With its sophisticated international mix of visitors, diplomats, and ethnic groups, it's no surprise that restaurants in Washington, DC reflect the world as well as a broad multicultural heritage.
by Idler on January 21, 2009
That's what I asked myself, in the words of the famous Gershwin tune, when I first came here. Seriously, I wanted to know WHY I hadn't ever heard of this place after a friend organized a lunch here for a group of mutual friends. The Mansion on O Street, you see, isn't really a restaurant. It's this amazing upscale boutique hotel/private club that just happens to offer sumptuous buffet meals several times a week, mostly on Sunday and Monday. There's a "power lunch" buffet every Monday, a champagne brunch from 11 to 2 or a high tea from 3:00-4:30 on Sunday, "Dinner-tini" (dinner buffet with martinis or other libations included) each Monday, and special seasonal events such as dinner buffets for Chinese New Year, Mother's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and so on. If you drove by the Mansion, you probably wouldn't even notice it. It's housed in a sprawling Victorian row house. (Actually, it's housed in several -- basically, the Mansion was formed by knocking out some adjoining walls to these and cobbling together an eccentric warren of one-of-a-kind boutique suites.) In fact, calling the Mansion a hotel is rather misleading. It's actually a hybrid blend: a private club, a boutique hotel frequented by visiting dignitaries and celebrities (especially musicians), a museum and art gallery, and, for the likes of me, those open-to-the-public events like the teas, luncheons, and occasional concerts. Clearly, it's a complex set-up. But here's the interesting part: when you visit the Mansion for an event, you can tour it, which is fully half of the fun of going there. (More on that later.) Thing is, you can't just waltz in. You need to make reservations, plan ahead, maybe organize a group to celebrate a special event, which is how I first came here: a friend was retiring from the Federal Maritime Commission, which is fairly nearby. The "power lunch" I went to the first time cost $25 (it's now $30), and is paid in advance online. (See this link for pesky details on how to book and all the FAQ.) I took the Metro to the closest station, which happens to be Dupont Circle, and after making a few bumbling turns down the wrong street, found the Mansion. Immediately after going inside and checking in with the young woman standing behind an antique desk in the foyer, I found myself doing what virtually everyone else does: gaping at the buffet tables and furnishings in the opulent wood-paneled rooms on either side. The woman who created The Mansion clearly has a sense of whimsy and wonder: the rooms are full of intricate pieces of art, second-hand-shop type finds, and wonderful crafts. What's surprising, though, is that virtually every piece you see can be purchased if you take a fancy to it. In fact, pick up just about any knick-knack, such as the ones set on every reserved table, and you'll find a little price sticker. If you've come to meet friends -- and of course that's what you've done -- then as soon as your party is assembled, you'll be shown to a reserved table. Having a meal here feels nothing like eating in a restaurant. Instead, it's as if you've been invited to some wealthy eccentric aunt's for a holiday gathering. There's a pleasant buzz of low-key conversation, much air-kissing and hand-shaking going on, and a palpable feeling of being extremely fortunate to be there that day. The buffet is set out on several tables. Frankly, it's a little overwhelming. There are hot dishes, cold dishes, plates of hors d'oeuvres perched hither and yon, and plenty of indulgent desserts. Of course, the initial plan of attack is to simply sample anything that looks good -- beef stroganoff, baked lasagna, roast beef, chicken cutlets, chilled salmon, a variety exotic olives and cheeses, artisan breads and rolls, dishes of hot and cold vegetables and lots of salads. Not everything will be to your liking, perhaps, but there will be at least four or five things that you'll want to eat more of than you should. Basically, the menu consists of whatever the chefs whipped up.The sense of whimsy prevails at the buffet table, too: the central table at dinner was crowned by loaves of Wonder Bread, jars of grape Smucker's jelly, and several jars of Skippy peanut butter (both creamy and chunky, of course). It was very tongue-in-check, set close by the floral centerpiece, the caviar and Stilton cheese. At lunch, beverages aren't included and need to be ordered, but "Dinnertini" includes whatever you care to order from the bar and as much of it as you like. The second time (or was it third?) that I went to the Mansion with some friends, we were honoring an out-of-town Canadian friend, and decided to have Sunday dinner rather than Monday lunch. Dinner, which is $40, is a relative bargain. There were perhaps seven or eight other parties dining at the Mansion that evening, no more than thirty or forty people all told, including one group with a British man who looked (and almost certainly was) someone famous -- he was obviously a musician, and looked sort of Eric Clapton-ish. I probably should have recognized him, but I didn't. He had a little entourage. It was fun to speculate who he might be, but of course we confined our curiosity to some discrete glances. (The Mansion zealously guards the privacy of its guests, so even if I had known who he was, I wouldn't say.) Okay, so you've had a good chat with friends and eaten far too much food. What is left? Dessert, of course. But first, you must do the tour. Or should I say, "the wander." You're free to wander through the labyrinthian rooms of the Mansion. It goes on and on, with several staircases, a little elevator, and lots of narrow passageways. You will almost certainly get lost, which is half the fun, and the next time you come, you might find something you missed the first time. Any room that is occupied will be discretely sealed off -- everything else is fair game. This part of going to the Mansion simply delights me. Each room -- some positively palatial, others more modest -- is decorated in a distinct style. There are modern rooms and antique-laden ones. Rooms done in flowery chintzes and in rugged knotty pine furniture. An enormous billiard room with a Wurlizer jukebox and a 1950's "American-graffiti" style kitchen and dining room. Many rooms have guitars propped on a chair or set in the corner (look closely -- most have been signed by luminaries such as Bob Dylan). One room, done in white shag carpeting and black lacquer mother-of-pearl furniture, has a John Lennon theme. Go into the splendid bathroom and there's John's holographic image on the floor next to the loo. One thing is certain: you'll want to spend at least a couple hours at the Mansion. Going there involves far more than merely having a meal -- it's an event. And I, for one, can't wait until the next time I have something to celebrate here.
by Idler on February 8, 2009
I'm thrilled to have a new favorite restaurant in DC. I won't dwell on which old restaurant it has supplanted, for that would be gauche, but suffice it to say that I am utterly besotted with my new found treasure. In fact.... well, pardon me, as I feel like bursting into song: Zaytinya... I've just had a meal at ZaytinyaAnd suddenly that nameWill never be the sameTo me.Zaytinya!I've just eaten lunch at Zaytinya,And suddenly I've foundHow wonderful a mealCan be.Zaytina!Say it loud and there's music playing,Say it soft and it's almost like praying.Zaytinya,I'll never stop saying Zaytina! Ahem. Glad to have gotten that out of my system.I should probably mention that this place came along at exactly the right time. My husband and I were absolutely knackered after spending over two hours pressed cheek-and-jowl with a horde of restless strangers in Chinatown, waiting (in vain) for the Chinese New Year finale, the lighting of the "big firecracker," suspended above H Street on a giant crane. Long story short, the Fire Department nixed the big bang after a very lengthy inspection, ordering the large and very disgruntled crowd to disperse. It was not a pretty scene.We'd have left much earlier, in fact, but it was so crowded that it was almost impossible to move. No, seriously, for the better part of an hour, I had some stranger's child sitting on my feet, and I could never even see the blasted kid, only heard her down there, continuously whining the way exhausted toddlers do. (I felt very much like doing the same thing and was envious. At least the child was sitting. On my feet. Oh, I've said that already, haven't I?) Anyhow, back to Zaytinya. I'd been meaning to go there for several years, so when we finally emerged from the Chinatown melee, we made a beeline for the first restaurant I could think of that was not Chinese, being decidedly "off" the entire Asian experience at the moment. Zaytinya, with its dazzling variety of Mediterranean mezze, seemed the very thing.I knew we'd picked the right place when we rounded the corner on 9th St. and spied the sleek glass-and-metal front of the restaurant. The light and space of the place are meant to impress, and they do. The decor is ultra modern and very chic, but there's also a nod to traditional café ambience -- the big floor-to-ceiling windows provide a street view without the al fresco drawbacks. (Car exhaust fumes, street noise, inclement weather...) With its elegantly clean lines, white-and-silver palette, and artfully placed twinkling votive candles , Zaytinya has one of the nicest interiors I've seen in a long time. Ah, but what of the food? Equally stunning, I'm happy to say. The draw here is an inventive selection of updated mezze -- chic Greek, toothsome Turkish, and luscious Lebanese. One word of caution, though: the tempting and extensive menu will fully occupy at least ten full minutes of your time. Best order a drink first, no? The attentive server soon brought my husband an excellent Dogfish Ale and me a Pom-Fili cocktail (white wine, vodka, triple sec, and pomegranate juice). Just a few sips into the ambrosial concoction, and the entire Chinatown fracas began to fade away, the way all unpleasant experiences should. A basket of beautifully presented, warm, wonderfully puffy pita bread, as light as (and rather resembling) angel's wings materialized, along with some raspberry-infused olive oil for dipping. We absently feasted on the marvelous pita and contemplated our next move. The tactic here is to order in rounds, rather than simply a starter and entree, choosing a balance of small plates to complement each other. Prices for each of the little dishes ranges from around $5 to $8. Having divvied up our respective choices, we recited what seemed like an embarrassingly large number of dishes to the waiter, who took it all in stride. First round: Htipiti, an intensely flavorful mix of marinated roasted red peppers, feta, and thyme. This dish was a revelation combined with our second basket of fluffy pita. I'd also ordered a salad of chilled yellow and red baby beets combined with watercress, cucumbers, and pistachio sauce. We polished these small dishes off in regrettable haste, sharing the gracefully presented small dishes. The service, on a not-very-busy afternoon, was unobtrusive but attentive. At the end of each round, plates and silverware were whisked away, water glasses topped, and the table top cleaned. The second round, I'm happy to say, went in a more leisurely fashion: delectable pieces of falafel - a far cry from those dreadful dry chick-pea turds so often served up by inferior Middle Eastern places -- topped with a creamy yoghurt-tahini dressing. There was also a cold chicken dish I've forgotten the name of -- like everything else, it was intensely flavorful with a hint of some undefined spice. Coriander? Lime? I wasn't sure, and unfortunately we'd finished the dish before I'd made up my mind. As with all the dishes, very high quality olive oil and the freshest ingredients were used. The third round was what I'd consider our "main" dishes: three miniature crab cakes for Jack, and a perfectly poached piece of salmon topped with a spicy eggplant and green olive sauce for me. I relished my salmon but secretly envied Jack's ethereal crab cakes. He nobly shared a small bite -- truth to tell, this was one mezze we would definitely like to have had as a full-sized portion. We also split a small dish of pilaf.Finally, our ever-solicitous waiter brought the dessert menu. By now, of course, we were as stuffed as dolmades, but I simply had to see what Zaytinya offered for dessert... and of course, once I'd laid eyes on "Turkish Delight: walnut ice cream with goat’s milk yogurt mousse, honey geleé, orange-caramel sauce and caramelized pine nuts," I was a goner. Jack, not originally in favor of dessert maneuvers, immediately caved when confronted with "Turkish Coffee Chocolate: warm chocolate cake, bittersweet chocolate flan,and cardamom espuma finishedwith espresso syrup." We both ordered Turkish coffee, fondly reminiscing about last imbibing it in Istanbul.Sadly, the coffee was the one and only "miss." It seemed to consist almost entirely of grounds. One expects a certain grittiness to Turkish coffee, but to have half the demitasse consist of grounds? I don't think so. Ah well...we'll know better next time. Our bill came to around $100, which definitely ranks on the "splurge" end of the spectrum for us, but we reflected that A) we'd ordered from the mezze menu, rather than the less expensive lunch menu, B) we'd had both drinks and dessert, not to mention coffee, and C) one less round -- perhaps shared with a convivial group of friends -- would easily suffice next time we come.
We’ve never been terribly impressed by the Chinese restaurants we’ve been to in DC’s Chinatown, (though we’re always ready to be persuaded otherwise), preferring the Chinese places near us in Rockville and other suburbs. When we’re in Chinatown, one of the places we go to is actually this Burmese restaurant, the simply named Burma. We came initially to sample Burmese food, and we’ve returned a few times since then as we found some intriguing items on the menu. First of all, let me say that Burma is a decidedly unpretentious place. It’s on the second floor of a modest building on 8th Street, above a Thai restaurant. The décor borders on depressing, but it’s redeemed by the courtesy of the wait staff and host or hostess. Each time we’ve eaten there, it’s been a little on the early or late side, missing the main dinner rush hours, and the dining room has been very quiet. Perhaps it picks up in the middle of the evening, but I suspect not. This is just a very low key place, which is nice if we’ve had a busy day downtown. There are several items on the menu that I’ve found especially appealing. I happen to really like the taste of tamarind, so I’ll order just about anything on the menu that mentions it. There are tamarind-flavored dipping sauces for several appetizers, tamarind potato soup, and fish simmered in tamarind sauce, among other things. The same can be said of ginger – there’s a lovely "spring ginger salad" comprised of young ginger roots, cabbage, and shredded carrots topped by peanuts and a piquant lemon-onion dressing. In general, the salads are a good bet here, especially an unusual green tea leaf salad and the green papaya salad. As an appetizer, I almost always get the "golden fingers," which are fried batter-dipped calabash squash served with a tamarind dipping sauce. I’m not big on fried food in general, but these squash fingers are addictive – light and not a bit greasy. The soups here are substantial, more a meal than a side dish, and the ones I’ve had feature rice vermicelli, which in all honesty I find unappealing looking, though the taste is generally fine. A better bet as a main dish, I’ve found, is the Kokang chicken, consisting of tender pieces of steamed chicken breast nicely seasoned with ginger, onion, and cilantro. There’s a certain subtle piquancy to the food at Burma, but as I’ve little basis for comparison, I’m not sure if this is typical of Burmese food in general or just this Burmese food. In keeping with the homey surroundings, there are equally down-to-earth prices. Sharing an appetizer and then having a main entrée each, we’re hard pressed to spend much more than $40 here, even with a Tsingtao beer for my husband and the tip added on. In contrast to so many restaurants in the city, which seem overly trendy and are filled with cell-phone chattering, self-important types, Burma is something of a down-at-the-heels oasis. Since the Chinatown area is increasingly being consumed by pretentious chain eateries near the ESPN Zone (my personal idea of hell) and the Verizon Center (ditto), it’s something of a relief to find that places like Burma are still hanging in there.
by Idler on February 23, 2009
Some of the best food in Chinatown isn't Chinese, but it's at least Asian -- in this case, Thai. Kanlaya Thai Cuisine is located directly underneath another of our favorite Chinatown restaurants, Burma, but we'd scarcely given it a second glance until I read a recent "Best Budget" article in Washingtonian magazine and saw a review for Kanlaya. I made a mental note and decided to check it out. My first meal there, on my own, made a favorable impression. Kanlaya doesn't look that promising from the outside, wedged as it is between several other small eateries, but step inside and things begin to look up. The small dining room has a casual elegance, with a small bar area and tight clusters of rosewood-colored tables. If I have one complaint about the place, it's that the tables are a bit too close together, and the hostess will probably seat you right next to another party, even when the place isn't particularly full (a pet peeve that's easily remedied, granted, by asking for another table). Fairly cheesy pop music is a background soundtrack, but it's not really loud enough to be a serious irritant. My first foray was at lunch, and I didn't have a lot of time, so I was happy that the green curry chicken that I'd ordered came so quickly. This is a very standard Thai dish, and it was spot on, with fresh Thai eggplant (real Thai eggplant, which are tiny and round), bamboo shots, thin slices of tender chicken breast, and fresh basil. In a departure from some Thai restaurants, the Thai chilies in the curry were quite substantial hunks rather than little slivers, which made them easier to set aside. While I''m a Thai chili fan, I'm not much on consuming them nearly whole. In general, though, I love the zing of Thai food, and this particular dish had a lovely balance, with the citrusy punch of lime, basil, galangal, and lemon grass contrasting with the creaminess of coconut milk. A second meal at Kanlaya was much more leisurely, after my husband and I had spent the afternoon at the nearby National Portrait Gallery. I began with a mango daquiri, which tasted a bit like an alcoholic mango lassi, though not quite as sweet. Salads and soups are often good bets at Thai places, and this proved the case here. My husband nearly always orders Tom Yum soup, and was true to form. One slightly unorthodox feature of his soup was that fresh button mushrooms rather than the usual straw mushrooms were used, but he still gave it a thumbs up. His salad was heaped with shredded green papaya and topped by several skewers of grilled shrimp. My house salad, also piled high with wisps of shredded carrot and cabbage, came with an intriguing (but very thick) side dish of peanut dressing, warm and more akin to a gravy than anything else, but it was delicious all the same. The warm dressing turned out to be an interesting foil to the crunchy chilled salad. I'd decided to order something completely different than my "usual" Thai favorites, and settled on something called "Pottery Shrimp," a casserole served in a rustic clay pot, something akin to a Chinese hot pot. The pot was filled with very tender shrimp atop a bed of cellophane noodles, Napa cabbage, and shitake mushrooms. I found the dish tasted more Chinese than Thai until I wised up and dressed the concoction with the piquant side sauce that was served with it. My husband's "Southern Seafood" was a nice mix of shrimp, scallops, and squid with mushrooms, onions, basil, and chili sauce. Our waitress was once again very quick to top up water, bring refills of tea for my husband, and clear finished dishes. Altogether, the two meals I've had at Kanlaya to date have put this place near the top of my favorite Thai restaurants in the DC Metro area. As it's not far from some of the places we often go in DC, I'm sure we'll be eating there again sometime in the future.
Generally speaking, I enjoy going out to eat food that would be difficult or time consuming to prepare at home. Indian cuisine definitely falls into this category, and although I often make simple curries myself at home, I'd much rather go out when we're in the mood for Indian food. Our restaurant of choice? About half the time, it's Haandi. Strictly speaking, Haandi is not a Washington restaurant, but it's fairly near the Bethesda Metro, which is a few stops past the city limits on the Red line. If we've been downtown for the day, it's an easy stop for dinner on the way home. (There's another Haandi restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia, but we've never been to it.) There's a big public parking garage just a block or so away, so it's very accessible if we're driving. Haandi is best known for its tandoori dishes, and we invariably accompany our meals here with a selection of clay-oven-fired naan bread. We especially enjoy the garlic naan, wonderfully soft and liberally sprinkled with bits of roasted garlic and poppy seeds. My husband is very fond of samosas, those tasty vegetable-filled fried triangles that I sometimes make him at home for on special occasions (this dish falling firmly in the "let's eat out instead" category). I'm wild about anything with chick peas, so my appetizer of choice is often sabzi bhajiyas, pieces of cauliflower, potato, onion, and eggplant cooked in chickpea batter. In both cases, we can count on our appetizers being crispy and skillfully seasoned. The food at Haandi is noted for its nuanced spices, and indeed it's always a treat to sample some new dish that I've never had before, something of an education, really, as I like to try things in restaurants and then later see if I can't come up with something similar when experimenting at home. Replicating anything I've eaten at Haandi, though, is a real challenge. Some of the dishes I've enjoyed most here include chicken khorma, chicken vindaloo if I'm in the mood for something spicy, and a vegetarian dish featuring eggplant in a creamy sauce if I'm not. My husband, who likes things quite hot, almost always has a vindaloo dish, often shrimp vindaloo. (Personally, I don't see the point of shrimp done in really bold sauces as I can scarcely taste them, but he seem to enjoy them this way.) Main dishes are accompanied by a lovely basmati rice pilaf. My one complaint is that there never seems to be enough rice, but then I often find that's the case elsewhere, too. We're just big rice eaters or something. Another item I often order is the mango lassi, a treat that I indulge in in lieu of the Kingfisher beer that my husband favors. We rarely have room for dessert, but the mango lassi works fine for me as a sort of pre-dinner dessert, if you will.The dining room is old school elegant, with crisp table linen, soothing peach-toned floral wall art, and quietly attentive servers. I always feel a bit pampered when I come here, which is one of the things I look forward to at a good Indian restaurant. Haandi is also a fairly quiet place -- whether this is the result of an older clientele or good soundproofing, I have no idea, but it's one of the things that makes eating here more pleasurable. In closing, I'll say that while this isn't a budget restaurant, it's not prohibitively expensive, either. We tend to go there as a special treat, adding on extras that increase the tab, but if you're on a budget and would like to give Haandi a try, consider coming for the ten dollar lunch buffet. While I haven't gone to it myself, friends have told me that it's just as nicely done as the dinner menu.
by Idler on February 16, 2009
Full disclosure: What I know about Peruvian food you could put on the head of a pin. But I'm always up for trying something new, and after it seemed that we'd fallen into a "Thai one week, Middle-Eastern the next" rut (if that can be said to be a rut), I scanned the Washingtonian and Yelp for something different for our next DC foray, looking for something in the Dupont Circle area as we'd be going to a concert there right before dinnertime. I also was on the lookout for something relatively inexpensive, quiet, intimate, and a bit on the romantic side given that it was Valentine's Day weekend. When I read reviews of Inti, I knew I'd found what I'd been looking for: Something new? - Check -- I'd never had an entire Peruvian meal before, though I'd had the occasional item at various parties or festivals. Still, I was pretty much a Peruvian cuisine virgin. Inexpensive? - Check -- by Washington standards, Inti is definitely in the bargain category. Entrees run from around $9 to $15, and most entrees are filling enough that adding a starter and/or dessert puts the meal in the 'splurge' category. Intimate and Quiet? - Double check. Tucked into a small basement space just off a bustling street, Inti has a nicely reclusive vibe. While the walls are painted a cheerful yellow, and there's bright folk art on the walls, the dining room is a cozy space, furnished with dark wood furniture. Not-overly-loud Peruvian music plays in the background (some of it admittedly a bit too pop for my taste, but, hey, at least it's Peruvian pop music). There's a small outdoor patio, not an option in February but likely to be attractive come spring. Romantic? - Check again. Inti had stepped up to the plate for Valentine's Day weekend, offering a $25 prix fixe three-course menu, as well as a vase containing a single red rose on every table, next to a scented votive candle. It fell short of the roaming gypsy violinist standard of romantic settings, but then I've always felt a little aghast at that sort of thing anyway. Our meal at Inti began with a friendly greeting from our server, a knowledgeable and competent woman who sensed immediately that we could use a little guidance in terms of the menu (but she did it in a way that was so refreshingly unpatronizing and unrehearsed that she scored immediate points in my book). She brought us a little dish of spiced puffed Andean corn, which must take the place of the salsa-and-chips routine in Peruvian restaurants. After a little consultation, we placed orders for our cocktails. Jack opted for a Pisco Sour, the 'pisco' in question being, our waitress explained, a very strong tequila-like alcohol made from grapes. It was then mixed with lime juice and whipped egg white. While sampling pisco was interesting, there was a lot of foam and not a great deal of drink to this cocktail. I had slightly sweet pink concoction with vodka, cranberry juice, and peach schnaps. Neither cocktail was really worth the $8 price tag, but we made a mental note that this would not be the case on weekday Happy Hours (5-8pm), when a many cocktails are only $5. We both started with one of Inti's reputedly excellent ceviches -- mine was of mahi mahi and Jack's of shrimp. Both were very flavorful, with a nice tang of fresh lime and chopped cilantro. My little plate was garnished with a big slice of yam on one side and a half cob of corn which tasted very much like hominy, not American sweet corn. For an entree, I chose pollo a la brasa, a spice-rubbed, rotisserie-roasted chicken. Inti offers three versions of this: a quarter chicken for $8.95, a half for $10.95, and a whole for something like $15. I was a little greedy (and knew that Jack would appreciate a sample), so I ordered a half, which came with a choice of side (rice, beans, french fries, or fried yucca) and a salad. I chose the fried yucca, figuring that this was a justifiable "fried" splurge, and I was correct -- the yucca was absolutely delicious.My whole entree, in fact, was delicious, with the succulent chicken redolent of smoky seasoning, the simple but generous salad dressed in a nicely balanced vinaigrette, and those to-die-for golden fingers of fried yucca. Jack, who ordered from the Valentine's Day prix fixe menu, did not fare as well. Although he'd loved his shrimp ceviche, his "filete piscado relleno" (or something to that effect) was a little underwhelming: a chunk of slightly overcooked mahi-mahi atop a kind of mozarella-like cheese, surrounded by four potato halves. I soon cheered him up, however, by handing over almost half of my chicken (so I was justified in ordering that half chicken, after all) and even a few of the yucca fries -- now that's amore, folks, don't let anyone tell you different!We both rounded off the meal with dessert, which arrived quickly but then we had to wait a bit for our accompanying tea and coffee. On a busy night, we sensed, the kitchen might be a somewhat erratic. It certainly wasn't the waitresses' fault, for she apologized profusely for the delay not once but twice. Jack's dessert was a moist cake swirled with caramel and not-too-sweet cream frosting, while mine was a creamy rice pudding redolent of cardamon and cloves. We both agreed that next time, we'll make a beeline for the pollo a la brasa an absolute bargain. Having such an economical but filling meal in such an appealing place would definitely be something worth coming back for.
Until the US travel restrictions to Cuba are lifted, those seeking a taste of Cuba should head to Miami… or, if they’re in the D.C. area, to the Banana Café, a cheerful bistro just a few blocks from the Eastern Market Metro. It’s a convivial place for a meal and/or a drink, with outdoor tables set under colorful umbrellas, and a bustling interior space featuring whimsical folk art set on candy-colored walls. An upstairs piano bar is a favorite hangout for a diverse Capitol Hill set, with the happy hour featuring popular three-dollar margaritas. As it’s a cinch to get to the café from the Mall (it’s just four Metro stops east on the Blue/Orange line), on several occasions we’ve had lunch or dinner here after visiting a downtown museum or before an evening concert at the Library of Congress. The café’s menu features a trio of cuisines – Cuban, Mexican, and Puerto Rican -- but in all honesty I can’t say much about either the Mexican or Puerto Rican food on the menu as I nearly always order one of two things: ropa vieja, which is a typical Cuban dish of shredded flank steak in a tomato-based sauce, or carnitas cubanas, a criollo-style marinated pork dish. Both dishes are accompanied by plenty of starch: the ropa vieja with plantains, the carnitas with with yucca, and both dishes with generous portions of white rice and a bowl of black beans. While waiting for our food, we usually manage to polish off an entire basket of freshly made tortilla chips and salsa, so this is one of those rare occasions where I definitely need one of those Styrofoam "doggie bags" for the ample remnants of the meal. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as usual. First things first: drinks. The Banana Café has a good house margarita, a too-sweet (for my taste) mango margarita, a generously minty mojito, and (as far as I can tell, never having been to Brazil), a decent caipirinha. Obviously, I never go to this place without having some sort of cocktail, best enjoyed on a nice day out on the sidewalk patio, watching the world go by. The tortilla chips and a somewhat thin but tasty salsa arrive with the drinks, by which time we’re ready to order. My husband, who doesn’t eat beef or pork, invariably settles on one of the seafood dishes, such as shrimp fajitas. We’ve found the service varies, depending on how busy the place is, but have never had to wait much longer than it takes us to polish off the chips for our food. I find when we’re seated indoors that there’s a fair amount of noise bouncing off the walls that makes the wait less pleasant. But that may just be one of my pet peeves – noisy restaurants. Other patrons seem to enjoy the festive vibe. I’d like to wholeheartedly recommend this place, but in truth it can be a little hit or miss. The first time I had the carnitas cubanas, it was a revelation. I savored each morsel of the perfectly cooked, indescribably tender and flavorful pork. At a subsequent meal, however, the carnitas were too salty and the yucca seemed undercooked. For some reason, too, the black beans usually taste bland. The flank steak of the ropa vieja was not as successful as the pork of the carnitas, but its accompaniment of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and plantains were nicely seasoned. On the balance, this café has fairly decent food, and the atmosphere makes it a pleasant place to kick back and relax. It’s the memory of that first wonderful meal that makes us return customers, combined with the ease of getting here. Add the charm of those outdoor tables on a sunny day, and it’s enough to bring us back to the Banana Café.
by Idler on February 21, 2009
My "history" with this place goes back to my college years in the 1970's -- not too long after the place opened, in fact. Back then -- and to this day -- the Dubliner offers a lively evening scene, with live music most nights. If you're fond of an Irish ballad or sing-along, then this is a place you'll probably enjoy. Located on a corner just across from Union Station, it's an easy place to get to, too, which makes it a favorite gathering place for groups of friends at lunch or after work. In more recent years, I've joined a friend "of Irish distraction" (as we say) here for St. Paddy's Day, which is something of a marathon event. Be forewarned: the Dubliner is downright crazy on St. Patrick's, but if you're in the mood for celebrating the day in a room crammed with tipsy folk clad in green, then this is THE place to do that in DC. I've never been able to manage more than a couple of hours of the epic day, and stand in awe of my friend and her cohorts, who stake out a spot early in the day and are there until the wee hours. However, on occasion I also join the same friend for a much quieter lunch at the Dubliner, when sanity rather than excess reign, and as this is much more the "norm" of what the average patron would experience, I'll confine my review to these sorts of visits. As might be expected, the Dubliner has a fine selection of Irish ales, stouts, and lagers, many on tap and even more bottled. These go well with the wide selection of sandwiches and pub dishes, a few of which I can vouch for, such as the immense grilled Ruben (served on a tasty dark Russian rye bread), a nice shepherd's pie, standard fish-and-chips, and a flaky-crusted chicken pot pie. On my most recent visit, though, minding my carbs and calories, I had a generous cobb salad with dressing on the side, accompanied by a perfectly unremarkable glass of sauvignon blanc. The salad was loaded with slabs of grilled chicken, so I felt I'd gotten my protein allotment for the week. In general, the Dubliner serves good, steady pub fare with no real surprises. The only complaint I had on this most recent visit is that we had a table wedged between the door and the busy entrance to the kitchen -- I hadn't picked the table and found my friend already seated when I arrived; otherwise, I'd have held out for something in one of the other dining rooms further away from the main bar. Service is usually good though quite straightforward at the Dubliner, and on this most recent occasion our server was quick to bring our food and drinks. It was a busy Friday, not really the ideal place to linger over quiet conversation, but the sort of congenial atmosphere to put you at your ease. All in all, a good pub choice.
by Idler on January 22, 2009
The Fish Market isn't located in the most scenic spot in DC -- far from it, as it's next to a large elevated interstate overpass, right next to the waterfront. Even though it's not far from the Mall, it's far off the tourist radar, which means that it's one place in town that doesn't overcharge for its wares or tart things up beyond endurance. It's just a good, solid, open-air seafood market, one of the few remaining ones on the Eastern seaboard. As the fish market is popular with locals, parking near it can be a bit of a challenge, but we've really never had to go all that far to find a spot. Commerce really picks up on the weekends, especially on Fridays through Sundays, when the place bustles with customers snapping up blue crabs and freshly caught fish, or sitting at one of the vendors' counters noshing on clam chowder or crab cakes. I'd like to think that most of the seafood sold here comes from the Chesapeake Bay, but realistically I know that the day when virtually everything was brought in on barges from the Bay to be sold here is long gone. Still, I've been impressed by the quality and variety of seafood here. There's so much on offer, it's actually a bit daunting to make a choice, although I suspect that those who come often have favorite vendors, which must simplify the process. Coming to the fish market is one of those sensory-overload experiences, as the entire place seems to pulsate with activity and purpose. Wafting on the breeze is a strong smell of fish, of course, but also the rich sent of Old Bay carried on steam and the tart scent of lemons, all underpinned with an undeniable pong of garbage. This isn't the world's most spotless place on earth, to be honest, but what good seafood market worth its salt is? The last time we went, after going to a jazz festival downtown on the Mall, my husband was on a mission -- to find the best steamed crabs for the price. He's a connoisseur of the crab, if you will, and seems perpetually on the hunt for fresh ones. Alas, the blue crab population has been on the decline for quite some time, with the crabs getting smaller and the prices getting higher each successive year. Still, he persists. On this particular day, he found a couple dozen medium-sized crabs to his liking and had them steamed to his specification, with lots of Old Bay. Meantime, I'd reconnoitered the entire market several times over and had decided that I was in the mood for some fresh bay scallops. (I've never liked picking crab -- entirely too much work, in my book, though I'll happily eat any tasty bits anyone cares to send my way.) The prices at the fish market are not all that much better than at places such as Price Club, but the quality is better, plus you can select exactly which fish or shellfish you want. There's that "hands on" feeling that any true seafood lover relishes. My favorite part of going to the fish market, however, is watching people work. Lots of WORK going on here. Honestly, I could watch for hours: the oyster shucker plying his craft, the fellow sorting crabs with blazing speed, and the deft motions of the guys who gut and fillet fish. It's positively mesmerizing, not to mention timeless. This sort of commerce was going on a hundred years ago, and it's still going on today. Three cheers for the fish market!
As a lapsed vegetarian, there are few things I enjoy more than the sinfully meat-laden steak-bacon-and-shrimp salad at the Station Grill in Union Station. At home, I prepare only seafood, chicken, and vegetarian dishes as my husband eats no beef or pork. Naturally, when I'm dining out on my own or with friends, I go whole hog (as it were) in the meat department. A friend who worked just up the street at the Federal Maritime Commission first introduced me to the place. It was convenient for her and equally convenient for me, coming in on the Metro Red line. Union Station, like any major train station, is a bustling place, but a fairly impersonal one in some ways. The grand Beaux-Arts building, designed by Daniel Burnham, once fell into disrepair but has been restored to to its former gleaming splendor. The Station Grill is across from a row of shops just off the main hall. There are a slew of restaurants in Union Station -- everything from chain hamburger joints to fine dining establishments. But for a leisurely lunch with a friend, the Station Grill fills a particular niche -- it feels a bit like a local hangout rather than the temporary haunt of people waiting for their trains. I'll fully confess, however, to having had one and only one thing on the menu after multiple visits here -- that steak-bacon-and-shrimp salad. It's a cholesterol-laden beauty, piled over crisp greens, the steak juicy and full flavored, the grilled shrimp monstrous things, gleaming with butter. Also on the plate are halved eggs, red onions, bacon strips, cucumber slices, tomato and lemon wedges, and a generous side dish of dressing. My theory has always been that if you're going to splurge, then splurge, by gum. No half measures. A glass of white wine (or two) goes nicely with this salad. My FMC friend, just as much a creature of habit, always has the chicken caesar salad. We sit chatting in one of the black leather booths, and the waiters don't seem to mind that we're clearly going nowhere soon. There are always a few older men occupying stools at the bar, passing time with a beer and the thankfully low-volume TV behind the bar. Service can be a little slow, and I wouldn't recommend this place if you've got a train to catch. But if you've got time to kill at Union Station, or simply want to someplace convenient to meet, the Station Grill fits the bill.
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