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Sep 20, 2011

PS 7's Is Cooking With The Spirit Of Gin

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Certain things have their place. Pots and pans in the kitchen, gin behind the bar.

That said, it's hardly uncommon for ingredients to meander from the bar to the kitchen and back again. But gin has stayed put. Cooks have incorporated beer, wine and liquor into their cooking for a millennia, or whenever the French started cooking, but for all their efforts, gin has been left out of the mix, presumably for good reason.

When you consider the sheer popularity of the spirit, it's surprising that it's been stuck behind the bar, while fellow heavy weight spirits, such as bourbon, tequila and rum, are regularly worked into dishes.

Not that I'm complaining. Gin is the base ingredient for the greatest cocktail man has ever made: the dry martini (lemon twist, no olives, thanks). The ubiquitous gin and tonic, and underappreciated Tom Collins aren't bad either.

DSC_0122 So I've been happy with gin's role in the world. Peter Smith hasn't.

The chef owner of PS 7's has brought gin into the kitchen and brought out everything for gin poached halibut to gin cured charcuterie, which age in a backroom of his Penn Quarter restaurant. Smith has figured out the key to cooking with gin is to not cook with gin at all -- he cooks with the botanicals.

Philosophical differences aside, what separates gin from vodka is potpourri. Essentially, gin begins its life as vodka, a highly distilled clear spirit. At the end of the distillation process, however, vodka is stuck into a Kettle One bottle, while gin makers add a mixture of botanicals -- principally juniper, orris root and orange peal -- to give gin its signature flavor and aroma.

Although Smith has put together dishes that play off the flavors in gin, it's only recently that he started working with the botanicals. The main problem with working with gin, Smith said, is the alcohol. It's tough to mask the alcohol and if you cook it off, you're not left with much gin flavor. His solution was to eschew the alcohol and work directly with the ingredients that make gin gin.

DSC_0085Smith came up with the idea during a visit to Philadelphia's Blue Coat Distillery. He noticed that the distillery typically tosses the botanicals once it's done steeping in the gin. Unlike the left over grain from beer making, which is often given to farmers to use as feed, animals can't eat the spent botanicals. So it gets dumped. Although the Blue Coat staff was a little confused by his request (and wary -- gin makers are notoriously secretive about their botanical mixtures), they agreed to send Smith 30 pounds of the spent botanicals, which the chef turned into salts, oils, powders and foams.

Smith said the idea developed from the food and spirit pairings he's done at PS 7's, including a dinner that revolved around the exceptional gin, Plymouth. The key to a proper pairing, he said, is not to have the spirit working into every dish you serve, but rather to have flavors in the dish complement flavors in the spirit or cocktail. Smith thought using the botanicals would help him weave in the gin flavors more effectively without overwhelming his food.

"You never really get the flavors you want out of the liquor," Smith said, "but you do with the botanicals."

DSC_0129 Since that bucket of botanicals showed up six months ago, the gin & tonic halibut (left) and gin-cured carpaccio (below) have become permanent fixtures on PS 7's menu, and the gin-flavored meats, including "ginola" (breseola) and "gin belly" (pancetta), make their way to the charcuterie plate as often as they're ready. He's even built tasting menus around the botanicals.

Though he still works with Blue Coat, Smith found another botanical provider closer to the District. A few months ago, a Catoctin Creek rep came into PS7's to sell them their rye. Smith tried the Loudon County distillery's gin instead and has used their botanicals since.

DSC_0112 As Smith continues to experiment with the botanicals, expect to see more dishes seasoned or infused with gin flavors. New tasting menus are likely on the way, as are powders and oils based on a mixture of the Blue Coat and Catoctin Creek botanicals. He's also considering building dishes around ingredients local to the Philadelphia and Purcellville, Va., distilleries, and imbuing them with the respective gins.

Smith admits that he's that he's still figuring out how to work with the gin botanicals, but he's already hunting for new discoveries. Maybe an absinth-flavored bacon or venison rubbed with salt made from fernet. At this point, who knows? The only thing that's certain is if it's behind the bar, it could end up in Smith's kitchen. 

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Loudon County, Penn Quarter, Virginia, Washington, DC
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Aug 23, 2011

Church! The Best Places To Watch Football

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At approximately 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 1, Casey Brockman will walk to the line. The Murray State quarterback will look across the field to find Louisville’s stud linebacker Dexter Heyman, hoping to God the Cardinals’ won’t blitz on first. The 6’2’’ junior will lean over center Brock Rydeck, ignore the jeers of the Cardinals’ crowd, and demand the ball.

In all likelihood, it will be a bad day for Casey, Brock and the Murray State Racers, but an excellent day for the rest of us. Because on that day, when Rydeck snaps that ball and Heyman drives Brockman into the field of Cardinal’s Stadium, football will once again be with us (this NFL preseason crap doesn't count).

It’s been said that this game of grace and violence is our national religion. If that’s the case, then the sports bar is our house of worship. Being a fan of far-away teams (South Florida, Buccaneers), it took me a while to find a few decent bars and restaurants in the D.C. area to watch football. The region may be inundated with sports bars, but few offer the trifecta of great beer, good food and the promise of your team on the screen (unless you’re a Skins fan, in which case any Chili’s will do).

Well, friends, I’m here to help. Below are my top five bars and restaurants in the DMV to watch the faux-pros on Saturday and Pro Bowlers on Sunday. 

1. The Black Squirrel: The Black Squirrel has three floors, 49 taps and 11 TVs (and if you call ahead, the third floor can be your private sports bar). Owner Amy Bowman keeps this Best Beer Bar stocked with a top tier line-up of craft beers, while the talented Gene Sohn runs the kitchen (order the burger). Is it a coincidence that on game days all the TVs are tuned in? Nope, The Black Squirrel was co-founded by former sports columnist Tom Knott. (Disclosure: I’m friends with Amy and Tom. Still, The Black Squirrel is a great place to watch football.) 

2. Iron Horse Taproom: If the Iron Horse Taproom opened at noon on weekends it would be the best place in D.C. to watch football. The multi-level bar is big, filled with TVs, has a great selection of craft beers, and features the best menu in town -- by not featuring a menu at all. The Penn Quarter tavern (pictured above) doesn’t have a kitchen, so it allows patrons to bring in food or have it delivered. Want to dig into some Texas barbecue while watching the Lone Star Showdown? No problemo. Grab a pound of brisket from Hill Country or better yet, a burrito from Capital Q and head to the Iron Horse. How about some lamb vindaloo while you watch the John Beck/Rex Grossman quarterback controversy unfold this season? Mehak is just down the street. Just make sure your game doesn’t start before 5 p.m. If it does, you’ll need to head elsewhere. 

3. Frisco Tap House: What’s more American than football? Excess. The Frisco Tap House has 50 taps, a beer engine, a table where you can pour your own draft beer, an extensive bottle and can list, great burritos and eight giant flat screen TVs (with more coming this fall). Sure, the Columbia, Md., bar is a hike if you live in Logan Circle. But if you live in Maryland, you have one hell of a place to watch football.

4. Capitol Lounge: This is where it started for me. When I moved from Tampa to D.C. in the late 90s, Cap Lounge was the only place in town I could reliably catch Bucs games. It helped that one of the bartenders was a Bucs fan and wanted to watch the games, too. The Capitol Hill bar continues to be a great spot to catch a game, with a mess of TVs tucked and hung throughout the two-floor restaurant, and a stellar selection of craft beers on draft and in bottles and cans.  

41380020 5. Rustico: These days, it’s tough to write a story about beer without mentioning ChurchKey and its downstairs sister, Birch & Barley. But before there was CKBB there was Rustico, owner Michael Babin’s first crack at a craft beer establishment. While ChurchKey is unabashedly a beer bar, a fine one at that, Babin makes sure his two Rustico restaurants remain casual neighborhood spots, which makes them ideal for watching the game. Greg Engert oversaw the beer program at the original Rustico in Alexandria before heading over to ChurchKey, and continues to curate the draft and bottle lists for his original restaurant and the newer Ballston location. Although neither will be mistaken for a sports bar, the Rusticos have just enough TVs to catch most of the marquee games. And if the beer list and full menu aren’t enough to attract you, they’re offering beer specials as well. Beginning September 10, both Rustico locations will offer $3.50 cans of craft beer, including G’Knight, Dale’s Pale Ale, Old Chub and Ten Fidy (they clearly have a thing for Oskar Blues’ beers), and $2.50 cans of college beer (because you or your buddy don’t know better) during games. 

Categories: Adams Morgan, Alexandria, Arlington, Bar/Club, Beer, Capitol Hill, Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Food and Drink, Gallery Place, Games, Maryland, MCI Center, Penn Quarter, Sports, Television, Top 5, Virginia, Washington, DC
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Jul 12, 2011

IPAs And Indian Food: Like Peas And Carrots (In Mumbai)

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Fact: Indian food is incredibly flavorful and can be quite spicy.
Fact: India pale ales are incredibly flavorful and can be quite bitter.
Fact: It's difficult to pair beer with Indian food.
Fact: It's difficult to pair food with IPAs.
Fact: Indian food and IPAs were made for each other, literally.

That last fact should be self-evident, but if it was Indian restaurants (at least the ones around here) would stick a few Loose Cannons, maybe an Avery IPA on the menu. But that's not the case. Instead, your beer options are limited to a redundant list of light lagers whose labels might invoke thoughts of India - Kingfisher, Taj - but are otherwise indistinguishable from the light lagers made in St. Louis and Golden, Colo.

To be fair, lagers have been the beer of choice in India for more than a century. In fact, lagers are the beer of choice in most parts of the world. There was a time, though, when bitter, hop-forward ales from England were all the rage on the subcontinent (and then the Indians booted out their British overlords and switched to the German stuff).

Travel to England today and you'll be hard pressed to find a pub that doesn't have curry on the menu. For a people known for fried fish and sausages, they have fully embraced an Indian staple as their own (thanks to their old Asian holdings). But travel to India, and the culinary cultural exchange doesn't stand up, at least where beer is concerned. 

That's a shame because there may be no better beverage to pair with a spicy curry than a hoppy India pale ale.

As craft beer has become more popular over the past decade, so too has the idea that beer can be paired with more than burgers and pizza. Thomas Keller commissioned Russian River Brewing and Brooklyn Brewery to make special beers for his restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se. Here in D.C., Chef Eric Ziebold's tasting menu at CityZen has included a beer course, and Michel Richard imports the Belgian pilsner Blusser for his restaurant Central. And then there's Birch & Barley, which offers a beer pairing with each course of Chef Kyle Bailey's tasting menu.

Once the domain of wine, beer is being recognized as an ideal accompaniment to food. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewing and author of The Brewmaster's Table, has gone even further to say that beer offers a wider range of flavors and styles, making it the ideal accompaniment to food. (The Brewmaster's Table, as it happens, is a book about pairing food with beer.)

That may be true, but when it came to Indian cuisine, I never gave it much thought. As oafish at it may sound, I viewed curries and kormas as ethnic food made by people from foreign lands. So if the people running the restaurant wanted to offer a few light lagers with their dishes, so be it. Their food, their beer. After all, you go to Indique for the food not the drink. Well, a cold Fisherking may be common in Mumbai's curry houses, but it's not the ideal beer for the food. The ideal one might just be a California pale ale. (I know it's not an IPA. I'll get to that.)

Book I got thinking about this particular food and beer pairing after reading Pete Brown's latest book, Hops and Glory. In it, the British beer writer explores the development of the IPA and England's colonization of India, and chronicles his journey from Burton-Upon-Trent (the birthplace of IPAs) to Calcutta with a keg of IPA in tow. It's a good book, and in it Brown makes the point that IPAs not only go well with Indian cuisine, they taste like they were made for it.

"[The IPA he brought from England] really was dangerously drinkable, and when the tandoori canapés came round it went beautifully, cutting through the heat and harmonizing with the spices so perfectly it was as if the beer had been designed specially to go with the cuisine, and perhaps it had."

That sparked my interest. While Oliver and other beer writers have made the point that IPAs can go well with very flavorful dishes and spicy foods, Brown's 450 page treatise on the matter convinced me to try the pairing myself.

Because Indian restaurants don't offer India pale ales, I conducted my tasting at the next logical location: the Iron Horse bar in Penn Quarter.

I like the Iron Horse, a lot. Not only does it offer a great selection of craft beers and is home to bartender extraordinaire Scott Stone, but it has a tavern license. What that tavern license means is that they don't serve food, so you can bring in food from anywhere. As long as you're drinking, that's no problemo. You can even have food delivered and never leave your barstool. That's turned the Iron Horse into my go-to bar for watching college football (Pattison Avenue and pints, people) and in this case, my go-to spot for lamb vindaloo and IPAs.

DSC_0030 The vindaloo, which I picked up from nearby Mehak, was great. Chunks of lamb and potato swam in a pool of fiery red curry. It was delicious, and completely overwhelmed my pallet. The onion kulcha, a doughy flat bread filled with onions, was good, but no match for the vindaloo.

For the pairing, I ordered Flying Dog's Double Dog imperial IPA, which clocks in at 11.5% A.B.V.; Flying Dog's Snake Dog IPA, which comes in at a more modest 7.1% A.B.V.; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (on the theory that English IPAs aren't nearly as high in alcohol as our IPAs), which runs 5.6% A.B.V.; and Sierra Nevada's new Juniper Black Ale, a hoppy 8% A.B.V. black IPA.

Of the four beers, the two with the lowest alcohol levels paired the best with the spicy Indian dish. The Double Dog (a personal favorite) was much too sweet for the dish and the heat of the vindaloo overwhelmed whatever hop characteristics the Juniper Black Ale had, making it taste like an ordinary stout. On the other hand, the IPA and pale ale were spot on.

Although the IPAs didn't compliment the curry in the same way the dark stouts compliment chocolate and coffee flavors, the Snake Dog IPA and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale stood their ground with the vindaloo. A dish with the much flavor and heat would turn a Taj to water, but the IPAs remained bright, hoppy and citrusy deep into the bowl.

Between the two beers, I favored the pale ale. Both went well, but the bitter bite from the Snake Dog and the spicy of the vindaloo were a bit much for me. The Sierra Nevada, though, was refreshing, and the subtler hop bitterness helped restore my taste buds between bites.

These results shouldn't have been surprising, even if they were. This food and this style of beer should be easier to find together, even if it's not. But the fact is, IPAs pair well with Indian food, even if you have to bring the food to the beer.

And if Indian isn't your thing or you want a few more pairing options, you could try Thai (which Scott suggested) or fried chicken (which my wife suggested). I think they're both right. If it's spicy enough or fried enough, it can be matched up with an IPA. Brooklyn's Oliver has suggested pairing IPAs with fried fish, Mexican and calamari. Point being, IPAs go well with spicy and greasy food. When it comes to pairing Indian food with beer, though, I don't think there's a better option than an IPA (or pale ale).

Iron Horse Taproom
507 7th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
(202) 347-7665

Mehak
817 7th St. N.W.
Washington D.C., DC 20001
(202) 408-9292

Categories: Bar/Club, Beer, Book Reviews, British, Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Food and Drink, Indian, Lamb, Penn Quarter, Washington, DC
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Jun 15, 2011

Restless Derek Brown

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Derek Brown is busy.

Ostensibly, he's a bartender, though when pressed, even he can't settle on that.

No, Derek Brown is busier than that. In no particular order, Brown is a business owner, historian, writer, judge, consultant, instructor, and bartender, who in addition to manning the bar of his well-regarded cocktail club, the Columbia Room, is occasionally called upon to shake and stir libations for heads of state, European royalty and the nice couple who live at 1600 Penn. Ave.

Derek Brown is busy.

Brown's work behind the bar has resulted in heavy recognition from his peers within D.C. and across the country, including the James Beard Foundation, as well as magazines and newspapers that are as likely to quote him as employ him. In a city with quite a few great bartenders, Brown may be the best and is certainly the most well known.

Three years ago, I didn't have a clue who he was.

I was an assistant at the cooking school CulinAerie and signed up for a series of cocktail classes taught by one of the bartenders from The Gibson, the speakeasy off U Street whose pretentious concept was reason enough for me to avoid it. However, Brown was an affable instructor, and over the course of the three classes, I came away with a better understanding of the science of cocktails, as well as a drink of my very own. All thanks to the guy from The Gibson.

It's from that frame of reference that I began following Brown's career. Typically, we get to know the big name chefs and bartenders around town through articles and interviews. Before we eat their food and drink their drinks, we know their back stories, their approach to their craft. I've never met Michel Richard or dined at Citronelle, but given the number of articles I've read about the chef and his restaurant, I have a fairly good idea of what to expect from both. With Brown, I had nothing.

Instead, he was the bartender who taught my cocktail class. Afterward, I began going to The Gibson, even though I still believe the not-so-secret secret concept is tiresome. It was worth it for the show. Brown is as much an entertainer as a bartender. Every other drink was a minor pyrotechnics display, as Brown and the other bartenders squeezed citrus and fire across the tops of cocktails in the dimly lit lounge. Even the act of shaking a cocktail - an act as dynamic as it was loud - was a feat of strength and technique that captured the bar's attention. The craft cocktails scene was peaking in D.C. and Brown was starring at The Gibson.

The fact that he became such a renowned bartender even surprises him. Eleven years ago, Brown was just another aimless restaurant employee at Rocky's in Adams Morgan. Tired of waiting tables, Brown lied his way behind the bar claiming bartending experience he didn't have, slopped together a passable rum punch and began a new career. A decade after that miserable drink, Brown owns his own bar, married fellow bartender Chantal Tseng and GQ magazine declared his martini the best in America.

"My brother likes to say that if it wasn't for alcohol, I wouldn't have a job, a hobby or friends," Brown said.

Since his days at Rocky's, Brown went on to work as a bartender and sommelier around town, consulting with bars and restaurants on their beverage programs. He also began to study the art of cocktail making. Although D.C. isn't without a cocktail history, it's not New Orleans and it's not New York. With the exception of Sam Lek, of the former Town & Country, and Jim Hewes at the Round Robin, the city didn't have many great bartenders for the up-and-comers like Brown, Todd Thrasher of PX and Gina Chersevani of PS7's to turn to for guidance and advice. So they had to figure it out for themselves.

"We were students without teachers," Brown said. "So we learned things and figured things out along the way. Eventually, we got better and developed better techniques."

DSC_0039 After his stint at The Gibson, Brown opened the bar-in-a-bar concept, The Passenger and Columbia Room with his brother Tom. The spaces couldn't be more different. Up front is The Passenger, black and grimy, with Iggy Pop blaring through the air and Tom and PBRs behind the bar. It's a laid-back bar that specializes in Tiki drinks on Tuesdays and an eclectic punk soundtrack all week. But make your way through The Passenger - with a reservation - and you'll find The Columbia Room, a quieter, apothecary shop of a bar that puts Derek and his cocktails on display.

Back at The Gibson, Brown's fellow bartenders would bust his balls about the folks who would insist on the seats that clustered around his end of the bar. But Brown knew he made good drinks and put on a performance, so he ignored the comments. At the Columbia Room, there's no need to grab a special spot at the bar, all 10 seats face Brown.

He calls it the fishbowl effect, and while it can be unnerving, he's used to being stared at as he goes about his work. Every 30 minutes, a few new people come in as a few people head out. A drink to start, a drink for the season, and a drink of your choosing. Three cocktails, paced slowly. Throughout the evening, Brown makes light conversation with the revolving cast of guests who've paid $64 each for the pleasure. And though he's the sole bartender of the Columbia Room, when it comes to that final beverage, his time is yours, whether that means making a martini or spending 15 minutes hand carving a block of ice into a diamond for a Scotch on the rock.

Five days a week, that's where you'll find Derek Brown. The rest of the time he's busy.

Following Brown on Facebook offers an interesting glimpse into schedule. There are posts about cocktails he's working on for the Columbia Room. There are posts about his latest article in The Atlantic, or his Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post. There are posts from spirit tasting events in San Francisco. There are posts about the Museum of the American Cocktail, for which he is a board member. And there are posts from the parties and other functions he's been hired to bartend.

Then there are the things that he doesn't post on Facebook: the books he's working on (or trying to), the new bar projects he's considering, the consulting he's doing with Chef R.J. Cooper and Rogue 24.

Most people would be satisfied to own their own business and have a job they enjoy, but Brown is restless. All the extracurriculars, the writing, the consulting are stepping stones toward, well, something. While his goal isn't completely clear, all of it begins at the bar.

Brown wants to make a better cocktail. That's why he spends so much time tinkering with cocktails and thumbing through old recipe books. His martini, the one GQ liked so much, doesn't have a garnish. Why? He determined the sliver-thin lemon twist he once served with the drink made the beverage bitter. During our interview, the conversation took a tangent into bitters, which led Brown to tell me about The Meadow, his new favorite shop in New York that specializes in cocktail bitters, salts and chocolate, and to break out a few bottles to show me how good they were (they were). He did the same thing a few years ago when he discovered Fee Brothers bitters.

It's about refinement. It's about making the drink better.

For now, he's pursuing that drink at the Columbia Room. But he knows that in time, the broader fascination in craft cocktails will fade and only the cocktail geeks will be interested in his showmanship and his club. When the Columbia Room runs its course and the reservations stop coming in, Brown will move on to the next project.

He describes his long-term goal as positioning himself to be "patient zero for the good life." To create bars, beverages and a culture that celebrates the best parts of our drinking culture.

It's a vague goal, to be sure, but Brown's got a lot on his plate at the moment. He has to prepare for tonight's reservations at the Columbia Room, go over his next column for the Atlantic, touch base with a couple clients and wrap up out a few final details about an upcoming event. As he churns through his hectic schedule, that long-term goal might take shape, become a bit clearer.

For now, though, Derek Brown is busy.

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, Cocktails, DC, Interviews, Liquor, Washington, DC
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Sep 02, 2010

Must Haves: Capital Q's Barbecue Burrito - It's Not A Taco!

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Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

Sometimes, a clever twist can make a good dish great. Sometimes the right packaging can do the trick.

Take Capital Q in Chinatown. They make good barbecue. Not great barbecue, but good barbecue. Nevertheless, with a Subway next door and a Fuddruckers across the street, the tiny Texas barbecue joint is easily one of the best places to eat in the neighborhood.

Even with good barbecue, though, Capital Q has a great barbecue dish: the barbecue burrito.

You won't find it on the menu. Instead, you order a "taco." I say "taco" because the "taco" is a 12 inch flour tortilla, which makes the "taco" a "burrito," and I really like burritos. (I was honestly pissed off for a while after realizing the taco I routinely passed up was actually a burrito. What the fuck? Just call it a burrito.)

DSCN5280 Within that burrito you can have anything. Beef brisket and black beans wrapped in a warm flour tortilla? Done. Pulled pork, collard greens and corn salad? Done. Smoked turkey, mashed potatoes and banana pudding? Sure, but don't.

The point is, I can walk in anytime and order a burrito stuffed with all kinds of barbecue. And if that ain't great, I don't know what is.

Now, there's another trick to this. The guys working the counter at Capital Q are generous. If you order a pulled pork burrito with black beans, greens and hot sauce (as I often do), you'll have a mound of food piled on your tortilla. Picking it up will be out of the question, and if you're using a fork and knife you're missing the point. So the trick is to order everything on the side, including the sauce (and if you're smart, a second tortilla - you'll have plenty to fill both).

With your tray of sides and meat, grab a seat and a roll of paper towels at the front window and build your burrito(s). As you stuff that soft bundle of barbecue into your mouth you can watch the tourists jaywalk their way into Fuddruckers. Suckers.

Categories: Barbeque, Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Must Haves, Washington, DC
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May 04, 2010

Must Haves: Taylor Gourmet's Pattison Avenue Roast Pork Sandwich

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Must Haves is a new series focusing on some of D.C.'s great dishes.

I'm obsessed with this sandwich. Absolutely and completely obsessed. I had it for the first time three weeks ago. I've had it three times since. I've told my friends about it. I've told my family. It motivated me to get on with this new series of dining shorts and it will be the inaugural one.

DSCN5273 Taylor Gourmet's Pattison Avenue roast pork sandwich is unequivocally one of the very best sandwiches I've had in D.C., maybe anywhere. It's six to 12 inches of roasted pork wet with the stock they soak it in, tucked into a warm hoagie roll with chunks of garlic and covered in melted provolone. As fantastic as all that is -- and it is -- that's not what makes the sandwich. Oh no, what makes the sandwich is the broccoli rabe.

Broccoli fucking rabe.

There are three other pork sandwiches on Taylor Gourmet's menu. None are as good as the Pattison Avenue. The only reason I can think of is that none of the other sandwiches include bright green shoots of spicy broccoli rabe.  

Driving home after eating one of these was the worst. It was also the best. Try as I did to wash my hands afterward, my knuckles and fingers still stank of pork and stock that soaked through the bread. It always soaks through the bread. It was intoxicating. I felt I owed my wife some sort of apology. It was as close to filthy sin as a sandwich will ever get you.

If it was sin, then this is my confession. I am obsessed.

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, DC, Deli, Foodie Experiences, H Street, Must Haves, Sandwiches, Washington, DC
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Aug 13, 2009

Spy Diner

SPYCART1 Consider the food cart. These ubiquitous urban fixtures exist for a reason — SURVIVAL. The urban jungle is a harrying place, and crowded, so sometimes one just has to resort to foraging. This isn't to say that cart food can't be great cuisine —  hell, I and many of my fellow GWU graduates owe our very lives to Manouch and his magical hot dog cart, rendered all the more fantastic for it's being open till four in the morning. Though I was less than a gourmand in my college years, I have to say that Manouch worked some real magic in that tiny kitchen, as I'm sure he continues to do to this day. A true chef is not the sum of his tools, but rather an amalgam of skill and a love of the craft; good food can be made anywhere, from the four star Michelin kitchen to the camper's sterno can. Knowing this, I was more than a bit intrigued when I heard about Spy Diner.

Late last month, the good people of DC Central Kitchen teamed up with Stir Food Group (the creative minds behind Zola and Potenza) in an innovative venture in culinary philanthropy. For twenty years, DCCK has been collecting our city's massive load of wasted foodstuffs, and turning it into good, wholesome meals for those in need -- today, the group reprocesses more than one ton of unused food donated by local businesses everyday. In recent years, the group has expanded its aim to attack DC's unemployment problem, and with its Culinary Job Training program it has educated and placed hundreds of our city's struggling citizens in local commercial kitchens, where they may thrive and feel needed.

Spy3 Spy Diner is DCCK's newest venture to this end. The creative minds at Stir provide the recipes, and the burgeoning chefs fresh from DCCK's Culinary program take it from there. I'd been meaning to swing by for awhile, and professional reasons put me in just the right neighborhood yesterday, so I made an impromptu visit.

The corner of 9th and F St was surprisingly quiet at 11:40 am, so I had the good fortune of a lineless lunch. The cart itself is your standard model, if a bit newer, bearing the usual array of propane burners and refrigerated bins. The man behind the counter greeted me kindly, and I perused the menu, which I have transcribed below:

Breakfast
(Served 8:00 - 11:00 am)
Egg Sandwiches with cheese - $2.75
w/ Taylor Pork Roll or Ham or Bacon - $1.75
served on a bagel or housemade roll

Fresh Baked Muffins - $2.00
Housemade Coffee Cakes - $2.50
Bagels (grab and go) Cream Cheese, Jelly or Butter - $2.50

Nantucket Nectars Juices - $2.25

2 Sliders

Lamb Meatballs
Romaine Red Pepper Slaw and Goat Cheese Aioli - $6.00

Roast Beef Melts
Emmanthaler Sauce, Carmelized Onions, Horseradish Bun - $4.00

BBQ Pork
Coleslaw, Salt & Pepper Bun - $4.00

All American Burger
Romaine Pickle Slaw - $4.00

Tomato & Brie - $4.00

Slider Combos
Add a Bag of Chips and a Soda or Bottled Water for an Additional $1.50

Soup of the Day - $3.75
Chips - $1.00

Desserts
Cookies - $2.50
Cupcakes - $2.50
Rice Crispy Treats - $2.50

Drinks
Nantucket Nectar Juices - $2.25
Sodas - $1.50
Bottled Water - $1.25


Spycart2 Those of you who have been to Zola will probably recognize the slider selections, as they are pulled straight from the bar's awesome happy hour menu. For my undying love of caramelized onions, I ordered the Roast Beef Melts, and waited patiently for my order. In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with my host, a man by the name of Derrick*. 

Derrick has been in the program for about 11 months, and it turns out that I came by on his very first day on the job. Despite this, he aptly and confidently started preparing my meal, even amidst my incessant questioning. Derrick is a recovering alcoholic, and wasn't shy to tell me this. We got to talking about food, and DC chefs —  Derrick has met a good number of them (lots of local chefs donate time to DCCK), and is happy for the experience. While he was topping my beef off with the Emmanthaler mousse, I asked my chef what he thought of the program. After some thought, Derrick replied that it was great, for numerous reasons, but mostly because "it makes you want to serve instead of just taking." I took my lunch, bid him adieu, and promised to come back.

As far as the food goes, I gotta say, you are not likely to do much better downtown for less money. The portion of sliced beef was more than satisfactory for the price paid, and it was cooked to perfect temperature. The caramelized onions boasted just the right combination of sweetness and earthiness, and Spy4 the Emmanthaler sauce was generously applied, and decadent. This, for $5.50 with drink and a bag of chips? Sure, Potbelly's, Subway, and the like can give you a much larger pile of crap for about that price, but I seriously doubt it would be as filling or satisfying. I was glad I left a tip, and honestly wish I'd left more.

It feels great to lend one's money to a good cause; to use one's power as a consumer for good, rather than wasting it on convenience. But ya know, I am an inherently selfish creature, and I ain't gonna eat crappy meals ad nauseum for altruism's sake. Fortunately such a dilemma did not present itself here: as far as I can tell, DCCK is doing a wonderful job with their students, and they and their partners should be lauded for their efforts. If you live or work in the Chinatown region, and value good food and good, well, values, take a trip to the little food cart at 9th and F. As for me, I plan on making good on my promise to Derrick in the very near future.

Spy Diner
Northeast Corner or 9th and F St. NW
Breakfast: Monday - Friday: 8:30 am to 11:00 am
Lunch: 11:00 am to 5:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday Hours: 11:00 am to 6:00 pm

* If you are reading this, sir, please let me know if I spelled your name wrong!

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, Food Carts, Penn Quarter, Restaurant Reviews
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Oct 12, 2007

Cave-Aged Cheddar, Fresh from the Farmers' Market

For my first review of a single cheese, I thought it would be appropriate to look at something local.  And what better way to find a great local cheese than to visit one of the weekly farmers' markets throughout the city?

Img_2786 On Thursday, I paid a visit to the weekly FreshFarm Market that takes place on 8th Street between D and E, a short walk from Gallery Place and the Verizon Center.  Toward the northern end of the block, I came across a stand with a large banner that proudly proclaimed "CHEESE." 

Chapel's Country Creamery, a family-run farm in Easton, Maryland, prides themselves on making raw milk cheeses from their own grass-fed cows.  They control the entire cheese making process, from start to finish.  At the market, they were offering samples of six different cheeses, with the majority of them being variations on cheddar. I tasted several of them and found them all to taste pretty much as advertised.  The 'Crab Spice Cheddar' had a distinct flavor of Old Bay seasoning, and the 'Garlic and Chive Cheddar' reminded me of Cotswold cheese - though with a little bit of a buttery flavor as a result of the cheddar base.

Img_2787_2 What really caught my eye was their 'Cave Aged Cheddar,' a block of which was plated and displayed front and center.  I asked about the caves they used and learned that they bring the cheese from their farm to a small group of caves just over the Pennsylvania border.  The cheddar is aged in these caves for up to a year - roughly two or three times as long as their basic cheddars.  While in the cave, the cheese develops a thin but attractive rind and a deeper, nuttier taste.

Img_2788I purchased a quarter of a pound for $4.25 and watched it sliced from the block in front of my eyes.  Taking it home, I let it sit to soften a bit and then plated it with some cracked pepper crackers, a dark wheat baguette and some fall raspberries which I also purchased at the market. The sweetness of the raspberries and the molasses in the bread both served to highlight the sharper cheddar notes, and the black pepper in the crackers provided a nice contrast to the more buttery and nutty flavors that the aging process had imparted to the cheese.

This is not a melting cheddar; it holds up well on the plate and softens only slightly as it warms up.  I would definitely recommend it as a worthy addition to a cheese plate that also includes a soft cheese like a Brie and a saltier cheese like a Gorgonzola.  If you're looking to pair it with wines, you're in luck.  Almost any wine will drink well with a smooth cheddar like this, from a crisp Pinot Grigio to a full-bodied red like a Cabernet.  For best results, however, I would recommend trying it with a peppery Syrah/Shiraz.

Chapel's Country Creamery Cave-Aged Cheddar
Penn Quarter Freshfarm Market
8th Street between D and E
map
Market is open Thursdays from 3 to 7 PM until the week before Thanksgiving.

Six types of cheese with an emphasis on cheddar
Cave-Aged Cheddar sells for $17/lb.

Description:  Smooth and buttery with a nutty finish, this firm, raw milk cow's cheese is aged for up to a year in caves in southern Pennsylvania.  A thin, edible rind encloses this slightly salty but very mellow cheddar.

Pairing recommendations:  Sweet fruits, peppery/spicy crackers, Syrah/Shiraz wines (though most wines will match up well).

Categories: Cheese, Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center
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Jun 01, 2005

Tosca

I had another incredibly busy week. This last week flew by so fast that when Friday came and I still hadn't made any plans for Friday night, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Eh. What else is new?" It was about 6:30 PM and I opened up OpenTable to see who still had reservations left. Luckily, it was Memorial Day weekend and everyone seemed to have turned tail and left the city (except for the tourists of course), so there were a bunch of places with reservations left in the 7 to 8:30 PM range. I decided to go with Tosca because I remembered I didn't get a chance to go there last Restaurant Week and I've been wanting to try their Northern Italian food ever since. I made a reservation for 8:30 PM.

When I got home, we were kind of in a rush to get ready and out the door. I noted when I made the reservation, that Tosca does indeed have valet parking for $5 (far cheaper than a $12 taxi ride both ways) so we had some extra time because I wouldn't have to add in time to flag down a cab. I was debating what to wear. I checked out Tosca's web site, The Post, Washingtonian, AOL, Google...nothing about what the dress code was for Tosca. I was thinking about wearing some nice jeans, but then my intuition told me I should wear a pair of dress slacks. Lucky for me my intuition is accurate. Amy was wearing a casual halter dress, but she's very obviously pregnant now, so it doesn't matter much. I mean, she could wear shorts to Citronelle and no one would dare say anything to her. When we arrived, we realized very quickly that Tosca was pretty dressy. Many of the men were wearing sport coats -- women in cocktail dresses. There wasn't a single pair of jeans in the dining room. "Glad I decided not to wear the jeans!" I said to Amy. "Yeah, me too!" she replied.

If you're looking for typical Italian American fare, Tosca is not the place for you. Tosca features Northern Italian creations, by chef and owner Cesare Lanfranconi, so you won't find your run-of-the-mill spaghetti and meatballs. Cesare also changes up the menu quite often, which is always up to date on ToscaDC.com, using fresh, seasonal ingredients. I really like it when a restaurant keeps their online menu up-to-date because that means I won't feel like I got a bait and switch.

For appetizers, you have a wide variety, with the obvious salad choice being the radicchio salad with Bartlett pears, imported Gorgonzola cheese terrine, and toasted walnuts, or for the more adventurous, a breaded Mediterranean cuttlefish with fava beans, artichokes and pancetta ragout, roasted garlic and black ink sauce. Amy and I skipped the salads even though they sounded and looked very appetizing from our quick glances at what other tables were ordering, but instead, we opted to go with soup and pasta as a first and second course. The special soup was the Italian bread soup which I've had many times and anywhere that I've had it, I loved it, so I figured it would be a good dish to order as a comparison. Amy ordered a soup as well -- the sweet yellow pepper soup. I also decided to get a second course with a half portion of the homemade buckwheat papardelle with pheasant, porcini mushrooms, and tomato ragout, mainly because it just sounded so good. Beside that though, I wasn't overly impressed with the pasta choices, which were slightly boring in comparison with what you can get somewhere like Spezie. But I got the impression, at least from looking at the menu, that Cesare doesn't like to focus as much on the pasta as much as his entrees.

Entrees are fairly expensive and in the price range of those at Galileo, ranging from $23 for the porcini-crusted pork filet to $40 for the Kobe beef. There were an abundance of specials including several fish and a couple meat dishes -- too many for me to remember, but basically you have a choice of many different kinds of fish, the most expensive being a Mediterranean dorado (which was $40). I thought the Kobe beef sounded interesting -- it's served with fava beans, baby fennel, pecorino cheese and aged balsamic vinegar sauce. (I don't know what it is, but ever since I had the crostini with fava bean puree and pecorino cheese at 2 Amys, I've been on a real fava bean kick.) However, none of the entrees on the menu really stood out to make me say, "Yeah, that dish sounds like it will be really outstanding!"

The wine list was...extensive, with many different choices in all categories of Italian wine. If you can see from the Tosca web site, it's not exactly moderately-priced by any means and If you turn towards the back of the wine menu, you'll see all of the more expensive wines, some priced up to $1,600. Ouch! I stayed towards the front and ordered a smooth, yet spicy Rosso Piceno for $50.

It wasn't too long after we ordered that the food started coming out. My Italian bread soup was thick, almost more like a sauce than a broth, but it tasted very good. I mean, it was probably some of the best Italian bread soup I've ever had, with fresh basil, tomatoes, and the fresh double cream mozzarella that I mixed into the broth with my spoon. Amy really liked the sweet yellow pepper soup -- a lot.  Overall, I'd say that the first course was an overwhelming success. The success continued as I ate my half-pasta second course. As expected, the buckwheat pasta was cooked perfectly and I especially enjoyed the pheasant, tomato and porcini mushroom ragout. It was very similar to a dish I had once at Osteria Del Galileo -- a chicken and chicken liver papardelle which I recall I enjoyed just as much.

Our entrees weren't quite as impressive as the first and second courses, but they weren't anything to shrug at either. Amy thought her pasta, an agnolotti stuffed with imported truffled double cream mozzarella and sweet peas in a light tomato sauce, sounded better on the menu than it actually tasted. She and I both agreed that the sweet flavor of the peas needed a little balance with some red pepper or garlic -- that's just a matter of taste though -- I'm sure many people really enjoy this pasta dish and other people around us that we saw ordering it seemed to be.

The Kobe beef was cooked medium rare (actually almost rare -- I was testing it as I cut the meat to check that it was warm in the middle) and I'd purposely asked for the beef to be cooked the way the chef likes it. As I cut the beef, I could see the marbled fat, which was more like butter than fat. Every once in a while though, there was some stringy, tough fat that was difficult to cut and chew through which made me especially careful when cutting pieces of the meat to eat. The meat was seared and cut into small strips and then topped with the aged balsamic vinegar. On the side, it came with the fennel, fava beans and pecorino, all arranged in a neat, circular tower.

No desserts were ordered, even though I wish I had. We were far too full (especially me after the three courses). I especially wish I'd had the room to eat the poppyseed semi-freddo with warm rhubarb compote, pine nuts, fresh strawberries. I do so love strawberries - they're my favorite fruit. Oh well, maybe next time.

I do want to comment on the service which was extra friendly the entire time we were there. Our server was especially patient while I toiled over my decision of what to order and throughout our entire meal, he was attentive and made sure our glasses were full and our entrees came out in proper timing. One thing to keep in mind is that Tosca is one of those restaurants where you have to ask for your check, so you never feel rushed out.

When we were done with our meal, we were fairly happy with our meal and how it turned out. Once I got the check however, I started to wonder if it was worth it. At $160, I thought it was a bit on the pricey side, since neither of our entrees really stood out. I mean, the ingredients were of a high quality, but just because you use high-quality ingredients, doesn't mean it's necesarily better tasting. I reserve judgement though, because this was our first trip to Tosca, and the menu the next time we go could be very different.

Ristorante Tosca
1112 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
map
(202) 367-1990

Hours:
Lunch: M-F 11:30 am - 2:30 pm
Dinner: M-Th, 5:30 - 10:30 pm
F & Sat: 5:30 - 11:00 pm
Sun: 5:30 pm - 10:30 pm
Closed on major holidays & Sundays during July  and August

Dress Code: Dressy (Sportcoats not out of place)
Parking: Valet $5
Reservations: Taken
Smoking: Not allowed
Nearest Metro: Metro Center
Amy's Bathroom Report: They were very nice and kept very clean.

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, Italian, Restaurant Reviews
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