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.)
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.
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.
We went south to head north; to stop by a few wineries on a rainy Sunday, on our way back to the Washington, DC, area. J and I had been hiking in Shenandoah National Parkand “camping” in a tiny house trailer at getaway. After a morning stop for cappuccino at the Mudhousein Crozet, we turned left at the winery sign – hanging off a piece of construction equipment at the side of the road – and pulled in to Gabriele Rausse(just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia). Gabriele Rausse is the namesake winery of Gabriele Rausse who moved from Italy to Virginia in the late 1970s to help start Barboursville Vineyards.
The modern glass and wood framed tasting room was tucked into the trees at the end of a short gravel lane – windows facing out on at least two sides of the small open space. At mid-day, a couple was sitting in the back booth and several were standing at the tasting bar. The Beatles were playing; a wilted hardcover book about Italy’s big Barolo wines on the shelf. The winery’s lumberingly sweet yellow lab mix greeted everyone and then plopped down to rest against the window.
Gabriele Rausse’s son was pouring the wine, family was around, and fresh pasta was being rolled through a pasta maker. We tasted whites to reds accompanied by small bites of speck with arugula, soft and crunchy sourdough baguettes with pungent olive oil for dipping, fresh linguine with pesto, and a bite of warm baklava at the end.
I don’t do it often enough, but it’s not hard to get out of the city in the Washington, DC, area. Farmland, horse country, the Blue Ridge Mountains, are only an hour or so away. Take Stanardsville, Virginia, just outside Shenandoah National Park. It took me and J about the two hours advertised by getaway, to drive there late Friday afternoon for some Saturday hiking. Getaway is a revamped campground (once, Heavenly Acres Campground) dotted with carefully placed tiny house trailers – all wood-sided and painted black. Ours came with a New York license plate. Each trailer is named for a grandparent of staff or guests (says the web site) the name engraved onto a metal plate by the front door. Discreet black and white signs lead you into the wooded grounds. Our tiny house trailer, Carroll, was light and spare and punctuated by a glossy red under-counter refrigerator and a black-and-red checked blanket.
Two people and a small dog take up the entire floor space. And don’t plan on cooking meals with a lot of ingredients or steps – there’s a two-burner electric cook top and counter space is a scarcity. Which doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well.
J and I started our day waking up to a forest staring back at us through the picture window wall that was the back of our trailer. We ended it in Adirondack chairs in front of our own fire pit – eating sautéed shishito peppers and re-heated smoked sirloin tip with the other night’s potato salad on the side. Later we (truthfully, just I) gorged on s’mores complete with marshmallows toasted over the fire pit on twigs stripped clean and to sharp points by J. Sitting by our flickering fire, the night otherwise dark, you could hear people laughing a few camp sites away. When walking the dog, we passed cars tucked into alcoves next to their own tiny house trailers and saw the occasional dog and person. But our campsite, encircled by trees, was definitely our own.
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 lattésand 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.
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 Marketreplenishes 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.
The walk up starts with a detour to Java Shackfor the requisite morning latte, and ends with a #3 veggie, egg, and cheese burrito from El Piquin’stent 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.
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).
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.
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.