Local Food

In D.C., The Only Thing More Elusive Than Statehood Is A Good Cubano

A Cuban sandwich is: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard pressed until crispy between two slices of Cuban bread, ideally.

It’s a simple sandwich. It’s a great sandwich.

DSCN5828 You want a good Cubano, you go to La Teresita in Tampa. It’s on Columbus by the stadium. Over the years, the Cuban diner has cranked out thousands of Cuban sandwiches, each for about $4. Just look at it. The bread –- the Cuban bread –- is toasted just enough to be crispy, crunchy on the outside, while the interior stays soft and just slightly chewy. The Swiss is warm and beginning to melt. And there’s just enough roasted pork, ham and pickles to fill out the sandwich without going overboard. Simple.

Yet, in the dozen years that I’ve lived in the District of Columbia, I’ve encountered many, many bad Cuban sandwiches. Just awful ones. I became convinced that no one in D.C. could make a proper Cubano.

Before working on this article, I never actively sought out the sandwich around town. I make it back to Tampa enough to satisfy my occasional need to have one. But every time I did encounter a D.C. Cubano, I tried it. If the sandwich was a flop, I would assume the rest of the menu was as well. Why not? If a kitchen can’t make a ham sandwich, why should I assume it can make something more complicated? 

Fortunately, there are six restaurants (using the term loosely) in the DMV that make a good Cubano –- and one of them makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had … anywhere.

Ceiba, the upscale Latin American restaurant, across the street from the White House and a thousand miles from Tampa, makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten (pictured above). That said, it’s not a traditional Cuban. If you’re a purist, the best traditional Cubano is made in Arlington by a guy from New Orleans. But the ways that Ceiba’s sandwich is different are the ways that it’s better than the rest.

For the most part, I’m still right about how hard it is to find a good Cubano in D.C. This is the town of Jose Andres and Minibar, of Michel Richard and Citronell, of Frank Ruta and Palena, of Vikram Sunderam and Rasika. This town, this foodie town (mostly) can’t make a reasonably good Cuban sandwich.

DSCN5926 G Street Food shoves dry, roasted pork and prosciutto into a roll and calls it a Cuban. It’s not (allegedly, there are other ingredients, but they’re lost in the loaf). Mi Vecindad on the Hill looks like the kind of mom and pop place that should specialize in a great Cubano. The sloppy steamed sandwich (pictured left) I had was the worst of the bunch.

The Disney inspired Cuba Libre offers an Ybor-style Cuban sandwich. Ybor City is the historic district in Tampa. Hey, I grew up in Tampa! I know Ybor! I’ve been there many more times then I remember. This should be great, right?! Right? Nope. The sandwich is too small, too expensive ($16!) and the flavors are too muddled. It’s a so-so sandwich at a Holy Shit! price.

And then there’s the Cubano flatbread at ChurchKey. I know it’s not a sandwich, but Kyle Bailey is a talented chef and I’m a fan of ChurchKey. Unfortunately, the Cubano flatbread is terrible. It may have pork, pickles and Swiss, but it doesn’t taste anything like a Cuban sandwich. Frankly, it doesn’t even taste like a good flatbread.

I could go on (Banana Café, Lima), but you get my point.

DSC_0006 In a strange twist for D.C., though, Jeff Tunks, chef and owner of Ceiba, uses all the right ingredients in his Cuban sandwich (well except Cuban bread, but he gets a pass because no one uses real Cuban bread). However, instead of yellow mustard, he uses a mayonnaise and mustard remoulade sauce. Rather than cured Danish ham, or sweet Virginia ham, Tunks uses a pungent smoked ham. And the Swiss cheese is replaced by its brawnier, more flavorful cousin, gruyere.

Tunks says the real difference is the pork shoulder that he marinates in citrus, garlic, cumin before slow roasting it. When he put the sandwich on the menu 8 years ago, he used pork loin, but switched to the fattier, more tender shoulder after a few months. Since then, the sandwich has remained unchanged. These days, if the pork sits too long in the kitchen before getting sliced, his staff will pick off pieces until the shoulder looks like it was worked over by piranha.

He’s right, the pork is good. The slow-cooked shoulder is juicy and the spices he uses are delicious and authentically Cuban. To me, though, the roasted pork isn’t the difference maker: it’s the smoked ham and remoulade.

DSC_0024 As I write this sentence, I can still smell the smoke on my since washed hands, and I can still taste the remoulade despite the other ingredients. When you bite into the sandwich, the smoke hits you. It’s confusing at first, because it otherwise looks like a traditional Cubano. But the smoked ham is a new element that gives the sandwich a flavor it’s never had before. And it works beautifully.

Then you notice that the bite from the mustard has been replaced by something smoother, richer. Until I talked to Tunks, I couldn’t figure it out. Somehow, the sandwich was more savory. The remoulade, which used a grainy mustard, was the unctuous secret.

Those ingredients added to an otherwise very well made Cubano resulted in one of the very best sandwiches D.C., or Tampa, has to offer. Sure, $13 is a lot to pay for a ham sandwich, but I’d pay twice as much. And if you order it off the late night bar menu, you can get it for half price.  

David Guas doesn’t like the remoulade. A Cuban sandwich needs yellow mustard. And he prefers more pork and less ham, though the smoked ham works for him. Guas’ opinion on Ceiba’s sandwich matters because he helped put it on the menu eight years ago.

DSC_0016 Today, Guas is the owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, and specializes in red beans and rice, boudin and has Abita on draft. But a couple days a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually) the kitchen will offer hot pressed Cuban sandwiches (pictured above) along with the muff-a-lottas. Guas may be a native of New Orleans, but his father was a native of Havana, Cuba.

Guas’ grandfather left Cuba to attend Loyola University, but returned with a wife and law degree. His grandmother’s ties to Louisiana led her to send Guas’ father and uncle to boarding school in Bay St. Louis, Miss., an hour north of New Orleans.

The city might be famous for po’ boys, but Cubanos were easy to find, Guas said, thanks to New Orleans’ Cuban community. And thanks to his extended family, Guas spent a considerable amount of his youth in Miami where the sandwich is a staple.

So the man from southeastern Louisiana knows from Cubanos.

Guas’ sandwich is fat with pork (that’s a good thing), but not so much so that the other ingredients get drowned out. Although Guas also uses a smoked ham, the flavor is much subtler than the ham Ceiba uses.

Both Guas and his former boss Tunks are big on the French bread they use for their Cubanos (Tunks’ comes from Cardinal, Guas’ comes from the French Bread Factory), but Guas’ roll carries the day thanks to the prodigious amount of butter he spreads on it before toasting it in panini press. The sandwich is crisp and almost flakey on the outside. Unless someone starts using Cuban bread, you’re not going to do better than Guas’ French roll. And at $7, you’re not going to find a better Cuban at a better price.

6 Tunks and Guas may make great sandwiches, but they are not alone in the Cubano trade. Within D.C., there’s also the El Floridano food truck. Parked along a curb in a neighborhood near you (maybe), the El Floridano offers up The Fidel (pictured right).

The Fidel is about as close to a traditional Cuban sandwich as you’ll find in the District. The El Floridano doesn’t do anything fancy (which is also good) and makes the sandwiches fresh. At the order and pick-up window, you can see the small flat-top lined with Cubanos held down by sandwich presses. For $7, you can get as good a sandwich as you’ll find in Tampa or Miami.

Fast Gourmet reminds me of some of my favorite Cuban sandwich spots in Tampa: gas stations. However, gas stations in Tampa don’t look this nice. The Cubano produced in the small kitchen near the corner of 14th and U streets is just as attractive. The crispy, panini pressed bread is stuffed with succulent, slow-roasted pork, ham, Swiss and pickles. Although the menu says the sandwich also comes with mustard and mayo, which isn’t uncommon, skip the mayo. It’s applied too liberally and drowns out whatever mustard is on the sandwich. For $8.50, you also get a side of shoestring fries. Don’t let that deter you from ordering the plantains (maduros). They’re soft, sweet and hot, and come with crème fresh.

Outside D.C., Cuba de Ayer is Havana via Burtonsville. The little Cuban restaurant hidden in a shopping center off Old Columbia Pike offers a great Cuban sandwich. What makes the drive to Burtonsville worth while, though, is the mojo you can order on the side. Dipping the warm and crusty Cubano into the garlic and olive oil mixture makes a good sandwich phenomenal.

Closer in is Cubano’s. What the Silver Spring restaurant lacks in polish and focused service it makes up for in a good Cuban sandwich (skip the fries and get the sweet maduros on the side). I wouldn’t go too far out of my way for Cubano’s, but if I was in the area, I’d be in the dining room.

There may be a lot of great restaurants, and food trucks, in the D.C. area, but there are only six that can make a proper Cuban sandwich. They are:

Ceiba: 701 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 393-3983; Cubano: $13
Bayou Bakery: 1515 North Courthouse Rd., Arlington, VA 22201; (703) 243-2410; Cubano, a once a week special (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually), $7
Cuba de Ayer: 15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, Md. 20866; (301) 476-8013; Cubano $7.50 (mojo $0.75)
El Floridano: moves daily; Cubano $7
Fast Gourmet: 1400 W St N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; Cubano $8.50 (plantains $2.50)
Cubano’s: 1201 Fidler Ln., Silver Spring, Md. 20910; Cubano $14.95 (maduros $4.95)

Port City Brewing Company: The DC Area's Newest Brewery (For Now).

PORTCITYSIGN After years of drought, craft beer is certainly on the ascendancy in Washington, DC. It was a bit of a rocky start, but with the advent of SAVOR, and major advocacy by beer lovers, DC is now a primary market for America's finest microbrews. But in terms of real local beer, we have kinda gotten short shrift. Sure, there are a number of brewpubs, and the small and plucky Shenendoah Brewery is still out there, but inside the Beltway, that's about all she wrote. Soon, that will all change, with the approach of Chocolate City Beer and DC Brau, both District-brewed beers which are expected to launch in the next couple months.

PORTYCITYBAR In the meantime, a third Beltway Insider has beaten them to the punch: Port City Brewing Company of Alexandria. Named in honor of Alexandria's colonial status as the fledgling nation's most important seaport -- and later, home to one of the nation's largest breweries -- Port City started brewing late last month, and slowly but surely, have seen their product trickle onto the market. A couple weeks ago, I visited their facility for a quick tasting and tour.

Port City's spacious tasting room was pretty well packed when we arrived. We pushed ourselves forward to the bar, and managed a quick sampling of the wares, before the tour got going.

PORTCITYFLAGS Three of Port City's four inaugural beers were up for tasting that afternoon: The Optimal Wit, Essential Pale Ale and Porter. Due to various jostlings and general hubbub, I wasn't able to take pictures or notes, but I can say that I was duly impressed.

The Wit came first. This hazy, light golden beer is made in the Beligian style, with Belgian yeasts, and flavorings of coriander, grains of paradise and orange peel. PC's was definitely less aggressively flavored than many, with the spices adding a light PORTCITYAVAIL counterpoint to the mild yeastiness. Though not likely to impress lovers of the real heavy continental stuff, this beer is balanced and refreshing, and a perfect beer with which to blitz the market at the beginning of Spring.

The Essential Pale was next, and came as a bit of a surprise. This golden ale -- which I expected to be on the light-handed side -- had an aggressive hoppiness on the front, followed by clean, malty flavors. We're not talking IPA levels of IBUs here, but the Essential was no shrinking flower, despite being the most "basic" beer on tap.

 The Porter was my favorite. This powerful beer boasted a complex melange of dried fruit, dark chocolate, coffee grounds, and, again, surprisingly abundant hops. This beer is very nicely balanced, and not overly heavy and syrupy given its relatively high alcohol (7.5 %).

PORTCITYTANKS After the whirlwind tasting, we were escorted through the back to the brewery floor. PC's cavernous facility boasts a brand-new 30 Gallon brewing system, which can produce some 8000 pints per batch. Brewery owner Bill Butcher took us through the whole process, from grain to keg. To all but the truly geeky, a description will not translate, so I highly suggest you visit yourselPORTCITYBREWERf, especially if you have never seen a working brewery (hours listed below).

  One cool thing about the tour, though, is that we were allowed to sample the brewery's then soon-to-be-released Monumental IPA, straight from the tank. I was surprised to find it just barely hoppier than the Essential Pale we had sampled earlier, but the beer was due for another six days of dry-hopping, so I will forgo judgement till I taste it from the keg.

PORTCITYBOTTLELINE Perhaps most exciting was PC's bottling line, just purchased from Southern Tier Brewing Company. Though not much to look at, this little guy can bottle at a rate of 50 bottles per minute, and means that Port City should be hitting store shelves by as early as next week!

Barely a month old, Port City has a healthy list of clients for their kegs (note picture above), and sells growlers on premises. Keep an eye out for those bottles, though, and hang onto a sixer for your grandkids. When the DC area is once again one of the great brewing centers of the country, you can show them that six pack, and say you were there at the beginning.

Hey, it could happen!

Port City Brewing Company
3950 Wheeler Ave
Alexandria, VA 22304

Tasting room hours:
Friday 4-8pm
Saturday 12-5pm
Sunday 12-5pm

Public tours begin at 2pm and 3pm on Saturday, no reservations required. Cost is $5, which includes a tasting glass to keep and a full tasting of each beer on tap.

Thanksgiving Turkeys, Get your orders in while you can

This is just a friendly reminder to everyone not to wait too long to get your fresh turkey order in!

In my personal experience, a fresh turkey from a farm is much better than any of the frozen birds you can get at a grocery store. The benefits of a fresh bird are The cook time is almost half that of a frozen turkey and the turkey comes out much better tasting and juicy. Even at the farmers market, if you pick it up at the  farmers market, many times the farmer the bird is still frozen before they give it to you, which really kind of defeats the purpose of getting it from the farmer. In any case, check with the farmer or vendor before you order it to make sure it will be delivered fresh and not frozen.

The problem is sometimes it's a hike to get to a "local" farm. So if driving out to one of the farms listed below isn't an option for you, check with your local Whole Foods, Moms Organic Market, or the Organic Butcher in McLean and ask to make sure the turkey you order will never be frozen. But just remember that you will pay a premium for the convenience.

If you're wondering where these farms are, I've created a page where with a listing of them. 


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

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.

A Restaurant By Any Other Name Is Not a Gastropub

Gastropub: (British) A public house that serves high-quality food.

This Wiktionary definition is the best I could find for gastropub, but it's illustrative enough. A gastropub is generally understood to be a public house (read: bar) that serves equally high-quality food and beer. In other words, a place you're just as likely to go for a few great beers as a nice meal. The concept hasn't been around all that long, but it has certainly found traction here in D.C.

Well the term has found traction, the establishment of actual gastropubs, not so much. Jamie Leeds (above) is the co-owner and executive chef of one of D.C.'s two gastropubs, Commonwealth. Granville Moore's on H Street, is the other. I would be just as inclined to visit either for a few quality ales as I would their upscale dishes. 

Yet, a Google search of the terms "gastropubs" and "D.C." pulls up a number of restaurants that either refer to themselves as gastropubs, or are referred to as gastropubs. Againn is clearly a restaurant. So is Brasserie Beck. Both have good beer selections (Beck's selection of Belgian beers is excellent, in fact), but the small bar areas, large dining rooms, showcase kitchens and raw bars (is that a new trend, too?) indicate that these places were designed to be restaurants, not drinking establishments. Rustico, which was named D.C.'s best gastropub in 2008 by the City Paper, could be a gastropub, but Beer Director Greg Engert and the management of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Rustico, are very clear about the fact that it is very much a restaurant.

48580022 This also goes for the NRG's beer palace, ChurchKey. One floor below is Birch & Barley, ChurchKey's sister establishment. Executive Chef Kyle Bailey offers several dishes that could be served in any white tablecloth dining room in the District, including pan-roasted skate and braised pork cheeks. But because burgers and flatbreads are the focus up stairs, ChurchKey is not a gastropub (though, the deviled duck eggs with duck pancetta and sweetbread dishes nearly do the trick). And though Birch & Barley diners have access to all of ChurchKey's 555 beers, the six seats at the bar are an excellent indication that this is a place geared toward diners, not drinkers. Fortunately, no one at NRG refers to either establishment as a gastropub, so there's no issue here.

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped Urbanspoon. The restaurant review Web site lists ChurchKey and Birch & Barley as gastropubs. It also lists, Againn, H Street Country Club (you know, the place with the mini golf) and Scion in Dupont Circle as gastropubs.

Therein lies the problem; the more people misuse the term, the less meaning it will have. As Leeds puts it, the term gastropub is becoming the new bistro. Beer is trendy now, and the gastropub concept is closely aligned with it. And like the term bistro, gastropub is the exotic new concept. It's British, and right now things that are British are nearly as trendy as beer. So why call your restaurant a restaurant, when you could call it a gastropub?

On the other hand, it's fair to ask what difference does it make what a restaurant calls itself. Without a true definition, gastropub is more of an adjective than a noun, so it describes establishments rather than defines them.

The thing is, I like gastropubs. Back in 2004, my friends Emma and Tom turned me on to gastropubs during a trip to London. They lived around the corner from The Junction Tavern, a beautiful old pub in London's Kentish Town neighborhood. The Junction specializes in real ales from local breweries and offers an upscale seasonal menu. It's a model gastropub, and a fantastic one at that. Ever since then, I've been very interested (maybe a little giddy) when a new one opens up in D.C. -- and disappointed when it turns out to be just another restaurant.

To gain some clarity on the subject of gastropubs, I e-mailed David Bulgar, a reviewer for the British pub review Website, Fancyapint. David has visited his fair share of gastropubs.

So David, what's a gastropub?

58290018 "I think most English drinkers would define a gastropub as a pub that focuses on restaurant quality dining, often serving modern British cuisine. Some gastropubs manage to operate as a good place to simply go for a pint as well as food, while others kill the drinking experience by looking and feeling to much like a restaurant, not a pub."

Maybe Brasserie Beck does fit the definition. But as he said, the establishment should be as much a pub as a restaurant.

When Commonwealth opened in 2008, D.C. finally had its own gastropub. The decor is a nod to the concept's British roots (though not necessary for a gastropub), but more importantly, the beer list is solid, with a respectable mix of British and American craft beers on draft and in the bottle, as well as pair of handpumps mounted on the bar. Keep in mind, Commonwealth came along a year and a half before ChurchKey and its five handpumps opened its doors. Like the Junction, the food coming out of the kitchen struck the right balance between traditional pub fare and smart, upscale cuisine. Given all the Irish bars we have around D.C., I know not to expect anything more interesting than the perfunctory shepherd's pie or fish and chips, and an ice-cold Smithwicks. Leeds, however, offers a menu of local, organic, sustainable dishes and pints of real ale.

And it's because of the attention Leeds and her business partner Sandy Lewis pay to the beer program that makes Commonwealth as much a drinking destination as a dining spot.

As David said, this is what separates gastropubs from restaurants.

58290023 A gastropub, he said, is "first and foremost a pub. It will have all the features of a pub, i.e. a bar, an area for simply drinking, without the need to order food. An English drinker will be able to distinguish between a bar, a pub and a restaurant a mile off. Pubs are generally older, serve a range of ales and lagers on tap, and have simple wooden chairs and tables, maybe a pool table and or dart board, and sell crisps and nuts as snacks; bars tend to be newer buildings, the often do not serve draught ale, and commonly only serve bottled lagers, they will have more modern furnishings, and would not have darts, pool, the crisps and nuts etc, in their place will be a cocktail menu and louder music. A gastro pub is distinctive because it will look more like a dining room than a drinking room, with tables set with menus, wine glasses, etc."

Walk into Commonwealth or Granville Moore and the bar is the very first thing you see. At Againn and Beck, the first thing you encounter is the hostess stand, followed by the raw bars.

58290002 Now that the gastropub trend is gaining steam in D.C., in name at least, I went back to Commonwealth to talk to Leeds. Commonwealth was envisioned as a gastropub that would have a robust beer program, casual, but elevated cuisine, and ultimately a place that would be responsive to its neighborhood clientele. Leeds said Lewis developed the beer program, while the menu was her design. Wanting to do something besides seafood (Leeds and Lewis also own Hank's Oyster Bar), Leeds decided a gastropub would give her the chance.

To be honest, even Commonwealth wouldn't fit David's strict definition of a gastropub. In Britain, he said, most gastropubs are old pubs that decided to upgrade their menus. Well, London has a lot more old pubs than we do, so unless Leeds had taken over the kitchen at the old Mr. Eagan's, Commonwealth and Granville Moore are the closest we're going to get to true gastropubs.

Although beer was always a focus of Commonwealth, Leeds said she's surprised that her gastropub has become such a destination for area beer enthusiasts. Leeds said Commonwealth remains focused on catering to its Columbia Heights neighborhood, but its beer sales are "through the roof" thanks to all the regional traffic the bar gets.

Now, compare Commonwealth to Againn. I don't mean to pick on the place, but it's the latest restaurant to call itself a gastropub. Its beer selection is fairly large, but it's heavy on the familiars (Harp, Stella, Dogfish Head, Heineken), and has several multiples from a few breweries. Mind you, it's great that they carry five or six different beers from Founders and Brewdog, but it also shows a laziness or ignorance about beer. Rather than taking the time to select a few beers from a variety of breweries, Againn has padded its beer list by selecting many beers from a few breweries. Also, the staff is either too new or too indifferent to know much about the beer list. If you're going to run a gastropub, the staff should be knowledgeable about the beer. Situated between the raw bar and the dining room, Againn's bar seems like most restaurant bars: a place to have a drink while you're waiting on your table. It just doesn't feel like a place you want to spend an afternoon or evening drinking. 

Does this mean Againn is a bad place? No, it just means that it's a restaurant, not a gastropub. In fact, it has all the makings of being a good restaurant, and it doesn't have to call itself a gastropub to achieve that goal.

So if I want to go out for a nice meal, I may go to Againn. If I want to try a few quality beers, I may head to ChurchKey. But if I want both, I'll go to Commonwealth or Granville Moore's.

Virginia Farmland Summer Solstice Supper

Summer Solstice Menu and Place Setting The desire to develop relationships with those who are growing our food has made the farmers market concept popular throughout the United States.  In the DC metro area, there are well over 30 farmers markets (in my neighborhood alone, there are three).  The markets give consumers the opportunity to learn about the farms and the farmers, providing a direct pipeline of information from the farm to the table.  This concept has been taken one step further with farm to table events like the one that was recently hosted by Vermilion Restaurant on the Moutoux Orchard in Loudon County, Virginia.  I had the

 Vermilion Restaurant, located in Old Town Alexandria is known for its conscientious efforts to use locally sourced produce, meats, dairy products and other ingredients.  Executive Chef Tony Chittum, a recent Rammy award winner for Rising Culinary Star, seeks out local farmers and producers to partner with, bringing farm fresh ingredients to the heart of Old Town. Out of this partnership came the natural progression of bringing diners to the farm itself for an evening of stellar food and the chance to break bread with those who grew it.

Horton Wines 3The Moutoux Orchard is a tapestry of beautiful trees bearing the fruit of their famous peaches.  The orchard has been owned by the Moutoux family for three generations and has expanded with its own community supported agriculture program.  Rob Moutoux, Jr. has also begun growing wheat, spelt, rye and barley, using chemical free farming practices.  The Moutoux family graciously opened up its orchard for the Summer Solstice Supper, allowing guests to meander around their orchards and fields. 

 The event started with a reception in the peach orchard, which included a selection of Horton Wines. After hearing the compliments being bandied around the reception, I decided to try their orchard peach champagne cocktail, a glass of their Sparkling Viognier NV with a splash of their peach wine.  I was pleasantly surprised by the clean and crisp flavor of the cocktail and the immediate essence of peach permeating it.

Sitting Down to Dinner 2

To offset the flow of wine, platters of appetizers were circulated throughout the white tent erected for the reception.  Fresh sausage was tossed with a snap pea slaw while the sweetness of beets was paired with an Alberene ash goat cheese.  The start of Summer squash season was heralded with grilled Summer squash coupled with a Virginia feta.  And fresh eggs were highlighted in a frittata of potatoes, leeks and Virginia ham.  All of the produce was harvested the day before – evident by the sweetness of the beets and the tangy earthiness of the squash.  A live blue grass band rounded out the trifecta of good wine, good food and good music, making for a lovely start to the warm Summer night.

A makeshift kitchen was set up close by, with Tony and his staff working feverishly over the open flames of the grill. The first course was set before us, a chicory salad with deviled eggs and a Summer squash and cornbread panzanella.  The eggs were gathered that very morning from the chicken coops, bringing new meaning to farm fresh eggs.  The yolk was smooth and creamy, requiring little seasonings to bring out its rich flavor.  

Knowing this, Tony and his staff used a minimal amount of ingredients to create the deviled egg, allowing its natural flavors to shine.  The salad course was paired with Horton’s Viognier 2008, a crisp wine that didn’t interfere with the taste of the food. The greens were tossed lightly with a vinaigrette of freshly picked herbs, providing an added depth to the salad. 

Hampton Jumbo Lump Crab CakesThe second course was quickly placed in front of us, a duo of the region’s seafood accented with fresh vegetables paired with my favorite wine of the evening, Horton’s Petit Manseng 2007.  A Virginia wrapped local scallop was paired with a Hampton jumbo lump crab cake, served on large, family style platters to encourage guests to pass the plate and start a conversation.  The crab cake was served on a bed of oak leaf lettuce, tossed with the same fresh herb vinaigrette used on the chicory salad. Rounding off the second course was a crudo of spring root vegetables, including fresh radishes and beets.  The gorgeous, deep red of the beets permeated the rest of the crudo, giving the dish a bejeweled quality. 

 During the break between the second and third courses, I was able to get a closer look at the kitchen created in the middle of the farm land.  Tony, an easy going and affable guy, chatted freely with guests as he maneuvered the Piedmontese beef, rabbit and bison skirt steak around the huge, open flamed grills.  “The menu was driven by the harvest,” he said as he wiped his brow and turned over a massive piece of beef.  Tony’s drive to use local produce started with a simple pursuit of quality ingredients.  

Grilling Up the Meat!Before the third course was presented, a Cabernet Franc 2006 appeared in my glass.  Although I’m not a fan of reds, I could appreciate the clear, full bodied taste of the Cabernet and believed it to be a fitting accompaniment to the New Frontier Farm Mixed Grill.  The grill included the aforementioned Piedmontese beef, a rabbit terrine and a bison skirt steak.  Seasoned only to bring out the meat’s natural flavors, the cuts were succulent and delicious.  The skirt steak was unbelievably velvety, almost melting in my mouth.  As with the second course, the mixed grill was served on heaping platters.  By this time in the dinner, everyone was relaxed and old friends, so the plates were passed around as if it was a family dinner.  

Caromont Farm Chevre Cheesecake As dessert was served, everyone tucked into the Caromont Farm Chevre Cheesecake placed before them.  A strawberry black pepper preserves and Chantilly cream sauce accented the cheesecake, a mellower version of the heavier, traditional ricotta and cream cheese cheesecakes.  A sweet but flavorful Late Harvest Viognier was paired with the cheesecake – and a favorite of several of my dinner companions.  The knowledgeable servers explained how harvesting the grapes later allow for a sweeter, almost port like white wine.  Although heavier than all the other wines served throughout the meal, the Late Harvest Viognier was still a crowd pleaser. 

A final treat of Virginia peanut cookies was served along with iced espresso before Tony came out to greet all the diners.  A rousing round of applause greeted him, along with flashes of cameras and shouts of praise.  He graciously accepted the compliments and chatted with every section of the table before heading back to clean up.  As we all headed back up to the orchard to our cars, full and happy, the sun gave way to night.  Fireflies seemed to be lighting the path back to the orchard, reminding me that I was a long way from the city.  This was a unique event, allowing the consumer and the producer to come together over the very food that binds them.  A celebration of the season and the hard workers who bring it to us every week, the supper was a huge success.  And I walked away richer in the knowledge that I truly know where my food is coming from.

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

40_cloves_of_garlic_chicken After my first visit to the Takoma Park Farmer's Market, I wanted to go back for a whole young chicken from Smith Meadows Farm.  I have been on a quest to make a perfect roast chicken for a while now with little success.  A fellow foodie friend suggested using a whole young chicken as opposed to a standard roasting chicken from the supermarket.  I was told a young chicken is more tender and lends itself better to a  juicy roast as opposed to the leathery, dry meat I often produce.  I begun searching online for an exceptional roast chicken recipe before remembering this Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic recipe.  I altered it very slightly so that everything I used for the recipe came from my CSA box or my visit to Takoma Park. 

This is the perfect dish for a cold Winter's day.  It's a beautiful chicken seasoned with fresh herbs and enough garlic to kill a village of vampires!  And it's all done in the crock pot, resulting in the most delicious aromas wafting through your house.  Add some roasted rosemary fingerling potatoes and you have the bounties of Winter right there on your dinner plate.  Dishes like this are exactly why I choose local, fresh and in season ingredients.  When you use such quality ingredients, you don't need to do a lot to make them great. 

Chicken with 40 Cloves of GarlicYoung_chicken_and_garlic_cloves
1 4-lb young whole chicken
1 fresh sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
1 fresh sprig of rosemary, whole
1 fresh sprig of thyme, finely chopped
1 fresh sprig of thyme, whole
2 fresh stalks of micro Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 fresh stalks of micro Italian parsely, whole
40 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
Fresh ground pepper

Pat dry the chicken and set it on a plate.  If not already done, remove the innards from the cavity of the whole chicken. Place the whole rosemary, thyme and parsley inside the cavity of the chicken, along with the five peeled cloves of garlic.  Place the chicken in the crock pot but do not turn it on yet.  Wash your hands and then grind the pepper over the chicken (the amount of pepper depends on your personal taste level - I added almost a 1/2 teaspoon).  Then evenly sprinkle the finely chopped rosemary, thyme and parsley over the chicken.  Add in the 40 cloves of garlic around the chicken, cover the crock pot  and turn it on low.  Cook for 8 to 10 hours. 

When the chicken is thoroughly cooked, carve and serve with a pound of roasted fingerling potatoes tossed with fresh chopped rosemary, salt, pepper and 1/4 cup of good olive oil.  The roasted garlic cloves can be used in other dishes calling for roasted garlic. 

Grilled Lamb with Neeps and Tatties

Image037This New Year’s Day, let’s pay homage to the man who helps us celebrate the occasion.

Sit down Dick Clark, I’m talking about Robert Burns. The 18th century Scottish poet, who gave us such classics as “Address to a Haggis” and “A Red, Red Rose,” penned “Auld Lang Syne.” Sure, none of us know the words, but that doesn’t stop us from mumbling through it every year.

Now, I imagine ol’ Rabbie Burns wasn’t much of a grilling guy, but he probably would’ve approved of my take on the Scottish staples lamb, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). Rather than mashing both vegetables -- the traditional method -- I grill the turnips with scallions. The sweet, smoky flavor of the turnips is the perfect contrast to the buttery mashed potatoes and savory lamb. In keepinImage055g with the Scottish theme, I used herbs and seasonings that could be found in Burns' Scotland. 

And what better way to chase away the Champagne hangover than a couple fingers of single malt Scotch (hair of the Scotty dog)? I'm a Macallan fan, myself, but with five distinct Scotch regions and dozens of distilleries to choose from, there are plenty of whiskies out there to like.

Grilled Lamb with Neeps and Tatties

(Makes four servings)

Image0091 2.5 lb. lamb leg, boneless

8 potatoes, (Yukon gold or other mashing potato) quartered

3 turnips, quartered

4 green onions

1 head of garlic, minced

2 tbs. thyme

1 stick of butter

1/4 cup of cream

Salt and cracked black pepper to taste


Before heading out for your New Year’s Eve celebrations, season the lamb with the salt, pepper, thyme and garlic. When you’re up and about the next day, pull the lamb out of the fridge and light the charcoal (if you have a gas grill, hold off lighting it until you’re ready to cook).

Add the turnips and potatoes to dueling pots of boiling salted water. Cook the turnips for about 10 minutes and the potatoes for about 20 minutes, or until both are tender. Pull the pots off the heat and drain the turnips and potatoes separately.

While the potatoes are still hot, add them back to the pot and mash with a wooden spoon or potato masher. Add the butter, salt, pepper and cream. Continue mashing in the pot until the ingredients are fully incorporated. For smoother potatoes, finish the potatoes off in a food processor. When finished, cover with aluminum foil and set them in a warm oven.

Image022Image027When the grill is ready, scrape the garlic off the lamb leg (as best you can) and place it over the hottest spot for three to four minutes until a crust forms. Turn the lamb and cook for another three minutes. Move the lamb to a cooler spot of the grill and cook with the cover on for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, uncover the grill, and coat the green onions and boiled turnips with vegetable oil and season with salt and black pepper. Place the vegetables on the grill next to the lamb, turning as necessary to prevent too much charring. When the turnips and onions are ready, the lamb should be ready to come off (if you like your lamb rare, pull it off after 30 minutes).

While the lamb leg rests for seven minutes, dice the onions and turnips and toss together.

When the lamb is ready, carve it up and pass it out with the neeps and turnips.

Happy New Year!

Winter Squash Two Ways

Bounty_of_squash In case you've spent the last few weeks locked inside embroiled in a Guitar Hero marathon jam session, I should point out it's getting cold around here.  With the cold comes a shift in the types of produce available locally.  As I walk through the farmers' markets now, I see a lot more apples, onions, potatoes and turnips.  Don't get me wrong, I love apples (in fact, one of the recipes below feature apples) but nothing is more versatile than Winter squash.  Abundantly available during the infinite season of tubers (also known as Winter), Winter squash comes in over 20 varieties and can be cooked in a surprising number of ways.  From savory (soups, pastas, even pizzas) to sweet (cookies, pies and cakes), Winter squash is the go-to food for the Winter.  Even better, Winter squash is in abundance at local farmers' markets this time of year.

The categorization of squash as Winter and Summer squash is a bit of a misnomer.  Summer squashes are mainly found in the Spring and Summer, but their name is derived from their short storage periods.  Winter squash, on the other hand, can be stored for months after harvested (if kept in a cool, dry place), making them ideal for use during the Winter.  Summer squashes are usually harvested before fully ripe, giving them a softer rind and lighter colored flesh. Winter squashes have a tougher rind, making them more conducive to storing for long periods of time.  And almost as if mimicking the colors of Fall, the flesh of Winter squash come in rich yellows and oranges.  The varieties of Winter squash are broken into five main groups:  Acorn, Delicata, Spaghetti, Butternut and True Winter Squash.  Subtle differences in flavors among the varieties of Winter squash allows cooks to use them in an assortment of recipes.  To illustrate this point, I present to you Winter Squash 2 ways.  For the savory side, a delicious stuffed acorn squash and for the sweet tooth, a roasted butternut squash cheesecake.  All of the ingredients for the stuffed acorn squash were purchased at the Dupont Circle farmers' market (except the sausage, a lovely whiskey fennel I picked up at Eastern Market).

Finished_dishStuffed Acorn Squash
2 large acorn squash
2 large shallots, diced
1 large granny smith (or another tart variety) apple, cored and diced
1 pound of sausage
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Carefully cut each squash in half (the rind is tough, so use a good, sharp knife and be prepared to flex some muscle) and place them face down in a nonstick roasting pan.  Roast for at least one hour or until the flesh has softened.  Set the squashes aside and allow them to cool.  During the squash cooling period, heat the olive oil over medium high heat and saute the shallots and apples until softened.  Remove the shallots and apples from the pan and squeeze the sausages out of their casings and into the pan.  Cook the sausage fully and then add in the apple/shallot mixture.  Add the thyme, salt and pepper and cook for another five minutes.

When the acorn squashes have cooled, carefully scoop out their flesh while preserving their “casing”.  Add the squash flesh to the sausage mixture, stirring to incorporate it evenly.  Spoon the sausage mixture back into each acorn squash casing (there will be more than enough of the sausage mixture to evenly stuff all the acorns) and serve!

Finished_cheesecake Roasted Butternut Squash Cheesecake
For the filling:
4 eight ounce packages of cream cheese, softened
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 eggs
½ cup whipping cream
1 ½ cups roasted butternut squash flesh, whipped

For the roasted butternut squash flesh:
1 butternut squash, halved with the seeds removed
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 tablespoon pumpkin spice
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar

For the crust:
8 tablespoons butter, melted
25 to 35 Vanilla Wafers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Place the Vanilla Wafers in a food processor and pulse until pulverized.  Combine the melted butter and Vanilla Wafers in a bowl.  Press the mixture into a greased 9 inch springform pan.  Bake for 10 minutes, checking to make sure the crust does not burn.  Set the crust aside while you make the filling.

Cut the squash in half and place in a roasting pan.  Brush the halves with melted butter and sprinkle with the pumpkin spice and brown sugar.  Roast the squashes for approximately 45 minutes or until the flesh is tender.  Allow the squash to cool before scooping out the flesh.  Whip the flesh until no longer lumpy with a whisk and set aside.

Combine the cream cheese, sugar and cornstarch in a stand mixer and cream together on low until the mixture is smooth.  Increase the speed to medium and add in the vanilla, eggs, squash flesh and the cream.  Continue beating until the batter is smooth and creamy.  Pour the batter into the springform pan.  Place the pan in a water bath (a large shallow pan filled partially with hot water) and bake the cake for an hour.  After an hour, gently shake the springform pan to see if the center jiggles.  If the center does jiggle, continue baking for another ten minutes.  Check again to see if the center jiggles and if it does, continue baking for another ten minutes.  Repeat this procedure until the cheesecake no longer jiggles in the center.  Be careful not to burn the top of the cheesecake by rotating the pan in the oven each time you check the center.  Once finished baking, remove the springform pan from the water bath and allow the cheesecake to cool completely.  Refrigerate the cake for at least 6 hours (preferably overnight) before serving.