New American

14K Restaurant: A Theatergoer's Opinion

The Venue: There are two challenges faced when eating before attending a theater performance: getting portions that are filling to ward off hunger pangs -- yet not overly so to cause drowsiness during the performance; and, speediness of service. For these reasons I tend to grab something to eat at the bar before going to the theater. Prior to a recent performance of The History Boys, I stopped at 14K Restaurant, five blocks north of the Studio Theatre.

The Cast of Characters: On my first outing, I tried the Chesapeake crab cake ($13) served, according to the menu, over creamed spinach and Pommery mustard. Instead, as an uncredited understudy, the supporting side dish was a warm, Southwestern-styled corn salad and a crisp roll filled with guacamole and garnished with an orchid. The crab cake was good -- not too much filler, lumps of crab – but the corn salad – with flecks of pancetta, tossed in a roasted, tomato vinaigrette – was even better and complimented the crab nicely.

On another visit, I ordered the steamed mussels ($14) in a white wine, herb broth. Yet, I couldn't figure out what herbs were used; there wasn't a speck of green in the broth. The mussels were bought out in a large, 3-quart Dutch oven, overwhelming the pound or so of mussels. Perched on top of the mussels was a lone piece of toasted cheese bread; not enough to sop up the broth. However, in my book, you can rarely go wrong with mussels.

Both meals were served with bread. On one occasion, the basket contained two types of rolls: sourdough and rye; on another, pretzel bread sticks as well as the sourdough rolls. The bread, especially the sourdough, was quite good. But answer me this: how does bread come out of the kitchen steaming? Were they served hot from the oven?

Performance: Unlike table dining, there are certain risks inherent in sitting and dining at a bar. If the bar is crowded, you'll have a tough time getting the bartender's attention. At other times, when the bar is slow, the staff is either busy setting-up or nonexistent. At 14K, there is an additional challenge: the bar is a circle, bisected by the drink station. On one occasion, while the bartender was servicing one side, the other side was being neglected. I had a hard time attracting his, or anyone's, attention to get water, ask about the corn salad, inquire about my meal and get the check. The other time, the staff hovered; whisking away the bowl anytime it contained five or more discarded mussel shells.

The pace of the kitchen left a lot to be desired. On my two visits, it took an average of 20 minutes, once ordered, for food to arrive. Maybe my own timing was off; I had allotted 45 minutes for a somewhat leisurely, yet quick, meal before show time. I know now to build in additional time in order not to feel rushed.

Set Design:
14K takes great pride in appearance and presentation. The room is light and airy with lots of open space. The circular bar provides a semi-restricted view of the hotel lobby or the restaurant. Albeit located on a busy, rush hour intersection, the outdoor dining patio is ideal for people watching. The kitchen does take great care in plating and showcasing the meal. A single orchid graces the guacamole roll, or a slice of bread atop the mussels, confirm this.

The Mark: 14K has a lot going for it, as a pre-theater dining experience: it’s proximity to the Studio theater; the variety offered on the bar menu; the selection of by-the-glass wines; the value for the money. Yet, it also has a few major distractions… the pace of the kitchen and staff attention left a lot to be desired…and should be avoided before an evening or matinée show. For a leisurely meal, with patio dining, 14K deserves a second chance.

14K Restaurant and Lounge
Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel
14th and K Streets, NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 218-7575

Alice Waters' "The Art of Simple Food"

Art_of_simple_food_book_jacket Mesclun and other mixed-greens salads.  Goat cheese.  Name-dropping on restaurant menus.

All of these now-commonplace foodie conventions (and an impressive list of others) can be attributed, either directly or indirectly, to the influence of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, her world-famous restaurant in Berkeley, CA.  So profound is Waters' impact and that of the "California Cuisine" that she helped to popularize that David Kamp devotes an entire chapter to Waters, Chez Panisse and their culinary contributions in "The United States of Arugula," his brilliant foodie history.   

Now, more than thirty-five years after Chez Panisse opened its doors, Alice Waters has released a cookbook to share the secrets of her "Delicious Revolution," as it was dubbed in a 2003 American Masters episode on PBS.  She distills her experiences into nine basic rules that should govern anyone who wants to cook (and eat) well. 

"This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook," says Waters in the introduction to the text.  And on that front, she delivers.  The book begins with nineteen "lessons" that cover the basics of shopping, preparation and cooking.  Some of these lessons cover specific courses like soups, pastas, desserts and, of course, salads.  Others deal with cooking techniques like grilling, simmering, slow-cooking, and frying. 

Each "lesson" chapter begins with a brief paragraph introducing the concept that will be addressed before jumping right into the topic at hand.  Rather than discussing bread making in an academic context, for example, Waters takes only a few paragraphs to talk about factors that impact the taste and quality of breads before walking the reader through a recipe for "Herb Bread or Pizza Dough."  Lessons that deal with techniques are approached in a similar fashion, with an emphasis on learning through doing in the form of recipes.

The second section of the book is a compendium of additional recipes entitled "At the Table."  These recipes are separated into broad categories (sauces, meats, eggs and cheese, etc.) and then presented in straightforward fashion. Not surprisingly, the single largest category is the one for vegetables - Waters provides seventy-two different recipes for everything from fennel and chard to potatoes and tomatoes.

It is the presentation of these recipes (Waters' status notwithstanding) that truly distinguishes "The Art of Simple Food" from similar cookbooks.  Waters eschews the traditional recipe format (a list of ingredients followed by a series of instructions) in favor of a more - go figure - organic approach.  Each recipe is a narrative in and of itself, instructing you to:

       4 pork chops, 1/2 inch thick
       salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Heat a heavy frying pan over medium-high heat.  Pour in:
       olive oil to coat the pan"

The offset, bold-faced ingredients are still easily noticed, and the as-you-go instructions help to reduce the risk of omitting a key item or skipping a step.  Most recipes are followed by a set of bulleted recommendations on ways to vary the end result without significantly changing the basic technique.

To put the book to the test, I attempted to follow Waters' recipes for Grilled Lamb Loin Chops and Lentil Salad.  The first recipe was quintessentially Waters - it called for nothing more than salt, pepper and oil to season the meat and a total cooking time of 10 minutes - and it allowed the full, rich flavor of the lamb to shine through.  The Lentil Salad was simply dressed with red-wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and the lentils were combined with shallots and parsley for added taste and texture.  I opted to include two of the recommended variations - chopped cucumber and sweet red pepper - to give the dish some more crunch.  The final product was flavorful, but unlikely to become a staple in our household. 

A word of warning: anyone who reads the title and subtitle ("Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution") and expects a memoir or even a few anecdotes is in for a disappointment.  This is a simple cookbook extolling the virtues of simple food, though it is accessible, clearly written and a pleasure to work with in the kitchen.  That should come as no surprise to those who see Alice Waters as one of the people who helped awaken the American palate to the joys of "fresh, local, seasonal ingredients" in the '70s and as a tireless advocate for sustainable agriculture and "edible education" today.


Tabard Inn

Tabard Tucked away on a quiet block of N Street just south of Dupont Circle, the Tabard Inn is one of those places that you don't quite discover until you've been in Washington for a while - and then you wish you had known about it forever.  The hotel has 40 guest rooms spread out across three adjoining townhouses, and each room is uniquely decorated.  Looking out a south-facing upstairs window at the dome of St. Matthew's Cathedral, it is easy to imagine yourself in some picturesque Italian village.

But the Tabard Inn is not just a Hilton alternative - its restaurant boasts the talents of Huw Griffiths, the man recognized by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington as 2007 Pastry Chef of the Year, and its cozy parlor is a great place to curl up with a hot beverage and one of his creations on a cold evening.  Although the restaurant's main courses left something to be desired on a recent visit, the starters and desserts definitely saved the day.

Img_3467 To get to the Tabard Inn's eponymous restaurant, you pass through the lobby of the hotel and into a parlor that is dominated by a stone fireplace and its massive wooden mantle.  Chairs and benches throughout the dark-paneled room provide plenty of space for people waiting to be seated in the restaurant, but I would highly recommend a visit for the sake of the parlor itself - a limited menu of light fare and desserts is available from an attentive waitstaff.  My wife tried the Hot Buttered Rum despite the fact that she is not normally a fan of rum, and she thought it was absolutely amazing.  I enjoyed a hot apple cider spiked with Knob Creek bourbon instead of rum - a special request that they accommodated without hesitation.  What a great way to start!

We were encouraged to let the hostess know when we were ready to be seated for dinner, a nice change of pace from overbooked restaurants who make you wait while they hurry other diners out.  Once we did so, we were quickly shown to a table in a small upstairs dining room (not the main room) with views of the Inn's courtyard through the nearby windows.  Our server quickly and ably walked us through the menu and informed us that there are no off-menu specials because new menus are printed every day.  She also pointed us toward a short list of wines that are imported directly from Italy by the hotel.  These represent some great values, but the unique relationship between the Tabard and the growers means that you'll have a hard time tracking the wines down later should you want to buy them yourself.  We shared a bottle of Deltetto Roero Arneis, a crisp white wine from Roero in northern Piemonte that was wonderful with our various seafood and pork dishes.

A generous basket of bread was brought to the table once we had placed our orders, and this was our first introduction to Huw Griffiths' skills.  The basket contained several slices each of light rye, focaccia and sourdough olive breads, each handmade by the pastry chef that day.  Although one of my dining companions found the focaccia a bit too salty for her taste, we all agreed that the breads were delicious and lived up to the hype.

Soon after that, our appetizers arrived.  With several salads, soups and hot dishes ranging from $7 to $11, there are plenty of choices to tempt you, and you would be wise to start with something.  An arugula salad that featured roasted pears and pine nuts had its sweetness nicely tempered by a balsamic vinaigrette, and fried gingered calamari were light and tender - though none of us could detect the ginger.  My favorite starter was a combination of mussels and spicy lamb sausage served in a silky curry sauce that was rich with a subtle heat.  A garnish of watercress lent a fresh, peppery note that complemented the dish nicely.  To this point, the meal was wonderful.

Unfortunately, we had decidedly less luck with our entrees.  Despite a wide variety of dishes (10 choices in all, ranging from $21 to $33), there were very few that begged to be tried.  My mother opted for a seafood gumbo that featured house-made creole sausage.  Though the sausage was tasty and the seafood well-cooked, there was something about the flavor of the gumbo that seemed out of place - a dusky smokiness that none of us could recall in other gumbos we had eaten (and preferred).  My wife's tagliarini pasta suffered from too much salt - despite the inherent saltiness of the squid's ink used to color the pasta as well as the scallops and the grilled calamari, the dish was topped with a spoonful of trout roe that only added to the overly briny flavor.  I ordered a suckling pig roulade that was topped with a deliciously tangy fig gastrique, but I was disappointed by the meat used - the cut of pork I was served was at least 1/3 fat, and the skin had a soft, chewy consistency.  Only my aunt's crab cake was an unmitigated success, with large lumps of sweet crab meat barely held together by any filler at all and served with a wonderful remoulade.

Img_3475We had been warned to save room for dessert, because Huw Griffith's pastries and cakes are truly the stars of the show (desserts run $7 to $10).  A pear tarte with an airy pastry shell came with a scoop of house-made maple ice cream, and the flavors were amazing.  A vanilla and malt cheesecake with a banana creme anglaise was decadent and too rich for any of us to finish.  A tall slice of moist chocolate cake was served with a scoop of mint-chocolate chip ice cream that tasted like garden-fresh peppermint, instead of some artificial mint flavor.  But the true standout of the evening was the pumpkin pecan bread pudding, accompanied by dulce de leche ice cream.  Picture a warm, sweet, gooey confection with a base of house-baked bread tempered by savory spices and you've got a good idea of just how wonderful it was.  Any disappointments brought on by our entrees were momentarily forgotten over dessert.

Unfortunately, the main courses were not the only disappointment.  Service during this trip was surprisingly uneven, as well.  At no point in our meal did our server stop by to check on us, save to present the dessert menus.  We went through the entire meal without having our water glasses refilled once, only to have them topped off twice during dessert.  And, most disturbingly, all of my companions' dishes made it to the table a full five minutes before my roulade, leaving them to look at their cooling plates of seafood while they politely waited for my dish to arrive.  All of this despite the fact that the restaurant was not full at any point during our two-hour meal.

Img_3476_3As I said at the beginning of this post, I consider the Tabard Inn one of Washington's hidden gems, and I always look forward to visiting when the weather turns cold so I can enjoy the warmth of the fireplace in the parlor.  The romantic appeal of the Inn cannot be overlooked, either, which is why I have often recommended it to friends as a great 'special occasion' spot.  But I have found the quality of their main courses to be steadily declining over the past year or so.  The desserts and hot drinks (our server informed us that Griffiths was responsible for the fantastic Hot Buttered Rum, as well) remain reason enough to visit, but there is too much competition in this price range for the kitchen to turn out unimpressive dishes like the ones we had.

Tabard Inn
1739 N Street, NW
Washington, DC  20036
(202) 785-1277

Dress Code: Business/Dress Casual
Parking: Valet parking is available for dinner patrons for $7.  Street parking is available nearby but can be difficult to find due to the proximity to Dupont Circle.
Closest Metro: Dupont Circle (use the south exit)
Reservations: Taken and recommended. Tabard Inn is not currently part of OpenTable.
Baby-Child friendly Rating: 0 diapers (to borrow Jason's system).  The quiet and somewhat romantic atmosphere coupled with the limited child-friendly menu options make this a bad choice for families with small children.
Bathroom Rating: Two small unisex bathrooms are both clean and well-kept.  A framed letter on the wall from one of the vintners whose wines they import directly reflects the special relationships that go into their wine purchases.

Willow Restaurant

There's nothing I dislike more in a restaurant than expensive dishes that I can easily duplicate at home (and probably make better myself). That's why I really like Willow Restaurant in Arlington, VA! Their menu is constantly changing with interesting variations on some classic dishes, but they're not your run-of-the-mill dishes -- the kind that a quick search on the internet turns up a similar recipe in just a few secones.

Take for instance, the homemade sausage-wrapped rack of pork. The pork is cooked just a little pink in the middle, juicy and tender. The homemade sausage packed around the pork is moist, and adds just enough spicy flavor to the dish that it doesn't overpower the pork. Add to each bite a little slice of the caramelized cipollini onions on the side, and you've got a very good fall dish. Yes, if I had enough time, I could probably duplicate this dish on my own, but only after preparing all of the ingredients for a whole day.

I haven't really had anything I dislike at Willow yet. So far, between Amy and I, we've tried a good variety of dishes at Willow. Our favorite appetizer by far is the Fritto Misto platter, which is a bunch of little fried appetizers including cheesy prosciutto fritters, chorizo-stuffed olives (by far the best thing in the dish), and blue cheese-stuffed dates. These were so good the first time we tried them, that we ordered them again on our second trip.

One thing I noticed on the menu, the chef sure likes to wrap meat. Half of the dishes were some kind of meat that was wrapped in something, or a meat wrapped in another meat, or some other combination like that. Luckily I like meats wrapped in stuff, like the pastrami-wrapped albacore tuna, which reminds me a lot of the old speck-wrapped white tuna at Komi that I miss so much, or  a potato-wrapped salmon. The salmon came with these amazing little ricotta cheese pancakes, that added a nice tang to the dish. The wrapping is mainly a presentation thing, I believe, for which the Willow chefs get top grades.

I don't usually care much about atmosphere, but I have to say that Willow has done a good job creating a nice dining environment. The dining room is quiet, but not so quiet that you can hear the conversations going on next to you, and the tables are also nicely spaced so you don't feel cramped. The bar area is fairly large and seems to always have space to sit. Last Saturday night, I couldn't get a reservation for a table, so instead, any and I just went and dined at the bar.

Service goes above and beyond as well, and the servers have a lot of information about the food and wine being served. Out waiter for our first visit was particularly knowledgeable about the wine, suggesting a buttery Pinot Blanc to go with our seafood dishes while telling us about the vineyard, how the wine is produced, as well as hints on serving temperatures.

With the food so good and portions as large as they are, it's hard to save much room in your stomach for dessert, and therefore, I haven't had as much experience with them. But do yourself a favor and try the sticky toffee pudding cake, a small moist cake topped with ice cream and covered in caramel sauce. My only complaint is that Willow doesn't have any cheese to go with their very excellent wine list. I was really craving cheese one night rather than a sweet dessert, but they don't appear to have any.

As I said before, portions are very large and the prices are very reasonable because of that. The most expensive entree, the pastrami-wrapped tuna, is $27. Wines can range in value. Looking at the prices of Willow's wine list from their web site, I see some wines are only $10 over retail, but others have a much higher markup. With a bottle of wine (and sometimes more), a single dessert, apps, and entrees for two, our average check was about $140 -- well worth the price in my opinion. There's nothing worse than getting a check at the end of the night and thinking that the meal wasn't worth nearly as much as you're paying, but at Willow, that thought has never crossed my mind.

Willow Restaurant
4301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22203
(703) 465-8800

Dress Code: Business/Dress Casual
Parking: There is a parking lot around the corner on Taylor St. Parking is free with validation from the restaurant.
Closest Metro: Ballston
Reservations: Taken and recommended. Although there's usually space at the bar if you can't get a reservation.
Baby-Child friendly rating: 1 diaper.
Amy's Bathroom Rating: Very nice and kept clean.

Komi - Oh how I missed you!

"Jason, Are you ok? Are you crying? " Heather asked.


"Yes, perfect. This is just SO amazing!!"

(flashback four days earlier...)

When I found out that our babysitter Heather was leaving town permanently and had NEVER been to Komi, I insisted that she let us take her as a going away present. It's my favorite place to eat, anywhere, and I just couldn't bear for her to leave town without eating there. My motivation might have been a tad selfish, because I was looking for an excuse to return to Komi, but regardless she obliged and let us take her.

Given Komi's recent press (with Johnny being in the upcoming July issue of Food and Wine's Best New Chefs 2007), I would've expected to have had to call further ahead to get a reservation, but I only had to call a few days in advance. Granted, we were going on a Tuesday, but I still expected to be turned down because of my usual lack of planning.

In preparation the day of the dinner, I didn't eat all day. I never eat breakfast anyway and I skipped lunch completely. I had a late meeting at work and traffic getting into DC from out in Reston was a nightmare so we were running very late. I've never actually had to drive to Komi. Up until our recent move, it's been a quick 10 minute cab ride away, but now it's a 20 minute drive for us. Luckily, our reservation was early, and Komi doesn't overbook their tables, otherwise we would've been hard pressed for time.

When we arrived, Heather already had a glass of champagne and was happy. Our waiter came over to our table, who'd interestingly enough been our waiter many times over at 2 Amys and had moved up in the world. "Whatever she's having is good enough for me. Thanks!"

The menu was what I was expecting -- a vast array of dishes that I can't get anywhere else, making it  impossible to choose. There's now an option to order what is called the "Degustazione", which puts you in the hands of Johnny for the evening. You get what Johnny thinks is you should eat; sometimes things from the menu, sometimes not. If he has a spare cut of meat in the back that he's experimenting with  it might just be on your plate at some point -- you never know.

"Degustazione" is more food than you receive for ordering the regular "Dinner" -- usually a couple meat and pasta courses each, and a couple more starters (or what they call mezzathakia), a cheese course, a dessert, and also includes a wine pairing for $150. The "Dinner" alone is now $78, a little more than it was the last time I was at Komi ($64), but still a steal for all the food you get.

With dinner you get a flight of several mezzathakia (or starters), a choice of pasta course and a choice of meat...and you get to choose your own dishes, but what's the fun in that. Since Heather doesn't eat red meat, we went with the regular "Dinner" menu instead, which turned out to be more than enough food for us.

The mezzathakia started coming out one at a time. First, the house-cured olives. These have become a staple at Komi, much like the dates filled with mascarpone or the speck-wrapped white tuna (R.I.P.). I can't think of a better way to start a meal. Next, some buttered radish topped with salmon roe and butter, cut to look like little fish. It was a great little bite of creamy salt and pepper.

Ever heard of Amberjack fish? Yeah, me neither, but Johnny was serving a simple Amberjack sashimi with sea salt, chives and Meyer lemon oil. Next came the dates filled with Mascarpone cheese. As I said they're a staple now. I can't remember not ever having them at Komi and I hope they never go away. I've attempted to recreate them on my own, but I've never been able to match the delicate flavor that Komi's kitchen produces. The mascarpone cheese was oozing out the side of the date oh so slightly and the date was warm and just slightly caramelized. MMMM!

The next delicacy to come out was a deep-fried foie gras fritter, probably about the size of a medium-sized marble with crispy breading and the nutty, sweet filling. After that, a mint and english pea panna cotta with a quail egg in the center. It took me back to the cauliflower panna cotta that I always would've ordered by the quart if I could, and this was better than that. It was like Spring in a Jello mold. Amazing.

I didn't think that anything could top the panna cotta, but then the next dish appeared and was probably the most odd combination of ingredients I've ever had -- charred octopus with sliced avocado, quail egg, on top of a mold of lentils and pig knuckles. The octopus was crispy and tender and when you mixed it with the rest of the ingredients it was a fabulous combination of texture and flavors - creamy, salty, meaty. I don't know if it was this dish that was suddenly made me start to cry or if it was that I had just realized how long it'd been since I'd eaten at Komi, but either way, I was in heaven. I wasn't balling and there weren't really tears, but Heather and Amy could tell I was moved. We all started to laugh a little. Amy said, "Now if only I could get him to react that way!"

After that, everything is a little fuzzy although I remember everything was equally amazing: a sardine with a salad of carrots, currants, capers, raisins, mint and pine nuts; a soft-shell crab fried in crispy Japanese panko bread crumbs, a peekytoe crab cannoli, and a mint fennel cucumber compote and quite possibly quite the best soft-shell crab I've ever had; a spoon with celeriac soup, sea urchin, and crispy fried sweetbreads (seriously, where does he come up  with this stuff?); and the Komi gyro with oxtail meat, a sweet yellow beet tzatziki and pomogranite glaze. That finished off the starters.

We were served three different pastas for the pasta course. My favorite pasta was actually the one that Amy was served, a fava bean and mint ravioli with lamb tongue ragu. I had an agnolotti (basically tiny ravioli cut in little cylinder shapes) that was served in a broth too salty for my tastes.

Entrees were better than ever. To accommodate Heather's diet, she was served an individual serving of the whole bronzini (Mediterranean sea bass) which normally comes in a portion for two. It's cooked in a salt dome to keep the heat even and give the fish an extra flakey texture. Amy and I shared the spit roasted kasikaki (or kid goat), a whole thigh of kid goat, roasted until the meat is falling off the bone, amazingly tender and juicy, and a smoky flavor that tops that of the old suckling pig that Johnny used to make.

I'd be missing half the meal if I didn't mention the wine pairings which Derek Brown described in great deal before each course. The wines are paired very well with the food and do a great deal to enhance the entire meal. If you order the pairings with dinner, it will cost you $50, but the pairing is included with the "Degustazione". My favorite pairing was an unfiltered 2004 Gewurztraminer from Lazy Creek Vineyards with a smoky fruit flavor and not too much residual sugar. There was also a slight acidic flavor that cut down on the fruit a little.

At a little over $400 for the three of us, it was quite an expenditure. Komi is still an incredible value and worth every penny, but it's solidly a special occasion restaurant for me now rather than the whim place it used to be. The increase in price is partially due to the success that Johnny Monis has had recently, but also because the menu isn't available a la carte anymore.

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.


Black's Bar and Kitchen

I wish I could pay the oyster shuckers at Black's Bar and Kitchen to be my own personal oyster shuckers. They have this way of shucking the oyster perfectly every time. I've had three dozen oysters there, and so far, not a single one has done anything but slide off the shell into my mouth without the least bit of prying.

The oysters at Black's Bar and Kitchen are definitely the way to go, especially the kusshis, which have become my favorite oysters since trying them at Black's for the first time. They're thick and meaty, but amazingly tender and go down easy because they're small. My favorite wine to drink with them is the Muscadet which conveniently is the cheapest wine by the glass, but complements the salty flavor of the oysters well because it's not too sweet and citrusy. Sometimes, I wish I'd just ordered three or four dozen of them and called it a night.

I've only ever sat at the spacious bar at Black's Bar and Kitchen where the atmosphere is fun and the bartenders quick to keep your glass full. Why would you sit anywhere else than the bar at a place like Black's? They have two bartenders at the bar, so the service is very quick. I was lucky to be served by Mike each time I was there (I hope he won't mind me mentioning him here, but I always feel compelled to talk about someone specific when I receive exceptional service from them.) You'll recognize him because he's the big jovial guy on the left side that treats everyone like his best buddy.

Black's Bar and Kitchen is the sister restaurant to Blacksalt, which has always been one of my favorite seafood places. Where Blacksalt has a tendency to pair their seafood with a heavily flavored sauce, Black's Bar and Kitchen takes a subtler approach to their dishes, leaving the quality of the ingredients to speak for themselves, but unfortunately, that's not always enough.

The seafood dishes that I've tried came off a little bland although, for those that like a good, honest seared tuna, Black's is a good choice. When you get past the slightly bitter flavor of the cocoa and black pepper crusting, the cut of tuna is superb and perfectly cooked -- almost cool in the middle and just the way it should be. The crispy whole fish, on the other hand, left me disappointed. There wasn't much meat on the bones of the fish and the citrus flavored sauce it was served with didn't do the trick for me. I think when I return, I'll just order the a la carte seafood like the organic salmon with a simple lemon herb sauce.

Once the aphrodisiac from the oysters wears off, you might want to refill with either the mint julep or chocolate trio, both of which have a month's worth of chocolate servings. The first is a warm, oozy chocolate lava cake with refreshing homemade mint ice cream that I liked very much. The latter, a combination of three rich chocolate desserts: two small chocolate ice cream sandwiches, a thin fallen chocolate souffle, and chocolate panna cotta. All three are very rich, but the chocolate ice cream sandwiches are the best, especially when eaten with the sparkling red dessert wine (the exact name escapes me) that's available on the menu by the glass and just happened to be on the house that night because "we looked like we were having a good time". Thank you Mike!

As I mentioned before, the Muscadet is probably the best deal for wines on the menu, but other than that, the wines on the menu are generally pretty expensive. Black's offers a good deal of wines by the glass and two different options for pours -- a 3 oz. or 6.5 oz pour. the 6.5 oz pours which is basically a normal glass that you can get anywhere else can go up to $15. I'd avoid glasses and just order a bottle.  I'll spare you the rant about the Montgomery County liquor board and just say in Black's defense that it's a lot easier for a restaurant in DC or Virginia to have a quality, low-priced wine list.

Black's Bar and Kitchen
7750 Woodmont Ave.
Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 652-5525

Hours: See web site
Dress Code: Business Casual
Parking: Street
Closest Metro: Bethesda
Reservations: Taken and recommended. Bar and cafe are first come first serve
Baby-Child friendly rating: 3 diapers. There are actually a good deal of families that go to Black's and I've even seen people with their children in the cafe/bar, which is non-smoking.

Farrah Olivia

Bread_farrah_olivia_2 Ever had Afro- Franco-American fusion food before? Me neither, until I went to Farrah Olivia which refers to their cuisine as "Creative American". The best I've heard it described is "Southern American soul food with an African twist".

When I first dined at Farrah Olivia, it was Restaurant Week. (Actually, it was the week after Restaurant Week, and the restaurant had expanded their Restaurant Week offering for an additional week.) I was surprised at the casual atmosphere, given the pictures of the food that I saw on the Farrah Olivia web site. For some reason I was expecting a Sport-Coats-Required atmosphere, but it was anything but that. The first thing that sticks out when you see the pictures on the web site is the preparation, which is as close to art in food as I've seen.

Artful presentation is easily found in the seared scallop appetizer. A scant trail of bacon powder on one side, some bacon bits on the other, then a small pool of the melon seed milk surrounded by a drizzle of the berbere oil. In the center of all that, a single scallop perfectly rare but also perfectly seared with a crispy, caramelized layer on the top and bottom of the scallop.  Mixing all of the ingredients together gave a great contrasts in flavor and texture: Creamy and crispy, salty and sweet. This was literally the best scallop I've ever tasted, but the only problem is the price. For $15, you'd think there'd at least be two on the plate?!

By far, my favorite dish is so far is the lamb chop I had on my second visit. Like the scallop, there's only a single lamb chop on the dish, and there's probably only about 5 or 6 ounces of meat on the plate, but the texture of the lamb was tender and juicy -- it's been awhile since I let out a moan like that after tasting a dish. A dish that needs no special presentation is the Parmesan soup. The menu says it's silky and it's not kidding -- if you could call something liquid silk, this would be it.

Some dishes are creatively presented, but the flavor doesn't quite live up to it. The "shocked" tuna is one example of this. What does "shocked" mean? It means the tuna is dropped in boiling water for a minute then shocked in ice water. The tuna is then sliced in exactly equal potions and ends up looking similar to a seared tuna, but with a much nicer texture, leaving it very similar to sushi. The flavor ended up not being much better than regular old raw tuna though.

Another example of this was the Pantagonian Toothfish which was ok, but the white bean puree that was served on the side had an unpleasant chalky taste and texture. I didn't even know what Pantagonian Toothfish was at the time I ordered this dish, but a quick Google search fixed that when I got home. Per Wikipedia, a Pantagonian Toothfish is a large fish found in the cold, temperate waters (from 50 to 3850m) of the Southern Atlantic, Southern Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans on seamounts and continental shelves around most sub-Antarctic islands.

If you're looking for the perfect combination of the key lime pie at Ray's the Steaks (or Classics for that matter) and the cheesecake at Cafe St. Ex,  look no further than the lemon cheesecake. And if you've never had either of those desserts, let me give you a little better description. Take a cheesecake with perfect texture, not too dense, but not too creamy, and add the flavor of lemon with just the right amount of sweetness so it's not too tart. This is all on top of a thick graham-cracker crust and topped with a crispy, sweet layer of bruléed sugar. The other desserts are all very good as well, but this one stands out.

Farrah Olivia is not a restaurant for the value-centric diner. My average bill for two people with four courses of food and a bottle of wine was about $200. (I never once left feeling hungry, but the portions are small enough that you need to get four courses.) But for those of you that are looking to be challenged by the food you eat and look forward to trying new combinations of flavors, then Farrah Olivia is probably the restaurant for you.

On another note, I overheard the manager talking about how she'd just ordered the patio furniture for the summer, which makes me look forward to what new things will be on the menu this summer at Farrah Olivia.

Farrah Olivia
600 Franklin St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 778-2233
Web Site

Hours: See web site
Dress Code: Business Casual
Parking: Street and free covered lot.
Closest Metro:  King Street
Reservations: Taken and recommended on the weekends although you might be able to walk in and find a seat at the bar if you're lucky.
Baby-Child friendly rating: 1 Diaper. I wouldn't be caught dead with my little guy here.

Cafe Saint-Ex

You don't usually expect to find good food at a bar. A bar is where you typically find great munchies like nachos, cheese sticks, mini-burgers, and maybe...maybe if you're lucky, you'll find some Asian-inspired potstickers.

Café Saint-Ex isn't your typical bar though. 

The first time I went to Café Saint-Ex, I mistook it for your everyday bar. It was when I first moved to DC, long before I started this site, and I think at the time I was looking for a place "to party", or something like that. I believe it was after a 9:30 Club show. My friends and I waited at the bar nursing some beers while we waited to get in downstairs, but ended up leaving when that took too long.

Little did I know, five years later, I'd be returning for a completely different reason. This time, it was before a 9:30 Club show (Carbon Leaf to be exact), and we were there for dinner...instead of a party. Amy and I were having a night out on the town without Noah, our first in about three weeks! We were looking forward to a relaxing, casual dinner and that's exactly what we got.

We enjoyed the experience so much that we returned two nights later for dinner, but this time we took Noah with us. When we were there the first time  we noticed that there were some other people there with children, so we wouldn't feel out of place with him. Also, the louder atmosphere made it ideal if he decided to throw a tantrum or scream out loud, which only happens occasionally, but you never know when that shortened afternoon nap will catch up with him.

As far as food is concerned, Café Saint-Ex is definitely doing things right, and after reading Chef Barton Seaver's Bio on the Café-Saint-Ex web site, it's not surprising. You can get an extremely good meal there for a very reasonable price. For appetizers, the wood-grilled calamari (or actually anything wood-grilled) is tender and makes you wish everyone was making calamari like that. If you're expecting those typical rubbery rings of calamari that you get everywhere else, however, you'll be sorely disappointed. This calamari is served whole. The beet salad rivals that of any that I've had at other restaurants, with a goat cheese that doesn't overwhelm the beets, but also isn't so bland that you can barely taste it. And a horseradish vinagrette punches up the entire dish.

As I said before, anything wood-grilled or maybe anything that's cooked close in proximity to where the wood-grilling happens is very good. Most of the fish is cooked this way and I'd recommend you try it. I don't think the smoky and spicy flavor will be to everyone's taste, but you've got to try it once to see. So far I've tried the salmon and flounder and both were a big hit with Amy and myself.

For desserts, the smooth and creamy goat cheesecake comes looking like a giant scoop of ice cream on top of a crumbled graham cracker crust. OH MY GOD was it good. This rivaled Ann Amernick's cheesecake I tasted at Palena not long ago. Seriously people, if there is one reason alone to go to Café Saint-Ex, it's this cheesecake. I hope they don't take it off the menu anytime soon.

I should mention that the price fixe option that Café Saint-Ex offers is a very good deal. Before 7, three courses are only $28 per person, and after 7, they are $32. Our bills have consistently been below $100 with a bottle of wine. The wine list at Café Saint-Ex is very European with the occasional appearance of a New Zealand of California wine. Prices for bottles range from $24 to $75 with a majority of them falling in the lower end of that price range.

The host/hostesses are friendly as are the servers, who don't seem to have enough time to be overly congenial, but are quick to help you with the menu and point out the price fixe option to save you some money.

Café Saint-Ex
847 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC  20009
(202) 265-7839
Web Site

Corkage: I didn't check. Call the restaurant to see.
Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Street:  Street Parking. I found it pretty easy to find a parking spot on the streets in the area.
Closest Metro: U Street.
Reservations: Not Taken. First come, first serve. Dinner rush starts at about 7. If you get there before that, you probably wont have to wait long.
Baby friendly rating: 3 Diapers. The atmosphere is loud, which makes it great for children, and the waitstaff and hosts seem to really love babies.

Circle Bistro

I want to write about this while it's fresh in my mind...

I stopped by Circle Bistro tonight for an early dinner. The place wasn't very busy due to it being Halloween and we had Noah with us so we just sat at the bar. After a few drinks with their happy hour specials (half price wine glasses, beers, and cocktails), we just ordered a bunch of appetizers.

To start with, at $8, Circle Bistro's duck confit is a steal. Yum! Yum! Yum! As is the three cheese plate at $9. Go soon and try the sweet potato soup with fennel sausage and sage croutons -- the best soup I've had in a while. When Chef Cox stopped by to say hello, he told me that this wont be on the menu long (soon to be replaced by an onion soup), so go to Circle Bistro and try it now. Also, the papardelle with duck ragu...a perfect hearty dish for the fall - Love it!

When I return, I need to try the monkfish - It sounded sooooo good!

Evening Star Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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