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July 2008

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat.

Yeah, yeah. I’m sure all of you out there are pretty pumped about the upcoming DC Restaurant Week—so am I, I assure you. But don’t be so quick to forget another annual week-long extravaganza — Shark Week! Every year since 1987, the Discovery Channel has taken on the summer TV slump with a celebration of the shark, and man, is it some compelling television. Being at the top of the food chain of the planet’s biggest biome, there is much a foodie can respect and empathize with in this merciless killer. Like the foodie, the shark is voracious, but also open minded — from Tuna Sashimi to Seal Tartar, the shark is in, full bore. Also, he is not one to scoff at ethnic cuisine:  whether Australian, Indian, or American, everyone is on the menu. That said, the Discovery Channel pulls no punches, depicting the brutal life of these prehistoric killers in a very visceral manner—your gonna need a drink to steel yourself. Fortunately, there are a couple of producers out there making some great beverages that are appropriate to the occasion, and actually do a little good along the way.

Pict0813 Shark Trust Wines, founded by avid diver Melanie Marks, in San Luis Obispo, California, presents a great line of international wines, labeled with a focus on shark education. Shark Trust pulls its wine from all over the globe, with producers in California, France, and South Africa, each wine embodying the grapes and style of its origin. Right now, I am enjoying a glass of Whale Shark Chenin Blanc 2007, a sturdily made South African wine made from the county’s signature grape. Tropical fruit such as guava and kiwi dominate the nose, giving way more ripe flavors on a full-bodied palate, with a short but appropraitely acidic finish. The line also features a fruit-driven Reef Shark Red from southern France, (which I have tasted and find to be a great fruit-driven Rhone Style red), the Great White Chardonnay, and the  Six Gill Syrah, all of which are well priced at about $10, of which 10% goes to shark charities.

Pict0809_2 For those that prefer something a bit on the stronger side, "Take Little Bites," a company out of Jupiter, Florida, has released Mako Vodka. Founded by Long Island transplant Michael Politano in 2005, Mako Vodka seeks to "take on the big boys" like Grey Goose and Smirnoff, while donating 10% of their profits to wetlands and coral reef preservation. This three-times distilled, charcoal filtered grain vodka has a very clean profile, including hints of nuts and wheat on the nose. The body is smooth but full, almost oily, with none of that harsh vodka bite so common of spirits in its modest (about $13) price range. Regardless of your drink, this is a surprisingly palatable vodka, appropriate for tonics and martinis, and is even clean enough to drink neat.

Though the Discovery Channel, Shark Trust, and Take Little Bites all take a light-hearted tack on the matter, their underlying ethos needs be noted: that our oceans and their denizens, however large, are vital and fragile, and in desperate need of our assistance. Its good to know that, thanks to certain well minded people, in some small way, we may do something for the greater good while taking our enjoyment. Cheers!


Let's Meat on the Avenue: The New Butcher Shop That Has Del Ray Raving

Img_4205 By the time Cheesetique's new location was open for business, the sign for Let's Meat on the Avenue was up outside the old location, tantalizing those of us who loved the idea of a new honest-to-goodness butcher shop on Mount Vernon Avenue.

Stephen Gatward, the man behind the counter, may have kept foodies waiting for a month or so, but he opened Let's Meat on the Avenue to such a tremendous response that he actually sold out of everything he had to offer on his first day of business.  Though he previously worked in advertising in the area, Gatward has years of experience as a butcher in England and Australia, and his experience shows in the beautifully trimmed cuts of meat on display in the single refrigerated case that runs along the left side of the store.

Too_much_meat_046_2A word of warning - it's far too easy to be drawn in by the steaks, chops and sausages that fill the case (assuming you get there early enough in the day), and it's embarassing to leave smudgy noseprints on the glass.  They really are that good-looking, with the steaks ranging from thin and bright red to thick, deeply marbled, and bordering on purple in color.  Chops stand out more for their uniformity than any particularly unique appearance.  And the sausages, including both those made on-site by hand and those brought in from Amish vendors in Pennsylvania, have a rich meatiness to them that you just don't find in commercial preparations.

If you like your meat local and minimally processed, Let's Meat on the Avenue has your number.  They bring in cuts of beef and lamb from Fauquier's Finest, a country butcher shop and meat processing facility in Bealston, Virginia, and Gatward is proud to sell Bell and Evans chickens (a brand noted for its commitment to raising their birds naturally).

Stevegatward In addition to the meats on offer, Let's Meat on the Avenue sells a wide range of spices, rubs, marinades and other items that can enhance your carnivorous cuisine.  They also sell t-shirts bearing the logo of the shop (banking on the friendly image and foodies' eager embrace) and a table full of smoked bones still rich with marrow that are guaranteed to earn you the undying loyalty of just about any dog.  Gift certificates are also available (they charge tax on the purchase, ostensibly so that the recipient can spend it tax-free).

Although the prices are nothing like what you'll find at Safeway (no $0.89/lb specials here), you can't help but feel like you're getting quality for the money.  The meat is tender and tasty, with a flavor that is clear and strong.  Whether or not you agree with food writers like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver who talk about the "true costs" of food in terms of economic, environmental, social and health impacts, it's not hard to justify the added expense for Let's Meat on the Avenue's products.

If you find yourself in Del Ray (scratching an itch for frozen custard at the Dairy Godmother or hot chocolate at Artfully Chocolate Kingsbury Confections), do yourself a favor and stop in to see what Steve has available at Let's Meat on the Avenue.  And if there's something specific you're looking for, do yourself a favor and ask.  If they don't have it in stock, they can usually special-order.  But be prepared to find slim pickings if you stop by too late on a Saturday - the Farmers' Market crowd tends to do their shopping early, and they have embraced Let's Meat on the Avenue in a big way.

Let's Meat on the Avenue
2403 Mt Vernon Ave
Alexandria, VA 22336
(703) 836-6328
Closed Mondays
Tuesdays 11-6
Wednesdays through Fridays 11-7
Saturdays 8-5
Sundays 11-3

Mac and Cheese: Dinner with Friends

There's really nothing more fun than eating dinner with a bunch of friends. It's been a really long time since I was truly able to have people over for dinner; it's not an exaggeration to say that my old apartment was literally the size of the bedroom in my current apartment. (Which is not to say my new apartment is huge, rather it's to say my old apartment was really, really small. Remember the floor pie?) As soon as I moved and was settled, I called up my friends and invited them over for a tradition that I have since I moved into my own place; dinner and Project Runway.

008_2 Now, I'm not here to debate with you the merits of my favorite reality TV program, other than to say that it is the best and I will be throwing it a funeral when it moves to Lifetime. But, it's a show me and my friends, both female and male,  enjoy a lot, and the only things that makes good TV better are good food and good drink. I left it up to my friends to supply the booze, while I focused on dinner. For dinner, I went with something both easy and impressive, a time-honored classic: macaroni and cheese.

I love macaroni and cheese from the box, and I think that even though it's obviously really fake processed cheese, growing up on Kraft (especially with the absence of homemade baked macaroni and cheese – not a criticism, Mom!) makes you prefer a certain level of creaminess and sauciness in your macaroni and cheese that you don't often get when you're doing the baked version. So it was with delight that I found that the recipe I followed – from another TV favorite of mine, Alton Brown and his Good Eats show – allowed for a really cheesy, really creamy sauce and a nice crispy crust on top. I made it with cheddar – half farmer's market cheddar I had left over, and half grocery-store cheddar I picked up to fill in the gaps – but you could literally use any blend of cheeses you want. It would be a fun way, I think, to really try out some of the local dairies around here; ask them which of their cheeses they would use in mac and cheese and just do this recipe substituting those for the cheddar. I left out a couple things, and cut down on some others (the original recipe called for more panko crumbs and onions, which I omitted), but the result was cheesy, salty, smoky, and fantastic. I barely had enough left over for lunch the next day.009

For sides, we whipped up a quick garlic bread and a salad with mixed greens, chopped raw beets, chopped raw pears, feta cheese, and quickly thrown together balsamic vinaigrette. More hearty sides would go perfectly in the winter time.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from Alton Brown's Good Eats)

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
3 cups milk
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 large egg
12 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
kosher salt
fresh black pepper

For the topping:
3 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs

011 Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Boil your pasta to al dente (when it is done, just set it aside). While your pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour and ground mustard to create a roux. Whisk continuously while it cooks for about 5 minutes, preventing any lumps from forming. Add the hot milk to the pan (never ever, ever use cold milk for this), as well as the paprika and the bay leaf and whisk well. Simmer for about 10 minutes until it has started to thicken (but keep an eye to make sure it doesn't turn gluey). Remove the bay leaf.

Temper the egg and add it to the milk mixture, then add 3/4 of your cheese (or more, if you prefer; I always grate and keep extra around, especially for the crust). Stir until the cheese sauce is nice and smooth. Then add your pasta and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the mac and cheese into a lightly-greased casserole dish (for easier scooping later). In a frying pan, melt the butter for the topping and add the panko crumbs, tossing them together to coat. Cover the top of your mac and cheese with the remaining grated cheese and the panko crumbs. Bake for 30 minutes. Allow to rest and cool on your stovetop for 5 minutes before serving.

Weekly Blog Round Up

Wine_tasting_2 Heard around the DC Foodies blogosphere this last week...Iced coffee is cool again. It's ok, really, according to the Washington Post's article entitled "Roasting Raises the Coffee Bar" by Michaela Weissman.  You can enjoy a "transcendent" cup of Kuta coffee over ice, served up by David Gwathmey at Grape + Bean in Alexandria's Old Town.

This week, The Garden Apartment also reported on a visit to Grape + Bean, which highlights fair trade Counter Culture coffee. She tells of her husband's enlightenment when savoring a cup of la Golondrina and recommends that coffee enthusiasts check out a book called God in a Cup.

If you find that wine tasting is your thing, you can look forward to continuing your tasting in Columbia Heights, where the 11th St. Deli is becoming a wine bar with indoor and outdoor seating, according to Prince of Petworth. Across the Potomac in Virginia, you can enjoy Old World labels with a concentration on France at Bar Baudelaire above La Gaulois on King Street in Old Town. Bar Baudelaire also offers terrines, French cheeses and charcuterie.

Chef Andrew Markert will take over as Executive Chef at Tallulah, according to Apples and Bananas. Chef Markert, most recently the Chef de Cuisine at Vermillion, will continue to oversee menus at both Tallulah and Eat Bar, according to Michael Babin, President of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.

In a quandary over what restaurant to book for Restaurant Week? Capital Spice can help you narrow down your choice geographically with a helpful Google map that locates every restaurant participating in next month's DC Restaurant Week.

For any DC Foodie in need of validation that we do indeed live in a gastronomic destination, Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of No Reservations here last week. Spotted at Cafe Atlantico, the Penn Quarter farmers market, Eamonn's and the PX, Bourdain sightings brought no small amount of excitement to the blogs and boards. And, perhaps, new friendships.

Jacques Pépin's "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen"

Those old enough to remember 1970s television might recall the pre-cable, slot-filling cooking shows, where Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet reigned among brick-walled kitchens and hanging copper pots.  You might also remember a dashing Frenchman named Jacques Pépin, who entered the NY cooking scene in the early 1960s and quickly rose through the ranks via talent, connections, and joie de vivre.

His memoir, The Apprentice:  My Life in the Kitchen, reads as a response to all the people who must have told him over the years, "Jacques, you've had an incredible life.  Why don't you write an autobiography?" And so he did, with equal parts humility and insouciance. Pepin_2

Indeed, beginning with his childhood in small-town France, he suffuses The Apprentice with a modesty and gratitude that never descends into an "aw shucks, little ol' me?" corniness.  It's as if the better parts of his French and American natures rose to the surface to produce a noble and modest reflection on a fascinating – indeed, charmed – life.  His advancement in the culinary world was phenomenal yet uncalculated, his successes the result of 10% hard work and 90% simply being in the right place at the right time.

The hard work began early and crafted an ethic that helped him rise through an increasingly prestigious succession of French restaurants.  Packed off in 1949 to a three-year apprenticeship with Le Grand Hôtel de l'Europe in Bourg-en-Bresse, at the age of 14 yet still dressed in the short pants of a boy, he describes in engaging detail the system of brigade de cuisine, the traditional and intense training where aspiring chefs spend years cycling through every station in the kitchen.  Progression is prohibited until mastery is achieved.

His is an incredible insight into the overheated, frantic, steamy and mysterious world that sparks a voyeuristic response in any dedicated foodie.  Pépin's explication of the traditional apprenticeship is worth the price of the book alone, not just for the nostalgic details of a sometimes esoteric field, but also because it is a startling contrast to today's specialized roles in U.S. kitchens, where a cook is hired and trained to do one thing and one thing only. In fact, it's hard to imagine someone today, in our celebritized culture of culinary rock stars, deigning to submit to the militaristic regime of Pépin's era, where there was room in the kitchen for only one ego.  Indeed, Pépin, who started as a cleaner – of the kitchen, not food – was forbidden to even approach le piano, the immense oven at the heart of Le Grand Hôtel's kitchen.

Finally, after a year of unpaid 15-hour days spent cleaning, prepping and observing, the "Chef suddenly materialized” beside him.

    "Quietly and with no inflection, he said, 'Jacques.'
    It was the first time I'd heard him utter my proper name.
    ‘Tomorrow you start at the stove.'"

Yet after a three-year tour of duty, he still had risen no higher than third commis, "a trainee, one tiny step above apprentice."

The other value of Pépin's memoir is the insight he offers laypeople into simple French country cooking. The French's love of offal, if we have learned nothing else from Anthony Bourdain, exhibits a passion for frugality that extends to every ingredient available, sparing nothing and turning it all into a hearty meal.  Following his move to America, Pepin could be seen tramping through the woods hunting for wild mushrooms or scouring the Mendocino coastline for escargots.  Even Billy, a feral sheep terrorizing his Hunter, NY neighborhood, became sautéed kidneys and sweetbreads.

As his many anecdotes show, you can take the boy out of the countryside, but you can't take the countryside out of the boy.  Despite his Parisian training and a diplomatic job cooking elaborate, no-budget meals for heads of state (following an unexpected turn of political events that landed him the title First Chef of France), many of the recipes with which Pépin ends each chapter are from his beloved Maman:  cheese soufflé, apple tart, stuffed eggs.  In fact, only four of the nineteen recipes come from his high-end chef days.  The remainder are hearty soups, brasserie fare and favorites he adopted from his friends in the U.S.:  pork ribs and red beans, scallop ceviche, pasta primavera.  His simple recipe for Chicken Salad à la Danny Kaye, who was famous for comedy but largely unknown for his enviable talent as a chef, sets a new standard for a pretty basic dish – it's that good.  In addition, Pépin's recipes are simple and use only common, unpretentious ingredients, yet they are elaborately explained, eliminating any of the familiar "Does this mean I'm supposed to…" doubts that recipes sometimes foster.  His recipes and his instructional manner – actually, the man himself – are the perfect antidote for anyone intimidated by French cuisine, which perhaps explains his wide appeal to Americans.

Pépin, in the 73rd year of a rather charmed life, is enjoying a full-on embrace of the multimedia world.  He has too many book titles to list, but most notable are his seminal cooking guides, La Technique and La Methode.  These manuals are, interestingly enough, the means by which Tom Colicchio taught himself how to cook, and are available combined under the title Complete Techniques.  Pépin also has a website ( and a PBS series on DVD, Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way, with a follow-up, More Fast Food My Way, reportedly in the works.

Bethesda Restaurant Week Menus

Here are the details about what the different restaurants are offering for Bethesda Restaurant Week for Summer 2008. We're still getting details in from the restaurants, so stay tuned if you don't see a restaurant you are interested in going to.

Assaggi - $15 Lunch
Offering a special menu for lunch for Restaurant Week. Assaggi will also have their normal menu, but it will be normal price.

Bacchus - $12 Lunch, $25 Dinner
Offering a subset of their normal menu. Their normal menu is normally 12 pages, the Restaurant Week menu is 4 pages.

Bice - $15 Lunch, $30 Dinner
Lunch menu is here, Dinner menu is here.

Famoso - $30 Dinner
Famoso is offering a choice of four appetizers, three entrees and three desserts for Bethesda Restaurant Week patrons.  Choose between a gratin of scallops, caesar salad, a mesclun mix and the soup of the day for your first course, a pair of pastas, tuna fillet with ratatouille and chicken paillard for your entree, and panna cotta, sorbet or ice cream with fruit and nuts for your dessert.

Faryab - $30 Dinner
Faryab is closed on Mondays, so you may want to plan accordingly.

Gaffney's - $15 Lunch, $30 Dinner
Gaffney's is participating at both lunch and dinner, but please note that their lunch menu is set at $15 instead of $12.  Menus for both are available on their website.

Grapeseed Bistro - $30 Dinner
Menu for Bethesda Restaurant Week is posted on their web site now. Definitely review it before making your reservation because it's a little complicated.

Jaleo - $12 Lunch, $30 Dinner
For Bethesda-Chevy Chase Restaurant Week, Jaleo Bethesda will be offering a choice of any two tapas for $12 at lunch and a dinner that is 3 tapas plus a dessert plus coffee or tea for $30.  They will also be participating in DC Restaurant week, where they will offer a choice of any two tapas from modern classics, a soft drink and flan or sorbet for $20.08 at lunch and a soft drink, gazpacho or green salad, three tapas, flan, sorbet or chocolate hazelnut dessert for $35.08 at dinner.

La Ferme - $15 Lunch, $30 Dinner
La Ferme is offering a 2 course lunch menu for $15 and which is available Monday-Friday from 11:30-2:30. Dinner is 3 course menu offered at $30 and is available Monday through Sunday from 5-9:30.

Lunch (choose 2 of 3)
Chilled Ratatouille Soup with Basil or a Trio of Deviled Eggs served over Boston Lettuce chiffonade

Dijon Mustard coated Palliard of Chicken served with Grilled Vegetables with a Spicy Tarragon/Mustard Sauce
Pan Seared Mahi Mahi filet with Toasted Almonds

Milk Chocolate Creme Brulee or Peach Melba

Dinner Menu
Chilled Gazpacho Analou or Spinach, Endive and Walnut Salad with a Roquefort Dressing

Breast of Chicken stuffed with Spinach and served with Calvados cream sauce or Fricassee of Monkfish, Shrimp and Bay Scallops in a White Wine sauce over Linguine or Saffron Risotto with Roasted Vegetables and Red Pepper and Tomato Coulis

Duo of White and Dark Chocolate Mousse or Blueberry Claufoutis

La Miche - $30 Dinner
Dinner is $30 for 3 courses from a "Summer Special Menu" which is a selection of 3 appetizers, 4 entrees and 3 desserts.

Lia's - $15 Lunch, $30 Dinner
Most of their normal menu will be available.

McCormick and Schmick's - $15 Lunch, $30 Dinner
Lunch (either a salad and entree, a cup of soup and entree, or entree and dessert.)
Desserts - Creme Brulee or Jake's Chocolate Truffle Cake
Soup - Cup of Chowder
Salads - Mixed Greens or Caesar
Entrees - Cedar Salmon or Parmesan Crusted Sole or Fettucine with Scallops and Shrimp

Crab Soup or Salad
Parmesan Crusted Sole or Cedar Salmon or Rainbow Trout
Creme Brulee or Jake's Chocolate Truffle Cake

Mon Ami Gabi - $12 Lunch, $30 Dinner
Lunch- $12pp not including tax, gratuity and drinks
Creamy Chicken Mushroom Crepe or Salmon Burger or Croque Monsieur or Roasted Chicken Salad Sandwich


Dinner- $30pp not including tax, gratuity and drinks
Chilled Gazpacho or Butter Lettuce and Shaved Vegetable Salad or Chicken Liver Mousse Pate

Pan-Seared Salmon over Orzo or Roasted Pork Tenderloin or Roasted Chicken and Frites or Steak Frites with choice of sauc

Chocolate Mousse or Bananas Foster or Warm Bread Pudding

Passage to India - $30 Dinner
Menu for Bethesda Restaurant Week is available here.

Sushiko - $15 Lunch, $30 Dinner
6 piece Sashimi Appetizer Or Shrimp & Vegetable Appetizer

Sushi Assortment
(1 piece each of Tuna, Salmon & Yellowtail Nigiri plus choice of 1 maki:  California, Crunchy Shrimp, Salmon-Avocado, Spicy Tuna or Cucumber-Avocado) Or Chicken Teriyaki

Dinner $30.00 (3 Courses)
Miso Soup & Seaweed Salad OR Miso Soup & Sushi-Ko Salad

Tempura  Appetizer
(3 pc shrimp and 5 pcs vegetable) OR Sashimi Appetizer (7pc) (3 Tuna, 2 Salmon, 2 White Fish) OR Salmon Ceviche OR Soft Shell Crab Roll

Sushi Assortment (1 piece each of Tuna, Salmon & Yellowtail Nigiri plus choice of 1 maki:  California, Crunchy Shrimp, Salmon-Avocado, Spicy Tuna or Cucumber-Avocado) OR Chicken Teriyaki

Tragara - $12 Lunch, $30 Dinner
Bethesda Restaurant Week menu is posted on their web site.

Tavira Dinner $30 for 3 Course
Caldo Verde - Portugal’s National soup, shredded hale, onions, potatoes and olive oil, garnished with chourico
SALADA DA HORTA - Fresh market greens, tomatoes, onions and Mediterranean dressing
MEXILHOES NA CATAPLANA - Steamed mussels, tomatoes and bell peppers in white wine sauce
PORTUGUESE SARDINES “ESCABECHE” - Marinated sardines with cloves of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, kosher salt, bay leaves and paprika, served at room temperature

BACALHAU A BRAZ - Shredded salted cod sautéed with onions in olive oil, combined with straw potatoes, olives and egg
LOMBO DE PORCO A CACADOR - Pork loin with wild mushrooms, braised in brandy Croft, served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes
FRANGO A PIRI-PIRI - Grilled chicken, Portuguese style in Piri-Piri sauce (hot spicy pepper sauce), served with home made potato chips
CALDEIRADA PORTUGUESA - A traditional Portuguese fish stew with shrimp, clams, mussels, sea scallops and potatoes
PARRILHADA DE MARISCOS - A traditional Iberian mixed seafood charbroiled on a skewer, served with aioli

BOLO DE CHOCOLATE COM GELADO - Chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream
PUDIM FLAN - Traditional Portuguese caramel custard

Visions - $12 Lunch, $30 Dinner

Cup of Any of Our 3 Soups of the Day
Lunch Fried Calamari
Single Crawfish Roll
Mesclun Greens, Marinated Roma Tomato Salad, Red Onion & Balsamic Vinaigrette

Thin Sliced Ham, Swiss, Arugula and Honey Mustard Panini
Roasted Chicken Pasta with Pine Nuts, Mushrooms, Parmesan Cream and Spinach
Teriyaki Beef Ribs with French Fries and Jiicama Slaw
Shrimp, Chicken and Andouille Jambalaya with Rice
Yellowfin Tuna Stir Fry with Jasmine Rice

Steamed Black Mussels with Bacon, Black Beans and Leeks
Crispy Fried Calamari with Sweet Peppers and Lemon Basil Aioli
Teriyaki Beef Cross Cut Short Ribs with Asian BBQ

“Mac & Cheese” Roasted Chicken, Pennsylvania Cheddar and Breadcrumb
Atlantic Salmon “Cuban Style” with Plantains, White Rice and Black Beans
Chicken Dijon with Smashed Potatoes and Grilled Vegetables
Single Crab Cake with Herbed Rice and Red Pepper Sauce
Single Filet Mignon Satay with Plantains and Cucumber Salad

Chocolate Crème Brulee
Tira Misu with Toasted Almonds

Roses - Part 2

Having just co-hosted a large rose event with TasteDC, I was recently fortunate enough to revisit a good number of this year's crop of pink wines. Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights).

Beauvignac Beavignac Syrah Vin de Pays D'Oc Rose 2007 (About $9)
Though France is best known for its high-end wines, Vin de Pays (cheaper wines, literally "Country Wines") represent many of the best values in the world. This 100% Syrah from the Languedoc region in southern France shows a light pink, slightly orange color in the glass. On the nose, it has a nice blend of red fruit and spice. On the palate is where this wine differs from most, being relatively low in acid — this makes the finish rather short, but leaves the texture rather round and mellow (like Chardonnay). A great ice-cold quaffer, and at such a modest price, you can enjoy it all summer.

Grandecass Chateau Grande Cassagne Rose 2007 (About $10)
A perennial favorite from local importer Robert Kacher, this particular incarnation is not very good, even for $10. The nose is redolent of fresh rubber and alcohol, and on the palate the wine is washed out, chemically accented, and lame. Usually I am not one to say this, but the Grande Cassagne '07 is an objectively bad wine. Stick with Bobby's Petite Cassagne, which I reviewed in my first rose post.

Melival Melipal Malbec Rose 2007 (About $13)
This rich Malbec rose from Argentina shows a rich, dark burgundy-pink in the glass, and gives off scents of cinnamon, savory herbs and red raspberries. More raspberries on the palate, along with a slightly bitter quality, give way to a surprisingly dry, full, almost tannic finish. This wine's weight, fruit, and dry finish make is a wonderful pair with your spicier Indian food, such as Tandoori Lamb.

Pinieros Bodega Pirineos Mesache Rosado 2007 (About $15)
This Cabernet/Merlot blend from northeast Spain is unusual, in that about 10% of the wine is fermented in American oak. Though the nose shows a typical amalgam of strawberries and flowers, even that small bit of oak gives this wine a buttery quality on the palate, an unusual trait for a rose. Despite the atypical texture, the finish is clean and sharp due to the wine's poignant acidity. Given its unique profile, this wine would make a great pair with foods most often served with Chardonnay, including scallops, pork, heavier fish, and even cream sauce.

Incidentally, to reiterate a point I made in my last rose diatribe, keep an eye out for the bad stuff — lots of restaurants around town are still trying to hawk turned wine to turn a profit. Just recently, I noticed that two restaurants I really enjoy have been selling such dead juice. Vapiano in Arlington is selling a pretty bad 2005 Cusumano Rose for some $7 per glass, and Kaz Sushi Bistro has the gall to offer a $28 rose from 2002 on its wine list (I did not order this, but asked the waitress, and was assured that the vintage was correct)! Now, these are two of my favorite eateries (for very, very different reasons), which goes to show that even respectable establishments may take the low road as regards the pink stuff. Buyer beware!

Zagat DC-Baltimore 2009 Guide Released Today - A Chat with Tim and Nina Zagat

Zagat_3When it comes to restaurant reviews by diners, for diners, the folks at Zagat have been doing it longer than just about anyone else out there.  Beginning in New York in 1979, they have conducted yearly surveys of frequent diners (starting with their friends and expanding to include thousands of people in cities around the world) and using their results to provide their iconic ratings of venues' Food, Decor, Service and Cost.  With that sort of participation, is it any wonder that restaurateurs watch the guide closely and are quick to point out categories in which they score well?

Today's release of the 2009 edition of the DC-Baltimore (that's right, we still have to share) guide should prompt a new round of press releases and emails touting high ratings and inclusion on the "Most Popular" list.  And with yesterday's announcement of the participants in next month's DC Summer Restaurant Week, the timing for this release couldn't be better.  Available in local bookstores for $14.95 or at for $10.17, the "burgundy bible" can give you a quick glimpse into the opinions of more than 7,200 DC diners as you prepare to make your Restaurant Week reservations.

Tim_and_nina To help promote the release of the new guide, owners Tim and Nina Zagat have come down to Washington from their home in New York.  Over coffee, I sat down to talk about some interesting statistical findings, a few surprises in the new guide and the role of Zagat's guides and other products in an increasingly digital society. 

I began by asking about the reasons behind the combination of Washington and Baltimore - a bit of New York snobbery, perhaps?  They assured me that it was more a concession to Baltimore than a snub to DC - while Washington could support a guide on its own, Baltimore's restaurant scene didn't quite do the trick.  Because the two are separated by less than an hour's drive, they felt that the combination allowed diners in both cities to see what the other had to offer and it allowed for a larger print run resulting in lower costs for both cities.  Take that, wounded pride!

The biggest news, for those who follow the guide's results closely, is Makoto's receipt of top honors in the category of Food.  While the Inn at Little Washington retained its place atop the Decor and Service categories, they placed second to the MacArthur Boulevard kaiseki establishment "by hundredths of a point," according to Tim.  This is in keeping with a national trend that has seen Japanese cuisine rise in prominence across the country - a result that the Zagats say was unheard of even five years ago. 

And that miniscule (but significant) difference in rankings is where the Zagats feel the strength of their model lies.  With thousands of reviewers, they have a series of filters in place that they use to weed out industry shills and others who might try to skew the results.  Those who do participate are asked to submit their opinions on a scale of 0-3 for each restaurant, from which the guide gives an averaged result (multipied by 10 to result in the 30-point scale).  This forces reviewers to think long and hard about whether a restaurant is excellent (3), good (2), fair (1) or poor (0).  They've experimented with other formats, including the more widely used 0-5 scale, but have found that more options tend to lead to results that drift toward the center as voters hesitate to give 5's and 1's and settle into that middle range for most of their rankings.

Here in Washington, the 2009 survey turned up some interesting results about our dining habits.  No longer a city of steakhouses and expense-account lunches, Washington's average meal is $4.33 below the national average.  Maybe that's why so many of those surveyed (62%) indicated that they are willing to pay more for food that is sustainably raised.  In addition to a preference for sustainable agriculture, seven in ten of us said that we consider local sourcing important.  Taking these results to heart, the Zagats indicated that they are looking into the most appropriate way to highlight green practices, commitment to organic ingredients and/or local sourcing as a "Special Feature" category for future ratings - much as breakfast, chef's tables and 'power scenes' are in this year's guide.

It should come as no surprise to D.C. Foodies that we are far more digitally inclined than our neighbors to the north - 37% of the participants in the DC survey indicated that they use online reservation sites like OpenTable while only 17% do so in New York.

As a writer for a food blog, I was especially interested in learning the Zagats' views of online reviewers and in hearing about their own evolving web presence.  Tim was quick to acknowledge the value in the multitude of local voices that the proliferation of food blogs provides - "You live here," he says.  "Who knows the food in your neighborhood better than you?"  But he went on to point out the need for common frames of reference to help people determine which voices mirror their own.  A sixty year-old married man, for example, is unlikely to seek out the same sort of establishment as a twenty-six year-old single woman.  According to Zagat, both voices are important (and useful on their own) but the blending of those voices is a strength of Zagat.

Nina was a wonderful ambassador for the Zagat web presence, encouraging me to take out my BlackBerry and check out the Webby-winning site designed for mobile accessibility.  By registering at the main Zagat site and then signing in on your mobile device, you can access a significant portion of their content while on the go - helpful when trying to choose among the various restaurants in a given neighborhood once you're there.  Registration on the site also allows you to join the ranks of the Zagat reviewers - you can vote year-round and then submit your votes for the annual survey when the time comes.

After talking about the specifics of the new survey and the increasing importance of Zagat's online presence, we spoke for a while about the rise of celebrity chefs and television's increasing obsession with food.  Tim said he was unsure how he felt about the whole thing, and he took the opportunity to correct a misrepresentation in David Kamp's "The United States of Arugula."  Though he acknowledges criticizing Emeril's on-screen persona as reported in the book, Tim adds that he saw the run-away success that Emeril attained and told Emeril to "forget what I said about all that" six months later...though he might know something about food, he said, he readily admitted he knew nothing about television.

Despite the fact that they no longer participate in the surveys themselves, I was unable to get either of the Zagats to admit to any favorite DC restaurants ("Unlike Katherine Harris," said Tim, warming to District's political culture, "I try to remain impartial while I do my job.").  On their current visit, they stopped by Central last night and will be enjoying lunch at the new WestEnd Bistro today before joining a reporter from the Washington Post for a whirlwind tour of 15 restaurants tonight.

Tim said the tour will be more about impressions than dining, as even the smallest taste at each of 15 restaurants can dull the senses and make it hard to get a good read on a place.  That being said, he reiterated an assertion he has made for some time - that a diner can be 85-90% certain of the experience they will have in a restaurant within the first five minutes.  Attention to the decor, the service, views of neighboring tables' food, aromas and sounds all assert themselves within that first period.  We'll see if his record remains intact after tonight's marathon.

Peanut Butter

There are a million childhood memories, songs and lunchtime favorites I could site in my introduction to making peanut butter, but I'll skip the trip down memory lane and just say this – you should be making your own peanut butter.

For those of you who enjoy natural peanut butter, skip the jar and recreate your favorite brand at home; it's not that difficult. Armed with a food processor, you can add just about anything that gives your favorite natural brand its signature taste and texture.

For those of you who relish that classic jar of Jiff, Skippy or Peter Pan, I say take a walk on the health nut side and do something good for yourself. Some say natural/home made peanut butter is an acquired taste…I suggest you acquire it. If not for taste's sake, then for health's sake. What better way to regulate the amount of hydrogenated oils, salt and sugar you put in your body?

The basic recipe is simple. Start with two cups of shelled, roasted peanuts (salted or unsalted will work, or you may want to start with unsalted, so you can add a small amount of salt later to taste). Add the peanuts to your food processor and begin blending. The process will take a few minutes, as the peanuts go from grainy to a smoother consistency. Stop your blender every minute and scrape the sides, making sure all the peanuts are well chopped; this takes about 3 minutes. After 3 minutes, add a tablespoon of oil (I recommend peanut or vegetable oil) and/or a tablespoon of honey through the top of the processor, while it's blending. These will help bind the nuts together and give the peanut butter a smoother consistency.  You can add more oil or honey as you check the consistency of the peanut butter every minute.

When you're happy with the consistency, taste the peanut butter and decide what other ingredients you may want to add. For chunky peanut butter, hand chop some peanuts and add them to the mixture. You can also stir in salt, or add more honey or agave nectar and give it another 30 seconds or so in the food processor. The final product will be just over a cup of smooth, creamy peanut butter.

Things to do with your peanut butter:
-This recipe has the perfect texture for a peanut butter cup recipe. I tried Chowhound's Peanut Butta Cups and devoured them (I couldn't find couverture chocolate, but a bag of Ghirardelli's milk chocolate chips was a good substitute).
-Skip the takeout- make your own Thai. Add your peanut butter to this tasty thai peanut sauce recipe and toss over salad or rice noodles, or serve with satay.
-Why mess with a classic? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.