Review: Cane

14 September 2021

Chatting with a good friend of mine, a fellow food afficionado, we always tossed around ideas about where to meet to eat. He suggested Cane, and a quick glance at the menu convinced me this would be a good idea. I was getting hungry just seeing some of those dishes…

On a hot and humid afternoon — hopefully the last of the humidity for the summer — I arrived at that segment of H Street after a very slow bus ride through rush-hour traffic. We met and was quickly seated at a table as they opened at 5pm. Cane, being so popular and not taking reservations, we happily decided on eating early. The minute we stepped in the aroma was beyond welcoming. I joked that I hope that aroma lingers in my mask for the long trek home afterwards…

They seem to have a lot of deliveries to process, so it was a little slow to get started at first. But quickly we got our drinks and my friend took over the ordering process — a selection that met with the approval of our excellent servers.

It was good to catch up and chat, something we all miss so much during this era. As we sipped at our drinks and carried on with the good “jutt” (we both have odd roots with Estonia), suddenly I feel this presence nearby and that wonderful aroma as we entered went up exponentially…the food has arrived, starting naturally with the starters…

First up of our three starters is the Trini-Chinese chicken, a lovely dish that blends the flavours of the Caribbean and Asia to make an incredibly delicious chicken. Glazed with a local version of oyster sauce, this absolutely delicious snack is one of those things that I can eat all day. So good…

The second item that arrived was one of the most beloved Trinidadian dishes, the double — a cumin-spiced channa (curried chickpeas) with a bana (fried flatbread) wrap. A messy but delicious snack that was done quite well here.

And finally, the geera pork — cumin spiced fried pork belly. Pretty good, but it was a little dry. Thank goodness they eventually brought out a selection of chutneys and sauces, which worked very well with the belly — especially the spicy “cane juice” made from scotch bonnet peppers. That turned a so-so dish into a delicious treat.

As we were working on the three starters, our friendly server suggested we may need a second table because of the size of the next dishes. Oh dear, did we order too much? She shifted an adjacent table up to ours and soon the next set of dishes arrived…and maybe we did over order. Oh my…

First up was the brilliant fried snapper escoveitch, a brilliant Caribbean preparation of pickled vegetables and spicy sauce. The fish was cooked brilliantly, the head stealthily stuffed with herbs. Fried to perfection, the skin was deliciously crispy while the flesh remained strong yet moist. A most excellent rendition, especially if you add another touch of the “cane juice” that I was quickly becoming addicted to…

Then within a minute the other main dish arrived — the oxtails. Oh my goodness, now I absolutely love oxtail, I have been known to eat an unhealthy amount of them in the past. These were huge! And deliciously grilled, with perfect consistency to enjoy every little morsel of flesh and just enough tender cartilage I could nibble at. I have been known to eat all of the cartilage in the past, but not in polite company!

With plenty of jasmine rice and hops — a Trinidadian bread — we had a crazy amount of food. The bread worked with various condiments and dishes, as well as the house spiced butter. How good is this all? And working with the rice we have a selection of chokas.

The 2 chokas — eggplant and tomato — were a wonderful addition, going well with the rice and bread and everything else. The wonderful part about this spread is that everything worked well with everything else, constantly giving rise to unique combinations of flavours for every combination — especially with the various sauces and chutneys as well.

The only thing…this was too much food! We did the best we could, but we were spent having polished off nearly everything. Wow, that was one of the best dinners I’ve had this year. Affordable, convivial, and delicious — exactly what you want to experience at a restaurant!

Trinidadian cuisine does not get as much love as it deserves, but Cane is very much a game-changer for those who have not had the joys of partaking in good Caribbean cooking. Nearly every dish was absolutely fantastic, with the Trini-Chinese chicken and oxtail being absolutely stunning. The fish was executed better than most Michelin-starred restaurants, and having all of the sauces on the side really gives diners control over their flavour profile in a very liberating way.

Highly, highly recommended!!!

Cane
403 H Street NE
Washington, DC

Tick, Tock… (Review: Thip Khao)

4 August 2021

I still remember years ago when I went to the Embassy of Laos here in DC to get a visa, and was asked by the clerk, “why” — absolutely deadpan. The answer was: “food” of course. After a wonderful few days in tourism-oasis Vientiane, a town that I really fell in love with — especially the food at Doi Ka Noi — I have not had much Laotian food since. Not because I didn’t want it, but after experiencing it there, I feared the “Japanese restaurant syndrome” where nothing matches the real thing. Plus the relative dearth of Laotian restaurants…

For years I thought about trying Thip Khao, as it’s one of the highest regarded Laotian restaurants in the country. I noted when the restaurant’s proprietors visited Doi Ka Noi in Vientiane, and have kept it in my mind. Then the pandemic…

As things started to reopen, I started to think more about it. And it was optimal that a good friend of mine also enjoyed Southeast Asian cuisine, so we decided to give it a go. We arrived and as it was a surprisingly mild day in midst of DC’s usually sweltering summer, we opted to sit outside — although sweltering heat and humidity would recall Laos quite well!

Even before we started, one aspect of this dinner that really annoyed me is the “90 minute maximum dining time” rule they have. I find that very inhospitable, first of all, making the experience very rushed. A mere 90 minutes (unlike the usual 2 hours practiced by most restaurants that do a time limit) is extremely difficult to complete a dining experience comfortably, especially if the slowness is caused by staff…

And of course, with the 90 minute clock ticking down like the Doomsday Clock, the staff could not bother with us. Took ages to just get a drinks order in, and even longer to get a food order in — despite the place being empty at the early hour we arrived. Again, with the Doomsday Clock ticking away…it felt like the Sword of Damocles hovering over us all night.

Lucky I wasn’t dining alone, or else it would have really soured (the wrong sour) the evening. A good conversation continued in the meantime. And well, after all that, finally the food started to arrive. First up was muu som — the sour (the right sour) pork belly.

I have to say the “souring” (fermenting) of the pork belly was absolutely fantastic, getting well into the flavour — enough to make a strong showing, but not enough to scare people off. This is DC, after all. The fatty portions of the belly, which I wish was more prominent, was absolutely excellent, carrying the excellent essence of the “souring” process; however, the lean parts were a little tough — likely overcooking of the already dessicated “sour” meat.

What was a little surprising was the sticky rice offered came wrapped in a bowl, and not in the traditional thip khao namesake of the restaurant. Apparently not just a COVID-era thing, but I learned later that too many customers ran off with them as a souvenir! That’s too bad, as I remember their ubiquitous and welcoming presence during every meal I’ve had in Laos — and as I write this review I am looking at the one I brought home from Vientiane (paid for from a street market, mind you).

As we got about 2/3 of the way through this one dish, the rest of our order cascaded onto the table quickly. First up chuenh paa sa moun pai — the crispy catfish…

Sadly this didn’t work at all, as it was unpleasantly dry and non-oily — which is a challenge for a rich fish like catfish. Over-sanitised for the DC crowd? If that’s the case, then why not use a less oily fish instead of ruining the brilliance that is catfish? And plus, it wasn’t very hot when it came out, which made it even less appealing.

This perhaps also explains why they used salmon for the moak (steamed inside banana leaves) dish, which we decided against because of the choice of fish. Anyway, the weak dish of the night — by far — as the best thing on this plate were the herbs we addictively siphoned off before finishing the fish.

At pretty much the same time they presented the sai oua — pork sausage — one of the staples of Laotian cuisine. Now this herb-accented treat, on the other hand, was absolutely delicious. Lovely pork, course the way I love my sausages, with abundant herbaciousness that really brought out the meat with or without the fantastic green chilli sauce. A huge winner here, one of those dishes of which I can eat several plates!

And the third dish they brough at that same point was the nahm tok — the pork shoulder salad. A bit of a misnomer really, as it’s basically all pork shoulder under a bed of inviting herbs. This again was absolutely delicious, a wonderful combination. Southeast Asia does pork shoulder so well, and this was another porcine gem. But once again, an integral part was all that fresh herb on top, and snacking on the mint and cilantro brought back so many memories of travelling in Southeast Asia — where you get far more quality green herby treats than in the US. Another winner!

Over some time (tick, Tock…oops) we polished off all 4 dishes — and left not one leaf of mint, stalk of cilantro, or slice of onion on the dishes. They did the supporting ingredients very proud, a lovely freshness that again recalled my trips to the region. Although the menu was confusing in what rice was offered — apparently with all these dishes we were afforded one more sticky rice and one white rice — it worked very well for us. Nevertheless I wish they noted which dishes come with what rice (or no rice) a little clearer on their instruction-laden menu.

That was good, the dishes were mostly quite excellent. And we decided to close with a wee dessert — the only one they have on offer, the khao long (rice pudding).

I stuck mostly to my iced coffee as a dessert (perfect for sitting outside), as I’m not a dessert person as my readers know. Plus, not the biggest fan of kabocha pumpkin. I enjoyed the coconut aspect of the flavour profile here, reminding me also of how much I love closing a meal with haupia growing up in Hawaiʻi, but it was a sticky warm dessert when I’m overheated sitting and dining outside, so I happily let my friend finish it.

Thip Khao easily lives up to its reputation as one of the best examples of Laotian cuisine in the country. Some of the dishes were absolutely fantastic (the miss on the catfish was unfortunate), they certainly do pork well here — and being a lover of porcine goodness that sits very, very well with me.

What sadly didn’t sit well with me was that ticking Doomsday Clock, which was uncomfortable — especially with the staff-caused delay at the beginning. We ended up going way over the 90-minute maximum, and thank goodness we ate very early so there was little enforcement. But I cannot imagine how we could have finished this in 90 minutes (tick, Tock…) without uncomfortably shoving food into our mouths — likely wasting food — and skipping the dessert/coffee. Again, I understand why they are doing this, partly to maximise seatings (especially during the era of distanced tables), but being rushed so much to eat somewhat betrays true hospitality in my book.

Another minor annoyance: Thip Khao only uses the Tock reservation system — one which I’ve voiced my displeasure about for many years as a diner-unfriendly system. Granted (if you know you know), I understand the frustration of reservation no-shows, being a former restaurant operator myself, but many of these systems are designed so poorly they add a layer of annoyance that could dissuade a person from trying a restaurant. If I was dining alone this evening, I imagine it would sadly have been elsewhere.

Saying all that, I would still very much recommend Thip Khao for the food, as it is good — especially considering the dearth of Laotian cuisine in this country. However, for me I think it’s a once-and-done experience. Life’s too short (tick, Tock…); I would rather wait until I make it back to Laos to enjoy this fabulous cuisine again, where I feel comfortable and unrushed, without a ticking clock telling me otherwise.

Thip Khao
3462 14th Street NW
Washington, DC

Review: La Fromagerie

30 July 2021

This past week started off with so much promise, but by the end it had turned into a veritable clusterfuck of a week. You know that saying about all your stars lining up? Imagine if it was the exact opposite — well, the definition of a clusterfuck I guess. Hell, this is probably why I decided to quit while I was ahead, and headed out into Old Town Alexandria a little early this Friday afternoon.

As I mentioned last time in my review of Nasime, I found La Fromagerie a cheerful and cute winebar that boasted a menu that demanded attention. So this is what I did, as I dropped into La Fromagerie and relaxed at its bar and explored the food menu. Enjoying a nice Loire muscadet I studied the interesting selection. Although my jaw was killing me (another of this week’s issues…), I decided to face it head-on with my order. Why not, considering how stupid this week has been…

Enjoyed my wine but decided to get a bit more adventurous, and switched to one of the more “dirty” orange wines — les Aurièges from Domaine de Clovallon in Languedoc. Now this is a great wine to go along with the charcuterie plate I ordered…

A nice selection here, although my aching jaw is going to get a workout here. Both meats — a spice-laden Argentinian-influenced variety and a porcini-filled treat, were both quite nice. But today the star were the cheeses. The Green Hill soft cow from Georgia (the state) was quite a treat, while the local Virginia Appalachian firm cow was delicious, and the Black & Blue Maryland local goat brought the deep kick I wanted.

Switching between the cheeses, tempered by some meat and the lovely pickled veg, was a joy I’ve missed for a long time. I cannot remember the last time I had a charcuterie plate that was so enjoyable, going so well with that rustic orange from Languedoc. A redemption for this dreadful week. Then switching back to the lovely furmint I have enjoyed here many times before, I relaxed, awaiting my main…

A lovely Alaskan black cod in lemon brown butter. Quite nice, perhaps a touch under-seasoned — but that may be the influence of the salty charcuterie. Cooked perfectly, the natural flavours oozing out of the fish just helped along by that lemon butter. Excellent selection of vegetables as well, all lovely in combination here. An excellent dish.

That was quite a nice early dinner. As this being Friday and anticipating a larger crowd, I asked for a coffee and eventually settled up and thanked the excellent crew before heading out into the relatively mild early evening. This was so needed to ensure this clusterfuck of a week didn’t end on a nadir.

La Fromagerie is a worthy destination for wine — drinking or shopping (you can buy bottles there too), as well as food. By this early evening’s example, it’s actually one of the best kitchens I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in Northern Virginia. Don’t just use this place as a lounge for Nasime or another nearby restaurant — give this place a full go as your dining destination. You won’t regret it — highly recommended.

La Fromagerie
1222 King Street
Alexandria, Virginia

* With all that steam to blow off, my night didn’t end there of course. A few other stops, and a final lap back here hours later for a few more glasses before ending this awful week in a nice, relaxing, enjoyable way. So needed…

Review #2: Nasime

14 July 2021

As the heat of summer grows, so does my stress level. So many uncertainties in life act as catalysts in an already volatile reaction, this Wednesday required a release valve. And for me, nothing is better than having an excellent dining experience.

To guarantee such a needed evening, I decided to try to get a slot at Nasime. One of the hottest restaurants (and hardest to get a booking) in town before the pandemic, it’s never a certainty — especialy for a lone diner — to get a seat at the now-distanced counter. But I called and luck was with me for a slot in the late seating.

As dinner wasn’t until 8.30pm, I had the chance to leisurely make my way into Old Town Alexandria. I eventually got there by bus, but was a bit early so dropped into La Fromagerie Cheese and Wine Bistro — a fine wine bar across the street — for a refreshing glass of furmint. I really need to check the food out here one day…

With the nice large pour consumed, I slowly headed across the street to Nasime. It seems the early seating is running a bit overtime, so those arriving for the late seating scattered around the block — distanced — enjoying the antics of the locals. Not long after, we were led in, and I took the same counter space as last time. Now that was a wonderful dining experience

Glad to see some friendly familiar faces, I relaxed and opted again for the sake pairing for tonight’s dinner. A little bit of a wait as the friendly solo server got everyone else’s drinks order going as well, we start the dinner with a nice seasonal dish — a rather interesting chilled tomato miso soup.

Delicious, like a refreshing gazpacho that took a detour from the Iberian peninsula to Japan, especially with the delicious Hokkaido shrimp cured in kombu (the preparation is called kobujime). Additions of okra and cucumber added an additional summery feel to this refreshing start. It paired well with the Ginban 50 junmai daiginjo from Toyama, very complementary.

A good start. While I was enjoying the soup, I was watching Chef Yuh Shimomura work his magic on the next dish. And of course right in front of me was the paperwork for it…

Last time the wagyu was absolutely stunning, and I am already anticipating this A5 specimen. When it arrived I was not disappointed by any means…

Just lovely, melt-in-your-mouth stuff. One of those times you make these little sound even if you don’t chew — as the beef did not really need much chewing. Tho it is hard not to, because of the desire to hasten the release of this amazing natural flavour. And of course, all that freshly-grated wasabi — the real stuff, not the awful insult-in-a-tube — for me to snack on (yes, I snack on wasabi)!

It’s really like a drug, you keep wanting a bigger hit of it… Stunning quality beef, accented by the sauce made from Oregon truffles, with a solid (same as last time) pairing of the Izumibashi Black Dragonfly aged junmai from Kanagawa. What an awesome dish…

Hard to top that really, and again, watching Chef work during the last dish (when my eyes weren’t closed in ecstasy), I knew next up was the sashimi set for the night…

The tuna was absolute fantastic, one of the times the lean stuff was so gorgeous (and hidden). Aside from the wonderful Hokkaido treat — the urchin-topped scallop — the tuna really ruled today’s selection. Perhaps a little less variety than usual, but a solid selection. Went well with the Kubota junmai daiginjo from Niigata.

A little bit of a gap here as Chef was frying up the next dish. A slight change, and we have some spring roll…

Not your typical spring roll, but with eel okowa (a glutinous rice combination). Maybe it’s the texture of the other items, but I really did not get the okowa part of this dish. The eel came through, as did the collapsing shell, but all overwhelmed by the tough and fibrous texture of what I thought was gobo in the roll’s core. Tasted okay, but could have been so much better. A rare miss.

Sadly the pairing with the Oze no Yukidoke junmai from Gunma also clashed a little with this dish. Anyway, next up was a pairing that was off the menu — the Narutotai ginjo nama genshu from Tokushima — that went with the duck.

You don’t see duck that often on Japanese menus (despite what Chef said when I mentioned it to him), but this worked quite nicely. The char-broiled duck was cooked perfectly, lovely aroma from the process. One of those dishes that worked great without the other stuff, including the “chimichurri” made of shiso and mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley). One of those moments I think I started to miss Japan, missing the purity of the flavours of prime ingredients. Sometimes you really don’t need all the garnishment…

Anyway, it’s been a good night. Perhaps not as good as the last visit, but a very good night. Beats pretty much anything in the DC area by far, even on a less-than-perfect night. And with a pouring of the Ryujin Dragon God ginjo nama genshu from Gunma, we have the final savoury dish of the night — cold udon with Chilean seabass.

Mmmmm, back on track, absolutely delicious. The cold udon worked well for a hot summer evening, and the fried chunks of Chilean seabass was just scrumptious. It actually almost ate like a salad too, lovely dish. And the volume was far more restrained than during my last visit, when the broth was so large I couldn’t finish it. I’m generally not used to noodle dishes to end a kaiseki course, but this is the norm here — and done fabulously tonight. Good stuff!

Ah, sad this is drawing to a close, but all good things must end. My dessert soon arrived with a nice local whiskey, a tasy yet simple kinako (roasted soy flour) ice cream. Delicious, a great way to close the food account here. I spent a bit of time chatting with Chef and his service assistant as they finished up, enjoying another tipple before I took my leave.

I thanked them as I headed out into the now-tolerable night air, enjoying a wee stroll. I needed to burn off some stress, and this was the perfect way to do so. Perhaps not as great as my previous visit, but an excellent evening nevertheless. You’ve not really had Japanese food until you do a proper kaiseki course — and this comes as close as you’ll get in this country. Lovely use of ingredients, excellent technique, efficient service. All the way you experience wonderful dining experiences in Japan. Highly recommended.

Nasime
1209 King Street
Alexandria, Virginia

* Another sign things are returning to “normal” is to find a cocktail bar nearby that is still open at 11pm. Dropped into The People’s Drug for a few cocktails to finish the night. This has been a good one…

Who Needs Good Food When You Got Good PR? (Review: Anju)

1 July 2021

Even with things opening up more, going out is something I’m still not doing much — mostly due to the chaos in my personal life at this point. But I made a rare exception when a good friend who I have not seen for a year and a half invited me to check out hotspot Anju in town.

We had agreed on an early dinner, so I headed out the door immediately after the severe thunderstorm warning — which was very much warranted — passed. I rushed to the nearby Metro station, and jumped on the empty train…the first time I’ve been on Metro since I came home from the airport after my Toronto trip last March. Surreal…

I arrived at Dupont Circle nearly an hour later, as Metro has still not sorted out its bad connection waits. Unlike most people, I enjoy arriving at the deepest station in the system, as I like to walk up the escalator — often to the amusement of other riders. This reminds me of the look I got walking up Arsenalna Metro Station in Kyiv — the deepest operational subway station in the world — one of total incredulity.

I was a little early, so spent a few minutes fighting off mosquitos in front of the restaurant and scanning the posted menu. Soon my friend arrived, and the clock hit 5pm, so we headed in. The space was surprisingly large over 2 floors, and we were led to a table upstairs. The spacing between tables were quite good; I wonder what this place looked like before the pandemic…

Once we were told that the “chef tasting” — which was more of a prix fixe deal since all the items were regular menu items — contained banchan, we went with it. I still find it horrifying that a Korean-centric place would charge for banchan, so against the entire ethos of Korean cuisine and culture…

Nevertheless, it was good to catch up in person now we’re all fully vaccinated (and beyond the fortnight uptake threshold). Not long after, the starter arrived. I had opted for yukhoe — beef tartar.

Quite good, the sauce added a surprisingly good sweet and spicy kick to the beef. I enjoyed it, though little did I realise at the time this was the highlight of the culinary treatment of the night. After a little while, they presented the banchan, and my heart sank…

They brought out three flimsy dishes for the two of us… The kimchee was so absolutely boring they may as well brought out plain cabbage. And the lotus root was so sticky sweet it really would have complemented poorly for pretty much any dish they can bring out. Sigh…

People always say that you can judge a Korean kitchen by the banchan, and shit, if that’s the case, this is quite a fail. They don’t complement the food, they look like they received even less treatment than a side dish at a bad BBQ joint. And three tiny dishes for 2 people doing their “tasting” menu? This really shows both a lack of understanding of Korean cuisine and respect for their customers taking up their misnamed “tasting” menu. Sorry to sound so tough here, but it’s really deflating after this presentation.

Then the second course arrived, the mandoo. I prefer my mandoo steamed rather than fried, but that’s personal. These were quite ordinary, to be honest. But what saddened me was that the kimchee in these mandoo tasted better than the sad specimen from the banchan set. Mediocre, which is a hell of an indictment for a restaurant operated by the same people that opened the quite excellent Mandu nearby, where I enjoyed the food during several different occasions.

And of course, the server forgot my wine, and it was a good 10 minutes before it showed up…

Oh well, I had all but lost hope in the food, but the company was excellent — which was the point of this evening anyway. As we continued to chat, our main courses arrived — the battered branzino.

Sigh… Despite we both ordering the same dish and brought out at the same time, we seemed to have somewhat different reaction to our dishes. My friend said his fish was okay, mine was pretty poorly cooked. At points it tasted like sawdust, or worse, baccalà that was not hydrated correctly. The sauce was insurance I didn’t choke on the fish, thank goodness.

And of course the vegetables under the fish were a mess; supposed to be asparagus and broccolini. Mine was all asparagus…but at least mine did not have a gigantic broccolini stem that took my friend some considerable effort to cut with a dull spoon. I know there’s a shortage of experienced line cooks right now, but isn’t it common sense to not give us different vegetables when both are listed as ingredients?

Usually I bemoan when the savouries end on a night of dining, but this evening I’m glad it’s done. Soon the desserts showed up, and mine was called “rako coffee bingsoo” on the menu…

Again, meh. The ice cream was good on a warm day, but a combination of cookie and mochi made this like a “throw everything into the bowl” concept as it’s a texture nightmare. Mochi takes time to chew with the ice cream liquifying at an incongruent pace. Nothing surprises me anymore on how PR can spin a poor experience…

What added to an unpleasant night was that before we had a chance to ask for a coffee or anything, the server dropped the bill off. Now even if you need the table back by 7pm — and we finished our desserts at least 15 minutes before then — this was a rude way to do it. In my old place we would never do this to our valued customers. This “pay and get out” approach shows massive disrespect to customers, and I don’t care how popular you are it’s against what hospitality means. This is the hospitality industry, after all.

Sigh. Another great reminder why, despite eating out so much all over the world, I do NOT eat out back home in DC. The scene sucks. Overhyped, where PR rules the roost.

And it says plenty when the bio page of the restaurant lists the PR rep. Says plenty.

What saddens me is that genuinely good restaurants without the same PR resources suffer as these places are constantly packed and people who buy into rhetoric rather than reality. The service was questionable. The menu was questionable. The cooking was questionable. If it wasn’t for the good convo, this would have been a questionable night to leave the house.

We parted, speaking little about the food — a sign that it didn’t sit too well with either of us. We are both proponents of fresh ingredients and ingredient-driven cuisine (rather than chef-driven…or too often chef-contrived, or chef-manipulated), so tonight’s culinary experience fell face flat, especially for me.

With an impending storm, we parted and I rushed back to the Metro and took another hour to get home — thanks again to a long wait for a change, the bane of the DC Metro system. I don’t know how many years of my life I’ve lost in stations like Rosslyn or Metro Center just waiting to change trains… Lucky I got home then, as another even uglier severe thunderstorm warning just screamed over our phones… That scream could have been my internal one over this dining fail at Anju, to be honest…

Anju
1805 18th Street NW
Washington, DC

* I learned later a tornado touched down a few blocks from where I used to live in Arlington, yikes.

Review: Whiskey & Oyster

28 June 2021

A strange morning. I won’t go into it, but a rare Monday morning when things went better than expected. So as I was headed home on a Lyft, I decided to take a short detour and enjoy myself for lunch. I had always planned to try Whiskey & Oyster not far from my place, and I was somehow hungry for some bivalves, so why not…

I got there after the lunch crowd had already left, and happily sat at the bar. Relaxed and ordered a drink and some oysters. They had a few different options, so I decided on a trio of each of them. After a little while they arrived. It’s been so long since I’ve had a full serving of oysters, I was drooling…

Well, it had to wait a little. The shucking was absolutely sloppy. There was so much broken shell in the oysters I wonder if I’d end up hypercalcaemic. And half of the oysters weren’t even shucked right. It’s like they broke the shell, hacked at it, cracked more of the shell, and left the oyster barely half-shucked. I know there’s a labour shortage right now, but this is still annoying.

If you are not gonna shuck the oysters right, then at least don’t crack so much of the shell into it, please?

Despite having to basically shuck them with my dull knife and constantly spit out chunks of shell, I miss my oysters. Some were nice, some were very neutral. The meaty ones were excellent, especially the Otter Cove jumbos. I eat my oysters, I taste them. I chew through them for the full flavour. I don’t understand people who don’t.

I wasn’t full despite consuming so much shell, so I decided to order another dish. Let’s see how they cook bivalves, so I ordered a pound of steamed clams in spicy broth. I relaxed with a glass of wine once they remembered. And after a little while the bowl came out…

I was puzzled, as it came with a spoon. The flavour was quite rich, the clams were tasty certainly. But this wasn’t a “broth” at all. This was liquified butter! Oh, it’s wonderful, and great to use the rather limited bread they served to mop up some of it. But why a spoon? If you drink this I guarantee you will have an infarction before you reach the front door.

It’s hard to see from this angle, but it’s swimming in liquified butter. Made for excellent clams and dip for the bread, but frankly it’s not a “broth” by any means. Now I’m not complaining because it made the clams damn tasty, with a spicy, garlicky touch to the buttery excess. But now I’m definitely full.

I headed out not sure what to think, but it was generally a good lunch. The haphazard shucking was a downer, but overall it’s not bad. It’s worth dropping into again, especially after they get back into a better rhythm. Especially whoever shucked these things. No osteoporosis for me, but they better not end up as kidney stones down the road!!!

Whiskey & Oyster
301 John Carlyle Street
Alexandria, VA

Review: Old House Cosmopolitan Grill

4 May 2021

The few times I eat out these days in midst of the COVID era, I always ask myself if I should write a review. There are so many questions, from restriction-related issues to my own lack of enthusiasm for writing, from the deep-seeded sense of wanting to support the industry to the sheer joy of experiencing something we had taken for granted for so very long.

For a long time I had a not-always-enforced policy about writing reviews of places in my local area, but let’s be honest the pandemic has thrown all of that out the window. Dining out somewhere a 30-minute walk away seems like destination dining these days. But I’m always happy to highlight a wonderful dining experience, and this dinner at the popular Old House Cosmopolitan Grill in Old Town Alexandria certainly fits the bill.

I have not dined out much even as restrictions loosened. First of all, I’m still in that vaccine purgatory awaiting my second Moderna. Second, I really hate to take up a two-top (or larger table) in a distanced, space-challenged restaurant that needs to maximise its occupancy for the few tables they are seating; it makes me feel very guilty, even if I generally end up spending more than a party of two. Third, it makes me miss “normallity” too much, and I don’t need more melancholy in my life at this point.

But this weekday evening at Old House Cosmopolitan Grill was exactly what was needed. Dinner with a friend for some excellent conversation and fabulous food, all in a convivial environment. I had missed the bus no thanks to the flooding in my part of town from a usual spring downpour but the non-very-usual stupid road construction that caused the flood, so got there by a rather slow Lyft. We both relaxed with a cocktail and caught up, as it’s been over half a year since we’ve had the chance to catch up.

The German-centric menu looked fantastic, the Balkan dishes being the most attractive. And one of the best things about this restaurant is the Balkan-heavy wine list, from which we chose a nice red from Bosnia. As we enjoyed our convo with the tasty wine, our taste buds were further rewarded with the starter we split…

Oh, ćevapčići, such a joy… I love eating these things, and if there ever was a place that did these as an all-you-can-eat while drinking, that would be my version of heaven. So juicy, so meaty, so delicious. With a copious serving of excellent quality breads (not pictured), I could have done this for my entire meal. Fabulous stuff, one of my guilty pleasures.

Oh, and no, they did not serve an odd number, my friend ate one before I managed to grab my phone!

The wine flowed as we polished off the starter and required a second bottle, so we migrated a little south to Macedonia and picked a richer red for the main courses. Most of the menu here is German-centric, but they had as a daily special a mixed seafood grill that I chose for my main…

Quite delicious, and a nice selection of seafood. The scallop and the crab cake were the two stars of this plate, absolutely succulent. That’s not to say the mussels and shrimp were any less so, quite good with the tasty rice. But being off carbs for weeks now, this was a heck of a hit on my system. Very filling, tho I definitely cannot eat carbs the way I used to!

As the restaurant has emptied out a little towards the pandemic-mandated earlier closing time, we slowly wound up and polished off our wines as we awaited our desserts. I just can’t bypass this, having lived above a Greek restaurant for a year during college…

A rather good baklava and a heaping mug of black coffee, and this was the perfect close to the evening. I tend to like my baklava not swimming in honey, and this is actually a wonderful version for my taste buds. My friend headed out by Lyft, but since it’s cooled down thanks to the rain I took the half hour stroll home — which helped to work off the carbs too!

I have to say, this has been one fine evening. Old House Cosmopolitan certainly is one of the gems of Alexandria’s Old Town, and a fine destination for wonderful hospitality and delicious dishes — and lovely wines from the Balkans. The proprietor is a gem as well, and you’ll enjoy Balkan hospitality at its very best here. Love it.

Old House Cosmopolitan Grill
1024 Cameron Street
Alexandria, Virginia

Review: Nasime

7 April 2021

There has been some pretty awful days in the past 12 months, and this day ranked up there with some of the most dispiriting, borderline crushing days in recent memory. I won’t bore my readers with the details, but a procession of extremely bad news through the morning into the late afternoon and my brain — and my soul — was absolutely fried to a crisp.

So I decided I really need a good night out, despite all the issues relating to the pandemic. I managed to snag a last-second spot at Nasime in nearby Old Town Alexandria, and I went for it.

I’ve read quite a bit about this place, and I was impressed from what I saw — both from text and photo. But it almost sounded too good to be true, a proper counter kaiseki restaurant within a half-hour walk from me. But tonight was a perfect night to try to forget about this day, to enjoy what I miss so much — if it’s true, that is…

I hopped on a local bus, the first time I’ve been on public transport since March 2020…and sadly, predictably empty. I got to the restaurant a little early, where a small crowd of eager diners waited outside — safely socially distanced, may I add. And promptly at 6pm the doors opened and we were led in party by party.

These days I always worry being a single diner that I would take up a much-needed two-top, but they accomodated me today — and surprisingly, at the counter. Of course it was re-tooled to ensure COVID-era protection, and the spaces open on the counter were off on the side. Perfect for a single diner like me, yet compliant with all current needs.

I noticed the restaurant is just Chef Yuh Shimomura and one server, which already reminded me of Japan. They managed to shift the tables in a way that allowed for maximum social distancing, but sadly meaning their occupancy is severely limited; I’m glad they were also busy sending out take-away boxes at the onset of this evening.

I relaxed, looking over the menu and starting to internally drool. It looks good, much like what I have seen before as I did my research about this place. There’s always lingering doubts, especially about a place in the US…is it authentic? Is it “dumbed down” for local palates? Are the ingredients solid? And so forth.

Any doubts I had about this place was quickly dispelled once the first dish arrived…

This beautiful bluefin tuna tartar dish, already wonderful from the natural flavour of the excellent fish, was accentuated nicely by the kimizu vinaigrette. I’m usually not a big fan of adding too much to a tartar dish, but for some reason it worked really well today, especially with the Mizubasho ginjo from Gunma. An excellent start.

A little bit of a rest as Chef Shimomura was trying to gauge the pace each party was eating for the next course, which required very delicate timing. I just happened to be sitting in front of the certificate…

A piece of paper was making me so ridiculously hungry, and it arrives…

Goodness this is so good. Being a short rib slice, it also had enough texture to make this a joy to slowly eat and savour every last drop of flavour from each piece.

The truffle shoyu wasn’t necessary because this meat was so crazy good, but again another fine dish. Paired well with Tengumai junmai from Ishikawa. Plus plenty of fresh wasabi for me to snack on!!!

So far this has been fantastic, and almost bringing a tear to my eyes (not from the wasabi). I so miss Japan, and this is about as close as I’ve been since eating that last saba before heading to Narita to fly out back in December 2018… And soon, we have the beautiful sashimi selection for the night…

Lovely stuff, the parts that really stood out here are the tachiuo (scabbard fish), very rarely seen here but one of my favourite fish to eat when I’m in Japan. The kampachi was also of quite stunning quality. All in all, extremely enjoyable, with a delicious Kubota junmai-daiginjo from Niigata complementing the fresh seafood wonderfully.

If I didn’t see that pale blue thing on the counter and me wrapping my face with my scarf everytime my server came by, I would have thought this was a different time… Just sitting at the counter, eating fantastic kaiseki cuisine…just felt like I travelled back in time. I was quickly snapped back to the present to enjoy more of this rare moment of absolute culinary bliss with the next course.

This agedashi course is a beauty and was one of the superb dishes of the past few years. A beautiful soft-shelled crab is stuffed with minced crab meat, fried perfectly, and the whole thing ate like some divine crab ball. Graced by some lovely fiddeheads, which I absolutely love and miss, and this was near perfection. This is something that really made me feel like I was half-way across the world: the excellent crafting, the meticulous balance, and perfect execution. Worked fabulous with the paired Hinomaru ginjo from Akita. Oh, I’m happy…

As I mentioned, this place is just Chef Shimomura behind the counter and our server, very much like similar places in Japan. The service has been efficient and timing just about perfect, which makes me miss Japan even more. This is about as close to the type of kaiseki place I miss so dearly, sitting at the counter and watching the process. Too bad in this age of COVID they had to put up some protection which obstructed the view, but it still felt very much in that spirit. Then the next dish arrive and I smile more…

I know soy-braised chilean seabass is a common dish, but it’s so often done poorly — overcooked fish, overly-dominating sauce, a poor cut of the fish. But this was again nearly perfect, the sauce not too sweet nor strong, letting the natural wonderful taste of this rich fish rise to the forefront. And some nice burdock, all paried with an aged Izumibashi junmai from Kanagawa, and you got a deliriously happy diner here.

At this point I was actually getting quite full, having not consumed so much food in a long time; frankly, I’ve not eaten so much food at one sitting (or even in a single day) since my short loop around Virginia nearly a month ago. But I so needed this today, with the horrible day I had. I didn’t care, it was needed therapy… Plus, I knew the next dish was gonna be heavy…

Ramen. Yeah, I’m not the biggest fan of ramen as you all know, but this wasn’t exactly “ramen” per se. The broth was quite nice, complementing the al dente noodles with a generous amount of brussels sprouts, pork and clams. Photo I took here is after I stirred it all up, of course… Quite nice, and extremely filling. I’m just saddened I couldn’t partake more of the broth here…I was really full. Happily full.

Everyone relaxed a bit at this point, and I enjoyed a nice after-dinner drink as my dessert also arrived…

An excellent and straightforward plum frozen yoghurt, perfect to relax the palate and ease away from the delicious flavours of the evening. I remained for a bit as there was time before the next seating, and had a chance to chat with Chef Shimomura a bit over some more whisky. Extremely impressed.

I eventually thanked the two of them and headed on out. If it wasn’t that hit of stale Old Town air, I would have mentally stayed in Japan for a few extra minutes. Alas, it was not to be. But the memory of this wonderful dinner will stay with me for a long time — at least until I return.

Rarely do I so wholeheartedly recommend a place, but if there’s one place to go for as close to Japan as it gets, this is the place. In so many ways, I felt like this was the perfect escape, with the fabulous cuisine to the authentic spirit. And on a terrible day like this one, it was the escape I needed…

Seriously, forget places in DC. If you’re in the DC area, head out to Old Town Alexandria and teleport yourself to a Michelin-quality authentic kaiseki experience for a few hours.

Nasime
1209 King Street
Alexandria, Virginia

PS: Well, with the day I had, it wasn’t surprising that I continued my drinking after that dinner in an impromptu pub crawl… It was somewhat “normal” except the face covering, but things are starting to feel “normal” again, dare I suggest it. Gosh, I needed this…

Review #2: Roosevelt

3 March 2021

I really didn’t think I would come back to this blog, considering the damage COVID has caused — especially to the hospitality industry. So many of our cherished restaurants closed for no fault of their own, so many of the dedicated, hard-working individuals lost their jobs, livelihoods, and dreams. So devastating it hurts, having gone through with the pain of this loss in the past myself.

For me, often as a lone diner, the entire joy of dining out has withered away in a world of social distancing. The days of hanging out at the bar eating and chatting are gone, and I feel guilty about taking up a 2-top for restaurants desperate to maximize indoor dining revenue despite reduced capacity. So much we all took for granted is now gone…

I recently took a small roadtrip loop around Virginia, having not been on the road for nearly a year exactly. I’m still not flying, and this is the longest I’ve not been on an airplane since Ronald Reagan’s first term… I was forced to book a hotel stay because Hotels.com was about to nix my bonus stays — a really pissy practice in an age of COVID. Not surprised, as COVID-era corporate irresponsibility is the topic so few people talk about (ie my landlord raising my rent in middle of the lockdown).

Nevertheless I was determined to make the best of this unplanned trip. Heading out at dawn and making stops in Harrisonburg and Staunton, I turned back east and headed to an expected location — Gordonsville. Not a surprise as I have often said Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville is the best BBQ in Virginia by far. Grabbed my take-away and made good time for Richmond, where my hotel was.

Nice to see the hotel, one of the many carbon copy cheap builds out near the airport, properly sanitized (though they over-sanitized the TV remote and it was no longer working…). But I didn’t care about the TV (aside from it being white noise in poorly-built hotels), just about my BBQ… Delicious stuff, some of this would be snacks for either later or breakfast. So good, and as always, highly recommended.

But the main point of this trip was to have a good night out. I decided to return to my favourite place in Virginia’s capital, The Roosevelt. I’ve been there a few times, but only wrote one review — of an excellent evening of food and drink. I ensured a late seating in mid-week to hopefully feel less guilty about taking up a 2-top. Virginia had just lifted its more severe restrictions (10pm closures) a week prior, so my 8.30pm booking hopefully won’t be too rushed.

I arrived and was happily given a table at the window with the view of the traffic circle, all other tables distanced appropriately and busy with diners — which nearly brought a tear to my eye. So good to see people supporting their local restaurants. After I ordered (having seen the menu online), I took my mask off and breathed deeply…

Aside from that pale blue thing on my table, things almost…almost…felt normal again, for a brief moment. A cocktail soon arrived, and it felt like ambrosia, a magic elixir that cured all the ills of pandemic life. Just sitting there looking at drivers hilariously trying to navigate the poorly-designed traffic circle, sipping my drink, and listening to Batman (or Mr Mom, depending on your preference) at the next table humming along to the PA music. I suppose Betelgeuse misses nights out like this as much as I do…

Then soon my starter arrives, and I’m smiling even more…

Some beautiful fried local oysters on a bed of lightly-pickled vegetables. Lovely stuff, the oyster fried perfectly — which is not always easy, as often they are overcooked or too aggressively breaded. Really nice start to the evening’s feasting.

Then at that point the proprietor came out to say hello (we had communicated by email earlier) and brought out an extra dish for me — radicchio and goat cheese salad.

Oh this was nice of them! Delicious, with ample goat cheese, which I absolutely love (and miss). This photo really does not do this dish justice, as the unique bitterness of the radicchio gives that rich goat cheese a perfect finish. A wonderful, if slightly too large, dish — thank you!

I relaxed a little and kept sipping at the lovely Barboursville rosé (I usually always drive by the winery to buy a case but timing didn’t work this trip…and I’m trying hard to not keep booze at home) when my main course arrived — rockfish.

Mmmmm, so good. The Roosevelt is known for a lot of things, but I have never had a fish here that was anything but fantastic. Cooked perfectly, crispy on the outside and juicy soft inside, and absolutely full of flavour. What a wonderful way to close the food portion of the evening, as that comped middle plate exhausted me for any possible dessert…

…but that doesn’t mean it won’t let me have a liquid dessert, so I indeed partook of some nice brown spirits and a heaping cup of coffee in lieu of the rather tempting items on the dessert menu. I was surprised that there were still incoming diners, including walk-ins, which again brought a smile to my face. By this time I assume the Bat Signal was spotted and my famous neighbour has departed after a joyous evening, and it was also time for me to go.

I headed out, thanking the crew for this wonderful evening. Again, if we weren’t all masked (and yes, even at my table, whenever staff came over I quickly put the mask on. It’s just the responsible thing to do), it would all seem so…normal. Perhaps that’s what made it even more special than usual. Thank you, Roosevelt, for reminding me of what was so wonderful to experience, and what is still here for us to enjoy and to continue to look forward to — hopefully in the near, vaccinated future.

Highly recommended, the best restaurant in Virginia. Probably the best restaurant between Wilmington, Delaware and Wilmington, North Carolina.

The Roosevelt
623 North 25th Street
Richmond, Virginia

PS: This evening also made me realize how much lockdown weight I have gained, as my clothes were no longer fitting correctly! I’ve actually lost over 10kg (~25lb) in the past 2 weeks going back to my pre-pandemic gym regimen…

Imaginary Trip — Day 15-16: NYC and Homeward Bound…and Back to Reality

23-24 April 2020*

Ugh…it’s always tough going to the airport for the flight homeward-bound, made much more unpleasant by it being Malpensa. First of all, it means one is leaving Italy, this place I love so much. Second, it’s one of the most inconvenient major airports in Europe. On a good day it takes about an hour to get there by train…

But that’s why I stay near Centrale, convenient as I came in by train and now heading to the airport by train. An uneventful experience there and on the flight back, where I go into my now-patented “zombie mode” where I don’t sleep, but close my eyes, listen to music, don’t eat, don’t drink anything but the bottles of water I brought with me, and get to my destination…

Luckily I had yesterday’s feasting — for the stomach and for the eyes — to keep me going until I landed… Back into JFK, where I departed on this #imaginarytrip a fortnight ago.

Back in NYC…so you think I’m a tough kid? Nah, just tired, and hungry. No food all day and it’s nearly evening here, so I need to eat. A long taxi ride into Manhattan, with the absolutely inevitable traffic jam on the Van Wyck.

I really do not know how much of my life has been lost on the Van Wyck to/from JFK over the years…

I get into Midtown and drop my bag off, then hop right into the subway to go to Brooklyn. I’m hungry, and I need a lot of food. Luckily I know my old friend Chef Akhtar Nawab would be there to make sure I have plenty of good stuff to eat at his Alta Calidad.

I’ve known Akhtar for a long time, and for a short but wonderful period we were partners in our baby that was named Elettaria… We share a lot of pain from her demise, but I’m glad to see his current restaurants doing so well (well, until this insanity began…). I get to Atlantic Avenue and stroll to Alta Calidad, and park myself at the bar…

A cocktail in hand, and I suspect Chef has seen me, so I slowly look over the menu, knowing he’s gonna bring out stuff otherwise… And soon, he comes out and brings me my starter, the marrow roti.

A1-marrow roti

Chef Nawab has somehow successfully fused Mexican and Indian flavours here at Alta Calidad, with his Kentucky flare, and this is a very unique dish. Lovely roti, but that marrow just made it so nice and rich… As I’m picking at the roti, we also catch up quickly, which is always nice. Then he heads back into the kitchen when my second dish is brought…

A2-king salmon

A nice king salmon salad, working well with the myriad of veggies; I especially love the radishes. A nice start, but knowing Chef things are gonna get very interesting very soon. And sure enough, a delightful combination of belly and octopus…

A3-octopus belly

These skewers are just delicious, I can eat them all day. Grilled perfectly, the octopus was tender and flavourful, the belly decadent and rich… So good, they work so well in concert… Then Chef brings out something he’s really perfected at Alta Calidad, the mangalica collar…

A4-mangalica collar

They come out sizzlin’, so good… A normal pork collar done this way would be excellent already, but the bonus is that this is mangalica…so good… Again, I can eat this all day. You can wrap this with tortillas but they are sooooo good as is also… Chef then brings out some cauliflower…

A5-cauliflower

He know I love cauliflower, and when he gets such good raw produce, he always makes the most of it. Lovely stuff, helps cuts down on all the rich foods so far. Then next, he brings something he’s been doing so well since our Elettaria days, the lamb ribs…

A6-lamb ribs_edited

Oh so good, brings back so many memories… He gets the best out of the lamb without losing its unique flavour, keeping the meat moist and rich. I don’t know how many of these I’ve eaten over the years from Chef Nawab, but it’s likely in the hundreds… I close my eyes and think back to the summer of 2008, when everything was nearly perfect, when life was nearly perfect, before everything came tumbling down in succession in a matter of months… I’m so glad to see Chef doing so well, partly because he’s recovered from that nadir; on the other hand, I have not, and that’s a burden I carry with myself on a daily basis, #imaginaryday or not…

Anyway, back to the food. I was getting a little full, but plenty of cocktails from the very able bar staff keeps me going. Chef then comes out with porchetta

A7-porchetta_edited

So good, rich and perfectly roasted. The skin crispy, the meat juicy, just the way it should be done. Again, brings back memory, as this was the last thing Chef made for our final evening of service at Elettaria. So I guess that’s an appropriate end to this #imaginarydinner, this wee trip down memory lane…

A few more cocktails later, a good chat with Chef, but it’s time to head out as it’s starting to weigh on me a little, in every sense of the term. This has been a long trip, and I’m tired — even if it’s all imaginary…

That was one fine evening of #imaginarydining. Not hungry anymore, and I make my way back across to Manhattan to my hotel to collapse… Next morning, I manage to rest a little and to get myself ready. I head out, but before I go to Penn Station for my train ride home, I decide to have one last meal.

And for my last meal I decided to drop into the venerable Keens Steakhouse. Partly because it’s open for lunch, it’s hearty, and it’s near Penn Station. I arrive and they happily store my bag as they lead me to my table. As I enjoy a martini they hand me the menu, which isn’t really needed as I know what I’m having…

B-mutton chop_edited

Yep, their famous mutton chop. A half bottle of red, some veggies on the side, and I’m happy. I devour this large yet delicious piece of meat, knowing all of this has to fuel me for that terrible experience called Amtrak that’s coming up…

I finish up the beast, as well as my half-bottle (I decided against a full bottle as I need to ween back to “normal” existence…), and have a double of rye to close the tab on this #imaginarytrip.

I walk over to Penn Station, probably the worst train station on the planet (tho Gare du Nord in Paris ain’t much better) to queue for the train south. The #imginarytrip is now officially over, in every sense of that word. Back to reality. SIGH…

Alta Calidad
552 Vanderbilt Avenue
Brooklyn, New York

Keens Steakouse
72 West 36th Street
New York, New York