My apologies that I have been away from the blog. I don't expect to be posting until further notice. Please keep Mr. Food Musings in your thoughts and, if you are so inclined, your prayers as well.
My apologies that I have been away from the blog. I don't expect to be posting until further notice. Please keep Mr. Food Musings in your thoughts and, if you are so inclined, your prayers as well.
The Loch Ness monster. Pegasus. Men who love Dancing with the Stars . We've all heard of them, sure, but actually seen them for ourselves? Not a chance. Until recently, I could say the same thing for a low-fat, low-calorie chocolate cupcake. And then my mom sent me a recipe...
Now I'm pretty hard to please when it comes to low-fat eating. I despise all but one fat free salad dressing, since they all have an aftertaste similar to Gatorade. And fat free cheese, well, if on occasion I eat it, it's not because I enjoy it. Reduced fat peanut butter? Ridiculous; it has the same nutritional excesses the regular stuff does, only it's sweet and gross.
But you don't have to take my word for it. Mom made these cupcakes for the family trip to Hawaii, and even the men -- Mr. Food Musings, Little Brother, The Boyfriend and Dad -- all gobbled them up without divining their secret. And at book club last week, I slipped them in after a cheesy lasagna. Sure, I dressed them up with a spoonful of whipped cream and a few shavings from a Scharffen Berger chocolate-hazelnut bar. But the fact that N. ate 3 of them -- 3!!! -- tells you something.
Serves 24 (2 WW points apiece)
Mix one box of instant chocolate cake mix with 1 14-ounce can of puréed pumpkin and 1 egg white (or 1 egg beater egg). With a wooden spoon or a mixer, beat until smooth. Tip into cupcake tins lined with cupcake liners (trust me -- these babies are so moist they stick to your fingers). Cook according to box directions (mine said 350 for 24 minutes). Let cool.
It's no secret that I'm shallow and self-obsessed, so it should come as no surprise that my first thought when I started jury selection for a month-long asbestos cancer trial was, "Eek! Where will I eat lunch every day???" San Francisco's court house and environs have little to recommend them in terms of restaurants. There are plenty nearby, but most are of the McFill-in-the-blank variety, and the good ones are either closed for lunch or too pricy to rely on every day. What's a girl to do?
When the clock struck noon on Tuesday, the judge immediately adjourned us. It didn't seem to matter that the defense counsel was in the middle of a question -- courts apparently run on a very strict schedule, and at noon they eat lunch. For an hour and a half. I couldn't believe it. I mean, who has ever heard of a lunch break that long that didn't involve wining and dining a client? Not only that, yoohoo, none of us jurors wanted to take an hour and a half lunch break. Trust me, Judge Judy, there is NOTHING TO DO down here, okay?! We want to get in, get out, and get back to our lives. Let's get this show on the road! We don't care if the attorneys need to make phone calls or brush the lint from their suits.
Nevertheless, we were freed for that long, and as I exited the building, careful not to return a smile from the Evil Defense Attorneys, I found myself lost. Where to eat? My first thought was Zuni Cafe, but it seemed like a damn long walk, and besides, I'm not keen on eating in nice places by myself. My only healthy option seemed to be Subway, but without a list of area restaurants I couldn't be sure.
As I looked around the square, squinting into the sun, my eyes drifted past the buildings: the gilded dome of City Hall, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the main library, the Asian Art Museum. And then it clicked -- a review I'd read of the city's museum restaurants. I parked my gaze at the AAM's hulk and headed over, passing a hot dog cart on the way. (Did I hesitate? Yes, dammit. I love hot dogs and I thought about buying one or two or seven and feeding them to myself one after the other in the square. But I walked on, health and heart in hand.)
After grabbing a cute red sticker with white chopsticks on it -- my free admittance to Café Asia but not to the collections -- I briefly checked out the museum store. (Who knows where a girl will find something to spend her hard-earned cash?) Then onto the café, which politely asks you to read the menu outside and decide on your menu choice before getting into the cafeteria-style line. A modicum of organization, this place.
Two soups tempted me -- the Thai coconut chicken and the soba noodle and shrimp tempura -- but I wasn't in the mood for slurping up hot liquid. (And besides, who knew when Judge Judy would give us our next potty break? Advance planning is the name of the jury game, folks.) I wanted the spicy salt and pepper fried chicken with egg noodles and tempura veg, but my desire to retain some semblance of my once-thin self overruled my id, so I settled on the green tea soba noodle salad. I nabbed a very cool wooden tray shaped like a rectangle but slightly wider in the middle and placed my order. While I waited -- all the salads, stews and soups are assembled, dressed and/or garnished å la minute -- I checked out the mirage of Japanese treats around me: teas in every leaf of the rainbow, Hello kitty! cookies, wasabi peas. My sense of fun got the best of me and I nabbed a box of chocolate covered biscuit sticks called Pocky. They are an addictive mix of dark and milk chocolate, and in fact I have been crunching and munching Pocky after Pocky as I type. (Bad Pocky. BAD! Go away, Pocky, and leave me alone!)
The salad was served in a big fat white bowl. I caught bite after bite of baby greens, soba noodles and pillowy tofu with my chopsticks, relishing the zingy soy-sesame dressing, snapping raw zucchini matchsticks and curly orange pepper strips with my teeth. I snacked on the occasional edamame and read my new book. Every now and then I'd look up at the other juror who was eating there, wondering if I could scheme to interview him about his experience installing asbestos-laden pipes. He was a shoo-in to get kicked off as soon as the picky attorneys started booting potential jurors, and if I could parlay his tips into a reasonably convincing "summer job" of my own, the thinking went, maybe I'd get sent packing too.
Alas, I was so wrapped up in finding every last lovely noodle in the thicket of greens that he escaped before I could apply my cross-examining prowess. Drat! (Slurp.) Nevertheless, I returned to court much happier than I had left it, knowing that a pretty good Asian lunch awaited me any day I needed it --- which turned out to be only the once. Yes, folks, I was rejected for my lack of impartiality on Wednesday afternoon...just in time for lunch.
I've been had. Or, er, got, by Robyn at EatingAsia. The last meme I wrote I swore would be the last --- kinda like the first glass of wine on a school night --- but I owe her one. Besides, the chance to prattle on self-indulgently? Bring it on.
7 things to do before I die...
1. cure mortality
2. fry chicken
3. get to know Gwyneth. and become her friend. her very BEST friend. forever. BFF, LYLAS, and all that jazz.
4. have a baby
5. fall in love all over again, with the same man
6. move out of my tiny @#$* apartment!
7. lose my temper --- and never ever find it again
7 things I cannot do...
1. the splits (anymore)
2. eat eggs
3. swallow my pride
4. spend more than 15 minutes on my hair and make-up
5. lose those last five pounds
6. forgive my enemies
7. drink as much as I did in my 20s
7 things that attracted me to blogging...
1. a really empty Sunday afternoon
2. the opportunity/curse of writing nearly every day
3. the opportunity to prattle on self-indulgently (wait...did I say that already?)
4. the chance to join a new community
5. the desire to steer my life in a totally new direction
6. the excuse to eat all kinds of lovely foods
7. a tax write-off for my meals out (Dear Taxman, JUST KIDDING!!!)
7 books I love...
1. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
2. What Remains, Carole Radziwill
3. A Million Little Pieces (yeah, yeah...), James Frey
4. Plainsong, Kent Haruf
5. The Gunslinger (and all the ones that follow), Stephen King
6. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
7. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
8. A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle
9. Hyperion (and the rest of the series), Dan Simmons
10. Le Divorce, Diane Johnson
11. The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester
12. "e", Matthew Beaumont
(7 is way too few, I could really keep going on and on all night...)
7 things I say most often...
1. "At the end of the day..."
2. "...but what do I know?"
3. "I love you."
4. "Hi, it's me."
6. "What do you want to eat for dinner?"
7. "Just calling to say hi."
7 movies I watch over and over...
1. None. I hate watching the same movie twice.
7 bloggers I'm tagging...
1. Last time way too many people mutinied. This time, if you want to participate in this meme, consider yourself tagged.
I'm in jury duty again today. Still no verdict (har, har) but I'll let you know what happens.
One possible candidate? Sascha Weiss, executive chef at the brand spanking new lettus organic café. Mr. Food Musings and I discovered the month-old spot while we were out and about yesterday. Exhausted and in need of refreshment after a morning of apartment hunting, we found all of our top choices -- Zuni Café, Osaka sushi, Mamacita, A16 -- were closed. Damn them. And so, with the parking meter running on an excellent space on Chestnut (score!) and bellies grumbling, we ambled into lettus to see what was to be had.
As the name implies, it's a menu of primarily organic ingredients, many with an Asian beat, from hot and cold appetizers to build-your-own salads to sammidges, entrées and desserts. Not only is most of the food organic -- asterisks on the menu alert you to the few items like rice noodles and goat cheese that are not -- but most of it is also locally sourced. The interior looks environmentally friendly, made of interlocking floor tiles (wood?) and wood slatted walls (recycled?) They open early enough that I bet they do a smashing smoothie business, plus they sell Equator organic teas and coffees. The spiced mocha with cayenne and cinnamon even tempted an uncaffeinated girl like me.
We ordered lunch at the counter (noodles for me, a sandwich for him) and then I trotted off to check out the oh-so cool loo. This one had a sink faucet that was a metal pipe with the top half mostly removed, and it spilled torrents of water into a flat square sink. Swanky!
I then sat down to a bowl of cold soba noodles with scallions, peppers and a balanced, lip-smacking lime-chili-sesame vinaigrette. I had added chicken (optional, as is baked tofu) and it was cool, fresh and the crust packed a bit of pepper. Mr. FM opted for a simple sandwich with chicken and avocado, served with a side salad (health is the name of the game, after all). We were both very pleased with our brief meals, though the organic juice they served is mostly sugar. (Why not stock Naked instead? Hint hint!)
Chef Weiss's experience at the vegetarian Millenium and the now defunct raw food impresario Roxanne's shows in his desserts. Vegans can indulge in the chocolate mousse cake with raspberry sauce and candied pecans, and raw food thrill seekers can have a slice of raspberry cashew cheesecake with blackberry black pepper sauce. I can't vouch for either, but they certainly sounded good.
The moral of the story? We'll be back to nosh on the fresh spring rolls with sweet chili sauce and shrimp, or the open faced crab cake sandwich or the green curry. And most definitely for the chocolate mousse cake and housemade sorbet. Two yums up to lettus!
And now, a brief word on this week. I have been asked to do my civic duty and participate in jury selection for a 4-week asbestos/cancer trial. Never one to shirk my public duty, I must confess that I am quite hoping not to be chosen (asbestos is a known carcinogen and Big Business is evil -- see, Mr. Defense Attorney, you don't want me on that jury!!!) but if I am, my posts may dwindle a bit. Check back later this week for an update, and by next week I should have time to tell you all about our scrummy celebration dinner at Scott Howard last weekend.
Mr. Food Musings and I swore we'd kick off the new year with less conspicuous consumption and more dinners in. That lasted approximately 5 days, and then a series of events forced us -- that's right, forced us -- to abandon our good intentions and well-laid plans.
The Scene Walking to our table across polished mesquite wood floors, I looked around in awe at what is one of the most gorgeous -- and most expensive, I'd bet -- rooms in town. Pronounced "AH-may" (with three little letters to announce its presence inside the swanky St. Regis hotel), it weaves texture and color in among subdued neutrals, like the black and gold striped gossamer curtains that somehow keep out the noise and cold. Dramatic fabric-wrapped constructions resembling sea creatures hang from the ceiling of the back room -- lights, I guess you'd call them -- and an open kitchen is eye candy for the main room. Even the smallest details, like the tablecloth's waffle-patterned petticoats or the custom-made sashimi bar, haven't escaped the designer's eye.
The Staff Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, the husband and wife team behind Napa's Terra, opened Ame in late 2005. Both have impressive pedigrees -- he opened the first Spago in Japan and then went on to run the Hollywood location in the '80s when it was still defining the idea of "fusion," eventually earning the James Beard Best Chef California title in 2003, and she is a pastry chef in her own right, first at the original French Laundry pre-Thomas Keller and later at -- you guessed it -- Spago. For the most part their staff hovers in the small intersection of elegant, friendly and unassuming, though the servers need to learn to take drink orders before launching into their 20-minute soliliquoy on each and every dish on the menu (sigh).
The Stand-outs Exectuve chef Greg Dunmore turns out what they blandly call "New American." A friend of mine does a better job of it, noting that it hits on the commonalities of Japanese and Italian cooking. The crudo --- fluke with young olive oil, Meyer lemon and sea salt --- was refreshing, and I'd like to go back for the tuna five ways and "Lissa's staff meal," a dish of cuttlefish noodles with a cracked quail egg, fresh wasabi, sea urchin and soy sauce. Hands down, the combination of smoky-sweet eel and silky foie gras over a sea of risotto had us sighing the most. I happily spooned the creamy insides of my burrata cheese over buttery toasts, polishing off each bite with a bit of pickled red onion or baby artichoke. The chawan mushi, a traditional Japanese egg custard, had me keeping my oh-so allergic distance but otherwise it was a table favorite. Finishing off with the mild tasting, wild looking sugar beet ice cream was a treat for all the senses.
The So whats? Though Terra is known for their sake-marinated black cod, which at Ame comes in a simple broth with heavenly shrimp dumplings, it's not as adventurous as many of the other items on the menu. The "crabonara," a play on Italy's famed pasta with pancetta and raw egg, was a tangle of noodles, butter and crab all right, but somehow it didn't hit any high notes. The orange-mint sorbet packed an invigorating punch, but it was a bit too icy for my taste.
Ame, San Francisco, 689 Mission Street, 415.284.4040
The Scene Medicine has made the old Faz space in Crocker Galleria utterly unrecognizable. Long communal tables with sloping sides are unadorned except by the occasional bottle of soy, and lucky diners get to gaze out onto Sutter Street from up high. A panel of flat screen TVs against one wall displays soothing images of flowers and trees in an attempt to calm, but the hyped up lunch crowd is anything but.
The Staff The six folks who opened Medicine Eatstation claim on their web site to be "driven by its mission [of loving kindness] to an almost fanatical degree." The cynic in me is thinking, yeah, right, especially when I see further down that they want to create "a restaurant experience that is affordable to people as part of their daily lives." Oh, is that what you call a $42 lunch for two? (Two "foundation sets," two drinks and a shared appetizer. Plus a 17% automatic gratuity --- and for what?)
The Stand-outs The vegetarian and mostly vegan "new shojin" cuisine is based on what Japanese Zen monks eat. Said monks believe food is medicine whose purpose is to keep the body healthy, and here I'm afraid we diverge. Nearly each "foundation set" (a fancy word for meal) comes with a block of artisan tofu with nori and ginger so hot it made me cry, as well as some pickled veg which I tried, then passed on to Mr. Food Musings. The only thing I really liked was the maitake mushroom in a tempura shell so crisp that with a squirt of fresh lemon and sprinkle of sea salt I could pretend I was eating potato chips. Mr. FM's veg tempura (red pepper, broccoli, eggplant) was equally stunning.
The So-whats? I don't like hot soba noodles, so that didn't make the cut, and Mr. FM described his cold clear soup as "water with some vegetables" -- spinach, sour plum and baby turnips to be exact. The yuzu lemonade was sickeningly sweet and the Cricket cola nothing more than an expensive novelty drink. Can you tell I'm not a convert?
Medicine Eatstation, San Francisco, 161 Sutter Street, 415.677.4405
The Scene Flickering candles light a room that is saved from starkness by electrifying orange seats and curtains. Photographs of Yemen, the chef's desert homeland, decorate one wall and a tiny bar hugs the back corner. Hidden away within the Hotel Carlton, Saha is a large space that manages to feel cozy and sultry even when half empty. My favorite feature is a series of five lamps hung at alternating lengths over a long table. Each is different, and their luminous globes recall exotic jellyfish floating in the sea.
The Staff Chef Mohamed Aboghanem wraps up his Yemeni childhood, European travels and twenty years cooking in San Francisco in a gift he calls "Arabic fusion." His wife is usually standing behind the hostess stand. Ask her for a recommendation and she dutifully and enthusiastically walks you through a handful of dishes, all of which live up to her promises. Waiters are attentive and skilled, changing plates after each course (if you order tapas-style), a mark usually missed in smaller restaurants. Wine recommendations are solid, and everyone looks as though they're lost in the food.
The Stand-outs Yemeni cooking is known for its unique mixture of savory and sweet flavors. In some dishes it's done proud, like the grilled shrimp in a pool of cool mint, cilantro and rosewater pesto. Ditto the signature ravioli stuffed with shitake mushrooms and napped in a mango cream sauce. The fouel made an instant addict of me, with its soupy mix of fava beans, garlic and roasted peppers. When the focaccia-like bread was gone, I made do with my fingers. Lahem sougar pairs grass-fed lamb sauteed with pine nuts and sumac, a spice made from sour purple berries, with hummus and pita. I hear the kibbeh, a traditional Middle Eastern dish of ground beef and cracked wheat does the kitchen proud, as does the fattoush salad.
The So whats? Our only meal there was faultless, but rumor is that not all of the surprising flavor combinations work (chocolate, chermoulah and scallops, anyone?) Next time I'd trade the plebeian kofta meatballs for one of the tagines.
Saha, San Francisco, 1075 Sutter Street, 415.345.9547
Sometimes a girl just needs a bowl of pasta. With bacon. It was a terrible, no good, horrible, very bad day, and what could make me feel better than a bit o'bacon, dressed up in a spicy tomato sauce and then draped over long strands of hollowed-out spaghetti? Nada, folks, and so I set to it, chopping up pancetta and red onion, crushing cloves of garlic, running my knife through a can full of sloppy tomatoes. Common sense dictated a vegetable on the side, so I threw two whole artichokes in a pot of boiling water (and then melted half a stick of butter to dip their leaves in. I was feeling better already.) An episode of my new addiction and one bottle of gorgeous red wine later, and the bad day faded into a very mellow, very satisfying evening.
Perciatelli all'Amatriciana (adapted from the Gourmet cookbook)
Serves 2 (with enough sauce for lunch the next day)
1 TBSP olive oil
5 ounces pancetta, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and juice reserved, tomatoes roughly chopped
1/2 cup water
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 lb. perciatelli (also called bucatini) or spaghetti
Parmesan cheese to taste
In a large sauce pan, heat oil over medium high heat. Add pancetta and onion and cook, stirring, until onion is golden, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes (if desired) and stir it around for another minute. Throw in tomatoes and juice, water, sugar and salt and bring to a simmer. Simmer uncovered until thickened, about 30 minutes. 15 minutes before the pasta sauce will be finished, put a pot of salted water on to boil and boil pasta according to package directions. Serve with a healthy grating of Parmesan cheese, kick back, and let all your woes fade away.
My love affair with CityZen was like Dante's with Beatrice -- unrequited, conducted from afar and never meant to be. Mr. Food Musings and I had planned a romantic dinner there in between Christmas with my family and New Year's Eve with my friend L. To say it is the only place in DC I wanted to eat would be a lie (yet might better ally mine with Dante's ferocious passion), but it certainly was the one at the top of my list. Chef Eric Ziebold worked with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry for 8 years, leaving his post as chef de cuisine in 2004 to open CityZen. Over the years, I've eaten at several of the other well-loved DC area restaurants from Citronelle to Kinkead's to L'Auberge chez Francois, and of those that remained, this was the one that I most wanted to visit.
And so I made a reservation several weeks in advance. The reservationist inquired if we were celebrating a special occasion; I replied that we were coming all the way from San Francisco to eat there. A small bit of spin on the truth, but nevertheless factually accurate. She seemed pleased, and assured me that Chef Ziebold would be in the kitchen that night.
Mr. Food Musings' suit was packed, I was giddy with excitement, our tastebuds were ready, and our wallet was frightened but had steeled itself for the onslaught. And then, right after Christmas, Mr. FM got sick.
With non-operational tastebuds and a lack of energy, Mr. FM wasn't up for a 5-course tasting, or tying a tie for that matter. And me, well, I figure if you're going to spend lots of time and money on a meal, you should both be able to enjoy it. A lesser woman than I might have considered going alone while her beloved rested in the hotel. She would only have considered it for a moment, of course, before erasing the silly thought from her mind.
Instead, we went to the next place on my list. Corduroy had been ringing up praise on a DC-based food forum, and F. remembered it fondly. Besides, chef/owner Tom Power had cooked for Michel Richard at Citronelle for years and that was the best recommendation of all.
Though I don't have CityZen to compare it to, after our meal at Corduroy it's hard to feel that we ended up at a lesser place. To borrow a phrase from Len Goodman, it knocked my socks off. We started the evening at Firefly, adjacent to our hotel, with pomegranate margaritas and flash-fried oysters with chipotle tartar sauce before heading off into the night to hail a taxi. As I stood outside, the frigid eastern wind whipped my shawl up like juice in a blender, reminding me that, despite my east coast upbringing, I am a California girl at heart.
Corduroy hides on the second floor of the Four Points Sheraton. The host led us to our table, and fear immediately clutched my heart. The table was the kind that is so long, you wonder where the other ten people are who should be sharing it with you. Mr. FM shaded his eyes with his hand, straining to see me across the miles. I sighed. This would never do.
I worried that our waiter was annoyed by my plea to rearrange the table, but with a quick flick of the wrist soon had the table turned sideways, plates and glasses reset, and moved on to tell us about the night's specials. We each ordered a glass of wine, which was poured å table from the bottle -- two different, but equally excellent burgundies from the more than 5,000 bottles in the cellar -- and we sat back to peruse the menu. Predictably it was backed in corduroy, but since that was the only nod to the restaurant's name I was willing to overlook its corniness. Unfortunately, the menu looked dull. Dull, dull, dull. I thought maybe we'd made a mistake.
But then I saw the words "Niman Ranch pork belly" in sequential order under the entrées, and the chorus of angels on my shoulder started to hum. When our first courses came, their hum changed to a majestic hallelujah chorus. My buffalo mozzarella was swept up in a net of kataifi, thin shards of shredded phyllo dough, and the whole concoction was deep-fried. Biting through the kataifi to the warm but not quite oozing cheese inside offered a satisfying contrast of crunchiness and pillowy softness, and the tomato flavor bursting forth from the coulis underneath was so pure and intense it reminded me of David Kinch's "tomato soup, barely cooked," which I described just after eating it as "Southern summer caught in a glass." Indeed.
Meanwhile, Mr. FM was happily tucking into a generous leg of duck confit served with tarbais beans, meaty white beans from Tarbes, France of the sort you find in cassoulet. And this is what his confit was, cassoulet minus the sausage. A word on duck: I do not care for it, but I can't help but hope I will someday, so I almost always take a taste when Mr. FM orders some. So trimphant was this duck that I loved it. LOVED it. Had several bites, begged for a few more. Hands down it is the best duck confit I've ever had, which is either saying a lot or nothing at all.
Our entrées were equally sensational. My Niman Ranch pork belly was unctuous and fork-tender after four hours of braising, and the crisp glaze on top punctuated the fatty pork to perfection. Underneath, a shred or two of carrots and delicate savoy cabbage were the sweet and sour foil. Mr. FM's lamb sirloin, not a cut you see very often, hovered near garnet at its middle and slowly turned to a rich chocolate brown at its edges. Set on the side was a pile of mini-raviolis stuffed with airy goat cheese. What I would give for a bowlful of those ravioli right now...and it's 9:25 in the morning.
The wine we drank with dinner did Corduroy proud. Mr. FM had chosen two contenders, a Tignanello from Italy and a 1997 Spottswoode Cabernet we drank on our first New Year's Eve together. Both hovered near the $100 mark. When asked, our waiter redirected us to a considerably less expensive bottle of 1999 Hermitage by E. Guigal. It was a small appellation, hence the recommendation, and excellent (apologies but my tasting notes are illegible. Or absent. It's hard to tell.) Moreover, I was duly impressed, as I always am, when a restaurant recommends a substantially cheaper bottle than the one we're considering. To me, that means they're passionate about their wine and want us to enjoy ourselves rather than just spend like the frivolous post- (pre?) apocalyptic Americans we are.
Dessert was an apple torte of some sort, and though I enjoyed it, I can't help feeling another choice might have been better. Research shows that Corduory is know for its desserts, but since my sudden allergy to eggs, I have to be careful with creme brulées and such. My only criticism is a fine point: the menu needs to be rewritten. It just doesn't convey any sense of excitement or do justice to the incredible ingredients on each plate, and if I'd seen it online before phoning for a reservation, there's a good chance I would have changed my mind. Thus is the power of the written word. It can, and should, tease, tantalize, and most of all make you feel like you're on the cusp something special. Unlike Dante and Beatrice, in Corduroy's case it's merely a case of underpromising -- and far, far overdelivering.
Corduroy, Washington DC, 1201 K Street, 202.589.0699
You may think me a little late to the party, but I prefer to think of it as fashionably so. I'm talking about all the lists of Best Meals and Best Restaurants of 2005 that have been published in print and online over the last few weeks. I've really enjoyed reading everyone's year end summaries and, since I'm not usually much for retrospection, here's my version of the list: current favorites (new or not) and dying-to-try spots. (Disclaimer: this was written after hours, not days, of exhaustive research, so it may not be totally complete. Forgive me.)
A16 Crisp Neapolitan pizzas with toppings like broccoli rabe and sausage or just plain mozzarella and basil are what hooked me, but the hearty pastas, incomparable burrata and and incredible wine list with never-fail recommendations from sommelier Shelly Lindgren are anything but second string.
Americano Other than Vivande, the restaurant we visited most in 2005. From my new seat in Egg Allergy Hell, I now recall the stracciatella "torn rags" Italian egg-drop soup with more than a touch of sentimental fondness. A bowl filled to the brim with broth, al dente pasta, earthy escarole, rough hunks of crouton, Parmesan cheese, and eggs is just the thing on a winter's day.
Burma Superstar I would drag my body over hot coals, through crushed glass and past hordes of sweaty Russian babushkas thrashing birch twigs at me in the sauna for another plate of nan pia dok, flat noodles in a creamy coconut-curry sauce with tender chicken, cabbage and spicy peppers. Luckily, all I have to do is hop on the #2 bus.
Chapeau! An all-time favorite that Mr. Food Musings and I visited too few times last year. Owners Philippe and Ellen Gardelle are the nicest people on Earth, I tell you, and their cozy boite of a bistro out in the Richmond is worth the drive for creamy oysters in mignonette, salmon three ways (smoked, tartare and roe) with waffle chips to scoop it up, and soulful cassoulet. Mr. FM always enjoys his conversations with Philippe about wine, and we've never drunk a bad drop there.
Coco500 Every time I tell someone I adore Coco500, I surprise myself. I think it's because it's one of the few restaurants who let me down at first, but when I gave it a chance at redemption, it bruised its knees praying fervently at the pew before serving up its soul to me on a platter. The truffled squash blossom flatbread must never be allowed to leave the menu. Ditto the tempura-fried green beans and dense, chocolately marbled "brownies."
Lemongrass Thai Delicate curries, melt-in-your-mouth tofu, and some of the best soups this side of Thailand enthralled me at first sip. The fact that they deliver sealed it. They're my Thai place now and forevermore.
Little Star Pizza Lazy as we are, we now cheerily forego delivery for a bite of the deep dish with sausage, peppers, onions, and a thick chunky layer of the world's best tomato sauce. (sigh)
Luella Though I've only been twice, it's one of my favorite places. I love the restaurant, which manages to be chic but not trendy. Silky salt cod brandade, velvety artichoke soup, pasta tossed simply with fresh zucchini and herbs, and the best dessert I had all year: deep-fried ricotta dumplings drizzled with honey.
Manresa I always struggle with how to describe Kinch's genius, and usually give up, merely listing the nearly non-stop parade of perfect dishes. His ability to synthesize disparate ingredients like abalone and pigs trotters; his whimsical, yet studied presentations (crab and coconut soup in the sea urchin shell just vacated by the previous course of sea urchin, served with oyster in a gelée of sea water) and stamina -- 20+ courses is not unusual -- have made us consider a move to the South Bay. That's got to be desperate passion talking, since the South Bay was recently coined by one Bay Area restaurant critic as the "valley of the Olive Garden."
Mijita It must say something that, with only two opportunities to feed my parents on a recent trip (we were off to Hawaii the next day) we chose this Ferry Building taco joint for one. What's more, my parents talk about it every time we see them -- more than they talk about Americano. Was it the tender carnitas, heap of creamy guac or the authentic Mexican Coca-Colas? I'd wager all three.
Myth I don't know anyone who's been and didn't fall head over heels. From sweetbreads to beef cheeks to tamer fare like scallops, it's all good (except desserts -- have they gotten better?)
Oola Where else can you eat foie gras ravioli or Asian spare ribs while sipping on an expertly made pomegranate martini and tapping your feet to the techno beat? Okay, plenty, but this is the best.
Pizzeria Delfina I'm on a pizza kick, so sue me. So is the rest of the city, and Delfina's little sister dishes up some damn fine pies.
Saha A bold claim after only one visit, but one taste of the fouel, a soup dip or a dippy soup of fava beans, peppers and zaatar and I decided it was my new desert island food. Ahi tuna wrapped in knaffe (shredded phyllo dough similar to kataifi) is lightly fried and plopped down with a sweet and spicy carrot salad. Mushroom ravioli play with sweet and sour, and shrimp come just grilled in a sauce of cilantro, mint and rosewater. I hear from trusted sources that some of the flavor combinations don't work, but our meal was faultless. Unless, of course, you consider that the chef came out and chatted up the wrong table. I guess in the flickering light he didn't recognize his newest fan.
Silks Hotel dining room ambiance aside, it was the surprise hit of the year. I can't forget our final dessert course, a teacup of rich cocoa and a shot of cold beer. One of the most fun and enlightening combinations I've ever had.
Vivande Porta Via My safe haven. Despite singing its praises at the top of my lungs, I can still nab a seat any night of the week and gobble up cannelini beans with pancetta, housemade pasta with Bolognese or peppers and sausage, and chicken cooked under weights with a bit of balsamic reduction. Inexpensive Italian wines and, when there's room, white palle di neve cookies beckon nearly everyw eek.
YaYa Cuisine My first introduction to Middle Eastern fusion. I love the sultry music as well as the food, traditional Mesopotamian cuisine updated with modern ingredients and techniques. Falafel pizza, delicate grilled eggplant with pomegranate sauce, and dolma so amazing I begged (and got...) the recipe. I never pass up having my coffee grounds read by Yahya Salih, the most affable, down to earth chef there ever was.
Yuzu Sensei and his team will soon have other sushi chefs committing hari-kari from shame. My dreams are now filled with buttery otoro sashimi, real wasabi, rolls that go beyond spiders and dragons, and desserts like tiny poached pears and housemade sorbets.
Zuni Café Another all-time favorite for their copper-topped bar, expert cocktails, impeccable raw bar and finger-licking frites. The one place in the City guaranteed to stump me at least once with an unfamiliar ingredient, which keeps it fun.
Dying to try
Blue Jay Café It's debatedly some of the best fried chicken in the City, and who can be bothered to deep-fry at home? Besides, it's close by.
Inn at Victorian Gardens This may be on the list forever. The last time I called for a reservation, in January, they had two openings...all year. I love Mendocino County with its cold gray waters crashing against the cliffs, and the idea of paying a prix fixe to be fed whatever the Italian chef is cooking, then walking upstairs to go to bed, sounds more appealing than another trip to Hawaii. (Well maybe not Hawaii. Let's say Paris.)
Masa's My first meal there was the one that opened my eyes to what food could be. It's probably the first time I ever wrote down what I ate, but after Ron Siegel left, I figured why bother? Word on the street is that the chef who's finally taken over is doing the place proud.
Range I worry about the loud din, but what's not to love about cooking locally, seasonally and all that jazz?
Scott Howard If you're bold enough to put your name on a restaurant, it better be good. I'm not a big fan of deconstructed plates but I'm willing to try and overcome my bias.
Sushi Sam's Thomas Keller drives to San Mateo to eat there. 'Nuff said.
Thanh Long I keep hearing about their garlic noodles and roasted Dungeness crab, and this will be the year I go. Dammit.
The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton Universal swooning from many, many trusted friends, plus my aforementioned appreciation of Ron Siegel, means the only reason I haven't been yet is I keep spending all my cash at Manresa.
How can you not love a place that has five little neon piggies running across its storefront? Given my love of bacon and, really, all things pork -- I managed to work "the other white meat" into no fewer than three dishes at Christmas -- it should come as no surprise that one of my must-eat places when I went East for the holidays was a barbecue joint.
When I was a kid, my folks would pile Little Brother, Little Sister and me into the car at least once a month to drive two hours south to an itty-bitty North Carolina town called Roanoke Rapids. My mother had grown up there and her parents and extended family live there still. When in R-squared, we'd pack as many of our relatives as would fit around my grandmother's long dining room table for dinner. The food that fed our crowd -- long slabs of salty Virginia ham, casserole dishes full of macaroni and cheese with Saltines crunched up on top, two kinds of slaw, jello salads quivering in every color of the rainbow, soft yeast rolls folded into half-moons -- came rolling out from her kitchen and from my great aunt Margaret's kitchen next door.
Occasionally we gave my grandmother and Margaret a break from the stoves by heading out to local restaurants. Taylor's Fish House or Rosemary Restaurant are both closed now, but I loved them dearly, from deep-fried clam strips and the bathrooms at the fish house -- "gulls" for me and Little Sister, "buoys" for Little Brother -- to the way Charlie Thanos, who owned Rosemary Restaurant, would make me blush by telling me that I had the biggest, bluest, most beautiful eyes he'd ever seen.
One of those dinners was inevitably at Ralph's Barbecue. While all the grown-ups chowed down on barbecue and Brunswick stew, I stayed in blander, safer pastures of deep-fried scallops. One time I veered from my standard, and it was a disaster. Ordering the "fried chicken sandwich" produced a deep-fried chicken breast, bone and all, with a thin slice of white bread underneath and another one flapping about on top like a flimsy hat. Little Sister and I looked at each other when it was served and, if memory serves, I burst into tears. Scallops it was from then on out.
But in recent years I've developed a taste for barbecue and wanted desperately to eat what my family considers the world's best. The holiday trip to R-squared was to be a day-trip, and we couldn't even consider passing up the local burger and hot dog mecca for lunch, so we settled for picking up some Ralph's on the way home.
The to-go space isn't much to holler about -- a couple of naugahyde-covered chairs and an ancient menu board with stick-on letters -- but the food sings out like a gospel choir on their way to meet the Baby Jesus. The barbecue is moist but not dripping in sauce, and can be ordered sliced or chopped (which is most folks' preference). It's been served since 1941, first by founder Ralph Woodruff, later by his offspring, and is meant to be eaten bite-for-bite with sweet cole slaw. The designation "sweet" means the slaw is made with finely diced cabbage, sugar, mustard, mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar and salt -- no grated carrot or other veg to sully it.
Then there's the Brunswick stew, a creation from Brunswick County, Virginia that dates back to 1828 (though Brunswick, Georgia would dispute that claim). Brunswick stew was traditionally made with squirrel meat, but the modern version is a thick slurry of shredded pork and chicken, butter beans, tomatoes and corn. The sweet corn tames the stew's tanginess and since the meat is shredded, it mingles with the other flavors rather than asserting itself in showy hunks.
The meal wouldn't be complete without hush puppies, deep-fried balls of cornmeal that are often served in place of bread. After we placed our order, which included a quarter of a fried chicken so Mr. Food Musings could taste the real deal, Little Sister chirped up, "...and two sweet teas, please." That's right, sweet tea. If you ever order tea in the South, be prepared to specify if you want yours sweetened -- and most do. It's brewed with sugar from the outset, which helps the sugar dissolve and melt into the tea without the need for additional stirring at serving time.
And so we drove home with the smells of barbecue coming from the back seat. Our coolers were packed with two quarts each of stew, slaw and barbecue, and the hush puppies were passed around the car while they were still hot. My parents take the back roads, preferring to go the "old way," and as we munched our hush puppies we watched the nearly barren winter countryside roll past, the trees nothing more than thin sticks silhouetted against a sky first gray with rain, later midnight blue. Eventually it turned pitch black, since most of the small towns we drove through are too poor to worry with broken and busted streetlights, but the stars were out in full force.
Dinner, when we finally ate it, was a feast. With greasy fingers, we fed ourselves morsels of moist chicken coated in a crunchy, flaky fried crust; while the stew reheated, we mounded up heaps of chopped barbecue with slaw on top. I'd traveled 5,114 air miles and another 4 hours in the car for a few bites of succulent pork and a spoonful of stew. All that for a perfect bite of yesteryear, and worth every bit of the journey.
Ralph's Barbecue, North Carolina, 1400 Julian Allsbrook Highway in Weldon (2 blocks East of I-95), 252.536.2102