The Old Ebbitt Grill

March 28, 2013 – After lunch I wondered why I had stayed away from the Old Ebbitt Grill for so long.  I hadn’t been there in several years.  Not sure why I went back on this day.  I only know it had been a morning of meetings on Capitol Hill and I thought I had earned the right to treat myself.  The Old Ebbitt is, and always has been, a treat.

In a city full of historic destinations the Old Ebbitt is among the most historic.  It’s been around for a long time.  Since 1856, in fact, when William Ebbitt opened a boarding house and subsequently a saloon, the city’s first, at a now forgotten location.  Franklin Pierce was president when Ebbitt opened his boarding house and saloon.  Pierce, incidentally, is the only sitting president ever ticketed for DUI.  He was home in New Hampshire celebrating Christmas.  The local constable thought, quite correctly, that he had been  celebrating a little too much to be driving his buggy.

From the beginning Ebbitt’s was a favorite hangout of the powerful and those who hover around them.  President McKinley was said to have lived at the boarding house while still a Member of Congress.  The saloon, in its subsequent incarnations around town, was a favorite of Presidents Grant, Andrew Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt, Cleveland and Harding.  Today the clientele mixes high-powered lobbyists and business people with awestruck tourists out to see the sights and suburbanites in the city to visit nearby shops.

For a few decades in the mid 20th century the Old Ebbitt was located on F Street.  By the ‘60s the owner had begun to run into tax problems, which finally came to a head in 1970.  That was when IRS padlocked the doors and put the business up for auction.  The owners of Clyde’s of Georgetown wanted to buy the Old Ebbitt’s collection of beer steins and the mahogany bar for their own restaurant.  But when the piecemeal auction failed to produce enough revenue to pay off the tax lien the IRS offered them a good deal on the whole business.  They took the deal.

In 1983 the Old Ebbitt moved into its current location across 15th Street from the Treasury building, just about a block from the White House.  Though it’s crowded with customers most anytime of the day or night, the Old Ebbitt exudes a quiet elegance.  I sat in a chair at a small table, nestled against one end of a long, green velour banquette.

A large gas chandelier glowed above the mahogany bar with other gaslights, some of which I was told were once D.C. street lights, scattered about the room.  Over the mirror behind the bar the bar stretched the row of beer steins that attracted the Clyde’s people to the tax auction.  A few big game trophies cast their dignified gazes down on the bar customers.  It’s been rumored that Teddy Roosevelt himself scored some of those trophies.  Well, maybe.

The artwork on the walls alone is worth the visit.  On the wall across from the bar hang three large paintings.  The first depicts the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.  The second captures the White House with a fireworks display in the background.  The third is the most striking of all.  “The Three Bathers” by the American artist and illustrator Howard Chandler Christy.  It was Christy’s illustrations of Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders for Scribner’s magazine around the turn of the century that had as much as anything to do with the hero worship that eventually landed Teddy in the White House.

I had ordered half a dozen raw oysters for a starter.  Wellfleet oysters, harvested from the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts.  Though small by Gulf and Pacific standards, the Wellfleets are a deliciously briny oyster that transport the senses to the sea.  A refreshing precursor to the pure comfort food entrée soon to follow.

As to that, I’ve always loved liver.  It’s one of my favorite comfort foods.  My mother tells me that when I was a boy she served it because it was cheap and that I liked it from the beginning.  Most people don’t like liver.  I think there are a couple of reasons for that.

First, the name.  Liver.  Not a pretty word.  It doesn’t roll lightly off the tongue.  Nor does it have the auditory appeal of, say, lobster, or king crab, or filet mignon.  Unfortunate.

Second, too often the first experience with liver is not pleasant.  When not prepared properly liver tastes about as good as an old boot.  No, that’s wrong.  That’s an insult to old boots.  Overcooked liver is awful.  Liver cooked well is a delight.

The liver served at the Old Ebbitt is ambrosial.  Cooked perfectly, just slightly short of medium.  Fork tender and creamy.  A mild, pleasing taste that lingers daintily on the palate.  Accompanied as liver should be with caramelized onions, resting on a soft mound of mashed potatoes with three slices of bacon criss-crossed over all.  A few pieces of flawless crisp-tender flowerets of broccoli on the side.  Delectably satisfying.

As evening approached I was still content with lunch.  I skipped dinner.  It would just have been a disappointment.

Jersey Boys & the Fairmont Hotel

March 10, 2013 – “Oh, what a night…Late December back in sixty-three…”

No, wait a minute.  It’s March, 2013.  I’m sitting in a balcony seat in the 91 year old Curran Theater in San Francisco.  It’s that amazingly unique voice of Frankie Valli taking me back to ’63.

Well, no, wait a minute.  It isn’t Frankie Valli.  It’s Nick Cosgrove, who plays Frankie Valli in the current touring company of “Jersey Boys.”  But there’s that voice.  That singular voice.  That voice with such a range.  Where, I thought, did they ever find another guy who could sing like Frankie Valli?

It was a grand production utilizing a minimalist set, relying on the raw talent and impeccable timing of the cast.  But the real star of the evening was the music of Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio.  50 years after their first big hit the music is alive, pulsing with the heartbeat of Jersey from where it came.  “Sherry.” “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” “Walk Like a Man.”  “Dawn.”  All those songs that we danced to as teenagers and young adults.

My plan was to attend the matinee performance then have dinner in a restaurant owned by a celebrity chef.  That was my plan.  It changed when I checked into my suite at the Fairmont Hotel.

The Fairmont on Nob Hill is the original Fairmont hotel.  The land was purchased in the 1890s by James Fair, known as “Bonanza Jim” because he had hit one of the biggest silver pockets in Nevada mining history, who was also a U.S. Senator.  His plan was to build a home there but he died before he could make it happen.  Instead of a home, his two daughters decided to remember him by building the most magnificent hotel imaginable.

In April, 1906, the Fairmont was nearing its grand opening date when the San Francisco earthquake struck.  Damage from the quake itself was minimal but the resulting fire made a far more dramatic impact.  The Fair family immediately started working to make repairs and a year later the hotel opened for business.  It has been the queen of San Francisco hotels ever since.

Walking among the glorious Corinthian columns scattered through the lobby is an experience in itself.  I found myself unusually quiet.  So much history has been made in the Fairmont that I just wanted to soak some of it up.  Every president since Harry Truman, and several before him, has stayed at the Fairmont.  The charter founding the United Nations was signed there in 1945.

One of the hotel staff pointed out the grandiose marble stairs leading to the second floor.  “Sinatra always took the elevator from the second floor,” he said, “because he liked walking up those stairs.”  Sinatra did have a flair for the dramatic.

But for me the most historic moment of all came in 1962.  In the spring of that year, on a small stage in the hotel’s Venetian Room, Tony Bennett sang for the first time in public “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”  Now that’s history.

I was in the Singapore Suite, 750 square feet of luxury.  A sitting room, a bedroom and a 30′ x 7′ balcony with a spectacular view of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and the bay itself.  I called the celebrity chef and canceled dinner reservations. I can go to a restaurant any night of the week.  I only had that balcony and that view for one night.  There was no way I wasn’t going to spend every possible minute out there.

The hotel had sent up an oversized ice bucket and I put two bottles on to chill.  I opened one and sat on my balcony enjoying the view and the wine and listening to Tony Bennett (“I left my heart in San Francisco, high on a hill it calls to me…”) and Scott MacKenzie (“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…”).  Experiencing San Francisco at its finest until time to leave for the theater.

I returned to the hotel after the final curtain fell for the day on “Jersey Boys.”  Still singing snippets of Frankie Valli songs in my head, I stopped in the Laurel Court, the hotel’s signature restaurant and bar.  I ordered a charcuterie and a cheese plate.  The charcuterie came with thin slices of salami, prosciutto, capocolla, and smoked duck breast with a little apricot jam, a few of the cornichons that I love and bits of jalapeno peppers and pickled cauliflower.  The cheese plate came with a slice of blue cheese, a Brie, some goat cheese and a hunk of parmesan.

I enjoyed the après theatre snack but didn’t want to linger long indoors.  I wanted to be on my wonderful balcony to watch the late afternoon sun fade to sunset and the turning up of the lights of San Francisco at night.  It held the promise of being every bit as theatrical as the afternoon at the Curran.

I opened another bottle of wine.  I sat on my balcony, still humming Frankie Valli songs, and watched the fading of the light.

My dinner was in perhaps the most beautiful setting possible.  I started with French onion soup, which was good.  Very good. For my entre I opted for the Bavette (another name for flank) steak served with a garlic aioli and a red wine shallot jus accompanied by French fries.  My steak was perfectly rare, tender and with a more intense flavor than would have been found in a more common cut of beef.  It was a fine meal in a memorable setting.  Far better than just another restaurant.

Morning found me back on my balcony, the city presented to me in yet another light.  I was delighted to find that the hotel offered migas, a Tex/Mex breakfast dish that is one of my favorites but one seldom seen on a menu.  The scrambled eggs arrived generously supporting slices of jalapeno, bits of cheddar, chunks of chorizo and thin strips of tortilla, accompanied by an excellent guacamole and salsa along with a pile of potatoes O’Brien.  A spicy plate.  Just the way to wake the day.

I went for a stroll around Nob Hill after breakfast.  It was an unusually beautiful day in San Francisco.

Later I drove down the highway leaving the city behind but taking the memory.  And the music.

“Oh, what a night…late December back in sixty-three…”

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Birch & Barley

February 27, 2013 – There is a vibrancy about Birch &  Barley.  A hum of energy.  Some of that might be flowing down the stairs from Churchkey, the beer-focused pub on the second floor.  But most of it is Birch & Barley itself, successfully capturing the energy of the youthful Washington, D.C., clientele it attracts.  Standing in the room, lights reflecting off the 50 beer taps at the far end, you can almost feel the heartbeat of the city thumping away.

Opening its doors in 2009, Birch & Barley is the joint effort of Chef Kyle Bailey, Beer Director Greg Engert and Executive Pastry Chef Tiffany MacIsaac.  Engert oversees the distribution of the restaurant’s 555 beers, including 50 on draught.  That number will increase to at least 556 this summer when Birch & Barley opens its own brewery.  D.C. denizens should be on the lookout for Bluejacket beer, which should be available by mid-summer.  For the moment they’ll just have to get by with 555.

Though beer takes center stage at Birch & Barley, they have a pretty fair cocktail menu.  I settled on the Golden Delicious.  Sounded apple-y.  Was apple-y.  And potent.  The snifter came with Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, apple cider and lemon juice.  The St. Elizabeth, also known in classic cocktails as Pimento Dram, is a rum-based liqueur heavily flavored with allspice but also allowing hints of the cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper that add to its spiciness.  Refreshing and powerful.  Energetic.

The chef sent out a plate of arancini as a welcoming gift.  The Sicilian rice balls are traditionally stuffed with a meat ragu but I wasn’t surprised that Birch & Barley tossed tradition aside to fill them with cheddar cheese and bits of broccoli, and dressed them with a red pepper flake aioli.  I still love the traditional arancini that I first encountered as a young boy while visiting in the home of a childhood friend but Birch & Barley’s version was excellent.  Crispy crunchy on the outside, smooth and creamy on the inside.

The next plate to appear was filled with three kinds of bread.  Airy, flaky biscuits, best described by one of my companions who simply said, “Those are good biscuits.”  Chewy, salty pretzels, matched well with a strong dark mustard.  And cheddar rolls, needing help from nothing else.  Four of each bread, all gone in a flash.

I had ordered gnudi as a starter.  A dumpling similar to gnocchi but made with ricotta, the gnudi arrived accompanied by a spinach puree with bits of roasted salsify, oyster mushrooms, fried sage and pancetta.  The buttery gnudi were delicious as were all the tiny pieces scattered about the plate.  But so rich!  So much so that I was unable to finish the dish.  Good but just a little overwhelming.

The roasted pork loin I ordered for an entrée was done perfectly.  Tender and juicy.  Pork at its best accompanied by apple and sage influenced spaetzle and cipollini onions dressed with a green peppercorn whiskey sauce.  Each of the piece parts was excellent on its own.  But, as with the gnudi, tossed together the strong flavors tended to clash almost to the point of cacophony.

Was it good food?  Absolutely!  Again, a little overwhelming to me.  But I suspect just the ticket for the energetic, bubbly young crowd that keeps the room humming at Birch & Barley.