Don’t Spill the Honey Wine

On Sunday evening, I was finally able to put down my Kindle, having completed Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It was a beautiful read, though I think the editor could have been a bit more heavy-handed. Set in Addis Ababa, the arc follows two boys–orphaned twins–who are growing up under the parentage of two physicians in a local hospital. Verghese writes about Ethiopia with a loving hand, and it was fitting that the night after finishing the book,  I had a few friends join me for an Ethiopian dinner in the U Street neighborhood of DC.

DC is literally awash with Ethiopian cuisine, and you’ll find loyal followers of almost any of the local Ethiopian restaurants. Our choice for the evening was Etete, an intimate spot slightly sequestered from the vibrant U Street scene. Along with Ethiopic on H Street (another fantastic spot, and one I frequented often when I lived closeby), Etete is held in high regard amongst local food critics. The Washingtonian has consistently rated it highly over the past few years, and even on a Monday night, it was a lively and bustling place to eat.

Although I have eaten Ethiopian food on a number of previous occasions, I wanted to make sure that I voiced my food allergy concerns before ordering, both for my benefit and for that of one of my dining companions who happened to have a tree nut allergy to complement my peanut allergy. I’ll say now that if you have a nut allergy, and haven’t yet tried Ethiopian food, you must go at once! There are no nuts on the menu, period. As for corn, not a chance. Soy? All set.

That said, I would like to offer a word of caution for those with serious food allergies. When we tried communicating the allergies to our server, it took about five minutes of pointing, exaggerated enunciation and repetition to make sure it had sunk in. The language barrier, particularly for our server, was quite strong, and it was difficult to ensure that she understood the severity of the issue. It was only because there were no nuts listed on the menu, and the fact that I had eaten there safely in the past that we felt comfortable in ordering.

It’s always a bit of a guessing game for Ethiopian portions, especially when you’re with a group. Our group of four ended up ordering a vegetarian platter and added Yebeg Wat (a lamb dish with crushed red pepper and special butter sauce), Derek Tibs (beef sautéed until crisp in onion, chili, tomato) and Tekil Gomen (fresh cabbage and carrot cooked in oil with onion, fresh garlic, jalapeno). Each pile of food had a unique, tangy and spicy flavor which bled into the injera “plate.” For the uninitiated among you, you might be surprised to hear that Ethiopian food is never eaten with utensils; instead, everything is scooped up by hand with the injera, a spongy pancake-type bread that is served with every dish. I was a bit miffed to find that Etete’s injera is served cool or at room temperature; I prefer mine to be served warm.

I discovered tonight, as I had hoped, that the grain injera is made from, tef, is actually gluten-free! Apart from language barrier issues, Ethiopian food can be a fantastic option for people with restricted diets. Vegetarians would rejoice here, as about 1/3 of the extensive menu is all vegetarian. Gluten-free or people with celiac could enjoy the injera without worry, and there are very few dairy products to be found, so casein allergies or lactose intolerance would also be easy to handle!

While I love the food at Ethiopic, I do not love the service. Walking in, I found the two head waitresses squatting on the staircase engaged in intense conversation. It took a moment for them to acknowledge me, and it was with great annoyance that they paused their gab to seat me and bring me a glass of tea. The food definitely makes up for the less-than-ideal customer service though, and I would gladly go back anytime. Be careful of Etete’s signature honey wine though. Unless you truly enjoy apple cider vinegar, this might not be the right drink for you. (Un)fortunately, the arrival of our last dining companion and subsequent swaying of the table meant that the honey wine, in all its cloudy yellow glory, was sacrificed to the floor.

Etete | 1942 9th St NW (between N T St & N Florida Ave) Washington, DC 20001  (202) 232-7600

A little less mellow, a little more mushroom.

We needed to salvage the evening. Four girlfriends out at a DC event, bored out of our skulls by the ramblings of uninvited, awkward, and oblivious boys. We were in danger of drowning our frustration with the overpriced drinks on happy hour, and then where would we be? Nowhere good. But the solution dawned on me. Pizza. What could be better than pizza to sate our appetites and regain some faith in mankind? As three out of the four of us are Adam’s Morgan girls, we headed out to Mellow Mushroom.

As we were handed our menus, the mood couldn’t have been cheerier. We were seated in a gigantic booth (the better to hold the friends and roommates that arrived later), the beer list was pretty exceptional, and we were free of horror that is the club happy hour scene. The elation only grew when I glimpsed the specially-inset menu that described the gluten-free pizza, including the full ingredient list of the gluten-free dough. Although I have no need to order gluten-free, those with an allergy to wheat or suffer from Celiac disease would definitely benefit!

Alas, I did not fare so well. After giving warning of my serious peanut allergy (no problem there!), I also indicated to our waitress that I have an intolerance of corn. Unfortunately, some chefs use a cornmeal dusting on the bottom of pizza dough to prevent it from sticking to the pizza stone or oven. Aware of that tendency, I asked the waitress to check whether the restaurant did this as well. She came back with an unsympathetic, “Sorry, yeah…we, like,…use corn.” Despite my ensuing questions about the feasibility of removing the cornmeal, she was unyielding. Her three trips to the kitchen (by my insistence) did nothing to change the answer. It was in the dough, or something, apparently. Never did I receive a satisfactory answer about why they couldn’t make an exception. However, by this point, my intolerance was becoming a major hindrance to my other dining companions’ enjoyment. I backed down. And I ordered two appetizers to serve as my meal: the bruschetta and the chicken wings. That’s almost like buffalo chicken pizza, right?

Wrong. After chatting with my group for about 10 minutes, what comes out of the kitchen but my two appetizers?! She sets them before me, and before I could make a peep, she whisks away. OK, now, everyone, listen up. If a person orders two appetizers to serve as their meal, do NOT serve them the appetizers before everyone else gets their food. Eating in front of one’s friends is uncomfortable and downright rude. Got it? Good.

Here’s the most unendurable part: the food itself was pretty terrible. The bruschetta was topped with some lovely fresh tomatoes, but they were literally drowned by the sickly sweet balsamic vinegar. The toast was stale (even all that vinegar couldn’t penetrate it) and tasted mostly of cardboard. The wings were worse: soggy, lukewarm and pitifully mild. The best thing about that dish was the celery. You can’t mess that up too badly, I suppose.

If it weren’t for the peach-infused beer that sustained me until the end of the meal, it would have been a complete disaster. Not only were they completely inflexible about their kitchen practices, but they did not volunteer any information that would have helped me make a better decision about what to eat, or offer any sincere apologies. Unfortunately, instead of regaining my faith in mankind, I lost just a little bit more of it.

Ok, I admit – that’s a little dramatic. So, to end on a more positive note… Yesterday, I did a bit more digging on Mellow Mushroom, and found that their attitude towards food allergies is relatively progressive. Similar to many national chains, Mellow Mushroom maintains a special allergy grid that documents each dish, and what potential allergens (of the big eight) it contains. You can find that here, but I would still do your due diligence with your waiter, and explain the dangers of cross contamination.

Mellow Mushroom | 2436 18th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009 (202) 290-2778

Bring on the Chocolate: Co. Co. Sala

My job has many perks. Great transportation benefits, onsite credit union, good healthcare coverage. I’m lucky, I know. Those take a backseat to one particular function of my job: I plan private dinners. Over the past few years, this particular perk has taken me to Poste Moderne Brasserie, Acadiana, Bistro D’Oc, Fiola, Art and Soul, Bistro Bis, Zola, and Rasika. Our latest venture was one of the most luxurious meals that I have ever organized—a four-course meal at Co. Co. Sala. If you plan a private function at Co. Co. Sala, prepare to be seated in a quiet side room with gold and chocolate brown walls, swaths of red velvet, low Victorian couches, and heavy slate tables. The darkened, romantic room would be a perfect spot for a bachelorette party or intimate cocktail soirée. It was a bit of a departure from our normal business gathering, but it was really lovely.

Now for a warning: the Co. Co. Sala menu may induce fits of giddiness and child-like glee. As suggested by its name, this boutique restaurant incorporates chocolate into almost every dish, whether in a cocoa bean crust on the steak or a mocha hazelnut dressing coating a delicate salad. It’s very decadent, rich, and inventive food, but for someone with allergies, the menu does require some caution. As I was planning for this event, I made it very clear that peanuts could not come in contact with any of our food, and that it was important that this be made known to all staff involved.

A few of my guests also had dietary restrictions. One, a vegetarian, received a lovely artichoke tart, and a mushroom risotto in place of the regular fixed menu. The more challenging restriction was a guest’s allergy to the allium family. For those of you who aren’t versed in peculiar gastronomic classifications, the allium family contains onions, garlic, chives and leeks. This can be extremely dangerous; many dishes contain these ingredients but they wouldn’t necessarily be listed on a menu! Luckily, I knew about the allergy in advance, and the staff were able to prepare safe, allium-free dishes that looked absolutely extraordinary!

Safety precautions set, it was time to eat. The meal started with a manchego and baby arugula salad with caramelized walnuts, dates, apples, and oranges with a hazelnut and coffee dressing. I wasn’t too crazy about the salad, but I seemed to be the only one—everyone around me was scarfing it down! I commend the portion size though; it was a light and refreshing start to the meal. Next came the blue cheese beef sliders with mole sauce, sautéed spinach, and wild mushrooms. Although sliders often get a bad rap, these specimens were superb and ungodly rich. I may seriously rethink my previous praise of Ray’s Hellburgers as the best burgers in DC. Co. Co. Sala, with their meticulous choices of seasonings and interesting accompaniments, could give Ray a run for his money any day.

The third course literally blew me away. Set before us were two perfect crabcakes with mango salsa, chipotle chocolate tomato glaze, and an avocado cilantro emulsion on the side. The crab cakes were so perfectly creamy and flavorful, with a crispy batter that never bordered on greasy. Add in those crazy chocolate-tomato-cilantro combinations, and you have an astounding plate of food.

Now. Can I have a drum-roll please? It’s dessert time. And you know it’s gonna be good.

I’d like to tell you a bit about dish called “A Raspberry Affair.” Its delightfully glittering, hot-pink heart-shaped shell belies the sinfully rich, creamy center of the mousse. Every bite includes a pop of crispy chocolate pearls embedded in the fluff. Then, you take a spoonful of the tart, bright sorbet, and can almost taste the champagne bubbles tickling your throat. The artful swirls of chocolate with the dish are more than mere adornment—they’re the rich farewell kiss to this brief, but passionate affair.

Ah! But, wait! You thought it was all over. Well, you thought wrong. It wouldn’t be Co. Co. Sala without a final parade of chocolate. Two petit fours arrived—one, a rich but simple 70% dark chocolate truffle, and the other, a mojito-flavored pillow of chocolate with a bubble pattern making craters on the surface. As you can tell from the picture, I was so hasty to try the gorgeous chocolate, that I took a bite before I remembered to whip out my trusty camera!

All in all, this was an extremely delicious and enjoyable meal at Co. Co. Sala. They took great care of us, and were responsive and accommodating to the various dietary restrictions that I presented. I realize that most of my readers don’t have the luxury of executing a dinner contract that includes directives about allergies and other restrictions. But their willingness and ability to accommodate those requests suggests that Co. Co. Sala can be a safe environment for those with restrictions. Because the menu incorporates unexpected elements, I would suggest calling ahead and discussing your needs with the chef. But whatever you do, prepare yourself for a truly delicious meal.

 Co. Co. Sala | 929 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004