Archive for the ‘Special Occasion Worthy’ Category

Blue Duck Tavern

February 9, 2009

My dad is hard to please when it comes to food.  Part of the problem is that he (like all of us in my family) finds pleasure in food more than most other activities.  When we talk about travel, we talk about what we ate.  When we talk about what we did for the weekend, we talk about what we ate.  And when Dad comes to visit, we plan where we’re going to eat.  We had a great dinner at Corduroy, a decent dinner at the now defunct 21P, and a bit of a disappointment at Brasserie Beck (which killed me because we had such an incredible meal the time before). 

There’s a lot of pressure to pick the right place, and with his wonderful girlfriend and her parents joining us for a holiday dinner out, we decided on our favorite restaurant in DC: Blue Duck Tavern.

Blue Duck Tavern

The setting:
Blue Duck is connected to the Park Hyatt in the West End, and the restaurant is reached through massive wooden front doors.  The foyer and lounge is sleek marble, with the tables and chairs looking like a Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse.

As a party of 8, we were seated in an alcove of a room for privacy, away from the hustle of the open kitchen.  However, you have to walk through the edge of said kitchen to get to the restrooms – a move that’s strategic since they march you right by the heavenly apple pies.

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On this occasion, I asked if I could take a picture of the kitchen, and was jokingly told, “We’re going to have to confiscate your camera.”  Alison believed he server (Alexander – who we’ve had before – he’s fabulous) and protested that I had a little food blog and they couldn’t take my camera.  Instead, Alexander took me over to meet the chef

The service:
Servers at Blue Duck seem to have just the right balance of formality and familiarity.  They were responsive to our needs, and made excellent recommendations (and I should have listened to what our server was suggesting…)   I think the vignette above about taking pictures of the kitchen perfectly illustrates the type of service you’ll get at Blue Duck.

I also have to mention because it was so cool when it happened…when we were served our entrees, multiple servers brought the plates and served us from the right side at the same time – it felt very fancy and old school.

The food:
To me, what’s so great about the food at Blue Duck is that I recognize what it is and where it came from.  The menu lists the farmers who provide the food, and you have the feeling that what you’re eating is seasonal – an old fashioned “new” trend.

Since we were here in winter, it just seemed appropriate to eat meat that had been slow cooked.  I opted for the lamb shank, whereas the men in my life (Dad, Brian, and Matt – future brother-in-law) out ordered me with the short ribs.

Blue Duck Tavern by you.

Oh, those short ribs…to die for.  Really.  Warm, flavorful, comforting.  My lamb shank (above) was good, but the short rib (below) was better.

Blue Duck Tavern by you.

The sides are my favorite things at Blue Duck, and what side do you think is the best in my humble opinion?  You guessed it: the grits.  It is very rare to find a restaurant that does grits correctly.  I’ve been to many places in the south that don’t make them as well as my grandfather did (one, they were so wonderful…slow cooked over a double boiler with butter and salt…) and it’s usually laughable what passes for grits up here.  But Blue Duck makes them creamy and delicious – usually flavored by another ingredient in season.  We ordered two for the table to share, and none went to waste.

The duck fat fries are also excellent – triple cooked, one blanched in water, and the twice fried with duck fat – have a great outside crunch with a velvety interior – I just wish I could train my palate not to want ketchup with them!

Blue Duck Tavern by you.

Even though you might be stuffed from a decadent and heavy dinner, do not forgo dessert.  The “individual” (read: feeds 3) apple pie with hand churned ice cream is not to be missed.  It isn’t overly sweet, and you can really taste the freshness and wholesomeness of the apples.  Delicious.

Blue Duck Tavern by you.

Blue Duck Tavern is my favorite restaurant in DC for a reason, and it didn’t disappoint on this trip as a great spot for 3 generations at one table, and for impressing a hard to please foodie father…

Best for: Celebrating the little big ocassions –  a new job, a holiday, or 11-month anniversary.

Worst for: Watching your budget and waistline.

The Source

January 10, 2009

What better first restaurant post of the new year than to write about the RAMMY New Restaurant of the Year for 2008?

Wolfgang Puck’s The Source

The setting:
Attached to the Newseum, I expected a setting with a theme relating in some way to news.  Instead we couldn’t tell the restaurant was connected to a museum.  The downstairs consists of long, high communal tables, with a bar dominating most of the area I saw when we came in.  We were seated upstairs in low banquet/chair seating, enclosed in an area made more cozy by blocking off sections with thick glass panels.  The effect broke up what could be a monster space, and also helped with the noise level.  (Except when you’re seated next to a table of 8 SCREAMING women who thought everything that anyone said was the. funniest. thing. ever. and proceeded to do the women en masse squeal.  To everything.  For the amount of money you’re paying to eat at The Source – about $150 for 2 people sans wine and tip – I would like the other patrons to hush and be respectful of other patrons.  Luckily, the waitstaff eventually asked them politely to be quiet).

© 2002, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc.

© 2002, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc.

The service:
Our service was great – our waiter had just the right mix of formality and familiarity to make for a very positive experience.  The staff wished Brian a happy birthday – I had noted it in my OpenTable reservation – and bent over backwards to get me a copy of my receipt after I left it at the table.  (As a good to know tidbit: your receipt is good for 15% off Newseum tickets on Mondays or Tuesdays).

The food:
The Source serves Asian-inspired cuisine, but not so overtly that you don’t recognize most of the ingredients.  The amuse bouche was several bites, and may have been our favorite dish of the night: simply dressed and slightly spicy green beans.  Delicious.  The appetizers were also big winners, with a duo of crab consisting of a crab salad and a small crab cake, and tuna tartare “cones” – served in a sesame and miso cone with raw tuna, roe, and microgreens.  It was a close second of best dish of the night, and the presentation was fantastic.

For dinner I went with venison served with Brussel sprouts and a Japanese squash blossom puree that was, in my mind, just about perfect.  Venison is very tricky to get right…it has such a low fat content that it needs to be served rare or medium rare at the most, and most times I have it, it’s been either over or under cooked.  At The Source, my meal seemed like it had been kept on the pan about 20 seconds too long on just one side, but was still really fantastic.  The squash blossom puree added a perfect sweetness, and the Brussel sprouts balanced the dish.  I would have a hard time ordering anything else from the menu, I enjoyed this so much.

Brian was slightly disappointed in his scallops.  He claims I’ve spoiled him, and I agree that his dinner needed more spice.  The Drunken Noodles accompaniment was great, though, and the presentation was very cool as well.

We rounded out the meal with a blueberry and almond crumble that looked and tasted like a fancy coffee cake.  It was served with a ginger ice cream to carry on the Asian theme, but I thought good old-fashioned vanilla would have been better.

With the hefty price tag, the dining room at The Source isn’t somewhere we’ll frequent on a regular basis, but I’ll be back for the tuna tartare cones and pork belly dumplings in the affordable lounge.

Best for: A special evening out.

Worst for: Penny pinchers – hit up the lounge to get a taste of the good stuff at a fraction of the cost!

Corduroy

November 14, 2008

It was a favorite of mine in its old space, but this is my first time back since Corduroy moved to their new digs.

Corduroy

The setting:
I think we drove by it– running late, of course – at least 3 times before we spotted the row house with lighted porch lamps and a non-descript sign.  The area of town isn’t exactly what you’d expect for fine dining, but Corduroy is getting into a neighborhood early in its revival.  The new space is calming – almost a little too white and non-descript.  We were hoping for a table in the front by the window, but found ourselves in the back dining room.  It’s also very, very quiet in the restaurant, but not so quiet that we were able to tell what the canoodling couple 2 tables away was canoodling about so passionately.  (More on these two later…)

The service:
Virtually perfect service.  Really.  The host who greeted us was also our server, and displayed the perfect balance between familiarity and courtesy.  We were the last table to finish our meal, and in that time we joked that we wished we knew what was so engaging to the couple who was hugging (like, a passionate embrace hugging) across the table.  So our server found out: he went to the kitchen and found their server, who relayed that the man was divorced and her father was having a fit that his princess was involved with a divorced man.  However, said their server, the man paid with a black AMEX, so maybe the father could forgive his past relationship.

This was all done in a very conspiratorial tone, and wasn’t said maliciously.  And it made for great fun.

The food:
Chef Tom Power is my kinda cooker: keep it simple and let the food taste the way it’s supposed to taste without making a fuss. 

Brian and I originally planned to order exactly the same thing: lobster carpaccio to start followed by buffalo.  Our server suggested perhaps we order another appetizer and split them, so I wound up with a simple tomato salad and Brian stuck with the lobster.

food-corduroy-and-oyamel-0011  food-corduroy-and-oyamel-0021

The sauce you can see in the picture of the lobster is actually BUTTER.  Ah, delicious, creamy butter…one of foods more perfect creations.  (Also, see Bacon.)  It was decadent and rich: I could only eat one or two bites, but Brian declared he could eat plate after plate without ever becoming full.  The tomato salad was a perfect starter for me with the basil aioli ringing the plate.  The tomatoes were skinless – perhaps through a quick blanching process?

The buffalo entree was rich and flavorful, but my favorite part of this dish was the excellent potato side, with mandolined spud layers set off by sweet onion and a light cheese.  It was gratin in such a delicate and elegant presentation.

food-corduroy-and-oyamel-003

For dessert we were finally caught snapping pictures.  “I’d better not see that on the internet” joked our server.  At least…I hope he was joking!  Whoops!  Brian went with the famous “kit kat” bar – a hazelnut and chocolate bar surrounded by a vanilla bean cream anglaise, while I sampled a local apple tarte tatin, which Brian found not sweet enough.

food-corduroy-and-oyamel-004  food-corduroy-and-oyamel-005

The dinner – our 2nd year anniversary – was wonderful.

Best for: Canoodling couples with a story that isn’t too scandalous and people who like clean, unfussy food.

Worst for: Couples having an affair and people who savor sauces.

Let Them Eat Cake! Hello Cupcake vs. Georgetown Cupcake

October 20, 2008

And the winner is…

I’m not going to tell you that quickly!  One thing is for sure: I love cupcakes, and having Hello Cupcake within walking distance to work and Georgetown Cupcake within (a long) walking distance to my apartment isn’t good for my svelte figure!

Hello Cupcake vs. Georgetown Cupcake

The Setting:
I had read all about Hello Cupcake on my favorite food blog, Apples and Bananas, when Bananas did an interview with Ms. Hello Cupcake before they opened.  The place is decorated by her architect husband with an eye towards eco-chic.  I’m not so much a fan of the faux-grain wood motif, and the frosting wave patterned cupcake counter was lost on me.  But I do love the “Murano” glass chandeliers and being able to sit and eat my sugary treat.

Georgetown cupcake is much smaller and doesn’t lend itself to hanging out.  The line is often out the door and down the street, but when you get inside it looks exactly like you want a cupcake shop to look: white and pink with a dainty dollhouse table and gorgeous flower arrangements.  The cupcakes are stacked so beautifully on cake platters, and it made me want to sample more because they all looked that much more pleasing.  And the smell…pure frosting and butter!

Hello Cupcake: 0
Georgetown Cupcake: 1

The Service:
I’ve seen Ms. Hello Cupcake front and center every time I’ve been in or walked by – it’s clear she’s running the place.  Her employees aren’t quite as sugary sweet and enthusiastic, but what do you expect when the boss keeps telling you to not put the cupcakes in a box automatically, and the customer gets irritated.  I have to admit I didn’t notice last time I was there if they were still trying to get away with putting the cupcakes in a paper bag.  They did try to sell me a $3 “cupcake holder.”  Thanks, but no thanks…

Georgetown Cupcake is a high school drama kid’s dream job.  Sweet, eager, and totally silly in a way that makes me SO glad I am no longer that sweet, eager, and totally silly drama kid I was.  When I asked which cupcake they recommended, they gushed, “OMGTHEY’REALLSOGOODICOULDN’TPICKJUSTONE!!!”  And then when I ordered, “OMGTHATISTOTALYLMYFAVORITEIFREAKIN’LOVEIT!” 

But they were sweet.  And eager.  And for that, I award points, bringing us to:

Hello Cupcake: 0
Georgetown Cupcake: 2

The Food, AKA: Cupcakes:
I’ve had more from Hello Cupcake than Georgetown Cupcake just because of it’s proximity to work and the Friday doldrums.  I’ve sampled the Prima Donna, You Tart!, Peanut Butter Blossom, Heart of Darkness, and Triple Coconut.  By and large, the cake ain’t great.  It’s a little dry and flavorless – how is it that Betty Crocker cake mix is so much better than a $3 cupcake?  I’ll take BC Devil’s Food Cake any day over a Heart of Darkness.  What’s great about Hello Cupcake’s creations, though, are the frostings.  The strawberry cream cheese frosting on the Prima Donna was just meh, and I thought the Peanut Butter frosting was a little too good-for-you peanutty.  But the lemon goodness that tops You Tart!?  And the fantastic doesn’t-taste-like-a-Mounds Triple Coconut with the toasted coconut bits?  YUM!  And my co-worker literally licked her fingers clean of the chocolate ganache frosting on the Heart of Darkness.

My favorites, in order: Triple Coconut, You Tart!, Heart of Darkness, Prima Donna, and then the Peanut Butter Blossom.

Georgetown Cupcake is a hair cheaper than Hello Cupcake – $2.75 at Georgetown Cupcake.  The strawberry banana cupcake I had was basically like eating a slice of banana bread with Philadelphia Strawberry Cream Cheese on top.  The cake was a little dry, and the frosting heavier than Hello Cupcake.  But there are more traditional flavors at Georgetown Cupcake, so the purist in you will be happy.  (Hello Cupcake, by the way, has a Maya Favorite cupcake – chili-infused and topped with red pepper flakes.  My friend Megan said you could feel the heat in your throat – not your mouth).  Georgetown Cupcakes also sport girlier toppings – they’re just screaming to be served at a bridal or baby shower.

 

This past week I ordered another half dozen cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake, making it  a tie with Hello Cupcake.  Georgetown Cupcake’s cake is moist – maybe too moist – and the frosting is still too cream-cheesy and heavy.  Brian, however, likes them better. 

I think if Hello Cupcake and Georgetown Cupcake had a little cupcake baby, it would be nearly perfect!

This tie in the last category brings the total to:
Hello Cupcake: 1
Georgetown Cupcake: 3

The bottom line is that cupcakes make people happy.  You should eat them, whether they come from a Betty Crocker box at $6/dozen, or a little cupcake shop for the same price as a full meal.  Enjoy, and don’t tell your dentist.

Restaurant 3

July 24, 2008

For our monthly anniversary, Brian and I ventured to Eleventh Street Lounge looking for some good food and drinks in a swanky location.  We were disappointed in the setting (it felt like a place to go after you were already drunk – the floors seemed like they’ve been sticky a lot in their history, and the furniture was a little shabby) and the menu (just didn’t seem appetizing once it was in front of us) so we each had a martini and then walked the block to Restaurant 3.

Restaurant 3

The setting:
We were led to a half-round booth for two (with room for 4 total with 2 chairs should you venture in with a larger party) in a dark yellow leather.  The decor seemed southwestern to me, although I think they were going for Tuscan given the paintings on the walls.  Brian felt that the yellow walls and picture lights were too bright for evening.  I saw what he meant, but I kinda liked it.

The service:
Our waiter let us take our time in deciding what we wanted – which was kind since it was 9:00 p.m. on a Monday night and the menu looked so great we simply couldn’t decide!  He was responsive in answering questions, refilling glasses, and making suggestions.

The food:
We’ve had Restaurant 3 on our radar since it opened, but we’ve always put it off.  No more.  The food – and the menu – was fantastic.

There are two types of bread – and two spreaders – in the delicious bread basket.  The white bread must have had a cheese in the batter (asiago?) and the smell – and taste – was wonderful.  There was also equally good wheat bread that I barely tasted after gorging myself on the white bread.  There was both butter and an olive tapenade.

For an appetizer, Brian ordered the fried oysters.  The portion was huge – easily shareable by a party of 4 – and really good, battered in cornmeal.

We also each had a salad – Brian the spinach salad (he can’t resist) and I the Caesar.  The Parmesan “crisp” in my salad was too thick and a little soggy, but the salad good none the less.  I also appreciated that our server waited until I’d taken a bite before approaching me with the (very colorful!) pepper mill.  This just so happens to be one of my biggest pet peeves in restaurants: I don’t KNOW if I want pepper until I try a bite first – it may not need it!  So kudos to our guy for doing it right!  (Brian, by the way, disagrees with me on this and thinks the pepper mill is part of the presentation).

The entrees were also huge.  Brian had a beautiful Japanese sea bass with pea risotto and sweet potato “straws.”  I had short ribs with collar greens and a macaroni and cheese bake.  We only ate a few bites given how stuffed we were on bread, oysters, and salad.  However, I had some great leftover lunches during the work week 😉  The fish had a wonderful flash crunch.  It was buttery and firm, and actually held up beautifully in the microwave at work!  The risotto was great, and the sweet potato straws (which did not hold up so beautifully) really complimented the sea bass.  The short rib was presented with the bone detached (but still presented!) and was good, although slightly overdone.  The collards were good (although I grew up with better greens – and there was a roasted ladybug in them I discovered during a work meeting while I was eating lunch – oops!)  The macaroni (actually a linguine) and cheese bake actually was better on reheating!  We also ordered a side of asiago cheese grits that were too heavy on the cheese, although I couldn’t tell you if they improved on reheating because Brian ate them all the next night and didn’t save me any.  Hmpf.

  

We were surprised Restaurant 3 wasn’t packed to the gills given what a great experience it was.  Brian said there was no excuse with such a great menu that Restaurant 3 shouldn’t have a wait every night of the week – even 9 p.m. on Mondays.

Best for: A romantic evening out, large parties, dinner with the ‘rents. 

Worst for: Someone on a diet who doesn’t want to be tempted by large portions.

Peacock Cafe

June 18, 2008

This was the first monthly anniversary Brian and I have had together for 3 months.  Yes, we still celebrate every month…schmoopyschmoopyschmoopy.  We had a dance lesson at the French Embassy and then a late dinner at Peacock Cafe.

Peacock Cafe

The setting:
I couldn’t help but thinking as I looked out on the brick patio surrounded by ivy-covered walls and candles: what a beautiful place for a small wedding reception.  The space is really lovely – swanky inside with great lighting and sleek seating, and a bar that runs half the length of the long restaurant.

The service:
We were probably the last table seated that night for dinner, but the service was still friendly and accommodating, and we only had to flag our server down for more Sweet ‘n Low once.  Never mind that he refilled my water on my shoe, accidents happen at 10:30 on a Wednesday night.

The food:
Brian and I went for the price fixe option for $35 each – actually a pretty good deal!  I had a rose glass of champagne and a Caprese salad (although why is it so odd to ask for it without Balsamic vinegar?), and then lamb shank for dinner.  Both were good, nothing fabulous, but then dessert: creme brulee and cappuccino.  Both were absolutely delicious and Brian and I agreed coming back for just that would be the perfect wrap-up to an evening.

If you’re in Georgetown and need somewhere to impress – make your way to Peacock Cafe.

Best for: A romantic dessert and coffee in swanky Georgetown.

Worst for: A cheap, quick bite pre-movie showtime.

Blue Duck Tavern

March 17, 2008

Brian and I first tried Blue Duck on our 11-month anniversary (yes, we celebrate every month) and loved it.  He’s been back, and Alison went Thursday, so as a surprise for our last date together before he left for London for 2 months, Brian took me back for a
wonderful (and romantic) dinner.

This review has both Alison and my impressions of a city favorite, Blue Duck Tavern

The Setting:
Ashley: Blue Duck is in the Park Hyatt Hotel, and that may have something to do with the setting not matching the cooking slightly. I’d expect French or American upscale bistro food if I just saw the high ceilings, imposing front doors, and abundance of marble.  Touches like wood-paneled walls to create dining nooks and 19th century farmhouse rocking chairs give you a better idea for what’s in store on the menu. The kitchen is completely open and in beautiful order with glass jars filled with pickled fruits and vegetables.  Giant platters of fingerling potatoes, garlic cloves, and dates functionally decorate a counter, and walking to the bathroom through a hall that begins in the apple pie cooling center is a treat.

Alison: While the main perimeter dining area’s high ceilings offer a modern and chic vibe, I have to say I prefer the smaller interior section of the restaurant with the lower ceilings. The seats are more comfortable, the acoustics far better, and the overall feeling cozier. PLUS, you get a prime view of the open kitchen.  I would definitely recommend requesting a table in the interior section when making your reservation.

The Service:
Ashley: The servers here are a little cocky, but understandably so. Our server, Alexander, started by asking if we’d been to Blue Duck before, and when we told him we had, he responded, “Then you know how good it is already.” Service here is friendly in the way you would expect a fellow foodie to be – they want to  help you through your dining experience.

Alexander recommended we only get one appetizer to share when we picked the delicious but heavy crab mac and cheese, and told us the duck fat fries wouldn’t travel home because of the blanching process. (Which was such a bummer – I wanted to eat them all but could only manage 2 during the meal!)

Alison: Our service was great- attentive, but not cocky.  Our server gave us great recommendations that were spot on. 

The Food:
Ashley: The menu at Blue Duck focuses on local ingredients, listing the farms from where everything comes. Food is served “family style” but out of smaller, silver serving pieces.

Brian and I started with the Dungeness Crab Macaroni and Cheese – it was heavy, but not uncomfortably so. Add a side of something green and it could be a meal unto itself. The crab meat was plentiful and wonderfully salt-water briny, and the little bit of crunch on top of the cheese was a nice texture juxtaposition to the velvety cheese, pasta, and crab.

For our main courses, Brian had the vegetarian option of a spinach, artichoke, and trumpet mushroom gratin. He said it was wonderful (and that means a lot given that this man will eat the heck out of some steak). I had the small portion of scallops and couldn’t finish all three. The seasoning of cracked pepper, thyme, and lemon was strong, especially given how little seasoning actually appeared on the scallops. We also split the sweet potato goat cheese grits (oh are these good – always get the goat cheese grits at Blue Duck) and the duck fat fries. I personally thought they needed just a dollop of ketchup, but think this is more of a reflection of being conditioned to want ketchup with fries than an actual need of the frites.

For dessert, Brian and I split the cheesecake with poached pears and cherries, although the pears were a little heavy on the cinnamon and neither of us touched them after an initial taste.

As always, we ordered too much and will plan to scale back next time, splitting an appetizer, entree, and 2 sides – and will save room next time for the famous apple pie and hand-churned ice cream.

Alison:
Our table started with the escargots, the field green salad, and the fois gras. The escargots were absolutely fantastic!  I’ve noticed several places recently serving them out of the shell, and they were presented as such here as well.  The salad really shone due to the freshness of the ingredients- a variety of lettuces, beets, blue cheese, walnuts and green apples.  The foie gras was different than what I’ve enjoyed before- presented more as a mousse, but still delicious for fans of the (un-politically correct) delicacy (which I unabashedly am.)

Two of us ordered the chef’s recommendation of the stuffed quail and they were truly fantastic!  Each of us only finished one of the two birds- we are all seemingly guilty of ordering more than necessary at Blue Duck it seems!  Matt got the crab cakes, and while they were good, you can get great crab cakes at a shack on the shore, so I tend to personally steer clear of this menu staple and favorite when I am at a place like Blue Duck.

We too ordered a side of the goat cheese grits (natch) and decided to try the vegetable of the day, Salsify, which was something that none of us had heard of before.  Whole Foods’ website describes it as a long firm tapered root with black or white skin, unlike other root vegetables, salsify has a delicate flavor, described as a cross between asparagus and artichoke hearts. This is the type of place where I would definitely recommend going out on a limb and trying something you are unfamiliar with, as it always seems to pay off.  Their commitment to locally raised and in-season products is one of my favorite aspects of Blue Duck.

Our table finished up with various teas and coffees, as well as the pineapple huckleberry almond cake crumble, which was similar to a cobbler.  I am generally not a huge dessert person, but Blue Duck does dessert right- they are subtly sweet and the focus remains on the natural sweetness from the fruit rather than heavy syrups and loads of sugar.

Overall, this was one the best meals I have had in a very long time.  Each time I go to Blue Duck it climbs higher on my list of favorites, and this visit was no exception. 

Best For: Locally grown and always fresh ingredients, the goat cheese grits.  Seriously, just order them.

Worst For: Those seeking a light bite.  Prepare to walk away stuffed and completely happy every time.

Ray’s the Steaks

February 10, 2008

It may not look like much, but man oh man – THIS is good steak!

Ray’s the Steaks

The setting:
Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington is unassuming from the outside. It’s easily missed in a strip mall most notable for it’s liquor store. The inside isn’t much better: white walls and bare tables with the only ambiance found in a back corner surrounded by the shelves that function as the restaurant wine cellar. It reminds me of a German beer hall with people packed by the front door and metal swinging bench waiting for hours to be seated.

The service:
I’ve been to Ray’s several times now and the service is consistently friendly and attentive. They seem to want you to enjoy your food and know that the wait has been a pain in the patooty. To lessen the wait, you can stop by starting at 4:00 before they open to put your name on a list. On a Saturday we stopped by at 5:15 and the first available seating was 9:30 p.m. So eat some celery sticks back home and wait to get some great steak.

The food:
I like the little touches at Ray’s the Steaks. They bring spiced cashews when you’re seated and 2-bite-sized pieces of focaccia with drinks.

To start, I would ALWAYS recommend the crab bisque. Our friend Luke declared it the Best Soup Ever (a superlative Brian has issued before, but he thinks most things are The Best Ever, so you always need a second opinion to his).

rays-the-steaks-bisque.jpg

The steaks are also out of this world. I tend to get the petite filet with a brandy mushroom sauce on the side. The menu announces that many of the steaks are only available rare to medium because the chef doesn’t believe in ruining the texture of really fine meat. This is one of those times when even Picky Ashley agrees – you really should just let them do their thing.

I’m always slightly disappointed in the sides that come with the steak. Creamed spinach and mashed potatoes come family style in little cast iron skillets, but they lack something, for lack of a better description, southern in their preparation. I need butter or cream in my potatoes, and more salt and cream in my spinach.

The desserts are also fantastic: tart and tangy key lime pie and white chocolate mousse with strawberries. And another perfect touch to the end of the meal? I tiny cup of hot cocoa. I love it.

Best for: Carnivores who love and crave excellent meat.

Worst for: Those for whom the setting matters.

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

Palena

January 10, 2008

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

Palena

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