Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sweetgreen Makes Eating Your Veggies Fun

Sweetgreen is a concept that you will enjoy as much as their light and healthy salads and frozen yogurt. I visited their new Dupont Circle space several times this month and their Georgetown location, which opened earlier, once. The Georgetown location is a much smaller, busy, takeout joint for hungry tourists and Georgetown students on the go, and the Bethesda restaurant just opened today, with high ceilings, seating for 40 and an outdoors patio area.

Sweetgreen tosses up seven $9 signature and four $8 traditional salads, along with serving a tart and slightly sweet frozen yogurt with live cultures and toppings ranging from fresh fruit to candied walnuts. If you prefer, you can create your own salad and add a dressing and some of the many available veggies, crunchy bits, meats and cheeses of choice. Drink selections are $2 Honest Tea and Honest Ade organic beverages, along with similarly priced still and sparkling waters.

Owners Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru, and Jonathan Neman take environmental sustainability seriously. It is also evident, however, that they had fun and took great care in testing the concept for this restaurant until they had created a cohesive and successful business model. All Sweetgreen restaurants are Green Certified by the Green Restaurant Association and powered by 100 percent wind energy from Clean Currents. At Dupont Circle, the laidback, hip atmosphere is also airy, enhanced by high ceilings and a beautifully cool, abstract wallpaper design reminiscent of their ribbed salad greens. Reclaimed hickory wood lines the walls, utensils are made of biodegradable corn, and the typical trash bins have been recreated as an old-fashioned farm compost/recycling area. Even the napkin dispensers feature “green” facts about the restaurant. (My favorite is “hey Lebowski—the tables and seats are made from reclaimed pre-1980s bowling alleys!”) Wall niches contain reusable canteens and salad containers available for purchase. Takeaway menus are printed on biodegradable recycled paper and contain California wildflower seeds, so you can plant them in your window box or back yard.

This cheerful dining fills you completely, gradually and almost imperceptibly, so it is particularly well-suited for steaming summers in DC. The cool salads are generous and accompanied by a long slice of warm baguette. I liked every one I tried, but perhaps my favorite was the $9 Curry Gold signature salad, featuring chopped romaine, curried chicken salad, raisins, almonds, celery and coconut. The pineapple curry dressing, made with nonfat yogurt, honey, and white wine vinegar, among other ingredients, was delicate and delicious. Another one I will order again is the $9 Bondi, with mesclun and baby arugula, grilled chicken, avocado, sweet corn, hearts of palm, and wasabi peas sprinkled with white balsamic vinaigrette. At first I wondered whether the wasabi peas’ heat would overwhelm other ingredients, but they blended in perfectly and added a complementary sweet-hot crunch.

Next I tried the $9 Santorini, with chopped romaine, small roasted shrimp, feta cheese, grapes, fresh mint, chick peas and a splash of lemon juice topped with a cucumber basil yogurt dressing. Again I was pleased with the way the small fresh shrimp fit perfectly into the salad rather than overpowering it. My friend, J., declared the $8 Chinese Chicken salad, an “old school favorite,” absolutely delectable, and enthusiastically said that she would be happy to return the next day to devour it again. I liked the Caprese “old school favorite,” but ended up preferring the more multi-textured salads the owners have dreamed up on their own.

One of Sweetgreen’s many strengths is the salads’ consistent textural balance. This culinary high-wire act is not necessarily easy to achieve, but the veggies, crunchy ingredients, cheeses, meats, fruits, and greens combine in sometimes unexpected but always harmonious ways. Ingredients chopped this small are also easy to digest for busy people on the run.

The slightly sweet frozen yogurt with live cultures made my tongue tingle, having a tart, plain taste reminiscent of the yogurt I make myself. I tried it two times, once covered with candied walnuts, mango, and raspberries; and another with dried apricots. It was yummy with all toppings. Do not expect your typical super-sweet frozen yogurt, however.

When dining at the Dupont location, I simply took pleasure in sitting there, swaying slightly to the beat of the alternative tunes and classics that were playing, relaxing within the restaurant’s arboreal design and gazing out the large bay window at Connecticut Avenue passersby and the Starbucks across the street. (Check out sweetgreen’s blog to find out more about the music they play.) I actually felt sorry for Starbucks’ lunch customers. They would have gotten a tastier, fresher meal with better value sitting with me.

So I recommend this new entrée on the scene very highly. With its eye-and tongue-pleasing array of fresh, high-quality ingredients, it is the best “salad bar” I have frequented in a very long time. Sweetgreen fills a much-needed gap in the DC quick-casual dining arena, and I hope it does as well as it deserves.

Sweetgreen in Georgetown view menu
3333 M Street NW
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 337-9338

Sweetgreen in Dupont Circle
1512 Connecticut Ave, NW
Washington, DC 200036
(202) 337-9338

Sweetgreen in Bethesda
4831 Bethesda Ave
Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 654-7336

Sweetgreen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Good to go

The alarm clock interrupts my recurring dream, as I've instructed it to, at a quarter past 7. I need to get to the office early so that I can leave late, much as I've been doing for the past month. Except for breakfast foods and a rather impressive collection of condiments, my fridge is barren. Grocery shopping is on the long list of things I ought to do: I love cooking, greatly enjoy food stores, and firmly believe that taking my lunch to work is the best way to support my restaurant habit during the weekends. Sometimes the dustbin of good intentions runneth over.

Ever since it opened a few months ago, Pret A Manger has been my go-to place for freshly made lunch food. Conveniently located on top of the 18th street entrance of the Farragut West metro stop, the DC outpost of the London chain is fully stocked with sandwiches (alas, no salads or sushi) first thing in the morning - you can run in and out in 3 minutes, with a snack and a proper lunch in tow (no more cash only delis!) aided by fast and friendly cashiers. There is limited seating, but the location is more of a showcase for the food than a place to dawdle.

After trying every pret sandwich (sold whole or in halves) in the DC store, I've found myself ordering the Organic Egg Salad, Spinach, Parmegiano & the Balsamic Chicken and avocado again and again. The chicken is firm and aromatic, with the avocado cutting into the acidity of the basamic and providing an alternative to globs of mayo. The egg salad has made me long for picnics with every bite, and the spinach is a pleasant surprise. The bacon on the chicken and bacon and the turkey club speaks to the quality of the ingredients at Pret - well cured, smokey and crunchy, even several hours later.

The breakfast baguettes (yes, sometimes the fridge is completely empty) are a great alternative to the egg product options at fast food places - the organic egg and roasted tomato is restaurant quality, and the cream cheese, tomato and basil is an interesting take on the caprese. For a snack, I've become a fan of the Low Fat Yoga Bunny Pot - yogurt on top of julienned apples, dried cranberries, raisins, and roasted almonds. I am not sure how it relates to yoga or bunnies, but I try not to let marketing get in the way of my hunger, particularly mid-afternoon.

Now if I could only get them to toss salads a bit earlier...

Pret A Manger on Urbanspoon

Pret A Manger
1825 I Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mail bag

Some fun things in the DC Gastronome inbox:

Earth Day
On April 22, my favorite outdoor cocktail spot, the Garden at Poste, is reopening for the season with a garden party in honor of Earth Day and Freshfarm Markets . The $5 cover will be donated to Freshfarms, and guests will enjoy tastings from local wineries, cheese tastings from Cowgirl, and samples of new punch-style cocktails from Rico and Chef Robert Welland's new small plates menu.

Let them eat cupcake!

Mervis Diamond Importers has upped the ante in the DC cupcake craze. The trunk show they will be hosting May 1 and 2 at their Rockville and Tysons locations will feature designers Martin Flyer and Coast, as well as some confections that will make gold dust look rather unimpressive.

(Photo via

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Spying the Best New Zealand Wines at Zola

Ordinarily you might not wear a deerstalker and hold a magnifying glass while looking for specific vintages right next to Penn Quarter’s Spy Museum. Yet I spied, with my little eye, many Kiwi brands at a March 31 event showcasing New Zealand wines at Zola. This event presented an ideal opportunity to take the current pulse of New Zealand varietals and wineries. The New Zealand wine industry has acquired a very strong reputation in a fairly short amount of time, considering that much of the country started creating wines in the 1970s, and had an uneven prior history of production. For more information about the ten main wine-growing regions, sub-regions, and the varietals represented, click here.

These vintages were complemented throughout the afternoon by a menu of hors d’oeuvres created by Zola’s executive chef Bryan Moscatello and a tasty center table of fruits, cheeses, flatbreads, vegetables, and sausage slices. The bottles were placed in the side room on long thin tables by region and variety, rather than producer. This arrangement gave attendees a better basis for comparison.

Starting out with a table of Rieslings, I found a few that pleased my palate. The Dry River Craighall Martinborough Amaranth Riesling 2008 was phenomenal, intense, and complex, with a hint of grapefruit and orange zest, and a great potential for aging. One of the rarely distributed and more expensive wines at $45 a bottle, it seemed well worth the expenditure. I also enjoyed the Neudorf Brightwater Riesling 2007. At $16, it won’t break your bank, but its floral aromas, acidity and subtle lime and mineral flavors will make this wine a worthwhile addition to your cellar.

These days New Zealand is known primarily for its Sauvignon Blanc, which seduces you with its paradoxical knock-down, drag-out subtlety. My first taste on this table turned out to be my favorite, the Mount Grey Estate Sauvignon Blank Waipara 2008. Unwooded and unoaked, it had aromas of lychee and kiwi, along with some spicy herbs. I went back for a slightly larger glass of this to accompany my plate of hors d’oeuvres, fruits and cheeses, and found that its acidity went well with my selections. I would certainly try it again at $19 a bottle. Unsurprisingly, I also heard it complimented by an oenophile wholesaler following in my wake.

One pleasant and easily available Chardonnay that struck me as I wandered was the Oyster Bay Chardonnay Marlborough 2007. Very affordable at $16, it has a slight richness with grapefruit and melon aromas. Fermented in oak barrels and tanks, this wine was soft and integrated. It is worth drinking in the near future.

After trying the Pinot Noirs, I also want to mention a particularly lovely example. The Wild Earth Pinot Noir Central Otago 2006, a full-bodied, oaked and spicy wine with plum and currant fruit flavors, leaves you wanting more. At $32, it is completely worth your investment. You may want to let it age a few years.

Lastly, I do not want to forget Chef Moscatello while remembering my taste treats. As we stopped here an
d there to take notes and make comparisons, we had our choice of an assortment of savory bites. Perhaps one of my favorites was the tiny pork, relish, and lettuce hors d’oeuvre that, interestingly, reminded me of a tiny BLT presented on a garlic pita round. The lamb with pecan relish on a garlic pita round was also wonderful, and I enjoyed the macadamia-crusted chicken dipped in mango sauce as well. In addition, the cream-cheese-and-chive puffs seemed to go particularly well with my Sauvignon Blanc. While not the focus, the savory items did nothing to distract from the wines themselves, and added to my enjoyment tremendously. So did the mound of vegetables, sausages, flatbreads, cheeses, dates and grapes that took center stage in the room.

So don’t forget New Zealand when you plan your next trip to the wine store! There are many wonderful New World options awaiting you and yours.

800 F St NW
Washington, DC 20004

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Curbside is multimedia platform that exalts the virtues of curbside cuisine through webcast, podcast, and social networking. Host Dan Delaney and his crew were recently in our fair city (along with everyone else!) to shoot an episode featuring On The Fly, which has been offering tasty and sustainable options on the Mall and other high foot-traffic areas in DC.

I tried On The Fly at this very location a few months ago - it was the dead of winter, so the food wasn't as hot as I would have liked it to be, but the vendors were nice, the food freshly made, they brought Julia's Empanadas to the steps of the Smithsonian, and are above and beyond any other Mall purveyors.

You can watch the episode and learn more about here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I Spy

No sooner had I submitted my electronic tax return to the IRS did this show up in the DCGastronome inbox. Have to hand it to Zola for the most creative promotion I've seen all year: On Tax Day, Patrons can enjoy a meal and get tax filing assistance, while sipping a specialty cocktail, the IRS Raspberry (ourbon, fresh lime and Steaz Raspberry and Green Tea soda) as well as several value-priced wines.

On April 15th, Zola will have fixed priced meal served exclusively at the bar, including an appetizer, entrée and dessert priced at $20.15 for lunch and $35.15 for dinner. Zola is also providing IRS tax forms, calculators, envelopes and #2 pencils. In fact the restaurant will even mail guests’ tax forms, paying for the postage, for those who complete their forms at Zola’s bar by 11 p.m.

Beats waiting in line at the post office!

Zola view menu
800 F St NW
Washington, DC 20004

Sunday, April 5, 2009


It should come as no surprise that I am often called upon to choose restaurants. Be it a planned get together with dozens of e-mails flying around or a frantic last minute call from someone who is going through early-onset dating, I enjoy matching establishments to occasions, big and small. My biggest challenge came from O. last fall: I had to figure out a place based on location, cuisine, price range, conduciveness to subsequent dates and lack of emotional baggage. Last week a group of friends and I got together to celebrate many things: the wonder that is people getting all that they give and receiving all they deserve, the courage to keep hope and faith, and, at a more concrete level, a birthday, a car, and an engagement. The bride-elect was in the mood for Indian, so we headed out to Indique in Cleveland Park.

Indique, while less of an exercise in modern decor than Rasika, steers clear of the ornate, opting for white walls with hints of lattice work, its signature burnt orange present in ramekins and the menus, and modern furniture. The downstairs lounge area has a picture window ideal for people watching. The courtyard distribution of the second floor allows for the noise level to be kept to a minimum, and the lighting is soft, aided by electrical candles at every table.

There are some fun cocktails on the menu - my favorite is the sparkling wine/lychee combo, but on this occasion we stuck to water, which the very attentive staff kept refilling. The most striking feature of the menu at Indique is that, by design and cuisine (a focus on the South, as opposed to the north, of India) the kitchen dials down the spice. I like hot food very much, but enjoy taking a break to experience more subtle flavors that tie India to other regional cuisines such as Sri Lanka. We decided to share 3 entrees for the 4 of us, and ordered naan and garlic naan to go with our entrées. The bread was just dense enough, with the fresh garlic giving it a buttery texture. Something I always order at Indique is the Chicken Appam, a thick, spongy crepe made out of fermented rice similar in texture (but not size) to the bread you get with Ethiopean food. The taste is acidic, complemented by the coconut milk in which the chicken is cooked. The overall effect is sweet, with the stew seeping into the crepe without breaking it down. Our second choice was the Lamb Rogan Josh a soupy curry with spices and tomatoes that is earthy and not overly hot. The rice that came with it brought a starch to the softness of the lamb. My favorite of the evening was the Lucknowi Pathar Ka Gosht, a scallop of veal served with pepper sauce, orange salsa and grilled tomato. I had never tried it before, but it made for a perfect spring dish - tender, bright, and sweet. The portions aren't too big, and had we not all wanted to try everything we could have very well ordered 4 individual ones.

The staff did not mind when we lingered - though Indique feels like a neighborhood place, there was a lot of late-night dining going on, even for a Thursday night. For dessert we spilt a Gulab Jamoon- omnipresent in many Indian menus - but this particular version of the milk solids glazed in syrup and flavored with cardamom is one of the best I have ever tried in DC. The side of mango ice cream plays along well with the intense sweetness of the dough, cutting it with the tartness of a yogurt.

Not everything about Indique feels unique, but it certainly makes for a fantastic meal.

Indique view menu
3512 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20008
Indique on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Brabo and the Lorien Hotel & Spa Splash Out on a Spring Evening

In late March I was invited to the official opening of the Lorien Hotel & Spa at 1600 King Street in Old Town, Alexandria. Part of the Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, the Lorien Hotel & Spa is connected to Chef Robert Wiedmaier’s newest formal restaurant, Brabo, and accompanying business-casual Brabo’s Tasting Room. Both opened for business on February 12. The chef’s accompanying gourmet fromagerie, charcuterie and wine market, The Butcher’s Block: A Market by RW, unlocked its doors just over a week ago. Chef Wiedmaier and staff provided savory hors d’oeuvres for those circulating throughout the hotel and a sampler of desserts for guests who stopped by Brabo afterwards.

The Lorien Hotel & Spa combines an Old Town-appropriate exterior with a cozy and luxurious modern feel inside. A spacious open-air courtyard featured traditional red brick walls and a copper roof, along with a square fountain featuring floating candles and a tall clock. A wide blue slate path led to the entrance as invitees wandered, sipping flutes of champagne here and in the hotel-enclosed patio, as a square fireplace flamed in the chilly air.

The courtyard and patio area’s atmosphere offered a solid contrast to the cool-hued reception area, which featured modern and traditional furniture in shades of robin’s egg blue, dark teal, chocolate, and white. A circular copper leatherette chair picks up color from outside and is an appealing place to wait for a hotel guest. Candles floated in varied glass cylinders of water, which matched the uneven heights of the white-paper–covered books lying on shelves in a pleasant anteroom leading to the open brick patio. Designer Vicente Wolf told me that his “library” was meant to be primarily abstract and sculptural. I found that the shelves of books seem to add space to the low-ceilinged chamber instead of compounding its intimacy.

While tasting the savory bites created for the opening, I sipped a Belgian Bavik Pilsner that served as a malleable accompaniment to Chef Wiedmaier’s diverse and Belgian-inspired dishes. Wasabi was supposed to accompany the tuna tataki on cucumber, but it proved surprisingly bland. Also, the endive leaves with chèvre, while fresh, seemed ho-hum and monotextural without extra crunch. The delicious mini-cassoulet was appropriately earthy for a cool spring twilight, however. The white beans cooked in duck fat were rich and the lamb merguez and duck sausages added spice and bite. Smoked trout mousse on garlic-rubbed crostini was also tasty. Two other standouts were the light and crispy tempura shrimp in a citrus sauce and perfectly cooked pork tenderloin in a sweet chili reduction with mango chutney, ginger, and raisins. These savory hors d’oeuvres were served throughout the courtyard and patio areas for the gala.

At the hotel bar my friend tried a Brabo Punch, which I sampled also. Excessively sweet in combining Captain Morgan, amaretto, cranberry and pineapple juice, it seemed more appropriate for a beachside bar in the Bahamas. A flamboyant White Cosmo combining vodka, triple sec, lime and white cranberry juices showcased its ingredients better, and billowing smoke from a pellet of dry ice at the bottom of the glass made this cocktail visually festive and fun. It was only available for the party, unfortunately, but I will keep it in mind when dreaming up my own concoctions.

An array of mini-desserts and appropriate drinks, such as a silk-smooth Chocolate Martini with an amaretto cookie-crumb rim, introduced the restaurant to those visiting for the first time. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Brabo has a warm, unpretentious elegance about it. Its white tables, orange light sconces, chocolate walls flecked with cream, and seats alternating between traditional white wood and contemporary brown leather create an inviting and classy ambience. Near the door leading to King Street, an intimate, copper-topped bar offers a lovely place to meet a friend, with conical lamps throwing a diffuse spotlight on the plush copper bar stools.

Chef Wiedmaier and sous-chef Kate Baltren deserve kudos for the dessert sampler. They included standards like strawberries dipped in white and dark chocolate, along with a simple oval Belgian chocolate with a banana-caramel interior. The rose gerbet macaroons were yummy, and a tiny carrot cake layered with cream cheese and topped with a dab of cream-cheese buttercream was moist and addictive. Also, the bread pudding, which is made of leftover croissant, muffins, and other pastries, should not be missed. You will find a dessert-sized portion at the Tasting Room next door. After the heartiness of the savory items, however, I most relished the refreshing lemon tart topped with a drizzle of white chocolate, candied lemon wedge, and sprig of cilantro. A full dinner at Brabo costs from $75 to $100 or more per person, with appetizers, entrees, desserts, and a bottle of wine included.

Brabo’s Tasting Room has an agreeable clean and industrial feel, with brushed-steel counters, high ceilings, metal stools at a central long table and white-tabled booths with chocolate leatherette seats. The business-casual restaurant served mozzarella-prosciutto and duck-confit flatbreads at the gala. I could not taste them, since I arrived there after hungry visitors had inhaled all available slices. A meal there can cost between $50 to $75 per person if you include appetizers, main courses, desserts, and wine. I plan to return for a full review soon.

In stopping by the Butcher’s Block: A Market by RW, I found a lovely addition to the DC area’s gourmet shopping options for discerning foodies and chefs. Black-and-white tile floors and stainless steel wire shelving create a clean and spartan atmosphere that showcases the specialty merchandise, which is primarily meant to accompany meats and cheeses for sale. The Butcher’s Block offers exotica such as black lava and pink Himalayan salts, along with varieties of vinegar, oils, capers, and Gaillard Black Truffle juice. In the small refrigerated dairy and drink section, you can buy anything from Belgian beer to Devon double cream and truffle butter.

Oenophiles should note the store’s wide selection of good and reasonably priced wines. The friendly manager, Selena Zellers, mentioned that the Butcher’s Block’s w
ines and champagnes mostly range between $15 to $100, with about 60 percent under $25. The management plans to hold tastings and other events frequently. Zellers added that Chef Wiedmaier opened the shop because he had tired of the dearth of good meats available in the DC metropolitan area. You can find duck sausage, veal chops, quail, squab, and lamb tenderloins here, along with cheeses and other options. Also, the deli counter offers casual to-go sandwiches for busy tourists and office workers grabbing lunch or dinner. So far the turkey club sandwich with red onion marmalade and avocado has been the biggest seller.

This high-end but down-to-earth restaurant complex and four-star hotel provide a charming balance between the modern and traditional in both décor and cuisine. The four-star Lorien Hotel & Spa makes a very pleasing addition to the upper end of King Street in Old Town, Alexandria. In addition, the food I tasted at the attractively appointed Brabo foreshadows a memorable experience when I return to dine there and at the Tasting Room.

(Special thanks to Moshe Zusman, who provided copyrighted photos of the lemon tarts and the carving station for this piece. Please see his web site for more information about his photography.)

Brabo at the Lorien Hotel & Spa
1600 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

BRABO by Robert Weidmaier on Urbanspoon