Thursday, July 30, 2009


Pleen and I ventured to the posh Donovan House Hotel today to try Toronto chef Susur Lee’s first DC venture, Zentan. Although “Asian-fusion” can make for some eye-rolling material, Lee’s a dude who should be able to pull off some goodness.

Bottom line up front: We’ll give the place another try before we make up our minds, but we’re not blown away. However, there’s lots more of the menu to try. Our general take-away? Dishes tended towards one-ingredient-too-many.

The very cool looking Singapore Slaw of 16 ingredients (including hazelnuts and salted-plum dressing) is basically a very chic lo hei. This was a nice start - light and refreshing in texture and flavor. Perhaps a tad too sweet in the dressing and simultaneously a bit over salted (odd I know). The hazelnuts in a dish whose street-food ancestors usually use peanuts were a very nice touch that raised the level of the whole dish.

The Almond-Crusted Vegetable Dumplings with Swatow chili dipping sauce were . . . fine. Actually, the filling of mushroom, fungus, celery, etc. was lovely. But the dumpling skins were surprisingly western; which is to say about five times thicker than one would expect from an Asian dumpling. This was the glumpy doughy dumpling skin one expects in American-Chinese joints – not from the kitchen of a chef who started his career in the dumpling Valhalla of Hong Kong hotel kitchens! The chili sauce didn’t arrive until long after the apps were cleared and we were half-way through our mains.

Pleen’s entrée: Caramelized Black Cod w/ preserved vegetable & mustard relish. This was a beautiful piece of fish perfectly cooked. Gotta say, I think the mustard actually detracted. Bites without the mustard allowed you to really get the flavor of the fish and the glaze. Oh, and what's with the lemon alongside a piece of caramelized fish?

My Mongolian Lamb Chops w/chili, mint, carrot, cardamom, peanut chutney, & glazed banana. Again, a wonderful quality ingredient cooked just right. Splendid chops. The peanut chutney was a fun idea, but puddled alongside the mint, it got confusing. The mint quickly became subsumed by the peanut and you were left wondering what the point was supposed to be. The bananas were hyper sweet and might have worked well if there were actually any chili flavor to offset.

There isn’t any claim that Chef Lee is in the kitchen banging these dishes out, but I gotta think that his input might be of some help to keep this nice promising restaurant from becoming just another place to be seen.

Zentan at the Donovan House Hotel
1155 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 379-4366

Sunday, February 8, 2009

NYC photos up!

The album is filling. Feel free to take a look.


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Culinary Consolation as Market Metric?

Observation: NYC is awash in comfort food. From snazzy mac’n cheese joints to steaming bowls of pork ramen or two-handed chocolate-chip cookies, New York purveyors seem to feel that reassurance is the new luxury in these turbulent times. And people are lining up all over town for varying types of cozy calories.

It occurs to me that one way of plotting the true recovery from this recession may be to watch for the return of fancified cookery. When the ring molds and unpronounceable preparations reappear, they may be chasing revived expense accounts & bonuses burning holes in bespoke pockets.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pizza Pilgrimage: Una Pizzeria Napoletana

We’ve heard about Anthony Mangieri’s near-fanatical dedication to the classic Naples-style approach to pizza. Una Pizzeria Napoletana was thus high on our must-try list. On our first night in town, we headed down to the east village only to find the joint closed. We finally got there for a “snack” on day 2 before meeting friends for dinner.

Bottom line up front:
The quality of Mangieri’s few ingredients shines, and his dough is lovely. However, the very oven that is such a focus of the restaurant seems to also be the source of two significant problems with the product. I’m VERY glad that the world has Mangieri uncompromisingly practicing his craft, but it’s hard to justify the price and trip in a town filled with so many worthy competitors.

Only five of the 35 seats were filled when we arrived. We were seated with a view of the small kitchen which is really just a one-man work counter in front of the massive oven. We happily ordered a Margherita to share.

They only offer four pies at Una Pizzeria Napoletana, and any alterations are strictly prohibited. They believe strongly that they know what works and what doesn’t – and in particular that a few superior quality ingredients make for a finer product than a voluminous hodgepodge. Their doctrine shines through in the product.

The pizza that appeared consisted of only of San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil, & sea salt. We watched Mangieri build the pie to order in his sparse work space and bake it out with careful attention. It came from the oven to our table and we dug in excitedly. The flavors of the prime quality ingredients shone. The taste of the pie was stellar.

How good? Let's put it this way, for all the noise about his imported mozzarella di bufala and the painstakingly selected olive oil, we found ourselves debating where he got his basil. His freakin BASIL was that splendid! Did he grow it himself? Get it from a trusted source? We were enthralled.

However, even given the restrained portions of ingredients used in constructing the pie, a problem was quickly evident. There was so much excess liquid present that the lovely thin crust was quickly soaked through. While the edges held their chew and body for a while, the middle of the pie was a soggy mess.

But we savored the taste of that first pie and quickly decided to try one more.

The Bianca that soon arrived was just as carefully prepared and beautiful. It also matched both of the problems of the first pie. Both? Oh, yes. Aside from the sogginess, there were the bubbles.

You can see examples of these bubbles in the photo below. They didn’t taste of toasted or caramelized dough. They tasted of ash and carbon. And if they found their way into a bite, they sublimated every other flavor in the pie under their cinders.

I don’t have anything like Mangieri’s experience or expertise, but it seems to me that if each pizza coming out of that oven bears these burnt (not "well-done", they're b-u-r-n-t) parts, perhaps the oven is too hot. A cooler oven might also, it seems to me, allow you to leave the pizza in long enough to steam away more of the liquid inherent in the very fresh mozzarella.
But like I said, I don’t have the technical chops to recommend a better approach. However, a better approach is needed. Because what I got for $21 each were pizzas that were a sodden messes with burnt spots along the edges.

Una Pizzeria Napoletana
349 East 12th Street,
New York, New York 10003
212-477 9950

Finally! - The Burger Joint

In the lobby of the posh Parker Meridien hotel, there’s a little curtained hallway behind the front desk. It looks like an employee entrance to something. Down at the end of the hallway is a little sculpted neon burger. Ignore the looming dudes with earpieces and the disapproving stares of the desk staff. Walk towards the neon. Turn into the doorway on your right, and there it is. The Burger Joint. The secret greasy spoon hidden away in this tower of $350/night single rooms and $28 omelets. I’ve been wanting to eat here for years.

Bottom line up front:

Go. REALLY good burger. Good fries and shake. But the place itself is the draw. It's a wondrously dive-y enclave in the midst of all the glam. EXACTLY the meal you need in mid-town.


Pleen and I arrived about 11:30 and the place was empty. We managed to snag one of the few booths with a view of the door and the kitchen. The guys in suits started filing in around 11:40. By 11:55 there was a line out the door and down the hallway. Things got rolling for the crew behind the counter quickly, but they remained nonplussed - calling orders and scolding slowpokes

Cheeseburger with the works. Fries. Chocolate shake. What more does one need in life?
They make a really good burger. The meat is nothing like the quality of Ray’s Hell Burger, but it’s fresh and flavorful and gently treated. The grill itself delivers significant char flavor. And the cheese actually adds flavor rather than just fat. Although frozen, the fries are good. Long cut Idaho ¼ inchers. They could use a stiff hit of salt & pepper while still glistening next to fry-o-lator before they go in the bag. Their milk shake is the shake of my childhood - just vanilla ice cream, Hershey’s syrup, & milk. I like it a lot. If you have a different point of departure it may strike you as a bit . . . hollow. Pleen, as an example, found it not chocolaty enough compared to the likes of Talyor’s Refresher.

I’m definitely coming back.

Burger Joint
118 W 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Vamoose Virgin

In the world of low cost bus rides between the Washington, DC area and New York City, I was a virgin up until this trip.

Having had the pleasure now of a ride on Vamoose from Rossyln to Penn Station, I’m not sure if I can ever go back. Total time from our front door to our destination was markedly less than with airplane or train – and of course it was vastly cheaper.

The people were cool, the ride was comfortable, and ya can’t beat $25 for a lift to New York. Make mine Vamoose!

Vamoose Express Bus Service
16 Penn Plaza, Suite 514
New York, NY 10001

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tokyo photos are up!

The album is still a bit disorganized, but feel free to take a look!


Tokyo Highlights: FOOD!!

Dear god have the Japanese got the good eats thing sorted! Central Tokyo is positively AWASH in yumminess from all over the world. Decades of prosperity have brought every conceivable cuisine to town to mingle with domestic cookery refined by centuries of thought about how to take pleasure and nourishment from food.

There is little if any ghettoization notable. The French stuff is side-by-side with the local, Thai, Indian, Byelorussian, etc. Heck, we even wandered by a New Orleans themed “Bourbon Street Bar” on a back alley in Roppongi sandwiched between a yakitori joint and a soba shop.

Five dinners & four lunches weren’t nearly enough to even begin to sample the offerings. We concentrated entirely on Japanese food (novelty aside, I can get good pasta in a lot of other places). Thanks to JM’s knowledge of the city and language skills, we were able to get a taste for a lot of stuff we would have missed.

Our lack of experience with Japanese cuisine means that we didn’t bring many preconceived notions of what we liked or didn’t. Thus, the experience of trying new food and new ways of eating played a major roll for much of our trip. We’re usually 100% food-centric – atmosphere plays at most an amusing supporting role. On this trip, some of our favorite experiences were all about (or at least equally about) the atmosphere/experience rather than the food itself. Thus, two lists.

Favorite food experiences:

1. Sukiyaki & shabu-shabu at Roppongi Jidaiya. A basement right off Roppongi Dori houses this comfortable izakaya serving up a wide selection of home-style food. We wandered down the winding staircase from street level through the diminutive doorway and were quickly seated at a comfortable corner table looking out at a room filled mostly with sararīman getting some after-work socializing done.
While shabu-shabu is basically the Japanese version of the “steamboat” dish offered by every East Asian culture, it’s still a fun communal cooking and dining experience. Also, the typical Japanese fetish for the finest quality ingredients really stood out – beautiful meat and produce here. Our favorite taste, however, was by far the sukiyaki.

2. Okonomiyaki at Sometaro in Asakusa. This old school low ceiling joint had a line running down the block for a reason.

Once again, the experience of cooking & chowing down on the crêpe-cum-pancake-thingies was a blast. Just being in the space made us happy. Check out the video below for a look at the process.

3. Wandering the food hall at the Takashimaya department store in Shinjuku. Harrod’s is for wannabes. Seriously, this is the greatest free food attraction in town. All that stuff I said before about the diversity of global cusine available in Tokyo? Yea. Now put it all inside a Sax Fith Avenue and you’ve got an idea of what it is to stroll the food offerings at this high-end Tokyo department store. We ended up grabbing a taste of a lot of things and finding a bench on the roof top to have our experimental picnic.

Roppongi Jidaiya
B1 Yuni Roppongi Bldg.
7-15-17 Roppongi
Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032

2-2-2 Nishi-Asakusa
Taito-ku, Tokyo

Takashimaya Shinjuku
5-24-2, Sendagaya
Shibuya-ku , Tokyo 151-8580

Favorite dishes:

1. Korokke Pan from the 60 year old Nagano Bakery right on Roppongi Dori. JM sent us over here and we’ll never forgive him. That handful of heaven haunts our dreams. Pleen woke up in a jet lagged fog in our bedroom last night and mumbled “korokeeeeeee pannnn”.

Breakfast of champions!!

2. Spicy tonkatsu ramen from Ippudo in Roppongi. This dish was so good that we’re going to New York to try the offering at their US location. Can’t stop thinking about it. Admittedly, the place itself was great with a funky and charming staff of young turks and a common dinning area rambunctious with groups of friends slurping happily away. But the noodles?! Oh, those noodles.

3. Random “shrimp burger” from a tour group rest cafe near the Yasukuni shrine. It took us so long to make our way over to this part of town that we were in serious need of a refuel by the time with got within range. Imagine our surprise when the food turned out to be pretty good. This block of fresh shrimp held together in fried goodness was better than that. Imagine MY surprise when Pleen appropriated my sandwich!
4. Red bean and cream “pancakes” from a street side shop in Asakusa. These are made by pouring batter into a mold, inserting a bit of filling in the center, and closing the mold to yield a sealed snack filled with molten goodness. We used to love the ones at the Japanese department stores in Singapore. Yea . . . we didn’t know what we were doing. These were spectacular. Thin and flavorful and stuffed with high quality fillings. More than worth the stop.

5. Black sesame ice cream from snack shop near the Sensouji Temple in Asakusa. JM brought us over here to visit the “Japanese 31 flavors”. While my Yuzu flavored cone was grand – redolent with the sweet citrus flavor and bits of the fruit itself, JM’s sesame flavored portion was the clear winner. This was adult soft serve – deeply flavored and luxurious.

Nagano Bakery
2-17-31 Akasaka
Minato-ku, Tokyo

4-9-11, Roppongi
Minato-ku, Tokyo

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tokyo Highlights: Planes, Trains, & Buses

Tokyo’s Narita airport long occupied a groan-inducing role in the hearts of many of us who traveled through it on our way to other parts of Asia. Its refurbished incarnation, however, is a total pleasure both for passing through and as a point of entry. Immigration was fast & efficient - although the Japanese government now has my fingerprints and photo on disk.

Rather than spending a fortune on a slow-moving cab or dragging our bags through multiple train changes, we followed JC’s advice and grabbed two tickets on the Airport Limousine service’s bus to town. For ~ $33 per head, we got a speedy, safe, and comfy ride to a drop point two blocks from our buddy’s apartment. The hour and a half ride into the center of town offered up a lovely set of views and non-stop service that departed precisely on time and arrived earlier than promised. The return trip to the airport several days later was just as smooth.

Airport Limousine

Tokyo Highlights: Getting around

Last time ‘round we felt notably constrained by our lack of Japanese language capability. Getting on a train or navigating the streets or ordering a meal was a major effort. This wasn’t an issue this time. Perhaps our last sample was unlucky? Perhaps there’s been a boom in English language signage and education? I don’t know. But this time we felt we could find our way and feed our faces with no difficulty.

This was a particular boon in that it freed us to use the fantastic (but complex!) Tokyo rail network to hop from point to point.

Still, we did a lot of walking. Tokyo’s neighborhood topography is so varied that strolling between major areas really helps to fill out the mental map of the town. We enjoyed moving from the glitzy consumer haven of Shinjuku to the teen fashion alleys of Harajuku. A long stroll past the majestic Imperial Palace, through the public spaces filled with museums and tour groups leading to the Yasukuni shrine made for a lovely morning. But it was certainly a total counterpoint to our evening amongst the hipsters in the narrow lanes of Naka Meguro.

Everywhere we went, we were amazed at how the compacted hustle & bustle of the busiest neighborhoods gave way to charming quiet residential areas just a block or two off the main drag. In the frenetic center of Roppongi right across from the ultra-modern high end Tokyo Midtown development (the new Ritz Carlton residences look down on this gourmet shopping mall), walking 100 meters off the main street left us in the midst of idyllic pocket parks and picture perfect small homes.

This is a great town for wandering about and bumping into pleasant surprises.

Positive reinforcement for light packing

Walking out of Dulles passport control after a week-long trip to Tokyo, we made straight for the customs exit without stopping at the luggage carousel.

As I handed my Form 6059B to the CBP agent, he sternly demanded, “Where the heck are your BAGS !?” I was so lagged out that it took me a second to look up into his grinning face.

I pointed to the daypack on my shoulder, lifted the tote in my hand, and shrugged. “Get on outta here man,” he said as he shooed us on our way - cackling as we went.

"One Bag" travel has lots of bennies. If the customs guys are diggin' ya, life is certainly easier.

Only in Japan

One of the greatest things in the air travel world has to be the "Magic Beer Machine" in the United Airlines Red Carpet Lounge next to Gate 31 at Tokyo Narita.

A tilting platform? A separate foam-jet to put the perfect head on it!? Only the Japanese would do such a thing. God love 'em!

Watch and be amazed.


The promise of 2 million extra people flopping onto DC’s already overloaded infrastructure was enough to motivate us for a quick trip out of town. Two tickets on United 803, a bit of a visa drama (boo-hiss on you mean-embassy-visa-lady), and we were off to Tokyo!

We were in there for 3 days back in 2001 and have always wanted to return. Our buddy JC & her boyfriend JM made the trip possible by offering us a bed at their place.

Bottom line up front: Tokyo rocks! What a great town. The density and diversity of cool stuff combined with the safety, ease of access, and great people make it a world class destination. It's a must-return town for us.

In five days on the ground we wandered and laughed and ATE . . . a lot. We’ll put up some smaller individual posts to cover several highlights. Stand by!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Inauguration Eats

With inauguration madness upon us, we’ve had a number of inquiries from friends and friends-of-friends about dining recommendations for the District and Old Town. After emailing the same answers a few times, we thought we might post our thoughts for general consumption.

Be advised, this is not necessarily a “foodie” list, but more of an easily-accessible-but-really-good list. Detailed contact info follows the descriptions.

The District (city center): If you’re gonna go to these places, I think it would be in your interest to use OpenTable to make reservations (and provide a confirmation!) in order to avoid making 100 phone calls.

Central Michel Richard: The urban bistro of the guy behind Citronelle. We’ve had REALLY good experiences there. Get the cheese puffs and the lobster burger. We’ve been vastly less impressed with its chief competitor in the Michelin-Stared-Chef-opens-bistro space (Eric Ripert’s “West End Bistro”).

Vidalia: Fine dinning with a Southern influence. Wonderful. Although up-market, its southern influence reduces the snootiness factor

Hook: Lovely contemporary seafood in Georgetown. Great quality.

Café Atlantico: Although quite nice in general, José Andrés’ place offers up one of the most interesting experiences in the city in the shape of their “Nuevo Latino” dim sum brunch on Sundays from 11:30am to 2:30pm

Rasika: Fusion Indian but done REALLY well. Wonderful setting and food.

The District (a little farther out): A few places that are more casual, a bit further from the center of town, and don’t take reservations anyway. During the inaugural madness, checking out some of the less-than-fine-dining options listed below might be particularly rewarding.

Makoto: SERIOUS Japanese. This ain’t your neighborhood sushi joint. It’s small, reserved, and delicious. Get whatever they tell you is good.

Two Amys: Good pizza and better casual Italian noshing. Great feel, very neighborhood-joint vibe, often a wait but a fast moving one.

Buck's Fishing & Camping: We haven’t been, but people really like their take on well-done comfort food.

Cashion's Eat Place: Similarly, this joint up in Adam’s Morgan has a rep for a good take on classic American in a very welcoming environment.

The Ethiopian corridor: 9th Street around U Street/Florida Ave. has become the new center of Ethiopian in DC over the last 5 years or so. The good stuff ain’t in Adams Morgan anymore; it’s over here by Howard University. The places are changing over so frequently that it’s hard to track which is “best”. I’d just go over there and walk the block and try whichever looks good. We’ve had good meals at Etete (1942 9th Street NW, Washington, DC, 202-232-7600) and Abiti (1909 9th Street NW, Washington, DC, 202-328-2223)

Great Wall Szechuan House: Decor-less Szechuan joint just north of Logan Circle offering up actual ma-la cuisine on styrofoam plates. Outstanding. Make sure they give you the ma-la menu. [Note: Pleen thinks this place is BLAH]

Thai X-ing: People rave about this one-man hole-in-the-wall run by a crazy Thai chef. The food is supposedly amazing and the guy is apparently a delight. He does dinner only and the recommendation is to call in advance to avoid long waits. The salmon in red curry and whatever the guy recommends.

Zenebech Injera: Right next door to Thai X-ing, people say good things about this Ethiopian place.

Teddy’s Roti Shop: Have yet to go, but hear good things. The goat rotis with spicy sauce, the buss-up-shut, and the pumpkin are all recommended.

Amsterdam Falafel Shop: This is a cheap eats destination for late-night party-goers in Adam’s Morgan and we love the place. Their quite good falafel sandwiches come with access to their spectacular toppings bar. The fries kick butt as well.

Old Town: Until recently there was NOTHING to eat in Old Town Alexandria. That's changed a bit and the crap-quality over-priced fish places are being slowly replaced by stuff worth eating

Restaurant Eve: Wonderful and carefully prepared new American. They're not too serious about themselves and their food and attitude maintains some much-needed whimsy. While the dinning room is neither boring nor cheap, you can step up a notch to their tasting room or down a level to their very comfy bar (feels like a good neighborhood pub) where they actually serve the entire menu if you wish. This is a great restaurant.

Farah Olivia: This place may be a bit more serious that Eve, but it's welcoming and their food is outstanding. It's one of the more expensive meals in town, but the experience is well worth it.

Fontaine Caffe & Crêperie: This place is a lovely surprise if the word "crepe" makes you think of greasy faux-French joints. They offer a beautifully prepared assortment of savory & sweet crepes along with an interesting beer list. It's run by a pair of sisters who take their craft seriously.

Lavender Moon Cupcakery: Across the street from Fontaine Caffee is an oddball cupcake joint. They're quite dedicated to interesting ingredients and careful preparation. Still, the place has a bit of a hair-on-fire feel that I find endearing. Their passion fruit cupcake rocks. The chocolate w/peanut butter frosting is also pretty good.

Majestic Cafe: This old stand-by was recently taken over by the crew from Restaurant Eve. It's a darn good stop-in for well-executed classic American with a number of twists. If you're into mixology, acclaimed bar-keep Todd Thrasher is usually behind some funky cocktails at their bar.

Eamonn's: Another element of the growing Restaurant Eve empire, this is a no-kidding fish and chip shop. These guys do a seriously good job. Thomas Keller made a point of coming here where he was in town. ‘Nuff said.

Vaso's Kitchen: This is the neighborhood Greek joint that everyone wishes was on their corner. Vaso herself runs the place, and she's a terror to all who stand before her (all 5 foot nothing of her). Everything here is good if unsurprising. Pleen and I end up here a lot looking for one of their perfectly done Greek pizzas.

Momo Sushi & Cafe: Good sushi in an adorably tinny space. The people are lovely & the prices are reasonable.

Hank's Oyster Bar: Traditional American raw bar seafood joint with a full bar. I honestly think it’s “good” food at “great” prices. However, it’s right on the main drag and full of life.

A La Lucia: This is a somewhat-discovered neighborhood spot opened a few years back by a guy who ran the District’s top high-end Italian place for 20 years. The food is fresh, classic, and well prepared. The prices and location make this a steal of an option. This is the Italian joint we all wish we had at the end of our block.

Vermilion: Pleen likes this place for brunch. Contemporary American in the midst of the main part of King Street.

Le Pain Quotidien: We make an exception to the “no chain food” rule for this place because they have the best baguettes in town. More than just a bakery, they offer a reasonably large menu of real food as well as savory and sweet baked items. They’re right in the heart of Old Town and offer a lot of quality and convenience for the price.

Quattro Formaggio: This looks like exactly the kind of place you should avoid. And if it wasn’t for our buddy BR, we would have. The decor is airport-terminal-blah, and the menu is so crammed that decisions can be difficult. However, appearances are deceiving in this case. These guys offer up one of the best pizzas in the DC area. It’s thin crust and asking for it extra crispy can yield even better results. And they’re right on top of the King St metro to boot.

Misha's: This independently owned joint is one of the two places in NoVA to get a really good cuppa. It’s right on King Street so it’s as convenient as lots of other less interesting and less good alternatives. This is the kinda place you really want to support. Oh, and they’re nice!

District Details
Central Michel Richard
1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC

1990 M St. NW
Washington, DC

3241 M St. NW
Washington, DC 20007

Café Atlantico
405 8th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

633 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004

4822 MacArthur Blvd NW
Washington, DC

2 Amys
3715 Macomb St NW
Washington, DC 20016

Buck's Fishing & Camping
5031 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008

Cashion's Eat Place
1819 Columbia Road, NW
Washington, DC 20009

Great Wall Szechuan House
1527 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20005

Thai X-ing
515 Florida Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Zenebech Injera
608 T Street NW
Washington, DC

Teddy’s Roti Shop
7304 Georgia Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Amsterdam Falafel Shop
2425 18th St NW
Washington, DC 20009

Old Town Details
Restaurant Eve
110 South Pitt Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

Farah Olivia
600 Franklin St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 778-2234

Fontaine Caffe & Crêperie
119 South Royal Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

Lavender Moon Cupcakery
116 South Royal Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

Majestic Cafe
911 King St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 837-9117

728 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

Vaso's Kitchen
1225 Powhatan St.
Alexandria, VA 22314

Momo Sushi & Cafe
212 Queen St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 299-9092

Hank's Oyster Bar
1026 King St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 739-4265

A La Lucia
315 Madison St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 836-5123

Vermilion Restaurant
1120 King St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 684-9669

Le Pain Quotidien
701 King St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 683-2273

Quattro Formaggio
1725 Duke St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 548-8111

102 S Patrick St
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 548-4089

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Great find: Hai Ky Mi Gia for noodle soup

Just go. Right now. This place is too good not to head over at your first opportunity.

Seriously, why aren’t you in the car?

Pleen’s hairdresser LT is a pretty serious foodie - and Vietnamese - so when she recommended a noodle joint over in Eden Center we paid close attention. Boy are we glad we did.

We walked in at ~ 11:30 today and the place was half full. By 12:15 it was packed.

We asked the server what people liked. Without pause he pointed out two dishes. We nodded, and that was it.

Pauline claimed the egg noodles with shrimp, squid and pork (Hai Ky Mi Gia Dat Biet, AKA “#1”).

The noodles arrived with the soup in a separate bowl very much like Hong Kong style wantan mee. In fact, the sliced roasted pork and clear rich broth along with the noodles themselves were reminiscent of the Cantonese classic. But everything else was pure Vietnam. The fistful of herbs, fried shallots, minced pork infused with black pepper, and sweet fresh shrimp encased in crispy fried goodness brought multiple aromatic and texture layers to the dish. A sweet dark soya sauce and a pile of bean sprouts and herbs familiar to any pho fan accompanied the dish. Everything was fresh and flavorful.

That left me with the egg noodle soup with duck (Mi Vit Tiem, AKA “#6”), but I’m the kind of husband that’s all about sacrifice.

Let’s be clear right off the bat. This is a spectacular dish. If they offered just that piece of duck wrapped in newspaper, I’d walk over in the rain to buy one. The flesh was not quite falling off the bone, but it was wonderfully richly flavored and tender. And I’d take that broth by the liter if they let me. A variety of torn herbs, some leafy green veggies, and a generous portion of shiitake mushrooms floated in the bowl along with the noodles. Some slices of some sweetly pickled thing came alongside.

All that goodness for $7.50 a bowl?! Ya. We’re going back.

Hai Ky Mi Gia
6757 Wilson Blvd. #24
Falls Church, VA 22042

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More Porridge!!

We were so impressed with our first trip to Dduck Sa Rang that we’ve been impatient for a return. Second trip reveled only more of what seemed so right the first time.

The place is lovely. The service is easy-going and helpful. And the food is a steal for the price.

This time ‘round I got the beef & mushroom version which, if anything, made me miss the odd counter point of the slightly fishy tuna version I had on my first visit. Still, this was good stuff and certainly something that a first timer would find yummy and non-threatening.

The menu here has lots more than just porridge. We’re looking forward to working our way down the other offerings in the near future. In the meantime, head out to Annandale and grab a meal here before everybody else discovers it!

Dduck Sa Rang

4231 Markham Street, #N

Annnendale, VA 22003


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Return to China Star

We hit China Star again last night with our buddy SV, a true-blue fan of Hong Kong Palace.

We ordered the eggplant with garlic sauce in clay pot that Pleen enjoyed last time along with a pressed tofu dish and the cumin lamb.

Pleen & I will be back. SV, not so much.

SV didn’t appreciate the hellacious rush hour drive to the place and found the food underwhelming. Pleen and I liked what we had and saw a number of things to try next. Besides, it's an easy drive for us.

China Star

9600G Main Street

Fairfax, VA 22031


Discovering Korean Comfort Food in Annandale: Dduck Sa Rang

So, we know NOTHING about Korean food. Given that we live down the street from an enormous concentration of Korean eats, this always strikes me as a shame. Thus, imagine my excitement when Pleen agreed to go chowhounding around the back lots along Little River Turnpike.

We were running errands and needed something hot for lunch. Before falling back on a tried and true pho place along our route, we decided to snoop ‘round the back of a block just west of Annendale Road. We saw a storefront wedged between a dodgy looking gaming room and a hair
salon. The sign said “Korean porridge”.

Porridge? Hmmm. The Chinese do great porridge. The Japanese versions are a bit more refined. But Korean porridge? Well, one way to find out.

Bottom line up front:

Wow. This place is impressive. The food kicks butt. The place itself is sparkling clean, contemporary décor, brand new. We’ll definitely be back.


Mid 30s and pouring rain. Blech. No fun.

The cure? A big steaming bowl of richly flavored rice porridge accompanied by brightly spiced sides and warming barley tea. Yea baby!

Now, as romantic as it may seem to be an explorer of other cuisines, the fact of the matter is that NoVA is so multi-ethnic that everybody’s eating everybody else’s food. You’re never the only outsider in a restaurant. Hell, all the best Vienamese joints have their menus in Spanish since so much of their trade is Hispanic. Well, we were the only non-Koreans in Dduck Sa Rang.

The menu had English translations, but they were pretty non-explanatory. Still, the food on other tables looked good. We smiled, pointed, shrugged, questioned, and got what we thought was an appropriate order going. When the food came, it was accompanied by the restaurant’s owner. He quickly demoed how to serve and consume the various dishes and left us to it.

Porridge and a few accompaniments is a relatively simple meal. Still, the preparations showed care and even elegance. The banchan (side dish) included what I assumed were soya beans softened and dressed in a sweet-ish glaze, a conventional sour and spicy kimchi, a sweeter spicy kimchi, and a bowl of clear brine referred to as “white” kimchi. All were useful in highlighting the gentle flavors of the porridge. The white kimchi in particular was absolutely elegant.

But the main event was definitely the porridge itself. Pleen’s was mixed with vegetables and mine with veggies and tuna. The flavors were mild and fresh and remained distinct rather than being subsumed into the background. I had to force myself to take small bites as the soft porridge chased away the chills of the wet afternoon. While the ingredients and presentation were novel, the dish struck a familiar and comforting tone. This was universal comfort food.

As you can seen, it went down pretty easy

And Pleen’s attitude towards Korean food? You be the judge.

Dduck Sa Rang

4231 Markham Street, #N

Annnendale, VA 22003


Saturday, December 6, 2008

China Star, Fairfax

Our buddies OK & FL invited us to meet them for dinner last night at China Star. When I looked up directions to the place I hesitated – almost called and asked them to switch to Hong Kong Palace. I realized we’d been there years ago. We met our friends R&AS there one night to explore the Szechuan ma-la offerings. Pretty underwhelming.

“Oh well,” I thought. “I just want to see OK & FL. I’ll order some veggies and tofu and it’ll be fine.” Off we went to meet them.

Ooops. So much for memory.

China Star has either changed hands or undergone a significant upgrade. Certainly the interior is not at all what I remembered. It’s now simpler and lighter. Much more appealing. But the food? Oh, the food!

We need to return a couple more times in order to move more fully through the menu, but first impressions are HIGHLY promising. Pleen already thinks this may have unseated our previous favorite for Szechuan – Hong Kong Palace.

Pleen pointed out that lots of supposedly Szechuan joints seem to have one flavor to all their food. They pour their red chili oil (perhaps spotted with huājiāo) over dumplings or noodles, use it to braise their fish or lamb, and that’s it. China Star seems to be doing a much more nuanced approach. Lots of differing flavors.

Service was surprisingly pleasant. The place was filled with Chinese families. Portions were huge, and arrived at warp speed from the slamming kitchen. We all ordered soft drinks, a couple of appetizers, and four main course sized dishes. Admittedly, we ordered veggie-only, but still, the cost was $15/head. Looks like working through the rest of the menu is gonna be a deal!

Can’t wait to visit this place again.

China Star

9600G Main Street

Fairfax, VA 22031


Thursday, December 4, 2008

New Favorite Airline: Air Asia

As we started planning our month in Asia, it quickly became apparent that intra-regional air fare would be a major component of the total cost - maybe even a show-stopper. Flying Singapore Airlines is a delight, but too much such delight can empty the wallet quickly.

Enter the low cost airline phenomenon, which has fully hit in southeast Asia. Although there are a number of players in this space, we heard good things about Air Asia. We compared their offerings with conventional airlines. Very quickly it became clear that Air Asia’s pricing could make the difference between “affordable” and “undoable” for the itinerary we wanted.

Air Asia’s no-assigned-seat policy (al la US carrier Southwest Airlines) and super-low prices gave us a moment’s pause, but we decided it would make for an interesting experiment.

Short version?

We flew Air Asia seven times in 23 days. We each checked one bag on every flight. We experienced one delayed departure. No lost bags. We were never stranded or uncomfortable. Service was pleasant and efficient in all cases.

And the prices? Check out what we paid per head (converted to US dollar since Air Asia charges in the currency of the point of departure).

Bali to Jakarta: $60

Medan to Kuala Lumpur: $67

Singapore to Kuala Lumpur: $55

Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap: $73

Bangkok to Krabi: $31

Krabi to Bangkok: $52

Bangkok to Singapore: $102

And this is for international standard service on new Airbus and gently used Boeing aircraft. No livestock in the overhead bins (anyone else every flown Daalo Air?). No duct taped control surfaces. The uniforms were even cool.

Air Asia’s motto is “Now Everyone Can Fly”. At these prices? YA!

** Oh, that one delayed flight we experienced? Ya. There was an Air Asia voucher for about 1/3 the cost of the flight in our email box the very next day.

Air Asia

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Singapore Hotels

We passed through Singapore three separate times on this trip. Two of them were just brief overnight stops. For those, we crashed at the Crowne Plaza at Changi Airport's newly opened Terminal 3.

Super slick and wonderfully convenient, we were only sorry that we couldn’t stay longer. Everything from the toiletries in the rooms to the departure screens in the lobby caters specifically to the needs of a traveler. The lobby opens directly into the terminal. Airline check in desks are perhaps 200 meters from the hotel’s front desk. On our last night before returning to the States, thanks to the generosity of our buddy RS, we had a wonderful Cantonese meal at The Imperial Treasure restaurant in the lobby - just the thing to armor us for 20 hours of the culinary train wreck that is United Airline’s food service. This is a great hotel. The only drawback is the cost. If our old friend BL hadn’t gotten us a super-discount rate, we probably couldn’t justify the price.

For our longer stay in town with some friends, we chose the Intercontinental Singapore.

We stayed there perhaps a dozen years back and loved the decor and location. Sitting right atop Bugis Junction, the place is proximate to several different sides of Singapore. While many of the top flight hotels in the area isolate you from the neighborhood, the Intercontinental gives the feel of being in the midst of things. It was perfect for our needs. Unfortunately, the desk made a hash of our carefully coordinated reservations and left us feeling like a nuisance rather than welcomed guests. The final straw was when they attempted to charge us more than the rates contained in our reservations!! The management attempted to salvage the experience on the last day by comp-ing a van for six to the airport, and the concierge and bell staff were wonderfully helpful throughout our stay. Still, after their performance at check-in, I'm not sure if we’ll be back.

Crowne Plaza Changi Airport

75 Airport Boulevard #01-01

Singapore 819664

+65 6823 5300

Intercontinental Singapore

80 Middle Road

Singapore 188966

+65 6338 7600

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fish Spa Horror

While in Singapore, we were "conned" by some of our Singapore friends (who will remain unnamed - you know who you are!) into going to a Fish Spa. Described as a "relaxing" and "cleansing" experience, we all paid for the privilege of being fish bait for 15 minutes. At best, it is a surreal, unsettling and ticklish sensation -- hardly "relaxing." Note the guys in the background laughing as us too!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Back Home for Lunch

Two days back from a month-long Asian eat-fest. One day before Thanksgiving. So where did I force my buddy SV to take me for lunch?

Need you even ask? It’s Ray’s Hell Burgers all the way!

Look, I’m as American as the next kid. I’ve been gone for thirty-two days! I needs me a burger. I’ve been dreaming about one of these 10 ounce bad boys since I got on that big 777 in Singapore.

So how did Ray’s perform?

They’ve definitely still got it. They’re turning out a hell of a burger. All that grand good fat accented with the charred jalapenos and the roasted red onion? God. Bless. America!

If there's a better burger in the Nation's capital, I'd like to hear about it.

Ray's Hell Burger
1713 Wilson Blvd
Arlington, VA 22209