Monday, December 27, 2010

Floriana Reborn

To Die For: ambience

You don’t notice it at first. Entering the tiny bar in the basement, a short flight of stone stairs below street level, you still feel like you have stumbled in on the best party ever. This time of year, it’s especially festive. As you are led upstairs to your table in the cozy dining room, you may not notice that the walls are a slightly lighter hue, not quite a deep a red as before. The difference is subtle. It’s only when you open your menu that you can no longer escape what has happened: Floriana has been reborn!

While still nominally Italian, both the graphic style of the menu and its culinary offerings have changed. The familiar trope of Italian home cooking has been shot through with the energy of a young Brazilian chef who wants you to try new creations. He has been hired by Dino, Floriana’s son, who bought the restaurant from his mom in April 2010. Floriana put up a brief resistance to Dino’s brash new ideas, but soon decided she was ready to move on: as of October, she relocated to Mexico with a new husband.

The new menu still has pasta, but the once signature lasagna is downplayed now, in favor of goat bolognese and pork belly ravioli. Mussels have appeared. And, blurring the boundaries between the new world and the old, dishes like moquesa de pesce – a Brazilian fish stew made with coconut milk and rice croquettes -- and duck ropa vieja with Arborio rice, black beans and fried plantains – a distinctly Cuban riff -- are now on offer.

Well, why not? To be honest, I felt the new chef was still finding his sea legs, but the place has an invigorated feel to it, and it still is hard to beat its fun and cozy atmosphere. For that reason, the new Floriana is “bloggable” in the sense that this blog uses the term, and I am looking forward to giving it another try.

Floriana on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Dishes To Die For: autumn woods pasta, caesar salad, pecan carrot cake

You may have noticed that I have not blogged about many cooked dishes. I raved about the prosciutto at Dino, was over the moon about the oysters at BlackSalt, and was enamored with Zola’s service. But none of these say much about what is going on in the kitchen in any of those restaurants. After all, shucking an oyster does not exactly involve culinary skill, even if it is a superior oyster, and neither does procuring high end charcuterie.
In my mission to write only about outstanding dining experiences, there have been loud silences in many of my posts. After all, my slogan is “if I don’t love it, I don’t write about it.” So there have been several restaurants I have eaten at but not written about at all, for lack of bloggable material.

Ris has ended this drought. The food at Ris is simply sublime, restoring my faith in dining out. The most outstanding dish on the menu, in my mind, is the Autumn Woods Pasta:  house made ricotta cavatelli with roasted butternut squash, mushrooms, sherry caramelized onions, cranberries and walnuts. This description is coy about the wondrous wild mushroom sensation that pervades the dish – if “pervades” is the right word to use for a flavor that is robustly present without being overwhelming. And if the mushrooms had any aspiration to dominate, this is kept in check by the surprise entrances of other elements. Enter left, the roasted butternut squash, whose bright orange color grabs your attention and holds it there with an uncharacteristic al dente bite. Enter right, the caramelized onions, more crunchy than you would expect, deflecting attention from the mushroom wannabe. And in the background is the ricotta cavatelli, the demure canvas backdrop holding it all together. High drama on the tongue, I tell you.

Three in our party had split the pasta entrée as an appetizer. The fourth was in an obdurate mood and insisted on the Caesar salad as his appetizer. Another knock out. The bite he gave me included a delectable anchovy. They don’t have to be hairy, you know. It is slicing them in half which reveals their hairy underbellies, and Ris thankfully refrains from exposing them thus. Served whole, they are silvery and elegant, and quite presentable to company. This salad is out of the ordinary, respectful of the soul of the dish but refusing to bow to convention.

And there was a third dish to die for in this meal: the Pecan Carrot Cake. In part, the joy of this dish was its presentation – it looked more like an updated swiss roll than a slice of cake. But the cakie-ness was perfection itself (avoiding the over-moistness that often engulfs carrot cake) and the sour cream with its butterscotch sauce was the right side of sweetness. I snuck a few extra bites when (I think) Matt wasn’t looking. All of this was swirled down with a snifter of perfect Armagnac.

I could also praise Ris as a physical space, with its sparkling bar and subtlely Asian, zen-like dining rooms. And I could compliment the flawless service. But that would be to distract from the food, which is what I really want to draw attention to. Ris is the real thing, reason to draw a wayward foodie back to the fold.

Ris on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Chairman's Reserve Spiced Rum

The bitter cold this past week in DC made me lazy. Rather than walking home from the Dupont Circle metro stop as I usually do, I took to taking the bus. That's how I discovered Chairman's Reserve Spiced Rum. When the bus is nowhere in sight, I duck into the liquor store right by the bus stop to escape the cold. And on one of those nights, there was a tasting in progress.

Chairman's Reserve makes artisanal rums at a distillery in St. Lucia, which in my mind has always produced the finest rum. This one takes it to new heights, though. I liked the spiced best, with its bright flavors of vanilla, cinammon, clove and nutmeg on your tongue. The burn that spreads slowly from your oesophagus through your chest cavity follows soon after. You can also get just regular rum, or a peanut flavored cream, which tastes much like Bailey's if you like that sort of thing. But it was the spiced rum that was special to me.

So, no dishes to die for this week, but something to cheer about nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (4)

Dish to die for: Belon oysters

We returned to where we had started our food journey: Black Salt Fish Market and Restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard – in whose parking lot the Palisades Farmer’s Market had been that morning. If you time it right, you can return from your hike on the Billy Goat Trail in time for happy hour at Black Salt and partake of $1 oysters and discounted drinks.

The happy hour oysters that day were Rappahanocks, but there was a selection of nine other – more pricey -- bivalves to be tempted by. I succumbed, of course. What particularly drew my attention were the oysters from Maine. It seemed reasonable to suppose that the icy waters that produce those fabulous Maine lobsters could also nurture other crustaceans of worth. But since I had never associated Maine with oysters, I also ordered a few representatives from West Coast – my favorite up to that point – just to be on the safe side. In all, my half dozen oysters consisted of two kinds of West Coast oysters (two of each) and two Belon oysters from Maine.

You will notice that I do not remember the names of the oysters from the west coast, or even which west coast state they were from. Much as I enjoy oysters, I can never seem to retain the names of the varieties that I like. Servers like to identify your selections for you, going clockwise or counterclockwise around the arrangement on your plate. But by the time they get from one side to the other, I have already forgotten what I have been told. You would think that once I have eaten the selection and found which I like, I would be able to remember at least those, but still I fail each time.

Belon oysters were different. Absolutely different. The name Belon has become imprinted on my brain. See, it is now a couple of weeks later, and I still know not only what they are called, but how to spell their name, and that they are named after a river in France from which they were introduced to Maine in the 1950s. According to Rowan Jacobson, only 5,000 Belon a year are pulled for sale in Maine, making them one of the rarest oysters in the world.

They are wild, these oysters, “as powerful as any on the planet, redolent of fish and zinc and umami – not for the faint of heart”. I have quoted Jacobson here because I cannot offer a better description of these delicacies. Except that they did not make my heart faint, but rather pound harder, with the excitement of a new discovery. I quickly ordered more of these gems (no way two would suffice), foregoing any thought of another course. As Amanda Hesser has put it, these oysters are "the main event".Bravo to Black Salt for procuring these rareties at the beginning of oyster season. 

Speaking of oyster season, thanks to a post by John Hook, my understanding of why the R months are oyster months has deepened. The R months are the winter months, when water temperatures drop low enough to end the spawning activities of oysters. As Hook puts it, at that point, "oysters have completely taken their tiny molluscan minds off sex and become fascinated with getting all larded up” – it is the post-coital planktonic matter that they vacuum up from the tides that give them their oysteriness. The point is also made by another authority on the seasonality of oysters, Robb Walsh’s Sex, Death and Oysters.

But for those of us in it just for the taste, all we need to know is that April – the last R month – is the pinnacle of oyster flavor. So between now and then, I will be heading back to Black Salt and hoping for more Belon.

Note for those following this blog: apologies for the belated posting -- I started this piece before my long trip, and was unable to complete it until now. The correct sequencing should have been directly after Billy Goat Food Trail (3)

BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 26, 2010

Leaving India

In  my mind I had left India. The last day of driving around Mumbai, past squalid shacks that stretched on for miles (much more extensive than anything I have seen in South Africa), capped off with the vision of the 27-story Ambani tower, had given me enough to digest. At one billion dollars, the "mansion in the sky" is reportedly the most expensive private residence in the world. At night, it is illuminated to accentuate its jutting verandas and shaded recesses, their differently shaped and sized living spaces designed so that no two floors replicate one another.

Photo credit:

By the time I got to the airport, I was ready to leave this land of opposites. After passing through security, I marched directly to the Mugg and Bean and ordered a good old cheese and tomato sandwich on multigrain bread. Enough with the Indian food! As I munched, I was transported to a different place, a place which, if not necessarily happier, had more familiar contradictions and firmer ground from which to navigate them. I breathed a little easier reading the new John Irving novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," where the action was unfolding in New Hampshire and the cook at the logging camp was cooking Italian. "The Lost Flamingos of Bombay", purchased earlier in the day, would have to wait.

On board the 1:45am Delta flight to Amsterdam, the meal service was a brief one. I peeked under the aluminum cover of the tray. Staring back at me were: a baby dosa (about the size of a spring roll, snugly fitting vertically into the tray), a miniature mound of upma, and between them, a small dish of sambar, for dipping the dosa. "We're still here!" the South Indian breakfast trio seemed to say.

I blinked at them, not quite sure how to react. The upma seemed a bit darker than the one I had eaten in Pune. Was it in fact upma? In spite of everything, I began to reengage. "Excuse me," I queried the Indian woman sitting next to me, "what is this?" "It's masala upma", she replied.  "It's made from wheat. You can also have a plain upma, but this one is seasoned with garam masala. And this sambar, it's for dipping the dosa. A classic South Indian breakfast."

As I explained in my last post, I had become acquainted with two of these three. Learning to enjoy dosa and upma for breakfast had brought me some steps closer to understanding how life is lived in India. So far, the sambar has seemed too much to take in. But gradually, I am growing to embrace the whole Indian enchilada, with all its contradictions.

Dosa with sambar

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tasting Notes: India

Much as I love Indian food -- especially Indian food in India -- I have usually opted for the Western style breakfasts when travelling there. The exception has been in southern India -- in states like Karnateka and Tamil Nadu -- where hotels offer freshly made dosa. In those states, if you look towards the back of the breakfast room, you will invariably find a dosa station, with a chef preparing the wafer thin, crispy foot-long pancakes on a griddle and wrapping them around spicy potatoes and onions. But now I was further north in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra.

Who knows why, then, that the Indian breakfast at the Deccan Royaale Hotel suddenly seemed appealing. I found myself drawn to "upma", cream of wheat thickened to a stiffness, and seasoned with mustard seeds, green chilis, ginger, onions and kari leaves. Suddenly it seemed perfectly natural to be eating these flavors for breakfast -- and I loved how a new vista had opened. I am looking forward to exploring my way through more early morning choices!

Turns out upma is a south Indian dish too, though popular now throughout India. I am keen to try it in the south though. If the Deccan's dosa was anything to go by, the upma was probably nothing like how it tastes closer to its home. For one thing, the dosas were not freshly made, and for another, their regal size had been cut down to bite-sized mushy pieces. ("Cut dosa", they were labelled.) But once you have had a freshly made dosa, nothing else will do. My colleague Bharath, himself from the south, felt sure that the kitchen could come up with a fresh dosa, and he was right. But while he was eventually served something that looked closer to the real thing, the taste missed the mark. To the south then, next time. I will try to wangle an invitation from him to Chennai!

Update: On June 15, 2011, Floyd Cardoz won the Top Chef Masters contest with a dish of mushroom upma. Click to here to see the announcement in the Times of India. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tasting Notes: Thailand

Opening ceremonies at the 14th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Bangkok were an extravaganza to behold. Orchestras playing music from the four regions of Thailand sat cross-legged in the courtyard of the Queen Sirikit convention center. Regional dance and craft-making were similarly on display, with special presentations involving drums, dragons, and fireworks punctuating the evening. To say that the food on offer was abundant would not come close to conveying the spread, laid out buffet style in the entire restaurant area indoors, and snaking around the festivities outdoors...

In the midst of all this hub-hub, I came across a new (to me) taste: soothing and refreshing lemongrass juice.

It must have been sweetened because its tangy taste was tempered, yielding a sweet muskiness that also evoked jasmine. It turns out that lemongrass juice is easy to make. The method involves bruising and then boiling the stalks to extract the juice, much as you would do to make a tea. (Unlike, say, the different method than is used for making wheatgrass juice, where the grass itself is passed through a specialized juicing device.) This makes sense, as cooking with lemongrass also involves extracting the essence from the stalk: the green grassy parts of the plant are actually tough and bitter, and not very suitable for cooking or drinking. Those, like me, who have learned about cooking with lemongrass through trial and disasterous error, will know what I mean. :)

In any case, I found this recipe for lemongrass juice. If the lemongrass in my kitchen planter is still alive by the time I get home, I will be trying it out. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tasting Notes: Uganda

I'm travelling for work and the pace is hectic. No time to craft any detailed posts, so here are some tasting notes of new foods of note:

In Uganda I discovered matoke, a staple made from steamed and mashed green bananas (the type of banana is also called matoke), served in its leaf with peanut sauce. Yum! I ate it with almost every meal.

And to drink: a deadly spirit: waraj, made by distilling fermented banana.

Here is a picture of the matoke banana being sold at market in Kampala (top), and being steamed in its leaves (below):

Photo credit: Moongateclimber

Photo credit: Cynthia Gherie

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (3)

Dish to die for: Liege-style waffles

We enjoyed hiking – and eating -- on the Billy Goat Trail so much, that the next day we went back for more. This time we started off at the Palisades Farmers’ Market, which sets up in the parking lot next to Black Salt Restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard. Here we found a Belgian couple making Liege-style waffles before our very eyes. The smell was warm and sweet, drawing us closer. I looked around for syrup, sugar, or other toppings, but found none. “Non”, said Madame, “everything is already inside.” Honey had been folded into the batter, and the aroma we smelled was pearl sugar caramelizing on the outside of the waffle as it baked. An aroma that held us firmly in its grip until we handed over our $4 per waffle (you can also get 3 for $10). It was money well spent: eating these waffles felt like ingesting warm little packets of gladness.

Bellies aglow, we continued to work our way around the farmers’ market , picking up some fruit for the trail and also some veggies to take home. I stopped by a pile of baby pumpkins.

"These would be great with dinner!" I announced. Chris looked uncomfortable, shifting from leg to leg. “Do you think we had better ask if they are meant for cooking?“ “What do you mean? It’s just a squash.” I remembered my mother marveling that Americans do not think of pumpkin as a food, but rather as a Halloween accessory.

Dutifully, I asked at the farm stand if these pumpkins could be cooked. The woman looked a bit doubtful herself, but gamely proferred that “some people” did cook them. With this inconclusive information, it would be up to me to demonstrate that pumpkin was indeed just another squash that could be cooked like any other: baked, put in stews, used to sweeten chicken soup ever so slightly -- this latter being my mother’s favorite use. But that would come later.

Right now, we had the Billy Goat Trail Section B to conquer. Just as for Section A, access to the trail is from the parking lot across from the Old Angler’s Inn on MacArthur Boulevard, about a 10 minute drive from Black Salt. Head down the hill, cross the bridge, but instead of turning right on the towpath as you would for Section A, turn left to reach Section B. Section B of the Billy Goat Trail is a kinder, gentler walk along the Potomac River. Being less strenuous, you can take the time to notice the smaller wonders along the way. Chris is good at that:

Another advantage to choosing this milder terrain is that you are left with sufficient time and energy to contemplate other activities in the area. On the way back from our “hike” (more like a rolling stroll, really), we made a stop at the open artists’ studios at Glen Echo Park that we had had to skip the day before: we admired the oil paintings of J. Jordan Bruns, the artist-in-residence in his round studio in the Chautauqua Tower, and poked in and out of the yurts that serve as studios and galleries.

Glen Echo itself is like a palimpsest with traces of its past identities still visible through the successive layers that have followed. Buildings remaining from its days as an amusement park are still in evidence, with names like Crystal Pool, the Dentzel Carousel and the Hall of Mirrors. The Tower is the only vestige of its Chautauqua period in the late nineteenth century,while the yurts arrived as fallout from a 1971 crafts event on the Mall in Washington that never happened. Perhaps it is this refusal to adhere to any one period of time which makes Glen Echo one of the most magical places in the DC area.

....continued in The Billy Goat Food Trail (4)

But meanwhile: Happy Halloween!!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Late season bokchoi

Chris brought me baby bokchoi from her garden, still producing late in the season. What to do? Here’s what:

Ingredients: (all quantities to taste)

Sesame oil

Olive oil
Soy sauce
Garlic, chopped fine
Ginger, cut into slim match sticks
Scallion, chopped (rough or fine, either way)

Baby carrots, sliced lengthwise in quarters

Baby bok choi, finger torn

Red currants

Pine nuts
Trader Joe's frozen brown rice (don't believe me that it's amazing? See reviews here.)

Heat the garlic in a little sesame and olive oil over medium hi.
When the garlic starts to turn golden, add ginger and scallion. Give them a stir from time to time.

After a minute or two, add sliced baby carrots and a splash of soy sauce; stir well.

While the carrots are cooking, slash a gash in the packet of Trader Joe’s frozen brown rice, and start cooking in the microwave as the package directs – for 3 minutes.

Then add the torn up bok choi, currants and pine nuts (if I had thought about it ahead of time, I might have toasted the pine nuts, but just throwing them in worked fine).

Stir fry until the bokchoi wilts .

That’s it. Put the brown rice in a bowl, and top with the veggies.

Pairs nicely with a fruity white wine.

Most satisfying meal I have in a while! Certainly better than the nasty gigot at Bistrot Francais in Georgetown last night (oops, that's the Antoinette Id in me coming out!)

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (2)

The Irish Inn at Glen Echo

Dish to die for: fig salad with dark chocolate sauce

City girl that I am, learning the seasonality of foods has not come easily to me. When I was doing my fieldwork in a Palestinian village, I noticed one summer evening that a lot of people were sitting outside their houses peeling cucumbers. It took me a while to figure out why everyone was having the same thing for dinner. When I lived in Massachussetts, it took a couple of years of riding around to admire the foliage for me to realize that fall was the season when apple stands would appear on country roads. Now in Washington, an October hike on the Billy Goat Trail has taught me that late summer to fall is the season for figs.

The Billy Goat Trail Section A requires concentrated rock scrambling, and by the time we were done, some post-hike refreshment was in order. Heading back to DC along MacArthur Boulevard, the Irish Inn magically appeared, just in time to fulfill this need. I say “magically” not only because an Irish pub was conjured up at just the moment we were wishing for a place to quench our thirst, but also because the Inn is right next to Glen Echo Park, arguably the strangest and most magical place in all of greater DC. I made an abrupt and impulsive turn to the right, and before we knew it, we were seated on the generous outdoor patio perusing the beer list.

The beer selection at the Irish Inn is actually less impressive than its long list of whiskies. It was too early for a shot, so we stuck with the tried and true and ordered pints of Guinness. The pub menu had some intriguing takes on traditional fare: fish and chips made with Guinness battered cod, bangers and mash with peas and whisky sauce, a Black Angus burger with Dublin cheddar. But there were also some unexpected dishes, including this one:

Figs with dark bitter chocolate sauce sounded too tantalizing to pass up. Still sated from our picnic on the trail, we ordered one to share and were pleasantly surprised when our two halves of the salad arrived separately composed on individual plates. Nice touch. Our responses were predictably separate as well: Chris loved the fact that so many of her favorite foods were all in one dish. I homed in on the figs and dark chocolate combination, feeling that too many other flavors (salty, peppery, gingery) overcrowded this unusual pairing of sweet on sweet. I wanted to savor this strange combination, focus on what made it work. Figs and dark bitter chocolate is not your everyday fruit and chocolate sauce combo. Unlike raspberries, for example, which are acidic and contrast beautifully with creamy chocolate, pairing figs and dark chocolate is a study in different degrees of sameness. Figs’ fruitiness is anchored in earth tones, taken to darker depths by the somber intensity of the bitter dark chocolate.

I wanted to know more about this dish. “Yeah, he makes something with figs every year at this time”, our waiter informed us, jerking his head back to the kitchen. “It’s fig season then?” The waiter looked at me as if I were daft, nodding confusedly. I found myself bonding with this newcomer to my tastebuds. Sure, the more uplifting fruits of summer have their sprightly place, but figs brought even further down to earth by a serious chocolate companion seem more fitting for the fall. As for all the other tempting choices on the menu…they will have to wait til winter.

Irish Inn at Glen Echo on Urbanspoon

For the Billy Goat Food Trail (3) click here
For the Billy Goat Food Trail (4) click here

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (1)

Figs Fine Foods
4828 MacArthur Blvd, NW

Dish To Die For: labneh and za'atar sandwich on toasted Barbari bread

We found Figs by chance. It’s easy to overlook, tucked away on the sunken level of a small strip of storefronts in the Palisades. But, for reasons that will become obvious as you read this series of posts, we have come to see this section of MacArthur Boulevard as base camp for hiking the Billy Goat Trail, and have gotten to know what the neighborhood has to offer, which is quite a bit.

Figs presents itself as a Lebanese restaurant/deli, but in fact its Middle Eastern scope is  wider than that. Sandwiches here are made with Barbari, an Iranian style loaf that is sturdier than Levantine pita bread, and densely covered with toasted sesame seeds. Still, chef/owner Reem Azoury's focus is on foods that reflect the everyday choices of the people of the Levant, getting more to the core of daily life than the usual roster of Lebanese foods offered in DC restaurants. For my picnic sandwich, I chose labneh, a tangy yogurt cheese, and za’atar, dried wild thyme soaked in fresh pressed olive oil.

When I was doing my fieldwork in a Palestinian village, I ate both of these foods on an almost daily basis – mostly for breakfast, but also for lunch, dinner, or whenever I needed a snack. The family I lived with would make labneh from scratch, adding a little yogurt starter and salt to milk and bringing it slowly to a boil. Waiting for the mixture to thicken took patience, but eventually a mass thick enough to slip into a muslin bag had formed. The bag would be tied at the top, looped over the kitchen spigot, and left overnight for the whey to drain into the sink below. By morning, a cheese awaited. It was gently placed into a shallow bowl, and the middle hollowed out with the back of a spoon. This depression created a small well into which olive oil would be poured, ready for dipping.

On my sandwich, though, the olive oil from the za’atar performed this function. Slices of cucumber and tomato rounded out the family of flavors. Eating this on Section A of the Billy Goat Trail, I marveled at how well the nutty crunch of the toasted sesame seeds complemented the creamy tang of the cheese, the bread’s alto to the labneh’s soprano. They were the leading characters in this aria, with the other ingredients working as a supporting cast. With each bite, I applauded madly. Brava, Maestra Reem.

Making labneh at home

Making labneh from scratch never really worked for me at home – despite the instruction I was given and the opportunity to watch the process first hand. (Fadwa, if you are reading this, please feel free to give us some tips!) Fortunately, my Middle Eastern friends back in the States let me in on a secret: it’s not really necessary to start from Step 1. You can simply buy some good, plain yogurt – Greek style, for example – add salt, and let it drain overnight. If you would like to simulate the experience of draining the whey from a muslin bag, this recipe has step by step pictures that nicely illustrate how to do it. But equally, you could line a colander or even a coffee cone with cheesecloth, leave the yogurt in it overnight and the result will be satisfactory. For storage, form the labneh into ping pong sized balls (or smaller) and store in a jar of olive oil.

Hiking the Billy Goat Trail A

Section A of the Billy Goat Trail is the most strenuous of the three sections, and involves rock scrambling for a significant part of it. Unless you are intent on keeping up a brisk rate, allow three and half hours for the roundtrip, including time for admiring the magnificent vistas and picnicking on the cliffs or on the small beach. The parking lot for the trail is across the road from the Old Angler's Inn on MacArthur Boulevard, about a 10 minute drive from Figs. Cross the bridge at the bottom of the hill, hang a right and walk along the towpath until you reach the sign for the Billy Goat Trail turnoff. Get a good work out for 1.7 miles going out, then relax returning along the flat towpath. For where to go post-hike, see my next post.

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

For the Billy Goat Food Trail (2) click here
For the Billy Goat Food Trail (3) click here
For the Billy Goat Food Trail (4) click here

Figs Fine Food on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bloggable by a thread

GERO, Rua Aníbal de Mendonçam 157, Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, TEL: 55-21/2239-8158

Normally, Gero would not be the kind of experience I would blog about. I said from the outset that I would not use this space to bemoan disappointing dining experiences, and this was a betrayal of huge proportions.

There we were in Ipanema, Rio’s trendiest neighborhood. Dining guides and accepted wisdom sent us to Gero, the first of the Fasano group, with promises of innovative Italian cuisine and fresh pasta prepared on the spot. Chris’ first comment should have alerted me. “This is a place that both Monica and Harriet could really get into”. Now, Monica is a Hollywood agent, with academy award winning clientele, and Harriet has a stunning home in the hills of Santa Barbara. A red flag should have gone up to tell me that this was going to be the kind of place where the glamorous outdid the gastronomic. I missed it.

As we settled into our respective caiprinhas and white wine, an array of breads and spreads was laid out before us. Saving my carbs for the pasta, I shunned all of this. It had been so long since I travelled in Europe that I had forgotten to beware of the customary “couvert” charge for the little starters that appear unordered – most definitely not on the house. The custom was replicated here, in this case boosting the bill by a whopping $25. Mercifully, we only found out about that later.

I had arrived with a decisive yearning for fish – and Italians do fish so well – but the price points on the menu dictated pasta. Grouper with basil sauce sounded good, but not so good as to warrant $40. Anyway, the pasta was what all the fuss was about. Since the gnocchi with calamari and scallops seemed to satisfy the pescatory requirement, I decided to go with that. Chris also compromised on the exorbitant lamb chops with truffles, ($60) and settled instead on pasta with foie gras. (My look of “oh how gross” was returned with the tart “Only you and Jillian Michaels could malign this combination”).

To start, we decided to split the green salad (splitting charge: $5). Though mostly green leaf lettuce, it was fresh and included a leaf of endive and a single spear of asparagus. All would have been well, had we not been offered what turned out to be an extra shot of olive oil. The salad had already been dressed, and this unnecessary flourish sent it over the top.

My misery reached full throttle when the gnocchi arrived. Tiny little morsels, they were immersed in a pool of butter. Rather than succulent scallops and perfectly grilled calamari sitting recognizably alongside them on the plate, the mollusks had been shaved to a nearly invisible (and correspondingly tasteless) skein.

I turned to Chris: “Can you believe how the gnocchi are swimming in butter?”

“Ever seen them doing the backstroke?” she cracked right back. It was the perfect joke at the perfect moment. But it dissolved the ire that I needed to send the dish back. Relief at finding humor in this horror of a restaurant mugging kept me from acting, and I suffered through the meal, picking at the dish and not quite being able to get through it. Chris polished off her two patties of foie gras, washed down by muscat to cut the richness. She looked quite green by the end of it, but that was to be expected, I sniffed.

It was Chris that found that elevating moment. In the bathroom of all places. There she found…a never-before-in-a-restaurant accoutrement…a dental floss dispenser. She came back to the table beaming. So there you have it. Not a food moment; not even mine, but bloggable, just by a thread.

Photo credit: Jan Chipchase

Notes on dining in Rio: Rio is not really known for its restaurants, and in fact, my favorite food moments in the city have been on the beach, where you can buy grilled shrimp with a splash of lime right from your beach chair. Still, we did have some pleasant dining experiences while we were there. Although none was to die for, here are a few I would happily go back to:

Carretao is a neighborhood churrascaria in Ipanema. At $29 for all you can eat grilled meat and elaborate salad bar, it was a good antidote to Gero, and more fun too. Drinks and dessert are extra.

Garcia & Rodrigues in Leblon is another down to earth place, and has a wine store and bakery on the premises as well as the restaurant.

Rio Scenarium is a nightclub in the hip Lapa neighborhood, recently reclaimed from drug traffickers. You will mostly be going for the live music, samba dancing, and three floors worth of Brazilian collectibles, but it has surprisingly good food. People from 20 -75 years of age are on the dance floor. Make a reservation, come early, or be prepared to wait in a very long line.

Opium’s patio on the Rua Farme de Amoedo in Ipanema is the perfect place to have a drink at the end of the day and watch people coming back from the beach. Beautifully presented but overpriced Japanese food.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Passion in the Air

In July, Chris and I went to Brazil together for the first time. My job entails a lot of international travel, and Brazil is a country I go to quite often. But this was the first time Chris was joining me, and I was looking forward to the vacation time in Rio that we had carved out.

There was a problem, though. In the best of all possible worlds, I have a direct flight from Dulles to Sao Paulo, an overnight flight lasting 10 hours. This allows me to have dinner, wash down my Ambien with the last sip of my red wine (I know you are not supposed to mix alcohol and sleeping pills, but it really takes a lot to put me down), go the bathroom, and then get a solid six hours sleep before the harsh lights blink on again and breakfast is served.

This time, because we were flying into Rio rather than Sao Paulo, we had to catch a connecting flight in Miami. Therein lay the problem. The flying time from Miami to Rio was only 8 hours. This meant that, by the time dinner was done, only 4 hours of sleeping time remained. Which meant, in turn, that we would arrive grumpy and disoriented in Rio, and our first day there would be shot. I worry a lot about these sorts of things.

So I developed a plan. Our departure time from Miami was 11:15 pm. Since we would be hungry for dinner way before then, it would make more sense to eat at the airport, and then skip the airplane meal – which would be awful anyway – and instead grab those crucial extra hours of sleep.

At first, all seemed to go well. Our terminal in MIA sported a real restaurant in addition to the food court options, and we had ample time to enjoy a solid meal. A couple of hours later, we went through the usual hassle of boarding the plane – the shuffling line to enter the aircraft, the congestion in the aisles as people search for a place to stow their overhead luggage, the bright nervousness with which people take their seats…Finally we were settled in our two-seat row, me in the window seat and Chris on the aisle. In my plan, we would have a drink and then, having already eaten dinner, we would don our face masks, insert our earplugs, and sink into oblivion until morning.

That is when the trouble began. Chris was earnestly studying the menu that the flight attendant had handed out. I think I’ll have the pasta, she announced.

But…didn’t we already have dinner? Yes, she said, but I am hungry again. I took a deep breath as my heart contracted. Roll with it, I commanded myself. For the next 55 minutes, I gave Chris bright smiles as my insides tensed into a mass of coiled springs. Bright smiles because I did not want to quash her unjaded delight at eating in the air. Bright smiles because I love the way she is so in the moment. But I kept looking anxiously her way, wondering how long this was going to take. As a byproduct of these glances, I noticed that the food actually did not look that bad. So how’s the pasta? Mmm…good! The tubes of ziti looked firm liked they were cooked al dente. The flecks of tomato sauce delicately enhanced rather than smothered the ziti…pasta with sauce, not the other way round. Looking at it I could almost taste the perfect ratio of white wine to olive oil, of garlic to salt. Want a bite, she asked? Oh no. I have already had dinner. I am satisfied.

From there, Chris moved on to the dessert. It looked yellowish and unknowable in its plastic container. Watching every move now, I followed her fork as it plunged into the nameless mass, scooped up a mouthful and made its way orad. Oh-my-god, she said. You must taste this. I was starting to get exasperated. This was airplane food, after all! No thank you. I really am quite satisfied. But it’s your favorite: passion fruit cheesecake! No thank you. There will be plenty of that, and much better, once we get to Brazil. Oooh, this is so amazing. The essence…….her voice trailed off at a loss for words beyond “the essence”. She repeated it, shaking her head in disbelief. I clenched the armrests.

After what seemed like a very long time, dinner was finally over and the carts were trundled down the aisles to collect the empty trays. Now I could get on with my routine. I swallowed my pill, and made my way to the bathroom. Waiting my turn, I found myself wedged between the bathroom wall and a parked food cart, still laden with the dinner dishes. There on the top shelf sat an uneaten serving of dessert. I stared at it, and it stared back. It’s your favorite….Chris’ words reverberated ….the essence….passion fruit, your favorite…Resolve gave way with a thud. I stuck my finger in, and sent it towards my mouth. Oh-my-god. It really was the essence….the essence of passion fruit, given flight in the most aerated cheesecake I have ever tasted. Almost a mousse, it nevertheless retained its cakey identity, then exploded in full fruitiness in your mouth. How was this possible?

In Rio, we searched to duplicate this delight, but without success. There were passionfruit cheesecakes everywhere you looked, but none like that one. Not in the Ipanema hippy market,

Ipanema Hippy Market

not in the neighborhood churrascaria, not even, once Chris had flown home and I had gone on to Sao Paulo, in the Pousada Dona Zilah where I had first discovered it. Tam Airlines takes the cake award, for the best passion in the air.

Update: Later I was to find out that Tam's international menus are devised by the highly acclaimed Brazilian chef, Helena Rizzo. Rizzo is responsible for the São Paulo restaurant and city hot spot, Mani, at the top of chef Paulo Barroso de Barros' Top 10 list of restaurants in the city.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Grill From Ipanema

Dishes To Die For: Brazilian paella; hearts of palm salad

For a Brazilian restaurant, The Grill From Ipanema (TGFI) does a lousy job with meat. A restaurant review I once read made a point of this (“leave the meat to the churrascarias”, it said), steering diners instead toward the feijoada. But the feijoada at TGFI lacks the pomp and ceremony with which this sumptuous stew is served in Brazil, with its parade of side dishes and, in some establishments, a shot of sweetened cachaca. Cachaca is rum made from the juice of the first press of unrefined sugar cane and is the stuff of Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha. Done right, caipirinhas will send you straight to heaven, no questions asked. At TGFI, however, they are undrinkable.
Still, there is one reason to go, and then keep returning, to TGFI: the Brazilian paella. Green with cilantro and served in a clay pot, this is a kicky seafood paella that works its magic over and over again, allowing me forgive the restaurant its other sins. Easily serving two, it is also a bargain at $26.95.

For this review, I decide to return to TGFI to confirm that my entrenched beliefs still held true. Sure enough, the caipirinha was just awful. We pondered what could have gone wrong with this normally sublime drink, and came up with the hypothesis that it was made with low quality cachaca. If that was the case, I would be willing to pay more for a premium spirit. No dice. The restaurant only carries the Pitu brand, which our Brazilian waitress informed us was one of the few brands commercialized for export to the U.S. She agreed that this was a regrettable state of affairs, and even seemed to wrinkle her nose at the pitiful Pitu.

Next, we decided to give the meat one last try, and ordered an appetizer of beef churrasquinos (skewers), along with another favorite of mine, the hearts of palm salad. No surprises here either. The beef was tough and not particularly tasty, even the accompanying vinaigrette failing to perk it up. I was glad we had only ordered it as an appetizer. The salad, on the other hand, was as bountiful as usual, with thick hearts of palm, generous wedges of avocado, and segments of orange arranged on a bed of watercress and onions. But there is a pitfall to be avoided here too: the creamy dressing which is usually served with this salad ruins the dish, and it is best to ask for the oil and vinegar. If you absolutely must try the house dressing, ask for it on the side and decide for yourself. Even Chris, usually a fan of all things creamy, agrees with me on this one.

Finally, the piece de la resistance arrived: the Brazilian paella. This dish provides one of those moments where the presentation heralds something special, and then lives up to the expectation. The plates arrive prepped with small mounds of shredded parsley and carrots along their rims. Then comes the paella in its clay pot, with its mussels,clams,shrimp and chunks of fish nestled in beautifully spiced rice. A wedge of lemon is provided for a fresh squeeze of tartness. Silence fell as we dug in our forks. Reverence rather than commentary was called for.

To end this feast, we ordered the mousse de maracuja (passion fruit mousse), a favorite Brazilian dessert. This was truly to die for, and as good as I have had anywhere. We threw off any attempt at restraint and ordered a second.

Other reasons to go to The Grill from Ipanema:
TGFI has a nice sidewalk patio, and in the evening you score a crisp white table cloth, which is curiously absent at lunch time.
The service is excellent and personable.
The patio is across the road from Napoleon Bistro and a few doors down from the Metro K on Columbia and Belmont. Between the trendy folk at the Bistro and the denizens of Adams Morgan’s streets going to the corner store for supplies, people watching is at its diverse DC best.

Follow up on cacacha available in the District: my friend Matt referred me to this 2007 Washington Post article, which mentions several brands of cachaca being prepared for the U.S. market. I stopped in at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill to see if they carried any. They did: in addition to Pitu and the similar-quality Pirassununga 51, the mid-range Leblon and the premium Cabana were available. Still, Schneider’s seemed doubtful that many restaurants would stock the more pricey brands. I see another post in the making…

Grill From Ipanema on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 9, 2010

L'Enfant Cafe-Bar

Dish To Die For: frangelico and nutella crepes

Bittersweet Crepes

Chris and I were sitting on the patio at L’Enfant enjoying our salads one late summer evening, when Chris noticed that her baby greens were still clinging to their clump of earth. The waiter’s eyes almost popped out when he saw it, and he hurried the plate back to the kitchen. When he returned with a replacement salad, he announced that dessert would be on the house. This was fine with us, because, although the food at L’Enfant is always pleasing and fresh, the dishes to die for here are the sweet crepes. Chris did not hesitate to order her favorite, crepes au grand marnier, and I followed suit with mine: frangelico and nutella.

As the hazelnut-chocolate-wrapped-in-liquid-gold flavor made its way down my throat, the mishap with the salad faded from my mind, and I was taken back to the last time Chris and I had had crepes at L’Enfant. Sunday, January 18, 2009, the Sunday of the Obama inauguration weekend. It had been a weekend of galas and parties, and that morning, people -- us included -- were still in celebration mode. L’Enfant was operating at full capacity, and I remember the gauzy winter light slanting into the bistro, bathing the happy revelers. We spent the better part of three hours sampling the crepes and downing grand mimosas, by the end of which we had racked up a bill of close to $100. But hey, it was a special occasion, and we enjoyed every moment of it.

Back in the present, Chris was making moaning noises as she helped herself to my frangelico and nutella crepes. “So, do you like them better than the grand marnier?” I asked.

“You’ll never get me to say that,” came the reply. This puzzled me for a moment…until I remembered something she had told me. Late January, 1982. It had been Chris’ last day in Paris, and she had gone to visit Les Invalides where she had seen a holocaust exhibit. Depressed, she decided to see how many grand marnier crepes she could eat before leaving the City of Light, hitting every corner crepe stand that she passed. By the time her head hit the toilet (her words), she had consumed 27 grand marnier crepes with extra grand marnier. If she now conceded that actually another crepe was better, all that would have been for nothing, her tribute to life at its best undermined. I understood then that Chris’ long term relationship with crepes au grand marnier could not be tampered with. And I feel the same way about my allegiance to frangelico and nutella. Now, if only Obama could recapture his glow, I could remember that inaugural moment in its full sweetness...

L'Enfant Cafe-Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jessie Taylor Seafood -- Maine Avenue Fish Market

To Die For: giant freshwater prawns

The place The Maine Avenue Fish Market – down at the District’s southwest waterfront – has added a much needed seating area adjacent to its floating stalls. No longer do customers have to hurry home with their perishable purchases or find an alternate place to picnic – now you can eat freshly shucked oysters or crabs steamed just for you right there on the water. This is a good sign: the ongoing redevelopment of the waterfront (it’s just down the street from Nationals stadium) is slated to extend all the way to the end of Maine Avenue, and the fate of the open air fish market has been uncertain. Presumably the investment in the seating area is an indication that the market will stay – or is designed to build popular support for it. Either way, it seems that the vendors have a shot at prevailing once again.
The Maine Avenue market is the oldest continuously operating fish market in the United States, but its identity has changed over time. Originally housed in a 19th century building near the current location, the vendors resisted an earlier urban renewal project in the 1960s, and although the building was razed, an open air market was built within a few blocks to allow them to stay on. That’s when the floating barges were introduced. They are a tribute to the original system of shipping fish up the Virginia coast to the market on the same boats on which they were caught. But they are onIy a tribute: by the 1960s, refrigerated trucking had become a more efficient way of delivering seafood, and with it came the ability to offer a wider selection than the local catch. Not long after, refrigerated trucking was followed by refrigerated air freight and access to markets around the globe. So, although the Maine Avenue market is firmly anchored in local history, the seafood on offer is not necessarily freshly caught in nearby waters.

The pleasure At Jessie Taylor Seafood, one of the vendors at the market, I discovered the beauteous giant freshwater shrimp, and immediately thought of them as a vehicle for prawns peri-peri. For those of you who read my Nando’s post, you know how much I love chicken peri-peri, and I hold prawns peri-peri in similar, mind-blowing, esteem. In South Africa, the dish is ideally made with the regionally renowned Mozambique prawns, also known as L.M. prawns after the former colonial capital, Lourenço Marques. (Marques was a 16th century Portuguese explorer). What gave me the idea to substitute the giant freshwater shrimp for Mozambique prawns – despite the fact that the latter are marine rather than river creatures – was that in both cases their sheer size suggests lobster or langoustine more than anything else. Jessie had already removed the heads and deveined them, though the shell had been left on. This was good, because as I remembered it, peri peri prawns are cooked in the shell. At home with Jessie’s giant shrimp – 3 per person seemed more than enough -- I set about preparing them the way my father used to: pan-fried in peri-peri oil (turned red from having had chili peppers steeped in it) and served over rice. Okay, so I did add a few touches of my own. I seasoned with Nando’s peri-peri spice rub and added some white wine to deglaze the pan right at the end. I was thrilled with the result: the fiery flavor was just as I remembered it, and the fresh sweetness of the lobster-like mollusk was a heavenly vehicle. I even scarfed up the rice, which in most other dishes remains ignored on my plate. More complicated recipes for prawns peri-peri do exist, for example this one offered by the South African food festival in Richmond; it’s up to you how much time and effort you are in the mood for putting in.

The peril This is where it gets more complicated. Once I had gotten past the delight of reconnecting with a childhood favorite, I decided to dig a little into the provenance of the giant shrimp. I had never really thought much about where shrimp came from but something about the exotic size of these made me want to know more about them. It turns out that the vast majority of shrimp consumed in the U.S. are imported from South and Southeast Asia and Latin America, and the vendor at Jessie Taylor (in the picture above) identified their source as Indonesia and Bangladesh. Researching these shrimp on the net, red flags jumped out all over the place: the shrimp farms constructed in Asia to feed global (especially U.S.) demand are reported to destroy mangrove forests and other coastal wetlands. But there seems to be a differing of opinion: the FAO maintains that freshwater shrimp farms do not endanger mangroves, and in general have less ecological impact, including fewer problems with salination. The Environmental Defense Fund, by contrast, does not distinguish the freshwater variety from other imported shrimp and steers consumers instead towards the small domestic industry (mostly in Oregon and Canada) which has stricter environmental standards and qualifies as their “eco-best” choice. Still, improvements have been happening abroad as well, and in the end it all comes down to the specific supply chains. In this sense, Jessie Taylor Seafood and other vendors at the Maine Avenue Fish Market are no different from other area vendors in terms of the standards they apply when selecting suppliers. Greenpeace has prepared a scorecard that rates the standards used by D.C. supermarkets. None rates higher than 6 on a scale of 1-10. And you may be surprised by who the leader is!

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

Jessie Taylor Seafood on Urbanspoon

Friday Night Tomato Sauce

(The Virgin and the Whore)

There is something so voluptuous about August-ripe tomatoes, pan-simmered in olive oil and lots of garlic. Lacking basil, I cast around for other ingredients, and found the makings of a puttanesca sauce: olives, capers, and green chili pepper, everything except for the anchovies. I have always been ambivalent about puttanesca. The reality is, the combination of all these strong flavors can be sort of acrid, not a good counterpoint to the fresh sweetness that could otherwise be mine. This time, I decided to respect my ambivalence, and add only small amounts of each. The result: tomato, garlic and olive oil predominated in their summer freshness. The other ingredients: only to titillate.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Inspired by Mark Bittman

The Minimalist Meets His Her Match

Mark Bittman is a hero of mine. Many of my most successful meals can be traced back to his Minimalist column, and my recipe collection is stacked with cuttings from it. People say that I am a great cook, but really what I am good at is spotting great ideas, and The Minimalist is a font of those. My attraction for this style is not so much the ease of preparation, as much as his innovative attention to the pairing of complementary flavors, so that, using a minimum of ingredients, he can create a dish of understated elegance.

Chris has a different approach to cooking. In her eyes, I like to tease her, Mark Bittman is the Antichrist. This is because I have never met more of a “more is more” foodie than Chris. It’s as if she views ingredients as having a multiplier effect on taste, while I am trying to balance an equation. For example, presented with home canned pears, Chris will marinate them in apple juice with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, throw in some apple jack brandy for good measure, then grill them and drizzle with the canning fluid that has been reduced with extra orange zest and a bit of milk to make it creamy. All of this will be served over a cinnamon crumpet. (For more about this creation, and about Chris’ approach to food, see Brian Blaho’s brilliant rendition in his story Pills). But for minimalists like me, this plethora, even redundancy, of ingredients is a bit overwhelming. How can you ever find those delicious pears that are submerged in there somewhere? It’s like with bagels and lox. If I am getting a bagel and lox with the works, no way am I going to get it on an everything bagel. “The works” and the “everything” compete too much against each other. Chris, on the other hand, would not dream of getting anything else.

This basic difference between us is reflected in the way we have furnished our respective homes, too. Mine has clean lines, each piece chosen with care and arranged in a way that each gives the other lots of space to be itself. I have only the number of glasses, plates, and silverware I need, and they are respectively: clear, black and white, or grey. Chris is a collector. An eclectic collector. Her house is filled with furniture, ornaments, and kitchen gadgets that she has amassed, all rubbing up against each other. She has a collection of glasses that range from antique ruby red goblets she inherited from her Italian grandmother to brightly colored perspex tumblers found on sale at Target. Somehow it all makes sense in her space, and I feel at peace being there, as she finds relief in mine. At the same time we sort of marvel at each other’s insanity.

Where we have common ground is in grilling. Chris loves to grill, and this preparation lends itself to the simple seasonings and spices that I favor. Here is a recent menu I put together, with me seasoning and Chris executing:

 Corn grilled directly on the flame, topped with olive oil, salt, and torn basil leaves. This was inspired by The Minimalist’s July 28 column. In his version, Bittman calls for parmesan cheese as well as the olive oil and basil, but I left this out and added salt instead. It turns out corn and basil work fantastically together, and I will be forever grateful to The Minimalist for this one.

Porterhouse steaks, seasoned with “Something South African” Sweet and Smoky spice rub. Chris discovered this rub at Marshall’s, and while I am generally suspicious of store- bought spice blends, in this case I can vouch for its authenticity: it is the closest that I have found to replicating the flavor of the South African braais of my childhood. If you can’t find it, you can always make up a batch yourself, using sea salt, garlic, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, ginger, garlic oil, chili, and sugar, and use wood chips in your fire. We would always make some version of this from scratch when I was growing up, braaing over wood fires.

No frills grilled asparagus

Bellingham Cabernet Sauvignon The hearty porterhouse, particularly in this zesty version, calls for a big wine. I paired it with the Bellingham, a South African wine which is not widely imported, but which I stumbled on at Libbie Market (formerly Joe’s Market) in Richmond, VA. If anyone knows of a DC source for this, please let me know!

Ciao Bella Key Lime Graham gelato. Truly, Ciao Bella gelatos render me speechless, and this flavor was no exception.

For the occasion, Chris brought out her gold and white Plaza plates with a big P in the middle that she picked up at the hotel’s fire sale, and her silver pedestal ice cream dishes from eBay.

This post is dedicated to Dr. Joseph Svoboda, Chris’ dad, who passed away a few days before we had this meal. Brian talks about him in his story too.