Ray’s Hell Burgers

September 2, 2008 by

In the last few days of summer, seek out that backyard favorite – better than what you can make at home.  But you’ll have to look for it…this is on-a-mission dining.

Ray’s Hell Burgers

The setting:
Everywhere you turn, people are griping (with reason!) about the economy, and food costs are rising like crazy.  Ray’s Hell Burgers is the type of restaurant you want to seek out in a time like this: no frills, just great food. 

Even knowing the small strip mall in Arlington where Ray’s Hell Burgers (and Ray’s the Steaks) is located, it still took some sleuthing to find it.  From Ray’s the Steaks, walk down the strip mall to number 1713.  This door is all you’re going to find:

 

Be prepared to swoop in on a table as soon as you see one open up.  And also be forewarned: this is basically your middle school cafeteria setting.  Ray’s the Steaks looks like a ballroom compared to this hole in the wall.

The service:
There are a few printed paper menus lying around, so grab one and stand as out of the way as you can be to glance it over.  Basically, all you need to decide are how you want your burger, how you want it cooked (and good luck to you if you say well-done in this establishment), and what kind of cheese you want.  Do not think you’re going to make this decision at the counter – choose before you get to the no nonsense faces by the register.  Oh – and take cash.

The food:
I don’t know when it became so difficult to make a good burger.  I make a pretty good burger at home, but I can’t make anything from close to the quality of meat that you’ll get at Ray’s Hell Burgers.  Everyone in the open kitchen has their station: the guy butchering the steak-quality meat, the gal grinding it into the meat grinder, the two girls weighing that meat on a little scale and forming into patties, the guy on the grill manning the onions…it’s a machine back there.  And what they produce is a helluva burger.

Brian beat me with his burger au poivre: the meat was juicer, the flavor better.  I will only order a Ray’s Hell Burger this was from now on.  They also have just about any cheese you could want on a burger for a surcharge ranging on how fancy your cheese is.  I stuck with white cheddar and wasn’t disappointed.

During the summer, you also get a small ear of corn on the cob and a watermelon wedge.  No word yet on how that will change with the seasonal fruits and veggies.

We also decided to cap off our summer evening doing what you do in the summer: we went for s’mores.  Cosi serves them over a can of Sterno, and we had a great time teaching Jack how to get the marshmallow just crispy charred enough so that it’s gooey the whole way through.  A really wonderful evening.

 

Best for: A good burger at a great price: we averaged less than $10 a person – yes, please!

Worst for: A romantic date night or vegetarians.  It’s burgers here and burgers only.

Tangy Sweet

August 18, 2008 by

Frozen yogurt shops are popping up all over the place, and one is in my neighborhood.  My sisters and I stopped in to see what all the fuss is about.

Tangy Sweet

The setting:
Think Japanese Industrial Minimalism.  Concrete floors, space-agey counters magically coming out of the walls, and lime green.  Because nothing really says “Japanese” like lime green.

The service:
They must not be paying much, because there were the angst-ridden teens of the summer job world behind the counter.  Was I ever really that anxious?

Don’t be fooled by the menu: you can order just one fruit topping.

The food:
Well, in this case, the yogurt: it tastes like…yogurt.  Like Yoplait that’s frozen.  The green tea and pomegranate were a little too – wait for it – tangy for me.  I opted for the classic and added fresh mango.  I felt completely healthy and like I could climb every mountain afterwards. 

Best for: A summer treat while you’re on a diet.

Worst for: An ice cream craving – this ain’t gonna cut it.

Darlington House

August 15, 2008 by

When Childe Harold closed, I didn’t really shed any tears.  Although I know it was a favorite for many, it just always seemed unsanitary in there – and it was a shame to waste such an incredible location!  In moved Darlington House, and it’s a great addition to the neighborhood!

Darlington House

The setting:
We decided on the cantina – more for the price than anything else – and headed downstairs to the basement, and area that used to have a constant cloud of smoke before city legislators came to their senses.  They’ve spruced it up with a fresh paint job and a re-done banquet seating.  The pull-down screen of some American Indian headdress covering (I assume) a television was a bit much.  This isn’t the swankiest of locales – at least not the basement, but I didn’t feel like I needed to wash my hands from just entering the place.

There’s also a patio for parties of 2, and the main restaurant upstairs, which I have not been to.

The service:
We had the sweetest server from Romania who had only been in the country 2 months.  He was eager and efficient.

The food:
For a pub menu, it’s pretty great!  For a full sampling, my aunt ordered the rotisserie chicken, Jeanette had the Veg Head flat bread pizza, and I tried the pulled pork sandwich.

   

When Lizzie took the first bite of her chicken, she said, “Oh we don’t have just a cook, we have a chef.”  The pork sandwich was also very good, if slightly dry, but the cucumber slaw and hoisen ginger sauce was awesome.  And the fries…YUM.  Jeanette’s Veg Head pizza was also great.  We litterally ate everything.

The Darlington House is a great addition to the neighborhood and I’ll be back on low-key evenings when I want a little more than Chipotle, but nothing too complicated.

Best for: Good neighborhood food at a good price.

Worst for: Date night – this is a place for hanging out, not making out.

Chop’t

August 12, 2008 by

Why is lunchtime so hard?  Is it because I got used to blue plate specials in Mississippi that beats anything you had at dinner, hand-down?  In DC, salads are the preferred lunch grub, and Chop’t is the place to go.

Chop’t

The setting: 
Chop’t’s clean lines and industrial space fool you into thinking you aren’t in a school cafeteria for the working Golden Circle dregs, but you’ll see the cool kids laughing at a table to your left, and the serious older kids having a meeting about chemistry class on your right.  Me?  I’m reading a book at the windowed counter. 

The service:
The Chop’t I frequent is just south of Dupont Circle – and be ready for a line that looks intimidating.  Before I figured out how to play the game, I would wait for 20 minutes in a line that went halfway down the block.  Now, I call my order in and go directly to the payment counter.

The food:
I’d suggest ordering one of the many already-created specialty salads on the menu.  I typically get the Cobb with the spa Ranch.  The first time I ordered, I made the mistake of asking them not to chop it too much – I was picturing those overly shredded “chopped salads” you so often get at a restaurant.  With the bacon in the Cobb and white cheddar (subbed from bleu cheese) being so thick, I almost wish they’d give me an extra “chop.”

I’d recommend against “making your own” salad if only because they seem to be a bit skimpy on the toppings when you do it.  They have a ton of toppings to go with, though, and if there isn’t one out of their extensive menu that floats your boat, you can get 4 topping included, and an endless number if you’re willing to pay for them.  

The salad is also served with two little soft tortilla triangles.  I’d recommend one of the great sodas on tap – I like the Diet Black Cherry Soda

Best for: A healthier option to lunch on the go.

Worst for: A hankering for the blue plate special – head across the street to Luna for that pleasure!

Melting Pot

August 6, 2008 by

Especially with a 9-year-old in tow, we think of dining out as an outing – we bring card games with us (Rage, anyone?) and whenever dinner is an actual experience, it’s even better.

Melting Pot

The setting:
The Melting Pot sets itself up to be romantic, with dark wood booths and low lighting.  The ever-present sound of fondue pots bubbling makes for a relaxed atmosphere.

The service:
On this occasion at the Arlington Melting Pot, the best thing about our experience actually was our server, Drew.  He belongs in a higher end restaurant and was gracious, had the perfect balance of familarity and professionalism, and kept up with us at a great pace.

The food:
I’m a fan of cheese, so a meal where you start by dipping food into cheese is kinda my idea of perfection.  We had the Wisconsin Trio Cheese Fondue to begin, which, I have to admit, was completely delicious.  It went incredibly well with the bread and apples, although I’m not one for raw veggies (because, let’s be honest, the bubbling of the fondue pot can only mask so much).

For the salad, the dressing was a little heavy on the Spinach Mushroom Salad, not really providing the palate relief needed after drowning in a vat of cheese.  But don’t skip the salad – you need the ruffage after the fromage.

The main course at the Melting Pot is the weak spot, although what do you expect when a restaurant has you cook your own food?  It’s difficult to get the timing right for all the various meats and veggies, and the only thing that really turns out well are the shrimp.  I eat that “goddess” sauce on everything, though – delish!

   

We finished with the Irish Cream Dream chocolate fondue.  Oh my.  Get this and ask them for an extra plate of bananas.  This was so, so good, and I’m not even really into chocolate!  What I love is that they bring you limitless “dippers” – little bites of pound cake, brownies, strawberries, rice krispy treats.  YumYumYum.

This is an expensive night out – just be ready for it, but you have to view the Melting Pot as an event, not just dinner.  Also, they offer really great deals – Girls Night Out and Monday Military Nights, as well as a FREE CHOCOLATE COURSE just for signing up for their little club.  Um, yes please! 

Best for: People who like to dip things.  And who like cheese.  And chocolate.

Worst for: Picky eaters and germaphobes: this is a community pot, my friend.

Restaurant 3

July 24, 2008 by

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.

Best Sandwich Place

July 21, 2008 by
Now, I hate to give away my secrets – and Best Sandwich Place qualifies as a quick and delicious lunch spot.  But since Alison told me about, I thought I’d pass it along…

Best Sandwich Place

The setting:
If you didn’t know if was there, you’d never find it.  Tucked away inside an office complex next door to Borders near Farragut Square, only a brass plaque hidden in a list directs you to this tasty spot.  Look for the line of people waiting at the slowest ATM in the world, and brush past them to go inside and find the Best Sandwich Place.

The service:
You need to know what you’re doing when you go in.  Stand by the chips and take a look at the vast menu behind the sandwich-making station.  There are also a few listed (including my favorite) on a printed white sheet near where they carve the turkey.  Order, then grab your chip and drink, and proceed to pay – be ready: they only take cash.  (I would suggest finding another ATM than the one you pass going into the building.  Seriously: slowest ever.)  Now that I’m a regular, they bring me my sandwich when it’s done, but until you’re established, wait to the side of the payment counter.

The food:
Yummo!  I get the turkey artichoke club on sourdough (instead of on a french baguette.)  It’s wonderful: the artichoke spread is super-tasty, the Parmesan cheese give it the right amount of salt and kick, and the combination of chicken and freshly carved turkey is great.  And the fact that there’s bacon on it doesn’t hurt either 😉  I typically eat my sandwich with a few Sunchips and wash it down with an Honest Tea, and round the whole thing out with a pickle wedge.  It isn’t the cheapest lunch at around $11, but it’s worth it.

Best for: A delicious sandwich to break up the workday.

Worst for: Au Bon Pain die-hards.

Bastille

July 16, 2008 by

Silly me, I thought Bastille Day was July 14th and I’ve been saving this birthday dinner post!

Bastille

The Setting:
Bastille is set off the beaten path in an unassuming former lumber shop showroom, and looks like a formal living room without the furniture and draperies.  Brian observed, “It looks nice, but not so nice you aren’t comfortable.”  Our table was tucked against a window near the bar, and I spent comfortable lulls watching a bird who kept pecking at the grass in the yard just outside the restaurant.  It was very relaxing.

The Service:
I believe the servers here work with a team approach.  The man who seemed to be the head waiter was always the first to notice us trying to get someone’s attention.  However, Brian asked when he made the reservation that our server be told it was my birthday and simply wish me a happy birthday, and no one did.

The Food:
The menu was a bit confusing, as the Sunday family dinner prices at $24 included an appetizer, entree and dessert.  Cheese was a supplemental $4, or you could have dessert and cheese for $33 – it reads clearer here than on the menu.

I started with the signature shrimp and calamari beignets (which I had read about in the Washington Post) and Brian had a Caprese salad.

   

The Washington Post was spot-on in saying the beignets were too heavy for an appetizer – and the portion was also too large.  However, I would get one order of these to share with the table, and the accompanying sauce gave them an added kick of flavor.  Brian’s Caprese was just lovely, although be ready for a kick in the pants from the garlic spread on toast.

For dinner, Brian went with the mussels, having been converted since his experience at Brasserie Beck.  He declared them as “perfectly fine,” but said if Beck’s bivalves warranted an “A,” these were a solid “C.” 

   

My bistro steak with pomme frites looked fantastic and the marinade was truly great, if the meat a bit chewy.  The frites, however, were in desperate need of salt – the kind that you can only add when the potatoes are still hot from the oil.  I also asked for ketchup, and was brought a little silver pot of housemade sauce.  And…I gotta say it: sometimes the birthday girl just wants a little Heinz 57.  However, I did really enjoy my meal.

No birthday cake for this birthday gal!  (Although I had nearly drowned in cupcakes the night before – Funfetti deliciousness made by Brian and Jack to celebrate).  Instead, I ordered the banana pudding with housemade oatmeal cookies and caramalized bananas.  It was good, although it tasted – dare I say it – almost healthy.  Brian indulged in the peach tatin – and clearly out-ordered me.  (I think his picture alone is all the commentary needed.)

       

Bastille was a really nice experience, while not one that transported us to the continent.  We’ll be back with friends (make reservations and check the policy – parties larger than 5 need to hold their table with a credit card) or perhaps my father – this seemed like his sort of place.

Best for: An enjoyable, relaxing evening out away from the hub-bub of Old Town.

Worst for: Large, loud parties.

Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Tomato Salad

July 8, 2008 by

This is another Real Simple recipe that I tweaked…and it was great AND easy AND quick – the trifecta of my cooking technique!

Artichoke Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Tomato Mozzarella Salad

1 6.5-ounce jar artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan (I also fudged this a little – I just poured in what I thought looked right – probably closer to 3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (I omitted this because I was in a hurry and didn’t have thyme – Hardy Har)
4 6-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Grape, cherry, or beefsteak tomatoes, cut into bite-size pieces.  Really you can use any tomatoes – this is a summer standby for me and I particularly love it with heirloom cherry tomatoes, but that makes it one expensive side dish!
1 fresh mozzarella ball, cut into bite-size pieces

8 baguette slices, toasted (optional) (We served this on the side and buttered)

Mix the artichokes, Parmesan, and 1 tablespoon of the thyme in a small bowl.

Cut a 2-inch pocket in the thickest part of each chicken breast – I was able to stuff the mixture in the “pocket” created by  the natural separation of the chicken breast. Stuff a quarter of the artichoke mixture into each pocket. Rub the chicken breasts with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Heat a grill or grill pan to medium. Grill the chicken, turning once, until cooked through, 6 to 7 minutes per side.  I put a lid on over the chicken because I’m paranoid about cooking chicken properly, and it actually turned out just slightly overdone – try covering the pan just half of the time per side to keep it hot and moist, but not overdoing it.  I used tongs AND a spatula when turning the chicken in order to keep the stuffing inside the chicken.

While the chicken is cooking, put the tomato and mozzarella in a large mixing bowl and give it a few turns of olive oil and a  healthy splash of salt.  Mix this together – it’s easiest to use your hands to turn the salad, but you’ll get olive oil all over them, so have a sink and soap nearby and working!  If the tomatoes were room temperature when you prepared them, put the salad in the fridge while your chicken finishes cooking just to make it a little cool – not cold!

I was actually surprised how good this chicken was.  It’s pretty healthy (actually listed as “heart healthy” in Real Simple, although they didn’t make their tomato salad with mozzarella…whatever, Dude.)  The flavor was awesome and it’s on the “favorites” list at home!

Vinoteca

June 24, 2008 by

On our last night before Jack arrived, Brian surprised me with a visit to Vinoteca, a cool wine bar with a pretty great menu.

Vinoteca

The setting:
We were surprised when we walked in – we expected something more along the lines of Veritas with muted lighting and muted colors, and instead it seems more like a neighborhood cafe/diner.  The floors or walls desperately need something to absorb the sound; we were barely able to hear each other talk and the restaurant was only around half full. 

The service:
Our waitress was very nice, although I wouldn’t think her out of the ordinary.  They were out of what I originally ordered and it took a while to hear back and then my order was misheard.  (To be fair, I asked what the woman at the table next to us was eating and said it looked great but then ordered something else – I got what the woman next to me had).  

The food:
I was pleasantly surprised by how great the menu was!  It was really reasonable, and the mix of affordable charcuterie, cheeses, and small plates meant I got a good taste of everything – and the selections were great!   Brian and I both ordered the scallops, which were served with bacon (mmm…bacon) and a wonderful green sauce.  The scallops were served already cut into more manageable pieces, making it seem like a full meal, even though there were only 3 full scallops.

The wine list is also pretty great.  Brian really enjoyed a baby Barbera and I loved my glass of Greysac Medoc  (which I had recently read about in Julie & Julia).  This would be an excellent place to try some smaller pours of a few varietals while enjoying some charcuterie.

Best for: A fun night to try some new vino.

Worst for: A romantic date – a fun date, yes, but this isn’t the place to whisper sweet nothings in candlelight.