Trouble With Toast

Proof in Penn Quarter

September 28, 2007
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Many nights of the week, I leave work and go directly to the Georgetown University Law Center (at 600 New Jersey Avenue NW) for rehearsal. I usually try to be frugal and either bring my dinner in a sack or opt for the cheaper Chinatown fare. However, on Wednesday evening, I decided to splurge a little and try Penn Quarter’s newest hot spot, Proof.

Described as a “wine-centric restaurant featuring modern American cuisine,” Proof combines the considerable talents of Chef Haidar Karoum (formerly of Asia Nora) and Sommelier Sebastian Zutant (formerly of Komi and Rasika). From the moment I stepped in the door, I understood why the early buzz about the place had been so resoundingly positive.

The space is gorgeous, with a sleek combination of glass and rich woods. I dipped into the ladies room before lighting at the bar, and I was instantly amused (though I won’t spoil the surprise by explaining why). There are many clever tie-ins to the National Portrait Gallery, which sits across G Street from Proof. In sum, the design of the restaurant seems to have been given as much thought as the wine and the food—which is saying a lot.

The by-the-glass list is varied and fairly priced, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Albarinho that the bartender selected for me. The wine was made even more enjoyable due to its being served at the proper temperature—thanks to a very cool-looking machine that is also programmed to distribute in precise amounts (I believe the glasses are available in 2-3 ounce “tastes,” 6 ounce pours, and 8 ounce pours). My Portuguese white was $9 for a 6 ounce pour, which I found quite reasonable.

For noshing, I opted for two “Firsts” (smaller plates). The “Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi chanterelle mushrooms, roasted sweet corn” was absolutely divine—perfectly textured pillows of potato surrounded by intensely flavorful chanterelles. The dish was complex yet comforting, and it was not the least bit heavy (as lesser gnocchi can be). Next time, I’ll be ordering the large portion (entrée-priced at $21). The small was $14.

The $13 “Sautéed Veal Sweetbreads, medjool dates, bacon, spinach, caramel jus” was not quite as impressive. It was too sweet for my liking, with only the occasional heavily-salted bite of bacon. I should have known that the dates and the caramel would cause this dish to lean away from the savory side of things, but I went for it anyway—it wasn’t a complete miss (the sweetbreads were cooked very nicely, and the spinach was delicious), but I’ll probably opt for something else on subsequent visits.

Service at the bar was attentive without being cloying. Nothing about the place gives off a pretentious or exclusive vibe, though the crowd was well-dressed and attractive (and fairly diverse, especially age-wise). My tab, with two glasses of wine, two small plates, and a generous tip, was $65. So, while I won’t be able to dine at Proof every week, I will certainly return when I’m in the mood for serious food and wine in a refined-yet-accessible atmosphere. Well done!

House of Pies, Houston, TX

September 17, 2007
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My dad’s new job takes him to Houston on occasion, and he asked me for recommendations in terms of where to eat. Culinarily speaking, I don’t yet have a lot to say about that part of Texas. However, on my one and only voyage there, I was searching for a notable noshing experience and my boyfriend (who spent some time in the Lone Star State as a lad) said, “You HAVE to go to the House of Pies.” I was intrigued.

The House of Pies is an unassuming, almost Waffle House-esque diner whose tagline is, “A slice of heaven on Earth.” I couldn’t agree more. With reliable munchies (I had a Monte Christo sandwich and a heap of fabulously crunchy tater tots) and 24-hour service (with breakfast available anytime), it would already be a great place to add to the rotation. But there’s more! On the daily menu, there are about 8 fruit pies, 11 cream pies, 3 meringue pies, and 8 specialty pies from which to choose. You can buy them by the slice or by the pie, but one thing is for sure—you will never forget your first bite. When I went with some work colleagues while on a business trip, we tried the Dutch apple (yummy), the Bavarian chocolate banana (even yummier), and the strawberry rhubarb (the yummiest). We all decided that we should have skipped dinner and just eaten pie all night. If only they shipped…

The first time my dad went to Houston, he ignored my wholehearted endorsement and skipped the House of Pies. The second time, however, I wasn’t taking no for an answer and I told him I’d disown him if he didn’t give it a try. Then we had the following telephone exchange:

Dad: Guess where I am.
Betty: I don’t know, where?
Dad: The House of Pies.
Betty: * Delighted and jealous squeal * Do you love love love it? Are you eating tater tots? What kind of pie are you having?!?!
Dad: Yes, yes, Bavarian chocolate banana, and oh my god it is so $%#&*@! good.
Betty: * Stomach rumbling, wondering if her agency’s Houston office needs any help *

If you’re anywhere near Houston, you MUST visit this fine establishment. For those of us who are far far away from the magic, we can still talk about pie, which is probably the greatest fall dessert. What’s your favorite variety? Do you make your crust from scratch (and if so, what’s your secret)? Are there any local establishments that can compare to the House of Pies?