Et Voila

I was excited about visiting Et Voila in the Palisades, even more so after we walked in and the narrow, deep space reminded me of many great gastropubs in Philadelphia, where I developed an enthusiasm for brasserie food, particularly savory hanger steaks dripping with shallots.

Neil and I arrived sans reservations on a Friday at 7:30.  They have a handful of seating at the small bar but the hostess offered us a table without hesitation even though the restaurant was mostly full.  The menu is traditional Belgian, which is to say it is not especially remarkable – and that’s fine with me, as long as what they do with the food is remarkable.

The beer menu is solid but not overwhelming, which we considered a respite from the trend of offering more beer options than Congressional seats.  The endive salad had a good ratio of ingredients but was ordinary.  The butternut squash soup was smooth but bland; I would have preferred a sweeter, more caramelized and robust base.  A side of pommes frites were cut bâtonnet-size and cooked perfectly (perhaps twice-fried?) but the only dipping options were ketchup or mayonnaise.   (Disclosure:  Call it a crime, but we did not order mussels. I'm just not a fan yet.)

My hanger steak was also prepared perfectly, sitting atop fingerlings and bathed in a rich Bordelaise sauce but with too-few shallots.  I like onglet aux beaucoup échalotes...which aren't Alba truffles, so please don’t skimp.  Neil ordered waterzooi (chicken in velouté sauce with julienned vegetables).  Again, the meat was excellent – tender, plump and juicy – but the velouté was bland and the vegetables were a disappointing limp garnish.  I found myself reaching for the salt shaker yet again.

For dessert, the vanilla and green tea crème brûlée arrived in two tiny cups.  The vanilla was excellent, but I think we've officially reached the limit on what one can successfully accomplish with green tea.  File this one under “good in theory/bad in practice”; the flavor does not translate well to custard.

They were at capacity the entire time we were there, and the service consequently suffered; our waiter was calm and knowledgeable but could not provide timely or adequate attention.  Those who enjoy being amidst the din of a bustling restaurant would be comfortable at Et Voila; their space is tight, frenetic and quite loud when full.  The decor has a warmly neutral West Elm vibe and the huge clock projected onto one wall is sweet.

Loved:  The bread. Divine. A beautiful crisp, flaky crust encasing a heavenly web of supple dough.  When I die, build my coffin out of Et Voila's bread and I will rest in eternal bliss.

Hated:  First, the succession of consistently unremarkable dishes.  Second, the check -- after realizing I spent over $100 of my educator's salary on a succession of consistently unremarkable dishes.

I found myself comparing Et Voila to Les Halles (rest in peace), even though I hold small, one-offs braving a tight market in much higher regard than celebrity-powered, chain restaurants.  I wanted to love it, I really did.  But -- and most dishes arrived with a "but" -- while Et Voila has certainly mastered technique, unfortunately their food is short on flavor...yet both are required for a meal to be truly worthwhile.

Et Voila
5120 MacArthur Blvd NW
Washington, DC 20016
(202) 237-2300


Last Friday, on my way home from work, I stopped at a well-known wine store on MacArthur Ave. to stock up for my usual weekend drinking binge. When I left the store (with three bottles of wine in hand), I looked around Palisades, thinking to myself what a nice little neighborhood it is. As I was looking around, I noticed right there, a mere two stores down from the wine store, was BlackSalt.

Holy shit! I didn't know BlackSalt was that close to me! I did need to find a good seafood restaurant to go to and from what I've heard about BlackSalt, it could be that place.

So guess where I was last weekend...

We decided to go on a Sunday. The only reservation that was available was at 5 PM, which was pretty early, but since we were going to have Noah with us, I figured it was for the best. To be safe, I called ahead to check that it was okay that we brought him with us.

"Hello, we've never been to BlackSalt before. Is it the kind of place that's too nice to bring a baby to?"

The hostess on the other end of the line replied with, "Oh no! People bring babies here all the time. You'll be fine!"

Sounds like my kind of place. If this were true, then I might be going here quite often. There's plenty of parking so no need for a cab, and Noah is welcome so no need for a babysitter. SCORE!

We arrived at BlackSalt about five minutes before 5 PM. The place was pretty empty. I found out that there is a section up front called "the café" that doesn't take reservations and you can just walk in. The problem is, shortly after 5, the people started coming in droves. This place must be everyone's Sunday night habit.

As you'd expect with being the first table, we were seated almost immediately. Our waiter came over and greeted us and explained the menu to us. I was impressed with how many specials BlackSalt had -- two or three options on the specials menu alone for each course. BlackSalt can be the perfect neighborhood restaurant because you can return over and over and the menu would always have plenty of new options.

There is also a wide selection of oysters and mussels which vary in cost, depending by how hard it is for them to get them. We skipped the small plates section of the menu although I really wanted to order the braised baby octopus.

The six Kumamoto oysters we ordered were $2.50 each -- these were for Amy. She's the one who has the real love for oysters although I have to say that these oysters (which were pretty big for the Kumamoto variety) were probably some of the best I've ever tasted - buttery, briny, and tender. What more can you ask for in an oyster?

I also had the special soup, which was a Portuguese (or Manhattan) Clam Chowder, except this was Portuguese Clam Chowder on steroids. The broth was a chunky red sauce with root vegetables, and plenty spicy thanks to the merguez sausage. Then as an added bonus, the chef puts a few fried clams on top.

Our dinner got even better when our entrees came out, although they did take a while to come. Our waiter apologized several times for the wait and offered us more bread (which I have to say is great by the way), but Amy and I didn't mind. Noah was sound asleep and we were having some good conversations over our wine, a very nice Pinot Noir.

I was happy with the artful presentation of the entrees, which I'm not really used to seeing at seafood restaurants. Amy's Maryland rockfish was really incredible; the rockfish was perfectly cooked with a cauliflower puree and brussel sprouts and other wintery vegetables which gave the dish a real down-home feel. My mahi mahi was also cooked perfectly, but I didn't like mine nearly as much as Amy's. The sauce it came with really overpowered the mild flavor of the dish, but I still managed to eat all of it.

Dessert was a complete surprise. We both ordered our own, which I think is still a bad habit from when Amy was pregnant and wouldn't share anything with me. My bread pudding was quite possibly the best bread pudding I've ever had! It was just the way I like it, firm in texture (not mushy like wet bread that's been sitting in a pool of water) and full of cinnamon and caramel flavor. I devoured it, which I was sad to do because it was a work of art. I'd go back for the bread pudding alone.

Amy is a crème brulee fiend. I don't think she can keep herself from ordering it when it's on the menu, and at BlackSalt, she made no exception. Their crème brulee three-ways was very enjoyable for her to eat and came in three different dishes with three different flavors.

Our check was nothing to shrug off. The final bill was over $200 with tip, but I imagine you could get out of there for cheaper than that if you ordered glasses of wine instead of a bottle at $45 and didn't order quite as much food as we did. With entrees in the range of the mid-$20s to the high $30s, appetizers in the range of $10 to $15 and $10 desserts, it'll be hard to get out of Blacksalt without a serious dent in your wallet, but it'll probably be worth it. There's way too much good food on BlackSalt's menu to get out of there for less than $100. But for those of you with kids, you can subtract a cab ride and babysitter fees which can easily add $80 to your night.

Oh, and I think I found my seafood restaurant.

4883 MacArthur Blvd., NW
Washington, DC
(202) 342-9101

Lunch: Tuesday - Sunday 11:30 - 2:00
Dinner: Tuesday - Thursday 5:30 - 9:30, Friday 5:30 - 9:30, Saturday 5:00 - 11:00, Sunday 5:00 - 9:00

Dress Code: Business Casual (I saw people in jeans though)
Parking: Plenty of street parking
Smoking: Not Allowed.
Closest Metro: none
Reservations: Call or use
Baby-Friendly Rating: 3 out of 4 diapers. We weren't the only ones there with a baby. In fact, there were two other families there with newborns.

Kotobuki Japanese Restaurant

Last night, Amy and I had our first dinner out with our son Noah. We were pretty nervous about what would happen. Would Noah fuss the entire time and make everybody's dinner miserable or would he be the adorable little angel that he usually is? Only time would tell.

We decided we wanted to go somewhere really casual. It'd been about nine months since Amy had eaten sushi, and she really had a craving for it -- I didn't blame her. If I'd gone that long without sushi, I'd probably go out of my mind.

I'd read about Kotobuki -- how its prices were extremely cheap and its sushi is optimally fresh. I figured this was a good time to try it. Getting to Kotobuki isn't the easiest task in the world. If you can find a direct route from Cleveland Park to Palisades, you know DC streets better than I. It took me a lot longer than it should've to get there.

On the way over, I could tell there was a possibility that Noah was going to have a fussy night. Usually a car ride puts him right to sleep, but this time he was fussing and crying on and off. Luckily, the drive was longer than I thought so he was asleep by the time we were there.

There's plenty of parking on the streets around Kotobuki, which is good because the only Metro access is via bus. The closest Metro station is Foggy Bottom.

The restaurant is located in a townhouse. The top level is Kotobuki, the ground floor is the restaurant's office and the bottom floor is Makoto, the excellent Japanese restaurant that DC Foodies are all too familiar with. I'm assuming that both Makoto and Kotobuki are owned by the same people, although I could be wrong.

We walked up to the second floor at about 8:30 PM. There isn't a whole lot of room up there. At the top of the stairs is a short sushi bar with five chairs. Around the room are small two-person tables that are as close to each other as seats on a Metro bus. Luckily, the waitress was able to clear a three-seater table in the corner so we didn't have to put Noah and his car seat on the floor.

There were a total of five people working the restaurant: two sushi chefs and three or four waitresses. I'd say the whole place can hold about 20 people at the most, and there was a full house that night.

The restaurant is decorated fairly makeshift, but with prices as cheap as you get at Kotobuki, who the hell cares. I took a look at the menu and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I mean, seriously, it's $1 a piece for most of the Nigiri Sushi and prices peak at $1.75 a piece for Toro (fatty tuna). Most rolls are $2.55 or $3 for six pieces. I wondered if I'd been caught in some worm hole and shot back to 1984.

Noah continued to be the little angel that he is. He just sat there quietly. I think The Beatles music playing over the speakers was soothing to him. Plus, I've noticed from our few trips to restaurants for lunch over the last couple weeks that he's at home at a restaurant. He likes the white noise in the background.

Ok, so what was the sushi actually like? Well, we waited a while for our sushi to come -- probably about 25 minutes, so keep in mind that I was famished by the time our food was brought to out table. Kotobuki is certainly not a place to go if you want a quick in-and-out bite to eat. We ordered a couple rolls and about six or so Nigiri: toro, salmon, yellowtail and scallop. Surprisingly enough, I thought the BBQ eel roll was one of the best I'd ever had. The spicy tuna roll was quite spicy -- not hot, but spicy, and they didn't use Tabasco like some places. I saw some red pepper in the tuna which is why I think it was better. Every once in a while though, I'd get a little chewy fat in the fish which I didn't like so much, but I learned to ignore it.

The scallop Nigiri was similar. The scallop tasted very fresh and practically melted in my mouth. I was enjoying it until I got a few crunches in the flesh of the scallop that sent my opinion of the scallop sushi southward. All of the other Nigiri were very fresh and tender though.

One thing worth mentioning is that there are only two beers on the menu: Bud and Sapporo. That's not much of a choice, but Sapporo is as good a beer as any other, especially with sushi. We asked for iced tea and the waitress brought out two cans of Japanese imported green tea. I would have sent it back, thinking it would be like some sweetened Nestea or something. But I was glad I didn't because it actually turned out to be quite tasty.

The bill was very cheap in the end. For four rolls, six Nigiri sushi, two iced teas and three beers, we paid less than $40. That would have run us at least $60 at Sushi Sushi or Spices and at least $80 at Sushi-Ko. Now was it as good as those other places? It was certainly better than the sushi at Sushi Sushi and Spices, although I'd say that Sushi-Ko was better. But twice as good? Probably not.

I'll finish this review with a cute Noah story....About halfway through eating our sushi, Noah started to cry. Amy picked him up and was successful at calming him down. I continued to eat and a little while later Amy handed him over to me so she could eat as well. I liked the BBQ eel roll so much I asked for another and that was where the fun started. Imagine eating sushi (with chopsticks) with one hand and rocking a baby with the other and all the while singing "Love Me Do" softly. I mastered that act quite well I believe. For my next great foodie feat, I'll do the same, but I'll eat a whole lobster at Oceanaire Seafood Room instead.


4822 MacArthur Blvd., NW
Washington, DC
(202) 625-9080

Tue-Sat: noon-3 PM
Tue-Thu: 5-11 PM
Fri-Sat: 5 PM-midnight
Sun: 5-10 pm
Dress Code: Casual
Smoking: Not Allowed
Closest Metro: Foggy Bottom
Parking: Ample street parking
Reservations: Not taken.