of the sandwich. One thing to keep in mind about Victoria Gastro Pub is that it’s got a lot of very fat-laden, “guy food,” but what I had and what I saw was executed quite well within this genre. Maintained as a strong Very Good and Noteworthy for it’s beers, the beverage list itself which is quite an impressive document, and the clubby bar area which is full of dark wood and yet manages to be cheery at the same time.

Earl’s Sandwiches (Courthouse) – Fast Gourmet gets all the press, and their chivito, when it’s well-executed (which it isn’t always), is one of the greatest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. But as a whole? I’ll take Earl’s Sandwiches over Fast Gourmet. A Roast Beef and Cheddar ($7.99) was beautiful in its simplicity, the fresh-roasted beef in just the right proportion with the cheddar, and served simply with horseradish mayonnaise on grilled sourdough. I liked this sandwich so much that I took my son here for lunch the next day and got him the exact same thing – he loved it just as much as I did. Maintained as Very Good and Noteworthy for being one of the greatest sandwich shops in the DC area, as well as for being a tiny independent business surviving, and possibly even thriving, while being closed in upon by development. Earl’s Sandwiches is a little gem that is worthy of your support.

Maple Ave. Restaurant (Vienna) – There are so many things about Maple Ave. Restaurant that I like – it’s a true mom-n-pop, owned by Chef (and pop) Tim Ma, and GM (and mom) Joey Hernandez, a lovely young couple – and relatively new parents – who have taken a decrepit building, and turned it into something charming, not unlike Pupatella has done. Actually, more than any restaurant I can think of, this feels to me like Element in Front Royal (and if you’ve been to both, you know why). Matt and I arrived at 6 PM on a Friday evening. Following the laws of supply and demand, this teeny-tiny restaurant with Tim’s ambitious cooking seems like it’s almost always full – we were lucky to snare a table that needed to be released at 7:15. I wish the wines by the glass here were $1-2 less expensive, but the food is reasonably priced and the money needs to come from somewhere. A glass of 2009 Zaca Mesa Viognier ($9) paired very well with our first two courses: a composed Beet Salad ($8) with thinly sliced, poached beets, spiced walnuts, red wine vinaigrette, a touch of Himalayan salt, and the bond that tied it all together: Laura Chenel chèvre. The star of the meal, and the single best dish I had all week, was the Salsify Soup ($8), thoughtfully divided into two small bowls for us to share. I don’t know the recipe for this soup, but I enjoyed this as much as anything I’ve had on my three visits here. A bottle of Terrapin Moo Hoo Milk Stout ($6) accompanied our next two courses which I felt were slightly weaker than the first two: Shrimp and Grits ($9) with jumbo tiger shrimp, venison blueberry sausage (!), red onions, piquillo peppers, and stone ground grits was a little out of balance with the almost chocolatey-tasting sausage (but both the shimp and the grits were good), and Steamed Mussels ($9) were PEI’s, with saffron coconut broth, thai chills, Chinese chorizo, and grilled crostini – worth ordering, but caught me at the wrong moment as I’m getting a bit musseled out (just as I was with scallops a couple of years ago). These were both perfectly fine dishes (and look at the prices), but after that titanic salsify soup, pretty much anything is going to be a letdown. For 24 hours, I had it in my mind that Maple Ave. Restaurant was going to be restaurant of the week, but after letting the joy of the moment fade, I just can’t forget what a solid showing Masala Art made during the Super Bowl – it truly could have gone either way this week, and I can’t imagine anything other than long-cooked Indian food being a candidate for such a thing on a delivery-only basis (it excludes the entire front of the house aspect which is arguably just plain wrong). Enthusiastically recommended as Very Good to Excellent, and Noteworthy for being such a cool, funky little dive mom-and-pop with the audacity to have aspirations of fine dining, as well as for being the number one ranked restaurant in the Vienna-Oakton area. I really like Maple Ave. Restaurant, and if you care about small, family-owned businesses with character and soul, then this is a restaurant that you should be supporting.

PassionFish (Reston) – I’ve been to PassionFish several times now, and on a frigid Saturday evening, this sharp-looking restaurant was pretty well packed, with one empty seat available at the end of the bar. Like other Passion Hospitality restaurants I’ve visited in the past, the draft beers here are a disgrace and an embarrassment, with beers such as Miller Lite and Stella Artois on display for all the customers to see. (Why is it that every restaurant in town with a lousy draft beer list has the exact same lousy draft beers? Miller Lite, Stella Artois, Blue Moon, etc. Customer demand (which would be an easy answer)? Or perhaps something a bit more complex, such as product placement? I don’t know the answer, but this is worthy of an extended article by one of our local food journalists.) Regardless of the reason, steer clear of the beers here, and stick with wines by the glass because they’re decent wines, and very generous pours served in good stemware – this is a no-brainer. I ordered a low-end glass of 2010 Les Arromans Entre-Deux-Mers (a white Bordeaux, similar in spirit to a Graves) for only $7, and had to stop my bartender from accidentally pouring me a $14 glass of Chablis. These pours must easily be five ounces, and I can’t stress enough how much sense it makes to order low-end white wines by the glass here.  PassionFish is expensive, and the only way around it is to buy multiple appetizers – I was very tempted by the Chesapeake Rockfish at $33, and was going to get the Yukon Gold mashed potatoes with jumbo lump crab ($6 supplement for the crab), but decided to try several things instead since I don’t get here often. As before, they brought out a little bowl of fish rilletes (this used to be whitefish, and it may still be) which seems to be mostly a cream cheese-like spread with a small amount of fish bits, served with crispy, thin, slices of baguette – it’s good like a bagel with cream cheese is good, and difficult not to finish. From the raw bar, a half-dozen Wild Wellfleet Clams ($9) were attractively presented in an ice-filled tray, with a mignonette and cocktail sauce and meshed lemon wedge. I enjoyed these very much, but no more so than the fresh clams I’d had the week before at La Chaumière at only $8.25 for six. Blue Crab and Corn Chowder ($9) with jumbo lump crabmeat and green onions should be thought of as a corn chowder, perhaps with some shells thrown into the stock for depth, and the very few shards of jumbo lump sitting in the center of the bowl should be considered a little bonus when you find one – if you go in with this expectation, you won’t be disappointed at a very good bowl of corn chowder. Grilled Baby Octopus ($13) contained mainly legs (and they weren’t all that small). Served with Greek salad, delicious grilled Halloumi cheese, and Tzatsiki, this is a well-composed, somewhat labor-intensive plate that is worth the money, but also could not be priced any higher. If I sound somewhat disappointed with this meal at PassionFish, then I’ve conveyed my impressions correctly. I’m a bit surprised I didn’t have the restaurant listed in Italic in the dining guide, however, as I’ve had it as the top restaurant in Reston for awhile now (although I’m not completely convinced I should have this ranked over Mykonos considering my last meal there was quite good). Upgraded from Good to Very Good with the caveat that this place is not cheap unless you go out of your way to make it so; to get the most out of PassionFish, you really need to go in at a higher price point than I was willing to bear, so in a sense, I didn’t give it a really fair shot this week.

People may be surprised that neither Pupatella (which I unabashedly adore) nor PassionFish (which I’ve praised in the past, and which has the reputation as one of the best restaurants in the Reston area) were even remotely considered for the Restaurant Of The Week award, but I’m just calling them as I see them and trying to be fair – this week, it was between Masala Art and Maple Ave. Restaurant, and nothing else was a contender.

Postscript (written in late February) – Your humble narrator has been flattened by a bug. Oh, I’ve been eating at restaurants all right, but they’ve included such places as Baja Fresh (twice), Sweet Rice (Thai delivery, twice), and others that are perfectly decent places for nourishment, but I ate primarily for survival, and the restaurants weren’t necessarily worth your time to read about. Beginning on Sunday, February 26th, I will restart my normal rotation of insanity, with the blog starting back up on Monday, March 5th. Please accept my apologies for the multi-week gap in writing, but I really didn’t have much choice – however, I’ve finally got this thing licked. Remember that old saying your mom used to tell you: “You don’t appreciate being healthy until you aren’t?” Well … your mom was right, just as she almost always is. I can’t wait to begin writing this blog again – see you on March 5th!

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