Long Overdue (and longwinded) DC Trip Report: Sushi Taro, Elisir, The Source, Ashby, Trummer's, Woodberry, and more.
Thanks to all the Hounds who helped out with this seemingly ancient trip - a Kings Stanley Cup, a move across the country, and a new job have been time consuming. Below are the texts with pictures available in the blog. I hope to come back soon - likely late 2013.
The Why: Steve Plotnicki loves it. RJ Cooper loves it. When palates you trust recommend a spot as “best in the city” or “best in the country” it is hard to ignore, particularly when the price is 1/3 or 1/4 the MASA and Urasawa level and you land a seat at the 4-person Omakase room directly in front of Chef Nobu Yamazaki. Admitting here that being from Ohio I am certainly not an expert on sushi this was a situation where I was willing to trust those wiser than me that the food would “blow me away,” especially for the price, and although I knew I’d have little precedent by which to judge what I’d experience I was happy to sit back and learn.
The Food: $120 Omakase, $12 Cocktail. (yes, the Omakase price is not a typo – and I was there for nearly 3 and a half hours)
Umeshu: A greeting from the chef featuring house-made plum wine derived from green plum, rock sugar, and sochu aged for one year. Sweet, intense – this was my kind of wine.
OH-I Ocha: Recommended by the chef as something that would be great for sipping throughout the meal this blend of Gyokuro, Jun, Zen Green Tea Liqueur, Green Tea, and Matcha Powder was slightly bitter but entirely refreshing – a great palate cleanser between courses as I watched the theater of the kitchen.
Sesame seed paste and kuzu root starch “tofu,” Santa Barbara Uni, Fresh Wasabi, pickled soy bean, sansho pepper: Made daily in house and served only on the omakase due to the labor intense process involved this “signature” dish was superb, balanced, and featuring just enough heat to make the uni pop while the “tofu” was sweet and toothsome…an outstanding dish; one of many to come.
House Made Soba topped with yamaimo, Roasted Sea Weed, Soy Sauce: Just barely able to see the noodle station in the proper kitchen from my seat at the sushi bar Chef Nobu gathered the soba and proceeded to shred the creamy sticky yam over top as he described the province of the ingredient at length. Truly sticky, pleasantly sweet, and bathed in house soy I liken this dish to a noodle pudding and actually found it even better than the prior dish.
Live Flounder: Three ‘rolls’ with the just killed flounder wrapped around Japanese cucumber, yellow chive, and shaved bonito served with ponzu-plum sauce and crisp flounder skin. Silky meets crunchy and all with the intensity of a thick slice of bonito balanced by the sauce.
Slow cooked Whelk, Steamed Portuguese Octopus, Celtuse pickled in Miso paste, Egg Custard with Shrimp, King crab leg with Edamame paste, Snapper roe and Warabi in Gelatin, Grilled Tofu in the style of Unagi, Gingko nuts with Fish paste and Rice cracker, and Steamed fermented green plum: A beautiful plate composed by a second sushi-san while Chef Yamazaki greeted a Japanese couple (regulars) who would occupy the opposite end of the bar simply suffice it to say that this dish was complicated yet outstanding, each bite offering something entirely new; the whelk, tofu, and egg custard particularly impressive.
Hamo Shabu Shabu: One of the benefits of dining in the presence of regulars was that Chef had sourced some truly esoteric ingredients for that night’s meal and having never tasted Purple Conger Eel before I was educated on the delicate fish from Kyoto while the small bones were delicately cut and after adding the Hamo to a broth with wakame seaweed and bamboo shoots I can honestly say I’ve never tasted anything quite like it – light yet unctuous, almost sweet and very tender.
At this point I was told it was time for the Sashimi course and unveiling a stack of trays featuring Santa Barbara Uni, Canadian Wild Salmon Roe, Top Neck Clam in Soy, Sweet Shrimp, Arctic Char, Wild King Salmon, Japanese Yellowtail, Amberjack from Hawaii, Oh-Toro, Ultra-Lean Red Tuna, Japanese Fresh Bonito, Sea Conger Eel, Octopus, Madagascar Sake Steamed Prawns, Omelette, Saba cured with Salt, Flying Fish, Needlefish, Tokyo Spotted Kohada, Baby Snapper, Yellow Grouper, Japanese Ocean Perch, Kinmedai Alfonsino Snapper, Papuan Black Snapper, Live Scallop, Pen Shell Clam, and Jumbo Oyster I was asked what I’d like…a question that I’m sure left me wide eyed as I stammered “whatever you think is best.”
Served with House Soy, House Soy with Grated Ginger, and fresh grated wasabi:
Kinmedai and Papuan
Needlefish with mint
Sweet Shrimp, Live Scallop, Cured Tuna intestine
Bonito with Yuzu: Transitioning from the sashimi course to more composed courses I learned here of the seasonal variation in Bonito fat content and told that this was early season and thus very lean I was shocked to find the dish quite unlike what I’d expected – nothing like dashi or the flakes but instead intense and slightly mineral, perfectly complemented by the yuzu.
Soft Shelled Crab in Squid Ink Tempura with Tempura Wild Ramp: The dish of the night and potentially the best dish of the entire trip this was without a doubt the best tempura I’ve tasted and with the crab killed, breaded, and friend before my eyes it was also the freshest and sweetest.
Golden Eye Snapper Jaw with Japanese Turnip and Zest of Yuzu: Apparently sourced as a whole fish specifically for the couple to my right I was informed that the steaming broth before me was from the same fish as the sashimi I’d just enjoyed and while the raw fish was good this fatty soup was even better, a total umami bomb with the yuzu and turnip serving to balance but not overwhelm.
Wild Live Abalone and Australian Wagyu, Fleur de Sel from Okinawa: Served raw alongside a Hot Rock there is really nothing I can say about this dish that will do justice to the quality of each ingredient – the abalone opened and dissected before our very eyes and the wagyu beautifully marbled – a few seconds each on the stone, a pinch of salt…simple and spectacular
Whole Firefly Squid from Sea of Japan, Fiddlehead Fern, Broccolini, Fava Beans, Vinegar Jelly, Mustard Sauce, Edible Orchid: Having tasted firefly squid at Roberta’s in the past and expecting something tender and briny this was the only course of the evening that seemed even remotely unbalanced to me and taking into account my aversion to mustard this was probably more an conflict of taste than one of quality or skill as the heat of the mustard and acid of the vinegar simply overwhelmed the cephalopod and vegetation.
Golden Eye Snapper Milt in Rice Vinegar: Having mentioned the Golden Eye Snapper already my co-diners declined the milt course and having never tasted milt prior I decided to take the plunge; a quick burst of saline sweetness and then nothing – far more harmless than some would suggest and something I’d eat again though not something I’d actively seek out.
Sushi Course: Again offered my pick of the lot and again deferring to the chef who instructed me to lightly brush soy sauce on each bite all I again sat back and watched the knife work as each pristine piece of fish was presented over superlative rice – a succession of 8 different fishes that only ended when I asked Chef Yamazaki to stop for fear of seeming a glutton as I’d already outlasted my dining companions by at least three courses and a handful of nigiri.
Sake Steamed Live Prawn
Sea Conger Eel with dried Sansho
Uni with Coarse Japanese Sea Salt
Sakura Salt Ice: With the dessert menu presented I requested a tofu pudding dish but unwilling to let his recommendation for a rare seasonal special go unheeded Chef Yamazaki first set before me a small bowl of this lightly salted cherry blossom ice cream. Rich, light, savory moreso than sweet, and perfumed exactly like its namesake flower I can’t say this was the best textured ice cream I’ve ever tasted but all things being equal it was definitely one of the most unique; like the hamo and the milt I really have no standard to which I can compare.
Soy Milk “Annin Tofu” – Vanilla Almond Infused Tofu Pudding with Goji Berry: Served with a soy infused dark caramel plus crunchy crushed almonds and a Goji berry this dessert was every bit as good as it reads and with flavors reminiscent of a salted caramel custard or budino I cannot think of a better sweet course I’ve had in a Japanese restaurant, each bite a slightly different balance of the ingredients and the goji berry intensely sour – like a reset button to the palate as I was instructed to enjoy it last.
Grape and Strawberry Gelatin Block: The last bite (or two) of the meal this lightly sweetened gelatin block with fresh fruits was a simple and refreshing finish to nearly 200 minute experience.
The Verdict: Entering the restaurant with no knowledge of the cost of the menu (it varies day by day) but some knowledge of the ingredient costs of the food I’d just enjoyed I anticipated a $200-300 bill to arrive at the end of the evening and as such my jaw nearly hit the counter when I saw a pre-tax/tip bill of $132 staring back at me – while certainly not an insubstantial amount a veritable steal given the quality of the food, face time with the chef, and overall experience. Without doubt the best sushi I have ever had and also one of the most educational dining experiences of my life I can only judge the night in the context of my limited experience but with that said Sushi Taro certainly did “blow me away” and I cannot fathom returning to DC without rushing back.
The Ashby Inn:
The Gist: http://www.ashbyinn.com/
The Why: RJ Cooper recommended it, along with Sushi Taro and Little Serow, as the spots I should not miss on this trip to DC. Considered by some to be every bit as lovely as another Inn – the one at Little Washington – and featuring a menu that struck me as a unique balance of Southern and French with touches of “down home” and “mg” it seemed like a safe bet and with the location actually quite convenient driving from Columbus to Clifton plus Chef Tarver King more than willing to craft the dinner tasting at lunch I made a reservation…and arrived nearly an hour early to explore the grounds, the hotel, and the ‘town’ surrounding.
The food and Drink: One cocktail, five course dinner tasting (requested at lunch), complimentary bread, palate cleanser, mignardises, and amuse/canapés.
GINger Tonic – Sunset Hills Virginia Gin, Local Honey, Ginger, Fever Tree Tonic: After a 4:00am departure from Ohio and plenty of coffee along the way it didn’t take much convincing to get me to have a drink and with all the beverages hand-made from local ingredients this was excellent – the ginger/honey spices serving to balance the booze while the infused tonic added an overarching herbal tone.
“Snacks” – Puffed Tandori Spice Swordfish Crackers with Greek Yogurt, Tempura Fiddlehead Ferns with Tarragon Aoli, Fermented Lemon Hummus with Mustard Cracker, Breakfast Radishes with Green Tea Salt, Bacon and Cashew Brittle: The meal started with a quintet of bites and running the gamut from sweet to savory and raw to fried each could have stood on its own on a progressive tasting like that at Volt or Rogue. Not particularly a fan of mustard I began with the cracker and moved through each option finding the early season fiddleheads particularly impressive while the swordfish crackers were essentially cracklins’ loaded with umami. As to the brittle – praise it out loud and end up with a doggie bag to go.
Baguette, Bacon Brioche, Sweetened Local Butter with Fleur de Sel: I’m a bread basket connoisseur – for someone who eats no bread during their day-to-day life I’m sure this seems odd but it also makes the basket all the more rewarding when well done…and this was awesome. Paired with butter from “a farm just over there” (as he pointed to a barn across the green) per my server Elijah both selections were warm from the oven…literally it took them 15 minutes to make more when I asked…and with great crunch to the baguette it was the brioche that truly wowed as the smoky bread was literally stuffed with tender belly bacon and just a bit of sweetness. The hog? Also from just down the road – slow roasted and featured elsewhere on the daily menu.
Grilled Asparagus Vichyssoise, Green Lip Mussels, Sour Cream, Peppercorn, Capers, White Soy: Generally not keen on cold soups or capers this dish was well outside my comfort zone and although I cannot say I ‘loved’ it, I certainly did appreciate the chilly balance of earth and sea while the soy and a drizzle of dill oil added tableside brightened everything, lingering on the finish.
Tilefish in Cornmeal Crust, Split Pea, Smoked Radish, Buttermilk, Bacon Crumble, Kale: Presented as a dish “the chef is really proud of” and laid gently over honey roasted turnips this dish was the savory highlight of the afternoon – very “down home” but at the same time entirely well conceptualized as each ingredient created an experience greater than the sum of its parts. Buttery and lean with the only salt coming from the bacon there was plenty of smoke, a bit of sweet, and aromatics abound while the subtle fish was never overwhelmed.
Lamb on a stone, Charred Broccoli, Toasted Pecorino Espuma, Bulgur, Cucumber Aigre Doux: All about showmanship here and a similar presentation to what I experienced during my first trip to Alinea this DIY dish served up raw local lamb and a hearth-stone over Rosemary Seasalt allowing the diner to bathe in aromatics while the lamb cooked. Three ounces, all lean, and recommended to rest on the stone as you count to thirty this was expectedly nice but it was the pecorino espuma that truly captured my attention – as beautiful a use of foam as you’ll ever see.
Meadow Creek Mountaineer Cheese, Fried Coppa, Hickory Oats, Honey Malt Gastrique, Local Greens from Cedar Springs: Reading my palate at this point it would seem there were three composed cheese courses on the menu and chef sent out this soft, raw cow’s milk selection on a charred wooden block. Rarely fussed by composed cheese courses compared to a carte I simply couldn’t help but be impressed this given the ample serving I found particular enjoyment mixing and matching bites.
Hot and Cold Fennel Tea with Lemon Aroma: More show here, a large wooden vessel with dry ice was ladled with lemon balm infused water at tableside and gurgling and bubbling the aroma filled the air while a shotglass – half panna cotta/half liquid – was presented. Smooth, savory, and clean it was a great transitional piece and a bit of fun, as well.
Cocoa Brioche, Salted Butter Ice Cream, Namelaka Mousse, White Chocolate Powder, Dark Chocolate Crumbs: If I have ten better restaurant desserts than this in 2012 I’ll consider it a great year for sweets, though in this case it was not the “sweet” that made an impact so much as the deft use of salt and bitter tones to serve as its balance. Again exquisitely presented and featuring a nearly ganache-dense chocolate bread pudding at its base this was a dish of exploration – each bite a different ratio of temperature and texture, savory and sweet.
Sweet Sesame Meringue, Strawberry Pate a Fruit, “Poke Poke”: Seemingly suspended in air the final bites of the meal were all good, particularly the last – house made spun sugar candy dipped in dark chocolate, the texture almost taffy like.
The Verdict: The location alone of Ashby Inn makes it a destination meal but the food and the setting truly make it a destination. Recommended by my friend, Chef RJ Cooper of Rogue24 there are many who consider The Ashby Inn a ‘poor man’s’ Inn at Little Washington but having experienced both I would disagree in terms of all but (maybe) the setting. Certainly both kitchens are putting out excellent food, but to me the food at The Inn at Little Washington was old and although delicious, a bit ‘fuddy’ while that at Ashby was equally fresh, more dynamic, and served with just a bit of whimsy. Pair such a meal with the lovely patio and serene setting plus service without pretense and I’d say The Ashby Inn is actually a smart man’s Inn at Little Washington – and when you leave there is more money in your wallet.
The Gist: http://www.2amyspizza.com/
The Why: Lunch at Ashby Inn was at 11:00am while the Omakase at Sushi Taro was 8:00pm – clearly in need of a snack I decided on an early stop at 2Amy’s, a spot I’d unfortunately missed on my prior trip to the Nation’s Capitol. Having heard rumors of long waits and questionable service I arrived just moments after the doors opened and after asking a few questions went with this “Standard” to quell my VPN curiosity.
The Food: 1 Appetizer, 1 Pizza, 1 Dessert.
Margherita Tomato, mozzarella di bufala, basil, pancetta: Beginning first with the ingredients, all superlative, and moving on to the bright and minimally sweet sauce it would be hard to say that anything at 2Amy’s would be less than impressive just based on these but admitting my personal appreciation for crust it was here that the pie truly wowed – a light rise without too much blistering and yeasty notes throughout; every bit on par with some of the best in the country – likely in my longterm ‘top 10’ for a Margherita based strictly on ingredients, structure, and crust composition.
Salt cod croquettes: A side dish I cannot pass up I was disappointed that the restaurant would not go half-orders each of this and the potato/prosciutto croquettes (particularly as I agreed to pay for a full order of the more expensive salt cod version) and even more disappointed at the low quality of these bites – the cod dry and the breading rather lifeless.
Cannolis: I considered the tiramisu but my server talked me into these “filled on the spot” classics. Served as a pair but only filled on the ends while the center languished without a drop of the creamy ricotta/mascarpone blend I think what struck me most about this presentation was the use of orange zest – the flavor profile reminding me of those orange Hostess cupcakes…oddly a childhood favorite, but probably a good reason to pass on this dessert if you don’t have some odd emotional attachment to such a thing.
The Verdict: A bustling scene with parking (like much of DC) at a premium 2Amy’s should definitely be at the top of any Pizza Lover’s “Go To” list, but trying to function like a full-fledged restaurant unlike a spot like Lucali or Great Lake that just makes a killer pie I think they overstretch a bit. Service is perfunctory, the scene is fine, but clearly the price you pay is based on the ingredients and the technique. My advice – go early, go for the pizza, and go elsewhere for appetizers, drinks and dessert.
The Gist: http://ardeobardeo.com/
The Why: Another Knightsbridge property, but this one conveniently located near the National Zoo where I’d be spending the bulk of my morning, I was a bit hesitant to visit Ardeo based on my experience at Bibiana but with a boozy brunch drawing raves from a few friends in-the-know I figured I would give it a chance – the promise of free parking behind the building was another draw. So was Foie Gras and French Toast.
The Reservation: Opentable. Arriving at 11:00am I was fine, but there was quite the crowd when I left at 12:45 so perhaps making one is a good idea.
The Service and Setting: Open and airy with “Ardeo” at the right and “Bardeo” at the left there were only 2 seated tables when I arrived and opting for one near the window I had a full view of the room; mostly nondescript with a well-stocked bar at center and comfortable wood tables surrounding. Greeted by my server, a friendly young man named Chris whose only ‘flaw’ was pushing the bottomless mimosas with a bit too much zeal, and perusing the menu despite knowing exactly what I was going to order service was efficient and friendly – water refilled consistently and fresh French Presses brought to the table thrice at no extra charge. While I can’t speak too much to the atmosphere aside from what I witnessed I’ll just say that based on the two tables seated next to me that Ardeo may not be the best place for a leisurely family brunch; particularly when the drinks start flowing it can become very loud.
The food: Coffee (freely refilled,) complimentary bread basket, one appetizer, one main, one dessert.
French Press Coffee: Roasted by Illy and delivered by French Press for $4 with infinite refills and sweetener of choice; A+ in my book.
Chocolate Chip Scones and Cherry Walnut Bread: A bread basket for breakfast/brunch is one way to win my affection and with miniature chocolate chip scones with big chunks of sugar and chocolate juxtaposing pockets of butter plus rich fruit and nut bread still warm from the oven the version at Ardeo was impressive at baseline and even better with a touch of butter and raspberry preserves (available on request.)
Salt Cured Foie Gras with Fig Mustard and Brioche: $14 from the charcuterie section – the most expensive item on that day’s brunch menu – this plate still proved a tremendous deal in featuring approximately three ounces of creamy foie terrine tinged with salt and pepper alongside a sizeable quenelle of macerated reduced fig plus warm brioche. Spreadable and unctuous, brioche replenished with a simple request, and nicely complimented by the fig spread there was nothing fancy about this dish, just top quality ingredients prepared and presented at a great price.
Banana-Walnut French Toast with Whipped Cream and Pure Maple Syrup: Certainly not the same bargain as the foie gras but still a nice preparation this was another case of quality ingredients prepared with a skilled hand as the dense banana walnut bread was crunchy and caramelized on the exterior, custard soft within, and when paired with caramelized bananas and whipped cream plus pure maple syrup from Michigan quite delicious even when taking into account the steep $10 price tag.
Pecan pie with bourbon ice cream and crème Fraiche: The only service misstep of the morning occurred when Christ brought me the check without offering me dessert – a mistake quickly corrected when I joked with him that French Toast is an entrée, not a dessert…and a mistake remedied by a warm pie with crunchy pecan praline topping over a gooey base and served up alongside rich ice cream, tangy crème fraiche, and bourbon barrel caramel. Offered at a mere $8 and one of many excellent dessert options this is a must order and if I hadn’t had two more substantial meals on my day’s agenda I’d have probably ordered the carrot cake as well.
The Verdict: Far better than it needs to be given the scope of the restaurant – particularly at brunch – Ardeo/Bardeo proved a very redeeming experience after a subpar meal at Bibiana and although obviously a different experience returned Knightsbridge Restaurant Group to the high standard I’d expected based on my meal at Rasika a few years prior. A nice setting in an area otherwise lacking substantial options on a Saturday afternoon featuring good service and even better food I’d definitely come back, especially if spending a day at The Zoo, even if just for drinks and appetizers or dessert and coffee.
The Gist: http://www.bibianadc.com/
The Why: Having been to Rasika and having considered the Oval Room (based on ulteriorepicure’s report from days later I should have gone – though much of what he received was dinner-only fare despite going at lunch) it seemed the Knightsbridge restaurant group knew what they were doing and I knew I’d be in the area around Bibiana at lunch, plus I enjoy Italian.
Service: Mentioned here only because it was so bad, during the duration of my 80 minute lunch only 2 other tables were sat and despite this, Thea managed to let my water glass run empty twice, delays between appetizer and main course was nearly 30 minutes during which I was never checked on, and I literally had to flag her down to get more bread because she was standing within earshot gossiping about the weekend’s plans with a coworker.
The Food: 2 Appetizers, 1 Main, 1 Dessert. Bread service complimentary.
Black Olive Semolina, Rosemary Onion Focaccia, and White Bread with Olive Oil: Baked in house and served warm this was definitely a highlight of the meal at Bibiana – each bread quite good and the Rosemary Onion Focaccia as good as any bread I’ve had in a restaurant in some time – the exterior chewy and the interior featuring a soft/pillowy crumb laden with hefty notes of rosemary and light onions. Leaving the white for the birds a second basket eventually arrived and the olive oil was a lightly grassy blend with good but not particularly wowing flavor.
Baccala – Breaded Baccala, Red Chili Emulsion, Citrus: With the Brandade fritters at 2Amys the day before underwhelming these were actually worse; dry and lifeless fishsticks served with a sauce reminiscent of battery acid given the overpowering citrus and heat. Without the sauce the fish was bad. With the sauce everything was bad. Thea never asked how I liked the plate despite one of the nuggets returning to the kitchen untouched.
Zampino – Breaded Pork Trotter in “Pizzaiola” with 45 minute Hen Egg: At $11 this one was actually quite excellent and perhaps the deal of the menu as the trotter was golden crisp on the exterior and a savory bomb of porcine meat and melted collagen within. Paired with a bright and bold tomato sauce and a sous-vide egg smoothing and melding the otherwise poignant flavors this one went back to the kitchen spotless thanks to the help of the black olive semolina bread.
Spaghetti Al Nero Di Seppia – Black spaghetti, Louisiana jumbo lump crab, 'aglio, olio e peperoncino': A dish done over and over but here done quite nicely the squid ink spaghetti was light, springy, and al dente while the sweet crab was plentiful – nicely accented with herbs and a bit of pepper. Light on olive oil with just enough to prevent any clumping each noodle came loose from the tangle nicely while retaining plenty of flavor; a pasta much lighter than the norm.
Budino – Creamy Vanilla-Ricotta Custard, Carrot Tuile, Pineapple Sauce, Toasted Pistachio, Beet Gelato: Pretty, yes. Tasty, mostly. A budino, in name only. Featuring two small custard cones – no more than a bite each – with crispy carrot crackers and pineapple aplenty the most compelling part of this plate was actually the smoky pistachios and beet gelato, an earthy duo that worked nicely to balance out an otherwise uninspiring plate. Call me crazy, but when I order budino I want a thick pudding cup – not a two bite panna cotta.
The Verdict: While certainly not a great meal, neither in terms of food or service, the room and location of Bibiana are quite nice but given the cost associated I’d find it hard to justify a repeat when Elisir, Fiola, and Tosca are all better in terms of food and (all save for Elisir) service.
Birch & Barley:
The Gist: http://birchandbarley.com/
The Why: A beer-centric gastropub with one of the best brunches in the city according to many, Birch & Barley opened just prior to my first visit to DC and although I’d wanted to go then our schedule precluded a visit; a situation I resolved to fix in the early stages of planning this trip. Planning in advance and fortuitously meeting a DC dining buddy (who, even more ironically, had lived in my future home of Phoenix prior) an 11am meet-up was planned well before I left Ohio and having already visited Tiffany MacIsaac’s Buzz Bakery the day prior I anticipated the meal all the more.
The Reservation: Make one – the place is long and narrow, really quite loud, and filled to capacity for brunch within thirty minutes of opening.
The Setting and Service: We were given the option of a seat in the main dining area or a seat at the chef’s counter; a no brainer when dining alone but deferring to my friend and his fiancé I was glad that they too preferred the counter – not only for the show, but also because the noise from the kitchen was actually low when compared to that of a clientele arriving largely for beer, booze, and fun plus overhead music both prone to bouncing off the exposed brick walls and granite surfaces.
With regard to service it goes without saying that a the chef’s counter generally serves up an excellent experience and despite the fact that the restaurant was absolutely jammed packed our primary server Carolyn as well as the staff in the kitchen did a great job; recommendations made and orders taken quickly, coffee refilled without question, and both food and beers (for my friends) served with ample descriptions regardless of whether Carolyn, one of her assistants, or the chefs delivered it.
The food and drink: Coffee for me, a few craft brews for my friends, two appetizers, three mains.
Coffee: The standard house blend from Illy – not my favorite, but always good enough and provided with ample refills throughout the meal.
Warm Brioche Sticky Bun: My second sticky bun of the morning and although not quite as superlative as the one at Blue Duck Tavern this was a pretty stunning example itself as the crusty brioche was eggy and dense with a core of cream cheese and a dense lacquer of brown sugar caramel and toasted pecans. A heavy opener and intensely sweet this is definitely best shared – if only to leave room for other things.
Freshly Fried Donuts: Served as a trio and a must after tasting Tiffany’s pastries at Buzz the daily selection on this particular Sunday was Toffee-Bacon, Lemon-Poppy, and a Bittersweet Chocolate doughnut hole. Featuring the same smooth brioche used in the sticky bun and each lightly fried but lacking any semblance of oiliness there were some excellent donuts, particularly the lemon-poppy seed version which featured a semi-sweet glaze with notes of lemon rather than over the top citrus.
Fried Chicken and Waffles: I’d already had Chicken and Waffles that morning at Blue Duck Tavern and I’d planned to order it again until Scott stepped up and took the honors thus allowing me to mix it up. While perhaps not as elegant as those at Blue Duck and opting to heavily focus on the savory rather than the sweet this take on the southern classic was no less delicious than those at Blue Duck with the waffle crisp on the edges and pillowy soft within while buttered pecans and maple tinged pan jus proved ample condiments to the crispy double fried bird.
Wild Mushroom Omelet with Fontina, Veal Neck Sausage, and Polenta Hash: Ordered by the lady of our group I don’t recall tasting this dish (and my notes offer no further help,) though I may be mistaken – either way, I don’t recall there being any complaints.
Gran Marnier French Toast with Local Strawberries, Candied Almonds, Mascarpone, Bacon: My selection, and a great one at that, these hefty slices of brioche were precisely what I want from French Toast as the exterior was golden while the inside was custard and each bite was as interesting as the last by way of the condiments, particularly the early season strawberries and brandy spiked maple syrup.
The Verdict: While not a beer drinker by any means I was quite happy to visit Birch & Barley and would certainly return for brunch or dinner if I lived locally as the menu appears quite seasonal and the ‘bang for the buck’ is undeniable given the quality of the ingredients, their preparation, and the service. Certainly not a restaurant for a leisurely brunch or a romantic dinner I’d place Birch & Barley on the same level as many of the nation’s best Gastropubs both in terms of the food and the scene – and if they offered the dessert menu during brunch they’d likely trump the lot of them.