Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Proof: My DC home away from home

I was in DC for work a couple of weeks ago, and having fond memories of Proof from my last visit, I decided to head back. I'll say up front: Proof was even better this time around, so good that I ended up there for dinner two out of my three nights in the city.

First off, the atmosphere is almost insanely welcoming. It's artfully lit, with cozy booths and spacious tables; wine bottles line a floor-to-ceiling room divider; there's a bar area in one corner; and the far corner, near the kitchen, houses a quiet little cheese counter, with a cheesemonger (?) methodically portioning enormous wedges of cheese into cheese-plate-sized hunks.

Oh, and the service-- it's spot-on. My waiter the first night came over to welcome me back the second night I was there, even though my table was not in his jurisdiction. Service is solicitous without being overwhelming; it's knowledgeable and friendly but not intrusive.

Proof is a wine bar, so of course there's wine. A decent selection of wines by the glass includes some unusual varietals (great for my Wine Century Club!) and offers three different sizes: half-glass, full glass, and quartino, all at reasonable prices. During my two visits, I tried a Furmint from Hungary and a Zierflander from Austria, both of which were crisp, delicious, and food-friendly.



Ah, the food. Unlike at a lot of wine bars, the food here isn't an afterthought; there's a full menu, with lots of space devoted to charcouterie and cheeses, yes, but also an ample selection of salads, appetizers, and entrees.

On both my visits, I started with the olives. These are meaty, salty, substantial orbs in a delicious brine flecked with citrus zest and a touch of crushed red pepper. Since the olives are so large, one order is actually a decently-filling appetizer.

Very carefully plated

There's also a bread course of sorts, which is admittedly not Proof's strong point. While the dip-- Greek yogurt with mint, chives, and olive oil-- is addictive and spoon-worthy, the bread is flat, hard, unsalted, and largely flavorless. I understand why this might make a logical bland cracker for a pungent cheese course, but as a stand-alone bread it just doesn't quite work.

Quantity, not quality

But back to the good stuff. I tried two salads during my visit. First: maple-roasted delicata squash with arugula, pecorino, pumpkin seeds, and cider vinaigrette. This was a tasty and pretty hearty salad, with tender squash and some good crunch from the pumpkin seeds. I wished the pecorino had been portioned a bit thicker; as it was, it was so paper-thin it almost melted into the squash and didn't quite get a chance to assert its salty flavor. But overall, this was a good expression of fall on a plate.

Not too sweet

The second night I chose the roasted beets with pea shoots, kaleidoscope carrots, aged goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts, and sherry mustard vinaigrette (which I'd gotten before). This salad was a really ample portion-- I was unable to finish both this and a full order of olives. The beets were sweet rubies, contrasting nicely with the peppery bite of the pea shoots. I had only two half-carrots in this salad, which was fine with me, since despite being "kaleidoscope" they tasted like normal carrots. The healthy scattering of hazelnuts lent welcome crunch to the mix, and the three small hemispheres of aged goat cheese provided a surprisingly pungent cheesy funk to the mixture. This is a good salad, but it's strong-- the flavors are all assertive, so if you're looking for a mild start to your meal, consider yourself warned.

Buried beets

One of the two evenings, I stayed for dessert. They have some interesting dessert options, including a sticky toffee pudding (which you don't see all that often), but I was looking for something light. One special request later (kindly obliged by both my waiter and the kitchen), and I had a trio of their specialty ice creams. A scoop of gianduja gelato was smooth and hazelnutty; a boule of creme fraiche ice cream was surprisingly tangy and bold; and the orb of coconut sorbet had the appealing shatter-y texture of good sorbet, along with a tantalizing tropical flavor. And the nut cookie providing the garnish added some welcome heft to the dish.

Smooth, creamy, and neutral

I love Proof. It's the kind of place that makes me want to own a wine bar someday, someplace that is cozy and welcoming (even to a solo diner), takes pride in its food, and offers a diverse selection of wines that allow people to try something different without laying out too much cash. Last year, Proof earned four Offset Spatulas from me, and this year it effortlessly retains that rating. You can bet that next time I'm in the area, I'll be back.

775 G Street NW

Monday, November 29, 2010

Stout. Hmmm.

A couple weeks ago, NR, LM, the bro and I hit up MSG for the Bruins-Rangers game. Jonesin' for some food and drink beforehand, we convened at Stout, just across the street, for some pre-game fuel.

First of all, let me say that Stout is HUGE. It's got two floors, and even just the top floor is larger than you could even conceive of. We were seated in the far, far back, the farthest table from the entry (literally), amidst a crowd of people scarfing chicken fingers and pounding beers.

The fact that Stout is huge is actually really relevant to this review, because on the night we were there, they were not only huge but apparently painfully understaffed. Sure, there were servers running around, but getting served was a challenge at any point during the night. Fortunately, the bro and I, acting as Advance Team and arriving at the table first, decided to order ASAP to get things rolling. A beer and a Magner's, along with a house salad and a Reuben pizza, were delivered in a relatively timely manner.

The salad, a bowl of mixed greens with matchsticks of green apple, some walnut pieces, and a few dollops of goat cheese, was decent, if small. Once I had finished I was still ravenously hungry and debating ordering a second salad. (I didn't, fortunately... you'll see why.)

Decently fresh

When the pizza arrived, NR had joined our crew, and he and the bro split the pizza. It was a thin-crust pizza topped with Swiss cheese, some sauerkraut, and small chunks of pastrami. While ordering the Reuben pizza was a gamble, it paid off-- both NR and the bro enjoyed this concoction. They planned to finish their meal with a chicken pizza, to be ordered the next time we could flag down a server.

Reuben on a 'za

Our first server (ostensibly the one assigned to our table), passed by in a rush-- the bro flagged her down and said we'd like to order some more food whenever she got a chance. She said she'd be back and then promptly disappeared. We did not see her again. Around 15 minutes passed, and LM joined us; finally, after significant effort and frantic glances at the clock, we were able to order some more drinks, the second pizza, a spinach and artichoke dip, and an order of chicken fingers for LM's meal.

Cue another 15-minute lapse; a manager came over at one point to ask how things were going, and we mentioned we were still waiting for our food while trying to make the start of the Bruins game. He disappeared and returned a few minutes later to tell us the food was on its way. Sweet.

Soon a chicken pizza graced our table. In a moment of group foresight, we'd thought to ask for the check at that point so we could pay and dash whenever the food was done. The check arrived, we paid, and a couple of minutes later the spinach and artichoke dip came. Still waiting for the chicken fingers, we mentioned to the passing manager that they'd never arrived. He left and returned a few minutes later to say that the kitchen had run out of chicken fingers. Yes, really. About 30 minutes after we'd ordered them, they had "discovered" there were none left. Oh, and we'd already paid for them, of course, given that we'd paid the bill in advance.

Pizza #2

Not as good as last time, apparently

To his credit, when we informed the manager of this, he was incredibly apologetic, told us he'd take the dish off the bill, and offered us a round of drinks. Since we were under incredible time pressure at this point, we opted for a round of shots. A bit of Patron in our bellies, the bro and I dashed across to the Garden to work out an issue with our seats while LM and NR finished their meals (such as they were).

But that's not all--apparently after the bro and I left, the manager had returned because he had made some mistake on the bill and was trying to get our party to pay more than we had (we'd paid the right amount for the total bill, minus the chicken fingers, including tip). Really? At that point, given our experience, as a restaurant manager, don't you just let it go?

So I'm really mixed about Stout. The service, obviously, was atrocious, but the manager did make a good-faith effort to fix things... until he came back with the bill issue and further mired himself in bad-service purgatory. The food was decent, however, and not overpriced, and the ambiance is enjoyable if you're looking for an Irish pub/sports bar atmosphere. And if you're in the MSG area, your food and drink options are sorely limited. Would I go back to Stout? I'm not sure-- even with our bad experience, I wouldn't rule it out; the bro has been there several times before and has had good experiences previously. So I'll give Stout two Offset Spatulas rather than one, with hopes that if we do ever return, it will redeem itself.

133 W. 33rd Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Some classy wine at Anfora

Last weekend, I met up for a casual Sunday-night drink with DA, whom I haven't seen in months. Our destination was Anfora, the organic(ish) wine bar recently established by the owners of Dell'Anima and Artusi; I expected a wait and at least something of a scene, but I was prepared.

I walked in, and the place was blissfully uncrowded. The main attraction visually is a large bar with some widely spaced square barstools; the rest of the space is taken up by three large scalloped booth/lounging areas. I plopped myself down on one of the semi-circular banquettes and found it delightfully comfortable. DA arrived, we ordered wine, we chatted.

What wine did we order? I chose a glass of Quattro Mani "Toh-Kai," an assertive white that is among the more unusual wines I've tasted. It was sharp and very acidic; it made my mouth water in a not altogether unpleasant fashion. Easy-drinking it was not, but I'm glad I tried it.

DA went for a glass of the "Cuve Rouge" Chateau Musar from Lebanon. This was a tasty glass of red-- spicy but not aggressive and hearty but not overpowering... we'll call it "balanced."

Fraternal twins

After sipping for a bit, we decided to order one of their cheese plates. Our order of Piave came with six small slices of some of the better ciabatta I've tasted recently-- chewy with a good crust and those appealing glossy insides. The cheese was reliably salty and umami-rich. A tiny trio of accompaniments-- wildflower honey, raisin compote, and whole-grain mustard-- provided a bit of interest, although it would have been nice to get some fresh or stewed fruit along with the deal.

Piave is just so, so good.

I recommend Anfora; it was surprisingly low-key and approachable for a West Village wine bar. While the food is relatively reasonably priced, the wines by the glass can get pretty pricey, so order carefully. Even though I don't usually give bars spatulas, I think Anfora deserves a hearty three OSes and a thumbs up for being a pleasant surprise.

34 Eighth Avenue at Jane Street

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sweets in Brooklyn: One Girl Cookies

Before our jaunt to Palo Cortado for some Spanish wine and tapas, KS and I stopped at One Girl Cookies to pick up some dessert. Since I don't make it over to Brooklyn very often, it was my first exposure to One Girl-- and boy, was that exposure delicious.

The place itself is adorable, a bright space that's very cleanly maintained. The display case is filled with tiny cookies, meticulously crafted and sporting offbeat flavors. But I went straight for the good stuff-- whoopie pies, of course. Yes, there were some cupcakes, and even a cake by the slice, but their whoopie pies are supposedly something special, so I indulged.

Cookies like little jewels

Cupcakes with spikes

Saucers ready for takeoff

With whoopie pies in my purse (and a selection of cookies for KS and CC), we jaunted off to dinner and then back to KS and CC's apartment. Out came a plate and a fork, and onto the plate went my two whoopie pies: one in chocolate, one in pumpkin. I dug in.

Pies a-waitin'

These were scrumptious. Truly. They're unassuming, and pretty small-- just about two and a half inches across, if that. But the cake is moist and fork-tender, and the frosting/filling is incredible. Instead of the usual fluffy creme centers, One Girl fills its pies with cream cheese frosting (um, YES). It's sweet, it's tangy, it's thick, and it combines with the cake in a rich marriage of soft sweetness. I expected to like the chocolate version better, but surprisingly the pumpkin was the winner; its cake was more moist than the chocolate cake, and its flavor was of Thanksgiving spices like nutmeg and cinnamon-- no assertive squashiness here. The little pies are rich, and after a few bites I figured I wouldn't be able to finish them both. But when I looked down a few moments later, they were both gone. A good whoopie pie'll do that.

A superlative whoopie pie is rare in this city, and One Girl fills that gap (and your stomach) admirably. Kudos.

One Girl Cookies

68 Dean Street, Brooklyn

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Enologo coming to town...

Spotted in the old New Taco Express storefront, on Ninth Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets: Enologo. Its tagline is "Brick Oven & Wine"--I'm envisioning some sort of pizza-wine bar mash-up? Here's to hoping the wine doesn't go IN the brick oven; that's how mistakes are made, folks.

Soon, my pretties, soon...

Friday, November 19, 2010

To Brooklyn for some spanish food and wine

Last weekend, I ventured out to Brooklyn to hang out with my friend KS and her lovely husband CC. After a brief first stop at One Girl Cookies (more on that later), we made our way to Frankies to try to grab a table. We had decided our wait tolerance was 30 minutes; the kind manager informed us the wait would be approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes. Yikes! Off we went to Prime Meats around the corner to try our luck there. Two hours! Hooo boy. Down the block to Buttermilk Channel-- that would work, right? One hour 45 minutes! Welp, there we go. So we decided to check out Palo Cortado, a smart-looking wine bar that was only about half full at around 7:45 when we finally abandoned our search.

Palo Cortado is very, very new (only a few weeks old at this point), and it's like the new kid in school-- shiny, eager, and still getting used to its surroundings. The space is a nice brand of rustic-chic, but the setup is odd: there's a large bar dominating the room, a handful of two-tops lining the wall, and then two high communal tables for larger parties at the front of the room. The problem was that the communal tables only seat around 7 people, so it's really more of a two-party table... not quite communal, not quite private. A little odd.

Seating arrangements (and the fact that the front door didn't quite close, leaving us in the line of fire for chilly breezes the whole night) aside, we dove right into the menu. Our laid-back server gave us a 5-10 minute talk about the menu and the specials, clearly wanting to please but not quite in the swing of the game yet, if you know what I mean. We finally ordered some wine-- two glasses of a red on special for KS and CC; a glass of vina costera white blend for me. This was actually a delicious choice-- the wine was bright and snappy and very good with the food to come.

Bright and cheerful

Oh, and how about the food? This is a tapas bar, so we ordered a smattering. My own two choices were a dish of olives and a salad. The olives came as a mixture of mostly tiny little olives; they were tasty enough but seemed almost underdone, if that makes sense (a little too hard texture-wise, as if they hadn't cured long enough). Nonetheless, olives are always fun (especially when they have the occasional caperberry buried inside), and this went well with the wine.

Colorful and tiny

The salad was advertised as market greens with sherry braised onions, idiazabal cheese, almonds, and house vinaigrette. I can say that this salad was more certainly interesting than I had anticipated. The sherry-braised onions were sweet and silky and tasted almost like cherries; the large hunks of cheese were classically delicious, and their quantity was much appreciated. The only curious choice was the greens, which were rough-textured winter greens, much better for braising than for eating raw in a salad. On balance, the salad was tasty enough, if a little small for $8 (an ongoing theme of the meal, as you'll see).


KS and CC ordered a mixture of the hot and cold tapas. There were a few winners in there, including the goat cheese croquetas (they also sampled a bacalao croqueta, which wasn't quite as pleasing). The spiced lamb meatballs with mint cucumber yogurt were also celebrated, although they curiously came with only three skewers for four meatballs. Huh.

How can you not win with fried cheese?

Don't worry, one skewer was re-used

The not-quite winners included the poached shrimp in green sauce, which were a bit plain; the pan con tomate, which suffered from textural issues (the tomato topping didn't quite meld with the bread); the anchovies, which were definitely fresh but were a bit underseasoned; and the mushroom and potato tortilla, which was decent overall but lacked salt and had too much creme fraiche on top. In fact, underseasoning was a common complaint; while it's certainly better than over-salting food, a bit more oomph with the salt shaker in the kitchen could certainly elevate the flavors here.

Chorizo chips?

Not quite bruschetta

Little fish

This was probably the best value of the night

We had dessert waiting for us at home, so we passed on the dessert options and paid the bill. Palo Cortado is a tough nut to crack, review-wise. The space was welcoming and comfortable, if not physically (awkward high communal tables, gusty cold winds from the door) then emotionally (they seated us immediately and let us linger). The food had its highs (creative presentations, stewed onions, goat cheese croquets, delicious wine) and its lows (underseasoning). And, of course, it's not cheap. Our meal, with one drink each and eight very small tapas, was almost $100-- it's a good way to taste a lot of dishes, not stuff yourself on high-value food. I think Palo Cortado has lots of potential and is essentially just getting its sea legs. It's likeable, and if I'm ever in the neighborhood again, I'd certainly return; it earns its three Offset Spatulas heartily along with an encouraging thumbs up.

Palo Cortado
520 Court Street, Brooklyn

Thursday, November 18, 2010

So long, Chicago: Some Sugar Bliss to see me off

My final post from Chicago, fittingly, ends on a sweet note. My last day in the city had culminated in a stroll downtown on a brisk but bright day. And lo and behold, where should I find myself (completely coincidentally, of course...) but in front of Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique on Wabash. Well, I had to get something, right? Right?

So get something I did. They had a tempting away of cupcakes, both full-size and mini-size, and I almost went for an assortment of the minis. However, the one flavor I really did want to try was the chocolate cake with white frosting, and sadly, they were out of that mini version. Guess I'd just have to man up and get a full-sized cupcake.

After carting the precious thing around all day, trying desperately (and largely successfully) not to crush it, I got the little bugger back to my hotel room and tucked in. And boy, was it good.

Only a bit worse for wear!

The chocolate cake was fudgy and moist while still being light-- not sticky but not fluffy, occupying that hallowed middle ground in between. It was incredibly, incredibly satisfying. The frosting, piped in an attractive daisy pattern crowned with a small chocolate button, was smooth and creamy; while it wasn't greasy, it had a bit of a shortening mouthfeel and aftertaste to it, which prevented it from being truly stellar. Regardless, the combination of cake and frosting certainly got the job done.

Mmm, devil's food chocolate cake

Yes, Sugar Bliss is currently over a thousand miles away from me, but next time I'm in town you can bet I'll stop by. And if you're anywhere closer to Chicago than I am, I encourage you to do the same.

Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique

115 N. Wabash, Chicago

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More Chicago: To the Firehouse!

I've blogged about my adventures at Bin 36 in Chicago, but that wasn't the only restaurant that got some love while I was in town. One evening, I was looking for a quick dinner relatively near our hotel, and so I made my way to the Chicago Firehouse.

I first wanted to sit at the bar, but the bar was completely full, so the hostesses sat me at a very, very awkward table-for-two located pretty much in the vestibule of the restaurant. It was constantly buffeted by cross-winds and was thus pretty chilly, meaning I spent dinner in my scarf and hat. And it was right in the pathway of passing traffic and speeding waiters, which meant I felt I was in the way the whole time. I know I'm only a single diner, but c'mon, Firehouse, don't make it obvious that you don't want me there...

Anyway, to the food. There was fresh bread, which I had a bit of; it was appealing in texture but a bit off in flavor. Huh.

Warm but not too tasty

But the real win here was the salad. I chose the house salad, with baby spinach, green apple, spiced pecans, and sherry vinaigrette. I requested a replacement for the usual blue cheese, and they gladly substituted parmesan. May I say right here that despite all the other issues going on at the Firehouse, this salad was incredible. Truly top-notch. It was incredibly tasty, with all the ingredients melding together yet still asserting themselves in the way that truly characterizes a good salad. I could have eaten a trough-load of this.

Stellar salad

After gorging on salad, I checked out the dessert menu, but nothing really appealed. So after paying the check (a process that apparently required two false-starts before the waiter actually delivered the check-holder with my appropriate bill in it), I skipped on down the street to Marble Slab creamery, where I got a cup of their cinnamon-apple flavor ice cream. It pretty much defined "nothing special"-- it tasted like apple pie and was cool and creamy, but it was slightly gummy in texture and was unremarkable in every other way. Oh well.


Oh, and ice cream in November in Chicago? It makes you cold. Fun fact.

While I'd like to dock the Firehouse for service lapses, that salad was so damn good that I still have to give the restaurant three Offset Spatulas. If I'm ever in the area again, I would actually return to have that dish again; I'd just be sure to bring a dining companion. Maybe that was the Firehouse's goal all along?

The Chicago Firehouse
1401 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago

Monday, November 15, 2010

More Chicago: Tavern at the Park

While Bossman and I were in Chicago for our conference, we set out one night in search of a nice dinner. Our first choice, Gage, was insanely packed, so we left and wandered up Michigan Avenue to see what we could find. Unfortunately, what we found was driving sleet, so we dashed into the first welcoming restaurant we could find: Tavern at the Park.

There was a lengthy wait here, too, but we hovered by the bar and grabbed two bar seats relatively quickly. Two drinks-- a beer for Bossman; a glass of Valpolicella for me (yum)-- and we were set. Then the food arrived.

Bossman went with a chopped steak cheeseburger with American cheese and a side of delicious, delicious fries. This burger was huge and was pronounced delicious.

Burger dwarfs bun

An extra side of garlic parmesan broccoli was unimaginably rich-- swimming in a bath of melted something (garlic butter?) and covered in cheese, this was broccoli at its most sinful.

Looks virtuous, but...

My choice was the goat cheese and beet salad. I'd say this was ah-kay; it was an enormous portion, but the beets were a tiny bit overcooked and over-coated with dressing. The candied walnuts were delicious, though.

Bigger than it appears

And such was our dinner. We both left stuffed and headed back to the hotel for some sleep before another full day of conferencing. Overall, Tavern at the Park was one of Chicago's entrants in the three Offset Spatula market: decent food, a comfortable ambiance-- it gets the job done.

Tavern at the Park
130 E. Randolph Street, Chicago