Del Ray

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

Cheese & Wine Bar Now Open at Cheesetique

Img_4515_2 When Cheesetique opened in its new location last month, one of the most exciting developments was not yet in place.  As I mentioned in my write-up, proprietor Jill Erber's big plans for the new space included a cheese & wine bar at the rear of the shop.  This week, those plans came to fruition with a Tuesday night opening.

Fans of the cheeses and charcuterie sold at Cheesetique can now enjoy them paired with wines by the glass in a casual dining environment.  Reminiscent of a small bistro or cafe, the space is dominated by a white marble bar that runs the length of the left-hand wall.  Behind the bar, large smoked-glass mirrors and red shelves give the space a warm and friendly character.  The remainder of the cozy dining area features table seating (marble makes another appearance on the unadorned tabletops) for roughly thirty guests at any given time.

Gazpacho_2 And those guests are in for a treat.  Chef Cat's menu goes beyond meats and cheeses in delicious, if predictable ways.  Several salads and sandwiches are available at very reasonable prices, with none of the entree offerings coming in over $10.  Artisanal quiches and panini featuring a variety of fillings will rotate on and off of the menu on a regular basis - the prosciutto panini we ate on our visit was definitely a highlight of the meal.  And the gazpacho that accompanies the upscale grilled cheese packs a delicious chili pepper heat in with the crisp, cool chunks of cucumber that swim in the tomato base.  The soup is available on its own for $3, a bargain compared to standard restaurant fare.

Img_4512_2Even so, the stars of the show are naturally the meats, cheeses and wines that you would expect to feature prominently in this setting.  Though you might anticipate the entire catalog of cheeses to be avialable in the bar, there is actually a small but diverse selection of ten different cheeses. They are featured on the Cheese Cart that stands at the ready beside the bar and can be wheeled to your table to show off the goods.  Our choices included a triple-cream brie, a honey goat cheese, a raw-milk aged cheddar, and a pair of blue cheeses among others - enough to give us pause, but not as many options as we might have hoped. 

Img_4518_2 These cheeses can be enjoyed on their own or in groups, and they come served with fresh, crusty bread.  If you're looking to make a more substantial plate, a variety of charcuterie choices are also available.  They range from the familiar (prosciutto, soppresata) to the more unique (lomo - a cured, pressed pork loin that was rich and flavorful).  A combination of three cheeses and three meats that comes with cornichons, olives, grainy mustard and bread runs $25, and it is a great way to experience a diverse group of flavors in one sitting.  The advice of your server can be invaluable as you try to balance your order - but don't hesitate to focus on your favorites if you know what you like!

Cheesetique's bar offers almost two dozen wines by the glass or the bottle, with prices starting at $7 per glass.  They run the gamut from sparkling wines to dessert wines, with a wide range of reds and whites to choose from.  Some basic pairing notes are included on the menu, but again your best bet is to ask your server for a recommendation to make sure your pinot noir and your Parrano don't clash.  A selection of beers that match up well with cheeses is also available, and the connection between the restaurant and the retail space is reinforced by a 10% discount offered on the purchase of wines that are featured in the cheese bar.

Img_4505 As with any completely new venture, there are still some small kinks to be worked out - the most noticeable is the Cheese Cart's inability to navigate the spaces between some of the tables when filled.  Additionally, my wife's order was inadvertently delivered to another table, resulting in her sandwich arriving just as we were finishing my panino. But the service was very friendly and quick to respond, and the team at Cheesetique seems like they are already off to a great start with only one night's service under their belts.

Cheesetique's Cheese & Wine Bar is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 PM to 9 PM, and they do not accept reservations.  They are located at 2411 Mount Vernon Avenue, in the heart of Del Ray.  Street parking is available, and there is a small lot on the block for patrons.


Img_4193For a lot of people in the Washington area, Cheesetique was a revelation when it first opened four years ago this month.  Even longtime devotees of Calvert-Woodley's La Cheeserie and Bower's Fancy Dairy Products in Eastern Market were thrilled to find an actual store whose main focus was CHEESE.

Located on Mount Vernon Avenue in picturesque Del Ray, Cheesetique got some great press early on and D.C. Foodies' word-of-mouth quickly made it a hit.  It probably didn't hurt that Jill Erber, the owner, proprietor and 'Cheese Lady,' has such a deep and obvious passion for what she does.  Despite the small space and the rather noticeable aroma (heavenly for cheese-lovers, but an acquired taste for sure), patrons would line up five and six deep to wait for the kind of attention usually only found at tailors' shops and other more personal establishments.  Jill (or one of her able assistants) takes the time to walk each customer through the myriad cheeses she has to offer, eliciting likes and dislikes, offering tastes as she goes and helping to arrive at the perfect choice. 

Img_4199_2 She can then help you match it with the perfect wine, or recommend some Fra'Mani salumi or some tupelo honey to serve alongside.  As Cheesetique's popularity continued to grow, Jill made it a point to bring in a wide range of foods and accessories to accompany the star of the show.  Arrangements with nearby bakeries and farms introduced fresh bread and organic meats to the inventory, and a schedule of wildly popular cheese tasting classes has helped to broaden even the most knowledgeable palettes.

Img_4197_2 With Cheesetique's loyal following and a desire to continue to offer more and more complementary products to go with her cheeses, it was only a matter of time before Jill felt the need to expand.  Thankfully, the opportunity presented itself toward the end of last year, and Jill announced that she would be moving a few doors down into a space almost THREE TIMES as large as the original.  On Saturday, the doors opened to this new and improved Cheesetique, and the response was impressive - even with added staff and increased floor space, lines were as long as I have ever seen them in the original store. 

Fans of Cheesetique would have been happy if the expansion were the only improvement, but there was even more good news: plans to integrate a full-service tasting bar into the new Cheesetique!

Img_4196_2 By next week, those plans should be a reality.  Tuesday through Saturday, from 5 PM to 9 PM, Cheesetique will offer a wine and cheese bar where guests can sample a range of products sold in the store.  The plan is to offer cheese plates and charcuterie, as well as fondues, panini and quiche from local producers.  The focus will be on small, artisanal purveyors and is likely to rotate.  In addition to the food offerings, wines will be available by the glass, so you can try before you buy.  When I stopped by on Saturday, the bar space was not yet open, so I can't offer any sneak-peeks, but I am definitely planning to check it out for myself sooner rather than later.

Img_4203_2In terms of selection, Cheesetique stocks a wider range of cheeses than most of their competitors because they have more space and do not limit themselves to artisanally-produced cheeses (like Cowgirl Creamery does).  So you can find Saint Andre brie side-by-side with Sweet Grass Dairy's "Green Hill" here, allowing for easy comparison.  Their prices are competitive, though I have found a few instances where they were on the higher-end of the scale compared to other cheese shops in the DC area.  Even so, I find myself drawn to Cheesetique for its warm, inviting atmosphere, its friendly staff and their ability to track my purchases so they can help me recall "that great melty goat cheese I bought last month" (it was the Monocacy Ash I wrote about a few months back).

Despite the inconvenience of its location in Del Ray (which is set back from Glebe Road and Route 1 and is not really served by the Metro), D.C. Foodies will have even more reason to check out Mount Vernon Avenue in the near future.  Img_4205_2 Jill informed me that the space formerly occupied by Cheesetique will now house a purveyor of grass-fed beef and other naturally-raised meats.  Run by an Australian butcher, it will be called "Let's Meat on the Avenue" and is likely to open within the next few months.  The new sign is already hanging out front, and it looks to have the same light-hearted approach to quality foods as its predecessor.

Cheesetique is closed on Mondays, but you owe it to yourself to pay a visit during the week if you've never been.  And if you are a real cheese-lover, you need only ask "What's good?" and give a few examples of what you enjoy to experience a new favorite you didn't even know existed.

2403 Mount Vernon Ave.
Alexandria, VA  22301 (Nearest Metro is Braddock Road, which is not especially nearby)
Tuesday through Friday: 11 AM - 7 PM
Saturdays: 10 AM - 7 PM
Sundays: 12 PM - 5 PM
Closed Mondays 

"Best Blues" Tasting at Cheesetique

A week ago, my wife and I attended our first cheese class at Del Ray's Cheesetique, which just celebrated its third anniversary with the announcement that they will be moving to an even bigger location on Mount Vernon Avenue in the next few months.

"Best Blues" was an introduction to blue cheeses, for everyone who's ever wondered how they get that 'good mold' into some of the most distinctive (and fragrant) varieties of cheese.  We entered the shop after it had closed to the public and it was just starting to get dark outside -- anyone who has ever dreamed of sneaking into their favorite store after-hours would be right at home.  A long table took up most of the floor space, with chairs all around it.  At each place was a plate featuring ten unique looking slices of blue cheese around a small rectangle of what appeared to be raspberry Jell-O.  Bottles of sparkling water and small baskets of crackers stood at intervals along the table.  We took our seats and tried not to drool.

Proprietor Jill Erber began the hour-long class with a discussion of the history of blue cheeses and the process through which they are manufactured today.  I won't recreate the lecture here, but I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest to simply ask Jill the next time you're in the store -- I'm sure she'd be glad to tell you about it, as she loves to share her vast knowledge of cheese with customers.

After the history lesson, the discussion turned to pairings with wine and other foods.  Everyone present seemed to grow just a bit more attentive at this point...or maybe that was just us.  There were a few pairings that would not surprise anyone who has ever eaten at a steak house -- red meat for one, apples and bitter greens for another (house salad with crumbled Gorgonzola, anyone?).  But there were others that did not come to us as easily, such as figs, honey, dried apricots, and quince.

That's right - quince.  One of those "Foods that Start with the Letter Q" that Rosie Perez made semi-famous in White Men Can't Jump.  As it turns out, the raspberry Jell-O looking thing in the middle of our plates was a quince paste called membrillo.  And it tasted every bit as amazing with the blues we had before us as had been promised.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Jill also provided us with a few choice wine pairings, should we want to wash the cheeses down with something stronger than water.  Try a salty Gorgonzola with a sweet muscat or a similar dessert wine.  Sip on a full-bodied red with a piece of tangy Stilton (but be careful not to pair it with an overly tannic red or you'll end up with a bitter, metallic aftertaste).  For best results, try a full-bodied Roquefort with a glass of your favorite port -- a truly decadent and delicious pairing.

When we could stand it no longer, Jill unleashed us on the samples that sat before us.  I've recreated the list of cheeses we tasted below, with a few of my own notes in place of the descriptions provided.

All in all, the class provided a wonderful overview of one of our favorite types of cheese in just under an hour.  It made for a terrific foodie "date night," and it has definitely provided us with some new cheeses to look for next time.

The Blues

1.  Mountain Top Bleu
Origin:  Firefly Farms, MD
Milk:  Goat

Sold in pyramid(mountain)-shaped molds, Mountain Top has that tangy flavor common to most goat cheeses, but its rind is similar to that of brie.  The blue veins weren't all that pronounced, so it tasted much more of goat than of blue.

2.  Cambozola
Origin:  Germany
Milk:  Cow

This has been one of my favorite cheeses for a while now -- a double-cream cheese with healthy veins of blue-green running throughout.  I like to describe it as the perfect marriage of stinky and creamy cheeses, and I would encourage you to check it out for yourself.

3.  Cashel Blue
Origin:  Ireland
Milk:  Cow

Cashel is a mild blue cheese that was described as being young and less salty, but most of us at the tasting felt like this was actually a rather salty cheese.  It had a nice texture, but it wasn't especially flavorful.

4.  St. Agur
Origin:  France
Milk:  Cow

Out of all the new cheeses I tried, this was my favorite.  Creamy and rich, but not quite as soft as the cambozola.  This cheese seemed like it would melt over a burger or steak perfectly, and the flavor was sweet and salty at the same time.

5.  Ba Ba Blue
Origin:  Wisconsin
Milk:  Sheep

The only sheep's milk blue we tasted, Ba Ba Blue was overwhelmingly salty, but the blue veining gave it a great appearance.  Definitely not one of our favorites.

6.  Aged Stilton
Origin:  England
Milk:  Cow

Aged four months (instead of the usual two), this Stilton had a mellow flavor that was reminiscent of some aged cheddars I've tasted while featuring the drier, tangy character that makes Stilton so popular.

7.  Mountain Gorgonzola (Gorgonzola Piccante)
Origin:  Italy
Milk:  Cow

Sharp, tangy, and crumbly, this cheese is full-bodied and flavorful.  This is one of the blues you'll see most often in steak houses.  We were encouraged to try it drizzled with honey (apparently an Italian tradition).  Haven't had a chance to try that yet, but it sounds wonderful!

8.  Valdeon
Origin:  Spain
Milk:  Cow, Sheep and Goat (Raw Milk)

This was the cheese that Jill recommended as best paired with the membrillo on the plate, and it didn't disappoint.  The sweet and salty combination was great.  And the cheese comes wrapped in sycamore leaves, which makes it attractive as well as tasty.

9.  Whiskey Blue
Origin:  Wisconsin
Milk:  Cow (Raw Milk)

I'm a bourbon drinker, so you'd think this cheese would have been right up my alley.  But the alcoholic sweetness was too much, overpowering the taste of the raw milk cheese and even the tang of the blue veins.  It's definitely smoky, but I think it may be an acquired taste.

10.  Smokey Blue
Origin:  Oregon
Milk:  Cow (Raw Milk)

Cold-smoked over hazelnut shells, this cheese's rich flavor is somewhat reminiscent of barbecued pork, but it has the sweet creaminess of a raw-milk cheese and nice blue tanginess.  A much more enjoyable variation on blue cheese than the Whiskey Blue.   

Evening Star Cafe

If there's any reason for me to consider moving to Del Ray, it's Evening Star Café. If you live in Del Ray, then you probably don't consider this news, as you've been there several times, but for those of us that don't, well....we're all secretly hating you.

Evening Star Café is my perfect neighborhood restaurant, and it's not in my neighborhood...yet. Both times we've eaten there, we order a very nice bottle of wine, whatever entrees, appetizers, and desserts we want, and the bill is less than $100. From a value perspective, Evening Star Café can't be beat.

To continue with the value theme, the best thing about Evening Star Café is the inexpensive wine list. With a standard policy of charging $10 over retail and Planet Wine (which is owned by the same restaurant group) next door, you can get a huge wide variety of wines for good prices. For instance, one of my favorite Cabernets is produced by Avalon, which retails at anywhere from $13 to $16 a bottle. At Evening Star Café, it's $23 so the $10 above retail is actually true retail pricing.

Food-wise, we've had good luck with the appetizers we've ordered. The smoked duck spring rolls are to die for. That's all I have to say -- just do yourself a favor and try them. A hearty chicken and andouille sausage gumbo contains just enough heat to sneak up on you. I'd make it spicier myself, but then again, I like my food a bit spicier than most.

Bored of fried calamari with your typical marinara sauce? Then try the fresh fried squid with a spicy chipotle honey sauce, which reminds me of a similar dish I had at Restaurant Eve, but at $7 probably costs half the price.

The roasted duck breast outshines the other entrees on the menu. It's the obvious choice if you're a duck fiend like me. You could serve this with unbuttered mashed potatoes and it'd still be good, but instead it's served with a sour cherry bread pudding and a port reduction sauce. It's not quite what you expect from the corner café. Following a close second to the duck breast as best entree is the brined chicken. Even though it's brined, it's not overly salty and is probably the juiciest chicken I've eaten at a restaurant.

Amy loves the wasabi-pea-crusted salmon so much, she ordered it both times we ate at Evening Star Café. The cooks do fish very well, especially if you let them serve your fish at the recommended medium rare. The salmon is served with a cold buckwheat noodle salad with cucumber relish and has a nice Asian flare.

The one drawback I've noticed is the inconsistent desserts. In my trips there, we've managed to sample all five of the desserts. Two are good and the other three you're better off skipping. Let's start with the good.

The lemon chess pie is heaven and I really enjoyed the tart flavor of the pie combined with the sweet blueberry sauce. As well, the chocolate chip cannoli, with filling that doesn't blow you away with its sweetness, is a fun treat to mix with the Illy coffee.

However, the runny crème brulee was a huge disappointment to Amy, who is a crème brulee addict. The first night we dined at Evening Star Café, our friends ordered the brownies and ice cream which was like eating a chocolate brick with really good ice cream. We finished the ice cream -- left most of the brownie. The same night, I ordered the strawberry shortcake hoping to relive memories of eating fresh picked strawberries with my mother's homemade shortcake, but it fell way short.

Our service has always been consistently friendly. During both of our visits, the restaurant was bustling with people busy. While our waiters were probably loaded with work, they still managed to maintain her composure and clear our plates with speed and efficiency. Our waiter the first night, was very helpful and helped us navigate the menu, making suggestions for what was good, and what he thought was only so-so.

After two trips to Evening Star Café, I'm convinced that this is the start of another beautiful restaurant relationship and I know I'll be returning. The question often? 

Evening Star Café
2000 Mount Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, VA
(703) 549-5051
Web Site

Corkage: Not allowed, but you can purchase wine at Planet Wine and have it sent to your table.
Dress Code: Business casual but jeans are common.
Parking: Street: Street Parking and very limited parking in the restaurant's own lot.
Smoking: Allowed only at the bar/lounge.
Closest Metro: Probably Braddock Rd. It's a hike.
Reservations: Taken. Friday evenings no reservations are taken from 6 to 10 PM and they only accept walk-ins.
Baby friendly rating: 3 Diapers. The atmosphere is loud, which makes for child-friendly dining. Plus there are tons of people there with their children (particularly on the early side), so you wont feel out of place.