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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thing 39: The Strawberry Festival

Strawberries! Get your strawberries!

I just bought an ice cream maker. Happy summer to me!

That purchase is key to understanding my motivation for begging and pleading the Boyfriend to drive us out to Delaplane, VA for the Strawberry Festival last weekend. Because at the strawberry festival there would be cheap and abundant strawberries, and that meant fresh, homemade strawberry ice cream and sorbet. I had to test out my new Cuisinart ice cream maker, cherry red, and David Lebovitz's beautiful book that I ordered along with it.

Where exactly is Delaplane? I still have no idea, but I think it's about 50 miles West of here. I had it in my head that it was a suburb of DC, which it decidely did not turn out to be, so it took a lot longer than I thought it was going to. We drove about an hour out on 66, then turned onto a country highway lined with rolling green hills, cows and silos. The Boyfriend has a Miata convertible, and we took the top down for the first time this year and drove and drove with the wind in our hair and NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me blasting from the radio.

Finally we pulled into Sky Meadows State Park, where the festival is held. We paid the $20/car fee, and parked in a large, grassy lot. By this time it was noon, and the sun was beating down pretty hard. We slathered on the sun screen, and trudged across the wide lot into the festival.

Crafts at the festival
Crab cakes and pork BBQ...I'm a bad Jew, but they are so, so good.We did a lap of the festival, checking out the children's games and activities, the local crafts for sale, and the food vendors, before finding a grassy spot in the shade for our picnic lunch. We'd packed our own ahead of time, although there were a half dozen food booths selling pit BBQ sandwiches, homemade potato chips, kettle corn, fruit smoothies, crab cakes, and New Orleans gumbo. Everything smelled wonderful. We ate our modest sandwiches, leaving room for the strawberry sundaes that were the main attraction.
Strawberry Sundae!At 1:00, we bought a large glass of strawberry lemonade and then made our way to the stage area, grabbing a sunny seat on a bale of hay. It was time for the World Championship Strawberry Eating Contest.

I had never been to a professional eating competition and I must say, it was amazing in that car wreck kind of way. I could not look away. And yet, I knew that this sort of gluttonous Eat! Eat!competition is a lot of what I think is wrong in this country. And great about this country. Do we celebrate the triumph of an incredible physical feat (which truly, it was)? Or do we frown on such extreme excess? The term "food warrior," which the competitors used to describe themselves, makes it sound like food is an enemy to be destroyed rather than one of life's simplest pleasures. I remain conflicted.

The amateurs were up first, a group of fifteen local people doing this for a lark rather than cash money. Only one woman in the bunch, and she ended up winning! In five minutes, she put down an impressive three and a half pounds of strawberries. She will have the privilege (punishment?) of competing in the pro contest next year.

Eat! Eat!And then it was the turn of the professional "Food Warriors." The emcees, two veteran 'warriors,' were manic faux gangstas, trying to display their street cred with their 'yo yo yo's and their tough talk. They introduced the ten professional competitors, who all had really impressive (terrifying?) credits to their name -- most matzoh balls eaten if five minutes, 115 chicken wings eaten in seven minutes, world record cookies and milk holder.

They had seven minutes to eat as many pounds of strawberries as they could. Seven one pound baskets were laid out in front of them; enough to beat the previous record of five pounds and some change. The timer started, and they were off! Whereas the amateurs all omitted eating the green stems, opting to place them in a separate bucket to be weighed against the amount eaten, the professionals all ate the entire strawberry, greens and all. Like machines, they just kept putting one after the other in their mouths, chew, swallow, chew, swallow. The most impressive and ultimately successful competitor, Tom "Goose" Gilbert, is an army reserve officer, and he ate those berries with a will and precision that would have been admirable had it not been so gluttonous. "Goose" ended up eating nine pounds even, a decisive win, and a look of total misery when it was all over.

I love petting zoosThe Boyfriend and I spent the next hour wondering around the festival, eating ice cream, petting barnyard animals and giggling at the tacky local knick knacks (awesome tie dye t-shirts, anyone? Floral tea cozies, perhaps?). Around three, on the verge of suffering dehydration, heat stroke and/or sunburn, we headed home. On the road back to the highway, the Boyfriend swears he saw Tom "Goose" Gilbert in a car pulled over to the side of the road, throwing up about nine pounds of strawberries out the side door.

And the homemade ice cream? Oh, people. It is what heaven tastes like. I made two of David's recipes -- strawberry sour cream ice cream, and strawberry rhubarb sorbet. They were both Oh ice cream maker, I think I'm falling in love...incredibly easy, requiring almost zero cooking. The ice cream is a rich, light pink ice cream with real strawberry flavor at the center, not the sugar or the cream tastes. And the sorbet is light and tart and sweet, a dark red-pink, and with barely any sugar, the stuff is downright good for you! I have a quart of each in the freezer that I'm slowly working my way through, a refreshing, delicious reminder that summer time is here!
Strawberry sour cream ice cream, freshly churned

Strawberry rhubarb sorbet (with David's book still on the table!)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Thing 38: The Wolf Trap

The moon comes out over the Wolf TrapSometimes life throws perfect moments at you. Everything comes together in a great swirl of contentment, satisfaction, joy and peace. The night I met the Boyfriend comes to mind, when we both managed to say exactly the right thing, keep saying the right thing, telling just the right jokes and anecdotes to realize that this was gonna be something big. There was the time I made my first roasted chicken, one week after I turned 21, and it was juicy and shiny and and crispy, and I realized that this whole being-an-adult thing wasn't so bad. There was the night the week before the 2004 presidential election, when I was working on the campaign in Florida, and two friends and I went to the beach late at night. We stood looking at the ocean, and I remembered that for all the stress and hard work and sleepless nights, the tide would still come in and out every day. Everything was going to work out and move forward.

And there was the time I went to see Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion by myself at the Wolf Trap, two years ago.

I'd gone to the Friday night show on Memorial Day weekend in 2005, and no one would go with me, so I headed over by myself. I brought a simple supper of a turkey sandwich from the Safeway deli, a bag of chips, and a 22 oz Miller Lite. I found a spot near the top of the center lawn, sat down on my little blanket, and as the show began I munched my sandwich and sipped my big beer. The stars came out, Garrison took his stool out to center stage to tell us all about Lake Wobegone, and I leaned back in the grass, staring at the stars and listening to that steady, nostalgic monologue. I was content and at peace. Everything was as it should be.

In an attempt to recapture that moment of pure peace, I returned to see A Prairie Home Companion at the Wolf Trap on Friday, with Good Friend Lisa this time, and her new roommate.

I've already written briefly about Wolf Trap, so you may already know it is high on my list of The theater, the lawn.things to do in the summer heat. And it is an easy tradition to start, as Garrison does a live broadcast of his NPR program from the Wolf Trap every Memorial Day weekend, and a dress rehearsal performance on the preceding Friday night. I met GFL and her roommate in the theater, having staked out a small square of lawn. I had brought a cooler filled with arugula-red onion-feta fritatas (without which, I would never have run into ?uestlove), as well as white chocolate macadamia cookies, and tiny individual bottles of pinot grisio. GFL brought some blanched asparagus, about three dozen shiny bright green stalks, and a small container of homemade wasabi mayonnaise for dipping.
A pretty picnic of asparagus and wasabi mayonnaise
We ate and drank and laughed, enjoying the mild summer air and our beautiful setting. The Wolf Trap is a national park for the performing arts, and the main attraction is a huge wooden stage, Picnic essentials: wine and cookieswith a sheltered section of real seats and a sprawling lawn above that for those of us in the cheap seats. I actually prefer the lawn, as I think it gives you more freedom to come and go, the ability to picnic and drink wine, and a better chance to commune with your neighbors. Our neighbors to the front of us, for example, were a large group of young adults in their mid-twenties, apparently college friends and lovers, and then one of their moms. They kept going to their picnic basket and pouring deep cups of straight gin. The mom was hammered by the show's end, and one the guys couldn't find his flip flops when it came time to leave.

Our neighbors to our left enjoyed singing along, and luckily they could harmonize with what was going on on stage, so it wasn't even irritating. The man had brought his harmonica, and accompanied the star spangled banner with it, with perfect pitch and musical warbles.

The Prairie Home gang did a slew of political sketches and jokes, and poked fun of the musically inclined fauna that might live in a national park for the arts. The musical guest was the Wailin' They may be tiny, but these are the performersJennys, a quartet of three women and one man, a variety of stringed instruments (violin, bass, guitar, ukulele), and beautiful, haunting melodies in three part harmony. The other guest of the evening was Billy Collins, who read his comedic and moving poems in a monotonous dead pan, adding to the inevitably funny observations about lanyards or how your dog really feels about you. You can listen to the live broadcast here, but it will differ slightly from what I heard at the dress rehearsal, mostly tightened up to meet the time requirements of a live show.

And finally, as the moon rose high into the clear night, Garrison took the stage all by himself to tell us the news from Lake Wobegone. He told us about his home town's Memorial Day celebration, the VFW's ceremony honoring the fallen, and how one veteran, having forgotten to prepare his speech, simply winged it by saying "if ever there were a time for silence, it would be now." And he recalled how, as a child, everyone in the class had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, as it might fall on any one of them to recite it. And then he did, reciting the whole speech, in its simple eloquence, to the audience. And most of us realized that we'd never actually listened to it. Read it, skimmed it, perhaps even recited it, sure, but I mean really listened. To the beauty and the weight and the economy of words, their meaning then and how it still holds as much meaning now. The three of us by now had laid back in the grass, gazing up at the small dipper, letting that voice wash over us, full of too much asparagus and just enough cookies. And there it was...that perfect moment, once more.

Side Note: With a gusto that is both admirable and incredibly optimistic, the Boyfriend has decided he will be running a 5k in 18 minutes by the end of the summer. You can track his progress here. It promises to be both entertaining and incredibly foolhardy.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Thing 37.5: Meet ?uestlove

Ok, this doesn't really count as a fun thing to do in DC, but I need to shout this from the rooftops. I MET ?UESTLOVE!! (That's pronounced 'quest love' to those of you unfamiliar with the fabulous Roots Crew drummer). On my way home after the gym, I popped into the CVS at 14th & L to buy a dozen eggs for fritatas. As I was walking out, a towering black man with an unmistakable afro with a comb sticking out of it (yes, he was coiffed with comb!) came sauntering out of a big white van, and crossed my path heading for the front door.

I am master of subtlety. My eyes bugged out of my head. I'm not entirely sure, but I think my jaw physically dropped open.

He noticed this, of course, and reluctantly said hi. I stammered, ", are you guys playing a show here?"

"Yeah, at Love, which used to be Dream."


My eyes were still popping out of my head, but ?uestlove at this point continued walking into the CVS. I tried to decide if I should wait, stalk, follow, request a picture, but after a moment's hesitation I just turned and continued on my home to make fritatas.

In DC, Senators and Congressman are a dime a dozen. So you saw Congressman Grijalva on his way to the gym, or you saw Tom Daschle dining at a sidewalk cafe. Big deal. I spoke to ?uestlove. I win.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Thing 37: Spy Tour

Thing 37 marks one tenth of my quest to do 365 fun DC things. It's taken me about three months to get here, and in that time I've pushed and stretched myself to look for things I might never have done. Favorites include the National Building Museum, Ceiba, a Wizards' game, and Urban Dare. As always, I encourage any of you out there to leave a comment with suggestions of things to do next -- what are your favorite activities or places that I might not know about? Send them my way! Readers have already suggested an Argentine gelato place, the revolving restaurant in Crystal City, and Famous Luigi's. They are all on my list, and you'll be reading about them in the coming months.

Sunday afternoon, I met up with a small group at the corner of Massachusetts and Wisconsin, across from the National Cathedral, to take a spy tour of the neighborhood around the Russian embassy. Presented by the Spies of Washington Tour company (and by "company" I mean "one woman"), this particular tour of Glover Park is named the "North by Northwest" tour. It is led by the one and only tour guide at Spies of Washington, a retired Air Force intelligence officer named Carol Bessette. Something of a pioneer herself, Carol originally joined the Air Force for what she thought would be a three year tour. Then, when she decided that her future was in Air Force intelligence, she was told that women could not be intelligence officers. She ultimately found a way around that by having the air force send her to graduate school, and served over 25 years as an intelligence officer. Which means she knows a lot.

Unfortunately, she can't divulge most of it, only that which is available in the public record. But there is some pretty interesting stuff out there, and it is great fun to learn about intrigues and espionage that occurred in regular old apartment buildings. Take, for example, the Alban Towers apartments, which Carol talks about at the start of the tour. In the 1930s, the Japanese embassy kept an apartment there as a residence for the Ambassador. American intelligence wanted to rule out that they had a secret radio in the apartment, and set up a long term operation where they would flick the lights or cut the power briefly over the course of several months. Then one day, they cut it entirely, and sent two agents dressed as repairmen to seek out the problem in the apartment. After a thorough search, they learned that there was no radio in the residence, and it had to be located in the embassy itself.

Intrigue at the Russian Embassy
Carol takes us down Wisconsin to the Russian Embassy, an enormous compound about three blocks wide and three blocks long, its white, imposing block building towering over an iron gate. The tour comprises primarily of a walk around the perimeter of the embassy, with stops at mail boxes or storefronts to tell various stories of espionage or failed spying. We learned briefly about Robert Hansen and his signal site -- a mailbox in Georgetown he would make one single chalk mark on as a signal to the Soviets that he would be making a drop at a prearranged time and place. The Soviet diplomat would then stroll the .8 miles down the hill, check out the mailbox and report back to his superiors. Secrets would be spilled.

The side view: the embassy's consular entranceThere's the story of Vitaly Yurchenko, a KGB officer who defected to the US during the Cold War. The hypochondriac Yurchenko thought that he had stomach cancer, and wanted to die in as a hero in America with top quality medical care. When it turned out he was perfectly healthy, he escaped his CIA handler while dining at the now defunct Au Pied Du Cochon in Georgetown, hoofed it up Wisconsin Ave, and redefected back to the USSR.

She tells us the story of a mysterious package, thrown over the wall of the Russian Embassy containing classified documents and instructions on how to get more where that came from forIn the back of the embassy, a private path that runs along side.  Under our feet might be the mysterious tunnel under the embassy! $30,000. And she speculates on where the tunnel below the embassy may lie, which Robert Hansen warned the Soviets about when they were constructing the embassy. The Soviets had already discovered that Americans had built a tunnel beneath their embassy in Berlin to tap into their phone lines, so it was not out of the realm of the possible. Then again, the tunnel was never found, so it may simply be a spy myth.

Carol is extremely knowledgeable and well read on the material, she is friendly and grandmotherly, and she relates many of the neighborhood's stories to her own experiences with colleagues or giving tours. She refers to young women "entertaining" men in their apartments or hotel rooms, with a sort of faux modesty that is very endearing. Mostly, she tells a good story, and with such a juicy and romanticized topic as spying, it is great fun to listen to.

Carol will resume her walking tours in the fall.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thing 36: Learn Something at the Library of Congress

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the Library of Congress is the most under used resource in the District, at least for me. I know that lots of people use it for policy making, legislating and academic study, but considering that it I work one block from the thing and that it houses every book ever printed, I never take advantage of it as a resource.

Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

So with that in mind, yesterday I went to attend a lunch time book talk of To The Castle and Back, the newest book and memoir by former Czech President Vaclav Havel.

After disclosing my obsession with embassies, it will likely come as no surprise that I am a nut for Czech history and that I have a deep love and appreciation for, admiration of and blind devotion to Havel. I won't get into the extent of my love, but let's just say that one of my favorite anecdotes from my life is when I went to Prague and basically stalked him at the castle, making it into his anteroom and scoring two autographed pictures of him.

So obviously, a talk given about his memoir by the translator caught my eye.

What I didn't realize until I got there was that the translator, Paul Wilson, was one original members of The Plastic People of the Universe, a rock band that contributed to the dissident movement in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. He was ultimately put on trial by the Soviets and expelled from Prague to his native Canada in 1977, but maintained contact with the underground dissident movement, including with Havel.

At the Library of Congress, Wilson was introduced by the Czech Ambassador, who also played a video greeting recorded by Havel welcoming us to the Library of Congress, and making some self effacing jokes about his book and his life's work.

I was pretty much in a giant candy store.

After the Czech Ambassador spoke eloquently about Havel's genius, and then Havel himself, wearing a sweater and jeans and laboring to breathe because of that whole smoking constantly thing he does, Paul Wilson took a seat and was interviewed about translating this book, his relationship with Vaclav and his role in the Czech dissident movement. It was really fascinating, learning about how he arrived in Czechoslovakia, became involved with the Plastic People and came to symbolize freedom of expression in an authoritarian environment (answer: almost entirely by accident). How difficult it is translating Vaclav Havel's work because he writes with such complexity and how he tries to capture the symbolism and mood of the piece for an English speaking readership. How he has a beer with Havel every time he goes back to the Czech Republic, of which I am insanely jealous.

Paul Wilson: translator, aging rock musician, front man for a band that changed the world.

The hour ended with a clips from an upcoming documentary that some friends of Wilson will be releasing later this year. They filmed President Havel during 160 days over the course of several years of his presidency and after he left office. Again, his self effacing humor and charm are so endearing during these moments of candor they captured. He was the first president of a country transitioning out of Communism and into a free market democracy. There was no precedent or protocol for him to follow. He cracks jokes about having to meet to discuss the menu before a visit from Jacques Chirac and how he is terrified of offending the visiting Saudi royal family. He is just an ordinary guy, a gifted playwright with challenging ideas, who stepped into a powerful position as best he knew how. And I really, really love him.

Hopefully, this will inspire some of you to check out (Czech out, ha!) the schedule of upcoming events at the Library of Congress. They have lectures, book talks, poetry readings and concerts going on all the time and it is a huge resource that we are lucky to have available to us as DC residents.

Oh, and then I saw Theresa Heinz Kerry chatting on Pennsylvania Avenue as I walked back to my office.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thing 35: Embassy Open House Day

Good Friend David and I have a thing for embassies. It is nerdy and embarrassing in the extreme, but I figure it was bound to come out eventually, so here we go. We love embassies. We group them by world geographic regions, and then walk to them. On weekends. When they're...not open. Then we take pictures out front of them. And we learn fun facts about those countries. Then we cook something from that part of the world, or visit a restaurant that celebrates that particular cuisine. We've been doing this very slowly over the past two years. Our goal is eventually to have visited every embassy in DC. I am hanging my head in shame as I type this.

Anyway, you can imagine our utter glee and excitement when I saw a sign in the metro for EU EMBASSY OPEN HOUSE DAY! This is an international affairs nerd's fantasy made real. There was even a "passport" to print off from the website that you could get stamped at every embassy you visited! Just a word of warning, we took a lot of photos over the course of the day, so this entry looks a lot longer than it is. Don't give up!

Last Saturday, at 10:00 am sharp, GFD and I met in Dupont Circle and began walking up Massachusetts Avenue to tour as many embassies as we possibly could in one day. We began with the Embassy of Luxembourg:

The Embassy of LuxembourgIt was already packed full of people, even though it had only just opened. Throughout the day, GFD and I remained astonished at how popular this event was. We were pretty sure our love of embassies was unique. And sure, we're probably the only ones who walk for miles to take our pictures in front of embassies that aren't open. But apparently, hundreds of people are happy to spend there sunny Saturday touring European embassies. Many of them had long lines to get in all day.

The embassy of Luxembourg is large and spacious, with a beautiful ceiling in the main conference room:

The Ceiling at the Embassy of Luxembourg
Next stop: Bulgaria. The Bulgarian embassy had a sampling of wine (not very good), feta cheese (very good), canapes that didn't look particularly Bulgarian, and a traditional Bulgarian folk band, which GFD and I liked a lot, but comes across kind of annoying on the video.

Bulgarian Canapes
A Bulgarian Specialty? Cheese Cubes with Cocktail Olives

Then it was up the street to Greece. We were hoping for retsina and spanikopita. Instead, they had a very Greek buffet of potato chips, pretzels, and Coca Cola. They did, however have a table that featured all kinds of Greek products, but you were not invited to take those home with you.

Greek Products

Next stop, to Cyprus. The embassy of Cyprus was a small place, the main attraction was a travel movie being broadcast in the main room. There were, however, snacks. Coconut candies, and strange fig and rose flavored gummies and a large platter of halloumi cheese samples. Halloumi is salty and firm, like feta but less creamy. Next to the samples are pamphlets with recipes featuring halloumi cheese, which I cannot wait to test out.

Cypriotic Coconut Candies.  Yum!

Cypriotic Fig Flavored Gummies.  Ew!

Me, with a Knight of MaltaAt this point, we transitioned from Massachusetts Avenue to Connecticut Avenue, to see the Maltese embassy. It is a tiny townhouse, not much to tour. We waited downstairs with one of the Knights of Malta until the group upstairs left and made room for us. When we were finally allowed upstairs, we saw why it had taken so long -- our group of about twenty was herded into the Ambassador's office, where he and his wife greeted us, shaking hands. Then the Ambassador himself gives us a brief tutorial about his country of origin -- its colonial history, exports and industry, language and culture. And no, the Maltese Falcon has nothing to do with Malta. Someone asked.

As we left the Maltese embassy, the shuttle bus was just stopping, and we hopped on for a ride up Connecticut Avenue to the Slovakian and Austrian embassies. The Slovakian embassy was airy and spacious. They were serving some delicious cinnamon strudel.

The Slovakian Embassy
Slovakian Ceramics
Across the way was the Austrian embassy. Once inside, in the main foyer whose centerpiece is a giant gold statue of a violinist, there was a line for Austrian coffee and line for a tasting of Austrian wines. We chose the wine line (surprise!), which took a very long time because each group of about 12 were tasting eight wines. Luckily, GFD and I began talking to a very nice couple in line behind us...who turned out to be the parents of the babysitter of one of my best friends in college. The Austrian Embassy
Austrian Wine Tasting
Two of the wines turned out to be so good that GFD and I ordered a mixed case with both of them, to split between the two of us. Effective marketing!

Then we took the shuttle down to Spring of Freedom Street in Rock Creek Park, to visit the Czech and Hungarian embassies.

Czech Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

I'm Hungary for Paprika CreamThese embassies were about to close as we were visiting, but we had just enough time for a free Pilsner Urquell, to pose with a woman in costume, and to make fun of the Hungarian's love for industrial size tubes of paprika cream. (And before I hear from angry Hungarians, that bit is a joke. I've never had it, but GFD assures me that paprika cream is actually really good).

At this point, the logistics of the event kind of broke down. It was 2pm, and the Czech and Hungarian embassies had closed for the day. The shuttle bus arrived, but it was already full. No one was going to get off here, because both embassies were already closed. And there were about 50 people waiting to get on the bus. The buses were running about every 20 minutes. So GFD made the impulsive and poorly thought out idea to walk back to Dupont.

After half an hour, when we still hadn't even passed the zoo and were fantasizing about what we wanted to eat for our very late lunch, we saw the error in our way. We hailed a cab in the middle of the parkway and asked the driver to drop us off in front of Potbelly Sandwich works on Connecticut Ave.

Quenched and sated, we strolled over to the Slovenian embassy, which was displaying posters of its brand new Euro coins and brochures of half naked men and women covered in mud and/or chocolate, entreating you to visit the lovely spas of Slovenia.

Slovenian Euros

Finally, worn out, tired, dusty, and not a little sore, Slave Driver David made me walk over to 23rd and M Street to visit the European Commission. There were a lot of information booths set up, about the environment, European police, the Euro, food safety etc, but we were so worn out that we couldn't absorb too much information. I did pick up a pretty neat calendar about European Union foods though.

The European Commission
It was around 4:00 by now, and I was in some serious need of a nap. All in all, we ate some really tasty and exotic foods, were exposed to music from other cultures, picked up about 8 lbs of promotional materials, learned some new recipes for halloumi cheese, ordered 12 bottles of cheap and delicious Austrian wines, met the Maltese Ambassador, and desperately want to visit Slovenia on our next vacation.

Where else in the world but DC could all this have happened in one day?

My Passport

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Thing 34: Sushi Taro

For now, I put away the search for the perfect Italian restaurant and indulged instead in a really delicious Japanese meal at Sushi Taro. I had never been to Sushi Taro, despite its being a stone's throw from my front door, but the Roommate swears by it. And it seemed the perfect venue for a double date for two sushi lovers whose other halves could do without the raw fish bit, since it boasts a full menu of cooked meats, too.

We arrived at the restaurant on a Wednesday evening at 7:30. I had called ahead earlier that day to make a reservation for four, but they don't take reservations, and upon arriving we were told the wait was to be about forty five minutes. The place was completely packed -- we couldn't even wait at the bar with a drink, and were asked to wait outside until our table was ready. This was fine, it gave my friend and I some time to catch up, but unfortunately the Boyfriend gets mighty moody the longer his meal is delayed. Lesson learned: Sushi Taro is busy, and you are best advised to get there a good half hour to an hour before you will begin to suffer from low blood sugar.

Once our table is ready, we are guided through the spacious restaurant, which is far larger than you might expect from the cramped stair case/waiting area. The walls are painted a warm, rusty red color. The restaurant begins with small bar, then expands into a large seating area. On one side, a long sushi bar extends nearly to the back of the room, behind which a small army of sushi chefs are busy at work. All kinds of fresh fish, shellfish, and raw ingredients are visible through the glass of the bar. Plates of nigiri and maki sit atop the bar for the patrons, and it is tempting to steal pieces off their plates when you walk by. Everything looks beautiful.

Part of the seating is at low tables where you sit on the floor on mats, but we are shown to a table for four with chairs, near the large windows that look out over P Street. We set to work on the hefty menus plus the two sheets where you order by the piece -- one for sushi and one for yakitori.

We start with drinks. They have a good selection of moderately priced Japanese cocktails and beers. I love hot sake and almost never drink it, so I order a small beaker of it. The Boyfriend orders an Asahi. Our two companions order soft drinks (note: no free refills).

Once our thirsts are quenched, our appetizers arrive. We've ordered shumai, which are steamed shrimp dumplings, a seaweed salad, and a yakitori sampler of three skewers. The shumai are amazing, the delicate dumpling casings are so soft they actually melt in your mouth. They are filled with a subtle filling of ground shrimp and scallion. The yakitori are also delicious. For the uninitiated, yakitori are grilled skewers of meat, and can be made of almost anything. Traditionally chicken, but also beef or pork, 'normal' cuts or other parts such as tongue, skin, hearts, or liver. Our small appetizer sampler comprises of nothing out of the ordinary, two skewers of chicken, one of pork, all glazed with a sweet BBQ teriyaki. The chicken is good, but the pork is wonderful: fatty and sweet and rich and satisfying.

Sushi Taro: Seaweed SaladThe seaweed salad is not what you might expect. Instead of the regular plate of mixed seaweed with an Asian dressing, sprinkled with some stray sesame seeds, this salad is a work of art. It is beautiful to look at, with a mix of colors and textures. Unfortunately, the most pervasive of the textures is 'jellied,' which I'm not very good with, but the flavors of salty, sour and sweet are delicious so long as the texture doesn't bother you.

As I've said already, this double date consisted of two sushi lovers, and two who prefer their protein cooked. For our main courses, John and I order a large tray of nigiri and maki rolls, which come beautifully arranged on a large wooden board for the two of us to share. The Boyfriend and Karen each get teriyaki, Sushi Taro: Chicken Teriyakione chicken and one beef. The beef arrives sizzling on a hot plate, the chicken arrives with a heaping side of rice and vegetables. We dig in.

For the sushi, you can order chef's choice, but instead we chose to select the pieces we wanted from a long list, a mix of tried and true pieces and some new ones we hadn't had before. We had a spicy tuna roll, a salmon skin roll, a dynamite roll and a plum and shiso roll, and sweet fried tofu, yellow tail, salmon roe, and BBQ eel nigiri pieces. The dynamite roll was packed with crab, the plum and shiso roll was a unique combination of sweet, bitter and sour, and the salmon skin roll was rich and delicious. But the highlight, oh the marvelous highlight of the whole meal, was the fatty, rich, buttery eel. John said it was the best eel he'd ever had, and yes, yes I agree. I am nearly drooling at the memory of it.

Sushi Taro: Sushi! Glorious Sushi!

By the end of all this feast I was stuffed and happy. John and I toyed with getting another couple pieces of the eel, but in the end decided to listen to our already full stomachs. When the bill came, it wasn't even so bad. Sushi can get very expensive but all told, with several appetizers, drinks, more sushi that anyone should reasonably eat, tax and tip, it was about $35 a person.

The service wasn't great but wasn't bad either. The only major misstep was that the Boyfriend's entree came out several minutes after everyone else's, making for an awkward pause in the pacing of the meal, and not really helping with the low-blood-sugar-crankiness thing. But the quality of the food was enough to keep me coming back. Next time, I think I will treat myself by sitting at the bar and ordering the omikase, the chef's choice. Or maybe trying all kinds of new yakitori. Or perhaps just ordering heaps and heaps of shumai and eel...Oh dear, is it lunchtime yet?

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thing 33: Ride A Horse

You could probably guess this already, but I'm a city girl. I'm more Urban Dare than Survivor. But every now and then, a girl's gotta leave the confines of the city, get a little dust on her sneakers, and ride a horse.

The Roommate found the Woodland Horse Center in Silver Spring because she is seriously considering taking riding lessons and was researching places to do so. The appeal of Woodland is that they give a free, one hour introductory lesson every Sunday afternoon. The Roommate had never so much as been on a horse before, and before she committed several hundred dollars to the thing she wanted to be sure she liked it. She asked me to come along because she knew I wouldn't say no. And the Boyfriend came too, because he just likes to ride horses.

Which is how we found ourselves speeding out to the suburbs in a zip car Volvo last Sunday. Now, you fellow city dwellers may be like me and think, "Silver Spring? That's not so far." Well, as it happens, Silver Spring goes a lot further north than I had thought, and gets a lot more country. As we drove down on Colesville Road from downtown Silver Spring, apartment high rises gave way to large, single family, suburban homes. Then, once on New Hampshire Avenue going north, the suburban homes gave way to...nothing. Country roads.

The Woodland Horse Center is beautiful. When you turn onto the dirt driveway off of New Hampshire you drive under a huge, drooping willow tree and come up on a large barn. Not surprisingly, horses peek their heads out of the barn windows. A large field extends south of the barn. To the north of the barn is a dusty, fenced in corral, where our practice lesson will be held. Behind the barn there is an idyllic scene behind a wooden fence - green hills, leafy trees and a small stream, two horses quietly grazing on the grass. (I have the distinct impression that I made up the bit about the stream, but I'm pretty sure the rest is accurate and not subject to my fantasy of what "the country" is supposed to look like.)

Woodland Horse Center: Barn
We arrive just a bit late, and the introductory lesson is already underway in the barn. Although Woodland accommodates all ages with its lessons, the vast majority of the dozen people attending the free introductory are under the age of ten. The Roommate, the Boyfriend and I significantly up the average age of those participating.

The lesson begins with a short lecture on staying safe around a horse -- don't walk behind the horse, don't make any sudden movements, don't approach the horse if its ears are flat against its head. Then one of the more advanced students demonstrates how to get on and off the animal, making it look, of course, effortless and easy. Just place the reigns behind the neck, lower the stirrups, grab hold of the mane, and swing your leg over the beast. Easy!

Having been shown the basics, we are ready to ride. Since we'd arrived late, the three of us don't have helmets or horses yet, but the staff gets three horses ready as quickly as it takes for us to read and sign our waivers and pick out helmets.

Woodland Horse Center: Horse
Our three horses are waiting for us in the corral, while the others are already on their horses. They are walking slowly in a circle on the outer edge of the ring while our horses stand in the center, waiting for us. My horse is named Tonka, and she is a white horse with a light caramel color on her ears and the sides of her face. I am entirely too short to mount the horse, which is not quite as simple as they made it look in the introductory lecture. I can't even lift my leg high enough to get my foot in the stirrup and I need to use the step stool and feel like a total wuss. Once I'm actually on the horse, my helper adjusts the stirrups to the proper length, shows me how to hold the reigns, and then walks Tonka, with me on her, to join the group as their horses walk in a circle.

Every person gets a helper who is an experienced rider, who holds the reins while you're on the horse, and gives you tips about your form and technique. My helper turns out to be the manager of Woodland, a middle aged woman named Tammy. I ask her how long she's been riding, and she tells me that it's since she was a little kid. She gave it up when she had children of her own, but came back to it just as soon as she could because she missed it so much. She is very patient with me, giving me good pointers about how to sit correctly and how to interact with the horse.

Once we've gotten the feel for riding the horse while it's walking, we practice "posting," which is the motion one makes while the horse is trotting. This is where it gets hard. You have to thrust your hips forward, basically causing your entire body to rise until you are almost standing in the stirrups, then lower your body back down, all while keeping your knees turned out and without pulling up with the reins. It's hard because the motion is very awkward, and your natural instinct is to lift up with your hands to balance yourself. Unfortunately, that tugs on the reins and pulls the horse's head back, which is uncomfortable for the horse. So you need muscle control and exceptional balance, which anyone who has seen me walk in high heels knows I do not have.

We practiced posting while the horse was still walking, then one at a time we had the chance to actually try it while our horse trotted. In addition to the difficulty of the hip motion and the balance, you have to time it with the rhythm of the horse's trot. If you lose control of your body, it is called "bouncing," which is exactly what it sounds like. Needless to say, I did my fair share of bouncing. But I began to get the hang of it just a bit, and I can see why lessons would be both necessary and fun.

Woodland Horse Center: Rainbow
Our introductory lesson was over after the attempt at posting. The helpers would return the horses to the barn while we returned our helmets to the office...which was coincidentally where you could sign up for lessons! The three of us snuck off without signing up for anything, but the Roommate liked it enough to make some follow up calls regarding pricing and scheduling.

We came back to the city, returned the zip car, and then immediately took naps when we got back to the apartment. Horse back riding is exhausting! But what a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon -- an idyllic country setting, a magnificent animal, fresh air and sunshine.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Top 5 DC Things To Do This Summer

Is it summer yet? I know, I know. It's only May and frankly, once the humidity really gets going, I'm going to kick myself for saying this but -- I just can't wait for summer in DC! The sun has finally come out after our long, strange winter (sun in January? snow in March?), and now all I can think about are the wonderful outdoor activities that DC holds in the summer time. In the spirit of sunny weather, high humidity, and this friendly contest over at Problogger, I've assembled my Top 5 things to do in DC this summer:

#5 Hotel Washington's Sky Terrace Restaurant: The weather gets warm, and I start itching for cold beers on roof decks and patios. There are few finer places for an outdoor happy hour than the rooftop at the Hotel Washington. The drinks are expensive and the food is only ok, but you just can't beat it for the view. Located next to the White House at 15th and Pennsylvania, you can relax over a mango mojito and shrimp cocktail, and watch the sun set over the White House, the Treasury, the Washington Monument, and Georgetown. I enjoy it as a local, but it's also a wonderful and impressive place to bring your out of town visitors.

#4 Larry's Homemade Ice Cream: The great foods of summer: tomatoes, corn, grilled steaks (I'm lookin' at you, Lee), watermelon and of course, ICE CREAM. Although this is highly debatable, I'm convinced that the best ice cream in the city can be found at the little underground shop on Connecticut Ave in Dupont, Larry's Homemade. The shop is nearly as old as I am, and as the name implies, all of the creative and fabulously flavored ice creams are homemade. Along with the normal flavors, they've created more exotic ones, including Key West, ecstasy, Fred and Ginger, rum raisin (with real booze) or haluah (named for the Syrian candy of honey and sesame paste). I keep meaning to try something different, but I absolutely cannot resist their oatmeal cookie dough flavor, with big chunks of oatmeal cookie dough and chocolate chips in a cinnamon flavored ice cream.

#3 E Street Cinema: DC gets mighty sticky in August and sometimes you just need to retreat to an air conditioned room for a couple of hours. I'd recommend the E Street Cinema, which specializes in independent and foreign films. You might even learn a thing or two from that new documentary or get some culture out of the latest film from Italy. The concession stand serves beers and gourmet treats along with the usual popcorn and sodas.

#2 Wolftrap: I adore Wolftrap in the summertime. The beauty of the outdoor venue in the middle of a national park, the wooden stage and majestic seating structure, the camaraderie of my fellow concert goers seated together on the lawn. There is something for everyone to see over the summer - something on their schedule will appeal to all people from all age groups. There is opera, comedy, folk music, Broadway musicals, rock bands way past their prime, crooners and disco bands and guitarists who don't wash their hair. Over the years I've seen Ben Folds, Garrison Keillor, Rent, Eddie From Ohio, the Louisiana Swamp Ramp (an all day festival of jazz and Cajun music), Ani DiFranco and Joss Stone. Few things are as pleasurable as packing a really fabulous picnic dinner of tomato salad, brie cheese, babaganoush, sandwiches from the Italian Store and a bottle of cold white wine and picnicking on the lawn of the Wolftrap before your show. Then, once the sun goes down, lie back on your blanket, surrounded by the humidity and the mosquitoes (bring your bug spray) and enjoy the show.

#1 Screen on the Green: If you know me, you know that this is my most favorite thing to do in DC all summer. Ok, let's be honest -- all year. Yes, I know that it is hotter than damnation, and I know that the movies generally suck (though check out the schedule; this year they're pretty good). But I'm up to a rotating group of around 30 people who join each Monday night, we put together really spectacular pot luck picnics (Peruvian chicken, pasta salad, charcuterie, blue cupcakes, grilled sausages, homemade cookies, cheez-its), and every color of box wine you could want. Or not want, but it's there. The party gets started around 7:00, and the movie gets started around 9:00, once it's dark. Then, after the cartoon and before the movie comes the HBO dance. If you've been to SotG, then you know what I'm talking about. I know that other cities do free outdoor movies in the summer, but only DC can they be on the National Mall, with the Capitol Dome illuminated behind the movie screen. It is my favorite DC summer activity.

So now it's your turn. What are your "can't misses" for the summer? What should I add to my list of things to look forward to? Leave a comment, let me know what to put on my summer to do list.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Thing 32: Corduroy

Have you been wondering where my fancy power lunches have gone? Because I sure was. But then wouldn't you know that a friend of mine just got a job with a pretty big client and voila - a leisurely lunch at Corduroy on a Friday afternoon is in order.

"Have you ever been there? It looks like a hotel restaurant," my coworker tells me before I head downtown.

"But, it is a hotel restaurant," I reply, puzzled.

"Well, you'll see when you get there." And I did. The thing is, for the talented chef that Corduroy boasts, and the beautiful and delicious food that he delivers, the decor looks like a hotel restaurant. The room feels impersonal. It feels like any number of hotel restaurants from Portland to Little Rock to Wilmington. Which is a shame, because the food is really good.

Corduroy: The Interior
When I arrive for our one o'clock lunch, my friend is already there and seated, tucked into the beige banquette running along the far wall of the restaurant. The wall behind her is mirrored, allowing me to scope out the action of the dining room behind me. The waitress comes over to give us menus and take our drink orders. She helps me pick a light red wine offered by the glass, a Cote du Rhone that is delicious and winds up going well with the rest of my meal.

My friend and I open the menus, which are covered in grey corduroy, and spend a long time deciding what we want to eat. It all looks really delicious and we want to take full advantage of my expense account.

After we order, we spend time catching up. My friend was recently married and has just started a new job, so there is a lot to talk about. The woman at the table next to us is dining alone and at one point joins in our conversation. She comments on my digital camera; it's pink and cute as a button (thank you Boyfriend) and she wants to know what kind it is so she can get one too. We talk with her for bit. She's a regular at the restaurant and tells us that we are in for a treat.

Corduroy First Course: Oysters on the Half Shell with Seaweed SaladThe first courses come, and they are beautiful to look at. I've ordered the oysters on the half shell, and six large, fresh Atlantic oysters arrive nestled in a small mound of ice and garnished with a spot of seaweed salad. The Asian salad reinforces the salty taste of the ocean in the oysters and is a nice complement. My friend has the asparagus salad -- six spears of asparagus dressed up with a creamy dressing and some frisee leaves. The pale yellow of the frisee and the bright green of the asparagus, streaked with the white creamy dressing are a beautiful combination on the plate.

Our plates are cleared just as our entrees arrive. Again, mine is beautiful to look at. I've ordered a salad nicoise, the traditional french composed salad with haricots vert (green beans), hard boiled egg, canned tuna, tomato, and olives arranged on bed of lettuce. This version, unsurprisingly, is a bit more modern and sophisticated. In the center of the plate, lightly dressed watercress is piled high and studded with carmelized red onions. The various elements of the salad rest around the watercress -- long, thin haricots verts, tiny black olives that taste like they've been cured in-house with generous quantities of thyme, and two beautifully pink, rare pieces of tuna steak, seared with black pepper to form a crust and garnished with a few large flakes of salt. Two poached quail eggs sit at the very top of the lettuce, replacing the traditional hard boiled chicken eggs. When I cut into them, the soft yoke runs across the greens, dressing them further with their richness.

Corduory Entree: Tuna Steak Nicoise
My friend has ordered steak frites, and while less pretty to look at, the steak arrives glistening and juicy, with a generous portion of thin, golden, crispy french fries. I wish I could tell you how they were, but we both eat selfishly from our own plates, without even offering a taste. We want every bite for ourselves.

Corduroy Dessert: Fresh Berries, Creme Anglaise and Banana SorbetIt is, after all, a late Friday lunch, and being in no rush to get back to our offices we order dessert. Fresh berries with creme anglaise for me, and vanilla creme brulee for my friend. The only disappointment of the meal came in the form of very sour blackberries, and a very skimpy creme anglaise. The blackberries were a disappointment because Corduroy's chef, Tom Powers, is known for using local, seasonal ingredients, and I am disappointed that he chose to serve a fruit that was so obviously unripe. And the very meager portion of creme anglaise -- that rich vanilla sauce made with creme and eggs -- is probably a kindness for diners who may order fruit to stay on a diet, but I love the stuff and wanted more. However, the berries do come served with a homemade banana sorbet which is wonderful and tastes of the concentrated essence of bananas.

Our lunch is drawing to a close, and we've enjoyed the food, the service, and of course the catching up between friends. I pay the bill, which comes to about $90 (including a generous tip), which seems completely reasonable given a glass of wine and three courses each. If you were to scale back the ordering just a bit, you could have a really special and delicious lunch for around $30, from one of DC's better chefs. It is completely worth it.

Side note: I stopped by Eastern Market Day on Sunday, and got my first look at the damage.

Eastern Market: The Damage Eastern Market: Holes in the Roof
There is an easy way to help. Tomorrow, many establishments will be donating a portion of their profits to the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Click here for more details, or go out and buy a meal and a round of drinks at any of the following:

18th Amendment
Belga Cafe
Ebenezer's Coffeehouse
Express Business Center & Lounge
Fin McCool's
Hawk & Dove
Lounge 201
Marvelous Market
Murky Coffee
Pour House
Schneider's of Capitol Hill
Science Club
Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar
The Old Siam
The Ugly Mug
Trattoria Alberto
Union Pub
Ventor Sports Bar