Friday, February 17, 2012

An enchanted evening, in six courses at...

For Valentine's Day I received one of the best gifts a girl could ask for... six courses of the decadent, fanciful cuisine of Belgium chef Bart Vandaele at Capitol Hill eatery Belga Cafe. Over the course of two and a half hours I tasted new things, encountered some favorites in surprising ways and did enough "mmming" and "ahhing" to make our closely seating neighbors more than a little uncomfortable. 

Valentine's Day dining is meant to be special, and the restaurant industry takes full advantage of the night to offer special meals and make a pretty penny. Belga's price-fix menu was one of the more expensive options for the night, but I think the 79.95 per person was a fair price to pay for what was offered. 

The menu was split into four sections - the temptations, the inter-courses, the event and the finale. Diners received two items for both the temptations and inter-courses, then chose one of three options for the event and finished with a sweet finale. Wine pairings were available for each section, but at 39.69 per person, we opted out for obvious reasons. A single glass of Malbec and regular refills of DC's finest tap water complemented my meal just perfectly.

The Meal
(All photos courtesy of Roderick Carey)
The Temptations - Foie gras push ups and Purple parsley potatoes
 Up first was the foie gras push-up - an adult push pop layers of foie gras, fig and speculoos, a gingerbread cookie flavored spread popular in Europe. Foie gras, a duck liver paste has a very strong and almost bitter flavor which the chef  nicely balanced with the sweetness of the other ingredients, but because of the vertical layering eating it was a challenge.  I found myself wanting something to spread it all and the basket of hot rye bread was luckily up to the task. 

 Next was the Purple parsley potatoes - simple, creamy and garnished with salmon roe. I couldn't resist biting into the bright orange eggs individually to get a good taste of their saltiness.

Inter-course 1 - Cupid's Asparagus Arrows
One of the biggest surprises of the meal came during in the 1st inter-course. Among the many elements of this beautiful plate - greens, avocado, oysters, hollandaise - sat what looked like a ball of cheese covered in a crispy coating. To my surprise it was a perfectly runny, bright yellow egg yolk, sprinkled with crumbled proscuitto. Now HOW did they do that?
Inter-course 2 - "Oh so sweet" lacquered lobster
 The second part of the inter-course was a simple but intense bowl of soup. The dish was initially served as hunks of lobster tail and sweet basil in a shallow bowl garnished with tomatoes and cream. The waiter then poured a piping hot broth over the mixture that released a vibrant aroma that made me smile. I was impressed with the liberal serving of lobster - some serious bang for our many bucks.

The Event for me  - Voluptuous pheasant breast and its tender legs
 My choice for the event was the "voluptuous" pheasant, and what a beauty she was. I chose it because I'd never had it before and I can report that this small game bird does not taste like chicken, but it does kinda taste like turkey. In fact my whole plate - white and dark meat pheasant, dollops of pureed potatoes, roasted vegetables and brown gravy - tasted like a perfect Thanksgiving dinner. The sophistication of the winter truffles and braised endive were not lost on me, but I loved that the dish had an overall homey feel.

The Event for him - Luscious loins of veal

 My date went with the veal - a meat I sometimes pretend to dislike for moral reasons, when in actuality I really don't care. My past experience with veal - slathered with ragu and parmesan in school cafeterias or pounded and fried did not do this protein justice. These "luscious loins" can only be described as ultra tender filet mignon - beautifully complimented by the intense flavors of almond, beets and bitter greens.

Finale - Belgian chocolate 

For the finale, my date and I couldn't help but channel Anthony Bourdain to make fun of the Dali-esque painting that arrived on our table. "Was the chef tripping on some really good acid?" "Has the 90s returned to haunt us?" Jokes aside, the main elements of the plate were beautiful. The creamy flour-less chocolate cake was near perfect - just missing a bit of crunch; the red berry sorbet was rich, with a vibrant flavor to match the color;  the butterfly cookie- the corniness of its shape aside - melted on the tongue. As for the many other elements on the plate - crushed pistachio, royal icing, fresh fruit - I could have done without them, if just for aesthetic reasons. I would've preferred my meal to end with a bit of understatement.

Final Thoughts

This Valentine's Day was truly a night to remember. Receiving the gift of this experience made me feel truly loved and understood by my partner and for that I thank him...again and again.

Throughout these six courses I never found myself disappointed. I enjoyed each dish not only for their flavor, but for the skill and artistry it took to create them. That being said, my favorite part of the meal was the course that I think hid its complexity best - the event. In both of our choices, the dishes - while complex and very advanced - felt simple and somehow familiar. I don't know why, but the idea of eating a better version of something you know is powerful, even in a meal that is purposefully forward thinking.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

GBH Hungry Valentines' Dining Guide

I think I may be a difficult Valentine. Half of me thinks the day is corny and a waste of time and money, the other half wants to be surprised with grand romantic gestures. But what to buy? Flowers make me sneeze and those heart shaped boxes of chocolate are never actually good. As you can probably guess, the best way to my heart is through my stomach so a romantic dinner is always a winner in my book.

Gag! That's cheesy... but I kind of love it

For those of you who share my sentiments (or have partners/friends that do), a great way to pull off an extra special night out without breaking the bank is by taking advantage of one of the many price-fix menus offered just for the big day. While there is a near complete list of what the DC area has to offer over at OpenTable, here are a few of my favorites from the list that have more ethnic/exotic offerings than the standard steak dinner.

Acadiana - 901 New York Ave, NW. Louisiana seafood and Cajun goodness in a modern and romantic setting.  Not so much a "price-fix" as a "fixed price-range" menu with the price based on the entree ($56 - $64). I recommend the charbroiled oyster app that would impress anyone - buttery and fantastic. MENU

Belga Cafe - 514 8th Street, SE. Sophisticated Belgian cuisine in four romantic courses (one is even called the inter-course!), with decadent ingredients like foie gras and black truffles. $79.69 per person - add $39.69 for wine pairings. MENU

Bombay Club - 815 Connecticut Ave, NW. Located only a few blocks from the White House, Bombay Club attracts some high end Washington clientele but it's not so stuffy that it becomes unwelcoming (My first visit was as a lowly college student). The offer is five courses of refined Indian with a champagne toast and (questionably corny) piano music for $75.

Ceiba - 701 14th Street, NW. South and Central American cuisine in four courses with a range of prices similar to Acadiana (same owners, duh!). One word: CHURROS! $51-59.  MENU and DESSERT

Cuba Libre - 801 9th Street, NW. This year's three course menu titled "The Golden Age of Romance" promises a taste of 1940s sultry Havana. Caliente and well priced at $78 per couple (not including drinks). MENU

Masa 14 - 1825 14th Street, NW. Multicultural love abounds at Masa 14 with a Latin-Asian fusion menu that includes edamame, a choice of three small plates and a dessert for $70 per person. The flatbreads are delicious but just the idea of the 72-hour brisket has my mouth watering. MENU

Meze - 2437 18th Street, NW. A very well priced option is the four course "Love Menu" at this sleek Turkish spot in Adams Morgan. The menu is simple but every item looks tempting. $39 per person. MENU

Oya - 777 9th Street, NW. This hip eatery's five course Valentine's Day price fix is sure to offer an interesting mix of offerings that would be at home in a sushi house or a modern American restaurant. If the $85 per person price is too steep, maybe go for the $35 three course menu that is a nightly offering. The luxurious decor and romantic lighting will surely make up for it.

Tabaq Bistro - 1336 U Street, NW. This U Street favorite is offering a five course menu that includes a palate-cleansing third course sorbet and a glass of champagne with dessert all on the enclosed rooftop with a beautiful view of the city. (After many drunken brunches it's hard to think of the brunch as romantic, but I digress...) $75 per person and 50% off bottles of champagne.

Now go out and make those reservations PRONTO! And don't forget to tell your date GBH sent you!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Where's the Pho?

I love pho.

We met in college, at a shady shopping center eatery on University Blvd. The large bowl, filled with bright white noodles, almost raw slices of beef and the most aromatic broth I'd ever smelled made my jaw drop. The abundance of "fixins" confused me, but as I added some lime here and scriacha there, I realized this food had endless potential for diner experimentation, something I learned to appreciate as a child eating Liberian pepper soup.

Smoke and mirrors
Over the years, I've visited a number of pho spots in the Greater Washington area. Some were dressed up, with modern decor and soothing ambient music. Others were stripped down with vinyl covered furnishings and Southeast Asian versions of Celine Dion blaring through the speakers. Personally, I am from the camp that prefers the latter - a well worn mom and pop. The way I see it, Mom and Pop don't have TIME to consider the best flatware or to choose an accent color because they are too busy cooking the food they know and love. They don't need trendy art on the walls, because everyone is actually coming for the food. Plus if all those hideous vinyl seats have butts in them, you can be pretty sure you're in for the time of your life.

This theory has proven correct many times over - by the juicy chicken burrito at El Rinconcito (that is largely responsible for my wide waistline) or the INSANE fried fish at Horace & Dickie's (well worth a 10 minute wait surrounded by drunken middle aged men). But when it comes to Pho, I have learned that the ONLY thing that matters is the broth and the best broth in DC happens to come with a sleek decor, great service, and a trendy location.

The Essence of Pho
Pho broth is a complicated affair. Beef bones and marrow are boiled and combined with onions, ginger, star anise and various other aromatics and then left to simmer for hours. I have always pictured a hunched over Vientamese grandmother laboriously stirring a huge pot of this stuff; adding more water or ingredients as needed and never allowing it to quite "die". I don't know if this approach would pass city health inspection, but with such a complicated recipe it seems the only way to maintain consistent flavor.

Pho is amazing because after all the complexity of preparing a good broth, what is presented to the patron is simple perfection. A bowl of thin rice noodles, covered in a health laddle of broth, and then topped with whatever cuts of beef were ordered - chunks of well-done brisket; bible tripe for the adventerous; thinly sliced cuts of raw skirt flank that quickly cook in the piping hot broth. Noodles, broth, meat. That's it. The rest is up to you.

So what is my favorite Pho spot in DC?
Pho 14 on Park Rd in Columbia Heights. Any doubts that were brought up by the modern dining decor were thoroughly vanquished at first sight/smell/sip of their shockingly good Pho broth. That first day I think I ate more than half of the bowl, without even touch the condiments, something I could never do at most places. Bowls at Pho 14 come in regular (7.95) and large (8.95) and are served with a heaping plate of bean sprouts, lime, sliced jalapenos, and a sprig thai basil. Bottles of siracha and hoisin are there as well.

The menu here is huge so there is is actually reason to go even if you're not in the mood for pho (which for me is like, never). One exciting option is "bun" or vermicelli noodle dishes that come with a variety of toppings and are served with fish sauce made in house or a spicy sweet chili sauce. Their banh mi sandwiches - one of the hottest things in DC right now - are only 3.99!

Some other good options in the area are:

Pho DC in Chinatown. It's overpriced and as sleek as they come, but the pho is decent and the service is excellent. Also, they have a liquor license so you can sip while as you slurp.

Noodles on 11 is located at the intersection of 11th Street and New York Ave, NW. It is easy to miss as it is squeezed between a Thai restaurant and sushi bar, but the search is worth it. This place not only serves up a solid pho, but it also does Hong Kong style noodles, a variety of curries, a sweet and tart Tom Yum, and some of the best roast pork I've had in DC. They also serve alcohol and have great happy hour specials.

Do you have a place I need to try? If so, please comment below.

...happy slurping!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Soup and I

Growing up eating Liberian pepper soup taught me the importance of the perfect bowl of soup. When an aunty invited us over for a mammoth pot of meaty soup, there were decisions to be made. "How will I eat my soup today?"

The choices begin even before the soup is ladled into the large bowls that are only taken down for this purpose. One must determine what starch will go with their soup: rice or fufu. If it's fufu, do you want cassava or plantain fufu. How about dumboy, which is fermented fufu? Not many of the kids choose that one.

Next are the add-ins. Unlike with pho or Asian noodle soups, the condiments and flavorings are usually added to the bowl before the soup. This gives the eater a chance to mash everything together without slopping soup out of the bowl. Exotic ingredients like okra, bitterball, benin seed (mashed sesame seeds), vinegar pepper sauce, and steamed habenero peppers are all laid out for the taking. Along side these are more conventional things like peanut butter and lime that have a very distinctive effect on the flavor of the soup but should never be added together.

This process of adding, mashing, mixing and adding more is how I grew up eating soup and instilled in me the idea that sometimes food has to be doctored to be enjoyed. The fact that no two people's bowls are identical is thrilling.

So in the spirit of winter (you remember winter, when it's supposed to be COLD), I will be focusing on soups and stews that warm the body and the spirit. First up: Pho!

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