Penn Quarter

Blue Ridge Dairy (and their Applewood Smoked Mozzarella)

Img_4142 Even in the dead of winter, the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market is a great source of locally-produced vegetables, pasture-raised buffalo meat, and artisan baked breads.  Not surprisingly, the selections are significantly limited compared to the bounty that can be found from late spring through the fall, but there is still quite a bit that can be found and enjoyed.  Just make sure you show up early: although the FreshFarm website lists the market's winter hours as 10-1, I have seen vendors breaking down as early as noon when there's a chill in the air.

The changing seasons and colder temperatures have less of an impact on dairy products than they do on produce, so it should come as no surprise that most of the local cheesemakers who sell at the Dupont Market are still going strong through the winter.  One of them, Blue Ridge Dairy, has been catching my eye from the first time I saw them set up at the Penn Quarter Market.  Their hand-chalked sign Img_4143advertising yogurt, cheese and creme fraiche from Jersey cows' milk caught my eye, and the samples on offer made the sale even before I had a chance to ask about them.

Since that first encounter, I have learned quite a bit about Blue Ridge Dairy through conversations with the sellers and the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese.  Located in Leesburg, Blue Ridge turns out fresh cheese and cultured milk products using milk from Jersey cows.  Paul Stephan, who has been working at cheesemaking for almost a decade, cultures the milk at his facility and then stretches the curd by hand to make his fresh mozzarella, which is sold in 8-ounce balls for $6.  Other fresh cheeses are also hand-made, including a naturally low-fat small-curd ricotta and lightly sweet and creamy mascarpone.

Some of Stephan's most flavorful offerings, however, require a little more attention.  Feta is aged for two months before the 8-ounce squares are offered to the public, and their tangy bite is well worth the wait.  Slow-churned cultured butter is silky and rich, with a definite flavor and a higher fat content than what you'll find on most grocery shelves.  It is supposed to be excellent when used in baking, though I have not used it in that capacity myself.

Smoked And the most distinct of his offerings, for my money, is a smoked version of his fresh mozzarella.  Using applewood, which is popular with enthusiasts of barbecue, turkey and bacon for its deep, slightly sweet smoke, Stephan uses the "low and slow" method of bathing the mozzarella in wave after wave of applewood smoke until the finished product emerges with a latte-colored skin and an aroma more like bacon than anything else.  These smoked balls of mozzarella are sold dry in 8-ounce portions for $7, and a little goes a long way.  Unlike the fresh mozzarella, whose delicate taste and soft, moist texture encourage you to keep coming back for more, the strong smoky flavor is almost overwhelming when eaten by itself.  If you've ever tasted a packaged smoked mozzarella like the ones that can be found in Safeway and Giant (or even the ones that can be found pre-packaged at Trader Joe's), you will be hard-pressed to identify this as even remotely related...the taste is so distinct, the texture so much less rubbery.

It begs to be used in cooking, paired with caramelized onions or other semi-sweet flavors where it mellows into the taste equivalent of a deep bass rhythm.  Blue Ridge Dairy's applewood smoked mozzarella is wonderful on homemade pizzas, as well, where it can stand up to spicy ground sausage and sweet red peppers with equal aplomb.  It can be melted atop crostini or paired with fresh tomatoes and basil for a twist on a standard caprese.  Whatever you do with it, just make sure not to overdo it or you will find yourself overwhelmed by the smokiness to the detriment of your other ingredients.

Blue Ridge Dairy can be found year-round at the FreshFarm Markets in Dupont Circle, Courthouse and Penn Quarter (check the FreshFarm website for each market's hours and dates of operation).  They also sell some of their products through Whole Foods, but it's far more fun to walk up to Paul or one of his assistants at the market, take a taste, and get to know the people who make this delicious local cheese.


Pierce Pt. and Jamón Ibérico from Cowgirl Creamery

Img_3701As I mentioned in my write-up of Cowgirl Creamery's DC location, there is a seasonal cheese produced by the Cowgirls called Pierce Pt.  And as SB pointed out in her comment on that post the other day, Cowgirl Creamery is also one of the first stores in the country to carry jamón ibérico, a cured Spanish ham widely praised for its rich, smooth taste.  On my recent visit to their shop, I picked up some of each and tasted them together.  The Pierce Pt. remains a favorite, with its dried herbs adding complexity to the flavor of the cheese.  But although I could appreciate the quality of the jamón, it failed to blow me away.

Pierce Pt.

Cowgirl Creamery's mission to celebrate all things artisanal begins at home with their own line of Img_3694 cheeses.  They produce two cheeses year-round at their home base in Marin County (outside San Francisco): Mt. Tam, a buttery triple-cream, and Red Hawk, a washed-rind cheese with a pungent aroma and a deep, earthy flavor.  And they are proud of their use of organic milk, frequently highlighting the fact that their supply comes from the nearby Straus Family Dairy.

But they also produce two seasonal cheeses - one in the spring and one in the fall.  The first, called St. Pat, is wrapped in nettle leaves and has a smoky green flavor that matches its look.  The second - Pierce Pt. - is my favorite of their offerings and the true hero of this post.

Pierce Pt. is made from that same organic Straus Family Dairy milk, but it goes through a maturation process unlike most other cheeses.  First, the rounds are washed in a muscato (their spelling) wine - a light, sweet white wine whose floral aromas and peachy flavor still linger a bit on the cheese.  After this wine bath, the cheese is rolled in local dried herbs.  Although no formal list of the herbs used is available, the woman behind the counter told me it included chamomile and fennel, and I tend to come away from tasting Pierce Pt. with a firm impression of bay.  Regardless of the secret recipe, it is a celebration of local flavors and a great Img_3697 inclusion on any cheese plate as the weather turns cold.  As it warms, the cheese softens from the outside in, taking on a texture somewhere between double-cream brie and raclette.

As a seasonal offering, Pierce Pt. is only around in the fall and winter.  By the time Cowgirl Creamery rolls out St. Pat in early March, it will be gone for another year.  Pierce Pt. is sold in rounds and half-rounds by weight,  with the average round weighing roughly a half a pound.  At $22.75 per pound, you can expect to spend $10-$12 per round and $5-6 per half-round.

Jamón Ibérico

Until very recently, jamón ibérico was not available in the United States.  This Spanish delicacy was notImg_3700  approved for import into the United States until 2005, and this month marks the arrival of the first shipment.  Cowgirl Creamery is therefore one of the first purveyors in the entire country to offer the cured ham.

When SB mentioned its availability, it piqued my curiosity so I decided to give it a try.  I did some reading and learned that jamón ibérico comes from Black Iberian pigs, one of the closest domesticated relatives of wild boars.  The pigs feed primarily on acorns, grasses and herbs, and it is this diet that is supposed to give their meat its rich flavor and luxurious texture.  There are several grades of jamón ibérico that are produced in Spain, but thus far only one grade is available stateside.  The top quality ham - known as bellota (acorn) because the pigs are fed acorns exclusively in the final phase of their lives - is expected by March.

The quality of the meat and its extreme rarity conspire to make this a gourmet's delicacy - though not quite on par with Kobe beef or white truffles - and the price tag reflects this.  Cowgirl Creamery is selling their jamón ibérico for $75 per pound.  At that price, each slice costs more than $2, making this a ham that must be savored on its own if it is to be truly appreciated.

And that's where it lost me.  I am a real fan of prosciutto di Parma - I love the taste and the way it practically melts in your mouth when it's sliced thinly.  Jamón ibérico had a similar flavor, if slightly richer and more savory.  But my experiences with prosciutto di Parma at price points below $25 per pound gave me an objective basis for comparison, and I simply did not find the jamón three times as good as the best prosciutto I had ever tasted.  It probably didn't help that the slices I tasted were not thin enough to truly dissolve in my mouth, even after I had let them reach room temperature as the Cowgirls recommended.

Although I'm glad I took the time to try jamón ibérico, I don't know that I'll be rushing out to buy it again anytime soon.


Cowgirl Creamery

Img_3511 It was about a year and a half ago that Cowgirl Creamery opened its doors, and they have more than earned a place in the hearts of gourmets and cheese-lovers alike since then.  More than just a place to find wonderful artisanal cheeses, Cowgirl is a D. C. Foodie's dream when it comes to a wide range of hard-to-find items:  salames and other charcuterie from well-known producers like Fra'Mani, Bread Line baguettes delivered fresh daily, even salt-packed capers (so much better than the ubiquitous brined capers found in jars on grocery store shelves)!  Throw in a small but thoughtful selection of wines hand-selected by the proprietors, and you've got the makings of a decadent picnic or a killer wine and cheese party.

Cowgirl Creamery is not the typical DC cheese shop for several reasons.  First - it's not a locally-owned business.  Cowgirl Creamery was started in Point Reyes Station (north of San Francisco on the California coast) in 1997 by two women with DC roots, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith.  Thankfully for us, those roots made Washington the site of Cowgirl Creamery's first expansion outside the San Francisco Bay area.  And the fact that a number of Washington restaurants (including the Clyde's group) were already featuring Cowgirl cheeses couldn't have hurt, either.  Second - Cowgirl Creamery only features artisanal cheeses.  You won't find any mass-produced cheeses like Parrano here, though the women behind the counter are likely to be able to offer two or three artisanal alternatives for any cheese you can think of.

Img_3515On each visit I've paid to Cowgirl Creamery, I've been struck by the presentation of their cheeses.  Walking through the narrow store to the back, you are immediately greeted by a long counter covered in firmer cheeses - cheddars, aged gouda, grating cheeses.  Passing around to the front of this counter, guests are greeted by a deep refrigerated case holding blues and semi-soft cheeses that would not stand up to room temperature storage.  In the far back corner of the room, a separate case holds rounds of goat cheese, clabbered cottage cheese, pates,  and cured olives - this one always brings a smile to my face with its assortment of artisanal treats.  Previously wrapped cheeses (such as Cowgirl Creamery's own MT Tam, Red Hawk, and the amazing fall/winter seasonal Pierce Pt) can be found in the front of the store with the charcuterie and previously weighed packages of cheeses and accompaniments that are perfect for a grab-and-go purchase.

The service at Cowgirl Creamery is top-notch.  Not just knowledgable, everyone I've ever spoken to has been truly enthusiastic about cheese.  They don't just offer you samples - they practically force them on you.  Questions are welcomed and approached as an opportunity to share something new, not as an inconvenience that slows down the transaction.  As you might expect, this can lead to lengthy interactions and occasional backups, but the number of employees working at any given time seems to take this into account and addresses it quickly and efficiently.

Img_3513 Prices at Cowgirl can be a bit higher than those at competitors around the city sometimes, but for me this is offset by the unique complementary products they carry.  There is a massive tank of McEvoy Ranch olive oil located just to the left of the cashier's stand, and they encourage guests to sample this deliciously pure California gold.  A freezer case behind the register carries gelatti from DolceZZa, a Georgetown purveyor of the Argentine version of this rich treat.  It is also justified by their service and their willingness to go the extra mile in helping their customers to discover new favorites that may lie just outside their comfort zones. 

The commitment to making and selling true artisanal products at Cowgirl Creamery should appeal to those foodies who wish to encourage and reward producers who are working to preserve traditional methods, and the taste and quality of those products should appeal to just about everyone else.  An early arrival in a neighborhood that is quickly developing a character that appeals to both tourists and locals alike, Cowgirl Creamery is still a bit off the beaten path (though just a block away from Ford's Theater and the new Madame Tussaud's, you really need to know it's there to find it).  But it's well worth the trip.

Cowgirl Creamery
919 F Street, NW
(202) 393-6880
Monday through Saturday, 10AM - 7PM
Closed Sundays


Jaleo

Recently, I found myself in Bethesda with Amy and Noah. It was the middle of the afternoon and we hadn't eaten lunch yet (God, this sounds like just about every Saturday since Noah's been born). Originally, we intended to go to Divino Lounge but once we parked the car, got Noah out of the car, and walked around the corner...oh crap. They're closed. Son of a...!!

"Way to check their hours Jase...What else is around here?" Amy asked.

Man she gets grumpy when she's hungry. Kind of like me.

I thought about our options for a couple minutes. I was obviously taking to long, because Amy suddenly suggested that we go to Jaleo.

The last time we went to Jaleo, we had a pretty mediocre meal and I was hesitant. It's amazing how one bad meal will do that and so many people, including myself, will write off a place after one semi-bad experience, but we decided to give them another chance regardless.

The good news is everything was very good that afternoon (and the following Saturday night as well), unlike most tapas restaurants, where half the dishes your order end up being boring. My favorite tapa (geez I ate that word) was the duck confit, which is by far, one of the best deals that Jaleo has to offer at $7.50, with a very large duck leg that seems to never end. Sadly, it's on their "temporary" menu, so get it while its still on the menu.  Other amazing tapas include the homemade grilled pork sausage with white beans thats salty and well seasoned, grilled sirloin with sherry sauce, or some sinful béchamel chicken and Spanish ham fritters.

The only dish I had that I wasn't crazy about was a surprisingly bland Chorizo sausage. Seriously, Chef Andrés, spice this up a bit. No not a bit, a lot! I mean, chorizo is supposed to be spicy, right?  So the menu is still a bit hit or miss. Another disappointment was the pork rib that was almost completely fat. We sent that one back it was so bad.

During our afternoon visit, service was very smooth and we couldn't really ask for more. When we returned again the following Saturday, things weren't quite as smooth, which I remembered from our previous experience at Jaleo. That evening, despite the fact that the service was very rushed, which is understandable, considering how crowded the restaurant was, the kitchen continued to bang out dish after dish.

As far as the wine list goes, there are many options all across the different price ranges, which I can appreciate because I don't always feel like dropping $60 on a bottle of wine. Glasses at the bar are reasonable as well. The slightly tart, yet fruity, Albarino that Amy and I had at the bar was only $8 a glass.

It's easy to get carried away at Jaleo, which can easily be considered a cheap eats restaurant, but also can break the bank if you order a ton of tapas and a more expensive bottle of wine. I can appreciate that though, because it means you have the flexibility to make what you want of the meal. All of our bills were under $100.

Jaleo
480 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004
Map
(202) 628-7949   

7271 Woodmont Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814
Map
(301) 913-0003

2250 A Crystal Drive
Arlington, VA 22202
Map
(703) 413-8181

Web Site

Hours:
See Web Site

Dress Code: Business Casual to Casual
Reservations: Taken.
Baby friendly rating: 2 Diapers


Fogo de Chao

It's not every day that I like to totally pig out, but I made an exception last weekend for Fogo de Chao. Fogo de Chao is a churrascaria, a Brazilian restaurant where you'll find different kinds of savory meat served on spits -- all you can eat for a fixed price. As you can read on Fogo de Chao's web site, they cook their beef the "Gaucho" way. Ideally this would mean that they would grill their meat over open fires, but somehow I doubt that's how the meat at Fogo de Chao is actually being cooked.

I imagine scheduling reservations at Fogo de Chao is one of the more difficult sciences in this world. It's fixed price at $45 a person, all you can eat, and there's no time limit, so I wasn't surprised that we had to wait for our 8 PM reservation. It didn't matter much though, since we got lucky and found an empty table at the way-too-small-for-a-two-floor-restaurant bar.

While the hostesses seemed overwhelmed, they were very eager to please, regardless of the bartenders' comments about how inexperienced they were. There was a whole team of people whose main job was to get people seated and clear tables. Our friends were running a little late and still hadn't arrived when it was time for us to be seated, but the hostesses sat us anyway, which I wasn't expecting.

Your server greets you the instant you're seated, although you probably won't see him/her a whole lot the rest of the night, unless your wine bottle gets empty. Once they explain "the system", you're pretty much off and running and on your own. The waiter directs you to a salad bar and bread, which you actually don't have to eat. While the salad and antipasto aren't bad, it's not the reason you're there. Rather than visiting the salad bar at the beginning of the meal, I'd recommend taking a break half way through the meal and having a salad as a palate cleanser.

You can control how often waiters (or gauchos as the restaurant calls them) stop at your table with food by flipping over your coaster (I don't think it was actually a coaster though, because if you put your glass on it, the gauchos wouldn't see it) to green or red. I don't think I need to explain which color means you want more food. It was unclear to me whether or not the coaster actually meant anything though, since there were times when the gauchos brought food to my companions and I regardless of our coasters. Basically, as long as there's one person with the coaster flipped to green, they will stop by and offer the entire table food.

I had visited a restaurant very much like this when I vacationed in Aruba two years ago, and I pretty much had the same experience there as I had at Fogo de Chao. The service is prompt and attentive, the wine list awarded yet expensive, and the food inconsistant. You can get a great slice of meat in one gaucho's visit to your table, and a completely different cut in another visit, and regardless of whether or not you ask for a medium rare slice, or a well done slice, most of the time you don't get quite what you ask for.

I could go into detail on each cut of meat, but I'll save you the time and just tell you what the tastier cuts were. The juicy filet was very good, as was the flavorful lamb (in either leg or chop form), which I thought was the best that Fogo de Chao had to offer. It was the most flavorful, tender and interesting by far. I also liked the bottom sirloin. There was definitely an overuse of salt on all of the cuts of meat and I'm not the only one to notice this.

Dessert? Who would have room other than a professional eater?

Our final bill for the four of us was close to $325. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that bill, but I guess what was I expecting when we ordered two bottles of wine for $60 a piece, and each of our meals cost $44.50 (update: the price has since been raised to $48.50)? Add on the 10% DC dining tax and you've got a nice hole that's been dug in my dining budget this month. Looks like I'll be writing about some cheap eats in the near future.

My final opinion...

I'd rather go to Ray's the Steaks before going to Fogo de Chao.  At least there, I can order a steak, have it cooked to order and not feel like a pig at the end of the night. Plus, my wallet will be a little heavier.

Fogo de Chao
1101 Pennsylvania Ave
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 347-4668
Map

Hours:
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5pm-10pm; Friday 5pm- 10:30pm; Saturday 4:30pm-10:30pm; Sunday 4pm- 9:30pm

Dress Code: Business Casual - I saw people in nice jeans.
Parking: Valet and street if you can find it.
Smoking:
Allowed at the bar.
Closest Metro:
Federal Triangle
Reservations: Taken.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 1 out of 4 diapers. LOL. Yeah. No. Too upscale.


Rasika

I had a chance to stop by Rasika last Saturday. I love Indian food, and as soon as I heard that a new restaurant was opening, I had to go and see what it was like. I was also curious what Sebastian, the former wine and service director at Komi, was doing at an Indian restaurant of all places. It was only the second week that Rasika had been open, so I'll try not to be too judgmental.

First the good: Penn Quarter is really a hip neighborhood now (not that I actually know what "hip" is anymore, what with being a new dad). The crowd there was pleasant and the atmosphere elegant. Yet everyone seemed fairly casual, which I kind of liked. Most people were wearing jeans, but some were a little dressier. I saw the occasional Sari. There's a huge bar area with short, small tables that are fairly...quaint, but probably hard on the knees to sit at for too long. I'm encouraged to see places like Rasika and Indeblu opening -- it goes a long way in saying that people are recognizing Indian food as "upscale" cuisine.

As far as the food goes, the highlight of the evening was my Lamb Shank Rogan Josh, which at $19 was a pretty good deal. The portion was large and the lamb was extremely tender but not overdone. The sauce it was served in was plenty spicy which I appreciate.

The menu also seems pretty adventurous, with dishes that aren't seen at other Indian restaurants like fish manga, a sea bass with curry leaves and onion and mango. I also saw some people at the next table order the Palak Chaat, an appetizer made of crispy spinach, yogurt and date chutney -- they were going simply gah-gah over it. If I return, I'll have to try it.

I actually had my first dessert at an Indian restaurant that I enjoyed. The Apple Jalebi was just what we needed after our meal. Unlike most Indian desserts, it wasn't overly sweet because the apple gave it that little bit of tart flavor. The apple was deep fried in a sweet, honey  and saffron-flavored batter and then served with cardamon ice cream. 

Other than that though, I wasn't overly impressed. The Trio of Chicken Tikka that Amy ordered was too small and she was left kind of hungry. There were three flavors in the dish: chili, cheese and basil. Both the chili and basil chicken were flavorful, and the chicken was very tender, but the cheese just tasted like plain chicken. Our appetizer, the Sev Batati Puri, while a good idea in theory, was weak in flavor. Rasika is a bit more expensive than other Indian restaurants, but I think you're paying for the atmosphere -- which can be worth it depending on how you feel about such things.

And how is the new Sommelier doing at pairing wines with Indian food? Well, the earthy bottle of Buttonwood Cabernet Franc that Sebastian brought us to go with both of our dishes went great with Amy's chicken, but kind of overpowered my already spicy Rogan Josh. I guess one for two isn't bad -- it's much better than I've ever been able to do. At Rasika, the wine list that Sebastian has selected is is quite huge and has many amazing wines on it, as I'd expect from his influence.

So that's pretty much all I have to say. I encourage you all to stop by and see what Rasika is like for yourselves. It has a good deal of promise and I think that if you order wisely, you'll really enjoy yourself.

Rasika
www.rasikarestaurant.com
633 D Street NW
Washington, DC
(202) 637-1222
Map

Hours:
Lunch:
Mon - Fri: 11:30am - 2:30pm
Dinner:
Mon - Thu: 5:30pm - 10:30pm
Fri and Sat: 5:30pm - 11:00pm

Dress Code: Business Casual - I wore "nice" jeans with a sport coat.
Smoking: Allowed at the bar.
Closest Metro: Gallery Place or National Archives.
Parking: Valet Parking is available. I wouldn't bother trying to find parking on your own in this area.
Reservations: Taken. Use OpenTable.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 1 out of 4 diapers. As with most places like this, I probably wouldn't take Noah there, mainly because the atmosphere is just way too nice to bring a baby too.