Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In the city of blinding lights

I spend many of my work days in the outer edge of Old Town Alexandria, and one of the things I enjoy the most about the location is the view of the Potomac river. From this vantage point I get to see a lot - mostly jets about to land into National Airport, and many sailboats enjoying summer breezes. The development of National Harbor, across from the Wilson Bridge in Maryland, entertained me to no end - barges were carrying whole walls and heavy machinery down the river at one point. As a dedicated flâneur, the Gaylord Resort always gave me something to peer at while I jetted down the river bank on my way to Old Town proper, a giant jewelry box, all steel and light, the kind of structure that is so storied in size that you cannot help but wonder about the people in it. Last week I finally got the chance to find out. After a 20 minute ride on the water taxi from the Torpedo Factory ($7 USD each way, with boats every hour starting at 11 AM during the winter) I found myself in the midst of the lights at the other side of the river and all they had to offer - the atrium is 240 ft wide and 230 feet tall at its highest point. Their 60 foot synthetic glass tree, part of their Christmas display, is not the kind of thing one sees in the Mid-Atlantic (as a reference, Gaylord owns Opryland in Nashville, as well as Orlando and Dallas). The property has fantastic views of the Potomac, and though its size suggest a theme park of sorts, one is very clearly in DC/MD/VA.

If you are coming in as a local and not a visitor, the best bet would be to make a day out of it, or at least break up your meal into several parts, which is what our group did. We started out at Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine, a re-imagined fish market. After some cocktails and a very warm welcome from Chef Duane Keller, fresh oysters were brought out, perfectly chilled and briny. The dining area has an open kitchen and the bar is flanked by a wall of wine. The sushi rolls were very good, though the pieces were a bit bigger than one could daintily handle in mixed company.

We went upstairs to Old Hickory Steakhouse to continue our meal. Chef Wolfgang Birk presides over the black-and white space, a modern take on a Georgetown townhouse. Though the kitchen is tucked away, there is plenty to look at - a cheese cave and a humidor that boasts Cuban cigars from 1959 - pre-embargo. As an entree we had tasting portions of three of the Chef's signature dishes, including almond-crusted jumbo lump crabcake - the almonds gave the crab a nice earthiness. The beef was well-cooked and the sauces added to the plate without overwhelming the beef. My favorite thing on the table was the colt salt stone that came with the butter - a great way to control the level of salt and a beautiful presentation.

Old Hickory has something rarer than Cuban cigars on stock - a Maitre de Fromage. Carolyn Stromberg is a veritable sherpa on all things cheese, food that seldom gets in due for sheer complexity. Carolyn presents the cheese table-side, and one cannot help but share in her enthusiasm for these very well-traveled, hand crafted, cheeses that cannot be found elsewhere. She'll have you at "sheep's milk cheese wrapped in walnut leaves." You won't even mind that most of them are not pasteurized.

After a quick dessert with Remy Martin composed by Old Hickory's bartender, we headed over to the 18th floor, the highest level at the hotel. The atmosphere and music selection will take you back to those bars on cruise ships right over the pools, the ones with the pop and the panoramic views. Though you won't see far enough to see the Earth's curvature, you will find a variety of infusions - rum and vodka based - to keep you amused, everything from citrus to mocha and everything in between. It is definitively a place to keep in mind for controlled debauchery, including bachelorette parties.

Go to see the look of light on things, stay for the food, go back for the incredibly attentive service.

Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center
National Harbor, MD
Old Hickory Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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