Best of Washington 2005: Food
The best children’s menus…snob-free wine store…grocery secret…Icelandic eats…gingerbread houses…fruitcakes…2 AM eats…New York-style pizza…cupcakes…steak…high-end hot dogs…burritos…treats at the Verizon Center…and restaurant trend
KIDS' MENUS MOM WILL LIKE
When it comes to kids' menus, most restaurants think being creative means coming up with a fancy name for chicken nuggets. But a handful of chains have gone beyond the yellow food group—nuggets, fries, macaroni and cheese—to offer meals that appeal to both parents and kids.
Rock Bottom (7900 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-1311; 4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-516-7688; rockbottom.com) has all the staples, but it also offers a small steak, chicken strips (grilled or fried), and a Make Your Own Pizza: Kids are given dough, sauce, grated cheese, and pepperoni to design a thin-crust pie. Side choices include steamed broccoli and fruit salad.
Legal Sea Foods (locations in DC, Bethesda, Arlington, and McLean; legalseafoods.com) offers the most ambitious kids' menu, including fresh fruit and vegetables as well as downsized items from its regular menu—grilled fish of the day, baked cod, even lobster. There are cod fish sticks and popcorn shrimp for kids who will eat their fish only fried, and fish-shape cheese ravioli for non-seafood eaters.
Italian restaurants are always safe bets for kids, but Romano's Macaroni Grill (several Maryland and Virginia locations; macaronigrill.com) tosses a bone—or in this case, a vegetable—to nutrition-minded parents by offering a salad or steamed broccoli as a substitute for fries or mac and cheese. Along with the usual kid fare, the menu features a grilled-chicken, broccoli, and pasta plate; meat lasagna; and cheese ravioli. Meals include a beverage and ice cream with chocolate sauce, but you can substitute a bowl of strawberries for the sundae. Hey, we can dream.
SNOB-FREE WINE ZONE
Choosing a bottle of wine for a dinner party or a gift can be hard enough without feeling you've failed the wine-snob salesman for not being able to talk about the process of malolact fermentation. The answer? The guys in the surprisingly well-stocked wine department of Rodman's Discount Food & Drug (5100 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-363-3466). They can talk tannins with the best of 'em, but they're so affable, low-key, and eager to please that you feel as though you've wandered into a small-town general store for a bottle of pop.
BEST-KEPT GROCERY SECRET
At Grand Mart (6255 Little River Tpk., Alexandria; 703-941-1177; seven other locations), a small chain of ethnic supermarkets catering to Northern Virginia's Asian and Latino communities, the produce aisle holds wonderful varieties of greens so fragrant you'd think you were at a farmers market.
We also love the abundant seafood—even the frozen stuff is superior to most grocery stores' fresh stock. Among the array of meats you'll find plump duck legs, fresh tongue, and a filet mignon that could feed a family of eight for the price of a Big Mac and fries. No less a fan than Galileo chef Roberto Donna was seen shopping for chicken gizzards for a meal he was preparing at his restaurant's Laboratorio.
Fruitcake, a staple of the American holiday season since Colonial times, now shows up more often in jokes than on tables. Nobody outside monasteries seems to have time for the slow baking and aging required.
One of the best local examples is made by the Trappist monks at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia (540-955-9494; monasteryfruitcake.org). A 36-ounce, brandy-laced cake studded with nuts and candied fruit costs $20.
Nancy Pollard, owner of the Alexandria cookware store La Cuisine (323 Cameron St.; 703-836-4435), prefers to make her own. For several years Pollard has been conducting a one-woman crusade to revive the fruitcake. The two secrets, she says, are top-quality glacé fruit and Muscovado brown sugar rather than the supermarket variety. She sells both in her shop, the fruit assembled from such diverse sources as Australia and Italy. Her favorite recipe, from her mother-in-law, Dorothy Remington, is on the shop's Web site (lacuisineus.com).
FROM ICELAND WITH LOVE
Wines from Australia, cheeses from Spain—plenty of countries promote their products. But it's hard to remember a campaign more worthwhile than this fall's from Iceland, a country with a long tradition of sustainable agriculture.
Icelandic lamb, allowed to graze in high-mountain pastures with an all-natural diet, has been available for several years at Whole Foods (locations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia; wholefoods.com). It's tender and mild-tasting—perhaps the best lamb available to US consumers. This year it's joined by cheeses and butter.
More than 100 cheeses are made in Iceland, from Brie, Camembert, and bleu to unusual varieties such as Höfdingi, which is soft-textured, mild, and rich. The butter is in the European style, with a higher butterfat content and more flavor than most American brands. Perhaps the star of this year's introductions is skyr, a fresh cheese that looks and tastes like yogurt. Made from skim cow's milk, it's nonfat and high in nutrients.
The season for Icelandic lamb—a true spring lamb—is over when supplies run out at Whole Foods, the exclusive distributor. This year, that should be about the first week in December. Butter, skyr, and other cheeses are available there year-round.
HOUSE SWEET HOUSE
Jo Ann Kottkamp, who runs Especially for You (703-660-9592) out of her Alexandria home, spends most of the year crafting wedding and special-occasion cakes—such as a replica of Fenway Park with working floodlights.
In December she shifts her focus to elaborate gingerbread houses. These aren't cottages decorated with gumdrops. Kottkamp's elegant creations have featured stained-glass windows, a skating rink, and a mountain dotted with marzipan skiers. One house, made for Bethesda's Holton-Arms School, featured rooms—visible through the tiny windows—furnished with a candelabrum, fireplace, and bookshelves. Cakes start at $50, houses at $50. Kottkamp likes two weeks' notice.
WHERE TO EAT AT 2 AM
"You'll be in falafel nirvana," promised the guy behind the counter of Amsterdam Falafelshop (2425 18th St., NW; 202-234-1969; falafelshop.com). He was right: The warm, pita-wrapped chickpea patties, with toppings like vinegary red cabbage, dilled yogurt sauce, and eggplant, make an addictive late-night snack. The double-fried Dutch-style fries with mayo are heavenly, too. Open Sunday and Monday till midnight, Tuesday and Wednesday till 2:30 AM, Thursday till 3, Friday and Saturday till 4.
In the suburbs, the 24-hour diners—the kind with history, not the copycats—are the places to satisfy nocturnal cravings with stacks of pancakes, no-frills grilled cheeses, and other classic fare. In Maryland, head for the Tastee Diner (Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Laurel; tasteediner.com); in Virginia, there's Bob & Edith's (2310 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-920-6103; and 4707 Columbia Pike, 703-920-4700).
KUDOS FOR CUPCAKES
Baked and Wired (1052 Thomas Jefferson St., NW; 202-333-2500), a sliver of a Georgetown bakeshop, turns out gorgeous, oversize cupcakes elegantly wrapped in stiff paper ($3.85 each). Our favorites include moist yellow cake with pink icing; coconut cream cheese; and carrot. Available sporadically at the store or by special order.
Say what you will about chef Carole Greenwood, famous for her mercurial way with customers—she makes a killer steak. Filet mignon seems boring and prissy next to her thick, Prime-grade sirloin at Buck's Fishing & Camping (5031 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-364-0777). Grilled over applewood, hickory, and oak and crusty with salt and fat. it's $35 worth of steak at its rustic best.
BEST FOOD AT MCI CENTER
Why settle for chicken tenders and fries from a concession stand when you can snag a fabulous burger at Drinx (601 F St., NW; 202-661-5040), a new sit-down bar/restaurant at the MCI Center? Made with Angus sirloin, the flavorful, perfectly cooked burger leaves a lovely ring of meaty residue on the onion-crusted bun. What takes it over the top is the slightly sweet house tomato-brioche chutney and a scattering of thin, crunchy buttermilk-battered fried onions. At $10.50, including shoestring fries, it's just $1.50 more than those chicken tenders and almost as fast—we were told it would take ten minutes, but it showed up in five.
HAUTE DOGS—AT A PRICE
High-end hot dogs are on menus all over town. Do ingredients such as Kobe beef and a house-made bun—not to mention a heftier price tag—ensure a snappier bite? Here are four that are worth the money.
Frank Ruta's spicy creation at Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250; $10) tastes more like a bratwurst, but it's a thing of beauty. The side of tart German potato salad is a perfect foil.
Some say the condiments are the best part of a hot dog, and those aren't the only people who'll like the Kobe dog on a pretzel roll at Creme (1322 U St., NW; 202-234-1884; $9). Dressings include kimchee, tomato marmalade, and two kinds of mustard.
Two could easily share the behemoth at the steakhouse Old Homestead (7501 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-2006; $19), generously stuffed with Kobe beef and slathered with sweet Kobe chili. Peppery Tater Tots and melted Cheshire cheddar verge on overkill, but when you're eating a footlong, isn't that the point?
The hot dog on the lunch menu at Johnny's Half Shell (400 N. Capitol St., NW; 202-737-0400; $7.50) isn't necessarily fancy, but it's hard to find a simple dog grilled right. For toppings, we like the bleu cheese and onions.
CAN YOU RECOMMEND A GOOD BOTTLE OF WINE?
However broad its selection, a wine store is only as good as its staff is helpful and knowledgeable. As a test, we sent interns to six wine stores. They said they were having an important dinner party and wanted a wine that would be a good accompaniment to a main course of chicken with garlic. They mentioned a price range of $10 to $20 but didn't specify red or white. Then two of the magazine's wine-and-food editors tasted the wines along with a chicken-and-garlic dish. Surprisingly, there were ties for first, second, and third place.
1. The salesperson at Schneider's of Capitol Hill (300 Massachusetts Ave., NE; 202-543-9300) selected an Australian white, Margan's 2003 Vintage Verdelho, from the Hunter Valley ($14.99). One tester said it had a "nice, spicy nose—not too sweet." Its finish was "long-lasting."
At the Dupont Circle location of Best Cellars (1643 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-387-3146; also in Arlington; bestcellars.com), a salesperson recommended a 2004 Valminor Albariño, a Spanish white priced at $15. "This works really well with a chicken dish," a taster said. "It has a lot of vanilla to calm down the garlic."
2. A clerk at Montgomery County Liquor & Wine (14937-E Shady Grove Rd., Rockville, 240-773-2018; 24 other locations; montgomerycountymd.gov; click on Departments, then Liquor Control) chose a Ca' Montini 2003 Pinot Grigio that cost $13.89. "Pretty good," a reviewer said. "Not a big wine, but well balanced."
At Finewine.com in McLean (1351 Chain Bridge Rd., 703-356-6500; also in Gaithersburg; finewine.com), a staffer suggested a 2003 Domaine Borgeot Chardonnay from France's Bourgogne region ($16.99). "A good, medium body," one critic said.
3. A salesperson at the McLean location of Total Wine & More (1451 Chain Bridge Rd., 703-749-0011; seven other Northern Virginia stores; wineaccess.com/splash/totalwine) selected an Apex Chardonnay from Washington state for $14.99. "Too sweet," a reviewer said.
At Arrowine (4508 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-525-0990; arrowine.com), the lone red of the group was recommended—Santa Barbara Winery 2003 California ZCS, a Zinfandel-Cabernet Sauvignon blend priced at $14.99. Said a tester: "It has no depth of flavor."
BEST NEW YORK-STYLE PIZZA: A CONGRESSWOMAN VOTES
"New York is the center of the country," Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney says like a true New Yorker. "It's the center of finance, Broadway, the arts—and pizza."
Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan and Queens, is partial to the pies from Pintaile's on the Upper East Side and Alba's in Astoria, Queens. Despite her hometown allegiances, she agreed to compare slices of New York-style plain cheese pizza from Washington establishments and pick her three favorites.
New York pizza is characterized by a thin, chewy crust. While most Washington pizza shops claim to make New York-style pies, only a few taste authentic. To Maloney, the key is dough that has been hand-tossed and baked in a wood-burning oven.
Employing the New York "lift and fold" eating method while members of her staff waited their turn, Maloney admitted it was hard to pick a winner: "Pizza is always good. I could eat all of them."
1. Radius Pizza (3155 Mount Pleasant St., NW; 202-234-0808). This restaurant opened in May, and its pizza was Maloney's favorite: "It has such a gentle taste. A very good combination of cheese and ingredients." Large plain pie $16.95.
2. The Italian Store (3123 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-528-6266). Maloney thought this pie—a close second—was a bit heavy on cheese but it had "more zip than the others." Large pie $11.99.
3. Corner Slice (7901 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-907-7542). "Tasty," Maloney said, "with a light crust." Large pie $14.65.
Also-rans were the pies from Pumpernickel's Delicatessen (5504 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-9505), large pie $13, and Cappuccino's Pizza (1438 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-337-5115), large pie $12.76.
DIG IN: A CHAMPION EATER RANKS TAKEOUT BURRITOS
Don't let Sonya Thomas's small frame fool you. The five-foot-five, 100-pound woman is the nation's top competitive eater. Thomas, 39, lives in Alexandria and has set national and world records by downing, among other things, more than 57 miniburgers in eight minutes and 48 soft chicken tacos in 11 minutes.
How many burritos could she eat in a sitting? "Probably 20," Thomas says.
Our requirement wasn't nearly so daunting: We asked her to compare takeout chicken burritos—and a bite or two of each would suffice. Here are the winners and losers.
1. California Tortilla (locations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia; californiatortilla.com). To Thomas, this local chain's Fajita Burrito ($5.69)—with chicken, rice, peppers, onions, sour cream, salsa, and lettuce—tasted "healthy."
2. Well Dressed Burrito (1220 19th St., NW; 202-293-0516; cffolks.com). Thomas said the marinated-chicken burrito ($5.15) at this shop—owned by nearby C.F. Folks restaurant—tasted authentic. "This is good," she said of the burrito filled with chicken, black beans, cheese, rice, sour cream, and tomatoes. "It has more of a Mexican flavor."
3. Baja Fresh (locations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia; bajafresh.com). "One of the best," she said of the Burrito Ultimo with chicken, rice, sour cream, and grilled vegetables ($5.85). It came in third because Thomas thought it needed more salt.
In fourth place was the burrito with chicken ($6.05) from Chipotle (locations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia; chipotle.com). Coming in last was the Super Chicken Burrito ($6.20) from Burrito Brothers (locations in DC and Virginia).
RESTAURANT TRENDS WE LOVE
Half-pours of wine: Two and a half to three ounces of wine, rather than five or six, means you don't have to dip into the college fund—or overindulge—to enjoy a Sauvignon Blanc with oysters, a Barolo with rack of lamb, and a Banyuls with a pear tart. Great places for short sips (all serve wine by the full glass, too): Grapeseed (4865 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-9592), Sette Osteria (1666 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-483-3070), and 2941 (2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-270-1500).
Small plates: Spanish tapas and Mediterranean mezze were the original "small plates"—appetizers you could make a meal of. Now everyone's doing it, from Fahrenheit, at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown (3100 South St., NW; 202-912-4110), where a new menu celebrates small, medium, and large plates, to Tallula (2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-778-5051), where diners can mix and match bite-size hors d'oeuvres, to Jackie's (8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-565-9700), with its mostly small plates and nibbles.
Bar menus from top chefs: Roberto Donna of Galileo (1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191), Frank Ruta of Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250), and Fabrizio Aielli of Teatro Goldoni (1909 K St., NW; 202-955-9494) were among the first to offer well-priced bar menus in their upscale eateries.
Of late, others have followed suit. Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve (110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450), Michel Richard of Citronelle (Latham Hotel, 3000 M St., NW; 202-625-2150), and Morou Ouattara of Signatures (801 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-628-5900) have all conjured up bar eats that let diners experience the chef's wow factor at a fraction of the regular price.
Cheese plates in unexpected places: A first-rate cheese plate is a given in an upscale dining room like Galileo (1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191) or the Inn at Little Washington (Main and Middle sts., Washington, Va.; 540-675-3800).
Now places that are easier on the wallet are catching on. Dino (3435 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-686-2966), a neighborhood eatery in Cleveland Park, has a showstopping lineup of Italian cheeses—from a four-year-old Parmagiano Reggiano to sharp, aged Guffanti Pecorino; three cheeses for $12, five for $18. Sonoma (223 Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-544-8088) offers three cheeses for $10 and six for $20. Pick from an array that recently included Taleggio Vecchio, a cow's-milk cheese from Italy, and Friesago, a sheep's-milk cheese from Minnesota.
MOST OVERDONE DISHES
What are this year's miniburgers and molten cake? Here are some items fast becoming clichés on local menus:
• Butter-poached lobster
• Kobe steak and cheese
• Tater Tots
• Grits cakes
• Churros or beignets
• Napoleons as appetizers
• Spring rolls as desserts
• "Duos" and "trios" of duck, apples, or anything else