Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ebony and Ivory: The Keys to Exceptional Service


800 F Street NW
Washington D.C.

To die for: service; "The Zola" cocktail

Two napkins, one black and one cream, lay folded side by side on the table. To be honest, I hadn’t really noticed them when I took my seat. Not until the waiter approached, eyed my black linen pants, and flicked the cream one away. “I wouldn’t want you to get white lint on your black pants”, he explained. Frivolous, you say? Absolutely. Decadent? Uh-huh. But how seductive! I tilted my head back towards him, my lips parted. He had my attention.

Going on, our waiter explained the specials. The potato soup, he said, was made with a meatless stock. I shot a glance across the table at Pam, my vegetarian dining companion. Her question had been anticipated. This was getting interesting. What would be next? I asked him if he could suggest a wine by the glass to go with my meal. He nodded and disappeared. When he returned, he was not bearing a glass of wine, but rather two bottles, and two empty glasses: an unbidden tasting. 

For all this, Zola is not a snooty place. In a more ritzy establishment, these gestures may have had a distancing, even intimidating, effect. Here they felt inviting. On the other hand, Zola provides a more civilized alternative to the high-decibel, high-density hot spots in Penn Quarter. For me, it struck just the right note.

Cosmos for Butches

Of the things I actually ingested at Zola, my favorite was the eponymous “Zola”, a specialty cocktail made with Russian Standard Vodka, white cranberry juice, cointreau and fresh limes. In effect, it was a white cosmopolitan, translucent and more austere looking than its girly pink cousin. It came in a martini glass with a cluster of red cranberries heaped at the bottom, magnified slightly in their clear bath. True, the effect was a bit shy of the smack down an actual Russian Standard martini would have produced (look for that at Russia House), but notable nonetheless.
Photocredit: Dave Pearson

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dino: Wild About The Boar

Dish to die for: prosciutto

I was excited about Dino from the beginning. It had an enticing menu, which my friend Tali forwarded to me. Tali herself raved about the food. And on weekdays, it was byob, which it charmingly called “free corkage”, old world style. So I was enthusiastic, even though Tali wanted to get there in time for the prix fixe menu, of which I am not a fan.

By the time I arrived, Tali and our friend Jen had already secured an outdoor table. In late June, DC was in the throes of one of its suffocatingly hot spells, but on this particular night we had a reprieve.And although it was just a few minutes before 7, it turned out that Dino was offering the prix fixe all night long, so the pressure to order fast was off. I had selected a 2008 Petit Verdot from Blenheim Vineyards in Virginia wine country to bring along. My delight over that wine – worth a post of its own -- had prompted Chris to order me a case for my birthday, and I was eager to share. We three scanned the menu. Having a head start on me, Tali and Jen were ready with their antipasto choices, which they proposed sharing. HMMM….all of their choices were fried. We negotiated. I agreed to the fried squash blossoms, somehow a caprese salad got into the mix, but what I was really pushing for was the platter of house duck liver spread, wild boar pate, wild boar prosciutto, and house pickle.

Tali frowned. “The boar would be adventurous for me,” she proferred. What?! This from the woman who glibly ordered steak tartare one of the first times we dined together? Who rattled off the exotic dishes associated with any country you could throw at her, including guinea pig in Ecuador? “I never actually ate the guinea pig,” she confessed. “I just know it is a national delicacy”. Oh. I stared at her hard. I guess my silent appeal to her inner foodie must have worked, because she relented, and we agreed on the boar platter as the third dish.
You can blame it on the Petit Verdot if you like, but I actually swooned over three dishes at this meal. Okay, really only one, but the other two were such close contenders that I happily include them as well. First off, the squash blossoms -- fiori di zucca – were truly amazing. Because we were splitting it three ways, I got only a scant taste of them, but I would certainly go back for more. What really sent me over the top was the boar prosciutto. Oh my. Somehow it was even better than what I had sampled in Florence. Who would think that the boar – a seemingly tough old beast – would be the source of melt in your mouth tender meat, at once salty and sweet? Wild eyed – since again there was not enough to be had from my one third share – I started madly looking around for someone to appeal to for more. At any cost! In my peripheral vision, I saw Tali clawing with her fork to prise the last morsel from its piece of attendent fat.

The waiter nodded knowingly. “I will try”, he said, when he heard that we wanted another order of the boar prosciutto alone, without the rest of the platter. “But the chef covets that prosciutto; it does not come in large quantities”. I hoped against hope that the chef would indulge me. After what seemed like a long time, the waiter returned, with a large platter of the regular prosciutto. Seeing my disappointment, Jen -- who did want to indulge me -- began to intervene on my behalf, explaining that this was not what we had in mind. I stayed her hand. “Let’s just try this”, I said. So we did. And actually, this was not “regular” prosciutto at all, but something quite extraordinary. According to Dino, it is made by the Tosini family, and is hand salted and aged a full 500 days. Hence the name: Pio Tosini 500 Giorni Prosciutto di Parma Crudo. Its tangy flavor had undertones of watercress, and I wondered what the live boar had been eating, prior to its careful curing.

After the entrees and dessert, I still wanted to linger, and decided to finish things off with a glass of grappa – a $5 add on to the prix fixe. It was a happy walk back to Adams Morgan.

June 30, 2010

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