Category Archives: American

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.

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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*).

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.

 

Jackie’s Revisited

Had it really been four and a half years since we last ate at Jackie’s (8081 Georgia, Silver Spring)?  Our experience in summer 2009 wasn’t so hot, unless you count the semi-pornographic conversation at the table next to us.  At the end of 2010, they got a new chef and a rave WaPo review.  They have changed chefs AGAIN since then, Adam Harvey took over the kitchen this past spring, and in any case the changes are quite apparent, even though the decor remains equally funky and fun.

The menu is completely different, and yet overall not necessarily better or worse than it was in 2009.  Jackie’s has jumped on the small-plates bandwagon, which can be fun, but is almost always a terrible value.  If every dish is great, then the experience can be sublime, but when quality is mixed, and portion sizes are just large enough for a party of four to have a bite or two of each offering, it can all go downhill.

Our selections were fine, although the attractive presentation generally exceeded the flavor. Fried calamari, Wagyu beef, lamb “Ketta”, spareribs, pumpkin salad (without much pumpkin), endive salad…all good, but nothing really memorable, especially when you just get a few morsels of each.  Not huge portions for the price.  The crispy chicken banh mi is fun, served in a basket, but the flavors didn’t quite work for me. Mrs. Me ordered the soup (shitake soup I think), and I think she liked it a lot, but I don’t really remember that either.

On the positive side, service was excellent, friendly and efficient and attentive but not intrusive, a huge improvement on previous visits.  The wine list has many affordable and interesting selections, better value than the average wine program at similar restaurants.  Cocktails are expertly done (I enjoyed a sazerac) — not surprising, given Sidebar next door. Jackie’s knows beverages. It’s fun to watch the action in the open kitchen at the back of the dining room, although we found it a bit off-putting to arrive slightly on the early side for dinner, before the restaurant got busy, to find a row of stone-faced gray-clad line cooks glaring at us as we were seated.  Once they stopped staring and started cooking it got better.

Jackie’s can get loud, with all the brick and metal, but if you get a booth you’re pretty cozy, although we were too cozy at first, with the heater running full blast right above our heads (they turned it down and all was well).  Just don’t get stuck in the row of two-tops, nearly on top of one another, much too close for comfort even if your next-table-neighbors aren’t having inappropriate conversations.

In general I think Jackie’s is a better experience than it was a few years ago, but I’m still not sold on the food.  Mrs. Me and I are not big into the small plates thing, so take that bias into consideration when reviewing this review.  If you love tapas-style American bistro food, you will probably like Jackie’s a lot.

201 in the 202

Popped by the Hill’s Lounge 201 for happy hour the other day, and not for the first time.  One nice thing about 201 is it tends to be fairly empty at 6pm, even on a Friday, so even a large group can hang out together and not feel crowded. Also, they have some good drink specials: half price draught beer, house wine, and rail drinks.  I enjoyed my Chocolate City copper ale.  Did I mention it was half price?  Yes.

They also advertise $5 food specials, but this day at least there was only one, the shrimp “slider” (normally $9)  which was more like an understated po’ boy, on crusty baguette with a bit of lettuce and remoulade. It was kind of  dry (double the remoulade next time) but the shrimp were well-fried and tasted good, and worth $5 (if perhaps not worth $9).

The red-and-black decor screams 80’s to me, a plus in my book, and the big screens should be a draw for sports-watchers.  I’m always surprised it isn’t more crowded at happy hour, though I gather it gets busier as the night rolls along, once the younger and the hipper are sure the likes of me have hit the road.

Central Revisited

Hadn’t been to Central Michel Richard for a few years, but hit it for lunch with colleagues the other day.  It’s a nice place, but not quite as delicious as I remember from before. In particular, the Brussels sprouts disappointed me: the smallish, washed-out sprouts were soggy, as was the accompanying bacon; overall the dish is nowhere near Brasserie Beck-quality.  Not bad, but mediocre.  Bacon and onion tart was only okay.  Lesson: at Central, stick to the sandwiches (specifically hamburger, lobster burger, and meatball sandwich, all come with the  crunchy fried onion disc) and the excellent fries.  Probably also the fried chicken, which I still haven’t had but need to get via the lunch bucket takeout special one of these busy workdays.

K Is For…What?

It would be easy to make jokes about lobbyists eating at Kensington’s K Town Bistro (3784 Howard) but those jokes would not be funny, not least because I don’t think many lobbyists are in the habit of dining in Kensington, plus it is K Town not K Street.  And if it were a terrible restaurant, the strikeout headlines would write themselves.  I love headlines that write themselves — but this one just won’t.  K is for kookie? Kooky?  No and no.  I’ll just have to move on.

In any case, K Town isn’t terrible — in fact, overall it is quite good, straddling a line between fancy restaurant and eclectic bistro, and certainly is more elegant than any Wheaton restaurant.  The service is excellent, not surprising since owner Gonzalo Barba has been running high end restaurants (including at the Watergate Hotel) for decades.  Gonzalo himself was working the room like a pro all evening, helping deliver and clear dishes, explaining and rectifying occasional glitches, definitely a strong presence.  The art on the walls is…interesting (some is for sale), and the orange-yellow pastel walls themselves seem salvaged from dear departed Suporn Thai (but they aren’t really) (I assume…). I don’t mean that as a criticism; the sum is greater than the parts here.

The kitchen’s plating demonstrates artistry and lots of planning: almost all the dishes look great. The physical dishes themselves are interesting, often mismatched in ways that work — dinner plates don’t necessarily seem to match salad plates, or soup bowls, or glasses, but it all comes together.  Only the French onion soup isn’t visually inviting: for some reason the chef chooses to merely float a cheesy crouton within the confines of the bowl’s rim, not even close to spilling over the top, which is how the best examples of the genre get their delicious (and attractive) blistered crust.  Still, the soup was reportedly good, as was the lobster bisque, which I can vouch for myself and, as advertised, tasted of lobster and sherry.

Fried oysters with saffron aioli atop avocado mousse is not a combination I ever would have come up with, but I really liked it; the fry job was solid, the bivalves were crisp and briny, and the aioli and avocado were delicious.  Unexpected, but it works — seems to be a theme at K Town.

What else was good? Most everything we tried: gnocchi in a surprisingly liquid sauce; rich, fork-tender braised short ribs with a small tower of cheesy zucchini that I devoured in about three seconds (but also some gummy, bland risotto); and a cute single serving beef Wellington that I didn’t taste so can’t really comment except that it disappeared quickly and the golden-brown pastry looked perfect.

We don’t usually have dessert but did this time: vanilla ice cream was creamy but nothing special; creme brulee was also creamy, rich, crunchy on top, very good.  There were a couple of snafus with the wine: they hadn’t updated their list so what we thought would be a 2009 malbec turned out to be a 2010, and then after an offer of a bit of sauternes to go with the (excellent) fois gras, it turned out they were in fact out of sauternes* — the replacement muscat was (reportedly) fine but, well, not sauternes.

* This reminds me of Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch (one of their best ever), in which many cheese options are not available — in fact, the shop harbors no cheese at all — but the Camembert is at one point offered and subsequently the offer is retracted: “oh…the cat’s eaten it.” I, too, delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse.

We liked the service and ambience and, mostly, the food, and we will certainly return in the future to explore more of the menu; I don’t know if I would call this a “special occasion” restaurant, and the atmosphere is different from, say, Mrs. K’s or the Black Market Bistro, just to name a couple of other local, relatively-fine-dining establishments in the same price range (K Town appetizers $7-15, entrees $20-30) and probably it depends on personal taste where one might choose to dine.  It could be a special occasion restaurant, and at least it is nice to have a good, relatively upscale “American” food place to go in the Wheaton-Kensington area.