Archive for September, 2008

Sushi-Ko

Even though (the original) Sushi-Ko is right down the street from our apartment, it took us a good couple of months before we finally ventured forth to try it out. Still in our student loan money spending spree weekend (thanks Sallie!), we decided it would be a good time to try it out.

Even though Sushi-Ko is not a fancy restaurant, I felt like dressing up a little bit. I just got my hair cut and was feeling exceptionally trendy, so I slipped on a black dress and a red plaid jacket with some black heels. With only 30 minutes until our reservation, however, I sent Jay on a hunt for some opaque black tights, while I finished getting ready (i.e. makeup). Jay was triumphant and got back to the apartment with only about 5 or 10 minutes to spare before our reservation. Good thing we were just going down the street.

Unfortunately, 4-inch black heels aren’t really made for walking, much less running, so I had to move uncharacteristically slow in trying to make our reservation on time, taking tiny steps and trying not to snap my heels in half. Countless cabs honked at us as we made our way down the street, causing me to have Jay check and make sure my skirt wasn’t flipped up and showing my ass or something. Why the hell were they honking? It remains a mystery.

Hot from our run/walk and my calves screaming at me, we made it to Sushi-Ko only about 5 minutes late. After only a couple of minutes of waiting, we followed the waiter upstairs, trailing a couple of short awkward girls who decided they didn’t want to watch me walking up the stairs, so they pushed in front of me as fast as they could to follow the waiter. Whatevs. We were seated at a small round table next to a window facing the alley, across from which is the WSC that I had worked out in only hours before. I could even point out my favorite elliptical machine to Jay.

Although it’s not on the menu, Jay and I had both read about the omakase tasting menu. Feeling very chi-chi and in-the-know, Jay asked if it was still available, and our waitress indicated that it indeed was. Awesome! I bet those awkward girls didn’t know about it. Relishing in our trendiness and our new found position as restaurant insiders, we split our (first of two) bottle of sake, chilled yet with a nice warmth.

Before I get to the food, let me remark on the atmosphere of the restaurant. The ENTIRE place was packed, but I’m glad we got to sit on the second floor, which was less crowded than the first. The decorations are sleek and sparse, with some nice modern lighting, which somewhat reflects the elegant simplicity of the food itself. The group sizes ranged from small like us to larger, with some pretty rowdy people standing on their chairs at one point and causing a general roar. There were also some families and even some pretty young kids.

Our first course was a lightly fried eel over sauteed vegetables (I’m guessing baby bok choy) and soy-balsamic based sauce. Absolutely delicious. The eel was so lightly breaded and lightly fried that you didn’t get lost in the fried-ness of the dish, and the eel itself was creamy and warm. Its was almost like a little package that exploded when you bit into it. When you got a bight of all of the components together (which is a lil’ difficult with chopsticks, but then I am almost completely incompetent with them), it was exquisite.

Second course was a flounder carpaccio with a truffle sauce. This flounder was sliced so thin and had a perfect consistency: not too tough, not too watery, melt in your mouth. It was topped with something shaved and lightly fried, which I thought was slivers of carrots. This course really speaks to the aesthetic of sushi-ko: elegance and exquisite taste in simplicity and subtlety. You won’t get bold, strong flavors here, but the subtlety of all of the flavors is delicious on a whole other level.

Third course was seared tuna topped with marinated mushrooms and also–I’m pretty sure–diced potatoes. I’m pretty much completely over seared tuna and I have had it SO much that it’s lost its appeal and newness, but this was still good. The tuna tasted more like a steak than fish, especially with the mushrooms and potatoes.

Fourth course was a clear soup with tiny, tiny white stringy mushrooms, asparagus, and maine lobster. You never really get lobster these days in a light dish, but this is one of those rare moments where it happened. The soup itself was very clean and delicious, the asparagus was cooked perfectly, and the broth hinted to a deepness of flavor that nevertheless came out light and subtle.

Fifth course was, thankfully, a plate of sushi, which included fatty toro, seared tuna (again?), clam, and mackerel, as well as one other that I just can’t remember. This sushi is, by far, some of the best I’ve ever had, if not the best. Each tender piece of fish just melted in my mouth. The seared tuna was very good in that you could actually taste the grill. The clam was very sweet and an unexpected surprise. My favorite was probably the fatty toro, which just dissolved in my mouth. One of the best things about this dish is that it came with actual real fresh wasabi, none of this green fake wasabi horseradish crap. I had a little bit of the wasabi on it’s own, and even though it was hot (as expected), it had a hidden sweetness to it. Furthermore, because it was actually shaved wasabi root and not made out of a paste, the texture was completely different, and you could actully feel the shavings with your tongue. Finally, the heat of the wasabi hit your face in a different place. While fake wasabi (the stuff you always get in place of wasabi) hits you in your nose, the real wasabi hits you on your tongue and the roof of your mouth.

Finally, we finished off with a dessert that was absolutely killer. Jay and I got to choose between a small variety of dishes, but we both went for the banana tempura. I chose ginger ice cream for mine and Jay chose green tea ice cream. I’ve had a variation of this dish at Sushi Cafe in Little Rock, and that restaurant’s version was heavily breaded and covered in whipped cream. This version, however, was simpler and wonderful, and made me declare that I want to take frying lessons from the chef. The bananas were sliced to a moderate thinness and had, like the eel, very little breading, and they were so creamy and wonderful in the middle. The ginger ice cream was just phenomenal and had a wonderful lightness to it. Furthermore, the dish itself didn’t need to be covered in whipped cream to be good, it was simply drizzled with a little sauce and sprinkled with some cinnamon.

Throughout the course of the tasting menu, I kept asking myself whether this meal would actually fill me up. Pretty much all of my sushi experiences involve ordering way too much food and simply gorging myself on tons of raw fish. This was different in that it was slow and paced and involved small dishes. Even though I wasn’t full when I left, I was pretty content. I guess this is the true beauty of the meal, it’s balance on the light. Nevertheless, I do look forward to an all-out sushi eat fest the next time I travel down to Sushi-Ko. I think the tasting menu is an excellent way to get to know the cooking aesthetic of the chef, however, and gives you a certain pleasure in knowing about something that’s not actually on the menu. Next time, I might leave off the heels and trade my dress in for some jeans, with a trendy top of course.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana: Restaurant Review

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
401 7th St. NW
Washington, DC, 20004
(202) 628-1005
http://www.oyamel.com/

So, I think I’ve found my new favorite place for dinner in DC: Oyamel. Owned and run by the same chef in charge of Cafe Atlantico, another favorite, Oyamel serves traditional Mexican dishes via the small plates style in a fun, young, and vibrant atmosphere. One of my favorite things in the restaurant are huge mobiles of butterflies. Don’t expect a lot of personal space, however. When we arrived a little before 9, the restaurant was completely packed, and we sat at a small table sandwiched between two other small tables in close proximity. By the time we finished eating, however, there was much more elbow room. Nevertheless, despite the close quarters, the vibe and energy of the restaurant was so much fun that we didn’t really mind.

Another plus: the menu is very imaginative and varied, and has quite a few things that I’m sure you haven’t tried before. For example, have you ever had a grasshopper taco? What about a beef tongue taco? I hadn’t before I ate at Oyamel, but now I have.

Jay and I started off the meal with table-side prepared Guacamole and an Oyamel Margarita, topped with an ephemeral salt foam. The Guacamole was actually spicy, as requested, and had the best texture I’ve ever had. I would have liked to have seen bits of tomato in the guac, but that’s pretty nit-picky. The margarita was excellent, and fixed a problem that I generally have with margaritas: salt on the rim. You need the salt, but sometimes the rim lining just doesn’t do it for me. By creating a salt air that sat on top of the alcohol itself, you got a little salty jolt with every sip, without having to do something like lick the rim. I would have liked to be able to taste the tequila a little more, but then again, we’re nit-picking.

This dinner was kind of my treat for Jay, so I let him be in charge of the ordering. Our waiter, Alex (who was AMAZING; Alex if you ever read this, you did an excellent job and we loved you), suggest 2-3 dishes per person, but we were so hungry that we ordered well over that amount. We started off with two salads: (1) Nopalitos, i.e. baby cactus salad with tomatoes in a lime dressing, and (2) ensalada de chayote, Mexican squash salad in a hibiscus dressing. The baby cactus was light and refreshing, and had a texture kind of like a thin pickle, with hints of zucchini. The Mexican squash was sliced very thin and was almost like thin slices of tomatoes. The hibiscus dressing was very interesting, floral yet deep, and was very good.

Next up was two tacos, and step 1 of my adventurous eating: (1) seared duck confit taco and (2) braised beef tongue taco.


Braised beef tongue on the left, duck confit on the right

If you’ve ever watched Bizarre Foods on the travel channel, you know that the host of that show likes tongues. I’m always looking to try new and crazy things, but tongues always seemed like a hard line to cross. Every time I thought about eating a tongue, I always imagined chewing on my own, not a very appealing prospect. So I had to order the beef tongue taco. I was pretty nervous, and imagined that maybe there would just be a huge, whole tongue lieing in the taco. Much to my happy surprise, this was not the case, and the braised beef tongue was probably the most tender meat I have ever, ever had. It literally melted in my mouth, and the sauce of chili, onions and tomato suffused it with so much flavor and moisture. The duck confit taco was likewise delicious and juicy. Jay and I managed to share these tacos, which are pretty small, but it was hard to share with these delicious tacos.

Round three: (1) grasshopper taco, (2) Yucatan-style barbecue pork taco.

I probably don’t need to tell you that the grasshoppers were another adventurous step for me, but for some reason I was less concerned about this taco and had less nervousness than with the beef tongue taco. The grasshoppers themselves were much smaller than I imagined. I pictured huge Arkansas-wildlife sized grasshoppers about the size of your thumb, but these were much smaller, almost delicate. The sauce the grasshoppers were in was very salty and garlicky, and the grasshoppers themselves didn’t have as much crunch as I expected (a good thing). I had a guilty little pleasure of playing with my food here, poking around in the taco for grasshopper heads and thoraxes. The pork barbecue taco was excellent, with a sweet tomato sauce that reminded me of something that I couldn’t really put my finger on.

Round 4: (1) braised short ribs, (2) seared scallops, (3) rice sauteed with black Mexican corn truffles.


Braised short ribs


Seared Scallops

Both of these dishes were excellent and perfectly cooked. The pumpkin seeds accompanying the scallops added a nice salty crunch that cut the creamy richness of the scallops themselves, and the short ribs were just plan amazing. There’s not really much more I can say about these dishes! They’re just classics done right. The rice in Mexican truffles was rich and creamy and delicious. I think they probably toasted the rice before cooking it, because it had a nice crunch and didn’t completely dissolve into mush. I remarked to Jay that the dish tasted like it had mushrooms in it, when he informed me that the mushroom taste came from the “truffles,” a fungus that grows on ears of corn and is then harvested. Well, that kind of grossed me out, but only for a second. I mean, I love blue cheese, and that’s technically moldy. The rice was excellent, nevertheless.

We still weren’t completely full, even after all of this, so we went for one more round of food before dessert: (1) confit of baby pig taco and (2) one of the specials, a poblano pepper stuffed with chorizo and topped with a rich cream sauce and pomegranate seeds.

The stuffed poblano, which was recommended by our waiter (I wanted the pepper stuffed with mahi mahi), was probably my least favorite dish of the meal. Nothing really wowed me. The stuffing was a little watery and had less flavor than desired, and the sauce was just too rich. The pepper itself was cooked perfectly, however, and had a nice sweetness, but this dish just wasn’t the star of the night. Likewise, the confit of baby pig taco didn’t rise to expectations. Although the pig meat was very tender and juicy, the flavor level was not as high as other dishes we tried. It was still pretty good, however.

For dessert, I mandated that we each get a different dessert and then share. There wasn’t much sharing, but the desserts were so big that we could have (and probably should have) shared one between us comfortably. Jay chose the chocolate cake and I went with the tres leches cake soaked in rum with a caramel ice cream.

If you read my review of Cafe Atlantico’s brunch, you know that the “dessert” of that meal was kind of a let down. Likewise, although these desserts were tasty, they didn’t really wow me, and they weren’t very exceptional. Mine was very rich and had a nice texture, and the lime gelatins were a nice touch, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to order this again. Jay’s chocolate cake was luscious, dark, and rich, but again, it didn’t have the wow factor of the main course dishes. There are two other desserts, both of which I considered, the custard and the caramel, as well as a choice of ice creams and sorbets, that might be more promising than these cakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they were bad or gross, they’re just not the best. I would almost suggest having dessert elsewhere, but I want to try the other dessert choices before finalizing this recommendation. I also had a Mexican spiced coffee, which was very good, but after a while just got to be too rich.

This was probably the most fun meal I’ve had in a long time. Its definitely one of my new favorite places for dinner, and I highly recommend it, especially if you have been dissatisfied with places like Rosa Mexicana. The service was great, the food was great, the wine was great (Santa Barbara Winery syrah, which was spicy with very little tanins that held up well against the food without battling it with too much body, and which went down very easily), the atmosphere was great. What more could you ask for?

Westend Bistro Chefs Fired

Although technically this is not fresh news, I just discovered that the Chef de cuisine of Westend Bistro, Leo Marino, will no longer be working for Eric Ripert, as well as a couple of others. Ann Limpert reported that Eric Ripert cited “behavior problems” and the “boys club” environment of the kitchen as reasons for the “departures.”

Considering my very sub par experience at Westend and subsequent review, I find it very interesting that members of the Westend kitchen have been let go. At least in my own mind (and maybe Jay’s too) I like to think that the quality of food has something to do with the “departures.”

I think this is the perfect time for a, “I told you so!”

Surfside

Surfside is one of those great neighborhood restaurants that’s quick, easy, fun, and also makes some pretty tasty food. Jay first visited without me one night, and it wasn’t too long until he was back with me in tow.

The atmosphere is casual and come-as-you-are. Rather than ordering from a waiter, you circle your meal choices on a paper menu and hand it to the cashier. Within minutes (literally), your order is ready. When Jay brought me here for the first time, he went to the back to order some beers from the bar, and I went and grabbed us a table. Only seconds after I sat down, seemingly, our order was ready, freshly grilled and still warm.

I am on a quest to try the guacamole at every just about every restaurant that serves it in the city, and lucky for me, Surfside has some fantastic guac. After trying it the first time, I was ready to declare it the best in town. The halved cherry tomatoes really give the guac a nice pop of sweetness, and the flavor throughout is very nice as well, with huge chunks of avocado lingering in the mix. When we got Surfide to go a few nights ago, however, I thought the flavor was a little lacking, so I’m not quite sure if I would rank it as #1, but it is still very good. Maybe tied for number 1? The flavor is fresh and refreshing, and pretty killer. If you’re a Monday night football fan, the guac is free (free!) during the games.

I ordered the fish tacos, which were light and perfectly seasoned and wrapped in a great grill flavor. The toppings were fresh and also grilled to perfection, and the tortillas were warm and soft. The side dishes were generous portions of rice and beans, and were greatly appreciated after an extended time at the gym. One of my favorite things about the tacos is that they came served with half of a lime that had itself been grilled, lending more smoky and sweet/sour flavor to the tacos. A very nice touch. Jay got the beef tacos, which were juicy and succulent.

Surfside aint no fancy pants dining experience, but I think that’s where the charm comes from. I mean, where else can you walk in wearing whatever (I saw everything from sun dresses to athletic shorts, with many pairs of jeans and shorts in between), receive your order fresh and hot from the grill within minutes, and lounge around with a cold beer wherever you want? The place is so casual and unpretentious that I worry a little bit about how it will do in the winter when the foot traffic outside has decreased and the Carribean interior might seem a little fake and distant, but I think that the quality food and fresh ingredients that Surfside prepares will establish a loyal following that will return despite what the weather may bring. Considering it’s within a 5 minute walk from my apartment, I have a feeling we’ll be back again and again.

The menu ranges from tacos and wraps to salads and entrees. Each “category” is labelled differently, like “monsoon” or some other kind of watery name, without much description under the category itself, but each menu item is described sufficiently so you can figure it out. Try the guacamole and salsa, the latter of which has a great mesquite undertone. When Jay and I ate there last, they were waiting on an outdoor liquor license, so we couldn’t sit on the roof with our beers, but it’s still a great place to eat outdoors.

Coppi’s Organic: Restaurant Review

Although I can appreciate the idea behind the organic food movement, I’ve never really been one to live or die according to whether or not the food I put in my mouth is organic. According to my personal food philosophy, the importance of taste trumps the importance of the ingredients themselves for any particular dish, although generally great taste comes from great ingredients. Nevertheless, if, for example, a non-free range turkey tastes better than a free range turkey, or if a conventionally grown apple tastes better than an organic apple, by all means I’m going to eat the conventional kind.

I also understand that organic food seems to be a little more expensive than the conventional kind. Whether you actually get more quality for the price, well ….

Take, for example, Coppi’s Organic Italian restaurant, which advertises itself (and the name implies) as a wholly organic restaurant. This is undoubtedly a bold and noble move. Frankly, however, what you pay for when you order a meal here is not for taste, but rather just the concept of organic food.

I started off my meal with a sald of endive, apple slices and gorgonzola cheese. I’ve had comporable salads elsewhere that have always been good, and the presentation wasn’t too bad, but the taste just wasn’t there. At all. In fact, there was absolutely no flavor. If you’ve ever watched Top Chef, you know that the lack of fundamental basics of cooking like the ability to season your food will get you kicked off the show early. This salad lacked basic seasoning, like salt and pepper. The endive itself was terrible and watery, and could have just been a pile of watery, unflavored cole slaw mix. The only good part about the salad were the apples and the gorgonzola, but I can get this kind of thing at the grociery store, without needing to cough up an exorbitant amount for the greatness that is organic.

My entree looked more promising: homemade gnocchi with chorizzo sausage and tomatos. Although the texture of the gnocchi was excellent–soft and fluffy without too much chewiness, and just the right amount of lightness–and the roma tomatoes were very sweet, the heat of the dish overwhelmed the taste of everything, and by the end I couldn’t even enjoy the pillowy gnocchi. This dish had just the opposite problem of the salad in that it was overly seasoned with red pepper flakes. I like a little heat in my dishes, but this was too far on the extreme and ruined the whole pasta.

Jay ordered a pizza with garlic and pancetta, red onion and rosemary, which came without sauce as he assumed and which he described as greasy cheese bread. The pancetta itself was tasty and the rosemary reminded me of a slow roasted pork dish I’ve made before, but the pizza as a whole was very unremarkable, and very greasy. The only good thing about this pizza is that the crust allowed me to cool off my mouth from my own entree.

I’m not even going to get started on the quality of service, considering our group was pretty large, but I never got the chance to order a second glass of wine, and we sat without our drinks for almost a full half hour after ordering them. And those mediocre entrees? They’re not cheap. Our tab for two people, including an appetizer and entree for each, no dessert, and only two glasses of wine total, was the same as the brunch at Cafe Atlantico the next day. I don’t know about you, but I thought this dinner was a compelte rip off. We paid solely for the name “organic” that comes listed by each ingredient name. We didn’t pay for exceptional taste or good service, and in fact the entree list is not that extensive. If you’re a slave to the organic god, then by all means feel free to try it out, but I’m never going back. I can cook better food on my own, thanks.

Brunch at Cafe Atlantico

Cafe Atlantico
405 8th St. NW
Washington, DC, 20004
(202) 393-0812


View from our table

I am writing this review almost immediately after having the chef tasting brunch at Cafe Atlantico. As I walked into the Georgetown Law library (where I am now located), I felt like I was walking in a cloud of foie gras and champagne. This is by far, hands down, the best brunch I’ve ever had, and Cafe Atlantico is definitely the number 1 restaurant I’ve visited in DC. (Note: if you look at the Wish List page, there are quite a few top restaurants that I haven’t yet tasted. Of the ones I have been to, however, this is number 1.) If you have a chance to experience the nuevo latino dum sum brunch at Cafe Atlantico, I highly recommend it. For what you pay, you’re definitely getting a steal: amazing food, great service, and with the chef’s tasting menu you get to re-taste any dishes that you liked. This re-tasting option proved very beneficial for the foie gras soup, which on the first time around we let sit for too long and get luke warm.

Listed below is the order of the tasting menu, a picture of each dish followed by the name and a short description. The title of each dish will be followed by a number that corresponds to the group in which the dish came out. For instance, all the goup 1s came out together, and so on. At the end I will have some general remarks on the meal as a whole.


Watermelon and tomato skewers (1)

The watermelong itself was sweet with a nice firm texture, and the tomato matched the texture of the watermelon almost perfectly. Very light on the whole.


Oyster with mango-lime oil (1)

Probably some of the best oysters I’ve ever had. The mango really highlighted the silky texture of the oyster. The only quib I have with this dish is that my oyster was a little too attached to the shell and I had a hard time eating it, but the combination of flavors was really delicate and elegant.


Mango-anchovy ravioli (1)

This was the first really exciting dish of the menu. The “pasta” of the raviolo was actually thinly shaved mango, filled with an anchovy foam over a base of mango puree. I was a little scared that my ravioli was going to pop by the time I got it into my mouth, but the combination of flavors was truly exquisite. The ravioli itself was like a little soft pillow that burst with the salty anchovy foam, which was counterbalanced with the sweet richness of the mango puree. Everything melded together so well, and this one was truly exceptional.


Tuna ceviche with coconut (1)

This tuna ceviche was cooked with jicama and topped with finely chopped corn nuts and a few pieces of diced red onion. I appreciated how the tuna still had a firm texture and was relatively mild. The corn nuts offered a nice crunch and alternative texture.


Potato & vanilla mousse with American caviar (2)

This was another breathtakingly exceptional dish. The potato mousse is plainly the best mashed potatos I’ve ever had, ever. The vanilla came from a vanilla oil that was poured on top of the mousse, and when it infused with the potato the flavor was subtle but definite. At times you would get a little punch of vanilla. The caviar was resting at the bottom of the glass like little black jewels and little hidden surprises. This ranks in one of my favorites for the meal.


Hot & cold foie gras and corn soup

The first time this dish came out, we already had enough on our table to occupy our time that it sat out for a little while, causing the hot and cold elements to blend together. It was still very good, but the dramatic contrast wasn’t there. When we ordered this again at the end of our meal, however, we really got to appreciate the hot and cold elements. The bottom was hot and rich, while the top was cold and airy. Both elements were very light, something that you normally do not experience with foie gras. The soup was topped with crunchy bits of corn. This dish was exceptional, and conveyed the richness and depth of flavor of foie gras with an entirely new texture. Another favorite.


Conch fritters with a liquid center (2)

This picture just doesn’t do this dish justice, and it’s unfortunate that I did not get a shot of the inside after I took my first bite. The outside of the fritter tastes exactly like a classic corndog outside, and brought flooding back lots of old memories of my childhood. The inside was truly amazing. The conch itself was cut up into smaller pieces that were floating in a rich, liquid, warm center.


Pineapple-unagi with avocado sauce (3)

In contrast with the conch fritters, this dish looked better than it tasted. Not that it was bad, it just didn’t rise to the same level of exceptional as the other dishes. Although the pineapple played well off the unagi and softened the saltiness of the eel, the eel itself was a little too fishy, and the avocado didn’t really come out like I would have liked. All in all, the flavors didn’t marry completely together, and the flow of the flavors just wasn’t there.


Grilled skirt steak “Carne Asada” (3)

Easily the best steak I’ve ever had, or at least tied with #1 with the 72 hour short ribs at Central. How can I completely describe this steak? I don’t think I have the words capable of doing so. The texture was phenomenal and melted in your mouth. The flavor was exceptional. Everything was juicy and cooked absolutely perfectly. If perfection were a steak, this might very well be it. A very high ranking favorite for the whole meal.


Cocount rice, crispy rice & ginger (3)

The texture of this rice was almost like rice pudding, but not too sweet. The ginger was subtle but suffused very well throughout the entire rice, adding just enough sweetness without taking it to the realm of dessert. The crunchy rice offered a nice flavor contrast, and paired nicely with the hot temperature of the coconut rice. A favorite. I wish I had a big tub of this waiting for me whenever I came home from law school.



Duck confit with passion fruit oil (4)

I’m posting two pictures of this because I want you to see the caramelization on the outside of the duck. This dish was absolutely fabulous. The skin of the duck had a great crunch with a sweet caramelization that was just to die for. The inside of the duck was luscious, moist, and almost buttery, and the meat just fell right off the bone. The cruncy caramalized skin blended perfectly with the moist softness of the duck meat, and this is yet another dish that I could eat over an over again. Huge favorite. I don’t remember much of the passion fruit oil, but the outside tasted like honey and vanilla. Exquisite.


Fried egg with mashed black beans & pork (4)

It’s hard to go wrong with refried beans. I don’t know if these can necessarily be characterized as refried beans, but they were very similar. The exceptional part of this dish was the fried egg itself. Someday, if I’m lucky enough, I will get lessons on cooking fried eggs from the chef here, because they are always perfect. The outside of the egg is crunchy but very thin, and the yolk bursts with bright color and flavor. Mixed all together, everything was very good. I completely missed out on the fact that there was pork in this dish. Maybe it was not included today?



Seated cigala with vanilla oil (4)

Like the unagi, this was another dip from the high level of exception that most of the dishes carried. Nevertheless, it was still very good. The cigala itself was cooked perfectly without being tough and rubbery, and the vanilla played well with the buttery-ness of the meat.


Pan dulce with cinnamon syrup (5, final)

This is what I take as Cafe Atlantico’s ode to french toast. It was sweet and soft with a nice crunch, but it left something to be desired. I guess I could have ordered a dessert or something after all of this, but I was looking forward to a little but more of a wow factor in the final dish. Regardless, it was still good, but not exceptional.

Overall, this was the most fun and imaginative brunch I have ever had. The service was great and our waiter was very attentive. The only problem I had with the service was that the woman refilling the water glasses completely got in my way while I was trying to eat the cigala, but other than that the service was smooth. We got to try so many different flavors and textures; some were real surprises and some were just perfection on classics. Not only did the dishes themselves have a great balance, but the flow of the menu and the balance of the dishes as a whole was exceptional. The last dish was anticlimactic, and only a few of the other dishes were not as exceptional as the rest, but these are the only “issues” I had. Jay asked me if I would rank this 4.5 or 5 stars, and I would have to say 4 3/4 stars.

If you are looking for an inventive and progressive meal that tasted great but does not stray too far from the classics, I highly recommend this brunch. I will definitely go back again, and again, and again ….

Westend Bistro: Restaurant Review

Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert
1190 22nd St., NW
Washington, DC, 20037
(202) 974-4900
http://www.westendbistrodc.com/

Once upon a time, back when I used to live in Little Rock, when you spent a lot of money on dinner, you were generally guaranteed a great meal along with it. Price and quality went hand in hand, and you could use the high price of a restaurant as a guarantee of fine dining. As that old, overused mantra goes, you get what you pay for.

DC is different. High prices can be a trap for the unwary. The more experience I get at the different restaurants in town, the more I realize that too-often a high priced meal does not deliver on the presumed level of high quality. All too often, either service will be lacking, the food will be average, or there will be a combination of the two. Maybe it’s to trap tourists who come in from places like Little Rock, expecting an expensive dinner to deliver a fine dining experience. Maybe it’s a way of filtering out the truly food savvy, requiring them to navigate a veritable culinary jungle in search of the ultimate good food, the real quality dining experiences. Maybe you’re really just paying for a name, a location, the atmosphere, or even the chef, but not the food.

Like too many bad first dates, the beginning always looks promising, but eventually you come to realize that this experience just isn’t going to live up to expectations.

I’m lucky enough to be in a group of friends with highly cultivated taste buds. We might be young, but dammit we know what’s good food and what’s not. We might all come from different backgrounds, but through some sort of similar food training, either through parents or whatever, we’ve all come to be able to discern quality from pretending.

When you’re riding a roller coaster, and it’s making that first steep climb before plumeting and rocketing around the track, your anticipation builds and builds, the excitement builds and builds, you’re prepping yourself for that first jolting drop. What if after all this expectation, it just reached the top and stopped? What if that was the end of the ride, and you had to get out?

I first heard about Westend Bistro when I was waiting for Income Tax Accounting class to start. My friends and I were all clustered at one end of the room, and someone started talking about it as an option for dinner out that night. We looked at the website. The chef was famous (there’s more than a few Top Chef fans in the group), the photographs of the food were impressive, the menu was interesting, it was located in the Ritz hotel, and the prices were high.

The interior of the restaurant is dimly lit with a warm, reddish-orange hue, with dark, deep wood accenting the chairs, booths and bar. Most patrons were dressed in black, and I felt lucky that I had decided to wear dark denim trousers and a navy top. You couldn’t help feeling like part of the trendy crowd in this neauvoux restaurant.

The wine list was decently varied with a wide range of prices, all the way up to 20 a glass for Cakebread chardonnay. There was also a special cocktail menu, but I didn’t have a chance to check it out.  Most everyone had either chosen their entree ahead of time online or had at least considered the options during class, so I was pleased to see a specials menu resting on top of the regular dinner menu. I ordered my entire meal off of the specials menu, partly because some items I simply had to try, and partly because the specials are generally the best dishes.

For my appetizer, I ordered the Farm Fresh Headcheese. I had heard of headcheese and knew it was made of less traditional ingredients (read: something your average American isn’t going to cook with), and therefore I had to try it. I texted Jay after ordering to ask him what was in it, and when he replied “brains,” that info shot down the table in multiple exclamations with various intonations. Two of my friends, Matt and Katy, ordered the headcheese without knowing it wasn’t cheese per se, and they weren’t exactly thrilled. A little later, Matt asked a waiter about it and clarified that it was pig face, rather than brains. I would have eaten it anyway (I’ve been wanting to try brains at a kabob shop in Virginia for a while now), but others were pleasantly relieved.

The headcheese itself rested on top of a great dill sauce and was topped with a tangy mustard sauce. I don’t remember what the fried extra was that accompanied the headcheese. All I know is that it was extremely hard (I think it led to the breaking of a filling) and not very flavorful. The headcheese itself was very good. The texture was firm but with just enough yield, and the flavor itself was not overly rich. After my first bite, I thought it tasted a lot like tuna fish, but I think the dill sauce gave rise to that opinion. The mustard sauce was peppered with mustard seeds and was both sweet and sour. The sauces married very well together, and I ended up eating everything. Except for the salad, which was plainly unremarkable and probably on the plate only to serve as a source of green color.

My entree, which was also on the special menu, was monkfish with chorizo sausage, fingerling potatoes and roasted vegetables, topped with a squid ink sauce. It’s at this point where the roller coaster stopped at the top and got off. Although it was quite dramatic when my waiter poured the squid ink sauce on top of my fish, that was the only worthwhile part of this dish. The monkfish itself had a nice texture but no flavor, the sausage was too salty and did not blend in and complement the rest of the dish, the potatoes and vegetables did little more than provide a base for the fish and were likewise without flavor, and the squid ink sauce did little more than add black color. I think the perfect description for the flavor of the entire dish is mediocre.

My friend Meredith ordered the skate and let me have a bite. Again, the texture was nice but the flavor just wasn’t there. Her skate came with a side of escarole that was evidently inedible, because Meredith barely touched it. She said the flavor was too strong, and it likely completely overpowered the lightness of the skate. The visual aesthetics of her dish weren’t very pleasing either: mostly brown and dark colors, without any pop of green. Where’s the obligatory salad to provide some extra color? Personally, I thought the escarole looked like a bunch of slugs pressed flat and stacked on top of each other.

My friend Matt ordered lamb paired with beans (no image). He said the lamb was good, but that the beans overpowered the delicate flavor of the lamb, and that the dish as a whole was not cohesive. Sounds familiar? This was the general impression of the restaurant as a whole. When we had all finished our entrees, everyone looked around the table, searching everyone else’s faces and silently asking, “Is that it?” We had expected so much, and we were delivered next to nothing.

Despite the massive let down brought by the entres, I decided to give dessert a try. I ordered yet another special, grilled figs with cinnamon mascarpone cream and topped with a candied walnut. As if the food itself knew it needed to redeem itself, this dessert really shined. The deep sweetness of the fig and the caramalized sugar from the grilling paired exquisitely with the creaminess and slight heat of the mascarpone and the salty crunchiness of the candied walnut. The fig halves themselves were small enough to get all of these flavors in a single bite, and the marriage of flavors in your mouth, with each highlighting and playing off the others, was truly magnificent.

Despite the fact that the appetizer and dessert were very good, the lackluster entres completely spoiled the meal. This is especially given the fact that nothing was cheap. Although I felt that the prices for the appetizers and desserts were justified, there really is no excuse for the entrees. Nothing lived up to expectations, and nothing rose above the level of average and mediocre. I know I’ve had better food in Little Rock and Charlottesville than this, and I’m pretty damn certain I can cook better than this myself. I guess when you’re connected to the Ritz hotel, you can justify just about anything. Maybe you can justify it to yourself, but you can’t pretend to your customers when you execute the main course so poorly.

Would I go back? Will I go back? Yes, but only for appetizers and desserts over a few glasses of wine. I considered coming back to get a steak, but I don’t think it would be worth it. This review kind of reminds me of Ceviche, which is good for a glass of wine and ceviche, but little else.

When I walked out of the restaurant, I grabbed a post card with a picture of some very good looking mussels on the front (incidentally, another appetizer, so yes, I would go back for these). On the back is a quote from Eric Ripert himself, which I can’t help but reproduce here: “Cooking is an art. Cooking is not about construction, it’s about flavor.”

Eric, please remember these words, and let’s try to fix the flavor of your entrees, or at least get your chef who cooks when you’re out of town to make them taste good.

Westend Bistro wrapup: two thin slices of awesome surrounding a huge slab of mediocre.

EDIT: In the interest of full disclosure, my friend Katie said her steak and green beans were very good. Maybe steak is the thing to order here.


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