Archive for January, 2008

Tapioca and Maraschino Cherries

January 23, 2008

Sadly, my grandmother passed away this past Monday and Alison and I will be traveling to Atlanta to be with our family this weekend.  (Alison has decided it would be too le tacky to write a post about Dad’s famous pork butt, but he isn’t very good anyway with relating recipes, just cooking).

My grandmother was a classic Southern woman who believed boys deserved an extra helping and in making pancakes from scratch.  But she always had two things especially for me when I would visit: tapioca pudding (with the folded-in egg whites) and maraschino cherries, which I would eat directly out of the jar with a shrimp fork.

While my only attempt to recreate her tapioca (the only recipe of hers I’ve tried)  ended with a pot scorched beyond repair, I appreciate her for always having my favorites of tapioca and maraschino cherries on hand.


New Heights – Restaurant Week

January 20, 2008

Our friends Julia (who also came with me to the Oval Room) and Chris suggested New Heights for a Restaurant Week dinner. Chris is an excellent cook and was an invaluable resource for dinner. We were there almost 3 and 1/2 hours – clearly a success!

New Heights

The setting:
New Heights isn’t much to look at when you get there – the Woodley Park spot is found under a tired yellow awning, and the bar at the entrance is a little sad-looking (as we were leaving we heard a guy at the bar discussing jerking off to a television show in 1978 – all class). Upstairs, the space is a little dated with large dried flowers arrangements and 1980s throwback tables. The space could use an update, but it’s not so unattractive that it will take away from your experience enough to pass it up.

The service:
We were clearly that table who was there to hang out, and at no time did we feel rushed or wait an exceptionally long amount of time for food and drink. Our server was attentive to keeping wine glasses filled, made good suggestions, and immediately corrected an espresso that came out half full.

The food:
New Heights presented a comprehensive Restaurant Week menu. I was out-ordered (ooh…that burns me up when I do that) in every course. Wines were a decent price, although Brian and I were disappointed in the lack of New World reds available.

Chris and I both started with the Guinea Hen Rillettes, a new dish for me. This version was served on buttered grilled bread with stone ground mustard.


I’ve never had rillettes before, nor heard of it, and this is where Chris came in handy. I hate to sound prosaic, but I thought it tasted like canned tuna fish. Chris has never had canned tuna fish (how you ask? I don’t know either) so could neither confirm nor deny my interpretation.

Brian elected for the $3 upcharge for for the crispy oysters, and this is something I’d definitely get again. They came on a cabbage and onion slaw with a Tabasco aioli that really gave the oysters a great kick.


For entrees, I got a pork chop with cheddar cheese grits and kale. Being from the south, I know a thing or four about cheese grits and greens. The grits didn’t have enough kick for me, but the kale was done just fine. The chop was suggested at medium rare, but it came out a little tough.


Brian and Chris both got the Mahi Mahi, of which Chris declared, “my fish be tasty.” Since Brian was swooning, I think he was in agreement. The fish was delicious – the creamed Beluga lentils, bacon, and red wine reduction accompaniments made this into a perfect winter dish and something I’d definitely get next time.4.jpg

Julia also ordered a go-to dish, a chicken breast with onion soubise and fingerling potatoes.


Desserts were the low point of the meal for me. We ordered one of each and passed them around the table. The cherry-chocolate bread pudding was entirely too chocolaty for my taste, the pecan tart a little dry but otherwise good, the cheese plate just meh, and the Meyer Lemon Pots de Creme was my favorite, although not that of the table.

I’d imagine we’d be back at New Heights for another Restaurant Week experience or when meeting another couple out for dinner. And next time I won’t be out-ordered!

Best for: Group dates or dinner with the parents.

Worst for: Trying to impress a date with a chic-chic locale.

Tabard Inn

January 18, 2008

Tabard Inn

Alison dubs this her go-to restaurants for a nice meal out where everyone is sure to be pleased.

The setting: This is one of the highlights of Tabard, to be sure. In the winter, the cozy wood paneled waiting area with its wood burning fire place often entices me to arrive early for a reservation to enjoy a glass of Sass pinot noir. The main dining room is nice, particularly near the windows, however, tables near the bar can become claustrophobic with the Saturday night cocktail crowd spilling over from the neighboring bar. I quite enjoy eating in the upper room, as it is quieter with less traffic – this is also a better bet for larger parties, as the table arrangement can be more flexible. In warmer months, the charming courtyard beckons diners outdoors. The only drawback: the dining room tends to be overly warm (at least in the winter).

The service: Service is consistently good, with only one off night in a myriad of visits.

The food: Tabard’s menu changes frequently – they offer familiar and fresh favorites that are often combined with innovative flavors. I’ve never been disappointed – and they also offer a great lunch (and apparently brunch) menu. Recent dinner favorites have included the duck served with roasted figs, which I consider to be some of the best in the city, the Sirloin, which positively melts in your mouth and the calamari appetizer that comes with a sauce I could eat by itself! Do not be surprised if a favorite from your last visit has disappeared – you are bound to find something equally delicious on your next trip, and the use of seasonal ingredients is always refreshing. I must admit, I am not a huge fan of the charcuterie plate- look elsewhere on the ever-changing appetizer menu.

Best For: Those looking for the whole package: excellent ambiance, consistent food and service, without pretension.

Worst For: Those seeking a chic or urban scene.

Alison Kiss my Grits


January 16, 2008

Circa is a neighborhood spot we’ve been meaning to try since it opened, but the long waits often send us to Zorba’s or my favorite standby, Pizzeria Paradiso.  We finally went on a Saturday night and realized Circa is suffering from an identity crisis!


The setting:
Circa occupies a spot that used to have a Wrap Works, and has been revamped to be a “gathering place, a coffee house and a casual eatery.”  The front counter with coffee and dessert display case and giant menu board doen’t fit the rest of the restaurant’s ambiance of dark wood tables and candle light.  Also in contrast to that setting is a giant flatscreen on one wall and pumping dance music.  While we were eating, two guys actually started yelling at the television from across the room.  Is this a bar or a restaurant? 

The service:
Again, the service didn’t seem to match the dining room setting, but seemed more like a bar.  However, the waiters were wearing long black aprons usually associated with a decent restaurant.  Our server seemed to employ the “hands-off” approach and it was difficult to turn his eye from the television to get a drink refill or extra napkin.

The food:
I enjoyed my panko-crusted pork chop with brussel sprouts, although it seemed to be the dish that never ended.  It was too much food just plopped on the plate and the chef would have done well to compose the dish a little more artfully.  As I neared the end of the chop, I noticed a pile of brussel sprouts I had missed.  The food was seasoned just fine, although nothing to go crazy over – I cook this dish just as well if not better at home.  Circa could be Urbana’s slightly wild younger sister who doesn’t quite yet know who she is but wants to charge the same amount for the privilege of her company.  (And, no, this is not a dig at either one of MY younger sisters!)

The Oval Room – Restaurant Week

January 15, 2008

I was looking forward to a lunch out with the gals – and fellow foodies from work.

The Oval Room

The setting:
The Oval Room looked nothing like I thought it would look.  I suppose I was picturing something like The Caucus Room, Vidalia, or even Olives, but instead found a pleasantly lit, abstract art-filled dining room split by a frosted glass bar and hostess desk.  It felt a little sterile and pedestrian, especially with the flatscreen television forced above the bar.

The service:
If there’s something you need for a downtown Washington lunch, it’s speed and precision.  But much like the current state of the real Oval Room across the street, things moved slowly, inprecisely, and with no seeming understanding that people have work to do back in the real world.

Our table was not ready when we arrived for our 1 p.m. reservation, so we told we could wait at the bar.  After a trip to the ladies’ room and some small talk among ourselves, I asked the bartender for the wine list.  (It was for medicinal purposes – I’ve had a cough)  After 5 – 10 minutes, no one offered to take my drink order, however a host (manager?) stopped by to take our coats.

When we were seated I immediately told our server I wanted a glass of wine (Malbec Reserva, $10 and not very good – I was surprised it was a reserve)  and my colleague metioned we were in a slight rush because we were seated 20 minutes late and needed to be out within an hour.  He brought our water and my glass of wine and we placed our order.  Because it’s Restaurant Week, all three courses have to be ordered at once, presumably to move people through more quickly.

Fifteen minues later we flagged down another server because ours was nowhere to be seen.  He asked what we needed, and another colleague replied, “Our first course.”  After that, that server took the time to also check on us periodically.  We also spoke with a manager to reiterate needing to be out within an hour after being seated.

Our desserts were brought and placed on the table before the plates from our entrees were removed, and the check dropped off at the same time.  In the end we made it out on time, but were rushed in order to do it.

The Food:
I’ve read excellent things about The Oval Room and was really excited to try it.  The Restaurant Week Menu was done well, and I was torn between something in every course.

For my first course, I had the scallops. Scallops

They were fine – a little salty, but I liked the crunch of the toast croutons.  Julia’s celery root soup was far superior, though, and may have been the best dish of the meal.

My entree was the red wine braised short ribs with a parsnip puree. Short Ribs

It was also just in the fine category – a little fatty and pretty bland.  It reminded me very much of cafeteria pot roast.

For our rushed dessert, we all ordered the same thing: a Meyer lemon buttermilk cake with honey cinammon ice cream.                                                                     Dessert

I was especially excited to try this because I make a buttermilk pie myself and the consistancy always turns out a bit like a chess pie, and I wanted to see if their’s would too.  Instead, it was a little dry (although great with the lemon) and the ice cream bland.

I was disappointed in my experience with The Oval Room, but will gladly give it another shot in hopes that my lunch was a fluke.


Vidalia – Restaurant Week

January 15, 2008

Alison visited Vidalia for a Resturant Week lunch:


The Setting:
The ambiance and setting at Vidalia were great, despite its basement location.  My middle of the room table for two, while not ideal for an intimate dinner date, worked just fine for a quick week-day lunch and catching up with a friend.
The Service:
This is where things kind of fell off for us- When asked what his favorite dishes were/his recommendations our waiter mumbled “I don’t know, it’s all good”…um, ok, great, not why I asked.  After staring expectantly at him he ran through 80% of the menu (I think it was just everything he could remember off the top of his head).  Alas, he also failed to point out the pricey additions on about half of the restaurant week menu- $7 surcharge here, $6 there, which I noticed, but my dining partner did not.  Plates were given to the wrong person at dessert, no big deal, but seeing as how he had a 50/50 shot even if blind, and on top of everything else, did not impress…On the upside, our 3 course lunch was served quickly, which worked for us, since it was a work day, but would have felt hurried if not.

The Food:
While not overly southern, save for one or two options in each course, this is where Vidalia really shone!  I was immediately skeptical when I spied cornbread in the bread basket, as any good southerner knows – this can make or break you around these parts…do not despair, it was FABULOUS!  A taste of the foccacia did not disappoint, but let’s be honest, it was cornbread I went back for seconds on.  I started with the mushroom soup which was creamy and thick and woodsy- exactly how it should be on a cold winter’s day.  My dining partner enjoyed the big eye tuna with jumbo lump crab and avocado, which was also delicious ($7 surcharge).  For our main courses I tried the rabbit with ginger carrot puree, spaetzl and pearl onions.  The meat was so tender it fell off the bone, however the spaetzl was flavorless and an odd texture (indeed I had to recheck the menu to figure out what it was I’d just eaten), but I so enjoyed the main event, I did not mind.  My friend went with the tried and true southern favorite Shrimp ‘n grits, which, while a very good rendition of the classic dish, was a bit pricey considering the $8 surcharge. (side note: shrimp were neither beheaded nor shelled for squeamish shellfish eaters.)  While I am generally not a big dessert eater, it was included, so we figured they were worth a try – the pecan tarte and vanilla bean cake with strawberry champagne jam were both sweet treats to end the meal, although we were so full, we left the majority untouched.

The Verdict:
I will definitely be back to try Vidalia’s regular menu (and keeping my fingers crossed for a different server).  It’s not necessarily where I will go for tried and true southern favorites, but am definitely intrigued to taste more!

Alison Kiss my Grits


January 10, 2008

Alison’s take – Equally delicious for a burger and fries or a fixe prix extravaganza!


The setting: The restaurant is divided into 2 sections: the dining room, which is fixed price, reservation only, along with the café/bar area, which does not accept reservations. The ambiance is subtle and comfortable, however, due to the small size, the tables (particularly in the café) are quite close together. In warmer months it is also possible to eat outside off of either menu.

The service: I have enjoyed consistently good service at Palena, however, due to the small, and therefore crowded nature of the café, waiters are a bit more harried than their more leisured and attentive counterparts in the back dining room. Be prepared to wait for a table if you are without a reservation, but this favorite spot of mine has never disappointed and is always worth the wait!

The food: I’ve eaten once in the dining room, which was great, however, tend to prefer the flexibility of the café, as you can order a la carte off of either menu. Highlights on the (ever-evolving) menu have included a superb appetizer of delicate and delightfully seasoned Dover Sole, and the cheeseburger (available in the café only) really is the best I’ve ever tasted. The goat cheesecake was another memorable and tasty dish! Main courses are consistently delicious- whether they be hearty game or delicately restrained fish. The cheese plate never disappoints, and the wine list is accessible and thoughtful (and includes several half bottles, as well). Although many classify Palena as Italian, I have enjoyed more non-Italian dishes here than not.

Best For: Consistently delightful entrees, people with varied palates (Cheeseburger and fries? Check! Foie gras and Cheese plate? Sure!)

Worst For: Weekends without a reservation

Alison Kiss my Grits

Bangkok Joe’s

January 9, 2008

I met some girlfriends at Bangkok Joe’s at the Georgetown Waterfront before a Friday night movie. Given the location, I expected it to be too expensive and totally bland, but I think I’ll be back!

Bangkok Joe’s

The setting:
The restaurant seems to be a bit shoe boxy – you walk into the near left corner of a rectangle flanked on one side by a long, pretty bar. Cozy 2-person booths are set up a stair level opposite the bar, and I found myself thinking that could be a great date seating arrangement. The second “row” of seating has banquet and chairs in order to group tables together to make a long table for a large party, and the third “row” has 4-person booths. The look is modern and sleek, but lacking any views of the waterfront which make the location so desirable.

The service:
The service was non-descript save for them refilling glasses and taking orders as needed.

The food:
It was in the 20s outside when I visited Bangkok Joe’s, so I felt the need to be transported with a Mai Tai. Oh, how delicious that drink is, even at $8 a pop. It couldn’t have contained too much alcohol because it went down like Kool-Aid and I didn’t have a buzz.
The food was okay – not reinventing the wheel, but decent for the price. I stuck with appetizers/small plates since I’m not much of a rice bowl type of gal. I over-ordered and was only able to eat about half.
The best of the three was definitely the chicken pot stickers – no complaints here! However, the lobster rolls had noodles in them and the spices took away from the flavor of the lobster itself. They were unmanageable in size and had so much roe on the top, it was incredibly difficult to eat without making an absolute mess.

The chicken “pillows” were yeasty and delicious – with the first few bites. There was just too much of this dish given its texture and yeasty flavor.

Best for: Decent dinner and drinks in Georgetown before a movie or a date night when you don’t want to drop a bundle.

Worst for: Serious foodies or people who love *real* Asian food.

New York Times, You have Failed Me

January 6, 2008

Inside out lamb cheeseburgers. Sounds pretty good, right? A little daring, a crowd-pleaser, indulgent yet not bad for you.

Except when you serve them raw.

The New York Times recipe calls for cooking the burgers around 4 minutes per side. I cooked the burgers 6-7 minutes each side (even as my pan was smoking like crazy – no idea what that’s about) and when we cut into them, they were still completely raw.

They all went back into the pan for about 10 minutes, and one was still too raw to eat. Now my emerging culinary prowess is in question and I blame it all on you, New York Times.

The Trouble with the Cheesecake Factory

January 3, 2008

We went to a family dinner at the Cheesecake Factory Pat and Tara’s last night with us. No one besides Brian and me had been before, and the lure of scores of cheesecakes was enough to have everyone salivating as soon as we walked in and saw the cheesecake display case.

But here’s the trouble with the Cheesecake Factory: it just isn’t very good.

At times I may come across as a bit of a food snob (which I take as a compliment) but I’m certainly not above taking delight in ballpark nachos and Chick-Fil-A (swoon!) Applebee’s has a salad I adore and I think Ruby Tuesdays is pretty darn tasty. But the Cheesecake Factory turns people on with large portions and a 20-page menu that covers everything. They get by on “bigger is better.”

But bigger isn’t better here. As an appetizer we ordered the guacamole. The chips were overcooked and a little stale, and the guac was completely tasteless. I’d rather have crossed the street for the Chipotle green stuff (yum-o!)

I ordered a “small” chopped Cobb salad, and a mammoth pile of green came out. But, that too was completely tasteless and the toppings skimpy and without flavor. I tried a bite of Brian’s chicken piccata, and it was pretty bland too. Jack’s pizza? The frozen stuff is better…

Everyone was crazy about the cheesecake, though. Especially Jack:

Given that I’m not a fan of just any slice of cheesecake, I only had 2 bites. I’d take a small slice of the good stuff any day.