I wasn’t celebrating anything in particular. There was no occasion. Something I’d typically think there should be when trying a new restaurant with a creative tasting menu. But Little Pearl is casual, and the menu reasonable, so I didn’t feel the only excuse to go should be, say, my birthday or J’s. We went because J got a reservation for a Saturday night (albeit at 5:30 pm) and we took advantage of a leisurely summer evening to try something new somewhere old. That is, my old neighborhood on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.
We lucked out. That evening was sharp colors and clean lines. The air mostly still and surprisingly light. So I opted to sit outside at a table on the patio in the garden. Music was playing in the background alongside the occasional (actually comforting) hum of Pennsylvania Avenue traffic just a few feet away (past the low iron fence and shrubs). We settled into a bottle of cherry-colored Mount Etna red to sip with about 8 small plates delivered at a nicely lingering pace.
With no written menu, you just trust in the kitchen. Since Little Pearl is from the owners of Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple and Pearls, I had no reason to believe the food wouldn’t be inventive and wouldn’t taste good. And it was and did, from tiny takes on mussels, “deviled egg” meringues and a neat row of precise tater tots, on delicate plates and trays of slate and stone and china and brass. The illusion of choice was that J and I had a variety of tastes to try but were relieved from making the selection. So we sat back in the warm air of the semi-secluded patio with our glasses of wine, watching the neighborhood, looking forward to our next plate (which at posting, would now be a plate at a Michelin starred restaurant.)
You don’t have to go far outside the DC area for an un-urban experience. But you will not escape the traffic trying to get there. So brace yourself until you’re past Fredericksburg and can break free of I-95. J and I, and our senior-dog-resigned-to-her-fate, spent a summer weekend in Virginia’s Northern Neck. It’s an area dotted with tiny towns; of low-lying farms and fields of corn and soybeans where the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay. J and I were there to kayak and eat what we could manage of Rappahannock oysters. We stayed in a small house in Irvington down the street from the Steamboat Era Museum and the grassy commons set up for the Irvington Crab Festival, at the town’s main commercial intersection. There was a Methodist church on one corner, Baptist on the other.
We passed by both on our unhurried morning walks to The Local, the local coffee shop, where we sat on the street-front patio behind the white picket fence and watched grandparents and grandkids leisurely cycle by on pastel bikes. A few doors down we ate dinner at The Dredge (named for the fishing dredge used to harvest oysters), which was nicely full of year-long residents and regular summer visitors. Lily Pulitzer was on full display. And then sipped port at the softly lit The Vine (wine shop and wine bar) comfortably situated next to the Baptist church.
Down the road in Weems we stopped by one of the best-preserved colonial era churches, set off in a tree-shaded grassy enclave. An Anglican parish church built in the 1730s and funded by wealthy landowner Robert “King” Carter, we read the inscriptions on the tombs outside Historic Christ Church of King Carter himself and his first and second wives. Both wives died in their 30s…after birthing a combined 15 children (Carter died in his 60s).
Although surrounded by water on the map, we had to deliberately seek it out. From Weems we followed a quiet road ending miles away at the beach and marina of Windmill Point, jutting out where the Rappahannock River falls into the Chesapeake Bay.
We rented kayaks and paddled out on a quiet creek at Menokin, the house and plantation of Francis Lightfoot Lee, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The house, now in ruins, is coming back under a preservation plan that will re-build the lost remains of the outer structure in glass. It’s set off in a field and had terraced gardens in the back that in its day preserved a view of the creek beyond.
Driving back to Irvington, we stopped for sandwiches at the civil war finds cum all-day-breakfast diner at the alliterative Callao Coffee Café in Callao, with signs for casino parking in back (although we didn’t see a casino). We browsed what was for sale while waiting for our paninis. Continuing east before turning south I found homemade ice cream (peanut butter Oreo) at T & Js Dairy Barn in Burgess.
Eventually we found a deck with water views by heading straight down historic Urbanna‘s Virginia Street and taking a gravel road to the seafood market and dockside restaurant of Urbanna Seafood and Raw Bar. At stools lining the small covered outdoor bar we looked out at Robinson Creek while diners ordered baskets of oysters and crabs and calamari at multi-colored benches and picnic tables on the shaded deck. Passing through White Stone on our way back from Urbanna (over the Norris Bridge across the Rappahannock) we stopped for dinner at the lovely unassuming Adrift, which shares the block with the town post office. Sitting at the small bar we hung out eating oysters delicately fried and flavorful over a spinach salad, and baked and ramp-buttered in a hot dish with toast.
Our last chance at oysters was back over the Norris Bridge and an immediate left (at Hummel Field airfield) to the shore of the Rappahannock for brunch at Merroir, the birthplace of the Rappahannock Oyster Company. We arrived not long after opening time, which got us an umbrella shaded table on the dog friendly patio of softly crushed bleached-white oyster shells. BBQ bourbon chipotle grilled oysters, accompanied by a jumbo lump crab cake and a glass of rosé, enhanced a sprawling river view. It felt quiet and there was a slight breeze. And we lingered.
I was drawn back to Washington DC’s Union Market by St. Anselm and its meat-focused menu and friends’ good reviews. That area has changed. It was dark and raining, but driving down 4thSt NE I was startled to see the old row of low-slung industrial buildings all of a sudden disappear, into a gaping I’m-going-to-be-a-high-rise-apartment-building hole, with the restaurant Masseria– its left side shorn off – the humble last stop at the edge of a cliff.
It was enough change to make J and I show up the next day to get our bearings in dry daylight. Wholesale produce markets and meat markets proclaiming fresh goat are disappearing. Near a halal butcher and restaurant supply store is a Politics & Prose bookstore.
A. Litteri Italian market is still there. Next to the wholesale Washington DC souvenir mart. A. Litteri is where I know we can get trophie pasta…better to reminisce with a lot of basil pesto, potatoes, and green beans, about our trip to Liguria, on Italy’s northern Mediterranean coast. And, to check out the selection of Piedmont and Ligurian wines. We left with a Pigato (a Ligurian white) and will be back, hopefully, for a Rossese (a Ligurian red).
We were happy to see a Ploussard (sometimes Poulsard) (from the Jura region of France) at St. Anselm. A light and bright red we’d first tried over Thanksgiving turkey; a nice alternative to a Pinot Noir. Contemplating the images of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy over the kitchen doorway and the Shriners’ fez hats above the bar, we also tried a Graciano from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and a Mondeuse, from the Savoie in France along with some smoky grilled oysters.
Underneath my hanger steak, my dinner plate presented the image of Dwight D. Eisenhower. J’s was a stag – really not as exciting as cutting meat on the etched face of Eisenhower. Our server was so engaging we were compelled to have a piece of rainbow sprinkled ice cream cake. I left happily with a doggie bag of the last of the four buttermilk biscuits, shimmering in delicate laminated layers, pale orange pimento cheese spread on the side.
Hockey and Modern Asian cuisine? ALL CAPS and Wasabi Guacamole? It doesn’t seem like a natural fit, but…
My pre-Washington Capitals dinner and drinks spot is the bar at SEI. Hands down. It’s open, with a lot of counter space, and there’s a small lounge area with low tables set-off in the back. Happy hour runs until 8 pm – every evening. It’s not wall-to-wall people, so you have space to linger and eat and hear your friends talk. I haven’t had a bad happy hour red by-the-glass (recently a merlot), and my sinuses are consistently cleared by the wasabi I apply liberally to my spicy shrimp or tuna sushi rolls. And then there’s the signature Wasabi Guacamole. Four of us scooped up two orders with crispy wonton chips. Then J and I usually take a break from sushi for two Kobe beef sliders on a plate. We don’t waver from these favorite happy hour menu choices and they never disappoint.
Post-hockey? Rarely. But when it’s happened, it’s been to Flight. Flight’s the warm blonde downstairs wine bar on “the other side” of Capital One Arena. By the end of a 7:00 pm game, closing time is coming, and so are the happy hour prices on wines opened, but bottles not emptied. When we arrived after one hockey night, stool space was available at the curved center bar, and we were immediately engaged by a bartender who was – well, engaging – and knew her wines. A perfect way to cap off a Capitals win.
There are cupcakes galore at Bakeshop. I just ate a surprisingly good “Nerds” cupcake (Nerds are those little tangy candies); and the red velvet with cream cheese frosting is my favorite. But what’s elusive is the Friday night Brookie cookie. A Brookie is a brownie that’s a cookie…the chocolatey inside is meltingly soft, the outside a paper thin crust.
On our way home from dinner at nearby Green Pig Bistro or Screwtopwine bar, J and I have made a habit of stopping by Bakeshop for a Brookie. And lately, the day’s stock hasn’t lasted until closing time on a Friday. So when I dropped by on a Saturday afternoon, I had to snag two – because they were there. Which explains why, after work, on February 14, I found myself in a cramped Valentine’s Day baked goods line, backed up against the front door, all for just one Brookie cookie to gift for J.
Winter on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is low key. Its wide-open beaches and fewer people. It means oysters are in season and we can still get fresh shrimp. Last year, J and I experimented with poached oysters dotted with caviar and wisps of pickled cucumber. It was decadent and delicious. This year, to save J’s hands and manage to eat before midnight AND be able to enjoy more oysters with family, we stuck to roasting them on the grill to dip in cocktail sauce, a gingery cilantro sauce, and melted butter. Sauces that also shared nicely with a large bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp.
And then there was that blind baguette taste-off, which completed the night’s vibrant meal. (Some of the family had pre-determined favorites, but it was a tie – really – because each chewy baguette had its own strength – from a hint of butter in one to a perfectly browned crust in the other. See the culpable bakeries below.)
Sharing table space with the shrimp and oysters were bottles (carted down I-95 in the car with Russ & Daughters‘ smoked salmon, pickled lox, and a chocolate babka for good measure), of sparkling smoky na Punta extra brut and an exceptionally dry Argyle Extended Tirage Brut sipped from unassuming (maybe mismatched and unbreakable?) house wine glasses. We could bring them down to the beach for a sunset in soft shades of pink, behind the oyster shell-decorated “tree” that shows up every year at Christmas. Or during a pitch-black night, to see the moon, like J, with his camera, tripod, and headlamp.
Besides the beach at sunset, get to these places on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, SC, to make the most out of Winter –
Bluffton Oyster Company, for bushels of local oysters. Be sure to call and place an order ahead of time during the holidays.
New York City Pizza, where the take-out veggie pizza is piled high with mushrooms, green peppers and onions, and they’re open late-ish if you hit traffic and arrive on the island after dark.
Fish Camp on Broad Creek, to sit at the heated outside bar twinkling in strings of soft white lights, eating ahi tuna nachos and calamari with crunchy/spicy fried pickles, a Westover One-Claw and a glass of malbec, listening to the guy in the corner playing guitar.
Here‘s how I felt about Savannah, Georgia, in the Summer – miserably sweaty. The same Savannah in Winter – happily comfortable. J and I spent a cool December day with family walking a city backdropped by sharp blue sky and bright sun. Savannah’s ubiquitous squares were richly green, the massive branches of ancient trees gracefully arching above us. Delicate lamp posts were punctuated by rich red garlands in the days before Christmas. Blocks past the far end of the green carpet that is Forsyth Park, we made our way to Foxy Loxy Café. Searching for great latté (of course) got me there.
The Boombox Brunch– in the outdoor courtyard – and the cheesy grits in the Foxy Haystack – kept me. Get the Horchata latté, too, which was the right amount of sweet and cinnamon. To top it off, I discovered a new favorite sinus clearing hot sauce! While the DJ pulled out vinyl records, the garden tables and picnic benches were gradually filling up, to the classic sound of The Cars‘ Who’s Gonna Drive You Home.
My mind holds childhood memories of skiing in Switzerland as long winding treks down the mountain – mogul hills in some spots and narrow passages in others. There were brief stops along the way for family to catch up. Some nervous contemplation at the crest of a steep hill. A few spectacular falls. But the overarching theme is day-long journeys broken up by leisurely stops at tidy sloped roof chalets for plates of French fries and late afternoon hot chocolates – before ending up sore, windblown, and spent, the afternoon sun sinking, at the bottom of the mountain.
And so it was with J – who I convinced (pretty easily) to go and relive my selective Swiss skiing memories – on a Christmas week in Zermatt (in the Pennine Alps of Switzerland). With a few necessary advance reservations (and help from a high school friend), we ate well and stayed well in car-free Zermatt, an easy train ride up from Geneva. Sharp air and clear skies brought the glorious Matterhorn to maximum view – everywhere – in the village and on the slopes. And took our breath away, spectacularly, on our first jet-lagged day, when we opened the window shutters in our room and came face-to-face with that peak. We stayed in a chalet apartment of the Hotel Zurbriggen (run by champion 1980s Swiss Alpine skier Pirmin Zurbriggen and his family), a convenient five-minute walk from the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ski lift, and apres ski-ed in the heated outdoor pool facing that spectacular mountain peak.
The first day of skiing, we stopped for lunch at the Restaurant Findlerhoff, reservations in hand, down a narrow path in the tiny mountainside village of Findeln. We stumbled in ski boots into the cozy dark wood chalet and hung our helmets from rods overhead. Fellow skiers sat sweater-to-sweater, hair askew from hats removed, the outline of ski goggles pressed into cold pink cheeks. A few dogs were on the patio and beers were being drunk (by the people, not the dogs) while sitting in the bright winter sun.
On the next, J and I gazed out over endless white slopes and blue sky at The Igloo, having just skied our way over the ridge into Cervinia, Italy – spending Euros and not Swiss francs. Sharing a Weissbier on the patio, blankets draped over our knees and backs against the chalet wall, giddy from having skied across a border for lunch. A mid-ski stop at Restaurant Alphitta near Riffelalp had us on the wide terrace soaking up sun with a basket of baguette, quiche, and frisée salad, the Matterhorn in full view over our shoulders.
Then we got lost. Not skiing, but hiking. On Christmas Day. Trying to mix it up. We were hiking our way up to a leisurely lunch at elegant Chez Vrony. But it was snowing, and we made a wrong turn on the trail, eventually finding our way to Findelbach, a stop along the Gornergrat rail line, and caught the train back into Zermatt to take the Sunnegga-Rothorn funicular up to Sunnegga. From Sunnega, it was a short snowy hike downhill to the warmth of Chez Vrony. Outside, the day’s palate was soft greys and whites in the clouds and lightly falling snow.
Inside, Chez Vrony was warm colors and light wood, stemmed wine glasses and etched carafes, sausage and rösti potatoes, and delicate desserts on the side of a mountain. Forgoing all the unplanned modes of transportation that got us to Vrony, we stuck to our original plan, and hiked back through Findeln down the mountain following (successfully this time) a trail through the pine trees and back into Zermatt. A glass of champagne at the outdoor Veuve Clicquot ice bar and a steaming chocolate crêpe to-go from Stefanie’s crêperie across the way would end our day – sore, windblown, and spent but reveling in snowy winter joy.
Yeah, there we were, hanging outside the basement steps leading down to The Dabney Cellar, a few minutes before opening time. Looking up at the sky, checking the time on our phones. (As if we were waiting for a secret code…or something.) We’d just walked over from Maydan, after a fruitless line standing experience (we’ll try again), ready to take our chances at The Dabney. The small subterranean The Dabney Cellar is the English basement outpost below The Dabney and faces 9thstreet with its own entrance. J had put in our names upstairs at The Dabneyfor a table and we took the recommendation to spend an hour and a half in the Cellar around the corner from The Dabney’s Blagden Alley entrance. (For customers, there’s no way into The Dabney directly from the Cellar.)
The Dabney was surprisingly unpretentious for being one of Washington DC’s best restaurants; the tables a happy distance apart and the kitchen low and open at the back, the food (smallish plates) consistently vibrant and green. The Dabney was excellent, but the Cellar was a find. Comfortably dark, warmly lit and nicely cozy. Fitted with an L-shaped bar and high tops, tables on an upper deck. J and I sat at the bar, checking out the wine list for interesting tastes, talking to the welcoming bartenders about the wines, snacking on melon salad and crostini, a cover of Steve Winwood’s Valerie in the background. Comfortable, friendly, and low key.