Magic Moments 101

As a follow-up to the prior "theoretical" part, I want to give you four simple ideas for a food and wine tasting that demonstrate acidity in action. We are going for similarity (Tart + Tart = Pavlovian response), or opposition (as in “opposites attract” -- like buttery luxurious cheese and intense, vervy and highly acidic Champagne).

Besides being perfect tools for "wine ed", these yummy appetizers are great for entertaining. So if you are not a wine guy/gal, you can still enjoy the canapes!

Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese

RamekinSimple but brilliant! The quickest "party trick" for this pairing involves stuffing golden pappadews straight out of the jar with fresh goat cheese.

PeppadewsYou also can use goat cheese in a tart or frittata, and I especially like using individual-size ramekins for an intimate get-together. All you need to do is mix together the cheese, green pepper, chives, a couple of eggs, a little cream, pop the ramekin in the oven, and you are done. Or try the pure, unadulterated chevre on a bed of greens with a simple vinaigrette dressing (if you can, make it with Meyer lemon juice and good quality olive oil). Try these little treats with a Sauvignon Blanc from Loire Valley, France (a Sancerre or Quincy). Another crisp Sauvignon Blanc (e.g., from New Zealand, South Africa, etc.) will also work nicely.

Note: if you choose to play with a Sancerre AND a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc (there's a thought!), you will undoubtedly observe the stylistic differences between the two Worlds (subtle, lean and minerally vs. in-your-face and fruit-forward).

Champagne and popcorn/sea salt potato chips/triple cream brie

Don't worry if buying caviar is out of your reach; there are plenty of other fantastic and inexpensive ways to enjoy a sparkler. Pair French Champagne or another sparkler (Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, Alsatian Cremant d'Alsace, etc. ) with popcorn, sea salt potato chips, and a decadent triple-cream brie (such as Brillat-Saverin or Pierre Robert from Fromagerie Rouzaire, Rouge et Noir from Marin in California, or perhaps a Canadian Goat Triple Cream from Woolwich Dairy). Goat BrieYou can typically find those at a Whole Foods store; or better yet, look for them at a nice specialty cheese shop such as Cheesetique in Old Town Alexandria, or Arrowine in Arlington (I highly recommend either one).

Italian Barbera with oven roasted tomatoes

Vertical tartletSlice cherry tomatoes in half, and roast in the oven for 10 minutes (line a baking dish with foil, pre-heat the oven to 400F, season with olive oil, salt and pepper). They are perfect for making super fast canapes by piling the tomatoes into phyllo cups (I prefer Athens Mini Fillo Shells), with a little bit of good quality feta (French, Bulgarian,Greek, etc.), and popping them into a toaster oven for a couple of minutes, right before you are ready to serve.

The bright acidity in Barbera -- the quintessential red grape of northern Italy -- is just one of the things that I love about it. Its natural acidity, combined with its ripe red and berry fruit flavors, gives it a wonderful versatility, and makes it a great match for the bright, tangy flavors in our appetizer.

Pinot Noir with mushrooms

I love mushrooms as much as I love Pinot Noir-- it's an earthy match made in heaven!

Here is a great opportunity to put those phyllo cups to work once again. This time, we will fill them with mushrooms sauteed in butter, with a touch of thyme and sour cream. I really like the deluxe "exotic" mushroom packs that you can buy at Whole Foods (crimini mushrooms, or baby bellas, would work just fine). Grate a bit of Pecorino sheep's milk cheese on top (I prefer "genuine" Sini Fulvi DOP Pecorino Romano, from Italy's Lazio region). It is salty, intense, and pleasantly briny, and just like phyllo cups, it's a staple in my kitchen. A couple of minutes in the toaster oven, and they are ready to be served. The pairing works, first of all, because of their shared earthiness, as it always translates directly into food and wine pairing affinity. On top of that, the acidity in the Pinot Noir cuts the richness of sour cream like a knife, and is complimented nicely by the saltiness in the Pecorino.

Buon appetito!


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.

Curd Mentality: But everyone else has a cheese plate on their menu...

Img_3801 Consider this an open letter from a disappointed cheese-lover to any and all restaurateurs, chefs, and managers who see fit to include a "Cheese Plate" or something similar on their menu.  You may recall a post I wrote about the hit-or-miss nature of restaurants' cheese plates last year - let's just say recent experiences have helped me figure out what's wrong with the majority of what's out there.

To whom it may concern:

As someone who appreciates all things cheesy (80's music, Super Bowl ads, puns in blog entry titles), I would love to be able to sing your praises for going all-out in the introduction of cheese plates to your menus. 

It seems like almost every restaurant out there these days is offering a cheese plate, though they're not exactly sure why.  Maybe it's the increased interest in artisanal cheeses and local producers.  Maybe it's a calculated effort to reach out to diners who are passing on sweet desserts with increasing frequency.  Or maybe it's just the fact that most of your competitors are doing it. 

I know what our mothers would ask...if all of your competitors jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?  Of course you wouldn't - think of what that would do for business!

Img_3962 Even so, there is a distinct air of groupthink - a curd mentality, if you will - that seems to be driving this trend. 

Restaurant cheese plates SHOULD be a great way to expand my palate and try new cheeses.  But there are problems.  And it's not's you. 

Simply put, most restaurants either overlook or ignore the fact that the majority of people who are likely to purchase a cheese plate ACTUALLY KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT CHEESE.

This single oversight leads to a host of missteps that range from the minimally inconvenient to the truly ruinous:

  • Unhelpful menu listings that offer nothing more than a price
  • Servers who can rattle off every ingredient in this evening's specials but who have no idea what comes on the cheese plate
  • A boring presentation with minimal accompaniments that fails to deliver on aesthetics OR flavor
  • A selection of cheeses that is completely incongruous with the restaurant's primary focus

But there's an easy fix to all of these problems, if you're willing to take the bold step of asking yourself a simple question:


If you're going to offer a cheese plate on your menu, you need to know why you're doing it.  Is it to highlight local producers?  Is it because you are passionate about cheese and want to share that with your customers?  Is it because your suppliers offer some great choices that go well with your menu?

And be honest - if the answer is really "because it lends an air of class and has a high profit margin," own that.  But do yourself a favor and think twice about it before you move forward...cheese lovers will know if you're just going through the motions.

Img_4518 If you've asked yourself "why" and you're satisfied with your answer, the next step is to make sure you do things properly.  Because I'm not one to complain without offering constructive suggestions, I've taken the liberty of putting together a short checklist that should help you show off your cheese plate to the greatest advantage.

To thine own self be true

If your restaurant is known for its commitment to local artisans, think about featuring cheeses from small regional producers.  If you're part of a famous French chef's empire, perhaps your cheese plate should highlight some of the best French cheeses available stateside.  And if you are best known for a cuisine where cheese is used sparingly (if at all), maybe you should rethink the idea of a cheese plate that would only confuse the palate.  As much as I enjoy seeing cheese plates on the menu at Spanish, Italian and French restaurants, I find it really hard to get excited about cheese after Thai, sushi or even 'Asian-fusion.'

A great example of this can be found at McSorley's Old Ale House, New York's oldest continually operational saloon.  This is a no-frills, sawdust-on-the-floor kind of tavern.  Women weren't even welcome in McSorley's until 1970.  Even so, their menu boasts a cheese plate that fits their image to a T: a plate with a few squares of all-American white cheese (it used to be Liedenkranz, a Limburger-like spreadable cheese), some sliced raw onions, a mug of spicy mustard and a sleeve of Saltine crackers.  You were expecting maybe brie and apple chutney?

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

If a cheese plate is going to set me back $12 or more, I'm not going to be impressed with a few hunks of cheese strewn haphazardly across a white plate with some crackers and grapes here and there.  Pay as much attention to the plating as you would to the average entree or dessert - think about serving on marble slabs or walnut cutting boards that complement the color and texture of the cheese (both of which should be points of pride if you're serving quality products). 

And give a thought to the accompaniments you provide - while some, like quince paste, grapes and crackers, work well with almost any cheese, there are other options that show you really care: sliced apples or pears, dried fruit, toasted nuts, and tangy items like cornichons can complement certain types of cheese very well and reflect an attention to the specific cheeses on the plate.

Knowing is half the battle.

For some reason, the cheese plate remains the 'terra incognita' of most restaurants' menus.  More often than not, the components are omitted from the menu and curious patrons are required to ask their servers for details.  If you've settled on a static list of cheeses, it stands to reason that your servers should be familiar with what those cheeses are.  Sadly, that's rarely the case.  And in restaurants where the cheese plate changes on a regular basis, it's almost unheard of that a server be able to offer even an educated guess without heading back to the kitchen to ask.If you want cheese-lovers to seriously consider your cheese plate, this needs improvement. 

Local wine bars like Proof and Vinoteca are far better about communicating their cheese offerings (and, in the case of Vinoteca, their various accompaniments) on their menus, and there are some restaurants like Dino that take enough pride in their cheeses to list them for individual or grouped tastings.  In the absence of that kind of detail, however, it is incumbent on your servers to be as familiar with what's on the cheese plate as they are with the components of other menu items.  This may sound a bit daunting, but it's essential if you're going to convince people who care about cheese that yours is worth their time and money.

What Would Cheeseheads Do

Put yourself in the place of your customers.  Take a look at the menu and ask yourself if you would have any interest in the cheese plate based solely on what you see in front of you.  If you're a cheese lover, there's a pretty good chance you won't.  So what are you going to do about that?  If you can't draw the people for whom a cheese plate is a natural attraction,  why offer one at all?

If you keep these things in mind, you're sure to jump to the head of the class when it comes to local cheese plates.  With the wide range of cheeses available through local sources, there are plenty of opportunities to put together the perfect plate to complement (and maybe even enhance) your menu and provide diners with a savory way to finish off a great meal.

I'll be waiting.


I've been receiving many emails looking for advice in the last couple weeks, so I thought I would do a little Q&A post this week.

I was looking at your site, and I would like some restaurant advice.  I'm having a wedding anniversary soon and I want to take my wife somewhere really nice.  We love to dine outside.  Do you happen to know the any restaurants that have a terrace overlooking the DC mall.  I have pictures in movies, but I can't seem to find them on the net. If there is a website for it,
that would also be great.  I appreciate your time into this matter.  Thanks and have a great day.

Well, I have to say right off that I haven't eaten at any place that overlooks the mall or downtown DC. But after some quick searching on Google, here's what I found:

JW's View Steak House at the Key Bridge Marriot on Arlington
Hotel Washington

You might also want to try a dinner cruise on the Potomac

But quite honestly, I can't vouch for any of the food at these places because I've never eaten at any of them. In my opinion, you're better off going somewhere you know the service and food are going to be excellent like Komi, Corduroy, Laboratorio del Galileo, Palena, CityZen, Citronelle, etc. Views are cool, but they don't do much to improve mediocre food.

My husband and I just moved to the area. Do you know of any dining/cooking clubs. In MN, I have heard of cooking clubs where once a month each couple takes a turn cooking fine/upscale meals. IS there anything like that in the DC area?

Not that I know of...perhaps some of my readers can help out? The best places I know of to find people interesting in something like this would be on or

Hello, Pizza in my country tastes bad. I have a plan to take pizza fast food joint to a new level in Nigeria this has to be done by an international company coming into my country that means i get an opportunity of having my fast food joint in every state and city of the country to make that happen i need help. i would like a volunteer to come down to nigeria and help by teaching by teaching cooks how to make different types of pizza. I also want to know how long the teaching will last and how much you will collect for your services. I will be anticipating your prompt response.

LOL. Any volunteers out there looking to get conned?

Where in Washington D.C. can I find a place that has a steak eating challenge where I can eat for free if I eat the whole thing...?

Uummmmm...I hope to God that there's no place in DC like that.

First let me compliment you on the web-site, a wealth of information. My husband and I are working in DC this coming weekend and wanted a recommendation on a restaurant.  We are staying at the St. Regis and they recommended IndeBleu. I read the reviews and I am skeptical. We are looking for Indian with atmosphere, a trendy Tandoori. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Well, IndeBleu is definitely trendy and the food there is pretty good, but it is considered French-Indian fusion. If you are looking for good Indian food, you want to try either of the Heritage India locations. The one on Connecticut Ave will be more convenient for you than the one on Wisconson Ave. On top of their usual menu, they have excellent tapas-style dishes and they don't "dumb it down" by making their dishes less spicy. I hope you enjoy your trip to DC.

Wine Specials

I thought it would be helpful for everyone if I highlighted all the places that have wine specials in DC including free corkage or half-price bottles. If you're unfamiliar with the term "corkage", it means that you can bring a bottle of wine with you to a restaurant and they uncork it for you. Most restaurants don't allow this. Some restaurants charge you a fee for uncork the bottle for you, but at some places, they uncork the bottle for free on certain days.

Andale - Half-price bottle of wine with any entree on Monday nights.

Cafe Deluxe - Half-price bottles on Monday nights.

Caucus Room - Free corkage on Friday and Saturday nights.

Chef Geoff's - Half-price bottles, on the last Monday of every month.

Iota - Half-price bottles and glasses on Monday night till 10 PM.

Lavandou - Free corkage Monday nights.

Little Fountain Cafe - Half-price bottles on Wednesday nights.

Melrose Bar - Free corkage on Sunday nights assuming you don't being a bottle that they already have on the wine menu.

Olazzo - Half-price bottles on Monday nights.

Peacock Cafe - Half-price bottles of wine under $60 on Monday and Tuesday nights.

If you get a chance, you should definitely take advantage of any place offering free corkage. You get a chance to take a really nice bottle of wine with you to dinner and save a lot on your bill. Seriously, you can stop at your local wine store on the way to dinner. I actually have a very nice 2001 Flowers Pinot Noir that I've been saving for a night at a place offering free corkage. Maybe I'll stop by Lavandou next Monday and finally drink it.