Thursday, October 30, 2014

Food Trucks (DC Metro Area)

One of my favorite things about going to school, and thus living, in Northern Virginia is the abundance of food trucks in the area.  My local WMATA Metro stop, Ballston, hosts several each weekday, and there are dozens throughout the DC Metro Area, most of which are tracked daily by the website Food Truck Fiesta.  This site lists the locations of each of the trucks that tweets each day, plus pictures of the truck itself, their menus, and shows the tweets themselves so that you can check out any specials, find out what time they are going to begin serving, and more.

Since I am home during the day primarily, I have had the opportunity to check out several of the trucks, and they range from mundane to spectacular.  Some represent offerings from area restaurants (Kohinoor Dhaba, an Indian restaurant in Crystal City, and Chef Seb, from Amoo's Restaurant in McLean, are two of my favorites), while others are start-ups from accomplished, classically trained chefs, like Brandon Ingenito's Brandon's Little Truck.  Pho, the traditional Vietnamese soup, is probably the most heavily represented single item among the trucks, with tacos and rice dishes right behind.

Chef Seb is probably my overall favorite at this point, by virtue of the ridiculously delicious Pumpkin Braised Chicken Stew, served over rice.  With a slightly sweet, very pumpkin-y flavor, the chicken itself is falling apart tender, but still moist; completely delicious, almost addictive, this is the perfect fall meal, and is the rare pumpkin dish I actually like in a completely over-saturated category this time of year.  It is served with a grilled pita, chimichurri, and a yogurt sauce with cucumber in it.

Brandon's Little Truck serves by far the most creative, upscale food in the bunch; a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the chef puts all his training and experience (including working at the other CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, in their fine dining room at Langley) into creating some deliciously simple yet refined food.  His lamb burger was the first I had ever had that was not overcooked, and his heavy reliance on pork belly is just wonderful, as it is among my favorite ingredients.  The Asian Pork Belly Fries are really delicious, with the fatty, bacon-y pork providing the perfect thing to complement the crisp fries, mildly spicy wasabi mayo and Sriracha, and the crispness of the slaw. 

To go into all of the various trucks I have tried would take forever, so let it simply be said that there is a veritable smorgasbord of wonderful options, and I highly recommend trying them out.  Most are reasonably priced, and with one exception (an Indian truck that I cannot remember the name of) all offer a good amount of food for what you pay and do not leave you hungry.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Zengo (Washington, DC)

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Anyone who knows me knows that I love brunch; breakfast foods, mixed with lunch foods, at a reasonable time of day (aka, not breakfast time) on weekends with delicious champagne drinks?  What is not to love?  Well, I am living in the right place apparently, because the DC Metro area is saturated with, and Richard Sandoval's Asian-fusion restaurant Zengo is a great example of how good brunch can be.  I went with a friend from school, and we both enjoyed ourselves, though there were a couple small hiccups.

The brunch menu is all-you-can-eat, and all-you-can-drink; what a great combination!  Drinks include standard and tequila-variant Bloody Marys, a sangria made with Sake, and four different Mimosas; you can hope back and forth between the offerings, or simply stick with one if you find one that you like.  The food includes three categories, all of which are "small plates" (an annoying trend that actually works for brunch):  "Ceviches/Sushi/Salads;" "Dim Sum & Antojitos;" and "Brunch Plates."  The list of dishes we ordered was, to say the least, extensive, and I did not take notes or anything, so combined with a few mimosas, my memories are not as crisp as they could be, but I can point out a few highlights, as well as the issues I saw.

To start with, I had the Guava Mimosa to start, and after a refill or two, I switched to the Traditional Mimosa.  The guava variety does not really taste like a mimosa, as it is much sweeter, and the alcohol is not strong enough to get much taste of it; on the other hand, the traditional, orange variety is quite boozy, just the way I like it!  As for the food, I have listed the dishes we ordered below, in in order of how they appear on the menu.

Angry Zengo Roll:  Tuna, avocado, and cucumber are the primary ingredients, with a little sauce dabbed on top, it was certainly far from traditional (and traditional is my preference, to be sure), but it was very tasty, and I finished the meal with two of these.  The fish was fresh, which is always the key.
Vegetarian Roll:  I hate vegetarian rolls, but this one was pretty decent; it was not simply some cucumber and carrot shavings wrapped in rice, but rather had grilled asparagus, red pepper, and even some mushroom, so it was quite tasty.
Edamame:  On the menu, it actually says "Edamame Salted," and holy crap, are they serious.  I love edamame, and I love salt, but this was maybe a bit of overkill with the sea salt.  Still tasty, though.
Bacon & Scrambled Egg Steamed Buns:  We ordered these first, and had to ask multiple times to get them, and I was really looking forward to them.  Sadly, they were...blah.  The buns were too dense, not the light and airy steamed buns I love, the egg was similar in texture (though admittedly not flavor) to the egg in a Dunkin' Donuts breakfast sandwich, and the bacon was barely there.  Highly not recommended.
Shrimp-Vegetable Potstickers:  Really tasty, but not a ton of shrimp flavor.  I would have preferred a bit more of a crust on the potstickers, maybe just another thirty seconds or so on the flattop, but otherwise, very good.
Angus Beef & Pork Meatballs:  Probably my favorite thing of the day, the meatballs were juicy, flavorful, and just incredibly tasty.  Highly, highly recommended.
Thai Chicken Empanadas:  Very tasty, crispy dough and tender filling, though I would not have said "Thai" was the dominant flavor profile.
Achiote-Hoisin Pork Arepas:  This was not an arepa, but was tasty; the pork especially was good, though it was just on top of the "arepa" which was dense and a little dry.
Lobster-Chipotle Grits:  Bad texture did nothing to ruin this ridiculously delicious dish; I love grits, regardless of the quality, and though the lobster did not come through that well, the chipotle did, and the chunks of bacon were just freaking amazing.  My second favorite dish.
Peking Duck Chilaquiles:  Why do chilaquiles keep disappointing me?!  Not nearly so bad as at The Brass Buckle back home, I had higher hopes this time, and while the duck was reasonably tasty, the overall dish was nothing to write home about.
Bacon Roasted Brussels Sprouts:  Apparently I like Brussels sprouts a lot now; who knew?  Pai Men Miyake may have been the first to really convince me, but they were certainly not the last, and these were very solid, tasty sprouts.  They may have been the slightest bit undercooked, but the crunch of the interior was quite pleasant.
Plantains:  Well, what is there to say; they were delicious, duh.  Platanos always are.  The sauces, a crema and a chipotle, were both cook, though I preferred the crema to the slight heat of the chipotle.
House Cured Bacon & Eggs:  Over-easy eggs always get the better of me when I try to make them, so when properly cooked I am always a bit impressed when they are well made, and these were.  The bacon, however, was too crispy for me, and less flavorful than I was expecting.  Nothing you could not get at any decent diner.

All in all, this was an expensive, but enjoyable, experience, one that I would repeat again, though because of its cost it would likely be a very, very rare thing.  I would recommend it, though with the caveat that while the service was pretty good, the kitchen was somewhat inconsistent.  Kudos to the concept though.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Black's Bar and Kitchen (Bethesda, MD)

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Good seafood is a wonderful thing, but in much of the country, especially those places not within a very short distance of a major fishing harbor, it is in short supply.  The DC Metro Area, an hour from the Chesapeake and much further from any major non-crab fisheries, was not where I would necessarily have expected to end up finding great seafood, even with the abundance of high end restaurants in the area; Saturday night, however, I had just that, up in Bethesda.

Black's Bar and Kitchen is one of the seven restaurants of Black Restaurant Group, all of which seem to focus on seafood quite heavily (one of them is actually a fish market that also serves food), and all of which are fairly high end.  Located in downtown Bethesda, MD, it is just one of dozens of restaurants in the area, but with great reviews and a long wait at the restaurant I originally planned to dine at, Black's stood out from the crowd.

My dining companion and I both had some difficulty deciding on what to eat, as everything on the menu sounded delicious, from the Seared Sea Scallops to the Duck Breast cooked on a wood fired grill, but in the end we narrowed it down to two dishes each, which happened to be the same for us both.  I ended up going with the Coriander Crusted Yellowfin Tuna Loin, and she the Pan Roasted Salmon Filet.  As it turned out, after trying both dishes, we each decided we had ended up with the right dishes, as she liked her salmon best, and for me, the Yellowfin was slightly superior.

The salmon did have two things going for it, which were its tremendously crispy skin, and that it was served with cockles.  Since I loved cockles (shellfish of all varieties, really), and she did not, I got to not only sample them, but in fact eat them all!  They were slightly briny, a little chewy in the same way clams are, but overall simple and delicious.  The salmon was nicely cooked, a proper medium, and was obviously fresh, though I felt that it was less flavorful than some I have had.

My tuna, on the other hand, was slightly more cooked than I would typically go for, but that was my own fault for not just ordering it rare.  Because it was not just lightly seared, it was starting to fall apart around the edges, though it was a perfect medium-rare all in all.  Sliced into several medallions, it was served separating a thick smear of Orange Annatto-Chipolte (sic) Emulsion and the various vegetables it was served with.  The emulsion had a nice spice to it that complemented the fish, while the coriander crust was heavenly, providing a slight crispness to each bite and a ton of the spice's unique flavor, but without ever making me feel like the fish was not the center of each bite.  Pickled peppers (local, according to the menu) added a little more heat, while the crisp, juicy grilled baby tomatillos, sweet pieces of pineapple, and crispy (sort of) yucca provided nice contrasts to the fish in both flavor and texture.  The tomatillos may have actually been my favorite part of the meal, as they were bursting with flavor as if picked off the vine and thrown directly over some flames, and had the little bit of char that had begun to form just before being plucked from the grill.  There were also pieces of orange that provided much the same result as the pineapple chunks, but were no less successful.  All in all, I was really pleased with the dish, and my date enjoyed her's as well, so I can comfortably recommend this as a fine place for a nice dinner out, whether with friends or a significant other.


We also each had some wine with dinner, and even with my limited knowledge of the subject, I could tell their wine list was solid.  That said, it was also significantly overpriced, both the ones available by the glass and those by the bottle.  I know the intent is to recoup the cost of the bottle with the first glass when serving individual portions, but the markup on the bottles was insane, at three times retail (and thus probably 3.5 or more over their cost), and is the kind of thing that makes me not want to get a bottle with dinner even when on a date.  Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, for example, is available at Schneider's of Capitol Hill, a fine wines and spirits shop in the District, for $49.99; a bottle at Black's Bar and Kitchen will run you $166, a 232% profit even assuming they are paying retail.  It is, to say the least, ridiculous. 

This is, of course, not limited to just Black's.  Most restaurants I have been to do similar things, so I do not want this to seem like I am picking on or necessarily even blaming Black's; it is, after all, industry standard.  That said, I think it is insulting to us as consumers, and more importantly, I think it prevents people from really being able to try or enjoy wines that they might like to.  As someone who knows only a little about wine, but likes to try new things, I find it tremendously frustrating when I go to a restaurant and the wine is marked up at such an incredible rate.  I pretty regularly buy wine at local stores, and find that oftentimes I can find very reasonably priced wines that I enjoy a great deal, but this is just impossible at a restaurant.  It is why I typically stick to beer, and that is unfortunate, because there are times that wine is absolutely the better choice.

Richard Auffrey of The Passionate Foodie has written about this topic several times, including a very interesting take on the subject as it pertains to his personal favorite, sake; I urge you to take a look at his post.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Jack Rose Dining Saloon (Washington, DC)

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A wall of spirits

Well, heaven exists, and it is on 18th St. NW in Washington, D.C.  Who knew?  With (according to a bartender I overheard talking to some patrons next to us) approximately 1800 different bottles of a variety of spirits, Jack Rose Dining Saloon is a whisk(e)y centric bar, containing hundreds of different bourbons, Scotches, ryes, and every other varietal you can think of.  These range from the tremendously low end (one guy ordered Fireball...ugh) to whiskeys that will run you over $120 per ounce.  The walls of the place contain six shelves of bottles, and there is well over 100 feet of horizontal wall space just in the downstairs.  Whether you like whiskey, vodka, tequila, or rum, or anything else for that matter, they should be able to satisfy your needs.

The bar is dimly lit, but not dark; it is quite easy to read labels and the menus without the addition of any extra light.  This leads to a good atmosphere, making the place feel both classy and approachable.  Good staff helps as well, with friendly, incredibly knowledgeable bartenders.  My roommate and I each ordered a pair of 2oz drinks (they are served as either 1oz or 2oz only) and an order of the Jalapeño Hushpuppies.
Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye

My first drink was Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye, a top of the line offering from one of the premier whiskey makers in the country.  Sazerac now owns several other companies, including personal favorites Buffalo Trace and Old Rip Van Winkle, the maker of Pappy van Winkle, but they are still well known for their own high end  ryes.  This particular version has won dozens of awards since its reintroduction after 110 years of not being produced, and it is easy to see why.  Rye's typical difference from non-rye whiskeys is the little bit of "spice" you get from it, and the Sazerac 18 is no exception; those notes are actually quite pronounced.  Smooth, but with some bite to the finish, it has a lovely, almost floral aroma, that the addition of a small amount of water does wonders for.  The aging has left a strong, but not overwhelming oaky flavor.  This is one of the best I have tasted.

After the Sazerac (which I nursed for quite some time) came an Islay Scotch that I have been meaning to try since seeing a few reviews of it online, in particular the review from Ralfy, a Scotsman who has an overwhelming knowledge of, and spectacular palate for, whisk(e)ys of all types.  Caol Ila 12 Year Old is, like all Islays, heavily peated, but without the overwhelming smokiness of, say, Laphroiag.  Again, a little water opened this whisky up well, with that peat aroma coming out in spades.  While it is not quite so smooth or so flavorful as its cousin Lagavulin 16 (owned by the same company), that makes a great deal of sense, seeing as it has four years less aging.  There is a vanilla flavor I have come to associate with Islays almost as much as the peat smoke, and the American oak barrels used for the aging process have imparted a vital flavor and aroma as well.  While this is certainly not the best Scotch I have had, it is a really good example of a 12 year old Islay, and I recommend it.  

The hushpuppies were ordered despite a rather filling meal earlier in the evening, and were quite tasty.  Fried a deep brown, they were soft and slightly chewy inside, with a few visible pieces of jalapeño.  They were served with an Old Bay dipping sauce that was good, but no better than any other mayonnaise-like sauce.  My one complaint is there was little to no spice in most bites; on occasion, there were hints of it, but mostly the peppers seemed lost; still delicious, but not spicy.  

So, what can I say that wasn't expressed in the first sentence?  Well, the place is not cheap if you are drinking really well, but there are a handful of options that are reasonably priced, as is the food.  It is not an everyday bar for most of us, but it is absolutely one of the best places I have ever been, and I will be going back, just not as often as I would prefer.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Heavy Seas Alehouse (Rosslyn, Arlington, VA)

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I have come to really enjoy brewpubs that have gone the gastro-pub route; this includes Bluejacket, a new D.C. brewery which I reviewed in May.  Sometimes in these situations, the food ends up  becoming more of a focus than the beer, or vice versa, and this can lead to problems, or at least a situation where you go for one more than the other; obviously, the goal is a nice equilibrium, where people want to go to your restaurant for both.  Heavy Seas Alehouse, in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, VA, has done a pretty good job of balancing things out, ending up with a nice restaurant that also serves very high quality beer.

Heavy Seas Beer, based in Baltimore, is the overarching organization that is responsible for the restaurant, which also has a location at the brewery itself.  Claiming to be the largest producer of cask conditioned beers in the United States, Heavy Seas has a great focus on high quality ingredients, including sourcing at least some of their hops locally in Maryland.  This kind of caring translates into quality, and the two beers I had were both delicious.  Unfortunately, I do not know the names of either for sure, but I am almost certain the saison I had was the Red Sky at Night (on cask) and the barley-wine I had was the Below Decks, based on what I can find on their website and on BeerAdvocate

The saison was light but boozy, definitely not a session beer, which I typically pick saisons for, but with the normal light, citrus and wheat forward spiciness I expect out of a good one.  The beer is both bright and cloudy, a strange mix that actually looks very cool as the clouds swirl through the glass; this could be related to being cask conditioned, but it did not taste like there was any sediment, and I suspect that Heavy Seas is more careful than to allow something like that to occur.  Either way, it looked good, and tasted better.  Assuming this was the Red Sky at Night, it is a 7.5%, and it definitely drank that way, but it was not overly sweet as some higher ABV saisons I have had were, and it definitely is still refreshing.

The barley-wine was absolutely not refreshing, but that is no knock on it.  Sweet, tart, malty, and with a hefty fruitiness, this was at the recommendation of the waiter (I'll get to him later) to accompany my rather heavy meal; as he promised, it held up well to, and even cut, some of the richness of the cream based sauce in my dish.  Nearly black and served in a goblet, this was a beautiful beer to behold, and my dinner companion, who had never had a barley-wine before, was quite impressed with the quality of it.  There was little hoppy flavor in the beer, but there was certainly plenty of booze; the Below Decks is a 10% beer, and while it drinks a little shy of that, I was a little buzzed by the end of dinner after the two beers.

As for food, Heavy Seas holds its own.  We split the Smoked Short Rib Taco, an order of which comes with three well filled soft corn shells and a ramekin of a sauce that appeared to be sour cream based.  The short ribs were rich and flavorful, shredded and accompanied by cotija cheese (a classic, and delicious, Mexican cow's milk varietal that melts well and holds up to strong flavors like good beef) and a "pickled chayote slaw" that really just served to provide an alternative texture, but little else.  This was a very good appetizer, not making me full, but definitely not leaving me starving.  Of course, even if it had, the entrees arrived as I was taking my final bites; I would take this over either arriving too early or after a long wait, but I do tend to like a couple minutes between courses, though I think I may be alone in this.

My entree, the Duck Cannelloni, was again a recommendation by the waiter, and it was a good one.  The sauce, listed on the menu as a "smoked cheddar cream" was heavy but not overwhelming, while the pasta, which resembled more of a very long, thin ravioli (and was actually almost identical to the ravioli my date had) was cooked fairly well, though it was maybe a tiny bit undercooked; just enough to be noticeable to me, but certainly not enough to be a problem.  Even though duck is listed as the primary meat, I did not see or taste that much of it, though what was there was tasty.  The whole dish was topped with fried onion strings, which were just shy of crispy; definitely a misstep on the part of the kitchen, as those need to have a legitimate crunch to be successful.  Instead, they were a bit blah, and by the time I was finished eating, they were soggy and a little chewy.  Despite this one issue, I ate everything with gusto, and really wanted a spoon to finish the sauce off with, though I held back.

Dessert was shared, with an order each of the Pecan Bourbon Bread Pudding and the Pyrat Rum Creme Brûlée, both recommended highly by the waiter.  The Creme Brûlée was solid, with a definite flavor of white chocolate, as promised by the menu, and with a glass-like crust of caramelized sugar; that was perfect, since so often I get creme brûlée that has a weak, barely there at all crust, and this was clearly done with care and precision.  That said, the Bread Pudding was the real star, not just of dessert, but of the whole meal.  Local ice cream (rum raisin?), raisin bread, and a crème anglais to die for, this was among the best I have ever had, right up there with the to-die-for bread pudding at Fat Cat in Quincy, MA.  It was sweet, but not even close to cloying.  The portion was large enough (and we were full enough) that even though we loved it, we left about half of one of the five pieces of bread on the plate when we left, plus about a quarter of the creme brûlée.  

 So, finally to the waiter.  Myron was up there with Timmy from David Burke Prime at Foxwoods, super knowledgeable, incredibly friendly, timed things well, provided great suggestions and checked in just the right amount.  We at a couple points exchanged recommendations on food (I told him about Fat Cat, since he said he is a bread pudding aficionado) and beer (he agreed with me on Troegs Hop Knife), and he was just spot on with all his food and drink suggestions during the meal itself.  I know some restaurants will do their best to honor requests for specific wait staff; if you go, I suggest asking to be put in his section.

All told, this was a really good experience, with pleasant staff, good food and beer, and a pretty nice atmosphere.  My one complaint might be how insanely loud it is in the front area by the bar, including in the seating area, but it was a bit quieter in the back (good job by the hostess, too, clearly recognizing the nature of the dinner and putting us at probably the quietest table in the place, despite several open tables elsewhere), though still a bit noisy.  This did not result in any problems for us, but it is something to be considered.  Either way, I absolutely recommend going, and do yourself a favor and order the bread pudding.

Friday, September 5, 2014

SingleCut Beersmiths (Astoria, Queens, NY)

While the rest of my trip up to Queens was fine for a group post, I felt that my trip to SingleCut Beersmiths deserved its own review.  A small brewery located in the Astoria neighborhood, my cousin and her boyfriend recommended we go there knowing that I love trying new beers.  Serving both their beers and a limited menu of food in their tap room, this is a fun little spot to hang out with a drink and a snack, though probably not a good option for a full meal.

I ordered a beer flight (5, 5oz beers) and a steak and mushroom pie, since I was a bit hungry and figured after two beers at the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden I could use a bit of food.  The steak and mushroom pie was pretty good, reminiscent of the meat pies I ate constantly the summer of 2007 when I was studying in Oxford and frequented the pasty shop on Cornmarket St.  The meat was flavorful and tender, the mushrooms cooked just right, and the gravy savory, while the crust was flaky.

I asked the bartender to pick whatever she wanted for my beer flight, since I did not know their menu at all, and she did pretty well.  Virtually all of their beers are named for people, who I suspect either work there or are connected to the employees.  They also spell lager lagrrr...pirates?  I went light to dark, taking brief notes, as follows.  Descriptions from their menu are in italics.

"Ian" Olympic White Lagrrr!:  A wheat lagrrr! made with hundreds of freshly juiced and zested oranges, coriander and szechuan pepercorn.  The wittier witbier!   14IBU, 5.4% ABV.  Very little nose, with a light look and feel, a major coriander flavor, but lacking the szechuan flavor I was looking for.  All in all, refreshingly mild.

"Kim" Hibiscus Sour Lagrrr!:  Refreshingly tart and citrusy.  Made with hibiscus flowers and black currants.  5IBU, 4.1% ABV.  Wow!  What a great beer.  Huuuuuuge nose, sweet and sour smelling.  It both tasted and smelled a bit like Warheads candies, as my cousin pointed out (I could not quite place the flavor, but as soon as she said it I knew she was right), with a great tart, slightly fruity beer that was not nearly as sweet as it smelled.  The black currant came through well, as did the citrus.  The best beer I had there, and really the best beer I had other than the Troegs Hop Knife.  Despite its very low ABV, I do not think this is quite a session beer, if only because of the very intense flavor.

"Billy" Half Stack IPA:  This juggernaut of an IPA has a stone fruit, citrus and dank hop profile that is insanely drinkable.  88IBU, 6.6% ABV.  Very little nose, but what there was smelled entirely of hops.  The hops carried over into the flavor, with a good citrus note.  The aftertaste is actually very pleasant, a rarity, and despite its high IBU number, it was very drinkable.

"Dean" PNW Mahogany Ale:  A crisp, spicy and dry malt back bone featuring Pacific North West hops.  This mahogany colored ale has a notably resiny, piney and citrus hoppiness that will put hair on even a lumberjacks chest!  73IBU, 6.0% ABV.  Huge malt flavor, definitely sweet.  I honestly did not write much about this, because I just could not quite decide how I felt.  I do not recommend it unless you like super malty beers, but I would not necessarily say do not drink it either.

"John Michael" Dark Lyric Lagrrr!:  He's back, in black, and better than ever.  With it's (sic) deep dark hue, an abundant hope presence and surprisingly smooth quaffability this beer in black is what we mean when we say, "Lagrrr!" (usually followed by an echoing sinister laughter).  50IBU, 6.0% ABV.  Huge malt nose, but less malty flavor than the "Dean."  The booze is heavily present in the taste, surprising for a 6% beer.  My cousin had the coffee version, and it was much better.

Queens Trip (Queens, New York City, NY)

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In my quest to attend a game at each Major League Baseball stadium, I took a quick trip up to New York City for a Mets game, staying with my cousin in Queens.  This was just a Friday to Sunday trip, but I managed to get to a few different places, including one old favorite restaurant in Flushing, and a couple great beer joints in Astoria.

Friday night, we headed to the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, a Czech style beer hall with a huge outdoor courtyard.  Their beer list is not incredible, but both times I have been there I had no trouble finding good beer options.  The food is primarily Czech, or at least Czech inspired, which is similar to German.  There really is not a great deal to say about the Beer Garden, other than that both times I have been there I have thoroughly enjoyed myself, as everyone is friendly, the outdoor area is great if it is not too cold, and the inside has a handful of televisions showing various sports games, including association football.  It is one of those places I wish existed right in my backyard, though my wallet appreciates that is does not.

Saturday before the game, we grabbed a late lunch/early dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant in New York, Joe's Shanghai in Flushing.  Known for their soup dumplings, Joe's has locations in Chinatown and Midtown in Manhattan, and in Flushing's Chinatown, with menus featuring both Americanized and authentic food.  Following a shared order of the shrimp and pork soup dumplings, I had the Crispy Whole Sea Bass.  The dumplings have a spoonful of broth in them, so when you bite into one you get a little bit of hot soup along with the wrapper and the filling.  I have occasional cravings of these, but I should  be okay for a little while now.

The order of the Crispy Whole Sea Bass is a bit of a tradition for me, going back to the first time I ever ate at Joe's Shanghai as a young teenager; very slightly spicy, thoroughly crispy on the exterior and light and flaky on the inside, this fish is incredible.  The sauce, which is where the spice comes from primarily, has a little bit of a sweetness to it, and goes well with the fish, on rice, or anything else really.  Everyone else at the table had a bit and absolutely loved the sauce, even if they did not necessarily try the fish.  The bass itself is very lightly battered and deep fried, so you get the delicious flavor of the fish and that classic fried flavor that really just makes everything better.  This is among my favorite restaurants, period, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

After the Mets game, my cousin, her boyfriend, and I adjourned to Mosaic Cafe & Lounge.  This place has an incredible beer list, comfortable chairs and a great atmosphere, along with knowledgeable, friendly bartenders.   Their menu also includes several delicious looking items, though I was still pretty stuffed from the dumplings and fish.  For beer, I went with the bartender's suggestions; one was a new item on tap for them, Hop Knife from Troegs Brewery.  A fresh hopped IPA, it is among the best beers I have ever had.  Incredibly drinkable (it comes in at a more than manageable 6.2%, but really feels like 5%; to quote the bartender, it is "completely sessionable") yet complex, the hops are very subtle, but flavorful, with a background note of lemony citrus and wheat.  The beer had very little nose, surprisingly, but the aroma that was present was of hops and mild fruit.  I look forward to having this beer again, though I suspect it is best on draught, rather than in a bottle, so I will be a little wary if I find it in bottles.  All in all, this is actually one of my favorite beers now for the combination of flavor, drinkability, and the fact that it is out of the ordinary for me.  Highly, highly recommended.

The second beer I had that evening was from Bell's Brewery, a fairly new-to-me brewer, but one that has impressed me significantly and that has received raves elsewhere (they have a 96 rating overall on BeerAdvocate).  The beer I had was called The Oracle, and according to the bartender it should not have been available; someone shipped a few cases accidentally to their supplier, despite it not being released in New York State, and I am pretty pleased it happened.  This beer is probably the most hop-forward beer I have ever had; from the first sniff I was blown backward by the aroma of the hops, and the first sip was legitimately intense.  While I had to hold back on the Hop Knife so I did not devour it in just a few minutes, I had no choice but to nurse The Oracle.  Every little bit of the alcohol (and there is a lot, at 10% ABV) is in each sip, and so are the hops, the malted notes, and some spicy flavors that I could not identify.  I think I drank this beer (and it was just a 12oz) over the course of nearly an hour, so it is really the opposite of Hop Knife.  It also was not as good; while I was very glad to have tried it, and I actually did enjoy it overall, I would probably not go for it again unless it was to pair with an incredibly powerful--and spicy--meal, as it is absolutely not the sort of beer that suits itself well to sitting around drinking.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Rustico (Ballston, Arlington, VA)

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Post number 100!

Rustico, being located just a short walk from my apartment, and possessing a superlative beer list and interesting looking menu, has been on my short list of places to go since I first moved some of my stuff down here in late July, and I was not disappointed with my first visit.  While I did not have anything to drink, since my accompaniment was not partaking, I did have both a delicious entree and a spectacular dessert.

The menu includes several very clever appetizers and "snacks," including fried deviled eggs, "risotto tots," and the ever delicious fried green tomatoes.  While I did not partake in any of these this trip, I will definitely be trying them all in the future.  This time, I was waffling between the grilled rainbow trout and the Pea and Mascarpone Ravioli, but upon asking the waitress which I should go with, she immediately and without any hesitation answered to go with the ravioli.  Served with shrimp, snap peas, toasted pistachios in a buerre blanc, the ravioli themselves were quite well made, with fresh pasta cooked properly, and the filling was creamy and delicious.  The buerre blanc was also well made, did not separate, and had just the right consistency to cling to the peas, shrimp and ravioli, but not so thick as to be clumpy or become oatmeal-like.  Shrimp are often overcooked, and these were not, and the peas were delightfully crisp, maintaining that "snap" that gives them their name.

For dessert I broke my custom and went overtly sweet, with a Peach Crumble Sunday.  Using homemade cheesecake (I thought it was vanilla, to be honest, but that's okay, it was delicious) ice cream, clearly homemade bourbon whipped cream, peach compote and a cornmeal crumble, this was incredibly good, possibly even more successful than the entree, which I had really no major complaints with other than that I wish they had given me more.  The ice cream had the perfect smooth texture, without any obvious ice crystal formation despite not being, as far as I could tell, liquid nitrogen frozen.  The whipped cream was delicious, with just a hint of flavor from the bourbon, while the compote was sweet but not cloying, with some crunch from the peach, which did nothing to detract from the crunch of the cornmeal crumble, which was the perfect counterpoint to the ice cream and whipped cream.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jetties (Washington, DC)

So as my consistent readers know, I have primarily written about western Massachusetts, the Boston area, and the Portland, Maine area over the life of this page.  Now, however, I have moved, as I decided to go back to school, and thus find myself for at least the next two years a resident of Arlington, VA.  This will give me a huge amount of new opportunities to try restaurants and beers, though seeing as I am now a grad student and no longer gainfully employed (for the time, at least) my options will be limited.  That said, I can't wait to try all sorts of new places, and I am incredibly excited to review them for you!

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Jetties is a small, four location local chain of sandwich shops in and around DC, with locations on Foxhall Rd, Macomb St, in downtown on Eye St, and in Bethesda on Fairmont Ave.  I had lunch today at the Foxhall location, and despite arriving at the tail end of the lunch hour, the place was absolutely packed; good sign.  With ample outdoor seating, a clear dog-friendly policy (several people had their dogs there, and they clearly did not mind if someone filled up a dog bowl with water), and a nice location near Georgetown University, the French Embassy, and American University, this is a great place for college kids, tourists, and locals alike.  Everything seems to run like a top, as their system of ordering is quite simple: you grab a pre-printed "menu" for either sandwiches, salads, or kids sandwiches; write your name on it; and either select from their list or design your own.  You then hand it to the check-out person, pay, and await your sandwich. 

I selected the Surfside (the whole place actually is "surf-inspired"), with roasted turkey, Havarti, bacon, avocado, and whole grain mustard, on sourdough.  I was instantly impressed when I saw the roasted turkey breast sitting on a butcher's block, and someone slicing off large hunks of it for sandwiches.  This was clearly no ordinary compressed deli "meat," but obviously roasted in house, and it looked absolutely delicious, as did all the other ingredients, most assuredly fresh as well.  The giant hotel pan of bacon was not a bad sign either.

When I got my sandwich (after a wait of about five minutes, I would say; not bad, considering the number of people still ordering a little after 1:00pm), and grabbed a seat, it was all I could do not to just destroy the sandwich.  Thankfully I was not alone, and thus forced to savor it, and boy am I glad I did.  The turkey was perfect, not entirely overcooked like most poultry (though I would have cooked it a little less, but that is true of almost everything, and would make serving it to the majority of people difficult) so it was not too dry, though being white meat it was not exactly moist either.  The bacon was crisp but not crunchy, perfect for a sandwich where you do not want to risk it disintegrating on the first bite, while the avocado added a smooth, creamy texture and fattiness that was just fantastic.  While Havarti is among my favorite sandwich cheeses, it was a little lost here; something more prominent, like very sharp cheddar (Cabot Seriously Sharp, anyone?) or even a (gasp!) Swiss would have been better choices in my mind.

Bread being a key ingredient of any sandwich, I should mention that the sourdough used in this sandwich was really good, very fresh tasting, with just a hint of that classic sour flavor.  It held up well to the sandwich, not falling apart of becoming soggy in the least, and it had a nice crust that provided just the right amount of bite.  Less successful, though not for any real reason other than getting lost (in much the same way as the cheese), was the mustard; I barely tasted it, and while it was not needed necessarily, a good spiciness would have been a good addition.  I suspect it was simply an issue of not having enough applied because many people would not want a huge amount of it, but for me, it lacked the mustard flavor.

All in all, I had a great sandwich, which could have used some minor alterations, but nothing earth shattering, and the menu looks like there are several more I should be trying, not the least of which is the "Nobadeer," a Thanksgiving themed sandwich with roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mayo on sourdough.  There are also several vegetarian items and a lobster roll, though having lived part time in Maine for most of my life I have an issue ordering them south of Kittery.  There are more than enough options between salads and sandwiches to make just about anyone happy, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Matt the Miller's (Columbus, OH)

This will be the final post I make from Massachusetts for quite some time; from here on out, I will be in the DC area.  I could use some restaurant recommendations in Arlington and Washington!


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Day one of a five day road trip with my friend Forrest was, to say the least, long.  I worked a 12 hour shift the night before that concluded at 7am, leaving me with less than an hour at home to attempt (unsuccessfully) a nap before Forrest arrived and we took off for Columbus, Ohio.  Thus, when we finally arrived in Columbus, late for the baseball game we were going to attend (we went the next day, which was fine), we were both starving and exhausted.  Eleven hours on the road will do that to you, I suppose.  Thankfully, a little internet searching found us Matt the Miller's Tavern, a small local chain with a lot of good beers, and some damn fine steaks.

Forrest and I both ordered beers, then each went with the 10oz Flatiron steak, a piece of meat that came out looking far larger than its listed weight.  Each steak comes with one of three "toppers" (garlic butter, Gorgonzola, or fried onion strings), and one side from a list of about ten.  Forrest had the fried onion strings and mixed vegetables, and I went with the Gorgonzola and horseradish mashed potatoes, with mine ordered rare of course.

The steaks came out fairly quickly, so clearly the kitchen is on their game, and our waiter did not dawdle with putting in the order, something we greatly appreciated in our near starvation.  Both steaks came liberally topped with our respective choices, with mine having so much Gorgonzola that I actually had to scrape some off, though I used it to mix into the mashed potatoes, which made them better.  My steak was cooked perfectly, with a cool, deep red interior and slightly crusty exterior.  The beef itself had almost a blackened flavor from the spice mixture that had been rubbed on it, which was unexpected but pleasantly spicy and salty, and the steak clearly of high quality.  My mashed potatoes were fine, nothing incredibly special, and the horseradish flavor was non-existent, but the addition of the Gorgonzola was delicious.  Both of us powered through our meals and, despite how insanely hungry we had been, were quite full and pleased with the meal when we left.

The draught beer list was not huge, but was well stocked with both local and national level brews, including Ballast Point Grunion Pale Ale.  I was looking for a lower alcohol content beer, and was feeling decidedly anti-IPA that day, a rarity for me, so I went with the Grunion, a 5.5% light-in-color-but-not-flavor type.  It definitely is what you go for with a pale ale, very lightly malty, very lightly hopped (contrary to what their website says, quite frankly), and just incredibly refreshing.  I think Forrest went with a local beer, but I cannot recall.

The beer was not cheap, but the steak was reasonably priced, just $16.99 for a large piece of very good meat, a side and a topping.  The setting is nice, and I suspect sitting on their patio is pleasant when the weather is better, but sitting in the bar area was just fine, as they have a few high tops with real chairs in addition to booths and stools at the bar itself.  It never got too loud, was well lit, and there were several televisions showing everything from bull riding to the World Poker Tour to the Crossfit Championships, and some more mainstream options as well.  I would definitely go back if I find myself in Columbus again, and I immediately recommended it to my friend who moved there the day we left.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Lolita (Cleveland, OH)

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Over a five day road trip to the Midwest, my friend Forrest and I hit four different baseball stadiums, generally eating standard ballpark fare and breakfast at our hotels.  We had one very good meal at a restaurant the first night of the trip, in Columbus (OH), but it was dinner on the final night that was really something special.

I watched a lot of Food Network for a couple years, as it was just about the only channel with anything good on during the wee hours of the nights while I was at work with nothing to do, and every time Michael Symon was on, I would drool over the thought of going to one of his restaurants.  The man just seemed to appreciate pork in a way that no one else does, and that is my kind of chef.  So, when we arrived in Cleveland and were looking for somewhere to eat dinner, I checked out his restaurants.  Lolita, the more casual of his two primary restaurants (the other being Lola), is located in Tremont, at the corner of Literary Rd and Professor Ave.  Every day, Lolita has a happy hour menu (served only at the bar) for a couple hours, which has a white wine, red wine, two mixed drinks, a beer, and four small dishes available, with the food just $5 per plate and the drinks that or less.  This was perfect to try a few different things on the menu, so we sat at the bar, ordered a couple beers ($2 each!), and a few items off the menu.  Sadly I did not think to write down what the beer was, since it was actually pretty good, but I do remember the food!

Forrest had to step out to take a call right when we arrived, so I ordered us the Mac & Cheese (a half portion of their regular serving) and the Mussels off the happy hour menu, and the Crispy Pig Tails & Ears appetizer from the regular menu.  The Mussels arrived first, a large portion for just $5, perfectly cooked (aka not chewy), with a creamy sauce including house-made chorizo, garlic and parsley, along with a couple pieces of bread to soak up the sauce, which the bartender replenished at my request so as not to waste the remnants of the sauce after we were finished with the shellfish itself.  The chorizo was delicious, salty and savory, and the sauce was perfectly creamy, with a slight tang.  Not quite as good all in all as the mussels at Local 188 in Portland (ME), but probably top three I've ever had.

The Crispy Pig Tails & Ears arrived at about the same time as the Mac & Cheese, so I tried the pasta first.  This was the only real disappointment of the evening, as the macaroni (rotini, in this case) was slightly overcooked, the chicken was boring and plain, and the cheese sauce was nothing I could not make myself.  In fact, my own version of the dish is better.  I am glad I did not order the full portion of this, because I think I would have had a very disappointing meal if this were my entree.  It was not even that it was bad; it simply was nothing you could not get at any decent diner or at most peoples' homes.

The Crispy Pig Tails & Ears made up for that disappointment and more.  I have been describing the pig tails to my friends as a perfect combination of bacon and chicken wings; they were crisp, succulent, and fatty.  The sauce they were tossed in was a fennel-onion agrodolce, which resulted in a very slightly sweet and very vinegary flavor, which actually would be great on wings as well.  There was a salad of fried slices of pigs ear, pickled chili peppers, and the onions and fennel from the agrodolce, which was just absolutely amazing; the fried pigs ear pieces were so incredibly good they were only topped by the tails themselves, and the crunch from them was a great counterpoint to the soft vegetables and even the tender meat of the tails.  The whole thing was prepared so well I honestly can not find a single flaw, and I can usually nitpick something in every dish.  This is probably the single best dish I have ever eaten, and I would drive back to Cleveland just to have it.

We were still hungry after those three, so we ordered the Fried Brussels Sprouts (Forrest does not like eggplant, so the Charred Eggplant Dip was not an option), and they were also incredibly good, even surpassing my previous favorite preparation of these formerly hated greens at Portland's Pai Men Miyake.  Deep frying makes everything better, and that holds true for these, with the crispy outer leaves and slightly crunchy center giving it a nice contrast to the softer inner leaves.  Served with walnuts, capers and anchovies, there was a vinegar-like tang (likely from the capers) to these as well, just like the pig, and the walnuts added a nice meatiness to the dish.  The anchovies were a bit lost, though there was a healthy saltiness that could have been from them.  For people who think they do not like Brussels sprouts, they should really try these; I think they would change their minds.

Food is obviously the main thing you go to a restaurant for, but I firmly believe that people go back for service; after all, you can get good food just about anywhere, but really superlative service is honestly kind of rare.  While I was a little leery of the bartender at first, as he did not immediately provide the attentiveness that I am used to at higher end restaurants, he eventually turned it around, joking with us, talking about basketball (we were in Cleveland, after all; LeBron was bound to come up, right?) and baseball, and just generally chatting with us in a way that was pleasant and unobtrusive.  Top notch service in the end, and a really nice guy in general.

All in all, this was one of the best meals I have had, with just the one dish that was not spectacular, and two that were legitimately incredible in the Crispy Pigs Ears & Tails and the Brussels Sprouts, while the mussels were really delicious as well.  I cannot recommend this restaurant highly enough.  It is also most assuredly not vegetarian friendly, but if you are looking to break out of that lifestyle, this is the place (and the pigs ears are the dish) to do it.  Additionally, though it is not cheap for a real dinner, if you just go for the happy hour, you can get out of there pretty cheap; our meal was under $30 before tax and tip, for four dishes and four beers, a pretty tremendous value.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Peter Havens (Brattleboro, VT)

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For my birthday, my mom and step-father took me out to dinner up in Brattleboro at Peter Havens, a fine dining establishment that has been around for twenty years, but I somehow had never been to.  They went to a special dinner there the week before, and were quite impressed, so when our first choice, L.A. Burdick's The Restaurant at Burdick was unavailable to us (they only serve brunch on Sundays, not dinner), we ended up in Brattleboro.  While I definitely still want to go up to L.A. Burdick, I could not have been more pleased with the dinner we had.

The restaurant itself is small, with over half of it devoted to the bar area, which consists of a large wooden bar in a rather open area and a few tables, and a second area that is separated by a partial wall that has another half dozen tables.  It is lit just right, not so much that it seems bright but not so little it feels dark (an unfortunate trend in higher end restaurants these days), and it does not seem to be overly loud even with several groups together.  Our waitress was nice, but I like to have wait-staff that are very confident and have strong opinions on the menu; if asked "which do you recommend," there should be an answer, and "well, that depends on whether you're in the mood for X or Y" does not count.  That said, when she finally made a decision it turned out to be the right one.

I started off with the Escargot ("Brandy & vermouth marinated escargots sautéed with garlic, butter
and parsley, served in a puff pastry shell and finished with a touch of cream") at the recommendation of the waitress, who I tasked with choosing amongst that, the house Caesar salad ("Romaine lettuce. tossed in our classic house-made caesar dressing, topped with warm duck confit and  croutons"), and the special soup for the day, a gazpacho that sounded completely delicious.  In the end, while I am sure the soup and salad would have been very good, the escargot was spectacular.  The snails themselves were just the right mix of chewy and tender, the sauce was tangy and creamy, and the puff pastry was a great vehicle for both.  I just had raw escargot in Valras Plage, and while this restaurant lacked the ambiance of being located fifteen feet from a Mediterranean beach, eating them here was pretty delightful as well.  

We also split the Duck Liver Pate ("House made duck liver pate prepared with a hint of brandy, served with whole grain mustard, red onion jam, cornichons and toast points"), and I have one big complaint:  I can't have it every day.  Oh my God, that was good.  Creamy, smooth, decadent pate beautifully served in a small jar alongside some pieces of toast, a little pile of cornichons, which I love, really great rustic mustard that was distinctly German tasting, and the red onion jam, which stacks up really well to the pickled onions on the Pulled BBQ Duck Nachos at The Dirty Truth, which are legitimately crave-worthy.  I just wanted more and more and more of this; probably one of the three or four best appetizers I have ever had.

My entree was switched up at the last minute, as I had intended to go with the Roasted Statler Chicken Breast ("finished with two-mustard sauce and served with truffle mashed potatoes") since my step-dad was going with the Pan Roasted Duck Breast ("with French green lentils, caramelized apple, and sauce bigerade"), but when he switched to a swordfish special, I went with the duck.  Thank God I did.  The duck was gorgeous, a thinly (app 1/4 inch) sliced breast laid out and smothered in a dark, rich sauce that was incredibly savory, though I did not really taste any of the citrus I would expect from a Sauce Bigerade.  The duck itself was maybe the tiniest bit overcooked, but because of the sauce it was not a problem, and it was reasonably moist still.  I am not a huge fan of lentils typically, though when prepared properly they are really awesome, and the French green lentils were not only tasty on their own, but great eaten with the sauce.  The caramelized apple was really delicious, but kind of lame, in that it was just a single small piece about an inch wide and two inches long; it would have been greatly appreciated if there were a couple more pieces.  I am nitpicking here; the entree was awesome, and the meal all in all was one of the best I have ever had.  This is definitely a new favorite.

I had a McNeill's Brewery Dead Horse IPA with dinner, which is definitely a top ten in the category for me.  One of the smoothest IPAs I have had, it was just hoppy enough to make you aware of what it is, but not nearly like many of the other great (and terrible) IPAs that are on the market now, which seem to emphasize the hops to the max.  A great beer, it will get its own review soon enough I am sure.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fleurs d'Olargues (Olargues, Languedoc-Roussillon, France)

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In a vacation in Roquebrun, "Le Petit Nice," that included trips to the tremendous Cité de Carcassonne, the market at Saint-Chinian, and the beautiful Valras-Plage on the Mediterranean, the best and most memorable thing is without a doubt the lunch I had in the small town of Olargues.  Restaurant Fleurs d'Olargues is located next to the town's beautiful 13th century "Devil's Bridge," along Le Jaur, a tributary of the Orb river.  In addition to the idyllic location, the food is incredible, the service spectacular, and the overall experience nearly unbeatable.

A view of Restaurant Fleurs d'Olargues from "Devil's Bridge"
We were supposed to go to Carcassonne on the day we ended up in Olargues, but rain forestalled our trip to the fortress, and I am so very grateful for that.  Upon arriving the beauty of the location was immediately apparent, with outdoor seating just below the aforementioned bridge and thus the hillside village it led to.  It seemed unlikely that the food could live up to the atmosphere; I cannot emphasize how wrong I was about that.  With a menu that includes both prix fixe and a la carte options, there are not a huge amount of options, but they can accommodate vegetarians and omnivores alike; vegans need not apply.

I selected the standard prix fixe menu, a three or four course option that gave diners the choice of a few appetizers and main courses, a cheese plate and/or dessert.  I selected the foie gras appetizer, duck main plate, and the cheese plate.  Several people at the table went with the menu of the day, a three course meal that included a chevre salad that everyone raved about, stuffed pork tenderloin, and a lemon zabaione. 

My meal began with a shooter of cold zucchini and garlic soup.  Refreshing, bright, and with a bizarre yet delightful spiciness.  This was a really great start, very simple but delicious, an attractive little glass of soup that served essentially to wake up the taste buds and get you excited for what came next.

Foie Gras
And oh my, what came next.  Meat butter is the best way to describe foie gras, the incredible, smooth, silky liver that has caused so much angst here in the United States, and oh my god it is good.  Studded with figs, served with pickled onions, a crisp of cheese, and some dabs of tart sauce, this was among the best courses I have ever had in a life of eating some truly amazing food.  The presentation was gorgeous, so very simple, so focused on just presenting the food in a way that I tend not to associate with French cuisine.  I will admit, my general attitude toward French food is that technique takes too much of a role at the expense of showcasing the ingredients, but this was not that; it was just the food, and it was so stunningly good I really cannot describe it.

Following up the foie gras was always going to be a tough task, but they did an impressively admirable job of it.  Seared duck, along with a croquette of what I am fairly certain was shredded duck liver, a mash of celeriac, braised Brussels sprouts, and red cabbage cooked in wine.  The duck was perfectly cooked, medium rare with the fat cap both crisp and unctuously satisfying, while the mash was just the right consistency; not quite smooth, with some good texture to each bite, but not lumpy by any means.  Brussels sprouts have only recently moved from my short list of disliked foods, but if I had had these I would have always enjoyed them; so simple, but so delicious.  Cabbage is a hit or miss food for me, but these were perfect; a little crisp, savory, with a similar flavor, texture and look to German style red cabbage.  Best of all, however, was that croquette, which was tied with the foie gras as my favorite thing I ate all day.  Crunchy, savory, filled with umami flavor, just a hint of gaminess, and perfectly salted, this was literally perfect, but again, just very very simple.  I will go back to this restaurant just on the off-chance they have it again.

Rather than a sweet dessert, I decided to have the cheese plate, which came with four cheese, some bread, with a fruit compote and a berry sauce, and a single flax-like crisp, which was the only bad thing I ate all day.  The cheeses were delicious, from a goat cheese so sweet it nearly a dessert in and of itself to a stinky, delicious blue.  There was even one cheese that tasted and looked like a richer, albeit less sharp, version of America's cheddar.  I tried the dessert, and while it was delicious, I am glad I went with the cheese.

Following the dessert/cheese course, several of

Coffee after lunch
us had coffee (if you were not aware, coffee is never served with dessert in France; it is, in fact, its own separate course, and they do not appear to be willing to deviate from this, as one of our group discovered to his chagrine), which was also spectacular.  Essentially a slightly larger espresso, the coffee was strong and delicious, served with raw sugar cubes.  Typically I drink my coffee as it comes, but I added a cube of sugar and it was perfect in this case, since the coffee was so strong.  Definitely do not skip this course if you like coffee.

All in all, I cannot speak highly enough of this entire meal, and I will absolutely be going back when I am next in Roquebrun; the short trip to Olargues is more than worth it.   If you have the opportunity to go, do not miss this gem.

Olargues's hillside portion of town
Smoked tuna appetizer

Dining room from the outside seating area
Dining room from inside

"Devil's Bridge" and the tower that was the center of the keep when the town of was built

Friday, June 20, 2014

Legal's Test Kitchen (Logan Airport, Boston, MA)

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Renowned local seafood chain Legal Seafood has gone regional, and now has 34 restaurants from Massachusetts to Georgia, including their "Test Kitchens," restaurants where they try new recipes, as well as showcase old favorites.  Featuring both local and nationally sourced seafood, they espouse a philosophy of using fish from sustainable sources and fisheries, and offer a high level of service and product.  This review is a little different from most because it is not of a restaurant that is accessible to the daily diner; it is, rather, of one of their locations that happens to be located inside Logan Airport.  That said, Legal's Test Kitchen (LTK, or like the rest of the restaurant group, colloquially, Legal) Harborside is a restaurant I have tried in the past, and it was just as good (if not better) so I feel confident in recommending that restaurant as well, and even would go so far as to recommend the entirety of the Legal Seafood line.

As I am about to embark on a vacation abroad, I find myself in one of my least favorite places; the airport.  Not just any airport, either, but Logan, a hellish place that typically is among my least favorite places on earth.  Today, however, I arrived at lunch time, and since all I had had to eat was a doughnut at a staff meeting this morning and a piece of toast before leaving western Mass to head out to Boston, I figured food was a good idea.  LTK happened to be situated directly in front of my gate, so I decided to grab a beer and a bite to eat.  They do not have a particularly extensive list of craft beers, but old mainstay Allagash White was among them, so I cannot complain too much.  The menu is rather limited at this particular location, but they had gumbo on the menu, a personal favorite and something I rarely pass up when the opportunity to order it presents itself.  Meals come up quickly here, as they should at an airport restaurant, with a clear recognition of the fact that people often are grabbing a quick meal between flights and have limited time, so mine came to me in probably five minutes.  Despite the rapidity of the cooking, everything was prepared pretty well, from the fried okra (breaded, strangely; it worked though) to the shrimp to the scallops; my only complain was a little bit of grit in the seafood, but considering the okra was not at all slimy, I am willing to call that a wash.  The gumbo was served with a mound of rice in the middle, which was simple white rice, but with the gravy-like soup it was very good, as the gumbo itself had a fair amount of flavor; clearly a proper roux was made in the preparation.  The dish included generous amounts of everything, and I am definitely not hungry as I write this.  That is a very good thing, seeing as the beer (only a 16oz, not the optional 23oz) and gumbo came to $26 before tip; nothing annoys me more than needing more food after spending that kind of money on lunch.

Airports are not typically known for providing good, or even acceptable food, but in this case Logan, and Legal's Test Kitchen, break the mold, and for that I am quite thankful.  I highly recommend stopping into Concourse A (across from A5) for lunch if you have the time while at Logan, or hitting up one of their nearly three dozen other locations throughout the northeast, mid-Atlantic and Georgia.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Guest Chef Dinner, The Gill Tavern (Gill, MA)

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The Gill Tavern is a very good restaurant in its own right, a solid mix of modern upscale and simple pub-like fare.  Founded by the owner of The People's Pint, a Greenfield brewpub that has good food, great beer, and (at least the last time I went there, which has now been a few years) absolutely horrific service that prevented me from enjoying the good food and beer, The Gill Tavern has been successful since the beginning, and since it really is unique in Franklin County, I suspect they will continue to be for a long time.

This review, however, is not about the restaurant's ordinary operations, but rather about a Guest Chef event they now hold yearly.  Julian Proujansky, an old schoolmate of mine, and Heather Bortnem, have come to The Gill Tavern for the last three years to display their talents.  Both are highly successful in New York City:  Julian is the Chef de Cuisine at Omar's La Ranita, which has received significant acclaim, and formerly worked at the famed Eleven Madison Park, recipient of three Michelin stars; Heather is head baker at Commerce Restaurant, famous in its own right, and a truly impressive title for someone so young.

This year's dinner was an interesting look into the current state of haute cuisine, with a combination of primarily simple ingredients and sophisticated concepts, it was all in all a very successful meal.  Five courses were served, consisting of canapes, a salad, an appetizer, entree, and finally dessert.  My only complaint had nothing to do with the food, which was that we were seated family style, and since I am not a huge fan of strangers, that was less than entirely comfortable for me.

The canapes were spectacular, four small bites that offered different textures, flavors and visuals:  chick pea "fritters;" roast carrots with za'atar; black rice crisps with English peas; and deviled quail egg.  The fritters were small logs of mashed chickpeas lightly fried and topped with a mild sauce; it tasted like a mild falafel, which works for me since I absolutely love falafel.  My only criticism was that the exterior was not very crisp, so there was not a ton of textural contrast, but that is kind of nitpicky.  The black rice crisps with English peas were my favorite, with a chip-like vessel of the rice holding the peas and a sauce.  I wish I had been taking notes, because I would love to describe the flavors that this presented, but honestly there was so much going on in that one bite that I am struggling to really remember individual aspects.  Suffice it to say I would eat an entire meal of just that preparation.  Nearly as successful were the deviled quail eggs, topped with truffle; not featured on the menu that was e-mailed out to those with reservations, this was a great little surprise, an absurdly good, fancy version of one of my favorite party snacks from childhood.  Quail eggs are super flavorful to begin with, and adding in the truffle flavor really did bring it to a whole new level; if only quail eggs were not so tiny!  Lastly, the roast carrots were good, with a slight Middle Eastern flare to them from the za'atar.  This was a fine couple of bites, maybe a little different from how I have seen carrots prepared before in a restaurant, and quite tasty, but there was nothing insanely creative about it.

The salad was my least favorite dish of the night, though I think that was simply because of my own personal tastes and not anything to do with the quality.  There was, quite simply, just too much sweet involved for me; the candied pistachios were delicious, as were the pomegranate balls (made with pomegranate juice and agar agar; cool preparation that threw us all for a bit of a loop), and even the crisps of goat cheese, but all had a sweetness to them, as did the dressing, which added up to just a lot of sweetness.  For people who are not as bothered by that, it was probably great, but for me, I could have done with more tang and salt and less sweet.

The appetizer course was probably my favorite, a rabbit torchon with pickled ramps, fava beans, and what we decided must be shaved asparagus.  The torchon was deceptively brilliant, with huge rabbit flavor (not too gamy, but you knew you were eating rabbit), perfectly acidic and crisp ramps that were picked and pickled by Julian's mother up in Leyden, and a nice crunch from the asparagus, though they did not add a ton of flavor.  There were also rye crackers, which I did not love, though with the combination of everything on one, they were pretty tasty.  I wish ramps could be farmed properly, because they are incredibly delicious, and these were perfectly pickled.

The entree course was almost a deconstructed ravioli, with "stained glass pasta" topping braised lamb, almonds, chickpeas and a soft cheese that tasted like a whipped Boursin to me (my step-dad disagreed and we never did remember to ask what it actually was) in a sauce that was primarily jus with a little red wine.  The pasta was delicate, delicious, and beautiful, the lamb essentially pulled, the chickpeas actually tasty (despite my love of falafel, I hate whole chickpeas), and the cheese beyond delicious.  The only failure in this to me was the addition of the almonds, which seemed a little superfluous, and were not necessary for texture since the chickpeas were still rather crisp.  Again, I'm being nitpicky, because they were not a negative for me, simply unnecessary in my opinion.  The lamb was truly delicious, and reminded me again how much I wish mutton were popular in the USA, since I love that flavor and, as long as it is cooked long enough to eliminate the toughness, it is simply a stronger lamb.

Dessert was perfect for me, a strawberry (not blackberry like the pre-sent menu; that would have been sad if I had remembered, since I love blackberries more than almost anything else) mousse on a shortbread like crust.  I was worried about how sweet it was going to be, but it was just perfect, mildly sweet, full of strawberry flavor.  It was delicate looking, but had good body to the mousse; not quite the ethereal lightness that I think most people associate with a proper mousse, but that is good in my opinion, as I like the food I am eating to have some texture.

I was worried that by going to this dinner I would end up surrounded by old elementary school classmates, and I was only half wrong, but the food was so good that even if I had been 100% right it would have been worth it.  The food was original, delicious, at least partially locally sourced (always a positive), and it was nice to see someone from my past doing so very well, and clearly having fun.  I hope to have the chance to go again next year, and I am so glad I finally made it to one of these.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Fat Cat Restaurant (Quincy, MA) and Patron's Mexican Kitchen (Allston, Boston, MA)

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Two of my best friends from college got married this weekend, and we had the bachelor party for the groom Thursday.  We went for laid back, going to the F1 Boston kart racing track in Quincy, which was a blast, followed that with lunch, then went climbing at Central Rock Gym in Watertown, and finally drinks and some food in Boston at Patron's Mexican Kitchen.  Both F1 Boston and Central Rock were a blast, though I highly recommend you have some cold water on hand for the kart racing, as it is pretty easy to get overheated in there.

Lunch was at The Fat Cat Restaurant in Quincy, a superb little pub with some of the best bone-in chicken wings I have ever had.  I went for a Philly Cheesesteak, which was well made, on pretty standard bread, but with roasted peppers, caramelized onions, smoked shiitake mushrooms, and both cheddar and mozzarella cheeses.  The steak was perfect, still juicy and delicious, and the vegetables were spectacular.  It also came with hand cut french fries, which were really good and insanely crisp, but which I did not end up having much of because I was so full from the sandwich and a few wings.

Those wings were really the key to the meal; we ordered 50 for the table, as three people were having them for their primary meal, and one other person and I were just having a couple each.  The wings are big, but not gigantic, cooked perfectly so the skin was crispy and crunchy, but the meat did not seem overcooked or dry.  The exterior held the sauces well, so it did not just slough off and leave just a small amount on the wing or drumstick, but instead coated them completely and evenly.  Those sauces were the best part, and we picked three:  XXX, Cajun, and Qcity.  The XXX is a buffalo style, made with house-infused habanero vodka; it had far, far more flavor than any other sauce of an equivalent heat level that I have ever had, including the Mango Habanero from Buffalo Wild Wings, a personal favorite.  The Cajun comes as either a sauce or a dry rub, and we went dry; it was good, a little spicy, but nothing super incredible.  Qcity was my top choice, and it was also probably the simplest; essentially, it was just honey and pepper, and it was just absolutely awesome, with intense honey flavor without being overly sweet.

For dessert, I had bread pudding, which was served in a giant ramekin.  Essentially just big pieces of bread with a slightly sweet sauce, but so, so much more in flavor.  It also had a giant mound of delicious homemade whipped cream, which was closer to clotted cream than the stuff that comes in a can, both in flavor and texture.  By this point, I was so stuffed that I could not finish the bread pudding, which was very disappointing considering how incredibly good it was.

Fat Cat had a couple good options on draught, including Belhaven Scottish Ale, which I love, and Berkshire Brewing Company's Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale.  They also have a handful of interesting looking cocktails and alcoholic coffee drinks.  They do their own infusing, including the aforementioned habanero vodka.  Since Dan, the groom, is obsessed with insanely spicy things (the table gifts at the wedding were bottles of various hot sauces) we got him a shot, and the waitress (an awesome Irish lady) added a second on the house to congratulate him on getting married.  We each tried a tiny bit, and as soon as I took a very tiny sip, I felt an incredible burning sensation in my mouth and began to hiccup instantly, a phenomenon that has never occurred before.  I think Dan enjoyed the vodka, but if not, it was at the very least a very cool concept and it makes one hell of a wing sauce.

All in all, this was a really good meal, and pretty reasonably priced at under $130 for 50 wings, my sandwich (only $7, which was insane considering how much food there was and its quality), an order of fish and chips, four desserts, plus about a dozen drinks between the five of us.  I highly recommend it.

Not so long ago, Allston's Sunset Grill and Tap was topped by Big City, one of the greatest beer bars in the northeast, with about 130 taps, good food, and great ambiance.  Sadly, it is now Patron's Mexican Kitchen, a mediocre bar with a couple mediocre pool tables and seriously lacking staff.  Our waiter was acceptable at best, but the manager was a major asshole, making rude and snide comments about a couple members of our party to some employees who were playing pool next to us.  We ordered wings again (they were also served the following night at the rehearsal dinner, and ordered at Amherst Brewing Company when we went out after that...Dan really likes wings), which were decent, but nothing special.  I ordered nachos, and instead of nachos, we received the $7 bowl of multicolored chips; absolutely pathetic.  The beer list has been cut tremendously, to only a couple dozen options on draught and a similar number in bottles.  I do not know what the reason for this is, as downstairs still offers over 130 taps and 380 bottle varieties.  All in all, this is no longer worth going to; just have drinks and food down at Sunset Grill and Tap.  That said, we had a good time, but only because it was a great group of people.

Friday, May 2, 2014

DC Metro Area Trip #1

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Having three days off every other week gives me the opportunity to do a little more traveling than I used to, so in preparation for a major lifestyle change this fall, I headed down to Arlington, VA to look for apartments and visit some friends who live down there.  A few meals and a trip to the National Gallery later, I was soaked to the bone after three days of non-stop torrential rain, but very excited at the prospect of moving to the DC area.

I arrived Monday early afternoon and immediately headed out to the Courthouse neighborhood where my friend Joe, who I was staying with, lives, and after dropping my bag at his apartment we grabbed some lunch at Astor Mediterranean.  A little Greek/Middle Eastern joint that has two locations, one in Courthouse and one in Adams Morgan, they offer the typical food you would expect at a restaurant of this type, served quickly and without fanfare, at surprisingly good prices.  I ended up going there twice, needing a quick bite to eat on Tuesday as well.  Both times, I got a lamb gyro, which with a drink cost only about $9, a good deal considering how large, and good, they were.  Served wrapped in a large, delightfully chewy grilled pita, the lamb was carved directly off a large upright spit, and the vegetables (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and onion) all tasted fresh and appeared to be of good quality.  The tzatziki was very good (though who has ever had bad tzatziki, really?), and everything meshed nicely.  All in all, it was a good lunch both days, enough food to fill me up but not enough to make me feel overstuffed, and it did not break the bank, something I was rather pleased about on a trip that was definitely more expensive than I had intended for it to be.

Monday afternoon and early evening were spent checking out five different apartments, and this involved a great deal of walking (in the rain...seriously, I was drowned by the end of the trip), so by the end Joe and I needed beer badly.  Thankfully, the bar Carpool in Ballston was near the last one we saw, so we stopped in for a couple drinks.  They do not have the best beer list ever, but with some Sam Adams and some Peroni on tap, we were reasonably satisfied.  Better yet, they have skeeball!  They also have a few dart boards and some pool tables, the former of which we took advantage of.

Following Carpool we headed to Clarendon, where we met an old friend from college at Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, an upscale Mexican restaurant which is part of a local restaurant group.  I am typically wary of the whole upscale Mexican concept, as typically it just means more expensive food that is no different than what you get at a little neighborhood joint, except probably not as good.  Fuego actually does it quite well, not trying to gussy up the food too much, but instead just serving really tasty, well thought out and well executed food in a nice atmosphere.  They provide endless baskets of chips with two salsas, a red and a green; the chips are made fresh, and you can actually still see the grease from it being fried on some of them, while the salsas taste freshly made.  All in all, a nice starter.  For my meal I had the Pollo en Mole Poblano (chicken with a green mole sauce), which was extremely good.  Chicken, especially boneless and skinless chicken breast, is among the more boring, tasteless foods on this earth, but Fuego's kitchen prepared this dish very well, perfectly seared on the flat top (a la plancha), and the sauce was spectacular, with just a little heat to it and a ton of flavor from the spice mixture and peppers they used to make it.  While I prefer moles that are darker and have the little bit of sweetness that is more traditional to the Yucatan and several other parts of Mexico, this was extremely well done and a nice change from the norm.  Entrees are also served with a side, and I went with the Platanos Machos, caramelized maduros deglazed with tequila topped by a "Latin crema," they were sweet and savory all at once, and reinforced my love of this particular fruit.  My companions were too full for dessert, but Joe said they have great churros.  I highly recommend this restaurant.

Tuesday night I met some more old friends at their apartment in DC, right next to the Washington Nationals' stadium, and then headed to dinner at Bluejacket, a new brewpub part of yet another local restaurant group.  This was some of the better food I have had at a brewpub, while the beer was also quite solid.  They offer about twenty five beers on draught, including five or so cask ales at any given time.  The menu is both extensive and limited at the same time, offering a fairly small number of options in each of its six categories (plus sides), but with ingredients that are both out of the ordinary for a brewpub and extremely high quality.  The food was very upscale, more befitting a trendy bistro, though I suppose gastro-pubs are becoming more popular as well.  We started by splitting an order of the house-made pretzels, which are really whole wheat pretzel sticks.  They were delicious, warm, soft and with just the right amount of chew on the inside, and a slightly crisp exterior; they were great on their own or with the dark, slightly spicy beer mustard they were served with.  For an entree I had Braised Lamb Belly, which came with fava beans, orzo, and some dollops of herbed ricotta.  This was perfect, except for one thing; it was too damn small!  We realized afterward that you are probably intended to order a side to go with your main dish, but honestly, I just wanted more of everything on my plate.  Even the fava beans were good, and I hate fava beans.  The lamb belly was fatty, juicy, succulent and just all in all delicious, perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned.  Orzo, a simple pasta that I can typically take or leave, was elevated by whatever the chefs did to it, and combining the orzo with the ricotta, or the lamb with the ricotta, or...hell, anything with the ricotta, was spectacular.  This was, without a doubt, one of the best meals of my life, and I simply wish I had had more.  The beer I had, Lullaby, was pretty good as well, a casked Witbier made with lemon zest, lavender, and basil that was brewed in concert with a Swiss company I had not heard of.  It was light in body, but not flavor, and had a fruitiness that was surprisingly pleasant considering my general antipathy towards fruity beers.  My friends had the The Wake, a powerful coffee stout that tasted like an alcoholic espresso (aka, fantastic), and The Stowaway, a dunkleweizen that was only okay, though that could be just me, as I am not a huge fan of the variety.  This was by far the best meal of the trip, and I cannot recommend going there highly enough; I am beyond thrilled that it is so close to my friends' apartment, and I will be returning the next time I am in DC.

That was really the end of my culinary and/or beer adventures, but I did get to go to the Pentagon Wednesday, which was quite an experience; sadly, they do not let you keep your guest passes as a souvenir.  I did get to see the 9/11 Memorial, which is in the exact spot where the plane that struck the building actually impacted the Pentagon.  It is simple, understated, and quite well designed; like the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, I was very impressed by it.  Joe and I grabbed lunch there (Popeyes, one of the few fast food places I truly enjoy) after he gave me a brief tour, which included seeing just how many shops there are in the place.  I have also never seen so much brass in my life; we were in line at Popeyes just behind a two star general!

I followed my trip to the Pentagon with one to another American landmark, the National Gallery, which I wandered around for an hour or so until my feet started to hurt.  There were a great many beautiful works of art, and far more that I did not particular see the appeal of, but it was interesting to see the different styles and the progression of art over the last few centuries.  Below are a couple of my favorite pieces that I saw, though some that I really like had signs banning photography, most likely because people using flashes had degraded the artwork already.  The Smithsonians are a legitimate national treasure, and while I am firmly in the libertarian camp when it comes to politics, I am more than happy to have tax dollars spent on them, and I wish more people, especially children, had the opportunity to visit them.