Foodie Experiences

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!


Savor: The Beer And Food Gala Is Still Trying To Get The Food Right

Savor, the Brewers Association’s dolled-up craft beer gala, is a fantastic event. 

Entering its fourth year, Savor is every bit the premiere craft beer showcase the BA intended it to be. For a city making a name for itself in the craft beer world, it’s also exactly what D.C. needs. Once a year, the craft beer community turns its attention to the District as some of the best brewers in the country bring us a few beers to enjoy. And enjoy, we do.

Thing is, though, Savor is a beer and food event, and so far, the food hasn’t lived up to the equal billing.

Ok, that’s not completely true. The Artisan Cheese Table and the Oyster Bar have been bright spots, exceptions to the rule. As for the rest of the food, it hasn’t always been worth the price of admission ($110 this year). Importantly, this is the food that’s paired with the beer. This is the food that the brewers are expected to talk up along with their beers.

At best, the food has been mediocre. At worst, it’s been quite bad. The food for the past three Savors has looked bad, tasted bad, hasn’t kept well, and hasn’t always paired well. I'm not alone in my opinion of the food, either. I've talked to past attendees and brewers and heard the same: the food has been a disappointment.

16 The sweet and chewy shrimp corn dogs, the gray meat sliders, the bland and cold quesadillas, and the grainy espresso sambuca parfaits are just a few examples of a food program that has been the biggest flaw of an otherwise excellent event. This wouldn’t bother me quite so much if Savor was merely a beer event. But it’s a beer and food “experience,” therefore the food must be as good as the beer. It’s not, at least not yet.

You have to hand it to folks at the BA, though, they are willing to tinker with their event. Every year for the past four years, they’ve changed something about Savor, and more often than not it’s been for the better. The first year Savor was held at the Mellon Auditorium. It’s a pretty venue, but it was too small, so they moved to the equally nice, but considerably larger Building Museum.

During that first year, the speaker salons were free. That was nice, but the sessions filled up quickly and led people to crowd around the salon room doors for a chance to grab one of the few seats. To bring some order to the salons, the BA started selling tickets. Sure, $30 is a steep price to listen to brewers talk about beer, but you don’t have to buy a salon ticket to get into the main event.

Recognizing the popularity of the event, the BA made this year’s Savor a two-night event, as it was the first year. A lot of people didn’t get tickets this year (thanks, in part, to the BA’s Website crashing when the tickets went on sale), but more people will be able to attend than last year.

And in this same spirit, the BA continues to work on the food.

Last year, the BA hired chef Bruce Paton to “enhance” the food experience, which for the first two Savors was pretty poor. Patton has experience with large beer events, having worked with the BA on the Great American Beer Festival, the biggest craft beer event in the country. Unfortunately, the food was as it as always was. 

This year, the BA brought in two chefs, Adam Dulye from The Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco, and our own Teddy Folkman, executive chef and co-owner of Dr. Granville Moore’s. However, Dulye and Folkman were hired to be consultants, not chefs. For all their culinary acumen, Dulye and Folkman did not contribute a single recipe or cook a single dish. They were contracted to conceptualize the food pairings, but the recipes and cooking was left to Federal City Caterers, which has catered all the Savor events.

09270011 Folkman said he has faith in the catering company and its staff, but was wary - and surprised - about not having a greater role in the dishes’ development or execution. For this article, Folkman put together a few of the dishes he was working on for Savor; however, the Cuban slider, stout meatballs and deviled egg that you see in the photos are not necessarily the same dishes you’ll see at Savor. You’ll see and taste Federal City Caterers’ dishes.

During a recent tasting led by Nancy Johnson, event director for the BA, Folkman got a chance to taste many of the dishes Federal City Caterers developed based on his and Dulye’s recommendations. While some dishes were just as Folkman envisioned, others needed minor revising, and some were altogether different - not always for the better, he said.

Deborah Allen, co-owner of Federal City Caterers, said she and her staff have to take many things into consideration when developing hors d’oeuvres for Savor. When necessary, she’ll change an ingredient or eliminate ingredient to make sure the dish works with the beer pairing and can be executed a thousand times over for the event.

In addition to making sure the dishes pair with all 144 beers, the food has to be easy to handle for attendees holding tasting glasses, capable of being transported to the event site and then served as is or with minimum heating (the Building Museum doesn’t have a kitchen). The food must be able to remain fresh for some time in case it’s not eaten immediately, and it has to meet the approval of the BA, the brewers, the consulting chefs and a couple thousand attendees.

09270021 Listening to Allen describe the preparation and execution of Savor’s food program you begin to understand the scope of Federal City’s task. The catering company will prepare more than 80,000 items for Savor. She began work on this year’s event two weeks after last year’s event ended. She’ll have 160 people serving attendees, refreshing ice trays and water pitchers, refreshing the food, dumping food that needs to be dumped, working the nonalcoholic stand, and cooking special dishes for the 12 sponsor tables.It is quite an undertaking. But at the end of the day, I can’t help but return to the fact that the quality of the food has never lived up to the quality of the beer.

And then when I see that this year’s menu includes grilled steak and sausages, crispy tuna rolls, braised sliders, pork belly and shrimp wrapped in a grit cake - all dishes that could be great when fresh and hot, but miserable if left to cool and congeal - I think I’ll be glad that I once again ate beforehand.

Johnson, who led the committee that came up with Savor, is understandably positive about her food program. Although the BA has continues to revise the food program - from how the food was paired with the beer to how much say brewers get in their pairings – Johnson said the BA started in a good place and is simply looking to improve.

For last year’s Savor, the participating breweries were sent a menu of “popular pub items” to choose from. Although there were more than 45 dishes on the menu, Folkman said many breweries ended up picking the same items, which led to a lot of redundancy (Savor: a beer and quesadilla experience).

This year, the BA abandoned the democratic approach and turned the pairings over to Folkman and Dulye. Folkman said he and Dulye took the list of beers the breweries plan to bring and divided it into style categories: IPAs, stouts, ambers, lagers. The chefs then came up with dishes to compliment the styles rather than specific beers. So there will be a dish for the pale ales and a dish for saisons, etc. 

09270020 Despite this broad approach, Folkman said he wants the beer and food pairings to make sense, to tell a story. So saisons and Belgian-style ales will be paired with the classic French croque monsieur, while the bolder-flavored India pale ales are matched with spicy crawfish fritters. And just in case the pairing isn’t completely obvious, every station will include a card explaining the match.

Like last year, though, the brewers won’t have a chance to taste the pairings until the day of the event.

For the 12 sponsors, Folkman has something completely different in mind: a cook for every sponsor. Folkman said Federal City Caterers will station a cook at each sponsor’s table. The sponsors’ offerings will be hot, cooked fresh and either prepared with the sponsor’s beer or for a beer the sponsor brings. The highlight of the sponsors’ dishes may be the lobster roll paired with Sam Adams Boston Lager. (Anticipating that the lobster roll will be a popular item, Allen said her staff will make extra to accommodate the interest.)

The BA is also adding a sushi stand and considering a panini station to accompany the cheese and oyster tables.Folkman, who led one of the educational salons last year, said he didn’t try any of the pairings last year, but agreed that the food could be better.“It’s progressively gotten better every year,” he said.

“Hopefully (this year), it will meet the expectations of the guests.”

Everyone I interviewed for this article was very positive about this year’s food program. Sure, Johnson and Allen said some things haven’t worked in the past, but that’s all part of the evolution of Savor. While Folkman was surprised that he wasn’t more directly involved with the food, he had nothing but good things to say about Federal City Caterers and expects this year’s food program to be better.

36 So then who’s to blame for the miserable dishes of Savors past? And who will be responsible if the quality of the food falls short again? Is it Federal City Caterers, who’s charged with feeding thousands of half-cocked beer enthusiasts while keeping the brewers, the hired-gun chefs and the BA happy? Is it the latest pair of chefs who have big ideas, but no involvement in the actual cooking and catering? Or is it the Brewers Association, which approves all the dishes, hires the famous chefs, hires the caterer, sponsors the event and insists that Savor is a beer and food experience? 

As the saying goes, the buck stops with the BA. With ticket prices for this beer and food experience climbing above the $100 mark, attendees deserve an event that gets it right on both counts. If it doesn’t, the BA should seriously consider either dropping the food (and the ticket prices) or turn the food program over to someone else to run.

Savor is an excellent beer experience. It’s time for it to be an excellent food experience, too.

Must Haves: Ray's Hell's Fat Joe, Or How To Make A Great Burger Better

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

Michael Landrum's Fat Joe with bacon and cheddar is the best burger in the D.C. area.

The difference between the Ray's Hell burger and every other ground beef and bun combination around town is a clear as that statement. And if you disagree, your mouth is lying.

On its own, a Ray's Hell burger is an excellent burger. They don't overwork the meat, so the patty isn't dense. They cook it to order, an increasingly rare treat. They use a good fatty blend that ensures the burger is juicy and flavorful. They season it simply with salt and black pepper so the flavor of the beef dominates. They cook it on a grill, so the exterior is nicely charred, and serve it on a soft roll.

And when you order the Fat Joe, Ray's Hell tops the burger with foie gras, fried shallots and white truffle oil (there's also a slice of tomato, but who's kidding who). At this point, it's the best burger in the Mid-Atlantic. But it ain't perfect. Oh no, it can't be perfect when a couple strips of bacon and some cave-aged Amish cheddar make it so much better.

DSCN5547 Still, there's no better way to top a burger than with four ounces of fattened duck liver. There just isn't. Those caramelized lobes of fatty goodness add a level of richness and flavor the burger could never achieve on its own. Foie gras alone is wonderful, but foie gras atop a medium rare burger, wet with its own juices, is goddamn ambrosia.

And then there's the bacon and cheddar, because let's face it, if you're eating a burger with foie gras you might as well get the bacon and cheese, too. The bacon adds salt, pork and a crunch the burger needs. The cheese, well the cheese just tastes good and doesn't get in the way of the foie gras.

The funny thing is, as much as I harp on the foie gras (and I do harp), it's the tart, earthy flavor of the white truffle oil that sticks with me the longest. Mind you, I'm not complaining.

Inevitably, someone will write a comment complaining that the Fat Joe is a $17 burger ($22 by the time I'm done with it). Don't. I'm well aware of how much the burger costs. It's worth every penny. In fact, when I want a Fat Joe with bacon and cheese, I head to Ray's Hell Burger Too, so I can have it with a couple Deleriums or a Bell's Two-Hearted. A burger like this deserves a beer.

If I wanted a cheaper burger, I'd go to a cheaper joint. But I don't want a cheaper burger. Every now and then (and you better limit this burger to every now and then) I'm happy to plunk down $22 for medium rare, bacon cheeseburger with foie gras, fried shallots and white truffle oil, because it is absolutely the best damn burger in town.

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

Celebrate Food & Friends' 20th Anniversary at the Chef's Best Dinner & Auction,


For 20 years now, Food & Friends has supported thousands of our neighbors living with cancer, AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses, providing them with groceries, hot meals and nutritional counseling. Through the diligent work of some 6,500 staff and volunteers, Food & Friends prepares and delivers over 3,000 nutritious meals a days, disseminating them to 2,800 clients in DC and surrounding counties. To celebrate their good works and raise money to keep them up, on Monday, June 14th, ING will present Food & Friends' 20th Anniversary Chef's Best Dinner & Auction at the Washington Hilton Ballroom.

Guests will enjoy delicious appetizers and small plates prepared by some of the region's brightest culinary stars, including Jamie Leeds of Hank's Oyster Bar and Commonwealth, Ris Lacoste of Ris, PS7's Peter Smith, Dean Gold of Dino, Eventide's Miles Vaden, Anthony Chittum of Vermilion, and dozens more. Take a peek here for a full list of the charitable chefs whose food you will sample.

Amidst the mingling and snacking, attendees will have opportunity to bid on an array of items at the silent & live auctions. There are some really cool prizes up for grabs, including a private cooking class with The Inn at Little Washington's Patrick O’Connell, a week's stay at the Ritz-Carlton in County Wicklow, Ireland, a $1,700 puppy(!), and, be still my heart, an opportunity to view the taping of NPR's The Politics Hour, and meet it's host, Kojo Nnamdi!

Tickets to the 20th Anniversary of Chef's Best Dinner & Auction are $250 apiece. If you roll with a big crowd, consider becoming a table host, where you and nine friends can dine in style for $2,250. If you are feeling particularly generous, F&F is still accepting sponsors, who will receive access to a special reception before the main event. The ticket is tax-deductible, and 100% of proceeds go towards funding Food & Friends, a four-star charity on Charity Navigator, with a 20 year history of bringing relief and comfort to DC area residents in need. However you plan to give or attend, you can get your tickets here.

Doors open for the main silent auction and tasting event at 6:30 PM, with bidding for live auction lots starting around 8:15. Dress code is business casual, though if you want to get dolled up, I'm sure you won't be alone. Go on! Treat yourself to some world-class cuisine, and wrack up some points in the karma column while your at it.

Must Haves: Poutine at ChurchKey, aka the Disco Fries

Must Haves focuses on some of DC's great dishes.

This probably isn't the best time to talk about something to do with Canada.

Listen, as a life-long Bucs fan, I know what it's like to get your hopes built up, only to watch them get slapped away, like so many Ovechkin shots on goal. It sucks.

But hear me out, because there's a bowl of gravy-covered Canadian happiness down at ChurchKey that will help you get past you're anger at the great white north and learn to love those maple suckers once again.

Or you can order it by it's American name.

The Poutine, aka Disco Fries (I have no idea why), may well be the greatest Canadian export since a washed up Wayne Gretzky joined the LA Kings. The dish is nothing more than French fries covered in sausage gravy and cheddar cheese. It's nothing less, either. Maybe Canadians need to bulk up for the winter. Maybe they hate life. Either way, covering fries in sausage gravy makes you wonder why we've been screwing around with ketchup this whole time.

(By the way, I assume ChurchKey also calls them Disco Fries as an homage to decidedly unhealthy coke -fueled late 70s. I don't know this, but it kind of makes sense.)

DSCN5276 Now, I do have a conspiracy theory about poutine. Having grown up in the South, I've had more than my fair share of sausage gravy. Biscuits and gravy is easily my favorite Southern breakfast, and gravy can be found at every meal of the day. So, how is it that a region that puts gravy on everything from biscuits to fried chicken never thought to pour a little on fries? It just doesn't add up. And while I haven't spent much time north of the border, the Canadians are not a people known for eating prodigious amounts of gravy (they mostly limit themselves to puffins and whale blubber ... I think.). Yet, YET, they've nationalized this fantastically Southern style dish and then add cheese to it. Adding cheese is what we do! Us! The Americans! The fat ones! So I don't buy it that a Canadian came up with gravy-covered French fries. No. Either some poor bastard got lost between Chickasaw and Tuscaloosa, or the Underground Railroad had a border crossing. One or the other.

If you still haven't bought into what I'm talking about here, let me be perfectly clear: Chef Kyle Bailey takes a perfectly good bowl of crispy, hot French fries, plunks in some bits of cheddar cheese and covers the whole damn thing with creamy sausage gravy. It's horrible for you, but my god is it tasty.

And if you just can't bring yourself to order the Canadian national dish, remember that they can be Disco Fries until next year, or the year after, or whenever the Caps find a way to win in the playoffs.

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

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

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

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

Broccoli fucking rabe.

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

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

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

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

Cooking 201: Moving beyond the recipe

Susan1 I cook a lot. For a guy who works a day job that has nothing remotely to do with food, I spend a good amount of time focused on food and monkeying around in kitchens.

If I'm not working on something for this Web site, I'm cooking for the missus, feeding friends, or helping other people learn to cook at the D.C. cooking school, CulinAerie.

All this is to say, I'd better know what I'm doing, especially if I'm going to take a two-day cooking class full of people who read this Web site.

A while back, Susan Watterson, who co-owns CulinAerie, mentioned that she was considering running a two-day advanced cooking class similar to the one she taught for years at L'Academie in Bethesda. I liked the idea and knew there were a lot of folks who'd be interested in that level of instruction as well. Although I write recipes and use others' from time to time, it's no replacement for knowing the fundamentals of cooking. Certainly, many people happily rely on recipes and cookbooks -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- but there's no replacing the feeling of accomplishment when you step into the kitchen and prepare a meal without someone else's instruction (feel free to keep using mine).

Being a pain in the ass, I pestered Susan into putting the class on the calendar. In turn, I wrote up a preview for this Web site. Hell, I used my little soap box to encourage people to show up, improve their cooking skills and learn to cook beyond the safe confines of recipes. I would show up, too, to go through the class as a student and chronicle the experience for a future post (this one). 

Class1 So, on a recent weekend, me and 20 other students spent two days listening, questioning and cooking under Susan's direction. We chopped, diced, and julienned. We learned how to make stock and debone a chicken, oyster and all. We filleted whole fish and turned shrimp into mousse. We rolled pork, and cooked lamb korma.

Before setting the lot of us loose with knives and hot pans, Susan talked about the products we were dealing with and the importance of proper technique. The lectures were equal parts anatomy, chemistry and physics, all of which had a philosophical purpose: to transcend the recipe. Recipes should be treated like suggestions, not mandates. If an ingredient doesn't work, you should know how to replace it. If a sauce breaks, you need to be able to fix it.

"This is a class where you unclench your fist and let go of the recipe," she said. "You have to use your brain when you cook."

Being a proper cooking class, there was no escaping French techniques. The brunoise, the mirepoix, the court bouillon were all covered. But so too were stir frying, wontons, fish sauce and curries.

Class3 When the lectures ended, the cooking began. Each day we prepared and cooked four dishes in the morning and four dishes in the afternoon. That made for a lot of practice. It also made for a lot of food. And once we were done cooking, we could eat the results. So we ate ... and ate ... and ate. At one point it crossed my mind that if Bobby Flay ate everything he cooked on Iron Chef, he'd look like Mario Batali.

Not surprisingly, everyone who signed up for the two-day course had cooking experience. Some of it was years in a home kitchen, like Merrill Brown, who was visiting from Lakeland, Fla., and taking the class with her sister Helen Ryan. Other students, like Gene Moses, had a background in the food industry. Gene had catering and front-of-the-house restaurant experience, but wanted to learn more professional cooking techniques.

Class2 In my preview of the class, I wrote that I expected to know a little and learn a lot. That was about right. I can dice an onion and julienne a carrot (though I screwed it up the first time). I know how to debone a chicken (though I didn't know how to take the meat off the legs and thighs without my teeth). I can cook a scallop, and pan fry fish (though the sauces we made to accompany them were revelatory to me). We covered dry heat cooking, which I'm good at (I am the grilling guy), as well as moist heat cooking, which I have less experience with (I don't poach much).

For the most part, everyone seemed follow Susan's instructions pretty well. Sure, some of the deboned chicken meat looked more like paste than poultry, and we might've gone ape shit with the sherry (Susan's term, not mine), and a few sauces did go south somewhere between the pan and plate (I completely screwed up my stir fry, which is particularly pathetic if you consider I've written newspaper columns about how to stir fry). But there were clearly more successes than failures.

And like most everyone else who took the class, 14 hours of instruction wasn't enough for me.

Since CulinAerie opened last November, Susan and fellow co-owner Susan Holt have focused their classes on beginning cooks. With that base established, Chef Watterson is planning more advanced courses. The next two-day class is already scheduled for Sept. 26 and 27, and a 12 week course is in the works for the fall.

"The good thing about cooking is there's no ceiling," she said. "There's always more you can learn."

Want to see more photos from the class? Check them out here.

CulinAerie Knife Skills Class Sharpens Dull Skills

Image004 Do you know how to use a vegetable peeler?

Sure you do. I bet it was the first kitchen tool you learned to use. Simple, oddly shaped blade, plastic handle, no big deal, right? It's as straightforward and simple an instrument as you’ll find in your kitchen.

Turns out, it’s not so simple. There’s actually a right way and a wrong way, just as there’s a right way and a wrong way to hold tongs, grasp a spoon and use a chef’s knife.

Susan Holt knows how to use a vegetable peeler. Holt is a former chef and graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine, where she’s taught for the past decade. Today, she’s teaching at CulinAerie, the District cooking school she opened with fellow L'Academie de Cuisine graduate Susan Watterson.

On an recent Saturday morning, Susan was using all those years of teaching and professional cooking to teach me and a couple dozen other amateur cooks how to use a vegetable peeler. The peeler was the first – and certainly least pointy – lesson of Susan’s Knife Know How class, but it wasn't the last.

“Use the steel every five minutes.”

Yes, chef.

“Dicing is uniform. Chopping is not.”

Yes, chef.

“Don’t scrape the blade of your knife across the cutting board. You’ll ruin the blade.”

Yes, chef.

“Go with the grain, not against the grain.”

Yes, chef.

“Utility knives are useless.”

Yes, chef.

“The worst thing you can do is use little motions. Be fearless.”

Yes, chef.

“Did you hear those bones crack?”

Yes, chef, we did.

Image021 And so it went for the four-hour course that began with a review of kitchen knives and ended with a glass of wine and meal. In between were lessons on holding a knife properly, julienning, trussing, supreming, breaking down a chicken and what do with all of it: make lunch.

Our class started early (well, early for some of us). Fortunately, Susan ran the class at an easy pace and she and her staff were hands-on, offering assistance, such as when Frenching a chicken wing proved to be more difficult than it looked.

The course is ideal for amateur cooks, regardless of how long you've been pursuing your hobby. The knife Image042 is the most basic of kitchen tools and certainly the most important. At the very least, the class will teach you how to work more efficiently. At most, you’ll be less likely to lose a digit.

I’ve cooked for years, so I’m pretty comfortable with my knives. I keep them sharp (Yes, chef, the steel, always the steel) and work at a pretty good clip. Not Hung fast, but not bad.

Turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong. I don’t hold my knife right. I don’t hold the product correctly. I rush when I should slow down. On occasion, I might even use little cutting motions.

In other words, I needed instruction.

Fair enough. I can swallow my pride and learn the right way to use a knife, particularly when I swallow it with sautéed chicken in cream sauce (see recipe below). After going over proper knife techniques, the class paired up and cooked what they cut up (Thank god biology class never ended this way). A cooking lesson thrown in with the knife class, and wine to boot.

And considering that I now have a better chance of keeping my fingers attached, the course was a rousing success.

1131 14th St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 236-6111

Image054 Chicken with Grainy Mustard, Cream and Tarragon

4 pieces chicken on the bone (breasts and/or legs and thigh quarters)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbs. vegetable or canola oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced fine
1 cup white wine, such as a Burgundy-style chardonnay
2 cups chicken stock or water
3/4 cup of heavy cream
2 tbs. best-quality grainy Dijon mustard
2 tbs. fresh chopped tarragon leaves

Liberally season the chicken breasts with salt and fresh black pepper. Heat a large shallow sauté pan (not non-stick) over medium-high heat, then add the oil. Add the chicken to the pan, skin-side down, and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, until deep golden brown. Remove from pan to a plate.

Image044 Add onion and reduce heat to low, sweating the onion, but not allowing it to take any color. Add white wine and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring and scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken stock or water and cream, and bring to a simmer. Return the chicken breasts to the pan, cover the pan with a lid or piece of aluminum foil, and cook over low heat 30 to 35 minutes, turning the chicken a couple of times during the cooking process.

Return the chicken to a serving dish, cover and keep warm. Bring the sauce to a boil on the stove and simmer until the sauce is reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes, so that it coats the back of a wooden spoon. Add the mustard, tarragon, salt to taste and black pepper. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve immediately with rice pilaf or egg noodles.

Komi Restaurant

At this point, Amy and I pretty much have a standing reservation at Komi for our Anniversary. After several attempts on special occasions to "try something new", and being fairly disappointed, we given up for a little while. This time, it was our ten-year anniversary, and I wanted it to be a dinner we would remember.

I called to make a reservation about 2 weeks ahead and they had a few openings left. If I'd waited much longer, I probably would've been shit out of luck. Komi isn't quite popular enough to necessitate a thirty-day-in-advance reservation like Minibar or Citronelle, but I have this feeling it will be soon, so don't put off making that call too long.

Our reservation was at 8:30, which is probably as late as you want to go considering it's about a 3 hour meal. The meal truly is an experience from start to finish and I tend to starve myself the day of the meal, eating a very light lunch at the most, because otherwise I'll regret it later that day. If you're unfamiliar with how the menu works at Komi, there are two options: "Dinner" and "Degustazione". "Dinner" is $84 and includes the selection of mezzathakia (small tastes) at the start of the meal, a choice of pasta course, and a choice if dinner course.

Degustazione includes more mezzathakia, palate cleansers between major courses, and desert. The catch is that you don't have your choice of pasta course and entree, although I've regularly specified that I didn't want a specific pasta or entree dish because I've already had it before. Last Friday, we ordered the full Degustazione and we had a total of 14 courses, few with multiple tastes in each. The courses don't come out one after an other in rapid succession and this is a very good thing. (When eating this much food, you need to take it slow.)   

(Normally when writing up a meal at Komi, I would write about each dish in detail and how if tasted and made me feel, but this time, I think I'll spare you all and write up the highlights.)

The small tastes started with what ended up being our favorite -- a small mountain of crab on top of Greek yogurt and all lightly topped with crab roe, or what our server referred to as a warm crab salad.  The flavor of the Greek yogurt complimented the flavor of the crab surprisingly well and after all the crab was gone, there was this pool of Greek yogurt and roe left over that I really would've liked a couple pieces of bread to soak it up. This was a perfect blend of Mediterranean style cooking with local ingredients.

A new mezzethakia to the menu since our last visit to Komi was a diver scallop duo of carpaccio, with a mustard and dill sauce, and tartar, served on a little spoon with pine nuts and beets. The scallops were amazingly fresh and melted in your mouth like butter. Some of the best dishes Johnny Monis creates are simple with fresh ingredients and different flavor combinations than you normally see, and this was a perfect example of this.

Crossing the lines of dessert and appetizer, the faux gras profiterole with candied ginger and shallots, and on the same plate as a smore with a goat cheese marshmallow, mixed savory with sweet. And of course, we also had the roasted Medjool dates stuffed with mascarpone cheese and greek yogurt. No description needed.

Someday, I hope that Johnny Monis will branch out and start a restaurant where all he serves is his amazing homemade pasta. A new pasta was on the menu this time, a bluefish-filled, homemade ravioli with a summer vegetable succotash. I think that bluefish is a really under-appreciated fish and I was happy to see it on the menu. The distinctly salty, oily flavor of the fish was complimented by the sweetness of the vegetables. I spied some sliced sweet sun-gold tomatoes, a tiny orange variety of cherry tomatoes, that I've been getting at the farmers markets lately and really made the dish.

For an entree, I was happy to see the return of the roasted suckling pig. They bring the full leg out and show it to you after it's been cooked and then they slice it up and serve it on the dish with various accompaniments like a savory oregano salt, sweet blueberry mostarda, tarte pickled cabbage, eggplant puree, and habanero pepper sauce. My favorite combination was some pickled cabbage and pepper sauce. When serving the pig, the kitchen peels the crispy skin off and puts slices of it on the plate. You literally can use the skin as chips to scoop the accompaniments it's so crisp, and has a flavor better than any piece of pork you'll ever eat.

If there's any job in the world I wouldn't want to have, its the one that has to finish a long meal at Komi with dessert. Perhaps that's why I've never been very satisfied by the desserts at Komi (other than the donuts of course). At the end of a long meal like that, I'd prefer a light sorbet or pastry with filo dough rather than a chocolate cake with heavy ganache sauce like we were served.

I can't remember a time when I've ever had even the slightest issue with service at Komi. The staff at Komi really go out of their way to make the entire experience a memorable one, yet service isn't overbearing. Dishes are described in detail when they're brought out and the servers are always able to speak to the food and are very enthusiastic about the food that is coming out of the kitchen. The entire night, Derek Brown did a fantastic job with the wine pairings. The most notable I thought was a Sparkling Gruner Veltliner which I promised myself I would track down at a local wine store if I could.

One final note, since I told them it was our anniversary, we were brought a little mango lassi and fortune cookies at the very end. I quickly gobbled mine up while Amy delicately broke hers open revealing the piece of paper that said "Happy Anniversary" inside. "Jase, did you just eat your fortune?" She asked me.

"Uhm...I guess so."

1509 17th St NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 332-9200

Closed Sunday and Monday.

Dress Code: Business Casual
Parking: It's very difficult to find parking in this area. There is a pay parking lot around the corner in an office building that's open until 12.
Smoking: Not Allowed.
Closest Metro: Dupont Circle
Reservations: Taken and recommended.
Baby-Child friendly rating: 1 diaper. I wish I could give it more but the atmosphere just isn't appropriate for a child.