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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thing 126: Vidalia

My second Restaurant Week meal was had at Vidalia. (For the first, click here).Vidalia is a pretty big deal, in my book. It wins awards at a steady clip (along with Central, swoon), the most recent being the James Beard "Best Chef Mid-Atlantic" Award. It has a sterling reputation, and everyone who eats there seems to come away happy. Besides, who doesn't like updated Southern classics, like shrimp and grits or mac 'n' cheese or pecan pie, made with the highest quality ingredients and the very best techniques?

I know for a fact that the restaurant buys at least some of it's ingredients at my beloved Dupont Circle Market. And that the kitchen staff enjoys the pleasures of Hank's Oyster Bar. And while it sounds a bit like I'm stalking head chef Jeffrey Buben, I promise that our paths just seem to trip across each other from time to time.

The usual caveat -- it is totally unfair to judge a restaurant purely on Restaurant Week. Kitchens are rarely at their best and wait staffs are frustrated, overworked and undertipped. That said, I think restaurants that are really excellent at their core tend to do pretty well within the confines of Restaurant Week and Vidalia had about as good of food and service as I could have hoped for.

Of course, the first thing you can't help but notice about Vidalia, as you descend down the front steps, is that it's subterranean. Not a scrap of natural light can enter the dining room, and while that might sound dark or depressing, somehow the room is illuminated softly. A stylish lounge greets you, long banquettes and stark flower arrangements. I got there a touch early, ordered an obscenely expensive glass of champagne at the bar served in a perfect, angular glass and was promptly shown to my table when the three others in my party arrived.

Our service was attentive and patient, sophisticated and also dumbed down for Restaurant Week tourists. My party and I were a fairly savvy bunch, ordering cocktails and wine to let him know that we weren't here on the cheap (just cheaper) and asking his opinion on the best way to proceed.

Vidalia offers the standard three course for $35 Restaurant Week deal but they add an extra option to order a five course meal for $50. That's $10 a course, at a restaurant where you'd be hard pressed to find a starter for that price. And I was totally ready to do it, too, except I was dining exclusively with skinny gays, and they weren't having it. Boo.

Only choosing three courses instead of five made it really hard to choose, but eventually I narrowed it down to a duck egg with fried sweet breads to start, and the pork belly as my entree, and that glorious, glorious lemon chess pie as my dessert.

The duck egg was amazing. Served poached, it had a thick, gooey white and a rich, runny center. It was warm and rich and decadent and had almost a custardy texture. Just as surprisingly good was the sweet bread fried with a light, crispy crust. The salty meat paired perfectly with the rich egg, whose runny yolk made it's own de facto sauce, and the creamy bed (I think of grits?) both were laying on added some heft to the dish. It was delicious.

Having learned my Pork Belly Rule of Thumb only two days prior, I did not make the same mistake twice and promptly ordered the pork belly as my entree. I will admit to being hesitant because it came in a ham broth with peanuts, peas and wheat berries and I thought that sounded weird, but I should have trusted because that broth/sauce was actually better than the pork belly (!). The pork belly was good, don't get me wrong, especially the skin. The skin was crispy crispy glazed fat. The meat at the bottom was soft and flavorful. But the layer of fat in I wrong? Isn't that supposed to get kinda crispy and oozy? I ate the skin and the meat and left the fat on the plate, which is probably some amateur mistake. But the broth was delicious, and the boiled peanuts and the ham and the peas and the chewy wheat berries just all mixed together in a soupy, porky, deliciousness.

And then dessert. If I weren't already dating the Boyfriend, I would marry that lemon chess pie. It was a huge slab of perfectly tart/sweet lemon pie filling. No top crust. No meringue. no shallow tart. This was an enormous, deep dish piece of creamy lemon pie filling. Served with just a dollop of cream and a mixed berries, with a delightful glass of sparkling red muscat it was the perfect sweet end to a really lovely meal.

Everyone else's food looked good too. GFD even let me try his sausage-crusted scallops (!) which were divine, and his goat cheese Bavarian which would be the dessert I married after Lemon Chess Pie and I got divorced. All in all, we had a really great experience and I will gladly save my pennies and return again. Or bribe my way in with farmer's market produce. Either way.

One year ago: Central. Ohyesohyesohyesohyesohyes.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thing 125: 701

Oh, you don't seriously think I'd sat out Restaurant Week this time around, do you?

Restaurant Week came and went last week (although some places are extending theirs through this week, and still other are extending them for the whole month) and I had two very good meals, at restaurants I normally wouldn't be able to afford.

Today, I'll tell you about 701.

Our meal at 701 was a special occasion meal. A milestone fell during Restaurant Week this year, and the Boyfriend and I opted to eat at 701 where a good friend of ours is a server. Of course I studied up on the menu before even arriving. The website said that they were offering their entire menu for R-week, and I started salivating at the descriptions of foie gras au torchon, glazed pork belly, and chimichurri-glazed Muscovy duck breast.

Unfortunately, once we got to the restaurant, we learned that they did have a separate Restaurant Week menu, and in fact they weren't serving anything off their normal menu. No caviar for us. But their Restaurant week selections were varied and interesting, our service was extremely attentive and the restaurant had a fun and lively atmosphere, complete with live piano mood music.

But romance and atmosphere aside, you want to hear about the food, right? The food was delicious and the menu had an American/Asian fusion vibe. For our first course, the Boyfriend chose wisely and ordered the pork belly. Like an idiot, I decided we couldn't both order the pork belly. But we should have both ordered the pork belly. As a general rule of thumb, when given the option to order a thick, seared, braised piece of bacon, order it. (You will see me apply this rule in my next post).

So, the Boyfriend ordered the pork belly, and I ended up with a crispy tuna roll -- a tempura'ed maki roll -- that while delicious, just wasn't a thick, seared, braised piece of bacon. On their normal menu, 701 offers pork belly as an entree served with pickled cherries and sweet potato puree, and I think I'd like to go back just for that, if nothing else.

Our entrees were great, too. I ordered the duck confit (which, again, as a general rule of thumb when you are given the option to order duck braised in its own fat for hours, you always should). I love duck confit and I scraped my plate clean. The Boyfriend ordered the salmon, which had an Asian twist -- served on a bed of cold rice noodles and cucumber -- and was good, too. He loved the way it was cooked, I thought it was a touch over done for my taste. Which was fine because I was swooning over my duck braised in its own fat.

Finally, for dessert, our waitress had recommended the blueberry creme brulee, which was lovely and packed with real blueberries, though the accompanying lemon tea cookies had a rubbery texture. The Boyfriend ordered a chocolate caramel torte-like item -- so rich he couldn't get through it, but incredibly dark with good cocoa.

As I mentioned, our service was really good -- multiple people were on hand to ensure that we were having a good experience. Of course, much later I found out that it was in part because our friend had added to the reservation that I'm "a famous food blogger." Hey -- until this blog starts paying my bills, I'll take what perks I can! Can I add that in the notes section of my next open table reservation? Or is that boastful?

701 boasts a great outdoor patio that overlooks the Navy Memorial plaza and fountains, a vibrant, colorful interior, and good food. It's a bit on the pricey side, but would be a perfect place for a spending account or a client meal. I'm pretty confident that you'll find me there soon, licking my fingers after enjoying a tasty piece of thick, seared, braised pork belly.

Related: Previous Restaurant Week experiences at Indebleu, Lima, 15 ria, Georgia Brown's, Kaz Sushi Bistro and Butterfield 9 (now closed -- I blame the oyster and scallop stew).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thing 124: Nellie's Sports Bar and Trivia Night

Add Nellie's to the list of fabulous patios for summer time drinking in the out-of-doors. Nellie's, located on U Street a short block up from the African American Civil War Memorial, boasts a gorgeous, spacious rooftop deck replete with Beyonce, two rooftop bars and beers served in buckets.

Downstairs, the two spacious, high-ceilinged rooms are decked out with TVs showing nonstop Olympics coverage , along with enormous portraits of 19th century ladies. Rough brick walls and exposed pipes, colorful Chinese paper lanterns hang from the ceiling and an enormous antique mirror lines the wall behind the main bar.

If this doesn't sound like your typical straight-guy sports bar, that's because it's not. Nellie's caters to the gays of DC, and has become something of a see-and-be-seen place apart from the strip on 17th street.

Nellie Sports Bar
A couple dozen of us had assembled for Good Friend David's birthday. GFD loves beers, Olympics, gay men, nachos and trivia, so the decision was pretty simple.

On Wednesdays, Nellie's hosts a trivia night, two games of four rounds each. We stayed competitive until the last round, during which we promptly lost it all. Questions ranged from the topical (Olympics) to the gay (Bette Midler) to the downright obscure (Ross Perot's running mate?). A lightning round was comprised of ten second snippets of song covers, and the answer had to list the name of the song and the original recording artist.

But our sorrow over losing was easily abated when GFD was presented with birthday nachos, complete with candle and boisterous singing. The menu at Nellie's is your typical bar food, burgers, wraps, wings, and hot dogs, along with some Mexican specialties (arrapas, empanadas and burritos). I can personally vouch for the mini hot dogs, which I demolished in between rounds 3 and 4 of trivia.

So here's wishing GFD a very happy birthday, as he joins the ranks of the Very Old. Wishing you many more, and lots of occasions to celebrate in the coming years!

Related: Trivia at the Wonderland Ballroom. Wow, that was the first far we've come.

Happy Birthday David Brown!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thing 123: Dog Days

Mid City Dog Days

Oh my, I am behind on this entry. The Dog Days were three weekends ago, and if you want to go you'll have wait a whole forty nine weeks. But if you missed it this year, you will want to check it out in forty nine weeks because it's pretty great.

Mid City's Dog Days is a giant sidewalk sale, with several dozen participants from 'mid-city' -- basically the Logan Circle/U Street area. (Who knew I lived in 'mid-city'? Not me...). The merchants along P Street, 14th Street and U Street basically clear out their inventory, mark everything down, and put it outside to peruse. Logan Hardware was selling cheap gadgets, PULP had bins and bins of cards for $1, Miss Pixie's marked all their furniture in the store down 25%.

Over at ACKC, where I was working on the first Dog Day, there was madness. People were streaming in for chocolate, cold drinks, a caffeine fix. Everyone seems to take the opportunity of beautiful weather and cheap prices to get out and stroll the neighborhood, sampling new businesses and loading up on bargains.

The next day, on the way to brunch on U Street, the Boyfriend and I took a good hour to walk slowly up 14th Street, popping in to the different stores. I didn't buy much -- a few cards at Pulp, a couple gadgets at Home Rule -- but it was great to explore local businesses along the street and see what they were offering. We joked with the workers from Garden District about their bronze avocados, and who the potential customer for such a product might be. We talked mandolins at Home Rule. And perhaps most interesting of all, I learned of a real estate company cum art gallery The Urban Art Group, which can sell you a house and decorate it, all at the same time.

It's too late to partake this year, but next year, when the weather is at it's hottest, head to mid-city for some good deals and some new shops.

One year ago: My plan for the Perfect 3 Day Weekend -- just in time for Labor Day!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thing 122: Fish Pedicure!

You've seen it on The View. You've read about it on the AP. And DC365 is there, at the cutting edge of trend and beauty, to bring you a first hand account of a fish pedicure.

Yes, yesterday I booked a zipcar and brought our intern to Yvonne's Salon, in Alexandria, VA to experience for ourselves the sensation of tiny carp nibbling the dead skin off our feet.

No, I'm being serious. See:

Fish Pedicure
Those are tiny carp, ravenously eating my feet and ankles until only the soft, smooth skin remains.

It feels even weirder than you think.

Somewhere between a pin prick and a gentle massage, alternating between wildly ticklish, calm relaxation, and slightly painful, this is a pedicure unlike any other. Upon arriving, you are escorted to one of four fish tanks, and are instructed to step into it. Immediately, these little fish swarm, going to town on your dead skin, which seems to congregate around the nails and on the heels and ankles. The worst is when one nibbles on the sole, by the arch, which made me squeal it tickled so much.

Each fish pedicure allows for 15 minutes in the fish tank, though by the time I was able to relax enough to enjoy it I wish there could have been more time. The fish were still hungrily eating, and I still had plenty of rough skin for them to take care of. However, most of that was taken care of during the actual pedicure part of the appointment, in which a woman pumiced off the rest of the skin, trimmed my nails, and painted them pale, shiny pink.

If you are a guy and you're looking for a pedicure, this might be for you! More men were getting pedicures than women when I was there. I guess the introduction of flesh-eating wildlife to the pedicure process makes it manly enough for them. They just skipped the color at the end.

A basic fish pedicure costs $45, which is steeper than normal, but worth it at least once just for the crazy experience of having done it. If it were a bit closer to me and didn't require a car to reach, I could see how it would be addicting. Just watching the fish attack your feed provides for endless entertainment. And my soft, smooth feet are a nice end product.

Fish Pedicure

Monday, August 18, 2008

Thing 121: Mangialardo's

Where oh where has DC365 gone? Don't worry, I haven't packed up and moved to some exotic locale and started LA365 or Boston365 or (sadly) Paris365. And no, I'm not lying dead in a gutter somewhere, but thanks for worrying, Mom. It's just that it's summertime, and when I'm not at work, I'm by the pool or gardening, and frankly, I don't even feel sorry about it.

However, to make up for my prolonged absence, loyal reader, I will be posting a new Thing every day this week. It'll be like NaBloPoMo, except that I won't want to kill myself at the end.

And now, for the first Thing of the week, I'd like to present to you my sandwich that I ate for lunch today. Readers, meet Sandwich:

Mangialardo Sub
Yes today, I finally made it over to the fabled sandwich shop Mangialardo's. Though still technically on the Hill, it is just far enough from my office that it is off the radar from places I'd normally go at lunch time. It's a little further up from Pacific Cafe, but not quite as far Trusty's. But today, I had to go to the hardware store at lunch, and while I was up there I found it hard to resist the magnetic pull of Italian cold cuts. So I just kept walking until I reached the small store front.

Mangialardo's is nothing to look at. On a nondescript, slightly run down block, and old faded sign announcing Mangialardo & Sons ITALIAN DELI. Inside, decorations are minimal and seating is nonexistent. Drink coolers run along one wall of the narrow space, and a scattering of Italian canned goods line the shelves of the other wall. At the back, two women take sandwich orders, and behind them, hidden behind a wall, these magical sandwiches are made.

Magical because...well, look at it again:

Mangialardo Italian Cold Cut Sub

This is the Italian Cold Cut, their most basic sub. Thick layers of Italian cured pork, a slice of cheese, hot peppers, onions, tomatoes and lettuce on a soft roll. Salty and porky and spicy and sweet, my mouth is still a bit fiery from those canned hot peppers and the black peppercorns from one of the cold cuts.

The clientele knows it's in for a delicious meal -- none of the usual suspects from Congressional offices have made their way this east. Instead, it's a mix of hospital workers and construction workers, teachers and nurses. The cashier, a Mangialardo grandson, seems to know most of them by name, as does the woman taking the sandwich orders. This is an addictive sort of place, that makes for loyal customers.

This place falls just short of the Italian Store, and isn't as good as Salumi (but that isn't fair because Salumi makes the best sandwiches, well, ever). But it's one of the best sandwiches in the District of Columbia, and it's certainly the best within walking distance of my office. If you find yourself nearby, you simply must stop in for lunch.

I love a good sandwich, leave a comment about your favorite sandwich place that I simply must try!

Coming up: Labor Day weekend is fast approaching. See my plan for a Perfect 3 Day weekend.