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 b├ęchamel 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.