Sunday, November 29, 2009

Downtown Surprises

A few days before Thanksgiving, Lindsey and I were invited to check out BlackFinn, which bills itself as an American Saloon and opened its DC outpost a few months ago. Though I am normally weary of chains, their 16th street location was very convenient, and I am always on the lookout for good happy hour spots.

BlackFinn holds true to Saloon traditions - it serves drinks over a counter, and is laid out as a series of rooms. Most of the space is dedicated to the dining room, with booths, flat-screen TVs, and smaller wooden tables. The flair is kept at minimum, and though the bar was packed and there was a large holiday gathering in the back room, we could engage each other in conversation without having to shout (have you ever tried doing that at Old Ebbitt?). The menu is also American fare, with some unexpected twists.

We started our meal with the Seared Ahi Tuna and the Pork Shanks. The Tuna was the first surprise of the evening: sushi grade fish with a garlic and black pepper crust. The cut was thicker than sashimi style, but the it melted in your mouth, with a seaweed salad to contrast in both color and texture. We also tried the Pork Shanks, tender and juicy, which Lindsey proclaimed to be a great midpoint between mini Turkey legs and big chicken wings, tastier than either and as easy to maneuver and eat. I'd be surprised if more restaurants don't start adding them to their menus.

For our second courses we had Black Finn's signature dish - Prime Rib of Beef. We had a 10 oz (boneless), and could definitively appreciate the work behind the rock salt and roasted garlic taste: a full day marinade, topped with grated horseradish. The meat is probably kept away from a direct flame, so what you get is the salt, not the smoke. This may also be why the dish is colder than one would normally expect. Meat doesn't have to sizzle, and it is certainly an enjoyable preparation, with its side of jus and mashed potatoes. We also tried the night's special, which featured a lump crabcake. The kitchen has been tinkering with its crabcake recipe and we both hope they stick to this one. The large crabcake came out sitting on a bed of leeks and mashed potatoes (and perhaps celeriac), a wonderful and balanced combination of butter, salt, and the slight crunch of the perfectly-cooked leeks. I eat crabcakes every chance I get and this has to be amongst the best in the city - no easy feat for a new comer. Blackfinn has several wines by the glass. I had a glass of California Claret, a fruity and light red wine that paired well with both entrees.

As a third couset, we had their two best-selling desserts: a hot brownie Sundae and the Apple Crisp. The Sundae is pretty straightforward: diagonal cuts of house-made brownies, served warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream in the center. It is homey and non-fuzzy, but pales in comparison to the Apple crisp (granted, maybe we were just in the mood for Apples, this being autumn). This dessert feels and tastes seasonal, with large apple wedges and that elusive crunchy crust.

Pleasant surprises, just around the corner from the White House. We'll have to go back for the ice cream sliders. And more crabcakes.

Blackfinn on Urbanspoon
BlackFinn American Saloon
1620 I Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20006

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Super Betty does Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I had a pipe dream involving post-holiday Turkey Enchiladas and lo and behold, this came to our inbox this morning. Must be fate.

Green Chile Turkey Enchiladas

(Recipe courtesy of Dedric McGhee, Thyme on the Creek @ the Millennium Harvest House Hotel in Boulder, CO)


1 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp flour
1 cup chicken broth
2-4 ounce cans of chopped green chiles
¼ tsp cumin
1/3 tsp oregano
1/3 tsp coriander powder
1 ½ cups shredded turkey
2 cups cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses
1 pack corn tortillas
1 pint sour cream
2 green onions, chopped


1. Add the butter to a warm sauté pan. 
2. Add onions and sauté until translucent. 
3. Add garlic and cook until it becomes aromatic. 
4. Add flour and cook for 1 minute. 
5. Pour both cans of green chiles into pan.
6. Add cumin, oregano, coriander, chicken broth and a little salt and pepper. 
7. Simmer for 5 minutes at low heat.
8. Place turkey in a mixing bowl. Add 1/3 cup of the green chile mix, 1/3 cup of sour cream, 1/3 of the cheese mixture and salt and pepper. Mix well.
9. Grease a 13x9 baking dish. 
10. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of filling in each tortilla and roll up. Place the rolled tortillas in the baking dish seam-side down. Continue to add rolled tortillas until the top layer is filled.
11. Pour the rest of the green chile on top of the enchiladas and sprinkle with remaining cheese. 
12. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
Serve with cream, green onions and salsa.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy

The good folks at the Magic Hat Brewing Company sent us some samples of their new offerings, out just in time for keeping us from bringing yet another bottle of moderately-priced but still festive red wine to a friend's house for holiday feasting.

S., a recent Mexico by way of Austin transplant, sampled the beers with me. We had bottles of Howl, a black winter lager, and American Sour Ale, the '09 Odd Notion. Howl is pitch-black, with a light head that does not last long in the glass (which I prefer, but those comparing it with Guinness, a stout, will miss the foam) but provides plenty of bubbles, making this already fragrant beer even more enjoyable. The flavors are roasted, but our favorite part of Howl is the fact that it does not leave an after-taste: it is a full bodied and flavorful beer that will not take your mouth hostage for the rest of the evening.

We then moved on to the American Sour Ale, which S. loved and proclaimed worthy of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, extremely high praise. This beers looks lovely in the glass - it pours Amber with a slight cloud. It is a sweet beer with smells of vanilla, but the best part is the tart flavor, which we both related to green apples. It is a great beer to pair with cheese and would provide a great counterpoint to heavier, creamy dishes.

Now that pastries and beer are all the rage in DC and to enjoy the flavor profiles of Howl in a different way, I am looking forward to making my own:

Howlingly Good Ginger Bread

1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda

1 (12 ounce) bottle Magic Hat Howl
1 cup molasses
1 orange for zest
For serving: Lemon Curd or Sweetened Whipped Cream

(May be substituted for 1 box gingerbread mix)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Generously butter an 8 by 8 inch cake pan and set aside. Using an electric mixer or a wooden spoon, cream together the butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla. In a separate large bowl, combine the flour, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda and salt. In a saucepan, heat the Howl until bubbles form around the edges. Stir in the molasses. Alternately add the flour mixture and the Howl mixture to the creamed butter mixture, stirring well between additions. When all is incorporated, stir in the orange zest. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature, from the pan, with a dollop of lemon curd or whipped cream.

Recipe courtesy of Magic Hat Brewing Company. For more recipes, visit their website here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Let's Get it On

M&A, newlyweds, were in town last week for a conference and wanted to meet for dinner. This presented a unique challenge: the last time I had seen them was at their wedding (a six course affair, not including the buffet service for appetizers and desserts), they are both excellent cooks, and you’d be hard pressed to dine with a better-traveled pair. M. used to live in DC and comes at least once a year, while it was A’s first time in the District. I had to find a place that was relatively new but still tried and true, representative of DC without falling into places mobbed by tourists, and a menu that was relatable but still managed to introduce them to something new.
Marvin, with its nods to Belgian and Southern cooking, met all my criteria, with a plus for being outside of M’s well-known DC neighborhoods and a minus for being a touch too loud for catching up with people you haven’t seen in months.

We arrived a few minutes apart and as I made my way from the back I caught M’s eye – our amused glances had the flash of recognition in them – Marvin’s bar, dark wood, brass, long mirror, and the hyper-articulate laying the groundwork for several levels of stupor, could have easily been our grad school watering hole. A, who hails from Rome, commented on the place’s European feel – that is, until we were sat smack in front of a huge oil on canvas depicting Marvin Gaye. In a place that celebrates otherness with such gusto, three expats had to feel at home.

Our server, a gentleman on the far side of thirty, realized that we were there to talk – gossip about our recently held (and missed) reunion, the behind the scenes scoop on their wedding, the challenges and opportunities of being away from home and country – and he let us order and look at the menu at our own pace. This was no small feat, as the place was packed. During our very long meal, he never pressured us to vacate the table, and only brought the check when we asked. We started our meal with the house sparkling wine – a great deal at $8 a glass. It is a brut, dry but not as mineral as prosecco, and it hit the spot perfectly.

For an appetizer, we shared moules frites – the mussels (my first batch since re-reading Kitchen Confidential a few months back) were plump and fragrant , with a fennel and chorizo sauce. The chorizo added smoke to the plate and I am not ashamed to admit I scooped up as many slices as I could – a few minutes floating in the broth did them wonders. As for the frites, they came piping hot and with three dipping sauces, but were missing a bit of salt.

As a second course, I had the coq au vin. While the taste and texture was definitively that of a young chicken (the traditional preparation calls for rooster), Marvin’s version does incorporate many of the traditional elements – mushrooms, a wine-based sauce, applewood bacon (in lieu of lardons, salted pork) and pearl onions. The sauce did not appear to be thickened and the overall effect was a deep sweetness folded into an earthy saltiness. A. went for what, in my mind, is Marvin’s signature dish – fried chicken on a waffle. A. has been living in southern Florida for a few months now, and had yet to taste fried chicken. He marveled at the technique, and the perfectly golden, crisp and not oily chicken is a sight to behold, gold upon gold with a side of collard greens and gravy, a reminder of the bridging qualities of food across cultures. I suspect this is the first of many pieces of fried chicken for A., and it was a superb introduction. M. had a seasonal dish, the pumpkin ravioli. The colors were wonderful, and it is always good to see a vegetarian option that looks so hearty.

After such a meal, we did not need dessert. But when the kitchen pleases you twice, you are always tempted to keep the streak going. For the sake of novelty, we ordered a hazelnut crepe cake (and three spoons). I expected to see little sachets filled with hazelnut crème but was pleasantly surprised to find a stack of crepes, cut into a thick slice – an overeager mille feuille, with an acidity to the crepes that was tempered by a scoop of creamy ice cream. I could not place it in either Belgium or the Southern US , but Marvin looked down from his canvas, approvingly.

Marvin on Urbanspoon
2007 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20009

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Salmon Showdown

Photo Courtesy of Equinox / Chef Todd Gray

You may remember from DC Gastronome’s post earlier this month that October was Wild Alaskan Salmon month and members from Trout Unlimited was going to host several salmon events in DC. As part of the festivities, Lorena asked me to cover a salmon tasting event while she was away circling the globe. You don’t have to ask me twice to attend any food event. I’m in! She left me instructions to take note of the taste, color, and texture, and the type of things that foodies pay attention to. Okay, so I am coming clean here and letting you know up front that this was my first assignment and I didn’t want to disappoint.

Hosted by Equinox Restaurant, I knew ahead of time that head Chef Todd Gray, a long time advocate for sustainable seafood, was going was to prepare a salmon showdown: Wild Alaskan Salmon vs. Farm Raised. After identifying that I was there for the tasting event, I was guided to the private dining room at Equinox. It was an intimate setting. Okay, let’s pause here for a second. I know I am a rookie at this, but I honestly thought I was going to attend a crowded happy hour where I would bump into other tasters while chasing down the salmon filled platters. Then I would reminisce with fellow tasters about the Coke vs. Pepsi taste tests that were so popular during our childhoods. Instead it was an elegant family style table setting for 9 and there were only 5 tasters! The rest were members from Trout Unlimited (3 from Alaska). I quickly caught on that I wasn’t going to just stand around and hum and haw over the color, taste and texture of salmon.

The Alaskans first started talking about salmon specifically from Bristol Bay Alaska, where salmon not only sustains commercial and sport fishing industries, it also supports the way of life there. Now with books from Michael Pollen and movies like Food Inc. there is a push to know where your food is coming from. People are now telling stories through food and food production. Trout Unlimited was in DC to lobby and educate the Hill about Wild Alaskan Salmon specifically from Bristol Bay and to spread the story about salmon to interested folks like you. Why should you care? Bristol Bay is the home of the largest sockeye salmon fishery and one of the largest king salmon runs; however it is under serious threat from a proposed copper and gold mine. The story can best be told from through the documentary, Red Gold, where it’s the people from the Bristol Bay community who convince you of Wild Alaskan salmon’s importance. Following this educational discussion, it was back to my original assignment - the taste, color and texture. As prepared by Chef Gray, both farm raised and wild salmon were pan seared with salt and pepper so as to really showcase the salmon flavor. Side by side I immediately noticed that the brilliant deep red of the wild salmon made the farm raised pink salmon look plain and gray. The wild salmon was hearty, meaty and almost a bit sweet tasting. As I ate the farm raised, I could tell how the segments were separating as I pulled it with my fork and the segments oddly shined and shimmered a bit, but the taste was fishy and dull.

The consensus was, as you can imagine, that the wild Alaskan salmon was far superior to the farm raised. Salmon should taste like salmon right? Why mask it? No wonder places overload farmed raised with teriyaki or soy sauce. So, as Trout Unlimited says, vote with your fork. It’s about basic supply and demand and giving people the option to choose for themselves. Ask where your salmon is coming from the next time you go to a restaurant or buy it in the market. Turns out you can get Bristol Bay salmon from Whole Foods at the Georgetown and DuPont locations and at Giant Food Supermarkets under the Ahold private label. For more information you can go to the Save Bristol Bay website, and to the Trout Unlimited website.

There will also be another small viewing of the film Red Gold coming up. If you would like to know more please email me