isabel’s cantina

Lately it’s been all about the brunch. Two weekends ago (on the heels of a work trip to New Jersey) I took a short jaunt over to New York to partake of the hipper-than-thou world of Brooklyn. My host said people call it Never Never Land because of all the young folks.

It’s true. Brooklyn is teeming with cool. I stayed in a converter toy factory, partied with strangers, sang out loud in the subway, and ate oozy pizza at 2 a.m.

But most of all, I brunched.

5 Leaves' house-made ricotta (taken with iPhone)

Round one was to be had at The Lovin’ Cup Cafe, a dark little Williamsburg noshery filled with 20-somethings staving off hangovers. I was in the company of Newhousers, so decided to indulge in the relatively rare-in-my-world occurrence of day drinking. I chose the Hot Lovin’ Rancheros to fill my belly—channeling my San Diego roots—and washed it all down with two Bloody Marys and a beer. The food was a few notches above decent, and the Marys tingled down the pipes with just enough horseradishy burn to render them memorable. I was far too busy catching up to take pictures.

Another iPhone shot

After sleeping off the brunch that launched our most entertaining evening, the next morning (er, afternoon) we headed over to the late Heath Ledger’s Bedford Ave. creation, Five Leaves. As we’d been so informed the previous night, this place was quite the “scene.” (Given the tone it was said in, we took that to be a bad thing!) But as my friend (never one to shy from frankness) stated, “it might have been a scene, but it was a delicious scene.”

The sun was warm, the house-made ricotta breathtaking, and the sage eggs/veggie sandwich Brenna and I shared was vivid with savory flavors.

Just when I thought I should put the weekend indulgences to rest and reach for the usual (multigrain oatmeal with toasted walnuts and bananas), another foodie friend popped into the mix: My former partner-in-crime in the D.C. food blogger scene, the illustrious Ms. Jimbo of the Unpaid Gourmet. She swooped into town and whisked me (and our men) off to Isabel’s Cantina down in Pacific Beach.

Isabel’s is San Diego’s answer to 5 Leaves’ “sceney-ness”—we had to wait about 40 minutes to get in and another 40 for our food. It was good catch-up time, however, and the food (not the coffee, mind you) was well worth the wait.

I chose the sweet tamales with tomatillo sauce, eggs, and black beans (two photos up), and Mark settled on the apple sausage breakfast burrito special. There was an avocado scramble and coconut-bread french toast at the table as well, along with a bowl of chips and salsa brought as an apologetic appetizer. Everything was hot, fresh, whole, and healthy.

This time, I left the three-drink brunch variety out east, and opted for water. I’m sure I’ll be glad about that later this week, which is heavy with training and travel.

Read more about Chef Isabel and her creations on her personal website, or find out more about the San Diego location here.


SoCal discoveries

Warning: This post contains a glut of pictures of yours truly in the act of eating. Apparently I’ve been in a narcissistic phase as of late.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of my Southern California residency. Despite the stresses of finding a place to live, starting my career, trolling Craigslist and Target for basic necessities, and hauling heavy furniture across town, life has been pretty good.

The weather has been colder and gloomier than the locals say they have seen “in decades.” I haven’t joined a gym, found a place to worship (other than at the ocean shore), or made a ton of new friends. I have also not been cooking much, unless you count assembling salads and spreading peanut butter into ribs of celery. But I’m grateful for what I have, and for the daily reminder to be patient and persistent in making the life I want to live.

That’s one thing I love about food. In the sometimes mundane rhythm of hours, food is that shot of newness into the day. It’s something to look forward to, to plan for. Whether its a perfect avocado from a new friend’s tree (I guess we do have a few new friends!), or discovering this state’s mammoth raisins, relocating has its charms. Though I definitely do not have my kitchen groove back yet (and I haven’t been since living in Syracuse!), I am truly excited about everything my new home has to offer.

The situation looked a little dire at first. We couldn’t find a little ethnic market like we had in Syracuse, and the farmer’s market seemed so much more hoity-toity than the Central New York Regional Saturday mash-up. But we’re getting there, thanks of course to Trader Joe’s (which I’ve now been fully indoctrinated by), and a small market across the street from us called Just Peachy with excellent produce prices. Then, the other weekend (thanks to Chowhound) we found North Park Produce, and its shelves of fun ingredients provided an afternoon’s worth of entertainment.

Pussy willow water, anyone?

I know I’d heard of labne, or kefir cheese before, but this is the first time I’ve bought it. It’s lower in fat than cream cheese, and much more tangy. It’s excellent spread on sandwiches, or on a cracker with some raspberry jam.

At this same market (where we procured fresh tamarind, dirt-cheap olives, two kinds of feta, and so much more) we also sampled some most delicious tamales. I might have tried a tamale or two before, but I remember them being soggy and unimpressive. These ones were wrapped perfectly in corn husks and packed with cheese and jalepenos, not to mention the perfect texture and steaming-hot fresh.

Just as I was staging this “authentic food experience” for Mark to capture  on his iPhone, two women unloading their groceries next to us started giggling at me. Feeling a little sheepish, I started explaining that I was from the East and how you simply didn’t get good Mexican there. They offered us some of their sticky-soft Medjool dates, and all was well.

Then last weekend, in L.A. for the first time, I was treated to two new food experiences. After our coffees from Intelligentsia (esteemed in the coffee community), we walked around until our stomach started growling. Though the famous Kogi taco truck was too far away to follow, we did have the opportunity to dine on fusion truck food — something the city is known for. Our truck of the moment? Calbi, which you can follow too at twitter.com/calbibbq.

We shared a kimchi quesadilla (why haven’t I thought of that?!), a shrimp and a pork taco, seasoned with Korean spices. It was all delicious, and taken in on the street of Abbot Kinney, surrounded by hipsters in their full-sleeve tattoos and fluorescent cruisers, it felt very L.A.-esque.

I guess I have been doing a wee bit of cooking. At the same North Park market where we scored tamales and olives, I also bought a can of fava beans with cumin, and whipped up thislittle stew for us last night. You saute a few cloves of garlic and onion, add 3 small eggplants, cubed, stir in cumin and oregano, and cook until tender. At the end I added the can of fava beans, fresh mint, and a few drizzles of balsamic vinegar (you could use red wine too). Try it with pita bread, yogurt, and/or feta cheese.

Stay tuned for a post with some actual recipes in it (I know, it’s been ages!), starring the fresh tamarind I found at North Park, and more musings on this state’s excellent Mexican cuisine.

beer the Stone way

I took Mark out for his birthday four days early this year. No, I wasn’t rushing his advancement in age and wisdom. I simply wanted to treat him to one of his favorite things: excellent beer.

We managed to survive two weeks here without treating ourselves to one of this country’s finest breweries, and couldn’t hold out any longer.

So on an otherwise nondescript Monday evening, we tromped out to Stone Brewery, where gargoyles, chirping frogs, and every variety of ales and lagers waited. I felt immediately transported into some kind of Trappist monastery-meets-Midsummer-Night’s-Dream haze: in their extensive gardens, water trickled into ponds and fire bounced off slabs of stone. Revelry and tranquility cohabited the grounds as the evening rolled out one taste experience after another.

First order of business was dinner in what is properly called Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. Mark ordered Stone’s own Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale, and I chose the O’Briens IPA from California’s Alpine Beer Company.

Next came dinner. Once our server informed us that we realized were weren’t in fact limited to the “Meatless Monday” menu that was placed before us, Mark proceeded to order the Artisan Sausage Platter: Two locally-made sausages braised in Stone’s Smoked Porter, and served with herb roasted potatoes, braised cabbage and a side of stone ground mustard. I tasted his meal (twice!), and it was delicious. Something about it reminded me of the way the Forks Market in Winnipeg smells. Strange, but we can’t always control our taste associations, can we?

Despite the offerings of meat, I went with one of the Meatless Monday options: Tofu Yakisoba. It wasn’t life-changing, but it had a nice crunch of cashews mixed with chewy tofu, bright vegetables, and perfectly-chewy noodles.

And then there was dessert—one that made up for anything my (perfectly suitable) meal had lacked. I’d decided to take half my dinner home with me, and so had plenty of room for one of the BEST after-dinner indulgences I’ve ever had: Blueberry Blue Cheese Jalepeño Cheesecake. Yes, you heard that right.

I’ve loved cheesecake ever since I was little kid, and I was grateful to Mark for sacrificing his love of chocolate for this experiment (and on his birthday, too!) And it was a successful experiment, indeed: The small round of incredibly rich, soft, disappear-on-your-tongue cheesecake was accented with tiny flecks of green jalepeños and tasted ever so subtly of blue cheese. On top was a compote of blueberries and jalepeños preserved in syrup. The dessert had all of the flavor of the peppers formerly known as hot, and none of the heat. Each mouthful reminded me never to be afraid of unusual pairings.

After dinner we joined the brewery’s “DR.” Bill Sysak upstairs for one of his “Beer U” events. This one was subtitled “Sensory Evaluation,” and with his guidance we learned to properly taste about eight different beers. While the experience was far from being foreign to us, it was great fun to try such a varied line-up (including one that tasted like railway ties … in a good way!) We learned a bunch of interesting facts spanning everything from history to hops, and left pleasantly enlightened. I had no idea that San Diego was so well-known for its style of IPAs … one of our favorite styles!

The brewery offers an impressive list of weekly events including movie nights and beer pairings. Next time you’re in the area (if we don’t succeed in taking you there first!) be sure to check it out. If you love beer, don’t worry: There are no Millers or Budweisers in sight.

Stone Brewing Company/ World Bistro & Gardens
1999 Citracado Parkway
Escondido, CA 92029
760.294.7866

eating my way west, part I

“Whirlwind.” “Roller coaster.” “Bittersweet.” None of the moving clichés are right. Each time, packing feels like something vaguely familiar—something I should be good at by now but for some reason am not.

For all the times I’ve moved, I really should be a pro: At 20, loading up two decades into a U-Haul in my parents’ driveway; at 23 to the apartment where I’d live alone for the first—and only—time; at 24 to a mountain lodge and back; at 25 from a ex-boyfriend’s house to a friend’s sun-room and then to Vancouver; at 26 to Upstate New York with my new husband; at 29 to D.C. for yet another solo jaunt.

Orange-zest sticky bun heaven (Pannikin, Leucadia, CA)

That pile of boxes—life squirreled away in cardboard—brings as many puffs of nostalgia as it does dust. Piles of papers and coins, clothes to give away, friends to see—so many lasts. It’s not fun being so well-versed in goodbyes.

Not that I’m unhappy: As many of you know, I’ve just landed what I can fairly call a dream job at a triathlon magazine in San Diego. It all happened so fast: an email, a telephone call, and a fly-out interview. Back in D.C. I wrapped things up, re-connected with my similarly jet-setting husband, and packed the Jetta for Syracuse.

How does one keep a food blog at a time like this? Not well, I’m afraid. But bear with me: Southern Californian delicacies are on the menu for the next season of freshcrackedpepper.

Curry mussels (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

For now then, the story of how one food-loving wanderer eats her way west.

While in San Diego for my interview, the coast established itself as a mecca of bee pollen/hippie cuisine, flirt-worthy sushi, and orange-zest sticky buns on the ocean (pictured above).

Back in D.C., I had to choose a place for my “last supper” in the city that had been so good to me (bike accident battle scars aside!) I thought back fondly on all the cupcakes, ethnic morsels, and new experiences (like brewing beer for the first time) D.C. had offered. Indeed, it was more than just a six-month stopover between Syracuse’s ports and San Diego’s harbor: it was a satisfying sojourn in and of itself.

Spinach Salad with Cocoa-Balsamic Vinaigrette (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

I settled on Café St. Ex in the U Street neighborhood, for their cute street patio and the great food I’d had at their sister business, Bar Pilar. Our meal of mussels, salad, and a Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. was summery and simple, a good memory to part on. In the very near future, I’ll be experimenting with how to incorporate cocoa into my balsamic vinaigrette.

And their sweet potato fries with just a touch of sweet-salty cinnamon? For those I might be willing to endure a humid D.C. summer. Although I’m sure the West Coast will have a suitable contender.

Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

Back in Syracuse, eating quickly became a mindless task in a long list of to-do’s. Canned baked beans and back-0f-the-freezer discoveries were supplemented with the summer’s first corn (decent, though no sweet ears of late July) and the generous grills of good friends. I think beer might have supplied a higher percentage of my daily calories than is advisable, but my triathlon friends (not to mention all those boxes) helped me keep the negative effects to a minimum.

We set sail yesterday for our cross-country adventure, flung back into the arms of McDonald’s (recommended for their free wireless only), Starbucks (for the only suitable road coffee), Chipotle (yum), and friends along the way (rhubarb ice cream—thanks, Kristen!) After tonight’s quick stopover in Springfield for our dear friends’ wedding, we’ll join up with old Route 66, John Steinbeck’s “Mother Road,” and be on our way to the Texas panhandle.

More to come.

Roti Mediterranean: There is such thing as a free lunch

I am lucky to have so many food lovers in my life. When the topic of regional food came up in the office today, a fellow Canadian casually mentioned a favorite treat, Beaver Tails. Our exchange inspired questions from our colleagues—to set them straight, we launched into a passionate description of what Americans call simply “fried dough.”

I’m also lucky enough to work with someone who is not only a ruthless hunter of the species foodia truckus, but finds (and remembers) all of the city’s best steals and deals. In today’s case, it was the former.

The Moroccan Rice Bowl

My lunch companion had her G-chat message set as a question: “Is a 25-minute walk worth it for a free lunch?” Always happy to walk around downtown in the sunshine, and ever a fan of the elusive free lunch, I signed up for her adventure. When we reached Roti, a brand-new transplant from Chicago, a very long line of frugal Washingtonians snaked through the restaurant and halfway down the sidewalk.

We were told it would be an hour or more before we got to the ordering counter. Scoffing, we decided to wait it out.  (Rumbling stomachs will make you do crazy things.)

Yes, it's true

The sun was bright, people were friendly, and we had plenty of time to choose between the offerings of fresh, healthy-looking menu options. There were sandwiches—roasted meats, vegetables, falafal, or kabob meats wrapped in house-made pita or laffa, a thin and chewy bread. There were two salads, which we passed over quickly. And then there were the Mediterranean and Kabob plates, boasting more protein bang for our buck.  (How can you tell we’re unpaid recently low-paid WHOO HOO! interns?)

We arrived at the ordering counter about 20 minutes later. So much for Mr. Roti’s pessimistic promise. Never underestimate the magical power of two hungry web-journalists.

The line continues ...

After making our donations to D.C. Central Kitchen (kudos for Roti for merging marketing with community service) self-indulgently debating the merits of each option (knowing few others would put up with our OCD behavior), and spying on a group of women to see what they’d ordered, we both decided on the Moroccan Rice Bowl:  Roti rice, topped with chicken or steak Roti, plus any additional three toppings and your choice of sauce. Worked for me.

The fast-casual restaurant was remarkably Chipotle-esque in its layout and logistics. The staff loaded us up with extra toppings when we asked, and smiled lots. The food looked fresh, and to be honest, kind of like some of the food I cook at home. At the end of the line, the cashier rang up our free purchases for inventory’s sake, and handed us cups for a free soda.

The unpaidgourmet shows off her stuff

Back at work, we opened up our stylish little paper bags to find a satisfying, flavorful meal waiting inside. Neither of us could finish, and so we stashed our leftovers in the fridge. My selection (pictured at the top of this post), included rice and tender fire-roasted chicken (I swear I’ll order anything with that prefix). I choose baba ghanouj (excellent), red pepper aioli (decent), yogurt sauce (yummy), tomato-cucumber salad (passable), and roasted vegetables (very good). Tomorrow I’ll bring a pita and wrap up the leftovers.

The Rice Bowl again, this time with beef

Like I said, I’m lucky to have people around me who are so tuned into the goings-on of this city, from politics, to culture, to food. I can barely keep up with it sometimes, but it’s nice to know that someone’s looking out for my lunch-hour well being, and that sometimes there is such thing as a free lunch. You just have to know where to look.

Roti Mediterranean Grill
1747 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC
20006 202-466-ROTI

*all pictures taken with my iPhone, please excuse the poor quality!

2010 D.C. RAMMY Nominees Announced

This might be the first time I’ve ever broken news on this site: Tonight, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington announced the nominees for this year’s awards. I say “break” because at the time of posting, the nominees have only just gone up on the RAMW site and a search still brings up mostly last year’s stories (except for my new friend Michael’s post).

I attended tonight’s reception at the Ritz Carlton—stocked with big egos and small bites—to meet other food writers and keep my finger on the food pulse in this new town of mine. Thank goodness a sister blogger was there to sip Casablanca Crustas with—The Tabard Inn’s own cocktail contender. (I’m only half kidding about the egos. There were a lot of inspiring, hard-working souls humbly strutting their stuff.)

Birch and Barley's diminutive sweets, not pictured are the lemon-vanilla cream puffs which nearly bowled me over

And B&B's executive chef's buttery mackerel

I don’t follow celebrity chefs or watch Top Chef much. Moreover, the RAMW’s motto, “Dine Out, Dine Often, Dine Deliciously,” is only a third of the way accurate in my life, where eating out is more of a novelty. Still, the art of public cookery is something valuable, and it was fun to witness the red carpet glory … er, tablecloth … glory.

The iPhone pictures leave much to be desired, but they do give a glimpse into some of the exciting things happening in this city’s food scene.

Seafood Salad from Eventide, up for Best New Restaurant

Bibiana's "head cheese," in another's words

The RAMMYS are, as one Washingtonian Magazine writer said last year, the Golden Globes of D.C.’s restaurant awards. If the  James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the food world, that is. So while now you can go to the site to see the full list and descriptions of the categories, I’ve narrowed them down to the ones that most people will actually care about. (“Manager of the Year” is a great award, but does that matter when we’re hungry?)

Bourbon Steak had memorable oxtail shooters

Almost as much fun as the food were the creative cocktails

And the innovative cocktails served up by the nominated Mixologists were also captivating: My favorite, a lemon-verbena “Grog” from Restaurant Eve, was like a spiked lemon iced tea as refreshing as a creek in the hot summer. Most of the featured drinks were surprisingly subtle, not too sweet, and in (what I’m guessing to be) the old school style. The Tabard Inn served their Casablanca Crustas, made up of Plymouth gin, Cointreau, chamomile honey lemon syrup, lemon juice, and bitters. Brasserie Beck’s Appertiivo had Tres Generacions Tequila, sour mix, Campari, ginger ale, and a cinnamon and Hawaiian sea salt rim. PS7s‘ Bittersweet Isla featured vodka, Campari, honey, cinnamon, rose and marigold tea, and fresh grapefruit juice, and was served with an edible flower garnish. Founding Farmers garnished their sophisticate take on the Daiquiri with grilled pineapple chunks.

Yeah, my evening workout was a little, shall we say, groggy?

Enough of me. Here are the nominees. (Winners will be announced at a dinner on June 6th, but in the meantime, you can visit Young and Hungry for a more comprehensive analysis of the process and politics of the awards.)

_______________________________

Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year

2941
Michel Richard Citronelle
Minibar by Jose Andres
Oval Room
Source

Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year

Central Michel Richard
Liberty Tavern
Proof
Vermilion
Zaytinya

Neighborhood Gathering Place of the Year

Bar Pilar
Belga
Cork
EatBar
Kemble Park Tavern

New Restaurant of the Year

Bibiana
Birch & Barley
Bourbon Steak
Eventide
Inox

Chef of the Year

Bertrand Chemel – 2941
Scott Drewno – The Source
Daniel Giuste – 1789
Vikram Sunderam – Rasika
Haidar Karoum – Proof

Rising Culinary Star of the Year

Michael Isabella – Zaytinya
Liam LaCivita – The Liberty Tavern
Shannon Overmiller – Majestic Café
Nicholas Stefanelli – Bibiana
Jon Mathieson – Inox

Pastry Chef of the Year

Anthony Chavez – 2941
Amanda Cook – CityZen
Josh Short – Neighborhood Rest. Group
Fabrice Bendano – Adour
Travis Olson – 1789

Wine Program of the Year

2941
Citronelle
Dino
Knightsbridge
Proof

Beverage Program of the Year

Brasserie Beck
EatGoodFood Group – Eve, Majestic, PX…
Founding Farmers
PS7’s
Tabard Inn

Hottest Restaurant Bar Scene of the Year

Birch & Barley – Church Key
Bourbon Steak
Masa 14
Posto
POV

Review: Café Atlántico

Unpaid internships aren’t exactly synonymous with haute cuisine. My encounters with fancy food have almost all been because of lucky invites—either to media events, or exquisite dinner parties. I’m aware of the hot-list haunts in this fair capital, but the closest I can get to most of them is the bar.

Except for this past weekend.

Exhibit A: chimichurri lamb shank, tamarind lentils, poblano chile relleno.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t been so hard done by: Vinoteca spoiled me in January. Dukem‘s affordable spreads have never disappointed. Cheap-eats excursions to Eden Center, Amsterdam Falafal, and Pho 14 have provided enough new sensations to tide me over for weeks. And today, in the leftover afternoon sun of D.C.’s summer in March, authentic Neopolitan pizza on Red Rocks’ backyard-style patio more than satisfied my craving for good pie. Luckily, simple foods do it for me.

But this weekend, the elaborate overshadowed the simple.

Exhibit B: duck confit, parsnip “linguine,” dried cherries, fresh herbs, almonds, horseradish yogurt.

Food reminds me that everyone needs a good spoil from time to time. This morning’s sermon was on the anointing of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. In the passage, Mary Magdelene pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair. Judas, judging this an abhorrent display of excess, chastises Mary for wasting what could have been sold and used to benefit the poor. Jesus addresses Judas: “The poor will always be with you, but you will not always have me.” I used to think this pompous, but have learned that sometimes, extravagance wisely directed can herald beauty, worth, significance.

Artful extravagance like Saturday night at Café Atlántico.

Exhibit C: skirt steak, warm fingerling potato salad, queso fresco, grilled persimmons, tamarind, pomegranate dressing.

When I worked in restaurants I got used to being around fancy food. Over the past few years, I had time to create masterpieces out of a fairly limited budget. More recently, though the lack of a paycheck sometimes takes a toll on the self-esteem, I refuse to let it influence my food choices. Through homemade granola, eating mostly vegetarian, and bulk food shopping, I’ve managed to keep food costs down and still derive great pleasure from eating.

This weekend, I was happy to discover that I haven’t lost my taste for the exquisite.

Exhibit D: portobello mushroom, sweet potato-plantain ‘ravioli’, seasonal mushrooms, Chihuahua cheese.

It helps when you have someone to take care of you. I’m grateful for a partner who’s willing to spend his hours enlightening ungrateful undergrads to help me pursue this dream. I’m grateful that this weekend, one of my two loving families traveled so far, just to spend time with me in this adopted city. Families operate under a logic that runs counter to the rest of the world: they remind you that you’re worthy of love simply by being who you are. Living so far away, sometimes I forget what that feels like.

If that feeling had a bouquet, Saturday night’s dinner would be its finish:

Exhibit E. scallops, cocoa butter, cauliflower purée, cauliflower ‘couscous,’ American caviar.

No matter what’s on the plate, sitting around a table with people you love is the most gourmet experience one can know.  I miss Sunday dinners: the regularity of fellowship, the comfort of companions. I’ve tried to recreate that experience since moving here by making time for eating with my church family, my friends, and my housemates.

Even in the face of all the poverty and injustice in this world, the brevity of fellowship seems to justify an artful display or two of abundance.

Exhibit F: pineapple-lime cake, pineapple-lime salsa, caramelized Brazil nuts, black pepper, Mexican sour cream sherbet.

Perhaps this is pompous or even sacrilegious of me, but this meal seemed to follow Mary’s lead of wiping Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. To my brain, Judas’ point seems merited—shouldn’t we have considered the poor? But then I remember: we all have our daily callings to right wrongs, to give, and to serve, but there are times we eat drink and are merry simply because we do not always have each other. That alone seems like a reason to indulge.

Café Atlántico
405 8th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 393-0812