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Chicago, IL





Cafe Spiaggia (www.cafespiaggia.com)




 

May 7, 2010: Our first stop in the windy city was Cafe Spiaggia, an Italian restaurant located at 980 North Michigan Avenue. Cafe Spiaggia is a more casual version of their upper scale restaurant next door, Spiaggia - the only 4 star Italian restaurant in Chicago and where in 2008, the Obamas spent their anniversary.  Tony Mantuano, the executive chef at Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia, is a contestant on Season's 2 Top Chef Masters that premiered in April 2010.   

All planes from DC to Chicago were delayed so Amy and I were late for our 8:45 pm reservation. Maria, another friend of ours, had flown to Chicago earlier in the day and arrived at the restaurant early.  She let the hostess know we were going to be late and the restaurant staff was very accommodating with pushing our reservation back until we arrived. We literally came from the airport to the restaurant with no time beforehand to freshen up at the hotel. The Cafe's website says casual dress is permitted; however, I felt slightly underdressed in jeans.   
 
First, I must say the service was truly incredible. Rick, our waiter (see picture below), attended to our every need.  He picked up very quickly on the fact that we were knowledgeable about food and wine. He is a full time law student and normally only works Saturdays, but had picked up an extra Friday shift.  This worked out perfectly for us and we were lucky to have had him as our server. Rick gave us great wine and food recommendations.  He was also very kind to give us many other restaurant suggestions to try during our stay in Chicago.
 
 




 
We decided to do a tapas style event and order several things on the menu to share between the three of us.  We started with the crudo, an Ahi tuna tartar with olives, capers, and rice beans.  The tuna was very fresh; the olives and capers added a depth of flavor to the dish; and the rice beans were a very interesting addition. We felt this dish was very good but could have been slightly more flavorful - Amy suggested that a dash of lemon juice might brighten up the flavor a bit.
 
 
The sarde, the house cured sardines on crostini with salsa verde and shaved fennel, was one of our favorites of the evening.  I almost wish I had ordered my own because after I tasted it, I didn't want to share.  The sarde had the perfect mixture of salt and olive oil and the salsa verde was a perfect touch to the dish.  Sardines, by the way, are the best source of coenzyme Q10.
 
 
Next up was the primi piatti - the pasta.  We ordered two pastas, the perciatelle and the handcrafted gnocchi.  The perciatelle, a thin hollow pasta with La Quercia guanciale, onions, garlic, basil, and Calabrian peppers, was "OMG" awesome.  The pasta was cooked perfectly "al dente." The Calabrian peppers, a spicy little red pepper, added a perfect "kick" to the dish.
 
 
Rick convinced us to order the hand crafted potato gnocchi with wild boar ragu and Parmigiana Reggiano.  He said they were the most tender potato gnocchi he's ever had.  The gnocchi were very good and tender; however, they were not the most tender gnocchi Amy and I have ever had. Rick obviously has never been to Palena in Washington, DC which has the most tender, melt-in-your mouth gnocchi.
 
 
For our secondi, We ordered the Trota (another one of Rick's recommendations) - wood roasted golden trout with artichoke hearts, carmelized shallots, and new potatoes.  The dish was supposed to come with Tuscan beans but Amy requested that they leave them out. The chef was happy to accommodate her request. The trout was very good; however, it was difficult to eat one bite which encompassed all the elements of the dish. The dish was very beautifully presented.  The picture below doesn't do the dish's beauty justice. 
 
 
 
The service was truly phenomenal. My only criticism is that the two pastas (i primi piatti) and the trota (il secondo) were brought to our table at the same time. I would have preferred that the trota be served after the pasta.
 
For dessert we ordered the bomboloni - Italian style doughnuts with grappa di Moscato zabaglione.  The bomboloni were very delicious; however, the chocolate sauce was slightly overpowering for the sugar-coated doughnuts. 
 
 
Compliments of the restaurant, Rick brought us a trio of gelati and sorbetti - red raspberry and pistachio gelati and the pineapple basil sorbet.  The gelato and sorbet were out of this world delicious.  The pineapple basil sorbet was the overall favorite of the table. Maria thought it tasted like a spa.
 
 
Finally, for the wine we had the Paolo Scavino Rosso Vino da Tavola. This wine was a deep, ruby-red color with hints of currant, cherry, mocha, pepper, and smoke.  It had good acidity, easy on the tannins and a long finish.  We also had the 2007 Barberi d'Asti Tre Vigne. This wine had red cherry fruit up front, good acidity, with smooth tannins.
 
  
 
Final Note: Cafe Spiaggia is a definite must if you are ever in Chicago.  I hope to one day try the more upscale restaurant, Spiaggia.
 
 



 
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Gino's East versus Giordano's Pizza





 
Gino's East (www.ginoseast.com)
 
May 9, 2010:  The big question on all of our minds was who makes the best deep dish Chicago-style pizza.  Every chance we got, we asked native Chicagoans this question.  We narrowed it down to our "final four" - Pizzeria Uno, Gino's East, Lou Malnatis, and Giordano's. After much discussion, we crossed Lou Malnatis and Pizzeria Uno off the list. For some reason (and I can't really remember why) we agreed that we didn't want to try Lou Malnatis even though it had been featured on the Food Network and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.  Since Pizzeria Unos are all over DC and we had eaten there before, that one was out - which left us with Gino's East or Giordano's.  
 
Although Gino's East won the popular vote when polling all the cab drivers we encountered in Chicago, Giordano's won the electoral vote among the hotel staff. If you believe Wikipedia, the original Gino's East opened in 1966, by two taxi drivers, Sam Levine and Fred Bartoli, and a friend, George Laverde - so our polling participants' opinions may have been slightly skewed and not as random a population as we would have liked.  Amy made the decision since her stay in Chicago was shorter than Maria's and my stay - after all we had the whole week to try Giordano's.  She decided to go with the popular vote and chose Gino's East. 
 
We went early for lunch to beat the Mother's Day's crowds and decided to try the original Gino's East on 633 North Wells Street.  In the restaurant, the graffiti-filled walls were certainly a sight to see and of course, we couldn't leave without leaving our own etchings on the wall.
 




 
Now to the food - we first ordered the family size tossed salad which was very unremarkable.  It reminded me of the salads you get at Olive Garden (and yes I've eaten at Olive Garden!).  The only positive thing I can say about this salad is that it fulfilled one serving in the vegetable group.
 
 
 
For the pizza, we ordered one of their medium specialty pizzas -half with crumbled sausage and  half with onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and pepperoni - to share between the three of us. The pizzas are cooked to order and we waited approximately 30 to 40 minutes for our pizza. It was well worth the wait.  The pizza had an interesting cornmeal crust and came with layers of cheese, toppings and sauce, which was very tasty. Crushed red pepper at the table adds a nice spice to the sauce - so don't forget to sprinkle some on your piece. 
 
 
The pizza is so good that you can't eat just one piece.  A word of warning, resist that urge - the pizza is extremely heavy and two pieces can easily push you over the edge.  We each had two pieces and none of us wanted to eat the rest of the day -but of course we did eat later that day (see the Purple Pig and Mercat a la Planxa). After all, we were in Chicago.
 
 
Giordano's Pizza (www.giordanos.com)
 
May 11, 2010:  Maria and I decided to check out Giordano's Pizzeria one evening after a long day of work meetings (we didn't just come to Chicago to eat). We were lucky to have a Giordano's one block from our hotel.  We ordered exactly the same thing at Giordano's as we ordered at Gino's East. We were determined to resolve the debate over whose pizza is better.  
 
As you can see in the picture below, Giordano's pizza looked like Gino's East's identical twin. But we all know even identical twins are not the same.  Giordano's pizza lacked the personality in the flavor of Gino's East pizza. The pizza toppings were just as heavy but the sauce was not tasty and actually quite bland. The crust was a typical pizza dough and lacked the distinctive cornmeal flavor of Gino's crust.  
 
 
Once again, and trust me on this - resist the urge to have two pieces. I, once again, had two pieces and regretted it later that evening.
 
 
It was unanimous, Maria and I agreed that Gino's East wins the pizza debate.




Hot Doug's




 
 
May 8, 2010 - "There are no two finer words in the English language than encased meats, my friends."  This is the saying you'll see as you enter Hot Doug's, Chicago's encased meats emporium and sausage superstore, located on 3324 N. California Ave in the Avondale neighborhood.  
 
 
We were told that we absolutely could not leave Chicago without going to Hot Doug's. We decided to make this our first stop of the day.  It was a little out of the way from our downtown hotel so we took a taxi to get there (approximately a $15 taxi ride). Hot Doug's opens at 10:30 am. We arrived at 10:00 am hoping to beat the crowds but the line was already 40 people deep.  
 
 
It took us approximately one hour to get inside the door of the store/restaurant.  Inside we placed our order with the owner, Doug Sohn, who typically works the counter. It was clear to all of us that Doug loves his job and is good with people. Despite the long lines and wait, the crowd and  general restaurant atmosphere was very friendly, and so was Doug! I even met a fellow WVU Mountaineer fan while standing in line (an 80 year old woman, living in Morgantown, who was visiting her daughter for Mother's Day). The hour long wait -which went by very fast- was definitely well worth the food experience.
 



 
 
Hot Doug's features a very unique and diverse menu of hot dogs.  The menu changes daily and includes the traditional style Chicago dog to foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel, to "Frankie, Five Angels, Pentangelli," one of my favorites of the day.
 
    
 
Our first decision was which dogs to order and our second was how we wanted them cooked. We decided to order 4 dogs to share between the three of us and chose the grilled then fried cooking method.  We ordered the traditional Chicago-style dog, topped with the usual pickles, mustard, tomatoes, sport peppers, and celery salt. I actually didn't taste this one but Amy and Maria both agreed that this was one of their favorites of the four dogs we ordered that morning.
 
 
Next, we ordered the Smoked Portuguese Linguica with Saffron Rouille and Queso Iberico. This was the overall favorite of the day.  This one was very juicy, firm, and had a nice crunch from the casing that typically comes with grilled dogs.  The saffron rouille and Iberico cheese were the perfect accompaniments.
 
 
The dog below is the "Frankie, Five Angels, Pentangelli. The Italian sausage was spicy and very good but it wasn't as good as my father's.  My father's is slightly more spicy and less fatty than Hot Doug's.  Also, if I would have had my choice I would have put less toppings on it so as not to mask the flavors of the Italian sausage.  My final thought about this dog - I'm a huge Godfathe 1 fan and I think they should have kept its name as the "Luca Brasi" or "Virgil, the Turk" Sollozzo.  
 
 
 
We could not leave without trying the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel.  While standing in line, we learned that the city of Chicago banned foie gras in 2006 because its making constituted cruelty to animals (the ducks are fattened by force feeding). During the ban, Hot Doug's continued to serve the foie gras and was eventually fined. The ban was repealed and the foie gras dog was brought back into the rotating menu lineup.  The foie gras dog was awesome. The foie gras itself had very distinct smooth flavors and a creamy texture.
 
 
Finally, we ordered the restaurant's specialty french fries, which are cooked in duck fat. These shoestring fries were crunchy and good. Since I like my fries thick, I didn't think these fries were as good as the thick duck fat-fried fries served at the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, DC.
 
 
 
Final thought - You can not visit Chicago without going to Hot Doug's. It is well worth the trip and an experience you won't soon forget.



 

MK The Restaurant

   





May 8, 2010 - I have to admit, I was beginning to feel a bit like a power player. For the second night in a row, the Executive Chef joined us at our table to say hello. We figure it's Cheryl’s unabashed promotion of her website (cucina.grandinetti.org) which is facilitating the visits-but it could also be the universally friendly service we have received since touching down in the Windy City.
 
While the table side stop from MK's Executive Chef, Erick Williams, was a real treat, it was the food his kitchen served which really made the evening.
 
 
I had made our reservations at MK with a bit of hand-wringing -Chicago has many great restaurants and I really wanted to choose something special. I had narrowed the decision down to MK and North Pond, a former warming shack on the lake at Lincoln Park, after my visit to www.epicurious.com to read their Chicago restaurant reviews and my quick glance at the two menus. The opportunity to choose from an a la carte menu (and the pommes frites with truffle cream!) led me to pick MK. We were not disappointed. 
 
The meal opened with a small tasting of cured wild salmon paired with golden raisins, chopped pistachios, mini-frisee, and a light dressing of pistachio oil, lemon, and sea salt. This three bite amuse bouche set the tone for the entire evening of beautifully prepared food and timely service. 
 




 
With any new restaurant I really want to try as many dishes as possible. Luckily, Cheryl and Maria agree with this philosophy so we decided to have a round of shared appetizers, followed by a salad course, and then our entrees. We started with pan seared potato gnocchi, prawns, and the fries I mentioned earlier. 
 
The potato gnocchi were pan seared creating a slightly chewy texture, which paired nicely with the artichoke slivers.  The dish was topped with a fried egg -the broken yolk combined nicely with parmigiano reggiano cheese to sauce the gnocchi.  Egg-topped dishes appear to be "all the rage" in Chicago as almost every menu featured an item topped with a fried egg.  
 
 
The prawns were delicious, big, and sweet with a nice crunch on the outside.  We also enjoyed the spring pea and pea shoot salad which lined the plate although I noticed it was hard to eat a bite with all of the components together. We devoured the shrimp first and then slowly ate the pea salad.  
 
 
Our last starter was the aforementioned pommes frites with truffle cream.  I have a particular weakness for truffles, and the cream sauce had a strong truffle flavor.  The fries were good but it was the sauce that made the dish.  
 
 
We then transitioned with a salad and soup course.  Maria and I each had a simple arugula salad with fennel, pine nuts, and lemony vinaigrette.  The salad was topped with a wedge of Humboldt Fog goat cheese.  
 
 
Cheryl had the lobster and pea soup which our waiter took care to note was served at room temperature.  It was a bright vibrant green color and the flavor matched.  
 
 
For entrees, we took cues from the wait staff and I think we chose well.  Cheryl had a lovely rabbit duo - a leg and loin from Michigan’s Swan Creek Farm.  It was paired with a parley root galette, which resembled a really fancy potato pancake.  Fava beans and roasted carrots completed the flavor profile.    
 
 
 
As a Midwesterner, I tend to lean to meat dishes as a normal course and was not steered wrong with the veal t-bone.  The meat was juicy with a nice crust—a real solid entrée.  It was served with broccolini and peppercorn pan sauce.  My only quibble with the dish, the plating was very simple compared with my companion’s plates.  
 
 
Maria had the tuna with mashed potatoes, shitake mushrooms and a red wine sauce.  I was really impressed with how well the pairings went with the tuna because I don’t believe I have ever had fish paired with mashed potatoes.  For all of the entrees we chose to have the meats cooked to the chef's recommended temperature.  A slight miss - the tuna was not as rare as Maria had hoped (or as rare as the tuna that was delivered to tables nearby).  
 
 
As you can imagine, we weren’t very hungry for dessert after so many great courses.  I don't have a huge sweet tooth and I always suggest sharing dessert because it's my least favorite part of the meal, however, at MK, the pastry chef has assembled a beautiful list of desserts.  The list read more like an appetizer menu with great care taken to really create cohesive innovative dishes rather than just tossing a piece of cake on a plate.  
 
Cheryl’s ice cream and cookie plate was really amazing—dulce de leche, caramelized honey, and carrot cake ice cream flavors and a variety of small cookies. Cheryl really liked the bite sized peanut butter cookie!
 
I had the brioche sugar donuts with chocolate accompaniments and dulce de leche ice cream.  
 
 
Maria’s rhubarb plate complete with a rhubarb tart, anise-flavored sabayon cream, and a rhubarb soda was the most inventive and beautiful.
 
 
 
With regard to the wine, we thought the glasses used to serve wine by the glass were disappointing--many establishments provide inferior glasses when a bottle is not ordered. However, our wait staff was very happy to accommodate our request for better glassware when we ordered our second glasses of wine.  I also thought given the quality, creativity, and care that went into the food, the restaurant could have offered a more robust wine by the glass list.  Many diners are opting to try different styles of wine throughout their meal rather than ordering an entire bottle. Unfortunately, many restaurants have not upgraded their menus to account for this.  
 
Our meal ended with one last treat - with our bill, the staff presented a small plate of shortbread cookies, strawberry gelees and cocoa nib brittle. 
 
 
 




Mercat a la Planxa





May 9, 2010 -  It was our last day for the three of us to experience Chicago restaurants together - Amy was flying back to DC on the 6:30 am flight the next day. We decided to do a "quasi" progressive dinner - two restaurants in one evening to complete our dining experience. Mercat a la Planxa was our second stop for the evening (our first stop - The Purple Pig). We thought we would end our Chicago food adventure trip with a true Catalan tapas experience.   
 
Amy and Maria chose this restaurant. Amy had eaten in one of Jose Garces' six restaurants in Philadelphia, and Maria was impressed that he won "the Next Iron Chef" 2010 competition. I must be honest, I actually had never heard of him but it didn't take much arm twisting for me. We were off to try Jose's only restaurant in Chicago, Mercat a la Planxa. By the way, "mercat" means market in Catalan and "planxa" refers to tapas prepared on an iron griddle from the Catalan region of Spain.
 
Upon entering the restaurant, we were escorted up a spiral staircase into a very open, sunken, dining room.  The dining area was dark, the music was pulsating, and the restaurant had an interesting night club-like feel. I was impressed with the scene and I wanted to start dancing immediately.  I loved its design and open kitchen - I had a perfect view of the kitchen. 
 




 
Since we arrived in Chicago, I can say that the service had been exceptional. This was true until we arrived at Mercat a la Planxa. I'm not sure what issues the wait staff was having that evening but our waiter didn't have the same enthusiasm as the other wait staff we encountered during our Chicago stay. 
 
Compliments of the restaurant, the waiter brought us the house made tomato bread. The bread was grilled and topped with a chunky tomato, garlic, basil sauce. The tomato bread was one of my favorites at this restaurant; however, Amy and Maria like Jaleo's (in DC) more simple version of tomato bread better.
 
 
We then had the difficult task of choosing what we wanted next. We had already eaten several little dishes at our first stop, the Purple Pig, so Maria suggested a light fare. We decided to try the diver scallops a la planxa. The scallops were tender and truly grilled to perfection. It was another favorite of the evening.
 
 
Next up, we shared the patatas bravas. Jose Garces gets a 10 out of 10 for innovativeness and creativity.  These weren't your normal deep fried potatoes with aioli - Jose's Garces created a patatas bravas that consisted of deep fried mash potatoes with a spicy paprika aioli. Although I like the tangy aioli and sweet spicy tomato sauce that accompanies Jaleo's (in DC) patatas bravas better, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Jose Garces' version.
 
 
We decided to order the Muscovy (from Mexico and Central and South America) duck breast with duck confit and yes, a foie gras crepe. In addition to the "fried egg" rage, foie gras was another menu rage in Chicago. The duck breast was very delicious, tender, and melted in your mouth.
 
 
Finally, we ordered the Catalan-style charred green onions. These were very tasty; however, they were extremely chewy and I felt like I was going to choke on them. I ate a couple and then had to stop for fear I might not live through the meal.  The green onions were served with an almond sauce that we all agreed was very tasty and the best part of the dish.
 
 
Final note: I wasn't "wowed" by this restaurant. Perhaps this was because we weren't all that hungry when we sat down to order or we just didn't make great choices.  Despite this, I would try this restaurant again. Next time; however, it will be my first stop of the evening.  I absolutely loved the restaurant's nightclub and festive atmosphere.




The Bristol





 
May 13, 2010 - It was our last night in Chicago and some folks from our EIG group, Solly, who was our EIG coach, and his son and daughter, who live in Chicago, decided to have dinner together at the Bristol, located at 2152 North Damen Avenue.  Solly's son, Elliott, recommended the restaurant.  Based on a few conversations with Elliott, it was clear to me that Elliott is as much a foodie as me or more. He knew exactly where to take us for our final meal. 
 
Keeping with our "pig" theme  - while in Chicago, we seem to have ordered and eaten every part of the pig - we ordered the head cheese. I had heard of head cheese, but had never tasted it before and didn't exactly know what it was. Head cheese, I've learned since my trip, is a jellied loaf made from chopped and boiled parts of a pig's feet, head, and sometimes tongue and heart. I am so glad I didn't know this before I tasted it for the first time.  I think the description itself would have influenced me to not even try it.  I did try it and I didn't like it, despite not knowing the description beforehand.  The closest food that I can liken it to is bologna - but more of a cubed version with a weird taste. I'm not a huge fan of bologna either.
 
 
Next we ordered something a little more normal, the monkey bread with sea salt and dill butter.  The monkey bread was tender and delicious and the dill butter combined nicely with the salted rolls.




 
 
We also ordered the duck fat fries, house ketchup and garlic aioli. They were probably the best duck fat fries I had while in Chicago. These fries were crispy and a little thicker than the shoestring variety that I had earlier in the week at Hot Doug's.
 
 
Next we shared the bone marrow, served with shallot jam, and toast. Although Bristol's bone marrow tasted somewhat buttery, it had a hard jelly like texture. We had ordered bone marrow earlier in the week at the Purple Pig and it's texture was very buttery and smooth.
 
 
Maria and I decided to share an order of the potato gnocchi.  I must confess, that I don't remember much about the gnocchi except that they were tender.  I've had gnocchi at many different restaurants. It's one of the ways I compare and rank restaurants in my mind.  I think because I can't remember anything distinctive about this gnocchi dish tells me a lot about it.  They were very good but there was nothing truly memorable about them - I still distinctly remember Michael Chiarello's ricotta gnocchi at his restaurant in Yountville and the potato gnocchi at Palena, a Washington DC restaurant - they are forever burned in my memory.
 
 
Finally, we ordered the pig's tail. Now  we can talk about a memorable dish. This was absolutely phenomenal. This dish alone was well worth any cab ride to get to this restaurant.  The meat was incredibly tender and tasty and literally melted in your mouth like butter. I can say without reservation that this was the best dish I had during my whole culinary adventure in Chicago.
 
 
Final note:  I would definitely rank this restaurant among the top 3 of the restaurants that I went to while in Chicago.  If you go, you must try the pig's tail if it is still available on their menu.




The Purple Pig





 
May 9, 2010 - I recently read an article quoting a West Coast chef who says a real chef does not need pork fat to produce good food.  If that is your personal philosophy, you should skip The Purple Pig.  It’s a pork emporium--bacon, sausage, and pork fat heaven awaits those who enter its hallowed halls.  Tempting would be an understatement.
 
It was the last night of our restaurant weekend in Chicago.  I was heading back at 6 a.m. the next morning and wanted to end my Chicago food weekend on a high note!   There were too many remaining restaurants to choose from so we went with the “progressive dinner,” a frequent approach Cheryl and I use to try out new places.  A glass of wine, a few appetizers to share and then it’s off to the next place for another round.  Let me just say, it’s a lot more fun than the sorority week version! 




 
We decided to hit The Purple Pig first.  It felt like (and sounded like) half of Chicago had the same thought.  The small restaurant is very casual in feel—cramped communal tables abound and it was noisy, noisy, noisy!  Luckily, as soon as we walked in, we were able to find three seats.  It took a few minutes, but once we had the wait staff’s attention, we were able to quickly order glasses of wine and a round of appetizers. 
 
Honestly, the individual glasses of wine were not particularly remarkable, but the breadth of the wine by the glass list and the nice glassware provided an option for all drinkers.  The food, however, was very memorable.  I think I have a fairly adventurous palate, but random animal parts are still a bit outside the box for me.  Nonetheless, we dug right in when the fried pig’s ear arrived.  The pig’s ear was sliced into small slivers and then fried with kale and pickled peppers and topped with a fried egg.  I have to admit—it was good.  But that may have been because I “decided” to pretend they were onion rings. 
 
 
 
The other new item for me was the roasted bone marrow served with an herb salad and toasted sourdough bread.  We scooped the bone marrow out and smeared it onto the bread rounds.  Tasted like crostini drowned in olive oil—the herb salad really added a bright note cutting through the heavy fat flavor. 
 
 
One more meat dish—milk braised pork shoulder cooked a la plancha (on a griddle) with some mashed potatoes.  The meat was very tender but I was surprised that the cooking method did not add any crunch to the dish.  With the mashed potatoes it was good, but the least interesting dish of the night.  
 
 
 
We rounded out the menu with a vegetable, fried baby artichokes with lemon.  I really liked the dish, although the lemon juice was a bit overpowering on the artichokes on the top of the dish.
 
 
 
There were more than a handful of other dishes I would love to try at The Purple Pig. In particular, their charcuterie and “smears,” their term for potted meats and cheese spreads looked amazing.  If I find myself in Chicago in the near future look for me on one of their barstools--it’s an experience I am looking forward to repeating.  Bring on the bacon!
 




New Orleans, LA





Domenica

 
December 31, 2010 - On a whim, I decided to go to New Orleans, LA (NOLA) with a couple of my friends for New Year's. Maria, the one in the middle with the blue shirt, grew up and went to school in NOLA.  She knows her way around the city so I let her take the lead in choosing the restaurants.  It was very nice for me because she and I have the same taste in food and I trust her restaurant choices implicitly. 
 
We arrived in the Big Easy around 10 am. In the airport while we were waiting for Marna, our other friend, to arrive, Maria planned our food and restaurant agenda for our short stay. We had a lot on that agenda - we had to try beignets, po-boys, muffalettas, char-broiled oysters, BBQ shrimp, hurricanes, sazeracs, and of course, at least one of John Besh's restaurants.
 
For lunch, we decided to quickly check one off of our list and try Domenica, a John Besh restaurant, located in the historic Roosevelt Hotel. Domenica is an Italian restaurant serving handcrafted pastas and wood-fired Neopolitan Pizzas. Since I was in NOLA, I was hoping to find some New Orleans influence on this Italian menu. The only New Orleans influence I could find was John Besh himself. The restaurant serves mainly Italian.
 
We had made a reservation while we were at the airport so there was absolutely no wait for our table when we arrived. The hostess was very friendly and seated us immediately.
 
 
We had the whole day ahead and since I had big dinner plans at John Besh's Restaurant August, one of his more upscale restaurants in the city, I decided to order a very light lunch.  I went with the burrata mozzarella, tomatoes tritato, and arugula panzanella salad. The dish was very colorful and beautiful - the burrata was very creamy and delicious.
 
 
Maria ordered the octopus carpaccio fennel and citrus salad, and again the presentation was beautiful. I had a taste and this was fabulous. The octopus carpaccio was very thinly sliced and practically melted in your mouth.  The fennel and citrus salad was the perfect compliment to the octopus. 
 
 
Next, Maria and I shared the prosciutto tomato, bufala mozzarella and arugula pizza. Domenica serves Neopolitan-style pies and from what I've read - the best pizza in NOLA.  I can't confirm that they serve the best pizza in NOLA because I only had pizza at Domenica during my stay.  What I can say without a doubt is that Domenica's pizza is comparable to any pizza I had in Naples, Italy. Also Domenica's pizza is as good or better than my favorite Neopolitan pizza place in Washington, DC - 2 Amy's. Like the octopus carpaccia, the prosciutto was very thinly sliced and melted in your mouth.
 
 
After lunch, we headed over to the Roosevelt to check it out. The Christmas decorations were stunning. 
 
 
 
Final note:  You must put Domenica on your list of places to check out if you are ever in NOLA.  Domenica is very affordable and the food is delicious, well prepared, and presented beautifully.  The next time I'm in town, I will definitely try this restaurant for dinner. Also, after your meal, don't forget to wander over to the Roosevelt and stop at the Sazerac Bar for a drink.

New York, NY

Babbo

December 11, 2010 - If you've perused the recipes on this site, you'll know that I'm a huge Mario Batali fan.  I was in New York City and I wasn't leaving this time without trying Babbo.  We did not have reservations, but my friend, Amy, who has been to Babbo before, suggested that we go early, when the restaurant opened, and try to get a seat at the bar.  We arrived at 4 pm - 1 hour before the restaurant was to open. Since we were the first there, we decided to take a stroll around the block to check out this Greenwich Village neighborhood and all the Santas that were wondering the streets of New York City that evening.  
 
As we walked around the block, we saw a wide variety of Santas, Santa's elves, Mrs. Clauses, and other "women" who clearly were not Mrs. Claus, hanging all over Santa - if Mrs. Claus saw them, she would not approve. We found out later that apparently, the city was hosting a Santa Con. According to one website, it is a non-denominational, non-commercial, non-political and non-sensical Santa Claus convention that occurs once a year for absolutely no reason (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2225921506&v=wall).  
 
 
We arrived back at the restaurant 15 minutes later and to our surprise there were 4 people standing in line.  We quickly took our place in line and hoped that our walk around the block didn't hurt our chances of getting a seat at the bar. The bar was first come, first serve, so Amy strategized, as we waited in line, which seats we would take.
 
The doors opened and in we went - in my opinion, we got the best seats at the bar. The bartender greeted us and took our drink orders.  She was very knowledgeable about the wines, made some suggestions, and let us sample several before we decided on one we liked.  Amy and I like to order wines by the glass when we dine out because it gives us more opportunities to try different kinds.  Babbo has a very nice wine by the glass selection.  Our first glass was a Langhe Nebbiolo - the same grape used to make a Barolo.  This wine had bright cherry fruit upfront, a little tannins, something like coffee, chocolate or leather on the end with a nice fairly long finish. I enjoyed this glass very much and it was much cheaper than ordering a glass of  Barolo. 
 
 
It was a good thing I was enjoying the wine because it eased the pain I felt when I leaned over to get my Nikon camera out of my purse to take a picture of the bottle (and our meal that was to come) and discovered my camera was missing.  I had somehow lost it earlier in the day.  This almost ruined my evening of food picture taking - at least I still had my iPhone so all was not totally lost.  I would make do.
 
The bartender brought us some parmesan pepper grissini and olives. I didn't try the olives since I don't like them but the breadsticks had a very nice peppery spice to them.  Amy said the olives were "big and meaty"  - and since I don't eat olives, I'm not sure if this is a good thing.
 
 
First, the waiter brought out a chickpea bruschetta, Babbo's signature amuse bouche. I'm not a huge fan of chick peas but I actually liked this very much. I have no picture of this because at this point, I'm still trying to figure out how to work the flash on my iPhone.  I figured it out after we ate the bruschetta.
 
Next, we decided to upgrade and pay the $2.50 up-charge to try premium olive oil - Cappezana's unfiltered extra-virgin Tuscan olive oil.  And yes it really was that green.  I did a google search to try to find more of this olive oil, and Dean and Deluca sells it- $40 for a 17 ounce bottle.  The olive oil is very intense with some hints of pepper at the finish.  
 
      
 
To maximize the number of different dishes and to try to conserve some calories, Amy and I shared appetizers and pastas.
 
Our first appetizer was a braised fennel salad with pears, gorgonzola piccante and cherry vinaigarette. The only remarkable thing about this dish that I remember was the cherry vinaigarette. It was very tasty. Also, it was a little disappointing that the chef didn't split our fennel salad onto two separate plates.
 
 
Next we ordered the Sarde a Beccafico, a traditional Sicilian dish of stuffed sardines. Lately, I can't seem to go to a restaurant without ordering the sardines if they have them.  Babbo's sardines were stuffed with raisins, breadcrumbs, celery, eggplant and red onions.  You can find the recipe for this dish here:  http://www.babbonyc.com/recipe.html
 
The sardines were moist and perfectly cooked.  The stuffing ingredients were delicious and combined nicely with the sardine's flavor profile.  Now that I have the recipe, I'm looking forward to making this at home.
 
 
After consultation with the bartender, we decided to share three pastas. The chef promised to split our pastas on two separate plates. The first of the three was maccheroni alla chitarra  with oven dried tomatoes, red chiles and bottarga di muggine.  Not only have I never tried bottarga di muggine, I had never even heard of it.  Since my evening at Babbo, I've learned that bottarga is fish roe, extracted with its membrane still intact, lightly pressed, cured in brine and dried in the sun. Bottarga di muggine is the bottarga of grey mullet.  It has a briny, almost sweet flavor and I would liken it somewhat to the taste of anchovies.  The pasta was cooked to perfection and truly served al dente. The bread crumbs added a nice texture and slight crunch while the bottarga di muggine added a depth of flavor to the dish that would be hard to replicate using an alternative ingredient. This pasta gets my two thumbs up (and if I had a third thumb- I would put that one up too).
 
 
My next glass of wine was the 2008 La Mozza, a wine made by Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali in their joint winery in Tuscany's Maremma region on the west coast of Italy.  This sangiovese has hints of floral on the nose, a lot of fruit up front, and finishes with licorice.  I enjoyed my second glass very much.
 
 
Our second pasta was garganelli with funghi trifolati. Once again, I had ordered something I'd never heard of before - garganelli pasta - a handmade combed penne pasta made from a grated Parmesan, nutmeg, eggs and flour dough. Amy and I wondered how you would "hand make" the ridges in the pasta. Well, apparently, there is a tool called a garganelli comb that is used to make the pasta's ridges. Even though I don't remember the types of mushrooms in this dish, I think this was my favorite pasta of the evening. The simplicity of the sauce (olive oil, garlic, and parmesan cheese) enhanced the flavor of the mushrooms.
 
 
My third glass of wine - which I couldn't finish because I'm a lightweight - was a very nice Sicilian wine. It was made of 100% Nero d'Avola, a red grape native to Sicily.  I don't remember too much about this wine other than it was full-bodied, very rich, and had a long finish.
 
 
Our last dish was the gnocchi with braised oxtail. Like the sarde, I tend to order gnocchi at almost every restaurant I go to that has them on their menu. The potato gnocchi were very tender as was the oxtail, which almost melted in your mouth. Babbo's gnocchi are probably somewhere in the top 10 of the best potato gnocchi that I've had (I think Palena, in Washington, DC still gets my vote for the best).
 
 
Finally, it was time for dessert and this we didn't share. I ordered the pistachio and chocolate semifreddo and Amy ordered an assortment of cheeses.  Pistachios are my favorite kind of nut and this dessert was a perfect way to end my experience at Babbo except.......
 
 
 
....that we had one more thing coming, compliments of the chef - an assortment of cookies.
 
 
Final note: We entered the restaurant at 5:00 pm and left at approximately 8:30 pm.  During that time, we received exceptional service and even with the many people waiting in the small and crowded bar to have dinner, the wait staff did not rush us.  Our 3 plus hour dining experience was well worth the one hour wait to get in the door. The food, in my humble opinion, was incredible, and the atmosphere was homey and non pretentious.

Bar Boulud

December 12, 2010 -  Daniel Boulud has many award winning restaurants around the world and I really wanted to try one of his restaurants while in New York City.  I am intrigued by him for a number of reason, one being is that he is from Lyon, France, the gastronomic capital of the world.  He has five restaurants in the city - they include Daniel, Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, Bar Boulud, and DBGB Kitchen & Bar.  

The restaurant I really wanted to try was Daniel. The 2011 Zagat's guide touts it as "perfection on a plate."  Perfection; however, comes at an average cost of approximately $140.00 per person. I may have considered making reservations at Daniel had this been our only evening to dine out in the city, but I was already way over my "dining out" budget for the month (and nothing new here - I'm always over budget).  I chose, instead, Bar Boulud, his casual, more affordable bistro, located at 1900 Broadway, across from Manhattan's Lincoln Center. I made reservations on opentable.com a few days in advance. Amy was game to try this restaurant because I wanted to try it, but I could tell that she would have preferred to go somewhere else. Throughout our stay in the city, she kept suggesting alternative restaurants for our Sunday evening dinner.
 
First, bottom line up front - I've just come to realize that I don't like terrines or pates. 
 
Our first plate Amy and I ordered to share was "lapin de garrigue" or provençal pulled rabbit, carrot, zucchini and herbs. It's the square looking thing in the picture below.  I had not a clue of exactly what I was ordering.  Because the word "pulled" was in the description, I was expecting something hot and similar to "pulled" pork barbecue but made with rabbit instead.  I know, silly me.  I was quite surprised to get the cold square looking thing that tasted like cold roasted chicken with vegetables in gelled chicken juice and fat.  The only nice thing I can say about this dish is its beauty and color. 
 
 
The second thing we ordered was "tourte de caille." It consisted of vermont quail, berkshire pork, foie gras, apricots, and sicilian pistachio, all in a pastry crust. This one is the triangular looking thing next to the square looking thing in the picture above. The pastry was served cold and I only liked the foie gras - which tasted very buttery, smooth, and creamy. The foie gras is the cream-colored looking stuff almost in the middle of the pastry crust.  Overall, I did not enjoy the tourte de caille.
 
Next we ordered the "velouté de champignons" which consisted of a mushroom velouté, porcini confit and chive crème fraîche" or to describe it more simply - "cream of mushroom soup."  The soup was served hot, it was thick, and very tasty.  I enjoyed this very much.
 
 
After the soup, we shared a plate of aïoli with olive oil poached cod and carolina shrimp, garlic dip, quail eggs, vegetables, and mussels. Again, everything was served cold. Amy really enjoyed this dish and it inspired her to recreate it for her next dinner party. I, on the other hand, did not like or enjoy this dish at all. The only tasty part was the garlic aioli. 
 
 
Finally, we ordered the pommes frites.  I thoroughly enjoyed the frites and they were especially delicious dipped in the garlic aioli that was served with our previous dish.
 
 
Final note:  The service was incredibly slow and the wait staff did not offer helpful suggestions. If I ever go back to Bar Boulud, which I doubt I will because the service was horrendous, I plan to order some of the more traditional bistro dishes, like coq au vin or the black angus steak with fries, instead of the terrines and pates. I can attest that Bar Boulud is not "perfection on a plate." 

 

Del Posto

 

 

 

 

 

Eataly

December 11, 2010 - If I could imagine what heaven is like, it would be exactly like Eataly. When I walked through its pearly gates, I thought I had died and gone to heaven - Eataly is a foodie's paradise.  Anything your heart desires in fresh fish, cheese, produce, meats, pastas, coffees, and desserts can be found here.
 
Mario Batali's Eataly, founded by Oscar Farinetti and Luca Bassigo, is one of the largest Italian marketplaces in the world. The original market, located in Turin, Italy, is half the size of the New York City market located at 200 5th Avenue in the Flatiron District. 
 
I, unfortunately, wasn't able to shop and bring home any groceries since I was traveling by train.  Next time I visit the city, I will plan to drive so I can buy some of the high quality olive oils, pastas, canned tomato sauces, vinegars, fresh seafood, meats, cheeses, and anything else I can put my hands on. I literally could go on and on about all the amazing produce, meats, and other groceries but you really must visit and witness Eataly for yourself.  
 
I had wandered down to Eataly around lunch time so I decided to sit at Il Pesce, the fish bar, and order a little something to eat. Il Pesce is run by Dave Pasternack, who is also the executive chef of Esca, located at 402 West 43rd Street.  Dave just so happened to be at Eataly that afternoon and was kind enough to take a picture with me (see below).  Dave, by the way, has lots of family in Montgomery County, MD, where I live - who knew? Since meeting Dave, I've read some reviews of him and his restaurant. Esca is a southern Italian restaurant that mainly serves seafood. One review gave Dave the nickname of the "fish whisperer," and after eating at Il Pesce, I can certainly understand how he got that nickname. I look forward to visiting Esca on my next trip to the city.
 
 
I decided to order the crudo trio tasting which consisted of three different kinds of raw fish - mahi mahi, diver scallop, and orata.  The seafood was very fresh and was drizzled with a nice olive oil. The pistachios on top of the mahi mahi and the pomegranate seeds served with the diver scallop added a nice touch.  The crudo was exactly what I was looking for - something light and not filling.  
 
 
Ordering a glass of wine on an empty stomach may have been my biggest mistake of my New York City trip.  I'll get to why in a minute.  I ordered a glass of the Perdera, a Sardinian wine made from 90% Monica, 5% Carignano and 5% Bovale Sardo grapes grown in the Argiolas’ Perdera vineyard. I remember this wine having a mix of both fruit and earth with some tannins. It was a well balanced wine with a nice finish. I enjoyed it very much.
 
 
Ok, now to why ordering a glass of wine was a big mistake. It's no secret that I'm a lightweight when it comes to drinking alcohol. I essentially can't drink more than one or two glasses of wine.  I basically drank this glass on an empty stomach - the wine went straight to my head and I somehow left Eataly that day without my camera. I discovered my loss later that evening. Losing my camera made my lunch at Eataly incredibly expensive!
 
Next I decided to order the monkfish liver.  This had a very interesting texture and tasted very close to foie gras.  I wasn't sure at first if I liked it but it seemed to get better with each bite. I've decided that if you want to eat foie gras that this is a more humane way to go - I would think it would be nearly impossible to force-feed a monkfish in the same way they force-feed a duck. 
 
  
 
 
Final note - I would highly recommend visiting Eataly as often as you can.  I plan to go each and every time I visit New York City.

Esca

Philadelphia, PA

Tinto

Washington, DC

City Zen

Every Christmas, instead of exchanging gifts, Amy and I treat ourselves to a gourmet meal at one of the DC metro area’s finer restaurants. In December 2008, we chose City Zen. We’ve wanted to try City Zen for quite some time, mainly because we’ve read so many things about the Chef, Eric Ziebold. In 2008, he received the prestigious James Beard's "Mid Atlantic Best Chefs in America" title. Prior to CityZen, Ziebold was the Chef de Cuisine for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Yountville, California, just north of San Francisco in the Napa Valley. 

 
City Zen is located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in SW Washington, DC. It can be difficult to get a reservation—we called three weeks in advance—so if you decide to try CityZen, plan well in advance. When we walked in, the hostess greeted us, took our coats and seated us immediately. The dining area’s sleek design, high cathedral ceilings, and exhibition kitchen create a fairly open space, but the hostess managed to put us in a dark secluded corner. Had I been on a date, I might have enjoyed this intimate table for two. But these two single girls were here to see the chef work! We told our waiter, and he gladly moved us to a table with a great view of the kitchen. City Zen’s fixed-priced menu consists of a six-course chef's tasting menu, six course vegetarian tasting menu, or a less expensive three-course menu. For an additional cost, you can also order a wine pairing to accompany each course: three glasses of white wine, one glass of red wine, a beer flight, and a dessert wine. 
 
We ordered the six course chef tasting menu and the wine pairing. Don’t gasp! I opted out of at least some of the alcohol, and just ordered the pairing with the first four courses. The Sommelier was informed, polite, and friendly. The food is a mix of French, Asian, and American cuisine. We started with a couple compliments of the chef, a pomegranate prosecco cocktail and an amuse bouche of fried mushroom with black truffle butter—a one-bite earthy burst of flavor. 
 
Our menu highlights included: 
 
Confit Of Yellowfin Tuna And Toro Sashimi
Spiced Medjool Date, Candied Almonds, Wrinkle Crinkle
Cress and Sour Orange-Cardamon Vinaigrette
 
Path Valley Farms Sweet Potato Gnocchi
Italian Chestnuts, Staymen Apple, Shaved Truffles, and
Brown Butter Gastrique
 
Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster
Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach, Celery Root Brunoise, and
Lobster Sabayon
 
Red Wine Bouillon Poached Rib-Eye Of Prime Midwestern
Beef
with Red Flannel Hash, Crispy Bone Marrow, and
Frankie’s Original Horseradish Soubise
 
A Selection Of Artisinal Cheeses From Our Trolley
Warm Valrhona Chocolate Tea Cake
 
During the meal, we enjoyed French bread, foccacia and bite-size Parker House rolls presented in a small wooden box. For the last two courses, we selected eight or nine out-of-this world artisinal cheeses from their cheese trolley, followed by a warm Valrhona chocolate tea cake with Meyer lemon preserves and Italian pistachio ice cream.
 
Our waiters were very nice and courteous. We neither felt rushed nor waited long for the next course. In fact, after we mentioned that we had enjoyed the cheese courses at Nectar, where Maitre D’ Jared Slipp had previously worked, our waiter had him stop by to say hello.
 
The food was perfectly cooked, delicious, and presented beautifully but did not have the innovativeness that Komi or the Minibar at Cafe Atlantico offered. Favorites of the evening were the pomegranate prosecco, the mushroom fritter, the Parker House rolls, foccacia, sweet potato gnocchi and the Maine lobster. What more can I say? The decor, atmosphere, food, and service were impeccable. 
 
In my opinion, the experience was well worth the money we spent.
 
City Zen - 1330 Maryland Avenue, SW
202-787-6006

Estadio

January 7, 2011 - It's the start of 2011 and I've made several New Year's resolutions - one being to curtail my dining out habit. We are 7 days into the new year, and I've already eaten out 5 times.  So much for New Year's resolutions.  
 
After a stressful work week, I decided to meet Amy at Estadio, located on 1540 15th Street NW, in the Logan Circle area of Washington, DC. Estadio is a Spanish restaurant, serving tapas from the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain. Haidar Karoum, the executive chef of Estadio, is also the executive chef of one of my favorite DC restaurants, Proof. I had been to Estadio shortly after it opened in the summer of 2010 and really enjoyed my experience. I was hoping for a similar one tonight.
 
The restaurant was a zoo on this particular Friday night. There was a 45 minute to 1 hour wait for a table and not a seat to be had at the bar.  Fortunately, Amy arrived earlier than me and found one seat at the bar. I stood and waited at least 20 minutes next to her for a seat to open up. When one did, I didn't move quite as fast as the person standing next to me. Fortunately, a nice man at the bar, who was getting ready to pay his check, offered me his seat. Trying to get a bar seat was a little stressful - so much for a relaxing evening!
 
Once I sat down; however, and ordered a glass of wine, things got much better. For our first glass of wine, we ordered one recommended by our bartender.  The wine was 100% Graciano, a "blending" grape grown primarily in the Rioja region of Spain. This wine was fairly aromatic, very rich, high in acidity, had hints of black cherry and spice and a lingering finish.  The evening was looking up.


 
I let Amy do all the ordering for the evening since my mind was literally numb from an exhausting week both at work and home. Amy started us off with the chorizo, Manchego cheese with a pistachio crusted quince paste.  We ate this so fast that I forgot to take a picture of it. It was basically a cube of Manchego cheese with a thin slice of chorizo layered on top with a tiny dollup of the pistachio paste, all held together by a toothpick. Below is a picture I took the first time I went to Estadio -the chorizo-Manchego amuse bouche is the first and third item, starting from the left, on the plate below. I enjoyed this one-bite starter very much - the chorizo had just the right amount of spice and it went nicely with the cheese and pistachio paste.
 
 
Amy and I seem to always order the raw items on the menu and tonight was no different. We decided to try the bacalao crudo. It was served with slices of jalapeno, chunks of avocado and oranges, and drizzled with olive oil.  Although the bacalao, or cured cod, was thinly sliced, it was still slightly chewy. I think that is just the nature of the bacalao and not anything that the chef did wrong.  The jalapeno, avocado, and oranges were perfect accompaniments and added nicely to the flavor profile of the salted cod.
 
 
Another menu item that we always order at every tapas restaurant is the patatas bravas. I would definitely rank Estadio's version in my top 3 of all the different versions I've tried - Jaleo's patatas bravas is still my favorite.  Jaleo, by the way, no longer makes the version that I like best.  Here is the recipe for Jaleo's "retired" patatas bravas -  http://cucina.grandinetti.org/recipes/appetizers-and-salads/patatas-bravas.  
 
Back to Estadio's patatas bravas - the tomato sauce had a nice "kick" to it and the potatoes were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, just the way I like them.  Amy thought the chef could have added a little more aioli and I agreed.
 
 
Generally, I always order the tomato bread at any tapas restaurant but tonight Amy suggested we try the bread topped with foie gras mousse, smoked duck breast, and caramelized onions.  This turned out to be an excellent suggestion and probably one of my favorites of the evening.  The melt-in-your-mouth foie gras along with the duck breast paired nicely with natural sweetness of the caramelized onions.
 
 
For our second glass of wine, Amy and I both ordered the 2006 Muga Reserva, a blend of 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, and 5% each of the Mazuelo and Graciano blending grapes.  It was very floral smelling and again, like the other wine we had this evening, had a long finish and tasted of black cherries or blackberries.  
 
 
Finally, for our last tapas, we ordered the spiced grilled chicken, cabbage slaw, rice, and salsa loca. As you can see, the dish is very beautiful and it tastes as good as it looks.  Amy thought the green sauce tasted similar to a green chutney sauce she gets at her favorite Afghan restaurant. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to lick the plate when I was done.
 
Amy ordered one more glass of wine - I had just a taste of it - the 2008 Alto Moncayo Veraton, made with 100% Garnacia grape. It is a full-bodied and well-balanced wine with an intense floral bouquet. It tasted of smoke, spice, lavender, and black raspberries. I will remember this for the next time I go and order this wine first. We both thought it was fabulous.
 
 
For dessert, Amy ordered a cheese plate. All I remember about the cheese was that two were made from goat's milk and one was from sheep's milk.
 
 
I ordered the pumpkin bread pudding with cinnamon ice cream topped with pepitas (or pumpkin seeds). The bread pudding was very moist and I absolutely loved the cinnamon ice cream.
 
 
Final note:  I love almost everything about Estadio - the atmosphere, the decor, and most of all the food.  My only complaint (and it was a small one) was the service we received when we first arrived. They have a first come, first serve policy at the bar but they don't really adhere to it.  I would describe their policy more like a "free for all." Basically, you have to be aggressive and push your way to a seat.  Once we sat down, the service improved dramatically. The place was crowded and noisy both times I've been so if you are looking for a quiet evening, I would definitely recommend that you pick another place. Otherwise if you are in the mood for a lively dinner and great food, Estadio is definitely the place to go.

Fiola

J & G Steakhouse

February 27, 2010 - J&G Steakhouse is located in the old Hotel Washington (now the new W Hotel) on the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania in Washington, DC.  I am a big fan of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Manhattan-based chef who opened J&G Steakhouse in July 2009. I went to Jean-Georges, his restaurant located in the Trump Tower in New York city, a couple of years ago so I had been wanting to try his DC restaurant for some time. I'm not sure what took me so long, but finally last night I made it there.
 
My friend and I called for reservations but none were available. We decided to go anyway, take our chances for sitting in the Wine Bar downstairs, and order from their limited bar menu.  The hostesses were friendly and immediately took us to the Wine Bar.  The bar was not crowded (we went early enough to ensure that there would be seats) and we sat ourselves down on two very uncomfortable bar stools. To our surprise, the bartender informed us that they offered the full restaurant menu at the bar.  Hooray, the night was looking good. We moved to two very comfortable seats at a communal table in the middle of the bar (see picture above).
 
There were many great menu choices including a chef's tasting menu that included salmon tartare with ginger dressing and fresh radish; parmesan risotto with wild mushrooms; seared cod with a scallion-chili sauce, basil and celery; a grilled petit filet with J&G steak sauce, sautéed spinach and french fries; and for dessert, a warm chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream. We considered ordering this but the tasting menu rule is that everyone in the party has to order the tasting menu.  We felt this limited the number of different items we could try so we decided to share several appetizers and one entree. Next time I will definitely try the tasting menu.
 
First let me say, the service was incredible!  The waiter was friendly and helped us make our dinner and wine selections. The wait staff was fairly knowledgeable about the wines on the menu and consistent in their recommendations.  We had a discussion with the bartender about who has the best cheeseburger in DC. The bartender immediately said that J&G had the best burger in the area; however, he admitted that he's never tried Palena's burger, Amy's and my pick for the best burger in the area. Palena is located in the Cleveland Park area of DC.  Intrigued, Amy and I decided to share the J&G cheeseburger and fries as our entree to see if this burger could meet or exceed the burger at Palena.
 
We ordered rice cracker crusted tuna with a citrus-chili sauce.  You can't really see the citrus-chili sauce in the picture below but it was a mayonnaise-based sauce with a perfect mixture of spice and citrus.  Hands down, this was my favorite for the evening. 
 
 
Next was the steak-tartare frites.  I have to say that I was underwhelmed with this dish.  The steak tartare was fairly bland and lacking in any depth of flavor. The frites were good but not the best I've ever had (best frites - Liberty Tavern in Clarendon).
 
 
Next was the crispy calamari, pickled chilies and yozu dip. The calamari were dipped into a tempura batter and deep fried. The sauce was very light and airy with hints of citrus.  The calamari were good but a little tough. I liked the pickled chili touch. 
 
 
Our last appetizer was the Maryland crab cake with a ginger-lime vinaigrette.  The crab cake had mostly crab meat and very little breading, exactly the way I like it. The ginger-lime vinaigrette was a perfect compliment to the crab cake.
 
 
And finally, the waiter brought out the cheeseburger.  The chefs split the burger and fries on two separate plates, a very nice and thoughtful gesture.  The best part about the burger was the homemade pickles and I don't generally like pickles. These pickles almost change my mind about pickles. The burger was very good but it did not quite beat the taste of Palena's burger.
 
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the wine. J&G serves wine in quartinos (250 mL or 1/3 of a bottle) and bottles.  Amy ordered a quartino of the Parcel 41 Merlot 2006, Napa, California and I ordered a quartino of Martinelli Bella Vigna Pinot Noir 2006, Russian River Valley. Ordinarily, Amy does not order Merlots, mainly because in general, they seem to be lacking in personality, complexity, and boldness (and besides, they got trashed in the movie Sideways).  However, the waiter highly recommended Amy trying this Merlot because she was looking for a wine with some acidity, light on tanins, bright fruit and some earth tones.  This merlot fits the description on all points. It was actually very good.
 
Finally we ordered one quartino of Graffigna Malbec Grand Reserve 2006 San Juan, Argentina.  The waitress accidentally brought out two quartinos, so we got the second one for free.  This is a great spicy Malbec (tasted lots of pepper).
 
My only complaint for the entire evening is that they brought all four of our appetizers out at the same time. It would have been better if they would have spaced the delivery out a little better. 
 
Final thought - I would definitely go back.  I would love to try out the Lounge upstairs.  It certainly looked like the happening place in DC last night.
 

Palena

April 16, 2010 - Our first stop of the evening was Bardeo, a small wine bar in Cleveland Park.  Bardeo is part of a well-known group of DC restaurants that I frequent and enjoy.  If you subscribe to the theory that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you should not say anything at all, it’s hard to figure out what to write about our quick visit to Bardeo.  Outside of the very reasonably priced and quick valet parking and a friendly bartender, the visit was a total dud.  I was excited to make it in time for their happy hour special--$5 off of their wine flights.  My friend Cheryl and I each ordered a flight of three wines.  That’s where it went downhill—the wine glasses were a bit dingy—definitely no one was using lint-free cloths to polish them. Several of the two ounce pours were so bad we were unwilling to drink them.  Luckily, Palena is just one block away!  We quickly paid our bill and walked into Palena and found two bar stools right away. 

 

Owned by former White House chef, Frank Ruta, Palena has two different dining room concepts.  The main restaurant offers a set price menu offering two, three, or four courses with dessert for diners to select from.  The bar area, however, is where I almost always settle because they offer both the aforementioned menu and a café menu of gourmet bistro food.  One of the bistro items that receives rave reviews is their burger—and I can attest, it is the best in DC!  But on this visit, we decided to split a variety of items from both menus to taste a wider sampling of the chef’s creations. 

 
We stated out with a Romaine salad which they billed as “Caesar.”  Palena makes sharing dishes so easy—they evenly split the portions onto two plates, while still ensuring an artful plating.  In this case, we each received a wedge of romaine thoroughly dressed in a lemony vinaigrette.  I think the fried capers which accompanied the salad made the dish—the light crunchy bursts of salty flavor really brightened the salad. 
 
Next, we shared a goose egg ravioli dish with earthy morel mushrooms and a smattering of greens and house-made sausage.  The pasta had a light texture and mixed well with the mushrooms and sausage flavored butter sauce.  The actual pieces of sausage; however, overpowered the dish and I thought unnecessary.  I was unable to discern a specific "goose egg" flavor in the pasta --although the raviolis were a pretty yellow color. 
 
 
For our main course, we shared the shoat from Pipe Dreams Farm, an organic farm not far from Washington, DC.  Shoat (a term I had to look up!) is a young pig.   In this case, we each had a small piece of the pork loin served with wilted greens and a few potato slices.  The pork was tender and flavorful with a small sprinkle of larger grained salt on the outside crust.  It was definitely one of the best pork dishes I have ever had.  I inquired with our waiter about the cooking method—it appeared to be cooked using a sous-vide method based on the even doneness throughout the piece of meat.  Unfortunately, the waiter said the chef likes to keep his methods secret!  
 
 
We paired the shoat with the famous Palena fry plate—a collection of fries, little potato dumplings, onion rings and fried lemon slices.  They serve the fry plate with a mayonnaise sauce topped with Asian sriracha sauce. 
 
 
Of course, we also had a few glasses of red wine—I started with a glass of Barbera d'Asti and Cheryl choose a California Zinfandel.  I wanted to try something different for my second glass and ended up with a French wine from the Languedoc region.  I should have stayed with the Barbera because I have discovered that I can smell a strong gamey bouquet from some Bordeaux wines and the Languedoc wine have strong smells of hay (and a bit of manure!).  Regardless, the wine was so much better than our selections at Bardeo.  I was a bit disappointed with the wine glasses—they were almost like footed beer glasses and had thicker rims than I prefer.  Also, the number of options by the glass were fairly limited.  One nice touch—Palena offers half-glasses which is great when you want to try a few different wines. 
 
We ended the evening with a cookie and caramel plate full of 20 or so bite-sized cookies—a fun sweet finale.   From nut bars to jam thumbprints to meringues, I enjoyed almost every cookie.  By far, the best nibble was the caramel made in-house.  
 
 
Needless to say, we were very full when we headed back to Bardeo to retrieve our cars. 

Volt

 
August 5, 2011 - I have been trying for quite some time to get reservations at Volt but they always seem to be booked at least 6 months in advance. I've often said that I wish they would change their reservation policy to allow people to only book 1 month in advance.  They haven't done that yet but, nevertheless, I was very lucky to get literally last minute reservations (I made them the night before) on opentable.com for me and my friend Cathy for my birthday. It must have been fate and I was totally excited!
 
First, let me tell you a little about the chef. Bryan Voltaggio, a native of Frederick, MD, is chef and part owner of Volt which is located in Frederick's historic district. Bryan was nominated for a James Beard Award as Best Mid-Atlantic Chef in 2010 and was also a finalist, along with his brother (who won Season 6), on "Top Chef" in 2009. If you've watched Bryan on Top Chef,  you probably know that he is a big fan of using foams and molecular gastronomy in his dishes.  
 
From the minute we walked into Volt, the service was exceptional. In fact, I would probably rank Volt's service in the top 5 of the best service I've experienced in a restaurant to date.  Volt offers 3 menus, a 21 course tasting menu served at Table 21, a chef's tasting menu served in the Chef's Kitchen, and an A La Carte menu served in the main dining room and the bar/lounge area. Incidentally, the seating in the bar/lounge is first come, first serve so if you are in the area and don't have a reservation, you might try finding a seat at the bar.  They actually have a TV where you can watch all the happenings and the chefs at work in Volt's kitchen.  The hostess was very friendly and polite and sat us at a great table by the window in the main dining room where we were offered the A La Carte menu.  
 
The first thing the waiter brought us was some sea salt breadsticks and a selection of fresh savory cornbread, biscuits, brioches, and rolls.  It was a tough decision to choose which bread I wanted so I asked to have one of each. The waiter was more than happy to give me whatever I wanted.  The biscuit was the best biscuit I think I've ever had in my life - it was fresh, tender and very tasty.  The breads were all wonderful and even more heavenly with the sea salt butter. 
 
         
 
For my first glass of wine, the waiter recommended that I try the New Zealand 2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu. This wine was a blend of 80% merlot, 12% cabernet franc, 5% cabernet sauvignon, 3% malice, and it was exactly what I wanted. It was very fragrant with hints of blackberries, and tasted of black fruit, some tannins, and spice on the end with very long finish. New Zealand is mainly known for their sauvignon blanc and pinot noir so I was quite surprised to see New Zealand produce such an exceptional blend of these 4 varieties.
 
 
Next, compliments of the chef, was an amuse bouche of savory merengue topped with caviar.  I don't really remember anything remarkable about this except that it was very interesting looking.
 
 
For my first course, I ordered the yellowfin tuna tartare with avocado, chili oil, cilantro, marinated whitefish roe, and topped with soy foam. I thought this was very good. My tuna tasted fresh and the avocado mousse, chili oil and soy foam added nicely to the yellowfin tuna and the dish's flavor profile.  
 
  
 
Cathy ordered the heirloom tomatoes, with shrimp, “nitro” gazpacho, and red rubin basil.  This dish was brilliant and  in my humble opinion, the winner for the evening. Cathy definitely out ordered me on the first course as this was fabulous.  I thought the "nitro" (frozen) gazpacho was a genius addition to the dish and it enhanced the flavor of the tomatoes and went nicely with the shrimp.
 
 
For our second course, Cathy and I both ordered the sheep’s milk ricotta cavatelli with country ham, broccoli rabe, and parmesan.  This dish was very beautiful and all the ingredients melded very well together. The cavatelli was made with rye flour and the dish in general had a very earthy flavor to it.  
 
 
Since it was my birthday, I splurged and ordered a second glass of wine.  Again, I took the waiter's suggestion and ordered the Land's Edge 2007 Pinot Noir.  It tasted of raspberry and black cherry fruit with a very nice finish of licorice and cedar.  
 
 
For my third couse, I ordered the rockfish.  The rockfish was perfectly prepared with a nice crunchy crust. The artichokes, fennel, and baby carrots were a great compliment to the dish.  I enjoyed this very much.
 
 
For Cathy's third course, she ordered the halibut with risotto, aparagus, and yuzu air.  I only had a small taste of Cathy's third course but I could quickly tell that she had outordered me once again.  This dish was fabulous.  The risotto was perfectly cooked al dente and the halibut was very moist and tender and practically melted in your mouth.  I didn't have a clue as to what yuzu air was or how you would even make it.  Yuzu is actually  a citrus fruit commonly grown in Asia and generally used in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisine.  You can find yuzu at your local Korean or international market. You can make the air (or foam) by putting the juice in a whipped cream dispenser and charging it with nitrous oxide.
 
 
Next up was my favorite course - dessert.  Because it was my birthday, the waiter brought me, compliments of the chef, a vanilla semifreddo with pistachios, orange zest, and chocolate. I actually liked this dessert better than the one I ordered.
 
 
For my dessert,  since it's tradition for me to have cake on my birthday, I ordered the walnut cake with grapes and caramel ice cream (it was the only cake on the menu).  If I'm being honest, this dessert was just ok.  I don't recall anything exceptional about it.  
 
 
Cathy ordered the textures of chocolate with bitter chocolate ganache, chocolate caramel, pistachio, and raw organic cocoa.  I didn't taste this because at this point I was so full that I wasn't even sure I could finish my dessert.  Cathy seemed to enjoy this very much because she moaned with each bite - now I can't say for sure that she was moaning from pleasure or moaning because she was about to go into a food coma from eating so much. 
 
 
After dessert, the waiter brought us a plate of cookies and other treats. I'm a cookie girl and all of these were very good. The waiter asked us if he could get us anything else and I said yes, "I'd like to meet Bryan Voltaggio if he's here."  I asked this half joking, not expecting that I'd actually get to meet him; however, the waiter happily obliged us.  He grabbed the hostess who took us on a tour of the restaurant and the kitchen where we met Bryan himself. Bryan was so nice to stop what he was doing to say hello and pose in a picture with us.  It was a perfect way to end my birthday dinner.
 
 
Final Note: I've always said that in order for me to really like a restaurant, the dessert must be great because it's the last thing I eat and my last memory of my meal. The dessert for me can usually make or break my impression of the restaurant.  Even though I wasn't wowed by my dessert, I can say without a doubt that my entire birthday experience at Volt was exceptional, from start to finish, culminating in meeting Bryan himself.  The service was top notch, and the pacing of the food was perfect.  I will definitely go back and I can't wait to try Table 21.
 
 

Yountville, CA

Bottega

In August 2009, Amy and I went to Bottega, Michael Chiarello's restaurant. Michael Chiarello is one of my favorite chefs. I can identify with his cooking because he's Italian American and cooks Calabrian cuisine.  Since there are so many great restaurants in Yountville, we only ordered two courses at Bottega to share between the two of us. We had many other restaurants to try that evening.
 
 
The first course we ordered was his heirloom tomato salad with fresh burrata cheese and caviar. This was the best burrata I've ever had in my life.  The salad had the perfect combination of salt, olive oil, cheese, and tomatoes. Every bite was heavenly.
 
 
For our next course, we shared the fresh ricotta gnocchi. I must apologize for the picture below. It certainly doesn't do the gnocchi justice. We were so excited when the waiter brought out our gnocchi that we dug in before I had time to snap the picture.  When we realized our faux pas, I snapped a picture.  These were the most tender gnocchi I've ever had. They were light and airy and melted in your mouth. It made me wonder if he uses low protein flour.
 
 
Final Note: The next time I'm in Yountville, I will definitely go to Bottega for the entire dinner experience.