Vacation Series Part II: “Not a First Date Cheese” – A NYC Dining Guide

After my sojourn in the woods, I made my way via Megabus to New York to spend time with my brother and connect with a few old friends along the way. Although my brother is a staunch Manhattan loyal, we spent a surprising amount of time in Brooklyn, and my first meal there, in a cleverly-named wine bar in Park Slope, Brookvin, was a hearty parade of cheeses, meats and appealingly fresh and rustic shared dishes.

After just barely seizing the last table in the place (another not to open up for 2 hours!), we ordered a red (for me) and a deep purple rosé (for my brother), and greedily scanned the menu.

With garlic dill pickles to munch between sips, we asked the waiter about my dietary restrictions. With a sharp eye on the menu, he knowingly talked out a few potential issues—the oil they used (olive oil), nuts in a few dishes (tree nuts only), and assured me that no corn or beans would touch our plates. I honestly wasn’t too worried about my restrictions based on the simplicity of the small menu, but was pleased with their casual, yet open and understanding attitude. The meal progressed in a gluttonous fashion, with us digging into a beautiful plate of tangy soppressata (cured in house) and a garlicky, wildly offensive, pungent cheese that made it clear that Brookvin was not a place to foster young love. In fact, since I can’t remember the name of the cheese, we might dub it the “Not a First Date Cheese.”

After polishing off the satisfyingly stinky appetizers, Dane and I plowed through a plate of roasted cauliflower, guanciale, celery, thyme, caper berries, egg, and whole seed mustard. I’ve never seen an egg so perfectly cooked (and considering it’s Brooklyn, I imagine that said egg came from an urban chicken coop down the street), and the subtleness of the roasted cauliflower was perfectly enhanced with the explosive flavor of the caper berries (imagine capers blown up to about 5 times their normal size) and the guanciale—chunks of thick Italian bacon (probably also cured in house).

A meticulously layered tartine followed with a perfect combination of bacon jam, heirloom tomato, arugula, and shallot. A simple dish, the tartine was a celebration of the outrageously ripe, sweet heirloom tomatoes and the peppery small-leafed arugula. And not to fear: we weren’t exactly going dry during this meal—the array of reds and rosés scattered over our table was quite impressive. To end the night with a bit of sweet, we shared the sourdough bread pudding with whiskey ice cream and bacon caramel sauce. I’m not sure I have the words to describe this dessert, only to say that although the whole thing sounds a bit too hipster-reinvents-ubiquitous-British-dessert and borders on the popular meme, “bacon goes with everything,” the dish was really extraordinarily yummy.

After some much needed sleep, I actually returned to Brooklyn the next day to explore Williamsburg with a dear friend of mine. Although we made a less-than-inspired choice for our lunch, the Van Leeuwen Ice Artisan Ice Cream Truck parked outside more than made up for it. Van Leeuwen offers an assortment of luscious ice creams that are uncomplicated, yet sinfully delicious odes to real flavors like ginger and vanilla. If you spot a truck, I’d suggest the espresso, but I can’t wait to try the Earl Grey…I’m more of a tea drinker in real life anyway.

After parting, I made my way to a Midtown bar to meet up with Dane and a friend of his. We had discussed making the evening into a food crawl of sorts, with various stops to get a broader swath of cuisines under our belt. It didn’t work out exactly as we had hoped (the Japanese restaurant had a wait of over an hour), but we managed to chow down on Mexican, American and French food, and imbibed beer, margaritas, gin & tonics, and wine all in the course of about 4 hours. Not too shabby.

My one real Persnickety-worthy tidbit of the evening was our brief visit to the bar of Angelo Sosa’s new venture, Añejo Tequileria. A margarita (sweetened with agave) quickly in hand, my dining companions ordered fresh guacamole. Alas, the corn chip was the only available accompaniment. When I explained the problem to the bartender, however, he shocked me with his response: “Don’t worry, we’re gonna send someone out to get some tortillas for you.” Mind you, the place was packed, business was booming, and I was just one small fry in a sea of voracious corn chip eaters. But they took the time  to venture out to a bodega and pick me up something I could eat. But, wait for it! I’m not done. Not only did they go fetch flour tortillas, they also plunked them into the deep fryer and generously salted them, until the tortillas transformed into evilly greasy, crispy heaven that I used to scoop out fresh, limey guacamole to my heart’s content. We tipped well, to say the least.

While naively waiting for our table at the Japanese place, we downed some G&T’s at a divey bar just off Times Square, and wandered around a laughably overpriced clothing store. However, once it was clear that we would not be having sushi that night, we made a dash to a nearby theatre bar where we could relax in the quiet and enjoy some piping hot truffle mac & cheese and some lovely calamari with a chipotle sauce. Nothing too crazy, but it was yummy and filled our bellies!

Our last stop of the evening was a charming French restaurant down in the West Village—The New French. Although Dane promptly ordered a burger (rare) with frites, I was ready for dessert and ordered cheesecake. Already past 11, the kitchen was winding down, and the food came out at random times, as did the drinks. I was served my painstakingly sliced and severely unadorned (not even a slice of strawberry!) cheesecake first with a glass of sparkling rosé. It was really appealing, despite its simplicity. The relaxed, almost lazy, mood of the open-air bistro was just right for winding down. And a fat mug of decaf coffee capped off the culinary (and alcoholic) crawl that was our Friday night in NYC.

Come back soon for the final Vacation Series Post…a trip to the farm!

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Vacation Series Part I: The North Woods

I may be back in DC, writing this post from a rooftop with a view of the National Cathedral (not too shabby, eh?), but my heart is back at the lake, basking in the serenity of the water. Presque Isle was the destination for the first part of my vacation—a tiny town nestled amidst the hundreds of lakes of Wisconsin. My mother’s best friend invited us to stay with her and a goofy, loyal Golden Doodle named Manfred.

In preparation for the 3 day stay, and the laughably understocked “supermarkets” (gas stations) of the North Woods, my mother and I went to the Madison Farmers Market to get our share of fantastic fresh produce and cheese. The Madison Market is perhaps the market of all markets, and packs the four immense blocks of Capitol Square. Suffice it to say, we loaded up on veggies of all kinds and a certain sheep’s milk cheese that’s hard for me to even talk about.

Tradition demands that after our tour of the market, we head to a bakery on Madison’s East Side, where I have never NOT gotten a scone. Lazy Jane’s is known for their baked goods, and we may or may not have picked up a morning bun in addition to a lemon cream and a cherry scone. A four-hour drive requires sustenance, you know. The scones there are criminally moist, and break apart into chunks of heaven, dribbled with a tangy lemon cream glaze. Some of my best memories from Madison are set in that funky little café—tackling a crossword with my high school boyfriend, catching up with my best friend on her acting adventures in New York, and just sitting with my mom, talking about trifles while sipping a latté and eating those scones. You go home for a reason, you know.

But this visit to Lazy Jane’s was brief, as we had to set out on our little road trip, accompanied by a stodgy British man, narrating the plot of an Agatha Christie mystery (in CD form, obviously). My expectations of jumping in the lake immediately upon arrival, however, were squashed when we finally got out of the car, only to be almost blown over by the brisk wind. No matter—if getting out of the DC heat meant bundling up in three sweaters to read 1Q84 on the dock, watching the sunset over the water, then so be it!

Despite its vast amenities, the lake house lacks a TV, a solid internet connection, and cell service. We reveled in it.

We read and talked, played tag with Manfred, and made gallons of tea and chai. And we ate. We made pizzas on the pizza-stone my mom brought along, fried up heavenly Nueske’s bacon for our BLT’s (or rather, BATs, since we used fresh arugula from the market), roasted orange beets and covered them with sheep’s milk cheese, olive oil, mint and thyme, and baked a massive blueberry buckle with lemon glaze. We also made a pan of brownies, but as my mother has a strange tendency to take a perfectly delicious recipe (Smitten Kitchen’s cocoa brownies), and omit various ingredients…they came out more like a very dense fudge.

It was a glorious few days up at the lake house, albeit chilly ones. I read about700 pages of a 900 page book (Kindles only deal in percentages, but raw numbers are much more satisfying), played with a giant dog, and thoroughly enjoyed catching up with my mom.

It was a bitter goodbye, but only a 2-hour flight and 4-hour bus ride to my next destination…New York!

Stay tuned for Part II!

“If I start eating the food, just slap me.” A Restaurant Week Report

Greetings from New York, friends! I have been reveling in a, thus far, fantastic vacation far away from DC. Future posts will chronicle the excellent gastronomic aspects of my vacation (from the North Woods of Wisconsin to the hipster haunts of Brooklyn, and even to a quiet farm just outside the city – how’s that for a teaser, huh?), but today, I want to look back to a meal I enjoyed during the DC Restaurant Week just over a week ago.

It was yet another farewell luncheon. Tis the season, I suppose, for the parting of the ubiquitous DC summer interns. His departure conveniently fell during Restaurant Week, a culinary tradition in DC where a prix-fixe menu will get you a $20.12 lunch or a $35.12 dinner at participating restaurants. When the time rolls around, I try to make at least one reservation for the event. Most natives will tell you that Restaurant Week is a mixed bag, however. Although the deal can be extraordinarily good, the quality of the food and service can suffer at overrun or mismanaged restaurants. Nevertheless, it’s a great opportunity to try out some places that manage four $ signs on Yelp, and thus ordinarily are a bit out of your price range.

Luckily, our chosen spot, Zaytinya (another of José Andrés’ restaurants) did not disappoint in service or quality of the food. I had dined at Zaytinya on a few other occasions–all with positive outcomes–and was eager to see their performance during a more stressful time, especially when faced with a party of seven, and an individual with some serious dietary restrictions.

Zaytinya’s special Restaurant Week menu consisted of 4 courses: 3 small plates and a dessert. Theoretically, all members of a party are required to either order off the special menu or the normal menu, but our friendly waiter impressed immediately with his flexibility, stating that he wasn’t too concerned if we wanted to bend the rules a bit. While most of our party did order from the special menu, one had a simple sandwich. With three or four choices per course, it was easy to craft a personalized menu that appealed to each member of our party. I was ready with my selections when the waiter asked for my order; I was also ready for a long conversation about my restrictions.

As usual, I explained my allergy to peanuts—the concern immediately assuaged by the waiter’s assurances that there were absolutely no peanuts in house. I went on to describe my intolerance of corn and aversion to legumes. His responses were exemplary, and reflected an accurate and comprehensive knowledge of the menu. He advised that the crispy brussels sprouts and the pita would be fried in oil that also saw the likes of chickpeas, and wondered if that would be acceptable. I was impressed with his foresight, and I assured him that I was fine with that level of contact. The dessert I picked was also full of nuts (walnuts and pine nuts), and I asked that he confer with the chef to ensure that everything I had chosen would be safe. He pleasantly agreed to do so, and later came back with an assurance from the chef that my meal would be handled appropriately, and there was no risk of contamination in the kitchen.

Usually, I would have jumped at the chance to sample everyone’s dishes (as everything is served tapas style), but I felt safer keeping my own dishes at close range, and avoiding the risk of shared food. Each course was delicious, and amounted to a generous portion of exciting and inspired food. (Aside: on the walk over, I had convinced a coworker to slap me if I reached for my fork instead of my camera at the arrival of each course. To his credit, I managed to photograph each dish without any of the aforementioned slapping–a meaningful look from him was all it took!)

To start, I had the fattoush (tomato, cucumber, red onion, green pepper, radish, pita chips, pomegranate vinegar dressing), a simple and refreshing salad that primed me for the heavier courses.

Second, I feasted on a gorgeous piece of seared Arctic Char (Samke Harra-style with coriander, cardamom, pickled Lebanese chiles, pine nuts and tahini sauce) that was a nice departure from the more traditional Greek foods that I usually order. The fish was perfectly cooked (a major feat when dealing with a restaurant literally churning out hundreds of these dishes an hour), and had a surprising interplay between sweet and spicy.

My final dish before the dessert was definitely the best—a platter of crispy fried Brussels sprouts (brussels sprouts, coriander seed, barberries, garlic yogurt) that, again, had a delicate sweetness that really softened the garlicky overtones. My only complaint was that the Brussels sprouts hadn’t been adequately cooked before being dipped in the fryer; the sprouts were slightly too tough for easy chewing.

Forging ahead to my fourth and final course despite an increasingly full stomach, I savored a lovely little dish described as “Turkish Delight.” Although traditional Turkish Delight is a confection consisting of a gel-like substance with honey and nuts molded into small cubes, the plate in front of me was an adorable architecture of two scoops of walnut ice cream holding up a crisp slice of philo, surrounded by a sea of yogurt mousse, honey geleé, orange-caramel sauce, caramelized pine nuts. Perhaps this could be deemed a “deconstructed” Turkish Delight, but my general disgust with the real thing certainly biased me in favor of the dish I received. Unfortunately, the ice cream lacked any indication that walnuts were ever present in its creation, and might have been improved by a more intensely flavorful nut like hazelnut. Still, it was a nice complement to the other aspects of the dessert, and the presentation left nothing to be desired.

Ultimately, Zaytinya performed well under the pressure of Restaurant Week. The service was extraordinary—never rushed, and always sensitive to my dietary issues. Except for the final bill, there was no indication that one was participating in any special gimmick—nothing was sacrificed, and everyone left happy. And that’s really how it should be.

Zaytinya | 701 9th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001