The Restaurant Project: Ethiopic (December) … and The 2012 Project Is …

January 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

We got screwed in finishing up the Restaurant Project. The final stop was meant to be Ethiopic.

Little did we know, Ethiopic shuts down entirely starting in mid-December through the first week of January … so we weren’t able to finish. Out of luck, out of ideas, and, well, lazy, we ended up at Graffiato, where we made a rule that we couldn’t order anything we had ever had before — we ended up having broccolini, wild boar, and the Jersey Shore pizza.

Here’s what we learned: The dishes that are considered “great” at a restaurant got that way for a reason. (Because they’re great.) The dishes you don’t hear a lot about are under-the-radar for a reason. (Because they’re not that great.) Lesson learned: Stick to what you love.

And that’s it. It was a great year, we achieved our goal of getting out and trying different places, we fell in love with Penn Quarter, and we managed to do it all without gaining a shitload of weight.

The Restaurant Project was a success.

But we’re over it.
In 2012, there’s a new monthly event: The Concert Project.
We’ve got plans and bands and tickets lined up already for January, February, March, and April.
The first one is tonight.
First recap, soon.

We’ll also be cooking a lot more at home in 2012, because we can’t afford all that dining out and all those concert tickets. Last night we made linguine carbonara and braised and glazed Brussels sprouts (both recipes courtesy of Mark Bittman). So good, right?

Braised & Glazed Brussels Sprouts and Linguine Carbonara

Scott got a fancy camera for Christmas so expect more photos in 2012, too.

Previously:
November = PS7
October = We the Pizza
September = Four Sisters
August = We Suck
July = Graffiato
June = Smith Commons
May = Lyon Hall
April = Pubbelly (Miami)
March = Volt
February = Kushi
January = Let’s not talk about it.

The Restaurant Project: PS7 (November)

December 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

I have fallen in love with the Penn Quarter neighborhood.

There are so many thriving restaurants (PS7, Graffiato, Rasika to name just a few that are within walking distance of each other, not to mention The Source and Riot Act Comedy and Poste), you can’t miss on a night out in this area, unless there’s a Caps game you’ve forgotten about and parking is a nightmare, which is what happened to us for November’s project. But we survived.

It’s been on the project docket since winning the people’s choice award at the Top-Dog Half Smoke Challenge back in May … but we finally made it to PS7 in November. Here’s what we ordered:

  • Nutty goat flatbread — I loved this. LOVED it. You can’t do better than bread and goat cheese, but toss in walnut butter? Amazing, and the portion is perfectly sized for two people to split.
  • Roasted fig salad — This dish got rave reviews in a recent writeup in the Washingtonian, but I wasn’t a fan. The figs combined with the candied orange and the cashew vanilla were too rich and sweet, and the frisée didn’t do anything to undercut it. However, the ginger crumbs were yum.
  • Black pepper gnocchi — Scott ordered this as his entree, for a compare-and-contrast with Graffiato’s. He loved it; I had a few bites — it’s very good, a little heavier than Mike Isabella’s, and not at all black peppery.
  • Roasted pork loin — I am unable to resist a menu item that includes Brussels sprouts. These, however, weren’t particularly memorable. The loin itself was really nicely cooked, with just the right amount of crunch on the skin, which made the crispy onions feel like overkill.

The Verdict: I’d definitely go back to PS7, but I’d stick to the lounge, where the flatbreads are available, along with the restaurant’s award-winning half smoke (you can see the trophy from the contest above the bar!). They’ve also got a good-looking selection of cheeses and delicious burgers, and an extensive beer and wine menu. Who’s up for cocktails?

Previously:
October = We the Pizza
September = Four Sisters
August = We Suck
July = Graffiato
June = Smith Commons
May = Lyon Hall
April = Pubbelly (Miami)
March = Volt
February = Kushi
January = Let’s not talk about it.

The Restaurant Project: We the Pizza (October)

November 19, 2011 § 3 Comments

Meh.

Sorry, Spike.

Previously:
September = Four Sisters
August = We Suck
July = Graffiato
June = Smith Commons
May = Lyon Hall
April = Pubbelly (Miami)
March = Volt
February = Kushi
January = Let’s not talk about it.

The Restaurant Project: Four Sisters (September)

October 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

And, we’re back on track with the Restaurant Project.

We have the rest of the year’s restaurants lined up, and we have the theme for the 2012 project all decided. (It doesn’t have to do with dining, but that doesn’t mean the end of this project. You’ll see.)

This month’s project stop was extra special because we had company — my very best friend Tracey and her husband, Nick, who recently foresake Hawaii to return to the lovely suburbia of Northern Virginia. Somewhat collectively, we selected Four Sisters, a Vietnamese place conveniently located between our homes.

Four Sisters is consistently a top-rated D.C. restaurant — it’s generally on both the Top 100 Restaurants and the Cheap Eats list from Washingtonian. Vietnamese certainly isn’t ever going to be my top cuisine choice, but everyone else seemed game, so we dove in.

The water was deep — the menu offers 149 items over approximately 37 pages (which prompted Nick to ask, “Does this thing have an appendix?”) — and it didn’t help when the waiter stopped by 2 minutes after we were seated and asked if we were ready to order. He received a patented Meredith Death Stare because, REALLY?! We’d barely made it to page 2.

Given the depth of options, I think we all had menu paralysis — so we ordered the pre-set, dinner for four, which included:

  • Crispy pork spring rolls — the second-best part of the meal, in my opinion.
  • Papaya salad with shrimp and pork — I was unable to find the papaya or the salad in this dish, but I did enjoy it nonetheless.
  • Seafood combination soup — I mostly skipped this because, um, seafood.
  • Caramelized pork in clay pot — Good, but teeny-tiny serving for a dinner to feed four.
  • Chinese broccoli sauteed with beef — Very good, but I’m not a huge beefeater. Haa.
  • Grilled lemongrass chicken — The very best part of the meal, in my opinion.
  • Seasonal fruits — This dish did not include cantaloupe, which was disappointing, as we were all hoping to catch some listeria
Four Sisters Dinner for Four

What was left of papaya salad, pork, beef, and chicken after the boys had had their way with them.

All that food, plus drinks for each of us, came in at a grand total under $90. Not bad to feed a dinner of four. (Of course, I wanted to go to the Arby’s across the street afterward … but we came, we tried.) I’d definitely return; and now I’d know exactly what to order (lemongrass chicken, I am looking at you).

Previously:
August = We Suck
July = Graffiato
June = Smith Commons
May = Lyon Hall
April = Pubbelly (Miami)
March = Volt
February = Kushi
January = Let’s not talk about it.

The Restaurant Project: We Suck (August)

September 17, 2011 § 4 Comments

No, there isn’t a restaurant called We Suck.
(There should be.)

August got a little bit hectic with work, some home improvement projects, a bachelor party, a trip to Miami, multiple fantasy football drafts (not mine), and, oh, AN EARTHQUAKE. Every time we planned to go to a new place, things fell through at the last minute or something disaster-ish came up.

So, we failed in August. We did, however, manage to go back and check in on three of our favorites — Graffiato (excellent, as always), and while we were in Miami, Pubbelly (where some of the sheen has rubbed off), and Nobu (which was also excellent, as always). Two words: Sea bass. And I hate fish.

We’ll do September right.
And I’ve already decided what 2012’s project is going to be. More on that later.

Previously:
July = Graffiato
June = Smith Commons
May = Lyon Hall
April = Pubbelly (Miami)
March = Volt
February = Kushi
January = Let’s not talk about it.

The Restaurant Project: Graffiato (July)

July 31, 2011 § 5 Comments

Something happened in July that hasn’t before:
We went back to the same restaurant not once, not twice, but three times.

Yes. That’s how good Graffiato is.

[let’s pretend like there’s the obligatory paragraph about Mike Isabella and “Top Chef” here, ok? I am feeling lazy/hungover for reasons that will become apparent later]

Our first trip, we had reservations in the upstairs dining room, and after some tense negotiations and a “please no octopus” plea, we settled on the chef’s tasting menu. (Obviously, the first and foremost draw here is the chicken thighs with pepperoni sauce from “Top Chef”, the dish that gave Gail Simmons an orgasm on cable television — would those be included? We weren’t sure, but pretty much everything on the menu looked alluring.)

That first visit, Mike Isabella sent us:

  • A bread special — a polenta bread, a focaccia, a raisin bread, and an olive oil jam (they need to bottle the jam and sell it online; I’d buy a case)
  • Marinated sweet peppers — the weakest dish of all three visits, sooo salty
    Trio of ham — country ham, prosciutto di parm, and a holiday ham from Pennsylvania. The ham was a bit lost on me. Cheese > Ham.
  • Sweet corn agnolotti — A fancy way to say ravioli, in my 25% Italian opinion. Very, very good.
  • “Countryman” Pizza — Oh. My. God. The menu describes this as “black truffles, fontina, and duck egg” but it should say “prepare to have your mind blown.” The pizza arrives at the table with the egg still in one piece, then the waiter spreads it across the pie. It changed my life and immediately ended my love affair with Domino’s pizza. (I know. I’m a slob.)
  • Potato gnocchi with pork shank — Apparently this was a dish from “Top Chef” as well; I don’t remember it. I have never liked gnocchi, ever, but this was transcendental. So soft and light and the pork … I would eat this every day.
  • Chicken thighs — Yup, Gail Simmons was right … the pepperoni sauce is amazing. The chicken is perfect. I didn’t orgasm or anything. But, frankly, I was still thinking about the Countryman.
  • Dessert — raspberry gelato and Nutella cookies. Both excellent, but mostly unnecessary after all the food we’d eaten at this point.

The second visit was a gamble; it was a Saturday at 6 p.m., and I said to Scott, “I can’t stop thinking about that duck egg pizza.” He suggested we roll into D.C. and just try to squeeze in at the bar.

It worked — faster than I would have imagined, Scott parked while I went in to wait, and two seats opened up the moment I walked in (I only had to fend off some douchebag who suggested we share one of the seats [Him: You can sit on my lap! Me: Or I can punch you in the face!]).

Second visit menu:

  • Snap peas — an attempt to put something green in our bodies before all the calories that would come next.
  • Pork ribs — Like.
  • Countryman — Clearly.
  • Chicken thighs — For dipping pizza crusts into pepperoni sauce. This should be a menu option.
  • Also, they’ve got Zinfandel on tap, and DC Brau stocked at the bar, making me and Scott equally happy.

Two weeks later, which also happened to be last night, the same thing happened.

“I can’t stop thinking about that pizza…”

So off we went. And again, magic happened when I walked in, two seats at the bar immediately opened up, I threw up some sharp elbows to nab them, and made besties with the bartender over the ManU/Barca game while Scott parked.

Sadly, we branched out a little bit last night. No Countryman:

  • Cauliflower — roasted, with mint and pecorino? Yes, more please.
  • Spiced red beets — Only Scott ate these. I hate beets. Scott says they tasted like beets and that the nuts they came with tasted like nuts. (And that is why I am the writer of this project.)
  • White House pizza — An interesting spin on the white pizza, with mozzarella and ricotta, plus prosciutto and honey drizzled all over it. Sticky fingers. Good … but no duck egg.
  • Zinfandel!
  • DC Brau!
  • Prosecco! (I asked to see the specials, and the bartender brought me a prosecco. It was loud. I drank it. Hence my lazy this morning. Yes, two drinks will do me in.)

If you live in D.C., you should go to Graffiato. Soon. Reservations, the last I checked, were booked for the next eight weeks, but there’s no reason not to roll the dice and try to get a seat at the bar.

Let’s talk about the space a little bit. Upstairs is a bit loud. I’m getting old and deaf and I have trouble with loud. It’s also tight — the tables upstairs are very closely organized; you will get to eavesdrop on your neighbors’ conversation, if that’s your sort of thing (obviously, it is a hobby of mine). The bathrooms, regardless of upstairs or downstairs, require you to pass by the kitchen and the staff, which can be a little disconcerting (this seems to be a trend in new restaurants, so everyone can see the chef, but it feels a bit weird to be IN THE WAY, particularly if there is a line and you’re two steps from Mike Isabella, and he’s making fun of one of his waiters). The front of house staff seemed a little disorganized on our first visit, but obviously improved by the third. When we ate upstairs, I would have put our waiter, Kevin, in my purse and stolen him if I could have. By our third visit, the bartenders, particularly Emily, knew our  names. We’ve fallen in love with Graffiato a little bit, not just because the food is great, which it is, but because it feels like the kind of place you can walk into and feel welcome. That is not easy to do.

We’ll certainly be back.
(We have a reservation next Monday.)

On the Docket for August: We’re not sure yet. Our August weekends are already all booked up, including a visit to Volt for brunch and a long weekend in Miami. We’ll likely pick a spot in South Beach. And we’ll undoubtedly be back at Pubbelly.

Previously:
June = Smith Commons
May = Lyon Hall
April = Pubbelly (Miami)
March = Volt
February = Kushi
January = Let’s not talk about it.

The Restaurant Project: Smith Commons (June)

June 30, 2011 § 6 Comments

We went a little bit out of our comfort zone for July’s Restaurant Project, to the revitalized H Street area of DC, which is apparently where the majority of the city’s hipsters have gone, in case you were looking for them. (Standout bars include sideshow-and-burlesque parlor Red Palace, and if that’s not your speed, you can play mini golf — for real — or Buck Hunter at H Street Country Club.)

A few weeks ago we ran into an old friend over drinks at Smith Commons; the bar food was so impressive (ginger dusted scallops, thyme pesto lamb chops!) we booked an evening for dinner. A few somewhat disheveled thoughts:

  • If you plan on visiting H Street, park on the south side, not north; the Stanton Park neighborhood is much, let’s say, friendlier. (When I say out of our comfort zone … someone had gotten stabbed at a bar across the street the night before; it was a wee bit unsettling but at least gave us something to make jokes about all night long.)
  • When booking, request a table in the back. We ended up at one of the cozy tables in the front, near the bar, and every time I used my knife, I elbowed an Ed Hardy type in the soft middle back. Be warned that you may end up with the same fate, depending on when and how you book your reservation.
  • It’s loud. Really, really loud. It’s fine for hipsters and it’s fine if you plan on drinking to the point where you won’t feel sheepish about yelling (or if you get there accidentally), but you will need to yell.
  • When choosing your beer, count off a few possibilities to your waiter, just in case. They were out of Scott’s first two choices, which caused a lot of flustered back-and-forth for our waiter. I can’t tell you which beers they were because beer, gross! The wine list is nicely organized, too, if that’s more your taste.
  • You should order the pork duo — pork loin and pork belly, served with apple butter. It was almost the perfect combination of salty, savory and sweet. It was so good, I yelled about it. Luckily the Ed Hardy guy was gone.
  • You should skip the salmon. We wanted to try something from the seafood menu as well as the grill, but this dish — which arrived in an apple broth — was just overall unappealing.
  • Lock the door when you go to the bathroom. There are two private, single stalls for everyone, and co-ed sinks. It could get really awkward if you’re in there taking your strapless bra off when a handsome dude walks in. Just sayin’!
  • We skipped dessert because I had the idea of Sprinkles cupcakes in the back of my mind (which didn’t happen), but they had wasabi gelato on the menu. If I could time travel, I would’ve tried it for the sake of comparing it to Kushi’s.

All in all … I’d go back to Smith Commons, as the starting point for an H Street appetizer crawl, but I wouldn’t eat dinner there again. I’m much more curious about trying the Belgian fare in the quiet of Granville Moore’s across the street.

Previously:
May = Lyon Hall
April = Pubbelly (Miami)
March = Volt
February = Kushi
January = Let’s not talk about it.

On the Docket for July: Graffiato

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