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IN THIS ISSUE
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Penfolds Celebrates Its 170th Anniversary in London
By John Mariani
By John Mariani
With all the wrangling going on in Washington--interrupted only by frequent Congressional vacations--it’s surprising the politicians ever get to go out to dinner. Indeed, the sighting of a major political figure at a restaurant is sufficient fodder for the local newspapers (those that are left), though a true celebrity is even better for the media mill.
Still, the nation's capital is a solid dining city, frequented by those who live in and around it and by the millions of tourists who visit. Here are some of my favorite new spots in town.
777 I Street NW
What hits you first as you enter Del Campo is the aroma of sweet smoke coming off everything from skirt steak and sweetbreads to charred beets and mortadella cheese sizzling on the huge grill that underpins most of the cooking at this grand South American restaurant located next to D.C.’s Chinatown.
Peruvian Chef Victor Albisu, whose grandfather was a Cuban baker and whose mother ran a market where her son learned to grill from Argentinean and Uruguayan butchers, has focused his expertise and energies to create a meat-centric menu on which everything shares common ground. Even seafood and ceviches are lashed with good olive oil and share the plates with chilies, charred onions and corn, yucca fries, tangy romesco sauce, chimichurri and salsa criolla. Bread is baked in cast-iron skillets, and, when the kitchen closes, the bar serves street food--empanadas, albondigas, chicharones, and a chivito sandwich ($20) stuffed with seared ribeye, mortadella, ham, olives, hearts of palm, and fried egg.
The heart of the matter here is the array of meats: chorizo sausage (four kinds), short ribs, ribeye, lamb shank, pork belly, all gleaming, fat-rich, generously sliced and piled high, and whether deep red, rosy or pink, always charred black ($9-$72).
on all this in a splendidly expansive dining room
with concrete walls and oak floors, antique mirrors
and chandeliers, worn leather chairs and South
American antiques. If Peruvian food in this
country needs a template for the future, Del Campo
is surely one of the most exciting new restaurants
of this era.
Campo is open for lunch Mon.-Fri. and for dinner
2800 Clarendon Boulevard
Another Latin-American restaurant--this time mostly Mexican--has made a big splash over in Arlington, Virginia, where Chef Jeff Tunks, Gus DiMillo, and David Wizenberg took over a defunct, two-story eatery and turned it into a riot of color, with Aztec-style tiles and textiles, mirrors and a copper-clad fire pit, a 50-foot bar with gleaming shelves stocked with more than 120 tequilas (the signature margaritas are terrific), brushed metal barstools, a grand staircase and an outdoor patio. The name of the restaurant means “fire kitchen and tequila bar.”
This is one of Passion Food Hospitality’s many local restaurants, which include DC Coast, Acadiania, Ceiba, and Passion Fish, and the largess of this newest enterprise is part of the company’s usual m.o.--make it big, make it fun, make it authentic. Tunks and his crew spent considerable time enlivening traditional Mexican cooking, so start off with a few botanas, Mexican cold and hot plates such as the quesadilla de jaiba packed with lump crabmeat and three chile sauces ($10), or the flautas de pato of juicy shredded duck confit with Oaxacan white cheese and a black mole sauce ($9).
There are several tangy ceviches and main courses--if you can stop yourself from ordering the small plates--include a pozole verde of hominy with slowly braised pork and green chile ($8); a vegetarian chile with avocado and crème ($8); and a “sizzling skillet” of meats, corn, and tortillas (market price).
Along with a fine tres leches cake (right) with cream cheese icing and guava sauce ($7), there are desserts you won't find in typical D.C. Mexican eateries, like torejas, a Mexican-style pressed French toast with vanilla ice cream, and cajeta cheese.
The Latin American bottlings on the wine list are exceptional.
1050 31st St NW
The most modern and exciting new hotel in the Capital is Capella, located above the C&O Canal in Georgetown and designed by Peter Silling. (Capella also has hotels in Bangkok, Dusseldorf, Singapore and Cabo San Lucas.) The minimalist brickwork of the exterior opens to a glittering foyer and high-ceilinged, very comfortable Living Room, where you may have coffee and rolls in the morning or drinks later on, and artisan craftsmen have been hired to work the polished Austrian woodwork throughout.
There are 49 guest rooms and 12 suites, with personal assistants assigned to you who can easily and efficiently tend to any request. In my case, a lost bag, left in the taxi, was retrieved within an hour of my arrival.
26-seat Rye Bar has become a prime watering hole in
Georgetown, and the sleek 70-seat Grill Room,
overlooking the Canal, is where Chef Jacob Esko,
from Sweden, shows off his commitment to buying very
fine beef that includes a 40-day dry-aged Virginia
Prime ribeye with Smoked Gouda, caramelized onions,
gratin, beets and a smoked sauce laced with rye for
$56--which is $9 less than the steak alone at
Bourbon Steak around the corner at The Four
also like the nice touches like the
Champagne cart with some exclusive Taittinger
labels, the beef tartare prepared tableside
($20-$26), and the dessert cart, which offers a
made-on-the-spot baked Alaska. Those who shrug
that fine dining is dying should see how it's been
reformulated in the sleek style of The Grill Room.
800 F Street, NW
Billed as an “American Brasserie with French and Asian influences,” this new 160-seat restaurant in Penn Quarter is run by the redoubtable Ashok Bajaj of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which also owns the superb Indian dining room Rasika and the fine Italian spot Bibiana. Far less focused than those others, Nopa aims to hit too many niches--from raw bar and snacks to sandwiches and burgers, but there is plenty to love on the menu.
When I visited, the main dining room, done in white brick, rough wood paneling and steel accents, was outlandishly loud, but I’m told that baffling was put in to tamp down the noise; in any case, the room away from the main one is quieter.
Chef Greg McCarthy, who worked with Jean Georges Vongerichten in New York for six years and at Nobu 57 there, has a talent for richly flavored food, evident in his Chilean sea bass with baby eggplant and spring peas shot through with wasabi ($28); a vegetarian will be over the moon for the glazed vegetable pastiche in a sweet-sour broth with black quinoa ($18). I also loved the roasted rockfish with citrus salsa and fingerling potatoes, and, in season, the crisp soft-shell crab with a lush avocado puree scented with basil.
best starter I tried was an expertly rendered
terrine of foie gras with carrot and ginger.
For dessert, you can hardly go wrong with the
freshly baked madeleine cookies ($7) or the
chocolate nougat bar with roasted almond toffee
($9). And for those with a soul for the South,
don’t miss the fried strawberry pies with fromage blanc
ice cream ($9).
Nopa is open Mon.-Fri. for lunch and dinner, Sat. for dinner and Sun. for Champagne brunch ($30) and dinner.
of the Air: American Airlines First Class Dinner
back first class from London gave me a chance to
board first, sleep on a full-flat seat and take on
board something larger than a reading glasses case
without being charged more than the price of half
a tank of gas. Another perk of first
class travel is first class food. American
Airlines says its menu selections are “inspired by
you and created by our experienced culinary team.
So sit back, and satisfy your cravings with the
fine cuisine offered onboard.” They then say:
“Satisfy your palate with our chef-inspired menu
options that range from succulent entrées
to light and refreshing selections.”
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
42 East 20th Street (off Fifth Avenue)
huge success of Union Square Café as both
a beacon of good taste in that New York
neighborhood and as a standard for a new form of
American genial hospitality when it opened in
1985, owner Danny Meyer bided his time before
opening another restaurant.
In the years since, Gramercy Tavern has rarely had an empty seat, and if you want to dine there without booking weeks in advance, make a rez after nine o’clock and you should be good to go. There are a lot of tables and it can get loud, depending on the people seated near you, but the overall ambiance of the place, which is kind of posh tavern-like, is without a scintilla of pretense.
Colicchio departed long ago to become a food TV celebrity, but his replacement, since 2006, Michael Anthony (right), has proven himself more than an impressive successor. Indeed, Anthony’s cooking has a refinement that has gotten stronger over the years, and, given the numbers of guests he has to cook for each night, it is a marvel that the food arrives with such consistency.
On my last visit there were some uncharacteristic lapses in service (we received no bread until an hour after we sat down) but I count that as a momentary anomaly.
The wine list, overseen by beverage director Juliet Pope, is stronger than ever, with global holdings at every price range.
I was at a table for four, so I had a chance to taste a great array of dishes, and almost every dish was carefully conceived and had remarkable flavor. The start-off amuse of savory granola with yogurt and arugula was a bit odd, more like a breakfast item than a dinner dish, but this was followed by a fine beef tartare with pine nuts, capers and pickled mushrooms, and a lustrous smoked trout (left) with cipollini purée and pickled onions, two dishes whose sour tang snapped the palate to attention.
Lobster pappardelle pasta with chorizo, scallions and small, sweet mussels was sumptuous, while a mushroom custard, sunchokes, trout roe and more pickling, this time burdock, was delicious but not a very generous portion for a starter; it would have made a terrific .
To see how easily a vegetarian can dine here with pleasure, choose a dish like Anthony’s kabocha squash, mushrooms, ricotta and hazelnuts in a luscious mélange, or the glistening grilled carrots, sweetened with honey, a crunch of pistachios and Cremont cheese that lifted the humble carrot to a rich, satisfying level. (There is a six-course $102 vegetarian menu available.)
Flounder was simply done, with wild rice, shiitake mushrooms and an enriching lobster sauce, again showing an intelligent marriage of vegetables and protein in perfect balance. Black bass, too, was in tandem with bok choy, sweet potatoes and a creamy peanut curry sauce. Some very fine, well-fatted pork loin and deckle--a mottled cut that you rarely see--was wonderfully matched with bitter collards, starchy black lentils and light kohlrabi.
The first of the desserts was a sweet and tangy grapefruit granité with lime and avocado, which nearly worked; much better was lemon sherbet with poppy seeds, ricotta, hazelnuts and thyme, and then came the big gun sweets--coconut pudding with mango, passion fruit, pistachio and just a hint of sweet basil; and an amusing chocolate banana slice dressed with caramel, sesame and black cardamom and shot of dark rum. The send-off was a happy little coconut and marshmallow fluff cake, almost like a reward for finishing all the veggies.
The meal had such a cogent, focused, almost thematic consistency based on the season’s vegetables--the Union Square Green Market is nearby the restaurant--but it also showed the individual spirit of Michael Anthony, who has few peers for this kind of elegant but approachable food without modernist interference.
So, now two decades old, Gramercy Tavern sails on the calm waters of consistent good taste and attention to the natural order of things in the garden, farm and sea. It’s a way of cooking whose style is sorely missed in so many of the new flashes in the pan.
Gramercy Tavern is open for lunch Mon.-Fri, and for dinner nightly. At dinner the vegetable tasting course is $102, the seasonal menu $120; a 3-course menu is $92 fixed price.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
PENFOLDS CELEBRATES ITS 170TH ANNIVERSARY IN LONDON
By John Mariani
The idea of someday opening Australia’s most illustrious winery was surely not on the mind of Christopher Rawson Penfold (below) back in 1833 when he took his medical exams at London’s Apothecaries’ Hall (left)--the same premises where, this April, Penfolds held an anniversary luncheon commemorating the winery’s 170 years in business.
During the meal, attended by wine media, negociants, sellers and collectors, in the same room where Dr. Penfolds would have received his degree, several of the estate's wines were poured, including the Yattarna 2011, one of the most expensive chardonnays in the world at $130, made from grapes harvested entirely in Tasmania; Barossa RWT [Red Wine Making Trial] Shiraz 2004 ($150), a big, bold red whose grapes are sourced from vines planted a century ago; and its iconic signature Grange 1999 ($400)--now almost impossible to find--made from 100 percent shiraz; and Great Grandfather Tawny NV ($350), which is said to reflect the tastes of such fortified wines two centuries ago.
Dr. Penfolds and his wife, Mary, re-located from London in 1843 to South Australia, where they purchased 500 acres they called the Magill Estate, a small part of which they devoted to growing grapes to make fortified wines popular in their day. After the doctor’s death in 1870, Mary remained committed to the winery and it stayed within the family, which retained a majority interest until 1976, after going public in 1962. The company is now called Treasury Wine Estates.
Today the company owns two wineries, the original Magill Estate and Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley, and it is widely considered one of Australia’s greatest wineries, pioneers of New World shiraz but also producing a wide range of white, red and fortified wines. In 2012 Penfolds released a “Block 42” 2004 sold in sealed glass ampoules for $168,000 each--the world’s most expensive bottlings at that time.
For the 170th anniversary in London, Penfolds celebrated by linking up with one of London’s most glamorous design and furniture companies, Linley (left) on Pimlico Road, to place an imperial bottle (the size of eight regular 750 ml bottles) of Bin 170 Kalimna Shiraz 2010 into a bespoke wooden case marked with a compass whose lock opens only if turned to the longitude and latitude of the Magill Estate and which hides a secret drawer containing a photographic journey of Kalimna Block 3C as well as a Certificate of Authenticity. To assure the perfect ambiance for the wine in any room it might reside, the case also contains a synthetic hygrometer and bimetal thermometer. The boxes--only seven were made--were said to have taken 80 hours to craft and another 40 to polish, plate and engrave.
The wine itself was made from a single vineyard from old vines, with all grapes handpicked; unblended with other wines, it spends 16 months in French oak. The last time this wine was made was in 1973.
The wine and case together sell for $60,000, with each buyer’s name and bottle number customized by Linley. Out of 5,544 bottles of the wine made, only 240 will go to the U.S., for $1,800 a bottle.
In addition, Penfolds has installed an intimate namesake wine room within the Linley store where its wines may be tasted--free of charge, because the store has no license to sell wine.
The next day I had a chance to taste more Penfolds wines at a spectacular new wine shop named Hedonism and at one of London’s most historic wine stores, Berry Brothers & Rudd (below), whose clients, since 1698, have included the Royal Family, Lord Byron and the Aga Khan. Sixty-nine cases of the firm's wines were on the Titanic when it sank in 1912.
Over a lunch of hen’s eggs and asparagus, braised ox cheeks and Cumbrian beef, and chocolate dessert with citrus jelly, we drank a Penfolds Reserve Bin 09A Chardonnay 2009 ($130); Grange 1989 (difficult to find except on eBay!); and Bin 7 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon 1967 ($1,285), which, like all the Penfolds reds I tasted, showed a remarkable vigor and maturation despite their age. The 1967 still had mellow tannins, the aroma of truffles, and the fine fruit of the shiraz grape.
(Be aware that most of these wines come in very small quantities to the U.S. market, but Penfolds Bin 389, aged in American oak and often called “Baby Grange,” and Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon, both $69, as well as Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz at $30 have good distribution in the States.)
It was quite a celebratory weekend, especially for an Australian wine whose London-bred and educated founder left England to seek a livelihood in a new world ten thousand miles away. But no matter how long it takes, it’s always nice to come home to brag.
To see how Bin 170 was made, watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKZdxX6bixs>
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