Sunday, November 30, 2008

You are what you bake

I come from a family of fantastic cooks (some self-taught and others classically trained) and while I have them to thank for my well-tempered palette, I am lucky that there are no pre-requisites (in talent or craft) to enjoy food. I enjoy cooking, but I have to eat out a lot (for work and fun) and mostly cook simple meals, a flan here and there, and the occasional elaborate omelet from my Farmer's Market finds. The HomeMade Pizza Company, a Chicago-based company that makes and delivers fresh, unbaked pizzas and cookies with all-natural ingredients recently opened their first DC outpost. I couldn't resist the opportunity to entertain in the middle of the week, have my pie and eat it too.

I invited some friends over. Three medium pies and two salads had been delivered a few hours before (smack in the middle of their two-hour delivery window, as agreed). Though everything had to be refrigerated, the packaging was minimal and did not overwhelm my refrigerator. Each pie was individually wrapped, and came with clear instructions, pre-cut parchment paper, and a cardboard base that doubled as a tray for transport (this is by far the best feature of the packaging, spades above your standard supermarket brand).

Each pie was baked for 15 minutes on the parchement provided. It needed to be placed on the middle rack of my small stove, so I baked them one at a time.

In the meantime, we worked on the salads: Pear and Blue Cheese with a Balsamic dressing and a Cobb with Creamy Gorgonzola. The pear was crisp, with a distinct acidic note that went very well with the creaminess of the crumble blue cheese and the spiced walnuts, on top of mixed greens. The Cobb was standard issue (avocado, bacon, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, blue cheese on top of romaine), with the kick of chives and the lushness that you cannot find in a salad bar or bagged greens, even premium ones.

We sampled three pizzas, which was more than enough for the 5 of us. All the pizzas had the same thin crust (a good balance between thick enough to hold the ingredients and thin enough not to overwhelm with starch) and sauce, all fresh tomato and none of the chemical aftertaste of chain-delivery places. They were also remarkably easy to cut, considering I did not have a pizza cutter handy - my standard chef's knife did the trick, and I cut them on top of the cardboard disc. The Miesian, pictured, was my favorite: Roma Tomato, roasted garlic and fresh basil. You could actually see the garlic, and it provided the pizza with a great kick. The BLT will make you reconsider bacon on pizzas - getting premium bacon fresh out of the oven gives you the sizzle without the copious amounts of grease. We all enjoyed the Georgia (chicken sausage, poblano peppers and ricotta cheese), but I've always been weary of ricotta on pizza, even if it is as good cheese as this. The overall taste was milder than something with poblanos ought to be, but it would be perfect for people who enjoy softer seasonings.

Fresh made for you by others: just like home.

HomeMade Pizza Company
4857 Massachusetts Ave. NW

HomeMade Pizza Company on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A for Effort

I taught high school history for several years, and came out of the experience with a particular appreciation for the giddiness and pitfalls inherent to youthful efforts. This is the only explanation I have for enjoying my dinner with O. at Darlington House as much as I did.

The restaurant, in the densely-packed restaurant strip north of Dupont Circle is owned by Fabio and Patricia Beggiato, who also own and operate Sesto Senso (a club with a very good kitchen, or a restaurant with a very good DJ). The kitchen is helmed by Chef Alexander Schulte and Pastry Chef Monica Padua, both in their early twenties. The space and service bear all the hallmarks of experience - welcoming decoration that is not too-homey (a la Restaurant Nora) while avoiding the excesses of a design-school project (Oya), and a very pleasant hostess at the front. The restaurant does look like a house, down to the beautifully up-holstered chairs, the kind your much cooler friends live in, with all the flea-market garage sales finds. The service was friendly and diligent without being pushy. We sat facing a beautiful wooden bar with an interesting feature: a full window right by the service hallway, where more than one person stopped to chat. It gave the bar a lot more whimsy than you would expect from dark wood panelling.

The food, however, looses this sense of balance. We were there for the promotional fixe prix (part of Open Table's Appetite Stimulus Plan), which is a great way to try new restaurants and see how they find creative ways to showcase their menu while cutting down costs. The kitchen's youth is evident in how it rebels in certain things - the adventurous wine list and the wonderful desserts. I had a pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust topped with vanilla bean whipped cream. The texture was perfect and the play of the pungency of the vanilla with the earthiness of the pumpkin and the sweet bite of the ginger made for a memorable dessert. O. had a lovely bread pudding with a touch of chocolate sauce.

Unfortunately, the kitchen is also at a loss with what to do with certain things, giving the impression that it needs a seasoned hand. The appetizers were well made but nothing special - a polenta with wild mushrooms, three cheeses and truffle oil for me and an arugula and bartlett pear salad for O. The size of the salad made me think of the paltry portion of greens we would put on our plates as kids to show grandma that we were eating vegetables, if only to secure desert. The polenta was tasty, but the dish lacked sufficient contrast in textures, since the mushrooms weren't as easy to differentiate from the starch as they could be. I had read good things about the pasta at Darlington House, but ever since I read Bill Buford's wonderful book, Heat, I order short ribs every chance I get. My short rib was completely separated from the bone; parts of it were chewy and the fat hadn't activated at all. Basic seasonings were also lacking. I thought it was a fluke and I had a bad piece of meat until O. confirmed that hers wasn't much better. The side of potatoes au gratin were the best thing on the plate.

Youthful exuberance to make you believe in the comfort of food and friends. I'll give it a few months and visit them again.

Darlington House
1610 20th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Darlington House on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Have your cocktail and drink it too

There might be less money to spend on merriment this year, but there are still ways to both indulge and help.

Kimpton Hotels has launched its annual Red Ribbon Campaign for HIV/AIDS. All of its DC-area locations (Bar Rouge, Domaso, Firefly, Helix Lounge, Jackson 20, Poste, The Grille at Morrison House, Topaz Bar, and Urbana) will feature “Cocktails for a Cure” a trio of themed cocktails available in November and December. Each drink is $12 and for every one purchased in November and December, Kimpton will donate $1 to the Whitman Walker Clinc.

Rouge on the Rocks
Milagro Blanco Tequila, Grand Marnier, raspberries and mint

Scarlet Night
Bacardi Rum, Campari and white peach puree

Ruby Sparkle
Grey Goose Vodka, Grand Marnier, pomegranate juice and sparkling wine

Rouge on the rocks is an interesting take on a winterized margarita and the Ruby Sparkle is everything a holiday cocktail ought to be - jewel-toned and sparkling.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

For one or many

I have been patronizing Buzz Bakery for over a year and had yet to review it, probably because more often than not I go there to get away from writing in the first place. Owned by the same restaurant group as Rustico (across the street), Vermillion and the Evening Star Cafe, Buzz is a watering hole, a sophisticated dessert case and a morning pastry shop rolled into one.

Pastry Chef Josh Short and his team (who work until the wee hours, with a 6 AM opening and a midnight closing 7 days a week) offers something for everyone. If you stop there for breakfast you'll find oatmeal, waffles, scones, breakfast sandwiches, an incredible cinnamon role that takes its cues from brioche. Lunch offerings include simple salads and pre-made sandwiches. Brownies, cookies and cupcakes are available all day long. The ginger snap is very well balanced, with a good amount of crunch and spice. Their signature cupcake, the bumble bee, has a chocolate filling, meringue frosting, and its namesake bumblebee hovering above. (I believe I have one of each color by now), Thought it is true that the cupcakes used to be bigger and the filling has gone from pudding to sauce, their cakes-for-one especially the seasonal ones (the current ones include caramel apple and carrot cake) are consistently well made, beautiful to look at, imaginative and even fun to carry in a a Chinese take-out inspired container. Friendships have been made and saved, and many a-colleague enticed, prodded and even bribed, with the contents of that pastry case.

Their tartes are what set Buzz apart from the cupcake shops of DC - the caramel and pine nut is an impressive use of smoke taste in an unexpected place, and the lemon creme tarte would make a classic pastry chef nod in enthusiastic approval. Full cakes and pies are also available to carry out. If you find yourself there late, as I often do, you'll find plenty of people nursing drinks other than Illy Coffee. Though their dessertinis are nothing you couldn't find at a regular bar, they have a well-rounded wine selection and beers that make it a worthy sibling of Rustico.

Not quite Old Town, but you'll be glad you made the trip.

Buzz Bakery
901 Slaters Lane
Alexandria VA 22314
Buzz Bakery, Coffee, and Dessert Lounge on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Courtesy of Wall Street

Restaurant Week in November!

Open Table's Appetite Stimulus Plan

Three-Course lunch and dinner for $24 and $35; November 17 - 21 2008.

I've booked Darlington House in Dupont Circle and have had great Restaurant Week experiences at La Bergerie and Indique, which are also on the list. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Market Morning

I am not exactly a morning person (which explains, at least partially, my love for Brunch) but there are a few things that will get me out bed early on a Sunday - calls from several time zones away, half-price airfare, and beautiful produce.

With its convenient hours (9 AM to 1 PM), central location (between Massachusetts Avenue and Q Street, by the Dupont North Metro Station), creative petitioners (The WHO Farm was there today, upside down bus and all), interesting gimmicks (live music, giant paellaeras) marvelous people watching and a great and wide selection, the Dupont Circle Farmer's Market is my favorite one in DC-proper.

I enjoy dawdling in the market and never take a shopping list, but always find myself making the following required stops:

1. Bonaparte Breads - great baguettes, croissants and other French specialties. Their cherry lattices and almond croissants are not to be missed.

2. Blue Ridge Dairy - wonderful Greek style-yogurt. I especially like their honey one.

3. The nameless mushroom stand. Fantastic mushrooms and helpful suggestions on how to pair them. The $10 sampler is a great way to deviate from the regular button, portobello and crimini.

4. Clear Spring Creamery - their milk from grass-fed cows is great, but it is the ready-made smoothies (with seasonal offerings, including pumpkin spice) and their chocolate milk will make your inner child happy (it will also keep you from sharing it with actual children).

5. Gardener's Gourmet - a wide selection of heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs. Their fresh basil looks as if it had been hand-picked.

Most of the vendors come from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Northern Virginia and there are many organic options for aroundthe same price you would pay at Whole Foods if not a bit cheaper. The lighting is also much better for food ogling (the peppers, above, were in the Market a few weeks ago). Enjoy the last bit of good weather, bring your reusable bags and make a morning out of it.

Dupont Circle Farmer's Market
500 block of 20th Street, NW