La Piquette

After years of not being overly interested by French cuisine, we have been on a French kick lately. In fact, it’s a safe bet to expect more reviews of French restaurants over the next few months. We started things off with brunch with friends Brenna and Kyle at La Piquette, in DC’s Cathedral Heights neighborhood.

Marnay, Paul, Kyle and Brenna eating brunch at La Piquette in Washington DC

We usually are hesitant to write a full review based on brunch-alone, mainly because the brunch menus at restaurants tend to be unrepresentative of the dinner menus. But the good thing about La Piquette is that the brunch, lunch and dinner menus are all very similar.

At La Piquette’s brunch, you have the option of ordering 3 course for $30—a really good deal. But it also seemed like a lot of food, so all four of us opted to order a la carte. My steak tartare was very finely minced, bound by egg yolk and shot through with copious amounts of horseradish. It was served a bit colder than I would like, however. It was a little like serving wine too cold – you can’t make out all of the flavors.

French

Meanwhile, Marnay cleaned the plate of her mushroom risotto, made with shitake, hen of the woods and royal trumpet mushrooms. We appreciated that La Piquette used some out-of-the-ordinary types of mushrooms and didn’t skimp, either.

French

Kyle went the more traditional brunch route, ordering piperade, a traditional Basque dish (really a sauce more than a dish). Piperade is a red pepper, tomato and onion-based sauce. While the Basque region tends to be associated more with Spain, it’s important to remember that it also includes portions of southwestern France. His piperade was topped with French ham, two sunny side up eggs and frites.

We expected to all be full after this, but the entrees were just so good we didn’t want to skip dessert. We all shared the gateau a la’ orange–a spongy, sweet cake, plus a chocolate mousse. The gateau came with crème Anglaise, meant for pouring over the cake. I’ll admit, the sauce was so good I also ate it on its own!

Gateau a la’ orange for dessert at La Piquette in Washington DC

A lot of ink has been spilled over what constitutes a “neighborhood restaurant.” At its heart, I think it just means a place where you can go frequently (maybe 2-3 times a month). I believe that La Piquette fits the bill: it’s small, cozy, and moderately-priced with respectful but not overly formal service. If we lived in Cathedral Heights, I could see us going to La Piquette multiple times a month, for sure. For classic French cuisine in a casual setting, La Piquette is the place to go.

bar

Best Bite
Paul: Steak tartare with frites
Marnay: Mushroom risotto

Address
La Piquette: 3714 Macomb Street, NW Washington, DC 20016
Closest Metro: Cleveland Park

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Rye Street Tavern

I work in downtown Baltimore and wanted to have a fun daytime adventure before the end of 2018. So, before the holidays, Marnay met me for lunch at Andrew Carmellini’s Rye Street Tavern, in the Port Covington section of south Baltimore.

The restaurant, for now, is nearly all alone in Port Covington. The only exceptions are a few industrial buildings, an UnderArmour office and the restaurant’s sibling distillery, Sagamore Spirits. Down the line, though, this will be a large mixed-used area that will grow around the restaurant. As of now it is a destination spot with an incredible waterfront location. On nice days (such as the day we dined), the windows are opened for a cooling breeze.

Paul and Marnay Meyer standing outside Rye Street Tavern in Port Covington, Baltimore, Maryland

Since the restaurant is isolated from residential areas, we were surprised to find it crowded on a workday. We went to the bar but had trouble finding two seats next to each other. We briefly had a feeling of helplessness until the wonderful bartender saw our plight and came out from behind the bar. She was able to play bar-patron Tetris and figured out a way for Marnay and I to sit next to each other. During the whole meal, in fact, she really went above and beyond!

The free cornbread to start the meal was a bit dry (but, hey, also free) but after that just about everything was fantastic. I opted for the $25 three-course prix-fixe, a good deal. The ember-roasted beets with sheep’s milk yogurt and candied hazelnuts tasted smoky like barbecue. Plus, the big chunks of sweet beets were so juicy they reminded me of watermelon, but with the texture of a root vegetable. The yogurt and the hazelnuts made it feel like a complete dish. Above all, the presentation was stunning.

Ember-roasted beets with sheep's milk yogurt and candied hazelnuts at Rye Street Tavern in Port Covington, Baltimore, Maryland

Marnay ordered the Southern-style fried chicken, Rye Street’s Tavern’s signature dish. It was perfectly seasoned, and we especially liked the housemade hot sauce, which the bartender encouraged us to use. It really only needed a little bit because it was well-seasoned already. The only disappointment was the honey-butter biscuit, which tasted like it had been drenched in melted butter.

Southern-style fried chicken with honey-butter biscuits at Rye Street Tavern in Port Covington, Baltimore, Maryland

I came in with low expectations for the rock shrimp tacos—after all Rye Street Tavern is a modern-American restaurant. But the battered and fried shrimp topped with pickled jalapenos and a fiery guajillo chile paste and young cilantro were quite good. I would even consider getting them again!

Rock shrimp tacos at Rye Street Tavern in Port Covington, Baltimore, Maryland

My prix fixe came with dessert, so we shared a slice of vanilla buttermilk pie. It was a tasty end to the meal. Throughout everything, our bartender did a fantastic job of taking care of all, as while still serving the other bar patrons. If I had gotten her name, I would have passed along a good word to the manager on the way out. On a nice day, it’s hard to top Rye Street Tavern’s waterfront setting as a place to grab a bite in Baltimore. I can definitely see us going back in the Spring when the weather is warmer.

Slice of vanilla buttermilk pie at Rye Street Tavern in Port Covington, Baltimore, Maryland

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Ember roasted beets

Address
Rye Street Tavern: 13 Rye Street Baltimore, MD 21230

Park Place Café and Restaurant

“Hi Paul, not Tom”, was our greeting upon entering the beguiling Park Place Café and Restaurant, a six-table BYOB in sleepy Merchantville, NJ. Since the restaurant only takes reservations by voicemail, they thought I said my name was “Tom” when the restaurant called that afternoon to confirm. We thought it was clever to use that as a greeting when we walked through the door. It was a light-hearted, warm welcome.

We were greeted by Francesca, the restaurant’s relentlessly charming host and co-owner. Our table had four seats and the restaurant was a bit loud, so when it came time to order Francesca actually sat down next to Marnay to go over the specials and to take down our order. It made us feel like we were regulars, even though it was our first time.

The chef and co-owner Phil Manganero, runs the kitchen but also spends his days off foraging for ingredients. The restaurant also has its own garden and gets the rest from mainly local purveyors. Their vision for the restaurant, among a sea of red sauce Italian joints, is to create a “New Jersey Terroir.”

The “Kitchen Sink Salad”, a weekly special, is a good example of what they are trying to do. It’s a mix of just about every fresh and seasonal or foraged fruit and vegetable that was available that week. Our salad had wild purslane, wax beans, blackberries, blueberries, herbs from the garden and a few other things thrown in. This seems like a lot, but it made sense. All of the flavors came together in harmony, and they were tied together with a sublime vinaigrette.

Park Place Cafe Kitchen Sink Salad in Merchantville, NJ

The housemade rigatoni, which Francesca informed us that the chef had finished making just before service, showed great restraint. It’s Jersey tomato season, so the pasta highlighted a light tomato sauce and a bit of parmigiano reggiano on the rim of the plate. The dish was brilliant simplicity – there was nowhere for imperfections to hide. A lesser chef would have drowned the rigatoni in sauce – but the housemade rigatoni was way too good to do that and needed to shine on its own.

Park Place Cafe housemade rigatoni in Merchantville, NJ

We had seen on Instagram that Park Place was popular with wine aficionados and it did not disappoint. Shortly after we arrived, a table of six showed up, each person with three bottles of wine! I didn’t want to stare at them too long, but judging by the color of their white wine (almost brownish yellow) it had some serious age. It was entertaining to watch them pour each glass.

The olive oil poached tile fish, a special, was blitzed with shaved truffles and chanterelles. It was an umami bomb that was also intriguing because of its mix of temperatures – warm fish, cold chanterelles that tasted like they had been soaking (perhaps reconstituting?) in vinegar. Meanwhile, the poach in olive oil kept the white tile fish from overcooking.

Park Place Cafe olive oil poached tile fish and bottle of wine in Merchantville, NJ

The walnut cake for dessert reminded me a fancier version of my grandmother’s walnut rolls. Park Place takes it to a whole other level with a rich cream and extra walnuts placed on the side.

Park Place Café is a dream of a restaurant tucked away in Merchantville, NJ. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that place was real. If you live in the area, we strongly suggest that you check it out.

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Housemade Rigatoni with Jersey tomato sauce

Address
Park Place Café and Restaurant: 7 East Park Avenue, Merchantville, NJ 08109

Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

Kuya Ja’s is a Filipino counter service joint located in the White Flint area. The restaurant, which started out as a pop-up at the chef’s sister’s pastry shop, specializes in Filipino pork belly. It’s been on our radar since it was a pop-up, but once they got a permanent spot we knew we needed to head to Rockville and try it out.

Outside Kuya Ja’s restaurant in Rockville, MD

Kuya Ja’s had only been open two weeks when we visited. It’s located about 0.5 miles from the White Flint metro, inside a random and partially forgotten strip mall in an area otherwise teeming with new residential high-rises. We walked there from the metro but to give a sense of where it is: the entrance to the parking lot contains a grand sign for the White Flint Mall, which is currently a pile of rubble and has been for three years.

The place opens at 5pm and when we arrived at 4:58pm there were already people queuing outside. A word of advice: this restaurant is extremely popular and also tiny, so try to go during off hours. We had a few questions when it was our turn to order at the counter, but the staff was extremely friendly and patient.

Inside Kuya Ja’s restaurant in Rockville, MD

We ordered ½ pound of lechon belly and a crispy adobo chicken sandwich. As a bit of background, lechon belly is basically Filipino porchetta. The chef, whose nickname is Ja, hails from the island of Cebu which, according to the restaurant’s website, has the best lechon belly in the world.

The first thing you’ll notice about the lechon belly is that the skin is so thin and shiny from glaze it looks like glass. In fact, both Marnay and I were legitimately concerned that when we bit into it, it would be like biting into glass. Thankfully, our concerns were misplaced. Here’s another thing: Very often, the skin is the best part of meat since it gets the most flavoring, while the actual meat is a letdown. Let me tell you, that is NOT the case as Kuya Ja’s. Here, the skin is crispy and redolent of all types of umami flavors. Meanwhile, the meat is insanely tender and unctuous to the extreme. The meat is made even better by two condiments: one is a thick vinaigrette that taste a bit like soy while the other is a Filipino vinegar. Our favorite was the vinaigrette because of its balanced flavor.

Kuya Ja’s dinner: lechon belly and crispy adobo chicken sandwich

The crispy chicken, with an adobo glaze and crisp lettuce on a soft hamburger bun, is also a winner. The abobo glaze, with its soy sauce undertones, turns this from a good chicken sandwich to a great one. It doesn’t hit you over the head but it is lurking in the background of every bite.

The next day we came back around 8pm. While it was packed, we miraculously got a table just before our food came out. It was a good thing, since it was raining and therefore we were either getting a table or eating standing up. (Unlike most people who come here, we do not have cars). They did not have the ½ pound of lechon belly available, but that ended up being a good thing. Instead, the staff steered us towards the lechon belly combo, which comes with white rice and atsara, or pickled ginger papaya salad. As Marnay noted, the addition of the rice made it feel like more of a meal, with the added benefit of using the rice to scoop up the sauces.

Kuya Ja’s dinner: lechon belly combo with Ube Brazo for dessert

Kuya Ja’s also serves Filipino pastries from the chef’s sisters bakery, many of which contain ube halaya, a sweet paste made from purple yams. I would compare it to how red bean paste is used in Chinese and Japanese desserts. We tried the Ube Brazo, which tasted like a delightful cross between bread pudding and pound cake.

The fact that we liked Kuya Ja’s enough to go back two days in a row should tell you how we feel about this place. The incredible food, warm service and wallet-friendly prices are sure to keep us coming back again and again.

Best Bite
Paul: Lechon belly
Marnay: Crispy chicken

Address
Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly: 5268-H Nicholson Lane Rockville, MD 20895
Closest Metro: White Flint

Cake for Dessert

As you are aware if you are a fan of the blog, Marnay and I enjoy eating out. But since we can’t eat out all the time, we follow a lot of chefs, restaurants and bloggers on social media. That way, we can stay up to date with what’s going on in the food scene.

One unmistakeable trend that I’ve seen recently is the rise of cake. Huge cakes that beget huge slices. I had never seen this much cake being served in restaurants. The question: Why? Why now?

Huge cake slices on Paul's instagram feed

I’ve seen huge cakes all over my Instagram lately. In fact, Marnay and I went to the café at Maketto and had a ginormous piece of (very tasty) carrot-walnut cake. We also were recently at Elle on a weekday morning and saw the prettiest cake we had ever seen in their pastry case. A perfectly smooth, symmetrical cake covered with purple and white icing and simply a few blackberries on top. It looked like cake perfection.

Elle blackberry cake in DC

I think that nostalgia is a factor in the great cake revival of 2018. Everyone has memories of eating birthday cake, or baking a cake with their parents. More regionally, you may have memories of Jersey diners and their display cases of innumerable types of cakes.

Pete Wells recently wrote a brilliant article in the New York Times about the proliferation of ice cream sundaes on dessert menus in New York, often as the only dessert. Restaurants claim that this is for nostalgia reasons, but Pete Wells astutely points out that the real reason is likely because anyone can make ice cream and this means that restaurants do not have to hire a pastry chef.

Cakes are also relatively straightforward restaurant desserts. Once the cake is made, it does not take much effort to slice it into individual portions. However, a lot of work goes into making a well-executed cake. How do you find the perfect balance between cake and icing? What is the right flavor combination? How can you blow people away?

I think that cakes have been undervalued for too long. Perhaps because people have eaten it at every birthday party since they were a child, and had so many bland, dried-out examples, that cake gets overlooked. It takes a lot of talent and effort to make these cakes. They can be visually stunning and taste great at the same time.

This is a trend that I hope continues…cakes are not just for birthdays anymore!

Fiola – Maria Menu

Some of Washington, DC’s pricier restaurants have more affordable lunch deals during the week. You can take advantage of them if you know where to look. Luckily, we are here to give you a review of one of our favorite lunch spots.

Fabio Trabocchi’s restaurant group in particular has some wallet-friendly lunch offerings during the week. On a rainy Monday, we spent the morning exploring some of the Smithsonian museums and enjoyed a mid-day meal at Fiola in Penn Quarter.

Fiola menu

The Maria Menu is named for chef/restauranteur Fabio Trabiocchi’s wife and business partner, Maria Trabiocchi. Described as being based on a “healthy Mediteranean diet”, the Maria Menu is three courses for $32, which is a steal considering most entrees alone at Fiola cost more than $32.

Another great thing about the Maria menu for the cost-conscious diner (and let’s be real, we all are) is that it starts out with an amuse bouche plus housemade rosemary bread. In our case, it was watermelon-tomato gazpacho with chive oil – a good way to start the meal, although it could have used a touch of cream to cut the acidity.

Sometimes servers can be a little too informal for their own good, which can be offputting. That is certainly not a problem at Fiola, where the well-trained and impeccably dressed staff are completely focused on making sure you have the best meal possible, no fooling around.

The Madai snapper crudo, from Japan, was paired with slices of grilled Jersey peaches and peach gel for swiping. The chilled, well-salted fish was the perfect foil for the peaches, ripe but by no means cloying and kissed by the char of the grill.

Fiola Maria Menu: Madai snapper crudo

Our main course was a hulking Australian tiger prawn on a bed of Sicilian capunitina, similar to an eggplant caponata. This puree contained eggplant, pine nuts, capers and golden raisins. I found the capunitina to be too sweet at first, thanks to the raisins, but as I kept eating the flavors came together and made sense. The buttery, mild shrimp flesh needed the intense flavor of the capunitina.

Fiola Maria Menu: Australian tiger prawn on a bed of Sicilian capunitina

Dessert was billed simply as “Raspberry & Hazelnuts”, but it was far more interesting that those two ingredients. When it arrived at the table, it looked like raspberry custard with hazelnut flakes on top. A plunge of the spoon, however, revealed an entire ecosystem of flavors. Inside of custard was raspberry sorbet, whole raspberries and a luscious hazelnut praline.

Fiola Maria Menu: Raspberry and Hazelnuts

The restaurant had been crowded when we first sat down, and we observed people talking and eating. I couldn’t help but think, though, that we were spending a lot less than they were.

Fiola Marnay and Paul Meyer

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Raspberries & Hazelnuts

Address
Fiola: 601 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20004
Closest Metro: Archives or Judiciary Square

Sally’s Middle Name

Many restaurants in Philadelphia have a “neighborhood” vibe – relaxed, intimate, unpretentious—possibly because of the low rents and less demand for older housing stock which can be used to create smaller restaurants. We are always on the lookout for restaurants with this vibe in DC, and were pleasantly surprised when we found Sally’s Middle Name.

Sally’s Middle Name restaurant

The restaurant has two levels: downstairs is decorated with white subway tiles and was bustling with the din of diners when we arrived. Upstairs, where we sat, was calmer and felt more like someone’s home. In fact, it is so much like a person’s home the upstairs bathroom even has a shower. The entire menu, including drinks and dessert, is written on a full-size chalk board on the wall. While I think this approach is cute, it is frustrating to have to keep getting up to check the board. We took a picture with our phones, but everyone may not recognize that as an option.

Sally’s Middle Name cocktails and menu chalk board

Sally’s Middle Name is a small plates restaurant. We have noticed that servers at small plates restaurants tend to recommend an absurd amount of food—a suggestion of three to four dishes per person is not uncommon. It was a breath of fresh air, then, when our server at Sally’s Middle Name recommended 3 to 4 dishes total, meant to be shared. That immediately endeared us to the place.

We ordered four dishes, and we ordered them all at the same time: the housemade bread and butter, the cucumber salad, the braised collard greens with Szechuan pork and the seared scallops. The result was that all four dishes came out at the same time. Not a good look, in my opinion. I would have been much more annoyed, though, if our server demanded that we order four dishes per person and then eight dishes came out at the same time. If that were the case, we would have needed to steal a neighboring table.

Sally’s Middle Name housemade bread and butter, the cucumber salad, the braised collard greens with Szechuan pork and the seared scallops

Anyway, the housemade white and wheat breads were delicious and a great start to the meal. They were even better with creamy housemade butter, although the white bread would have been fine on its own. For our remaining three dishes, we mixed and matched bites, not eating the dishes in any particular order. The collards appropriately got top billing, as this was a collard dish and not a pork dish—not that we minded. It was a play on traditional Southern collard greens, cooked with spicy Szechuan pork instead of a more traditional ham hock. We first got a major hit of ginger and then the lingering spice of Szechuan peppercorns.

Both of us were big fans of the buttery seared scallops served with a sauce of fermented turnips, lightly smeared on plate. The scallops were then topped with pea shoots, a nice taste of early summer. The cucumber salad, on the other hand, could have used some salt, even with a dressing of fermented carrots.

All of the portions at Sally’s Middle Name were reasonable in size, so we had room for dessert. We got an impressive Olive Oil cake with strawberry jam. The jam and the olive oil cake, which actually tasted like olive oil, were a perfect match.

Sally's Middle Name Olive Oil cake with strawberry jam

Based on atmosphere alone, we would go back to Sally’s Middle Name. We loved the lack of pretense, and oh yeah, the food wasn’t bad either.

Best Bite
Paul: Olive Oil Cake
Marnay: Scallops

Address
Sally’s Middle Name: 1320 H Street NE Washington, DC 20002
Clsoest metro: Union Station to H Street Streetcar

Vedge

We had quite a weekend adventure in Philadelphia recently, which included visits to Martha for drinks, American Sardine Bar for snacks and beer and culminating in dinner at Vedge. Vedge is located in a historic townhouse in Midtown Village, Philadelphia. We were seated in a small side room in front of a fireplace and beneath whimsical chandelier made out of spoons.

Vedge in Philadelphia

The menu is divided into “The Vedge Bar”, mostly cold small plates, “The Grill”, which is the entrée section and finally “The Dirt List” which are sides. We started out with the beautiful “Fancy Radishes”, which were served sashimi-style. Four types of radishes: watermelon, spanish, meat and daikon are splayed on top of various accompaniments including yuzu avocado, pickled tofu, shishito and shredded zucchini along with a spoonful of smoked tamari for dipping. Of course, similar to sushi, we made sure to only dip the radish end in the tamari! Served at the same time was the avocado stuffed with pickled cauliflower “fried rice” and held in a rice cracker shell. It was pleasant, particularly the way the creamy texture contrasted with the crunch of the rice cracker.

Vedge: Fancy Radishes and Avocado stuffed with pickled cauliflower “fried rice”

From the grill, we got a gigantic wood roasted carrot and the eggplant braciole. Every time I went to take a forkful of the braciole, I expected it to be biting into an Italian sausage—the resemblance was uncanny. The rolled smoked eggplant is stuffed with cured olives and mushrooms, seared at what must be an extremely hot temperature and served with salsa verde. The eggplant tasted more like meat than meat does at some lesser restaurants.

Vedge eggplant braciole

The wood-roasted carrot is Vedge’s take on a Reuben. It’s a huge carrot cut lengthwise and served on top of a white-bean puree, garbanzos and pumpernickel toast with carrot kraut off to the side. This is the dish that we have been raving about since our visit. We noticed that our server brought out our entrees about a minute before our sides. We think that this was so we could fully appreciate the entrees and not get overwhelmed by all of the food on our table.

Vedge wood-roasted carrot

To keep our carrots & eggplant company, we ordered nebrodini mushrooms served in the style of fazoletti pasta with charred ramp butter and roasted cherry tomatoes as sauce. We also got the campfire potatoes and shaved brussels sprouts. The char from the nebrodini mushrooms dish was evident in the ramp butter, although the ramp flavor was a little more subtle. For those not aware, ramps are everyone’s favorite foraged vegetable. The fazoletti was very tender with a pleasant mouthfeel and had been truly transformed into pasta cooked al dente.

Our campfire potatoes with black garlic tahini and za’atar was good enough, but not transformed. That seems like a high bar to set for a dish, and admittedly it is, but it was just that all of the other things we ordered at Vedge were SO unique that a simple dish of potatoes didn’t quite cut it for us.

Vedge nebrodini mushrooms, campfire potatoes and shaved brussels sprouts

Dessert seemed like the most difficult dish to pull off without dairy, but Vedge knocked it out of the park. The Chocolate Uber Chunk, consisted of malt custard, pretzels and peanut butter and stout ice cream served three different ways. The ramekin filled with layers of custard and crunchy peanuts and pretzels was one of our best bites of the night.

Vedge dessert

One of my concerns about Vedge, and perhaps I was being naïve, was that we would walk away hungry. That CERTAINLY was not the case. Beyond just being delicious, it was inspiring the way that vegetables can be transformed into a hearty meal.

Best Bite
Paul: Fancy radishes
Marnay: Wood-roasted carrot

Address
Vedge: 1221 Locust Street Philadelphia, PA 19107

Marcel’s

Thanks to a generous OpenTable gift card we received from our family for Christmas, we were able to have dinner at Marcel’s, the French-Belgian fine-dining destination in the West End. From 5:00pm-6:30pm each night, Marcel’s offers a $70 per person pre-theater menu. You can choose from one of three options for a first course, main and dessert. When it’s all said and done, you get whisked away in a town car to the Kennedy Center. When we were first seated, our server asked us what time our show was so that the kitchen could get could get the timing down.

Marcel’s, the French-Belgian fine-dining destination in the West End

For our first course, the local mixed green salad with shaved cucumber, beet, carrot and sherry vinaigrette topped with shaved cheese was a master-course in proper seasoning and texture. Meanwhile, the duck confit tortellini with black trumpet mushrooms and scallions in a parmesan cream sauce was the definition of decadence. We both forgot what was stuffed inside the pasta because all of the flavors went so well together.

Marcel's duck confit tortellini

Marcel's local mixed green salad

Mains included pan-seared Norwegian salmon with lobster risotto and English peas and the New York strip steak with potato gratin and white asparagus matchsticks in a cabernet reduction. The salmon had an impossibly crisp skin, but it was the lobster risotto, with its huge chunks of sweet lobster, that stole the show. The New York strip compared favorably to the “DC Steakhouse” course at Pineapples & Pearls, thoroughly seasoned and with a nearly complete absence of grit and gristle. Chef Paul Stearman cooked the steak to medium rare, which is his preference, but the server gave me the option of choosing something else if that is what I wanted.

Marcel's pan-seared Norwegian salmon with lobster risotto

Marcel's New York strip steak with potato gratin

Dessert is where we encountered a minor hiccup in the meal’s pacing. Everything had been planned out just so, but the restaurant did not account for the fact that the hot chocolate soufflé would take longer than our other dessert. As a result, we arrived at the Kennedy Center minutes before our show started. It didn’t affect our experience at either Marcel’s of the Kennedy Center, though.

The hot chocolate soufflé with raspberry white chocolate ice cream was a showstopper. Our server punctured the inflated soufflé, added the ice cream in the middle and then doused everything with hot chocolate. We also got the chocolate mousse with crispy praline, chocolate caramel sauce and a cocoa nib tuille. The best part was the praline on the bottom, although the whole dessert was good. The soufflé was just amazing, though.

Marcel's chocolate mousse with crispy praline

Marcel's hot chocolate soufflé with raspberry white chocolate ice cream

Marcel’s is one of the best examples of old-school fine dining in DC, and the complementary town car ride to the Kennedy Center put it over the top. However, the food is anything but old-school.

Marcels, Marnay and Paul

Best Bite
Paul: Hot Chocolate Soufflé
Marnay: Duck Confit Tortellini

Address
Marcel’s: 2401 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20037
Closest Metro: Foggy Bottom

Ultimate Staunton Weekend

Friday

Staunton weekend was birthday weekend for me. We picked out Staunton because of the fact that we could take Amtrak there and because there was a restaurant that we wanted to try. Of course, we have taken Amtrak many times. However, we had never taken this line or been on these tracks before. I was SO excited!

On Friday morning, we got Shake Shack breakfast at Union Station. We enjoyed our greasy (in a good way) sausage and egg sandwiches and before we knew it, we were boarding Amtrak Cardinal train 52 en route to Chicago. The trip took a little over four hours and it brought us through the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. We got some picturesque views of the Shenandoah Valley after we left Charlottesville.

Once we arrived in Staunton, we walked from the station to our Airbnb. I would describe it as a fancy treehouse located on the fourth floor of a 19th century mansion, with a scenic rooftop deck.

Staunton Virginia Airbnb

We started our tour of Staunton by scaling the steep streets to the highest point, Mary Baldwin College. The main building of the college is a great example of Greek-revival architecture, slightly resembling the White House.

Mary Baldwin College

Hungry from our journey, we had an early dinner at Taste of India where we enjoyed two different types of naan, Lamb Rogan Josh and Aloo Tikka.

Taste of India

We happened to go to Staunton during their annual holiday event, known as Sparkles & Sweets. All of the stores on Beverley Street are open later than usual and they give out cookies and refreshments. Many have live music and events. Our Airbnb host owns an antique store, which was having an art show that night in their “Artisans Loft.”

Later on in the night, we checked out Yelping Dog Wine, a retail store which also served wine by the glass. Each of us had two glasses of Virginia wine. After that, we were tired and ready to call it a night.

Yelping Dog Wine

Saturday

We woke up early to go to the Staunton Farmers Market. There were a lot of vendors selling root vegetables, as you would expect this time of year. More surprising was a food truck serving Salvadoran food, which I would not expect in this corner of Appalachia.

Next, we took a self-guided tour of the 19th century homes in the Gospel Hill neighborhood. There is some truly stunning architecture in this area.

Staunton Virginia architecture

Staunton Virginia architecture

After traipsing around Gospel Hill, we walked north and checked out Gypsy Hill Park and sat around the duck pond. We watched the birds and the children trying to play with them.

Paul standing at Gypsy Hill Park

On the walk back, we shared a maple bacon doughnut from Rolling Pin Pastries. Rolling Pin is only open 3 hours a day, 3 days a week and the doughnut was one of my best bites of the weekend.

Rolling Pin Pastries: maple bacon doughnut

Still hungry, we shared a bratwurst sandwich with local sausage from By & By. At this point, we had done a lot of walking and a lot of snacking, so we headed back to the treehouse to nap. The big activity of the day, anyway, was dinner at The Shack.

The Shack lives up to its name; it really is a shack, and in a less than desirable location at that. These factors allow the chef, Ian Boden, to focus on food rather than trying to make rent. By the way, our Airbnb hosts were actually the chef’s parents! They were very nice and welcoming to us.

We went with the four course pre-fixe meal at The Shack. Both the food and the hospitality met our high expectations. Some highlights included crispy sunchokes and sweet potatoes with black garlic and chile dressing, squid ink rigatoni with pesto, crispy garlic chips and bottarga and an apple fry pie.

The Shack: Squid Ink Rigatoni

The Shack: Farro Pappardelle

The Shack: Lambchette

The Shack: Wild Black Bass

Sunday

On Sunday morning, we made coffee and enjoyed the mountain views from our Airbnb’s rooftop deck one last time. Next, we walked down the hill on Beverley Street for bagel sandwiches at the By & By.

By & By bagels

Fortified by breakfast, we walked up a very steep hill in the Sears Hill neighborhood. Our reward was the overlook at Wilson Park, where we got a view of the entire town. We stopped in Gospel Hill to see the homes and then got a quick lunch to go at Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery, a natural foods store.

Wilson Park

At 2:03pm, exactly on time, Amtrak Train 50 stopped at Staunton and we started our journey home. I am emphasizing the fact that it was on time because the train left Chicago at 5:45pm Saturday!

Staunton makes a great weekend trip from the DC area and is accessible by public transportation. It has a perfect combination of history, nature and food. We highly recommend it!

Ultimate Staunton Weekend: Marnay and Paul

Where we went
Taste of India: 105 West Beverley Street Staunton, VA 24401
Yelping Dog Wine: 9 East Beverley Street Staunton, VA 24401
Gypsy Hill Park: 600 Churchville Avenue Staunton, VA 24401
Rolling Pin Pastries: 302 N Central Ave Staunton, VA 24401
By & By: 140 East Beverley Street Staunton, VA 24401
The Shack: 105 S Coalter Street Staunton, VA 24401
Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery: 7 S New Street Staunton, VA 24401