Category Archives: Restaurants

All Set — Lunch on 17 January 2018

2018 Winter Restaurant Week 1, Day 2

Wednesday was a brutally cold day in Washington, the kind of day that’s perfect for staying inside and researching winter vacation packages for Charleston and New Orleans. But I had a lunch date as part of Bethesda Restaurant Week, and I wasn’t about to cancel, due to my fear of being put on OpenTable’s No-Fly List and never being able to make a reservation again.

Bethesda has no official boundaries. It’s a pleasant, upper-middle class area—I suppose that description is redundant—north of Washington.

Despite its name, Bethesda Restaurant Week is not limited to restaurants in what most people think of as Bethesda. Some of them are in very rich Potomac, to the north, and some are near the District line, to the south. And one of them is in Silver Spring. It’s called All Set, and that’s where I was headed.

And I’m oh-so-glad I did.

Grilled  Octopus

Grilled  Octopus

I started with Grilled  Octopus, on a bed of chickpea purée, with chorizo butter, smoked paprika oil, and a sprinkling of celery leaves. No way could I ever duplicate this one at home, although I wish I could. Excellent!

Short Rib Ragu

Short Rib Ragu

With time and a lot of effort, though, I might be able to make something like this main of Slow Braised Short Rib Ragu. The pasta is called “Campanelle”, and is designed to work with thick sauces like this one. If you look closely, you can see the brunoise-cut carrots and celery.*

Fried Oreos

Fried Oreos

This was karma, or irony, or coincidence, or comeuppance, or some combination of the four.

When I was writing about the high quality of the food at Budapest Christmas Market a few weeks ago, I made a sneering reference to the “Deep-Fried Peanut Butter Banana Cheeseburgers…at the Texas State Fair.”

My dessert at All Set was Tempura-Battered Fried Oreos with a Chocolate Ganache.

I was wrong. I’m a convert. They were crunchy and delicious.

In summary, the food at All Set was exceptionally good, and the friendly service was excellent.

This one’s a keeper.


*I’m flaunting a newly acquired culinary vocabulary word here. I just this week learned that a brunoise cut is one that gives you cubes 1/8th inch in size. My intensive home cooking research is rewarded.  All those hours spent reading Cooking for Dummies finally pay off!

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PassionFish — Lunch on 16 January 2018

The PassionFish Mermaid

The PassionFish Mermaid

2018 Winter Restaurant Week 1, Day 1

Looking back, I noticed that during 2017 Summer RW I’d revisited more restaurants that I already knew and enjoyed than new places. For 2018 Winter RW, I’ve made a conscious effort to correct that failing. About 75% of the places on my tentative list are new to me.

My first stop, though, was someplace that I just had to try again: PassionFish, in Bethesda. Was it really as good as I remembered it?

Turns out, it was better.

Crab & Corn Chowder

I was able to narrow down the choice of a starter to the Crab & Corn Chowder with jumbo lump crab meat and green onions or the Lobster Butternut Squash Bisque with toasted pepitas and pumpkin oil. The excellent server said he’d choose the chowder, and I have always relied on the kindness recommendations of strangers waiters, unless they’re clearly trying to up-sell me.

It was a good choice.

Red Thai Curry

Red Thai Curry

I’d decided on a main of Red Thai Curry Shrimp and Golden Pineapple with jasmine rice and kaffir lime as soon as I saw it on the menu. My server suggested bringing an extra portion of rice, because this was a hot, hot dish. He was right again.

A note on the sloppiness of the presentation: That wasn’t the restaurant’s fault, it was mine. The curry came in a separate bowl, which you can see in the background. I served myself a small portion of the curry to start, and I wasn’t very careful plating the serving.

Chocolate Mousse Crunch

Chocolate Mousse Crunch

On the other hand, I had nothing to do with the plating of this elegant Chocolate Mousse Crunch with vanilla-bean anglaise and strawberry coulis. This was a stunner. It tasted even better than it looked.

All in all, the meal was about as close to perfect as it could be.


After cheerfully over-tipping that helpful server, I walked across the street to the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema, just in time for a matinee screening of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Much as I love film, I hardly ever go to the movies anymore. During 2017, fr’instance, I saw 6.75 times as many movies on airplanes as I saw in movie theatres, because what else are you going to do when it’s three in the morning and you’re somewhere over the Atlantic. (True Fact: I calculated that figure at three in the morning, somewhere over the Atlantic.)

Besides, 95% of the world’s movies and tv shows easily accessible for streaming, which is a good argument for staying at home, where it’s warm and you can pause or replay the action and you don’t even have to wear pants if you don’t want to.

But Three Billboards was written, produced, and directed by Martin McDonagh, and his In Bruges is one of my five favourite films of the 21st century, so…

He’s created another profane, violent, and hilarious classic. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell all give what might be their best performances.

2018 Winter Restaurant Week(s) in (and around) Washington (DC)

It’s that time again.

Twice a year, in January – February and in August – September, Washington and its suburbs hold movable feasts known as Restaurant Weeks. The celebrations begin with Bethesda Restaurant Week, which this year includes 35 restaurants, and runs from 12 to 21 January. That’s followed by the big one, Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Week, which features 250+ restaurants and runs from 22 to 28 January. Then comes Alexandria Restaurant Week, from 26 January through 4 February, with 60+ venues.

Since some restaurants extend the celebration beyond the official RW dates, and many participate in both the Metro and more local RWs, “Restaurant Week” in DC is actually more like “Restaurant Month”.

The  Restaurant Week concept has its critics. Most restaurants offer limited menus, heavy on inexpensive mains like salmon and chicken. In some cases, ordering a restaurant’s ongoing “specials” can be a better deal than the one offered during RW. “It’s for amateurs,” a friend of mine once said.

But if you choose well and know what you’re doing, RW can be an excellent way to explore new places and revisit old favourites, all at bargain prices. Over time, researching, planning, scheduling, and enjoying RW has turned into my big personal project for January and August.

I’ll be posting my RW finds over the next three weeks.

A Late Lunch at Fatál, and the End of Another Adventure

For my last meal in Budapest, I went back to an old favourite. The restaurant is called Fatál, and it’s just off Vaci Utci, a couple of blocks from my hotel. Despite the hint of Eastern European intrigue suggested by the name, “Fatál” simply means “wooden bowl” in Hungarian.

The entrance to Fatál isn’t very impressive, but good stuff awaits within. You descend a dark flight of stairs and find yourself in one of those dimly lit, arched underground dining rooms that are so common in the East.

I knew enough to order only a main course. Even in Hungary, with its notoriously oversized portions, Fatál is famous for its generosity. Servings come in pots and pans because they’re too large for plates. The American “doggie bag” concept isn’t all that widely accepted in much of Europe, but, as my server said, “It’s not only allowed here, it’s required.”

None of that would have mattered, of course, if the food hadn’t been so very good. My meal—meals, actually—of Roasted Pork Brasso Style with spicy fried potato was a perfect example of Hungarian home cooking.

Roasted Pork

The check arrived, effectively signaling the end of my Budapest adventure, and, clutching my doggie bag, I went back to the hotel to pack for the trip home to Washington. That’s always a bittersweet task.

There are too many unexplored cities, too many life-changing experiences, far too much beauty, and an infinite number of undiscovered pleasures in the world.

And never, never, never enough time.

Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival II — The Food

And then there was the food.

The food at the Budapest Christmas Market is a long way from the Deep-Fried Peanut Butter Banana Cheeseburgers on sale at the Texas State Fair.

I could probably have dined here—and dined very well—every day I was in the city.

Here’s a small selection of what some of the vendors were offering:

It’s not too late! The Christmas Market lasts until New Year’s Eve, so you still have three or four days to get there. You can make it if you rush.

And there’s always next year.

Venison Stew and Crème Brûlée at Ruben

So many restaurants, so little time.

My days in Budapest were dwindling, and I still had, oh, 40 or 50 restaurants on my Must Try list. That would be hard absolutely impossible to do in the remaining time, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to take advantage of the Super Secret Foreign Travel Benefit that Nobody Talks About.*

Ruben, with its wine bar atmosphere, was at the top of the list.

Venison

I’d dined on wild boar and goose leg at earlier meals, so I finished the great Hungarian trifecta with venison. This spiced venison stew with red wine was served with toast to mop up the sauce.

Crème Brûlée

Not just crème brûlée. Raspberry-lavender crème brûlée.

You really can’t get much more elegant than that.


*OK, because you’ve read this far, here’s the Super Secret Foreign Travel Benefit that Nobody Talks About: 

No matter what I eat, I don’t gain weight when I’m traveling. I attribute this to the fact that when I’m in a foreign city, I actually spend almost as much time walking as I claim to do in Washington when my doctor asks me how much exercise I’m getting.

Either that, or it has something to do with the metric system.

A Visit to Budapest’s Great Market Hall

My hotel in Budapest had an unbeatable location at the end of Váci utca, the stylish, pedestrianized shopping and restaurant street in the heart of the city. The nearest metro station was a block away. Go a block further, and you were at the Danube. And you could walk door-to-door between the hotel and Budapest’s Great Market Hall in five minutes flat.

Did I ever mention the time I spent more than four hours just wandering through the Boqueria in Barcelona? And then went back the next day? Baltimore’s Lexington Market, Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market—I love places like this. They’re my art galleries, my museums, maybe even my cathedrals. [OK, calm down. Have a cookie or something.]

At 10,000 square meters, Great Market Hall is huge. It was built in the late 19th century, badly damaged during WWII, and restored in the 1990s.


The ground floor offers everything you’d need to make a meal. It’s here, too, that you can stock up on the paprika, chocolates, and caviar that will remind you of Hungary when you get home.


It has everything from fresh produce…

…to dried meats…


…to specialty chocolates.


The second level of the Market has a good selection of little restaurants and food stalls for on-the-go dining, but it’s mainly devoted to booths that sell every conceivable Hungarian souvenir the acquisitive tourist could desire.

This not-inexpensive lace work, for instance:

I managed to resist the lace. The food, on the other hand…