El Camino: Hip Mexican in DC

What I love most about El Camino in DC’s Bloomingdales neighborhood are the owners and the staff.   They take their role as a community restaurant seriously.  As a result, they are welcoming, attentive and engaging with their patrons.   As further evidence, they list  their “partners” on their site.  Their partners include the general contractor and the artists who designed aspects of the restaurant.

On one of my visits, the staff was having an animated discussion about how to stay engaged with the community, bring in business and be friendly toward their fellow restaurant owners but at the same time make sure their outdoor space was available for their patrons, not overrun with coffee drinkers from the coffee shop next door.   They endeared themselves to me as a result.

The restaurant does have a really cool vibe.  The light fixtures are hip chain link creations.  The place is small, dark, a great atmosphere with lots of funky, edgy art on the wall.  The tables are all a good size so you don’t feel like you are miles away from your dinner partner.  They have a decent sized bar which usually has folks sitting around in fun conversations.  But beware, for some reason, the phone rings at the bar, its a little startling even in these days of cell phones ringing everywhere – you just don’t expect a phone to ring right next to the liquor bottles.

The food, well – its a bit hit or miss depending on what you order.  The chips are always crisp, salty and not greasy.   The salsas and hot sauces are all made in house and are really snappy and zesty.   The hottest sauce a mango-habanera does not bring the bang you would expect but it is still unique and spicy enough.  I prefer the green salsa, I think the flavor is a bit more unique and spirited than the red salsa.

They also make their own taco shells, quesadilla shells, etc.  They are fabulous with a great corn taste and have much more heft than you usually get in a tortilla.  They are my favorite part of the meals.  An outstanding dish is the spicy corn.  A friend who regularly travels to Mexico declared it to be better than the spicy corn she buys from vendors in Mexico City.  I have to agree – super fresh corn and a real bite of spice.  The fajitas have been too soggy as are the salads  – just way too much sauce and oil.  It ends up drowning out any flavors of the dish.  I enjoy the quesadillas, because of the shell and the spicy salsa, although I had to add a lit of extra salsa and sauce to get it a real bite of salsa flavor.  The mushrooms and other veggies were well-seasoned.

The margaritas are often too heavy with the mix and too short on the hooch.

But, its still worth a trip to experience and to support this great local Mexican joint.

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Butter My Bun & Call Me a Biscuit

I have tried to make a great buttermilk biscuit.  My biscuits turned out like hockey pucks.   (A game well-suited to the northern part of the U.S. – remember this.) My mother has tried to make a great buttermilk biscuit.  Despite her baking blue ribbon county fair pedigree, my mom’s biscuits are not that perfect light, feathery, buttery biscuit but are not as bad as my hockey puck.  My mom even had my dad’s southern kin teach her the secrets to the great southern buttermilk biscuit – it did not help.

But, just because we cannot make the ideal southern biscuit, does not mean we don’t love them.

I fell in love in Charleston with the consummate Southern buttermilk biscuit – buttery, moist, light as a feather, not greasy, just divine.  Then when my husband slathered butter and berry jam on top, the biscuit we were supposed to be sharing suddenly became land we were each trying to claim in battle – a fight erupted over each bite since neither of us wanted to give up one bite of that biscuit.

I have no idea how to replicate it.  My mother can’t either.  Perhaps it just cannot be done in the north.  Perhaps we need to stick with the snow, ice, rhubarb pie and hockey pucks and leave buttermilk biscuits to our southern kin.

But, that does not mean you cannot get yourself a great buttermilk biscuit up north.  The biscuit we split was in the Charleston City Market at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits.  Fortunately, Callie must know that up north, we cannot bake ourselves a decent buttermilk biscuit, so she will ship you her biscuits.

 

Gelato with a Dollop of Attitude in DC

I have been to Dolcezza at 14th and P for an affogatto about four times over the past year.  Each time, I ended up with a dollop of attitude, an expensive watery espresso, with a nothing special scoop of gelato.

The last time I went, standing by the bar to order, the barista did not even bother to look up at me and instead with great attitude asked what I wanted from behind the espresso machine.  When I told her there was no response.  Moments later, another employee came to ring me up and for some reason, charged me for two affogatos, she did not even ask what I had ordered.  I told her I ordered only one when the rude barista hollers over – “Oh, I thought you said two.”  Weird.  The cashier adjusted and charged me for one.  The cashier barely said a word to me and just flipped the tablet around for me to sign.  I have had a similar experience with the staff almost every time I have gone there – they project as if they are doing you a favor by making you a cup of coffee.

In addition to the unwelcoming attitude, the space is unwelcoming.  It is a weird lay out, like a galley kitchen and there is almost never any seating.  Then, although there are three doors, the staff will inexplicably lock one or two of them.  There is no consistency.

The other aspect that makes me crazy is that right by where you stand and order, is some type of drain for the milk or for the water used to clean the tools the barista uses.  So, as you are ordering and anticipating a delightful cup of joe, you get to watch the barista discard the unclean milk and water down this little drain.  It is right there, totally exposed by the cash register. Again – just weird.

Finally, the gelato is just ok, nothing to note.  Coffee is the same, kind of bland.

My recommendation when in the area of 14th and P and you need a coffee, duck into the Whole Foods and get a cup at the Whole Foods coffee shop.  The folks are friendly, the environment is more welcoming and the coffee is a lot better.

White-Chocolate, Lime FunFetti Cake – WOW!

I had funfetti in my kitchen.   It had been sitting around since a Christmas cooking baking extravaganza with friends.  Being motivated to bake, I decided to use it.  Knowing that to assure the funfetti got the stage it needed, I knew I needed a white cake.  I did not want it obscured by a chocolate batter.

I also usually go bundt since they are easier to decorate and to manage than round, tiered cakes.  But, I did not want the boring old flavorless white cake.  So, I decided to take a bundt cake and jazz it up with lime and white chocolate chips.

I started with the King Arthur Flour vanilla bundt cake recipe and doctored it up. (Note:  If you are a baker, you gotta check out the King Arthur Flour site.  They have fabulous recipes, with great directions.  Plus, it is a good, well-behaved company, the type I love to support.)  First, instead of vanilla, I used lime juice.  I put in about a quarter cup of lime juice.  Next time, I will use the juice and I will add some zest of the lime because I did not think the lime flavor came through strong enough.   I used sour heavy cream because I always have that in my fridge since that is my preferred add to my coffee, before it sours that is.  In addition to the lime juice I added about two-third of a bag of mini-white chocolate chips.  Then, I dumped in a ton of funfetti.

I made a white chocolate glaze for the frosting and then tossed more funfetti over the glaze.  Here is the white chocolate glaze recipe but, please note, I added more chocolate than this and then adapted with a bit more heavy cream until I got the consistency I wanted.

4 ounces of white chocolate chips
2 tbl  butter
1 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tbl lime juice
1 -2 tbl heavy cream

I personally found the cake to be super moist, light and yummy.  The funfetti made it an immediate party cake.  My guests loved it.  Its a make again.

Go Greek in Charleston, South Carolina

On a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina with friends, our first night in town we went to Stella’s for dinner.   The food knocked our socks off.  The serve was – satisfactory but a little strange.

We arrived around 4 or 5 in the afternoon hoping to get seated for our reservations.  We were told we could not have our table because they were not serving dinner yet.  When we told them we were just as happy to sit at our table and drink until dinner was available, motion to sit at the table – denied.  So, we sat at the bar.  The bartender presented as somewhat annoyed and put out that she had to now get four people drinks. It was obvious enough that all four of us remarked on the ‘tude she was throwing off.

But, the bartender’s disposition was of no moment once we tried our drinks.  I had the Santorini –  vodka, fresh blueberries, fresh ginger, lemon and pomegranate.  A refreshing combination of flavors.   But it was tough to chose the Santorini as my drink given the great line up of creative but not over the top drinks.  My friends went with beer and were pleased with the selections.

When the appointed hour arrived and we were able to get seated, our waitress was friendly, willing to share suggests, and stopped us from ordering too much.  She was responsive but did not linger.

The menu is amazing – an extensive line up of Greek classics but also some twists on the classics.  We shared the hummus and tabouli, classic Greek salad and tiropita (spinach and feta wrapped in phyllo).  All authentic, all fresh, all delicious.  For our meals we ordered moussaka, chicken souvlaki and shrimp santorini.  Even though the four of us are a tough crowd to please, we were all thrilled with the food.  The chicken nor shrimp were over cooked.  Everything was flavorful but not overrun with spices or oil.

We had a tough time deciding what we wanted for dinner given so many great choices.   The servings are enormous, which is why the waitress advised that we not order so much.  We had three entres that we shared with four people; and, along with the appetizers and salad, we had too much.  We left some behind.  Had we been home, I would have asked for a doggie bag but we were traveling.

We passed on dessert because we were stuffed.

The atmosphere is casual and welcoming.  The booth were we sat was comfortable and with four seating together, we were not cramped.   You feel like you are in your Grandma’s home – that cozy.

Its a don’t miss when you are in Charleston.

 

 

Rumchata – Gotta Try It

Every now and then I try a drink that bowls me over.  When that happens, I go on a kick drinking the beverage on a regular basis.  The most intense and long lasting kick has been my Rumchata kick.

I first had the drink in a pumpkin martini last fall but still have such fond memories of the pumpkin martini and the Rumchata that was in it that I am compelled to write about Rumchata now.  (Especially since every time I open my refrigerator I see the bottle of Rumchata which is quite pleasing to look at.  It is a soft cream color with a gold font, gold lid and a gentle soft shape, a welcoming. relaxing, artistic bottle.)

The pumpkin martini consisted of three of my favorite things – pumpkin, vodka and cinnamon.  I knew this much from the menu so I was sold.  However, when the waitress brought the drink, it was far tastier and creamy than I had anticipated.  I fell in love.  I ordered another and shared both with my mom.  At the close of the evening, I found the bartender and asked her for the recipe for the pumpkin martini.  When she said Rumchata I had no idea what she was saying, she had to show me the bottle.  I took a photo of it and the next day I was at the liquor store buying it.

I then started making pumpkin martini’s through the fall.  Then, when winter hit, I had coffee and Rumchata with Butternut Schnapps.  Then, in the spring, muddled strawberries, Rumchata and vodka.  You get the picture.

I informed a friend about my find.  On her next evening out, she ordered a drink with Rumchata – bartender’s choice.  I do not know what the bartender made her.  But the next day, she sent me an email letting me know she had her first Rumchata experience and loved it.  Attached to the email was a photo of the inside of her fridge – empty (she is no cook, eats out all the time) but for a bottle of Rumchata.  Need I say more about Rumchata?  Enjoy.

Sette Osteria – Consistent, Cool Italian in the Capital City

I have been going to Sette Osteria in Dupont Circle in DC for years and to its location on 14th Street in DC since it opened.  I have never been disappointed and have always been thrilled.  It has no shtick, its not trying to be something its not, and its menu is not expansive – straight up well-done Italian.   It delivers a great meal, great service, great atmosphere ever time, year in year out.

Here is what I love.

The staff is always engaged and informative. They are committed to making your meal enjoyable but they do not hover and intrude.  They know the menu and the wine list.

Both locales have outdoor seating that is even comfortable in the heat of the summer because of the overhead coverings.  Whether inside or outside, the atmosphere is casual, comfortable, with a real buzz but not so loud that you cannot hear you dinner companions.  You never feel rushed.

As for food, the mozzarella has always been fresh and so creamy it could almost pass for burrata. It is usually just served with olive oil, a bit of balsamic, capers and basil which is my preference.  I feel that when a restaurant dresses up the mozzarella or burrata with honey or something along those lines, they are obscuring the great taste of the cheese.

Their salads are never drenched in dressing instead the dressing are light and simply enhance the greens.  My favorite is the arugula, fennel, parmigiana reggiano with a lemon dressing.  The caponata neapolitan salad is delightful with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, basil, oregano with  bits of a crunchy bread and a light olive oil dressing.

Since Sette’s pastas are homemade as are the sauces – you cannot go wrong.  When forced to choose, I always go for the scialatelli – fettuccine, basil, tomatoes, smoked mozzarella and eggplant.

But more often than not, since I am always trying to limit my caloric intake, I go for the grigiata – the grilled seafood with arugula, cherry tomatoes and olives.  The seafood is salmon, calamari and shrimp.  A marvelous Italian meal that is not pasta.  So, I still feel I am treating myself even though I passed on the pasta.

If you go for dessert, the pistachio gelato when they have it – is a cannot miss as is the tiramisu which they always have.

As for beverages, staying true to its mission, Sette offers mostly Italian wines and the prices are reasonable.  My last visit, I kicked off my evening with the blueberry mojito.  It was exceptional with a fresh blueberry flavor and not too sweet.  I was even able to nurse it through my dinner.  The waiter, wanting to make sure we were well taken care of, had advised that the mojito was not too sweet.  A great tip since many who seek a mojito expect it to be pretty sweet.

Finally, Sette has a kids menu – not often found in DC and, a good to know for those visiting in town.  And, the environment is certainly one where kids would feel comfortable, as would the parents since they won’t feel like they are crashing an adults only meal.

Love ya Sette!

Sitting in Butter – NYC Style

Recently, family and friends connected in the Big Apple for a celebratory weekend. (I am fortunate to have married into a family that celebrates everything.  My hard scrabble midwestern mom is not prone to celebrate but loves life in a different way.  My southern dad is not a celebratory at all but finds good times in daily life. So the frequent celebrations have been a welcome addition to my life.)  Since it was a last minute celebration, we were left to find a place to dine that could accommodate all of us.  My fabulous, perfectionist sister-in-law found Butter in Midtown.  It was a great selection; all of the diners raved about their meals; and this is a sophisticated experienced bunch of diners.  In fact, part of our dinner conversation consisted of discussing where and when each of us had the best meals of our lives.  Both my family and my in-law are big on food – cooking it, eating it and talking about it…. just a big focus of our lives!

The atmosphere at Butter is edgy, heavy wood, really high ceilings and unique furniture.  It is rustic, woodsy, cabin with a New York City hippiness.  There are a lot of booths in a half circles – always better for a group to sit together in a round table because then you can engage with everyone in your party.  So, we were pleased to be assigned a large semi-circle booth far enough from the bar to not get the noise but close enough to be a part of the buzz.  The noise level is low so you can talk with your dinner mates.  The seats are comfy and a reasonable distance from the table.  The table was large enough that we could all comfortably sit and have all our food delivered.

Warning though about the space – don’t get excited about having dinner or drinks in the fabulous garden that is displayed on the website because that is only available for private parties.  Such a shame because the space looks likes its really welcoming and like a quiet refuge in the insanity of NYC.

Given that we were celebrating – we started with cocktails.  Of particular note was the “calamansi” – vodka, watermelon cubes, mint, and calamansi lime juice.  Our guest who ordered it most enjoyed it and the waiter willingly provided some extra vodka to the mixture when asked.  The mojito drinker raved about it as well.

The wine list had diversity in price and in varietal – we quickly found something that we all enjoyed.

Appetizers were the panzanella salad, mache salad, and escarole causer salad.  The leaf base of each of these salads was very fresh.  The tomatoes in the panzanella were flavorful and fresh as well.  Dressings were tasty.  The dressing did not  overpower the greens with intense flavor nor were the dressings soaking the greens – done very well.

The grilled, chili-rubbed octopus was elegantly prepared, winding over the plate, leaving the diner to cut it rather than having it cut up in the kitchen.  There was just enough chili to add zing.  Presenting the dish over white beans with some green tomatoes added a nice consistency to the dish..  However, it was not as warm as the diner would have preferred.  Others got the oven-roasted chicken and the tobacco smoked pork chop.  The chicken was perfectly prepared, juicy, not over done as was the pork chop.  The salmon and trout were similarly perfectly prepared.

Dessert was disappoint simply because we were not satisfied with the number and variety of the selections.  We did not want to get a full on dessert but just wanted a scoop of homemade ice cream.  They only had two flavors available and, although very creamy, neither flavor was intense enough to taste like anything more than frozen vanilla flavored custard.  The creme brûlée that was on the menu the night we went was a grand slam – sweet enough and creamy enough to be delightful but not overwhelming.

One down-side was the service.  We ordered our cocktails and we did not see the waiter with our drinks for a ridiculously long period of time.  It was fine since we were settled in for a long evening together but, we wanted our hooch to start the party.  It was an awkwardly long time to be sitting there while the water guy just kept pouring more water.  We even got our rolls and butter before our cocktails arrived.  These delays played out over the course of the whole meal, we would just find ourselves waiting and waiting for the waiter to take our order, bring our food and clear our table.  He did not demonstrate any particular interest in or knowledge of the menu.  Disappointing given the quality of the food.

In the end, definitely try it… its always good to be sitting in butter.

BEST DESSERT I HAVE EVER HAD!

I have a sweet tooth.  I have indulged my sweet tooth my whole life.  I have eaten a lot of great desserts in all kinds of places.  I have a mother who has won blue ribbons at the county fair for her baking; I have eaten at Michelan starred restaurants; I have eaten at bakeries and restaurants in every corner of the world; I have baking skills and deploy them whenever I get a hankering for a treat…. through all this I have had mind blowingly  great desserts.

But, a couple of days ago – it happened, I ate the singularly greatest dessert I have ever had in my life.  It was not something my mom made.  (sorry mom, I need to tell her about this dessert).  I was at a fund raiser dinner I was not expecting anything…. when….

Out came the dessert, it was like a little column of chocolate, sitting on a little sea of chocolate sauce.  I cracked the dark chocolate shell open and inside was a pale, chocolate colored creamy substance.  The menu had described the dessert as a chocolate “cheesecake” with peanut butter and pretzels.  Huh?  You can see why I was not expecting much.  But the inside did not have the consistency of cheesecake, nor did it have a strong cheese taste but rather it was light, fluffy, creamy with a hint of milk chocolate flavor.   A bite of the creamy middle sitting on the hard, dark chocolate shell – fabulous.

What pushed it over the edge though, was that inside the dark chocolate shell, the creamy middle sat on top of a layer of creamy peanut butter and a salty crust.  So when you prepared a very carefully engineered spoonful – including the hard out shell, the chocolate middle, the peanut butter and the crusty – WOOHOO – the best dessert – ever.  Loved it.  (Disclaimer:  you have to be a chocolate lover.)

It looked great too – that little chocolate column was a creative design.

 

The Chi-Town Riverwalk Wine Bar… Where You Need to Pack a Lunch

Oh boy… For the most part, I find something good about my dining or eating experience and the good usually outweighs the bad… but that cannot always be the case and, I have recently experienced bad more than good.  (still found a bit of good)

Cyrano’s Cafe on the Riverwalk in Chicago  – I just don’t know where to begin.  I will say the good stuff, the location is really fun.  It is on the river in Chicago and is  inside a tent with casual tables and chairs.  From that perspective, its cool.

But, when you are paying to dine out, you really don’t want the bartender to reach into a cooler, that looks just like the one you use haul your stuff to the beach, to get the white wine. Yup… that is what happened.  Behind the bar there they were – the coolers, all piled on top of each other and holding the wine and beer.  Needless to say, nothing is that cold if you hit Cyrano’s at the end of the day.  Don’t ask for lemon for your drink, they don’t have it but they did have lime.

Appetizers consisted of various cheeses and/or meats on bread – cornbread, pretzel bread – great concepts especially since they had a duck one… but the bread was dry and hard, the cheese or meat what ever was on top was dry and hard.  I have visions of the duck, looking a bit too red, kind of curling up, as it perched on the bread. The meal continued the dry and hard theme – which does not make for tasty salmon at all.  The bistro salad was tasty – with green beans, walnuts, roasted pears and a flavorful dressing, they did not drench the salad – which is a common food prep error Cyrano’s avoided.

The staff, well friendly, but distracted and harried and unprofessional…..the lead waitress did stop by, ask how everything was going and dropped a ton of welcome Midwestern love… but she could not overcome the items identified above and we chose not to go through the list.   In the end, stop for the locale, sitting on the river in Chi-town… maybe pack a lunch….and order a red wine… avoid the need for a fridge.