Posts Tagged 'Penn Quarter'


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.


Rosa Mexicana: Revisited

After the last time I visited Rosa Mexicana, I was convinced that it would be the last time. No more. I can’t really put my finger on what was the nail in the coffin; maybe it was the poor service, maybe it was the realization that the flavors weren’t really all that exceptional, or maybe it was the discovery that Rosa is actually a chain. Whatever the reason, all of them combined just pushed me too far. Given the few drops of Irish blood in my veins, I can be pretty stubborn, and I was certain that this ban would be life-long.

My resolve first started to wear away on my birthday when, after an excellent dinner at PS 7’s, I was craving a margarita and headed to Rosa. I told myself I wasn’t cheating on my promise never to visit the place, considering I wasn’t actually eating anything and was just sitting in the bar having some drinks. I told myself I could still tell everyone I never ate there, and that they shouldn’t either.

Then, today, my resolve crumbled.

It wasn’t so much of a life-shaking, life-altering event. I was at work on a Saturday, checking up on some things after being absent for three full days, and Jay and I were having a little issue deciding where to eat. Most of the places we wanted to have lunch either (a) weren’t open or (b) were only serving brunch. Just as I was deciding to have a nice turkey sandwich at home, Jay suggested Rosa. Of course, I had my misgivings, I had sworn never to eat there again. But it was lunch, not dinner, and you don’t have to be as pretentious at lunch as you do dinner, right? I mean, I still had standards, this wouldn’t shatter them. Right?

Turns out, Rosa is much better than I remembered. Of course, the wait was much slower than normal (none at 1pm), the dining area as a whole was much less crowded, and the expectations were a lot lower. Nevertheless, we had a very gracious and attentive waiter. Drinks did not take very long, and he even made sure I would like the mole sauce surrounding my salmon by bringing me out a taste. When our food was taking a while to get to us, he assured us that it was just taking a while to get the fish ready. Just that extra little step, just those few words, made a huge difference. Our dishes were very good as well. My salmon could have used a little more salt (and a few more minutes on the grill), but the mole sauce was fruity, hearty, and spicy, and the portion size of the salmon was not too imense. Jay’s chicken sandwich (he ordered steak but was pleased with what he got) was absolutely delicious. The sweet potato fries were a little bland, but a pinch of pepper fixed them right up.

The meal was not perfect: the spicy guacamole, while filled with good bits of onions, tomatoes, and other things, was not really all that spicy and was actually a little bland. It needed something, like salt, and after a while I just got tired of it. My salmon was definitely undercooked, and although I personally don’t have a problem with this, I’m sure someone else would have sent it back. My salmon needed seasoning, Jay’s fries needed seasoning, the guacamole needed seasoning. And Jay didn’t get what he ordered. 

Nevertheless, this imperfect yet pretty decent lunch has changed my mind about Rosa. I couldn’t help think that the service was so much better, there must have been some sort of change or training overall. The food was decent, and definitely a good and filling lunch. All in all, I think I will be back, maybe even for dinner, but I will be sure to retain lower expectations than I used to so as not to be disappointed.

Proof Valentine’s Tasting Menu

Usually when ordering from a tasting menu or when given limited choices, I order according to my omnivore preference: when I’m choosing between meat and a dish without meat, the meat dish gets the vote, generally with only a cursory glance at the vegetarian dish. Usually, this ordering preference serves me well. With meat comes fat, and with fat comes flavor. Like Anthony Bourdain, I find a special, guilty pleasure in savoring fat and guts. Vegetarians and shy eaters really don’t know what their missing.

So when Jay and I sat down in Proof for Valentine’s Day, seated beside a wall of wine bottles in the darkly and romantically lit dining room, I was tempted to order from the main menu instead. Although Jay and I have visited Proof before, it has never been for dinner, only wine, and when I laid eyes on such favorites as seared fois gras and pork belly on the main menu, the tasting menu didn’t look as adventurous. Nevertheless, we had made reservations at Proof for the sole purpose of having the Valentine’s Tasting Menu and wine pairing, and Jay reassured me that we would return soon, so I closed the main menu with difficulty, secretly lusting for a perfectly seared goose liver.

The first few courses of the tasting menu dilineated between a vegetarian and fish choice. Salad with endive? No thanks, I think I’ll have seared scallops instead. Gnocchi with mushrooms? Thanks, but no thanks, I think I’ll go with the tilefish. Third course was easy, beef tenderloin over another fish. With every selection, the waitress assured me that I was making good choices, that they were excellent, and when Jay ordered the other choices (except for the beef), I felt assured that I would get the better dishes of the two of us. Sinking back into my chair, drinking my sparklign blanc de blanc, I smiled a secret smile that my meal would be better.

First course: seared scallops with chile sauce. The scallops were cooked perfectly, with a nice brown sear and good texture, but the rest of the dish was pretty watery, almost a bore, with the chile sauce adding more color than flavor. My wine pairing, furthermore, was the most subtle, nearly tasteless wine I think I’ve ever had. I was a little disappointed. And Jay’s dish of endive and bleu cheese, paired with a sweet reisling? Absolutely delishious. Furthermore, his wine pairing was more playful, with the reisling singing after a rich and creamy bite of the bleu cheese.

Second course: tilefish, over what looked to be some kind of vegetable stew. This, again, was a little disappointing, and I found myself adding salt an pepper to the dish after a few bites, something I don’t remember ever doing at a restaurant before. Jay’s dish of gnocchi again outmatched mine. The gnocchi was so pillowy and creamy, almost etherial, that I decided the cook had made a deal with the devil. The one good thing about my dish was the wine pairing, a pinot noir from the Russian River Valley that thankfully was not too sour like most pinots I’ve had recently.

Third dish I finally landed a good choice, with the first truely rare stead I’ve had in a long time. The sides of spinach and mashed potatoes were wonderful, and I was a little sad the the steak was as small as it was.

For dessert I chose a trio of sorbets, pineapple, coconut, and strawberry. I was a little apprehensive when the waitress told me about the tropical flavors, but each was exquisite, and the slightly bubbly wine pairing was an exceptional match to the sorbets. Jay got the cheese plate, again a trio, a blue cheese, manchego, and another creamy cheese, accompanied with dates, homemade apple sauce, and the best honey I have ever tasted. Jay and I each shared our desserts, and it was a lovely way to finish off the meal. We loved the cheese so much that we decided that the next time we come to proof, we will each get an appetizer and share a cheese and charcuterie plate. No watery or boring dishes.


Unfortunately this post comes without pictures. Such are the perils of going out to eat with a group of people, rather than just me and Jay. I’ll just try to be extra descriptive.

I decided to go to Zola for a celebration dinner after passing the bar exam. I actually made reservations before I found out about the results, which granted was a little presumptuous, but luckily for me (and Jay for not having to deal with me after bad results) the results were good and I was admitted to the Virginia State Bar. My friend Jonathan was in town, and my Georgetown friends Suzie and Katie also joined us.

Zola is a swanky and sexy bar and restaurant, with low lighting and red, black, and wood accents. Located in Penn Quarter next to the Spy Museum, it’s also in a good location if you’re looking to go to other places after dinner. The restaurant has a theater menu, in case you’re in a rush to catch a show, but given the fact that Jay and I never do anything entertaining except have really good meals, I didn’t scrutinize the theater options.

Jonathan, Jay and I got to Zola early, so we hung out in the bar for a little while. I decided to have champagne (the real stuff), given the fact that I was celebrating, and I was pleasantly surprised when I received a very tall and very big flute, full of deep and fruity bubbles. I also got a complement on my new dress the second I took my coat off, which for any girl is a present all in itself.

We were seated in what I will deem the group seating area, close to the “door” leading to the bathroom. The door itself is what Jonathan described as “a broken tooth waiting to happen”: wide with a bar in the middle which the whole door swung around, it kind of just spun around on itself; by pushing on the right side, the left side swung out. Not a very good description, and maybe it had to do with the proximity to the spy museum. When you’re not sober, it’s a little confusing.

Anyway, we were sequestered in the group dining area, next to a large party that took up a long table. Our waiter was quick to take our drink orders once we sat down, and was helpful in choosing items off the menu, but other than that he was pretty inattentive. I had to flag him down to order another glass of wine at one point, which he should have noticed given the fact that he was hovering so close to the other table. Oh wells.

The menu was pretty bold and adventurous, and after the champagne I was having a hard time actually reading all of the small-printed details listed under the names of each of the dishes. After deciding on a few options, our waiter recommended my ultimate choices. He was very emphatic about them, so I took him on his word.

To start out, I had the lobster cake, which was more like a lobster souffle. I forget what kind of jam accompanied it, but it was exquisite and a little spicy, which cut the buttery-ness of the lobster. For my main course I chose the veal cheeks, which were topped with some kind of ravioli–I’m thinking it was tomato. The cheeks were incredibly tender and needed no knife to cut them with. The ravioli filling was rich and creamy, but also sweet, and added a kind of sharp lightness to the greasy cheeks. For dessert, I had a new item on the menu, the caramel tart with banana ice cream, topped with a thin and buttery cookie that dissentigrated when I took a bite. Rich and velvety, the tart itself paired well with the ice cream. Although I liked the cookie that came on top of the dessert, I think it was just a touch too fragile.

All in all, it was a fun celebration meal, with good food, good wine, and good friends. Good service? Not so much, although I definitely want to return again with just me and Jay for a nice date night. The menu offers so many different and individual meals that it’s the kind of place that you want to go back to, if only to try everything they offer. The food was actually better than expected: I thought we would get more show and less flavor, and that the restuarant itself would be infected with a kind of touristy quality that always leads to lower quality (despite high prices, see West End Bistro), but the food was absolutely exceptional. Hopefully next time we will get a better waiter.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana: Restaurant Review

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
401 7th St. NW
Washington, DC, 20004
(202) 628-1005

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?

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

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.


July 2018
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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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