Saturday, July 23, 2011


As I sit down to write this post I realize I'm pretty bad about keeping things current. I went to Mike Isabella's Graffiato shortly after my last post, and almost a month ago. I wholeheartedly apologize to all three of you who read this, and I pledge to post more frequently from now on. Without further ado, I bring you, Graffiato.

Pistachios with some kind of sweet chili seasoning.
I was on a business trip to New Jersey and reading some food blogs in my downtime when I discovered that Mike Isabella was scheduled to open a new restaurant on the same day I was to arrive back in the DC area. I called to see if I could get a reservation and the earliest available was 10pm the following Monday. I later got the incredibly friendly staff to change our reservation to 9:30, at which time the place was still packed. We had a nice (and VERY knowledgeable) waiter who brought us some seasoned pistachios to snack on while we browsed the drool-inducing menu.

I'm no cheese conniseur, but I know I enjoy a good camembert so I ordered the Green Hill camembert (from Georgia of all places) and we let our waiter choose the other two. He suggested the Cracked Pepper Piedmont (a sheep's milk cheese, reppin' VA) and a goat cheese from Cherry Glen Farm in Maryland. I was pleasantly surprised by both relatively local options.
From left to right: Green Hill Camembert (GA), Cracked Pepper Piedmont (VA) and Cherry Glen Farm (MD)

Next up, Branzino Tartar.  Over the past month, there have been multiple instances where I find myself thinking, "You know what would be perfect right now? A plate full of diced sea bass, radish and cucumber topped with shaved fennel, that's what." This might be my new favorite summertime refeshment. It is the perfect release from the sweltering heat and stifling humidity that is a DC summer. 

Along with EVOO, stuffed pasta (ravioli, manicotti, tortellini, tortelloni, canneloni, etc) might be one my favorite things in the world. My number one rank, and accepting all challengers, is the broccoli rabe ravioli from Pastosa - a small chain of Italian deli/markets in Staten Island, NY. A close second is the sweet corn agnolotti from Graffiato. I WILL be going back there for this dish alone.

Sweet Corn Agnolotti with Chantrelles and Pignoli
We weren't going to order any pizza, but the table next to us got one and it smelled phenomenal. Nadine adores white pizza, so we decided to go with the 'White House' Pizza. It was very simple, but a unique concept that intrigued both of us. Like most other pizza, it was topped with mozzarella, but it also had taleggio, ricotta, prosciutto, and black pepper honey. I know what you're thinking, "Honey!? On Pizza!?" It sounded strange to me at first, but I figured it was worth a shot. Bullseye. The black pepper honey and excellently-cured prosciutto provided an harmonious coupling of sweet and salty.

Garffiato was amazing and if you're in the DC area, you should definitely go there. I have no affiliation with the place, but I guarantee you won't be disappointed. Chef Mike Isabella and his team really did it with this one. Per usual, I threw in some more pics below that will probably make you hungry. Enjoy!
Bone Marrow with pistachio, breadcrumbs, bacon and cured lemon.
Menus - refined excellence

Nutella cookies. Great either before or after the rest of your meal.
Carrot Panna Cotta

Carrot Panna Cotta - so good, we ordered it twice.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hood Rich

When I was growing up on the south side of Arlington there were only a few places in my neighborhood where I could grab a quick bite to eat. Unfortunately they were Wendy's, Popeye's, T.G.I. Friday's and Five Guys. Five Guys was without a doubt my number one choice.

Now that I've moved a few miles north to Arlington's bustling Clarendon area, my neighborhood food options are vastly improved. There is an incredible Alsatian-style brasserie/cafe (Lyon Hall), several bars and restaurants serving their own brands of continental cuisine, a Spanish tapas place (see my first post), a middle-eastern kabob joint, a southwestern-style cantina, an Indian restaurant, an upscale Lebanese restaurant, the finest gourmet steaks and burgers (Ray's the Steaks and Ray's Hell Burger)and the best damn Mexican food-truck-turned-retail-taqueria (El Charrito Caminante). With so many phenomenal options and more opening on an almost-monthly basis, it's become increasingly difficult for me to choose a favorite. Keep in mind that the places I've named are all within a half-mile of my house, and I didn't even mention the sandwich shop that roasts its beef, pork and turkey daily. You can see why every time I decide I want to walk somewhere to grab a bite, I'm riddled with indecision.

The BEST wings I've ever had.
There is one place however that I've grown to adore. I don't know if it's the low lighting, the warm and inviting decor, the selection of wonderful libations, or the BEST wings I've ever had, but EatBar has won my heart stomach as my neighborhood go-to.

Owned and operated by Neighborhood Restaurant Group (go figure), EatBar offers top-notch cocktails, decent charcuterie, cheeses from around the world, entrées that will make you salivate, and did I mention the BEST wings I've ever had? 

I've literally tried everything on their menu except the house-marinated olive appetizer, and I've never once been disappointed. Their beer selection, albeit small, is well-rounded and even the pickiest drinker is bound to 
find something he or she will enjoy.

Gnome's Water: Hendrick's Gin, Lavender, Cucumber

Lamb Burger with Tzatziki, Red Onion and Feta

Toasted Cornbread with Avocado Butter and Jalpeno Jelly

Your basic Maine mussels in white wine, garlic and parsley.

I'm far from a wine snob, but I've enjoyed every glass I've tried. I'm not sure, but I'd be willing to bet EatBar's wine list comes from Neighborhood Restaurant Group's retail wine shop Planet Wine. If you have the inclination to try a few wines, you can opt for one of their flights or try almost any wine on the list in a 3, 6 or 10oz. serving.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Craving a Quality Cuban Sandwich...

Back in February, Nadine and I began planning a late-April tropical vacation partly to celebrate my birthday, but mostly to get out of the DC area. Initially, I had envisioned the two of us laying on a secluded beach in St. Lucia, sipping icy drinks from large tulip shaped glasses that would undoubtedly be covered in condensation from the Caribbean sun. The dream bubble above my head popped and vanished rather quickly once I realized how much that kind of trip would actually cost. When I asked Nadine if she had any ideas that might be more wallet-friendly she said, "How about Miami?" Instantly, that dream bubble was replaced with an idea light bulb. That was it! The perfect place for me to fulfill the one craving I haven't been able to appease in the past few years: a quality Cuban sandwich.

You see I've always been a huge fan of the classic Cuban sandwich, but here in the DC area it's difficult to find one that's both delicious AND authentic. Within 3 blocks of my house I can get some of El Salvador's finest pupusas, and Bolivia's wonderful salteñas, but this area lacks a really good Cuban restaurant. (If you happen to know of one, PLEASE leave a comment and tell me about it.)

I booked our flights and a hotel room and it was decided. We were going to Miami. Fast forward to April 21. Our flight was to leave National Airport at 11am. I was sound asleep at 5am, dreaming of ham and pork and pickles and spicy mustard all pressed between two pieces of hot crispy baguette, when all of a sudden I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing. I groggily answered while trying to clear my throat, only to hear an automated message from an airline (that shall remain nameless) telling me our flight was cancelled due to an engine malfunction. I don't think I've ever been more livid. Thankfully, my house is only five minutes from the airport and there were some open seats on a flight leaving at 7am. We threw our bags in the back of a cab and we were on our way.

Jerry's Famous Deli - This SoCal staple also has a SoBe location.
Since we arrived in Miami earlier than anticipated, we had a few hours to kill before we could check into our room. Sure, we could have walked one block to bask in the sunlight on the pristine white sand and crystal-clear waters of South Beach. Instead we did what any red-blooded American couple would do at 10:30am on a Thursday. We went to Jerry's Famous Deli to grab a beer and an obscenely large sandwich. I decided to go with pastrami on rye with swiss. I apologize for lack of a picture, I was far too hungry to get a shot of the sandwich before I devoured it.

Duck wanton and chicken samosa
Throughout the course of our long weekend, we ended up eating at several restaurants that were not even worth blogging about. However there was one place I loved so much that we ended up eating there twice. I'm realizing as I write this that we never actually went inside Nexxt Cafe because they had ample shady outdoor seating. The first time we went was for happy hour cocktails and appetizers. I don't consider myself a cocktail connoisseur, but the Long Island Iced Teas were delicious and packed one hell of a punch. We started off with Nexxt's crispy chicken samosas with a cilantro dipping sauce, and their duck wantons that were stuffed with minced duck, garlic, onions and carrots and served with a basic Chinese-American style sweet and sour sauce. Both the samosas and wantons were absolutely delectable. Below is a close-up of the inner sanctum of the last remaining duck wanton. It did not survive for very long after this picture was taken.
RIP Duck Wanton
April 21, 2011 - April 21,2011

After another round of LITs, we became increasingly enthusiastic about the Iliad-length menu at Nexxt (if you don't count the pages covered in advertisements, Nexxt's menu is 19 pages long). Next up: Avocado wantons with sun-dried tomatoes, pickled red onion and fresh cilantro. Unlike the casing for the duck wantons and chicken samosas, the avocado wantons were more like traditional Chinese dumplings that were steamed and then finished in a frying pan or wok. I was skeptical about how the fresh avocado would hold its texture after being cooked inside a wanton, but to my delight they retained their solidity and still had their smooth and rich buttery consistency. 
Avocado wantons with sun-dried tomatoes, pickled red onion and fresh cilantro. Served in a puddle of soy sauce with green onion and both black and white sesame seeds.
I don't recall exactly when we went back for our second meal at Nexxt, but I do recall that it was not quite as good as the first time. We began by splitting an order of the Thai Tacos. These were unlike anything I've had at a Thai restaurant. Scratch that. These were unlike anything I've had at ANY restaurant. They were filled with roasted pork that was so tender and seasoned just the right amount that it didn't overpower the other ingredients: thin mildly marinated slices of cucumber, Thai chiles, carrots, onion, cilantro and sesame seeds. What made these tacos so different from anything I'd had before was the steamed Asian buns that held them together. It added a soft doughy texture that was atypical of a traditional taco. I didn't know what to expect from these unique tacos, but once I tried them I was pleasantly surprised.
Thai tacos - There were three on the plate when the waiter brought them, but one was already down the gullet before we could get the camera out. 
We decided that no mere appetizer could possibly fulfill the hunger that we experienced after a long day of laying in the sun, so we each ordered an entrée. In retrospect, we probably should have ordered several more appetizers from the extensive menu. I ordered a grilled chimichurri steak which was essentially an overcooked skirt steak topped with a few slices of grilled onion, a lackluster chimichurri and the dryest white rice I've ever had. Nadine had a "Faux-laffel" burger. It was topped with arugula, red peppers, pickled beets, red onion and a feta cheese spread. The only downside was the patty itself. Nadine is somewhat of a falaffel aficionado and she knew after one bite that it was way too dense to even be categorized as falaffel.

What was I talking about at the beginning of this verbose post? Oh right, Cuban sandwiches! Our last night in Miami (also my birthday), my wish finally came true. I had the best Cuban sandwich of my life at Lario's on the Beach. Not only that, but I had the privilege of enjoying with with some friends who happened to be in town. I didn't manage to get a picture of the perfect Cuban, but I assure you, it looked as phenomenal as it tasted.

If you made it this far without falling asleep or dying of boredom, below is a reward in the form of some more visual stimulation.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tapas y tapas y tapas

Greetings blogosphere. My name's Kevin and before I delve into my maiden post, I want to take a moment to discuss tapas. I'm not here to gripe or groan about the portion size or the number of dishes one must order to fully satisfy one's appetite. In fact, I'm more interested in the word 'tapas' itself. It seems to me that tapas might be one of the most commonly misunderstood words in the English language (when pronounced correctly). The parallels between the words 'tapas' and 'topless' in conversational English are uncanny. I think of the countless conversations I've had in which someone has mentioned going to "a great new tapas place" only to see their audience's eyes widen and brows raise trying to discern how the topic conversation suddenly shifted to some new strip club.

In any event, I did go to a fantastic tapas place recently and that's what I'm here to share with you. One night last month, my girlfriend and I decided to grab a quick bite at La Tasca, a small chain restaurant with five locations here in the DC area. I'm not here to tell you whether you should go there or not, but I'll tell you what I ordered and what I thought about it. Take from it what you will.

©2011 Nadine Matar

©2011 Nadine Matar
We were seated at a two-top right right by the front door and greeted by two of my favorite things in the world: Bread and extra virgin olive oil. I believe my affinity for fine bread may have originated from the after-school job I held many years ago at Best Buns Bread Company in Arlington, VA. If you haven't heard of it, I highly suggest you go there immediately and try everything they serve. But I digress. The bread at La Tasca was obviously fresh and the oil was your typical no-frills EVOO. Olive oil is deemed to be extra virgin only if it is the first cold-press of the olives. A lot of the time you'll see "Pure Olive Oil" on the side of the bottle, which basically means this is what we got when we chemically extracted the oils from the already-mashed olive pulp after we made extra virgin olive oil. EVOO is the obvious choice and my go-to for any recipe that requires oil.

Now onto the real fun.

©2011 Nadine Matar
This is a duck leg confit between a puree of roasted garlic and carrots and caramelized apples and onions and garnished with a sprig of rosemary. I love rosemary, and it enhanced the aesthetic of the plate, but this was a dish so full of complimentary flavors that the rosemary was rendered useless. The confit was prepared with nutmeg and orange peel, which gave it a wonderful flavor and acidity, and it was cooked to absolute perfection. A pat of warm butter would have been jealous of the duck's ability to melt in your mouth.

©2011 Nadine Matar
These are bits of octopus legs that were skewered and grilled and seasoned with garlic, parsley, and of course some EVOO to boot. The tasty cephalopod morsels are resting on a bed of thick-sliced fingerling potatoes and then dusted with paprika. Admittedly, I've only eaten octopus a handful of times, but this was by far the most tender and succulent octopus I've ever had.

©2011 Nadine Matar
I think you get the picture: I enjoyed the food. Speaking of getting the picture, here are a few more. All photos courtesy of Nadine Matar and her Nikon D3100.
©2011 Nadine Matar

©2011 Nadine Matar