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

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Rose’s Luxury

At 8:30 on a Wednesday night, Marnay and I and six of our friends had the incredible fortune to dine (with reservations!) at one of the best restaurants in DC for a five course pre-fixe meal.

Rose’s Luxury: party of six

All eight of us started the night off with a cocktail, the best way to start a meal at Rose’s.  Since the food options were decided ahead of time, we sat back and let the talented staff put on a show.  The first hit of the night was Rose’s whimsical bread course, a take on a baked potato with potato brioche and a side of whipped sour cream butter topped with chives and crumbled potato skins.  After devouring the bread, the staff brought over a single-bite amuse bouche: a potato chip with crème fraiche and salty orbs of trout roe, or, for the vegetarians, capers.

Rose’s Luxury: potato chip with crème fraiche

Our first full course was foie gras and chicken liver pate with plum mostarda and slices of toasted brioche on a bed of plums.  While the rich pate was great on the toast, one of our dining companions noted that it was even better on the soft potato brioche.

Next up was grilled romaine heart with hard-boiled duck egg, crispy potato, herbs and creamy buttermilk dressing.  The strong flavor of the grill on the romaine made this dish a winner.  It tasted like we were all hanging out at someone’s backyard barbecue.

Rose’s Luxury: grilled romaine heart with hard-boiled duck egg

The servers and staff at Rose’s Luxury want to make sure that you are having fun.  They are extremely skilled and knowledgeable, but they are equally laid back and funny.  While the restaurant has received numerous accolades (2016 James Beard Award Best-Chef Mid-Atlantic Aaron Silverman, Bon Appetit Best New Restaurant), and its heart Rose’s is just a neighborhood restaurant.  It just happens to have incredible food and be nationally recognized.

Anyway, our next dish was their signature dish and the one that I was looking forward to the most:  Pork sausage, lychee and habanero salad.  The salad comes in a bowl topped with a poof of coconut milk cream, which acts as the dressing.  As our server explained, the fifteen-ingredient salad tastes best when all of the ingredients are mixed together so that the disparate salty-sweet-spicy components become one.  While I loved this dish, if you are not a fan of very spicy foods, like one of our companions, this is not the dish for you at Rose’s.

Rose’s Luxury: Pork sausage, lychee and habanero salad

My favorite dish of the night was the confit goat with BBQ Sea Island red peas, creamy Carolina Gold rice and garlic bread crumbs.  This dish received universal praise from everyone at the table.  It was layered together with the confit goat on top, the BBQ peas and breadcrumbs in the middle and the rice on the bottom soaking up all of the umami-flavor.

Rose’s Luxury: confit goat with BBQ Sea Island red peas

Now I know that this seems like a lot of food, but we still have four more courses!  The pasta course of bucatini with sungold tomato sauce, basil and parmesan was one of my surprise favorites.  Best parts: the texture and chew from the housemade bucatini and the sweetness of the fresh tomatoes.  Our main course was smoked brisket, better than at any barbecue restaurant I have ever been to, with Sunbeam white bread, horseradish cream and slaw.  We had this the only other time we were at Rose’s and I thought it was better this time, more tender.

Rose’s Luxury: smoked brisket

Dessert was two courses—first up, a deceptively simple bowl of vanilla ice cream with sea salt and olive oil.  This was another dish that received universal praise at the table.  Finally, our last course of the night was coconut ice cream with kiwi, lime zest and edible flowers on top of a caramel sauce with what I think were pieces of sugar cone.  This was a good dish, no doubt, but I think we all would have been fine without it.

Rose’s Luxury: coconut ice cream with kiwi

Out of all the meals we have reviewed on this blog, I would put Rose’s in a tie with Vernick Food & Drink in Philadelphia for the best meal ever.  A truly special experience.

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Goat confit

Address
Rose’s Luxury: 717 8th Street, SE Washington, DC 20003
Closest Metro: Eastern Market

Kapnos Kouzina

I am currently training for a marathon—the second of my life and my second of the year.  On Saturday, I ran 19 miles from our home in South Silver Spring west to Bethesda and then north to the White Flint area.   The next night, on a whim, we went to one of the restaurants that I ran past, Kapnos Kouzina.

Kapnos Kouzina opened about a month ago and is the second Kapnos spin-off from Mike Isabella.  The original is in the U Street corridor and the second is in Arlington.  When we arrived, we headed to the huge wrap-around bar.  We made sure to sit on the side facing the open kitchen.

Our first impression was this that is a beautiful, modern restaurant.  By the time we left, we had completely forgotten that we were in Bethesda. While we looked over the food menu, I ordered a Oaxaca Old Fashioned (tequila, el silencio mezcal, house bitters, agave) and Marnay got the Bubbles Make Me Clap (house gin blend, hibiscus, lemon, cava).  My drink was started by the novice bar assistant who was having some difficulty with other orders, which made me a little nervous.  However, the head bartender tasted the drink and then put the finishing touches on it.  The smoky, savory mezcal really made the drink.  I liked it so much that I ordered a second before the night was through.  We both agreed that Marnay’s drink was well-made, but it was a little sweet for her taste.

The head bartender was one of the more knowledgeable bartenders that I have talked to in Montgomery County.  A good sign for the county’s dining scene.

Fortified by our drinks, it was time to order some food.  We ordered the hummus, which came with a folded over piece of house made flatbread and the Aleppo king salmon kebab with cauliflower puree and shaved brussels sprouts.

We were both a little starstruck when we looked into the kitchen and saw that George Pagonis, of Top Chef fame, was at the helm that night.  He rotates between the three Kapnos restaurants so we felt fortunate that we were there on one of his nights in Bethesda.

The hummus was very flavorful and went well with the fresh, warm flatbread.  I have found that hummus is almost always served too cold.  This hummus was the perfect temperature, slightly colder than room temperature.  The salmon kebabs were good but could have used a little more salt.  Out of the two dishes, the hummus was the best and we would order it again in a heartbeat.

Still hungry, we ordered the tuna tartare with harissa, grilled avocado and taro chips for scooping as well as the marousalata, a salad of mixed baby greens, apple, crushed sesame crackers and tahini dressing.  We were thirsty as well.  I ordered the aforementioned second Oaxaca Old Fashioned.   Marnay got a glass of “Atlantis white” assyrtico.  Kapnos, being a Greek restaurant, has a fantastic selection of Greek wines.  Marnay had never tried assyrtico before and now it is one of her favorites.

I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the marousalata was, particularly the sweet crunchiness that the sesame crackers provided.  It was my best bite of the meal.

“Pleasantly surprised” sums up our visit to Kapnos Kouzina.  It is well worth a trip on the J2 from Silver Spring, and one day, the Purple Line.

Best Bite
Paul: Marousalata
Marnay: Hummus

Address
Kapnos Kouzina: 4900 Hampden Ln, Bethesda, MD 20814
Closest Metro: Bethesda

Vernick Food & Drink

This is not something that I say lightly, but our meal at Vernick Food & Drink was the best all-around meal we have ever had.  It started before we even got there.  We were running a little late for our reservation, so I called to let the restaurant know.  When we arrived, the hostess was genuinely thrilled that we let them know.

We were dining with Marnay’s good friend Tracy as well as Marnay’s Mom, who has joined us for a number of the dining adventures featured on this blog.  The hostess led us back through the bar to the narrow dining room in front of the open kitchen.  Our table was in the section of the dining room that was right in front of Chef Vernick.  It was actually a better location than the chef’s counter, at the opposite end.  The smell from the kitchen was intoxicating as soon as we sat down.

The menu is separated into toast, raw, vegetables, small plates, large plates and simply roasted from the wood oven.  Vernick is famous for its toast, so we knew for sure that would be an essential part of our meal.   Before we made any decision, though, we ordered some drinks.  Marnay’s Mom and Tracy got glasses of cava and Marnay had a glass of Sonoma Chardonnay.  I had a cocktail named El Chucho Roto, a mezcal and amaro based drink.  The amaro really cut out the smokiness of the mezcal.

After consulting with our server, we ordered the Maryland crab toast, the pumpkin and brown butter toast, the spaghetti squash salad with a crispy egg and mushroom leek vinaigrette, the pasta special with homemade spaghetti, olive oil poached Icelandic cod in a spicy saffron tomato sauce, brussels sprouts in an ancho caramel sauce and finally, half of a roasted organic Amish chicken in a lemon herb jus.  Our incredible server asked if she could take the liberty of pacing out the dishes for us, which the restaurant did beautifully.

First came an amuse bouche of celery root soup w/ spicy arugula oil in an espresso cup, for drinking.  Our first official course was the crab toast with a lemon aioli and the spaghetti squash.   The spaghetti squash had a breaded, fried poached egg sitting in the middle which our server suggested that we break open first.  That way, the runny yolk would become the sauce for the squash.    The toast, cut in threes, is intended to be shared.  When we started biting into in, the entire table fell silent.  The toast was thick but not so thick so that you couldn’t bite into it, with just the right amount of crunch.  The crab was extremely fresh and tasted like the sea.

Once we were done, the server brought our next course about three minutes later.  We thought that the pumpkin and brown butter toast might be sweet, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the rich pumpkin only had a touch of sweetness.

After we finished the toast, our server brought us a chili vinegar for the roasted chicken.  As an example of how great our server was, Marnay asked her what was in the vinegar.  Our server knew every ingredient, down to the toasted fennel.  It was as if she made it herself.

Before our next course, we ordered a second round of drinks.  Marnay got another chardonnay and her Mom and Tracy got more cava.  I, however, wanted to test our server.  I told her that I wanted a local beer—the style didn’t matter, but since we don’t live in the area, I want something local.  She stared at me for a few seconds and then asked, “Do you like sour beers?”  I love sour beers!  It was almost as if she stared into my soul.  She recommended a saison from Tired Hands that’s brewed with salt and citrus.

When the rest of our order came out, we received potatoes and shishito peppers “complements of Chef Greg.”  We had been praising him and pointing at the kitchen all night, mesmerized by what was going on, and he must have heard us!   He was so focused all night, though.  It was a wonder to watch.

The chicken was possibly the most perfectly seasoned roasted chicken any of us had ever had.  It went very fast.

The cod in the homemade spaghetti was broken into small pieces, which reminded me of shrimp.  The brussels sprouts were at once smoky and hot from the ancho and sweet from the caramel.  The flavors were intense, but they balanced out nicely.

When we first ordered, I mentioned that we could always take home leftovers if we were ordering too much.  That certainly was not necessary!  All that was left was a few brussels sprouts.

After a meal this great, of course we had to get dessert.  We got the toasted walnut maple pie with bourbon ice cream as well as the chocolate crisp ice cream.  The pie tasted like a much, much better version of a pecan pie and the bourbon ice cream was rich, dense and flavorful.

As we were leaving, we noticed that the Chef took a break from what he was doing.  He waited until we put our coats and then personally thanked us for coming.  We did not see him do that for anyone else.

A little touch like that just set us over the edge from a great meal to an exceptional meal.  All four of us agreed that this was probably the best all-around meal ever.  We felt like we were treated like VIPs.

Best Bite
Marnay: Crab Toast
Paul: Spaghetti Squash Salad with Crispy Egg

Best sip
Marnay and Paul: El Chucho Roto

Address
Vernick Food & Drink: 2031 Walnut Street Philadelphia, PA 19103

Ripple

On Friday night, we met at Union Station after work and took the metro to Cleveland Park to go to Ripple. We were 30 minutes early for our 7:30 reservation, but the hostess immediately walked us through the long, narrow bar area to our seats in the small dining area. She even took our coats.

I noticed that the bar area had a grilled cheese station manned by a student from L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg (he was wearing an LADC chef’s hat), which I thought was a nice opportunity. The décor and concept of Ripple is very similar to Jackie’s; colorful dining area, couch-like seating, etc. The only difference is that the flannel-clad servers at Ripple are a bit more relaxed than the servers at Jackie’s. It’s hands-off service, which can be refreshing.

  

We knew that we wanted a bottle of wine and since Ripple’s wine list is huge, we asked our server for her recommendation. We let her know that we wanted a Pinot Noir or something similar for around $50. She recommended a 2013 St. Innocent Village Cuvee Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. (Coincidentally, I had been reading an interesting article on 2013 Oregon Pinot Noir That afternoon) Since they also sold it by the glass, she let us try a little before we decided!

  

We were brought fresh, pillowy-soft rolls with what taste like everything bagel seasoning. I would buy these if they sold them, they were so good.

  

We had our first two courses brought out to us at the same time: Marinated endive with roasted baby beets, walnut butter and blood orange and then venison tartare with juniper scented yogurt, smoked egg yolk and sunchoke chips. The roasted beets went well with the walnut butter. While the endive was nice and bitter and good on its own, it did not go as well with the butter. The best part of the tartare was the smoked egg yolk. It brought so much richness as well as an intensely smoky flavor.

We shared a main course of hot smoked sablefish with horseradish crème fraiche, marble potatoes and dill. Sablefish, or black cod, is similar to Chilean Sea Bass. The fish was so smoky it reminded me of bacon, though it still had the consistency of a flaky white fish. The root vegetables went well with the fish, but there was a little too much crème fraiche on the potatoes. Ripple focuses on serving seasonal products, which is why there were a lot of hardy root vegetables on the menu.

 

We wanted to try a little bit of everything, so we had charcuterie with our main course. We ordered prosciutto di Parma, bresaola (air-dried beef) and house made duck prosciutto. The meats went well with the flatbread crackers they were served with.

We had eaten a lot at this point, but the dessert list was too good to pass up. Warm cranberry apple cobbler with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top served in a mini cast-iron skillet.  

  

We were treated very well at Ripple. The food was good and I am pretty sure that we will go back and sit in the bar area. I can’t say that the food was that much different than other fine-dining restaurants throughout the region. The relaxed service may give Ripple an edge over the others, however.

Address
3417 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008
Closest Metro: Cleveland Park

Pizzeria Orso

We met after work at Farragut Square and took the Orange Line to East Falls Church. After a pit stop at Dominion Wine and Beer to pick up some Cigar City Jai Alai IPA (no idea how Dominion got this stuff, Cigar City doesn’t distribute this far north) and Delirium Tremens, we walked to Pizzeria Orso. Pizzeria Orso is located in an office building in Falls Church City and it is one of our favorite Neapolitan pizzerias in the DC area.

Pizzeria Orso was celebrating receiving its Verace Pizza Napoletana certification. Getting the certification is quite an ordeal. We started the meal with beers. Marnay had the Lost Rhino Faceplant IPA, from Ashburn, VA. It’s October and I had yet to have a pumpkin beer, so I got the Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale. It’s brewed with actual pumpkin puree, which makes for a subtle flavor profile instead of an assault of spice and sweetness. The restaurant did put pumpkin spice on the rim of the glass and normally I would find that a little cheesy, but it was actually a fun touch based on the context of the meal.

Next, we got oven roasted olives with extremely fresh homemade sourdough bread. The olives had been roasted in olive oil and it was fun to dip the bread in the oil, or to make little open-faced sandwiches.

We also got a baby kale salad with pears, hazelnuts and white balsamic. The hazelnuts were our favorite part of this very simple salad, since we rarely see them. They brought a toasted flavor and a good crunch, but did not overpower the remaining ingredients. I think that as a general matter, the simpler the salad the better.

As part of the celebration, the restaurant’s DOC Margherita pizzas were half off! DOC pizzas must be made of 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella (made from water buffalo milk), natural yeast and salt. Absolutely nothing else. The dough must be mixed by hand, be no more than 11 inches and then be cooked for 60 to 90 seconds in a 900 degree wood or gas oven. At the end, basil and extra virgin olive oil are added.

We have had lots of DOC certified pizzas over the last two years, but this was the richest, creamiest mozzarella we’d ever had. It made the pizza, in my opinion. The crust had just the right level of char and the middle was soft, as it should be.

We had a great time at Pizzeria Orso. I can see us going after work quite often.

Address
Pizzeria Orso: 400 S Maple Ave, Falls Church, VA 22046
Closest Metro: East Falls Church