Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lou's City Bar: It could be perfect, but it's not

I've lived in and around Columbia Heights for the six years I've lived in DC, and I always lamented the fact that there wasn't a good sports bar in Columbia Heights.  Sure Ventnor Sports Cafe in Adams Morgan is solid, and Old Dominion Brewhouse is an adequate refuge to watch football on Sunday, but they weren't convenient.  So I was ecstatic when Lou's City Bar opened just a few blocks from my apartment several months ago.  But now, after several months and several visits I am here to tell you that I am underwhelmed and that there is still a place for a great sports bar in Columbia Heights.  Let me explain.

It should be perfect.  There's a critical mass of TVs, an extensive beer selection both on draft and in the bottle, there's a solid bar, good service, and a fantastic outdoor patio that they have three TVs out on most nights.  The beer is reasonably priced and there's always a beer special of the month (for a time it was a $4 Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, "Yes, please!"), but there's still something lacking.  The food is painfully mediocre.

I've been to Lou's a number of times and always enjoyed the beer.  I've also eaten there a number of times.  In fact, I've tried the buffalo wings, the calamari, the nachos, the french dip, the reuben, the blackened bleu burger, and the benedict burger.  That's constitutes a good percentage of the menu and while I never sent anything back, I've also never ordered anything more then once.  In fact, part of the reason I've had so many different things is because every time I order something I am so underwhelmed by it that I think something else has to be better.  The search continues.

I'll begin with the buffalo wings.  I am a wing fanatic, especially on a Sunday afternoon.  Some of my favorite places to get wings are Mackey's (which is inexplicably closed on Sunday much to my chagrin) and Ventnors.  At Lou's the wings come unbreaded, but fried.  All that is normal, but the sauce, well it's not good.  It's a sweet-ish spice the departs a long way from say a Frank's Red Hot sauce or anything similar.  Also, the wings look a bit scrawny, which could be a consequence not being breaded, but it could also simply be that they're puny wings.  When you want me to pay $10 for wings, I expect some meat on the bone.

Next, the burgers.  They tend to come out dry and a bit overcooked.  That lack of juicy-ness though is the real killer for the burger.  When I think about the better burgers I've had at a bar like at Sign of the Whale, or even a no frills place like Lindy's Red Lion, those burgers are juicy and flavorful.  The taste of beef and the toppings come together splendidly.  But sadly, that's not the case at Lou's.  I dare say the best thing I've had so far is the reuben, but taste to price the $10 they charge me for it seems a couple dollars too expensive.  That's really the issue with all the food at Lou's.  None of it is awful or offensive, but when the bill comes and you wonder was that a $10 sandwich the answer for everyone I've ever dined there with is no.

Now I'm dogging on the food pretty bad and I don't know what the chefs are working with in the kitchen.  It could be they don't have the materials to be successful.  It could be my tastes are wrong.  And I don't say any of this to try and run Lou's out of business.  I want Lou's to succeed, because I've waited a long time for a sports bar in Columbia Heights.  But I worry that the take on slow sports nights will be so abysmal that it could sink the restaurant.  People will come to a bar like Lou's on a Sunday afternoon for the beer and the TVs, but they'll come back after work on Tuesday if the food they had on Sunday was really good.  I worry that for Lou's, nobody will be there on Tuesday.

But I'll keep going back to Lou's.  They've got a great beer selection.  They've got a great vibe, and they're just around the corner.  But I'll eat dinner before I head over for a brew.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Away Game: Seattle's Pike Place Market

It's a tourist trap, but a functioning market.  It's vendors and hawkers of all sorts, but it isn't over commercialized.  It's a place I visit every time I'm in Seattle, but I feel a bit shameful every time I do it.  It's Pike Place Market, perhaps the second most famous tourist destination in Seattle behind the space needle.  I love a good market, and even if it's for tourists I gotta believe it's also for restaurants in Seattle as well which is why I make a point to come down to the market for lunch every trip, and this is the culinary chronicle of my most recent visit.  Now one thing to know about the market.  It's a maze of levels, shops, food stalls, flower stands, and curios packed to the rafters with gawking tourists who seem to be setting new lowest walking speed records.  Don't fight against it.  Let yourself get lost.  You'll find something interesting, I assure you.

Oddly enough my first stop is not to a seafood vendor, but rather to a stall that, when I first visited several years ago, made me remember a lost loved childhood dish.  Just about 100 feet from the famous fish throwers is this unassuming stand selling something that was wholly familiar to me as a kid.
Chicken (Death) Valley
I was here that I rediscovered the beauty of fired chicken gizzards and offal meat in general.  Since that chance culinary encounter I've had grilled chicken hearts, head cheese, livers,  made a pate and it all started with this little stall that took me back to Decatur, IL when growing up we used to get Brown's Chicken and I'd devour some delicious fried gizzards.  And so every Seattle trip, I return to this stand.  Yesterday it was a combination of fried chicken gizzards and hearts.
Fried Chicken Gizzards & Hearts
If you like this then you already know how awesome it is.  If you don't, I encourage you to give it a shot.  You might just surprise yourself by how much you end up enjoying it.  Everything was fried to perfection and the breading was a flour based that added just a little texture to the parts, though obviously these are two things that have their own distinct texture anyway.  I sat at the viewing point with a bottle of water and my chicken parts taking in the sound.

From there it was on to Jack's, which is across the way from the main market.  They are a wholesaler and retailer selling a great selection of seafood cocktails, oysters, and always clam chowder and cioppino.  I decided to go with a bowl of the clam chowder and a half dozen of the raw oysters.
Oysters and Clam Chowder
As you can see, this is no frills dining.  They've got a very small counter for those "dining in" and the bare bones set up suits the food.  The chowder has clams, potatoes, carrots, celery, and seasoning in it.  It was a bit peppery for my taste, but given a crisp fall day it really hit the spot.  The oysters were small bodied, slightly briny oysters.  To be honest, I could have used them cleaned just a bit more but they were very tasty.

After scarfing down some solid appetizers, I decided to wander around the market and the surrounding streets a bit.  One thing about it, whatever kind of food you're looking for you can probably find it at the market.  There were bavarian sausages, greek delis, numerous vegetable stands, a fresh made pasta stand, and of course seafood stands with scallops that made we want to break into someone's house just to use their kitchen they looked so delicious.  There are also a variety of shops, especially down under.  I found a used book store, a great distraction and a bonus destination.  Before leaving on this trip I'd been trying to download something, anything by Graham Greene to my Kindle, but I'd found no ebooks are released to U.S. markets by Greene so I wanted to see if I could find the old fashioned book version and what better place to look for the old fashioned then a used book store.  And there it was, a copy of Journey without Maps, paperback, printed in 1986 for less then 10 bucks and with the slight yellowing of the paper that demonstrates it's worn in.  But this isn't a blog about books, it's about food and the coup de gras is yet to come.

Even after chicken parts, oysters, and chowder I thought why not have a proper lunch.  As I'd been walking the market I'd been looking at the menus and settled on Lowell's for lunch, in no small part because they had a crab cocktail on the menu.  I have a compulsion about Dungeness crab and so I ordered both a crab cocktail and a crab roll.
So much crab.
Did I need all this?  No.  Were the fries a wasted starch filler?  Yes.  But a compulsion is a compulsion for a reason.  The crab roll had greens, tomatoes, and avocado mixed with the crab.  The bread was very good and the crab and avocado were fantastic together.  The crab cocktail was a 10oz glass full of crab, cocktail sauce, and just a little bit of lettuce.  I could do without the lettuce, and I wasn't a big fan of the cocktail sauce, but the crab itself was delicious.  I devoured the two dishes and meandered, far slower then when I went to the market, away from the market fully satiated for having tasted some old favorites and new delights.

If you're ever in Seattle, stop by Pike Place Market, but don't linger over the fish tossers, avoid the bus loads of retired meanders, find the food, sample a little bit of everything.  And if you have access to a kitchen, buy a bunch of seafood and make yourself the best damn meal of seafood imaginable.  For my part, I let others cook for me and I wasn't disappointed.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pork chops w/ Apples, Wilted Garlic Kale, and Wild Rice

On Tuesday I was considering what to cook for dinner and knew I didn't have a protein thawed out, so I headed to Harris Teeter to pick up a meat and instead decided to design a full menu.  It's been awhile since Erica and I had had pork, I knew apples go well with porkchops (and are kind of seasonal, right?), but that I also wanted a vegetable that would counter the sweet taste of the apple.  I also knew I had wild rice at home.

In putting together any meal the sequence of steps in the cooking is very important if you want everything to be done at the same time, so I started with the rice following the porportions on the package, but I also added two chicken bouillon cubes and a tablespoon of butter.  It took about 45 minutes, but came out with a good flavor from the bouillon.

Next I decided to work with the kale.  I took about a third of a pound of kale, threw it in an ovensafe skillet, and seasoned well with salt and pepper.  I sliced up 4 cloves of garlic and threw that in the skillet as well, then poured about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over all of that.  While prepping that I preheated the oven to 350 degrees and once preheated I threw the skillet into the oven for about 20 minutes.  Pulled out the skillet and then using tongs I took the kale from the skillet onto a cutting board.  I did a rough chop to make the kale more manageable and threw it back into the skillet on the range and took the heat to medium-high.
Wilted Kale & Garlic

I used that heat to take out some of the water that the kale sweated off in the oven, and once satisfied that the water was mostly gone I pulled it from the heat and set it aside.

While the kale was in the oven I brought a different skillet to medium-high heat and cooked up the pork chops in the skillet.  They took about 3 to 4 minutes per side, I took them off the skillet and put them on an ovensafe plate.  After the kale was out of the oven, I took the heat down to 190 on the oven and put the cooked pork chops in the oven to keep them warm.  This has been a favorite trick of mine to cook the meat and keep it ready to go while working on a sauce.  In this case, I deglazed the pork chop skillet with a rose wine and then tossed in thinly sliced pieces of a jazz apple.  I threw in a heaping tablespoon of sugar and some cinnamon and stirred it around, then let it reduce.  After about 5 minutes I tasted it and it wasn't as sweet as I wanted it so I threw in two more tablespoons of sugar and some more cinnamon and let it reduce down till almost all the liquid was gone, then I pulled it off the heat.  This is what the sauce looked like in the skillet once I pulled it from the heat.
Cooked Apples reduced in wine

Amazingly all these components came together at the same so I plated up everything.  Here is the fully assembled plate.
Pork chops w/ Apples, Wilted Kale, and Wild Rice

In the end it was a great success.  The apples were sweet and went really well with the pork chops.  The kale was a great contrast to the apples with a strong garlic taste.  The wild rice was good and served the purpose of having a starch on the plate.  It was a fun dish to make and great to try out something without a menu and with ingredients I'd picked up just an hour before.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I Ate This: Hurricane Survival Meat & Cheese Tray

I'm a sucker for good charcuterie and so on a recent trip to San Francisco I bought a brown sugar and fennel salami from Boccalone's store front at the ferry building market.  When Hurricane Irene kept Erica and I inside for the better part of the day, it seemed the right time for a delicious afternoon snack of meat and cheese.
Meat, Cheese, and Bauguette

We've got the brown sugar and fennel salami, along with a sopressata from Trader Joe's and some bacon ends I had cooked up for something else.  For cheese we had a cave aged gouda, a nice gruyere, and a montereau,  And just a simple Harris Teeter baguette.  Awesome.

Rookie Brewing Adventure Update

When last I reported on my home brewing adventures, the jalapeno saison was a success and a batch of tripel was fermenting in my carboy.  Well after that post I decided to buy a second carboy so I can have two batches brewing.  And so this past weekend I brewed up a batch of Everyday IPA from the Brooklyn Brew Shop.  I followed the instructions, but in the last five minutes decided to throw a pepper in the wort for the final five minutes a la the jalapeno saison.

With two batches fermenting it'll be a little while before a report out the results of these brews.  I plan to bottle the IPA on October 1st after three weeks in the carboy and then bottle the tripel on October 9th after 6 weeks in the carboy.  I already have a new adventure I'm considering that would take me away from the predetermined kits with this Pumpkin Ale recipe.

So stay tuned for updates and as always, consider taking a shot a brewing.  It's fun and easy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Brunch at Tonic-Mt. Pleasant

On Monday my girlfriend, Erica, and I went to grab brunch at Tonic in Mt. Pleasant.  I've been there many times before, but I didn't have a blog about eating before so here's the review.  They only had the upstairs open so we grabbed a seat.  She ordered coffee, while I ordered a bloody mary.  The bloody mary was pretty lack luster.  The mix had a nice spice to it and you could taste the vodka, but there wasn't any depth of flavor.  It wasn't as bad as the tragedy of a bloody mary I had at Madhatters before they moved, but I definitely didn't think to order a second one.

Erica ordered the lox plate and I ordered the biscuits and gravy with cheesy grits.  The lox plate looked fantastic.  And the biscuits and gravy were excellent.  One of my minor complaints is that most of the places I go for brunch don't offer biscuits and gravy.  At Tonic they come with two eggs and grits, home fries, or fruit.  I got my eggs over easy because just about every breakfast dish is improved with some runny egg yokes.  The cheesy grits, however, were a miss on Monday.  I've had them before and they've been delicious so I don't want to swear them off, but on Monday they were too salty that had me begging for more water.  But I got all that for $10 which is a pretty good deal.

I'll definitely be back to Tonic for brunch in the future, but I think I'll pass on the bloody mary.  Maybe the mimosa will be better.  I vaguely remember that they were on previous ventures there, but only vaguely.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

O'Tasty: An Ode to Hole-in-the-Wall Chinese Places

We've all had food from them before and most of us willingly.  For many of us, your author included, it was the first taste of "ethnic" food beyond Mexican.  I'm talking of course about Chinese restaurants.  Now for most of us Chinese restaurants come in two varieties: the all-you-can-eat buffet where sesame chicken, jello, and fried popcorn shrimp all seemed right at home with each other and the hole-in-the-wall place that probably served fried chicken wings (which came with a side of fried rice) and an assortment of unadventurous American food.  Not that the Chinese food was overly adventurous in it's own right.

I cut my teeth on the buffet places, but since coming to DC (and trying to manage my waistline a bit more earnestly) I've fallen in love with the hole-in-the-wall places.  Well, at least one hole-in-the-wall place, O'Tasty.  Over on Columbia Road near the AdMo Safeway, this place just called to me when I first moved to DC with few friends.  I had a ritual my first semester at grad school on Monday nights that went something like this:  Take metro home from work, call O'Tasty and order dinner, change clothes, pick up dinner, return home to eat dinner, do laundry and watch Bravo's West Wing marathon.  It got to the point they knew my phone number and without me saying a word I'd hear, "Hello my friend!  Would you like your usual tonight?" when I called.  In a city that didn't feel familiar it was a welcome greeting.

The food was always good, never great, and it remains that way today.  It's a pretty dirty place and sometimes my curiosity over what's really going on in the kitchen nearly takes over my loyalty to the place, but I keep living by my "dirt builds natural immunity" strategy and it hasn't let me down so far.  Over the years I've tried out some different things and my less consistent Chinese food consumption these days means I'm just another customer when I call or stop by, but I know as long as I live within their delivery zone there's only one place I'll order Chinese from.

Of course I've tried Chinese food from other places because of geography.  In the ill-advised year when I lived in Rosslyn there was a bland Chinese place up the hill at Courthouse, then there was the year in Petworth where the options seemed a bit too high on the dirty scale for even me.  Hell, I've even had my fair share of Panda Express, but I always come back to my favorite like a prodigal son who returns home.  And make no mistake about it, the woman who runs O'Tasty filled in for my mom on a couple occasions in those first few months.

If you haven't tried it already and you live in that area, I encourage you to give it a go.  You won't be wowed, but you won't be disappointed anyway.  When a Chinese place serves hamburgers, chicken wings, and shrimp fried rice you can't expect much more.

Recommendations:  Steamed Dumplings, Boneless Spare Ribs, Combination Lo Mein, Sesame Chicken, Gen. Tso's Chicken