Beach Bar-ing it at Northside Social in Arlington

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Arlington’s own urban beach bar is just a couple of blocks from the Clarendon Metrorail station.  Yes, I said Urban Beach Bar.  The outdoor bar (and patio triangle) at Northside Social occupies a former trolley depot, smack in the middle of a tough intersection of now traffic-heavy boulevards.  I had been frequenting Northside for their morning lattés and great baked goods (blueberry muffins come to mind) and dense, flavorful bread (especially on a spinach, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich).

But when I’m sitting mid-day at the outdoor bar with my BLT and sparkling water, a light breeze – always – whether sunny or cloudy, watching the bartenders pour glass after glass (after glass) of pastel pink rosé from bottles in galvanized tubs and wheat-yellow beers from the outdoor tap, Steven Tyler rasping overhead, “Don’t want to close my eyes, I don’t want to fall asleep, ‘cause I’d miss you babe and I don’t want to miss a thing,” I feel like I’m happily hanging out at a beachside bar, the ocean just a few steps away.

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Beach Walking to a Fried Bologna Sandwich

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A walk to Coco’s on the Beach requires advance consultation with the Hilton Head Island Tide Chart.  Low tide was my friend.  To make the journey from where I was staying towards the heel of the Island, you have to cross an inlet.  When J and I crossed, an hour and a half after low tide and just around mid-day on a Tuesday, the water was barely ankle deep at most points and the inlet just a narrow line of water fed by the ocean cutting up through the sand.  An hour later, that ankle-deep line was a hip-deep stream.  And with a current strong enough that kids were having fun letting it carry them along a short-ways.

The walk to Coco’s was a people-watching quick-paced 50-minutes up the beach in bare feet, flip flops in hand, to the elevated open-air bar giving you a view through the palm trees to the ocean beyond.  Coco’s is the quintessential beach-side bar – all laid back with a sense of hot, salty, sandy, and sunblock  There’s a nod to old hippies (they’re welcome) and a sign that although (the owner?) may be of a certain age, he’s seen all the best bands.  So true.  Vibrant in their primary colors of blue, red, and yellow, square wooden stools front the wraparound bar and equally vivid wide square tables.

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Coco’s serves a range of burgers and beers and sandwiches and cocktails in plastic cups.  The Fried Bologna “Ohio Style” Sandwich that J ordered – pickles and onion rings layered on top of the lightly fried thick bologna slice – was delicious.  So was my beefy Swiss and ‘Shroom Burger.  Coleslaw and a bag of chips served on the side.  Order at the window; pick up when your name is called over the mic.  Try to read all of the signs running the length and width of the walls all around and above the counter.  Take your photo in front of the multi-colored signpost.  Or just sit and eat and have a beer and feel the breeze.  You really are at the beach.

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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.

Where the Malbec Meets the Mountains on a Ranch in Argentina

 

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I’m in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Argentina – on a horse – gripping the reins with an intensity only a novice rider could know, while being jostled up the last few feet of uneven, gravelly terrain.  At the top of the ridge, I willed myself to open my eyes and take in the stunning expanse of the wine-making Valle de Uco below.  I had joined J, already at this precipice, and our guide, Dino – part-time trail rider, part-time goat farmer.  Vineyards lay below us, barely visible in a pastel quilt.  While over my shoulder were the Andes mountains, rising up behind shrub dotted hills.

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An hour later I was lounging, legs stretched out, in a chair beside a shaded table on the clipped front lawn of the main house at the guest ranch, Estancia El Puesto.  I was sipping chardonnay under a sharp blue sky, the late fall air warmed by the intense mountain sun.  And so it began, three days of exhilarating riding across the hills of the Alto Valle de Uco matched only by superb local dishes and unexpected attention to detail back at the Estancia.  We were greeted our first day with Argentine barbeque on the large outdoor grill.  One night featured pollo al disco (a rich chicken, sauce, and vegetables cooked in a deep round pan, the “disco”).  On another, a hearty stew – Locro – typically served on Revolucion de Mayo (Argentina’s Independence Day).  Breakfast was always out by the time we got up and included a small pot of dulce de leche (yes, it does go with everything), and the necessary hot pot of café con leche.

Evenings were without the glowing distraction of devices, digital clocks, or TVs.  With no ambient light – at all – the nights collapsed quickly into black.  We ate dinner by candlelight and warmed ourselves by fireplaces against plummeting nighttime temperatures.  Once we braved the cold outside to gaze at the blanket of stars sparkling overhead and were able to trace the Southern Cross.

J and I felt a peacefulness only achieved in a place where you are surrounded by sky and mountains, and where cattle, horses, and goats (and several friendly dogs) outnumber the humans.  Where the only other person I saw outside the ranch was a lone gaucho riding slowly along the dusty path that ran in front.  We were only two hours from Mendoza City and a half hour from the vineyard filled Valle de Uco.  We were not roughing it.  We were embraced by good food, good wine, crisp white sheets and whitewashed walls, and gentle horses (mui tranquillo, I was assured) at an unassuming ranch at the base of the Andes.

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Valle de Uco

 

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.

Hiking to Eat…Trattoria dai Bercau, Verduno

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Trattoria dai Bercau

I hiked to the home of the pelaverga grape, Verduno, in the Piedmont region of Italy, to have lunch at a trattoria with a sense of fun (just catch their wall mural of two dancing dudes – a server and chef – with oversized heads).  And try the wine from this uncommon grape.  J and I had left our mid-morning stop, Cantina Stroppianaand had wound our way to Verduno through vineyards heavy with grapes ready for harvest.  Off a quiet side road, we walked into the small gravel courtyard of Trattoria dai Bercau, and were waved over to seats, on a covered patio, with wooden tables and white tablecloths.

J and I joined a few others making the most of the sun and series of courses on the set menu.  Four were enjoying what looked like the last of their lucky work day lunch in button down shirts and pants, blazers hanging off the backs of chairs.  A longer table behind us was crowded with the plates and glasses and wine bottles of a visiting family (and their small dog) leisurely enjoying their meal.

Once the pelaverga wine was ordered, plates started arriving at our table with carne cruda (ground raw beef with (as I remember it) lemon, olive oil, and garlic) then vitello tonnato (thin slices of veal with tuna sauce).  Having veal wasn’t surprising, but the tuna sauce was an unexpected Piedmontese specialty, to me, in these hills below the Alps.  By the time thin, flat ribbons of tajarin pasta showed up – black truffles shaved tableside – we had comfortably settled in to the warm sun and the ease of the afternoon.  A reward and necessity before finishing the hilly loop that was the hike back to our home base in La Morra.

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Tajarin pasta with shaved black truffles, Pelaverga in the glass.

Get This Wine…Verduno Pelaverga

Complementing Trattoria dai Bercau’s meal was the pelavarga.  The grape produced a bright red wine that’s slightly fruity but surprisingly, definitely peppery at the finish.  Plagued, yet again, by the reality that we-only-packed-carry-ons-so-can’t-take-wine-back, we sought it out online once back in the US.  I’m coveting a few bottles from Comm.G.B. Burlotto– Verduno Pelaverga 2015, and the 2016 Fratelli Alessandria– Verduno Pelaverga.  I found them here and here.

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Feeling Grounded at Galena Lodge

 

That March morning when those of us in the US “sprung forward” to daylight savings time was a grey one in Ketchum, Idaho.  Clouds covered the mountain ridge line.  And after two blue sky days of downhill skiing, J and I took the colorless day as a sign to expand beyond the ski runs on Bald Mountain and experience the snowshoeing trails further along the Wood River Valley.

I had read about Galena Lodge and its snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails – an easy 25-minute drive north of Ketchum – and was intrigued that one half of the couple (Don, of Don and Erin) running the lodge (who met at school in Virginia just a few hours from where I live outside of Washington, DC) is not only an outdoorsman, but went to culinary school.  And then there was the photo of two of Galena’s dogs, peering through a window opening above a sign proclaiming, “Loaner Dogs.”  Loaner dogs?  Yes, just ask, and one of Galena’s resident dogs will happily join you for a snowshoe outing, poop pick-up duty included.

J and I snowshoed a trail with Bandit, our friendly and eager loaner mutt, who led (pulled?) us up and over quiet hills dense with trees along the well-marked Rip and Tear Trail, and past a few yurts for overnight stays.  Splitting up our snowshoeing runs with lunch back at the community-owned day lodge, I gravitated toward the “grown up grilled cheese,” which was surprisingly (and nicely so) not overly cheesy with a little crunch from apple and salty bacon.  J opted for one of the three soups – chicken with healthy chunks of cauliflower and other vegetables.  Galena also serves up a range of coffee and espresso drinks and wines and beers.  And there were tall slices of red velvet cake on the counter that day.  A fireplace set-off a small lounge area near the espresso machine, while the rest of the space was solid wood tables and chairs for lunchtime eating with a view to the kitchen through the pick-up window.  One of Bandit’s buddies was peeking out of the Loaner Dogs window just up above.

Unhurried, Galena was pleasantly busy with individuals and families deciding on the next trail to ski or snowshoe on a wide-open Sunday.  Our next round of snowshoeing (without Bandit this time) was along the Valley View Trail leading up to, appropriately, a view to the valley, where we felt glimpses of the sun’s rays trying to burn through the clouds.  Next, we hooked up with the Cowboy Cabin Trail, which deposited us into a meadow before we crossed the street back over to the lodge, our outpost.

J and I leisurely returned our snowshoes and left Galena with a local treat – “Don Bars” – accompanied by a friendly warning.  Just half of one of these dense peanut butter and chocolate chip studded bars will keep you hunger free from noon through the rest of the day.  I held myself to a sliver of the layered bar after shoveling some snow off the front walkway back home, but I’m saving the bulk for a worthier work out.  Created by Don the chef, Don Bars, we heard, is funding his retirement.  It should be a good one.

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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.