Finding Unexpected Warmth in a Cellar

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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 Dabney for 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.)

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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.

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