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.)
Härth (Tysons Coner, Hilton Hotel) – If you haven’t seen this hotel yet, you’re missing a lot: it’s a beautifully designed hotel. Corporate, yes, but designed in a striking, eye-catching way, from the lobby to the restaurant. There’s a reason places like Hilton pay their designers well, and this is it. Since my young dining companion and I stayed in and had pasties the night before, I took him out to a fancy-dancy brunch on Sunday morning, and we had a nice time at this lovely restaurant. My bottomless cup of coffee ($2.00) was just what I needed to wake me up, and accompanied by my Breakfast Bun ($9.50) – I’m going from memory here because there is [anger] no menu [/anger] on the website – it was essentially an over-easy egg with cheese, canadian bacon, etc., on a brioche roll served alongside overcooked wok-fired potatoes, peppers, and onions, as well as a fried tomato. Very good, but outperformed by Matt’s inexplicably named Green Eggs ($13.00), two eggs, over easy, with similar potatoes, an ample portion of ham, and a fried tomato with toasted baguette. A side order of bacon ($6) was a rip-off for three pieces. Nevertheless, this was a very good brunch, if a bit on the expensive side, and Härth is initiated as a strong Good, and I could seeing it moving higher in the future, although probably not for dinner. An enjoyable, but expensive, Sunday brunch. I’m sorry I don’t have more detail, but neither the website, nor the check, has much information on it. I’d come back here again, but I wouldn’t rush. An enjoyable meal, to be sure, but nothing special, save for the very well done design of this restaurant.
Kushi (Downtown, Mount Vernon Triangle) – Kushi went from being wonderful when it first opened, to extremely mediocre when it ran into tax probems, and now that it’s devolved into Coupon Land, it rests somewhere in between the two. I have still yet to have anything truly bad here, but it sure isn’t what it used to be. Beers are frightfully expensive, the wonderful Tokyo Black Porter ($11) works out to a heart-stopping $66 a six-pack, my friends. By any measure, that is something close to criminal. But boy, what a lovely porter it is. My first course began with Chawanmushi Dashi ($5.50): egg custard, which was delicious but needed some soy squirted in, along with Agedashi Flash Fried Tofu ($5.50), a delicious soup-like concoction consisting of four pieces of delicious quick-fried tofu in a soy-based broth. These two courses were wonderful. Afterwards, two courses from the robata, the Kobocha Squash ($4.00) and the Griled Squid Legs (Geso in Japanese) ($6.00). The third and final course was three Makimono Rolls: Kanpyo and Tamago ($4.50), Salmon, Avo, and Cucumber ($8), and Spicy California with Fresh Lump Crab Meat and Jalapeño ($8.75). Truly, evey single single dish was a hit, with nothing less than very good. The drinks here are where they gouge you – they are expensive as all get out. But Kushi has somehow survived their tax problems (thanks in no part to coupon sales with distant expiration dates). I had a lovely dinner here tonight, and was thanking the powers that be that I had a Living Social to cash in due to the cost of the beers. Maintained as Very Good in the donrockwell.com Dining Guide. I really can’t say it’s Noteworthy for anything in particular (other than its sheer size), but it is still a nice restaurant, and I’d come here again (and, in fact I will because I have another Living Social coupon to use up). A good showing for Kushi that they should be proud of.
Pie-Tanza (Falls Church) Pie-Tanza is an odd restaurant because it does pizza very, very well, and not much else. On this evening, a Sausage, Onions, & Peppers Pizza ($12.29) with homemade slow-cooked mild and hot Italian sausage, tri-color fresh peppers, and white onion with red sauce, mozzarella and fontina cheeses with oregano was right in keeping with how their pizza usually is, a level of quality that keeps me coming back for carryout; alas, there’s nothing else here that I’d order (if someone knows of anything, please let me know and I’ll give it a try). I’ve ordered carryout pizza at both the Arlington and Falls Church Pie-Tanzas probably 20 times, and I’ve almost always been happy. Their wood-burnng ovens make all the difference in the world, even if their ingredients aren’t all that special. Overall, Pie-Tanza is maintained as Good, and I could perhaps say it’s Noteworthy for their Very Good pizzas, but the overall quality of the restaurants just isn’t good enough to take it to the next level. Get carryout pizza here, and you won’t be disappointed; get anything more, and you probably will be. No, you know what? I am going to mark this as Noteworthy because their pizzas are consistently good, and it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t. Get the pizza as carryout – it’s worth your time and effort. This just goes to show you how close a call things are sometimes. This is very good pizza – look at the char on the bottom of the crust, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a reason I keep ordering carryout pizzas from Pie-Tanza, and it’s not because I’m a masochist; it’s because they’re good pizzas. Addendum: I enjoyed my pizza so much that I got the same thing for lunch the next day, and oh, what a difference a day made. The second rendition was decent at best, with the vegetables chopped 3-4 inches in length, the combination of flavors all wrong, the onions nearly raw, and the only standout being the crust itself. Not bad, but a relative disappointment to be sure, and it just goes to show you how futile it is to rely solely on reviews by restaurant critics, especially single-visit reviews. If you haven’t been to a restaurant 10-20 times or even more, then you don’t know the restaurant, period, and I don’t care if you’re the most experienced restaurant critic in the world. If you only remember one thing I ever write, please let it be this.
Arax Cafe (Arlington) It’s places such as Arax Cafe that inspire me to continue writing about restaurants and eateries. It’a a tiny little Armenian (yes, Armenian) owned place that serves mediocre coffee (actually very good coffee when pulled from the espresso machine), and pretty good cakes and pastries – this morning I had a slice of lemon cake to go with my coffee, and it was slightly more dried out than usual. I primarily frequent Arax Cafe for my morning coffee, going a good half mile out of my way to avoid going to Starbucks (I actually alternate between Arax and Toby’s, across the street, to split my business between these two independently owned businesses). But the real draw at Arax Cafe is something I rarely order, and it’s the Armenian Meat Pies – a tiny little round flatbread, almost matzah thin but slightly more floppy – a pretty good picture of one is right here (I realize this looks somewhat spicy, but Armenian Meat Pies are actually extremely mild, and the crust is just fabulous). I don’t remember the price, but they are dirt cheap (cheap enough where you can buy several to take home and reheat). I’ve written about Arax Cafe numerous times, urging people to come here for a quick lunch (you can be in-and-out within minutes; or, you can dine in and choose from a wonderful selection of magazines – old National Geographics, etc.). It is near the original Lebanese Taverna on Washington Blvd., and should be on anyone’s short list who cares about hard-working people running small businesses – I suspect this place isn’t exactly making a fortune, so please support them with your breakfast or lunch dollars. The two gentlemen I’ve seen working in here are extremely kind, and I almost desperately want them to succeed. Arax Cafe is maintained as Very Good, and I suspect that’s where it will always be. Also, Noteworthy for being one of the few Armenian restaurants in the area and for serving their delicious, inexpensive Armenian Meat Pies. This place is a little gem, and it’s businesses like this, in general, that contribute mightily to the character and humanity of this world we live in.
Adour (Downtown) A couple years ago, I was invited to a media dinner at Adour with Alain Ducasse himself. I’d only been to one of these in my life (a one-on-one dinner with Antoine Westermann at The Willard Room), and I figured it would be a sea of journalists. Well, it wasn’t – it was only about ten people at a single table with M. Ducasse in a private room. The meal was lovely, but unbeknownst to Adour, I’d actually downgraded it in the dining guide that day because the meal simply was not up to its standards of excellence. This week, I was invited to another media dinner, showcasing items from M. Ducasse’s new cookbook “Nature,” and to be honest, I was somewhat dreading it because I had since re-upgraded Adour, and didn’t want to downgrade it again based on a press dinner – but I was prepared to do so if need be. This time around, there were probably thirty people in attendance, sitting in the main dining room during lunch; M. Ducasse spent less time dining, and almost all his time in the kitchen, and it showed: the food was absolutely superb. Let’s start with canapes and cocktails in the lounge. Outstanding young sommelier Brent Kroll whipped up a Strawberry-Cilantro Lemonade with fresh lemon and herbal syrup just for this event, and they also offered a Citrus Iced Tea with green tea, lemon, lime, and grapefruit, both to be had with pass-around Asian-plastic spoons containing bites of Tzatziki and Daurade Ceviche with parsley and popcorn (this was wonderful with the tea). The lunch bell rang, and we all took our seats and enjoyed a four-course meal. A Spring Vegetable Tartine was spot on with me, although I heard a respected writer say he thought it had a bit much ricotta; regardless, the vegetables were worthy of your full attention. This was served alongside a Cookpot of Farro Grain with bell pepper, basil, and Taggiasche olive, and paired with a 2008 Ostertag Sylvaner from Alsace. In a perfect word, this would have broken into two courses, but alas, the realities of a press banquet kicked in. Then the fabulous main course of Fillets of John Dory with tomato, mushroom, and spinach served with the 2008 Fontsainte “La Demoiselle” Corbieres, a wise choice to pick a red with this hearty fish dish. Both wines came from California importer Kermit Lynch, and showed beautifully. For dessert, a Dark Chocolate Mousse with ginger, lime, and orange peel left everyone satisfied, no one hungry, and many an employer strapped with non-productive workers all afternoon long. A fabulous meal that I needlessly feared would downgrade Adour from its Superlative status, but it didn’t. This was very close to Michelin two-star dining (this was better than some two-star meals I’ve eaten in France), and needless to say, Adour is DCDining.com’s Restaurant Of The Week. A virtuoso performance, especially considering this was essentially a glorified banquet.
El Manantial (Reston) – What a wonderful, old-school throwback this elegant, polished restaurant is, staffed with professionals working the front of the house who take their jobs seriously, and a kitchen that knows how to cook. In many ways, this restaurant reminds me of Tragara in Bethesda because it’s a (needlessly) dying breed: fine dining, in a setting that will leave you feeling pampered and special, with linens, white tablecloths, polite, attentive service, and a quiet atmosphere perfect for conversing rather than shouting. My young dining companion wanted a civilized dinner instead of a grab-n-go, so we opted for this Mediterranean hideaway, splitting our appetizers. A very serviceable glass of Vinho Verde was only $5, and two of them got me through the entire meal. El Manantial has a tapas menu that is less expensive, and really something of an abbreviated variant of their main menu; although I didn’t order from it, I wouldn’t recommend it strongly although it may be a way to save money here. Flash Fried Oysters ($11.95) come atop a pink alioli and some rings of shockingly good marinated onion that went equally well with the Baby Spinach Salad ($7.95) with fresh spinach leaves, hearts of palm, and crumbles of feta cheese – the two very different appetizers complemented each other well. Matt got the Flounder Imperial ($23.95) with a good-sized crabcake atop potatoes and diced vegetables; I had the equally impressive Barramundi ($25.95), semi-boneless and stuffed with crabmeat, with similar condiments. Both of these entrees were very well cooked in a traditional, old-school European style. Best of all was the 30% discount we got by spending $10 on Savored.com, knocking a full $24 off the bill, turning an Excellent restaurant (it does eke into the Excellent category, and is also Noteworthy for being beautiful, old-school fine-dining) into one which is also quite a good value. Absolutely upgraded in the donrockwell.com dining guide and highly recommended, especially if reserving through Savored.com. Note that if it weren’t for the meal at Adour – which I reemphasize was complimentary – El Manantial would be DCDining.com’s Restaurant Of The Week, so depending on the grain of salt with which you buy into the notion of free media meals, take your pick.
Saint Michel Bakery (Rockville) – This tiny storefront with just a few tables is about as close as you’ll find to an authentic, neighborhood French boulangerie in these parts. I’m not going to say it’s 100% authentic (their pan bagnat, for example, is served on a baguette like the rest of their sandwiches, and please forgive me, but I’m a pan bagnat snob and proud of it!). Still, the two sandwiches we split were wonderful: a Panamé ($5.45) with what seemed like real French ham and generous wedges of Brie, and a Dry Sausage ($5.45) which was essentially a saucisson beurre. Delicious sandwiches served on really good baguettes, baked right there in-house. For dessert, a good, eggy Canalé ($1.25) which I’m not sure how to describe eloquently, so here are 1,000 words, and a proper Pain au Chocolat ($1.85). A wonderful little rustic French bakery, maintained enthusiastically as Very Good (could be Excellent depending on how you wanted to prioritize), and absolutely Noteworthy for being a little piece of country France in the heart of industrial Rockville. If you haven’t fallen in love with St. Michel Bakery yet, you will soon enough.
Bayou Bakery (Courthouse) – After my last visit a few months back, I gently (and quietly) downgraded Bayou Bakery in the Dining Guide just a bit, and a late Saturday night dinner did nothing to change my impression (I had originally been swept up in the press storm, like everyone else, and have since slightly modified my position). A friend and I had a very good, unfussy dinner, starting with a couple of Abitas, a double order of Pimento Cheese – one as a sandwich ($5), and the other as a side order with Triscuits ($4). The sandwich was by far the better of the two, since it was grilled and heated; the side order came out too cold (and with pimento cheese, this affects the texture as well). Still, as good of a pimento cheese sandwich as you’re likely to find in this area. And my friend’s Boudin ($6) was as good as I remember, and something well-worth ordering here; my Shrimp and Andouille Jambalaya ($14) was fine, but not at this price. Bayou Bakery is a very press-driven restaurant, but it’s also maintained as Very Good and Noteworthy for its talented pastry-chef / owner, David Guas – his background is your key to what you should be ordering here.