Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vegetate: Just like the name says

We visited this restaurant near the convention center with our friends Jeremy and Jennifer to celebrate Jennifer's new job in the administration. She is a vegetarian and is always on the lookout for decent vegetarian places, which I suspect from my limited experience is a pretty tough search. Anyhow, Vegetate is in a neighborhood which one might say is, um...unpretentious? not yet suffering from gentrification? a throwback to yesteryear? Well, maybe all of the above, but the good news was that we found a parking place right in front (even better, there is a big picture window so I could keep an eye on the car, which I found vaguely reassuring even though the neighborhood isn't that bad, really. I think.)

The restaurant is very spare and minimal, kind of in the mindset of minimalist vegetarianism I suppose, but nicely lit and quite welcoming. There is a smallish dining room on the first floor and apparently some other seating on the second floor which we didn't see.

We were greeted and seated promptly as the room was not crowded. We quickly ordered wine from the short but interesting and very reasonably priced list, then turned to scanning the menu. I am sure Jennifer was relieved not to have to look at the tail end of the menu for the chef's vegetable plate or some other afterthought and instead to be able to choose from the entire menu. We were too. The menu was quite interesting and well split up.

At our table, various people ordered the vegetate burgers, risotto croquettes, a green salad, edamame, sesame crusted tofu, and a Spanish least I remember all of those things. There might have been more. The burgers were surprisingly tasty if a little lacking in condiments (isn't ketchup a vegetable?) and the croquettes were quite good. I ordered the tofu as a "large plate" and it was quite a generous portion..I ended up giving a third of it to Jeremy, who can really pack it away, and a good chunk to Michael and still had plenty for myself. Michael was a little un-thrilled with his Spanish omelette since as he said, "I could make this at home" but I suppose there's only so much you can do with such a thing.

I was actually quite satisfied and uncharacteristically didn't order dessert, but Jeremy and Michael ordered the apple crisp which personally I felt was long on crisp and a bit short on apple (it was also vegan, which is an awfully high hurdle for any kind of baked goods and one for which this particular dish fell a little short).

The tab, with two glasses of white for Michael and a bottle of pleasant but undistinguished red for the rest of us (some sort of Chilean Malbec, as I recall) came to a bit under $90 per couple before tip which qualifies as a cheap night out in my book. Service, I must say, was a bit erratic as our waitperson tried to take an order for wine about four times in the first five minutes we were sitting; evidently becoming bored with our indecision, she retaliated by disappearing from some time after that until we had to flag down reinforcements. She then made appearances at irregular intervals thereafter before apparently being replaced by an understudy.

I can't say that the food or ambiance at Vegetate were great, but they were certainly pleasant. Vegetarian cooking, like kosher cooking, puts a fairly stiff handicap in front of the average chef and seems only fair to grade on some sort of a curve; with that in mind I will say that it was a very enjoyable evening and were I for some reason looking for a vegetarian dinner, this would certainly be worth a repeat visit. I will also say that post-dinner, I did feel quite satisfied and yet very comfortable so maybe there's something to this vegetarian stuff after all.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Founding Farmers: Great, Except for the Food

I met my friend Bill for lunch downtown and he suggested that we try Founding Farmers, which is right around the corner from his office at the World Bank, instead of one of our usual 19th Street standbys. Having taken a look at the menu on line, I happily agreed.

On a snowy and cold day in DC, the dining room did not appear full at 12:45 when we walked in. Nonetheless, the courteous hostess said there would be a 25 minute wait for a table (perhaps the open tables were reserved?). But we were welcome to sit at the bar, and so we did.

There were lots of positive things we found about FF. The menu is very well constructed, with lots of appealing options mostly oriented toward comfort-type foods (meatloaf, chicken pot pie, entree salads, and so forth). The prices are very fair for a downtown restaurant and the portions are generous, to say the least. Unfortunately the food was not very exciting.

Bill and I split a "flatbread" with prosciutto and figs and mascarpone. The portion was generous -- three good sized slices. When I think of flatbread I expect a kind of thin crusted pizza. This was, however, literally a kind of flat bread. Not that flat. It sort of resembled a piece of country wheat bread with stuff on top, more like what you might expect from bruschetta. The topping was of good quality but the mascarpone was smeared on the top like butter and made the whole thing rather greasy. In general I would say the dish lacked seasoning.

While I was intrigued by some of the comfort food options on a cold snowy day, and Bill initially was leaning toward a salad, we ultimately opted for burgers...I had the simple cheeseburger and Bill had a "Frisco" burger with a variety of toppings including avocado. Mine was a very generous portion for $10, almost more than I could eat (and that's saying something!). The meat was allegedly hand ground but frankly I could not tell the difference. I had ordered it medium rare and I thought it was a tad underdone but frankly medium rare is a matter of opinion and this was certainly within the range of tolerance.

The big disappointment is that this big, attractive burger just didn't taste like much. It tasted like a big pile of unseasoned meat. The fries that came with it were limp and also not particularly flavorful (which of course did not stop me from eating most of them in the interest of research). It would appear that the kitchen's supply of salt had been exhausted...perhaps they had used it all to clear up the sidewalks in front of the restaurant and there was none left for the food. Or maybe there are salt and pepper shakers on the tables and we missed out by sitting at the bar.

With the burgers we each had a beer (Stone IPA, quite tasty, although they were out of my first choice, Bell's Two Hearted Ale). The food and beer came to just under $40 which I thought was an amazing bargain for a generous lunch in the heart of downtown. I just wish the food had been tastier. I will try it again, though, in the hope that perhaps I just chose badly, since I would love for a place like this with an attractive setting and very fair prices to succeed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Brasserie Beck: Revisiting an Old Favorite

Our friends Matt and Brendan were visiting from San Francisco and we decided to show them a bit of DC liveliness. So we headed over to Beck's after a stop for a pick-me-up at Halo.

The evening started with a good omen as we found a parking space right around the corner...a good thing as it was a freezing cold night and the Californians were not dressed for the occasion despite borrowing a good portion of our winter clothing. We strolled in and claimed our table.

As usual, the atmosphere was lively and festive despite the late hour (we could only get a 9:00 reservation). There was some awkwardness as we juggled food, wine, and beer menus. As usual at Beck's since beer is really the focus, we all decided to have beer and yet it takes forever to go through the hundreds of beers available. Why don't they make more than one menu available per table? As it turned out the first of us took about 5 minutes to pick a beer, which is not surprising, and then there was an awkward situation with the waiter...does he bring the first person his beer and then come back for the next order? Does he wait until everybody's ready? By the time the list got to me I just picked something I knew since I really didn't have time to go through the whole list without feeling impossibly rushed. Note to restaurant: one list for each person, please.

The food, as usual, was delicious. Well, mostly. We shared a pot of mussels and fries which were as good as always. We also shared a duck sausage appetizer which was terrific. I was pleased to see Michael eating the mussels since after a very unfortunate encounter at BlackSalt he has been off mussels for about a year and hopefully this will help him get back in the mussel-eating saddle.

For mains, Michael and Brendan had the "choucroute en croute" which they both seemed to love. The one taste I got was very enjoyable although I didn't actually notice any sauerkraut inside...with his usual solicitousness Michael probably just gave me a piece of sausage rather than the kraut. Matt had a crispy skate wing which he also devoured. I had the lamb shank which was perfectly tender but, I thought, woefully underseasoned. What is it with salt these days in restaurants? I know we're all trying to cut down on salt but not at the expense of taste? I enjoyed the lamb but it was just missing something.

Since we had plenty of dessert at home, and it had been a long day, we passed on dessert. The bill for 2 apps, 4 mains, and 6 beers among the four of us came to $240. I was reminded that I like Beck's but I always feel, when the bill comes, that it's a bit expensive for what it is. $12 beers will do that to you. I guess that's why we don't end up going here more often than we do.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blacksalt for Lunch

I had a nice loaner car from my local car dealer as the station wagon was once again in the shop (sigh) so since Michael loves cars as well I proposed that I pick him up for lunch so he could have fun driving the car himself. He readily agreed and the question was where to go from Georgetown that was far enough but not too far and where we could get in and out in a reasonable period of time. Blacksalt fit the bill on all counts so off we went.

It was very quiet in the restaurant on a Thursday afternoon and in fact there was only one other person at the bar. Blacksalt was running a special on some of their wines with bottles at half price. We had a bottle of some French rose (I cannot remember the exact name, and for some reason browsing through Blacksalt's menus on line causes Firefox to crash: beware). However, it was very pleasant and for half price of $13.50, was cheaper than two glasses (normally we would never order a bottle of wine during a workday but I can't resist a bargain. In our defense we didn't finish the bottle. Naturally I forgot to take the leftovers home...oh well, a little extra tip for the excellent bartender). In general Blacksalt's wine list is well chosen and very fairly priced by the bottle...the prices by the glass are, as usual, a little less friendly.

For lunch we had an app of fried oysters (which I hoped Michael would share with me, but I could only convince him to eat one). Large, perfectly cooked, very delicious. Probably not totally healthy. We each had a fish sandwich...mine was tuna with a provencal garnish, very moist and tasty. The tuna was minimally cooked. The oil-based garnish made the whole thing a little messy but impossible to put a couple of ways, it was so good and also I suspected if I put it down I would never be able to pick it up again. Michael's sandwich was based on some sort of white fish (see caution about a flaw in their on line menu) and was also delicious based on the one bite I got.

The bill for this was about $70 which is rather extravagant for lunch, but we deserve a little extravagance every once in a while. The quality of the food was, unlike Rod Blagojevich, unimpeachable. The setting was not nearly as glamorous as at night, we both agreed, as the bar and casual seating area looks a bit forlorn in the light of day especially when it is not full. But it was a very enjoyable splurge and I am glad we went.

Friday, January 9, 2009


For my father's birthday, we had a small family gathering (6 people) at Charleston in Baltimore, one of our old favorite places. The restaurant had just reopened after its holiday hiatus so there were a few empty tables, unusually (or maybe it is the recession) but it was still mostly full.

As always, we had a great meal. I had a wonderful snail tartlet, heavy on the demi-glace, followed by seared tuna, duck breast, beef tenderloin, and a chocolate treat for dessert. Michael had shrimp and grits with andouille sausage first (a signature of the house), followed by a green salad, the tuna, the beef, and a lemon tart for dessert. The other four members of our party made do with one course less.

Charleston's menu is an extremely flexible and user friendly one which starts at three courses (plus dessert, which is always included) for $74 and adds $12 for each extra course. You can pick and choose between hot and cold appetizers, fish, poultry, and game. There are usually three or four choices in each category all of which generally sound terrific and they can be had in any order. For example my cousin Amy on my right started with a hot appetizer, then had a salad, then another hot appetizer before going on to dessert.

All of the food was delicious as is always the case...Cindy Wolf, the chef, won the regional James Beard award a few years back and the restaurant is generally acknowledged to be the best in Baltimore.

With the first courses we had a Zind-Humbrecht Herrenweg de Turckheim Pinot Gris ($84) which I liked very much. It was much less sweet than the PG we had had in California and I thought it was a more balanced partner for most of the food. Michael did not love it, he told me afterward, and found something off about it. With the main courses most of us (except Michael) switched to a 1999 Domaine les Aphillantes Cotes du Rhone ($69) which was delicious and unusual. My parents had discovered this on a previous visit and been most attracted to it...unfortunately I think we drank the last bottle, or close to it. Generally the wine list at Charleston is quite extensive (about 600 bottles) and fairly expensive but with quite a few decent selections in the moderate range for those who are trying to hold down the cost.

My parents, being regulars, had asked for their usual table and their usual service. Service was impeccably professional and extremely friendly. I have never been able to develop the status of a "regular" at any restaurant more exalted than the local Chinese place so have missed out on some of those benefits but it is certainly a bonus to be a friend of the house. Among other things we were all treated to a glass of a delicious, somewhat sweet sparkling wine for dessert (I think it was the Moscati d'Asti on the list but am not sure).

Michael and I rode home in a happy food daze. We agreed afterward that we could have managed quite happily with one fewer course (especially considering the delicious bread -- especially those corn bread sticks that arrive regularly). But with all of the wonderful choices on the menu it was just too hard to limit ourselves.

Charleston once again upheld its view, in our opinion, as the go-to restaurant for a celebratory meal in the Baltimore-Washington area. Certainly there are restaurants in DC -- Citronelle comes to mind -- that have cooking on the same level, but few can put together an attractive setting, great food, an interesting menu, and service that combines professionalism with personality, all at a fairly reasonable cost. AT $86 for the food cost of what we ate, it is one of the great high-end food bargains we have had recently.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Town Hall: Memory Lane

Finding ourselves rather unexpectedly on our own on New Year's night, we decided to make the rounds of both new and old familiar San Francisco places. First order of business of course was cocktails and we dropped in at the Clock Bar of the St Francis, just a block from our hotel, for a drink. Michael had a pomegranate martini sort of drink and I had my first Sidecar, which I'd been intrigued with for a while. The glamorous retro setting seemed like the right time to try one. Both drinks were tasty without being knockouts. The bar was very pretty but was unfortunately populated by less than elegant hotel was the kind of place that was worth getting dressed up for but I suppose they can't enforce that in a hotel. So we left and went on to Bourbon and Branch, which was much different -- see Michael's separate write-up on that.

In between visits to Bourbon and Branch, we went to Town Hall which was one of Michael's favorite restaurants when he was a local. The room has a kind of rustic country sophistication which reminded me of Zuni Cafe although the location of the bathrooms -- near the entrance and up 3 short flights of stairs -- left something to be desired (having just come from 2 bars, this was of more than usual importance.)

The food at Town Hall was, for the most part, delicious. I started with 3 oysters of different types, one of which was delicious and the other two of which were a bit earthy for me. Not spoiled, just not tasting of the ocean the way I prefer them. Michael then had a butter lettuce salad with a very light blue cheese dressing, while I ordered biscuits with ham. I was rewarded with 3 small biscuits accompanied by some delicious country ham and jam. Naturally I didn't get to eat all 3 as Michael stared at them longingly until I forked one over. His salad was also very good, with nice lettuce and a very well balanced and proportioned dressing.

For entrees, Michael had the tasso-encrusted pork chop while I had the shrimp etouffee. As is obvious there is a pretty heavy Southern component to the cooking there. Both of the entrees were really good. I detected a slight taste of undercooked flour in the shrimp, maybe rushing the roux a little, but not enough to detract from the dish. No complaints about the pork.

We shared a piece of German chocolate cheesecake which we both thought was OK, but it was a little more sour than I was expecting and not quite as good..the topping also was a bit sparse which may have been the problem as some additional sweetness in the topping would have played well against the tanginess of the cake.

Since we were in the middle of an extended cocktail sampling session we uncharacteristically didn't order a bottle of wine; Michael had a glass of a pleasant but unmemorable Chardonnay and I had a glass of a similar Syrah. The list of wines by the glass was not very exciting for a San Francisco restaurant but the bottle prices seemed reasonably fair.

Bourbon and Branch- Revisiting the Speakeasy

It was the night of New Years Day and our last night in San Francisco. Feeling truly adventurous, David and I headed out for the streets in search of the bar, Bourbon and Branch after reading about it in the New York Times. Our love for a good libation and for nostalgia made our choice an obvious one.

The night was cold and the thickness of the San Francisco fog blurred the lines of the buildings and streets which added an air of mystery to the adventure that we were embarking upon. At the corner of Jones and O Farrell there is an unmarked, discreet door made of oak and with a traditional peep hole at eye level. We knew that we were in the right place when we saw a small group of people huddled outside the door. The door opened every couple of minutes allowing the people in front of us to enter in groups. After a few minutes we were greeted at the door by a pretty, and very friendly young lady who promptly asked us for our password. (To obtain the password of the night you must visit the Bourbon and Branch web site).

As we passed through the door I immediately felt as if we were stepping back in time. Soft overhead lighting and numerous candles left the room in a dark and moody glow. The walls were covered in a dark, damask patterned, raspberry flocked wallpaper and the fluted pilasters were painted black. The lack of windows made one feel as if you were insulated from the hectic, modern world outside where you could truly appreciate the mood of the space with little intrusion. Period music of the twenties and thirties played softly as we sat down at the bar and my mind was immediately swept away with images of the past. People smoking cigarettes would have completed the scene.

We had the bar to ourselves while everyone else was tucked away in discreet little booths behind us and in the back. Others had slipped away through a blind door disguised as liquor cabinet to a secret room beyond.

Our bartender was appropriately dressed in a long sleeve dress shirt with a period sleeve garter. While surveying the extensive libations menu it felt as if we were reading a history book dedicated to cocktails- what a dream come true! Branch water was a term that was first used in the 1800's referring to a small stream of pure and clean water called a "branch". To order a "Bourbon and Branch" is a nostalgic term for ordering a bourbon and water. The speakeasy is most popularly connected with the prohibition era in America from 1920 to 1933 but the term actually predates prohibition by thirty years. Legend has it that an old Irish lady bartender from Pittsburgh, PA sold her liquor without a license and therefore asked her patrons to "spake-aisy".

Bourbon and Branch requests that their patrons follow tradition and speak easy upon entering and exiting the bar.

For our first round I decided on a vanilla mimosa topped with a thin layer of egg whites and s few decorative drops of bitters. The champagne was delicately hinted with the scent of vanilla and the egg whites added a luxurious richness to the drink. It will be hard to go back to the traditional mimosa with orange juice, which I now realize is can be too sweet.Although the name escapes us, David ordered a gin mixed with a splash of champagne. Who would have known that the combination could be so delicious. The herbal qualities of the gin shined through and were complimented by the champagne.

Four our next round I ordered a "Pisco Sour" and David ordered a traditional Manhattan. You could compare the pisco sour to a Caipirina and the Manhattan defined the concoction.

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the bar but we had 7:30 dinner reservations at Town Hall so off we went but we decided to go back for a nightcap afterwards.

Despite our true enjoyment of our dinner I think we were both secretly longing to get back to Bourbon and Branch and to continue our adventure to the past. So without further ado after dinner we set off in a taxi.

For our nightcaps I had a Manhattan and for our second round we both had a marmalade whiskey sour, which elevated the art of libations to a whole new level. Our bartender was a true artisan and I thanked him for keeping such a beautiful and tasty tradition alive.

Neither of us wanted to leave but reality and a morning flight back to DC pulled us out of the twenties and straight back into the reality of the hectic world just outside the door.

Yank Sing

Having had an extremely tame New Year's Eve, we trundled down the foggy, cold streets of SF hoping to find a place open on New Year's Day that was not in a hotel. First checked out the Union Square sales but finding that nothing was open until 11:00 at least, we renewed our efforts to find sustenance. After our experience at Y Ben the previous morning, Michael was reluctant to seek out another dim sum palace -- not me, as I could eat dim sum every day. But he quickly agreed that the rather more genteel confines of Yank Sing were different enough to give it a try.

So we wandered down to Rincon Center; fortunately it was just around 10:30 and a bit too early for the crowds to arrive (it goes without saying that they were open..nice that the Chinese celebrate New Year's on a different day than we do). We quickly got a table...not a good table, kind of crammed next to a pillar and in a main traffic lane, but we were sitting and eating. Since it was, after all, New Year's, I ordered a couple of glasses of champagne.

The dim sum was delicious. Yank Sing is by dim sum standards very upscale and clean and that is reflected in the prices (the location also contributes to this I'm sure). The most outstanding thing we had were soup fact we had a repeat order. We also had great shiu mai. The Peking duck was not so good, kind of chintzy on the duck, the hoisin sauce was watery and the buns rather doughy. I can't remember everything we had. I do know that we ran out of appetite and there were still things we wanted to beans, pot stickers, pork buns, and the like.

By the time we left the big room was packed although there were still seats available out in the enclosed courtyard. The experience clearly was not as authentic as at other places both in the food and the clientele. On the other hand there is nothing wrong with tablecloths, clean bathrooms and pleasant professional service and you don't get something for nothing. The bill was about $75 not counting the champagne, tax and tip. I suspect the Peking duck ran this up a bit and it was not worth it, but the rest of the food was excellent. Was it 5 times better than Y Ben? Not in my book, but those who put a higher value on creature comforts might disagree.