Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ben's Chili Bowl - Washington D.C.

Midnight on Monday, I was heading back to Atlanta tomorrow, but I had the feeling I had unfinished business in the district. Then, it hit me. In my 6 days here, I had never visited the DC institution, Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Started in 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali, Ben’s Chili Bowl is situated in the middle of what was called the “Black Broadway”. Much has changed since the late 50’s, but Ben’s Chili Bowl has been one of the few constants of the U Street Corridor.

Ben’s really is a part of DC culture and history as is their most famous dish, the half smoke.

A chili cheese half smoke with chili cheese fries might not seem like a good late night snack, but hundreds of late night patrons would disagree.

People often ask what a half smoke is

From what I’ve gathered, it’s essentially a jumbo hot dog that has coarser ground meat and a little more spice to it. Here a half smoke is dressed with mustard and onions and then covered in Ben’s house chili. Once you take the first bite you know you’re in for a messy battle. When I neared the end, I had a realization. This is essentially a high class gas station dog, and the chili was something else. I couldn’t decide if it was the taste of rancid oil or too many burnt seasonings, but that chili had been on the burner too long.

While the half smoke could stand on its own, my batch of fries soon became a sore sight.

The fries were soggy, and after the helpings of cheese and chili, they were like a wet paper towel.

I don’t mean to badmouth Ben’s Chili Bowl, it is a DC institution, but it seems to be running more on name than actual product. Of course, my first mistake was being at the Chili Bowl sober. If you’ve had a few, there are few things finer in DC, but for me, I’ve had my last half smoke for a while.

Ben's Chili Bowl on Urbanspoon

Nora - Washington D.C.

I first noticed Nora when I was walking to Bistrot Du Coin. Situated on the corner of Florida Avenue and R Street, it’s an inconspicuous restaurant. Looking at the menu outside, what really caught my eye was its proclamation of being “America’s first certified organic restaurant”. Fast forwarding to Monday, I needed somewhere for dinner, and Nora popped into my head. After a couple of clicks on open table, I was on my way.

Once I was seated in the back, I was able to take a better look at Nora’s “new stimulus menu”. After reading about chef Nora Pouillon and her dedication to organic fare, I was impressed, but if $30 entrees are a stimulus special, I can only imagine what her normal prices are.

After ordering, I noticed the bottle of olive oil on the table, Of course it was certified organic, but I was disgusted by the taste. I’ve had better olive oil from Costco. Luckily, about the time I finished getting the taste of bad oil out of my mouth, my appetizer, the housemade charcuterie plate, arrived.

I’ve had my fare share of organic produce, but organic salumi was new to me. Working clockwise from the left, I had bresaola, coppa, duck rilette, and sopressata. I had high hopes for organic housecured meats, but each one of these left me wanting something more, particularly the sopressata. I’m used to well marbled meats, but the lumps of fat were the marks of poor workmanship. To be honest, the best thing on the plate was the dollop of grain mustard, very potent stuff.

Even though I had duck on my charcuterie plate, I was attracted to the idea of an Amish duck breast.

Despite the pleasant presentation, I was quickly disappointed with this dish. While the first bite had crispy skin and full flavored, but dry meat, every piece after that was simply a letdown. Each subsequent bite was colder than the first and the parsnip puree was nothing more than a flavor sponge. Any time I had a piece of duck with even the slightest bit of parsnip puree, all I could taste was parsnips.

I went into Nora with high hopes for this wholly organic menu, but I have the feeling they were trying too hard. When I order a duck breast, I expect to enjoy the full flavor of a well cooked bird, not the product of a tuber and an overeager stick blender. Perhaps a second visit would have yielded a better product, but I’ll have to wait for my next trip to DC for that, but I doubt I’ll make my way back to Nora.

Nora on Urbanspoon

Founding Farmers - Washington D.C.

Monday was my last full day in DC, and what better way to start the day than with lunch with my fraternity brother Scott. Being the founder of, Scott knew his way around the District’s restaurant scene and he recommended Founding Farmers.

Situated in the first floor of the IMF building, you can’t help but notice the LEED gold status stickers plastered on the doors. After a quick look at their website, I gather that it essentially means Founding Farmers is 100% carbon neutral and green to a fault. That’s all well and good, but I’m more interested in what they do with their organic goods than how environmentally friendly their building is.

Once we were seated, I was able to really take in the restaurant. With exposed wooden beams and antique bulbs, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in an oddly restored farmhouse. However, the décor was soon forgotten as the appetizer arrived.

These little delectables are called bacon lollis, and the idea behind them is bacon candied with a cinnamon & brown sugar glaze.

As much as I enjoy the combination of brown sugar and cinnamon, I think the real reason this dish works is because of the Nueske’s bacon. Left to my own devices, I would just serve plain Nueske’s bacon on stick, the real applewood smoked flavor has more depth than anything the cinnamon & brown sugar can add.

Hoping to take advantage of the cold and rainy weather, I had decided to try one of the house signatures.

From this point of view, Founding Farmers look like they serve up a pretty nice chicken pot pie.

Once I broke the crust it was a different story. The sauce was too thin. When I read rustic chicken pot pie, I was expecting something that would stick to my ribs. Also, there was an odd twist to this dish. Normally I’m complaining about too many peas and not enough chicken in my pot pies, in this instance, I couldn’t find a vegetable to save my life.

When our table had been cleared and the bill paid, I tried to summarize my thoughts on Founding Farmers. I like the concept, there’s nothing wrong with being green and buying local, but I hardly call cheese from Vermont local to DC. In the end, I was let down by subpar service, lackluster food, overpriced bourbon. Who charges $14 for a shot of Blanton’s?

Founding Farmers on Urbanspoon

Martin's Tavern - Washington D.C.

Sunday night was cold and rainy in Washington, and I needed something hearty to ward off the weather. Out of nowhere, I remember another collegiate favorite, Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, and after catching a cab from the hotel, I was at the door of the old bar.

It may not look like much from the outside, but Martin’s is full of DC history. Aside from being the oldest family owned tavern in the district, Martin’s has been frequented by a number of politicos over the years from LBJ to Nixon. Legend has it that Kennedy proposed to Jackie in a booth by the bar.

All history aside, I was there for some filling food, and Martin’s had just the thing.

Try as I might, I could not get a good picture of Martin’s Brunswick stew. Like my earlier version at Swallow in the Hollow, this was your typical tomato based vegetable soup, but this one had more character. Hearty and full of butterbeans, corn, potatoes, carrots, chicken, and tomatoes, this was a formidable soup once I added enough black pepper.

As if the Brunswick stew wasn’t enough, I decided to get the house special hot brown for an entrée.

I was spoiled by my first hot brown as I had my first one in Louisville, but Martin’s does a fine job for being on the east coast. When it arrived to my table, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the smell of fresh bacon and bubbling cheese. The hot brown really is a simple concept, essentially bread, sliced turkey, cheese and bacon, but it’s a deadly combination. In fact towards the end, I found myself unable to handle all of its cheesy goodness.

While waiting on my check, I was able to take in the Sunday night crowd for Martin. Chock full of locals and political chatter, it was something I both missed and hated about DC, but that’s beside the point. Martin’s may not have the flash of some other DC restaurants, but it’s a Georgetown institution and one I hope will stay that way.

Martin's Tavern on Urbanspoon

Hank's Oyster Bar - Washington D.C.

Being in DC, one thing I couldn’t pass up was Sunday brunch, and after convincing my friend Merry, I caught a cab to Hank’s Oyster Bar.

The first thing you notice about Hank’s is its size. I can’t image there are more than 20 tables in the restaurant, but that is part of its charm. Another feature is the large chalkboard in the middle of the restaurant that has their list of fresh oysters and daily specials. I was able to study these little details while waiting on Merry, but once she showed up, we were able to get a seat and get down to brunch.

I appreciate when a restaurant doesn’t take itself too seriously.

After all, an oyster bar would serve fish, so why not goldfish?

Starting our spree of seafood was the shrimp cocktail.

Even though these shrimp were extremely fresh and crisp, I couldn’t help but be miffed by how straight they were. I’m not sure how Hank’s kept them from curling, but it’s a little disconcerting, almost as disconcerting as their stinginess with the horseradish.

It would be inappropriate not to enjoy some of the bar’s namesake.

To begin, Merry and I had two oyster shooters in the middle. Essentially a shot of sake with an oyster and some bloody mary mix, neither of us could see the benefit to this. The shooter was too coarse to enjoy and seemed a waste of a good oyster. Getting to the rest of the oysters, starting with ones with the lemons, we have Rappahannock, cape may salts, diamas d’isle, Conway cup, beau soleil, and Olympic miyagi. It’s nice to have a variety, but unfortunately, not all oysters are created equal. The Rappahannock were delicious and briney, where as the cape may lacked any real flavor. My far and away favorite was the Conway cup; small briney, and delicious, it had all the features I look for in an oyster.

A dozen oysters on the half shell just wouldn’t be enough for the two of us.

So why not an order of fried oysters? As much as I enjoyed the freshly shucked oysters, these fried oysters were sublime. With just the right amount of crunch and salt, these are what fried oysters should be.

Breaking our trend of seafood, Merry insisted we try the beets.

The best part about these beets is the picture. I honestly couldn’t see the point, they were bland and lacked any real texture. Merry insisted they were delicious, so delicious she felt the need to spill them down her shirt. Even though I love to try different foods, I’ll leave beets to those who appreciate them.

Aside from the oysters, there was one thing I was looking forward to at Hank’s

The lobster roll. Rarely seen in my part of country, the lobster roll at Hank’s is sublime, with a buttery and crisp roll that provides a perfect contrast to the rich and creamy lobster. It may be a simple dish with just lobster, mayo, & celery on a bun with fries, but the lobster roll is arguably the best dish at Hank’s

From the best dish, I made the mistake of trying the absolute worst dish, the ceviche.

I couldn’t taste anything but cilantro in this dish. Even the different textures of shrimp and calamari were lost in a sea of cilantro. Thankfully our waiter was quick to rectify the situation.

Hoping to end on a high note, we decided to order another dozen oysters and the lobster bisque.

The oysters were delicious again, but the bisque was a delightful way to finish the meal. Extremely creamy and unctuous, my only complaint was the lack of meat, but after the lobster roll, anything short of a full tail would seem like too little meat. I suppose the best endorsement for the dish came in the form of various guttural moans from my brunch partner.

When the food had been cleared and the bill paid, I paused to reflect on our lengthy meal. I felt that we had sampled the majority of Hank’s brunch fare, and come more than satisfied. Forgetting the miserable ceviche, the food was excellent, the service rapt and ready to please, and the company superb; Hank’s Oyster Bar was and will continue to be one of my DC favorites.

Hank's Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon