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.