Thursday, October 31, 2013

Central: Still Going Strong

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With the nonstop stream of restaurant openings in Logan Circle, Shaw, and H Street, it is sometimes easy to forget about the restaurant scene that existed before Masa 14 and Ghibellina. 

Most of time, I fully support writing off the stuffy downtown restaurants in lieu of the more local neighborhood spots, but some of the downtown restaurants are consistently held in high regard

One of these restaurants is Michel Richard's Central on Pennsylvania Avenue. Although Central has only been around for a few years, it is safe to say it's become a DC institution for the business lunch crowd.  That said, it still maintains its reputation for a lively atmosphere, beautiful restaurant space, and delicious food.  

Despite having lived in DC (off and on) for the last decade, and despite being a huge fan of former Central chef, Cedric Maupillier (who now owns Mintwood Place), until last week, I had never visited Central.  When my dad was in town last weekend, I decided to take him and find out whether it lived up to its high end reputation.  I am happy to report that I enjoyed my meal so much that I was (1) annoyed at myself for waiting this long to go, (2) bummed I never made it to Richard's former restaurant Citronelle before it closed, and (3) curious whether his new restaurant, Villard, will make as big of an impact on restaurant-saturated New York City.

To start, we ordered the gougeres.  This is merely a fancy name for cheese puffs.  If you've ever eaten at BLT Steak, these are very similar to the complimentary popovers they bring to each table. The gougeres were served warm and arrived in a cone-basket that you typically see french fries served in at Belgian restaurants. They are shaped like hollow donut holes and are made of a light dough that has gruyere baked into the pastry. They were a tasty little treat to wet your palate, but were a tad superfluous to the delicious bread basket that was served at the same time.  In hindsight, I would have opted for a different appetizer. 

The entrees were truly the star of the meal.  I ordered the scallops entree, which was a serving of 4 perfectly seared large scallops. They were cooked to golden brown perfection on the outside with a tender center.  There is always a "chewiness" risk with scallops, but there was none of that here. They were served over a light red pepper sauce and a variety of greens, including bok choy and broccolini.  One interesting touch was pasta ribbons sitting atop the scallops.  They added an additional texture and visual interest to the plate and filled up what was otherwise a pretty light dish.  

My dad ordered the pasta bolognese.  I was initially surprised by his choice of an Italian dish at a French/American restaurant.  But we both agreed that it was one of the best renditions of pasta bolognese either of us had ever tasted. It was a cold night and the sauce was the type that warms your soul.  Rich, hearty, and ridiculously flavorful.  In addition to the meat and tomatoes, you could taste the fresh herbs, the red wine, and the sharp salty cheese grated on top.  It was the perfect combination of flavors.  I would go back just for this dish.  

Lastly, for dessert we got a trio of sorbet and gelato.  Our trio came with vanilla ice cream, and mango and strawberry sorbet.  I admit it was an odd dessert choice for a cold fall evening, but it was a delicious and sweet way to end the meal. 

Although DC is only now starting to be talked about as having a "food scene," my night at Central reminded me that we've had some great restaurants in DC for a while and they don't all reside on 14th Street.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Homemade Whole Wheat Fettucine & Mushroom Ragu

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One magical Thursday a mystery package arrived at my front door.  A very generous [and awesome] family member, aware of my penchant for pasta, shipped me an authentic pasta machine.  Needless to say, I was ridiculously excited and had to try it out immediately - as in that night. 

Incidentally, I happened to have all of the ingredients on hand to make whole wheat pasta and a somewhat bastardized version of Mario Batali's mushroom ragu.  

What I learned is that, once you have the pasta maker, the recipe for pasta is incredibly simple. It requires two ingredients: flour and eggs. 

To make 1 1/4 lbs of pasta you need:

3 1/2 cups of flour [all purpose, whole wheat, or a combination] 
5 large eggs 

First place a mound of the flour on a large cutting board. 

Make a dent in the mound of flour and crack all five eggs into the center of the mound. Then take a small whisk or a fork and whisk the eggs together. 

Start working the outside of the mound of flour into the center to form a dough. Keep pushing the dough up against the wall of the mound. You'll need to knead the dough for about 10 minutes to get it to the  "doughy" consistency.  

 Once the dough is fully incorporated, form it into a ball.

 Wrap the ball in plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes. 

While the dough is resting, start making the mushroom ragu.  To simplify things, I started with a jar of tomato sauce and "improved" on it by adding the ragu ingredients. Here's what you need:
  • 1/2 yellow onion 
  • 1 pint of mushrooms, I used oyster mushrooms, but you could use shiitake, porcini, or any other mushroom of choice 
  • 1/2 cup of red wine (the golden rule is to pick a wine you want to keep drinking throughout the meal)
  • cherry tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter 
  • parmigiano-reggiano cheese 
  • a pinch of crushed red pepper
  • salt & pepper 

First clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth. Although there is a fair amount of debate on this subject, I am from the school of thought that believes: whatever you do, do not run them under water to clean them. 

Dice the onions into tiny little pieces and saute them in 1 tablespoon of olive oil. 

Once the onions are softened and have turned a golden brown color, add the mushrooms and cherry tomatoes into the pan and saute until they are softened and slightly shriveled. This will take about 8-10 minutes.  

For the tomato sauce base, Mario Batali recommends you make his simple tomato sauce. Since it was a weeknight, I decided to use Trader Joe's Arrabiata sauce, which has a little bit of a kick.  

Add 1 cup of the tomato sauce, 1/2 cup of dry red wine, 1 tablespoon of butter,  a pinch of crushed red pepper, and a sprinkle of salt.

Bring the sauce to a boil and then simmer until it reaches it reaches a thick consistency. 

Right about the time the sauce is done, the dough should be ready to turn into pasta.  Take the dough and roll it out with a rolling pin as flat as you can.  Or you can improvise with can of salt ...totally okay.  

Your pasta machine should be set to the main roller.  Take a little bit of flour and dust the machine so the dough doesn't stick. 

Slide the dough through the two rollers in the pasta machine to further flatten it.

It took about 5 times through the rollers, as well as various adjustments to the machine to reach the desired thinness of the pasta. 

We broke the pasta into several smaller pieces to make a couple of very long flat sheets.

The pasta machine comes with several attachments to make various pasta shapes, including spaghetti and fettuccine. Once you switch the attachment, it's very easy to slide the sheets of pasta through to cut the pasta into fettuccine. Now is also a great time to bring a pot of water to a boil to cook the pasta.  

Once the water is boiling, drop the fettuccine in and cook for 3-4 minutes. Then, use tongs and stir the cooked pasta into the mushroom ragu to evenly coat it in the sauce. 

We served the mushroom ragu with simply steamed green beans and topped it with flakes of fresh parmigiano-reggiano cheese.

Even though this wasn't the quickest meal (it took about 1.5 hours start to finish), I thought it was well worth the effort. Next time, I'll probably try a mix of whole wheat and all purpose flour, but I wouldn't change a thing about the sauce. It was absolutely delicious!