Monday, October 16, 2006

dc favorites

"An empty stomach is not a good political advisor."
-Albert Einstein

Here are a couple of great spots in our Nation's Capitol - Washington, D.C.:

Heritage India
2400 Wisconsin Avenue Northwest

Indian cuisine tops my list of favorite cuisines - not only because of its vegetarian origins, but more because it makes the most divine flavors with the most humble ingredients. Using chick peas, rice, tomatoes, raisins...its greatness has nothing to do with what it's made of, rather, who made it. Heritage India is consistently impressive, and last night's meal was no exception.

We ordered, to start, the most divine wine. It's a medium-bodied red - Lockwood Syrah from Monterey, c. 2004. It was described as having a "vanilla" finish - and true to its description, it did, and it was wonderful. Its earthy notes were a perfect compliment to the humble ingredients in our dinner, and the sweetness of the vanilla was a perfect foil to the savory spices in our sauces.

We ordered, to start, some vegetable fritters -- spinach, zucchini, potato. They were tasty, but forgettable, and we moved quickly on to our entrees. The murgh makhani, a divinely creamy, spicy, tomato sauce with grilled chicken over the saffron basmati rice is sure to please. A perennial favorite of mine is the aloo chana masala, a vegetarian dish. It uses potatoes and cauliflower in a spicy tomato based sauce. The naan at Heritage is especially nice - a bit saltier than most, which I love.

Heritage is quite a special spot - it opens its doors to those who are dressed up and dressed down. It is 5-star service at a 3-star price. The soft atmosphere -- soft colors and lighting, delicate details in the decor-- and a very helpful, speedy, and attentive waitstaff make for a wonderful dining experience.

Charlie Palmer's
1001 Constitution Avenue NW or Google "Charlie Palmer's DC"

Charlie Palmer's, where the lobbyists flow as freely as the wine...yikes! Be prepared for this spot, it might take you by surprise. The food is gourmet to a fault, and so is the service. It is a nice, high-ceilinged escape from Capitol Hill, but even the waterscape in the middle of the restaurant is square (how did they do it?)...

In my opinion, they can do without the waiters-in-suits, without the waterscape, without the gigantic wine box...the food speaks for itself. Bonus, they post several of their recipies online! If you want to chef to impress...check them out.

Ciabatta Bread, Kalamata Olive Bread, Focaccia
Fresh-baked and never-ending, it's hard to turn down when it comes around, lined up, cut in half-slices, ready to be served to you from its silver platter with silver tongs.

This tasty morsel was brought out to taste, complements of the chef. Not something I expected to be in the mood for, but it was perfect, and perfectly refreshing. The lime juice and the salt lifted my mood and my appetite for the rest of the dinner.

Mr. Palmer likes to make this room-temperature soup from local tomatoes. It is especially fresh and smooth (but not creamy!), and not over-seasoned like so many. It let the tomatoes speak out - and surprise! there was a taste of rock shrimp ceviche on top. Too tasty.

I ate the Grilled Peaches and Bigwood Farms Blue Cheese Salad which was served with mizuna leaves frisee, celery, caramelized shallot vinagrette. Oh. Wow. If there ever was a salad that ate like a meal, this was it. The mizuna leaves were just perfectly warm and went wonderfully with the blue cheese...the grilled peaches--such a surprise! I am a big fan of fruit in unexpected places, and this salad was the perfect place for an appearance. What a show-stopper! I can't say anymore, except...go try one!

For dessert, I was the lucky recipient of a little ramekin of creme brulee. This adorable dessert series comes out with five tiny ramekins - one to hold mini hazlenut biscotti, one to hold some hazlenut creme, and three(!) different little ramekins of creme brulee. There was the traditional creme brulee, the orange creme brulee, and one made with cocoa. Go ahead, eat them all! When something tastes that good, you don't have to feel bad about it.

During dessert, we sipped on some frothy lattes and cappucini...There might be nothing nicer than having a slow cup of coffee or cappuccino while eating a bit of dessert after such a nice meal. Dinner at Charlie Palmer's can turn any old day into a special occasion... just watch out for their "Golden Cadillac" margarita -- I hear it's tasty, but as much of an investment...

Bonus: For foodies on a budget...try Charlie Palmers' prix-fixe lunch! It's 3 courses for $20, year-round. Hooray!

beach wedding

“A married couple who enjoy the pleasures of the table have,
at least once a day, a pleasant oppurtunity to be together."
Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

This weekend's event was a beach wedding in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. The couple is among this foodie's favorite people, for their devotion to not only each other, but to their kitchen...

Rehearsal dinner:
Kelly's Outer Banks Restaurant

A cute spot for a rehearsal dinner, we were placed in a private back room with plenty of room for the littlest tikes to run rampant throughout the evening, which was no problem, since the the couple was hoping for a really relaxed atmosphere for their big day.

The food was tasty, but a bit heavy. It was comfort food served buffet-style, to a large degree--sweet potato rolls with whipped butter, chicken over pasta with cream sauce, cajun shrimp skewers, mashed potatoes, sauteed mixed vegetables, you get the idea. For dessert, guests were offered cheesecake, chocolate cake, or chocolate mousse. We tried the mousse, and it was tasty -- but tummies were a bit too full to really enjoy it.

The Outer Banks, the summer getaway where one expects to find adventure-seeking fishermen, their wives and family, and beach folk in general, was pretty vacant during our October visit. Fall was in the air, and jackets were a must-have. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful escape into a more slow-paced lifestyle than DC offers...especially the amazing B&B culture they foster there... I must admit that I was a bit reluctant to book a weekend at a B&B...the last thing I wanted this weekend was a grumpy 70-year-old lady brewing coffee and making pancakes for me, obligating me to wake up early after a late night out (think: Something straight out of "Flirting with Disaster")...

But wow, this experience could not have been more of a treat. The youngish owner of the B&B asked what we would like to eat for breakfast, but knew we were heading out to a rehearsal dinner and thought better of it -- and offered to let us sleep in until "whenever" but to have coffee waiting whenever we did rise. It was true! (The coffee was wonderful.)

Cypress Moon Inn, ( the unspeakably beautiful B&B tucked neatly into the woods and just about 5 minutes from the Wright Bridge, offered the most picturesque view of the Outer Banks. The owners were hospitable but not intrusive. They offered their newly-built suite to us for the weekend -- at the "out of season" rate of $125/night. What an escape! The room had lofted cathedral ceilings, wood floors, a king-sized sleigh bed, a real cedar(!) closet, and a beautiful view of the water from our own private balcony. It could've been a 5-star hotel...if it weren't for the nearly innavigable dirt roads leading up to it. (Thankfully, we had the aid of a satellite navigation system to find it...)

Beware, there is another B&B on the same island with the name "Cypress House" -- no comparison. Sadly, we were on the opposite side of the island than we needed to be for the wedding, so a relocation was necessary, but the owners offered their complete hospitality and a rain check to come back to use the rest of the reservation. I highly recommend this beautiful spot!

Stop & Shop Sandwich Deli
No, no...not kidding. This place was totally surprising! If you want to experience a truly local feeding post -- it's got to be the Stop & Shop deli. You'll find fishermen picking up bait and sandwiches and maybe even a keg or two...It's right on the main road that runs through Kill Devil's a convenience store with a grade-A deli. In addition to the beer and bait, they sell all kinds of gourmet goods (spreads, sauces, pasta) -- things that I've only ever seen in a boutique kitchen store in Portsmouth, NH...go figure! Theirs is easily the most impressive, best-organized collection of hot sauces I've ever seen. They serve Boarshead deli meat -- which is always a winner -- but they have amazing specialty sandwiches, or, they'll make you whatever you want!

I had a turkey sandwich on wheat with cheddar, tomatoes and mustard. Boring? Ordinarily, yes, perhaps...but they made it to order, their ingredients were all grade A, and they toasted it! It was such a treat. I also got to try a bite of their "Fame & Fortune" sandwich -- a ciabatta sub made with turkey, ham, champagne mustard, and perhaps greyeure? It was so yummy! They sell all of their deli meats, and olives, and they have a beautiful selection of cheeses to make any palette happy. With all the yummy things surrounding you, you might even forget they advertise "LIVE BAIT" in their front window...

Red Sky Cafe
The newlyweds chose Red Sky Cafe to cater their big day. It is a difficult thing to cater, having to tend to the tastes of a varied crowd. The red sky cafe did not disappoint. The couple chose to replace the traditional "wedding dinner" with rounds and rounds of heavy hors douvres...

Reception plates were chock-full of asiago and artichoke spread on crostini and crackers, sauteed vegetables (asparagus, red peppers), chicken and safron cream sauce over rice, shrimp cocktail, seared ahi tuna with ginger-soy sauce, and sliced pork (after all, we're in the south...). Nobody went hungry, and the melange of choices made it easy to pick and choose what to eat without feeling limited to a set menu. So nice! Everything they made was especially tasty. It was clear that they used the best, fresh ingredients and a creative mastermind to mix flavors for the couple's unique tastes.

Red Sky cafe put their asiago and artichoke dip recipe online, here it is:

Asiago Artichoke Dip
2 cups canned artichoke hearts - canned not marinated
2 cups asiago cheese grated
1/2 cup fresh baby spinach
1/2 cup Mayo

Preheat oven to 350. Combine all ingredients thoroughly in food processor. Place in clean towel and squeeze out excess liquid. Place in a greased porcelain dish. Bake for 10 - 15 minutes or until brown. Serve with bread or crostinis - Tip: For excellent crab dip top with lump crabmeat.

The artichoke dip was the only food item that completely disappeared from the table. One of Red Sky cafe's not-so-popular items was the mixed cheese cubes coated in pesto. It was a nice flavor, probably, on top of crostini but it wasn't clear how they were to be a result, there was a lot of random green-ish cheese sitting around. I think a pesto mixed with goat cheese as a cracker spread might be a nice idea, but cheese cubes were too random. As for alcohol, the couple chose to serve kegs of Yuengling and Heineken at the wedding, and bottles of Shiraz and Chardonnay.

The morning after the wedding...brunch was in order. We chose to go to a local spot called Chilli Peppers ( Though they sound similar, Chilli Peppers is not to be confused with Chili' all.

Brunch at Chilli Peppers has a good reputation among the locals, and for good reason. At noon on Sundays (local law prohibits alcohol sales before noon on Sunday) they open the Bloody Mary Bar. Here, you can find an arsenal of hot sauces, in addition to your choice of V-8, Clamato, or tomato juice. They also have tubs of cumin, crushed garlic, horseradish, celery salt, worcestershire sauce, limes, lemons, olives, celery a word: everything.

This is like giving a shopaholic a $10,000 credit card and setting her free on M Street (please?) -- but, you would be wise to exercise some restraint at the Bloody Mary bar. I love a good Bloody Mary, and I am a very vocal critic of a bad, I thought, surely my culinary prowess would guide me through the murky waters of creating a great Bloody Mary...results were only OK. I think I was in ecstasy for the first few minutes with my creation, mostly because I made it myself, and I have never done that before. In truth, it was a mistake to put garlic in a drink, even though it sounded/looked/smelled like a great idea at the time. Next time, I'll seek the advice of a bartender before I go buck-wild with the hot sauce, too. Definitely a great idea.

For brunch, one of my favorite dishes to order is eggs benedict. It's consistently filling and decadent without being so grossly huge (most of the time) that I want to go back to bed when I'm done. Chilli Peppers makes a great local version of eggs benedict -- the Crabby Eggs Benedict. They serve two poached eggs on a toasted Thomas English Muffin, with sliced ham...and crabmeat! Very yummy. Their hollandaise sauce departed from the norm, it was significantly thicker than anything I've had before (consistency was more like a sour cream than a gravy), and a little more tangy. I definitely couldn't finish it all by myself, but really, really wanted to. As a bonus, their hash-brown potatoes were great! Perfectly seasoned and sauteed, all they needed was a little of Chilli-Pepper's special "Hot Salt" (sea salt mixed with cayenne and other spices). Other brunch menu items tended towards tex-mex, I think.

One more surprise from Chilli Peppers...FREE massage at Sunday brunch! No kidding, about 3 minutes after we arrived, a certified masseuse showed up with his chair and stood by the door to offer his services, right next to the bar. I didn't partake in the massage, but I was definitely regretting that decision about 2 hours into the drive home...

In addition to the various eateries we frequented throughout the weekend, we enjoyed a day trip to Jockey's Ridge National Park - the largest sand dunes in North America -- it's really something else! You might think you're in Tunisia if it weren't for all the Westerners around. But really incredible.

We also enjoyed nightly views of the Wright Brothers Memorial, sitting on top of the hill where their famous first flight took place. A few decades later and a few hundred yards closer to the beach, a new marriage took flight!

All in all, the Outer Banks and their culinary penchants and scenic outposts offer a wonderful weekend getaway, only a few hours driving from DC...Easy!