Restaurant Week and Other Food Adventures in Baltimore/DC

30 Aug

Want the best excuse for a weekend getaway?  My American Airlines miles finally added up for a free domestic roundtrip ticket and my best friend from high school, who is currently on med school rotations in DC, was offering free lodging.  Add DC Restaurant Week to the mix, and I knew I had an awesome (and cheap!) weekend of chowhoundish adventures coming at me.

Upon arrival, I was immediately whisked off to Georgetown for an afternoon of shopping, gossiping, and all things girlie.  Before I could hit the clothing and shoe racks, however, I needed nourishment.  Walking from the parking garage to the main shopping street, we came across Papa Razzi (1066 Wisconsin Ave, Georgetown) and immediately decided that a carbohydrate feast was exactly what we needed to energize for our afternoon adventures.

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Papa Razzi is part of a regional chain owned by the Boston-based Back Bay Restaurant Group with 11 locations throughout the northeast (and not surprisingly, most are in the Boston area).  Not the most unique dining destination, but nonetheless new to me.  The inside of the restaurant is dark and handsome, a little generic (a la Macaroni Grill) but still feels intimate.  Soon after seating, we were enjoying our prosecco and sangria and munching down on the complimentary garlic bread.

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As you can see, my piece was toasted a bit too long.  I quickly gave up on the garlic bread and tried the (also complimentary) grissini instead.  Grissini are long, thin breadsticks made from dry, crispy bread.  The crunchy texture is entertaining but the taste a little boring. 

For lunch, I ordered the cavatappi affumicati ($13.99).

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A simple spiral pasta with roasted eggplant, roma tomatoes, Italian parsley, smoked mozzarella, and romano cheese.  The al dente spirals provided texture contrast to the soft eggplant and tomatoes.  Overall a simple but delightful dish.  Fresh, lighter pasta options like these set Papa Razzi apart from your typical Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill.  The portion size was also reasonable, not the equivalent of the pasta serving recommendation for a small family.

Turns out it was tax-free weekend in DC.  Lucky me!  My feet were exhausted but my inner shopping maven satisfied.  Four hours later, I had to buy new luggage to haul all of my purchases back home. 

That night we drove back to Baltimore to meet up with an even older friend at the 13th Floor in the Belvedere.  We were in such a mad rush to get back to Baltimore, change, and primp that we totally forgot about dinner.  That is until midway through the salsa dancing and mojito imbibing, I realized my stomach was growling at me.  We headed a couple of blocks away to Never on Sunday (829 N. Charles St, Mount Vernon), a casual eatery that stays open late except, of course, on Sundays.  I admit that at 1:30am and far from sober, I don’t remember much from my visit except zealously eyeing the large, greasy cheese pizzas on display at the counter and scarfing my thin, extra cheesey slice down in no time.

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I’m surprised that I remembered to photograph this meal.  I am less surprised that I didn’t manage to get the entire slice in the picture (probably forgot how to use zoom).  I’m told later that Never on Sunday serves up a pretty good gyro, but I was obviously unfit to do anything but point to a slice of pizza and hand over my credit card.  What menu?

After sleeping off my night of excess, it was time for a quick tour of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor area.  Walking from Federal Hill to the harbor, we stopped at City Crepes Cafe (1107 Light St, Federal Hill) for a quick breakfast.  The cafe is a casual little coffee shop/eatery that specializes in crepes.  My friend had an egg and cheese bagel and I had the simple lemon crepe.  We ordered a couple of mango smoothies (way too sweet, made with nectar instead of fresh fruit) to go with our meals. 

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At around $5 for the crepe and the smoothie, this was a cheap breakfast.  Minus the overdose of whipped cream, the lemony, lightly dusted with sugar crepe pleased.

Seeing as much of Baltimore as humanly possible in two hours, we were picked up by said “even older” friend from the night before for a day of required tourist activities in DC.  He majored in Chinese in college, studied abroad in Taiwan for a year, and puts my Chinese language abilities to utter shame.  When he suggested Sichuan cuisine for lunch, I knew it wouldn’t disappoint.  During his year of study abroad, he traveled throughout China (of course!) and found his favorite place to be the mountains of the Sichuan province.

It was off to Rockville, Maryland.  Rockville, according to Wikipedia, has the largest Chinese community in Maryland and one of the largest on the east coast.  You wouldn’t know it by driving through the DC suburb though, just strip mall after strip mall of Bed Bath & Beyond, Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks.  We turned right by an On the Border, and before I could protest, passed the barely passable Tex-Mex chain to a parking lot for the strip mall in the back.

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There are two things wrong with this sign.  First, the name of the restaurant is actually Joe’s Noodle House (1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville) and second, the Chinese name on the sign literally translates to “Little Emei Eatery,” Emei being a mountain in Sichuan with a famous Buddhist sanctuary, nothing to do with Joe or noodles.  Walk through the front doors and you’ll find another oddity:

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Stuffed panda bears in Christmas gear?  In the middle of August?  Poor pandas, they must be dying of heat stroke.  But stuffed animal cruelty aside, there’s something really endearing about the little cultural details that somehow don’t translate, and something in those details that screams, “you’ve found yourself an authentic ethnic place!”  And we’re certainly not the only ones to have found this place, as Joe’s is #78 on the Washingtonian’s list of 100 Best Restaurants for 2007.

At Joe’s, you order at the counter and seat yourself (there is a humongous “Order Here, Pay Here” sign at the counter).  Sounds easy enough.  But with over 200 items on the menu (and an additional vegetarian menu), ordering can be quite a feat, especially for the indecisive (like me).  Good thing my old friend is a regular at this place and had the exact dish in mind for his Dallas foodie friend, the Sichuan Spicy and Dry Beef Saute.

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From the picture, this looks like another beef dish with lots of filler veggies.  But scrape aside some of the celery and carrot nonsense and you’ll find a truly complex, authentic Sichuan dish.  The beef strips were dry and crispy but not at all dried out and tough.  The texture was similar to the crispy beef served at many Thai restaurants.  The beef strips were coated in Sichuan chilis and peppercorns and not meant for the faint of heart.  You have to love spicy food and love the numbing feeling of the Sichuan peppercorn to love this dish.  Luckily, most spicy food lovers will find the Sichuan peppercorn numbing sensation addictive rather than intrusive.

Our second dish was a hotpot of chicken and basil, for my high school friend who doesn’t eat beef.

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In contrast to the dry beef saute, this dish was much milder in heat level.  Large, tender slices of white meat chicken swam in a hot pot with basil leaves and scallions in a slightly sweet sauce.  It was like Thai basil chicken’s cousin, there were definite similarities with the strong basil flavor and sweeter sauce, but also distinct differences in the seasoning.

I wasn’t even that hungry since my crepe breakfast was only two hours ago, but I ate and ate.  I’ve been looking for the Sichuan Dry Beef Saute here in Dallas.  When I tried to order it at Sichuanese Cuisine in Plano, all I got was a slightly better version of the generic Sichuan beef you find at Americaned Chinese restaurants.  So the search continues.

The afternoon was filled with typical DC tourist things.  A couple of Smithsonian museums, a Starbucks break, the monuments, and the war memorials took a toll on my feet and worked up my appetite.  I was ready for the grand finale, our Restaurant Week reservation at Zaytinya (701 9th St NW, Penn Quarter).

Zaytinya serves mezze, or Mediterranean tapas.  Since they are small plates meant for sharing, the $30.07 per person Restaurant Week menu lets you choose from plates in five different sections, like five mini-courses.  We family-styled the first and second courses, being appetizers and easy to share, and had the rest of the courses to ourselves.  Zaytinya had an extensive wine list with over 100 choices from Greece, Lebanon, and Turkey.  We ended up with a bottle of the Lebanese Le Chateau Kefraya 1999, a red blend that resembles a Bordeaux. 

First up, the standard complimentary pita and dip:

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Mmm puffy pita bread… I knew I couldn’t eat too much though, I had plenty of other food coming at me.

The dishes from the first and second courses (all appetizers) came in random order.  These are the six small plates we shared:

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A very good hummus, not extra garlicky like I love (local Florida chain Taverna Opa style) but still delicious, especially with the puffy pita bread.

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Calamari seasoned with lemon juice and sauteed with spinach was my favorite of this bunch.  Large tender chunks of calamari had a distinct dill flavor.  Falafel had good, not too dense texture but were a little over-fried.  The spanakopita, untraditional in its eggroll-like shape, provided bursts of fresh feta with every bite. 

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The last of the appetizers were two salads.  The horitiki salata (lower) consisted of tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, green bellpeppers, and kalamata olives in a Greek style dressing with feta cheese.  Basically a tiny Greek salad.  The fatoush (upper) had similar ingredients (though more bellpepper heavy) in a pomegranate-lemon vinaigrette topped with crispy pita chips.  Both salads served as great fresh palate cleansers for our main courses.

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Chicken Muhammarah was a skewer of grilled chicken served with a roasted red pepper and walnut sauce.  The sauce leaned a little too much on the nutty side and concealed much of the red pepper flavor.  The chicken was also on the dry side.  Thank goodness the next course, though similar in presentation, turned out much better.

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Spice Rubbed Sirloin of Beef (medium doneness as requested) served with a visne and pistachio sauce, topped with more pistachios.  Steak, pistachio, and Lebanese Bordeaux, apparently an excellent combination.

Last course of the night was dessert.  All of us opted for the Turkish Delight.

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A rather phallic presentation of walnut ice cream with yogurt mousse, honey gelee, orange-caramel sauce and caramelized pine nuts.  The combination was rich but not overwhelming, though I didn’t think the honey gelee added anything to the dessert (the picture’s fuzzy, it’s the caramel colored stuff surrounding the dessert).  My best guess is that it’s just for presentation, in this case maybe a symbolic display of fertility.

It was a whirlwind two days of eating and catching up, but the next morning it was time for me to fly back.  For a short weekend trip, I think I did well, cramming some great meals in whenever my stomach had room.  I had a layover in Raleigh/Durham (it’s a free flight but not a convenient flight) where I stopped for a quick lunch at the Pinehurst Village Brewery (Terminal C, RDU).  I tried my first North Carolina style BBQ pork sandwich with the vinegary sauce and the cole slaw.  I liked it.  I realize that airport chow isn’t the greatest representation of this style of BBQ but it nonetheless intrigued me.

I had an epiphany.  I’ve never met a brand of BBQ I didn’t like: Texas no sauce, Memphis sweet sauce, and now apparently North Carolina vinegary sauce.  My next extended vacation will be spent paying homage to the shrines of legendary BBQ throughout the south.  Road trip time!

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7 Responses to “Restaurant Week and Other Food Adventures in Baltimore/DC”

  1. Ben Jacobs-Swearingen 08/31/2007 at 10:02 pm #

    very nice — let me know when your barbecue road trip happens! I’ll fly down and go with you. Seriously.

  2. Paulomi 10/05/2007 at 11:55 pm #

    Oh my god, you went to Zaytinyas! That was on my top five favorite restaurants in the DC/Baltimore area and I made it a point to try out as many as possible – I think you may have missed some of the best dishes there though 🙂

    Oh, and if you’re going to do the barbecue tour, you must start with Whole Hog back home in Little Rock – it’s AMAZING and I’m sad I only discovered it in the last few months!

  3. donnaaries 10/05/2007 at 11:58 pm #

    Yeah I got the feeling that the Restaurant Week menu was somewhat limited as far as variety of dishes, but it was a good value for what is was worth. Maybe next time 🙂

  4. Anna 01/09/2008 at 10:52 am #

    Hey did you hear there is going to be a Winter Restaurant Week in Baltimore. Its from January 28th-February 3rd. They already have over 80 participating restaurants. I cant wait for it to start, it is a great way to experience new Restaurants in town!

  5. Anna 07/14/2008 at 10:35 am #

    It has been a consistent hit! Now the culinary extravaganza that is Baltimore Restaurant Week is entering its third summer season from July 26th- August 3rd. Enjoy a variety of three-course dinners, in just about any cuisine that strikes your fancy, for only $30.08. Or try three-course lunches at select restaurants for just $20.08. And new this summer, many restaurants will also offer special culinary experiences, such as wine pairings, cooking classes, tasting menus and more. Plus, select Baltimore City garages are offering special $3-7 parking. Visit http://www.baltimore.org for a list of participating restaurants.

  6. FatCap 07/14/2008 at 9:26 pm #

    Is Baltimore’s Restaurant Week a fund raiser? The Dallas RW benefits the NTX Food Bank and the Lena Pope home, for example.

  7. donnaaries 07/14/2008 at 10:11 pm #

    From the website, it doesn’t look like it’s related to any charities.

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