Friday, August 28, 2009

Bistro Bis - Review

Day 4: Bistro Bis (
Overall Rating: RRRR 1/2 (out of 5)

Tonight, we dined at Bistro Bis, the self-proclaimed poor cousin of Vidalia and our dinner was nothing short of incredible.

We’re not a fan of eating crow especially when it isn’t roasted by a talented chef but tonight we are willing to swallow it raw and whole. In our review of Vidalia we doubted whether or not celebrated Chef Jeffrey and his wife Sallie were committed to providing the same superb fare to Restaurant Week diners that they lavish on their regular customers. Our outstanding meal at Bistro Bis proved we had misjudged this culinary duo.

Parry started his meal with Moules a la Piperade which translated is mussels steamed with heirloom peppers, linguiça sausage and oregano-tomato broth. The mussels were small but extremely juicy and tender, the sausage was exquisitly spiced and maintained its consistency in the broth and the broth itself was an ocean of rich flavor that inspired Parry to gulp spoonful after spoonful of it. I abandoned my indifference to bread and used copious amounts of it to soak up this succulent potage.

My appetizer of Steak Tartare Atilla served with capers, onions, spicy aïoli, cornichons and garlic potato chips was just as remarkable. The chopped sirloin was well seasoned and the potato chips provided the ideal textural contrast to the delicate meat.

If the appetizers delighted our palettes the main course can only be described as orgasmic. My lamb steak arrived with a compliment of buttery mashed potatoes and an au jus that is best described as something mom would make, only better. The lamb was incredibly tender and flavorful, so much so that I swear the charcutier tasted it every ten seconds during the cooking process.

Parry ordered the Duck Confit Façon Tarbais, a garlic-herb rendered duck leg with Toulouse duck sausage, tomato concassé and a ragout of white beans. We are uncertain if the duck was marinated, air dried or pre-steamed but we can state for certain that it was moist, savory and perfectly cooked. The big surprise for Parry was the beans. Normally, he has a hate-on for these little white pearls but tonight he greedily wolfed them down. When I asked Parry about his sudden change of heart he explained that the beans prepared at Bistro Bis were soft but not mushy which to him made all of the difference in the world.

For dessert, Parry ordered a flourless chocolate cake infused with orange and a healthy heaping of crème fraiche. While it was challenging to detect the zest of citrus, the cake was moist and a satisfying way to end the admirable meal.

I opted for the Crème Brûlée which is my all-time favorite dessert. While the flavor came close to meeting my admittedly high standards, the texture failed to please. The interior reminded me more of scrambled eggs than creamy custard. I must confess however that the textural issue with the brûlée didn’t matter much because up until that moment I had experienced such a superior meal that this tiny glitch didn’t phase me.

Our attentive and charming server Lateef vetoed our request for double espresso and insisted on bringing us Bistro Bis’s French press coffee. We fretted a little because we have a penchant for strong coffee and as such, worried that regular joe wouldn’t cut it. Once again, Bistro Bis proved us wrong. The coffee was good, probably one of the better cups of coffee we’ve had during Restaurant Week.

Parry and I don’t like to be wrong, our egos are just too big for that but tonight we are prepared to fess up and take the hit. Vidalia did disappoint us but we were too rash in concluding that Chef Buben and Sallie aren’t dedicated to providing Washingtonians with awe-worthy food. Our meal at Bistro Bis more than proves that point. So, what do we think now that we have bellies full with rich, luscious food? That we’re hooked on Bistro Bis and that during the regular season, we might just give Vidalia another try.

Vidalia - Review

Day 3, Dinner: Vidalia
R 1/2 (out of 5

UPDATE: Okay folks, Parry and I have to fess up. We sent Chef Buben and his wife Sallie a copy of our review of Vidalia and after a brief exchange with Sallie, we decided to give this culinary team another shot - this time at Bistro Bis.
The food was FANTASTIC. We were too rash in saying that Chef Buben isn't serious about providing Washingtonians with great food - our review of Bistro Bis proves that. We don't seek to minimize our negative experience at Vidalia but we should have been less quick to judge the culinary team as a whole. So, please take a couple of minutes to read the review of Bistro Bis - and book a RW reservation there if you can.

Vidalia, owned and managed by experienced and respected Chef Jeffrey Buben and his wife Sallie, is presumed to be one of the finest restaurants in Washington, D.C.. To date, the restaurant has received a wealth of recognition including the prestigious DiRona Award by the Distinguished Restaurants of North America and the Washingtonian has annually awarded it a four-star rating. It wasn’t just the hype that made Parry and I eager to sample this restaurant it was the immaculate reputation of James Buben. Much to our horror and surprise, Vidalia turned out to be the worst dining experience of Restaurant Week.

Parry and I were hungry. I know that those of you kind souls who are following our culinary adventure and graciously reading our reviews will wonder how that was possible since I had lunched at 2941 the very same day. But we were, ravenous in fact. As such we opted for the five-course tasting menu.

Parry started with Vidalia’s Rabbit Mortadella with red mustard greens, spiced pecans, rabbit bacon and truffle-honey vinaigrette. I am ethically opposed to eating rabbit so I didn’t partake but Parry described the dish as something short of good. He found the mortadella a little bland and the dressing more honey than truffle.

My starter of Toigo Orchard Cucumber Soup far exceeded my expectations. The soup, which was served chilled, burst with flavor and I couldn’t help but wonder how Chef Buben’s team made a cucumber taste that good. If only the following courses were half as pleasing as the soup.

Parry’s Grilled Octopus was bland and rubbery and my dish of Frogs Legs served in a parsley emulsion proved tough, tasteless and flat. The next course, Vidalia’s signature dish of Shrimp and Yellow Corn Grits provided us with a sampling of severely overcooked shrimp in a sea of rich and creamy grits.

By the time our fourth course arrived we were nervous. Parry ordered the Shenandoah Lamb Shoulder with eggplant caviar, pot belly farm fig mostarda and grilled garlic while I had selected the Braised Red Waddle Pork Cheeks with crayfish, okra, guanciale, étouffée. They sounded great on paper but based upon the previous courses could the kitchen really deliver these complicated dishes? The sour expression on Parry’s face after the first bite of lamb told me all I needed to know. Nothing frustrates Parry more than a piece of dull, poorly cooked lamb.

My dish fared slightly better. The pork cheeks were tender but lacked the richness that usually accompanies this dish and the crayfish, well, in reality they were two of the tiniest pieces of crayfish I have ever seen or eaten and they were so overdone that one would best describe their texture as wallpaper-like.

At this point in the meal, Parry and I seriously debated skipping dessert. We’re glad we didn’t. My dish of Meyer Lemon and Goat Cheese Bavarian with black berries, olive oil génoise and candied black olives boasted complex flavors including a delectably rich and creamy cheese topping. I could tell that the chef hadn’t skimped on ingredients because the cheese was of superior quality. Parry’s Georgia Pecan Bar was ripe with lush caramel and savory pecans. We both agreed that dessert was by far, the best part of dinner.

After we paid the bill and were preparing to leave the server asked how we enjoyed the meal. Parry and I exchanged looks. This is that embarrassing part of a bad meal where guests feel compelled to lie. We opted for the truth.

Parry asked to speak with the manager and seconds later Michael Nevarez, the General Manager of Vidalia appeared. We carefully and somewhat gently explained that we had been eager to dine at Vidalia because of Chef Buben’s reputation and the rave reviews many have afforded the establishment but that we were gravely disappointed in the five-course tasting menu because so much of the food was either bland or overcooked.

I suspect many of you will doubt what you are about to read but Parry and I swear it is the absolute truth. Mr. Nevarez responded by telling us that the dishes we were served fell short of our expectations because it is Restaurant Week and that in order to provide the five-course tasting menu at the price of $45 the chefs had to cut costs and use inferior ingredients. I swear Parry’s mouth slipped open during this horrendous explanation. I wish I’d had a camera with me to capture it.

My response differed from Parry’s. I looked right at Mr. Nevarez and asked why Vidalia would risk their fine reputation by participating in Restaurant Week if doing so meant serving shoddy food. His response? In this economy, Vidalia wouldn’t survive if they didn’t especially since Congress is out on a break and business has been so slow.

Mr. Nevarez was making me feel badly for Chef Buben and his wife but only for a second and not for the reason you may assume. I started to wonder what comments like that could do to tarnish the reputation of a respected chef like Buben and then I remembered he or Sallie hired this individual to run his operations so who really is at fault here? And more importantly, Parry and I can only assume that Chef Buben and Sallie are aware of the happenings at Vidalia and that means they approved of the cut-backs to the food budget during Restaurant Week that according to Nevarez was responsible for the absence of flavor we experienced.

To add insult to injury, Mr. Nevarez tried to tempt us to give Vidalia another shot by offering us free champagne if we returned during a normal week. We politely explained that our complaint wasn’t designed to score free alcohol and that quite frankly we didn’t appreciate the offer. We further explained that we love food and that’s why as new residents to Washington we are sampling 6 restaurants in 5 days, to determine where we want to dine this year. Our response didn’t penetrate and Mr. Nevarez dismissed us with a smile and brisk handshake.

Lunch at 2941 - Review

Day 3, Lunch: 2941 (
Overall Rating: RRR 1/2 (out of

Today’s double feature began at 2941 where Executive Chef Bertrand Chemel, a native of the Auvergne region of France and recipient of three stars from the New York Times, is reputed to have transformed this restaurant into an earthy manifestation of French cuisine.

My lunch companions, a friend who has dined in the finest restaurants Europe and North America has to offer and her six year old daughter. Yes, that’s right, I said six year old daughter. I know what you are thinking, why introduce a kid to a menu crafted for a sophisticated palette or force her to sit still amidst 2941’s lush landscape of lake, koi pond and floor to ceiling windows?

For the record, this isn’t your average six year old. Besides displaying only the best behavior that I wish some adults would emulate, this child has refined tastes and can down squid, steak and carpaccio with the best of them which is precisely what she did.

This sophisticated child started her meal with Hawaiian Red Snapper Carpaccio that featured a citrus gelee, cilantro and heart of palm. She liked the way the citrus interacted with the snapper and thought the fish was worth finishing. She did however reject the hearts of palm, finding the texture and flavor a bit odd. I agree. The snapper was fresh and full of flavor and the citrus gelee provided a refreshing burst of flavor reminiscent of a stylish civiche. While I ate the heart of palm and liked the texture it added, I didn’t feel its presence contributed to overall the flavor profile of the dish.
Her mother opted for the Chilled Pea Soup with poached shrimp, summer truffle and orange oil. The soup arrived in an amazing bowl that literally tilted downward which made finishing the last few spoonfuls of soup that much easier and more refined.

I suspect my companion liked but did not love this soup. I say this because like her daughter, she is extremely well-mannered and if she can’t say something nice she isn’t likely to say anything at all and while she ate the soup she did so without much comment. Her daughter, the brave eater, also sampled the soup and her reaction which was a mix of confusion and scowl was more telling. “What are the sticks in the soup,” she asked. Sticks? I looked at her mother who confirmed that were indeed stick-like objects in the soup that she couldn’t quite identify. I wondered if they were the summer truffles but as a huge fan and occasional connoisseur of truffles I can’t imagine them being stick-like in character or flavor. And so the sticks hidden in the soup remained a mystery, one I think both dining companions could have done without.

For the main course, the kid and I ordered Veal Cheek Ravioli with tomato confit, butter poached lobster, and parmesan. The lobster was moist and flavorful, the veal cheek ravioli decadently rich, and the tomato confit’s acidity provided a wonderful balance to the dish.

The little one finished the lobster but didn’t fall in love with the veal cheek ravioli. She tried it, a couple of times, before deciding she would have preferred this homemade pasta be stuffed with cheese instead of veal cheek. Her mother and I disagreed finding the veal cheek delicious but I have to remind myself that despite being a child extraordinaire she is still a child and what kid doesn’t want cheese ravioli?

Her mother ordered the Grilled Pacific Monchong that was lightly grilled and stained with turmeric. Basmati rice, lychee and curry leaf accompanied the fish. Both the child and I sampled this vibrant dish that featured a small piece of fish swimming in a bright green sea. The fish had an almost meat-like texture and was well-seasoned and moist. The sauce burst with flavors that reminded me of one of my favorite Thai dishes, a blend of curry, coconut and basil. Why then didn’t I love this dish? It failed to come together as a whole. The fish was good, the sauce was good but they didn’t tango and that caused the dish to disappoint.

For dessert, I ordered the Raspberry Parfait with fromage blanc panna cotta, lemon balm and warm madeleines. My companions decided upon the Ice Cream Sandwich comprised of dark chocolate cookies paired with mint chocolate chip ice cream. The raspberry parfait was a delight. Imagine a soft, creamy construction paired with fresh raspberries and a perfect cookie. The ice cream sandwich fared less well. Just to further demonstrate the refined palette of this six year old, I will share with you that she opted to eat the dark chocolate portion of the dish and rejected the ice cream.

By now, you know that I am passionate about food and so my reviews thus far have either been ripe with praise or cranky with criticism. Why then does this review of 2941 seem like a lackluster endorsement (yes, the oxymoron was deliberate)?

Our lunch was good not fabulous and yet I experienced moments of greatness like the freshness of the snapper, the succulence of the lobster, the richness of the panna cotta. Thankfully, these moments are enough to ensure that I will give 2941 another try but next time I hope that all of the dishes sing.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Teatro Goldoni - Review

Day 2: Teatro Goldoni (
Overall Rating: RRRR 1/2 (out of 5)

In 2009, Teatro Goldoni won the prestigious RAMMYS Award for Favorite Restaurant and after dining there last night, Parry and I understand why. Chef Enzo Fargione isn’t just a chef to watch, he is a chef to experience – over and over again.

We started our culinary journey with seared potato-leeks-pancetta and crab cakes over cream of basil and a chickpea powder texture. The savory cakes were moist and flavorful and Parry felt the chickpea powder added a welcomed crunch to the dish.

Next, we dug into roasted cauliflowers dressed with bread crumbs, capers, roasted garlic, basil and Ligurian black olives over a carpaccio of roasted red and yellow peppers with polenta crackers and red beet chips. We expected this dish to be less savory and blander than the first because it is comprised solely of vegetables. We couldn’t have been more mistaken. The dish sang with flavor and as a self-confessed hater of beets I must acknowledge that the even the beet chips warranted a thumbs up.

As good as the appetizer experience was we were unprepared for the delicacy and scrumptiousness of our main course. Parry’s dish of roasted monkfish wrapped in pancetta and served over a reduction of Merlot red wine and oven baked artichoke hearts was awe-worthy. The monkfish was succulent, the artichokes delightfully seasoned and the reduction made Parry want to lick the plate.

After sampling Parry’s dinner and swooning I eyed my own plate of Teatro lithograph saffron pasta sheet cannellone filled with smoked and buffalo mozzarella, porcini mushrooms and served with arucola pesto and parmesan cheese foam. I commented that branding pasta can be deemed pretentious unless it is truly the most phenomenal pasta in existence. The first mouthful of the cannellone convinced me. Chef Fargione has every right to place his mark on this dish. The stuffing was culinary genius. The cheese was rich, creamy and smoky, the mushrooms delicate and the pesto intensely flavorful.

Parry and I wondered if a kitchen skilled in creating and producing savory dishes could deliver a sweet ending to an almost perfect meal. Fortunately for us, Teatro Goldoni ends the way they begin – with a bang.

The orange chocolate torte was a dreamy mix of quality dark chocolate and cocoa, zesty orange caramel and fresh pistachios. Parry, who normally rejects anything that combines orange and chocolate scraped the plate clean.

My dish of chilled strawberries and sweet rhubarb macerated minestrone with basil sorbet, poppy seeds and crunchy meringue was a refreshing surprise. The minestrone was sweet but not syrupy and the strawberries soft and tangy. The basil ice cream however, stole the show. The flavor was delicate and opulent and I must admit that I desperately wanted another scoop.

At this point, you get that Chef Fargione and his culinary team delivers innovative menus comprised of award-worthy dishes. But there is more to this story. From the second Parry and I walked in to our final moments in the restaurant, we were treated to exemplarity service. The Manager took the time to greet us personally, the bartender provided helpful suggestions regarding the wine list and our server Sayid was warm, skilled and attentive. It was obvious to Parry and I that everyone employed at Teatro Goldoni take pride in their job and their place of employment.

If the purpose of Restaurant Week is to introduce the masses to the finest food Washington has to offer, then Teatro Goldoni succeeded. Without question, Parry and I will return – over and over again.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Oval Room - Review

Last night marked the beginning of our culinary adventure in Washington, D.C. and we thought we'd take you along for the ride. It's Restaurant Week and that means the best restaurants in the city are offering 3 course meals for $35. Our challenge is to dine in 6 restaurants over a period of 5 days. Below you will find our review of restaurant #1 - Oval Room. Bon appetite!

Day 1: Oval Room (
Overall Rating: RRR (out of 5

Ranked 9 in the top 100 restaurants in Washington, Parry and I expected a culinary journey and we weren’t wrong. Too bad the trek was filled with exciting menu concepts that for the most part fell flat on the plate.

Chef Tony Conte is imaginative offering up plates like Parry’s appetizer of seared scallops in a coffee mustard dressing. The scallops while overly salted were cooked to perfection and the coffee mustard dressing was surprisingly delicious. My duck confit with grilled peaches, and frisee pleased the pallet but didn’t ignite any fireworks.

Parry opted for a main course of Wagyu skirt steak with roasted Chinese eggplant, miso and fried potatoes while I selected the organic chicken breast with roasted zucchini puree, savory granola, coddled egg, and squash blossom. The skirt steak was sinewy and tough and Parry felt the Wagyu sauce overpowered every other flavor on the plate.

My main course fared slightly better. The organic chicken was cooked sous vide so it was tender and moist and the roasted zucchini puree was a smokey delight. The coddled egg provided a rich contrast to the plain chicken and the savory granola, while too sparse, was scrumptious.

Dessert proved to be the biggest let-down. Parry’s choice of chocolate custard, pistachio ice cream and espresso cream mimicked an upscale version of a frozen McCain chocolate cake. The custard, more cake than pudding forced the rich pistachio ice cream to claim centre stage. My vanilla cheesecake with graham cracker streusel and Bing cherry compote failed to inspire a second bite.

If the food failed to delight, the service downright disappointed. The Oval Room is reputed to be the restaurant of choice for local politicians and media celebrities. Parry and I paused to wonder why then the waiters failed to collected finished plates and when they did, why they elected to clear Parry’s plate before mine. We also questioned why our coffee was served when we were only half-finished our glasses of wine. This lack of attention to detail made Parry and I feel that the Oval Room is priced high-end while providing a mediocre dining experience.

At $35 for a three-course meal, the Oval Room is a decent meal out but would we return at the usual $85 per person? No way.