Though I travel a fair amount for work, there isn’t really an expense account situation going on. Rather, I get a fair per diem that is meant to sustain rather than to entertain. Some of my colleagues like to eat on the cheap and save as much of their per diem as possible, but me? When I’m on the road, I eat as high on the hog as I possibly can for the money I’m allotted, and I am usually willing to spend some of my own dough to experience the cuisine of whatever city I happen to be visiting.
Recent business brought me to our nation’s capital, a veritable food fairyland for me. Not only do I think DC holds its own as a culinary destination, but I lived there for three years and I still have a lot of local friends and contacts, so I’m usually pretty up-to-date on what restaurants are rockin’ out. Here’s what I ate and what I thought about it…
Sunday: Upon arriving, my hetero life mate, Lexa, took me to Comet Ping Pong for some pizza and beer (natch). It seems to be a great neighborhood joint, and very family friendly. The beer list is varied and interesting, though they were out of a couple of my top choices. They claim their pizza is “New Haven- style,” which I don’t really get (probably because I’ve never been to New Haven), but it appears to be a thinner crust pie. We ordered the “Smoky,” with mushrooms, smoked Gouda, smoky bacon, and melted onions, and it was pretty delicious. The service wasn’t anything to write home about, and the prices were a touch high, but it’s a great gathering place in a residential area that doesn’t have much else.
Pizza was just the opening act on Sunday – steak was the headliner. Ray’s the Steaks, to be specific, in its shiny new Arlington digs. The Sunday night special ($25 for a three-course meal, and there is a decent amount of choice) is a frickin’ steal, but I knew I wasn’t going to be interested in dessert, so I just ordered a cup of the crab bisque and the hanger steak, rare, with sauteed garlic. The bisque was as good as it has ever been, with a perfectly creamy texture and a flavor that was simultaneously rich and light. And, of course, it had what seemed like POUNDS of fresh crab meat. As for the steak, it just doesn’t get any better than Ray’s, especially for the price. Traditionally, hanger is a tougher cut of beef, but Ray’s finds a way to make it deliciously tender (a hint: follow the suggested cooking temperatures on the menu, they’re there for a reason). With the garlic and the accompanying (complementary) mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, I had everything I ever needed on a plate. I was just sad that I couldn’t finish the whole thing, and that I knew it would be a while before I could come back.
Monday night found me at the bar at Vidalia, one of my old favorites. I had the bar to myself, which was kind of disappointing (not only does it mean less money for the deserving restaurant, but it also means I was unable to strike up a random conversation, which is part of why I love sitting at bars), but the meal more than made up for it. From the regular menu, I started with the olive-oil poached monkfish cheeks, which were light and refreshing and perfectly textured. I moved on to the free-form lobster ravioli, which was ridiculously decadent – and absolutely chock-full of impeccably cooked lobster (claw and tail). Finally, from the bar menu, I wrapped things up with the “Korean BBQ” pork belly with kimchee, served on a pancake. Now, I’m not usually the hugest fan of kimchee, and I didn’t start out enjoying this version. But somehow it grew on me, especially when combined with the out-of-this-world pork. Combined with a glass and a half (gotta love options in terms of pour sizes) of a deliciously dry Basque white, the meal was simultaneously refined and comforting, and it reminded me of why Vidalia was one of my fine-dining standbys.
On Tuesday night, I was picked up and whisked to Wheaton, MD, for a night of Vietnamese deliciousness at Mi La Cay. This was an event organized by some folks on donrockwell.com, a food and dining message board of which I’ve been a member for a few years. It is a wonderful online community, and I truly wish we had something similar in Atlanta. The event was a “$20 Tuesday,” which meant that we were going to eat all-inclusive for twenty bucks. And eat we did! For $20, we tried summer rolls (pretty standard, though others said the peanut sauce was delish), beef wrapped in grape leaves (delicious, and unlike anything I’ve ever had before), Vietnamese spicy hot and sour soup with shrimp (perfect for a cold, rainy night), roast duck soup with egg noodles (great flavor, but I got a lot of bone and gristle in my portion of duck, so it was hard to eat), stir-fried lemon-grass chicken (very tasty), French-styled beef cubes marinated in whiskey and peppers (a little heavy on the whiskey), grilled beef, pork, and chicken (my absolute favorite, no question – so tender and flavorful!), and a Vietnamese pancake with bean sprouts. There were a few other dishes that I couldn’t eat due to heavy peanut content, but I still had PLENTY of food to enjoy.
For happy hour on Wednesday, I headed to Againn, a new (to me, anyway) gastropubby concept. The bar was already pretty packed when I arrived at around 6:30, but it’s a shockingly comfortable space, even when busy. The beer list is interesting, though, as a dedicated hop-head, I wish there had been more hop-crazy options on draft; to be fair, they did have some of my favorites in bottles. The group (also a bunch of people from dr.com) ordered a bunch of food, and I tried a little bit of everything – the crispy fried brussels sprouts were darn tasty, and I don’t even like brussels sprouts very much. I guess you can make just about anything better by deep-frying it. The hot dog was the perfect little bar snack, especially with many beers. I had bites of the fish and chips, the chicken pot pie, and the skate, and everything was very good. One of the best features is the 4-7 PM happy hour, during which certain bites and beverages are only $5 (the options change frequently, I’m told). The servie was awesome, too, so I’ll definitely keep Againn in mind when I return to DC.
I’ll be leaving for Salt Lake City on Sunday, but I hope to post some recipes while I’m gone. Have a wonderful weekend, all!