The Federalist – A Peaceful Retreat in the Heart of Downtown
What an eclectic array of events in just the past few weeks! Here are some highlights. We cozy into a leather banquette for a quiet, civilized and very elegant dinner at The Federalist in The Madison hotel where Chef de Cuisine Harper McClure put us in the right frame of mind for our madcap road trip. Soups start us off – cauliflower bisque and an aromatic she-crab soup with nubbins of lump crabmeat. My partner went for the Shenandoah lamb loin with celery root purée while McClure kindly indulged me with a special vegetarian plate of Alsatian braised arrowhead cabbage, sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, roasted Brussels sprouts, glazed cippolini onions, Carolina Gold rice and corn drop biscuits, while I try to pack in a week’s worth of veggies.
In the morning we’re off to Atlantic City, New York City, and Long Island too for a quick trip down memory lane. No, we were not the advance team for Hurricane Sandy! But it has felt somewhat eerie this week as we view disaster photos from the very roads we traveled and places where we stayed, trying to keep in contact with our New York friends who have lost power. But for now we are blissfully ignorant of the devastating forces lurking a mere fortnight away.
Upscale and Downscale on the Road
After a sun-drenched ride we disembarked at the glam resort Revel. Its blue glass windows shimmer forty-eight stories skyward upping the wow factor in Atlantic City. The resort has five restaurants from some of the region’s top chefs, but we were headed for Robert Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar and Michel Richard’s Central Michel Richard both of who have their original outposts here in DC. The plan is to visit each one over the following two evenings.
But first a few words about the hotel. It is a breathtaking $2.4 billion curvilinear building designed by Architechtonica – the über modernistic design firm whose Brickell Avenue high-rise offices were featured in Miami Vice, setting the tone for that show’s hipster vibe. No glitzy faux-Venetian Vegas-inspired schlock here. This luxury property was decorated in the trendy retro mid-century modern style. I expected to see the Dino and Sammy and the rest of the original rat pack from the Oceans 11 in their slender-cut suits.
Our first night was spent at Mussel Bar, a Flemish gastro-pub where we found an edgy macho vibe, where Wiedmaier’s Harley Davidson is slung atop the room-length bar and chandeliers are cobbled together from rope and old bottles. Skull graffiti is carved in some of the tables. Skulls are very stylish this year and not on account of Halloween. Try the house private label Belgian beer, Antigoon, a crisp light ale that sports a graphic of a giant with severed hand. No cause for alarm. Brabo, the name of one of Wiedmaier’s Alexandria restos, is a much-revered hero from Belgian mythology.
Expect braised meats and root vegetables served en casserole at this time of year; fresh local oysters, clams, lobsters and mussels, of course; as well as house-made charcuterie and addictive pommes frites. It’s Belgian meets American regional.
Central Michel Richard is its polar opposite. A brightly lit curvaceous blonde wood nest with an open kitchen, chef’s table and dining bar, it features casual French cuisine. Deviled eggs topped with freshly pickled sardines, a chopped salad with mustard vinaigrette, and a beef filet-derived steak tartare were more than satisfying, especially after a cone filled with Richard’s signature gougeres– melt in your mouth cheese bites perfect for snacking with a martini – or “martillery” as we fondly call them at home.
Lunch took us to White House Subs for an Italian cold cut special made with fresh Italian bread. The 65 year-old temple to naugahyde and formica is a must visit. The walls are lined with celebrity habitués from the 50’s on up – a tribute to its great subs and loyal following. We settled for half a sub each for $6 bucks a pop.
On to New York City to Wall Street and the Battery. We pass the new World Trade Center construction in the pouring rain and walk along one of the rare cobblestone streets left in Manhattan. Our destination was brunch at the 250 year-old Fraunces Tavern. An inn cum history museum, it is one of the most fascinating locales in the city, adjacent to the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center, and one I had somehow overlooked in all my years in the city. This pre-revolutionary spot is where George Washington gave his inaugural address and later his farewell address to his officers of the Continental Congress. During the Revolution it was the site of the first U.S. Treasury and the Departments of Foreign Affairs and War. A meeting place for the Sons of the American Revolution it is Manhattan’s oldest surviving building and part of the American Whiskey Trail.
Our fixed price brunch allotted us two Bloody Marys, one entree and a dessert. George and Martha, had they partaken, would have approved. I had the creamy smoked haddock chowder and the Irish Breakfast with sausage, blood pudding, bacon, eggs and baked beans, while my partner opted for the tavern’s buttery-crusted turkey pot pie and goat cheese, pear and cranberry salad. After downing two bloodies I forgot to photo the desserts – homemade pie with homemade ice cream.
Later that evening we repaired to the Lower East Side to a Keith McNally spot called Schiller’s Liquor Bar – all white subway-tiled walls with antique fittings and signage from the turn of the 20th Century. After seeing the photos from Hurricane Sandy with the neighborhood underwater, I hope the place is still up and running as it was pouring cats and dogs that night and we had to leap over puddles on tiny sidewalks.
The place was crowded, cold and damp and all about the cocktail. We kept our coats on. Tables were a few feet from the constantly opening door. I vaguely recall a too-sweet bourbon sour, which the bartender crankily corrected. Dinner was forgettable pasta, quickly downed while being stink-eyed by a hostess eager to turn the tables. No dessert. We fled like thieves in the night.
Avant Le Deluge – Dodging an Impending Hurricane Sandy
Morning brought breakfast at a friend’s home on Long Island – real New York Everything bagels, scrambled eggs and baked ham too – before taking off on a tour of the island and my old homestead. It looked exactly the same as we drove up the long circular driveway and begged entry. A surprised and kindly eighty year-old couple were entirely amenable to our visit. Turns out they are the same family that bought the home from my parents and have raised 14 children in a house where we two kids once cavorted like puppies throughout the home’s ten bedrooms.
Around the corner we stop in at The Chowder Bar. Sixty-six years in the same spot, the clapboard cottage perches unceremoniously beside the Maple Avenue Dock, a dozen or so yards from the old ferry boats to Fire Island. They still serve the best clam chowder on the island for a few bucks and warmed the cockles of our hearts on a blustery day.
In the evening we took dinner with friends in Massapequa, a small mid-island town that boasts numerous Italian restaurants both high- and low-end. We drive along Broadway, the main drag, past mom-and-pop storefronts with traditional pasta makers, pizza joints, bakers, butchers and delis – all Old Country Italiano. At Fra Amici Pizzeria & Ristorante it’s pasta night and the special three-course dinner is $11.95. Caesar salads crisscrossed with olive oil-drenched anchovies, hearty minestrone soup crammed with zucchini and kale, and baskets of just-baked Italian bread cover the small table. Shortly huge bowls of steaming pasta piled high with meatballs the size of baseballs arrive. The tender orbs of veal and beef in homemade “gravy” as they call marinara sauce in these parts, melt in our mouths.
From a list of over fifteen types of pasta dishes I choose linguini alla vongole. I have eaten this dish all over seaside Italia and anywhere in the United States near a bay or ocean. I’ve had it prepared in the shell with Cherrystones, Little Necks or canned clams. I know my alla vongole like a fish knows its scales. I look down at my plate. There before me is a sure half-pound of rough chopped whole fresh clams, whole cloves of tender garlic sautéed in butter and parsley and pasta enough for four. I am thinking Jonah and the Whale. I am thinking I am the big fish and this is my odyssey and as such I need to act my part. Como incredibile!
We all took a deep breath, dove in to our respective pasta and truth be told made room for dessert though I cannot imagine how – cannoli and Italian cheesecake followed by mugs of frothy cappuccino. I am still dreaming of it. Readers, for the love of Mike, please let me know if there is anything in our area with “my-Nonna’s-in-the-kitchen” real-deal Italian dishes like this.
Cookie Monsters at Peace
In the evening we took dinner with friends in Massapequa, a s fueling us along during our time in the car were the heavenly New York City Black + Blanco cookies. We tried all four exotic flavors of the buttery Moroccan-inspired ‘sandcastles’, as they call them. The mad delicious sweets are gluten-free – though Lord knows not calorie-free. Made with rye flour and virgin coconut oil they are entirely vegan. No eggs, no dairy. Choose from Maple Dusted Cardamom, Vanilla Black Sesame, Marzipan or Deep Chocolate Infrared infused with smoked paprika. After each box we were still unable topick a clear winner. We’ll keep trying till we can.
Chinese Master Hu Comes to the Mandarin Oriental DC
Back in town an exclusive booking at the Asian-inspired The Spa at Mandarin Oriental with Shaolin Kung Fu Master Hu awaited us. Master Hu is from Henan Province and is a Master of Qi Gong and Medical Qi Gong as well as massage and meditation which are his specialties. Master Hu has been on a multi-city tour, teaching students in both the martial and the cultural arts of China, and he was only in Washington for a few days before traveling on to the Mandarin Oriental in Chicago.
Our private class was an 80-minute Shaolin Zen Tea Ceremony that addressed health and a holistic diet regime. The result is to stimulate the senses and bring the student back to nature through the serving of tea as a means to meditate together. It seeks to harmonize the mind and body through a spiritual experience conducive to finding your inner self.
After watching Master Hu’s intricate ceremony of making, steeping and serving several white and green teas – one being the smokylapsang souchong from the Fujian Province of China – he told me his name means ‘tiger’. I asked him what ‘foo’ means. “It means happy,” he translated. “Oh well, my dog’s name is Foo Foo,” I offered. “Means very, very happy!” he giggled nearly falling off his chair. His charm is contagious. We sipped and grinned right along with him.
Later we floated off to lunch at the hotel’s Sou’Wester and sat at a table overlooking the harbor while watching the yachts bobbing on the Potomac along Maine Avenue. Feeling blissed out and in a nether realm of consciousness, I dreamily ordered the Pan-Seared Red Drum, a local fish served atop jambalaya and Anson Mills Carolina Gold rice, finishing with the entirely-over-the-top Early Autumn Sundae of port-roasted figs, candied walnuts and clover honey ice cream. We drifted like autumn leaves back to our car and workaday reality, while thoughts of a chestnut sorbet not chosen were luring me back before the season’s end.
Partying with Phoenix – An Insider’s Report
A day of food and fun hosted by friends from the Phoenix CVB was on the agenda earlier this month and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. A chance to have a private luncheon prepared by Mitsitam’s Executive Chef, Richard Hetzler at the National Museum for the American Indian (NMAI) that I knew would prove to be indelible.
Our small group settled into a private dining room off the Main Cafeteria at tables swathed in bronze silks. Host Greg Stanton, the Mayor of Phoenix, had been summoned to the White House that morning, following the previous night’s third Presidential debate, and he was running a tad late. Trays of totopos, appeared with guacamole and peppery spreads with baked vegetable chips. I toyed with a cool prickly pear agua fresca.
Stanton arrived around then apologizing for his late arrival. He’s a good-looking, energetic man-on-a-mission eager to dispel the bad press Arizona has gotten of late. He’d heard one of us had googled up the piece about his experiment to live on a week’s worth of food stamps. I raised my hand. I had been impressed by his sensitivity and drive even before our meeting. He said we probably wouldn’t want to hear about his trip to the White House. My hand shot up again and said, “Yes, please, Mr. Mayor, we would.” “Well,” he recounted, “everyone’s chests were pretty puffed up after the previous evening’s success.” And you could almost feel as though you’d been there too.
Lunch began with curls of cedar wrapped around seared salmon belly – the most buttery part of the fish – the poached red roe scattered like confetti over the top, the skin-on filet leaning against butternut squash bread pudding. (Note: Hetzler achieves a crisp skin by first removing, pressing and quick searing it on a flattop grill and then reassembling the whole.)
Later a chestnut-stuffed goose terrine, sweet potato corn pone and wilted Brussels sprout leaves finished the coterie of appetizers smoothly paired with an Argentine Viognier. Buffalo filet came glazed with fig must and clusters of plump shrimp sparkled with aji peppers and yellow yucca causa, a distinctive Peruvian dish derived from the Incans.
Hetzler showed off all the season’s glories with cauliflower-mashed potatoes made with buttermilk and horseradish, and a squash and Barlett pear gratin served in a pretty casserole. We were a feather’s-breadth from heaven sipping a Chilean pinot noir when dessert was presented in the form of an aromatic acorn squash tart perfumed with sage and huckleberry honey plus a don’t-shoot-the-messenger apple crumble. Take note budding chefs! This is how one of our city’s finest chefs celebrates fall’s bounty using indigenous and sustainable foods.
A few hours later a cocktail reception was held at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). This dramatic ultra-modern winged structure, which took three years to complete, is the newest addition to Constitution Avenue. It features a glorious undulating glass roof called the Ansary Peace Dove. On this night they would throw open the doors for an event that was not a peace-related program or conference and guests were head over heels to see it from the inside.
Copper casseroles filled with lavish dishes were set up around the sun-drenched room. What I remember most is the posole, chicken braised in mole sauce, seafood tamales and crab cakes with pumpkin seed aioli, though there were countless other delights in the cavernous space. After thoughtful remarks by the returning Mayor Stanton, Suwaima – a five-time world champion Hoop Dancer accompanied by a native drummer, performed for the riveted guests.
I Love to Eat – James Beard Comes to DC
This is the last weekend for the short run of Round House Theatre’s fabulous I Love to Eat, the one-man show on the life and times of iconic chef James Beard. In 1946 before Julia Child, Guy Fieri and the Food Network, there was Beard, America’s first TV chef. His NBC show was “Elsie’s Kitchen Tips”, named after the show’s sponsor Elsie the Cow, whose messages drop down to the stage á la Groucho Marx’s secret word delivering duck.
Actor and successful DC-based director, Nick Olcott, channels Beard in all his catty, charming, culinarily knowledgeable glory. To prepare for the role Olcott prepared dishes from Beard’s many cookbooks and blogged about it – his knife skills on the set confirm his year long rehearsal for the role. The set is Beard’s kitchen. A world map signifying his world travels is hung alongside dozens of gleaming copper pans. Stainless steel worktables frame the stage and retro Princess phones are at every corner.
The gourmand enters grandly through a refrigerator in pomegranate-hued Chinese silk pajamas, frost clouds billowing behind. He takes a call from an admirer in Kansas concerned about her dish. “Gird your apron a little tighter,” he advises. “It’s not Easter – no need to bring it back from the dead!” The dialogue is familiar and intimate and we feel we’re a fly on the wall of his life where in his vernacular nonsense is “twaddle” and approval is “really tops” “You can get away with anything if you are amusing!” he admits. Wise words from a sage cook.
I Love to Eat plays through November 4, 202 At Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD through November 4, 2012. For tickets and information, call 240 644-1100. Read David Friscic’s review on DC Theater Arts.
Read Jordan’s other Nibbles and Sips Around Town articles.