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ventworm (59/123)

  1. McLean is a fairly nice locale with a dearth of particularly good restaurants. Aside from one entree salad at J. Gilbert's that I happen to like, there is nothing in McLean that makes me want to head there for dinner. Or, at least, there wasn't anything in McLean worth the trip until Friday night. Assaggi Osteria in McLean (in the same shopping center as the Balducci's), related to the Assaggi Mozzarella Bar in Bethesda, is conducting its soft opening this weekend. One of the people involved in opening the McLean location is a client of mine, and I scored an invitation to the first night of the soft opening (12/11). The meal was complimentary, though my wife and I paid for drinks and tip. I must note that I am generally disinclined to go to Italian restaurants. I'm not a huge fan of pasta, and I don't like cheese. But my wife, who lived in Italy for a year, craves both pasta and cheese, so this was a good opportunity to appease her Italian craving. And appease the craving it did; my wife used phrases like "this is heaven," and "oh my god," and words like "fantastic" and "amazing." Before discussing the food, I will state for the record that the service is still working out some kinks. Our waiter, who was extremely pleasant, probably pointed out and explained 75% of the menu options, some unnecessarily. (I think most diners now know what gnocchi is.) This was likely connected to the fact that we were participating in the soft opening; I doubt the waiter will always be inclined to take up so much time going over the menu. On a somewhat more substantive note, the timing of the food service was off; our bread came out 20 or more minutes after we were seated, and every course took an eternity to arrive. Ultimately, our dinner became a two-and-a-half hour affair. But I cannot believe that this will be how the restaurant normally operates, and I think a restaurant's opening-night service and timing should be afforded a great deal of leeway. On to the food. Normally, I wouldn't remark on the bread because I tend to avoid the bread basket when I know I'm in for a three-course meal. But I was famished when the bread basket arrived, and gave it a whirl. I am in no way exaggerating when I say the bread was amazing. Hot, crusty, tender, flavorful; the bread was perfect, and we couldn't stop remarking on it. I started with a half-order of the sweet potato ravioli sprinkled with crushed amaretti cookies. Not an original menu item by any means, but the execution was notable. The ravioli were small, hot, and, if I had to guess, pan-fried. The sweet potato filling was satisfying, and the brown butter sauce was delicious, neither too thick nor too thin, making every bite a pleasure. My wife started with the carciofini salad, a mix of greens, artichokes, sunchokes, and cherry tomatoes, tossed in a simple vinaigrette (possibly with a faint lemon undertone). For an upcharge, the restaurant offers either buffalo mozzarella or burrata on the salad. My wife asked for mozzarella, and thought she received it, though we noted on the check at the end of the night that the waiter entered burrata on the ticket, so she is now unsure which she had. Regardless, she, for lack of a better expression, flipped out over how good the cheese was. The only pauses she took in eating the half-ball of cheese was to remark about it being utterly fantastic and heavenly. She hadn't had cheese on par with Assaggi's since she lived in Italy, and she is already planning on bringing her family to Assaggi to try the cheese. The entrees were very good, though not quite on par with the appetizers. My wife had the cavatelli with broccoli, which she enjoyed and about which she made uniformly positive remarks. We both felt that the menu could benefit from one or two more vegetarian entrees, including a simple pasta with red sauce. I had sea bass, but I'm not sure which preparation I ended up with. There were two striped sea bass entrees on the menu, and I believe the special was also a sea bass. I ordered the sea bass dish that should have come over a ragu of vegetables; I specifically avoided the sea bass dish that came with chopped potatoes and olives because I dislike olives. I ended up, however, with the latter dish, which I opted not to send back because (i) it was 10:00 p.m. by that point, (ii) I was not hungry enough to worry about the sides, and (iii) I'm not ungrateful for a free meal. I tried to spear a few of the chopped potato chunks, but they were so undercooked that getting a fork into each chunk was difficult. That is, however, a problem that I'm sure the kitchen can and will quickly remedy. The sea bass itself was very good; nothing innovative or amazing, but well-cooked, tasty, and worth ordering again. Dessert was top notch. My wife's deep dish of tiramisu consisted of a top layer of thick, sweet, frosting-like cream with layers of cake and rich espresso flavor beneath. She enjoyed it, though she didn't have room to finish it. I had a small, round, pumpkin-filled sweet cake served with cinnamon ice cream. It was an elegant little treat to end the meal. The restaurant's interior is classy, though not regal. The combination of bright yellow walls, dark wood trim, floors covered in a cork-like carpet, and white tablecloths leaves a slightly generic impression. Don't get me wrong; it looks and feels like a nice restaurant, one appropriate for business dinners or first dates. It just needs a little more personality, which may come with the addition of artwork on the walls. Assaggi in McLean impressed us, and I am sure it will become more impressive as it gets some time under its belt.
  2. The butternut squash soup at 2 Amy's on Sunday night had the slightly odd consistency of baby food, but it was sweet, slightly spicy, and completely satisfying. The Minestra pomadaro (tomato soup) at Pinzimini on October 30 was like a bowl full of butter chicken sauce from Delhi Dhaba, and I mean that in the best way possible.
  3. The kabocha squash soup at the Source is worth every cent of the $12.00 I spent on it last night. Easily the best soup I've had this year.
  4. A bowl of butternut squash soup at Jackson 20 on October 29 was rich and flavorful, good enough to order again (though not so amazing as to warrant a soup pilgrimage). Carrot soup at Restaurant Vero on November 14 was exactly as it should have been; not too thin, not too thick, savory with a hint of sweetness, and just the right amount. If you like carrot, you'll like the soup. Pumpkin soup at Black's Bar and Kitchen on November 15 was not as great as it read on the menu, as it lacked flavor, but the duck confit fritter swimming in the bowl saved the dish from being totally pedestrian.
  5. My fiancée and I ate dinner at the Arlington Astor Mediterranean last night (2/13/08). We arrived around 8:40 p.m., and we were the only customers there for a time. The restaurant presents as sort of a deli/fast-food restaurant, with much of its fare on display in glass units sandwiching the cash register. Orders are placed at the counter, and patrons can then get napkins, silverware, and condiments from a central location before grabbing a table. Our entrees were brought to the table for us, though I do not know if this is regularly the practice or if the employees did this just because the place was almost empty. My fiancée ordered a triangular "spinach pie" (spanakopita) and the falafel platter (four small-ish falafel patties, Egyptian salad, mini-serving of hummus in a plastic container, and grape leaf), and I got the "Astor vegetarian," which is a vegetarian sampler comprised of two falafel, tabouleh salad, beet salad, Egyptian salad, chickpea salad, eggplant moussaka (or, as they describe it, "mussaka"), baba ganoush, fava bean dip, hummus, and lentil salad. The vegetarian sampler, by the way, is not nearly as big as it sounds (which is fine by me), and would not constitute a meal for two people. The spinach pie seemingly lacked the feta cheese noted on the menu, but was enjoyed. The falafel was perfectly good, though not great (I once again note that Sammy T's in Fredericksburg has the best falafel anywhere in Virginia or D.C.). The tzatziki (Greek yogurt sauce) served with the falafel was very, very good. They should sell it in the form of an appetizer. The fava bean dip was flavorless; it should be replaced with something like the spicy red pepper-walnut dip you can find at certain Middle Eastern restaurants such as Layalina. The Egyptian salad was similar to fattoosh salad, but lacking sumac and pita chips, both of which would have helped it. The hummus was okay, but nothing distinctive. The lentil salad was good if you like lentils, and the same is true of the beet, tabouleh, and chickpea salads. There was nothing offensive about those dishes, but nothing amazing, either. The baba ganoush was fantastic. Really, really good. I order baba all over the place, and Astor's version is one of the best. The only thing detracting from it was the generic pita that just doesn't do justice to any of the dips. The eggplant mussaka was outstanding, worthy enough on its own to make me a repeat customer. It had a wonderful flavor and perfect texture. And the grape leaf (or "vine" leaf, as they label it) was stellar. It was fresh and dripped with a slightly tangy oil. I ordered baklava to take home for dessert, and it was superb. The meal, including the baklava, came to about $26.00, including tax and tip. Now that I have a feel for the menu's high and low points, I am sure that I'll head back.
  6. I've shunned the Amphora for years because of eating there (the Vienna location) about a thousand times as a kid. My father still loves it. But I have, in the last two months, been there three times, and each time had the Caribbean salad. It's a huge salad consisting of a pile of mixed greens tossed with slices of avocado, mango, pineapple, red peppers, and oranges, along with a handful of walnuts. The dressing is a very pleasant citrus vinaigrette. The salad, along with a warm roll, makes for a satisfying light meal.
  7. My fiancée and I had dinner at Ravi Kabob last night. I had the punjabi curry, which featured pakora swimming in a creamy, spicy, but oddly flavorless sauce. Not bad, but not good enough to get again. The side of chickpeas was outstanding, and the naan was very, very good, though not amazing. The samosa we started with were surprisingly spicy, which I appreciated, though they had obviously been reheated and had a somewhat unpleasant chewy texture. The experience was sullied by something I saw in the kitchen area. As noted above, I ordered the punjabi curry, a vegetarian entree. When my plate was brought to my table, the entree I had been presented with was some sort of curry with meat in it. I anticipated that this would happen, as I saw the guy in the kitchen ladle out of a different buffet tray than where I knew the punjabi curry to be. I didn't say anything because I couldn't be sure that the plate in question was definitely my order. So when the plate was, in fact, set down in front of me, I sent it back. The server picked up the plate, took it back to the front of the store, handed it over the counter to the guy in the kitchen, and the guy in the kitchen proceeded to dump the uneaten meat curry back into the serving buffet! I suspect, though I don't know, that this is impermissible under the relevant health code, and such casual disregard (or simple ignorance) of the health code is enough to prevent me from returning.
  8. My girlfriend and I ate dinner at the Crystal City Jaleo last night (10/25). I hadn't been to Jaleo in, literally, years (and therefore had not been to the Crystal City location), but it is back on my restaurant radar with a vengeance. We started by sharing the "classic" gazpacho and the "traditional white" gazpacho. The classic gazpacho was, as advertised, a straightforward take on the simple cold soup, and it conveyed a fresh, rich flavor, given body by olive oil. While the classic gazpacho was all we hoped for, the white gazpacho was nothing less than sensational. The bowl landed on my side of the table, but my girlfriend, after her first taste, was not shy about spooning out her share of the soup. The clear bowl set on the table showcases a layer of slivered almonds, white grapes, and crab meat, over which the thick, white soup is poured by a server. The soup, tasting of almonds and subtle sweetness, manages to be both creamy and light, and the crab, slivered almonds, and grapes give each savored spoonful a wonderful texture. I believe I used the word "fantastic" twice while eating the dish. A small plate of grilled asparagus in almond-tomato sauce was perfectly good, though the plate (and our stomachs) probably had room for more asparagus than is served. The patatas bravas, a reflexive order, were firing on all cylinders; hot, smothered in tomato sauce and garlic aioli, brown on the edges, and tender inside. Chicken croquettes were another fried indulgence, the chicken softened and made lush with béchamel sauce and encased in a crisp crust. The chicken croquettes were well-served by a side of requested honey aioli, a sauce that is on its way to becoming one of my favorite condiments. The bread was a yawn, but the coffee was a full-flavored pleasure, and the service, food delivery, and payment process were prompt, which was appreciated, as we were trying to get to a movie. Next time, however, we have every incentive to linger over a few more dishes.
  9. Me Jana's name conveys the Lebanese restaurant's desire to make its customers feel like family. Diners are greeted with a kind word and a basket of warm pita at the table akin to the soft, pillowy bread served at Zaytinya. A small plate in the center of the table contains olives, zatar (a spice), olive oil, and labneh (a thick yogurt), and the pita is well-served by a quick swipe through the olive oil and a dip in the labneh. Me Jana's interior suits its neighborhood. Red walls, glossy wood floors, and dark wood tables set a hip, stylish tone. Black cloth napkins, candles on the table, and stemless glasses for red wine help round out the ambiance, but the restaurant is not so urban, upscale, and/or grandiose in appearance that it seems out of place in Arlington. One can walk in wearing jeans and a sweater or a going-out-on-the-town outfit and feel comfortable. The dinner menu consists of over 40 small plates and fewer than ten entrees. The small plates range in price from $5.00 (thyme fries) to $14.00 (lamb shank); entrees range in price from $17.00 (kafta kebob) to $29.00 (lamb chops). Me Jana's prices are a potentially fatal problem and may scare many diners away, particularly the diners in surrounding apartment and condominium buildings who might otherwise become regulars. The fattouch salad, at $7.50 for a small bowl, is almost two dollars more than at Zaytinya and over two dollars more than at the excellent Pita House in Old Town Alexandria. The savory, minty salad, a Lebanese restaurant staple, is also more expensive than at Me Jana's closest geographic competitor, Aladdin's Eatery. Seven dollars for four small falafel patties exceeds the prices at Aladdin's, Pita House, and Zaytinya, and many other items are similarly overpriced. Price complaints aside, the food does not disappoint. The aforementioned fattouch salad is a strong rendition, featuring well-diced tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cucumbers doused in olive oil, enlivened by sumac, and complemented by pita chips. The kitchen may wish to ease up a little on the mint and be a bit more generous with the sumac and pita chips, but those are minor issues; the salad is a superb start to a meal. The goat cheese and oranges salad also won approval from its recipient. The falafel is one of the better versions in the area, superior to the offerings of Aladdin's Eatery or Pasha Café, and on par with the chickpea patties at Zaytinya. No unappealing dryness or crumbly texture here, and every drop of the shallow pool of tahini sauce on the plate deserves to be swept up. Me Jana's version of fatteh, consisting of two long, thick strips of fried eggplant covered in thick yogurt sauce, chickpeas, and pita chips, reads well on the menu, but loses something in translation from paper to plate. The dish is satisfying, but some aspect of flavor is missing; maybe the omitted element is tanginess in the somewhat bland yogurt, a dusting of zatar, or hot, melted butter (which saturates the fabulous version at the Pita House). Despite the need to revisit the recipe, the dish is worth keeping on the menu. Cheese-centric plates are crowd-pleasers. The cheese rolls, which are, in essence, manchego- and feta-filled spring rolls, were roundly hailed. Zucchini fritters were enjoyed, but at least one diner opined that the dish fell a hair short of Zaytinya's version. The potato kibbe, potato dumplings filled with melted feta cheese, elicited nothing but positive remarks, and the four potato dumplings come with a small bonus mound of tasty baba gannouj in the center of the plate. The baba gannouj is also available as a separate small plate, and while it is a high-grade version of the eggplant dip, $6.50 is a D.C., not Arlington, asking price. Me Jana's staff seems well-trained, and is inarguably enthusiastic. A host or hostess greets patrons with a big smile, and servers are equally cheery. Water glasses are filled quickly after a diner indicates that ice water is fine, bread comes out (and is replaced) quickly, fresh cups of coffee appear without request, and one can expect to be asked at least twice during a meal whether he or she is enjoying the food. Despite a few dishes that are stilll works in progress, the answer will almost certainly be "yes."
  10. My mother is Peruvian, and we both like Granja De Oro in Falls Church and Pollos Inti in Sterling. Costa Verde in Arlington is well-regarded, but I have never been impressed with a meal there. My mother and I had lunch today at Pollos Inti. I had the best fried plantains I've had all year, and I've had them in at least a dozen different places. The fried yuca were hot and crispy, and the papa a la huancaina was creamy and satisfying. With an Inca Kola, a salad, and a tamal salvadoreno, our whole meal came to less than $20.00.
  11. Urbana in Dupont Circle has a sophisticated, hip atmosphere, an adjoining wine bar, and good-to-really good food. The restaurant has a great semi-private room with a rectangular table appropriate for a group of 10. Ask for "Joseph" as your server; he was super-pleasant the two times I've dined at one of his tables. I have also taken large groups (8-12) to the following restaurants, all of which seem to meet your criteria: Tabaq Bistro (ask to be in the upstairs area with the glass ceiling); Viridian; and Zola. I have also seen large groups in the upstairs section of Cafe Atlantico. Finally, though I doubt it would please everyone in your group, if for some reason everyone is open-minded about a vegetarian restaurant, Vegetate (which would likely have a DJ spinning on one floor of the restaurant on a Saturday night) has a private room upstairs, and the proprietors, Dominic and Jennifer Redd, would treat you well.
  12. My girlfriend and I had a Restaurant Week dinner at the Oval Room last night (8/9/07). The appetizers were outstanding. My girlfriend's corn custard, which was slightly more liquid than solid, with peach and jalapenos (the latter of which did not have an overwhelming kick) was delicious and satisfying. My scallops appetizer consisted of two small scallops, perfectly cooked, surrounded by concentric circles of a vanilla sauce that was not quite foam but not quite cream and a mint oil of some sort, plus crunchy ginger, a nice texture touch. The scallops were very, very tasty, with the vanilla foam adding a well-received sweet note. My salmon entree was an indulgence. The sizable salmon fillet, lightly bathed in a miso-citrus sauce, fell apart at the touch of my fork. It was possibly the most buttery cut of salmon I've ever eaten, with great mouth-feel and flavor. My girlfriend does not normally eat fish, but after trying my salmon, she said she could have eaten the whole fillet. My girlfriend's pea dumplings with bread crumbs looked good, and she was quite happy with them, but I cannot offer commentary because the cheese sprinkled on the dumplings killed their appeal for me. Desserts were uneven. My brown butter cake with apricots and almond ice cream (not the pistachio ice cream that was on the menu) was very good once I let the almond ice cream melt into the cake, but would have been a little too dry without that step. My girlfriend's peach-blueberry crisp was a fine rendition of the ubiquitous dessert, but there was one significant problem with it. The crisp is served with a medium-sized scoop of white peppercorn ice cream. Contemplate that for a moment, then read on. I'm generally open to the whimsy of a given chef, and I'm willing to try new flavors. I even understand the concept of pairing a spicy and/or non-sweet ice cream with a sweet pastry/crisp. But the Oval Room's white peppercorn ice cream was not okay. Nothing about it worked. Aside from the fact that it was served with actual peppercorns embedded in it, leading to much frenzied palate-cleansing, the actual ice cream itself was completely unappealing. It was not sweet, not spicy, not even tasteless. It tasted ... musty. My girlfriend described it as tasting like how her father's boat used to smell. I found it chalky and almost medicinal. The almond ice cream served with my dessert, in contrast, was wonderful, and tasted strongly, and pleasantly, of almonds. Despite the flawed ice cream, the meal was worth every cent. We enjoyed the service, the atmosphere, and the food, barring that one little scoop of horror.
  13. My girlfriend and I have ended up at Asahi Kaiten Sushi for dinner twice in the last year, and liked it a lot both times. The fried california roll is outrageously good (if a bit of a traditionalist's nightmare), and the straightforward sushi (e.g., salmon avocado) was perfectly good, if not amazing. The avocado and asparagus salad is one of the best salads I have had at an Asian restaurant; the avocado is ripe, the asparagus is fresh, and the dressing is something sweet and citrus-y. The tuna and avocado salad is quite filling, particularly in light of its price ($10.00), and the wasabi aioli sauce drizzled on it will clear one's sinuses. The bean curd sushi was not a winner; not bad, just not memorable. The only downside is that the restaurant is in a mall, and as much as it tries to look dignified, it can't help its surroundings. Also, the restaurant has been virtually empty when we've been there; they must make most of their money off of the lunch crowd.
  14. I happened to end up in my building's elevator with a Sala Thai delivery guy this evening, and I asked him about the closing of the Courthouse location. There was a bit of a language barrier, but he seemed to say that the Courthouse location was just too close to the older location (at N. 10th and Washington Blvd.), and the new location in Courthouse was not getting enough business. (And I bet the rent was on the high side.) The delivery guy said that the older location is expected to stay open for the foreseeable future. I suspect that part of what happened is that if one lives in Courthouse, Sawatdee is the place to go for Thai. My apartment overlooks the now-closed Sala Thai location, but I always walked right by en route to Sawatdee.
  15. The relatively recently-opened Sala Thai at the corner of Clarendon Boulevard and N. Adams St. in Courthouse is closed. There's a large sign in the window advertising a new restaurant: "Me Jana." The sign states that the restaurant will feature "Fine Mediterranean Dining." Some quick Googling didn't turn up anything relevant for "Me Jana," though there seem to be one or more Mediterranean restaurants in other cities called "Mejana."
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