Thursday, February 18, 2010

DC James Beard Award Semi-Finalists Are Mostly Accessible Restaurants

The James Beard Foundation announced their list of semifinalists today for the 2010 James Beard Awards, the most prestigious food awards out there. I wrote about the semi-finalists and then finalists last year, here and here, and if you compare this years list to last, there are a lot of reappearances locally - so hopefully some will break through this time.

The local semifinalists are:

Outstanding Restaurateur: Ashok Bajaj (701, Ardeo, Bardeo, Bibiana, Bombay Club, Oval Room, Rasika)
Outstanding Chef: José Andrés (for Minibar)
Outstanding Restaurant: Vidalia
Rising Star Chef Of The Year: Johnny Monis (Komi)
Best New Restaurant: Eventide, J&G Steakhouse, Trummer's On Main
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Amanda Cook (CityZen)
Outstanding Wine Service: Restaurant Eve
Outstanding Wine And Spirits Program: Derek Brown (The Passenger)
Outstanding Service: Marcel's
Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic: Cathal Armstrong (Restaurant Eve), Tony Conte (The Oval Room), Peter Pastan (Obelisk), Vikram Sunderam (Rasika), Bryan Voltaggio (Volt)

My initial reaction is that a number of these restaurants are accessible to the public, and that is a great thing. Ashok Bajaj's restaurants might not be cheap but they aren't cost-prohibitive (except maybe 701), and most all of them are excellent. Especially Rasika.

Aside from restaurateur of the year, a number of the chefs and restaurants nominated have more casual bar or cafe dining options, making some of DC's best spots accessible to diners without spending a ton. The bar at Vidalia (nominated for restaurant of the year) is a great option, offering their iconic shrimp n grits and a delicious cheeseburger (Roughly $15 each I believe), in addition to free bite-size appetizers and even free wine tastings during happy hour.

CityZen, home to one of my best 2 meals in DC last year, has a bar menu for (Three courses for $50) which is way more reasonable than the dining room or tasting menus. Restaurant Eve has a bistro and lounge in addition to the more formal expensive dining room, and while Rasika doesn't have a special menu that I'm aware of, it won't cost you an arm and a leg (and is completely worth it).

As for the libations, Derek Brown's Passenger is absolutely worth trying. The drinks are not cheap (Roughly $13 a piece), but if for only one drink it is worth the trip. If you're looking for a more exclusive and involved experience, try his other bar, the speakeasy The Gibson. I wrote a post about it here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Read Meat Turns 1 - A Recap of the Year in Food and a Look Forward to the Next

With Read Meat celebrating it’s first birthday yesterday, I thought it would be fun to recap my favorites of the past year, look forward to the next, and voice what I hope to see more of in DC. It’s hardly encompassing, but here are some trends, ideas, dishes, restaurants, concepts, and more that caught my eye:

Favorite New Food Trend - Olive Oil Ice Cream

This latest ice cream flavor is just starting to pop up on dessert menus and it’s pretty unbelievable. As you’d expect with an ingredient like olive oil, this dessert doesn’t strive to be the world’s strongest flavored, but it quickly redefines your notion of “light and refreshing.” I first had the ice cream this year in New York at Mario Batali’s pizza place, Otto, along with creme fraiche ice cream. Then, I was lucky enough to have the tasting menu at CityZen recently, and it appeared as a dessert amuse bouche. I haven’t seen it elsewhere in DC yet but I hope others are serving it, or will be soon...

Worst New Trend - Supermarkets Charging for Bags

Give me a break, we aren’t taxed enough already?

Memorable Dish of the Year –

 Curry Spiced Duck Breast

Sadly my most memorable dish of the year did not come in DC but rather at New York’s Gotham Bar & Grill. Either way, Gotham’s curry spiced duck literally had me giggling like a school girl as I devoured it. I mean how often do you eat foods that are so delicious that you have to stop and laugh because you can't believe it is THAT good.

Well, it was. It was that savory, that well rounded, and the flavors worked that well together. I've never seen distinctly Indian flavors used so appropriately and artfully in another cuisine. Coupled with a masala duck sauce and toasted cashew and apricot chutney, the muscovy duck breast hit every flavor I hoped for and yet was so fantastically balanced throughout. My highlight of the year.

Memorable DC Dish - Chile En Nogada

Many of the small plates at Oyamel are fantastic but the roasted stuffed poblano pepper takes the cake. Inside the pepper: Ground pork, plantain, and tomato. On Top: A creamy sauce of walnuts, goat cheese and sherry topped with fresh pomegranate seeds.

Savory. Incredibly Flavorful. Surprisingly light and well rounded. Sadly, it's only available in the winter and spring when fresh pomegranates are available.

Favorite Restaurant Addition - 

The sister restaurant to Ristorante Tosca, Posto wields a variety of delicious pizzas, pastas and entrees - in a relaxed setting with prices that aren't prohibitively expensive. The Bismarck pizza ($14), with mozzarella, ricotta, spinach and a cracked egg on top, is a highlight. So are most every pasta as well as the fabulously tender braised veal cheeks ($21), served in three large lumps above garlic mashed potatoes and below sauteed spinach. Disclaimer: This is slightly cheating - Posto opened just under a month before Read Meat started.

Favorite Bar Addition - ChurchKey

A tough decision since The Gibson, which arrived this year, provides an entirely unique drinking and social experience, but one that is mostly reserved just for special occasions. ChurchKey, on the other hand, is worth the trip anytime, and it can actually be enjoyed most any day or occasion.

The nearly three-month-old restaurant has a unique and massive selection of beers (over 550 with over 50 on tap), tasty and reasonably priced gastro-pub fare, and has an attractive scene with a sleek and seemingly endlessly long bar.

Favorite Restaurant of the Year- Palena Café

There's too much to say and little chance I'll do it justice so I'm going to keep it short and sweet. Palena is hardly new and with less than 10 tables and no reservations in the cafe, it is a serious pain to get in, but when you do it is routinely fantastic. There is little fine-dining food as good as Palena in DC, but there are absolutely no places providing those same exact dishes for incredibly reasonable prices like the Cafe does.

You can keep it casual with a fry plate for $11 that includes french fries, onion rings, potatoes and fried lemon wedges along with a heavenly cheeseburger ($13) or with the best roast half-chicken ($14) in the city.

Or you can have, in my opinion, the best pastas in town. Between the hare ragu pappardelle, the lightest gnocchi in town, or an incredibly robust and soulful oxtail ragu with pasta. They are all so flavorful and so refined, yet cost roughly $13 a plate.

Nothing beats it.

I'd Like to see more of in the next year:

Signature Breads

Washington is notoriously bad for bread. After all, one of the city’s most popular delis, Taylor Gourmet, ships their bread in daily from Philadelphia. Yes, they actually go to Philadelphia to get good rolls.

The few restaurants around town that create signature breads and are wildly popular for them, think BLT Steak’s gruyere popover, Bourbon Steak’s skillet rolls with truffle oil and CityZen’s parker house rolls. And it’s not a particularly expensive undertaking - its bread. So If I were opening a restaurant in 2010, I’d make sure we served signature bread. It provides diners with a tasty and easy memorable part of the meal, even if the rest is underwhelming. Unbelievably, people absolutely are often inclined to head to those restaurants thanks to these memorable starters… go figure; some people choose a $100 per person meal based on their signature bread. When will other restaurants catch on…

Local Steakhouses

Washington has no shortage of chain steakhouses. The current list includes 5 Morton’s, 5 Ruth’s Chris’, 3 Capital Grilles, the Palm, Smith & Wollensky and chain celebrity-steakhouses including Laurent Tourendel’s BLT Steak, Charlie Palmer’s eponymously named steakhouse and two newcomers this year:
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Steakhouse and Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak, which I wrote a lengthy review of earlier this year.

With a blog titled Read Meat, clearly I am a fan of steakhouses and always welcome more diversity. Yet, with all of the choices, precious few are locally owned. While most every other restaurant in town is considerably enhanced thanks to a head chef in the kitchen and an owner who actually tends to their restaurant, we don’t expect or demand the same kind of care from our steakhouses. Maybe most ridiculous, many diners actually believe that the celebrity chefs behind all the new celebrity steakhouses actually have something meaningful to do with the restaurant. Visiting once every few months for a weekend hardly constitutes a meaningful influence or level of attention.

So my hope for the next year is that more restaurateurs take a page out of Michael Landrum’s book (Rays the Steaks etc) and take a stab at creating a local steakhouse. Clearly the meat-eating steakhouse-loving clientele is here, why can’t we get some more local flavor?

Good Chinese

I could write 50 words or 5,000 words on this, so I’ll opt for 50. The city could use better Chinese food. Better upscale, better take-out, better Americanized, better traditional and more. I am hard pressed to think of more than a handful of Chinese places here I actually enjoy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Life of a food critic

There's a fascinating story in Saturday's Washington Post about the Post's food critic, Tom Sietsema (pronounced Seets-ma).

Aside from a schedule of constant eating (which is fun until you HAVE to eat rather than want to), I was particularly impressed by the Mossad-like obsession with ensuring anonymity:

To ensure he doesn't get special treatment, Sietsema is obsessive about anonymity. He's used elaborate disguises in elite restaurants such as the District's Citronelle and the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. He has a dozen aliases and sometimes feigns a foreign accent. Concerned about restaurants using caller ID, he may have friends make the reservation. He has nine credits cards with different names so restaurants can't identify him through receipts. Sometimes he pays cash. He even took acting lessons to alter his physical demeanor. It can help, he said, because "people get used to seeing you in a certain way."

James Bond's got nothing on him.

Full story is worth the read.