Monthly Archives: June 2009

Series Premier: Top Chef Masters

Kelly Choi, Top Chef Masters's new host, is certainly no Padma

Kelly Choi, Top Chef Masters's new host, is certainly no Padma

Last night was the series premier of Top Chef Masters, a Bravo spinoff of Top Chef in which world-renowned chefs compete for donations to their charities of choice. Like Top Chef, each episode consists of a Quickfire Challenge and an Elimination Challenge. During these Elimination Challenges, however, all but one of the four chefs are eliminated while the winner is chosen to go on to compete in the final round later in the season. Because these contestants, including former Top Chef guest judges Hubert Keller and Wylie Dufresne, are already well-established in the world of first-class cuisine, the level of competition is more advanced and in many ways more fun and interesting to watch.
One unfortunate aspect of the Masters series is Padma’s absence; the new host, Kelly Choi, isn’t nearly forceful enough with her “Pack your knives and go,” catchphrase. On the other hand, I really like the three new judges: Gael Green, a successful New York food critic; Jay Rayner, a British critic; and James Oseland, editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.
I already set my DVR to record the season… and I think you should too.
Top Chef Masters
Wednesday Nights at 10 pm on Bravo

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Under the Radar: D’Acqua

D'Acqua's interior is simple Mediterranean, like the food preparation

D'Acqua's interior is simple Mediterranean, like the food preparation

One of the best meals I’ve had in DC recently was at an unlikely restaurant in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, D’Acqua. Other than a few good to great reviews on yelp, chowhound, and zagat.com, there is not very much publicity for this relatively small Italian seafood restaurant. However, D’Acqua came highly recommended from a couple of friends and I found myself there with a large group for dinner not long ago.
Although the Zagat guide describes D’Acqua as “glamorous,” “Modern,” and “likely bait for a lounge scene,” the space is not nearly as trendy and crowded as the review suggests. In fact, the restaurant was nearly empty throughout our long meal on a Saturday night. And yet everything we ordered was delicious. Why is D’Acqua so under the radar when it comes to great Italian food in DC while places like Café Milano are so well known?
When we first arrived to D’Acqua, we were presented with a very extensive wine list and an explanation of the menu. The menu offers a variety of classic Italian dishes including a variety of pastas, but it is clear that the restaurant is focused on simple, fresh seafood preparation. We began with fried calamari, zucchini and eggplant with parsley and garlic sauce and pan fried mozzarella and Tuscan bread in Italian tempura, both of which were great. For the main course, diners are invited to walk over to the case of fish and choose a whole fish for their dinner; there are fish available for one or for two people to share. The fish selection includes a variety of Mediterranean bass, flounder, and red snapper. These fish may be grilled, oven-roasted or, their specialty, salt-crusted and baked. The fish are then filleted at the table and served simply over arugula with olive oil and lemon.
One would think that encrusting a fish with a large amount of sea salt using egg to stick would make the fish taste unbearably salty. However, the salt-crusted fish was my favorite dish as it was flaky and perfectly salted. D’Acqua proves that less can be more when it comes to fish as it allows the freshness of the ingredients to shine. I would recommend D’Acqua to seafood lovers  before many of the popular seafood specialty restaurants such as Hook in Georgetown and to those seeking a great Italian meal.

D’Acqua
801 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC
(202) 783-7717

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All About the Scene: Café Milano and Sette Osteria

Franco Nuschese is an Italian “hospitality entrepreneur” and owner of Georgetown’s highbrow Café Milano and its more relaxed sister restaurant, Sette Osteria in Dupont Circle. I recently dined at both of these restaurants for dinner and had comparable experiences: while the atmosphere at each was enjoyable, the food was just so-so.
Indeed, on Café Milano’s website, Nuschese boasts, “The restaurant business is very similar to the entertainment business,” perhaps a reflection of his past experience in Las Vegas. And in this way, Café Milano certainly shines. The staff works hard to provide the restaurant’s patrons, many of whom are the District’s political elite, with comfortable seating and constant attention and assistance without crossing the line into annoying. Nuschese himself is known to dote on Washington’s high-ranking socialites when they come into his restaurant. And Café Milano is certainly a scene. The crowd, especially on busy weekend nights, is dressed to impress to either be seated at tables for dinner or to mingle around the bar. The women seem to blend in with the framed Italian designer scarves that decorate the walls. As the night picks up, the restaurant’s main dining room can get loud, but not in a dinner-hindering, noise-deafening way. Café Milano buzzes with energy and is a great place to see and be seen.

Café Milano's main dining room and bar

Café Milano's main dining room and bar

However, Nuschese struggles to follow through with his statement that although a restaurant’s atmosphere must be entertaining, it also must “serve the very best food.” I do not think that Café Milano has the best Italian food in DC. Our dinner was very mixed. Overall, I found that the ingredients in all of the dishes were fresh and of high quality and that the simple, classic dishes were the most successful. For example, our starters of crispy Mediterranean calamari and zucchini with a side of lemon aioli sauce and the arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan cheese were delicious. Some of their pasta selection is also handmade daily, such as the very good Paglia e Fieno Zegna, spinach and egg fettuccine with veal Bolognese sauce. But when the dishes are slightly more creative and nontraditional, the flavors just are not all there. The Ravioli Cavalli, also homemade and filled with braised veal and spinach with sage and veal reduction sauce, was curiously bland. We also tried the softshell crab special of the night, which was cooked well—lightly breaded and pan seared—but too salty without much else for flavor. All of the pizzas that came out of the oven looked good, but when you are dining at a top Italian restaurant, do you really want to order a pizza? I would rather save it for 2 Amys, my favorite pizza place not far up Wisconsin Ave.
I had a very similar experience for dinner at Sette Osteria. The restaurant is definitely not as formal and much less expensive than Café Milano, giving it a warm, neighborhood feel. The menu is similar—a good selection of pizza, pasta, and Italian favorites. Again, my arugula salad was very good, and I wish I had ordered a pizza to eat alongside my salad because like at Café Milano, my friend’s pizza looked very good. Instead, I ordered the Linguine della Paranza, linguine with clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, and scallops in a fresh tomato sauce. It was not good– the mussels and clams were bad, the pasta was overcooked, and the sauce was bland.

Sette Osteria's more laid-back scene

Sette Osteria's more laid-back scene

Based on my experiences, I think that Café Milano and Sette Osteria are fun places to go, but not necessarily with a picky or adventurous palette. Stick to the basics, such as the pizzas and salads, even though the more interesting dishes on the menu may tempt you. Although Café Milano is a fun place to go for dinner, the best meal I ever had there was during lunch. It was more low-key, but the food was tastier. It is unfortunate that entertainment value and food quality seem to be indirectly proportional at Café Milano. Nuschese also has a third restaurant in the Clarendon section of Arlington, Virginia that seems very similar to Sette Osteria, Sette Bello.

Café Milano                                        Sette Osteria
3251 Prospect Street, NW               1666 Connecticut Ave
Washington, DC 20007                   Washington, DC 20009
(202) 333-6183                                 (202) 483-3070

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