Cupcake Challenge: Cocktail Hour

July 26, 2011

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Have you ever dreamed of a world filled with cupcakes? Were there cupcakes everywhere you looked, with smiling servants at the ready? Was the heavenly aroma of sugar hanging sweet in the air? Best of all were you able to taste each tantalizing treat and experience the joy of tingling taste buds as you took bite into each sweet?

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp The National Capital Area Cake Show made this dream a reality for hundreds of cupcake enthusiasts on Saturday as they hosted the first ever, Cupcake Cocktail Hour. Hosted at the Northern Virginia Community College, 54 cupcake bakers brought sample sizes of cocktail inspired cupcakes. By the end of the night, it was estimated that there were 154 different types of cupcakes for sampling with over 700 guests attending the event.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspThis was the 3rd annual National Capital Area Cake Show, with over 8,000 people in attendance throughout the two day show, March 26-27. The show ran from 9-3 each day offering classes, cake tours and even a television-style live challenge. The Cupcake Challenge grew out of an idea of combining a tasting competition with a fun theme.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp“Cupcakes have kind of exploded in DC. While cake decorating appears intimidating to some, no one is afraid of a cute cupcake!” said Melissa Westervelt, who spearheaded the idea of a Cupcake Challenge. “There are people out there making really great stuff in their home kitchens and in new bakeshops. I wanted to elevate that, to draw the ‘cupcake people’ into this great community atmosphere.”

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Amateurs as well as professional bakers were invited to participate in the challenge, allowing those new to the business a chance to get their name out while well-established bakeries were able to share their reputation with a wider audience. 11 professional and 43 amateur bakers took the challenge to create original cocktail cupcakes.

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp “People are passionate about cupcakes. I know competitors with no culinary background who worked for weeks to perfect their recipe and they can be very proud of the results! I even heard about a few baking days, tasting parties, and Facebook friendships that formed as people developed the perfect cocktail cupcake,” Westervelt said. “Area professionals need a place to shine too. If I want a cupcake right now, I am walking into one of their shops. They were totally open to creating new flavors, engaging with the other bakers and creating some amazing display pieces for the Cupcake Challenge.”

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp The challenge was advertised with the National Capital Area Cake show, but ticket sales soared after a promotion with LivingSocial, which offered five free tickets for cupcakes along with the price of admission. The campaign was responsible for the sale of 550 tickets to the Cupcake Challenge alone and close to 1,585 general admission tickets to the show. Proceeds from the event benefitted Icing Smiles, a non-profit organization that provides custom celebration cakes and other treats to families impacted by critical illness of a child

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp“Baking is more than mixing up flour, sugar, and butter. It’s the muse, the creative process, the joy of the celebration that the sweet is created for. When I stumbled into the world of cake shows and competitions, all of that was amplified,” said Westervelt. “There is this network of artists where the competitive spirit is real, but the goal is camaraderie, sharing knowledge, and demanding something tastier and more gorgeous than you have ever made before.”

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Move Over Cupcakes: Say Hello to Georgetown Pies

For many people nationwide, a homemade pie is as symbolic of the American Dream as baseball and a house with a white picket fence. For Alli, Erin and Cat Blakely, three sisters from Northern Virginia, pie is also a personal dream that they plan on bringing to Georgetown by the end of this summer with the opening of their pie shop, O’B Sweet.

The sisters, who grew up in Great Falls, spent a lot of time in Georgetown throughout their childhood, attending church at St. John’s on O Street. “We’re just local girls, and that’s why we wanted to stay in Georgetown with our shop,” said Erin.

They started their baking careers early in life when their mother taught them how to can fruit and make pies, “to keep us all busy,” said Erin. After following separate careers in different fields, the Blakelys finally decided to fulfill their dream of operating a family business.

“We’re sisters. There’s three of us. We’re all two years apart,” said Erin. “We’re best friends and baking pies was something that brought us all together having fun even on the holidays after our lives kind of took us in different directions.”

Even the name the sisters chose reflects their family roots. “We’re Scott-Irish, so the ‘O’ kind of brings in that part of us,” said Erin. “The ‘B’ is for our last name, Blakely, and the ‘Sweet,’ obviously, is because we’re sweet.”

The trio is currently looking at retail space at 3833 Prospect St., according to Robert Tack, the real estate broker representing O’B Sweet. The market, Tack noted, is ready for a new sweet tooth craze—a refreshing idea noting the area’s baffling cupcake fetish.

“I think they’re gonna do well with their concept,” he said.

The Blakelys are already setting themselves apart from average Georgetown bakeries and cupcakeries. The shop will feature an array of savory and sweet pies in three sizes: nine inches, seven inches, and “Cuppies,” single-serving mini pies that are original to O’B Sweet. Because most of their fruit comes from local growers, their menu of flavors rotates seasonally, while their cream pies will be available year round. The shop will cater events as well as delivering pies and providing seating where customers can enjoy their Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Cuppies with coffee or hot cocoa.

While the shop has a few months until their grand opening, O’B Sweet’s catering business is already up and running. The sisters have supplied weddings, birthdays and dinner parties with their homemade pies and plan to continue this service through the process of opening their store.

“Pies are really all-American classics, so we’re trying to take that and make it more mainstream,” said Erin. “It’s giving people the option, instead of going to cupcakes, to go to pies… There’s nothing like this in Georgetown.”

United, We Drink

In 2011, our nation’s capital will see something it hasn’t seen in over fifty years: a production brewery worthy to bear the District’s name. DC Brau, a venture between DC area natives Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock, plans on pumping out kegs and cans to bars and retail stores in the city within the next three months. Casual and enthusiastic, it was a pleasure to pick the brains of these entrepreneurs on the subject of beer, business and…well…more beer.

Skall and Hancock are both veterans of the beer and wine industry. Skall worked for a major national wine importer before turning to the import side of the business. The three-tier system is confusing on its best days, and having a background in distribution is an asset. Hancock has been a professional brewer for seven years now, and has a degree from the Seibel Institute of Technology, one of only a handful of academies in the country with an accredited brewing program.

Opening a brewery is quite an undertaking. The capital needed is steep, and skimping on the initial investments tends to cause short-lived dreams of self-employment. Skall and Hancock are playing it smart. They have spent the better part of the last three years researching commercial space, redefining commercial business laws in the city and attracting investors.

The last brewery to operate in the District was Heurich Brewing Company, whose factory was on the grounds where the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts now stands. It closed in 1956, after which production was moved to New York. As a result of this time gap, very little information was available on classifications and regulations regarding commercial breweries in DC. “They thought we would be carrying drums of green smoking liquid and pouring it down the drain.” Skall laughs, “Or burning soot, or asbestos on a regular basis.”

No one in DC public offices has been around long enough to know or remember the standard procedure. So with the help of a lawyer, Skall and Hancock explored the exciting world of DC regulatory agencies. Although it took some time, the brewery space was finally approved.

As it turns out, their resurfacing and navigation of alcohol production laws is helping more than just DC Brau. With the expanding market and popularity of craft beer, the Capitol is going to be seeing an influx of commercial breweries in the coming years, and some have already contacted Skall and Hancock for advice. “We’ve been doing a lot of trail blazing not just for us, but for all of the soon to open breweries” say Skall.

Of course, they were happy to help. This spirit of camaraderie has defined the modern day craft beer business. Unlike the wine industry, which can be esoteric, discriminatory and prone to wild inflation, the craft brewing industry has a strong reputation for being good-natured and diplomatic (in terms of pricing, collaborations and mutual support of one another).

Of the group of prospective operations in Washington, DC Brau aims to be the first to open. And it is more than likely to happen. They are 90 percent of the way there.

Driving up to an unimposing industrial building with a sticker on the door is pretty much par for the course when touring breweries, and DC Brau is no different. Upon entering though, you are greeted by a bold, red-and-white “tasting” room with a large, freshly lacquered wooden bar.

I put “tasting” in quotes because the team is still working on the legal issues regarding sampling beer. Once again, no one in the city has tried to do this in a long time.

Still, they have bet on its approval and as a result have an inviting entrance in which to talk about the hardware in the back. A brewery design company was hired to put together a 15-barrel system that has just arrived from China.

“It’s a hands-on system, not as automated as some others,” remarks Hancock. His smile gives him away, and you can tell he is itching to brew. Already in place is the electrical and plumbing infrastructure, boiler, cold box and of course, the canning line produced by the same company that made Dale’s Pale Ale famous.

DC Brau is going to test the marketing potential of craft beer in a can along with other east coast operations. Blue Mountain in VA, Brewers Art in Baltimore and Sly Fox in PA are just a few of the craft companies trying out cans. DC Brau will have its focus on cans and draft initially, with special seasonal releases in hand-bottled bombers.

We can expect to see three core beers to appear on shelves this year, each named fittingly after some element of the democratic system. The team has been doing test batches at home in order to hone down the malt bills and hop schedules. The Public Ale is a balanced 6-percent pale ale with a firm hop bite. The Citizen, a 7-percent Belgian-style pale ale, will utilize a De Konick yeast strain. And then there is The Corruption IPA, aimed to be a powerful West Coast IPA featuring the new and underused Citra hop variety.

When asked whether there were any plans for lagers, they did not rule out the idea. But ale production has a much quicker turn around, and Skall and Hancock aim to start pumping beer out of the facility as soon as possible.

An intriguing area of the brewery lies towards the back of the space behind an old sliding bay door. The room is about the size of a flat bed cargo truck, long and narrow. The space, actually lying underground and hanging between 45 and 55 degrees year-round, is a perfect room for prospective barrel aging.

Craft breweries without wooden barrels are becoming a minority, and DC Brau is not going to be left behind. After hanging out with Brandon and Jeff for a morning, you can tell they are going about this in the right way. Proper fundraising has allowed them to get the equipment needed to meet the initial demand, but also enough fermented space to grow organically. If it all works out for these first few years, the brewery has the option to purchase and expand to adjacent space.

What truly grabbed my attention when first reading about DC Brau was its brand identity. The logo mixes early 20th century Russian constructivist typography with American patriotic imagery, with the colors, red and white, leaning both ways. A striking design and logo is so important, and not all new breweries pull it off.

In a few months I hope to pop a can of DC Brau in my apartment, the first package of beer coming out of our nations capital in over 50 years.

Thanksgiving Dining Guide

With Thanksgiving around the corner, the turkey looms large. Thanksgiving dinner preparations can be a daunting undertaking, and the ordeal is frequently known throughout family circles to cause more stress than merriment. After all, the holidays are about enjoying time with those you love, and if cooking doesn’t suit you, there are some great places to go out or order in for Thanksgiving. Some are traditional, like the Oval Room’s roasted free-range turkey with chestnut stuffing, while others are less conventional, such as Rasika’s Cranberry Turkey Tikka with pumpkin chutney and spiced Brussels sprouts. But all are sure to be delicious. Below is the Georgetowner’s top picks for eating out on Thanksgiving. Get your reservations sooner rather than later, as many of these dinners have limited seating and large parties will fill them up quickly.

1789 Restaurant

At 1789 Restaurant, Executive Chef Daniel Giusti and Pastry Chef Travis Olson are creating a menu to satisfy both traditional and adventurous palates this Thanksgiving. Available from noon to 9 p.m., the seasonal a la carte menu by Chef Giusti will include standouts such as oyster and applewood smoked bacon gratin with braised salsify, aged Gruyere and brioche croutons, sweet potato gnocchi with toasted walnuts, baby spinach and ricotta salata, fresh ham with roasted pineapple, Montgomery cheddar casserole served with stewed mustard greens and Bourbon Barrel maple syrup glaze, braised beef short ribs served with honeyed parsnip purée, and citrus baby carrots and horseradish jus. There is also a three-course Thanksgiving menu, which includes a choice of pumpkin soup or bitter greens and citrus salad, turkey with all of the trimmings, and a full selection of desserts prepared by Chef Olson, accompanied by coffee or tea. For reservations please call 202-965-1789.

701 Restaurant

701 Restaurant will be dishing out a classic Thanksgiving feast with an eco-friendly conscience.
The three-course, pre-fixe holiday menu is available from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Newly appointed
Executive Chef Ed Witt will be preparing a variety of choices such as crisp duck confit with frisee salad, Medijool dates and Fuyu persimmon, spiced pumpkin soup with apple and rosemary beignets, and venison stuffed sage leaves with quince puree. For the main course, guests can choose from eco-friendly turkey with roasted breast meat, leg ballotine, mashed potatoes, stuffing and giblet gravy, eco-friendly suckling pig with house made sausage stuffing, celery root and Savoy cabbage, Scottish salmon with parsnip puree and a red wine reduction, or piedmont ridge strip steak with sweet potato gratin and baby spinach. A vegetarian dish of ricotta ravioli with sage brown butter, autumn squash, and walnuts will also be offered. 701’s live jazz duo of piano and bass will be performing
during Thanksgiving service. For more information and reservations please call 202-393-0701.


After undergoing an extensive renovation, Ardeo+Bardeo will reopen in late November, just in time to offer their annual Thanksgiving feast. The three-course menu is inspired by the flavors of the harvest and includes smoked tea-crusted domestic lamb loin carpaccio with fresh shell bean salad and a cara cara orange vinaigrette or Autumn Vegetable Faro Risotto with foraged mushrooms, roasted pearl onions, and sage. For the main course, diners can choose from hearth oven roasted turkey with chestnut and sage stuffing, mashed potatoes and dried cranberry gravy, or roasted Scottish salmon with sunchoke and butternut squash hash, oil cured black olive puree, and pine nut foam. A scrumptious dessert menu includes Caramel Pots de Crème with ginger and amoretto cookie crumbs or Candied Pecan and White Chocolate Bread Pudding with vanilla crème anglaise.

The Thanksgiving menu will be served from noon until 8 p.m. Ardeo+Bardeo also features an extensive list of wines by-the-glass for this delicious day of gathering. For reservations please call 202-244-6750.

Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca

Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca will be offering an authentic Italian twist on Thanksgiving.

The pre-fixe menu will be served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Executive Chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s tempting offerings include chestnut soup with house-made cotechino sausage and grappa cream or agnolotti of sheep’s milk ricotta, marjoram, lemon, and spinach. Entrées include heritage turkey cooked two ways: roasted breast with a juniper-lard crust and braised leg, celery root, shallots, and wild mushrooms, as well as roasted dry. Beyond the turkey, choices include aged blade steak with foie gras and wild mushrooms with a black truffle sauce and whole roasted sea bass with eggplant “Fungetto” and a citrus emulsion. For reservations or more information call 202-216-9550.

BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant

BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant is offering a full Thanksgiving feast to-go. Food orders can be made from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily through Sunday, November 21, and all pick-ups will be scheduled for Wednesday, November 24. The menu begins with a choice of all-natural turkeys grown in Pennsylvania Amish Country, available by weight. Honey ham is also available
as a nice turkey alternative.

The a la carte menu includes butternut squash soup, clam chowder, potato gratin, spiced cranberry
sauce, turkey gravy, French baguette, sage stuffing, Chincoteague oyster stuffing, sweet potato puree, French beans almondine, harvest rice duo and braised southern greens with house smoked bacon. Additionally, Pastry Chef Susan Wallace has created a variety of artisanal sweets, such as apple streusel with fresh spiced apples, sour cream filling, and pecan streusel topping, classic pecan pie, traditional pumpkin pie, and key lime pie made with a graham cracker crust, Florida key lime filling, and fresh whipped cream. For more information call 202-342-9101 or visit

The Bombay Club

The Bombay Club is bringing back the popular Thanksgiving Day special in addition to the full a la carte menu. Chef Nilesh Singhvi will prepare Tandoori Turkey, boneless chunks of white meat marinated with yogurt, ginger, garlic, and fenugreek leaves. Thanksgiving turkey is offered from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling 202-659-3727.

Bourbon Steak

Bourbon Steak will offer a delectable Thanksgiving feast with dishes such as roasted chestnut
soup with spiced marshmallows and foie gras and Sweetbreads with beets, pistachio, and campari. Executive Chef David Varley will offer a wide range of entrees, including brown-butter basted Maine lobster with perigord black truffles, roasted heritage turkey with chestnut stuffing, grilled turkey sausage and cranberry-orange confit, and Virginia striped bass with roasted Musquee de Provence pumpkin and toasted hazelnut crunch. The holiday dinner will end on a sweet note with Pastry Chef Santanna Salas’ dessert offerings of kabocha squash sticky toffee pudding and warm pumpkin and apple pies. For reservations or more information please call 202-944-2026 or visit the website at


Ten landmark restaurants within Clyde’s Restaurant Group will be featuring a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Menu highlights include sage-sausage stuffing, green beans, whipped potatoes, glazed sweet potatoes, classic turkey gravy, and cranberry sauce. For dessert, guests will have a choice of apple or pecan pie à la mode or pumpkin pie topped with a dollop of whipped cream. The full Thanksgiving menu will also be available to enjoy at the bar for those who would like to watch football. For more information visit

The Oval Room

In The Oval Room, Chef Tony Conte is preparing a three-course holiday menu from noon to 8 p.m. Serving up flavors of the season in an innovative fashion, Chef Conte will feature a menu of his innovative modern American cuisine. Highlights of his Thanksgiving menu include Burrata with crystallized wasabi, apple, ginger, and olive oil, foie gras brûlée with cranberry, smoked balsamic,
and spiced cookie crumbs, roasted free range turkey with chestnut stuffing, potato puree and cranberry sauce, and rack of Berkshire pork with Hubbard squash ravioli, fried Brussels sprouts, and apple. For reservations please call 202-463-8700.


Rasika is adding an exotic Thanksgiving addition to their extensive a la carte menu. Prepared by acclaimed Chef Vikram Sunderam, guests can enjoy the flavorful cranberry turkey tikka with pumpkin chutney and spiced Brussels sprouts, along with Rasika’s seasonal menu. The complete a la carte menu is also available on Thanksgiving Day. Rasika will feature two seating timeframes: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. For reservations call 202-637-1222.

The Ritz-Carlton

Enjoy Thanksgiving at the Ritz-Carlton lobby bar with a choice of celery, Granny Smith apple soup, and cured smoked salmon, roasted pumpkins and foie gras terrine, mache, and truffle vinaigrette, maple glazed breast of Amish tom turkey, stuffed with dark meat country bread stuffing, with apples, sausage, dried cherries, potato puree, and Brussels sprouts, roasted beef tenderloin with caramelized chestnut and winter root vegetables, mash potato, and pomegranate sauce, and for dessert traditional pumpkin pie and candied ginger ice cream or apple tart and pecan-maple syrup ice cream and caramel sauce.

Or this Thanksgiving, skip the last minute shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Experience and enjoy the pleasure of a traditional Ritz-Carlton, Washington, DC turkey dinner in the comfort and convenience of your own home. The menu includes 10-12 pound roasted Amish turkey, country bread stuffing with apples, sausages, and dried cherries, giblet gravy and cranberry orange sauce, butternut squash soup, caramelized hazelnuts, classic shrimp cocktail, organic greens with candied walnut and truffle vinaigrette, honey roasted root vegetables, chestnut, and Brussels sprouts, potato puree, a half-dozen corn muffins, and a choice of pumpkin or apple pie. Orders must be received by Monday, November
22, at noon. For reservations call 202-974-5566.

Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place

Tony & Joe’s Seafood Place will be having a buffet brunch on Thanksgiving Day from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The menu features spiced shrimp, oysters and clams on the half shell, tri-colored seafood pasta, marinated mushroom medley, tossed salad or carrot raisin salad, roasted turkey, smoked goose, leg of lamb, steamship of beef Au jus, honey baked ham, crab stuffing or cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, candied yams, zucchini squash blend, and green beans almandine. For desert there will be pastries, cakes, fresh fruit, chocolate mouse, and apple, pumpkin, sweet potato, banana cream, or coconut dream pie. For reservations call 202-944-4545.

Zola Wine & Kitchen

This Thanksgiving, Zola Wine & Kitchen is allowing Washingtonians to take a break with a stress free to-go menu featuring holiday favorites. A selection of starters comprised of dishes like classic shrimp cocktail, white wine poached shrimp served with cocktail sauce, or baby spinach salad with dried cranberries, blue cheese, stuffed phyllo, buttered almonds, and balsamic vinaigrette. There is also an a la carte menu, which includes potato dishes such as orange and brown sugar-glazed sweet potatoes, delicious stuffing, such as the oyster dressing with Sally Lunn bread, local oysters, onions, celery, and fresh herbs, or vegetable side dishes sure to please, including blue cheese-rutabaga mash, sage, and rosemary roasted rutabagas pureed with gorgonzola cream.

Zola Wine & Kitchen also offers a “whole dinner menu”. Guests have two options: an oven-ready herbed turkey that comes with a roasting pan, herbs, mirepoix, and spice blend or cooking/reheating instructions for a pre-cooked herb-roasted turkey. Patrons can then choose five side dishes from the a la carte menu previously listed. Cranberry relish and roast turkey gravy with or without giblets and a choice between freshly baked corn muffins or honey-wheat rolls are all included with the meal. For the perfect ending to a delicious dinner, there’s pumpkin pie with cream for whipping or apple pie served with vanilla ice cream. The turkeys average 14 to 16 pounds each and feed six to eight people. For more information call 202-639-9463 or visit

Round up of events for October 2010

Tapas Menu Introduced at Taberna

Taberna del Alaberdero is shedding its stuffy image as an Old World Spanish restaurant and appealing to a younger crowd with the addition of an extensive tapas menu and a Sunday brunch that features a different region of Spain each month. November explores the foods of the Northern sea coast of Cantabria, a region known for its seafood.

New chef Javier Romero comes to Washington by way of several Michelin-starred restaurants and brings with him his success as the top chef in Madrid in 2005, topped only by securing fourth place in 2006 for all of Spain. He employs his classical training to create tapas, infusing bold flavors in tiny bites.

I particularly liked his Arroz Cremoso de Rabo de Toro y Judiones (braised oxtail and fava beans) with its slow-cooked meat and creamy beans served over rice and Brick de Morcilla con Manzana y Parmesano, which is anything but brick-like and features blood sausage cradled in a pastry crisp and served with apple slices and parmesan cheese. Typical tapas like Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp with garlic) and the traditional potato and egg omelet are well executed, and there are over a dozen other tasty morsels to nibble on before polishing it all off with Spanish cheeses served with an aromatic honey still in its comb.

Though summer has past, make sure to try either the white or red sangria. It is never out of season for sneaking luscious fresh fruit into your meal even if it is saturated with wine. These are the best sangrias in town.

The Jockey Club Gets a New Chef – Again

Speaking of new chefs in town, The Jockey Club at The Fairfax at Embassy Row has snagged Ralf Hofmann, with his classic American style and light approach to fish and vegetables. His signature dishes like Lobster “Bratwurst” and Root Vegetable Gnocchi continue to draw the posh and political as evidenced by the appearance of Hilary Clinton on the evening I dined there. I am told she ordered her favorite, Dover Sole Lemon Meuniére. I went for the Steak Tartare, as I often do, and this version was spot on.

The hotel will host the 2011 Capital Wine Festival on January 20th with a very affordable weekly dinner series limited to only 60 guests. It will pair Chef Hofmann’s cuisine with wines from around the world.

Rivers at the Watergate Gives Foggy Bottom a New Power Dining Spot

The darling of the legendary Prime Rib, Billy Carter, has moved on to open Rivers at the Watergate, where he is the proprietor. I don’t usually follow the vicissitudes of restaurant managers. However, so many of us know and love Billy from his 34 years at the Prime Rib that it was a stunner when he announced his move to open this new venture featuring Contemporary American Cuisine with a twist, with Asian and Southern thrown in for good measure.

“I was surprised at the changing and sophisticated palates of our clientele,” Carter told me. “Dishes we put on the menu, like Whole Rockfish with ginger black bean sauce and rice vermicelli stir-fry, and Ginger Steamed Cod with sesame rice balls, were things that Mike and I liked and that have really taken off.” Mike is Mike Smithson, former chef at The Prime Rib in Philadelphia, who also did stints at Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris. Yes, he knows beef, and yes, they have fabulous steaks and zinfandel-braised short ribs too.

It’s not the same K Street crowd that Carter has welcomed in the past, though many of the swank regulars have caught on to the new location. Now you might find the cast of “Hair” popping in after the show from nearby Kennedy Center, along with prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell. Composer Marvin Hamlisch, soon to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra, was taking lunch between rehearsals as we spoke. Note to Marvin: There is a piano at the bar just itching for a little ragtime. Text me!

The restaurant’s name celebrates the rivers of the world and plans are to feature one river each season to reflect that cuisine. Italy looks to be the first.

Arena Stage Hits the Heights

On Saturday we witnessed the opening of the new glittering, glimmering, glass-walled Arena Stage where three main stages will seat 1400 audience members.

Former Artistic Director, Doug Wager, who came to the struggling theatre in 1974 recounted founder Zelda Fichandler’s words, “Maybe you can’t pass the torch,” she once told him. “Maybe you just pass the fire.”

“We’ve raised the roof, and what a home it is!” heralded current Artistic Director Molly Smith, who noted the “Zen-like aura about the place.”

Performers and playwrights from the theatre’s upcoming calendar were showcased throughout the venue. We saw alumni artist, E. Faye Butler, who is appearing in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” till December 26th, and former Tony award-nominee Brad Oscar. The Manzari Brothers, who I interviewed earlier in the year when they were blowing audiences out of their seats with their tapping talents in “Sophisticated Ladies,” and the Voices of Now, Arena Stage’s creative DC youth group, were only a few of the full day’s indoor and outdoor performances.

There is so much to look forward to in this shining new venue: a vivid contribution to the revitalization of its Southwest neighborhood, world-class theatre, and José Andrés brilliant cuisine where many of the dishes are influenced by the season’s productions. Look for an inspired and eclectic menu served in a sleek café that makes it a pre-theatre dinner destination. Sipping champagne on the outdoor terrace overlooking the Potomac is optional but highly recommended.

Cuba Libre Opens DC Outpost

At long last, and after many false starts, Cuba Libre opened its doors in Penn Quarter, and I found both good and bad to report. First the expected: It is a fun, super-lively, noisy hot spot. Second: the management team has gotten it right with informed servers, gracious door host and fast and efficient service. The freshly made mojitos are crazy fabulous, especially the pineapple, but not forgetting the beet and basil rendition. Dear Lord, there are 15 to choose from!

Over 75 premium and flavored rums from Brazil, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Tortola will keep you experimenting for a good long while. The restaurant itself has six of their own branded rums, anejos aged up to 21 years, and made in Guayana.

Ceviches are memorable, especially the scallop with blackened tomatillo-truffle sauce and goat cheese confetti. I opted for the flight of five, great for sharing.

Now for the disappointing part: The Nuevo Cubano cuisine didn’t always match the mouth-watering dishes described on the menu. Arepas are better eaten off local street trucks. Ditto for the tostones. Somewhere along the line the baby octopus had the life taken out of it by overcooking, and “whole roasted fillet of Australian sea bass” was a meager half inch by four inch slice and way overcooked. My charming server steered us away from the Gaucho platter, which I was eager to try, and put us on to the pork, which was dull and tough. Still I’ll go back to see if they make a good Cuban sandwich and to sample the four varieties of empanadas.

Stick to the bebidas and piqueos. Calle Ocho and South Beach still beckon.
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Food News Wrap Up

Little Morso’s Turkish Delights

Morso is a tiny jewel box of a restaurant. Its hip modern décor is sleek, its bar, cozy and chic, its cuisine scrumptious, its prices gentle. A parking lot is right across the street, and it’s in the heart of Georgetown. What more can a hungry, stylish diner ask for?

Favorites: Ezme, a mixture of roasted tomato and pine nuts with orange and red pepper; creamy Babaganoush, the traditional eggplant made with roasted eggplant and pistachio oil; Baked Moussaka; heavenly Wood-grilled Fresh Squid filled with fresh herbs and burrata; perfectly grilled and tender Zatar Spiced Octopus with white bean puree, green olives and cilantro; Lamb Shish Kebap (yes, the spelling seems odd but that’s the Turkish word for roasting) served with bulghur and addictive sweet red onion with zatar and a killer dessert called Irmik Helva that is made with shredded phyllo and pistachios and boasts a semolina custard. It is to die for. I can’t be held responsible if you miss out on this sweet treat!

On the list for next time: eight different kinds of Brick Oven Pides (Turkish-style pizzas); Octopus Pilaf with Swiss Chard and Scallions; Grilled Boneless Whole Branzino; and handmade Manti. Manti are beef dumplings and here they are served with warm yoghurt, paprika oil and sumac. There is also a Swordfish Kebap, which is a fish high in mercury. So if you do have it and it is really good, please only order it once a year!

Glitch: There was a reception in the bar area for around 40 university alumni for the first hour and a half we were there. The manager apologized profusely saying he had planned for only 20 guests. Though it was a cute group of well-mannered alums, the bar is open to the dining area and it can be noisy. If you are planning a romantic evening without a distractingly high decibel count, ask if the restaurant is hosting a reception when making your reservations.

Sweetbite Creamery Poised to Up the Cookie Ante

I was introduced to Ashley Allen and Tricia Widgen, partners in Sweetbite Creamery, at the new Bethesda Central Farm Market where they sold their delicious ice cream sandwiches till the market closed up on November 23 for the season. Now you’ll find them at the Oakton Market in Bethesda and on the menu at the Mayflower Hotel.

The young local entrepreneurs met at George Washington University’s Business School and started their collaboration only a few months ago. They’ve been catering parties and putting together holiday gift packs with assorted flavors, and will even deliver a minimum of one dozen of their original flavors such as Baked Apple Snickerdoodle, Molasses Pumpkin, Sweet Potato and Marshmallow, and Salted Caramel to your home.

Rising Star Chefs Hold Gala Rooftop Tasting

Recently some of the area’s notable chefs including David Varley of Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons, Bertrand Chemel of 2941, Dean Maupin of Keswick Hall at Monticello, John and Karen Shields of Town House restaurant and Benjamin Lambert of Restaurant Nora, prepared a few of their signature dishes on the tented rooftop of Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse. Out-of-town chef Jason Alley of Comfort restaurant in Richmond, whose Beef Cheeks braised in juniper and ginger beer, was a favorite among some of the food writers. And he gave me his secret: Pork stock for the beef! Road trip to Richmond anyone?

Or maybe you’d prefer to cruise down Route 81 to Chilhowie, VA for Karen Shields’ heavenly Parsnip Candy Ice Cream concoction served with coconut, banana pudding, sponge cake, almond cookie, and lemongrass sorbet. I counted nine separate methods to create this dessert and though all the chefs’ recipes were included in the program, don’t try this one at home unless you want to be chained to your kitchen like a yard dog to a tree.

Each creation, including the swank desserts, was paired with wine, beer or specialty cocktails like the “Mulberry Street” created by PS 7’s mixologist, Gina Chersevani. The early fall evening was hosted by the ubiquitously charitable Todd Gray of Equinox. The winning chef was Matt Hill from Charlie Palmer’s for his Prosciutto-wrapped Canadian Pork Tenderloin with cauliflower puree and preserved cherries.

Kudos that the event overlooking the dome of the US Capitol was as green as could be with recyclable bamboo dinnerware.

Michel Richard Opens Third Restaurant in Tysons Corner

Michel Richard of Citronelle and Central Michel Richard, flush with celebratory glee, served up some delicacies earlier this week at his eponymously named new restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner. Richard has tapped one of my favorite chefs, Levi Mezick, formerly of The Jockey Club (see my July story on Mezick) to be his Executive Chef.

Zaca Mesa Wines

Brook Williams is the CEO and wine grower at Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley. He is a blond blue-eyed California guy with an enthusiasm for wine that came later in life after over twenty years on the financial side of winemaking for super-size wineries like Gallo, Kendall-Jackson and Beringer. You could say he’s a convert in a lot of ways.

For the past seven years, along with winemaker, Eric Mohseini, Williams has nurtured the grapes on the estate’s 750 acres. His wines are 100% estate grown and bottled using sustainable winegrowing practices and organic products.

“When we started out in the 1990s we got our cuttings from Randall Grahm and afterwards discovered they were Viognier not Roussanne,” he told me at a one-on-one wine tasting in the Blue Duck Tavern Lounge where I sampled seven Zaca Mesa wines.

“Later we got cuttings for our syrah from Gary Eberle. Zaca Mesa was the first to plant syrah in Santa Barbara County back in 1978. In fact our syrah sales have gone up 80% this year. It is our most popular seller.”

I found it has a lovely flavor profile of cassis, espresso, mocha and sage, but the 2006 should be put down for a few more years to fully appreciate.

As we spoke we nibbled and sipped over an exceptional charcuterie and cheese platter consisting of a luscious silken prosciutto, mortadella, soppressata, cured olives and tomatoes. Cheeses sampled were Humboldt Fog, Bayley Hazen Blue, Oma from the Von Trapp Farmstead, Nancy’s Hudson Valley Camembert, Organic Red Hawk triple crème made by Cowgirl Creamery, and the local Everona Dairy Piedmont.

I particularly liked the 2006 Roussanne. The grape is a Rhone variety, not well known in the States, but it likely will be soon since it captured a “Best White of Show” at Hilton Head this spring.

Try their award-winning 2007 Z Cuvee made with 57% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre and 12% Syrah with its raspberry, blueberry, blackberry and light pepper notes. I picked it up at the Home Farm Store in Middleburg where I had stopped to order an organic Ayrshire Farm heritage breed turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

Enjoy these wines with dinner at such top restaurants as the Lafayette Room at the Hay Adams Hotel, Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse, Black Salt and Veritas Wine Bar where they offer over 70 wines by the glass.

For purchase at Arrowine and Wegman’s in VA, and in DC at Ace Beverage, Cleveland Park Liquor and Wines, and Bell Wine and Spirits.

Rigoni di Asiago Fruit Jams, Honey and Chocolate Hazelnut Butter

It seems every chef in the country is fiddling around with “Nutella” in their desserts. This chocolate hazelnut spread has been a favorite in Italy since its invention in the 1940’s. During the war years, chocolate was pricey and hazelnuts were prolific in the Piedmont region of Italy, and this recipe could stretch out both ingredients.

It debuted in the US three decades ago it has become a popular way to sneak a bit of protein in kids’ diets with a slathering of the “gianduja” spread on toast.

For over 80 years the Rigoni family has produced eight varieties of organic honey (like chestnut, pine and eucalyptus), and seventeen different organic jams (crave the fig, gooseberry and pomegranate) on their ancestral farms in the Cimbrian Plateau of Asiago, Veneto. They have recently brought to the US market an entirely organic version of the spread they call, “Nocciolata”. It adds 15% more hazelnuts than Nutella and is richer, more luscious, and has a deeper flavor, too. Try frosting your cupcakes with it. I did…and it was heavenly and quick! [gallery ids="99568,104835,104814,104831,104819,104827,104824" nav="thumbs"]

Volt Restaurant’s Identity Crisis

On Volt’s homepage, Head Chef and former Top Chef contestant Bryan Voltaggio holds a golden rooster in front of a red barn in a deeply saturated atmosphere of rich primary colors. The slides turn through hundreds of pictures of the American countryside. Voltaggio wears a butcher’s apron and walks through a dimly lit barn. Yet it seems that the silo and cornfield glamour shots may be the only thing “country” about his restaurant. Walking into Volt, paneled with glass, fresh backlighting and swank white couches, it feels more like a hip Chinatown sushi bar than an agrarian outpost in Frederick, Maryland.

The dichotomy between the polished, farmland dining Volt projects and its ultramodern design left me not knowing quite what to expect. I left, after a very good meal, equally puzzled. The bill was reasonable and the food delicious, and yet I couldn’t escape a feeling of disappointment. It’s similar to a friend setting you up with a man she markets as down to earth, personable and easy to talk to—but when that man turns out to be a successful investment banker who pulls out your chair and has a slick line for every occasion, you come away from the date thinking not of the man you met, but the person you feel you’ve missed. I left Volt feeling the void of the restaurant they’d had me believing they were, even if the reality is more than satisfactory.

For starters, the restaurant has an irreconcilable Asian vibe. However, I quickly forgot this upon tasting my yellowfin tuna carpaccio appetizer, delicately folded into atranslucent wonton paper. Underneath the small roll of sweet, fresh fish was a stripe of avocado which had been mixed with honey and lemon, then extruded. It was topped with soy “air” and hot chili oil. The dish was sweet, fresh and creamy.

In between courses, the attentive waiter offered me complimentary champagne and a smooth, smoky Manhattan to my dining companion.

The Chef can be seen cooking on the “kitchen cam” on televisions placed throughout the restaurant. I watched him smoke something in a pot on the screen. An odd Orwellian feeling crept up. His image was everywhere. It is one thing to see flames rising from an open kitchen and catch the wafting aroma of reduction sauces and searing meats, while the chatter of chefs at work reverberates through the walls and sets the dining room humming. But watching Chef Voltaggio cooking alone on a muted television screen was serene, but almost eerie.

My entrée of Maine lobster with black forbidden rice and citrus vinaigrette was tender and perfectly cooked. The flavors were again fresh, and the vinaigrette cut the richness of the lobster nicely. Forbidden rice has a purplish kernel and is named such because, for a time, it was reserved to be eaten exclusively by the Emperor of China—it was actually outlawed for public consumption. Does it get more Far East than this?

I was enjoying my food and the atmosphere, but it felt like I wasn’t at Volt, wasn’t in Frederick. I was at a beautiful Asian-inspired Manhattan bistro twenty years in the future, watching my meal being prepared in a place out of sight.

I would go to Volt again. Absolutely. The food was thoughtful and it was nice to get out of the city for the day, even if dining in the restaurant felt like being in the heart of Midtown.

Volt feels a little bit like someone who isn’t sure who they are yet. While they may think it’s ugly to be a city slicker in a small town, the only thing worse is the city slicker who wears leather jackets with farm boots thinking they fit it. It would do Volt justice not to be what it imagines it should, but to just be itself.

Volt is located at 288 North Market Street Frederick, MD. for reservations. [gallery ids="99579,104874,104890,104886,104879,104883" nav="thumbs"]

A Winter’s Night with Ris

Tis’ the season to be fat and happy. Let’s just face it.

There are endless news articles that come out this time of year warning the helpless public of the looming holiday season and its devious inclination to burden us all with blubbery baggage around our midsections. Then they will proceed to assure us that if we just follow some odd number of holiday eating tips, we can make it through to spring as bright and trim as a daisy.

Or we can be honest with ourselves and accept our fate.

I have always done what I can to keep fit, but despite my most diligent efforts, I never fail to pack on a few cold-weather pounds. That’s just how it goes. Squirrels do it and so do bears, and they seem fairly content on the whole. So I’m just not going to burden my conscience with a five-pound margin of error.

It’s frigid outside. There is less light. Our body’s natural reaction to these harsher elements is to cushion itself with a bit of insulation to keep warm. That’s surely one of the reasons we start craving heavier, thicker, more nourishing foods in the wintertime.

Foods like chicken potpie. There are few dishes that so instantly activate our receptors for things rich and savory, says Ris. A buttery, flakey crust enveloping a gluey union of chicken and softened vegetables in a milieu of thick gravy that binds all the parts together like an idea giving form to the words of a sentence.
Like many of the dishes Ris chooses to cook with me, potpie is a time-honored, traditional food that can be endlessly incarnated. It is one that takes kindly to experimentation and exploration. And as I have found with Ris, her concern isn’t always what she puts in these dishes, but how to handle the preparation and the ingredients in use to bring out as much natural flavor as possible. Whether you add kielbasa or andouille sausage, parsnips or carrots, peas or broccoli is not vital to the essence of the dish. Each substitute will add a different dimension.

What matters is that you put in the herbs first thing to season the melted butter, and make sure the vegetables are all nicely aromatic before mixing in the stock, releasing the flavors of each ingredient which fuse together as they simmer. Pre-roasting the pearl onions and mushrooms will ensure that much more flavor. Deglaze them with sherry for even more.

Ris prefers grainy roux for use in potpies. The proportions are roughly equal parts butter to flour, but adjust to preference, she suggests. Slowly whisking the flour into the melted butter keeps it from forming clumps. And cook it well, says Ris, “to avoid that raw flour taste and bring out the nuttier side of the four.”

Another point she stresses is to never add salt and pepper to the dish until after you have combined all the ingredients into the pot (added the stock and the roux and the potatoes to your vegetables) and your filling has had time to reduce. The reduction process intensifies the salt of the stock, and you run the risk of over-seasoning if you’re not patient. Also keep in mind that diced potatoes only take about five minutes to cook, so once you add them you should be nearly finished.

When the filling is looking like it’s ready, I watch Ris pick up a spoon and dab the underside against the filling in the pot. She is “napping” the back of the spoon, she explains to me as she reveals the gooey film that has adhered itself to the spoon’s belly. This tests the consistency of the filling and lets you know if it’s ready. Upon running a finger across the sticky spoon, if the gap you created in the gravy does not fill itself back in, your filling is at the right consistency. You are now ready to ladle it into its bed of pie crust and stick it in the oven.

Again, like many of the dishes Ris and I have cooked together, chicken potpie is a great vehicle for leftovers. “Just like borscht is a kind of Eastern European method for dealing with leftovers,” she says, “potpie is a very British way to use them.”

Use turkey, sweet potatoes, salmon, asparagus or anything in between, says Ris. A Shepard’s Pie, potpie’s Irish relative, is traditionally made with lamb or beef with a mashed potato topping in place of the pie crust.
But a true potpie demands a pie crust, and it’s important that it be done the right way. “You should always cook the crust with the potpie filling,” Ris tells me. “The crust should never be cooked separately. It must bubble together with the filling.”

Ris recommends 100% pure butter puff pastry, which you can buy frozen from the grocery store if baking isn’t your strong suit.

Don’t let cold weather get the better of you. Put on the burner, heat up the oven and bring some warmth into the winter months ahead. A few extra winter pounds have never been more worth it.

RIS’ Chicken Pot Pie

“In my humble opinion, there should always be plenty of light, flaky crust in a chicken potpie. At my house we would fight over my mother’s flaky pastry lining the bottom of the pyrex baking dish.?Make plenty of your favorite pie dough or buy 100% butter puff pastry, rolled to 1/6” and cut to cover and/or encase individual ramekins or larger casseroles.”

For the roux
4 ounces butter?1 cup flour

For the filling
makes 3-4 quarts, 6-8 servings

8 oz mushrooms, quartered if large and roasted until golden, seasoned with S&P, fresh thyme and olive oil.
1 cup pearl onions, peeled and roasted until golden seasoned with salt, pepper, fresh thyme and olive oil.
2 Tbsp butter
1 large onion, diced, about 2 cups
2 large stalks celery, large dice, about 1 cup
2 carrots, large dice, about 1 cup
2 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme
2 Tbsp chopped fresh sage
2 qts chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 large potato, large dice, about 1 cup
1-2 cups or to taste root vegetables that are available: parsnip, celery root, sweet potato, or all of the above, large dice
1 cup frozen English peas
2 cups roasted chicken meat, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper?
Sherry vinegar

Roll out your pastry to suit your needs and keep covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Make the roux: Melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan. Whisk in the flour stir constantly, spreading the paste over the bottom of the pan to lightly color and cook the flour, for about 5 minutes. Set aside in a warm place until ready to use.

Roast the mushrooms and pearl onions. Set aside when done until ready to use.

In a heavy based 2-gallon soup pot or Dutch oven, melt the 2 Tablespoons of butter and add the diced onions, celery and carrots. Sprinkle with the chopped thyme and sage and cook until the onions are barely soft, stirring occasionally, just enough to release the aromatics from the vegetables, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Let simmer for another 5 minutes to meld the flavors and season the stock.

Add the potatoes and any additional root vegetables. Season lightly with salt and fresh cracked pepper. Bring just to a boil and add the peas, roasted mushrooms, roasted pearl onions and chicken meat. Bring back just to a boil again, keeping in mind that you have about 5 minutes to finish from this point before the potatoes are overcooked.

Thicken with the roux, whisking in a bit at a time and dissolving each bit, not to leave lumps. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt, pepper and a dash of sherry vinegar for brightness. Remove from the heat.
Prepare your pastry to accommodate your vessel. Fill with the potpie filling and cover with more pastry. Filling can be hot if put in the oven immediately or chilled and can be kept in the refrigerated until ready to use.
Cooking time will be in a 350 degree oven, but will depend on size of pie and whether or not filling was hot or cold. Individual portions take 20 minutes or so. Larger casseroles may take up to 1 hour.

The Capital Wine Festival Returns to DC

When Chef Daniel Bruce created the Boston Wine Festival over twenty years ago, it was hardly driven by divine inspiration. “The initial reason for the wine festival is that it was a slow year,” he says with a chuckle. Since then, however, Bruce’s wine festivals have been steadily growing, spreading like gospel throughout the country.

This will be the second year that Bruce brings his wine festival to the District, hosted again by The Fairfax Hotel at Embassy Row. Calling the event a festival is a loose way to say it; the Capital Wine Festival is a series of wine dinners, in which each meal is constructed around a specific region or style of wine. Bruce brings in the winemakers and proprietors of each participating winery to discuss the wines and terroir of their particular regions, affording guests a uniquely intimate experience with their wine and food, and putting a distinct twist on the farm-to-table experience.

In order to be true to the wine he selects, Bruce goes about planning the dinners in a way that most chefs would never consider. He does not choose the wine to complement the food, but tailors the cuisine around the flavors of the individual wines. “There’s nothing worse than the wine coming off bad because the food wasn’t prepared right to go with it,” he says.

“Working with the wine makers has changed the nature of how I work,” he says, revealing a sincere and personal devotion to Cuisine, which he defines as a seamless blend of wine and food. “In a lot of ways, the winemakers are like chefs, bringing out the best flavors the grapes and the land have to offer.”

Bruce’s personal history with wine began around 30 years ago, while he was working abroad in Tuscany and France. “Wine there is part of the table,” he says. “Wine is just such a part of their culture. Just as regular as a food source.”

Growing up in the United States, where wine is not part of the culture, Bruce found the commonality of table wine in Europe to be a revelatory experience. The wine, almost always local, greased the evening conversation, drew out the night, and helped form bonds among friends and family.

Table wine also affected the flavor of the local food offerings. While it may not always have been perfectly constructed or balanced (though being Tuscan, it was probably damn close), the flavors of the land were so richly engrained within the wine that they complemented the surrounding cuisine like nothing Bruce had ever tasted.

When he returned to the States, Bruce went to more formal tastings, which opened his eyes to the potential and diversity of wine to complement different cuisines. He began pairing food and wine at dinner tastings for winemakers in the basement of Manhattan’s Club 21, working with the sommelier to choose the wines. Only after meeting and befriending the winemakers did he begin constructing his plans to showcase distinct regional wine varieties with tailor-made foods.

23 years ago, Bruce founded the Boston Wine Festival. He now has four around the country, including the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, the Capital Wine Festival, and the Berkeley Wine Festival, which he kicked off in 2010.

Tasting the wine is Bruce’s first priority in putting together a dinner. It may sound like a well-dressed excuse to knock back some good vino, but it’s really no joke. He samples 3,000 wines a year, taking careful notes on each bottle. “My wine notes tend to be chef-driven,” he says. “Not wine driven. I might write down, ‘Belon oysters,’ next to a Chardonnay, or something that invokes food ingredients.”

He then chooses the winemakers based on a theme or a group that shows a spectrum of styles. The process falls somewhere in the infinitely coextending parameters of art and science. “I try to strike a balance,” he says simply, deceiving the complexity of this job. “It’s a matter of recalling the structure of the wine. I’ll find something that uses contrasting, parallel or compatible flavors. I use the flavor of the wine as a departing point for the food.”

Wines with higher acidity are easy to pair, he admits. That’s why Pinot Noir and Barolo are so often recommended at restaurants. When the wine is less acidic, he says, you have to be a little more careful with what you cook or you might overwhelm the plate. “Having tasted the wine, I know how far I’ll go with the intensity and flavors of the dish.”

He particularly likes cooking for Pinot Noir because, as he explains, it is a wine that is true to the terroir that it comes from, “Which, as a chef, gives me more options.”

“I do a dish created only for that wine,” Bruce says of his cooking philosophy. “There are subtle differences to all the wines. So why shouldn’t I honor that tradition by creating individual dishes?”

Bruce uses the wines he selects in the cooking process as well, from using syrups made from the varietal, to a marinade or glaze or herb reduction for meat and vegetables. Again, he only cooks with the wines he decides to feature, further displaying the versatility and flavors of each selection.

Bringing together winemakers and wine enthusiasts, the Capital Wine Festival celebrates great wine from around the globe. Prior to each dinner, guests will enjoy a reception or seminar before being seated for an evening of food and wine pairings. “When people get to meet the person behind the wine, it’s a great thing for them. They can go back and tell their friends, and they have a story. There is always a story behind a bottle of wine, and now they can be a part of it.”

Once a week, beginning on January 20, the Capital Wine Festival will host eight intimate wine dinners at the Fairfax Hotel at Embassy Row. For ticket purchases please visit, or call 202-736-1453. Each dinner is limited to 60 guests. [gallery ids="99589,104944" nav="thumbs"]

Barbecue’s Best

There might be no culinary tradition as richly and authentically American as pit barbecue. Like the blues, it is so irrevocably bound to Southern culture and Americana that it defies attempts at assimilation or fusion with the modern.

Predating the Civil War, a pig roast, or “pig-pickin’,” was a celebration in itself, bringing together poor Southern towns to partake in a communal feast. The community is alive today in Georgetown, shepherded by two men with opposite backgrounds, separate philosophies, divergent stories. Where they unite is in a love for the high art of the low and slow, the transformation of the raw to the refined. In the world of Richard Brooks and John Snedden, anyone who appreciates such heritage is welcome to the table. That it courses through the most historic neighborhood in Washington is no accident. It is instead a quiet reminder of what this city once was and who we once were.

More than a style of cooking, barbecue is a culture, and if you live below the Mason-Dixon Line, odds are you are a part of it. Washington, D.C. is an oft-forgotten wealth of Southern tradition, and while its barbecue scene may not have the clarion call of Memphis ribs or Carolina slaw, the craft is thriving. The Beer, Bourbon and BBQ festival at the National Harbor is this weekend. Safeway’s National Capital Barbecue Battle, now in its 17th year, holds court the weekend of June 26. It’s time to sharpen your palette.

Richard Brooks of Old Glory

Outside Old Glory BBQ, the scent of smoked meats permeates the corner of Wisconsin and M Streets like the Carolina State Fair. On a given evening, it is almost impossible to walk through Georgetown without catching a whiff of sweet pork and baked beans. Executive Chef Richard Brooks has been crafting a melting pot of regional barbecue fare since he came aboard in 1995.

Raised in Farmville, VA, Brooks grew up smoking and curing his family’s farm-raised pigs with his father and grandfather. “I never went to culinary school,” he admits. “I learned from my parents.” Though raised in the Carolina tradition — sweet pulled pork with a vinegar-based sauce — he has become a national representative for all styles of American barbecue. If they do it in Texas or Tennessee, odds are Brooks does it in his kitchen.

Old Glory’s position as a true and authentic barbecue restaurant comes as a result of the combined inspirations from each corner of the country. And while all cuts of meat have their cooking variations, Brooks explains that the greater distinctions in barbecue styles come from the sauces. The rubs, marinades and sauces Brooks devises are pulled from the six major barbecue regions; Savannah, Lexington, East Carolina, Southwest Texas, Memphis and Kansas City are all represented on each table in rows of labeled bottles. Brooks, who talks about diverse flavors like common hearsay, is acutely aware of the variables. He mixes each sauce in house on a regular basis, perpetually tweaking the recipes. “Just did Kansas City not too long ago,” he says. “Changed it up a little bit.”

The Southwest Texas sauce, for instance, uses three different kinds of chili peppers, and the Savannah sauce (highly recommended) is defined by a healthy dose of mustard. The key to a good sauce, according to Brooks, is the perfect mixture of the base ingredients — a balance between sweet, spicy and sour.

But there is no true guideline for barbecuing, as Brooks knows, and a lot of the process relies on intuition and an intimacy with the process. As a result, no man’s barbecue will ever be quite like his neighbor’s, and the variations, however subtle, are indeed endless.

“My kitchen staff knows most of my recipes,” says Brooks. “But it don’t taste the same when they make it … And I always tell them — I say, ‘Hey, you gotta make love to the food, man! You gotta do it right!’”

His process is simple: low and slow and plenty of love. The meat, be it pork, beef or chicken, first marinates for 24 hours, which, according to Brooks, “helps draw the salt out … so it will be real moist when it cooks.” The cuts then get put in the smoker. The smoke from slow burning hickory wood is ventilated through the smoker into the accompanying “pit,” a moisture-containing box, for the meat to cook at a temperature of around 225 degrees for 12 hours. Then the meat comes out, gets slathered in sauce and plated.

Brooks has confidence in the quality and popularity of the D.C. barbecue scene. With the growing popularity of the National Capital Barbecue Battle and the Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival, it is clear that many District residents are Southern at heart.

Still, he is aware of the growing health conscience of guests, and knows that his down-home offerings might not be too good for the waste line. Consequently, he is beginning to tweak the menu to better accommodate healthier crowds, fielding vegetarian options and some leaner meats. Still, there is more than a little irony to his voice when he says, “we’re putting some healthy stuff on there.”

But never worry. The slow cooked divinity of Old Glory will remain as fatty and delicious as any barbecue around. The brisket and accompanying brisket sauce will have you stuffing yourself well past the time your stomach fills up. The sticky chicken, Brooks’ personal favorite, is generously glazed with a pineapple bourbon sauce. The chopped beef with Memphis onions, sweet and juicy, is perhaps the most barbecue rich item on the menu. The ribs are a two-part harmony of smoky and sweet. And the pulled pork is no joke. It might as well be out of Lexington, NC.

However, the crowning essence of Brooks’ barbecue is not in any singular dish, but in its combination of all the national flavors. Brooks’ menu is something of a culinary democracy, representing a diverse array of barbecue from across the country.

John Snedden: Rocklands’ Barbecue Whiz

As a college student, John B. Snedden just liked to grill.

It’s not hard to imagine why, given that his alma mater, Washington and Lee University, used to sponsor campuswide pig roasts stocked with jungle juice and endless slabs of fresh pork shoulders — a tradition gone the way of the buffalo when oversized collegiate partying started making national headlines. At the time, Snedden, who grew up feeding on sausage and slow cooked pork in a family of six boys, wasted no time in joining the university’s official pig roast committee.

But what would fade to nostalgic — perhaps hazy — episodes of more intemperate days for his peers would become an obsession for the tall, winsome Philadelphia native. Snedden would go on to perfect his barbecue technique and establish Rocklands, the Wisconsin Avenue barbecue phenom that for two decades has sparked cult-like fanfare among locals and visitors alike, and has since expanded to three additional locations around metropolitan Washington. At the time, he may not have realized where his hobby would take him. In fact, after he graduated with degrees in chemistry, physics and biology, he very nearly traded in his grill tongs and tinderbox for a Petri dish and forceps.

“Part of the impetus,” says Snedden on his pursuit of barbecue, “was I was in [medical] school and just really not happy with what I was doing.” Halfway through med school, he was invited by chance to a barbecue competition in downtown D.C., organized by the Reagan administration. That day, he won first place for his ribs, and immediately began taking requests as a caterer. “I went home and told my parents that I had gotten this opportunity. I was very unhappy in school, and was going to take a change in path.”

It might be every parent’s worst nightmare about their child, up there with going to war or joining the circus: Mom, Dad, I’m going to swap out the M.D. for B.B.Q. To their credit, the elder Sneddens took it in stride, if a bit nervously.

“Uh, they were not real happy to hear that initially,” their son recalls. “[But] I had a decent relationship with my parents, so I think that they recognized that I was not real happy… I think they recognized you gotta do what you’re excited about.”

Fulfillment and prestige, it seems, don’t always go hand in hand, at least at first. The fledgling barbecue operation started small in 1990, mostly catering out of a basement suite in Glover Park. In the beginning, the company would often make what was asked of them, even entertaining exotic requests for ethnic dishes far removed from the down-home American scope. But barbecue was always the watchword, and Snedden was on a mission to solidify its creation into a singular, artful method.

“I think barbecue has been a bit bastardized in the industry,” he says, “because you can go somewhere and open up a can of tuna fish, put barbecue sauce on it, and they’ll call it tuna barbecue. It’s not, really, because they haven’t used the barbecue process … a process of cooking.”

Snedden is understandably mum about the nitty-gritty of his process, but calls it the “grease smoke method,” which he perfected on a grill of his own design. The concept is unorthodox: instead of funneling smoke from a side firebox into a cooking chamber, one slowly roasts the meat directly over a fire — fueled only by hickory and red oak wood — for up to 12 hours, being careful to keep the meat out of flame’s reach. He makes an eloquent case for the science behind it, rattling off the endothermic reactions and chemical formulas involved and somehow arranging it cogently for the layman.

Yet you sense there is something more to it, some unquantifiable element distilled from years of practice or perhaps just plain luck. Whatever it is, the proof is in the product, a smoky, dark-pink kaleidoscope of flavors that’s as tasty by itself as it is smothered in sauce, which, according to the Rocklands philosophy, is more of a distractive accessory of otherwise expertly cooked meat. Still, the house barbecue sauce, a slightly vinegary take on the Memphis tradition astew with onions and peppercorns, is awfully damn good. Armchair sauce connoisseurs will also enjoy the restaurant’s “Wall of Fire,” a sort of library of sauce bottles encouraging experimentation, mixture and fresh experience.

Twenty years after firing up the grill, Snedden’s creation remains consistent. Other than a few offbeat recipes — the Pearl and Dog Salad are perennial favorites with regulars — the Rocklands menu offers just the essentials: pulled pork and chicken, spare ribs, brisket, homemade slaw, baked beans. The company still holds a huge stake in catering (constituting 45 percent of its revenue), still donates food and time to school performances, charity fundraisers and community events, stills mans its four restaurants from a tiny freestanding bungalow in Glover Park, right next door to the original basement. Snedden brushes aside his accolades, instead crediting his staff and family, with whom he consults regularly, for his success. He hands off a good deal of autonomy to the managers at his satellite restaurants. When we tour the kitchen, he introduces the cooks by name. Inside, around noon, the smell of dry rub infects the air, smoke curls up to the ceiling, the customer line stretches out the door.

In the science world, you’d call that kind of experiment a breakthrough.
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