Monday, June 13, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC: The José Andrés Experience - A Conversation & A Taste at Jaleo

No, I did not have the fortune of a personal conversation with José Andrés...but it sure felt like it! As Tony and I were leaving the National Archives (a visit to the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence is a must in DC!), we stumbled on a little t-stand sign that said "America Eats" and "José Andrés." Tony was already half way out the door as I stood there staring at the sign and pondered...isn't that....? And yes, it was....THE Chef José Andrés, giving a FREE lecture at National Archives, and we were just in time for tickets and a prime seat! We saw a profile on Chef Andrés on 60 Minutes, and was intrigued by his molecular cooking. At the time, we were amazed there was such a foodie experience in DC...who knew!? For those unfamiliar, Chef Andrés was named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2011 and is behind a number of great restaurants in the US, mostly in DC, including Jaleo, Oyamel, Cafe Atlantico and Minibar. I remember the 60 Minutes segment because it wasn't just about his food and his restaurants, but also about his dedication to food kitchens and his food is not just about fancy restaurants and kitchens - everyone deserves good food. I thought it said a lot about this man. And here in DC, we were lucky enough to be part of an intimate conversation with him, moderated by Corby Kummer, currently a senior editor at The Atlantic and previously restaurant critic at New York Magazine and winner of five James Beard Journalism awards!

There wasn't a lot of moderation needed. Every person in the 290 seat theatre hung on to Chef Andrés's every word right from the start...and he didn't just show up to answer some questions, the man came prepared, with a "short" slide show (I use quotations because he barely got into it). With each picture, he told great stories and expressed his passion, love, and understanding of food. What I really took away was his dedication to the origin of food what it means to food and people. He started by talking about paw paws, a fruit I had never heard of before that day, but is in fact, native to North America! It sort of looks like a green mango and is essentially a giant berry, apparently similar in taste to banana and mango. Chef Andrés's fascination with paw paw was all around its origin in America, and yet, NO ONE knows about it. His point was that a true "speciality" was the ability to leverage locally. Another example he gave was the Clam Chowder. This was the first dish he tried to re-invent and elevate in America. This was the start to an engaging talk on his inspirations - Chef Andrés doesn't believe in a "right" and a "wrong" in food, it is about creating an amazing experience, and that can source from many and any place. He talked about how food should inspire - we shouldn't force kids to eat healthy food, but think about how to create food and provide perspective so that kids will understand food and ask for it. He told the story of the origin of apples and truthfully, he could have convinced me to eat anything!

Chef Andrés spoke of many origins that we have adapted and changed today: the original shrimp cocktail has grapefruit and horseradish (that sounds AMAZING), and the burgoo was supposedly made with possum and used to be an aristocratic food - the French made it with blackbirds! His point was that in food, the melting pot of America shows up - it may be confusing what "American" cooking is, but it is an evolution of old dishes with new influences and new ingredients. Chef Andrés helped create the "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam" exhibit at the National Archives, a look at the relationship between government and food over the years (butter was food group...and in fact, so was "all other"). His genius shows up in his dedication to the message, he was about to turn Cafe Atlantica into America Eats as a live extension of the exhibit. How INCREDIBLE is that? True genius and cultural integration by bringing words and images to relevance today.

I'm sad to say we did not stay to the end of the lecture, we were actually heading out to a dinner reservation...but we stayed to the very last minute! The session was supposed to evolve into Q&A, but like someone close to us said quietly, it seemed everyone in the room was just content on listening to him talk more about the history, the origin, and the evolution of food. José Andrés's dedication to food showed him as more than just a great chef in creating good food, but that he was a great chef because of his passion and thoughtfulness about food.

We couldn't leave DC without a visit to one of his restaurants, and we decided to visit Jaleo for a Spanish tapas lunch; afterall, Spanish food is what he is known for. As a testament to the chef's dedication to the "origin" of taste and food, the bread came served with olive oil, fresh rosemary and fresh crushed garlic...why substitute the flavours with anything but the real thing?? The menu was extensive and we barely knew where to start, but the freshly made paellas immediately caught my eye - I LOVE paella! We decided we simply couldn't pass up the opportunity and settled on the black rice with squid ink, cuttlefish and porcini mushroom paella, served with aioli. It is as good as it sounds :D And believe it or not, we cleaned up the entire pan!
It's not as deep as it looks, in case you thought we were crazy! While we were waiting for our amazing dish, we started with some smaller bites: a cold almond soup with garlic, crab meat and grapes - perfect for the hot weather outside and no less flavourful than a "traditional" soup, it was served with fresh crab lumps, almond flakes and raisins....we licked the bowl clean; we also had rabbit confit on a delicious apricot puree, and Jaleo's famous garlic shrimp. I regret not ordering the fried pasta paella - I only had this dish once while in Barcelona, and it was amazing, but there was really no way I could have fit more food in my stomach! I really need to go back!

Having the opportunity to hear Chef Andrés was definitely a highlight in our trip. He was so inspiring and gave me new perspective on food. I obviously love food, but his passion was really something else. We'd love to go back to DC for a visit to MiniBar (plan a month in advance!) or any other one of his restaurants. Just knowing the thought he's put behind every dish makes me appreciate it all the more.

480 7th Street NW, Washington, DC
202-628-7949 (resevations available on OpenTable)

WASHINGTON, DC: A Food Adventure at Komi

I'm a sucker for style, and for restaurants, I like the style of one that surprises me. Our first experience with a "no menu" menu was at Momofuku Ko in New York, a genius restaurant by David Chang. Tony and I reminisce often about the amazing shaved foie gras with riesling jelly. When I discovered Komi, (as always, thanks Chowhounders!), a restaurant featuring a multi-course meal with no printed menu, I decided this would be the right place for a special night out in DC. First, the challenge of getting a reservation. In truth, I'm not sure how hard it is, but Komi takes reservations starting one month in advance, Tuesday to Thursday between noon and 5pm....I was not about to risk not getting a reservation, so I called exactly one month in advance, the first chance I had. I would say that the phone was busy for a while, so I was relieved when someone picked up and I managed to get a reservation. Whew.

Komi is located in the Dupont Circle area, lined with restaurants and great vibe of the gay and lesbian community. We had a chance to walk around the area after and loved the young, lively neighbourhood. Komi itself is not flashy - we arrived to find a simple house, belying of the multitude of tastes ahead! You'll have to use your imagination through this tasting tour, as no pictures were allowed and I wouldn't have wanted to ruin the experience of other patrons in the dark, intimate setting.

After starting with a refreshing Japanese white beer, Kitachino Nest, we were ready to start our tasting menu, a diverse food adventure at Komi. We started with a number of small dishes making up the really big appetizer course, the mezzethakia:

House smoked trout roe with Greek yogurt on warm brioche - this was a one bite dish and the thing just exploded with taste in my mouth. This was probably one of the most memorable dishes we had all night...what a way to start!
Two sashimi style fish (I'm sure that's not what they called it but you get the point), South pacific king fish with green tomato, which was interestingly slightly salty and Scotland salmon.
Scallop 2 ways: sliced raw with cured crab roe served on the half shell, which was extremely clean, fresh and delicious (this was one of Tony's favourites of the night); the second serving of scallop I was not so fond of, diced with cilantro and coconut which was a bit too sticky and creamy.
Crispy purple artichoke with apricots and ailoi - a very interesting dish that probably looked better than it tasted. The concept was very good and unique, but the artichoke was a bit chewy and the aioli was overpowering.
One bite spanakopita with liquid center which literally burst with warmth and flavour in my mouth. I was really enjoying these one bite dishes! They were always great surprises.
Egg yolk ravioli with shaved smoked tuna, shaved truffle (real truffle!) and local asparagus. This was another very memorable dish for me, very tasty although the ravioli was just a tad thick. But don't get me wrong, we absolutely loved the flavours and left the dish sparkling! It was just so tasty.
Half smokes with tomato marmalade and pickle zucchini - essentially, a fancy spicy hot dog. The marmalade was like a relish, spicy, sweet and sour all at the same time. It was just PERFECT. I definitely could have eaten a full size Komi dog :) This was another of my favourites for the night.
Foie gras with pickled chantrelle mushrooms, pickled vegetables with a green pea puree. We normally love anything foie gras, but the other flavours were over-powering. This dish was sadly, a bit disappointing...
Oven roast date with stuffed marscapone topped with fleur de sel - was very warm and sweet. I don't care much for dates normally but I found this dish to be quite exciting - perfect warm temperature for the blend of flavours and texture.

Well if you can imagine that we had any room and taste buds left for more dishes, we moved on to a heartier pasta, a tagliatele with salt caper berries flash fried (we loved these), and current with pine nuts in a tomato sauce. Not much needs to be said for fresh, simple pasta. And the star of the show was goat shoulder, served family style for sharing! Imagine a simple, giant slab of meat, and that is exactly what was served before us - forget all the intricate, small dishes we had before, this was straight up meat. You can also only imagine my excitement to be served something as unique as tender goat shoulder, and a selection of sauces to accompany: fresh tzaziki, this was incredible and probably some of the best tzatziki I've had; pepper mustard, a smooth hot kick; lemon salt, least used by Tony and I but certainly was very complimentary with the goat meat; hot pepper, which was a bit too fiery for me. I really enjoyed the meat, I would likely most closely to beef brisket. It was very satisfying, although I was too full to have too much (just enough to try it "bare" and with all the sauces). Good thing I had a hungry husband so as not to waste any food!

And yes, there was dessert to finish, and never just ONE, but a selection:
Cheese course with lemons, a simple dish to almost cleanse the pallet.
Rolo with cardamom - I did not know what cardamom was before, so this was a unique chocolate treat!
Ginger snaps and ginger beer sorbet - this was very refreshing with great ginger flavour.
Greek donuts with cream and blueberries - the donuts reminded me of these Chinese donuts I like, which are sugary, fluffy and light. The cream was also light and the blueberries tasty. This dessert was my favourite.
Ginger lollipop - our parting gift, but I was simply overloaded with flavours and tastes I could not fathom a lollipop on top!

We had a great time at Komi and would certainly recommend it to anyone planning to visit DC and looking for a unique tasting experience or to celebrate a special occasion (there were a lot of birthdays!). We liked some dishes more than others, but that was really part of the fun, to taste and try things out of the ordinary - we felt the Greek influences in ways we never imagined and really enjoyed it. It was also a treat to have the chef and owner himself, Johnny Monis, serve us some of the dishes. We appreciated the extra personal touch, even if the did it never would have known he was the chef if you didn't recognize his picture from the website :)

1509 17th Street (between P and Q streets), Washington, DC

WASHINGTON, DC: Great Service and Charcuterie at Proof

Our first dinner in DC was at Proof, a late edition to our overall eating itinerary but we were no less excited to check it out. As with many of the restaurants I chose, Proof is in Penn Quarter, across from the National Portrait Gallery and close to the Verizon Center (home of the Capitals and the Wizards). Besides the short wait we had for our table, we were treated exceptionally the whole night through. We were welcomed with champagne for Tony's birthday - I loved that they actually read the notes in the Open Table reservation!

After flipping through the extensive menu, we settled on the chef's four course tasting menu, which seemed like a great deal at $59 per person. We couldn't resist the charcuterie board and despite our fear it would be too much food on top of the tasting menu, we went for it, ordering the Chef's Full board with a plan to pack some of it home. I truthfully can't recall all that was on the board, but the selection of prociuttos, salamis and pate were all delicious. I was pretty excited to be taking a snack back with us to the hotel!

Our tasting menu started with crispy "pig's head," which was one of the more intriguing items on the menu although I'm not really sure what it was made of (I assume pork). They were fried squares filled with meat and lentil salad with horseradish. Our 2nd course was roasted salmon with fennel cream, which was tasty but nothing extraordinary (what's special about Scottish salmon??). The 3rd course was honey and spice glazed peking duck breast, an item no doubt influenced by the restaurant's proximity to Chinatown.
The sweet potato puree with pomegranate emulsion on which the duck was served was an unexpected surprise. I often consider mashed potatoes or such puree to just be filler sides; but I couldn't get enough of this dish, it was sweet and savoury all at the same time and absolutely delicious. For dessert, Tony and I alternated the warm chocolate hazelnut cake and a selection of cheese.
We entrusted the cheese selection to our server, who asked about our general preferences as a guide: Red Hawk (cow) was our favourite, a California soft, triple cream mushroomy cheese...taste described as "funky" but it was just all good to me! Le Chevre Noir is a French hard, aged crumbly cheese which we have had before that I'm not a huge fan of; our last cheese was the Cambozola Black, a German semi-soft, creamy, mild cheese which was typical of what we generally like. The cheese selection was as impressive as the charcuterie and I was impressed with our server's knowledge of the assortment.

I guarantee you will find something to your liking at Proof. The menu is extensive and there is definitely something for everyone, although I thought the charcuterie board and cheese selection were our highlights. The cocktails were good as well, particularly the Brown Derby, made of bourbon, grapefruit juice and honey. I especially loved the extra efforts to make our visit special (given it was for Tony's birthday) - with the champagne to start, and some birthday gelato after our dessert course. The efforts were much appreciated and show the restaurant's concern for great guest experience, which says a lot.

775 G Street NW, Washington, DC
202-737-7663 (reservations available on Open Table)

WASHINGTON, DC: Southern Goodness at Georgia Brown's

We were very excited to visit DC for Tony's birthday. I don't know when I discovered it was a bit of a foodie haven, but it totally is! We were eager to hob knob among the political elite while taking in the great monuments and museums for the first time. We had no plans for lunch upon arrival on Thursday, but lucky for us, Georgia Brown's was a close walk from our lovely hotel, the Sofitel. I was definitely craving some good Southern comfort food! We were happy to find a lunch prix fixe for $24. Although intrigued by the fried green tomato, we both opted for the seafood chowder to start, which was very hearty with lots of goodies to inhale! For mains, I couldn't resist the Carolina Gumbo, a stew of shrimp, sausage, crab, chicken, duck and veggies on red rice. It was AMAZING, a bowl of perfect goodness and hit the spot for our slightly late lunch. I lapped up the entire bowl without hesitation. Have I mentioned I love hearty, comfort food?? I should also mention that the lunch portion was just perfect, I couldn't even imagine having a "full" portion, it would be way too much and too tempting to overeat because it was so good :) Tony ordered the Southern Fried Chicken (we just HAD to have it) and it was totally worth it, marinated in buttermilk and served with delicious mashed and gravy. We're pretty sure we ordered the 2 best things on the menu, but I guess we'd have to make another visit to really judge! Our lunch ended with 2 desserts, which I was too full to have but Tony really enjoyed.

Although we would have many more amazing meals in the next couple days, starting off at Georgia Brown's for fine Southern food was was definitely in the right direction. It was quality food, a perfect stop for a good, quick lunch in a comfy restaurant. This is no doubt, a must stop, for those visiting Washington, DC. Although it had not been planned, we were very glad to have had time to check it out! Hmm Southern, country goodness!

Georgia Brown's
950 15th Street NW, Washington, DC

ATLANTA: Fun, Food and Drinks at Top Flr

I rarely rely on restaurant recommendations found in hotel magazines but with not a lot of options, I decided to start browsing. I wanted some decent food at a good price for a group of girls from work. In my quick read through, I happened to come across the menu for Top Flr. I TOTALLY judge a book by it's cover, because the cool name stopped me, and the menu seemed appetizing enough at a reasonable price. I decided the short ride to mid-town for dinner would be well worth it! I should mention that the random magazine I was reading in the hotel room actually had the WRONG phone number for Top Flr, that was very frustrating as I was trying to call and make reservations. Thank goodness for mobile internet these days because I was determined to give the place a try!

Top Flr was the perfect place for 7 girls to have a fun dinner - the restaurant/bar is a cool 2 storey house, and has a young, urban chic (but unpretentious) vibe. We were welcomed with a cocktail list, but our server's suggestions for bubbly cocktails were more enticing (I had a St. Germain...sold by the "elderflower").

Now the main event, food. Top Flr is probably best enjoyed family style, ordering a selection of dishes for the table to share...but we opted for a modified version, grouping off to share certain selections. Marie and I shared the tuna tartar served on flatbread. It wasn't quite what I expected (I think I overlooked the "flatbread" part in the description) but it was very good with a bit of spiciness. As my main, there was no doubt I would have the smoked duck breast.
It was prepared just perfect, very tender and delicious. I think I shared a bit but I mostly gobbled it up quickly myself :P I was sad no one ordered the hand cut pappardelle (probably my favourite pasta) with rabbit confit, but one of the girls did treat me to fresh tagliatinni with shrimp, tomato and basil....and it was DELICIOUS! I am a super pasta snob and totally judge if the pasta isn't freshly made because you can't definitely taste the difference! We also had fantastic sides to share - I recalled somehow that the mac n cheese was notable, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try (thanks Amber for sharing with me!). It was indeed very good, and not too heavy as mac n cheese often is. It was JUST the right balance for a side dish, done with cheddar, gouda and panko crust. Yum!

Finding the right "social" place can be a delicate balance of food (not too polarizing), cost (not too pricey), and ambiance (not too noisy but lively enough). I was relieved Top Flr ended up being a good choice, a lot of pressure to pick a good place for the group...and I only judged by a quick read of the menu in a random magazine. Sometimes, it's just a gut feeling :)

Top Flr
674 Myrtle St., Atlanta, GA