Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nam Viet...a Cleveland Park Weekend

I ended up spending a considerable amount of time in Cleveland Park this last week. On Saturday night, Amy and I ended up looking for a quick bite after my cousin's wedding reception. Co-workers had told me that Nam Viet had amazing Pho and having never really experienced Pho, I was excited when the chance to eat there fell into my lap.

Amy and I ordered in record time and the food came out equally quickly. I had the standard Pho (#17 on the menu) soup with tender beef strips served with rice noodles and garnished with green and white onions, cilantro, and parsley. Amy had the spicy version of the same (#18) and we very excited to eat. I think our excitement may have actually gotten the better of us, because I just don't think there was anyway for the meal to live up to the expectations. My experience with Pho is limited as I noted before, but I honestly found the dish to be a bit bland. Amy is the queen of spicy foods so it was not really a surprise that the #18 did not quite hit the mark for her either.

I am not completely ready to pass judgement on Nam Viet yet, however. I feel like the mistake was mine for not being a little more adventuro
us and trying something beyond the standard fare. The menu was huge and the prices reasonable so I see no reason not to go again. I think next time Amy and I will recruit someone who is more familiar with the restaurant and Vietnamese cuisine in general to make sure that we are getting the full experience. Plus I will need another excuse to post adorable Amy pictures like the one on the left and below.

Nam Viet
3419 Connecticut Avenue, NW

Vace..."DC's Best Pizza"

My good friend Janette is a Cleveland Park resident and I often feel a bit guilty that I always make her meet me somewhere near my apartment and never make it to her part of town. The fact that she owns a car and I don't always seems to make it seem more reasonable for her to come to me. At any rate, Janette and I are great friends for many reasons but both of us will tell you that one of the main pillars of our relationship springs from a mutual love of good food and good wine. Our primary activities together usually center around eating out, having cocktails, grocery shopping (did I mention she has a car) and even cooking every once in awhile.

Janette has been talking for sometime about Vace, an Italian deli in Cleveland Park (they have a second location in Bethesda). Several people had told her that it was the best pizza they had ever had in DC and Janette had always wanted to try it, but was a little gun shy about ordering a pizza just for herself. Being the great friend that I am, I happily volunteered to help her out.

We met up on a Thursday evening around 6:30 and ordered a pizza to go. This is really the only option since Vace does not have any kind of tables or chairs. It was a build-your-own-pizza set up with a list of ingredients on the board to choose from. This proved to be a little bit daunting for us, especially since it was pretty obvious that everyone else in the place were pretty regular and knew exactly what they wanted and we were obviously in the way. Eventually, we settled on spinach and sausage which may sound odd but we were thrown into upheaval when they did not have any fresh tomatoes. So, lesson number one was to know what you wanted before you got in line and have a Plan B ready to go. The next lesson: order before you get to the restaurant. We probably waited close to 40 minutes for the pizza which would have been fine if there had been any place in the deli where you could stand without being in someone's way. We did have plenty of time to peruse the shelves of Italian wine, dry noodles and the freezers full of home made ravioli and lasagna (ranging from $6 - $12 for a pound).

We eventually got our pizza and it smelled pretty amazing. A 16-inch large was only $12 after tax which already had me leaning towards loving Vace. It should be noted that single slices of pizza can be purchased for $1 for those who don't want to commit to an entire pizza. The White Onion pizza looked particularly appealing (all things we noticed after we had ordered our pizza).

We made it through the rain back to Janette's apartment and pretty much devoured the pizza that we had repeatedly decried "way too large" for two people to eat. The crust was fantastic and Vace put their tomato sauce on top of the cheese which seemed to make the pizza crisper and lighter. The spinach was obviously frozen in its past life which was a little disappointing, but the sausage was home made and excellent.

I don't know if I could go as far as calling Vace's pizza the best in DC, but it was definitely near the top and the price is hard to beat.

Vace Italian Deli
3315 Connecticutt Avenue NW
(202) 363-1999

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Red Derby

Aaron has been trying to get me to the Red Derby for about a year now. Located at 14th Street and Quincy, the Red Derby is not exactly next door. Realty agents probably still refer to this neighborhood as Columbia Heights, but it is out there. It took us about 35 minutes to get there from out apartment near Adams Morgan. The plan was to meet our old friend Beth and her cousin, Ashley, who were both home visiting for the weekend. Sadly, Beth somehow got overly excited by her taxes and did not realize it was 11:00 until 11:15. After walking 35 minutes through semi-questionable neighborhoods, Aaron and I decided to just eat anyway. Aaron had only been to the Red Derby in the evenings before today. They are famous for their policy of cans-only beer and have extremely reasonable prices (most beers are $2 - $6). We had read in a couple local papers that the brunch was a well-kept secret and decided it was worth a shot. The menu was very egg-focused: hamburgers with fried eggs, a BeLT (BLT with fried egg), breakfast burritos and fried egg sandwiches. Mimosas, bloody mary's and screwdrivers are $2 each when you purchase brunch. I took healthy advantage of the $2 deal. The food was reasonable priced ($7-9) and was quite tasty. Aaron had a Derby Burger (with arugula, avocado and cucumber) and I continued my search for decent breakfast tacos in DC and ordered the breakfast burrito with bacon. Both of us were more than happy with out orders. A very pleasant two hours were passed with couple rounds of mimosas and bloodys ended by a nice extra large can of English Strongbow Cider. The servers and patrons were all very enthusiastic about the beautiful weather and the cheap drinks. The Derby provides a large assortment of games from Battle Ship, to Connect 4 and Yatzee. As a shout out to my absentee sister, I forced Aaron to play Yatzee with me. Then I made us stop playing and order more drinks after he got three Yatzees in a row. It was a great morning and I highly recommend Red Derby to anyone who is willing to make the track to 14th and Quincy.

The Red Derby
3718 14th Street, NW

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sometimes you just need a drink...

One of my favorite places in DC to have brunch is Marvin. I have not yet posted a review of Marvin because, every time I bring my camera to the restaurant, I somehow forget it is in my purse right around them time that they bring me my first mimosa. The purpose of mentioning Marvin in this post is that the owners recently purchased the vacant building next door and have converted it into a "Prohibition style speak easy." I had read about the Gibson in a few articles and it was featured in the March issue of the Washingtonian magazine as one of the 100 best bars in DC. The review kept mentioned the lack of signage and the unmarked door which made the whole thing seem a bit too pretentious for my tastes.

I eventually caved to my curiosity, especially since Aaron is such a fan of old-school cocktails. Thus, began my incredibly arduous battle to get a reservation. Even though the need to make a reservation and the attitude of every person I talked to on the phone should have reinforced my original decision to avoid the hassles, it instead manifested itself in my absolute need to win! I finally managed to get a reservation for two people at 7:30 on Saturday night. I was given very explicit instructions that if we got there more than 10 minutes late the table would be given away and that there was a two hour limit on our table.

After all the trouble, I walked into the Gibson with the firm intention to dislike it. I managed to maintain that attitude as we shown to are table by the giant bouncer and almost set our menu on fire while we held it over the tiny tea light candle on the table (which was the only light source in the place). I even managed to mock the all black walls and floors and the fact that they had even painted the beautiful front window black. Then I ordered my first drink. The Salad Day Sour was a combination of celery-infused Macchu Pisco, lemon, The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters and burnt cinnamon. I don't know what possessed me to order the drink, since writing it all out now makes it sound a little gross. Whatever the motivations, the drink was amazing. I particular like it when bartenders find away to make you think you are doing something healthy when you consume your cocktail. I felt pretty damn good after I emptied my martini glass of salad blended with high doses of alcohol. Aaron had a Sazerac which the waitress lit on fire at the table. I knew right then I was not going to like that drink. My initial reaction was affirmed after Aaron let me take a tiny sip of his rye + absinthe concoction.

After washing the taste of Sazerac out of my mouth with the remaining gulps of my salad drink, I decided it was best to stick with my fruity drinks and picked the Brunswick Sour (a mix of Appleton Estate White Rum, cane sugar, lime and a merlot float) for my second round. The merlot float was a carefully poured layer of merlot wine floating on top of the lime and rum. It was like dessert to my responsible dinner course of salad. Aaron had a Rhum Manhattan which was slightly better than his first choice but the waitress could still light his on fire. It should be mentioned here that Aaron loved both of his drinks.

The only thing that the Gibson really needed to score 100% was some type of food and maybe a slight reduction in the arrogance level. Gibson's is a great place for special occasions or when one of your really rich friends is paying for the drinks. The cocktails run between $10-$16. Wine and bubbles are also served for those that are a little scared of mixed cocktails...although that is kind of the whole point of going to Gibson. Make sure you eat beforehand or that you can get to a Big Slice quickly afterwards. Two drinks goes a long way at the Gibson.

2009 14th Street, NW
Call 202-232-2156 for reservations
No website...because that is how cool they are

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

People that are better than I am...

My friend Chris was very excited about the idea that I was starting a blog and sent me a link to his favorite "food photography" site. I took one look at this thing and immediately felt bad for myself. Not only because it was so much nicer than my blog in terms of photography and lighting, but she also just seems to have a much much more productive life. So, for those of that want to see how blogs are done, this is it:

Now I have something to aspire to :)

Restaurant Week 2009 - Bistro Bis

After the disappointing and rather expensive evening at Agraria on Friday night, I actually considered trying to convince Aaron not to go out to dinner on Sunday night. In addition, I had completely forgotten that the Oscars were on that night, and while I no longer place bets or plan parties around the Oscars, I do still enjoy sitting on my couch in pajamas, eating pizza and making fun of beautiful people's fashion choices. The desire to stay home in pajamas was considerably intensified by the fact that both Aaron and I had ridiculous hang overs from the previous night.

At any rate, I reminded myself that Bistro Bis was President Obama's favorite restaurant in DC and that there was a infinitesimal chance that we might run into him at the bar and five minutes later I was in the shower and contemplating my own fashion options. Although we did not get to share a bottle of wine with Bistro Bis' most famous patron, it was easy to see why President Obama is such a fan.

The atmosphere in the restaurant was a little too bright and clean for me. It reminded me of a hotel lobby (which was appropriate since it is connected to the lobby of the Hotel George). Bistro Bis won early points, however, by offering "Restaurant Week" wine choices in addition to food. Aaron would not let me order a bottle of wine because he had something like "homework" to do later, but it was still very exciting. The thing that really sold me on Bistro Bis was that unlike other high end restaurants who treat Restaurant Week patrons like they are court ordered community service, Bistro Bis actually seemed excited that we were there. They only offered a special Restaurant Week menu with a variety of choices for each course and cheap wine (did I already say that).

Aaron started with Paté de Campagne a country style pork paté with pistachios, mesclun
salad, toasted baguette and mustard sauce. I thought it sounded pretty gross and looked like Spam but it was not too bad when I tried it (it actually tasted just like well cooked Spam). I stuck with a classic and had Onion Soup Les Halles with a rich beef broth, caramelized onions,
sourdough croûtons and gruyère cheese. It was everything that French Onion soup should be with cheese so good that you can't stop eating until it is too late and you know that you are not going to feel very good in about three hours.

For the main course it was Coq Au Vin with a red wine braised chicken, root vegetables,
pearl onions, crimini mushrooms and bacon lardons for Aaron and Duck Confit Façon Tarbais
(in other words a duck leg cooked in garlic and thyme with tomato). The combination of gruyère cheese and duck was not a well thought out plan on my part. Aaron was absolutely horrified when it became clear that I was taking the skin off the duck meat, but I just didn't think my stomach could take it.

The classic French dinner was completed by a dessert of caramelized apples wrapped in a crisp butter pastry, with vanilla bean crème anglaise for me and a Tarte au Citron with lemon curd, sweet merinque, pistachio and raspberries for Aaron. The Tarte au Citron was one of those desserts that just looks too beautiful to eat. But, then we tasted it and destroyed the whole thing in about 30 seconds flat. My fancy apple pie was surprisingly light compared to everything else I ate that night. I was a very torn at the time, but I was exceedingly glad the next morning that I had opted out of ordering the Chocolate Moltan Cake with a chocolate/raspberry mousse filling.

I never saw the actual menu, so I can't comment on the prices of the food during a regular visit, but for Restaurant Week, I felt very good about dropping $35.08 for the three course meal (I of course spent more than that because I ordered enough glasses of wine to fill a bottle of wine). And, while Aaron was in the bathroom between the first and second course, I discovered that if I craned my neck just right I could watch the Oscars Red Carpet on the bar TV, so it was a win-win situation.

The only thing that would have made the evening better was if the Obamas sat at the table next to us, struck up a conversation about how my boyfriend's appetizer looked like Spam, became best friends and was eventually appointed Chief Advisor for International Health (I made that position up but it sounds cool). And, then we could have weekly dinners at our favorite place.

Bistro Bis
15 E Street, NW
(202) 661-2700

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Restaurant Week 2009 - Agraria

DC is a place with some pretty amazing restaurants...restaurants that on the average day I can only dream of being able to afford. There is a magical event that happens about twice a year, however, that is known as Restaurant Week. Together with the women from my office who share my love for food and my small pay check, I try to take advantage of Restaurant Week whenever it rolls around. During Restaurant Week I can barely (but always happily) find the money to enjoy a great meal with nice drinks and good friends in a lovely atmosphere. Agraria on the Georgetown Waterfront met three of the above expectations...all except the great meal part.

I have heard from several friends that the Waterfront restaurants are not worth much more than the lovely view of the Potomac. Sadly, Avery, Marie and I were there on an extremely cold February night with nothing but a broken water fountain to gaze at. We probably should have lowered our expectations since we made the reservation at the last minute after hearing that the restaurant we originally chose was not up to par. The fact that Agraria still had available reservations during Restaurant Week was a pretty ominous sign.

Overall, my meal was actually pretty good. I chose some safe, but in the end, smart choices. For the appetizer it was Fried Green Tomato with Cornmeal Crust, Basil Pesto, Goat Cheese Flan and Tomato Jam. It was the Goat Cheese Flan that really sold me on the appetizer. I always like the idea of cheese being made into something that seems unnatural (did anyone else get excited when Carla on Top Chef started talking about Goat Cheese Soufles during the finale???). In the end the Flan was way too sweet, but the tomatoes and the pesto were very tasty. Avery did not fare quite as well with her appetizer but she chose the House Salad, so there probably wasn't too much to say there anyway. Marie ordered Wild Maine Mussells which I was at first a bit jealous of, until she gave me one to try and I experienced my first completely uncooked mussell. The waiter told us the mussells were just very "naturally dressed" but to me they just tasted like the kind of mussell that comes back to haunt you at 3:00 AM (Marie survived without incident).

Both Marie and Avery had Potato Crusted Rockfish with Braised Arugla for their main entree. Avery made the mistake of asking for the waiter's recommendation between the Rockfish and the New York Strip with Roast Garlic Mashed Potatoes. He basically called the steak boring and made me feel kinda bad for not exploring new culinary terrains, but in the end I won hands down with my steak and pototoes. Avery's fish was undercooked to the point that she felt inclined to send it back (to be fair, they did give her a free glass of champagne). My steak was well cooked with just a little too much fat in the cut and the mashed potatoes were probably the only thing on anyone's plate that was worth writing home about.

For the dessert, I will just say briefly that I order something called Campfire S'mores Pudding. I'm sorry...but how delicious does that sound? It was like my favorite childhood dessert had come back to me but in an extremely convenient format. No open fires, no pulling hot marshmellows off branches....perfection. Unfortunately, my pudding tasted like some had taken the burned branches and mixed them into the pudding. It was the bitterest chocolate flavor I have ever experienced and I spent the rest of dessert staring at Avery's carrot cake and Marie's blueberry pie which were both quite good.the drinks was pretty tasty, but at the end of the day Agraria has too much competition in DC for good, cheap food (see entry on Ben's Chili Bowl) to be putting out that kind of food and cha

Overall, Agraria is not a place I would go again. The company was great but you can enjoy great company for much less than$75+ per person. One less restaurant in DC to be curious about...