Hank’s Oyster Bar

April 24, 2013 – I chose a sidewalk table.  Three colleagues were to meet me for an after hours business meeting.  I thought it would be pleasant to sit outside at Hank’s Oyster Bar under the blue sky that had graced Washington, D.C., for the past few days.

“Did you know the forecast is for rain starting around 6:00?” the waitress asked.

It was a quarter past five.  Looking up I could see dark clouds flowing over the rooftops to chase the azure away.  I moved to an indoor table in the window.  At least we could see the sidewalk from there.

Chef Jamie Leeds opened the first Hank’s Oyster Bar, named for her father, in the DuPont Circle area seven years ago.  It was an immediate hit with Washingtonians and she’s opened new locations across the Potomac in Old Town Alexandria and on Pennsylvania Avenue in my old Capitol Hill neighborhood where I awaited my colleagues. 

Two years earlier retired Air Force Colonel Bruce Wood stumbled across murky Nomini Creek, which empties into Chesapeake Bay in Westmoreland County, Virginia.  He had the idea that if he started growing oysters in the mouth of the creek the busy little crustaceans would filter the water and clean up the creek.  It worked.  The water is clear now and, even better, Wood’s Dragon Creek Aqua Farm is supplying D.C. restaurants with fat, sweet oysters.

In the course of delivering oysters to Leeds’ restaurants they talked up the idea of recycling the oyster shells to build reefs to which the oysters could cling.  Now when Wood delivers oysters to the restaurants he hauls away about a thousand pounds of shells per week that are dumped back into the water to continue building the reef homes for the crustaceans.  They started developing a premium oyster, named Hayden’s Reef after Leeds’ son.  I’m told the Hayden’s Reef oyster has a mild sweet taste with just a hint of brininess.

Consulting the cocktail menu, I was attracted to a concoction called a Sloe & Hard.  Not for the double entendre potential but rather for the mescal on which it was based.  I’m fond of mescal but it’s not often found on cocktail menus.  Tequila, which is actually a specific kind of mescal made from the blue agave plant, is the commonly found version.

In addition to mescal, the Sloe & Hard contained lemon, lemongrass syrup and something called a “Sloe Gin Float.”  Sounded interesting.  Then the waitress told me it was served frozen.  I’m not a fan of frozen cocktails.

Still it had mescal.  In Mexico there is a saying.  “For everything bad, mescal, and for everything good, as well.”  How bad could a frozen cocktail with mescal be?

The drink was served in a cocktail coupe, the shallow-bowled glass popularized by the champagne cocktail.  There was a pool of reddish liquid in the bottom and a pile of something that looked like a snow-cone in the center topped by a sprig of mint.  With some trepidation I tried it.  Very pleasant.  More than pleasant.  I was soon eating it with a spoon.  It really was a mescal snow-cone.

My colleagues had arrived and the business discussion was underway.  But talking business at the end of the day makes me hungry.  I tuned out of business long enough to ask the waitress about the Hayden’s Reef oysters.  Apologetically she told me they weren’t yet ready for harvesting but suggested I might like the Oyster Bay variety.  These were Chesapeake Bay oysters from the Virginia side, not the New York variety that have been problematic in recent years.  I ordered half a dozen.

Chesapeake Bay oysters were not doing well a few years ago.  Pollution and over harvesting had just about decimated them.  But thanks to the efforts of Colonel Wood and people like him they’re beginning to make a comeback in some areas.  The oysters I sampled were briny and sweet.  Exactly what a raw oyster should be.  I contemplated ordering more but decided I’d rather try something else from the menu.

Fortunately the serious talk began to wind down.  Time to consult the menu again.  There was an oyster po’ boy on the menu.  I love po’ boys.  I thought for a moment about one of my rules of food:  Never order gumbo north of Shreveport unless you are sure you’re in a Louisiana restaurant.  I wondered for a moment whether that rule applied to po’ boys as well and decided to test the theory.

The sandwich presented to me was definitely not a po’ boy.  Call me a traditionalist but there was no French bread on the plate.  Instead the oysters were served in a New England potato roll.  And they might have been the best oysters I ever ate.  So lightly breaded it was barely noticeable. Fat and buttery.  So fat the juices literally burst into my mouth when I bit into the first one.  The potato roll flattered the plump oysters nicely.  Though it was closer to a lobster roll than a po’ boy, it was a great sandwich.  I would order another one without hesitation and I don’t care what they call it.

And it never did rain.

 

 

Georgia Brown’s

April 23, 2013 – “The South Carolina perlau sounds a lot like Louisiana jambalaya,” I said to Thea, the young lady tending my table at Georgia Brown’s.  With a dramatic wave of her hands she replied, “It’s like gumbo and jambalaya had a baby.”

Georgia Brown’s has been a Washington, D.C., fixture for two decades.  In a town in which restaurants open and close like popping corn, that’s a fair record.  It features the food of the Carolina low country.  Southern food east coast style.  Very similar to the food that I grew up eating.

I hadn’t been to Georgia Brown’s in quite a while.  I was meeting three of my Alaska folks for dinner, Chester Ballot and Carl Weisner of Kotzebue, and Todd Hoppe of King Salmon.  Seemed like a good time for a return visit.

It was a warm spring evening in the District.  The Pauli’s Island Iced Tea sounded refreshing.  And deadly.  Made of Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea Vodka liqueur, gin, rum and triple sec with a little sweet & sour and a dash of coca cola, I was pretty sure one would be enough.  It was refreshing, sufficiently so as to give new life to a long day.  It tasted like, well, sweet tea.  After an afternoon of meetings on Capitol Hill it was just the thing to lift the spirits.  And yeah, one was plenty.

We ordered a tray of assorted appetizers for the table, which included the catfish fingers that had already caught my attention.  Catfish and salmon are my favorite fish.  Salmon can be cooked many ways and be wonderful.  But catfish, as far as I’m concerned, is  good rolled in corn meal and fried.  Cooked any other way it has a tendency to become mushy and lose its unique flavor.  Fried in a corn meal breading it’s hard to beat.

Georgia Brown’s catfish was cooked well.  Crispy crust surrounding snow white flaky fish.  Flawless.  Same for the fried oysters on the plate. And as for the fried green tomatoes, well, I have to say it was the first time I’ve ever eaten them that I really liked them.  Sweet and soothing on the tongue.  Good.  Just plain good.  And that’s the first time I’ve ever said that about fried green tomatoes.

I couldn’t resist trying the perlau that Thea had described so distinctively.  But I had to disagree with her.  I found nothing reminiscent of gumbo.  If it was a baby it was the pure scion of jambalaya.  Perlau is made with Carolina red rice, which doesn’t really grow red but rather is long grain white rice traditionally cooked with tomatoes and some kind of pork fat, usually bacon.  Very flavorful.  Jammed with shrimp, slices of andouille sausage and chunks of duck with corn bread crumbles scattered over the plate, it was suggestive of jambalaya.  Though I found it a little on the dry side, the tastes were gratifyingly familiar.   Altogether pleasing.

One of the group wanted dessert.  Not wanting him to eat alone, I ordered the peach cobbler.  Just to be sociable.  It made me glad I was raised to be polite.  A warm, flaky crust over slices of peaches in their sweet syrup, a scoop of rapidly melting ice cream adding its milky goodness.

Having finished off a plate full of shrimp and passing on dessert, my longtime Kotzebue friend Chester sipped a cup of coffee contentedly and summed up the evening.  “Not my everyday meal,” he said, “but it’s my style.”

Zeke’s DC Donutz

April 21, 2013 – A beautiful day in Washington, D.C.  Bright blue skies.  Sunshine.  Relatively quiet in the city.  A lazy Sunday morning.  Perfect day for doughnuts.  Or, as they say at Zeke’s, donutz.

Zeke’s DC Donutz is located a couple of blocks west of DuPont Circle on P Street.  2029 P Street Northwest to be exact.  I looked at the number of the building nearest me and it said 2002.  I figured Zeke’s was on the other side of the street so I crossed.  On the other side of the street the number of the building was 2000.  Hmmmm.  No odd numbered side?  Tricky.  Not tricky enough.  I found it.

Inside Zeke’s the room is small and a bit dark.  It would even be gloomy were it not for the colorful graffiti decorating the walls.  They obligingly invite customers to add to the drawings.  I didn’t take them up on the offer and later wondered why I hadn’t.

Maybe I was mesmerized by the pastries on display.  Zeke’s doughnuts are huge.  They should probably be called Zeke’s Cakez.

Zeke’s offers creative sweet versions of the traditional doughnut as well as some savory selections.  I was hungry.  Ready for some of everything.  I had flown in the night before and missed dinner.  Hadn’t had breakfast.  Yeah, I was ready for all of it.

I selected their pulled pork for substance.  Then I took the “Sexy Mexy” and “Vanilla Ice” for indulgence.  Hey, it’s a lazy Sunday morning.  Anything named “Sexy Mexy” or “Vanilla Ice” is about nothing but indulgence.  They put my selections into a pizza box and the guy said, “Don’t you want to take one more to fill up the box?”

The three already in the box were so big I really didn’t see how another would fit without smashing them all together.  I politely declined.

These doughnuts are so big it was easier to eat them with knife and fork.  Back at my hotel I cut into the pulled pork.   The sweet dough was jammed full of tender, appealing chunks of pork.  So much so that I could eat only half of it.  Had to save room for the Sexy Mexy and Vanilla Ice.  My Sunday breakfast was going really well.

I had my eye on the Sexy Mexy because I thought it was probably the star of the show.  On the “save the best for last” theory, I tried the Vanilla Ice next.  Deliciously entertaining.  Of the three, most like a traditional doughnut.  The only one with a real doughnut hole.  Delightful sugary dough that really did melt in my mouth, frosting flavored by assertive Madagascar vanilla.  A real, old-fashioned glazed doughnut but flashier.  I ate half of it.

And then I cut into the Sexy Mexy.   Glazed with Mexican chocolate, filled with an absorbingly spicy chocolate cream, it was a flavor burst for the mouth, affecting my palate with a sweet and spirited attack that I didn’t even want to resist.  I laid the knife and fork aside.  This was a doughnut meant to be eaten with my hands.  But the fork was handy for scooping up the mildly pungent chocolate cream filling that had spilled out onto the plate.

And I was right to save the best for last.

Tra Vigne’s Pimm’s Squared

April 15, 2013 – I’m delighted with the resurgence of the cocktail in American culture.  The golden age of the cocktail was in the first half of the 20th century, an era when bartenders all across the country came up with sometimes astonishing combinations of tastes meant to titillate rather than inebriate.  But by the late ‘50s the creativity appeared to be sucked out of mixology.  Restaurant menus offered little more than the standard cocktails that had been around for decades and many of those were just a shot of booze stirred into a pre-made mix.

I knew the end had come when I tried to order a Bloody Mary made to order in one of the most famous restaurants in the U.S.  I was told they couldn’t do that because all their cocktails were pre-mixed.  Really?  After the meal salt was rubbed into the wound when I discovered the restaurant had no one on staff who knew how to make a Café Diablo.  Though that restaurant is still mentioned with something like adoration by foodies I haven’t been back since.

But in recent years there seems to be a turn around.  Restaurants I visit now all have well-rounded, creative cocktail menus.  They’re making imaginative variations on old standards and producing original libations using ingredients that expand the taste repertoire.  Suddenly the before dinner cocktail is fun again, part of the dining experience.   And I couldn’t be happier.

One of my favorite cocktails is the Pimm’s Cup.  Created in 1826 in London by oyster bar owner James Pimm, Pimm’s #1 is the basis of the drink.  Originally intended as a tonic to aid digestion, Pimm’s #1 is a gin based liqueur that contains various secret herbs, spices and maybe a bit of citrus fruit.  No one knows for sure except the handful of people privy to the formula.

The Pimm’s Cup, in which Pimm’s #1 is mixed with lemonade and a little ginger ale, is low in alcohol content.  You can drink of a lot of them and not get in trouble.  Perhaps that’s the reason why, for many years, it’s been the unofficial drink at upscale gatherings, e.g., Wimbledon, the Henley Royal Regatta and most any polo match.

For me the Pimm’s Cup is just a refreshing summer cocktail.  It brings back memories of escaping the August New Orleans heat at a cool corner table in the Old Napoleon House on Chartres Street in the Vieux Carre.  More about Wallace Davenport’s jazz trumpet than tennis and horses.

When my wife and I had dinner recently at Tra Vigne in St. Helena, Napa Valley, I discovered a variation on the Pimm’s Cup on their cocktail menu.  Called a Pimm’s Squared, it ups the octane level a bit by adding cucumber–flavored vodka and substitutes a delicious non-alcoholic ginger beer for the lemonade or ginger ale.  I ordered one and it was delicious.  My wife, who isn’t a big fan of cocktails, loved it.  So much so that when we got home I went to work trying to duplicate it.  I think I got pretty close.

I use Square One Cucumber Vodka because that’s what Tra Vigne uses and I figure if it’s good enough for Chef Michael Chiarella it’s sure good enough for me.  There’s also a cucumber vodka made by Crop.

Now here’s what I think makes Tra Vigne’s Pimm’s Squared so good.  Bundaberg Ginger Beer.  Made in Australia, this soft drink is so awesome it makes the world seem like a new and brighter place all by itself.  If you don’t like the cocktail, then just drink the ginger beer soft drink.  You won’t miss the alcohol.

Here’s my take on Tra Vigne’s Pimm’s Squared.

 Pimm’s Squared

1 oz Pimm’s #1

1 oz cucumber vodka

2 oz Bundaberg Ginger Beer

Squeeze of lime juice

Lime and cucumber for garnish

Fill a tall tumbler ½ to ¾ full of crushed ice.  Add the Pimm’s #1, the cucumber vodka, the ginger beer and lime juice.  Stir to mix well.

Garnish with a round of lime and a round of cucumber.

Bon temps!

Migas

April 14, 2013 – What you get when you order migas depends on where you are.  In Spain and Portugal, it’s a first course, or tapas, based on day old bread and might contain spinach or asparagus.  In Mexico City it’s a garlic soup, flavored with pork, with an egg cooked slowly in the broth.  Sort of a Mexican egg drop soup.

But the migas I first encountered in a small café south of the Colorado River in Austin, Texas, owned and operated by a Mexican American family, was pure Tex-Mex.  All about breakfast.  Eggs and chilis.  Leisurely, lazy south Texas Sunday morning breakfast with strong coffee and warm tortillas.

As with many traditional dishes there’s no one right way to prepare migas.  Onion, tomato and chilis, either hot or mild or both, are cooked down.  Maybe some chorizo is added to brown along with the vegetables.  Beaten eggs are added and, as they begin to set, pieces of crisp tortilla and a handful of cheese tossed in.

Poblano chilis are most often used.  They are a mild chili with a greater depth of flavor than most.  Poblanos are found in grocery stores throughout the U.S. but for some reason are more often than not mislabeled as pasillas, which are longer and thinner.   The poblano is wider at the stem end, more of a triangle shaped chili.  It’s the chili that’s used to make chili rellenos.

For those who like their food a little spicier jalapenos are an option.  I love the dark taste of the poblanos so I always include them when I make migas but l sometimes add jalapenos or other hot chili just for the heat.

That heat comes from a substance called capsaicin, which is concentrated in the white pith to which the seeds are attached.  I’m always amused by recipes that direct you to remove the seeds from a hot chili so as to reduce the heat.  I’m at a loss as to why, if you’re cooking with hot chilis, you would want to reduce the heat.  If a hot chili isn’t hot then what’s the point?  If you don’t want the heat don’t use a hot chili.  I like the heat.

I do remove the seeds and pith from mild chilis, however.  The pith can have a bitter taste that adds nothing to flavor.

Migas

¼ cup plus two tablespoons peanut oil               1 jalapeno chili, chopped (optional)

3 corn tortillas                                                      1 tomato, chopped

1 small onion, chopped                                        8 eggs, beaten until frothy

1 poblano chili, seeds and pith removed, chopped     1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

In a small, non-stick skillet heat ¼ cup of peanut oil over medium high heat.  Fry the tortillas, one at a time, until they are just crisp but not browned.  Place them on a plate covered with paper towels to drain and cool.

Heat the remaining two tablespoons of oil in a larger skillet over medium high heat.  Saute the onion, chilis and tomato until they are soft, about five minutes.

While the vegetables are cooking slice the tortillas into strips about half an inch wide.  Then cut them crosswise, creating bite-sized pieces.

Reduce the heat to medium and pour the beaten eggs into the skillet with the vegetables.  Let them set for a minute or so.  Add the tortilla pieces and gently fold them into the eggs.  Continue folding the eggs, scrambling them, being careful that they don’t cook too quickly and become dry.

Toss in the cheese and continue folding until the cheese has melted and combined with the eggs.

Serve with slices of avocado, a good salsa and a few soft corn tortillas.

Bon temps!

 

V. Sattui, Harvest Inn & Tra Vigne

April 2, 2013 – It took my wife and me two years to celebrate our first anniversary.

We wanted to celebrate it last year.  I booked a room at the Harvest Inn in St. Helena, Napa Valley, the same room in which we spent our wedding night.  I booked a reservation at Tra Vigne, the site of our rehearsal dinner.  We planned to spend the afternoon at V. Sattui, revisiting the winery’s courtyard where we said our vows.

And then there was an accident.  My wife broke her foot.  A few days later there was another accident.  I broke my leg.  The celebration was postponed.  2012 became a year of recovery.

2013 is much better.  I once again booked our room at the Harvest Inn and the reservation at Tra Vigne.  We were on our way.

We arrived in St. Helena without mishap in mid afternoon and drove directly to V. Sattui Winery.  The grounds and buildings at V. Sattui are among the most beautiful in Napa Valley.  You enter first into a courtyard with a large fountain bubbling in the center, multi colored flowers along the edges.  The L-shaped building begins to your left, the covered walkway along which my beautiful wife had walked in her stunning wedding gown hugs the walls to exit at a tower at the far end to your right as you stand by the fountain.  Directly ahead are the two short flights of steps leading down to the lower courtyard where, two years ago, I waited for my soon-to-be wife along with some 80 family and friends.

We strolled among the flowers and memories, down the steps to the courtyard, both of us reliving our day as it appeared to us two years later.  We were back to where we had begun.  It was a joyous day.  A day for celebrating.  A day for wine.

V. Sattui is known for its fine red wines.  Both the Ancient Vine Zinfandel from the Crow Ridge Vineyard and the cabernet sauvignon from the Preston Vineyard upheld their reputations notably.  I found the zinfandel, pressed from grapes first planted in 1915, to be pleasingly earthy to the nose, reminiscent of mushrooms and truffles to the palate.

But my wife is fond of whites so we tried a couple of those as well.  She’s especially committed to chardonnay and V. Sattui’s chardonnay from the Napa Valley vineyard made me think of peaches and then apricots.  The biggest surprise to me was how much my wife enjoyed their dry Riesling. It was a light, refreshing wine that raised images of cook outs on lingering summer evenings.

We made up a case of V. Sattui wines to take with us.  A couple of sparkling bottles, four chardonnays and two Rieslings.  Wines to enjoy with memories.

More memories awaited among the bungalows at the Harvest Inn.  Back again in the familiar room, we went immediately through the French doors to the patio, to gaze out over the vineyard that grows almost to the walls of our building.  The bellman brought multiple ice buckets to ice down a few of our V. Sattui purchases.  I poured us each a glass of sparkling wine to toast the occasion.

Later in the courtyard of Tra Vigne where two years prior family and the wedding party had gathered for our rehearsal dinner I was intrigued by an addition to the vine- covered wall.  The greenery had been pulled away at one spot and there was writing on the wall.   “Est!  Est!!  Est!!!”  There has to be a story here, I thought.  And there is.

The story goes that many years ago a bishop was traveling through Italy.  He sent a servant ahead to find places with good wine at which the bishop might stop for refreshment.  The servant was instructed to write “Est,” Latin for “It is,” on the wall of any acceptable establishment.  The servant happened on one inn where the wine was so good that he wrote, “Est!  Est!!  Est!!!,” hyperbole by the standards of the Middle Ages.  Today “Est!  Est!!  Est!!!” is the name of the wine region around the community of Montefiascone in the province of Viterbo, known for its white wines.

In the kitchen of Tra Vigne, Chef-Owner Michael Chiarello draws heavily on his Italian heritage to create a menu of delectable delights, unusual and beautiful in presentation, distinctive in taste.  I ordered a chardonnay for my wife and opted to try a Pimm’s Squared from their cocktail menu.  The tall glass in front of me contained an enticing mixture of Pimm’s #1, Square One Cucumber Vodka, Bundaberg Ginger Beer and a little lime juice.  It was nothing short of rejuvenating.  My wife tried it.  I had to order a second one.

For a starter we ordered Mozzarella “Al Minuto,” Tra Vigne’s version of bruschetta.  Slices of crusty bread dressed with locally made olive oil, each with a distinctive slice of warm, perfectly chewy mozzarella laid over it.  The mozzarella is made in the kitchen when it’s ordered.  The freshness adds such a layer of flavor, making the bruschetta simply enjoyable.

Tra Vigne has smoked braised short ribs on the menu.  My wife cannot resist braised short ribs.  Ever.  She ordered the short ribs.  The presentation was beautiful; the dish was excellent, accompanied by its natural jus, and a three cheese polenta.  The chef also created an interesting variation on a gremolata by adding horseradish to the traditional parsley, garlic and lime zest condiment.  The short ribs were good and my wife enjoyed them very much.

On the other hand, I scored an amazing entrée when I ordered Tagliatelle Nero with “Trio di Tonno,”  translated as squid ink fettucine with tuna prepared three ways.  The tagliatelle was enticingly smoky, a perfect base for the three presentations of tuna.  There were bits of tuna lightly poached in olive oil and a tuna tartare.  The third representation was in the form of bottarga, sometimes called “poor man’s caviar.”  The tuna roe was shaved, or perhaps crumbled, onto the tagliatelle, adding a salty dimension to the smokiness of the squid ink that can only be described as exquisite.

I ordered a strawberry shortcake featuring a buttermilk biscuit with vanilla bean gelato and crème Chantilly.  I was happy with it.  But it was my wife who really scored with the dessert course.  She had the good sense to ask the waitress’ opinion.

“O-M-G,” the waitress said.  “Dessert number two.  You’ll love it.”

Dessert number two turned out to be  a butterscotch panna cotta topped with a sea salt caramel and crème fraiche with three small, wonderful rosemary-hazelnut cookies alongside.  It was a dessert truly fit for a queen, or in the case of one small bite, a king.  At least a prince consort.

Back at our Harvest Inn cottage the huge fireplace called to us.  The hotel thoughtfully provided two burlap bags of combustibles.  When we burned through those they happily and quickly brought us two more.

Reluctantly we checked out of the Harvest Inn the next day and started south with frequent stops.  The first was at Dean & DeLuca’s where we gathered up a sack full of succulent treats for evening.

We stopped at Grgich Hills winery where the venerable Mike Grgich was celebrating his 90th birthday.  Mike is the vintner who singlehandedly established the reputation of California wines in 1973 when his entry won the now famous blind taste test in Paris, stunning the wine world. 

As we drove south through the late afternoon sun we carried with us a second memory.  The first we had happily shared with family and friends two years past.  This one we just as happily shared only between us.  The celebration of our first anniversary was worth the wait.