Monthly Archives: March 2009

Surfside: Tacos at Their Best

surfside_frontI hate steak tacos. The meat is always tough and dry– an overcooked mess of a terrible cut of meat. So the first time I went to Surfside, a casual Mexican dining spot on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park that was recently opened by the good people of Jetties salad and sandwich shop on the outskirts of Georgetown, I ordered the “Maui” fish of the day (which happened to be Mahi Mahi) tacos. These fish tacos were pretty good; but then I tried my friend’s “Cabo San Lucas” steak tacos, which were great. The steak at Surfside is grilled so that it is juicy and tender in a flavorful marinade with grilled onions and poblano peppers.

As I have a bias toward the more flavorful and authentic corn tortillas as opposed to flour, I have always passed on the burritos served in  large flour tortillas and opted for the soft tacos. All of the tacos are served with guacamole and a hefty cilantro topping with a side of rice with red beans. The guacamole is made with very different ingredients than what I use when make it, but it is excellent. While I usually mix avocados with tomatoes, red onions, salt, and a ton of lemon juice, Surfside uses olive oil instead of lemon and flavors it with cilantro.

While the steak tacos are definitely my favorite, the “Nevis” shrimp tacos are also notable. The shrimp are small and fresh and topped with a sweet pineapple salsa. The queso is also good, it has a kick to it but is definitely not too spicy. At night, the bar has a pretty good-sized crowd, and the margaritas are nice and sour. The only thing that I have tried that I would not recommend is the “Baja” salad– it was boring and not nearly as tasty as the other things on the menu.

Overall, Surfside is a great place for lunch or a casual early dinner with friends, and the tacos are a must. Rooftop dining will also be a perk when the weather is warmer.

Surfside
2444 Wisconsin Ave NW
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 337-0004

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Authentic Tabouleh Salad

I am currently working on a piece for a creative nonfiction writing class that examines the traditional food of my mother’s French and Lebanese ancestors and how this has helped my family maintain its cultural roots. I have recently been spending time examining recipes so that I can incorporate them, along with stories and memories, into one united family narrative. As such, I have come across some great recipes to share. This is a simple recipe for tabouleh (tabbuli)salad that I would recommend for a spring or summer lunch party because of its strong mint and citrus flavors. Now, if only the weather would get warmer…

Tabouleh Salad

1 & 1/2 C bulgar #2 (cracked wheat, also called bulghur)
1 large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 C finely chopped fresh mint (or 1/4 C dried mint)
4 scallions, with green ends, finely chopped
2 large tomatoes, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
dash cinnamon (less than 1/8 tsp)
2 tsp salt
pepper to taste
2/3 C fresh lemon juice
1/2 C olive oil

Soak the bulgar in hot water for 30 minutes, then drain and squeeze out excess water. Place in large mixing bowl. First add parsley, then mint, then onions and tomatoes. Mix thoroughly. Then add lemon juice and toss. Add oil and toss again. If preparing in advance, withhold the tomato and oil until just before serving.  Can be served cold, cool, or room temperature.  Eat with cucumbers, romaine lettuce or pita bread.

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One Night in Vegas: Tom Colicchio’s CraftSteak

CraftSteakAs a side trip to our Spring Break vacation in Los Angeles, we took a one night road trip to Las Vegas. After an afternoon at the black jack table and a very mediocre lunch at Todd English’s Olives, which was surprisingly disappointing because I have had many good meals at both his Boston and DC restaurants, we headed over to CraftSteak in the MGM Grand for dinner.

After we were overwhelmed by the wine list as long as the dictionary, we settled on glasses of the Syrah, which were very good. We then started with two salads, a spinach in truffle vinegrette and a beet salad. The truffle oil made a very flavorful dressing, but by the end of the salad I felt that my taste buds were overwhelmed with salt. This is pretty consistent with Tom Colicchio’s insistance on plently of salt and pepper as a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. While I thought the beet salad was very good with its varieties of red, yellow, and pink beets and light but flavorful dressing, my friend, a self-proclaimed beet connoseur, found them overcooked and soft.

The CraftSteak menu offers  extensive kobe steak options for the high rollers, but we stuck to classic cuts of roasted and grilled steaks on the regular menu. For main course, the boys at the table ordered ribeyes and the girls ordered filet mignon. I was  slightly disappointed in my filet– I ordered it medium rare, but it came cooked medium. The ribeyes were cooked according to how they were ordered, and were more flavorful, as to be expected from a fattier cut. The boys were very happy with their steaks.

For sides, we all shared green beans with almonds, mashed yukon gold potatoes, and shiitake mushrooms. The green beans were a little oily, and the mushrooms were a little dry, but the sides were good overall. The potatoes were especially delicious and went well with a bite of steak.

I found CraftSteak to be comparable with Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak Restaurants, one of which is in Washington, DC. I have to say that I prefer the overall experience at BLT. From the popovers and foie gras to start to the more creative options for appetizers, mains, and desserts, BLT is a more interesting restaurant in my opinion.

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Noodle Bars

A trip to Chabuya Tokyo Noodle Bar in West LA reminded me of how much I love these kinds of places. Asian noodle bars are  great places for a quick and easy bite to eat–  excellent alternatives to fast food. Most, like Chabuya, offer a menu with classic Ramen noodles with a variety of meats, tofu, and veggies.

Chabuya also reminded me of how few noodle bars exist in the DC area. I have only been to one– Pho 75 in Arlington, VA, just across the key bridge from Georgetown. Here, this cafeteria-style establishment offers about 20 different types of Vietnamese style noodles, my favorite being the white meat chicken. The noodles are very bland when they are first served, but when the Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime, and hot sauce are added, these bowls of noodles make a delicious meal. However, Pho 75 closes at 8 pm, so keep this in mind if you are thinking of heading there for dinner.

Of course, there are now some more up-scale noodle bars such as Momofuku in New York. While Momofuku is certainly delicious and the food is definitely more varied and interesting, it is the casual places like Chabuya that are missed in DC.

Spicy Kara Kara Noodles from Chabuya

Spicy Kara Kara Noodles from Chabuya

Pho 75
1721 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22209
(703) 525-7355

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The Ivy: Is It Worth It? (SB in LA Part 3)

81607p1-1Reviewers on yelp.com and in the Zagat Survey often complain that The Ivy Restaurant in West LA (not to be confused with its more laid back sister restaurant, Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica) is only good for its celebrity sightings and is totally not worth the price. Sure, we have all seen shots of A-listers dining on the outdoor patio in the pages of US Weekly, and that is certainly part of the appeal. But even if you check it out on a relatively dull afternoon when there aren’t any paparazzi camped out across the street, it is still possible to have an enjoyable meal. Set reasonable expectations. Understand that not every restaurant that is pricey and star-studded is necessarily going to serve you the best meal of your life. Check out the menu. Get over the fact that you are probably going to order a $25 hamburger. Then sit back and enjoy.

The atmosphere of The Ivy is different from other celeb hotspots. The decor is not funky or trendy; in fact, the restaurant has the feel of a quaint cottage behind its white picket fence. The outdoor patio is lovely and a prime spot for people watching. The service is not snobby at all, but friendly and helpful.

The drink menu was composed of classics– we ordered a round of mint juleps, which were pretty good. The iced tea, however, was exceptional (it was also $6). In general, the salads were really good. Basil was a main ingredient in all of them, and it provided a strong, fresh flavor. The Caprese had excellent mozzarella, the house salad appetizer was a generous portion of a wide variety of flavorful components, and the chopped vegetable salad was also a very strong lunch dish, especially with the added shrimp. I also tried the tomato mussels appetizer, which had a good broth but the mussels were a little too large and thus not sweet enough. The burger was a solid burger–large in size and cooked the right way. We also tried the chicken enchiladas, which did not disappoint. We finished the meal with the special pecan pie, which is not my favorite dessert, but it wasn’t bad either.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any celebs, but we still got a good feel for the scene. Everyone was well-dressed and generally attractive. I would say The Ivy is definitely a place to check out for the LA experience.

The Ivy
113 Robertson Blvd.
Lost Angeles, CA 90048
(301) 274-8303

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SB in LA Part 2: Eat This Sandwich

My friend who is from LA took me to Il Tramezzino (affectionately known as “Il Tram”) in Beverly Hills for lunch and demanded that I order the Chicken Special. I was barely even allowed to look at the rest of the menu. And now I know why– the Chicken Special is everything that I look for in a sandwich, pressed to warm and gooey perfection.

The Chicken Special is a chicken breast on a French baguette with provolone cheese, avocado, sundried tomatoes, and spread with a creamy basil pesto, a delicious combination that could certainly be imitated on a panini press at home. This sandwich could be compared with the flavors of “Gold Standard” panini offered at Georgetown’s coffee and lunch spot The Bean Counter on Wisconsin Ave.

While I was satisfied after my generously portioned sandwich, we decided to split a dessert panini, which was also melty and delicious. This was chocolate nutella and bananas grilled on a croissant. Not a bad way to end a lunch.
iltram

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SB in LA Part 1: Lucques Restaurant

patio-3For spring break this year, a few of my friends who also enjoy the pleasures of fine dining and I have ventured to the West Coast for the week. For our first Saturday night here, we went to Geisha House in Hollywood. This Sushi bar, sake bar, and restaurant had decent food and drinks, but was really phenomenal for its people watching. The huge space with loud, thumping music was packed with  scantily clad women and hipsters.

After our experience at Geisha House, we were ready to try a place where the focus was on the food and the dining experience as opposed to the scene. We finally settled on Lucques Restaurant in West Hollywood for its fusion of French, Mediterranean, and Californian cuisines. This is certainly not to say that Lucques had an unpleasant atmosphere. Indeed, we were comfortable from the moment we walked in and were greeted with a warm fireplace through our dinner on the heated outdoor patio. The simple and chic decor suits the laid back Californian vibe of the establishment as a whole.

We started our meal with a few appetizers. The salad of arugula and blood oranges with kumquats, dates and toasted walnuts showcased the freshness of the ingredients with which the chef, Rodolfo Aguado, constructs all of his dishes. The colors were exquisite; even when there was no longer any food on the plate, the dish was stained a deep pink as if it had been a beet salad from the bright blood oranges. The dish was as flavorful as it was colorful. The bitterness of the arugula was balanced out by the citrus of the oranges, the tartness of the kumquats, the mild cheese shavings, and the sweet crunch of the walnuts. The kampachi crudo with cucumber yogurt, watercress, mint, fennel and pistachio was a refreshing example of classic Mediterranean flavors reworked in a way Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters would approve. The most substantial and perhaps most impressive appetizer, however, was the handmade pasta with duck sausage, beet greens and toasted breadcrumbs. The pasta was good, but the combination of the other ingredients made this starter so special. The sausages were chopped up into tiny pieces almost into a ragu, mixed with breadcrumbs for a crunchier texture. I am always happy to see beet greens on a menu as I have always argued that they are one of the most underrated green vegetables– probably due to the popularity of beet and goat cheese salads. Unfortunately, the beet greens were understated as they were mixed in among the sausage pieces and breadcrumbs. This dish foreshadowed the main courses in the way that the dishes that were centered around game were the most notable.

I ordered the lamb loin chops with turnip purée, citrus-glazed carrots, tamarind, and roasted dates, which was certainly well-flavored, but the weakest of the entrees in my opinion. Loin chop is not my favorite cut of lamb, and indeed the two large pieces had only a couple bites of perfectly tender meat as much of the cut had a rather thick layer of fat running through it. On the other hand, the quality and tenderness of the meat in the short ribs dish overpowered the other ingredients of the plate– sautéed greens, cippolinis (small, pale, sweet onions), and horseradish cream. While this dish was very delicious to try, it was very large and very rich; and the sautéed greens did little to cut the fattiness of the meat and cream.

While the lamb and the short ribs had a slight disconnect among their various components, the pork porterhouse with braised rice soubise, fuji apples, chestnuts, and pedro ximenez (sherry for flavor) and the stuffed saddle of rabbit with farro (wheat grain), wilted escarole, pancetta, and crosnes (tubor whose flavor resembles that of sunchokes) were both very well composed. The rabbit, for me, was the most successful dish. The meat was probably the most tender piece of rabbit I have ever had, and the dish was  impressive in both appearance and taste.  All of the dish’s elements came together in such a way that no single ingredient was overwhelmingly dominant.

The desserts also did not disappoint. The blood oranges made a reappearance here, in yogurt panna cotta with citrus and blood orange-campari granita. This dessert was not too heavy and rich as panna cotta can sometimes be; instead it was a light and refreshing finale to the large meal. The churros y chocolate with cinnamon and dulce de leche ice cream came in a deconstructed form, with the dark chocolate warmed and served in a mug and the ice cream in a separate cup. The churros were about as good as churros can be. I am not usually one to complain about dark chocolate; but when I dipped the churro in it, the chocolate was so rich that it completely dominated over the cinnamon flavored dough so that perhaps it should have been incorporated into the dish in a more subtle way. The dulche de leche ice cream was probably the best part of this dessert; it was creamy and not too sweet as I usually find this flavor. My favorite dessert was the hazelnut milk chocolate cake with coffee and salted caramel. The many various layers of the cake had a variety of textures ranging from smooth to crunchy, which really made this chocolate cake unique. I am also a big fan of sweet and salty combinations in desserts, as this dish represented.

Overall, I would certainly recommend Lucques to anyone in the LA area who is looking for an  exceptional dining experience with an extensive wine list and fresh, flavorful food for a date or with a small group of friends. If I ever have the chance to return, I hope to try a seafood dish, as I did not have the chance to try one during my first visit. Based on the overall smooth flow of the evening, I have the impression that Lucques is a consistently excellent restaurant that has mastered the construction of all of the dishes on its relatively small menu.

Lucques Restaurant
8474 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90069
323-655-6277

Chilling at Lucques

Chilling at Lucques

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