Had a very short trip earlier this week, but managed to get in some good meals. Day 2 meals were all provided by a conference, although I did enjoy my Day 1 leftovers before heading to dinner, knowing that I would enjoy them more than hotel banquet food.
Day 1: Open City, Central, Rasika
I was staying at the Omni Shoreham and flew in on a red-eye, so Open City was a very appealing option for breakfast. I had a good cappuccino, and so-so croque madame – the sandwich components didn’t meld together at all, so it kept sliding apart.
Lunch was fried chicken and mac and cheese at Central – upscale comfort food appealed to me post-red-eye, (as did the easy access by subway) . Unfortunately, I wasn’t super-impressed – the thick panko breading didn’t fuse well with the skin. I ended up taking it all off the second piece, something I never do. The breast piece was boneless, and while it wasn’t terribly dry, I think the flavor and texture would have benefited from being cooked on the bone. The overall effect, between the panko and the black-pepper dominated flavoring, was of Japanese fried chicken – I would have been happy to have had it at an izakaya, but not at $21/ serving. The mac and cheese was fine – maybe too much cream and mustard for me, but I have particular mac and cheese preferences. Later in the trip, I was very impressed with the Michel Richard designed menu at the National Gallery, so if I were to return to Central, I’d probably order something more classically French… the rabbit and the beef cheek dishes on the dinner menu look especially appealing. For anyone visiting the Bay Area looking for good upscale fried chicken, Ad Hoc in Yountville sets the standard, but Pican in Oakland does a pretty stellar job as well.
Rasika is easily the best upscale Indian restaurant I’ve been to. I appreciated that the menu isn’t particularly fusion-y – rather, it seems to draw on flavors and ingredients from all over India, adds in a few non-classically Indian ingredients, and reassembles them in inventive ways while still managing to taste authentic.
I didn’t have a reservation (it was solidly booked on Opentable), but didn’t have any difficulty walking-in – for solo diners, I definitely recommend the bar in the back, in front of the open kitchen. The seats are a bit too low to allow diners to really see much of the cooking, but it’s a more comfortable spot than the lounge.
I ordered the 6 course vegetarian tasting menu, and whoa… it was a lot of food. Admittedly, I had had both a heavy breakfast and a heavy lunch (although I took most of the mac and cheese back to my hotel), but I was reasonably hungry when I started. The first course was the palak chaat, which was stellar – I loved the texture of the fried spinach, and was impressed with the balanced flavors and acidity of the dish as a whole. They managed to accurately replicate the flavors of my favorite chaat stand in the Bay Area (one buried in the back of an Indian grocery store, where you eat standing up off of Styrofoam plates) while still being elegant and innovative. Briliant!
The second course was the tawa baingan, a silken stack of buttery soft eggplant layered with spiced, mashed potato, served with a tart-sweet tamarind/chili/peanut sauce. Again, beautifully balanced flavors and textures, unlike anything I’ve ever had, and yet still familiar and satisfying.
The third course had components from two different appetizers - the chestnut and fava bean tikki, and what I think were the tawa dates. The tikki were a nuttier, earthier play on aloo tikki, and paired well with a gingery green apple chutney. The dates were miraculous – stuffed with sweet cheese, they were served in a creamy mango-colored sauce that tasted for all the world like a shrimp/lobster based cream sauce. If they are, indeed, the tawa dates, the menu lists cottage cheese, mango powder, garlic and cream – I haven’t a clue how you would combine those flavors to give me the sauce that came on that plate.
The fourth course was the paneer shashlik – marinated paneer, skewered with onion and pepper and grilled. It was good, but didn’t measure up to the level of complexity and innovation of the earlier courses. I think there was also too much of it – I was starting to get uncomfortably full at this point.
I hadn’t asked any details about the tasting menu prior to ordering, so I assumed that by the fourth course, the bulk of the tasting had already been done, and I hoped desperately at this point that the fifth course would be some sort of light salad before dessert. Instead, my waiter brought out a long dish with some rice, a bit of dry okra curry on the side, a piece of naan, and three separate curries. I nearly passed out at this point – the curry portions were not small (maybe ¾ cup of rich curry each). I had a small taste of each (I especially liked the dry okra curry – I adore this style, and wish more restaurants would offer it) and the cardamom-scented, coconut milk based artichoke and cremini curry, then asked for the rest to be wrapped up (the other two curries, a tomato based paneer curry and a red daal, were good but not unusual). I was actually able to stretch out the remainders with a bit of rice for three additional small meals (I was once upon a time blessed with a supercharged metabolism that has been progressively grinding to a halt over the last few years – part of my adaptation to this reality is a heightened calorie consciousness. I would place each individual curry within the 500 calorie range, which means that one course, with 4 curries, rice and naan, could really provide an entire day’s worth of calories for me.)
Desserts were the weakest spot – a tasting of gulab jamun, cardamom ice cream, apple fritter, and carrot halwa, none were strong enough to entice me to force-feed myself. Rasika’s tendency to re-invent Indian food without a lot of fusion-y influence is its great strength for most of its menu, but I think they could take a few pages from European and American pastry for the dessert course – after a heavy meal, I needed some lighter textures and more balanced acidity to keep going. Given the beautiful balance of sweet, sour and spicy throughout the meal, I expected more from them for dessert.
In general, spice levels were calibrated to enhance flavors – not as hot as you would get at, say, a Southern Indian restaurant geared toward an Indian clientele, but with more pleasant heat than I think you’d normally get if you didn’t specify spicy. Service was friendly but a wee bit overbearing (I didn’t think it was necessary to come by and let me know before every course that my next course was coming, although I appreciate the sentiment).
Day 3: Garden Café at the National Gallery, Five Guys Burger and Fries (IAD branch)
I was worried that since I wasn’t going to be able to get to the buffet until about 2 (it closes at 3), that everything would look tired and picked over. I was pleasantly surprised – I really appreciated the attractive presentation (lots of Le Creuset, no visible warming pans) - it looked and felt more like a potluck by good home cooks than a buffet in a museum. I especially enjoyed the coq au vin, the ratatouille, and the endive salad, and appreciated the inclusion of a mouthwateringly stinky Livarot on the cheese plate. The cheese encrusted crouton for the French onion soup didn’t look great (I chose not to take one), but the soup itself was very good. The gougeres are tiny, very light in texture, and quite delicious. I’ll have to say that I actually didn’t love the famed faux gras (the parsley gelee just tasted too… green), although I liked the other charcuterie options (saucisson sec, jambon de Bayonne). I also sampled enjoyed the lentil salad, and the pommes de terres Lyonnaise. The quiche was ok, not as strong as the other options. The chocolate mousse was really good – as far as I could tell, it didn’t seem to have any gelatin or other stabilizing agents you would normally find in a buffet mousse. All in all, probably the best buffet I’ve ever had in terms of quality of food.
I was prepared to have some of my Rasika leftovers (augmented by rice I bought from an Indian restaurant near my hotel) pre-flight, but then spotted Five Brothers, right near my gate. This was my first time trying them, and while it’s not my number one fast-food style burger (Shake Shack and In ‘n Out are #1 and #2 for me), it’s easily one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in an airport (and their fries are far superior to both Shake Shack and In ‘n Out’s) Since it was my first time, I opted for their standard Small Cheeseburger (minus the mayo, which I really don’t think belongs on a burger) – I couldn’t say for sure, because there was so much stuff going on, with the mushrooms and all that, but I think they amp up the beef with a little soy sauce or Worcestershire. I prefer clean, clear beefiness, which is why I’d rank In ‘n ‘Out just a hair above for the burger alone. But the fries… I’ve always given In ‘n Out’s limp blond fries a pass, because they’re fresh cut, and I always assumed that fries are better when frozen first, but no longer. Five Bros. fries are fantastic – I didn’t think to dump them out of the Styrofoam cup, so the ones at the bottom steamed a little bit, but even then, they were delicious.