Saturday, July 31, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation - DC Style

Well, let's just start by saying it really wasn't a summer vacation. But I have spent the last two weeks (thanks to some seriously excellent neighbor friends) away from NYC, hanging with Significant Eater in DC. You see, we had a bit of a flood from a 60's era central air conditioning unit in our bedroom, and it leaked all over our floor. So, some of my vacation was spent dealing with the removal of the old floor and installation of a nice, new one. All is good and who said vacations can't be productive?

Of course, being in DC affords me the opportunity to try some new restaurants, drink a few cocktails made by bartenders whose acquaintance I haven't already made, return to places that I've already been to and liked and sometimes do all of the above.

For instance, the other night Significant Eater and I had a very fine meal at the infant Estadio, the 2nd restaurant from the owner and team at Proof, a well-liked restaurant right near the Verizon Center arena. Here's what the rather charming Estadio looks like from the street...

Arriving early, we were able to grab seats at the bar without any problem at all. When we left, there was a mad scrum for those same seats. A few nights later, a friend and I didn't get there till 8 and it took a much more concerted effort for us to find 2 empty bar stools...but we did.

One of Estadio's high points is that its bar program is run by Adam Bernbach, a well-known DC mixologist who also runs the show at Proof. When Sig Eater and I showed up on that wickedly hot DC eve, Adam offered me a slushito, a semi-frozen cocktail dispensed from one of two machines churning away at the end of the bar...

The one I tried had gin and Campari in it, and if any of your friends have trouble with Campari, the slushito will melt those troubles away. The Reir - a Rickey style tall drink comprised of bourbon and salt-cured orange soda also is a drink to be reckoned first sip strangely medicinal and then finishing all bright and thirst-quenching. The Bamboo, a cocktail of sherry, dry vermouth and bitters (iirc), makes me think that we'll see more high-end cocktail places using wonderful sherries- Death & Co. has been making drinks with sherries for a while, and it's a good trend.

Food wise, everything we ate was pretty damn good. Pintxos of artichoke, boquerone, manchego and bread were delicious; the only thing that could possibly make them better would be if they were slightly smaller so that all of the flavors could be enjoyed in one bite as they are in the chorizo/manchego/quince pintxo. Squid a la plancha was tender and juicy. Jamon croquettes, perfectly fried, come four to an order, so no fighting over the dreaded "extra" one. Patatas bravas were textbook and make me forget all about french fries, since french fries are so often horrid. Roasted mushrooms is a dish that I'm trying to perfect at home; they won't be this good, but I'll keep trying.

A few nights later and whaddya know - that artichoke pintxo was perfectly bite sized, and most everything we ate was executed well. My co-eater Danny wrote about it on a DC food board, as a matter of fact.

One of the cooler things about DC that we don't see much of in NYC is the happy hour. I'm not talking about the happy hour at dive bars, but at places where the food is actually the draw, not the tubs of crappy beer. So we were happy to get back to Johnny's Half Shell, a seafood palace on "The Hill" that has a weeknight happy hour from 4:30 - 7:30. You can't go wrong with the fried oysters, clam chowder or grilled squid...but be careful with the martinis, which clock in at about 8 ounces.

Since Johnny's is co-owned by Ann Cashion, one of DC's first chefs to win national acclaim, SE and I decided to finally try Cashion's Eat Place, which she opened many years ago in Adams Morgan. She hasn't been involved with the restaurant since '07, but it still honors her tradition, as the web site says. Our starters slash appetizers were great, including maybe the best gazpacho we've ever had (umm, except mine?), though the one main we ordered was less than spectacular.

Two Amy's Pizza, which DC pizza lovers rave about, was good on our first visit and less good on my second...DOC notwithstanding. Pete's New Haven Apizza, now a mini-chain, was less good on my first visit and I haven't been back...yet. Pizza Paradiso, P Street location, basically blows, but has a great beer list. Spike's new pizza joint I haven't yet tried, but if it's as bad as his burger joint, then I'm glad I haven't been. So here's a tip - don't go out for pizza expecting anything good - maybe you'll get lucky. After all, pizza is easy, but maybe not as easy as everyone thinks.

P Street is also the home of Pesce, a restaurant that I've eaten at a few times, and which was opened by the late, great Jean-Louis Palladin along with a partner, Roberto Donna almost 20 years ago. It's still run by Jean-Louis' widow Regine, and she's there most every night. Guess what? They do a happy hour - 5 for $5 - a selection of 5 different appetizers along with 5 different wines, each priced gently at $5. How can you go wrong? My calamari was textbook, and the brandade stuffed piquillo peppers with ink sauce, though not a happy hour dish, were delicious...

The one misfire at Pesce was the shrimp with hummus, neither element really being complimented by the other. Why screw up shrimp with hummus? Why screw up hummus with shrimp? Anyway, the welcome is genuine, avoid the shrimp with hummus, and you'll be fine.

On 18th Street in Adams Morgan, Amsterdam Falafel makes Significant Eater and me happy. Good, fried-to-order falafel balls and an amazing array of do-it-yourself condiments, satisfy the urge for not-too-bad-for-you junk food. Here's part of the condiment bar...

Bourbon, our go-to bar on 18th Street, satisfies the urge for...bourbon. You'll lose count if you try to count bourbons, especially after indulging in one of their excellent Manhattan's (make mine rye, please). The Diner (yes, it's called The Diner) is okay, open 24/7, and has $3 good beers some nights, while its sibling Tryst, the coffee/cocktail joint next door is fine for a shot of espresso or a hit of wi-fi...just be sure to wear your ironic hat.

There are times, though, when all that DC politics, heat and humidity needs to be put on the back burner, as it were. And SE and I are very fortunate to have some wonderful friends in the Annapolis area. We had dinner one night at Cantler's, which may be easier to get to by boat. There, the crab cakes are good, the salads are surprisingly good, and the atmosphere is Chesapeake Bay crab house perfect. The next night, Tom's house-smoked baby backs were a hit, along with fresh corn on the cob (Jersey has nothing on Maryland corn, by the way). And for a city boy, a day on the bay ain't bad either.

Amsterdam Falafel - 2425 18th St. NW, DC

Bourbon - 2321 18th St. NW, DC

Cantler's - 458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis, MD

Cashion's Eat Place - 1819 Columbia Rd. NW, DC

The Diner/Tryst - 2453 18th St. NW, DC

Estadio - 1520 14th St. NW, DC

Johnny's Half Shell - 400 N. Capitol St. NW, DC

Pesce - 2002 P St. NW, DC

Pete's - 1400 Irving St. NW, DC and 4940 Wisconsin Ave. NW, DC

Pizza Paradiso - 2003 P St. NW, DC (2 other locations)

Two Amy's - 3715 Macomb St. NW, DC

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Celebrity Chefs - Love 'em or...

Celebrity chefs. Love 'em or hate 'em, I guess they're here to stay. Of course, one man's or one woman's definition of celebrity chef is probably different than another. So I'm sure mine is different than yours.

For instance, to me Thomas Keller = celebrity chef. Because he's a great fucking chef. Eric Ripert = celebrity chef. Because he's a great fucking chef. Tony Bourdain = celebrity. Because even though he was a chef, he was never, in my opinion, a great chef. He turned into a celebrity chef via books, TV, etc. Rachael Ray. Chef? Yeah, right. Celebrity = totally. I'm pretty sure Tony would agree that Mr. Keller and Mr. Ripert are better chefs than he, but (other than food crazy people) who do you think is most recognizable as a celebrity chef? You got a lineup, they're picking out Tony.

Now don't get me wrong; I dine at other celebrity chef restaurants with some regularity, though not Thomas' or Eric's, mainly because I can't afford to. But some celebrity chefs have restaurants which are actually affordable and worthy of dining at, again and again. Take Mario Batali - big celebrity chef. Nascar spokesperson and all. Products in all the kitchen stores. Huge. And you know what - the guy can cook - well, he's not cooking your food any more, but when you eat at Lupa, or you eat at Otto, or you eat at Babbo, you're basically eating his food. His ideas. He made his bones cooking the stuff that's being served in those restaurants, not eating barbecued cockroaches on TV, if you get my drift. Or calling everyone a douche; hell, even I do that.

Anyway, where am I going with all this? Oh yeah, last week in DC, I had the "pleasure" of eating at a celebrity chef's restaurant, that of one Spike Mendelsohn. I'm sure you've heard of him - he was a non-winner (okay, loser) on Top Chef a couple of years ago, he wears a hat, and now he's a celebrity chef. I was trying to eat at Spike's brand new restaurant, but ended up at the older one only because the new joint wasn't yet open, though from all the publicity I'd read, I kinda got the impression that it was. Actually, this was the first tell that it wasn't, on one of the chairs outside...

Well, it is the hospitality industry, after all. So, I was now faced with my second choice, Spike's first restaurant which is right next door, called Good Stuff Eatery. The new restaurant is a pizza joint, called, I kid you not, We, The Pizza. Pretension be thy name...

But, Good Stuff Eatery it was. Because anytime you see crowds like this, lined up, you figure it's got to be good...

And this plaque is posted on the wall outside, so it's gotta be...

Wrong. To say that the burger and fries are an abomination would only do them justice. First I ordered the fries without salt, so that they'd come fresh from the fryer - but to no avail...these were the soggiest, least tasty fries I've had in a long, make that ever. Evidently, Spike thinks that red bliss potatoes are the best for fries, but that's the least of his problems. First, teach proper frying technique - then TEACH PROPER FRYING TECHNIQUE - and then use russets.

The burger was overshadowed by it's mitt-sized bun, but no matter, as it barely had any flavor of its own. Maybe it shouldn't come as much of a surprise as I saw the griddle man loading the flat top with parcooked burgers by the dozen. God, it was awful. This place makes Five Guys Burgers look like Les Crayeres, a Michelin 3-star restaurant in Reims, France, where according to his bio, Spike did his externship from the Culinary Institute.

And you know what? He even worked at one of Chef Keller's restaurants in the Napa Valley, Bouchon. Significant Eater and I once enjoyed a meal there and also at it's outpost in Las Vegas a number of years ago. It's a nice little bistro, to be sure. One of my favorite sides at Bouchon just happens to be the french fries, perfectly cooked and served in a paper cone, if I recall. But Spike must've been working on fancier food, not the fries. After all, as his profile says:

Spike will continue to pursue his professional dream which is to one day bring the
very coveted Three Michelin Stars to his resume.

I guess before he gets the 3 stars, we'll have to settle for the pizza. I can't wait.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Global Warming is a Scam...Well, Maybe Not

I know, I know. I complain a lot about the heat (just look at my last post). But you gotta admit, this summer has been unusually, ahem, warm. Actually, this year has been one of, if not the, hottest years on record, and not just in New York or DC. Globally, if you must know. Yep - the average worldwide temperature in 2010 has been about 1.25 degrees hotter than ever before. Oceans, too. But, you know, there's no "global warming." After all, didn't it snow last winter? A lot. So, how can there be global warming? Well, listen up, and take your heads out of your asses, all you naysayers. Let's change the term from global warming to what it really is and that's climate change. It's happening. Won't affect any of us in our lifetimes, but come back in a couple of hundred years and check out the shitshow. If you don't believe me - here's the science.

Okay, I usually don't rant and rave about stuff like this - Significant Eater is so much better at that than me. I'd rather just be pissed off about other things, like how annoying it is to cook during the summer. Well, I suppose it's not all that bad if you have a nice house that's all air conditioned. But in a tiny NYC or DC apartment, it's really tough.

But, lest you think I'm always cranky, I have a confession. I do cook, but only a wee bit. I mean, I love the stuff that's available in the summer (and only in the summer) at my farmer's markets. There is beautiful corn. Great green beans. Tomatoes that taste like...tomatoes. And on and on. I make breakfast every single day because if you didn't know this about me, I hardly ever go out for breakfast. Brunch is, in my opinion, one of the biggest scams in the world. So, the one meal I cook every day is breakfast. Here's what I made for SE and me this morning...

Nice, right. Farmer's market tomatoes and eggs along with some delicious toasted 7-grain bread from Pain d'Avignon, a great bakery that has a location at the Essex St. Market and often sells its wares at the Hester St. Fair as well as the New Amsterdam Market.

At the farmer's market last week, the bi-color corn was gorgeous...

The yellow wax and green string beans were beautiful too. Kirby's were in abundance. So, continuing with my no cooking trend, I decided to make a batch of pickled vegetables. After all, quick pickles (I like Chris Schlesinger's book about quick pickles, btw) only involve bringing the brining liquid to a boil and then pouring it over the veggies. And that's what I did with my haul from the market. A couple of days later, a plate of pickles accompanied a nice sandwich, and if you've never had pickled corn, you don't know what your missing. And you won't even have to turn on the stove.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Hot Is It?

Restaurateurs - listen up. I have one word for you...Friedrich.

Allright, admittedly, I'm a grouch...just ask Significant Eater, our friends, family, anyone I come into contact with, whomever. But, something happens every summer, and it doesn't make me happy. That is, either restaurants in the city are not turning their air conditioners on at all or they're greatly lowering the amount of conditioned air they're sending out.

I mean, there was a summer night not too long ago when SE and I were looking for a place to eat; have I mentioned that I also don't cook that much in summer? So we walked over to this wine bar on Broome St. called The Ten Bells (which, btw, looked cute and fun with a nice menu and gentle prices) and its windows were flung open to the street - meaning, hey, I'm not eating there. Or drinking, for that matter. Because, you know, it's not bad enough that it's a million degrees in your friggin' restaurant, but the view of the garbage bags on Broome is just not my thing. I mean, it's not exactly the Piazza Navona, is it?

Then, walking further west, we got to Kampuchea (the restaurant, not the city) - and guess what? Windows flung open to the street - meaning, hey, I'm not eating there either. And finally, walking back east to 'inoteca, whose windows were blessedly closed and whose A/C was on...along with a nice bottle of vin rosato to add to the chill, it's where we contentedly ended up with only a 30 minute wait.

Just this past weekend, some friends stopped by for "a" cocktail, so after a few drinks we decided to go to An Choi on Orchard Street for some Vietnamese food. Guess what? Windows thrown open to the street, no a/c on - oy. Because I'm the nice guy that I am, we ate there anyway, and I only complained a little. I mean, the food is decent enough and the waitresses were wearing what could best be described as beach wear, so wtf.

Now, you gotta understand, during the winter I've eaten in restaurants in this city that have portable heaters set up inside. Eaten while wearing my coat. Eaten while freezing. But, there's only so much clothing one is allowed or encouraged to take off - and trust me, I'm not going that far and no one is encouraging me. And it wouldn't help. New York in mid-summer is basically disgusting - hot, humid, smelly...everything you think it would be. And I love it - New York City, that is...but I want air conditioning when I'm spending hard earned money for lunch or dinner in your restaurant.

It also seems that restaurants which still have that beloved a/c on seem to be edging their thermostats higher - obviously, everyone is feeling the energy squeeze as the price of heating and cooling eat into a restaurant's profits, but if you're charging me $16 for a damn hamburger, cool the room, zippy.

So, does anyone else notice this - or is it just the grouch in me? Or, maybe it doesn't bother you at all (perhaps you're from the equator? Or Mercury?) Please, tell me I'm not the only one.

And it's not like I'm really wishing for this, but there are times...

Saturday, July 3, 2010


For the first time in a long time, I ate at Otto last night. Otto is a restaurant owned by one of my favorite chefs, Mario Batali, along with Joe Bastianich, and they are two of NYC's most successful restaurateurs, if ever there were. Otto is modeled after an Italian train station, and if you've ever been to an Italian train station, it captures the feeling fairly well...well, except that there aren't any children trying to pick your pockets.

I guess one of the reasons (or perhaps THE reason) I haven't been back in a long time is the general level of crowd-ed-ness of the place. The other night was no exception. But when 2 friends and I popped in around 9 o'clock, after too many cocktails at Pegu Club, we were seated at the bar in under 20 minutes...and it's nice that the bartenders pretty much keep everything in check as to who is waiting for seats... a good touch.

In order to get some food in front of us as quickly as possible (cocktails make me hungry), we ordered a ration of the house-cured smoked paprika salami, which showed up in an instant, along with a bit of bread (to help soak up the booze). It didn't last long...

We know that the house cured meats at Otto are and always have been, great. But it's also a bit amazing that 7 or 8 years on and the kitchen is still putting out very good food, even excellent food at its price point. At $4 a pop, the vegetable antipasti are good. But double that price, and order a seafood starter - that's when you're convinced that the kitchen knows what it's doing. So along with the green beans and charred onions, we had perfectly cooked shrimp with chilies and garbanzos. Simple - yes. Delicious - undoubtedly...

Then we moved on to a pizza. Now, I've never had great things to say about the pies at Otto, and others have had similar reactions - the style is not to everyone's liking. But our pie, with arugula pesto, ricotta and chilies, topped with a handful of fresh arugula, was as good as any pizza I've had in a long time - including a recent trip to Totonno's to taste Coney Island's best once more...

Moving on to entrees, we each had our own pasta dish. I reluctantly shared my buccatini al' amatriciana, and my dining companions shared theirs as well: one was a penne with spicy cauliflower and the other spaghetti alla carbonara. All 3 were, in my opinion, textbook examples of proper pasta cooking and proper saucing. Oh, they were delicious, too - and is there any other place in Manhattan doing pastas this good for $9?

Dessert - 3 gelati to share. Do I need to say more? Okay, the olive oil gelato is still capable of stopping conversation - not ours of course, but you get the picture.

There's no way this place needs to get any more popular than it is. But if I can remember to pick and choose my days and times correctly, it's worth adding it back to a semi-regular rotation.

One Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10003

All pictures thanks to Lauren A. and her awesome iPhone thingie.