Breakfast in…DC Sunday, May 19 2013 

Our recent stay in Washington DC saw us breakfast in some of the city’s finest establishments. Here’s our rundown of the highs, and the lows, of our breakfasts.

Starting from the bottom:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACOSI (numerous locations). Despite its assertion that ‘life should be delicious’, the chain isn’t able to follow through with this consistently. While the flavour combinations presented in its porridge are positive, texture-wise it proved watery and gloopy. Fruit juice is of low quality and not kept sufficiently cold. Equally, while its bagels and Squagels (square bagels…in case you hadn’t twigged) are brilliant toasted and offer traditional flavourings as well as newer, more innovative ones (cranberry and orange, anyone?), staff look at you suspiciously if you just want a plain toasted bagel/Squagel with nothing on it, and the chain’s complex ordering system means that ordering can be confusing (as evidenced by trying to order a cinnamon/raisin Squagel at the same time as the bacon and egg Squagel…instead of getting the two separately, you may find that the order is combined into one revolting mixture). Staff do not always speak good English, making placing your order even more of a challenge. 3/10

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFIREHOOK BAKERY (numerous locations). This place is clearly known more for its biscuits and cakes than its breakfast thanks to its vast array of these items even early in the morning. (The sugar cookies are delicious, by the way.) This was perhaps evident in the quality of its muffins and pastries, which was slightly sub-par. Staff were also confused by the concept of me ordering two single espressos (yes…that’s one for me and one for my husband…who happens to be still sat at the table with our stuff…). A solid start that still requires further improvements. 5/10

AU PAIN QUOTIDIEN (numerous locations). Always a good mainstay while in the US – this place serves high-quality pastries and freshly squeezed fruit juices as well as a variety of take-home breakfast foodstuffs, such as granola. The atmosphere is lively and the decoration rustic. Service is fast-paced in some branches to accommodate the many commuters coming through the door, and this can mean that service is less friendly than in other outlets. Nevertheless, a good experience every time. We even forgive it for being Belgian. 8/10

G STREET FOOD (1706 G St NW). The best breakfast we had in DC combines old favourites, such as omelettes or bagels, with Vietnamese classics, such as Banh Mi. Coffee is among the best we found in DC, service is fast and friendly, and food is cooked right in front of you. The only criticism? The selection of fresh fruit juices perhaps needs to be widened. 9/10

So…moral of the story…go for the independent guys over the chains. You won’t regret it!


Restaurant Review: Mintwood Place, Washington DC Sunday, May 12 2013 

Most people perhaps don’t see America as being synonymous with fine dining. However, Mintwood Place, located in the north of Washington DC, certainly proves that assumption wrong – and I hope you won’t attribute it all to the chef being French (but don’t worry – he’s been in the US a while now, so has lost his surliness).

Cedric Maupillier is the cousin of my husband’s boss, and so it was by this token that we were invited to check out Mintwood Place during our most recent trip to the United States. We were glad we did – friendly wait staff and a lively atmosphere awaited us along with five-star quality food, which we had the opportunity to sample over two separate visits (more of which later).

During the first visit, we couldn’t resist the maple pork crackling from the nibbles menu, and while perhaps the maple flavour could have been stronger, it was definitely there, and in any event, the star of the show was without doubt the texture – you will never have crackling this light in your life, which makes it incredibly moreish. (The secret? A dehydrator.)

Next, my husband indulged in a starter of grilled baby octopus in a rouille sauce, which proved the epitome of fresh ingredients cooked well. Rather than becoming rubbery, the octopus reportedly had a melt-in-the-mouth texture, and was served with a salad and bread alongside the rouille sauce to truly make the octopus the star of the show.

baked alaskaFor mains came cast-iron Amish chicken on one side of the table, and wood-grilled shrimp and mackerel (with beetroot, goats’ cheese, and espelette curd). Credit goes to the chef for ensuring that the mackerel was not too oily and that its full natural flavours came through to harmonise with the garnishes. The Amish chicken (so-called due to being a bird raised by the Amish) was wonderfully moist and tender, and piqued my tastebuds for my dessert to follow: a baked Alaska flambé, which had flaming rum poured over it at the table and which burned merrily for a good minute or so, giving the meringue a beautiful marshmallow-like texture. The cake and ice-cream inside were also light and fresh, making for a perfect end to the meal. I didn’t take a picture of it, but it did look pretty much as you see it on the left-hand side here.

With all of this we enjoyed an exceptional and affordable Riesling, and with its warm glow still enveloping us, we went to chat to Cedric after the meal, with all of the kitchen activity still going on behind him. This conversation led to him asking us to dine there again in three days’ time, which was an invitation we happily accepted. This time dinner was generously on the house, and kicked off with the burrata, kale, hazelnut and apple salad, which offered pleasing contrasts in texture thanks to the fried and uncooked kale, and the softness of the burrata, as well as slight sweetness from the apple (I’m not a massive raw apple fan though texture-wise, but that’s not the chef’s fault).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was followed by a spectacular special: tempura soft-shell crab with chickpea purée, a selection of crudités, and an edible flower garnish. It was a thing of beauty to say the least; a real rainbow on a plate! Needless to say, it was also light and flavourful. Cedric also brought the crab out to say hi to us before it hit the pot so that we could see its freshness for ourselves (it was still moving). Dubbed one of the best burgers in the US, the wood-grilled bacon cheeseburger that followed it also definitely hit the spot, thanks to the tender meat, crispy bacon, and high-quality cheese. Then it was pudding time, and we were brought a duo of desserts to try: a strawberry crumble, and a vanilla crème brûlée. The latter was packed full of vanilla and had a satisfyingly crunchy top (think the scene from Amélie), while the former offered pleasing variations in texture and an intense hit of flavour. We matched all of this with a heady Pinot Noir from Oregon, which particularly matched the burger well.

Needless to say, we will be back: the restaurant still has far too many brunch dishes and house cocktails we haven’t yet tried. Hangover Special with a glass of La Dame En Rougissant? Don’t mind if I do.

Restaurant Review: Zaytinya’s Thursday, May 17 2012 

ImageWe’d had a busy morning on our second day in DC and hadn’t really made plans for lunch. So after foraging in our Eyewitness travel guide (these books are brilliant by the way) we settled on Zaytinya’s, on the basis that it sounded interesting and wasn’t far from where we currently were (FYI, it’s close to the National Gallery of Art).

This restaurant serves a fusion of Greek, Turkish and Lebanese food at low low prices, but the impression from the moment you walk in the door is one of business-like, polished cuisine that still has plenty of personality. The venue’s high ceilings, white walls, and high-shine metal surfaces make you feel as if you’re in a cathedral of cuisine. We were welcomed warmly by the maître’d and the waiting staff, who served us promptly and discreetly throughout our meal.

Frequented, it seems, primarily, by businesspeople working in the area, the emphasis is on good food served quickly and well. In terms of the restaurant’s ethos and personality, chef José Andrés’ proclamation on the front of the menu (pictured above) appealed greatly and set up our expectations. Thankfully this maxim was proved right, with the food we ate in Zaytinya’s among the best we experienced in America.

So just what did we eat exactly? The four-course menu at $22 seemed just too good to pass up, and we were very glad to have chosen it. Within the parameters of the “set menu” there is still plenty of choice: for each course, you have four choices, of which all arrive in perfectly-dimensioned and appropriately-timed portions. I adore chickpeas but felt that hummos followed by falafel would have been a bit much – so I kept the hummos, but followed it instead with arayes (lamb and tahini stuffed pita) and adana kebabs (which I know is lamb, then lamb, but shhh). All were seasoned in a unique and balanced way, with high-quality ingredients used throughout. Naturally, iced water was supplied regularly the entire time for a refreshing lunch.

And what of dessert? This time you have two choices: Greek yoghurt, served with honey and apricots, and “Turkish delight” (a deconstructed version of the classic sweet, consisting of walnut ice cream, yoghurt mousse, honey gelée, orange-caramel sauce, and caramelised pine nuts). Both were beautifully presented and went down like a dream. You definitely feel satisfied, not stuffed, at the end of your meal, and at no point do you feel rushed.

Unfortunately, Zaytinya’s don’t serve any hot drinks at all to finish a meal with (not even any mint tea), so we ended up going next door to Starbucks for coffee and free wifi. A shame, because we would have happily stayed. We would without doubt visit again the next time we are in DC for the swift, organised and friendly service, chatty yet not intrusive atmosphere, excellent value for money, and most of all, the high quality, traditional yet unusual food. Would recommend to all.

Restaurant Review: Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington DC Sunday, May 13 2012 

Where better to dine on our first night in DC than in the city’s oldest restaurant, a stone’s throw from the White House? We were certainly very glad to have reserved our spot: even on a Sunday night, the (enormous) place was absolutely rammed, and we had to wait a couple of minutes before we could be seated.

We had been attracted to the place’s history, enticing menu, and the possibility of spotting eminent political figures, and after a long walk between the city’s main monuments (how does the White House, Washington Monument, Presidents’ Memorials and back again – a round trip of about 5 miles – grab you?), the comfortable seats were welcome too.

Given the size of the place (at least 100 covers), the servers needed to be supremely organised, and did not disappoint in this regard. One guy, who’d been assigned to the water jugs, was there to regularly fill up without being obtrusive, and our waitress was friendly, unflappable and completely on the ball. Having tried and failed a few times at making cannelloni at home, my appreciation of the dish is strong, so I was very happy to order their house cannelloni, which was creamy, cheesy, packed with spinach, and in no way bland. The rockfish also went down well on the other side of the table.

These dishes also proved to be very filling,but my love of dessert prevailed, and again I wasn’t let down by the standard of the ingredients: a blood orange crème brûlée (which I did share, I promise!) combined sharpness, sweetiness and velvetiness in one enormous dish (it would have been fine if it had been half the size, but then again this is America).

To accompany all of this we had chosen two local wines (which are now no longer on the venue’s wine list, which changes frequently). While the wines we’d selected weren’t outstanding, the list does seem to cover a good range of familiar and less well-known wines, mixing Old World and New World – so perhaps we just got unlucky. Prices are honest, too.

Even though we each had an espresso, it was a forgettable experience (I know I say it often, but these things happen when you have a machine at home that grinds the beans for you. One day I should just write a post extolling the virtues of my machine and be done with it.).

Overall, the food was good, the atmosphere was lively without intruding on our own experience, and the bill was reasonable: $75.24 for two people, including tax. We would definitely visit again – even though we know now that DC provides tough competition in terms of the wide range of restaurants it has to offer.

675 15th Street NW, Washington DC 20005