Archive | October, 2010

Cuba Libre Opens Its Doors in DC

8 Oct

There has been buzz growing for quite some time about Cuba Libre, a new upscale Cuban restaurant in Penn Quarter. The mini-chain has other locations in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and Orlando, but this is the company’s first foray into DC. When we heard that not only were they opening October 1st, but that for the first week all food items would be 50% off, we snagged a reservation on OpenTable right away. We somehow were able to add our friends as well, so the four of us ventured there on Wednesday to check it out.

(Note: apologies for the camera phone pictures. We had showed up with our actual camera only to find out that the battery was not charged, so we had to make due with Rachel’s Android instead. C’est la vie!)

We arrived for our 8pm reservation and the place was packed, notably with people crowding the bar area. The place itself is pretty impressive, with balconies overhead and colorful walls that made it look like you’re stepping into Havana, not that most of us would know what that looks like given that we’ve never actually been to the Caribbean country, but I digress.

While waiting for our friends we decided to try some of their supposedly famous mojitos. There are 14 varieties to choose from, as well as specialty cocktails, caipirinhas, an extensive rum menu, and of course beer and wine. I decided to try the grilled pineapple mojito after hearing a recommendation from a friend on Facebook, and Brett went for the classic variation. They even had flavors such as an energy mojito with Red Bull, and one that included basil and beet puree.  Both of ours were tasty, but I definitely think I liked mine better of the two.

The menu is broken out into Piqueos, or small tasting plates, aperitivos (appetizers), ceviches, and entrees. We were told that the ceviche is what they are known for, and the James Beard award-winning chef of the chain even has a cookbook dedicated to them. So we opted for the sample of all five varieties.

Ceviche AssortmentNormally, we would have just left it at that, but since in the back of our minds we knew everything was half price, we decided to also go for an appetizer of Mariquitas Cubana, which was essentially a trio of dips with different chips to try. The dips were a black bean hummus, rum-cured smoked marlin salad, and Haitian eggplant spread, essentially a play on Mediterranean dips. The chips were plantain, malanga, and yucca, and looked like large Terra chips to me.

We figured the ceviches would be smaller since it was a sampler, but we were able to taste each one. They included smoked salmon, diced tuna, scallops, shrimp, and Maryland lump crab. It was nice to see a local touch on the menu with the crab, although we were skeptical about how it would taste in a ceviche. Some were definitely better than others. The salmon had roe on top and a dusting of popcorn which provided an interesting flavor combination, but the winners in our opinion were the scallop and crab ceviches.

Mariquitas CubanaThe dips were reasonable and definitely something different than your traditional hummus or eggplant. The smoked fish salad tasted more like a traditional white fish salad, something I would normally eat with bagels and lox than at a Cuban restaurant. Overall, the spread was nothing spectacular and the portions of each dip were small, especially to share. For the regular price of $13, I don’t think I would get it again.

There were several different choices for entrees, with most of them being Cuban-inspired but with a twist from the chef.  Again, since everything was half off, we probably looked at the menu a little differently than we normally would have as we went for the dishes that were more on the expensive end. Brett got the Bife de Nueva York which was a 12 ounce strip steak with caramelized shallots, steamed kale, polenta fries and accompanied with tamarind ketchup and steak sauce.  The entrée normally costs $32, and since Brett is already a steak lover, he opted to go with that.

I was torn between several dishes; either the paella with black forbidden rice, whole boneless sea bass, filet of salmon, or BBQ shrimp. I decided to try the jumbo shrimp, or Camarones con Cana, which was prepared in a mango BBQ glaze. I was a little skeptical with the sides, which were listed as “crispy Anaheim pepper stuffed with creamy quinoa, sweet potato and Mascarpone cheese.” It was also served with chunky guacamole as well.

Camarones con Cana

The shrimp were great, some of the biggest I’ve seen, and the sauce on them had a nice flavor, especially eaten together with the guac. It was the side of the pepper that I felt didn’t really fit with the rest of the dish. I thought it would be a green pepper with some quinoa inside, but it wound up being a huge, fried jalapeno pepper with a creamy mixture within. It was essentially a giant jalapeño popper. Granted, I ate most of it, but I felt fairly ill after and thought it was way too heavy compared to the lightness of the shrimp. It might have been paired better with black beans and rice instead.

Brett thought his steak was excellently cooked as the kitchen perfectly accommodated his medium-rare request. The steak was supposedly marinated but Brett thought it was more on the dryer side but was tender nonetheless. The provided steak sauce helped things as it had its own unique flavor while the polenta fires and tamarind ketchup were a nice compliment to the dish.

Bife de Nueva York

Our friends got the paella and the sea bass and liked both of their dinners as well. This night was a case when I had food envy and wish I had chosen one of those dishes instead. Don’t get me wrong, I liked mine overall, but I think I would have enjoyed one of those better.

Torta de Chocolate y Dulce de LecheWe were all pretty stuffed at that point, but again, at half off the food bill, we thought in order to give a full report we should order some dessert too. We all shared the Torta de Chocolate y Dulce de Leche, basically a chocolate lava cake. The soufflé was layered with dulce de leche, and served with dulce de leche ice cream, a chocolate orange sauce, and blueberry compote. If I was not so full I would have devoured it, but the few bites I had were delicious. The server told us if we liked chocolate that we should get this dessert, and she was ultimately right.

When we got our bill, it was enclosed in a large wooden box. We noticed other tables had this as well. Some tables received cigar boxes while others, such as ours, received ones suited for baccarat. We said this was something that seemed like a good idea in theory, but could increasingly get annoying with the awkwardness of carrying around boxes and having customers dig into a box to fish out different credit card receipts. We wouldn’t be surprised if they did away with it within a few months.

Bill in Baccarat Box The 50% off deal is a great idea, both for the diners and the restaurant itself. Customers get a chance to try different things on the menu and splurge a little since everything (excluding beverages) is discounted. The restaurant is able to feel its way the first week or two if some dishes are a miss as well as hear feedback from the diners. Plus, if service is bad or if something is off, it’s hard to complain when you’re getting such a great deal. The 50% special is over, but you can still take advantage of 25% off food items from October 8th through 13th.

Overall, we felt it was a fun, new addition to the DC dining scene. The service was fairly slow and a little uneven, but we’ll chalk that up to first week opening craziness. One thing that was a big turnoff was the kitschy Cuban music in the background. It was loud and distracting, and didn’t add anything to our dining experience.  The food was good and unique, but didn’t wow us by any means. Looking at what the prices normally are, we all agreed we would be hard pressed to come back and order the same dishes. Most of them were in the upper $20 range, and while that is now becoming the standard for nicer restaurants in the DC area, some of the dishes just didn’t seem to warrant those prices. Especially with specialty drinks like the mojitos costing $10 or more, the meal could easily rack up to at least $100 or more for two people.

The website currently doesn’t offer much information about the DC location outside of saying that it is officially open. You can view the menus if you go to the other cities, and they all seem to be fairly similar. I would say to definitely check it out if you’re curious, but I could honestly see myself going back more for a girls’ night of drinks at the bar than for a date night.

Cuba Libre on Urbanspoon

Lunch Crush at Proof

7 Oct

If you’re looking for one of the greatest lunch deals in the entire DC metropolitan area, Proof is undoubtedly the way to go.

Rachel and I were figuring out places to go to for lunch last Friday, and we both wanted something that was upscale yet reasonably priced.  Proof was able to fulfill both of our requests thanks to their outstanding Lunch Crush special.

The deal is only available in the lounge area, but if you can grab a spot by the bar, you’re in for a real treat. Diners have a selection of six entrees in addition to a glass of red or white wine for, you ready, $12! It’s quite an exceptional value, especially when you compare the prices of the entrees alone as opposed to if you were to order them a la carte. Throw in a glass of their house wine and then it becomes a real steal.

Enjoying some wine at ProofI ordered the grilled garlic chicken and a glass of the red, an Argentinean Malbec which was very good considering it was only the house wine.  Then again, Proof doesn’t mess around with its vino to begin with, but it’s nice to see that they offer customers excellent selections even from their first tier of bottles.

Rachel opted for the shrimp burger, which came with jalapeno, shaved cucumber, cilantro, pickled daikon and carrots. She tried the house white, which turned out to be a sparkling wine and was very different, but in a good way.

We were definitely waiting a good amount of time for the food to arrive, especially considering the fact it was the lunch hour, but it didn’t bother us since we had the day off and were not necessarily in a rush. We looked at our watch a few times, but the wine we had was enjoyable while we waited nonetheless.

When our food arrived, the server had placed in front of me the sautéed potato gnocchi instead of the chicken. The server then came over and informed that he thought I had ordered the gnocchi, but when I corrected him in saying that I had asked for the chicken, he was very apologetic for the error and said he would have it immediately prepared if I liked.

Having read rave reviews about the gnocchi prior to visiting, I was open-minded about the situation and told the waiter not to worry about it and would have what was served instead. Because of the gaffe, the waiter offered Rachel and I another glass of wine compliments of the house, which was a very nice gesture. The waiter did ensure me that the gnocchi was one of his favorite dishes and that I would enjoy it.

Sautéed Potato Gnocchi

Well, he was right. It was perhaps the best gnocchi I had ever tasted. I guess I understood why our food took so long to arrive because of how it was meticulously prepared in the kitchen. The homemade dumplings practically melted in my mouth while the wild mushrooms were full of flavor and really added something to the dish as a whole. The serving was also very generous and well worth its normal price of $16.  The fact I was enjoying my meal for $4 less and a glass (or two) of wine exemplifies why Lunch Crush is such a true bargain.

While there weren’t any sides that came with Rachel’s dish, the shrimp burger itself was very filling, and again, hard to complain about with such a deal. The burger itself was made of all shrimp, almost like a seafood sausage, and was crispy on the outside. It was definitely a different taste, but the combination of the shrimp with the toppings made for an excellent bite. It also had some kick to it but the spice wasn’t too overpowering.

Proof Shrimp Burger

When the waiter dropped off our check and thanked us for coming, my jaw nearly hit the table when I read the bill. He not only did not charge us for the additional glasses of wine, but he also only billed us for just one of the Lunch Crush specials. In other words, our bill came out to $12 and tax.  I could not believe it. That, my friends, is how to run a restaurant and establish goodwill with your customers.

We left him a very generous tip and departed Proof with an abundance of satisfaction to say the least. Between the fantastic meal and an even better customer service, it was pretty much a perfect dining experience.

Proof on Urbanspoon

Taste of Bethesda 2010: Rachel's Take

5 Oct

There are certain things you can always count on as soon as the leaves start to change colors. Some people get excited about football, others picking apples and pumpkins. I love all those things too, but the one sure thing that always falls on the first weekend in October is Taste of Bethesda. The organizers have been incredibly lucky with great weather the last few years, and this year was no exception.

You have to know what you’re getting into when you head towards the Woodmont Triangle area. If you have an aversion to large crowds, dogs, strollers, music, and narrow spaces, this event isn’t for you. If you can ignore all that and just focus on the fun atmosphere and a chance to have great food with friends, then it is a really great event.

You have to tackle the Taste with a strategy and you can’t just give your tickets to the first booth you see. We grabbed a map and walked up and down each street. Brett got a slider at Fresh Grill since we’ve wanted to try that place for awhile. I had a bite and agreed with him that we will definitely have to check out the place in the near future. We stopped in front of the restaurant to eat away from the crowds and noticed a sign that said Happy Hour from 4pm to 7pm, another sign for a winner in our book.

Nuetella crepe from Original Pancake HouseMoving along, I noticed the Original Pancake House was serving their signature crepes, either with lemon or Nutella fillings. I always love the idea of ordering crepes when we eat brunch there, but a whole plate of them is too many for me, so getting one crepe for three tickets seemed like a great compromise. The crepe was light and fluffy right off the outdoor grill, with the warm Nutella oozing out. I guess technically that means I started off with dessert, but I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, right?

Next, we got the bigger parts of our feast, with Brett having BBQ at Nest and I opting for the grilled lamb chops at The Oz. One of the great things about Taste of Bethesda is that it provides exposure to restaurants that people may not be aware of. Brett and I have been to The Oz several times and feel it is definitely underrated. After this weekend, I think that might have changed for anyone who waited in their line.

The Oz's lamb chops

I was debating between the lamb chops and the BBQ duck salad, which looked great as well. But I will definitely say that the lamb chops may have been the best deal of the day. For four tickets, you got a full plate of four chops, grilled to perfection on the spot with spices and herbs sprinkled on top. It was certainly heavy and pretty much did me in for the rest of the afternoon, but it was worth it.

After that I wasn’t sure what else to get, so when Brett wanted to share a falafel at our new favorite Greek spot, Yamas Grill, I happily gave him my ticket. I only had a few bites but the falafel seemed really moist and I would definitely get a full order of it when we go there next.

Cannoli from OlazzoFinally, I had to get our go-to pastry at this annual event, the cannoli at Olazzo. For two tickets, it is hands down one of the best desserts, and yet another reason to visit this reliable Italian restaurant. Then of course we had to go back to The Oz and wait in line while a friend got the lamb chops I recommended, and over an hour later the line was even longer than before, but amazingly they hadn’t sold out of them yet!

There are of course several Taste festivals this fall, with one in Georgetown this coming Saturday. Unfortunately we can’t make it, but I think this weekend’s event left us perfectly content. Until next year…

Taste of Bethesda 2010: Brett's Take

4 Oct

You could not have asked for a better day for this year’s Taste of Bethesda. The weather was perfect, there were new restaurants to explore, and most importantly, we didn’t have to worry about parking.

Fresh Grill: Our first stop was Bethesda’s latest burger entrant, Fresh Grill.They have received some praise over on Yelp since their recent opening, so I decided to check out what they had to offer. I usually shy away from using tickets on samples of a slider, but I have to admit, I walked away impressed.

Fresh Grill slider

The bun was fresh, the bacon was thick, and the beef was juicy. Now I want to know what an entire cheeseburger tastes like from this place. Good stuff (and no, I’m not referring to Spike’s).

Bistro Provence: This was supposed to be our next stop as I was very much anticipating Yannick Cam’s French cuisine, but much to our dismay, the bistro’s kiosk was nowhere to be found! Quite a disappointment as they were originally advertised to be a part of Taste of Bethesda. They were even listed on the map handouts!

Nest Café: Nest has proven time and time again that they are one of the most underrated venues in Bethesda. Not only were they offering an array of higher-end options at their booth, but they had separate lines dedicated to each of the entrees they were serving up.

Nest preparing musselsNest preparing BBQ brisket Nest and their BBQ brisket

The left line featured mussels which were being freshly prepared in what looked like a delicious broth.  I opted for the line on the right, which was not a sample mind you, but an entire serving of their “Drive by BBQ”.

Customers had their choice of meat (brisket, chicken, pulled pork) as well as sauce (I went with the brisket and Texas molasses-blend sauce), and let me tell you, it basically represented my lunch for the day and rendered all other tickets nearly useless.Nest's BBQ Brisket Sandwich

For the cost of four tickets, which is essentially five dollars, customers received an overstuffed sandwich full of brisket, drenched in sauce, all atop a hearty bun. I had to sit down at a nearby table to consume all of it, but once again, Nest delivered.

In comparison, the same sandwich would cost you $13.95 at a table inside Nest, excluding the accompanying fries and coleslaw. Basically, it’s downright refreshing to see restaurants such as Nest actually take the time to offer a full portion of their menu’s offerings during Taste of Bethesda for such an unbelievable value.

Morton’s of Bethesda: For one careless reason or another, I decided to waste two tickets on their petit filet mignon sandwich.  Between the meat being well done (if you could even find it), and the oversized potato roll, this was a poor decision and even worse sample. For such a high-class establishment, I would have expected better from them.

Yamas: The newly-opened Greek restaurant was offering samples of gyros and falafel, so I went with the latter since I had already had my fair share of meat for the day.

The chick peas were fresh, crispy, and overall had good flavor. Not as tasty as Amsterdam Falafel, but I liked it. The size of the portion was fairy generous as well. My only pet peeve was the use of whole wheat pita. It just did not taste nearly as good as regular pita bread. The texture, dryness, and overall bland flavor just takes the entire dish down a notch.

Olazzo: I decided to use the last of our tickets at a neighborhood staple, Olazzo. I went with the Penne Rose with meatball for a cost of three tickets. Unsurprisingly, the dish was excellent. The rose sauce was thick and creamy while you could taste all the wonderful spices the house-made meatball was prepared with. The two together made for a great combination.

Penne Rose from Olazzo

Overall, I’d say the entire day was a success. While there was only one misstep (Morton’s), the rest of the venues I tried were solid choices. Now if only people wouldn’t take their enormously-sized dogs that could carry small children on top of, I’d be a happy man.