Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Officina: Possibly worse than going to your actual office

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Have you ever been asked to pay $24 for two Diet Cokes? I mean . . . I am sure rent at the Wharf doesn't come cheap, but really? Sadly, the overpriced fountain soda wasn't even the worst part of my recent experience at Officina, a new "all-day" Italian restaurant. 

I loved Masseria, so when head chef Nick Stefanelli opened Officina, I broke my usual rule of not going to brand new restaurants and went the first Friday night they opened to the general public. My experience at Officina was so strange and beyond the typical service issues you might expect at a newly-opened restaurant. It's almost hard to talk about the food, which was fine, because the service bordered on rude and the ambience was downright uncomfortable.

The service problems started right from the outset. We arrived at Officina a few minutes early for an 8:30 PM reservation, and were immediately informed that our table was still occupied but that we could wait by the bar.  No indication as to how long it would be. The bar itself was interesting - the design was nice, but it was filled with extremely bright white lights that I found off-putting. 

Over the next HOUR we checked in with the hostess several times, and we were repeatedly told that our table was still occupied and there was nothing they could do it about it. Finally, I asked to speak with a manager. I was really surprised how unapologetic she was about the delay on our table. I do not expect a restaurant to be perfectly accurate on table timing - especially in the first few weeks - but the entire front-of-house staff acted like we were unreasonable for inquiring about the status of our reservation. I finally asked whether we could expect a table anytime soon, and if not, could we eat something at the bar because it was almost 9:30 PM and we were hungry. Unable to predict the table time yet, the manager offered us a glass of wine.  We accepted the free wine (who wouldn't?); but the whole experience was incredibly uncomfortable. 



Finally, we were escorted up this beautiful light filled staircase to the main dining room. As an aside, one step was oddly higher than the others and nearly tripped several guests - proceed with caution! At the top of the stairs was this very sweet little second bar nook with comfortable couches. My first thought was - why didn't the hostess tell us about this other bar area when we were awkwardly waiting by the hostess stand for way too long? 


I was shocked when we were led into the main dining room, which shared none of the same virtues of the dimly lit bar nook. The room is HUGE and has harsh, bright, white lighting - like the downstairs area. The size of the room paired with the bright lighting instantly gave off a cafeteria or diner vibe that was totally unappealing. We sat at one of the larger booths that could have fit six people, but we were only four. Two of my guests were at far ends of a long table and felt like they were yelling across to talk to each other.
  

Our server came over, and the first thing I noticed was that she seemed young and inexperienced. When I started asking her questions about the wine, she stared at me blankly and then offered something along the lines of, well most people like the Chianti. She was nice, but clearly knew nothing about the wine or the food.

We took matters into our own hands and ordered a couple of appetizers to start out. First we got the Polpette, which were a mix of veal and pork meatballs in a hearty red sauce. These were as expected and were pretty tasty. I always like extra cheese, so I was pleased with the generous heaping of Parmesan on top. 

We also ordered the Foccacia Barese, which is a thick flat bread topped with tomatoes, olives, and fresh oregano leaves. I love dense, chewy breads, so this was a good one for me. We used the bread to soak up the extra sauce from the meatballs. We also got (unpictured) the burrata mozzarella appetizer.  Burrata is pretty hard to mess up, so it was good. They didn't do anything special to it, but burrata is always good. 


The pastas at Officina are small portions designed to be a first course before the meat and/or fish entrees. For four of us, we shared two pastas and two entrees and that was plenty of food. The pastas were generic - nothing particularly inventive like at Masseria -and neither were particularly memorable.    



First we got the linguine with clam sauce, which is a typical dish at many Italian restaurants around the US. The linguine was al dente, which was a plus. Aside from the shelled clams, to make the dish "clammier" they could have added in chopped clams. Since there were four of us, we each only got 1-2 clams and a few bites of pasta. Since it wasn't amazing, that was enough.

Even less memorable was the tagliatelle bolognese, which was somewhat unappetizing just based on the appearance. Don't get me wrong, there was nothing horrible about it, it just tasted alright.

Considering these are small plates of pasta (equal to a 1/2 portion at most typical Italian restaurants), $24 per plate seemed hefty.  By comparison, I would gladly pay the $60 for 4 lobster raviolis at Fiola Mare many times over because they are just that good; these did not even come close.

Some might disagree with me on this, but there is something so unappetizing to me about a giant slab of protein just thrown on a plate, with nothing served with it. Part of a restaurant experience is the presentation, and I found this plain white plate with a large steak on it to be very lazy. That being said, the steak was probably the best food item we had. It was cooked to a perfect medium-rare and had a great char on the outside. I just can't get past that we paid $68 for this 20oz piece of meat that came with literally nothing else on the plate. There was also a 40oz option for $145.  Think about that pricing for a second . . . doesn't actually make sense to get the bigger option.  Also, its a  bit ridiculous to serve that with nothing else, IMHO.

As the steak came with nothing, we made the mistake of pairing it with this unfortunate butter bomb of mashed potatoes.  Generally a waste of $11.


Finally, we ended the meal with the whole roasted branzino. One thing I liked about this dish was that, even though it appears to be a whole fish, they kitchen had actually deboned the whole thing for us. That was a nice touch.  Like the steak, this dish was totally lackluster in presentation. It was cooked well, I have to admit, but the plating really took away from the experience.Since it was almost midnight by the time we finally finished our entrees, we didn't stick around for dessert. A few other hiccups when we got the bill.  First, as I mentioned above, we were charged $24 for two Diet Cokes. I don't know on what planet that is acceptable, and it is actually downright offensive. When we tried to question our waitress about the bill, she was literally nowhere to be found. We tried for over 10 minutes to flag down a server, literally any server, and could not get anyone to come over. Finally, one of my guests got up and had to walk over the computer where 5 waiters were crowded around hanging out. No one was able to answer his question, and they had to get a manager. We also were charged for one of our "free" glasses of wine for having to wait over an hour for a table -- either they literally meant one free glass, rather than one-per-person, or the front-of-the-house is not communicating with the back-of-the-house.  Overall, Officina was probably the most disappointing and bizarre dining-out experience of 2018.  Proceed with caution; we will not be back.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Chloe - the trifecta of service, amibance, and food

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When the server tells you mid-meal that she has a crush on you because of your ability to consume all the amazing food, you know you're in the right place. When she proclaims to your husband that he better know how lucky he is to have found a woman who can eat at his pace - you may have found your restaurant soulmate. Our amazing waitress was only part (a big part!) of why we absolutely adored Chloe. 





My husband and I made a date night out of Chloe, located in the basically-unrecognizable Navy Yard neighborhood. The host greeted us upon arrival and immediately ushered us to our table. The space was light and airy, with the perfect lighting and music, not too loud so you couldn't hear your dining companion, but loud enough to muffle the sound of the conversations of other diners. 


We started with cocktails - and over the course of the night sampled 6 varieties. I started with a lemon-bubbly lavender-infused vodka cocktail, while my husband opted for the ***VERY SPICY*** tart gin drink. They didn't lie - it was extremely spicy. I wouldn't have been able to tolerate the whole beverage. The cocktails overall were unique and unexpected, of note was my spiked grape-fruit juice. I've never had a cocktail like this and enjoyed it immensely, thought it wasn't the best to pair with dinner. 



Onto the food! We started with the sheep's milk ricotta. Sprinkled with figs, honey, rosemary, and olive oil, I found myself wanting to hoard this course for myself. The fresh bread paired perfectly as the vehicle to enjoy the simultaneously sweet and savory cheese. I could've done without the greens - they did make the dish more colorful, but my motto is always - more cheese please!


Next up was the cobia crudo. This dish was flavor and textural perfection. The acidity of the lime juice, spiciness of the Thai chiles, and chill of the fresh fish were a literal party in my mouth. The crispy shallots and puffed black rice added crunch to an otherwise soft bite. Crudos are a popular main-stay on many restaurant's menus, but are not always easy to do successfully. When you're lapping up the sauce and cutting a small piece of fish into 3 bites to make it last, you know you've hit it out of the park.


My husband wanted to try the pickled vegetables. I agreed because I also share a love of all things pickled. However, when the plate arrived I was surprised to see a ton of olives - this is not something I think of as commonly pickled. It was clearly called out on the menu, but I didn't pay close attention. Since I had snacked on olives earlier during the afternoon, my olive quota of the day was near its threshold. The unique item on the plate was the pickled garlic. I probably wouldn't have guessed it was garlic if I hadn't known - it had lost all of the bite garlic normally has and was rendered a delicious lighter version of its formal self. This is the only dish of the night I would pass on ordering again.


The grilled scallions are an homage to a popular Spanish dish. I did find these somewhat hard to cut, resulting in nearly choking as I tried to swallow a mouthful of the flimsy green. The char on the veg and the acidity of the Romesco sauce were in perfect harmony. Another plate that I found myself wanted to lick clean. 


One of the most popular dishes, so we were told, is the caramelized cauliflower. I can see why! I'm not usually a fan of the cousin to broccoli, which I more prefer, but somehow the chef managed to cook the cauliflower in a way that made it simultaneously soft and crunchy. The veg was perfectly covered in the tahini sauce, while not being too heavy as to overwhelm the dish. 


Our server almost talked us out of the potato gnocchi - she was worried we were ordering too much. I quickly assured her we are not like most people, we come to eat! I am so glad we proceeded as planned - it was a sweet balance to many of the savory courses throughout the meal. The gnocchi was melt-in-your-mouth soft in a beautiful orange broth, which I assume was based on the butternut squash and mushrooms that made appearances in the dish. I could have done without the Brussels, and found myself digging past them in search of more gnocchi, squash, and mushrooms. 

My husband loves sausage, so we decided to try the spicy garlic variety at Chloe. I am not a huge fan of the cased meat, but for blogging purposes did give it a try. WOW! I was pleasantly surprised. The meat was tender, which is not a word I commonly use to describe sausage. Though exploring the menu now I did not think it was particularly spicy. I also don't remember any cornbread, but my husband devoured this dish so quickly it's possible I missed it - similar to my photo opp!


The waitress really pushed the fingerling potatoes. I wasn't sold because...potatoes...but we trusted her. They were crisped nicely, albeit slightly greasy, and paired with a delish spicy mayo. I would have liked more mayo, but the potatoes did go nicely with our last dish, a special that night.


We snagged the last skirt steak, an off-menu item being offered on Saturday night. Cooked to a perfect rare and served with chimichurri sauce and buttered 'winter greens' (kale or chard? I couldn't tell!), and tempura-fried mushrooms. Surprisingly for me, the mushrooms were the least notable part of this dish - their flavor was completely overwhelmed by the coating. While most dishes at Chloe are tapas style, the restaurant does offer a few entree-sized dishes. The steak was 8-ounces, perfect to share in addition to the many other tapas we sampled. 


Our dinner stomachs were full, but our dessert stomachs still had plenty of room! I had been excited to try the brownie sundae, but was sad to learn it had been dropped from the menu 4 weeks prior. Instead we opted for the chocolate red wine cake with grape ice cream. Chloe should call this dessert what it is - an ode to Little Debby Swiss Rolls. I've never had grape ice cream before, and it was a nice pairing with the beet-red wine sauce the dessert was surrounded by. Although I was hesitant at first, I'm very happy we gave this dish a chance.


By mid-meal, my husband had proclaimed this our best meal of the year in DC. From our amazing server, Tiffany, to the fantastic food (both visually and in taste), and beautiful environment, I can see more evenings at Chloe in our future. Cheers!

Monday, October 22, 2018

Himitsu

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When your waiter tells you that the menu is essentially designed so that a table of four can eat the whole thing, you oblige

Last Saturday night, three friends and I finally made it to Himitsu. The lack of reservations kept me away for the first few years, but I am happy to report it is worth the wait and will keep me away no longer. Similar to Rose's Luxury, you need to be in line at Himitsu when it opens, but you don't need to eat at 5pm. I arrived at 5:30pm and was offered an immediate seat, but instead I put my name in for approximately 9pm. Suspecting that it wouldn't actually be that late, I met my friends for a drink at Petworth Citizen at 7:30pm, and we were seated around 8pm.

Since we decided to order the entire menu, we spent little time studying the options. This made the experience into a Japanese-inspired tasting menu - we had to consult the menu to learn what was in each dish! Personally, I loved the surprise and anticipation with which we waited for each dish.   

As soon as our first dish arrived, I knew this was going to be awesome. The first of several crudos was hamachi (aka yellowtail), seasoned with a perfect balance of orange segments, fish sauce vinaigrette, and citrus-y yuzu sauce. Although Himitsu isn't traditional or even straight-up Japanese, this glistening gem of sashimi took me right back to my Sushi Ya experience in Tokyo last year. 

Although it didn't hit me as hard as the hamachi, this second crudo dish was also perfectly balanced. Big eyed tuna toped with a perfect blend of spicy and sweet honeydew, serrano chiles, and cilantro. 


After the sashimi, we moved onto the cooked dishes. One of my favorites of the night was a panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) fried oyster topped with smoked and pickled onions and trout roe (caviar) and served in a Gruyere cheese sauce.  

Cheese you say? I was shocked to find so much cheese in Japan on my trip last year. As odd as it sounds, the creamy, melty Gruyere was a perfect accompaniment to the briny oyster and acidic onions. Balanced AF. 



One of my least favorite Japanese items is bonito flakes - cured, dried fish shavings. Gross, amirite? So needless to say, I was shocked at how much I liked this shrimp toast which is LOADED with bonito flakes on top. Unlike the bonito I had in Japan, these flakes were super mild in flavor, and added just a little punch of umami to the crunchy shrimp toast. Bonito FTW. 

Veering to the very non-traditional side of the menu were these roasted carrots served "elote" style - aka like Mexican street corn with mayonnaise and cheese. I love me some Mexican street corn, so I am not going to complain, but I honestly did not understand how these fit in with the rest of the menu. Then again, no one promised the meal would be conventional. In any event, they were quite tasty.

My least favorite dish of the night was agadashi tofu, which is breaded and fried and floating in a dashi broth. If you are not familiar with dashi, it's effectively the sourdough starter of all Japanese food. That said, it is usually made into a ramen or other dish, not served on its own. I really don't love tofu in any form, so this dish did not do much for me. 

Continuing down the vegetable trail, next up we had grilled eggplant served in a chili-lime vinaigrette and topped with pumpkin seeds and scallions. I am a huge fan of eggplant and find it particularly hard to cook well myself, so I am always excited to eat it at restaurants. These were both sweet and bitter - once again achieving a perfect balance of flavor profiles. 

One of the lesser memorable dishes were the seared scallops. I am having trouble remembering whether I liked these, so I guess that pretty much sums it up. They were served with scallions, pea shoots, and bok choy. 

Can't.Touch.This. No really, can you top a perfectly grilled octopus? I think not. This beauty was topped with peanuts, pickled onions, garlic, and herbs, served over a fermented black bean mole. Although the mole sounds strange, Asian food frequently contains fermented beans, so I thought it really worked here and kept up with the theme. One of these days I am going to work up the nerve to cook octopus myself - until then, this will do just fine. 

As you can tell by this picture, behind the kitchen is a legit grill master. It's not that easy to nail a perfect medium-rare all night long, so color me impressed. Oh yea, and it was waygu, and it was topped with a "scallion confit" and nestled on a perfect bed of sticky sushi rice. It was the bomb.com.

While not always advisable to save the heaviest item for last, we did not complain when our waiter brought out this perfect karaage - aka Japanese fried chicken. I am not one to wax poetic about any type of fried food, but something about karaage always gets me. Thankfully, I've found a number of places in DC that serve it and do it really well (recall our reviews of Donburi and Chaplin both included karaage)! Himitsu's karaage was similarly on point -- possibly better. It was topped with pickled onions - the brininess of which perfectly cut through the richness of the chicken, and the dish overall was brightened up by a charred gem lettuce salad.  

Overall, I was most impressed by the balance of each plate at Himitsu. Each was perfectly composed, but not in a pretentious 3-star kind of way. Rather their focus remained on flavor. I cannot wait for the seasons to change again so I can justify a trip back. 


Monday, October 15, 2018

Worth the hype? Bad Saint.

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Four years after it opened, with many, many accolades and fanfare, I finally went to Bad Saint. My colleague who has been traveling to DC to work with me for the past 8 months is winding down her time here, and it seemed like a great excuse to celebrate on a Wednesday evening. Another colleague of ours joined for the fun.

I arrived to Bad Saint around 4:50 and found myself fifth in line. Not bad! Around 5:30, the blinds rose and the doors opened. One by one, each customer was led through the door and to a table. Because we were three, we got a nice booth near the bar/kitchen. The interior was cozy, but although it was small it didn't feel cramped at all. There were several booths along the perimeter, plus some seats right at the bar/kitchen area. The vibe was cool, from the ceilings to the light fixtures.



Service was a little slow to start.  Eventually, the waitress came over to our table and we ordered some rosé and an orange wine (she had to explain what orange wine was!). The drinks took some time to make their way to our table, but were crisp balanced. We reviewed the menu with the waitress and she recommended a few items. As one of my guests was a a pescatarian, we primarily ordered dishes focused on vegetables and seafood. 



The first dish we were served was Labanos At Pinaitum - or, raw radishes with a dip featuring burnt coconuts, pistachios, and honey. The plate was plopped in front of us with no explanation of how to consume it. So, I picked up a giant hunk of radish and used my fork to scoop some dip on my plate. Now came the hard part - how was I supposed to cut the hard-as-a-rock radish with my fork? No knife was provided! Finally, as my friends and I puzzled over the enigmatic dish, we realized, maybe we were just supposed to dip and bite? We gave it a shot - moderate success! At least we didn't break a tooth! The flavor of the dish was not my style. I don't really love root vegetables, especially not raw. The dip was tasty, but the radish just overwhelmed the flavor. This was my least favorite dish of the night by far.



Next up was a ceviche-style yellow fin tuna in a delicious citrus broth made from the calamansai, a citrus fruit native to the Philippines. The tuna was fresh and cold. There were small red peppers in the broth that made it a bit spicy. I could have eaten several more of this dish. After the first radish and fish, which were  messy due to the dip and broth, I was surprised that we were not provided with clean plates and silverware. They were in dire need of a refreshment. Sadly, no one offered us clean plates at any point throughout the meal.



The waitress dropped off Laing, a shrimp dish featuring kale and more coconut broth, next. There were two on the menu, but we were told one was the spiciest dish the restaurant offered, so we opted for the other. It did not disappoint! It sort of reminded me of the idea of a Thai curry dish, but not Thai. Frankly, the color was not at all enticing, a kind of puke green, but the flavor certainly made up for the lack of visual appeal. The sweetness of the coconut and the savoriness of the greens balanced the fresh shrimp perfectly. 

For our vegetable dish, we chose ginisang gulay, which is a traditional vegetable dish featuring yu choy, which reminded me of bok choy. I loved the consistency of the thick stalks and leafy greens. (We did finally have to ask for a knife, as you can see below!). It reminded me of the broth served with Chinese chicken and broccoli. Salty and savory. The pepitas added a surprising and pleasant textural element.

While one diner sat out, my traveling friend and I had to sample one meat-focused dish. We ordered the Rendang, not realizing it was short ribs.  I am not usually a huge fan of short ribs, but wow!  Each bite literally fell apart when your fork touched them.  The meat was richly seasoned with cumin and coriander -- evoking flavor memories of coffee and chocolate.  I sopped up as much broth with each bite of meat as I could. This was definitely tied with the ceviche for my favorite dish!



Bad Saint does not have a dessert menu, but the restaurant provides a complimentary bite at the conclusion of your meal. We were offered an unsweetened chocolate brownie with sweetened condensed milk and some crispy rice puffs.  This was tasty, but I prefer sweet chocolate.
 


Overall, I definitely enjoyed the experience of Bad Saint. The dishes were generally tasty (minus that radish dish), but for the price point, the service could have been better. I am glad to have checked this place off my list, but probably will not return as I'm just not into standing in line for dinner more than once. If you're feeling adventurous and looking for something different, I would still definitely recommend checking it out, but I am not lining up with my folding chair to sit outside Bad Saint any time soon.




Monday, October 1, 2018

Bison Burgers With All The Fixins

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Typically, weeknight meals -- if I cook at all -- are somewhat lazy. I work long hours, and the thought of starting a complex recipe at 8 or 9pm is an unrealistic pipe dream. As a result, I eat a lot of a baked eggs and avocado toast. Once in a while, when I actually plan ahead for the week, I whip up something only slightly more time-consuming that that is relatively healthy and satisfies a heartier urge.  

On those occasions, one of my recent favorites has become these bison burgers. Bison is high in protein, but much lower in fat than ground beef. I use whole wheat buns and mix and match the toppings so it doesn't get boring. This past week, I seasoned the meet with rosemary, garlic, and a red pepper and topped them with sautéed mushrooms and spring mix salad.  

I also made a side of oven-roasted sweet potato fries, because everything is better with a side of fries. If you are going to make the sweet potato fries, make sure to start them in the oven at least 20 minutes before you start cooking the meat, because they take at least twice as long as the burgers.  

For four burgers you will need:

1 lb of ground bison (I used Great Range brand from Whole Foods) 
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp garlic powder 
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper 
salt & pepper, to taste
1/2 lb of mixed mushrooms (I used shiitake and button mushrooms) 
1 tsp butter 
2 tsp olive oil
A hearty handful of salad greens 
Cheese if you wish (I always do)
Four whole wheat buns 

First, season the meat with the rosemary, garlic power, cayenne, and salt and pepper. Form it into four equally sized patties and then set it aside while you cook the mushrooms.

For the mushrooms, I follow the french model of cooking them in both olive oil and butter. It sounds rich, but it really makes a world of difference in the flavor and elevates them to that 'restaurant quality'.

Slice the mushrooms, drizzle lightly with the EVOO, sprinkle salt and pepper generously over the mushrooms, then sauté them over medium heat until they start to soften. When the color starts to turn darker, add in a pat of butter, and let them finish cooking. They are done when the color is golden brown and are starting to get a slight crisp around the edges. 


Take them off the stove, and set them aside. 


In the same pan (don't rinse it out!), place all four bison burgers and cook over medium high heat. Ground bison needs to be at an internal temperature of 160 degrees Farenheit, so to be safe I use an electric thermometer.   
 
Cook the burgers on one side without flipping until the color changes from pink to brown about halfway up the side of the burger.  For me this took about 4 minutes. Then my favorite part - the flip!!
 

Once you complete the flip, check the internal temperature to see how close you are to 160 degrees. When you reach 160, they are done! Take them off the heat, and top them with all the fixings! 

If you are making cheeseburgers, place your cheese on the burgers when they are just about done - about 150 degrees. If you hold a large top (for a large stock pot, for example) over the frying pan -- without setting it down -- for a few seconds, the cheese should melt.

Once your burgers are done, it is time to assemble and enjoy the finished product. Shake Shack ain't got nothing on you.  


What's your favorite weeknight meal?  Leave us suggestions in the comments below!