Sunday, January 28, 2007

wee foodies

Washingtonian magazine reports on a gathering of young -- very young -- D.C. foodies.

And to think I thought fish sticks were pretty tasty when I was 12.

eating D.C.: Komi

Have I mentioned that I have the best husband ever? For my birthday, he signed me up for a CSA share from Bull Run Farm. We got a combination vegetable/fruit subscription; some weeks there might also be flowers or some honey from the farm's bees in our share. I can't wait to finally have some garlic scapes!

That was the delayed-gratification part of my birthday, since it won't start until May or so. The instant gratification came from our dinner at Komi, the D.C. restaurant I've been most looking forward to trying (D.C. food bloggers rave about it). Chef/owner Johnny Monis is a mere 27 years old. I had a good view of the kitchen from where we sat, and I could see him in there, painstakingly plating everything. I know that a lot of chef/owners can be a bit removed from the day-to-day workings of the kitchen, but this guy's very involved in the details. And oh, the attention to detail is what makes Komi great.

Komi does "slow food" in the best possible sense: the restaurant is tiny, warm and inviting; your meal takes three hours, and for those three hours you are well taken care of. In a world where we all go out to eat too often, Komi is still a special-occasion experience. And yet they make you feel comfortable enough to put your elbows on the table. The servers know their stuff, but they don't talk down to you. The food is incredible, but never overly precious. It's fine dining, but the overall vibe is comfy.

We ordered the tasting menu, plus the optional wine pairings. I'm glad we did: instead of fumbling through the wine list and blindly choosing a bottle ourselves, we got a sommelier-guided tour through the highlights of the wine list, tailored to what we were eating. (We even got to try some very tasty Greek and Hungarian wines. Who knew?)

The first course actually consisted of eight or so mini-courses: a few house-brined olives, a fried ricotta ball, a little sunchoke panna cotta with a quail egg inside. A little oxtail sandwich with tzatziki, some sauteed octopus, cured beef with persimmon and avocado. (And corresponding veggie counterparts for Mark.) Every time we thought the parade of small plates was done, something new came out. Oh, and the best was a mascarpone-stuffed date, which may be the single tastiest bite of food I've ever had. The date was caramelized, and it was drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. The overall effect was that of a creamy salt caramel. So many layers of flavor in one little bite. I'm still thinking about that bite days later.

After the series of small plates was done, there was the pasta course: truffled potato ravioli for Mark, tagliatelle with wild boar (!), cocoa and mint for me. (In between courses, our server brought us three kinds of house-made crackers. See what I mean about detail?) For the entree, I chose the roasted turbot with blood oranges and some kind of creamy celery root polenta. Mark had a vegetable platter: Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, the same celery root polenta, and haricots verts with little slices of pickled red onion.

Next came the cheese course: Gouda, Camembert and candied quince in a vanilla-bean-specked syrup, with homemade oat crackers. Mine was served with a glass of vin santo; Mark had another kind of dessert wine, the name of which is escaping me. For dessert, Mark had blood-orange granita and I had the Greek doughnuts with chocolate mascarpone pudding. I thought the donuts were just OK -- they may have been overhyped in the reviews I read -- but the pudding was fantastic. Even when the check arrived, the parade of treats wasn't over, as it came with two house-made lollipops (pina colada flavor).

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bread pudding? bread soup?

Mr. Tart and I recently dined at Boulder's Mateo, where we had a lovely meal--including a ginormous lobster raviolo--yep, just one!--which ended perfectly with what they called a dried-cherry and caramel bread pudding. Served in a ramekin, the custard was nearly liquid and the bread chunks still chunky and almost crisp. I suspect that this bread pudding hadn't actually been baked, because the bread had not absorbed much custard, hadn't gone soft, hadn't expanded and enlarged, and no dried crusty bits clung to the side of the ramekin. It was like a thick sweet soup studded with dried cherries and topped with caramel syrup. And this dessert tasted so rich and lucious I didn't even mind being misled by the "bread pudding" misnomer.

So here's what I'm wondering: does it really have to be baked in the oven to be considered "bread pudding"? And does anyone have a non-baked bread pudding recipe to share before I try to invent my own?

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

a tasty salad idea (and Top Chef disappointment)

Just something I made today for lunch: I started with salad greens tossed with a bit of walnut oil and sherry vinegar. Then I toasted a bit of crusty bread, rubbed it with a garlic clove, topped it with some goat cheese, and put that on the greens. Meanwhile, I poached an egg and placed it on top of the goat cheese toast, thus melting the cheese. Then I topped it with a little pepper and a drizzle of white truffle oil. Dee-lish.

The first bite is pleasant enough. Then you break the soft egg yolk and it becomes swoon-worthy. And, of course, I love any excuse to bust out the truffle oil.

I think I've been on a poached-egg kick as a result of watching too much Top Chef. (Is it just me, or are eggs ubiquitous on that show?)

Speaking of which: Are any of you watching this season? I'm not sure whom to root for anymore. That last episode was just so disturbing, so Lord of the Flies. I mean, what is the matter with these people? Sam, Ilan and Elia were just as much to blame as Cliff was for that ugly incident, so part of me thinks they should have just declared Marcel the winner by default. But he's clearly not the best chef, endearing as I may find him. There's no possible outcome that can be satisfying now. If we were only mid-season, I'd just quit watching. But I can't skip the finale now, right?

In any event, if you're a TC fan, listen to this exit interview with Mike at His story about the dentist is hilarious.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

D.C. Restaurant Week: Cafe Atlantico

As we’ve gotten to know our new city over the past few months, I must admit I’ve been disappointed with the state of D.C. dining. There’s a perception that D.C. is a second-tier food city, and sadly, I think my experience has supported that. I’ve had a few good meals here, but all too often they’re just sort of OK. On Thursday night, though, I had my first really great meal here. It’s Restaurant Week here in D.C., which means it’s time for dozens of the city’s best restaurants to offer a special prix-fixe three-course menu for $30. We chose to check out Cafe Atlantico, a Nuevo Latino place with a few creative twists. It’s owned by Jose Andres, the chef behind Jaleo (a tapas place we really like) and Minibar (haven’t been there yet, but they do “molecular gastronomy” type stuff like, oh, caramelized olive oil bonbons). Cafe Atlantico is sort of the middle ground between traditional fare and that more experimental stuff.

I started out with a mojito, and it was fantastic. I’d heard they were great here, and mine lived up to its reputation. Mojitos are easy to screw up, I think. They’re often too sweet, too tart, too boozy, too weak, too something. This one, though, was perfectly balanced. And they don’t skimp on the mint! (I would have happily ordered a second one later in the meal, but our server was nowhere to be seen until dessert. That was the one service blunder.)

My first course was conch fritters with jicama-avocado ravioli and mango oil. I loved this dish because everything on the plate had a counterpoint, texturally and in terms of flavor. There were these hot, savory fried morsels complemented by these cold, clean-tasting ravioli. There was a palate-cleanser quality about them. I do wish there’d been a little more of the mango oil; it brightened the whole thing up. But about those ravioli: they were wrapped up, dim sum steamed-dumpling style, in something that at first looked very much like a spring roll wrapper. I could taste jicama in there with the avocado, but there was something about it I couldn’t figure out. The crunch wasn’t there. I didn’t realize until the second dumpling that the jicama was the wrapper – sliced paper-thin! So that was kind of cool. Mark had a salad he really enjoyed; he said the vinaigrette was a lot subtler than most. Vinegar needn’t club you over the head.

My main course was duck confit and, once again, everything on the plate had something balancing it out. The duck was bruleed on top, which was brilliant. I don’t know if a crisp sugar crust on top of a layer of caramelized duck fat sounds good to you, but trust me, it was fabulous. I don’t generally like fatty meat, but duck confit just melts me into a little puddle of happy. I forget now what the sauce was, but it was something saltier to balance the sweetness, and there was a little frisee salad to offset the fat from the duck. There were some really thinly sliced plantain chips, too. Meanwhile, while I was in duck fat heaven, Mark was enjoying a portobello mushroom with corn, goat cheese, and beets. (His contribution to this review? "It was good.")

(I just said “duck fat,” or some variation, four times in one paragraph.)

Finally, dessert was a little chocolate cake with a molten center, bananas, caramel, and –this will sound weird but it totally worked – a little lime juice. It kept everything from being cloyingly sweet. See, again, it’s all about the counterpoints. Mark had a passionfruit sorbet: not too sweet, not too tart.

Here’s my one complaint, though: We ordered coffee with dessert, and the coffee was awful. It tasted like the dregs of a carafe that had been sitting on the hot plate for two hours. I’ve had better coffee at IHOP. Why do so many really good restaurants treat coffee like an afterthought? After so much attention to detail throughout the meal, it’s really jarring at the end to be served bad coffee. A great little cup of French-press coffee would have been a perfect conclusion, and it would have been so good with that dessert. So much energy is spent on food and wine pairings – why not coffee? It just seems dumb to ignore a diner’s last impression of the meal.

Coffee-colored water aside, it was a memorable meal, and a lovely way to celebrate my new job. (Yes, new job! Like how I snuck that in there at the end?)

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

a yurt christmas

Usually I spend Christmas pretty much the same way: hanging out at my parents' house, eating food, opening presents. Now that adventure boy is in my life, it seems things are going to be a bit different. Will's parents planned to visit us during Christmas so the two of us (well, mostly him) came up with the idea to spend Christmas in a yurt at 9400 feet. The trip required a 5 1/2 mile cross-country ski with full packs (never mind that my entire cross-country skiing experience consisted of an afternoon out at the nordic park three days before departure). We intended to spend two nights at the yurt with Will's entire family, but travel problems prevented both of his siblings from arriving and delayed our journey one day. But one night was probably just right for me.

The Uintas are a high mountain range with shallow valleys. The first part of our journey was a fairly gentle glide on partially groomed trails through pines and aspens, leading to a final steep slog up to our yurt which is appropriately called the Ridge. The yurt was nestled into a slight depression in the ridge.

As far as winter camping goes, a yurt is pretty luxorious. There is a wood stove, so you can keep yourself pretty warm (if you don't choke on the smoke from the faulty drafting). You get to sleep off the floor on wooden bunks. There is an outhouse. There is a propane stove and lantern and a large stack of chopped wood. Still, seeing as I detest winter and being cold, I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing. But thanks to a new down, zero degree sleeping bag and some good food, I survived (and am even looking forward to making another yurt trip in two weeks).

But the food. Trying to plan Christmas dinner that can be cooked entirely on a propane stove is a tricky thing (especially when you have to consider the weight of your food). With a little brainstorming and Will's willingness to be a workhorse and tow in a sled full of food, we ended up with a very satisfactory Christmas feast.

For lunch on our arrival, we nibbled on bread, spanish olives, manchego, salami, and Will's mom's fruitcake and nutmeg cookies. And tea of course--lots of tea while waiting for the stove's warmth to kick in. We also got to work melting snow on top of the wood stove (a continual process during our stay).

The obvious plan for Christmas eve dinner was pan-fried ham. We added mashed potatoes (mashed entirely--and quite handily, I might add--with a dinner fork) and asparagus (totally out of season, but. . . ) to round things out. And for dessert, rice pudding--which not only happens to be one of few stove-top desserts but also happens to be a Christmas tradition for Will's family. Will's dad is apparently the family's rice pudding master, but he was kind enough to step out of my way and let me craft the pudding (even though it was my first effort); it felt like a bit of an honor that I was trusted with the family tradition. Part of the tradition includes hiding an almond in the pudding which provides its discoverer with some luck. Rice pudding is a good choice for deesert when all you have is a stove-top, but at 9400 feet liquids boil very quickly making it tricky to properly cook rice leaving the pudding a little, well, chewy. We topped off the evening's meal with hot chocolate (chopped Scharffenberger with milk, to be exact) and peppermint schnapps.

For Christmas morning (after clearing our lungs from soot-filled sleep), we ate french toast from some chocolate chunk challah bread I'd baked at home, bacon, and reheated (and surprisingly tasty) mashed potatoes.

This is the kind of winter camping I can support: slighty warm conditions, good food (and lots of it)

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