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.