Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ad Hoc: Family Style

As part of our family get together in the Napa Valley, Michael's cousin Kirsten arranged for the 8 of us to have dinner together at Ad Hoc, a new venture by Thomas Keller in Yountville (just down the street from the French Laundry).

We had a wonderful dinner there. Of course a lot of it was the company and probably the 6 bottles of wine take some credit also.

Ad Hoc is a very unusual restaurant which serves only one four course meal nightly. Kind of like going to a friend's house and eating what they decided to make. For that reason, there isn't a whole lot of point in an exhaustive review of the menu since it changes every day. We had tempura fried vegetables, lamb with potatoes au gratin, a green salad, and a dessert that escapes me now (must have been the wine). All of the dishes were very well prepared; the lamb in particular was outstanding.

The restaurant is bright and comfortable and, not surprisingly, pretty informal in the California wine country manner. Service was excellent, friendly and attentive. Of course the servers' job is made easier by the fact that everything is prepared and served family style so they don't have to take orders and only bring one (in our case two) platters of each dish.

The stated price of dinner is $49 per person which seems quite reasonable for a four course meal of such high quality. On the other hand, somehow it had expanded to $75 per person by the time we left, not counting an additional tip. I'm not sure where the extra $ came from, since we brought our own wine -- either corkage was steep or there were some add-ons there. Still not outrageous but realistically one is looking at $200 per couple with wine for a place where you don't get to choose what you eat, so check the menu carefully (it's posted every day at 2 pm) before you go.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

French Laundry: Pilgrimage to Yountville

After literally years of trying, on and off, to score a reservation here, we finally managed it with the help of some family connections who are close to the Napa restaurant scene. We did only manage to get lunch reservations, not dinner but there are some advantages in doing the big meal in the middle of the day, I think.

Anyhow, it was a grey, chilly day in Napa as we drove up to the restaurant. It is quite unpretentious and casual, at least from the outside. No valet parking...just find a space across the street. It's not even obvious where the front door is. Once we found it, we were greeted with courtesy if not excessive warmth and shown to a table in a small side room off the main dining room. This must have been the "gay room" since there were two other tables there, another deuce and a four top, both occupied by gay men. Presumably there were some "family" members in the main dining room as well.

The room was pleasant but not exactly what we might have pictured. On a dark, rather gloomy day the atmosphere was dark and a bit subdued. Michael noted that the chairs were rather dated and also, I noticed, rather scuffed up -- not exactly what one might expect from a place touted as the best restaurant in America. However, the chairs were comfortable enough and we quickly settled in and started reading the menu.

There are two fixed-price menus at FL, both $240. One is vegetarian and one is not. We were each tempted by the vegetarian menu (and if we ever go back, I would lean that way) but ultimately decided on the main menu to get the full experience. This consisted of nine course of which four were choices (of 2) and the other five were fixed. We decided to split our choices to have the widest number of possible tastes.

A couple of interesting but not memorable amuse bouches appeared...I think one was sort of a southern ham biscuit which was, frankly, a little dry, but my memory may be blurred by what came afterward.

Before getting down to serious eating, we of course needed to turn our attention to the wine list. The French Laundry has a serious list, as you can imagine, about 100 pages worth. It is also seriously expensive. By that I don't mean just that they have expensive wine (which, of course, they do) but that most of the wine is expensive, and that even relatively modest bottles are more expensive than they are at other restaurants. As an example, a bottle of Kongsgaard Chardonnay that we ordered at Snake River Grill in Jackson Hole for $125 (a very good price, by the way -- retail is $75) was $230 at FL. OK, maybe SRG isn't a great comparison being much less formal and in a small town. But the Dirler Grand Cru Kessler Pinot Gris that we had at FL for $150 (and outstanding, by the way) is on the list at Charleston in Baltimore, a pretty good restaurant in its own right, for $90.

It is not totally clear to me why expensive restaurants generally have expensive lists. It suggests that even at $240 a head they're not making enough money and that the wine subsidizes the food. Or maybe it's just because there is so much demand for tables that they can charge whatever they want for the wine. In any case I find it just a tad offputting.

Nonetheless, we were there for the experience and I was determined not to think too hard about the bottom line. We decided that we would start with half a bottle of champagne and ordered one recommended by the charming and helpful sommelier. I don't remember the name (and the posted wine list is not up to date so I can't recreate it). I do remember that it was a blanc de noirs and intended to be creamy and rich. Both Michael and I found it to be off. It actually tasted oxidized to me with the sort of spoiled flavors that we have found, surprisingly often, in "corked" wines. Michael and I both expressed our concern and as I usually do, I asked the sommelier to taste it himself. To his credit, he refused, saying that our opinion was the only one that mattered. He disappeared with the offending bottle and in due course reappeared with another one, a Taittinger I think, that he thought would be more to our liking. It was.

Meanwhile, the parade of food had begun. I don't have the energy, and I doubt any readers of this post have the interest, to engage in an exhaustive blow by blow description of each ingredient in each of nine courses. So I hope all will understand that I am condensing and abbreviating.

The first course was a cauliflower panna cotta which was far and away the best cauliflower I have ever had. That is not saying much since I can't stand cauliflower but this was really fantastic with just a hint of cauliflower flavor. The oyster glaze and caviar garnish didn't hurt a bit.

The second course was more problematic. I had the "foie gras en terrine" with a $30 upcharge, which ticked Michael off. He is militant on the subject of upcharges and one could argue that a $240 menu should allow for that. On the other hand it doesn't reach to the absurd levels of a meal last year at Komi in DC when practically every dish had an upcharge. Anyhow, the foie gras was delicious (and when is it not?. Michael opted for a beet salad and was very disappointed when it appeared with what appeared to be one small beet sliced into three or four pieces. Admittedly, it was an excellent beet, but not a big one. His first impression was that this was the kind of "cuisine" that non-foodies make fun of. As Michael said, "would it have killed them to put a second beet on the plate?"

Next Michael had a fillet of Japanese suzuki, which I always thought was a brand of motorcycle but turns out to be a kind of sea bass. He loved it. I had tartare of bluefin tuna which was unlike any tuna I have ever eaten, much more intense in its flavor. It made me think about why you hear about those bluefin tunas going for $10,000 in Japan. It was simply much more robust and flavorful than any sushi I have ever had, even in Japan.

Next we both had a butter poached lobster tail. I thought this fell a little flat. Sure, it was delicious. Lobster is always delicious. Especially with bacon on the side. It just seemed unexceptional. I ate a lot of lobster living in New England and sailing in Maine and I am of the "it doesn't need anything but itself school" so I wasn't looking for a lot to be done to it. But I would have thought that one of the world's great chefs could have done more with this. I am remembering the lobster with morels at Auberge de l'Ill.

Following the lobster, we were presented with a beautiful rabbit dish...a chunk of loin, a tiny little rack of chops, and some miscellaneous bits. More on that in a moment. I sensed a bit of potential trouble here as Michael is not a fan of rabbit on psychological (not moral) grounds. However, he dug in like a man. We both loved the sirloin and I was pleased to see him knawing on the miniature chops (around the size of your thumb) with relish. As part of the garnish of this dish (including baby turnips, a bit of roasted lettuce, and a prune), there was a pinkish object around the size and shape of a lima bean. I quietly put this in my mouth before Michael noticed it and chewing confirmed that it was a rabbit kidney. As far as I know I have not eaten a kidney before so I don't have anything to compare it to. This was quite pink (like medium rare liver) and around the same consistency. Michael figured out what it was and not surprisingly passed it up, so I ate his as well, wanting to give the kidney thing a fair shot. It was...OK. It did not make me want to rush out and eat any more.

The next course was a choice but since the saddle of lamb was made for two, and Michael wanted it, that was what we both had. (The other choice was beef). I remember the lamb being very tasty but I don't remember that much else about it. I had a glass of Martinelli Zinfandel with the lamb which was so good that even Michael took a couple of swigs from it.

Following the lamb, there was a modest (one selection) cheese course of a Tomme de l'Ariege which was very nice. An intermezzo of a buttermilk sherbet followed. It was, depending on your view, either fascinatingly subtle or essentially bland. I actually found it a bit of both. At first taste (it was not a tiny portion) it seemed to taste basically of milk, but on subsequent bites the very haunting taste of buttermilk came through in a very refreshing way.

Finally we arrived at dessert. The gents to our right were about 2 courses ahead of us so I knew what to expect. First was the listed dessert. I had chocolate, naturally...a "Jivara-caramel roulade". I had no idea what Jivara was and later found out it is a special Valrhona label. It was great. Michael had a cream yogurt bavarois with huckleberries. OK if you don't like chocolate, but I wasn't going to trade. This was followed by a delicious selection of mignardises and truffles.

The meal was beautifully timed and the service was extremely professional, very friendly and accommodating and balancing perfectly between stuffy and overly familiar. It turned out to be just the right amount of food as we left being very satisfied but not bloated. (We did not have any trouble eating dinner that night). The whole meal took 3 1/2 hours so it is pretty much of an all day experience.

The major downside, of course, was the cost. Except for the upcharge for the foie gras, the menu cost included all of the incidentals (bottled water, coffee -- which we didn't have -- and tip) so it is not quite as much as it seems. Still, with the wine, the total bill came to about $830.

I have to say that my conclusion is that it was not worth it. Obviously that is a very personal view and does not reflect anything about the care and professionalism of the restaurant and its staff. Maybe it is more of a reflection of the times that we find ourselves in and the state of the economy that I somehow feel uneasy about spending that much money on a single meal. This was the third over-$700 meal in four months for us (the other two being Alinea and Citronelle) and something in me says "enough". At least for a while.

But I think also my conclusion is not just about the absolute level of the cost but the value. Certainly the food was delicious and enjoyable. The service was flawless. The surroundings were pleasant (although I did not like the small side room we were in). But, with the exception of a couple of dishes -- the cauliflower panna cotta, the tuna, and the rabbit sirloin -- the taste of the dishes has not stuck with me. In contrast, with the best meal we have ever had -- dinner at Auberge de l'Ill -- I can still remember the look and taste of each of the five courses. I can also still remember the excitement and wonder of our first meal at Alinea even though I can't, of course, remember all 24 courses.

I guess in car terms I would characterize FL as kind of like a Lexus. Perfectly put together, refined, reliable, flawless...all of those adjectives fit. Exciting, not so much.

The French Laundry was a great and memorable experience and I am very glad that we had the chance to go. I will, perhaps, go again some day in better economic times, but for now, I am not in a hurry to return.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cure Bar & Bistro: A Pleasant Surprise

Back in DC, we were on our way downtown to see a movie at E Street Cinema on Saturday night (a big night out for us). Passing up the usual suspects like Rasika and Jaleo in the service of this blog, I remembered hearing some favorable reports on a place called Cure, and made a reservation. We checked out the menu on line: smoked meats, cheese, small plates...what could be bad? Sounded like a perfect place to graze lightly before a movie.

Since it was snowing lightly and we didn't want to worry about parking, we hopped on Metro, which was a bit more involved than we had guessed what with track work and all...given the delays, it probably would have been faster to drive around downtown looking for a parking space! But we eventually emerged from Metro Center and found our way to the restaurant.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way right up front. Cure is in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. Not only that, but it looks like it is in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. The place is divided into three areas on three levels...first a conventional looking bar area with couches and other casual seating, then an area down a flight of steps with small bar-like tables, and finally an area down yet more steps with more conventional dining-sized tables. It was this last area to which we were ushered -- I inferred from a comment by the hostess that this area was reserved for folks that were there to dine, as opposed to just drinking and grazing.

Unfortunately, this is the least attractive part of the facility and you definitely feel like you are sitting in a hotel lobby, complete with an escalator going by about 5 feet away, the rather garish lighting scheme (fine for a lobby, not so good for dining) and all that. While there is no doubt something the Hyatt could do to make this area somewhat less lobby-like, they have not done it yet, so for the time being I would suggest asking to be seated in one of the other two areas.

Happily, although Cure gets a "D" for ambiance, it gets an "A" for food. And wine. We each ordered a quartino of wine from the very intelligent and reasonably priced list...Michael had the St Supery Sauvignon Blanc that he favors and I had a South African Cabernet that I had not encountered before -- like trying new restaurants, I always like to try new wines when it doesn't involve a major commitment. Along with that, we started off with a couple of cheeses - a Bonne Bouche and a "constant bliss" cow's milk cheese (if only constant bliss could just be ordered off a menu). Both were creamy and delicious, especially the Bonne Bouche. The portions were small but at $4 each, what do you expect. They were served with some sort of jam, which frankly didn't do much for us, excellent bread, and roasted nuts.

Just after the cheese arrived, our extremely professional server, Ken (more about this later) brought over another basket of bread, along with some unsalted butter and a small plate containing no less than four different salts...two white ones that I didn't pay much attention to (Michael reported that one of them was "extremely salty", which I suppose is to be expected), a pink Hawaiian salt, and a brown smoked salt from Maine. We looked at each other with surprise, as this restaurant was turning out to be a lot more serious than we had expected. Four kinds of salt? Loving all sorts of smoked stuff, I fell in love with the smoked salt and even Michael, who does not usually love smoked foods, found it delicious.

Since we were on a bit of a deadline to make our movie, we had ordered a number of other dishes which soon started arriving. The first to arrive was a duck leg confit style on a bed of arugula. It was one of the best duck dishes we have had in a long time. In fact it landed in front of Michael (the table was, at this point, getting rather crowded) and I thought I was going to have to armwrestle him for it as he was very reluctant to give it up. It was a generous portion. The duck was succulent and tasty and the lightly dressed arugula provided a nice foil for the richness.

We also had a plate of mixed smoked meats (prosciutto, Jamon-style ham, regular ham, and smoked garlic sausage) which was an extremely generous portion for $12. Probably as hefty as the charcuterie plate at Central which if I remember right is about twice the price. All of the hams were extremely tasty. We also, at Ken's recommendation, had the Maryland Blue Crab pie. It was, as Michael pointed out, more of a gratin than a pie...a rather shallow little skillet full of crab nuggets with corn and under a cracker crust. It is hard to make a bad dish containing blue crab and this was a good one. It was so rich that the modest size of the dish, compared to some of the other offerings, turned out to be just right.

In the interest of making our movie, and staying awake through it, we called it quits at that point. Since the room was only half full, we had the chance to chat a little bit with Ken, who has come over from another restaurant in town and appears to be in charge of Cure. He has put together the wine list and as noted earlier, has done an extremely good job of getting some interesting names that you don't see every day (along with some more familiar ones for those who aren't feeling adventurous). He clearly takes pride in what has been accomplished at Cure and he has every right to do so. It was one of the nicest surprises we have encountered on the Washington dining scene for quite some time. Our bill, at about $100 before tax and tip, was very reasonable given the amount of food we had -- and a screaming bargain given the quality of the offerings.

The next time we're headed downtown, we will definitely make a beeline for Cure...but next time we'll try to sit in the bar!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The French Pastry Shop-Santa Fe 11-27-2008

We had arrived in Santa Fe the rather late the night before after a long flight and an hours drive from Albuquerque so we would have to put aside our appetites until the next morning.

The early Thanksgiving morning greeted us with gray, and rain filled clouds and a clean, cold crispness in the air. None of which deterred from walking into town to seek out our first food adventure in Santa Fe. Seeing that it was Thanksgiving Day we knew that our choices would be limited but we were optimistic that we would find something that would satisfy us.

We headed down to the plaza, which was an easy ten-minute walk from our little casita. For weeks our excitement grew for experiencing true southwestern food in Santa Fe and French food was one of the last things we had planned on eating while we were there. Well being the French foodies that we are I must admit our joy when we stumbled upon the “French Pastry Shop” near the heart of Santa Fe’s historic plaza. The plaza was a virtual ghost town since it was a holiday so we were thrilled to find that it was open.

Like many places it Santa Fe the interiors had a quirky, rustic patina, which added to its charm. But hey we were there to satisfy our never failing craving for French pastries and not for the ambience. Fortunately it was not too crowded and we quickly sat ourselves down to a small table. The restaurant was a comfortable mix of locals (always a good sign) and some obvious tourists like us. They are open for breakfast and lunch.
A very friendly and perky young lady immediately greeted us and we promptly order café au lait. There was a dizzying selection of traditional pastries to choose from and on top of that a variety of sweet crepes.

I decided to have a cheese Danish, which was not the most traditional of French pastries and David ordered his favorite pain au chocolat. Our pastries were accompanied by our café au lait’s, which were oddly served in coffee mugs. Not my favorite way to drink my au lait but after one sip of the perfect frothy milk and the strong coffee I happily put aside my preference for a traditional bowl.

Breakfast for me always poses a particular dilemma. Do I want savory or sweet? Sometimes I crave both so we decided to also have a chorizo and egg crepe. What a perfect way to satisfy our cravings for southwestern food with a French influence. There was no fussiness to the crepe; it was simply served by itself with no garnishes, which was fine by me. The pancake was perfectly cooked, slightly crisped on the outside and a soft slightly dough like quality inside. The chorizo was everything I like it for. It was mildly spicy, the color of dark paprika, and a little oil, which is so good. I barely detected the eggs but the cheese, undoubtedly Swiss added a nice flavor and held it all together.

If you find yourself in Santa Fe craving something French and something casual make sure you head straight down to the French Pastry Shop for breakfast. It’s friendly service and delicious food will certainly please. If I were a local you would surely find me there many mornings of the week enjoying my au lait and pastry. Besides there are always the remains of the day for Southwestern food!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Aqua Santa

After an afternoon spent at 10,000 Waves being massaged, hot-tubbed, and generally pampered, and after polishing off a good part of a bottle of Gruet Brut, it was amazing that we managed to get out of the house for dinner at all. As it was we were a bit late for our 7:00 reservation, as it was a somewhat longer walk than I had guessed. However, we were greeted with extreme courtesy and quickly shown to a table (no corner this time) in the small dining room. The restaurant was lovely and simple. Michael's only complaints about the decor were that the "front table" with flowers, wine, and so forth was a bit overly fussy for such a laid back restaurant, and that the floral-patterned plates were more suited to grandma's dining room than a cutting edge restaurant.

We were very well taken care of by Trista, a young lady from near my old 'hood (we had met on the telephone when I made our reservation, but we didn't actually make the connection until paying the check). After ordering a bottle of Alsatian gewurz, our old favorite, we settled in to peruse the menu.

Both of our appetizers were unusual and delicious. I had the oysters in a peppery crust, while Michael had the baby artichokes with burrata which are a signature of the restaurant.

For entrees Michael had the halibut, which is a regular choice of his and which was particularly good in this instance. I had the delicious slow-cooked lamb. For dessert we shared a buttermilk panna cotta, which Michael loved. I found it a little bland, but I don't think that's any fault of the chef. I think panna cotta is just bland compared to, say, molten chocolate cake. What I call bland, other people (e.g. Michael) calls subtle. Well, nobody ever accused me of being subtle.

The restaurant was about half empty when we arrived but filled up by 8. It was homey and gave the feeling of a party without being overly loud...just the kind of atmosphere you'd want when out for a nice dinner. Despite the rush of people and the small kitchen staff the pacing of the dinner was just perfect as we had time to savor our choices and rest a bit between courses without the wait ever becoming excessive.

All of the staff at the restaurant were extremely friendly and professional. On a slightly bizarre note, Michael felt that the chef might have been giving him a little extra attention and at one point reported that the chef blew him a kiss! (My back was turned). Well, Michael is the sort of boy who often has strange men blowing him kisses, so I suppose nothing was out of the ordinary. It's when he starts blowing kisses back that I begin to worry.

I think if we were in Santa Fe for just a few days we might look to get our chile fix in concentrated doses. Aqua Santa is not the place for that as it offers lovely, sophisticated, but relatively straightforward American food with a French influence. I am sure that if we were in Santa Fe for an extended time, it would be our "go-to" restaurant for special nights out when we needed a break from New Mexican style cooking.

Bumblebee's Baja Grill

We dropped in at Bumblebee's in our limited time between our spectacular hike to the top of Atalaya Peak and our 2:30 spa appointments at 10,000 waves. We were hungry from our active morning but didn't want to fill up too much before the spa. Bumblebee's sounded like just the ticket.

The restaurant looks somewhat like a rather upscale chain -- maybe like California Tortilla or Baja Fresh -- other than the hanging bumblebee pinatas, but the food is nothing like those places, I'm happy to say. Confronted with a wide variety of choices, we naturally each opted for the taco sampler platter and took our seats. Michael was quickly enchanted by the serve-yourself chip dispenser at the back of the restaurant along with a variety of salsas to choose from.

The tacos appeared in short order just as the last of the chips disappeared. It was a generous and interesting assortment including beef, chicken, fish, and shrimp. We both felt that the beef and chicken, while tasty, were not as distinctive as the fish (mahi-mahi, I think) and shrimp, both of which had some sort of delicious sauce. Actually, I thought the fish itself was a little bit dry although the sauce made up for it. No complaints at all about the shrimp.

We liked Bumblebee's so much that we went back the next day, before getting back on the road to head to Albuquerque and the airport for our flight home. This time, we both had the shrimp. Delicious.

Friday, November 28, 2008

La Choza

After an exhilarating afternoon of hiking in Frijoles Canyon, we returned to our little casita in Santa Fe and enjoyed a twilight by the outdoor fireplace accompanied by a bottle of Gruet Chardonnay (the chardonnay, we decided, was pleasant but not as good as the sparkling wine. It did go down very easily, though). By 7 our appetites had caught up with us and since this was our "casual" evening in Santa Fe, we decided to head for some authentic and low-key New Mexican fare at La Choza.

It was a short drive and parking was easy. There were quite a few other patrons waiting so we put our names in and I headed over to the bar to pick up a couple of pints of Santa Fe Pale Ale (quite tasty). We sat for about 15 minutes in the unadorned waiting area before our name was called and we were shown to a modest table in this bustling barn of a restaurant.

Michael ordered a cup of green chile stew to see if it was an improvement over the one at Tesuque Village Market. Answer: yes, although there was certainly nothing wrong with either one. I made do with chips and some delicious salsa, dark red and complex-tasting with all of the goodness of real New Mexican chiles. We both commented that it would be impossible to go back to generic, overly sweet salsa out of the bottle after having the real thing in Santa Fe.

For our main courses, Michael had the chiles rellenos about which he is still raving two weeks later. Meanwhile I opted for the carne adovado burrito which is reported to be a specialty of the house, topped with red chile sauce. It built on the theme of the salsa and added a meaty filling to the complex, spicy, and rich flavors. Just delicious.

Service was a little confused, but the prices were extremely reasonable -- under $10 for most entrees. The kind of meal you remember weeks later with your mouth watering and the kind of place you head back for time and again when opportunity presents itself.

Tune-up Cafe

Having walked off our breakfast at Cafe Pasqual's hours ago, and before heading out of town for a nature hike, we decided a little alimentary fortification was a good idea. And what could be better than that iconic New Mexican dish, hitherto unknown to us, but the green chile cheeseburger. Since we didn't want to head 10 miles in the wrong direction to Bobcat Cafe, usually reported as the prime purveyor of this delicacy, we decided to make a quick trip over to a restaurant oddly known as "Dave's not here". Our usually reliable guidebook told us to be sure we had good directions before heading over to Dave's, and our usually reliable GPS said no problem. And indeed, within about 10 minutes we were pulling up in front of 1115 Hickox Street. But Dave's not here was, well, not here. In its place there was something that looked like a restaurant, sort of (hard to be sure). Well, we walked up to the door and there were people eating food inside, which was good enough for us.

Tune-up is the successor to Dave's and by all reports an improvement. We can only report that the burgers are excellent (although, unaccountably, we had green chile but no cheese...mental block at ordering time) and so are the fries. Atmosphere is unpretentious in the extreme. Interesting looking baked goods at the cash register. Friendly staff. Definitely worth a return visit although we didn't make it back, on this trip.

Cafe Pasqual's

Having been warned that the lines at Cafe Pasqual's could be excessive (and since we both hate to wait in line), we arose in the darkness to wend our way through the streets to snag an early table. Well, perhaps that's a bit dramatic. We got up around 6:30 (not so hard, since we were still kind of on East Coast time) and by the time we'd made the 10 minute walk to Pasqual's, it was about 7:15. Fortunately the crowds had decided to sleep in and we were immediately ushered to a table in the half full little dining room.

Pasqual's has the kind of menu where it is very difficult to choose because there are so many interesting possibilities. It is also the kind of place where an unsure hand in the kitchen could lead to disaster because of the wide variety of dishes attempted. But for breakfast we stuck to rather standard fare. Michael had the huevos motulenos which was recommended by our friendly waiter. I must say the description was rather offputting as I am quite sure that I have never seen bananas and green peas in the same dish before. Not to mention the usual New Mexico choice of red or green chile sauce. However, somehow it all worked (personally, I think the peas were superfluous but they certainly weren't bothersome).

Meanwhile, having cast a thoughtful eye on the corned beef hash, always a favorite of mine, I decided to go for something a bit less common and tried the smoked trout hash. It was really good, not a hash at all but more like eggs over hash browns with pieces of smoked trout scattered on top. I am not sure where the trout came from although it was quite reminiscent of the trout you get from Ducktrap Farm, firm and heavily smoked. Whatever the source, it was quite delicious. I even got Michael to try a bite despite his long antipathy toward smoked food in general and smoked fish in particular. He liked it so much he even had a second piece, which I considered a great triumph. I will work on cultivating this new taste at home. First smoked trout, perhaps ultimately I can convert him to smoked salmon (although I'm not optimistic -- too many bad memories, I'm afraid).

As is generally reported, Pasqual's is a bright and cheery place with eclectic and rather busy decor, a welcoming atmosphere, and delicious food. It's not cheap -- breakfast entrees are mostly in the $11-13 range -- but that's not out of line given the quality. Probably the tourist-friendly location has a bit to do with this as well. It is a perfect breakfast place and I can see us becoming regulars if we were to spend more time in Santa Fe.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Compound

Having spent our first day exploring Santa Fe (much of it in the was raining) we looked forward with much anticipation to Thanksgiving dinner at the Compound, which has been reported to be one of Santa Fe's finest restaurants. The rain had finally stopped as dark fell and we had a pleasant, albeit chilly, walk past the many art galleries of Canyon Road until we reached the Compound's, well, compound. The restaurant is set well back from the street and clearly not designed to accommodate foot traffic, as the only access is over a large and (on this day) rather muddy driveway area (fortunately I'd brought a flashlight). Hardly the restaurant's fault, though, as it is not within walking distance of most of the tourist accommodations or residential housing and I imagine that 99% of the diners arrive by car.

We were greeted warmly and professionally and settled into a comfortable corner...we seem to have particular luck at snagging corner tables. The restaurant was bright and attractive in the usual Santa Fe style with white walls and wood trim. The ceiling of the room we were in had a rather unusual fabric overlay. There was also a kind of open vent near our table that allowed cold air to blow on me. Most people would probably find this objectionable but I actually found it refreshing. From time to time the vent would belch warm air as the heating system kicked on. Michael thought the decor, flowers, and bar were terribly dated and I am sure he was right but because we had skipped lunch, I was more focused on dinner!

The waiter arrived promptly and we focused initially on the wine list, naturally. We had had champagne back at the house to start off the holiday celebration so were relaxed about our choice. I must say that the Compound has one of the most expensive wine lists I have encountered, outside of the most haute big city establishments, so the list was a bit daunting. There were few bottles under $50 and most in the $100-200 range, with markups that appeared to be 3-4x retail. Perhaps retail prices are higher in New Mexico. We debated an Alsatian white, our usual value fallback, but the sommelier pushed us toward a Saintsbury Chardonnay ($70) which turned out to be a good choice, a little crisper and less creamy than we usually look for in a Chardonnay but with good acidity and an excellent match with food.

I started with the oysters on the half shell while Michael had the "made to order" squash soup. The oysters were terrific...plump and fresh with a creamy topping that enhanced their brininess. Oysters in the desert? Why not? Allegedly there was some caviar in the topping but it was not much in evidence, but honestly it was not missed. Unfortunately, Michael's soup was a huge disappointment. The "made to order" part apparently refers to the fact that they bring out the bowl and then pour the soup in from a little pitcher, which is a nice presentation (and saves the waiter carrying in a loaded bowl of soup) but hardly unusual. The soup basically tasted of chicken stock, not very good stock at that, and almost nothing of squash. It was far inferior to the soup Michael had made at home a week before.

For dinner we both had the turkey with roasted vegetables (it was Thanksgiving, after all). It was excellent, and a very generous portion. The Brussels sprouts were particularly delicious...I love them anyhow, but even Michael ate them with enjoyment. Perhaps the secret is to quarter them before cooking. The cranberry relish, served in a small ramekin, was a bit miserly but in general we were very well satisfied with our entrees. Along with them, Michael had lusted after, and ordered, a side dish of goat cheese and orzo which was pleasant, but rather one-dimensional, and a bit pricey at $10 for a modest portion.

We didn't really need dessert but the holiday menu was prix-fixe so naturally we didn't pass it up. Michael's apple butter dumplings were rather unexciting. I defied all expectations and passed up the chocolate torte for the maple bourbon pecan pie. It was also OK as pecan pie (I searched in vain for either maple or bourbon). The chocolate sauce and ice cream on the side were better than the pie itself.

The prix fixe menu was $70 and with side dish, wine, tax, and tip, the bill came to nearly $300. While our meal was certainly good, it was not outstanding. Neither dessert was great and Michael's appetizer was positively bad. We didn't think that the restaurant represented good value for the money and it was an ominous introduction to dining in Santa Fe. We were somewhat constrained by the limited number of places open on Thanksgiving, but if we find ourselves in Santa Fe again on the holidays, or any other time for that matter, we'll make another choice.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Late dinner at BlackSalt

After the movies on Saturday night, all of the restaurants in Bethesda were jammed -- all of the decent ones, anyhow. So after making a few calls, we decided to head over to BlackSalt, one of our old favorites, where we were fairly confident of getting a seat at the bar. (Truth be told, we did stop in at Et Voila on the way, but they were packed as well).

We popped in to BlackSalt and were lucky to score a couple of seats -- 15 minutes later the place was packed with people standing and waiting for bar seats. BlackSalt (BS) has been one of our favorites for years but our visits there have dropped off dramatically during the past year. To be honest, Michael was quite unwell after a dinner there involving mussels. While it is impossible, and maybe quite unfair, to make a link directly, it was a bit discouraging. Our last visit, about two months ago, was strictly for dessert (their chocolate peanut butter pie is superb).

Anyhow, we settled ourselves in, exchanged greetings with the friendly and efficient barmaids, and (since it was after 9:00 and we were hungry) got right down to business. First order of business was a half bottle of Adelsheim Pinot Gris, always reliable and attractively priced at $18 (cheaper than 2 glasses). BS has a very extensive wine list and there are certainly some bargains there if you know where to look.

We started with 3 appetizers between the two of us: grilled artichokes, frisee salad, and fried clams. The artichokes, which I picked for the novelty factor, were unusual and very tasty -- a small artichoke halved and pan-grilled with a nice vinaigrette accompaniment. The frisee salad was very pleasant as well. I love the clams there which come with a very intensely curry flavored mayonnaise that I liked more than Michael. In my view the clams are one of the best things on the menu.

For main courses, Michael had the skate wing -- a first for him and again I was proud of him for stepping outside his comfort zone. The skate was excellent, nicely crisped on the outside and just cooked on the inside. Of course skate doesn't have a huge amount of flavor on its own but the accompanying roasted mushrooms and broccoli were a very nice complement. I had the arctic char which originally arrived from the kitchen seriously undercooked...basically raw except for the outer half inch. I like my tuna crudo and I also like sushi but this was a bit too much of a good thing, so it was sent back for a little extra time. A nice touch was that the kitchen sent out a little butternut squash soup in an amuse size to keep me occupied while waiting for the fish to reappear, which it soon did. It had a marvelous vinegary sauce with braised vegetables which Michael and I both sopped up with extra bread after the fish was gone.

We were pleased to reacquaint ourselves with BlackSalt and to know that it continues to be a reliable source for delicious fish a little bit out of the mainstream. It is also a nice, bustling place which gives a sense of a night out on the town.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Et Voila- One of our new favorites

Thursday was sunny and warm, not necessarily the perfect weather for tucking into a hearty Belgian meal, but a sunny warm day is always a good excuse for heading out in search of a good meal. We had, in fact, originally planned to visit Et voila on the Sunday before election day but had decided to put it off, being …what’s the word…worn out by a little much pre-election entertaining. Sunday, being sunny but not at all warm, was more suitable to what we imagined was rib-sticking fare but our constitutions were just not up to it and fortunately the obliging folks at Et Voila were happy to let our reservation slide for a few days.

Still in the glow of post-election euphoria, the continued troubles of the stock market notwithstanding, we arrived at Et Voila in a mood of happy anticipation after a short ride from our house. Parking on that stretch of MacArthur Boulevard is sometimes a bit difficult, as we know from years of patronizing BlackSalt, but eventually we shoehorned the station wagon into a space a block or so past the restaurant and strolled down the street.

We were immediately pleased by the visual welcome we got upon entering the restaurant. The owners have done a wonderful job with a space that is, let’s face it, rather long and narrow. Try to imagine putting a restaurant inside a moderately sized airplane and you’ll get the idea. The immediate entry contains a bar which sort of doubles as a vestibule and congregating area and is not really big enough to serve any of those functions fully, but we were quickly and graciously welcomed and led to a table about halfway down the tube…uh, room. The room has been done in very warm shades of orange and black (I know, it sounds a bit like a Halloween theme but it actually is very friendly in a kind of harvest theme kind of way) with interesting fixtures and enough partial dividers to break up the long narrow space without making the room feel closed off or cramped.

Without further ado, we settled down to one of our favorite activities…reading the menu. While reading, which can be thirsty work, we had some good Belgian beer to get the evening started. Michael had a Delirium Tremens, one of my favorites which happily now seems to be available in a number of locations around town – here’s thanks to whoever the distributor happens to be. Wanting to branch out a bit, I tried a Gouden Carolus which was quite accurately described on the beer menu as combining the complexity of a brown ale with the lightness of a blonde.

Suitably refreshed, we felt able to tackle the rigors of the menu. I was immediately drawn to the croustillants of boudin noir. While I haven’t had boudin, or its English relative, blood sausage, since my last artery-clogging English breakfast, I figured the treatment of surrounding it with pastry and frying might moderate the earthiness…and how could a deep fried pastry anything be bad? Michael was drawn to the frisee salad ordered by the ladies at the next table, since we have been in search (unsuccessfully, I’m sorry to say) of the perfect frisee salad since Petit Louis in Baltimore sadly changed its formula (a dark day for every salad eater). However, he eventually decided on the day’s special soup – a chestnut soup with foie gras. Well, I think Michael would eat a bedroom slipper if it had foie gras on it so that was a very quick decision.

While we were waiting for the appetizers to appear, we downed a basket and a half of terrific bread. So good, in fact, that we tried to find out the name of the supplier from the charming and solicitous maitre d’. Predictably, he kept that information close to the vest, advising us that it was a small local bakery that only supplied a handful of restaurants. Smart of him. Otherwise I’m sure the bakery would be overrun with foodies demanding some of the perfect French country loaves – the bread was that good.

The appetizers arrived at just the perfect time (i.e., before we could finish the second basket of bread). The croustillant was quite a bit different than I had pictured it…for some reason I had had a mental picture of sausage sliced across and served in patties. Instead, the four croustillants were shaped like small cigars, or perhaps lumpia. They were extraordinarily good, crispy on the outside and with an earthy center of boudin that was quite satisfying without being overpowering. They were served on a bed of nicely dressed greens whose vinaigrette served as the perfect foil for the richness of the sausage. Michael enjoyed the croustillants as well and since he is sometimes a little squeamish about some of the more exotic meat products (let’s be honest, I’m no Tony Bourdain either) I was proud of him for downing one with obvious enjoyment.

We debated ordering a bottle of wine from Et Voila’s interesting and fairly priced list, but the strong beers had gone to our heads a little bit (like many Belgian beers, they are about 8% alcohol) and since it was a school night, we ended up just splitting a third bottle of beer between the two of us. It arrived just about the time of our main courses.

Deciding to go for the whole Belgian experience, I had ordered mussels in a cream sauce (which our waiter had given us to believe was his preference over the also-available provencale variety). To be honest, I was looking forward to checking out the frites that came with it as much as the mussels themselves. And I was not disappointed. The frites were excellent – hot, crisp, and salty. Of course the last few had begun to wilt a little bit by the time we got down to the bottom of the generous pile, but that is after all the nature of frites – yet another reason to eat them right away. The mussels were some of the best, if not the absolute best, I have had in a long time. They were unusually fat, mild, and delicious. The cream sauce was perhaps a little less flavorful than it could have been and not quite as garlicky as I expected, but frankly the mussels were so good on their own that they really didn’t need much of a sauce – which was wonderful soaked up with the last piece of bread that I had squirreled away.

Meanwhile Michael had ordered a salmon dish as he so often does, and this one was a real winner – a beautiful and generous piece of salmon perfectly cooked and perched on top of a bed of mashed potatoes. He was extremely happy with his choice. The one taste I managed to wrest from his grasp was, indeed, close to perfect. Salmon usually leaves me pretty unexcited, and I was happy with my mussels although I was sorry I couldn’t get Michael to taste even one. After an unhappy experience at BlackSalt a few months ago, he has not been able to get over the mental mussel hurdle.

As an extra side dish, we had ordered something called chicons au gratin, which was described as endive wrapped in ham and baked in béchamel sauce. Hard to pass up that description. Since it appeared both as an appetizer and as a side dish, we figured it must be a specialty of the house and special it was. The endive was fully cooked through and tender without being mushy and the ham and sauce added a delightful richness. I had a little trouble reaching it through all of the mussel paraphernalia scattered around my side of the table and I am not sure that I quite got my share of it as Michael seemed to be gobbling it up whenever I looked over.

You’d think after all of that richness we would be too full for dessert but we rarely pass up dessert, particularly not when the rest of the meal has gone so well.

In a Belgian restaurant, what do you order? Well, if you’re me, you order chocolate, no matter what kind of restaurant it is, but since we were sharing, we decided on the…Belgian waffle of course. It appeared, and was devoured, with due ceremony. The waffle was thoroughly tasty, perfectly cooked with a light topping of fresh berries and a nice pile of whipped cream on the top. It was, I have to say, a little less distinctive than some of the other food we ate that night but it was a very pleasant and not overpowering way to finish a wonderful meal. We have heard rave reviews about the chocolate mousse and I will definitely be saving room for that on our next visit.

All in all, we can find very little negative to say – and a long list of positives – about Et Voila. Delicious food, wonderfully professional service, an attractive setting, and reasonable prices means we will be making many return visits!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election night at Marvin

What better place to be in the center of all the election night excitement then at Marvin, which is located in the heart of the U Street corridor on 14th street in DC. The pulse of the city was intense that night with the the hopes of Obama being elected. And the comfort of Belgian/ Southern style food was just what we were in the mood for.

The facade of Marvin was very unassuming and I found the style of the restaurant to be a refreshing change to the other eateries in the area. We were quickly escorted to our table and sat down towards the back of the restaurant. As I took in the surroundings I immediately realized how loud the room was. So much so that it could ruin a night for a new couple looking for a romantic dinner for two. Trust me, David and I love our romantic dinners but we were there to research and to experience the excitement in the air that night so we did not mind the noise.

After looking over the wine list we were thrilled to see that they were serving one of our favorite Alsatian wines. Domaines Schlumberger "Le Fleur" Gewurztraminer so without further ado we promptly ordered. Our server seemed perplexed and inexperienced with wine, which was not a good sign. Five minutes later he returned with the unfortunate news that they were all out of the Schlumberger so my next choice was a pleasant sounding French Bourgogne Blanc.

In the meantime we ordered the frisee salad and the shrimp and grits for an appetizer. As we waited for the wine our appetizers arrived. Let me get this out right away. The shrimp and grits were heavenly! The smooth, cheesy, creaminess of the grits had the consistency of perfect polenta and the shrimp were perfectly cooked and seasoned. I selfishly did not want to share with David and was tempted to order another. We also shared the frisee salad, which was lightly dressed as it should with perfect small cubes of bacon. Sadly the most important thing that was missing was the poached egg, which in my humble opinion is an absolute must for frisee salad.

Our frustration grew as we waited for our alternate wine. Finally after finishing our first course our server arrived with a substitute Pouilly Fuisse', since they were also out of the Bourgogne Blanc. I appreciated the fact that it was supposed to be a finer wine, and that he gave it to us for the same price as the less expensive one that we ordered. I was dubious because I have not had many Pouilly Fuisse's that were worth remembering. To me they can come across as flat and austere as many other French whites that we have had. It's simply not my style.

For our main course I ordered the burger served on a brioche bun with bacon. David had the chicken and waffles, which regretfully I did not order as well. The burger was well a burger. It's hard to screw them up. And with all of the other things on the menu I wish I had been more adventurous. I lived in Oakland California for many years before moving to DC so I am very familiar with Chicken and waffles. I was transported straight to the south with their version. The chicken was perfectly crisp on the outside and joyously succulent on the inside. Although the waffle set a new standard it was almost overwhelmed by the heavenly chicken on top. And what a treat it was to have chicken and waffles with real maple syrup. I think it was a first for me.

All in all we enjoyed our experience at Marvin but the waiters seemed a little overwhelmed and a little inexperienced, which can easily take away from a dining experience depending on where you are. The great comfort and sincerity of the food and the casual atmosphere has definitely left me intrigued and I feel the urge building to return. I just need to remember my hearing aids and patience as we leave the house.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Steak 'n' Egg Kitchen

Well, this might not be the first place you'd think of as the subject for a food blog, but we can't resist a good breakfast. Of course when we started over there on Sunday morning we were not at all sure that in fact, the Steak 'n' Egg Kitchen (SnEK) was the place to get one. On the other hand, it did have a few advantages going in. First, open 24 hours. Second, outside seating (becoming less useful this time of year, but still a bonus). Third, and most importantly, an easy walk from our house.

We had a short wait for a table but the friendly staff made us feel welcome. We chose to eat outside because of the beautiful day. There are about 12 stools inside in a classic diner setup, but the bulk of the seating is outside. We suspect that things might get awfully crowded once it gets too cold to eat outside.

The physical setup is, shall we say, unpretentious in the extreme. Long plastic tables (most folks have to share) and chairs, a pile of condiments in the center of the table, and paper-wrapped knives and forks. No placemats -- this place is not for the extremely fastidious.

No matter. The food was excellent. Let's get the bad news out of the way first. The grapefruit juice was canned, or reconstituted, or something...anyhow, artificial tasting. And the "maple" syrup was a choice of various supermarket brands that had never gotten close to an actual maple tree.

Michael had a turkey and cheese omelette that was both large and tasty. The hash browns were uniformly shredded and appropriately crispy, if a little bland (not an uncommon failing). The toast was good diner toast with plenty of butter. Michael, being very enthusiastic about his breakfasts, also ordered a waffle which was deliciously crisp and came with an overabundance of butter (if there is such a thing). Too bad about the syrup. David ordered a "Tennessee scramble" which was a delicious omelette-type concoction with ham, bacon, and sausage included, with a little cheese for good measure. Same hash browns. However, instead of the toast, it came with two biscuits and some good country gravy, perfectly creamy and peppery. The biscuits were flaky and soaked up the gravy perfectly (we suspect they might be a little dry on their own but were perfect with the gravy).

The staff was extremely friendly and helpful. All of the tables were packed, many with what appeared to be AU students out with their parents. The food took a little while to appear by diner standards but it was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the sunshine while we waited.

All in all, a great find in our neighborhood and I'm sure we'll be paying many return visits.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dinner at Oyamel

We stopped in for dinner at Oyamel downtown after David's trip to NY, where he ate nothing memorable. The verdict on Oyamel: mixed. Some of the dishes were intriguing and delicious, but too many were bland. The delicious choices included the taco with pork (but not a beef one billed as a special) -- both were exceedingly tiny by the way. The mole poblano sauce on the chicken was exceptional. The red snapper ceviche was great. The sopas under a pile of shredded pork were outstanding -- crisp and tasty. Too bad the pork itself was extremely bland. We had different opinions on the fruit "gazpacho" -- Michael thought it was light and delicious, David thought it resembled the fruit buffet at a chain hotel, with a little chili dusting added (which was, admittedly, quite nice). With a dish this simple, the ingredients have to be absolutely first rate and perfectly ripe and these, we agreed, were not. We also split on the seared scallops. David, who loves scallops, thought they were excellent although the sauce was hard to detect. Michael, who doesn't, though they were undercooked. Most of the rest of the stuff we had was not memorable -- we guess the ratio was 60% delicious to 40% disappointing, which is a bit lower than we'd like. We had one margarita each -- delicious, but expensive at $9.50 in a deceptive small glass (one of those highball glasses with the extra-fat bottom to make the glass look bigger than it is...shame on you, Oyamel). The total bill was very reasonable at about $85 before tip. We agreed that it would be more fun with a larger group because of the small plates concept. However, most of the plates were too small to share among more than two people.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lunch at the Majestic

The fall day was a perfectly clear, and beautiful with the trees just beginning to turn color. Our appetites and the lure of adventure beckoned us outside so we hopped on our bikes and rode down to Old Town Alexandria from our home in DC. After exploring the heart of old town we longed for a good lunch so we headed up to the Majestic, which is a very nostalgically styled restaurant. Somewhat like a diner but a little more sophisticated.

We were immediately intrigued by the Caesar salad, which was made at our table by a very young and timid waiter, who made one of the most memorable Caesars we could recall. It was mixed in a large wooden bowl with all of your typical ingredients for dressing. Anchovy paste, oil, garlic, aioli, salt and pepper. Then it was topped with some really fresh and tasty anchovies. I would have been happy stopping there but they were serving pulled pork sandwiches, and bratwurst sandwiches. Well, of course we could not pass them up.

The pulled pork was served wrapped in waxed paper just like an old fashioned grilled cheese sandwich. The succulent juices from the pulled pork had already soaked the waxed paper and I could tell that many napkins would be required. What made the sandwich so unique was not only the hint of cinnamon and molasses in the pork but the fact that it was also layered with cole slaw. The bread had been grilled so it was slightly crispy and held together all of the moisture in the meat and the juices of the slaw. Upon David's first bite his eyes instantly crossed. Always a good sign when were eating. I had ordered the bratwurst sandwich. It was quite good but the ciabatta style bread was well, too bready and it overpowered the delicious brat inside. The sausage was not as juicy as I would like. What I remember more was the warm potato salad that came with my sandwich. It was the most unpotato salad I can recall ever having. Steamed slices of red potato with a hint of mustard, oil and herbs. It was truly fantastic.

We would highly recomend the Majestic in Old Town for its friendly staff, and one of the best pulled pork sandwiches you will ever have.

Til our next food adventure,

Michael and David