Archive for September, 2009

National Cheeseburger Day, and a trip to Tune Inn

Friday, September 18, 2009, is National Cheeseburger Day.

Although there are food holidays just about every day, this one has me pretty excited. Maybe it’s because I’m always looking for a good excuse to have a burger. Now that I live in DC, there are countless places to go to get one of these all time favorite pieces of grub, with burgers ranging from your basic flat patty to more elaborate offerings made with lobster, tuna, or even ostrich.

When celebrating this great day, however, I decided to stick with the original: ground beef with a slice of America, please. A small group of us from the office walked over to Tune Inn on Pennsylvania to take advantage of the holiday, and the burgers certainly did not dissapoint. Juicy and flavorful, parked between a fluffy bun, it was the type of burger you grew up eating. My only complaint is that the patty itself was a little thin–I definitely favor the big thick kinds that stay a little pink in the middle–and I was somewhat regretful that I did not order a double. Even so, this left room for some homestyle, like mom used to make fried okra and absolutely masterful fries. If you think you’re getting sick of fries, or the ones you have are always too greasy, you owe it to yourself to try these babies. Crisp even after waiting for nearly half an hour for the check, I don’t think I’ve ever had fries of this caliber.

If you’re looking for other good burgers in the DC area, a couple of local newspapers and magazines have “best of” lists. Here is a list of the best burgers from The Washington Post:

  • BGR: The Burger Joint (Bethesda, MD)
  • Big Buns Gourmet Grill (Arlington, VA)
  • Central Michel Richard (Washington, DC)
  • Elevation Burger (Falls Church, VA)
  • Good Stuff Eatery (Washington, DC)
  • Palena (Washington, DC)
  • Ray’s Hell-Burger (Arlington, VA)

And here’s another compilation from the Washingtonian:

  • Harry’s Tap Room (Clarendon, VA)
  • The Prime Rib (Washington, DC)
  • Black’s Bar and Kitchen (Bethesda, MD)
  • Billy Martin’s Tavern (Washington, DC)
  • Morton’s (Washington, DC)
  • Brasserie Les Halles (Washington, DC)
  • Fuddruckers (Washington, DC)
  • Chapwicks (Washington, DC)
  • Union Street Public House (Alexandria, VA)
  • Silver Diner (Clarendon, VA)
  • Capital Grille (Washington, DC)
  • Sign of the Wale (Washington, DC)
  • Quarry House Tavern (Silver Spring, MD)
  • Whitlow’s on Wilson (Clarendon, VA)
  • Boulevard Woodgrill (Clarendon, VA)
  • Clyde’s of Georgetown (Washington, DC)
  • Tastee Diner (Bethesda, MD)
  • Tune Inn (Washington, DC)
  • Majestic Cafe (Alexandria, VA)
  • J. Paul’s (Washington, DC)

Note that these lists were made prior to the opening of The Counter

Others in DC I would recommend: Z Burger, Five Guys, Cheff Geoffs, Bourbon Glover Park. And how could I forget Cafe Atlantico, home of the cuban burger pictured above.

Charlottesville, VA: I think The Virginian has the best burgers in town. Thick and so juicy that you’ll find yourself whiping juice off of your arms, cooked to order with multiple types of cheese and topings. According to a fellow UVA grad and chef, however, the best burgers can be found at Riverside or Mel’s Cafe (both of which I have not been to, but want to try now!). The fries are pretty ballin’ at The Virginian too, and there’s a decent beer list.  Michael’s Bistro has some amazing bison burgers.

Little Rock, AR: Sometimes you just can’t beat the burger from the Purple Cow (get an adult milkshake while you are there!).


Vidalia Restaurant Week

1990 M Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 659 – 1990

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Generally when I visit Restaurant Week locations I find that I’m more interested in ordering off the restaurant’s regular menu rather than the RW menu (unless, of course, the regular menu is completely out of the picture and restricted). Often times the RW is too paired down and not very exciting, and I can’t help but feel like a kid who’s wandered from the wrong side of the tracks and is trying to play where I don’t belong. Times are tough, and it’s hard to be reminded of how I can’t order whatever I want whenever I want.

Not so at Vidalia. Recommended by the Washingtonian’s dining editor Todd Kliman as one of the top tier restaurants to visit during RW, Jay and I headed to Vidalia late on Friday night.

Walking in from the street, it’s hard to know what to expect. The only thing announcing the presence of the restaurant is a yellow awning with the name subtly printed on the side. A few steps inside and you find yourself walking down a flight of stairs, surrounded by magnolia flowers behind glass walls. Upon reaching the bottom, you are greated with a comfy-looking lounge and sitting area, as well as the host. The room was dimly lit and sparsely decorated, mostly white walls and pale wood, but still manages to be inviting and unpretentious.

Even though our reservation wasn’t until 10:15 pm, the restaurant was still crowded with diners taking advantage of the RW offerings. Sandwiched at a little table between multiple other couples, we dove into our menu options.

Vidalia’s RW menu is a little unique in that it offers diners the option of choosing 3 items from an essentially 5 course meal for the regular restaurant week price or choosing a 5 course tasting menu for a little extra. Given the option, I want to eat as much food as possible, so Jay and I decided to take the 5 course route. A quick glance at the menu reveals only a few extra surcharges for certain dishes (+ $5 for my lobster, + $10 for handcut steaks) and a wide variety of enticing and intricate dishes. The menu also offered RW wine prices, making bottles more reasonable, and specialty cocktails (one of which I ordered, and which I almost couldn’t finish because it was so strong).

Our waitress was very attentive, always commenting that we made a very good or excellent choice, and really took care of us for what otherwise would have been a very expensive meal. Like any tasting menu there are high and low points, but the general impression for the meal is a resounding high. I’ll be sure to visit Vidalia again when I can bankroll a non-RW meal (any family want to visit soon?), and I would definitely recommend it to anyone considering dining there. (Note: Vidalia is offering a reduced price and reasonable pre-fix lunch menu).

General menu note: I’m getting really tired of the “Southern” restaurant movement. Yes, I’m proud of my southern heritage, but too often a chef or restauranteur will think that frying everything makes the menu southern, or that having a few generic southern-esche dishes is enough to claim notoriety. When Jay first offered to bring us to Vidalia for restaurant week, I was a little apprehensive that the whole ideology of trying to be southern would dominate the dishes, but it’s thankfully different. Vidalia offers up a wide array of dishes that are complimented or enhanced by southern touches, rather than bending to the party line and sacrificing quality for an idea.

First Course:

Red waddle pork jowl rillettes
with pickled okra, radishes, creole mustard, country breadfall09 086

This was a great first dish, cold terrine with accompaniments. One of my favorite parts was actually the mustard, which was spicy and flavorful without being so generic. The pork jowl was deeply flavorful and the pickled okra added a nice touch of the south to an otherwise French-like dish.

Vidalia’s rabbit mortadella
Red mustard greens, sliced pecans, rabbit bacon, truffle-honey vinaigrette

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“It tastes like Thanksgiving turkey” was the first thing out of my mouth after I tasted Jay’s first course. Richly seasoned, this dish was almost like rabbit deli meat, something that you would put on a sandwich, and it tasted strangely familiar. Why it reminds me of Thanksgiving turkey, I’ll never know, but the familiarity of the dish was very nice and comforting.

Second course:

Grilled octopus
Avacado, red rubin, heirloom cherry tomatoes, smoked chili vinaigrette

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I’ve had a lot of grilled octopus in the past year, most of it baby, and this falls among the very best. Very light without being chewy, a light flavor of smoke clinging to the charred tendrils, this dish was easily one of my favorites.

Heritage pig tail croquette
Red wine apple butter, pickled pheasant egg, kale

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Third course:


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Unfortunately I do not have a detailed account of this dish or its ingredients because it was an offering not included on the website’s RW menu (although from the picture, it looks like there was some pork bell, which is probably the deciding factor in what made me order this particular dish). This was also one of the highlights of my meal, rich and deep without being overwhelming.

Shrimp and Grits
Yellow corn grits, Vidalia’s shrimp chorizo, heirloom onions

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Fourth course:

Shenandoah lamb shoulder
Heirloom eggplant caviar, pot belly farm fig mostarda, smoked garlic

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If I mentioned low points about the meal, this was it. Although the lamb was cooked well and very moist, the presentation only highlighted how little we were actually served. Maybe it was the whole “less is more” approach, but I couldn’t help that I was being cheated out of something. It also looked like the different parts of the dish were just slapped on the plate with little thought, and the lack of color similarly dampened the experience. I wanted to order the locally raised hand cut steaks for this meal, but those came with an extra charge and I had already slapped more money onto the meal with the lobster. Nevertheless, looking back, I think it would have been worth it to spring for the steaks.

Fifth course, dessert:

Vidalia’s lemon chess square
Lemon custard, berry compote, sweet cream

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If you’ve read any of my restaurant post before, or maybe if you’ve dined in the Washington metro area long enough, you’ll know that too-often the dessert menu at a restaurant is the most disappointing. Even some of the most imaginative restaurants will dismiss the dessert menu as something not worth spending time or effort on, filling it with mass-appealing versions of things you’ve already had countless times. This can put a real damper on an otherwise sumptuous meal, one that you’ve thoroughly enjoyed and are about to drop a good deal of money for. Even if I’ve really enjoyed the meal, I’m less likely to come back if the dessert leaves me looking for more.

Again, Vidalia proves to be the exception to the rule here. Not only was this dessert phenomenal, it’s one of the best I’ve had in the area in a long, long time. The lemon custard was SO lemony and so clean, with that nice tang in the back of your mouth. It paired very nicely with the sweet cream and berry compote, which offered a nice contrast to the lemony sourness, and reminded me of the desserts I used to enjoy in the good-ole day of being a child.

Peanut butter crunch bar
Caramelized banana compote, sea salt caramel

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Generally chocolate and peanut butter is not a pairing that I’m a fan of. I love both of them individually, but when they’re combined something is lost and the sum is less than each part. Not so with this dish, which managed to maintain the integrity of both the chocolate and the peanut butter in an almost-heavenly combination. Even though salted caramel seems pretty commonplace nowadays, this was masterfully balanced and not too salty. My favorite part, however, was the crunch of the dessert, almost like a rice crispy treat, a fancy one that still manages to have some fun.


701 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 393-3983

Do you ever find yourself in that restaurant limbo where you want to have a nice dinner but not go over the top? Where you would like to put on a pair of nice jeans or maybe a simple dress, but not have to get super done up or brace yourself for throngs of people? You know, that hard to find middle ground between, oh, say Surfside and Central.

This is a quandary I find myself in more likely than not, and it really gets frustrating when I’m hungry and trying to decide where to eat. Sometimes I don’t want a lot of fuss, but I still want a good meal that’s fun and engaging without being generic. If you’ve ever been in this position, you know how hard it can be.

Lucky for me, Ceiba seems to fit into that narrow and hard to find middle. Walking past the bar to our table, I passed glitzy and fashionable young professionals enjoying happy hour specials at a red-lit and trendy bar, sampling a variety of specialty cocktails. Once seated in one of the many dining rooms, I cozied up at a booth close to a window looking out onto Penn Quarter, another couple only arm’s length away (even though other tables were available … but we won’t go there), and I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a very nice house, or maybe at a dining room on a vacation in the Carribean. Dimly lit with lush accents, the room was cozy and inviting but still reminded me that I was in the heart of DC, without being too over the top.

The menu offers a solid selection of food, small plates on the left hand side and entrees on the right. Jay and I actually decided to come here because one of my coworkers recommended it based on the conch fritters alone. “My family is from Cuba, and these are the best conch fritters I’ve ever had.” With conviction like that, we had to try it. I was also drawn to a menu that offered interesting choices that were still reminiscent of home cooking, good yet not over-worked.

Jay and I started out with the ceviche sampler, a choice I highly recommend. Rather than limiting yourself to one ceviche (which honestly I think would be rather strong in flavor), you get a sample of all four. We worked ourself up from the lightest, an acidic and light white fish, up to the bass, which was heavy, spicy, and very flavorful, with a spectrum of spice and heaviness in between. It was very delightful, and a plus if you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with only one flavor or spice level. I honestly don’t think I could have eaten all of the bass if that was the only ceviche we ordered.

Next up, conch fritters. The last conch fritters I had were at Café Atlantico, whose version is molten in the middle with pieces of conch floating around, so this traditional version at Ceiba was a little different and hard to really guage off of the CA version. Nevertheless, they were very good, warm and thick, with a sauce that must be made with crack. I don’t remember exactly what was in the sauce, but it reminded me of queso fresco. Although I might not order the fritters again, I was glad to try them.

My entrée was the whole crispy red snapper, brought out in a ceramic dish. Although the whole fish itself was impressive, the presentation as a whole was a little sloppy, as if the kitchen was tired and bored of shelling this dish out. Even so, the fish was perfectly cooked and seasoned, just a little crispy on the outside, and the pickled jalepenoes added a great kick of heat. Jay ordered the slow braised pork, which came accompanied with black beans, collard greens, rice, and plantains, and was absolutely delicious.

One great thing about this restaurant is that the dessert menu is not forgotten, a common malady for DC restaurants. Other than Vidalia, I don’t remember the last time I had to decide between two dessert options that I wanted, rather than trying to decide which would be the best out of two generic options. I went for the warm key lime bread pudding, Jay chose the warm sugar canella dusted churros. Both of them were phenomenal, and I honestly don’t have words because I was just so happy that I finally had a good dessert.

As for the alcohol, I ordered a “specialty” pomegranate margarita that frankly wasn’t that special, but the pisco sour that I ordered after it was pretty decent. We shared a bottle of wine that was reasonably priced and pretty tasty, so that made up for the mediocre marg.

Ceiba is a good, friendly place where you can find something to suit just about every level of taste, whether you want something adventurous like whole fish or something more basic like pork or chicken. The service is also attentive and refined, although it took a few minutes for them to notice we were there, but we had a great time and never found ourselves staring at empty or finished plates for too long, and our drinks were generally refilled quickly. It’s one of those comforting places to go when you want a good meal, but not a lot of fuss.


September 2009
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All posts and images copyright 2008 & 2009 Jenny Robertson, unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved. Any use of images without prior written consent is prohibited.
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