Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab

September 15, 2015 – Several months ago I received a text message that said, “We’re having dinner at Joe’s.  You have to try this place.”  The message was from my friend and colleague Paul Raak.  Since Paul is a self-professed “meat and potatoes” Midwesterner I figured Joe’s had to be special if he was recommending it.

It took several months before our schedules coincided but finally we met at Joe’s.  More specifically Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab.

The building at the corner of 15th and H Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C., is a historical one.  The African American entrepreneur James Wormley opened Wormley’s Hotel in 1871.  It catered to the rich and powerful of the day.  The hotel was the scene of the Wormley Hotel Conference during which representatives of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden negotiated the Compromise of 1877 that resulted in the Hayes family moving into the White House.

As we entered the restaurant Paul asked me if it was part of a chain.  The answer, I said, is yes and no.

In 1913 Joseph and Jessie Weiss opened a restaurant in their Miami Beach home.  The specialty of the house soon became the unusual stone crab.  Found in the western Atlantic from southern New England around Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and as far south as Belize, the stone crab is harvested by breaking off its claw.  That’s all.  One crab.  One claw.  The crab is tossed back into the ocean and immediately begins to regenerate a new claw.  A marvel of self-preservation.  Fortunately for us also a miraculous self-sustaining food source.

The family operated Joe’s Stone Crab for more than 90 years.  In 2000, they partnered with Richard Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.  The new partnership opened the first Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Chicago.  That was followed by a second restaurant in Las Vegas.  The D.C. presence premiered in January of 2014, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the original Joe’s Stone crab.

Inside the restaurant is all warmth.  Dark woods and leather.  Tuxedoed maître d’.  An impressively professional wait staff.

I told Bridget, who was tending our table, that I thought I should try the stone crab because that’s where it all started.  But, I told her, I had never eaten it before.  I needed guidance.  She explained that the crab claws would arrive cold and cracked.  It would be up to me to strip away the broken pieces of shell and extract the meat.

She also said the traditional accompaniments to stone crab were hash browns and cole slaw served family style.  Paul ordered the salmon au poivre.  The hash browns and cole slaw worked for him.

A few minutes later Miguel showed up.  He made the cole slaw tableside.  Cole slaw Hungarian style.  Bridget told us the restaurant still uses Joe Weiss’ grandmother’s recipe.  The chopped cabbage is marinated in apple cider vinegar.  Miguel skillfully mixed it with mayonnaise and a pickle relish.

Bridget delivered the stone crab claws on a plate all by themselves with a light mustard sauce as an escort.  Clearing away the broken shell and extracting the meat is messy business.  It’s worth the effort.  The slight sweetness of the meat is mellowed by undertones of ocean.  The  chunks of crab dipped in the mustard sauce were delightful.

The hash browns were nicely done.  Their crispy warmth was a fine contrast to the cold seafood.  The sweetness of the cole slaw brought the savory flavor of the potatoes and the salt water tang of the crab together exquisitely.

When I was done with the meal I had crab everywhere.  The cloth napkin that came with the table setting made no progress whatsoever toward cleaning my hands.  Fortunately, no sooner had the dishes been cleared than I found a metal bowl placed on the table with instructions to cup my hands over it.  Juice from a lemon was squeezed over my hands and I was given a warm wet cloth with which to wash.  Paul received the same cleansing treatment even though he had a fork to eat with.

Did I say the service at Joe’s is peerless?  Well, I certainly should have.

 

 

 

 

 

Circle Bistro

April 20, 2015 – The Cherry Blossom Festival.  NBA playoffs.  NHL playoffs.  Apparently most of the national trade associations had chosen this week for their annual legislative fly-ins.  Couldn’t find a hotel room.  Couldn’t get a flight with less than four stops.  Washington, D.C., was full up.

Finally found a flight with only one manageable stop if I flew in on Friday prior to Monday meetings.  OK.  Figured I’d have some time over a lonely weekend in a hotel room to catch up on some things that kept getting pushed to the end of the list.

Found a hotel room, too.  One Washington Circle.  I had stayed there back in the early ’90s.  That was a long time ago.  I had no idea what to expect.

What a pleasant surprise!

The hotel has been thoroughly modernized and upgraded since I was last there.  And the staff was as gracious and helpful as a hotel staff could be.  More so than many.

But the most delightful surprise of all was the hotel restaurant.  Circle Bistro is no longer just a hotel restaurant.  It’s a destination onto itself.

On Saturday evening I didn’t want to go out.  I called the restaurant and asked for room service.  Shrimp and grits.  Good is what I hoped for.  Great is what I got.

The shrimp were perfectly cooked.  Difficult to do with shrimp.  You have to get them to just the right texture without allowing them to become rubbery.  A chunk of cheddar cheese swirled into the grits .  A handful of green peas tossed in to add color and substance.  Some finely chopped chorizo in a Tabasco demi glace in the center.  The bull’s eye on a target.  A grilled scallion aimed at the target.

What I thought would be just a lazy room service dinner had become a memorable dining experience.  I wanted more.

A couple of busy days went by before I was able to get back to Circle Bistro.  This time I made my way downstairs to the restaurant itself.  Reading through the menu alone was worth the trip.  Executive Chef Michael Cassady has devised a menu for which innovative isn’t a strong enough word.

Cassady is from California.  He came east several years ago to study at the L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland.  He honed his craft in multi starred restaurants in D.C. and London before assuming his current role at Circle Bistro and at restaurants at One Washington Circle’s sister hotels.

For a starter, I was tempted to try the radish salad.  A mélange of radishes accompanied by spring greens, fennel and tzatziki, the Greek yogurt based sauce with cucumber and garlic that is most often used as a dip with meats. Very tempted.

But I allowed myself to be seduced by something I’d never seen before.  Bison Tartare. With a quail egg and shavings of truffle. Garlic and red onion.  Accompanied by house made potato chips.  I’ve had beef tartare but never bison.  It stood up well to its taste partners.  Such a pleasant mingling of flavors.

For an entrée I couldn’t resist ordering something I haven’t seen on a menu in decades.  Braised rabbit.  Supported on a bed of tarragon spaetzle.  Decorated with cherry tomatoes and wild mushrooms.

The noodles glowed bright green.  A pleasant resting place for the less colorful but flavorful rabbit.  The small tomatoes and bits of mushroom played a tasty game of hide and seek within the spaetzle.  Very simply put, it was good.

To end the evening on a sweet note, a pair of lemon eclairs hit the spot.  While I have been addicted to the more common chocolate éclair for my entire life, the lemon version was a refreshing end to a meal worth remembering.

No flights without four stops.  No hotel rooms.  Angst at not knowing what to expect when I did find a room.  The discovery of a fine hotel and restaurant.

Serendipity.  It’s what makes life interesting.

.

 

 

 

 

Sona Creamery & Wine Bar

January 20, 2015 – Tuesday was National Cheese Lover’s Day.  I was in Sona Creamery & Wine Bar on Capitol Hill.  To my left scores of cheese wheels were on display.  A world of cheese.

I knew it was National Cheese Lover’s Day because Genevieve O’Sullivan had just told me so.  Gen and her husband, Conan, own Sona.  They know something about cheese.

Sona is an old Irish word meaning “happy.”  O’Sullivan.  Yes, they’re Irish.  And they’re happy with their cheeses.

Gen and Conan spent their early years together in Washington state.  It was on the west coast that they experimented and perfected their cheese making skills.    Eventually they decided to move to the east coast to be closer to family.  Impressed with the vibrant food culture in the nation’s capital, they decided to open Washington, D.C.’s first creamery.

They offer more than 100 cheeses on the retail side of the room, including the chevre they make themselves.  Their wine menu offers an impressive selection, with an emphasis on Washington state wines.  Gen and Conan know a lot about Washington wines.  And they’ve put together a “Cheese Board” of local foodies to advise them on pairings.  Which wine goes best with which cheese.

I wanted to try the house made chevre.  Michael, the young man tending my table, said he’d check the cheese vault to see if their latest production was ready for sampling.

Gen asked if I’d like to try a new cheese they were experimenting with.  Absolutely!

She said they were working on producing the creamiest, most buttery cheese ever.  They start with a mix of cow’s milk and goat’s milk.  That mixture alone will make a creamy, buttery cheese.  But then they push it a little farther at one point in the process by adding a little crème fraiche.

The three small circles of cheese Michael brought me were beyond creamy.  Beyond buttery.  All that and more.  Just a hint of lemon adding personality.  Such a pleasant taste to linger on the palate.

It was National Cheese Lover’s Day and I was in Sona.  Seemed foolish to order anything other than a grilled cheese sandwich.

Sona’s grilled cheese comes on sourdough bread from Lyon Bakery, an artisanal bakery just a few blocks from Capitol Hill in Southwest D.C.  A very tasty bread all by itself.

The menu said the grilled cheese sandwich contains five different cheeses.  I asked Michael which cheeses were included.  He said the base is a Cabot cloth bound cheddar.  Other than that they never know.  He said when the cheesemongers trim the wheels that go into the retail display they toss the trimmings into the mix.  One day there might be a hint of bleu cheese; another day it might be a Gruyere.

The one thing I knew for sure was the sandwich was good.  Very good.  The Cabot cloth bound cheddar is produced at George Kempton’s farm in Peacham, Vermont, a member of the Cabot farm cooperative prevalent in New York and New England.  The cloth bound wheels are aged in the cellars at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont.

I couldn’t identify the other four cheeses.  But the characteristic tanginess of the Cabot cheddar stood out prominently, turning the simple sandwich into a bright, sparkling dining experience.  A terrific embellishment on American comfort food.

It was National Cheese Lover’s Day.  I was in the right place.  A world of happy cheese.

 

 

The Garden Cafe at the State Plaza Hotel

September, 2014 – Sometimes you stumble over a jewel of a restaurant so unexpectably.  You just don’t see it coming.  That happened to me recently on a trip to Washington, D.C.

After many years of traveling to D.C., I have developed a list of small suite hotels that are comfortable for multiple day stays involving work and are relatively (at least by D.C. standards) inexpensive.  Usually a few minutes online and I have a reservation at the first hotel on the list.

But something went awry in September.  The first hotel was booked.  So was the second.  So was the third and fourth and on and on.  Not a room available at any of them.  For the first time my list had failed me.

What to do now?  One of my friends told me he had booked a hotel near the Baltimore airport and was coming in on the Metro every day.  Didn’t want to do that.  Don’t like being on a crowded train underground for that long.

I thought I’d have no choice but to go on one of those websites that buy up unreserved rooms and try my luck.  I have only used one of those sites twice and neither was a good experience.  But what else was I to do?

Then I remembered a friend of mine had told me about a hotel at which she had stayed  and liked very much.  The State Plaza Hotel.  I checked it out on line and sure enough there was space available.

I arrived in the early evening and was shown to a spacious suite.  Very comfortable for both working and resting.  Large living room.  Dining nook.  Galley kitchen.  Spacious bedroom.  It would do nicely.

I had awakened at 3:00 in the morning to catch my flight and flown coast to coast.  I was tired but more importantly I was starving.  The bellman told me the hotel’s Garden Café was open.  Off I went to find it.

The State Plaza was at one time an apartment building with two towers.  The Garden Café is located between the towers which, it seems to me, makes it difficult for anyone not staying at the hotel to find.  Of greater significance at the time, however, was that I  found it.  That was important to me . And I soon came to value the work of the kitchen staff headed by someone I only heard referred to as Chef Peggy.

I ordered a cocktail to be followed by a crabcake sandwich and fries.  While sipping the cocktail I learned that the young bartender, Mia, was enrolled in culinary school.  Food, it turned out, is her passion.  We talked food.

The crabcake sandwich was superb.  A light breading on the outside; all crab and little else on the inside.  As good a sandwich as you could get.

I decided I’d come back to the Garden Café.  As it happened I had dinner there every night, working my way through the French bistro style menu.  I would come in tired from meetings on the Hill.  Going out to a restaurant didn’t sound appealing.  I had a few things in the kitchen I had laid in for light lunches but I wanted something more substantial for dinner.  It was just so easy to take the elevator down to the small restaurant.

The food was so good and the atmosphere so friendly.  Mia, the bartender, gave us daily reports on her adventures in culinary school.  The hotel’s assistant manager, Derick Speight, stopped in most every evening to say hello.  It was like dining in the home of old friends.

The second night I opted for steak frites.  A small culotte steak, which is cut from the cap of the sirloin, arrived cooked rare as I had requested.   The fries, were exactly as I like them.  Fresh cut with skins left on.  Another excellent meal.

But it was the third night that really turned me from casual diner to a fan.  I wasn’t really hungry that night.  I’d had a large lunch with a group of long time colleagues and allies.  I really just wanted a glass of wine and something light.  I ordered calamari.

I love calamari.  And I’ve had it in some of the best restaurants in the country.  But the dish placed in front of me in the Garden Café that evening was the best I’ve ever eaten.  A breading so light the small circles of delicate seafood almost seemed to float off the plate.  And yet the calamari itself retained a nice chewiness.  To top it off, the chef had tossed in a handful of sliced jalapeno peppers to cook with the calamari.  It added a spiciness that made the calamari’s highly pleasant flavor seem to dance in my mouth.  Delectable!

While I was enjoying the calamari I noticed that someone seated nearby had ordered a burger and it looked really good.  So on the fourth night I decided to try it for myself.  It was really good.  Nice and messy like a burger should be.  Mouthwatering.  And the accompanying fries were as good as they were the other two nights I’d had them.  Freshly sliced with skins on.  So tasty.

The final night was to be another light meal.  I had to get up at 3:00 a.m. again to catch another early flight.  Back to the spicy calamari.  Just enough to be filling.  And so flavorful.

I wish this little gem of a restaurant was better known.  It’s worth seeking out.  I have a feeling I’ll be checking in to the State Plaza again if for no other reason than the calamari.  And the crabcake sandwich.  And the steak frites.  Yeah.  All those things.

 

 

Bobby’s Burger Palace

April 10, 2014 – K Street, Washington, D.C.  Home to high priced lawyers and high powered lobbyists.  It’s where former Members of Congress come to pump up their retirement plans.  If you’re celebrity chef Bobby Flay and you want to open a fast food burger joint in the capital city, it’s where you want to be.

Bobby’s Burger Palace looks more Vegas than D.C.  Lots of bling in the form of color.  Orange, red, and yellow top the flow of a lunch counter winding along one side of the room.  Long family style tables fill the other side.  The room made me feel good.  I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy lunch.

I was meeting my friend Paul Raak for lunch.  I got there early to snag the only private table.  Good thing I did.   By noon the place was jammed and there wasn’t a vacant seat in the house.

Paul is from Iowa and told me long ago that he’s a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy.  Though he once e-mailed me a picture of the rather adventurous menu at a restaurant somewhere in Virginia where he had taken his wife to dinner.  Just wanted to show me that he could step out of his comfort zone.

I ordered a vanilla bean milk shake while I waited for Paul. I’ve always thought it was a wise practice to have dessert first.  Especially in Washington, D.C.  You never know when the unexpected might happen there.

What I got was a power house of a milkshake.  Tiny flecks of vanilla bean seed suspended in ice cream.  Vanilla as flavorful as I’ve ever experienced it.  Wonderfully pungent vanilla.  A power house shake for D.C.’s power street.  Appropriate.

When it came to ordering a burger, well, I love eggs.  Especially fried eggs.  So I couldn’t resist the Brunch Burger, served with thick slices of bacon and American cheese with a fried egg laid over everything.  The egg was impeccable.  Crisp edges.  Yolk just runny enough.  As fried eggs go it was superb.

Paul again chipped away another bit of his image as a conservative eater by ordering the sweet potato fries.  I went with the half and half, choosing regular fries and onion rings.

For the third time during the week I was served a plate of fries that was in the category of superlative.  Fried just as I like them.  Freshly hand cut.  Skins on.  Excellently browned.  I was beginning to think there is a rush toward creating the ideal French fry in D.C. If so, I applaud it.  I’ll lead the charge.  The three thick slices of nicely breaded and browned onion rings added sweetness to the plate.

Bobby Flay has said that his favorite thing to eat is a hamburger.  He has also said that while he was building an empire of upscale restaurants across the country and skyrocketing to success as one of the superstars of food tv, the dream in his head involved opening a burger joint.

His dream has come true. And it came with a splendid burger.

 

 

Good Stuff Eatery

April 8, 2014 -The energy hits you like heat from a blast furnace when you  step into Good Stuff Eatery on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill.  It swirls tornado style through the staff.  Through the room.  Ordering can even be confusing.  I wasn’t at all sure that I was going to get what I thought I had ordered.

As I learned more about the Mendelsohn family, especially Chef/Owner Spike Mendelsohn, I came to understand that the seemingly wild and crazy atmosphere of the restaurant is probably just another day in their lives.  And miraculously all tends to turn out well.

Spike Mendelsohn is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and trained in some of the world’s greatest restaurants.  He probably just couldn’t help himself.  The food business is in his blood.  His parents, Harvey and Catherine, opened and ran more than two dozen restaurants across the country during their career.

While apprenticing at some of the world’s greatest restaurants, he kept the thought of following in his parents’ footsteps with his own restaurant ever in mind.  Then one day his parents, retired and vacationing in Greece, mother Catherine’s ancestral homeland, received a call from daughter Micheline.  A restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill had closed and the building was vacant.  What an opportunity!

Convincing his parents to come out of retirement to help him get started and calling on a network of cousins and friends, Spike opened the Good Stuff Eatery.  His philosophy isn’t complicated.  “Give people simple, delicious, fresh American comfort food using local, fresh, farm-grown ingredients.”  But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.  Far from it.

Good Stuff Eatery’s burgers are “handcrafted” and it makes a difference.  Spike calls his shakes “handspun” and that makes a difference, too.  He’s taken good old American burgers, fries and milk shakes and given them what he calls the “good stuff twist.”

It works.  Works so well that Spike has followed the success of the Capitol Hill restaurant by opening Good Stuff Eateries in Arlington, Virginia’s Crystal City and in the tony Georgetown section of D.C.

It was a bit hectic as our party of six scurried to find, then hold, a table big enough for us while trying to get our orders placed.  I opted for the steakhouse burger.  A generous, juicy patty with creminis, onion “straws” and Emmental Swiss cheese with what is described as Tangy Steakhouse Sauce, accompanied by fries and a chocolate shake.

The “handrafted” burger tasted just that way.  Much like the burger I might have formed with my own hands for my own grill.

The fries were perfect.  Freshly hand cut. Skins on.  Browned on the outside exactly as they should be.

The “handspun” shake was much the same.  Almost liquid ice cream, chocolate-ized.  Chocolate gold.

I looked around the table.  There was little conversation among the six of us.  It was a time for eating.  And the eating was good.

Good stuff.  So good.

 

 

 

 

 

DGS Delicatessen

April 7, 2014 – I never knew that “schmutzy” means clutter, as in “a lot of stuff,” in Yiddish.  That gap in my lexical education was filled in by Lily, the young woman tending our table at DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C.  But more about schmutzy later.

Cousins Nick and David Wiseman opened DGS Delicatessen about a year and a half ago.  DGS is not a kosher deli but under the direction of Chef Barry Koslow they are turning out great food based on traditional Jewish cooking.  Koslow is good at his job.  So good that he was named the best Jewish chef in the city in 2012.  Following long-established custom, Koslow does all the curing, brining and smoking of meats in house.

The Wiseman cousins honored another local Jewish tradition when they selected the name DGS.  At the beginning of the last century scores of mom and pop grocery stores, many of them owned by Jewish families, were scattered throughout the city.  But even in that time of embryonic marketing big box stores were starting to appear.

The mom and pop stores formed a cooperative in 1922 to gain access to greater purchasing power.  Known as District Grocery Stores, the cooperative enabled the small stores to compete with the big guys.  David Wiseman’s family owned one of the District Grocery Stores.  Hence the name of the deli.  DGS.  Tradition.

It’s not all tradition at DGS.  When you get past the name and the menu the long, narrow room shouts free spirit.  A brick wall on one side, open kitchen on the other behind a counter of white tile.  Across from the kitchen stairs lead up to a second floor bar.  Everything else is all wood and chrome.  Very 21st century.

Well, except for the music.  Bobby Darin was singing “Dream Lover.”  Great music from the early days of rock & roll.   Doo wap and girl groups.  The Dell Vikings.  The Supremes before they were consumed in the flash of Diana Ross’ stardom.

I was meeting a group of Alaskans for lunch.  People from Valdez, Glenallen, Kotzebue, Ketchikan.  We had the state pretty well covered.  It was a cold, rainy day in D.C.  Lily asked if she could bring me a drink while I waited for my party.  I asked for hot chocolate, my go to drink on cold, rainy days.  She said they didn’t have it on the menu but she would see what she could do.  Minutes later she returned with a passable cup of hot chocolate.

But back to schmutzy…Reading through the menu while I waited for my companions to arrive, I couldn’t resist the starter called “Schmutzy Fries.”  And Lily was right.  The plate set in front of me did contain fries and a lot of stuff.  Gooey, messy, cheesy, delicious stuff.

The fries were just as I like’em.  Hand cut with skins on.  Browned to perfection.  Covered with chunks of pastrami and a heap of sauerkraut.  Swiss cheese melted over all.  And a peppery red sauce for spice.  An abundance of taste sensations.

Our table ordered a variety of sandwiches.  Since I had already tried the pastrami with the schmutzy fries, I opted for corned beef.  A Reuben sandwich that came with a large, nicely tart dill pickle.  While I would have been happy with a bit more sauerkraut, the corned beef was quality.  A first rate Reuben.

DGS.  A 21st century deli based on tradition. On customer service.  A restaurant with class.

 

 

 

Bistro d’OC

 

December 3, 2013 – I stood surrounded by the most somber of American history on one side and the brightest of French culture on the other. I was on the 500 block of Tenth Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Even 148 years later the emotion lingered.

Across the street was Ford’s Theater. Now all modern steel and glass and light. Still very much a working theater. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is playing there this month. 148 years ago it was the site of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

To my right was the house to which the mortally wounded Lincoln was carried and in which he died early the next morning. It’s still brick. Still 19th century. Now overseen by the National Park Service.

A very somber moment.

Next door was Bistro d’OC, a restaurant recommended to me by a friend. I left the worst of American history behind and stepped into the southwest of France. With its red walls and yellow accents, the cheerful presentation of the restaurant was a welcome relief from the dark history hovering just outside.

Chef/Owner Bernard Grenier is from the Languedoc region of France. Languedoc translates into English as “the language of Oc.” Yeah. There’s a language of Oc still spoken by a few families in the region. Similar to French but not quite.

Chef Grenier’s wife, Thasanee, is Thai, which accounts for the Thai influence on the menu. Their son, Benoit, works with them in the restaurant. It’s a family commitment.

I ordered a glass of Cremant de Limoux, a traditional sparkling wine of the Languedoc region, produced by Tocques et Glochers. Incidentally that translates into the tall, white chef’s hats with which we’re all familiar and cathedral bells. Don’t ask me why.

It is believed by some wine historians that the first sparkling wine was created in Languedoc in 1531 by monks. All I know is it was a grand glass of wine. A dry sparkling wine that made me crave a second glass.

I ordered the duck liver pate as an appetizer. It came as a cold, substantial slice of goodness. Accompanied by a fig compote and, more importantly, cornichons, those tiny, sour French pickles that I love.

For an entrée I ordered Travers de Boeuf au vin de Languedoc. In other words, braised short ribs with mushrooms and rosemary polenta. The short ribs were served boneless and, while I prefer them on the bone, the dish was excellent. A perfect late fall dinner. Hearty. Comforting. Satisfying.

For dessert, I wanted light and refreshing. I chose the house made mango sorbet. It made me thankful for 21st century technology that allows a kitchen to make a frozen dessert in mere minutes.

Dark American history. The light of southwest France. Excellent wine in an ancient style. Braised beef. Technology that produces a delicious fruit sorbet in a few short minutes. What a world!

 

 

 

 

Table

September 11, 2013 – The building was once a garage for taxis.  That explains the large, glass roll-up garage door and concrete floor.  The young lady doing maitre d’ duties at Table told me that they roll the door up on nice evenings.  This wasn’t one of them.  The temperature had been hovering around the 100 degree mark in Washington, D.C., earlier in the day.  It was a good evening to leave the garage door closed.

The chef/owner of Table, Frederik de Pue, is a native of Ghent, Belgium.  He studied his craft in his native land before branching out to work in distinguished restaurants in Monte Carlo and Lyon before bringing his talents home to Belgium by way of Brussels.  The European Commission Delegation to the U.S. brought him to our shores to cook for them in 2001.  He opened Table only in January of this year followed quickly by his second offering, Azur, which is more focused on seafood.

Besides the garage door, the other first impression is that the room is small.  The tables, all in a rustic, butcher-block style, are right there.  In the kitchen.  It’s all part of Chef de Pue’s concept of a “chef’s table” restaurant.  And it’s fun to watch the talented kitchen staff performing their miracles mere feet away.

I was meeting my longtime Cincinnati colleague and friend, Chris Colwell, and his son, also Chris, for dinner.  The elder Chris was with me when we discovered Mio, Manuel Iguina’s great Puerto Rican restaurant.  One of D.C.’s finest.  This evening we were to explore Chef de Pue’s European influenced style of preparing seasonally fresh ingredients.

While waiting for the two Chrises to arrive, Stephan, who was to tend our table for the evening, convinced me, rather easily, to sample the Adami Garbel  prosecco.  Light and refreshing, it fulfilled my fondness for sparkling wines and lent its coolness to ease the lingering effects of the day’s extraordinary heat.

We started with a charcuterie for the table.  The large plate set before us included sausage in the style of Alsace, duck prosciutto, a sausage with chili pepper, prosciutto Americana and coppa, Italian-style dry-cured sausage.  While we eagerly cleaned the plate, the consensus of the table was that the prosciutto Americana was the best.  Buttery.  Meltingly smooth in the mouth.  I was especially thrilled with the slices of cornichon scattered among the meats.  Those wonderful, tiny, sour pickles of France.  I’ve been known to eat’em by the handful fresh out of the jar.

The Ruby trout appetizer was pleasing.  Ruby trout is farm raised and feeds on small shrimp and crawfish.  As a result of its diet, the flesh is pink, almost red.  I found it reminiscent of the wild Dolly Varden trout that crowd Alaska waters.  I was reminded of the many times I’ve eaten the pink fleshed Dolly Varden fresh from a cold water stream, cooked simply and unadorned over a camp fire.

The two Chrises opted, admiringly, for the chef’s Fit for Hope dish of the evening.  Chef de Pue contributes a portion of the price of the dish to the American Cancer Society.  This evening it was a thick slice of pork loin in a wrapping of pork belly.

I have to admit that I abandoned the opportunity join my companions in their philanthropy but only because of the off-the-menu special of the evening.  Beef cheeks.  As with the Ruby trout, I had never sampled beef cheeks and couldn’t pass up the opportunity.   Stephan had promised I would find them chewy and so they were.  But nicely so.  Heavily muscled, beef cheeks must be braised for a long time.  In this case, according to Stephan, for 36 hours.  The meat had a rich, dark taste.  It reminded me of the flavor of oxtails.  The beef was accompanied by sautéed green onions and Belgian endive.  The green onions added sweetness; the endive a nicely contrasting touch of bitter.  The whole resulted in a dish that was happily satisfying.

We ended the evening by sharing a ginger flan.  A delightfully muted sweetness to round out the meal.

And the younger Chris told me that ginger will ease a headache.  A good thing to know when working in Washington, D.C.

The Monocle

July 15, 2013 – “I live by my principles and one of my principles is flexibility.”   That phrase from another  time is written in gilt on a white-painted beam at the Monocle in Washington, D.C.

It was Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois who is credited with saying it.  Or something very close to it.  In his lifetime Dirksen was thought by some to be a bit of a clown, and he was extraordinarily witty.  With a voice like a foghorn and prone to hyperbole and dramatic oratory, he was a star performer on the political stage.  But he was also one of the finest legislative operatives who ever strode the halls of Congress.  As the Senate Minority Leader from 1959 until his death ten years later, he had much to do with every piece of major legislation that passed into law in the ‘60s.

Much of the legislation of that tumultuous decade, and of every decade since, has been discussed in the bar, the main dining room and the upstairs private rooms of the Monocle.  Only steps away from the Hart, Dirksen and Russell Senate Office Buildings, the Monocle is the premier dining destination on Capitol Hill.  Its very walls are steeped in the history of the past 50 years.

Opened in 1960 by the late Connie Valanos and his wife, Helen, in a building that was erected in 1884, the Monocle is now owned by the second generation, John Valanos.  The star of the Monocle’s show, however, is Maitre d’ Nick Selimos, a master of hospitality.  I have dined there many times over the years, without a reservation more often than not, and each time Nick has found a table for me, no matter how busy the restaurant seemed to be.  Nick takes care of his guests.

And those guests run the gamut from the famous to the common.  The last time I was there I ran into a former governor of Alaska.  It’s not unusual to see the faces of the famous scattered around the room.

And on the walls, covered with pictures of men and women whose names are, or were, household names.  Names often heard on the nightly news.  The movers and shakers.  Members of Congress, including every president since Kennedy.  Joe Lieberman looked down over my right shoulder as I had lunch with a colleague on this day.  Across the room I could see Alaska’s late Senator Ted Stevens.  Everyone who is anyone, or was anyone, is on the wall at the Monocle. And everyone who is anyone, or was anyone, or wants to be someone, shows up at the Monocle.

The crab cakes make up the signature dish of the Monocle.  And they are wonderful.  Full of Maryland crab and little else.  Lightly breaded.  Delicately seasoned and sautéed to a golden brown on the outside.  Sweet and juicy on the inside.  The perfect crab cake.

The Monocle also offers calf liver with bacon and onions, one of my favorite meals.  If I don’t have crab cakes when I’m there then it’s usually the liver.  But on this day I wanted something different.  Lighter.  I ordered the tenderloin of steak salad.

Strips of tenderloin ideally charred with a truly rare center laid over a bed of mixed greens.  Slices of roasted red pepper and a slab of blue cheese added zing to the plate.  The drizzle of Balsamic vinegar contributed tart and sweet.

My colleague ordered the crab cake sandwich.  A good choice.  It meant the basket of incredible rosemary bread was all mine.

We had a memorable lunch.  We had important things to discuss.  We were at the Monocle.