Plays With Food

Is this a post about my son, who gets his mitts into everything on his plate despite his reasonable facility with forks and spoons?

Is this about theatrical productions that focus on food, in title or in actuality?

Is this a line from my elementary school report card? Or from my culinary school report card?

No, this is how I occupied myself last Thursday and Friday. I played with food. Specifically, I explored a bunch of culinary venues in and around Washington, DC, some with friends and some on my own. Here’s a brief 411 of my various playgrounds. Do not click through unless you are similarly obsessed:

Amsterdam Falafel Shop, Adams Morgan, DC: The menu is super-short: falafel, fries, brownies and beverages, that’s it. I had a small falafel sammich and some fries. This falafel may have been “Amsterdam-style,” but it reminded me of the falafel I ate in Israel when I was 15. (In most Israeli towns, there would be some block somewhere near the downtown area with about 5 falafel vendors all lined up. They all competed with each other, so they all had to be the best: falafel fried fresh to order, over a dozen toppings splayed on knockdown tables for garnishing, fresh pita from some local bakery. AFS provides the same sort of thing.) I loaded mine up with cucumber-onion-dill salad, hummus and lebneh, and some red cabbage for posterity. The falafel balls were crisp, hot and beany, and the toppings were all spot-on. The fries were served in a foil cone set into a paper cup without a bottom and are offered with peanut sauce or “Dutch mayo” (along with the usual ketchup). Many of them were a little overfried in that appealing way–you know, translucent crisp potato shells with only a little mealy soft potato inside–the sort that usually land at the bottom of a fast-food takeout bag. Service was quick and efficient.

M’Dawg Hot Dogs: Across the street from AFS (and with the same owners) in Adams-Morgan: I was unable to check it out because they are closed at lunchtime! WTF? A hot dog shop closed at lunchtime? Somebody was smoking crack when they wrote the business plan for that place.

Dean and DeLuca: Georgetown, DC: I’ve been to this outrageously expensive palace of gourmet foods many many times, since long before I moved to DC. (On one memorable trip in college, I made the mistake of remarking to a friend that this was a gourmet supermarket. An employee overheard me and joke-chastised me: “We are not a SUPERMARKET. We are a gourmet food SHOP. Or EMPORIUM.”) I continue to check it out because visiting there entitles me to 2 hours of validated parking in the heart of Georgetown. Or it would have if I’d made it before October, because they stopped the validated parking around then, so now it’s $6/1 hour. Anyway, the food is attractively displayed, but I rarely find much worth buying. Some real Spanish jamon Iberico was a serious temptation, but at $127 or so per pound I didn’t see making the investment in a few slices. They also sell foie gras and truffles (“shipped in weekly”), but I’d be more inclined to order foie and truffles directly from D’artagnan. I did pick up some Koeze’s Cream-Nut Peanut Butter Clusters and some chestnut cream that may go into a cake sometime soon. The clusters were fantabulous but way overpriced: rich sweet peanuts suspended in a peanut butter pattie, coated with real dark chocolate. The quality of the nuts was astounding when compared to most peanut butter confections, and it wasn’t covered with a bunch of sugar and salt like the Reese’s peanut butter candies are. V, v good. The chestnut cream still hasn’t been opened.

Cowgirl Creamery, Penn Quarter, DC: What a beautiful little cheese shop. Very friendly and cutely laid out. It looks like it’s been there forever. They carry an interesting selection of cheese accompaniments, including some of the Prince of Wales Duchy Originals line (I would have sprung for a jam if they had it in stock, but they only had the oat cakes and the shortbread on-hand). They also sell the exact same chestnut cream as D&D for $2 less. Finally, they sell an impressive selection of cheeses, decent prepackaged charcuterie, and some locally made gelato. I picked up some organic taleggio and their own label Mt Tam triple-creme cheeses, which we’ll consume while playing cards with friends on vacation next week.

The Bar at TenPenh, Penn Quarter, DC: I was supposed to meet friends at Michel Richard Central next door to this place, but Central was closed for a private party, so we wound up getting started at TenPenh instead. This restaurant captured my imagination with its ornately designed glass walls and cute Asianesque jackets on the servers back when they opened, and when I worked at the now-closed Ortanique DC they were a  “pal restaurant”–we all knew each others’ staffs and treated each other well whenever somebody visited, complete with free snackies and desserts. Now? It’s not so new any longer, and there are other places around town to get gussied-up pan-Asian/American dress-up food, but it’s still blessed with a rollicking bar. (Disclaimer: I did not so much as glance at the regular menu, I only perused the bar version.) I appreciated the presence of two schmancy nonalcoholic drinks on the cocktail menu and took advantage of the Mint Saigon, a sort of virgin Mojito which was refreshing despite being a little too sweet for me. Later I had some other girlie drink from the martini list, with tequila and red sugar around the rim. The cocktails came with cute little plastic monkeys perched on the rims, which we promptly used to adorn our attire as we chatted. (Somehow, we all lost them before we departed. I guess monkeys have a mind of their own.) We shared some average spring rolls and a deep-fried tuna tempura sushi roll.

Vidalia, Foggy Bottom, DC: This place has changed a LOT even since its renovation and menu overhaul; I last visited when the bar menu was populated with the likes of devilled eggs and hush puppies. Now? How about pork and beans with tete de cochon, and veal tongues? There’s still shrimp and grits on the main menu, but everything else is edgier while maintaining its Southern roots. One of my friends is a regular at Vidalia so we enjoyed a visit from the chef and some really great service from our perch at the bar. Truffled macaroni and cheese had identifiable meaty slices of truffle rather than the usual indifferent wave of truffle oil; it’s rich without coating the tongue and is all-around fabulous. The beans in the pork and beans (side dish, not the starter with tete de porc) were creamy yet maintained their shape and individual character; I appreciated the million brunoised vegetables that were cooked separately to retain texture and integrity. A special of eel with bbq sauce rocked the socks off the eel rolls I habitually order in sushi restaurants; it was lightly fried and came with some succulent pig’s foot (great fun to eat if it’s off the bone, like it was here. Trust me, I ordered un pied de cochon at Au Pied de Cochon in Paris and spent the next hour working around all the bones.) Hamachi was presented raw with bits of citrus, avocado and sprouts…not the best starter on a frigid December night, but otherwise refreshing and delicious.

The Bar at Michel Richard Citronelle, Georgetown, DC: I finally got my mitts on that all-famous lobster burger, which is served on a brioche bun with some crisp potatoes on top and un petit salade vinaigrette avec haricots verts…mais oui! I’ve never ordered it because I like a little lobster but don’t usually care for an entire entree’s worth, so I needed to try it with some people who would share it with me. It did not disappoint with its rich and saline flavor, and I loved the buttery bun. We also shared the inventive jolie pomme: apple sorbet surrounded by crisp, clear, super-apple-tasting slices–what were they? Some kind of clear apple candy perhaps? The slices were even shaped like apple slices, and stuck into the ball of sorbet so as to mimic the shape of an actual apple. A bit of vanilla bean on top completed the illusion. This sort of dessert is exactly why Michel Richard is the shiznit around DC: it’s fun to look at and fun to eat, plus it tastes like the distilled essence of a clean, crisp, raw, tart, sweet apple. We also shared a pistachio marjolaine, which was perfectly executed but (through no fault of its own) completely overshadowed by the jolie pomme.

Whole Foods Market, Fair Lakes, Fairfax, VA: The most promising Whole Foods Market in the Washington, DC metro area. This place is a bonanza for people who like prepared foods. Among the services in-house: a smokehouse with chicken, turkey, brisket and ribs. Fresh-squeezed citrus juices, including things like tangerine-pineapple in addition to the usual lemonade/OJ/grapefruit. A big Asian food bar with sushi, noodle dishes and other treats. House-made gelati. There were also some cool services for serious cooks: whole fish, which they will fabricate in any of six different ways (steaks/fillets/head on or off/etc). Dry-aged beef. Some really beautiful mushrooms, including chanterelles at a competitive price. A lady who recently hired me for a small job tipped me off to this place, and I’m glad I checked it out, though I don’t feel like it’s on the same level as the Fairfax and Dulles Wegmans stores. Fair Lakes Whole Foods has more prepared foods, true, and its 4 in-house restaurants are unique. However, I was not terribly impressed with my chicken meal at the smokehouse restaurant. The breast meat was very dry (though the leg meat was succulent), and the (undersalted) mac-n-cheese and (excessively creamy) slaw sides were merely acceptable. The meal came with a huge honkin’ slab of mouth-drying cornbread in desperate need of soft butter and honey.  I picked up many staples (Lundberg Farms brown jasmine rice, Eden Organics vinegar, new potatoes, bacon) and some treats (fresh hake, broccolini, Red Hot Blues tortilla chips). The prices at Whole Foods do not piss me off like they do at Dean & DeLuca, but they’re steep enough that I have never purchased much in their stores unless I’m entertaining. This new store is really gorgeous and pleasant to shop in, but given their distance from my home and the availability of many of the same products at similar or lower prices closer to home, it’s unlikely I’ll come back unless I’m in the area.

Between all that and the fat order I recently placed with a specialty foods provider, the house is flush with cool food products…and I’m flush with good restaurant dining. Sometimes it’s fun to mess myself up by playing with food.

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