Category Archives: The District

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*).

I Did Not Gnaw Down That Cherry Tree

Tidal Basin, Peak Bloom 2014

Tidal Basin, Peak Bloom 2014

If George Washington were alive today, he might be overwhelmed by all the cherry trees, finally in bloom, around the Tidal Basin.  How would he decide which ones to chop down?  Would he have fashioned a new set of dentures from the wood? Would he tweet about it later? #cherrynolie?

He might also be dismayed that these trees are ornamental only, no actual cherries. Despite the lack of fruit, our cherry trees still have edible parts, namely the blossoms.  Salt, sugar, and vinegar make just about anything edible.

Friendly Tidal Basin Beaver

Friendly Tidal Basin Beaver

The rest of the tree is also edible, maybe even the best part, if you’re a beaver.  Fortunately the Tidal Basin beaver problem seems to be history; we’re left only with this little guy to warn us away from climbing or picking — notably he does not warn against chopping. Presidents get away with anything.

Tables Are Available at Equinox and Bobby Van’s

We recently dined at Equinox (818 Connecticut) and Bobby Van’s Steakhouse (809 15th Street NW) on back-to-back Friday nights.  Bottom lines: Equinox was excellent, BV’s was fine but not worth the price. But we were most struck by the half-empty dining rooms in both restaurants, on a Friday night, around 7pm. To paraphrase Babu: where were all the people? Show me people! There are no people!

Our theory is probably obvious: the DC restaurant scene has exploded in recent years, competition is fierce, and elegance is out, hip is in.  While Equinox continues to serve some of the best food in DC, it is certainly not hip.  You know that every 14th street spot is packed every Friday night — not just that strip, but that’s the one that comes most to mind these days.  Tom Sietsema, in his recent review of Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab (also not exactly hip?), noted it was full on a Monday night, and wondered if nearby restaurants were worried about the competition.  Bobby Van’s is nearby, and so I would say yes, they must be worried.

Quick recap of our Bobby Van’s experience: good but overly formal service, high prices, okay food.  Avoid the house steak sauce, which is more like sweet and sour sauce and does not enhance the gristly but otherwise perfectly cooked, reasonably tasty New York strip.  Fries are pretty good.  Overall though the steak and fries are not any better than at Medium Rare, and lack the awesome MR sauce, and are twice as expensive for a comparable portion (fewer fries at BV, actually).

Longer recap of Equinox. Ten years ago, Equinox — or as they sometimes like to call it “Chef Todd Gray’s Equinox Restaurant” — was on essentially every critic’s list of the top restaurants in DC.  It seems like that’s not the case anymore — as noted we were surprised to find it barely half full on a Friday night — but the kitchen still creates delicious food, service is top notch, and the decor is still elegant, maybe a little outdated, but whatever.  And you can hear yourselves converse, which is a nice change from a lot of restaurants.  But for whatever reason, the millennials don’t seem to be eating at Equinox, at least they weren’t when we ate there last week, aside from maybe the dude sitting at a front table wearing a black t-shirt that said “Han Shot First” — a sentiment with which I completely agree, but maybe not in an upscale restaurant.  Equinox isn’t exactly the Mos Eisley cantina. Then again, I’m not a paragon of fashion myself.

Back to DC, back to dinner.  Pacing was a little slow, but it was fine, I think the servers actually did a good job reading our conversational flow.  We were clearly in no hurry.   From the amuse bouche — duck confit egg rolls — to dessert — okay poached pear and glorious chocolate panna cotta — we ate well and had a great time.

Beer-braised lamb shank required no knife, falling apart and away from the bone at the slighted touch. Sous-vide short rib and beef loin were incredibly tender and rich.  Our server was pushing the fish — actually he was pushing everything on the menu equally, really my only complaint, it’s nice to get an actual preference/recommendation — and the fish-eaters among us were pleased with their Texas Red Fish and Norwegian Salmon.  The monkfish apparently knows no state or country and maybe that’s why nobody ordered it.

We also tried the truffled mac & cheese, which was not discernibly truffled but otherwise fine, as it is in most restaurants.  It’s hard to make a transcendent mac & cheese, but fortunately fine is just fine as long as you don’t expect more.  Dessert came with a little shot of prosecco on the house, which was a nice complement to the pear dish in particular, but it was the rich, creamy “Mocha Moderne” panna cotta that ultimately won the night. It’s almost enough to make me crave chocolate.  Does anyone make a lamb shank panna cotta?

Entrees are in the $26-34 range, reasonable for that level of quality food and service.  I’d happily go back, although the location just south of Farragut Square isn’t convenient for us.  Also, the restaurant isn’t much to look at from the street, I suspect that may improve once warmer weather hits (not this week!) and they can open the front patio, but possibly the lack of curb appeal hurts the winter dining scene.

All told, an excellent dining experience.  If Equinox isn’t still considered a top DC dining destination, it should be.  At least for those of us unhipsters…

Take 5 at Catch 15

Cold front!  Will this winter never end?  A big pot of warm stew would hit the spot — or we could throw up our hands, succumb to nature and eat cold stuff.  Stuff on ice. Oysters, say.  Except Mrs. Me doesn’t like oysters, and Tom Sietsema didn’t like the oysters at Catch 15.  So…just icy cold drinks then?

Catch 15 is a hip new restaurant/bar on K Street (1518 K).  Smoky lighting, with lots of dark woods and fabrics, and screens showing video of fish and octopi, the place makes you feel underwater, kind of.  It’s actually quite warm and cozy inside, so that’s nice (until we get to summer).

We stopped by for a drink one night last week on our way to dinner at Equinox, more about which soon.  Catch 15’s dining room was only half full at 6pm but the bar was getting packed — fortunately we got a couple of the last available seats before the real crowd hit.  It probably didn’t help that Sietsema’s WaPo review, originally published in late February, was re-published in the Express just a day before we visited.

Happy hour specials are few but good; I liked the “ultimat mule” —  a perfect balance of vodka, fresh lime juice, and ginger beer.  All the HH drinks are $5, a fine value, including enormous pours of Lindemans cabernet sauvignon.  The bartender was excellent: efficient, friendly and good at making drinks. Food specials were tempting — the truffle fries looked good — but needed to save room for dinner.  The guys sitting at the oyster bar in the front of the house looked happy, but maybe that was on account of the expansive elbow room and lack of noise compared with the bar area, rather than on account of the oysters.  Or maybe the oysters are actually good?  Anyway, I’d go back for more drinks and to try some food, but not on a Friday.

It was very very very very very VERY loud.

Our visit in numbers:

Catch: 15
In our party: 3
Bar stools occupied by our party: 2
Times Mrs. Me was smacked hard by the elbow of the lady sitting on the adjacent stool: 2
Times we had to pause our conversation while the bartender and a waiter screamed at each other right over our heads about the details of a particular food order: 3
Decibels: 2,335,589 (approximate)
Oysters consumed: zero
Drinks consumed: 1.3 per capita

Asian Cuisine Lightning Round

All in DC, not Wheaton. Sometimes the stomach wanders.

Thai Tanic (1326-A 14th Street) — a  CityPaper/Express reader poll favorite, longtime anchor of the southern end of what is now the hot hot hot 14th Street restaurant corridor.  I had never been here before, despite TT being on the list of punny restaurants to visit (you’re next Thaiphoon!) (maybe…)  Fun decor, lots of golds and woods, a genuine (Americanized) Thai feel.  They offer some unusual menu items other local Thai joints, including Ruan and Nava, don’t, like goong phuket, ground chicken and shrimp in chili sauce, which was unbalanced, too sweet and lacking fire.  Most dishes have multiple peppers  next to their name, signifying heat, but in the end there wasn’t enough for me.  If I’m not sweating, it isn’t Thai-hot enough.  Sodden kra pow with pork wasn’t anywhere close to Nava’s kaprow! league.  Yum nua beef salad was the highlight, living up to its two-menu-peppers with a  tangy, well-balanced lime-based sauce.  Overall okay, total old school compared with all the new restaurants up the street.

Burma (740 6th Street, Chinatown) is on the backside of Verizon Center, next to Kanlaya, up a desolate institutional metal stairwell that reminded my uncle of various Hong Kong dive walkups, so I guess that’s a point for authenticity.  I’ve been to Burma several times, and I think I go back because it is cheap (most entrees $8-11) and filling and you can almost always get right in, which is increasingly difficult at most non-Chinese Chinatown restaurants.  It isn’t the food, which is mediocre at best.  Lots of noodle dishes, some rice, some soup, everything I have tried is underseasoned, bland, and just dumped on the plate sans any artistry whatsoever.  I understand the blanditude may be sort of a hallmark of genuine Burmese cuisine, but…not my thing.  I suspect that in fact it’s just not a great restaurant, probably there is better Burmese food somewhere (maybe not in DC), but it does serve its purpose.

Asia Nine (915 E Street, Penn Quarter), on the other hand, is pretty good.  Been there several times too, always lunch, and the worst dish at AN has been an improvement on anything at Burma.  Menu is a good mix of Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and some fusion.  Curries are only okay — I’ve tried the lemongrass and green, the former is more vividly spiced than the latter — but the Asia Nine lo mein is spicy and fresh-tasting.  Sushi and soups are reportedly good. Portions are large, prices are okay.  Decibels are high, and service can be maddening, both in pace (slow) and accuracy (misdelivered dishes, wrong dishes, missing dishes, having to ask 74 times for water).  But it’s one of the few restaurants near my office in that nice-enough-for-sitdown-lunch-but-not-TOO-nice range — why must everything be either Tosca or Potbelly? — and there is some solid value at Asia Nine.  You just can’t go if you’re in a hurry to get back to work.

A Rare Invasion of Adams Morgan

Terrible photo of awesome mole at Casa Oaxaca

Terrible photo of awesome mole at Casa Oaxaca

We don’t get to Adams Morgan much, but it turns out to be worth it, sometimes.  This time.  Hooray for small sample sizes? By 9:00pm we were already done; all the jumbo slice places were still empty, and we didn’t see a single brawl in the streets.  Not even a ruckus to describe. I think we were about 4 hours too soon for the true Adams Morgan action, and that’s okay, because we were only there for the Charley libations and the Oaxacan mole, and those turn out to be great ideas in the 6:30-9pm range.

Bar Charley (1825 18th Street) is the new Jackie Greenbaum (Jackie’s)/Gordon Banks (El Chucho) venue, recently reviewed by Tom Sietsema with raves for the drinks more than the food.  We were there for the drinks!  Mai tais are as good as Sietsema suggested, and according to two of us “more limey” than average, in a good way (obviously?), and served in ceramic hula lady tiki mugs, always a winner.  The bartender also makes a mean sazerac, I would say more orangey than usual — no complaints here about heavy citrusy hands.

Great decor too, cool lighting, exposed brick, a cozy feel, and the back patio is nice. The entire space was designed by the same folks who recently did our friends’ basement — very different results, both stylin’.  Our only complaint is that the bar area is too small to accommodate all the people who want to hang out there, not a bad problem for Charley to have.

Down the street to Casa Oaxaca (2106 18th Street) for dinner.  Their logo emphasizes the correct pronunciation, “wa-HA-ca,”* almost as fun to say as Kaprow!  We sat in the basement, more exposed brick, deep orange paint, plus a giant painting of an orange, to continue the citrus theme.  Also the muy delicioso theme, because it all was.

* It may or may not be true that the Mexican edition of the Muppet Show used to feature Fozzie Oso saying “Oaxaca Oaxaca Oaxaca!!!”

The four food groups: chips, salsa, guac, 'ritas, at Casa Oaxaca

The four main food groups: chips, salsa, guac, ‘ritas

There is a drink called Holy Moley on the menu, one less joke for me to have to think up. I skipped the drink in favor of the sauce; I am all about mole in places like this, and in this case it was good enough to drink.  I would pay to drink a pint of the  Mole Coloradito, darkly rich, in this case served not in a glass but pooled around a perfectly medium-rare, tender filet of beef. It was hard to tell where the mole met the beans (also because the lighting was really dark at our table), a huge black pool of chili-raisin-chocolate-umami flavor.  What is Spanish for umami?  Fish tacos were a big hit (and a big plate).  Salads and fajitas were also winners. Plate-licking remains frowned upon by Mrs. Me, but it was dark, and there were margaritas (pitcher, top shelf, excellent), and I will say no more.

We sprung for some only-okay guacamole with our chips and salsa; it is so easy to make good guac at home, I tend not to bother at restaurants, and that was the only misstep here.  Casa Oaxaca’s salsa is reasonably spicy, dark red with roasted tomatoes and peppers, almost too runny but not quite, and served warm, which I’m not sure I like but it worked okay.  Chips were fresh and crisp, above-average for sure. I’d love to go back and try more moles and more appetizers.

And so we reemerged, full of mole and citrus and good cheer, into the dark Adams Morgan evening, no need for jumbo slices, not looking for a ruckus, just ready to be old and go home and go to bed. I already want to go back, though.

Aiiiii Oaxaca!

Birch & Barley 4Evah

Is that still how the kids say forever?  4evah?  Or is that, like, totally 90s OMG?  We are so hip it hurts, here at GEIW.

4evah is a long time. How long?  Very long.  Use it in a sentence?  Sure: our recent  dinner at Birch & Barley (1337 14th Street) lasted seemingly 4evah.  There were nine of us, and we all got the tasting menu, and we were having a riotously good time, and they were selling a lot of wine, and I’m sure the staff didn’t want to rush us.  Fine.  But FOUR HOURS is too long for a meal, unless you’re at the Inn at Little Washington or El Bulli or some slow food banquet in Italy or something.  30+ minutes between each course is too many minutes.  I was lucky to catch the last red line train of the night, back to Wheaton.

Escargotic service speed aside, fun and good food was had by all.  The first course might have been best: marinated, thin-shaved pompano with smoky grilled corn and garlic stems, a wonderful mix of textures and sour, smoky flavors to cut the rich fish. Pillowy sweet potato ravioli with mixed greens, ricotta, and toasted pumpkin seeds succeeded in similar ways.  A roasted rabbit loin was only okay, saved by a beans-bacon pairing on a squash puree.  We also got a selection of desserts, I don’t even know what most of them were, they certainly looked good but I was too tired to care by that point.

Whoever is in charge of writing B&B’s menus is earning his/her keep.  The menus are precise, descriptive, well-concieved without being ridiculous or excessively adjectival.  Like the ravioli course: “dandelion greens, ricotta salata, sweet potato greens, toasted pumpkin seeds.”   We also had to look up a few things: tatsoi stems (a Chinese flat leaf cabbage, of the mustard family), Barigoule cardoons (artichoke thistle braised in wine), Chicken of the Woods (mushrooms, not even remotely related to actual chickens).  Educational and delicious is a good combination, but I wouldn’t want to sit through a four-hour lecture either, no matter how engaging the professor.

We’ve been to B&B before, of course, and we will go back again, because good food and beverage are so hard to find anywhere else on 14th Str…ummm…wait.

No, really, B&B offers good food and excellent beers and we’ve not had a problem with service or speed before, so we will totally return sometime, but probably would not get the tasting menu with a large party again.