20 November 2006

DC Bites

posted by gastrogirl @ 10:30 to section Dining

Last weekend, I took a much-needed break and drove to Washington, DC. In between doing the usual touristy stuff (museums, monuments), I made some effort to seek out some restaurants recommended by various internet sources and review sites. For the most part, they were all excellent and I surely gained 5-10 lbs by chowing down on wonderful food. Luckily, walking around museums helped relieve my guilt. :) What follows are some short opinions about the restaurants we visited. With the exception of one, which was less than $10, all the places we ate at would probably fit into a medium-budget range, with dinners averaging around $15-20 per person.

On the first night, we had dinner at a tapas place called Jaleo, which had an enormous menu that must have been carefully designed to make you want to order absolutely everything on it. Select tidbits we enjoyed were blood sausage, garlic shrimp, potatoes with Cabrales cheese, and house-made chorizo. The place was very busy and had the air of being the sort of venue that attracts the young and pretty. Not a bad thing, just very style-conscious. Service was quick despite the crowd and we only waited about 10 minutes on a Friday night, despite being told the wait was at least 20. I’m now officially spoiled, and it will be difficult to return to the small tapas place here, which does not even come close to the selection and quality of Jaleo.

The next day was lunch at Zaytinya, which we discovered later is owned by the same person as Jaleo. No matter, this place was also terrific, and lunch was a good time to go, as it must also get very busy at night. Zaytinya serves Greek/Turkish mezze, but lest you think the place is all about hummus, think again. Lunch consisted of carrot/apricot fritters in pistachio cream, kibbe balls filled with pignoli nuts and spices, phyllo wrapped fried goat cheese, an egg and halloumi cheese tart, and pork/orange mini sausages. Little bites of food are my favourite sort of meal, since there’s no time to get tired of any one thing and your tongue is constantly surprised. My only complaint about the two restaurants is that they could have gone a wee bit easier on the oil. On the other hand, a bit of grease is sort of in the nature of these type of dishes, and there is plenty of bread to absorb all the delicious sauces.

We also had dinner at a Moroccan place called Pyramids, which came recommended as one of those “hole in the wall/insider” type places that is supposed to serve amazing and cheap authentic food. I have to say, though, that I was pretty disappointed in my dinner, and suspect I might have been given the “American” treatment (maybe I should have made an effort to speak Arabic with the owners). My lamb tagine, while filled with large chunks of tender meat (and truly a steal at only $7), did not taste anything like the sort of tagine I’m familiar with…in fact, only the use of lamb made it differ from an American-style canned beef stew: plain meat and vegetables in a too-salty and fairly tasteless sauce. The most painful bit was how the menu described the dish as having the proper ingredients of a typical tagine – prunes, preserved lemon, sesame seeds…but none of these were to be found in my meal. My companion fared slightly better with a chicken bastilla that had an appropriately flaky pastry and rosewater scented chicken filling, albeit a bit too heavily sugared. Still, I would not recommend this place unless you’re struggling with cash and just looking for a cheap, filling meal (no dinner is over $7, and it comes with heaps of rice and iceberg salad). The owners are friendly and definitely Moroccan (evidenced by their accents), but the food gave no hint to how complex and exciting North African food can be – and I’m not talking fancy or pretentious here, this place didn’t even have any of the typical carrot salads, which are very common and simple yet tasty dishes.

Anyway, the next day all was made right in the world by some outstanding Ethiopian at a restaurant called Etete, not far from the Moroccan place and on a street that seems to live up to the name of “Little Ethiopia”- Ethiopian restaurants and shops completely took over a few city blocks in this part of town. When we arrived, the place was filled with groups of Africans enjoying huge platters of food – definitely a good sign. We shared a vegetarian sampler platter and a spicy lamb dish. The lamb was very good, but the vegetarian stuff was spectacular – all unique flavours, nicely spiced (i.e. not mild), and in huge quantities. I also got a glass of Tej, the Ethiopian honey wine. Unfortunately, as I was driving, there was no chance of finishing it, since the stuff tasted quite potent. An Ethiopian gentleman at the next table observed this and declared that it was awfully weak compared to the varieties that are aged from one to seven years (ours, he said, was probably only about 3 months old). He delighted in describing how one would only require a small quantity of 7-year Tej before passing out. I think I’ll probably skip that!

The final food-related part of the trip came as a surprise – on our way to get breakfast and coffee before driving home, we stumbled upon a large organic farmer’s maket in Dupont Circle. Unlike the Pittsburgh markets, which are all but closed for the season, this one was going strong with greens and veggies galore, not to mention apples, farmstead cheeses, artisanal breads, ciders, jellies, jams, homemade soaps, meat, fish, and all manner of delicious treats. I was thrilled to find some homemade sour cherry preserves that didn’t include any other ingredients besides fruit and sugar (you wouldn’t believe how hard this is to find) and got two jars. We also grabbed some apples, cider, and bread for the ride home. Perhaps should have gotten some cheese, too, but I was concerned it was not cool enough in the trunk to survive the trip (little did I know we would run into a small snowstorm!).

All in all, I would say that DC seems like a great place to explore food options, and this is a view from only a 2-day visit. Now that I have a better idea of how the city is laid out, it should be easier to explore a bit further next time.

PS: Apart from food, there is also a great secondhand bookstore in Dupont Circle called Second Story Books, which had a rather nice selection from what we found.

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