Penn Quarter

PS 7's Is Cooking With The Spirit Of Gin

Certain things have their place. Pots and pans in the kitchen, gin behind the bar.

That said, it's hardly uncommon for ingredients to meander from the bar to the kitchen and back again. But gin has stayed put. Cooks have incorporated beer, wine and liquor into their cooking for a millennia, or whenever the French started cooking, but for all their efforts, gin has been left out of the mix, presumably for good reason.

When you consider the sheer popularity of the spirit, it's surprising that it's been stuck behind the bar, while fellow heavy weight spirits, such as bourbon, tequila and rum, are regularly worked into dishes.

Not that I'm complaining. Gin is the base ingredient for the greatest cocktail man has ever made: the dry martini (lemon twist, no olives, thanks). The ubiquitous gin and tonic, and underappreciated Tom Collins aren't bad either.

DSC_0122 So I've been happy with gin's role in the world. Peter Smith hasn't.

The chef owner of PS 7's has brought gin into the kitchen and brought out everything for gin poached halibut to gin cured charcuterie, which age in a backroom of his Penn Quarter restaurant. Smith has figured out the key to cooking with gin is to not cook with gin at all -- he cooks with the botanicals.

Philosophical differences aside, what separates gin from vodka is potpourri. Essentially, gin begins its life as vodka, a highly distilled clear spirit. At the end of the distillation process, however, vodka is stuck into a Kettle One bottle, while gin makers add a mixture of botanicals -- principally juniper, orris root and orange peal -- to give gin its signature flavor and aroma.

Although Smith has put together dishes that play off the flavors in gin, it's only recently that he started working with the botanicals. The main problem with working with gin, Smith said, is the alcohol. It's tough to mask the alcohol and if you cook it off, you're not left with much gin flavor. His solution was to eschew the alcohol and work directly with the ingredients that make gin gin.

DSC_0085Smith came up with the idea during a visit to Philadelphia's Blue Coat Distillery. He noticed that the distillery typically tosses the botanicals once it's done steeping in the gin. Unlike the left over grain from beer making, which is often given to farmers to use as feed, animals can't eat the spent botanicals. So it gets dumped. Although the Blue Coat staff was a little confused by his request (and wary -- gin makers are notoriously secretive about their botanical mixtures), they agreed to send Smith 30 pounds of the spent botanicals, which the chef turned into salts, oils, powders and foams.

Smith said the idea developed from the food and spirit pairings he's done at PS 7's, including a dinner that revolved around the exceptional gin, Plymouth. The key to a proper pairing, he said, is not to have the spirit working into every dish you serve, but rather to have flavors in the dish complement flavors in the spirit or cocktail. Smith thought using the botanicals would help him weave in the gin flavors more effectively without overwhelming his food.

"You never really get the flavors you want out of the liquor," Smith said, "but you do with the botanicals."

DSC_0129 Since that bucket of botanicals showed up six months ago, the gin & tonic halibut (left) and gin-cured carpaccio (below) have become permanent fixtures on PS 7's menu, and the gin-flavored meats, including "ginola" (breseola) and "gin belly" (pancetta), make their way to the charcuterie plate as often as they're ready. He's even built tasting menus around the botanicals.

Though he still works with Blue Coat, Smith found another botanical provider closer to the District. A few months ago, a Catoctin Creek rep came into PS7's to sell them their rye. Smith tried the Loudon County distillery's gin instead and has used their botanicals since.

DSC_0112 As Smith continues to experiment with the botanicals, expect to see more dishes seasoned or infused with gin flavors. New tasting menus are likely on the way, as are powders and oils based on a mixture of the Blue Coat and Catoctin Creek botanicals. He's also considering building dishes around ingredients local to the Philadelphia and Purcellville, Va., distilleries, and imbuing them with the respective gins.

Smith admits that he's that he's still figuring out how to work with the gin botanicals, but he's already hunting for new discoveries. Maybe an absinth-flavored bacon or venison rubbed with salt made from fernet. At this point, who knows? The only thing that's certain is if it's behind the bar, it could end up in Smith's kitchen. 

Church! The Best Places To Watch Football

At approximately 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 1, Casey Brockman will walk to the line. The Murray State quarterback will look across the field to find Louisville’s stud linebacker Dexter Heyman, hoping to God the Cardinals’ won’t blitz on first. The 6’2’’ junior will lean over center Brock Rydeck, ignore the jeers of the Cardinals’ crowd, and demand the ball.

In all likelihood, it will be a bad day for Casey, Brock and the Murray State Racers, but an excellent day for the rest of us. Because on that day, when Rydeck snaps that ball and Heyman drives Brockman into the field of Cardinal’s Stadium, football will once again be with us (this NFL preseason crap doesn't count).

It’s been said that this game of grace and violence is our national religion. If that’s the case, then the sports bar is our house of worship. Being a fan of far-away teams (South Florida, Buccaneers), it took me a while to find a few decent bars and restaurants in the D.C. area to watch football. The region may be inundated with sports bars, but few offer the trifecta of great beer, good food and the promise of your team on the screen (unless you’re a Skins fan, in which case any Chili’s will do).

Well, friends, I’m here to help. Below are my top five bars and restaurants in the DMV to watch the faux-pros on Saturday and Pro Bowlers on Sunday. 

1. The Black Squirrel: The Black Squirrel has three floors, 49 taps and 11 TVs (and if you call ahead, the third floor can be your private sports bar). Owner Amy Bowman keeps this Best Beer Bar stocked with a top tier line-up of craft beers, while the talented Gene Sohn runs the kitchen (order the burger). Is it a coincidence that on game days all the TVs are tuned in? Nope, The Black Squirrel was co-founded by former sports columnist Tom Knott. (Disclosure: I’m friends with Amy and Tom. Still, The Black Squirrel is a great place to watch football.) 

2. Iron Horse Taproom: If the Iron Horse Taproom opened at noon on weekends it would be the best place in D.C. to watch football. The multi-level bar is big, filled with TVs, has a great selection of craft beers, and features the best menu in town -- by not featuring a menu at all. The Penn Quarter tavern (pictured above) doesn’t have a kitchen, so it allows patrons to bring in food or have it delivered. Want to dig into some Texas barbecue while watching the Lone Star Showdown? No problemo. Grab a pound of brisket from Hill Country or better yet, a burrito from Capital Q and head to the Iron Horse. How about some lamb vindaloo while you watch the John Beck/Rex Grossman quarterback controversy unfold this season? Mehak is just down the street. Just make sure your game doesn’t start before 5 p.m. If it does, you’ll need to head elsewhere. 

3. Frisco Tap House: What’s more American than football? Excess. The Frisco Tap House has 50 taps, a beer engine, a table where you can pour your own draft beer, an extensive bottle and can list, great burritos and eight giant flat screen TVs (with more coming this fall). Sure, the Columbia, Md., bar is a hike if you live in Logan Circle. But if you live in Maryland, you have one hell of a place to watch football.

4. Capitol Lounge: This is where it started for me. When I moved from Tampa to D.C. in the late 90s, Cap Lounge was the only place in town I could reliably catch Bucs games. It helped that one of the bartenders was a Bucs fan and wanted to watch the games, too. The Capitol Hill bar continues to be a great spot to catch a game, with a mess of TVs tucked and hung throughout the two-floor restaurant, and a stellar selection of craft beers on draft and in bottles and cans.  

41380020 5. Rustico: These days, it’s tough to write a story about beer without mentioning ChurchKey and its downstairs sister, Birch & Barley. But before there was CKBB there was Rustico, owner Michael Babin’s first crack at a craft beer establishment. While ChurchKey is unabashedly a beer bar, a fine one at that, Babin makes sure his two Rustico restaurants remain casual neighborhood spots, which makes them ideal for watching the game. Greg Engert oversaw the beer program at the original Rustico in Alexandria before heading over to ChurchKey, and continues to curate the draft and bottle lists for his original restaurant and the newer Ballston location. Although neither will be mistaken for a sports bar, the Rusticos have just enough TVs to catch most of the marquee games. And if the beer list and full menu aren’t enough to attract you, they’re offering beer specials as well. Beginning September 10, both Rustico locations will offer $3.50 cans of craft beer, including G’Knight, Dale’s Pale Ale, Old Chub and Ten Fidy (they clearly have a thing for Oskar Blues’ beers), and $2.50 cans of college beer (because you or your buddy don’t know better) during games. 

IPAs And Indian Food: Like Peas And Carrots (In Mumbai)

Fact: Indian food is incredibly flavorful and can be quite spicy.
Fact: India pale ales are incredibly flavorful and can be quite bitter.
Fact: It's difficult to pair beer with Indian food.
Fact: It's difficult to pair food with IPAs.
Fact: Indian food and IPAs were made for each other, literally.

That last fact should be self-evident, but if it was Indian restaurants (at least the ones around here) would stick a few Loose Cannons, maybe an Avery IPA on the menu. But that's not the case. Instead, your beer options are limited to a redundant list of light lagers whose labels might invoke thoughts of India - Kingfisher, Taj - but are otherwise indistinguishable from the light lagers made in St. Louis and Golden, Colo.

To be fair, lagers have been the beer of choice in India for more than a century. In fact, lagers are the beer of choice in most parts of the world. There was a time, though, when bitter, hop-forward ales from England were all the rage on the subcontinent (and then the Indians booted out their British overlords and switched to the German stuff).

Travel to England today and you'll be hard pressed to find a pub that doesn't have curry on the menu. For a people known for fried fish and sausages, they have fully embraced an Indian staple as their own (thanks to their old Asian holdings). But travel to India, and the culinary cultural exchange doesn't stand up, at least where beer is concerned. 

That's a shame because there may be no better beverage to pair with a spicy curry than a hoppy India pale ale.

As craft beer has become more popular over the past decade, so too has the idea that beer can be paired with more than burgers and pizza. Thomas Keller commissioned Russian River Brewing and Brooklyn Brewery to make special beers for his restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se. Here in D.C., Chef Eric Ziebold's tasting menu at CityZen has included a beer course, and Michel Richard imports the Belgian pilsner Blusser for his restaurant Central. And then there's Birch & Barley, which offers a beer pairing with each course of Chef Kyle Bailey's tasting menu.

Once the domain of wine, beer is being recognized as an ideal accompaniment to food. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewing and author of The Brewmaster's Table, has gone even further to say that beer offers a wider range of flavors and styles, making it the ideal accompaniment to food. (The Brewmaster's Table, as it happens, is a book about pairing food with beer.)

That may be true, but when it came to Indian cuisine, I never gave it much thought. As oafish at it may sound, I viewed curries and kormas as ethnic food made by people from foreign lands. So if the people running the restaurant wanted to offer a few light lagers with their dishes, so be it. Their food, their beer. After all, you go to Indique for the food not the drink. Well, a cold Fisherking may be common in Mumbai's curry houses, but it's not the ideal beer for the food. The ideal one might just be a California pale ale. (I know it's not an IPA. I'll get to that.)

Book I got thinking about this particular food and beer pairing after reading Pete Brown's latest book, Hops and Glory. In it, the British beer writer explores the development of the IPA and England's colonization of India, and chronicles his journey from Burton-Upon-Trent (the birthplace of IPAs) to Calcutta with a keg of IPA in tow. It's a good book, and in it Brown makes the point that IPAs not only go well with Indian cuisine, they taste like they were made for it.

"[The IPA he brought from England] really was dangerously drinkable, and when the tandoori canapés came round it went beautifully, cutting through the heat and harmonizing with the spices so perfectly it was as if the beer had been designed specially to go with the cuisine, and perhaps it had."

That sparked my interest. While Oliver and other beer writers have made the point that IPAs can go well with very flavorful dishes and spicy foods, Brown's 450 page treatise on the matter convinced me to try the pairing myself.

Because Indian restaurants don't offer India pale ales, I conducted my tasting at the next logical location: the Iron Horse bar in Penn Quarter.

I like the Iron Horse, a lot. Not only does it offer a great selection of craft beers and is home to bartender extraordinaire Scott Stone, but it has a tavern license. What that tavern license means is that they don't serve food, so you can bring in food from anywhere. As long as you're drinking, that's no problemo. You can even have food delivered and never leave your barstool. That's turned the Iron Horse into my go-to bar for watching college football (Pattison Avenue and pints, people) and in this case, my go-to spot for lamb vindaloo and IPAs.

DSC_0030 The vindaloo, which I picked up from nearby Mehak, was great. Chunks of lamb and potato swam in a pool of fiery red curry. It was delicious, and completely overwhelmed my pallet. The onion kulcha, a doughy flat bread filled with onions, was good, but no match for the vindaloo.

For the pairing, I ordered Flying Dog's Double Dog imperial IPA, which clocks in at 11.5% A.B.V.; Flying Dog's Snake Dog IPA, which comes in at a more modest 7.1% A.B.V.; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (on the theory that English IPAs aren't nearly as high in alcohol as our IPAs), which runs 5.6% A.B.V.; and Sierra Nevada's new Juniper Black Ale, a hoppy 8% A.B.V. black IPA.

Of the four beers, the two with the lowest alcohol levels paired the best with the spicy Indian dish. The Double Dog (a personal favorite) was much too sweet for the dish and the heat of the vindaloo overwhelmed whatever hop characteristics the Juniper Black Ale had, making it taste like an ordinary stout. On the other hand, the IPA and pale ale were spot on.

Although the IPAs didn't compliment the curry in the same way the dark stouts compliment chocolate and coffee flavors, the Snake Dog IPA and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale stood their ground with the vindaloo. A dish with the much flavor and heat would turn a Taj to water, but the IPAs remained bright, hoppy and citrusy deep into the bowl.

Between the two beers, I favored the pale ale. Both went well, but the bitter bite from the Snake Dog and the spicy of the vindaloo were a bit much for me. The Sierra Nevada, though, was refreshing, and the subtler hop bitterness helped restore my taste buds between bites.

These results shouldn't have been surprising, even if they were. This food and this style of beer should be easier to find together, even if it's not. But the fact is, IPAs pair well with Indian food, even if you have to bring the food to the beer.

And if Indian isn't your thing or you want a few more pairing options, you could try Thai (which Scott suggested) or fried chicken (which my wife suggested). I think they're both right. If it's spicy enough or fried enough, it can be matched up with an IPA. Brooklyn's Oliver has suggested pairing IPAs with fried fish, Mexican and calamari. Point being, IPAs go well with spicy and greasy food. When it comes to pairing Indian food with beer, though, I don't think there's a better option than an IPA (or pale ale).

Iron Horse Taproom
507 7th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
(202) 347-7665

817 7th St. N.W.
Washington D.C., DC 20001
(202) 408-9292

Must Haves: Dolcezza gelato (and warmer weather)

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

I don't have much of a sweet tooth. I like desserts well enough, but aside from a few slices of pumpkin and pecan pie during the holidays, I can generally take or leave the sweets.

That said, Dolcezza makes a mean gelato.

Looking at the picture above, you may assume that even in 40 degree weather I seek out the creamy dessert. I don't, but I did for this post. I've been meaning to swing by the Penn Quarter farmers' market where Dolcezza has a booth, but didn't get around to it until the temperature crashed the other day. 

For my trouble, I came away with a half pint of Crookneck Pumpkin gelato. Honestly, I could've taken the Mexican Coffee (which was spectacular), Tahitian Vanilla Bean or Valrhona Chocolate Amargo, too, but like I said, I have a weakness for pumpkin.

9 The poor woman manning the booth also had a selection of sorbets, including Heirloom Apple Cider and Honey Tangerine. They were good (especially the apple cider that's made with locally sourced apples), but I prefer the sorbet selection during the summer months when Dolcezza rolls out flavors like Mojito, Meyer Lemon Vodka and Strawberry Tequila.

I also prefer the summer months.

If I was a brighter man, I would've swung by one of Dolcezza's stores where I would have had a larger selection and heat. But I'm not a bright man. However, I am a man with pumpkin gelato, and that counts for something.

Must Haves: Cafe Atlantico's Medio Dia Ain't a Cuban, but It's an Afternoon Delight

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

There may be no more perfect culinary creation than the sandwich. At its best, it's simple: meat, condiment, maybe some cheese and greens. Less is more because more is more. More clutters. More gets in the way. More misses the point. Less does, too. Less is meat and bread, or worse, condiment and bread -- the wish sandwich.

At its best, a sandwich is a harmony of few notes. It sings.

The Cuban sandwich, el Cubano, is a perfect sandwich. Ham, roast pork, Swiss, mustard, and pickles all pressed between crusty pieces (sometimes buttered, sometimes not) of Cuban bread. It doesn't get much simpler.

I grew up on the Cuban, so ubiquitous in Tampa it gets taken for granted. It's not hard to find a good Cubano in Tampa. Sure you could hit the lunch counter at La Teresita, just off Himes, or El Gallo de Oro, where Cuban men still play dominos out front and a short walk will take you to the small shop where my wife bought her wedding dress.

Hell, you could get a mean pressed Cuban at the gas station down the street from 98 Rock where I interned in college. Nearly every day after my shift at the morning show ended at 10:30, I'd drive down to fill up the car or just me. My sandwich was often the first of the day. I don't know if it was the sleep deprivation, the gas fumes or the virgin grill top, but I never got a bad Cuban from that place.

So if I can get a great Cubano at a gas station, why can't I get one in D.C.? Sure, I've had some decent ones at places like Cuba De Ayer in Burtonsville, but the bread never seems quite right or they skip the ham or pork. Whatever the case is, it's never a proper Cubano.

The thing is, though, the sandwiches are usually pretty good. They're just not good Cubanos. If they'd just call them something else I'd be able to enjoy the sandwich. It may be just a name, but the name carries expectations, which too often go unmet.

Now, call that sandwich a Medio Dia and you're on to something.

DSCN5331 Just look at that thing: confit pork, ham, and warm, melted cheese between two pieces of crispy, crusty bread. It's beautiful. Monikers aside, Cafe Atlantico's midday version of the Cubano is a damn good sandwich. They even remembered the pickles and mustard, and knew enough not to call it a Cuban.

You see, people, this is why Jose Andres is such a well regarded chef. For all the complexity of Minibar and variety of Jaleo and Zaytinya, Andres recognizes the perfect simplicity of the Cuban sandwich and doesn't screw with it too much.

Sure, the bread's not right, but few people north of the 813 seem capable of making a decent loaf of Cuban bread (it's very similar to French bread, but the interior is much more soft). On the other hand, using confit pork instead of roast pork is genius. I might go so far to say that it's better than the roast pork. No, I will say that it's better than the roast pork. It's pork slow cooked in fat. How can rich, unctuous pork not be great? It can't. It just can't.

And always a nice touch is the strangely thick, bright orange hot sauce you can request at Café Atlantico. It's not traditional, but I put hot sauce on nearly everything, including Cubans. Trust me, it works.

As much as I like this sandwich, it's not a Cuban. Maybe that's a good thing (and not just because I like to complain about such things). So long as I can't get a proper Cubano here, it will always be a special treat when I'm back in Tampa. But when I can't head south, at least I can head to Café Atlantico for lunch.

Co Co. Sala: Chocolate lovers' lounge takes a walk on the savory side, awkwardly

CoCo1 Co Co. Sala is a chocolate lounge and boutique that caters to a late night crowd. It says so right on its Web site.

For the most part, that makes sense. It's evening menu is dominated by an array of (mostly) chocolate desserts. At either of its two bars, you can order a chocolate stout or Co Co. Sala's signature cocktail, the cocojito (I'd encourage you to do so. It's quite good. Also try the flight of scotches. Good stuff and a surprise find in the chocolate lounge.) And stationed around the lounge and boutique are blocks and boxes of chocolates for sale, which are made in the back, behind a window, allowing you to watch the chocolatiers at work. Even the décor is heavily accented in reddish brown chocolate tones.

So I get it, Co Co. Sala is a chocolate lounge and boutique. What I don't get is Co Co. Sala's other side. Is it also a restaurant? Should I keep it in mind for lunch or on Sunday for brunch? How about in the evening before I wade into the dessert menu, should I expect to have dinner beforehand?

CoCo3 I don't know. To try and figure this out, I recruited the services of my wife, Trish. She's exactly the kind of chocolate lover Co Co. Sala is courting. Whatever my thoughts are about its savory offerings, Co Co. Sala is a chocolate and dessert destination.

That said, let's start with the savory and end with sweet (that is the natural order of things after all).

My first visit to Co Co. Sala led me to the bar. Now, I either learned that day that Co Co. Sala doesn't have appetizers or has nothing but appetizers. It depends on how you look at it.

The evening menu offers a dozen small savory dishes; from lobster salad, to a blue cheese beef slider, to mac and cheese. I opted for the Moroccan swordfish slider, which came out as a beautifully grilled piece of fish nestled within a tiny, soft bun. It was great. But it was tiny and it was eight bucks.

That's where my main beef with Co Co. Sala lies. With dessert, a little goes a long way. But with savory dishes, more is more (to a point). Put another way, three of those sliders would have made a nice sized appetizer, but it would have put me back nearly $30. That's more than most entrees around town.

So Co Co. Sala isn't a dinner destination. If you want to come in for a five-course dessert, but want to start with tuna tartar, they've got you covered.

During the day, however, Co Co. Sala shifts its focus away from dessert in an effort to attract the lunch and Sunday brunch crowd. Admittedly, I've never tried Co Co. Sala's brunch, but judging from my lunch experience, I imagine it's good.

The problem is, Co Co. Sala is a chocolate lounge that caters to an evening crowd, not a lunch destination in a neighborhood (Penn Quarter) that's loaded with restaurants.  

CoCo2 This is not to say Co Co. Sala can't do lunch. During a recent lunch, my beet and goat cheese salad was delicious and colorful. The spinach and feta tart with tiger shrimp was a surprise when it came out as a spinach and feta tart, with tiger shrimp in a dill sauce on the side. Still, it was quite good (the tart tasted exactly like a Pizza Hut pan pizza. I like Pizza Hut pan pizza.) The salami and parmigiano-reggiano sandwich my buddy ordered was good, though it could have used less bread and more meat. But the parmesan and rosemary fries he got were reason enough to make Co Co. Sala a regular lunch destination.

So Co Co. Sala can do savory. It just doesn't seem like it wants to. Or if it does, the savory parts of the menu don't seem well thought out. Although the lounge introduced the lunch service and does brunch, it still feels like a lounge. In the evening, when diners and dates fill the low tables and booths, Co Co. Sala looks like it's fulfilling the vision of owners Nisha Sidhu and Bharet Malhotra. But during the day, when a handful of diners are slumped over the same small tables eating salami sandwiches and drinking iced tea, I have to assume that this is less the vision and more a means of making a few extra dollars.

If I'm right, Sidhu and Malhotra should put some effort into their savory menus and make Co Co. Sala the lunch and dinner spot they seem to be flirting with. Otherwise, they should stick with what they do best: dessert after dark.

Speaking of that, I'll have Trish talk about the desserts...

Trish's Take

So much chocolate, so little time (and money). What's a chocolate-lover to do when confronted by a menu that's at least 75% chocolate?  It took me quite some time to figure out what to order. I'd eaten at Coco Sala before, but I hadn't had the appetite to order one of their multi-course dessert offerings. This time I was ready.

To start, beverages.  I'm currently in my third trimester of pregnancy, and so unable to enjoy Co Co. Sala's interesting chocolate-themed cocktails on the menu. Unfortunately only one of the drinks is made "virgin," but it lacks chocolate. (For the majority of you who are not in the family way, I highly recommend the cocojito, which I tried some months before the pregnancy. The combination of chocolate with tart citrus and mint is irresistible.) 

CoCo4 Happily, the flight of hot chocolates came to my rescue. There are five to choose from, and of the three I had, two could be dessert in their own right. I didn't enjoy the white chocolate, which I tried because I wanted to step outside my dark chocolate comfort zone. After a few sips it reminded me of sweetened, condensed-milk, straight up. But the peanut butter milk chocolate, and the dark chocolate were divine.  The peanut butter milk chocolate was rich, silky, and salty with peanut flavor. A cup of this would more than suffice as a dessert after a full meal. The dark chocolate was lighter and more bitter by comparison, although the chocolate flavor was not as strong as I would've liked. 

As much as I enjoyed the hot chocolates, I was there for the Monde du Chocolat, Co Co. Sala's selection of 3 and 5-course desserts. After a brief flirtation with the Asian-themed course, I settled on the Italian 3-course because I'm a huge sucker for good tiramisu, the star of the main dessert course.

Three flavors of tiramisu are offered as the "main dessert," with a small dessert course before and after. Before I get to the tiramisu, however, let me praise that first little dessert - a vanilla panna cotta bite with chocolate praline soup. I'm not that excited about vanilla, but I got excited about this dish. The vanilla flavor was so clean and pure I could've happily eaten more than just the three or four tiny spoonfuls that were offered. The chocolate praline soup was second-fiddle at best. But then came three varieties of tiramisu (top photo).

Surprisingly, the "traditional" variety was forgettable: it lacked enough chocolate and espresso to make it worth the calories. The fraise-de-bois, on the other hand, was a knock-out. I would never have thought to put strawberry and espresso together, but they were a wonderful combination with the creamy interior of the tiramisu. The final tiramisu -- chocolate tiramisu -- was just the dark, bitter chocolate hit I was looking for. For all you dark-chocolate lovers out there, this is your tiramisu: everything is chocolate-soaked. The final course of two small Italian cookies included a very interesting ricotta cheese bite, whose light sweetness I thoroughly enjoyed after the tongue-coating dark-chocolate. 

CoCo5 Drew's not as into chocolate as I am (that is a significant understatement), but he ordered the main course of the "Xocolatyl: Aztec Experience" trio. The star of the plate was undeniably the tiny chipotle truffle, which had the perfect balance of deep chocolate richness and heat. I've had the pepper/chocolate combination before, but rarely have I tasted it so well executed. The hot chocolate souffle was everyone else's favorite, but I found it bland. (Note from Drew: I really did like this dessert. The sweet/heat thing isn't always done well. It is at Co Co. Sala.)

Overall, Co Co. Sala's sweet offerings provide something for everyone. If you're not a fan of big, rich dark chocolate flavors like me, there's still plenty for you to enjoy. (If you don't want any dessert at all, you're in the wrong place.)  And if you're just looking for a chocolate fix, skip the Monde du Chocolat and head for the "Dolce" selection of small plates where you can find a selection of artfully decorated artisanal chocolates with a variety of fillings that will hit the spot without filling you to the point of popping.

Co Co. Sala
929 F St NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 347-4265

Spy Diner

SPYCART1 Consider the food cart. These ubiquitous urban fixtures exist for a reason — SURVIVAL. The urban jungle is a harrying place, and crowded, so sometimes one just has to resort to foraging. This isn't to say that cart food can't be great cuisine —  hell, I and many of my fellow GWU graduates owe our very lives to Manouch and his magical hot dog cart, rendered all the more fantastic for it's being open till four in the morning. Though I was less than a gourmand in my college years, I have to say that Manouch worked some real magic in that tiny kitchen, as I'm sure he continues to do to this day. A true chef is not the sum of his tools, but rather an amalgam of skill and a love of the craft; good food can be made anywhere, from the four star Michelin kitchen to the camper's sterno can. Knowing this, I was more than a bit intrigued when I heard about Spy Diner.

Late last month, the good people of DC Central Kitchen teamed up with Stir Food Group (the creative minds behind Zola and Potenza) in an innovative venture in culinary philanthropy. For twenty years, DCCK has been collecting our city's massive load of wasted foodstuffs, and turning it into good, wholesome meals for those in need -- today, the group reprocesses more than one ton of unused food donated by local businesses everyday. In recent years, the group has expanded its aim to attack DC's unemployment problem, and with its Culinary Job Training program it has educated and placed hundreds of our city's struggling citizens in local commercial kitchens, where they may thrive and feel needed.

Spy3 Spy Diner is DCCK's newest venture to this end. The creative minds at Stir provide the recipes, and the burgeoning chefs fresh from DCCK's Culinary program take it from there. I'd been meaning to swing by for awhile, and professional reasons put me in just the right neighborhood yesterday, so I made an impromptu visit.

The corner of 9th and F St was surprisingly quiet at 11:40 am, so I had the good fortune of a lineless lunch. The cart itself is your standard model, if a bit newer, bearing the usual array of propane burners and refrigerated bins. The man behind the counter greeted me kindly, and I perused the menu, which I have transcribed below:

(Served 8:00 - 11:00 am)
Egg Sandwiches with cheese - $2.75
w/ Taylor Pork Roll or Ham or Bacon - $1.75
served on a bagel or housemade roll

Fresh Baked Muffins - $2.00
Housemade Coffee Cakes - $2.50
Bagels (grab and go) Cream Cheese, Jelly or Butter - $2.50

Nantucket Nectars Juices - $2.25

2 Sliders

Lamb Meatballs
Romaine Red Pepper Slaw and Goat Cheese Aioli - $6.00

Roast Beef Melts
Emmanthaler Sauce, Carmelized Onions, Horseradish Bun - $4.00

BBQ Pork
Coleslaw, Salt & Pepper Bun - $4.00

All American Burger
Romaine Pickle Slaw - $4.00

Tomato & Brie - $4.00

Slider Combos
Add a Bag of Chips and a Soda or Bottled Water for an Additional $1.50

Soup of the Day - $3.75
Chips - $1.00

Cookies - $2.50
Cupcakes - $2.50
Rice Crispy Treats - $2.50

Nantucket Nectar Juices - $2.25
Sodas - $1.50
Bottled Water - $1.25

Spycart2 Those of you who have been to Zola will probably recognize the slider selections, as they are pulled straight from the bar's awesome happy hour menu. For my undying love of caramelized onions, I ordered the Roast Beef Melts, and waited patiently for my order. In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with my host, a man by the name of Derrick*. 

Derrick has been in the program for about 11 months, and it turns out that I came by on his very first day on the job. Despite this, he aptly and confidently started preparing my meal, even amidst my incessant questioning. Derrick is a recovering alcoholic, and wasn't shy to tell me this. We got to talking about food, and DC chefs —  Derrick has met a good number of them (lots of local chefs donate time to DCCK), and is happy for the experience. While he was topping my beef off with the Emmanthaler mousse, I asked my chef what he thought of the program. After some thought, Derrick replied that it was great, for numerous reasons, but mostly because "it makes you want to serve instead of just taking." I took my lunch, bid him adieu, and promised to come back.

As far as the food goes, I gotta say, you are not likely to do much better downtown for less money. The portion of sliced beef was more than satisfactory for the price paid, and it was cooked to perfect temperature. The caramelized onions boasted just the right combination of sweetness and earthiness, and Spy4 the Emmanthaler sauce was generously applied, and decadent. This, for $5.50 with drink and a bag of chips? Sure, Potbelly's, Subway, and the like can give you a much larger pile of crap for about that price, but I seriously doubt it would be as filling or satisfying. I was glad I left a tip, and honestly wish I'd left more.

It feels great to lend one's money to a good cause; to use one's power as a consumer for good, rather than wasting it on convenience. But ya know, I am an inherently selfish creature, and I ain't gonna eat crappy meals ad nauseum for altruism's sake. Fortunately such a dilemma did not present itself here: as far as I can tell, DCCK is doing a wonderful job with their students, and they and their partners should be lauded for their efforts. If you live or work in the Chinatown region, and value good food and good, well, values, take a trip to the little food cart at 9th and F. As for me, I plan on making good on my promise to Derrick in the very near future.

Spy Diner
Northeast Corner or 9th and F St. NW
Breakfast: Monday - Friday: 8:30 am to 11:00 am
Lunch: 11:00 am to 5:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday Hours: 11:00 am to 6:00 pm

* If you are reading this, sir, please let me know if I spelled your name wrong!

Opening Day at Penn Quarter!

PQ Farmers Market Sign Although it was a cloudy day with a slight chill in the air, nothing was going to dampen my spirits last Thursday.  With my reusable bag in my hand, I headed over to Penn Quarter on a late lunch break to herald opening day of the Penn Quarter Farmers Market!  Located on 8th Street between D and E Street, the Penn Quarter farmers market is a popular stop after work for the K Street set.  It's also a welcome place for Penn Quarter residents to pick up fresh produce, meat and dairy.  So it was no surprise that the market was bustling when my co-worker James and I got to the market around 4.  It's still fairly early in the season, so there was not a huge selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, but Black Rock Orchard had an ample amount of apples and apple products (including cider).  Strategically placed in front of the Black Rock Orchard stand was a lovely bucket full of blossoms that I mistakenly thought were cherry blossoms (who could blame me with it being prime cherry blossom time in DC).  But James, ever the fan of reading signs, pointed out that they were apricot blossoms.  Although I was very tempted to pick up a few sprigs, I knew they'd wither away due to neglect.  We continued down the market in search of the new lamb vendor, Springfield Farm of Kent County. 

As we wandered around the market, I kept an eye out for the Chef at Market demonstration scheduled for opening day.  Rob Weland, the chef at neighboring restaurant Poste, was to begin around 4 pm but there was no demonstration booth set up.  However, the amazing smell of cooking crab cakes more than made up for the absentee chef.  Looking around, I quickly found the source of the aromas making my stomach grumble angrily:  Chris' Marketplace.  Chris Hoge's dedication to using the freshest seafood in his cooking is evident the minute you taste one of his crab cakes.  Although I have read up on Chris' crab cakes and ingredients, I have never been able to actually speak with him.  This isn't because he doesn't appear friendly or willing to chat.'s simply because the lines around his makeshift kitchen are always long.  By the time I get up to the front and place my order, the person behind me is already breathing down my neck to move along. Opening day was no exception, so I continued on.

Divine Chocolate We continued along and stumbled upon a booth festooned with gold wrapped chocolate eggs.  Two women were manning it and offered James and I a chance to win one of them.  Not one to turn down free chocolate, we happily accepted the challenge.  It seemed simple enough:  answer a few questions correctly and you win a chocolate egg (either milk or dark chocolate).  The very first question identified the company and it's mission.  Divine Chocolate is a fair trade chocolate company co-owned by a collective of farmers in Ghana.  From drinking chocolates to baking chocolates, Divine's product line covers the cocoa gamut.  Although not a usual Penn Quarter vendor, Divine shares in the ideals of buying locally and responsibly.  Luckily, James and I answered enough questions right to win two chocolate eggs.  Before we left the booth, we picked up information about Divine and where to buy their products in the DC area. 

Brioche! Still in search of the Chef at Market demonstration, we headed down 8th Street and ran into the crowd surrounding the Ovens at Quail Creek Farm.  Their breads and pastries are hands down some of my favorite in DC, especially their lovely loaves of brioche.  Sliced thick and dipped into a custard of egg, cream and vanilla, their brioche make a wonderful french toast for a lazy weekend breakfast.  James picked up a loaf of sourdough bread with the intent to use it for a weekend breakfast sandwich.  Although I was tempted to pick up a loaf of brioche (did I mention it smelled amazing?), I knew my weekend plans of packing didn't mix well with a big, carb heavy breakfast.  I promised myself I would celebrate my (hopefully) successful move with a decadent vanilla bean french toast in the coming weekends. 

Tulips and Flowers A lovely flourish of green brought a glimmer of Spring to this otherwise cloudy day as we passed Endless Summer Harvest's mix of lettuce and arugula. The DC area masters of hydroponic farming, Endless Summer Harvest brings a taste of Spring and Summer all year round to DC residents.  Hydroponic farming employs the use of large greenhouses and a nutrient rich source of water to grow plants out of season.  Endless Summer Harvest concentrates mostly on greens and herbs and I routinely get a bunch of their arugula or basil for pesto.  And believe you me, during the sparse Winter months it was wonderful to whip up a batch of pesto for a quick lunch.  Another sign of Spring evident on opening day?  A wealth of tulips, fresh herbs and other colorful flowers lining tables all around the market.  Reds, yellows, whites and oranges dotted the otherwise gray backdrop of opening day and filled their immediate area with a light fragrance.  I was once again tempted to buy a bouquet of yellow tulips but decided it was best to wait until the move. 

Blue Ridge Sign Askew It was good to see all the old familiar faces:  Blue Ridge Dairy, Cibola Farms, Dolcezza Artisanal Gelatos and Everona Dairy.  But I was on the hunt to find Springfield Farm of Kent County, the new lamb vendor.  James and I walked around the market twice in search of both Springfield Farm and the Chef at Market demonstration.  However, we were unable to find either one.  I was also unable to find the other new vendor, Red Apron Butchery, only seeing the usual Cibola Farms meat vendor. However, it is only the beginning of the market season, so I keep hope alive there will be two more meat vendors at Penn Quarter in the near future. 

Before leaving the market, I spoke briefly with Liz Falk, FreshFarm's DC market manager, and found out Rob was running a little late for the Chef at Market demonstration.  As much as I wanted to stay to watch Rob cook, I had to get back to work.  James and I headed back with plans to hit up the market again next week.  And although I didn't buy anything (it's a bit hard to cook when the contents of your kitchen sits in boxes on the floor), I was thrilled to have my Penn Quarter market back for the season!

The Penn Quarter Farmers Market is open on Thursdays from 3 pm to 7 pm.

Penn Quarter Farmers Market

Front_sign After work on Thursday, I headed over to the Penn Quarter Farmers Market to pick up some items for a Thanksgiving side dish I had in mind.  To say that it was cold was an understatement (even in mittens, my hands were freezing), but my friend James and I braved to cold nonetheless. 

The Penn Quarter Farmers Market, part of the FreshFarm Market organization of farmers markets in the DC metro area, was established in 2003 and is a stone's throw from the National Mall.  I have frequented the market several times before because of its close proximity to my office and its hours (3 pm to 7 pm), but usually only during the high growing season.  At its busiest, the Penn Quarter Farmers Market has 18 food vendors, ranging from fruits and vegetables to meat and dairy.  Visitors of this market tend to enjoy the convenience of its location to their offices and the hours (like myself), which means they can pick up something fresh from the farm for dinner that night.  I use it as a market to supplement what I am scheduled to receive in my CSA box or to pick up a nice loaf of bread or a pastry from The Bread Ovens at Quail Creek Farm for that evening.  This time, however, I had an express mission to find the remaining ingredients for my stuffing for a Thanksgiving potluck dinner.

I don't usually put mushrooms in stuffing and had no intentions of doing so until I stopped by the Mushroom Stand.  Run by Ferial Welsh, the stand sells mushrooms grown in Chester County, Pennsylvania that are certified organic. The Mushroom Stand only sells mushrooms from Phillips Mushroom Farms and Mother Earth Organic Mushroom Farms which are not mass produced mushrooms from huge agribusiness conglomerations and their quality speaks for themselves.  Even though it was biting cold, Ferial was kind enough to offer me suggestions for mushrooms that would compliment a savory stuffing.  She handed me a sample of a maitake mushroom, telling me it had a mellow, woodsy flavor that would work well in a stuffing.  I had never even heard of a maitake mushroom, let alone tasted one, so I was a bit skeptical.  However, she was dead on in her recommendation.  Not only did it have a refined, earthy taste to it, it wasn't overly chewy like some mushrooms can be - even when cooked. I tweaked the recipe I had in mind a little in my head and continued on in search of bread.

Quail_creek_farm_stand The busiest stand by far at the Penn Quarter Farmers Market is the Bread Ovens at Quail Creek Farm.  Located on the Potomac River in West Virginia, The Bread Ovens at Quail Creek Farm use no preservatives or unnecessary additives in their breads, pastries, cookies and scones.  If you are anything like me, this is a big selling point, as I am a label reader.  If I can't pronounce it, it doesn't go in my body.  I have spoken with various workers at the stand on several occasions about their baking process and their ingredients and have always received the same information.  Their flours come from local millers and their yeast is fresh from breweries in their area (if only I could get in on some of those ingredients).  When I asked which bread would work well as a stuffing, one of the guys pointed to a huge boule (and by huge, I mean it could also double as an ottoman) that I was almost convinced served as an anchor for the entire bread stand.  This would definitely be more than enough bread to create a stuffing for a Thanksgiving meal (or a small army…which sometimes actually describes my family Thanksgiving dinners).  Just as I was getting my change back, the crowd began to swell, so I high tailed it out with my ottoman sized bread.

Penn_quarter_market My final stop was Cibola Farms, a vendor I know quite well from my visits to Dupont Circle Farmers Market.  Cibola Farms is a meat purveyor that sells bison, poultry, pork products and goats (yes, I said goats).  On my first visit to Cibola at Dupont Circle, I spoke with one of the workers for about 20 minutes about their farm processes and slaughter methods.  Their animals are not caged but are instead allowed to roam and graze on actual grass.  Rather than using chemicals or overworking the land with heavy machinery, Cibola Farms uses their hogs and goats to maintain the grass for grazing.  After that very informative discussion (I will spare you the details of their slaughter methods, but trust me when I say they are humane), I have been a regular customer.  I have tried everything from their bison (a slightly sweeter meat than beef but with its own strong flavors) to their pork sausages.  And it was their sage pork sausage that I had in mind for the stuffing.  I picked up a package and called it a day.

On Saturday morning, I gathered the onions, apples, fresh sage and celeriac from my CSA box, along with the bread, sausage and mushrooms from the market and decided to make a small test batch of the stuffing.  My family takes their stuffing very seriously (an entire Thanksgiving meal was ruined once because a family friend had the audacity to show up with dressing, not stuffing…big mistake), something that has been ingrained in me.  Although I won't be able to make it to Georgia for a family Thanksgiving, I will not show up to a potluck dinner with mediocre stuffing.  And since this was a recipe I was making on the fly, I had to be sure all the ingredients worked well together.  I was amazed at how well the celeriac, the root of celery, worked along with the mushrooms and apples, giving a sweetly subtle depth to the heartier flavors in the stuffing.  A perfect addition to any Thanksgiving dinner.

Stuffing_better Sausage, Apple and Mushroom Stuffing

2 loaves of quality white bread, torn into bite sized pieces
1 large onion (or 2 medium sized onions), diced
1 celeriac (the root of the celery), peeled and diced
2 apples (whichever apples are in season in your area), diced
32 ounces vegetable or chicken stock (preferably homemade), warmed up slightly
1 container maitake (or shiitake) mushrooms
2 tablespoons fresh sage
1 pound sage pork sausage
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

Grease a large casserole dish and set it aside.  Spread the bread pieces out on cookie sheets and bake them in the oven 5-10 minutes or until slightly golden.  In a large skillet, brown the sausage and then place it in a very large bowl (the bowl must be big enough to combine all of the ingredients).  Add the onions, celeriac, mushrooms and apples to the same skillet, season with the salt and pepper and cook until softened.  Add the onion mixture to the sausage and then slowly start adding the bread cubes.  Thoroughly incorporate the bread cubes into the other ingredients before adding another handful. 

Once all of the bread has been added, toss in the sage and give the mixture another good stir.  Pour in a portion of the stock and then stir it into the bread mixture.  Continue this process until the bread mixture is moist but not a soggy mess.  Pour the stuffing into the casserole dish, cover it with aluminum foil and bake it for 30 minutes.  Remove the foil from the stuffing and continue baking it for another 10-15 minutes or until it is golden brown (but not burnt).

Everona Dairy - Sheep's Milk Cheese from Virginia's Piedmont

Too_much_meat_012For more than a dozen years now, Dr. Pat Elliott has been crafting a range of quality, artisanal sheep's milk cheeses just a few hours' drive from Washington in Rapidan, Virginia.  Until recently, these delicious cheeses from Everona Dairy have been hard to find for most D.C. Foodies, as they were sold primarily on-site and at Farmers' Markets in Charlottesville.  Those who were able to chase down a wedge of Stony Man or Piedmont at Arrowine or another local shop were rewarded with cheeses that offer deep, nutty flavors; rich, buttery color and a texture that progresses from firm to pliant as it warms.

Thankfully, this month has seen a welcome addition to the lineups at the Thursday afternoon Penn Quarter market and the Sunday morning Dupont Circle market.  Dr. Elliott and her staff have added these two FreshFarm Markets to their weekly rounds, giving us the chance to try their full range of cheeses direct from the source.

Too_much_meat_013And what a range it is!  In addition to the mainstays (Piedmont and Stony Man), Everona Dairy produces a baby Swiss-style cheese, a wine-soaked cheese they call Pride of Bacchus and a wide range of what could be considered 'infusions' -- varieties of Piedmont featuring add-ins like chives and dill, vegetable ash (for the 'Marble' variety), cracked black pepper, and even sun-dried tomatoes.  In each case, the flavors of the additions are immediately noticeable, and most harmonize easily with the smooth flavor of the Piedmont.  The Tomato Torta caught me a bit off guard, but a second tasting helped me appreciate the surprisingly tasty combination.

Too_much_meat_020On my first visit, I decided to branch out a bit and I purchased a wedge of the Pride of Bacchus.  Unlike softer, washed-rind cheeses, this one lacks a pungent aroma and instead offers a vaguely wine-like smelling the inside of a retired barrel that had been used for aging.  The cheese itself is dense and snow-white, looking and tasting a lot like an aged Parmesan (but without the hard, crumbly texture).  Tasting the rind, I was surprised to find some flavorful notes mingled with the normal earthiness, yet you wouldn't be missing out if you passed on the rind altogether.  A subsequent visit resulted in the purchase of a section of the Marbled Piedmont, and the vegetable ash served to give the normally nutty Piedmont an earthier flavor.  Its appearance reminded me a lot of Morbier, the soft French cheese with its own layer of ash in the middle, but its taste was more like a Manchego.

Img_4646 So how does a rural doctor end up running a dairy that produces more than 4 tons of cheese a year?  She buys a dog, of course!  As the story goes, Dr. Elliott purchased a border collie pup on a whim back in 1992, and she soon found that she needed something for the energetic dog to do.  Since collies are working dogs, she decided to buy some sheep.  Sheep led to milk, milk led to cheese, and soon enough Everona Dairy was producing award-winning cheeses made from the milk produced by more than 100 Friesians and other sheep she raises on site.

Though none of her cheeses are inexpensive (wedges are priced by weight and tend to run in the $12 to $18 range for 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound), Dr. Elliott's passion and the story behind her entry into the world of cheesemaking stand out and make Everona Dairy a local producer I'm happy to support.