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Jan 14, 2011

Kushi Izakaya & Sushi

KushiKitchen1 Last March, Kushi opened its doors in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood, and brought a new kind of restaurant to Washington DC -- the Izakaya. An Izakaya is a sort of Japanese gastropub, a drinking establishment with a wealth of small plates, suitable for mixing, matching and sharing with friends over a few glasses of sake. It seems owners Darren and Ari Norris have hit upon a recipe for success, with their young sushi bar being called "the year's most exciting restaurant" by Washingtonian Magazine, and ranked 22 in their much vaunted "100 Best" list. It took awhile, but late last month, I was finally able to make the trek over to check it out.

KushiOutsideFirst of all, Kushi wins big points on personality and presentation. Coming through the doors on a frigid night, we were met by a blast of warm, savory smelling air from the giant central kitchen. The space is bustling, but pretty wide open, dominated by the open kitchen / sushi bar, with a smaller bar area and several tables placed in its orbit. The fun and lively atmosphere is accented by the hectic but disciplined kitchen, which is a great show in itself, with the chefs slinging maki and stoking the wood and charcoal fired grill. The staff worked well and cohesively through the night; while there was the occasional bit of confusion, all the servers and runners were very friendly, and happy to field questions or just shoot the breeze.

  KushiSakeSpread In addition to a handful of draughts and a decent wine list, Kushi has an extensive sake list, with some 15 sakes available by the bottle or carafe, and five different plum wines, to boot. It looks like they are working on developing an innovative cocktail program, too, which may be something to keep an eye on.

KushiFishGrill The food menu is so huge as to be a bit overwhelming. It is split into several sub-categories, reflecting the numerous styles of cuisine available, including the full range of sushis, Robata (wood grill), Kobachi (small plates), Gohan (rice and soup) and Kushiyaki (Charcoal Grilled Skewers). Frankly, I wish I had gone with more people, for being only a party of two, we could only try so much. Of course, we made a valiant effort, and did try SO much, so I'll just hit the highlights for ya.

KushiSalmon+Uni   The sushi was, across the board, of very high quality, and very well cut. The seared fatty salmon was melt-in-your-mouth soft, and served up nice and warm; the uni was clearly very fresh, and not nearly as fishy as some I have had. I was a bit disappointed that they were out of every variety of toro, but the Japanese swordfish we had instead was well textured, and also quite fresh.

KushiCustard One of the best features of the night was the special Chawanmushi, a soft egg custard made with mirin, mushrooms, and seafood. The texture was exquisitely silky, and the flavor an ethereal mix of subtle fishiness, a salty / sweet contrast, and earthy mushroom undertones. I believe they change this one up on a weekly basis -- in any case, for $7.00, this is a dish well worth trying.

KushiOctopus The grilled items were a mixed bag. While the grilled oysters we had were perfectly cooked and delicious, the clams were overcooked and rubbery. Likewise, the grilled squid legs, while pleasantly crunchy on the edges, were tough and rubbery otherwise. We also tried the grilled chicken livers and found  them overly grainy, another sign that what we were served had been overcooked. Finally, we sampled the grilled okra and leeks, which were good, and a novel approach to vegetables, but not much of a bargain at the price -- $3.00 per small portion, versus $6 to $10 for the more sizable meat plates.

KushiClam+OysterAll in all we had about 12 plates and three drinks apiece, and the bill came to just over $100.00. Not too shabby for a night out for two. Despite the hiccups in the grilling department, we had a great time, as the staff and atmosphere go a long way. If you can gather up a small group of adventurous eaters and drinkers who like a good time and don't mind the occasional failed experiment, get yourself to Kushi early and see if you can stake out some bar-space.

 

Kushi Izakaya & Sushi 
465 K St, NW 
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 682-3123 ‎
eatkushi.com

Categories: Convention Center, Gallery Place, Japanese, Restaurant Reviews, Sushi
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Sep 17, 2010

Fire Works: Arlington's New Pizzeria and Beer Bar

FIREW- OUTSIDE1 It was out with the old pizza and in with the new in the Courthouse last month. Sadly, after many years of selling classic Italian-American fare, Listrani's has closed its doors for good, with its location being taken over by nearby Chez Manelle and converted into a hookah bar. Old-style Italian eateries are on the outs in metropolitan Northern Virginia, and are rapidly being replaced by cutting edge, trendy pie joints like Z Pizza and American Flatbread. The most recent addition of this ilk is Fire Works, a high-concept pizzeria and beer bar, which recently opened up in the Marriot Residences on Clarendon Boulevard.FIREW- BAR1

Fire Works is an expansion from the original Leesburg location of the same name, a local fav known for its sizable beer list and wood-fired, toppings-loaded pizzas. I have visited the new location two times since their opening back in late August.

FIREW-PATIO1 The space is pretty big on the inside, with a sizable 25+ seat bar, and some 60 or so seatings in the spacious, high ceilinged, diner-meets-trattoriaesque main room. Surrounding the building on two sides is Fire Work's HUGE patio space, which I roughly estimate could seat 60 to 80 guests comfortably. Both times I visited, the place was decently full, but not packed, so our party was seated promptly.

  In the drinks department, Fire Works has a lot of options. In addition to some 30 beers on draught (including one "real-ale" cask), they offer 10 or so wines by the glass, including several from Virginia, in the range of $7 to $13 per glass, and a two-page beer bottle list. Though the draughts are impressive in number, I was rather disappointed by the FIREW-MARG selection; everything was kinda run of the mill. Flying Dog IPA, Victory Lager, Bell's Two Hearted... they had a lot of the usual customers, many of which overlapped, and could have been excised for something a bit more esoteric, or perhaps a seasonal beer, which were completely lacking.

  Between our visits, there were some major changes made to the food menu, which they openly admit is a work in progress. Generally speaking, the menu features an array of 15 specialty pizzas, wood-oven fired, and available at 10" or 14", along with a smattering of salads, sandwiches, and starters. 

FIREW- SOPRANOSOn our first go my companion and I split the small Classic Margherita ($11), and the small Sopranos ($11), which featured "Mushrooms, Wood Roasted Onions, Nitrate Free Sausage, Organic Tomato sauce, Cheese and a Dash of White Truffle Essence." Though the outer crust of each had that chewy / crispy  combination that lovers of the Neopolitan style exalt, the rest of the affair was kinda lacking. The Sopranos fell into that trap as so many truffled foods, allowing the oil to overpower every other ingredient in the dish. Where the Sopranos was overly rich, the Margherita was just kinda "meh," offering up little kick from the basil, and very little flavor from the mozzarella. Both were also unfortunately wet in the middle, making them difficult and a little unpleasant to eat.

FIREW- DIP Our second visit also started out on the disappointing side. This time, we sat on the patio, which was lovely, and started with the Spinach Dip ($7), which was not. Though beautifully toasted on top and well presented, the cheese itself was mealy and flavorless, as was the accompanying garlic bread. That said, the main course was a lot more appealing. My friend got the small Segundo ($11), a white FIREW- SEGUNDO pizza topped with "White Sauce, Crisp Bacon, Smoked Mozzarella, Granny Smith Apples, Roasted Onions and Parsley," which had a delightful combination of sweet and salty flavors, and an appealing combination of disparate textures. This time, the pizza was also consistently chewy and firm, so they seem to have fixed that problem in the interim. For my main I eschewed the pizza for the " Three "g's" Grilled Cheese" ($7), a  combination of smoked gFIREW- GRILLEDCHEESEouda, goat cheese and gruyere on crusty Italian bread, served with tomato jam. This sandwich was outstanding, with all three cheeses adding something to the mix, the bread of perfect texture, and the tomato jam a wonderful tangy/sweet accompaniment. Though I was puzzled when I was told the sandwiches come with pasta (they do not), I quickly got over it.

Regarding the menu, I should also note that Fire Works does not offer you the option of choosing your own toppings -- it's their way, or the highway. This was not the case on our first visit, and when I asked the server about it on the second go, he said this option was removed because it "caused confusion in the kitchen."

Fire Works is definitely a work in progress, but I have high hopes. Prices are generally reasonable, and though the food has been hit or miss, the preparation definitely seems to be improving. Also, though the beer program is rather weak right now, having 30 draught pulls behind the bar could open up tons of possibilities to the right program director. All in all, Fire Works has a great infrastructure in place, and I really hope they live up to the potential. Though, with Rustico -- a known quantity in the beer and pizza world -- opening up a location in nearby Ballston, they better step up their game quick like.


   
Fire Works
2350 Clarendon Boulvard
Arlington, VA 22201
703.527.8700
MAP

Categories: Arlington, Courthouse, Pizza, Restaurant Reviews
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Sep 08, 2010

ChurchKey: Ambitious Vision Is Realized As D.C.'s Very Best Beer Bar

33680018
Everything you need to know about ChurchKey is on the draught list.

Look at it. Drafted on tan, heavy paper - good paper, hardy paper - it's a black script roadmap to 55 drafts and casks. Hoppy, spicy, fruity, smoky beers are offered by the taste and by the glass. Along side each beer is the name of the brewery, its style, its place of birth. There's the alcohol percentage, the serving temperature, the price and the proper glassware. In case you don't know a tulip from a pint, there's a key of glassware silhouettes along the bottom of the menu.

Churchkey6 It's polished, elegant and written for nebbish beer geeks, but designed to guide anyone through ChurchKey's substantial selection of beers. 

It's the best menu I've ever seen.

The bar is almost as nice. From the solid burnt orange bar with its inset of keys, to the gothic chandeliers and floor to ceiling windows overlooking Logan Circle, ChurchKey is a beautiful establishment that was built to impress.

Without a doubt, it is one of the best bars I've ever set foot in. ChurchKey is not just one of D.C.'s best beer bars, it's our most important bar. The Brickskeller was ahead of its time when its lengthy beer list made the record books. But Miss Havisham has had her day and D.C.'s beer scene has come into its own. Portland has the Horse Brass Pub and Brussels has the Delirium Cafe. Now, thanks to Michael Babin and Greg Engert, we have ChurchKey.

I'm not the only one who's noticed.

"I was very pleasantly surprised with the professionalism [of the ChurchKey staff] and especially Greg has a great knowledge," Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the Danish brewer behind cult beer favorite Mikkeller, told me via email. Earlier this year, Engert hosted Mikkel at a beer dinner at ChurchKey's downstairs sister restaurant, Birch & Barley. "It is hard to compare [to other beer bars] as ck is unique, but it is definitely one of the best beer restaurants I have been to."

Then of course, there are the local awards (two Rammys and the City Paper's pick for Best Beer Bar/Best Beer Menu) and national recognition (Food & Wine, The New York Times, Paste, All About Beer). Clearly, the arrival of ChurchKey and Birch & Barley has not gone unnoticed.


48580023 It's never easy, or cheap, to open a restaurant, much less two of them in a shitty economy. Yet, Babin (above, right), co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, did just that. Last year, he turned a former hamburger joint into a destination beer bar set atop an upscale restaurant. The establishments are treated separately, but are equally bound by a lineup of beers that stretch between floors and into the hundreds, all of which is overseen by a beer director that obsesses over every little detail. Needless to say, it was Babin's most expensive project, but it made Engert (above, left) a very happy man.

Before spending most of his waking hours at ChurchKey, Engert was (and is) the beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, including Rustico, Babin's beer-centric restaurant in Alexandria. Although Rustico was launched with a beer program, it was Engert who focused and expanded it.

He brought in interesting beers, cask ales and a hand pump, hosted beer dinners, started a library of rare beers, headed up beer themed events, and eventually started talking to his boss about an even better beer bar.

Babin and Engert knew there were limitations to what they could do with Rustico. There was only so much space, all of which was built before Engert was hired, and they wanted Rustico to remain a neighborhood restaurant. So a plan was hatched. Babin asked Engert what he would do if he could do anything. Engert responded with ChurchKey.

"Every single thing I wanted to do with beer here, I did," said Engert, who is also a partner in ChurchKey and Birch & Barley.

33680011 It shows. If you know anything about ChurchKey or the District's craft beer scene, you probably know these stats: 555 beers on hand, 55 of which are drafts, five of which are hand-pumped cask ales. It's impressive in its size and scope, but it's not the most impressive aspect.

No, the most impressive thing is the trio of coolers. Each cooler is set at a different temperature (42, 48, 54) based on the style beer being stored (for example, lagers are stored at colder temperatures than ales). The draft lines that run the beer from the coolers to the taps are insulated and cooled to ensure that the beer filling your glass is the same temperature it was when it left the keg.

It's an attention to detail most people will overlook, but it separates ChurchKey from most bars in the country, much less D.C.

33680014 Consider the bottle list. It's 500 deep, yet there are dozens and dozens of names you probably don't recognize. As he did with the beer list at Rustico, Engert organized the beers by flavor rather than style or place of origin. Understanding that hundreds of somewhat obscure beers don't sell quickly, Engert keeps a limited number of each beer. And when one sells out a new one usually comes in.

33680017 Engert's regular rotation of rare and eclectic beers, on draft and by the bottle, has led some folks around town to question how he gets such unique products. Some have suggested that ChurchKey and the
Neighborhood Restaurant Group can spend more money than other bars and restaurants, while others speculate that because ChurchKey is the popular beer bar in D.C., brewers and distributors are lining up to get their products in.

Engert said it's none of those things. Rather, he said, it's simply a matter of working harder than everyone else to find out about new beers entering the market, establishing relationships with the brewers and distributors, and keeping his draft lines pristine and his coolers at the proper temperatures. ChurchKey also maintains a stash of 76 casks that they ship to breweries to keep the hand-pump selections interesting.

And then there's the beer dinner series and meet-the-brewer nights, the vintage beer list, and the firkins (because five beer engines pumping fresh cask ale just isn't enough - and it's not), but I should stop. I should note that ChurchKey may be designed with beer enthusiasts in mind, but they make their nut on the curious and the uninitiated.

For Engert, ChurchKey is an opportunity to teach. The less you know the better. Come in and peruse the pretty draft menu or thumb through the bound bottle list. If you can't make up your mind, that's fine. Engert and his staff will show you the way. That's why he spends an hour and a half every day working with the bartenders and servers in ChurchKey and Birch & Barley on the beer program. If you have a question, everyone should have an answer.

"We believe very strongly that this would be an eye-opener for many people," Babin said. "You get people in the right mood to try new things."

Of the many trips I've made to ChurchKey and Birch & Barley since it opened last fall, I've only caught one bartender off guard. The guy gave me the wrong beer and assured me the stout I ordered was the bitter I received. However, he double checked with Engert, who relaized the mistake and got me the right beer. A rookie error by a new bartender that was quickly addressed.

That's it, though. Babin and Engert have hired a lot of staff, and all of them (well, most of them) are clearly well trained.

48580017 When ChurchKey is packed, I like to grab a seat at the bar in Birch & Barley. All the beer is the same and you get to admire the copper "beer organ" that houses the draft lines coming from upstairs. However, Birch & Barley's bar doesn't have direct access to the bottles or cask ales on the hand pumps. Nevertheless, the bartenders always seem more than happy to run upstairs for an order. It's a nice touch.

Babin and Engert are quick to note that much of ChurchKey's success - and Birch & Barley's for that matter - is also due to the work of Executive Chef Kyle Bailey and Pastry Chef Tiffany Macisaac. They're right to do so. Bailey and Macisaac do an excellent job servicing two restaurants with semi-distinct menus (there are some crossover dishes). They even keep in the spirit of things by working beer into a number of dishes.

I would add to that Nahem Simon, who's worked with Engert for years, bartending at both Rustico and ChurchKey. Simon is an excellent bartender and may be as well versed in his product as Engert.

So is there a bad thing to say about ChurchKey? Maybe some nitpicking.

DSCN5408 One man's eclectic beer list is another man's frustration. Engert obviously puts a lot of thought into his bottle beer list, but I think it's a bit over thought. As much as I like to try new things, I also have a number of favorite beers I'd expect to see at a place like ChurchKey. Rather than an obscure gueuze beer from Belgium, how about sticking in a couple Titan IPAs from Colorado?

I'd also like to see more local beers. Engert is skeptical of the concept of localism and builds his beer list around flavors rather than geography, but I can't see the harm in supporting local breweries. He's done a few events with Frederick's Flying Dog and Brian Strumke of Baltimore's Stillwater Ales, but he can do more by keeping a few bottles of our exceptional local breweries on hand.

Normally I knock beer bars that have a strong dining presence, but for all of Chef Bailey's hard work (there's poutine, people), the food is a supporting player at ChurchKey.

Finally, this might be might strangest criticism yet, but ChurchKey is just too popular. It's been open nearly a year, and it still draws a mob. In time, the crowds will thin and the line to get in will disappear. When that happens, ChurchKey will cease to be a scene and settle into being D.C. very best beer bar.

Score: 18 of 20 (beer: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 4 of 5, bartenders: 5 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)

The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20), The Black Squirrel (16 of 20) and Dr. Granville Moore's (15 of 20). And don't miss our special feature on D.C.'s best German bars.

(Note: The Best Beer Bar series is going on hiatus. I'm taking six months off to check out new beer bars or beer bars I haven't visited in a while. I will also be revising the criteria that I use to judge the beer bars. If you have any suggestions for places I should visit or what I should look for in a good beer bar, leave me a comment below.)

Categories: Bar/Club, Beer, DC, Interviews, Logan Circle, Restaurant Reviews, Washington, DC
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Jul 29, 2010

Mussel Bar: First Impressions

Mussel_Bar_ChefsIn the months, weeks and finally days leading up to the opening of Mussel Bar, Robert Wiedmaier's new restaurant in Bethesda, you could hear people talking on the street about it. "I can't wait for that place to open!" I heard groups of people say as we passed by. People were definitely looking forward to this place opening.  It's been a long time since a new restaurant like this came in Bethesda. The last one I can remember is Redwood, and we all know how that went.  

Anyway, Mussel Bar finally opened on Thursday, after pushing back the opening day from Wednesday. Another reason I could tell it was long awaited? The already hour-long wait when Amy and I arrived Friday night at barely 6:30. Luckily, the small bar was no more than one level of people deep so we were able to get a beer and wait it out. We heard the wait times increasing, one hour and ten minutes, 1 hour and 20 minutes, until when we were finally seated, 1 hour and 30 minutes. Not bad for it only being your second night open.

When you first enter the restaurant, the aroma of the mussels and all the broths is intoxicating. Someone should bottle this as a perfume/cologne and sell it. There is not much of a waiting area, so you are forced to congregate around the bar, which isn't very large itself. Overall, the entire restaurant seats a maximum of 125 people, which makes me think there will be many long waits in the future for people.

Tap_listAs with most of Robert Wiedmaier's restaurants, beers, not wines, are the focus. A small selection of draft beers is available, with a large (not Brickskeller large) selection of bottled beers. On tap Friday night, were Brabo Pils, Delirium Tremens, Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor, Gouden Carolus Tripel, Kasteel Rouge, and Kasteel Donker. Prices for the draft beers range from $7 to $13, which was a little pricey in my opinion. At least that's what I thought at first, until I tried the Gouden Carolus Tripel and realized what I'd been missing all these years. While we were waiting at the bar, a guy came up and ordered a Bud Light. "Sorry sir, we don't have Bud Light," the bartender said. 

"Do you have any light beers?" he replied.

"No sir, we don't." 

(I'll leave the any further beer analysis to the likes of Drew and Rob since they know a lot more in this area than I.) 

Once we were finally seated, everything went pretty smoothly, particularly for a new restaurant getting so thoroughly slammed on its second night open. Our waiter explained the menu, which was not too complex. There is a small selection of salads and soups ranging in price from $7.50 to $15. It was way too hot out for soup, so we chose a couple of light salads; one with roasted beets, grapefruit, cumin, herbed yogurt, and a confit of lemons and raisins, and the other an asparagus salad with a poached egg and bacon. Both were very big successes 

Mussels_at_mussel_bar Of course, Mussel Bar has moules frites and are all $16. The mussels are all “Blue Bay” Prince Edward Island mussels, which is what you would expect. There are also some wood-fired tarts, which are basically flatbreads/pizzas, and some sandwiches. If you're looking for something on the larger side, there are three entrees including a short rib bolognese pappardelle available in a full or half portion, a grilled strip steak, and a grilled Atlantic salmon. that range in price from $22 to $24.

We figured getting anything other than mussels on our first visit would be criminal, so Amy and I both ordered our own. Amy beat me to ordering the wild 'shroom preparation with pancetta, Parmesan, and truffle cream, so I went with the "classic" mussels with garlic, shallot and white wine broth. The staff deliver the mussels in piping hot cast iron pans. Upon placing them on the dining table, the staff took the covers off the pans and oh, man, it smelled so good. We took deep breaths and then dug in. I was loving the "classic" mussels I had ordered, but after trying Amy's 'shroom mussels, mine just seemed outright bland. I think the added touch of truffle is really what made them stand out. 

Mussel_Bar_frites The mussels themselves were cooked well, but my only complaint is that there were a good deal of mussels with a tiny amount of meat inside. The frites were very crispy and made for good dipping in the mussel broth as we ate. Although, I would not say the frites are classic frites that follow the fry and bake cooking approach, but thought they were delicious.

We skipped dessert because we were full, and the dessert selection is not especially tempting. You have a choice of vanilla or chocolate ice cream and a vanilla creme brulee. While Amy is a big fan of creme brulee, she was way too full to eat anymore.

Overall, our first visit to Mussel Bar was very successful and we'll definitely be going back. I only hope that things calm down a bit in the coming months and the wait goes down. If the wait scares you, you probably want to get there on the very early side, or try a weeknight (although not Monday night -- they're closed).

Mussel Bar
262 Woodmont Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814
301.215.7817
www.musselbar.com

Categories: Beer, Belgian, Bethesda, Restaurant Openings, Restaurant Reviews
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Jul 09, 2010

Ray's Hell Burger Too: Gourmet Burger Redux?

RaysHellOutside1 Local beef Impresario Michael Landrum has been a busy man of late. Hot on the heals of opening Ray's The Steaks East River, Landrum has done a whirlwind overhaul of one of his Ray's Hell Burger locations in Arlington, re-dubbing it "Ray's Hell Burger Too." Of course, everyone knew he was going to do something with the space, but I hadn't heard anything about the launch until this Thrillist article hit my inbox the Friday before last. Some friends and I popped around that evening, in the hopes that it flew under everyone else's radar, as well.

Ray's Hell has become the go-to gourmet burger location in the DC area since opening in July 2008. Their fresh-trimmed, hand-ground 10 oz burgers and myriad decadent toppings have become a favorite of burger fiends inside the beltway. Despite some brilliant press and some high-profile, repeat customers, NOVA's premier gourmet burger bar has had its share of detractors and complaints. Ray's Hell Too, it seems, is an attempt to address those most frequently voiced quibbles. A sign they'd taped to the front door summed it up nicely:

RaysHellSign Ray's Hell Burger Too


Hate Waiting in Line?
Hate Fighting for a Table?
Want a Smaller Burger?
Vegetarian?
Into Exotic Game?
Wishing for Waitress Service?

Check Out our New, Exclusive Menu
Offerings and Sit-down Service

HERE

Not mentioned above is the oft lamented lack of booze, which was also purportedly remedied. This, plus the lack of a smaller option were always my greatest complaints, so I was pretty psyched.

RaysHellShirt1 The restaurant is set up much like the old Ray's The Steaks location, with forty or so tops jammed into a tight, sparsely decorated space, with an open kitchen off to the back. Where the old Ray's had a touch of class with its open wine racks and wood floors, Ray's Too is all linoleum and cheap paneling, with neon Coke coolers and framed T-Shirts telling us to "Go To Hell." But then, it is a burger joint -- just don't go expecting the Ritz here.

RaysHellInside1 While none of the diners seemed crowded or put upon, the waiting area is a bit on the small side. We crowded into the 6 by 4 foot vestibule with a few other wannabe patrons, until we overflowed and started a line against the wall. There is no host or host stand, but a competent waitress was quick to give us menus, take our head counts, and give us some time estimates. Once our party was fully formed we were seated very quickly, which was impressive on such a busy night -- can never say a Ray's doesn't know how to flip tables!

The new menu offers the same beef behemoths as always, along with some new points of interest: Vegetarians finally have an option in the form of a 1/3 lb veggie burger, and lovers of more exotic fair will be tempted by the fruit glazed venison burger, or the 'Hanoi Style' wild boar burger. The real draw is still the classic, now also available in the more modest 1/3 lb form, cleverly dubbed the "Lil Devil," for $6.99 plus toppings.

RaysHellMyMeal The wait would prove to be the most well orchestrated portion of our evening, as from here, organization flew out the window. Our server was very sweet, but had almost no idea what was going on concerning the menu or otherwise. When asked about the new Hanoi burger, which is only vaguely described on the menu, she had nothing to offer in the way of description. Ray's had yet to draw up a drink list, and we got very different opinions on what it actually contained, depending on who we asked. I don't know whether to blame lack of time for training, last minute changes, or what, but if we hadn't already been well acquainted with the original concept, we would have been lost.

As best I can tell, Ray's offers Bud Light, Bell's Two Hearted Ale, and Delirium Tremens by the 12 oz bottle -- strange selections for such a tiny list, as each of these occupies some sort of fringe in the wide world of beer. Baby bottles of Beringer Merlot and Cabernet were also served, along with Pinot Grigio, which was already out of stock. We were told that all drinks were $4.00 a piece, making the Tremens a tremendous deal (if you like that sort of thing), and the Budwater a terrible ripoff. The drinks were a long time in coming, and were then unceremoniously dumped on the table, sans glasses, with the soft drink bottles not even opened. I know I'm not the bloody Duchess of Kent or anything, but come on...

RaysHellElizasBurger

We'd all ordered incarnations of the "Lil Devil," which arrived in various states, ranging from overcooked to underdone. As often happens when given too many options, I panicked, and ordered my burger with what some may call a revolting combination of bone marrow and cave aged cheddar. It didn't work at all -- which I admit is totally my fault -- and I was very disappointed to find my "rare" burger just a hair under medium. Eliza ordered more sensibly, opting for the always delicious sherry and brandy sauteed mushrooms (a longtime staple at Ray's The Steaks), but her's, too, was about one shade too brown. 

Worst of all, one of our companions ordered the boar, which came out underdone! He made a terrible face when he tried it, and voiced his concerns. Unfamiliar with ground boar, we all thought that maybe it was supposed to be a little pink, but the texture was undeniably gummy and unpleasant. The waitress was less concerned than I would have hoped that they'd served us raw pork, but did take it away and fire a new onRaysHellMyBurgere. In the interim, we were offhandedly informed that we would not be allowed to order any more drinks, as they were running low, which at that point was pretty much cool by all involved. The bill came to about $74.00, which included five burgers, several sides of fries, our beers, and truffled mac and cheese.

I know its not fair to judge a restaurant on its first week, much less on what might have been its opening day. But folks, this ain't remotely Michael Landrum's first rodeo, and this isn't even really a new restaurant, so much as a new concept shoehorned into an old space. Landrum knows how to open a restaurant, which makes our disappointing experience all the more puzzling. 

RaysHellBoar1 Since our visit, we've talked to a couple friends who have been since the renovation, and they had a pretty good time, so hopefully things are settling in. I'm hoping that our experience was just an isolated event, or that matters have much improved by now. So I throw it out to you -- have any of you guys been? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Ray's Hell Burger Too
1713 N Wilson Blvd
Arlington, Virginia 22201
(703) 841-0001
Map


Categories: Arlington, Burgers, Fast Casual, Restaurant Openings, Restaurant Reviews
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May 21, 2010

Screwtop Wine Bar

SCREW-SIGN I've been waiting for awhile to write about Screwtop, this new addition to my neighborhood some six months back. I have visited Screwtop many times, and after each trip I'd start writing, and then stop. From week to week, something there seemed different, which in fairness should be no surprise in any new establishment. After several tumultuous months, though, the place seems to be finding its footing.

SCREW-INSIDE4 Screwtop is the ambitious creation of Wendy Buckley, a former internet exec who ditched the Net for a run in wine sales and cheesemongering, all in preparation for opening up this bar. Of course, Screwtop is more than a bar; it is a multi-concept space incorporating a retail wine and cheese shop, wine bar, and 40-top restaurant, all crammed into about two thousand square feet.

SCREW-INSIDE3 The space itself is pleasant -- with several large floor to ceiling windows letting in plenty of light, and shiny new dark wood bar -- but rather schizophrenic. While the retail area is airy and wide-aisled, the bar/main dining space is absolutely packed with chairs and tables. Thank goodness standing at the bar is discouraged, as when the place is bumpin' (which is often), the effect is nearly as claustrophobic as the nearby college hangouts.

SCREW-INSIDE1 Screwtop's proximity to said meatpits has made it a bit of a boon to the local tipplers. Indeed, a major part of Screwtop's raison d'etre seems to be to build a bit of a community for Clarendon area drinkers of the older, more reserved persuasion (and those with aspiration to such). One of the more interesting features is their wine club, which offers two bottles with a matched cheese for $40 / month. Members receive discounts on food and drink and are encouraged to attend the month pick-up parties, to meet and mingle. As often as not, a book club or similar group has called dibs on one of the two big tables set off in the retail area, where I assume they meet on a regular basis. Screwtop also has a very active Facebook and Twitter SCREW-INSIDE2 presence; followers and fans are the only ones to know about their Tuesday Happy Hour and "Wino Wednesday" specials, which can be very generous.

So Screwtop gets top scores on engaging their clientel; the food is a bit more mixed of a bag. The central focus of the menu is the cheese and charcuterie, which may be had for $6.50 a pop, $17 a SCREW-CHEESE1 threesome, or $33 a sixer. The 20 or so selections are varied and change frequently; one week I had one of the richest duck liver pates I have ever had; two weeks later grocery store favorite President Brie was a feature. On first visit the portions seemed ginormous, but they have adjusted down to a par-for-the-price size. Though the accompanying fruit and nut crackers are quite tasty, I am disappointed that Screwtop asks a sizable upcharge for any sort of condiments, including cornichons and mustard, which are often served gratis. The staff isn't stingy with the free truffle-salted popcorn, though, so I guess ya gotta take the good with the bad there.

SCREW-BUFF1 Screwtop also offers more filling fair in the form of sandwiches and salads. I haven't sampled a lot on this end, but on last visit I finally ordered the much touted Buffaloaf sandwich. Based on Wendy's mother-in-law's secret recipe, this big-ass combo of ground buffalo, cheddar cheese, bacon crumbles, sun-dried tomatoes, and chipotle aioli was as decadently awesome as it sounds, but fluffy despite the fat. At $13 this was easily enough to feed two, and the chips and $3 side salad that accompanied, though clearly store-bought, were more than fine.

SCREW-BAR2 And finally, on to the drinks. Though hard liquor is verboten,  Screwtop offers an impressive 35+ wines by the glass, along with two draughts, and numerous beers by the can and bottle. Prices range widely from about $7 to $15 or so a glass, beers about $5 to $10. In a word, the wine list may be described as eclectic. Selections hail from well-worn areas like California and Argentina, to the more obscure like New York, Moldova, and even Michigan. Though undeniably interesting, the wine list is also, unfortunately, rather difficult to read. Wines are split into categories SCREW-BAR1 based on clever but unhelpful puns, with nothing listed but appellation and price. The helpful and always friendly staff is more than willing to let one sample anything they like, but this feels like a bother when the bar is crowded. It would be nice to see a bit more info there, and maybe more pours in the lower price range, as those $7 glasses are rare. That said, the ever changing three-glass flights are a bit more well-structured, and they often proffer a taste of some real rare and pricey wines for a song. If you like what you've tried, you can get a bottle for home at 5% off, which is a nice touch.

I fear I may have come off a bit more negative here than I had intended. I don't really mean to crap on Screwtop. It's got some really great innovations going on, and always enjoy myself there. The concept, ideal, and much of the execution are great. Hell, they couldn't have happened upon a worse time to open, what with Snowpocalypse I and II occurring in their crucial first months (Eliza and I took refuge there in the December storm, during which they valiantly stayed open, and we had a blast). I criticize because I love, and I genuinely hope Wendy and her crew to do well. With a little bit of wine and cheese work, and maybe a bit of furniture moving, I could see Screwtop becoming a long term Clarendon fixture.

Screwtop
1025 North Fillmore Street
Arlington, VA 22201-6701
(703) 888-0845
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Categories: Arlington, Restaurant Reviews, Wine Bar
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Apr 12, 2010

Omakase at Sushi Taro

Taro1 Last week I received a fabulous surprise birthday gift, when Eliza took me to Sushi Taro for omakase. For those that don't know, omakase pretty much means "your call," an instruction giving the chef carte blanche to serve up whatever he thinks is best. This is a commonly offered option in Japan, but not widely available in DC -- I'm told it took quite a bit of research to track the service down. So this is something I had wanted to do for ages, but other than eating way more fish than my stomach can technically hold, I had no idea what to expect.

Sushi Taro has taken quite a bit of flack on the internet since its complete restructuring back in late 2008; I'd never been, but it seems they converted from a typical Japanese sushi and noodle shop to something a bit more upscale. Lots of people on Yelp call the new Taro "soulless," and other equally unflattering things, swearing to never come back. That said, the place was bumpin' when we arrived around 7:00 last Saturday, and were led by the perfectly lovely front of house staff to a small room at the back of the restaurant. Inside was a small six-seater sushi bar, at the corner of which sat another couple sipping sake. We ordered a couple drinks, settled in, and waited for the chef to arrive.

What followed was a magical three hours, and one of the greatest food experiences of my life. I wasn't even planning on reviewing it (hence the few, mediocre pictures), but we had such a fantastic time I just had to share.

TaroApp1 The meal is split into three distinct courses: Appetizers, sashimi, and finally sushi. The appetizers consisted of a mix of traditional japanese small plates. The chef's signature starch cake, a soft, almost gelatinous brick served in bonito broth and topped with Uni, was not my favorite thing in the world; its completely foreign texture made a pretty scary start to the meal, leaving us both wondering if we were up for what we had gotten ourselves into. From there, it was only uphill. Next came a fried cake made from tiny shrimp available only in the spring, and then a plate of seasonal fishes, including a whole firefly squid, and fantastic miniature conch that had been slowly braised for almost seven hours. With each plate came a description by the chef, explaining to us the dish's origin, and how it was prepared. A consistent theme throughout the apps, which would continue through the other courses, was an emphasis on using rare seasonal fish.

Next came the sashimi. The chef pulled out five square boxes from the refrigerator beneath the bar, which contained the day's fish offerings. He spent the next ten minutes showing us all the fish, and describing each in detail. We were welcomed to select whatever fish we wanted, but being a bit overwhelmed by the choices, we left ourselves in his hands.

The fish was of a quality I had never experienced. I love toro, and I thought I knew it well; the piece that the chef expertly sliced and plated before me was so sweet, rich and velvety, I am hesitant to even compare it to toro I have had in the past. This course was six or seven servings long, the highlights being the aforementioned toro, white salmon (which was in fact real salmon, but so high in fat that it is white), and the live scallop, shucked and prepared right before our eyes.

Right after we finished the scallop, the couple down the bar asked the chef if they served something in particular; the word was Japanese, and I didn't understand. The chef laughed, and said no, because it was not popular, but that he would gladly do it for them. He proceeded to open another scallop, and described the process, as he removed the innards (liver, intestines, etc), then separated the nervous system, and minced it into a sort of sauce, which he served on top. And hey, it turns out he'd made enough for four! Now, earlier I had already eaten a whole squid and some transparent baby eels served as noodles, so I couldn't really balk at this -- fortunately, it was delicious! The texture of the liver was almost like foie gras, and the sauce had a briny, low-tide flavor the likes of which I have never tasted.

TaroShabu Our sashimi plates were removed, and replaced with a one foot square ceramic box. This is the traditional vessel for preparing Shabu-shabu - meat or vegetables lightly cooked in hot broth. Typically patrons are given a piece of raw wagyu beef, which is steeped in the broth for about a minute before eaten; we picked a lucky day, as the chef had some special seasonal toro which was perfect for the preparation. I kind of thought it a perversion to cook such a piece of fish, but the quick broth bath really enhanced the fish's flavor, and made the resulting meat even more buttery and delicious.

The final course -- because we clearly hadn't eaten nearly enough -- was a round of sushi. Again, we let the chef do the picking, though I did insist that we try my favorite go-to, the unagi. The fish was prepared as a simple nigiri, served with two different soy sauces, one standard, and one spiked with ginger. My beloved eel, while pleasant, paled when compared to the smoked salmon and the tuna cheek meat, which made a normal cut of tuna seem dry by comparison. I got the impression that the chef would have kept serving us until we couldn't move, but we stopped at about five or six rounds. The whole affair was capped with a small jelly of fresh fruit and a pot of green tea.

TaroDessert At the meal's conclusion, the chef actually apologized for the lack of attention, as the restaurant was packed, and he was doing a lot of the prep for the main dining room. In fact, the chef (who as it turns out was also the owner, Nobu Yamazaki) was extremely gracious, informative, and friendly, not to mention super talented with that knife. We had absolutely no complaints about the service, which makes me wonder how attentive they are on a quiet night!

Rates for the sushi bar seem to vary with the market; at the time, we were told that we would have to purchase a "minimum" of $120 worth of sushi each. I am not sure how they meter that, as there is no menu, but we accepted everything offered, and did not incur any upcharges. The sake list is a bit expensive, so we brought our own bottle from home, which the chef was more than happy to open and serve us, for a $25 corking fee. All told, with tax and tip, the bill came in at just under $400, which I believe is actually cheaper than it would have been had we ordered all that sushi ala carte.

Though the price keeps this from being a monthly sort of event, Chef Yamazaki's emphasis on seasonal ingredients makes me very curious to visit sometime in the summer or winter, and see what crosses my plate. The entire experience from beginning to end was beautiful; the food, the ambiance, and the adventure of it would be incredibly hard to match. I absolutely cannot wait to go again.

Sushi Taro
1503 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036-6230
(202) 462-8999
www.sushitaro.com

Categories: Foodie Experiences, Japanese, Restaurant Reviews, Sushi
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Feb 26, 2010

El Chilango: Autenticos Tacos Mexicanos en Arlington

TacoTruck2 Over the past couple years, food trucks have hit DC in a big way -- a veritable convoy of the suckers have descended, bringing with them a bit of west coast charm hitherto unseen. Cuisines and attitude vary, from the over-the-top antics of the curry slinging Fojol Brothers, to the constantly Twittering bakers @CurbsideCupcakes. Several rock the social media like nobody's business, whereas others fly well below the radar.

El Chilango is definitely one of the quieter, less exposed trucks on the block. I had never seen nor heard of it until one cold December afternoon, when my girlfriend came home bearing tacos (that's why I love her!). She said she'd gotten them from a truck on Barton Street, and that the nice man cooking them even invited her into the truck, as it was rather blustery outside. Since then we have gone back several times, and have sampled practically everything they offer -- which is tacos. Just tacos. But, oh, what tacos!

TacoTruck3 Jesús, the truck's lively proprietor, serves up six different kinds of tacos: Lengua (beef tongue), Chorizo, Asada (grilled steak), Pollo (chicken), Al Pastor (marinated pork), and Res (beef), each available for $2.00 apiece. All come dressed in the traditional Mexican style, topped with plenty of cilantro and onion, double wrapped in crisp re-fried tortillas. Cucumber, radishes, and salsas verde and rojo are thrown in the deal on the house -- it really turns out to be quite a bit of food for the modest price tag.

Though the Pollo is a little dull (as might be expected), and the Asada only so-so, the rest of Jesús' offerings are out of this world. The Lengua is only slightly beefy, but has a wonderful, almost fluffy texture -- this taco would be a great intro for someone who 'doesn't like tongue,' so buy it for a friend, and don't tell him what it is. The Chorizo has a good amount of spice, but isn't offensively salty, which can TacoPlate often be the case with cheap Mexican sausage. Though I am not 100% sure what the difference is between the Asada and the Res, I can say that the latter has an outstanding texture, both crunchy and fatty at the same time, and a great blackened flavor.

The Al Pastor, though, is my hands-down favorite. This traditional Mexico City dish is made from adobo and chili marinated pork, which is cooked rotisserie-style with pineapple. I think he might cheat on the rotisserie part, but the pork itself has just the right level of fat content, and the smokey adobo and pineapple fruit come through nicely. With a bit of green chili sauce splashed on the top, the sweet, spicy, and smokey flavors meld into something truly beautiful.

When you visit, don't miss Chilango's homemade horchata. A combination of honey, rice milk, and spices, horchata has the consistency of skim milk, but is obviously much sweeter, and bears a faint flavor of cinnamon. I had ordered a Jarritos, but they were out, so when I was handed a cup of this opaque white TacoTruck1 stuff instead, I was very skeptical, but damned if it didn't make a perfect accompaniment to my tacos! Though I was disappointed to miss out on my favorite pineapple-flavored soda, the horchata's mellow sweetness made a soothing counterpoint to my spicy entree.

What El Chilango lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in quality. Even at some of your more expensive Mexican joints, the tortillas can be soaked and flabby, and the meat bland and over salted. I love the double tortilla at El Chilango, which is always crisp and firm, and the fillings are well above the curve. These are some of the best tacos I've had in the area, and when you throw in the fixins', it ain't much more expensive than Taco Bell.

El Chilango is normally parked on N. 14th St, between Quinn and Queen St, right off of Route 50, between the hours of 1:30 and 10:30. In the springtime, Jesús will likely shift the operation to Barton Street, between Fairfax Drive and N. 11th St.

Categories: Arlington, Cheap Eats, Food Carts, Mexican, Restaurant Reviews, Tacos
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Dec 08, 2009

Maryland brewery tour: Baltimore, Brewer's Art and Clipper City

BALT1

What do we know about Baltimore?

It's our charming northern neighbor. It has a decent football team. It has a crappy baseball team. It's the setting for gritty, true-to-life crime dramas. It's the setting for Food Network shows about Gen-X bakers. Apparently crabs -- caked and steamed -- and diners are a big deal, as are overrated directors and literary giants.

What I didn't know until a few years ago was that Baltimore is a town for beer lovers (yeah, take that Virginia.). There's Max's Taphouse and Mahaffey's Pub with their wonderfully long beer lineups. There's The Raven Special Lager, which is the only style of beer Baltimore-Washington Beer Works makes - and may be the only style of beer Stephen Demczuk needs to make. It's good stuff.

And then there's Clipper City and The Brewer's Art; one a brewery and one a brewpub, and either reason enough to suffer the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

BALT8 To go on a Clipper City brewery tour is to follow a wandering performance. Hugh Sisson, founder of Clipper City, has done a bit of acting in his day, which becomes immediately evident when he kicks off the tour with a dramatic reading. The man's a showman.

For a mere $5, you get a glass and stack of wooden nickels good for a few pints of Clipper City or Heavy Seas beers on draft in the brewery's tasting room. As for the tour and one-man show, that's free.

Clipper City is smaller than you think. At 13,000 barrels per year, the brewery produces less than half the amount of beer as craft brewing heavyweights like Dogfish Head, Stone and fellow Maryland-based craft brewery Flying Dog. But being Charm City's southern neighbor, we don't lack for access to Hugh Sisson's beer. Good thing. I like Hugh Sisson's beer.

As is the case with many craft breweries, Clipper City began as a brewpub, sort of. In 1989, Sisson and his father Al gave Baltimore its first brewpub since Prohibition when they began brewing house beers in the back of the family restaurant, Sisson's. Looking to get into commercial beer making, Hugh left the Federal Hill brewpub in 1995 to start Clipper City. Eight years later the Heavy Seas line set sail.

The Heavy Seas beers have taken over Clipper City. Touring the brewery with Sisson, you can't miss the Jolly Roger hung over the bottling machine, the stacks upon stacks of Heavy Seas beer boxes ready to be shipped, the labeling machine loaded with labels of the upcoming Yule Tide Christmas ale (It's a Belgian triple!), or the pallets loaded with kegs full of the fantastically delicious Big DIPA double IPA. Sisson still brews beers under the Clipper City and Oxford labels, but Heavy Seas is clearly his primary line (so much so that the company will soon switch names from Clipper City to Heavy Seas).

BALT5 Throughout the tour, you get a history lesson of Clipper City beer, craft brewing in Maryland and how Hugh is intimately involved with both. Hugh works the crowd, offers samples of malt and hops, and eventually leads the crowd back into the tasting room to finish cashing in their nickels. (During the week, the tasting room serves as the office for Sisson and his staff. On one side of the room is Hugh's desk, on the other side is where marketing director Kelly Zimmerman and the other staff work. Wearing a bright red cowgirl hat and pouring beers for the tour takers, Kelly told me that taps, bar and benches in between the desks stay right where they are Monday through Friday. My office sucks.)

If Sisson's was Baltimore's first brewpub, The Brewer's Art is its best. Hell, it's one of the city's best bars. I was introduced to The Brewer's Art years ago by some friends who lived around the corner. I've loved it since. The bright front bar and white-table cloth upstairs dining room and lounge serve as dramatic contrast to the catacomb bar downstairs.

BALT6 Every bar should feel like the downstairs bar at The Brewer's Art. With its mixture of nooks and low lighting, it's not hard to disappear into the space. If you're feeling a bit more communal, you can grab a seat at the V-shaped bar and order one of The Brewer's Art's many house beers, or order up a sample of the lot.

Although the cave-like basement would seem like the appropriate place to stick the brewing operation, the tanks are actually tucked into a room behind the first-floor dining room. Co-owners Volker Stewart and Tom Creegan clearly have an affinity for Belgian-style beers and a knack for brewing them. From the Ozzy to the Proletary Ale, these beers could be served in Brussels or alongside a plate of moules frites at Dr. Granville Moore's (In fact, Dr. Granville Moore's could serve The Brewer's Art's beers. The brewpub's Ozzy and Resurrection are brewed and bottled off-site, and available in the D.C. area, so ... you know, get on with it.).

BALT7 Whether you're upstairs or down, the brewpub's kitchen is there for you. In keeping with the nattier theme, the menu upstairs is upscale, featuring sweetbreads, Kobe pot roast and pan-seared skate. Downstairs, the menu offerings are more pub fare, including a reuben flatbread pizza, pork belly and a respectable portabella sandwich (Tip: You can order anything off the upstairs menu while enjoying your evening downstairs.)

Regardless of whether you go in for the skate or a burger, don't skip the rosemary and garlic fries. Those salty, garlic funky fries just make you want to order another Ozzy, and there's nothing wrong with that (especially when a pint will set you back about $3).

Clipper City is a great craft brewery and Hugh gives a lively tour, but to be honest, an evening at The Brewer's Art is all I need to know about Baltimore to make the trip north.

Want to see more pictures of Clipper City and The Brewer's Art? Check them out here.

Categories: Baltimore, Bar/Club, Beer, Out of Town, Restaurant Reviews, Travel
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Nov 03, 2009

Co Co. Sala: Chocolate lovers' lounge takes a walk on the savory side, awkwardly

CoCo1 Co Co. Sala is a chocolate lounge and boutique that caters to a late night crowd. It says so right on its Web site.

For the most part, that makes sense. It's evening menu is dominated by an array of (mostly) chocolate desserts. At either of its two bars, you can order a chocolate stout or Co Co. Sala's signature cocktail, the cocojito (I'd encourage you to do so. It's quite good. Also try the flight of scotches. Good stuff and a surprise find in the chocolate lounge.) And stationed around the lounge and boutique are blocks and boxes of chocolates for sale, which are made in the back, behind a window, allowing you to watch the chocolatiers at work. Even the décor is heavily accented in reddish brown chocolate tones.

So I get it, Co Co. Sala is a chocolate lounge and boutique. What I don't get is Co Co. Sala's other side. Is it also a restaurant? Should I keep it in mind for lunch or on Sunday for brunch? How about in the evening before I wade into the dessert menu, should I expect to have dinner beforehand?

CoCo3 I don't know. To try and figure this out, I recruited the services of my wife, Trish. She's exactly the kind of chocolate lover Co Co. Sala is courting. Whatever my thoughts are about its savory offerings, Co Co. Sala is a chocolate and dessert destination.

That said, let's start with the savory and end with sweet (that is the natural order of things after all).

My first visit to Co Co. Sala led me to the bar. Now, I either learned that day that Co Co. Sala doesn't have appetizers or has nothing but appetizers. It depends on how you look at it.

The evening menu offers a dozen small savory dishes; from lobster salad, to a blue cheese beef slider, to mac and cheese. I opted for the Moroccan swordfish slider, which came out as a beautifully grilled piece of fish nestled within a tiny, soft bun. It was great. But it was tiny and it was eight bucks.

That's where my main beef with Co Co. Sala lies. With dessert, a little goes a long way. But with savory dishes, more is more (to a point). Put another way, three of those sliders would have made a nice sized appetizer, but it would have put me back nearly $30. That's more than most entrees around town.

So Co Co. Sala isn't a dinner destination. If you want to come in for a five-course dessert, but want to start with tuna tartar, they've got you covered.

During the day, however, Co Co. Sala shifts its focus away from dessert in an effort to attract the lunch and Sunday brunch crowd. Admittedly, I've never tried Co Co. Sala's brunch, but judging from my lunch experience, I imagine it's good.

The problem is, Co Co. Sala is a chocolate lounge that caters to an evening crowd, not a lunch destination in a neighborhood (Penn Quarter) that's loaded with restaurants.  

CoCo2 This is not to say Co Co. Sala can't do lunch. During a recent lunch, my beet and goat cheese salad was delicious and colorful. The spinach and feta tart with tiger shrimp was a surprise when it came out as a spinach and feta tart, with tiger shrimp in a dill sauce on the side. Still, it was quite good (the tart tasted exactly like a Pizza Hut pan pizza. I like Pizza Hut pan pizza.) The salami and parmigiano-reggiano sandwich my buddy ordered was good, though it could have used less bread and more meat. But the parmesan and rosemary fries he got were reason enough to make Co Co. Sala a regular lunch destination.

So Co Co. Sala can do savory. It just doesn't seem like it wants to. Or if it does, the savory parts of the menu don't seem well thought out. Although the lounge introduced the lunch service and does brunch, it still feels like a lounge. In the evening, when diners and dates fill the low tables and booths, Co Co. Sala looks like it's fulfilling the vision of owners Nisha Sidhu and Bharet Malhotra. But during the day, when a handful of diners are slumped over the same small tables eating salami sandwiches and drinking iced tea, I have to assume that this is less the vision and more a means of making a few extra dollars.

If I'm right, Sidhu and Malhotra should put some effort into their savory menus and make Co Co. Sala the lunch and dinner spot they seem to be flirting with. Otherwise, they should stick with what they do best: dessert after dark.

Speaking of that, I'll have Trish talk about the desserts...

Trish's Take

So much chocolate, so little time (and money). What's a chocolate-lover to do when confronted by a menu that's at least 75% chocolate?  It took me quite some time to figure out what to order. I'd eaten at Coco Sala before, but I hadn't had the appetite to order one of their multi-course dessert offerings. This time I was ready.

To start, beverages.  I'm currently in my third trimester of pregnancy, and so unable to enjoy Co Co. Sala's interesting chocolate-themed cocktails on the menu. Unfortunately only one of the drinks is made "virgin," but it lacks chocolate. (For the majority of you who are not in the family way, I highly recommend the cocojito, which I tried some months before the pregnancy. The combination of chocolate with tart citrus and mint is irresistible.) 

CoCo4 Happily, the flight of hot chocolates came to my rescue. There are five to choose from, and of the three I had, two could be dessert in their own right. I didn't enjoy the white chocolate, which I tried because I wanted to step outside my dark chocolate comfort zone. After a few sips it reminded me of sweetened, condensed-milk, straight up. But the peanut butter milk chocolate, and the dark chocolate were divine.  The peanut butter milk chocolate was rich, silky, and salty with peanut flavor. A cup of this would more than suffice as a dessert after a full meal. The dark chocolate was lighter and more bitter by comparison, although the chocolate flavor was not as strong as I would've liked. 

As much as I enjoyed the hot chocolates, I was there for the Monde du Chocolat, Co Co. Sala's selection of 3 and 5-course desserts. After a brief flirtation with the Asian-themed course, I settled on the Italian 3-course because I'm a huge sucker for good tiramisu, the star of the main dessert course.

Three flavors of tiramisu are offered as the "main dessert," with a small dessert course before and after. Before I get to the tiramisu, however, let me praise that first little dessert - a vanilla panna cotta bite with chocolate praline soup. I'm not that excited about vanilla, but I got excited about this dish. The vanilla flavor was so clean and pure I could've happily eaten more than just the three or four tiny spoonfuls that were offered. The chocolate praline soup was second-fiddle at best. But then came three varieties of tiramisu (top photo).

Surprisingly, the "traditional" variety was forgettable: it lacked enough chocolate and espresso to make it worth the calories. The fraise-de-bois, on the other hand, was a knock-out. I would never have thought to put strawberry and espresso together, but they were a wonderful combination with the creamy interior of the tiramisu. The final tiramisu -- chocolate tiramisu -- was just the dark, bitter chocolate hit I was looking for. For all you dark-chocolate lovers out there, this is your tiramisu: everything is chocolate-soaked. The final course of two small Italian cookies included a very interesting ricotta cheese bite, whose light sweetness I thoroughly enjoyed after the tongue-coating dark-chocolate. 

CoCo5 Drew's not as into chocolate as I am (that is a significant understatement), but he ordered the main course of the "Xocolatyl: Aztec Experience" trio. The star of the plate was undeniably the tiny chipotle truffle, which had the perfect balance of deep chocolate richness and heat. I've had the pepper/chocolate combination before, but rarely have I tasted it so well executed. The hot chocolate souffle was everyone else's favorite, but I found it bland. (Note from Drew: I really did like this dessert. The sweet/heat thing isn't always done well. It is at Co Co. Sala.)

Overall, Co Co. Sala's sweet offerings provide something for everyone. If you're not a fan of big, rich dark chocolate flavors like me, there's still plenty for you to enjoy. (If you don't want any dessert at all, you're in the wrong place.)  And if you're just looking for a chocolate fix, skip the Monde du Chocolat and head for the "Dolce" selection of small plates where you can find a selection of artfully decorated artisanal chocolates with a variety of fillings that will hit the spot without filling you to the point of popping.

Co Co. Sala
929 F St NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 347-4265
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Categories: Chocolate, DC, Penn Quarter, Restaurant Reviews
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