Tarver King and Culinary Enlightenment at Potowmack Farm

Yarrow Sponge Cake dessert at Potowmack Farm

Chamomile Sherbet dessert at Potowmack Farm

You know the joke about the Buddhist monk who told the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything? (sadly, you do) If chef Tarver King were the hot dog vendor, he would have made the monk one with everything (homemade mustard, locally sourced onions, nitrate-free farm-raised dogs, etc.), and then he would have made everything with one, and then he would have made a delicious cocktail, and then he would have moved his cart across town to sell more hot dogs to more monks but in completely different ways.  I am mystified that King did not win the 2014 RAMMY for Chef of the Year.*

* The nevertheless deserving winner was Haidar Karoum — we HAVE to get to Doi Moi soon, okay, Mrs. Me?

And if Tarver King were the monk, he would have achieved enlightenment long ago — instead, we get to experience enlightenment (or close to it) at his current haunt, Potowmack Farm.  We followed him there from the Ashby Inn, which is now off the radar since both King and innkeepers Star and Neil Wavra have moved on. And okay, fine, this is all a little over the top.  But our dinner at PF was phenomenal — not over the top at all, in fact in some ways quite mellow and restrained.  I’m still a little jiggy with it, a couple of weeks later.  Took a while to process it all, for review purposes.

Zen garden of "snacks"

Zen garden of “snacks”

First, the setting is gorgeous, up a bucolic gravel road amongst the trees just on the Virginia side of the Potomac.  You can see a bit of the river from the restaurant, which is sort of a large greenhouse-looking single-room structure, glass and wood everywhere, you feel like you’re out in the wilderness. Someone was playing acoustic guitar across the dining room from our table, at volume perfectly calibrated to provide atmosphere without impeding conversation.  I imagine the place can get loud when it is full — the night we ate there, it was only half-full, fairly shocking on a Saturday night but then again it is kind of out of the way and not exactly inexpensive.

Service is wonderful, from the hosts to our server, who gave us travel tips in addition to menu tips, to the bartender (cocktail whisperer, really), who explained (sort of) how they created the , more about which below.  Farm/restaurant co-owner Beverly Morton Billand dropped by our table to chat not long after we had been seated, even though we’re not anybody in particular, it’s just how they roll.  Tarver King did not stop by the table but that’s only because he was busy in the kitchen turning (farm-raised) duct tape and (organic) hubcaps into culinary gold.

Bacon can make even an already-good crab croquette better!

Bacon can make even an already-good crab croquette better!

And then there was food.  Yes there was!  That would be out of character if I went through all this verbose lunacy about something non-food-related.  Much of the ingredients is grown in their own farm, and most of the rest is sourced super-locally. Potowmack Farm is prix fixe, $88 for five courses, and you can choose among three menus, which they call Found, Grown, and Raised, each changing every night.  We all eschewed Raised, going for Found and Grown.  Highlights:

A selection of “snacks” for the table, a little Zen garden of appetizers, from relatively standard like mini-blini with dill-sour cream, to exotic like spicy fried kimchi pakora (?!).  Wonderfully arranged on iron and rock amidst candles — it was like culinary Settlers of Cataan except without the sheep.  Delicious.

I did the “Found” tasting.  Here are some findings. Snapping turtle mulligatawny: no actual turtles in evidence, which was fine, but turtles aside, it was merely a tasty greenish bisque.  Crab croquette swathed in a bacon jacket atop black raspberry gel with chamomile leaves: lovely presentation, and very good, but otherwise not especially memorable.  Dessert was “Yarrow Sponge Cake with hickory crew, coriander oats, pine nut powder”: gorgeous to look at in a mossy forest-meets-sea kind of way, this is the kind of thing I imagine them serving at Noma.

Yarrow Sponge Cake etc.

Yarrow Sponge Cake etc.

Others went with the “Grown” menu, including roasted escarole (with Surryano ham, grilled onion aioli, nasturtiums), potato gnocchi (with Maitaki mushrooms, sunflower kernels, beef crackling), and chamomile sherbet (with rhubarb, chia seeds, strawberry raisings, lavender).  I can’t vouch for the Grown, but people seemed to like it.  Here’s the thing about the food at Potowmack Farm, though: it is incredibly inventive, and local, with sublime presentation and service, but the portions are kind of small even in the aggregate (one of my dining companions contrasted the experience with Ashby Inn, where we always left feeling quite full — not quite so here, and in fact another of us ate a yogurt when she got home), and while the food is really good…but there wasn’t one particular dish that was OMGood, like a couple of items at Range. Really, the opening “snacks” were the most exciting course. But then again, it’s amazing that the whole menu changes every night, and CLEARLY further research is needed.

As if all that food weren’t enough, the drinks are fabulous too. In particular, a vividly orange-glowing cocktail called Smoke & Fire, made with tequila, lime, honey, and a variety of chilis, some fresh and some maple-smoked. It tasted fresh and earthy, bright and smoky, with just a hint of chili heat. I plan to try to replicate it at home, but I expect the combination and complexity of chilis will be difficult to match. A great drink, one of the best and most interesting I’ve ever had.

All in all, very good food, fantastic drinks, spectacular overall experience, I would say worth it even at the price, just not something we can do with much frequency.  Although we are already looking forward to next time.

Ranging From Good To OMGood

It felt daring, ordering the cheapest bottle of wine on the list at Range, whose food you might expect to pair better with rare Burgundies than low-end whatever.  Range does offer a fine selection of Burgundies, into $2,500 territory (terroir-tory?), which is just a teeny bit beyond our budget. The cheapest bottle was a Ken Forrester pinotage, which like all pinotages smells of tobacco, off-putting to many (including, reportedly, the head sommelier at Range, who stocks it anyway). At $18 — how many nice restaurants even offer any bottle for as low as $18? — it had bright, light fruit and a nice finish and was such a bargain we ordered a second bottle (possibly even a third, who can remember?), to the bemusement of our server.  And it paired just fine with the food, which was so good it probably would have paired just fine with three day old tobacco-marinated pond water.

Range has been open for maybe 18 months now, and has evidently overcome some mixed early reviews and the immediate, overwhelming crowds to become one of the better restaurants in the area; it would be the best restaurant in Montgomery County if it weren’t on the DC side of Western Avenue, in Friendship Heights. Not sure why it took us this long to eat there.  Worth the wait.  Service was excellent – both our server and the sommelier were exceedingly friendly and informational, with perfect pacing.  We were off in a side room by ourselves (clearly they knew with whom they were dealing?), so the usual jet-engine-loud dining room wasn’t factor.

And the food! In approximate ascending order of non-suckitude:

Mixed Field Greens Salad — a fine salad, with strawberry vinaigrette and candied walnuts and blue cheese, well-balanced, no complaints, disappeared quickly, and yet it was the least exciting thing that hit our table all night.

Caesar Salad — apparently this has made some list of the 40 dishes one must eat in DC, and there’s nothing wrong with it, although as an omnivore I can’t agree that any salad could possibly be a top 40 dish.  This one was good, but not even the best Caesar salad I’ve had.  Also not really a Caesar salad at all, since it involves kale, nor did they prepare it tableside. So, again, a fine salad, but not really noteworthy.

Pork Sausage and Rapini Wood Fired Pizza — now we’re getting somewhere. Range does a good pizza, with crisp yeasty crust that remains sturdy even in the middle, and the pork chunks were fresh, unusually pink (looked almost raw but was not), mellow, savory, delicious, and the rapini provided a slightly bitter counterpoint. Not the best pizza in town, but very good.

Baker’s Basket — a mix of four breads, most crucially the cheddar-jalapeno biscuits and cheddar cornbread. Those were both great, but even better for the spreads that came with them, slightly spicy pepper jelly and smoky bacon marmalade, respectively. The “jelly” was really more of a marmalade and the bacon was almost a pate, and I nearly asked for a bowl full of it, which I would have eaten happily with a  spoon.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Succotash — we ordered the “pork duo” special and this was half of it, with perfectly pink sliced pork on a bed of tiny whole onions, lima beans, corn, that kind of thing.  Succotash is not normally my thing but this was very good.  Also did I mention there was grilled pork loin?  Just not enough of it — that’s the only complaint I can think of.

Fried Brussels Sprouts — BS have become the cupcake of upscale restaurant vegetables, i.e. ubiquitous and often disappointing. But Range does them as well as my current favorite Brasserie Beck, but different: larger sprouts, fried not roasted, and in a fish sauce/lime sauce that infuses the burnt-crisp sprouts with all kinds of umamified deliciousness.  Also, Range achieves their Brussels sprouts heights without the aid of bacon, so they get extra points for degree of difficulty. I could have kept eating these crunchy-edged salty-savory nuggets all night. At most dinners, this dish would have been the clear #1 highlight — but not at this dinner.

Pork Belly with Creamy Grits and Crisp Pork Rind — the other half of the pork duo, this small tower of flavor power is one of the best things I have eaten lately, right up there with a couple of Potowmack Farm dishes (PF review coming very very soon, seriously). I guess they roasted the pork belly, I’m not sure, it was sort of caramelized, dark brown outside and still pink inside, and tender to the point of collapse at first fork contact — if the Martians collapse so easily someday, we will be in great shape. The grits were indeed creamy, and sweet, and delicious in their own right although I’m sure being soaked in pork belly juices didn’t hurt much.  The pork rind was indeed crisp, although someone else ate that.  It was a small portion and we all shared a bite or two, but again I could have ordered a dozen more and eaten them all myself. A great combination of textures and flavors, executed perfectly.

So, a nice time was had by all.  No photographic evidence of the meal, alas. I would also note that while Range is a (celebrity chef) Bryan Voltaggio restaurant, they keep the merchandising to a minimum, offering signed copies of his book, VoltInk, but that’s about it, a nice difference from some other celebrity chef restaurants I can think of (*cough* Bobby Flay *cough*).

A Post About Wheaton For a Change

Still finalizing reviews of Range and Potowmack Farm, because there is so much to say.  Coming soon…

In the meantime: we hear the Wheaton Farmers Market is struggling.  I admit I am guilty of never going there, I just don’t ever find myself in the Triangle on Saturday mornings.  My image of the WFM is one sad little table of wilting veggies. Apparently it got bigger and better over the past year or two, but has now shrunk again, with a couple of vendors dropping out.  Unfortunately due to scheduling issues I am unlikely to get there anytime soon, but if you are one of my small handful of local Wheaton readers, maybe go check it out one of these summer Saturdays before it’s too late.  The farmers market — I think just one farm but with lots of goods – over in the parking lot of the Wheaton Forest Local Park on University may also be worth a drop-in, they’re open many hours on the weekends and most weekday evenings.

Downtown Wheaton also has a summer concert-and-movie series on Friday nights that is much better attended than the farmers market.  The 2014 season starts tomorrow at 7pm with a viewing of Frozen.  Let it go?  Or, as Ric Ocasek (or, technically, Ben Orr) might say, Let’s go! I like the nightlife, baby…

Would Bury Kitchen? No, Not Exactly

Rockfish @ Woodberry Kitchen

Rockfish @ Woodberry Kitchen

I’ve been struggling to come up with anything clever* to say about Woodberry Kitchen, one of Baltimore’s newer hot restaurants.  “Newer” in my addled mind, at least – it opened in 2007 and so is hardly new anymore.  We finally went recently (but getting less recent by the day) and our high expectations turned out to be too high, but in ways I’m finding tough to express.

* As this review will surely demonstrate.

There is lots to admire about WK: in particular, the space, which is divided into several large, high-ceilinged rooms with lots of wood and brick. The restaurant is part of the revitalization of the old Clipper Mill site, ravaged by fire in 1995. The redevelopment has maintained the industrial feel, including the facade of the old foundry, and WK fits in beautifully, a sort of rustic elegance.  The upstairs section above the bar looks cool. They also have a nicely appointed outdoor courtyard where, surprisingly, the acoustics are better than the fairly loud indoors, thanks to a wall of trees and shrubs blocking street noise.

Service is also excellent if a little slow at times – they seemed to be a person short, maybe.  But everyone is friendly, knowledgable, helpful, and (sometimes too) unobtrusive.

Cone o' Fries and Pot o' Ketchup @ Woodberry Kitchen

Cone o’ Fries and Pot o’ Ketchup @ Woodberry Kitchen

And the food was fine – good even, and we appreciated many small touches – but not great.  We had been expecting great, and maybe that was unfair, since really Woodberry Kitchen is a neighborhood bistro, it’s not trying to be Charleston or any kind of expense account restaurant.

For example, blackened rockfish was served on a bed of fresh greens in a zesty pool of soy-based broth, and the exterior was nice and dark, but the fish itself lacked much flavor. Rigatoni was fine but not any different than you get at many neighborhood Italian joints. Thin crisp french fries served in a  cute paper cone had good potato flavor and would have been great if they had been served above room temperature (we did also like the mini-mason jar of ketchup on the side).

Sometimes the starters outshine the entrees, but for us it was more of the same. Popcorn could be a fun snack for starters, but as with the fish, it needed more seasoning. The “crab pot” – cheesy sherried crab dip — was, again, fine but not extraordinary, particularly once it started to congeal not long after arriving at the table.  Are we sensing a theme?

Woodberry Kitchen isn’t crazy expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, with most entrees in the $25-30 range.  At those prices, in those surroundings, and given the local-celebrity chef Spike Gjerde hype, the food really should be more exciting.  We do appreciate the local sourcing, farm-to-table thing, but that isn’t enough to overcome…not exactly lack of execution, just lack of excellence.  Good, just not great. In the end we were glad we went, but I don’t think we would rush back.

 

Happy Independence Day

Aaaaaaaaaaaaand we’re back.

Official July 4, 2014 Potato Salad

Official July 4, 2014 Potato Salad

“Coming soon”: reviews of Range (great), Potowmack Farm (awesome), Woodberry Kitchen (finally), probably a few others I can still dredge out from the old notes.  Also spam spam spam spam spam eggs and spam.

Wheaton’s newest restaurant El Catrachito got a rave review in the Post a couple of weeks ago, although they manage to avoid using the term “Wheaton” (other than being the nearest Metro stop), instead locating it in Silver Spring, which is technically true but totally misleading.  Anyway, I guess I need to try it – I like the Honduran aspect of it, something new around here.  2408 University, in the old Irene’s III hole in the wall just down from New Kam Fong.

For me, July 4 is memories of cherry pie, potato salad, and croquet at my grandmother’s house in Tacoma.  Those things all did happen, sometimes together, maybe not actually on July 4 but at other times in summer…whatever.  Also fireworks over Lake Washington at Sheridan Beach, which clearly did not coincide with Tacoma-based activities.

Mrs. Senior Me taught me how to make potato salad, when I was wee, and while I am always tweaking the recipe — because I am always tweaking all recipes, otherwise I get bored, plus I still haven’t quite achieved the Platonic ideal of potato salad — I still make it more or less the way she taught. Sometimes there is bacon, but not in the original, and not this year. I have always loved potato salad, and even some people who don’t normally like potato salad like this (mayo-free) version.  Thanks Mom! Happy 4th!

Road Trip: Buffalo Not-Wings

Hot Dog! Ted's.

Hot Dog! Ted’s.

Amongst all the wings, we ate other things too, on our recent Buffalo trip.  We also spent part of a lovely mid-70s-and-sunny day at Niagara Falls, which was awesome, but we didn’t eat anything there.  Not much on the U.S. side other than a nice grassy park, and the Canadian side is horribly touristy — we almost ended up at the Hard Rock Cafe but thankfully Mrs. Me, more clearheaded than the rest of us, vetoed that detour.

Here are some capsule reviews of our Buffalo non-wing food consumption:

Pearl Street Grill & Brewery: we did have wings here, but also other stuff, including an excellent “fish fry” which I guess is Midwestern for fish & chips.  Moist fresh fish inside a crisp savory exterior, with solid fries and above-average tangy tartar sauce. They brew some good beers there at Pearl Street too, in addition to Lake Effect IPA we got a giant 100 ounce “Widow Maker” tube of Sabre’s Edge, a double IPA-barleywine melange that we tapped ourselves at the table.  Buffalo, it turns out, is a beer town.

Ted’s Hot Dogs: like wings, I don’t know if a hot dog can transcend its own people without becoming something else, chorizo or bratwurst or whatever, but Ted’s comes awfully close. They “charcoal grill” their dogs and it sure seems to work well, resulting in a full-dog char bursting with flavor.  After consultation with locals, there are two prime ways to play the dogs, depending on preference: go with either chili and cheese, or else “the works” which is basically ketchup and mustard and relish and, crucially, Ted’s special hot sauce, which is better than any of the wing sauces I tasted all weekend.  Naturally I ordered one of each kind of dog, and although the chili is pretty bland, and similar to Ben’s in DC, the dogs themselves were so good that I powered both down in mere minutes, Takeru Kobayashi style (not really but that’s what it seemed like).  Ted’s also had the best fries of the weekend, fresh and thin and reasonably crisp and salty.  And good shakes if you like that kind of thing.  I think Ted’s has gotten the “touristy” label but, like the Anchor Bar, and really even more so, in my experience the food lives up to the hype.

Anderson's Cone Beckons

Anderson’s Cone Beckons

Anderson’s: purveyors of frozen custard and Buffalo’s beloved “beef on weck” among other drive-up fast food delicacies.  People who like frozen custard like Anderson’s frozen custard a lot.  I was all about this new-to-me beef-weck thing, which turns out to be sliced roast beef on a “kummelweck” roll that is topped with salt and caraway seeds, with horseradish sauce as the other key component. Salty beefy bready horsy wecky goodness.  Anderson’s is a classic 50′s-style drive-up joint so this wasn’t exactly gourmet, and I am informed there is better weckage out there; the Anderson’s version is basically like Arby’s but with better beef and a more interesting roll.  Serious Eats says go to Charlie the Butcher. Next time!  Not everyone digs caraway but I can (dig it).  Fries are okay if a little soggy, dill pickles are good, Anderson’s is good.  Especially if you like creamy frozen desserts.

Dug’s Dive: right on Lake Erie, great views, lots of outdoor seating. It helped that we were there on a lovely 75-and-sunny day. This strip of lakefront used to house factories, all closed now and mostly torn down but a few desolate shells are still up. Not sure about possible soil toxicity, but the alcohol will kill that stuff, right?  You can’t have Superfund without SuperFun!  We only had drinks here (beers and large strong gin & tonics), but they have food too.  Our kind of dive.

Anderson's Beef Weckage and Curly Fries

Anderson’s Beef Weckage and Curly Fries

Spot Coffee: I don’t know if Buffalo is really a coffee town in the same way that, say, Portland and Seattle are, but they sure do like their local coffee spots, including and in particular Spot Coffee, which was jumpin’ every morning while Starbucks (right across the street in one instance) was pretty vacant. Some in our group tried it and liked it, but I can’t attest personally.  About a half dozen locations in greater Buffalo plus a few elsewhere, including one random one in Florida.

Embassy Suites: served not only a full hot free breakfast every morning with eggs cooked to order, but also offered guests a free happy hour in the evening, with a bartender (hi Sharon, you rock!) slinging mixed drinks, wine, and beer.  The accompanying snacks – I think some pretzels, cheese, fruit, like that – were fairly desultory, but whaddya want with your free hotel happy hour beverages? We chatted with some people going to the Rod Stewart/Santana concert that night – but neither Rod nor Carlos hit the hotel bar while we were there.  No matter.  Well done, Embassy Suites Buffalo.  Rooms were good too.

Queen City Kitchen: airport bar conveniently located right across from the gate where our friends’ plane was supposed to already be, but was not, due to a broken seat which had to be fixed before takeoff.  They were delayed just long enough for us to establish a beneficial relationship with the bartender, quaff two refreshing Helldiver APAs from Buffalo’s Flying Bison Brewery, and polish off a spicy chorizo flatbread that wasn’t great but wasn’t bad and went down easy with the Helldiver.  Certainly exceeded expectations for an airport bar.  But which is it, Buffalo: Queen City or Nickel City?

 

Road Trip: Buffalo Wings

Duff's Hot Wings (WARNING WARNING WA-- no, it's okay)

Duff’s Hot Wings (WARNING WARNING WA– no, it’s gonna be okay)

Legend has it that the concept of snacking on fried chicken wings doused in hot sauce was born at Buffalo’s Anchor Bar in 1964.  It says so on their menu so it must be true?  Hard to believe nobody ever fried and ate a chicken wing before that, at least in the South if not in upstate New York.  Maybe the sauce is part of the key, although you can get “Buffalo wings” without any sauce, even in Buffalo.

Anyway, we recently visited Buffalo for the first time, and naturally had to test the wings at their source.  We feasted on wings from three different places, and they were all good, but in the end I don’t think chicken wings are capable of transcending their genre in the same way some other foods are.* A great wing is still just a wing.  For me, anyway.  Plus what used to be a cheap bar snack now costs about $1/wings – 10 wings for $11 seems to be the going rate — not outrageous but hardly a bargain. Still, we enjoyed the food! In each wingy establishment we ordered both mild and hot wings – we did not go Nuclear or Suicidal or any of the other this-one-goes-to-eleven crazy (allegedly) hot options.

* Like: biryani, mole, pizza, just to name a few off top of head.

 

Duff's Mild Wings

Duff’s Mild Wings

Duff’s: many locations, less flair than Anchor Bar, locals tend to favor Duff’s “Famous Wings” and their hot sauce was the hottest we encountered, but it didn’t penetrate my soul like a great spicy vindaloo, for example; instead it just made my mouth tingle but the burn went no further.  They say “Warning! Hot is VERY VERY Hot!” but I think they overstate. The wings themselves seemed tired, although in fairness we got takeout so they might have been fresher had we eaten at Duff’s.  On average the pieces weren’t all that meaty, either.  Nothing wrong with them, but just average overall.  Duff’s is also missing out on a huge marketing opportunity by not selling Duff Beer (it’s not just fictional!). 10 wings for $11, 20 for $19.

 

Pearl Street Hot Wings

Pearl Street Hot Wings

Pearl Street Grill & Brewery: down by the river with huge decks and views, more about this place in the next post, for wings were only our appetizer here. And they were good: hot wasn’t as hot as Duff’s but had a nice kick, the coating was nice and crisp, and the chicken seemed meatier and fresher.  The accompanying Lake Effect IPA didn’t hurt.  One pound of wings for $11, two for $21 — inconvenient for comparison! Probably about ten/pound? Given the proximity to Canada, I should just be glad no metrics were involved. They also offer a “barrel” for $47 — would I rather have a barrel of wings, or monkeys? Or winged monkeys?! Now I’m getting ideas.

 

Anchor Bar Hot Wings

Anchor Bar Hot Wings

Anchor Bar: locals think the Anchor has dropped in quality over the years, becoming a tourist trap, and it is touristy, with plenty of merchandise available.  There’s one in the airport now (hello tourists!), but we went to the original Main Street location. I’m here to tell you their wings are still good, in fact the meatiest and freshest-tasting of the three places listed here.  Their sauce isn’t exciting, ironic since they bottle it and sell it all over the place, and for people who crave great wing sauce, I can see why Anchor Bar falls short.  Sauce is important and can elevate a wing, but it can’t make up for flaws in the chicken itself.  Anchor Bar had the best chicken, sauce aside, and I liked it best for that reason.  10 wings for $11, 20 for $17.

Of course there are many other Buffalo wing sources Buffalo Buffalo wing sources sources of Buffalo wings in Buffalo NY.  (Disambiguation!) Every restaurant or bar sells them, and you could probably knock on random doors and get good wings from the populace at large — Buffalo folk are uniformly friendly and wings are omnipresent.

Somehow, though, we forced ourselves to eat other foods too, more about which in the next post.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.