Monday, February 23, 2009

Comforts of Yore

I always try to get the most value for money when I choose what places to go for Restaurant Week, and find that it is a very accurate gauge for the Management's approach to customers who would not normally eat at their establishment. While restaurants may make up for it in volume of patrons, or people would go for the non-included beverages with more ease, profit margins are easily shot at $20.09 and $35.00. The decisions that are made - offering up a full menu, or a slightly scaled down menu that still features the kitchen's signature or strongest dishes, and keeping up the standards in service even when the checks won't be as high as normal - have a direct impact on whether or not people will come back, Restaurant Week or not.

J. has been a steadfast Restaurant Week companion for years, idiosyncrasy and all. We had never been to Coeur de Lion but its fame as one of the old-DC establishments preceded it. On the corner of 9th and Massachusetts, NW and a block away from Mount Vernon place, the restaurant at the Henley Park Hotel saw the fall and rise of its environs. Conveniently located a few blocks away from the Convention Center metro stop, it is an old-fashioned watering hole. The bar, with a live yet non- intrusive piano, will delight anyone who enjoys visiting the Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery. The main dining room has a glass ceiling, a solarium of sorts - totally wasted on the dinner crowd, but a great alternative for enjoying the persistent sun of winter during lunch.

J. and I were promptly seated in the additional dining room, a nice space with deep red walls and stone masks. It is not really tied, decoratively at least, to the main space, and anyone wanting to sit under the glass ceiling ought to request it in the reservation. Our waiter was attentive but not overbearing, and presented us with the Restaurant Week menus as soon as we sat down.

To go with dinner, we ordered a bottle of moderately priced California Pinot Grigio - for such a high end restaurant, Coeur de LIon has several affordable options by the glass as well as the bottle. The menu was a scaled down version of the full menu - the crab dishes were gone, as was to be expected, but they kept the filet mignon and replaced the sea bass with rock fish. To start J. had the Pancetta Goat Cheese tart and I had the Belgian Endive salad. Since endives are pervasive at cocktail parties, I expected the boat presentation and was pleasantly surprised to be presented with a mound. The endives were sliced and tossed with frisee lettuce, topped with slices of Asian pear sliced figs, spiced walnuts, and cubes of stilton cheese. The dressing was a vinaigrette with sherry and walnut. The cheese paired very well with the figs and sherry, and I only wished the kitchen had added some more walnuts - the proportion of greens to accompaniments was slightly off and the overall bitterness of the salad was not as controlled as it could have been.

For entrees, J. ordered the Pan Roasted Moularde Duck Breast and I had the Seared Rockfish (the regular menu has the same dish, but with Sea Bass. I don't think Rock Fish is much cheaper than Sea Bass, so this might have been a decision based on freshness). J.'s duck was very well cooked, with a smokey note to it from the fat as well as the hoisen demi-glaze. My rockfish was delicious - the texture was firm but easy to cut through with a fork, and I dipped it into the lemon caper sauce before loading the fork with fennel and artichokes. There weren't many pine nuts in the plate, but the flavor was definitively there. I like all those ingredients, and had never had pine nuts with artichokes before - a wonderful combination of textures and acidity.

For dessert we both had an apple turnover (the other option was a chocolate cake). The ice cream was house-made and the vanilla bean specks were clearly visible, making the ice cream firm, fragrant and creamy. Turnovers are usually very homey looking desserts (I have many memories of my mom using the extra pastry from a more ambitious pie, chicken pot or otherwise, to make pineapple turnovers) but this one was a perfectly executed square.

J. and I had a leisurely dinner. I always appreciate not being rushed, but it was clear that the staff is not used to handling a full house anymore. The food is well-executed and though by no means cutting edge, it is infused with care and knowing hands at the back and front of the house. Let's hope Restaurant Week works its magic and Coeur de Lion can take its place as the neighborhood's dowager restaurant.

Coeur de Lion Restaurant
Henley Park Hotel
926 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 414-0500

Coeur de Lion on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 15, 2009

World Famous

C. was visiting from Botswana, so our aim was to please. An intrepid traveler, she's lived in 3 continents over the past 10 years, and enjoys eating local. When she expressed an interest in Southern food, I jumped at the chance to go to a DC Institution, the Florida Avenue Grill. I've done the Brunch at Georgia Brown's and have had the chicken at Oooh's and Aaah's, but had yet to get the full dinner experience, minus the bright lights and the tourists (a la Ben's Chili Bowl, a few blocks away). While I enjoy fine dining, Mexican street food, frequent trips across the border and long stretches of time spent on a student budget have made me a fan of holes in the wall.

Florida Avenue Grill has been around since 1944, and if you have any doubts about its standing as an institution all you have to do is look around the walls to find a myriad of autographed pictures. Every stool was full when we got there around 2 o'clock, but a smiling woman behind the counter pointed us in the general direction of a booth that had just become available. It could have very well been 1944 for the lack of flash, but the place has its own charm.

As C. and I pondered the menu, an unassuming bread basket showed up. I didn't want to ruin my appetite, but the smell, texture and color of the cornbread conspired against me. C., in Botswana by way of Shanghai and Manchester, had never tasted a cornbread muffin, and she was introduced to them in style. It was an unseasonably warm day in DC so we ordered a round of Iced Tea, which would have given any Sweet Tea in Louisiana a run for its money. The sugar shock was the icy jolt we needed to concentrate on the menu and stop pondering the muffins. The place was packed, but we were never rushed - we just had to make sure to catch our waitress before she made her way to the kitchen, all of 8 feet away.

C. had the fried chicken with a side of beets and I had the spare ribs with a side of baked Mac & Cheese. I am calling them sides but at the Florida Avenue Grill these are deemed "vegetables", a rather broad use of the term. C's fried chicken was golden and crunchy, with the pleasant texture but not the excess oil. My barbeque ribs needed the slightest touch from my fork to give way - the sauce was tangy and sirupy. I thought I had over-ordered (the plate came with 4 ribs) but the pork was moist and leaner than I expected. The Mac & Cheese was a bit dry, but one could chalk that up to it's vegetable complex. Though we were both stuffed we decided to have dessert - we were in a Southern diner, after all. Our choices were coconut cake and peach cobbler. C. was away when I ordered, and not knowing if she was a fan of coconut I opted for the cobbler, which was served in a small bowl. While it wasn't bad, it was almost unbearably sweet, and the wonderful crust and crumble that characterizes many cobblers was nowhere to be found, replaced by some dumpling-like masses floating about. Some jam and the rest of the muffins would have probably been a better choice. The better angels of our nature prevailed and we declined a second basket.

Florida Avenue Grill has an extensive breakfast menu, and I am looking forward to trying their pancakes. With such great ribs, I can't wait to see what they can do with cured meats.

Florida Avenue Grill
1100 Florida Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20009

Florida Avenue Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Joys of Breakfast

I have been meaning to try Founding Farmers since it opened last year. Expecting an Agraria-like experience and not particularly inspired by its institutional location (at the IMF building)I kept putting it off. The sandblasted lettering on the glass panes, the over-sized glass jars for conserved and the in-door clouds were a bit too industrial meets farm whimsy for me, and there are several places in DC touting sustainable and local ingredients.

But then I saw the sign: Open for breakfast at 8 AM. Sold. I normally meet E. for breakfast at Breadline, one block up, but this gave me the chance to try a new place and take advantage of the fact that they have, and prepare, farm fresh eggs. I got there a few minutes before she did and took in the space - the d├ęcor is still over done, but the panoramic windows, the comfortable booths and the lovely silverware make up for it. I also noticed that I was the only woman sitting at a table - Founding Farmers seems to be one of the new places to have a power breakfast. I was very happy when E. arrived - I was both starving and bored with the conversation of North American carbon offsets next to me.

We both went with eggs - though the menu also includes hashes, pancakes, waffles, and oatmeal- an exceptional value at $9. Farm fresh eggs have a firmer yolk (I'll have to try the Eggs Benedict for the full effect, as this would show up in a poached egg) and have a vibrant orange to red color. I had the Pan Scrambled eggs (topped with herbs) and E. had the Founding Farmers breakfast, which includes 2 eggs in any style (she went with scrambled). The eggs were firm and, while not greasy, had the distinctive taste of butter. Both came with house-made English muffins, which looked like they had just come from the oven and had a hint of sour dough acidity to them. Split into two, we each used one for the eggs and the other to try the strawberry preserves. I would have preferred honey, but the preserves weren't ladden with sugar the way many are. For sides E. had sausage and I had bacon, which tasted and looked as if if had been dry-cured: long, crispy strips. As a second side E. had the country potatoes (again, butter, and also garlic) and I had fresh fruit. We ordered an extra side of tomato, two slices finished with a bit of vinegar and fresh herbs. The tomato slices were perfect for winter, meaty but bright. The blackberries and grapes made me glad I had opted out of the starch. I don't know where near DC you could get fresh strawberries or an errant slice of pineapple, but they both tasted fantastic.

The staff was friendly and attentive, and they kept my coffee cup filled to the brim - key to making me happy any day.

Founding Farmers
924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC

Founding Farmers on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 2, 2009

Cupid's Fork and Arrow

I will not be in town for Valentine's Day (at #16) but how could I fail to endorse a chocolate and champagne-centric holiday?

Open Table, as per usual, enables A-types with its Valentine's Day Reservation page. I am especially glad to see Adour, Blue Duck Tavern and the Commonwealth Gastropub in there.

The Kimpton restaurants will be out in full force:
- Firefly in Dupont Circle will have a Champagne, Chocolate and Flowers as a trio of cocktails and a 5-course menu for $75.

- Jackson 20 in Alexandria will have special food and cocktail menus. The food menu is 3 courses for $55 and includes a champagne greeting for people who order the menu, along with a little box of chocolate covered fruit as a give away.

- Domaso in Rosslyn is offering a $55 3-course menu with an option to do wine pairings for an additional $35. Chef Massimo’s menu features two parallel (and interchangeable) menus consisting of white or dark chocolate ingredients to symbolically represent the dichotomy of love and relationships.

- The Grille at Morrison House in Old Town is doing a $65 5-course land and sea tasting menu. (For every couple who opts for the V-Day menu, the Grille will offer a bottle of champagne for $35.00)

- Poste in Penn Quarter is offering their regular menu with the Poste Champagne Flight Tasting for $25: warm gougeres, Foie Gras parfait, smoked salmon blini with American caviar, paired with a trio of champagne.

Hudson, a great place for cocktails in Dupont Circle, will serve a special menu with classic dishes such as lobster bisque and rack of lamb for $40.

Old Hickory Steakhouse at Gaylord National Resort is billing its $130 per couple dinner as the most romantic in the region. The menu is classic - lobster, steak, and even baked Alaska.

Anything else I'll be missing? Send me an e-mail or post it as a comment.