Finding Hope – and a Breakfast Sandwich – at the Arlington Farmers Market

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When I’m looking for hope, it’s really no further than my local farmers market.  My ritual Saturday morning excursion to a vibrant Arlington Farmers Market replenishes my creativity and optimism.  My mind starts churning delicious possibilities not only for ripe heirloom tomatoes and dark green poblano peppers but added enthusiasm for the start of the weekend and what it holds.

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The walk up starts with a detour to Java Shack for the requisite morning latte, and ends with a #3 veggie, egg, and cheese burrito from El Piquin’s tent at the Market.  Made right in front of you, it’s not only hot, but tastes exceptionally of fresh spinach, mushrooms, and peppers, flavors only enhanced by the spicy red and mild green salsas (on the side).  If you’re tempted by grilled cheese in the morning (and, I am), a greens and tomato “breakfast sammy” when on the grill at Cowbell Kitchen (tent next door) is a favorite especially if there’s homemade catsup.

The Market explodes color in all directions.  And I’m made fully aware of seasons, what’s grown from Pennsylvania to Virginia, and when it ripens.  Red strawberries arrive in June, for a short month, before the really good blueberries show up in July.  I grab white ‘n green or purple ‘n green spring onions every week in, well, Spring before they get too small or too large for grilling in Summer.  Don’t expect shiny green shishito peppers until August, but all types of red, yellow, purple, orange, and striped tomatoes start crowding the tables in late July.  Along with pale yellow sweet corn and tomatillos for salsa.  And even when Summer fades, I know Fall blows in with brussels sprouts and their purple-tinged leafy cousin, the kalette.

There’s always a veggie to look forward to transforming into a great meal.  The Market’s always alive with fellow Arlingtonians and a few of their dogs (yep).  And hope and optimism are renewed.

Enjoying Warmth and Color at SER

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We’d had five straight days of unrelenting drenching rain.  I’d just spent a late, sad Thursday night at the Capital One Arena witnessing the Washington Capitals hockey team lose Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals (but which they went on to win in Game 7 to play for the Stanley Cup!).  It was Friday evening and I was looking for happy.  Could that be found at a restaurant in a non-descript suburban office building in Arlington, Virginia?  Why, yes it can.  SER was that place.  And mostly because of the owner’s graciousness and attention and our server’s congeniality, a comfort I appreciated even more on that sorry wind-whipped soggy night.

A Spanish restaurant (not a tapas bar as SER’s amiable owner Javier Candon impressed upon us), SER transformed a ground floor of open concrete space into Spain’s warmth with splashes of blues and yellows – in the covered bar stools and banquettes and centerpieces of small cans of olive oil – and lively tables of local diners, like ours, enjoying the catch of the day, a rich ventresca del atun (tuna belly) that dissolves in your mouth.  Not as if we needed more than the ventresca, but we couldn’t pass up velvety Revuelto (mushrooms, egg, and shaved duck foie), and the appropriately garlicky shrimp that is Gambas al ajillo (with soft, crusty bread to ensure the cayenne tinged olive oil didn’t go to waste).

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A glass of D’Iatra Priorat at SER

Then there was the Priorat (more about that under Get this wine.)  SER felt like a neighborhood restaurant with an owner dedicated to creating as much as possible in Arlington a true taste and feel of Spain.  “Ser” translates as “be” in Spanish, and “to be” in Catalan and Portuguese.  “Being” in the moment, enjoying a meal with J and a friend and surrounded by people doing the same, no matter the long week or the off-putting weather – that’s what I happily got at SER.

Get this wine…2011 Cal Batlett D’Iatra Gratallops Priorat

You’ll thank the monks who first tilled the soil in Catalonia, creating Priorat (only one of two wine regions classified as a Denominaciao d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) in Spain for consistent quality).  I’ll raise a toast to Javier Candon of SER in Arlington, Virginia, for introducing me to the 2011 Cal Batlett D’Iatra Gratallops Priorat.  Three Christmases ago J and I had capped a full day of family visits with a quiet dinner at the bar at SER. Even if I can’t remember the name of the wine, I remember how much I enjoyed that glass of Priorat with J on that Christmas night in the colorful surroundings of SER.  Just as Javier described it, the D’Iatra Priorat on a subsequent rainy night was bold in flavor but nicely rounded at the finish at seven years old.  Go get this wine and enjoy it this year.

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A glass of D’Iatra Priorat at SER

 

Feeling Relaxed at Kinship

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Enjoying the restaurant scene in DC can sometimes be challenging.  It’s the combination of very small, no reservation restaurants with restaurants that take reservations, but two weeks or a month in advance, at a precise hour, requiring you to stand, with fingers raised, at your keyboard or phone at the appointed time to claim a spot. Sometimes I’m not ready to make a reservation one month in advance, and certainly not every time I want a good meal out.  And if you want to treat guests in town to interesting food at a smaller neighborhood spot, it’s hard to consider it a “treat” if you must start standing in line at 4:00 pm.  And even then not be guaranteed a seat at the table that night.

One Saturday night, it was only me and J, and we thought that showing up at The Dabney at 6:00 pm without a reservation would still give us a shot at a seat at the long bar.  We were wrong.  We could have put our names on the wait-list for seats about an hour and 45 minutes later, but decided to venture out into the neighborhood instead.  After a glass of wine at Maxwell Park, we walked a few blocks down and over to the other side of the DC Convention Center, with fingers crossed, that we’d land a seat at the bar at Kinship.  The restaurant’s facade is painted black with “Kinship” softly etched in a window to the left of the door.  The name wasn’t visible at the time (it was dark) making the recessed entrance seem purposefully secret.

Kinship is the “less fancy” restaurant above Metier, the “more fancy” restaurant of Chef Eric Ziebold and Celia Laurent.  (J and I ate at Metier for J’s birthday last year and it remains one of the best dining experiences I’ve had.  But back to Kinship.)

The bar area is a long open space separated by a wall from the dining room. A few tables and small booths line one side  The smooth white bar opposite had four vacant seats when J and I showed up.  We took two and the couple walking in right behind us, the other two.  We happily sat down and exhaled.  At Kinship we didn’t feel rushed, we weren’t jostled by the comings and goings of people behind us, and we didn’t have to raise our voices to be heard.  We indulged that night in meaty corned beef short ribs with delicate cabbage confit agnolotti – a stand-out “corned beef and cabbage” in a light broth.  Along with velvety cauliflower soup and some reds by the glass, a cold evening in DC with no reservations turned into a warmly relaxed dinner at Kinship’s welcoming bar.

No Reason to Whine With These Wine Bars in DC

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Capping off 2017, I tried two newer wine bars in DC – both in the Shaw neighborhood.  One cheeky, one engaging, both welcoming in small, street front corner spaces, perfect for stopping in and trying a few new wines.

December was Merry Meritage month at Maxwell Park.  The small corner wine bar was shoulder-to-shoulder people early on a Saturday evening for a drink before (or with) dinner.  J and I weren’t sure we’d make it to a seat, but the amiable hostess assured us that a couple at the bar was just paying their check and the large party milling around them was about to leave.  Both happened, just as she said, and there we were with two seats and two wine menus, exploring the meritage offerings.  Bill Murray exclaiming “Murray Meritage” was emblazoned on some of the bartenders’ t-shirts, echoing the web site’s tongue-in-cheek, where “Wine” incites, “Trust me, You Can Dance.”  The bar is clean lines and serious wines, but the wittiness assures a wine experience that is lighthearted and fun.  Maxwell offers select bar snacks, with a few “mains” if you want to stay for a full meal.  J and I enjoyed the thick slice of truffle-honeyed butternut squash with pine nuts and feta while we tried a couple of glasses of the meritage selections.

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I made it to La Jambe on New Year’s Eve after reading their web site declaration to come by and ring in the New Year on Paris time!  I was lured in by the opportunity for an early toast at a neighborhood wine bar I’ve wanted to try with no over-priced NYE set menu.  La Jambe welcomed us, and later two friends, into a stylized modern bistro.  The massive mural covering half the rear cement wall set a cool edgy tone softened by marble top bistro tables.  A chalk board hanging on a cement pillar in the middle of the u-shaped bar announced specials.  Strings of Christmas lights and a lighted tree in the street-facing corner windows gave off soft and twinkling light throughout.  J and I chose from the menu a cremant rose from the Alsace (Cremant Rose Jean Claude Riefle) – dry, light, with a hint of pink – beautiful in color and taste.  We shared as part of this aperitif a charcuterie and cheese plate, “Le Surprise” (with a very flavorful goat cheese), a basket of crusty bread, pickled vegetables and black olives.

La Jambe and Maxwell Park are two of a number of new wine bars (and bakeries and coffee shops) popping up in newly constructed or renovated buildings around Washington, DC, but offering happily unique atmospheres not dependent on older buildings layered in years of character.

Eat Here…for Snow Days or Just Really Cold Days

IMG_0532Looking out the window I can see that the snow is tapering off, draping softly over the layers of branches that make up the evergreens.  The scene has me thinking about favorite snow day – and just really cold day – haunts over the past years in Arlington.  When we can’t stand being inside any longer, J and I bundle up in parkas and boots (strapping on yak traks when icy streets and sidewalks challenge our balance!), trudge up to some of our favorite local restaurants and park it at the bar we get to first that’ll take us.

I’m a fan of Screwtop Wine Bar.  It’s small, which I like.  (But many times, for me and J, that means waiting around, albeit with a glass of wine, for a seat at the bar or a table.)  It’s a wine bar that doesn’t take itself seriously – starting with the name.  Then with the menu.  Pick a glass from “Everything happens for a Reisling,” or “My Pinot is bigger than yours,” or start off with a selection from “My mind is a blanc” and fill up from there.  Apart from smiling just reading the wine list, the fun of Screwtop is picking out one (or more, no one’s judging here) of the close to 50 rotating wines by the glass or sip (and more by the bottle) and monthly changing wine flights.

The kitchen produces more than cheese and charcuterie plates to go along with your glass of wine.  The meat and cheese-centric menu extends to main course sandwiches.  The appropriately caveated “gut busting” Buffaloaf and the Hot Cuban stand out (with The Whole Enchilada! not falling far behind).  I’m only slightly embarrassed to say that J and I have tunneled through a piled-up plate of Fiesta Nachos with pulled pork, claiming it as our main course.  We went there, yes, even after ordering one of our favorites from the “Sharing & Pairing” selections, the cheese-less but pork-full zingy Pot Belly Pig Lettuce Wraps.  There’s a list of salads on the menu, and to make ourselves feel better, we’ll order the leafy green side salad to go along with our tangy Buffalo Sliders topped with chipotle aioli.

The Green Pig Bistro has a larger space than Screwtop, its neighbor of a few doors down.  J and I almost always find seats at the bar or communal bar table within minutes (with minimal stalking).  This makes “The Pig” extremely attractive on a Friday night when we don’t have the energy to cook and we’re starving before leaving the house.  The Pig, for me, is that quintessential neighborhood hang-out.  It’s comforting, its lively, it serves good food and wine.  Everyone knows your name – or at least your face if you eat there as often as we do.  Around Christmas they decorate by pulling out a leg lamp from that classic Christmas movie, A Christmas Story.  If you get there before 7 pm, there are happy hour glasses of red and white wines (and beers on tap).  They can humor me with a good ‘80s-ish playlist on occasion and show the Nationals (baseball) and Capitals (hockey) on relatively unobtrusive screens.

“The usual” for me in food is the hanger steak.  It was the burger until The Pig nixed the arugula salad from the burger/ fries/salad plate.  The hanger steak comes with both, so I can feel better about eating all of the fries.  The hanger also comes with a chimichurri sauce, which has varied in chunkiness and flavor over many years of Friday night hangar steak.  The fish changes regularly and rarely disappoints in preparation.  They’ve had a pork chop that does not remind me of my mother’s (sorry Mom!) because it’s thick and juicy and not thin and dry.  From chop, to shank, to schnitzel, the pork on the menu has always been good.  Pig tostada, albacore tuna, and the beet salad round out my go-tos for appetizers.  The brussels sprouts side satisfies us brussels lovers.  “The usual” in wine changes, occasionally, when the wines by the glass change.  The 7 Moons Blend is bold and flavorful at a good price point.  But the stand out for me is the Virginia Claret from just down the interstate in Williamsburg, Virginia, also bold, but hinting at a spiciness that is my taste of choice.  May it be on the wine list a little while longer.

 

But Where Am I Going to Get My Latte?

 

IMG_1922I like to spread the wealth, as one might say, when it comes to my daily latte.  I stick close to home and office and make my way through the homegrown places I’ve found on my routes.  Compass Coffee has the most bite of the five, with Java Shack and Baked & Wired on the other end with a smoother espresso.  I don’t know the ins and out of coffee and espresso beans, but I know what I like in a latte experience.  It’s a way of finding local color and being social, without having to be too social.  You’re immersed in warm nutty aromas in a comforting environment, even if you’re getting your latte to go during the weekday morning rush.  It’s my way of easing into the work day or welcoming a Saturday morning.

Northside Social on a weekend morning (or weekday holiday afternoon) is in constant movement.  There’s never a good place to stand – you’re always moving out of someone’s way, whether it be kitchen staff, baristas, or other customers – while waiting for your latte to be made.  Half the people are plugged into their tablets and laptops clicking away at the rows of tables and the other half in animated conversation with their table mates.  It’s all ages here.  It’s an energetic atmosphere.  The slight sweetness of my latte pairs well with one of Northside’s egg and spinach breakfast sandwiches on buttery slices of Italian loaf.  The egg is poached, but you can ask for it hard cooked, if you’re like me and like your egg yolks a nice pale yellow and dry as a bone.  Easing into a seat at one of the outside tables on the triangular shaped patio you can sip and eat in the warmth of the sun. 

Baked & Wired, on the side of a hill heading down narrow Thomas Jefferson Street in Georgetown, is my favorite girlfriends’ meet up or hang out.  Rarely have I escaped the long line for coffee drinks on a weekend morning, and stalking a seat on the curved couch or random chair is necessary if you’re not taking your latte to go.  But, oh, does that latte have the right touch of sweetness and creaminess!  And, there’s no judgment here if you sit down to a morning Peanut Butter and Chocolate cupcake with your latte.  Baked & Wired is also a joy to get to.  I’ll take the metro just a few stops to Rosslyn and enjoy the 20-minute walk across the Key Bridge and down M Street, or if the weather encourages a not-so-sweaty-run, it’s just shy of 3 miles, all down-hill, to meet C and catch up on what’s happened in our lives over the last month or so.  It’s the perfect spot to meet M and S for a latte to-go and head down to the Potomac River with our cups for an active walk along Georgetown’s waterfront and up to the Lincoln Memorial and across Memorial Bridge, and then back.

When I head to the Saturday farmer’s market at Courthouse Plaza in Arlington, I’m first visiting Java Shack , which is my ultimate laid-back latte experience.  I heard the strains of Hotel California playing behind the coffee bar this morning.  Java Shack is unpretentious in the extreme; it’s been a fixture in the neighborhood for decades.  It doesn’t intend to change, and that’s been honored by Virginia’s Commonwealth Joe, who took over in 2015.  This is why I love it.  It’s reliably shack-like and the baristas are easily warm and friendly.  Even when there’s a line in front of the coffee bar, it moves.  No one feels like they’re in a rush.  There’s no sense of pushiness here.  And while there are plugged in folks leaning over their ipads, it feels like they’re a part of the background.  The outdoor patio is a known hang out for dog owners and their dogs, older and younger and all sizes.  Get the Java Shack card if you’re a regular and with 10 stamps your 11th drink is free.

I walk in and each time there is a very different soundtrack playing in the background at Compass Coffee.  Diagonally across from the Farragut West metro, Compass is fresh-faced, young and efficient.  The Farragut Compass is in the environs of George Washington University and its baristas seem like college or graduate students, or just-out-of-college and just-out-of-graduate school students. They always make sure they spell your name correctly on your to-go cup.  The space is bright and clean in orange and blue and white.  The coffee bar is low and the coffee-making visible.  The baristas stand four-across and work an assembly line from espresso machine, down to milk frothing, to cold brew.  Leaning on the slice of natural wood bar in the middle of the space, I check my email and ready my podcast selection for the satisfying 20-minute walk to work, latte and comfort in hand.

I alternate Compass Coffee with Swing’s Coffee Roasters on 14th and G streets.  My shoulders relax when I enter this soothing place where the latte is one of the smoothest.  The baristas are confident and unhurried.  The coffee is serious but not pretentious.  The small space with high ceilings reflects its more than a century-old DC origins and downtown office location.  This is where suits and heavy wood mingle in a coolly serene place.  This is where coffees carefully spiced for the holidays are announced quietly on a card in an unobtrusive lucite block placed by the register.  I not only gain an espresso here, but a reflective start to the workday.