Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mamma 'Zu: Richmond Bucket List #2*

Mamma 'Zu and Svomama's Mamma

Sometimes, I can get irrational. On one of our weekends apart, Chris called me from Richmond to say: "You'll never guess where mom wants to go eat -- Mamma 'Zu!"  For those of you following this blog, you'll know that I have been working on Chris for us to go out to eat when we are in Richmond. Mamma 'Zu is one of those places I have been dying to try, and so the idea that Chris'  mother would get there before me induced a fit of pique.

Once I had recovered my senses, I suggested that all three of us go the next time I was down for the weekend. And so we did: me, and Svomama (aka Chris) and Svomama's mamma. It was good to have her along, too. Of the three of us, Svomama's mamma was the most animated by the crush of people inside the restaurant, and did not mind having a drink or two at the bar while waiting to be seated. "It's a happening," she said, enjoying the fact that the dim lighting and lack of windows made the place seem like a night spot, even though it was only 6 pm.

Not everyone feels the same about the cheek by jowl intimacy in this tiny dining room.  We were lucky enough to get seats at the bar, but behind us were three layers of people jammed between the barstools and the tables. Our friend Lynn refuses to go to Mamma Zu's. "I had an ass on my table," she exclaimed, describing her experience there. "Really, is this what goes down here, I said to myself, an ass on my table?"

What about the food? I was pleasantly surprised by the fried oysters, fried so lightly that the bivalves inside retained their moist brininess. Mamma 'Zu's sister restaurant, Edo's Squid, uses a similar technique for their fried sugar toads (blow fish), which have also surprised me with their flavorful flakiness inside a delicate casing. But otherwise, the meal was disappointing. Someone in the kitchen had gone wild with the pepper pot that night.

But I will give Mamma Zu's a pass, and try again another time. After all...

...can this many people AND Ruth Reichl be wrong?

To Die For: Reputation

Mamma Zu on Urbanspoon

*Note: As a result of "On Fumes Alone", Chris created a "Bucket List" of Richmond restaurants for us to visit. This is the second of such visits. For a full list of visits, click here

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pasta Mia & Mixtec: (almost) Cheap Eats in Adams Morgan

At 5pm, one person is already in line for Pasta Mia. 90 minutes til opening time.
Mixtec is right next door.
Last Saturday, we were refugees from Pasta Mia. We'd arrived there at around 6:10 to find that a sizeable line had already formed, waiting for the 6:30 opening. This is a nightly occurence -- at any given time starting at around 5pm Tuesday thru Saturday, there will inevitably be a line outside Pasta Mia, which takes no reservations. When we did not make the first cut, we decamped to the small Mexican restaurant next door: Mixtec.

I had been to Mixtec several times before -- it being a neighborhoody place, and I being of said neighborhood. I've never had a bad meal there, and have especially enjoyed their satisfying heuvos rancheros and their very generously endowed, full impact, margaritas. But still, it has never been a place I have particularly recommended to others.

On this night, though, there was a list of specials. I don't remember there being specials before, so maybe it is a Saturday evening thing. In any case, there was this Oaxacan lamb on the menu. Wow. The lamb came served on a banana leaf, a no frills cut of meat, just slow cooked and juicy, homestyle and thick slabbed. (banish any thought of foo-foo french cut racks, if you please). In addition to the lamb, the dish came piled with rice and beans, salsa, and a beautifully rosetted red onion, plus a side of salad. Given how substantial the platter was, not to mention the high rents in Adams Morgan, I consider $16 to be a pretty good price, though it may not fall within everybody's definition of cheap eats. The pitcher of margaritas -- also $16 -- compares well with $27 at Lauriol Plaza, for a far less potent brew.

Perhaps the meal was most remarkable for what it did NOT include. Our friend Christopher -- who ordered the pork loin off the specials menu -- could not stop talking about the fact that chips did not automatically arrive at the table (we applauded) and that none of our meals included cheese (more applause). This is a far cry from the stereotypical Mexican food normally presented to us norteamericanos. "If only we had more of these type of Mexican restaurants," he kept exclaiming, even into the next day. For me, I left feeling like I could eat there every night -- this was more of a delicious home cooked meal than a richly sauced dining experience, one that has left me hankering for more.

As for Pasta Mia, the first two times I ate there were well worth the hour-long wait, I thought. Excellent and cheap pasta and ditto for the wine. But the second two visits were somewhat disappointing. Since then, the prices have risen, and with its price edge gone, it has become less compelling. Still it is a cute little space, and I think it is worth a try, so long as you are of the "will wait for food" persuasion. Otherwise, I think Mixtec is worth considering as a first choice for cheap eats in Adams Morgan. Others seem to agree: Of Urbanspoon voters, 92% like Mixtec; Pasta Mia only has an 80% approval rating.

6:00 pm. The line has grown. 30 more minutes to opening time

Dishes To Die For: Oaxacan lamb (Mixtec); pasta with meat sauce (Pasta Mia)

Mixtec on Urbanspoon

Pasta Mia on Urbanspoon


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Casa Nonna

Dishes To Die For: octopus salad, "The Nonna" pizza

Splat! went the flat end of a chef's knife, crushing an ear of garlic. This was the first step in composing the exquisite grilled octopus salad at Casa Nonna. Next, the greens, the sundried tomatoes, and carefully sliced charred tentacles. At the end, Oraniz gently adjusted the elements with the back end of a fork, coaxing them into position. Such care and expertise!

This close up view of appetizers being prepared is what you get sitting up at the counter of the pizza ovens at this still fairly new Italian. The octopus salad is my dish to die for here, but sitting at the counter is also a feast for the eyes. The flash and flare of 800 degree pizza ovens against burnished copper and enameled tile. The delicacy of Oraniz' compositions and the masterfulness of Ishmael parrying and thrusting into the flames. Also the curve of the bar, inviting guests to take a seat. (Be warned though: it's hot! Come dressed in layers that can be peeled off once you are in this haven from the February chill.)

But that's not all. You can also have Casa Nonna in your casa: the entire dinner menu is available for delivery. We had the "Nonna" pizza: zucchini flowers, fried egg, tomato and mozzarella. This was extraordinary: a thin crust pizza with fresh ingredients that do not cower under a blanket of cheese. The zucchini flowers were sensational, augmented by basil scented olive oil. I had felt ambivalent about the fried eggs, but they were tiny and delicate, runny yolks blending with the basil scent in a way I could never have predicted. Oooh. We also sampled the eggplant parmigiana -- up there with the best home made parmigiana I have tasted -- and meatballs in tomato sauce, which Chris declared to be close to what her own Italian nonna made. I have to admit, I was almost brought to tears by them too.

So, we are two for two with Casa Nonna, and looking forward to more winning meals.

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

Casa Nonna on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Edo's Squid: Richmond Bucket List #1*

Dish To Die For: pasta

Something happened to me when I went to Edo's Squid that had never happened to me before. When the pasta arrived, I stuck my fork in, put my head down like a horse into a feeder bag, and didn't lift it up again until the bowl was empty. I kept twirling and savoring, twirling and savoring. All around me, the table was littered with other dishes to sample, but none of them mattered. I simply could not stop eating that pasta. It's not that the marinara sauce was that great -- in fact I helped it along by adding some garlic from a nearby side of greens -- but it was the perfect texture of the spaghetti and the just-right way the sauce clung to it that blinded me to the rest of the offerings.

Perhaps I was just escaping from a fraught evening. Between Lynn talking up the place for months, and Chris dragging her feet about coming ("It's not an environment in which I enjoy eating," she primly announced), I really did not know what to expect. What was wrong with this picture? Why would the normally good natured Chris be so bad-tempered about this place, and the more opinionated Lynn claim it was the best restaurant in Richmond?

Here is my theory: Edo's once was a very good restaurant, with a charming ambience and a creative and carefully executed menu. But it has not been able to cope with the resultant popularity. From the chaotic milling of people (with or without reservations)  waiting for tables, to the frantic slapping down of plates by the waitstaff, whatever delights are proferred by the kitchen are overshadowed by anxiety. And one senses that the kitchen is overwrought as well. True, the pasta was perfect, and I also want to give a shout out to the sugar toads. But you could tell by the other dishes that the kitchen was losing its grip back there.

Edo's has its long time customer base, but I believe that these loyalists are fuelled by nostalgia for a restaurant that is not quite as it used to be. Bluntly speaking: it is past its peak. Perhaps its former glory can be regained by better management of reservations, which will both take the anxiety out of being seated and take the pressure off the kitchen and waitstaff. I hope so. Otherwise, it is going to be difficult to persuade Chris to go back. And I so want more of that divine pasta...

*Note: As a result of "On Fumes Alone", Chris created a "Bucket List" of Richmond restaurants for us to visit. This is the first of such visits. For a full list of visits click here.

Edo's Squid on Urbanspoon