February 09, 2007

Santa Fe: Virtually Speaking

Considering that I've abandoned blogging, I figured I should take on guest speakers (well, bloggers really). So, this post is brought to you by the letter R and the number 7:

Players: Rekha et al.

Santa Fe: Short and sweet.

OK - my "Best of Santa Fe" recommendations for if you're ever here:

  • El Farol: (my top pick, great tapas, music, ambience)
  • Pasquale's (breakfast)
  • Tomasitas (the green chile stew is a must)
  • La Boca (excellent tapas)
  • Maria's (ambience, 100% agave margaritas are potent)
  • El Dorado hotel lobby (music daily at 6:30 - saw a 17-piece jazz ensemble and a cuban group, both were terrific)
  • Vanessie's (upscale, nice food, ambience)
  • And of course...Kakawa.

Georgia O keefe museum was an exercise in been-there-done-that - there's much better art to be viewed all along Canyon street.

February 12, 2006

Vegetate: Cozy Consumables

Abstract: Anytime a new vegetarian restaurant opens in DC, it piques my interest. I've been wanting to go to Vegetate since it opened, and finally decided to make it a Restaurant Week outing along with Ryan and Huyen.

Players:Huyen, Ryan and Viren.

Prologue: To Cliché Or Not To ...

I hate to start a narrative with a cliché, but ...bah, who am I kiddding? My stated antipathy towards clichés is nothing but a facade to hide myself from the inevitable harsh critiques. "Viren started off with a cliché!" would go the cry. "He used the oft-worn phrase a mite too much" will be whispered in the dark, dank recesses of many an IM chat. All the while, I will be cowering and berating myself for being such a fool and destroying my reputation. Of course, then I come to my senses and realize that neither my reputation nor my readers' critiques are as towering as envisioned. So, back to the cliché that needs must start my akward prose:

Act I: Weather and Grammar: Intersections

It was a dark and stormy night. This was brought to my notice when I opened the door to let Ryan and Huyen in. Apparently between the time I went to the gym in the morning and the time to leave for The City (yes, it's in caps...us poor suburbanites must speak of DC with the proper reverence). The wind was blowing something fierce creating miniature whirlwinds of snowflakes which were melting 1.12 inches above ground (shades of thiotimoline!). My immediate thought was that this was perfect weather for a nice mug of hot chocolate -- unfortunately, that wasn't quite in the books. So, girding our loins, metaphorically speaking, we set off for Vegetate. This particular destination was an easy one since Ryan and I had both expressed an interest in going there when it opened. So, you, Gentle Reader, are spared the plethora of extra run-on sentences, dangling participles and tedious writing that would be entailed by my having to describe the decision process in this narrative (you're still reading the rest of the appalling prose of mine, so that probably doesn't do you much good).

Act II: Public Transportation, An Ode To

Vegetate is located in Shaw, just south of the U street corridor. All that meant to me is that we would have to switch lines to get there. We could have walked from Metro center, but the weather caused a veto from one of the party. Riding the Metro has got to be a favorite activity of mine. There's no better place to people-watch than the subway of a major city (though, almost by definition, minor cities don't have subways). DC's subway is even better since most of the times that I do end up in it, it's just crowded enough to make it bustle with life (but never quite 'hustle') without being packed enough to make my claustrophobia act up. It gives me the time to people-watch in a relaxed accomodating environment. And just for your statistical enjoyment: by my observations, approximately 4.4 people out of every 10 riding the metro are either completely engrossed in listening to their iPods or are in a state of numbed apathy and, as such, wouldn't notice if a crazed homicidal rabbit started lobbing easter eggs at them. Though, to be fair, the rabbit would impinge upon the former group's awareness when it started stealing their video iPods to see if they have episodes of Baywatch in them. But, you get the picture -- Metro: good, people-watching: fun.

Even with changing from the orange to the green line, we were still left with a minor walk to get to Vegetate. Normally, I wouldn't even mention the 5-6 blocks that we had to walk, but it felt like the city had been turned into a maze of wind tunnels. I'm pretty sure that we were only making forward progress due to intense shivering on our parts. After some brownian motion, we managed to find Vegetate, and rushed to it with all the eagerness of pigs to mud.

Act III: Warming Up

Upon entering Vegetate, you immediately get a sense of coziness and an undercurrent of fun (luckily both are embodied in their food as well). The restaurant has 2 floors: the main floor is composed of a small area for dining (and the kitchen) while the top floor consists of a bar/dining area and a seperate dance floor with a DJ booth. The walls downstairs are bright and covered with fun pop art. I think the art changes based on which artist is being exhibited. The upstairs has more of the mood lighting feel to it -- muted ambience that felt odd without pulsating rhythms being played. Beyond the room with the dance floor is a small patio, which would be a great place to have dinner in the summer.

Even though it was relatively early, 6:30ish, the restaurant was packed. We had to wait a few minutes for a table to be readied, so we went upstairs and sat on the lone couch near the bar. (just a note: if you do use the upstairs restrooms, make sure you are feeling strong -- the doors require more elbow grease than one would expect). We were soon seated downstairs next to a calming green wall. The tables and chairs had an almost cafe-ish aesthetic (an upscale cafe, to be sure) which together with the walls and art gave the whole place a relaxed, fun feel to it. However, we soon had better things to think about than the decor. Like, say, drinks.

Act IV: Drink Me, Eat Me

We ended up going the non-alcoholic route, though now I can't remember why. So, turning my attention to the "other" drinks section, I received my first disappointment: they not only didn't have a good organic hot chocolate, but they didn't have hot chocolate at all. Imagine that. So, seeing as how I was in the mood for a hot drink, I settled for a chai, which, considering my Indian roots replete with strong, milky, spicy teas, was a doomed enterprise from the start. I've never quite managed to like "chai" mainly because I think it's a pale shadow of what it should be. Of course, most people here probably couldn't swallow the Indian chai so it's all for the best. As soon as we sat down, we were served their version of an amuse bouche: pickled green beans. This, while at first tasted strange, turned out to be one of those foods that grew on us. Right about now, you're thinking "Pickled green beans and chai? Yuk". Luckily we had finished the beans by the time the drinks arrived and didn't have to experience that blending of tastes first-hand.

The one unfortunate aspect of going to Vegetate during Restaurant Week was that they were only serving the RW menu. I had earlier looked at their full menu online and was very interested intrying several menu items. Alas, that was not to be. The RW menu was pretty decent, if limited in choice.

First Course
Wild Mushroom Trio
wild mushroom baba, tempura oyster mushroom,
and enoki mushroom salad

or
Smokey Tomato Bisque
with a balsamic reduction
and grilled croustade
Second Course
White Bean Cassoulet
with roasted turnips and rutabaga, smoked Portobello mushrooms,
and braised tofu-topped with toasted bread crumbs and a grainy mustard aioli

or
Truffled Crispy Fingerling Potatoes and Roasted Wild Mushrooms
with braised leeks, porcini vinaigrette, and arugula salad
Third Course
Dark Chocolate Cake
with caramel "creme anglaise" and raspberry coulis
topped with shaved chocolate

or
Pineapple and Dried Cherry Fruit Crisp
with oatmeal crumbs and coconut sorbet
They had obviously put some thought into the menu: it was completely vegan and gave you just enough disparate choices that most people would find something to eat in each course.

Act V: Mushroom Fantasies

Since the choice was so limited, between the three of us, we managed to order everything on the menu. The one thing that stood out after we had the food was that Vegetate handled their mushrooms very well. The mushroom appetizer was really good, with the wild mushroom baba -- a mushroom paté -- with its wonderful texture and complex taste, providing an excellent base for showing off the mushrooms. The other appetizer, a tomato bisque didn't let us down either, with the reduction adding just the kind of subtle flavor that tends to go well with a creamy tomato taste.

The food kept arriving in a timely fashion and we didn't have to wait long for anything. We had a nice server, who seemed pretty well-informed and was on the ball. So, we soon we were staring at the bean cassoulet and the truffled potatoes. The bean cassoulet seemed like an example of a dish that was trying too hard. The cassoulet, a dish normally made with beans and meats slow-cooked into a stew, was pretty good. However, the braised tofu didn't mesh well with the rest and had a taste that not only was markedly separate from the rest but one that stoutly refused to play well with the others. It felt like I was having two different dishes. The mustard aioli on the tofu was a wonderful taste and did much to mute my disappointment of the taste disparity. The other entreé certainly didn't have the same problem and turned out pretty decent. The mushrooms there were also nicely done and worked with the potatoes and leeks well.

Not Quite My Just Desserts

The portions for the first two courses were just right and so we had enough space for dessert -- not that I would ever be caught dead skipping dessert. I, of course, went for the dark chocolate cake. I't pretty instinctive by now, and certainly a habit I need to get rid of. This was a case in point: the dark chocolate cake was nice but nothing special. I liked the fact that I could taste the chocolate in the dessert, but the texture, the moistness and its accompaniments didn't really work in its favor. On the other hand, the pineapple and dried cherry fruit crisp looked really good and Huyen certainly liked it.

Ratings

Service Likeable and fast
Decor Warm, fun colors combined with dim lights
Food Cozy vegetarian fare

November 09, 2005

A long hiatus...and a roundup of restaurants

The blog's working again. Though, with the intermittent frequency of my posts here, even I wouldn't have noticed that the blog wasn't working, if I wasn't writing it myself.

In the past few months, I've been to several interesting restaurants and been remiss in writing about them. So, borrowing from the ADD reviews, here's a few relatively short reviews.

Aster

Aster, located in Middleburg, VA is a wonderful experience, especially in the fall. The combination of good food, fantastic service and a nice scenic small town location makes it just about perfect for a fall drive. I liked the combinations of ingredients used, which appealed to my need for interesting combinations without going overboard. I loved the converted home within which the restaurant is located, especially the Cartoon room. I was especially pleased with the cozy, everyone-knows-your-name feel to the place with everyone including the chef-owner dropping by the table.

Indebleu

I finally managed to get to Indebleu for dinner when Sam was visiting. I've managed to go there a few times for drinks & desserts, but had never managed to get there for a proper meal (arguably, drinks and dessert for me is a proper meal). Anyway, other than being seated in a very cold part of the restaurant (our server got Sam a wrap), it was as good as I imagined it would be. The one sour note was that they had removed my favorite dessert from the menu.

Local 16

Rekha and I went to Local 16 before a play on a weekday. It was an interesting experience -- I would definitely go back there, but not necessarily for the food. The menu at Local 16 tried hard but wasn't quite successful at getting there. However, I liked it, our server and the interesting mix of people there enough to want to go back.

Yuca

Yuca was one of those serendipitous happenings -- we happened to pass by it and decided to eat there. I liked the bright decor, though it was a little on the generic side. The food was decent: the black bean soup lacked a little panache, which it made up for in quantity. The fried plantains and the chorizo were both good, as were the mojitos.

Oyamel

Jose Andres' latest restaurant specializing in small plates is very similar to his others. By which I mean, I'll go there every opportunity I get. Just about everything I've had there has been good, though the one time I had the sangria, I found it to be lacking.

April 05, 2005

Great Sage: Palate-ial Wisdom

Players: Ryan and moi

Act I: Sequential Serendipity

So, as usual, Ryan and I are shooting the breeze at work. Now, this happens mainly because I tend to wander into his office every so often to take a much-needed break from the rigors of R&D. Ryan, being the nice guy that he is, puts up with the distractions. Anyway, back to us taking pot-shots at the wind [Phrases just don't make much sense when re-worded, do they?]; I think it was during one of my afternoon constitutionals when we started talking about vegetarian restaurants, and Ryan happened to mention Great Sage. He's been wanting to go to it since someone he knows raves about it. I, being slow-witted (and dumb to boot) took a few moments to realize that he was talking about the same restaurant that's a stone's throw from my sister's place (well, if you were Hercules, had a real good sense of direction and didn't mind hitting the occasional car on Rte. 32).

I'm usually up for almost any vegetarian restaurant (and almost any good restaurant -- where the definition of good is dictated by the vagaries of my mind). So, we decide we need to go there, thus preemptively laying to rest the hardest phase of most dinners I am involved with: the always vexing "where to go" phase.

Piling improbablility upon improbability, it just so happened that Ryan was going to be coming back from a trip up north at around the same time I had to be at my sister's for my younger nephew's birthday party! Ping! Lightbulbs go off (or is it on?), angels sing and I use up all my karma from the pot o' coincidence in one swell foop.

Well, the day arrives, and just as the birthday party is getting over (and none too soon! Watching a bunch of 8 year olds run amuck is tiring, even if I'm not the one keeping them under control), Ryan calls saying he is minutes away from Great Sage. So I head on over, and we both arrive at just about the same time.

Act II: Applications 'a Alliteration

Now, Great Sage is located in a small shopping strip in Clarksville that also contains a Roots natural foods market and Nest!. This makes for a happy coincidence since the shopping strip is a fine destination for the health-conscious amongst us. BTW: Roots has the largest selection of Dagoba chocolate bars that I've ever seen. I unfortunately did not get a chance to find out if they carry Dagoba's Hot Chocolate mixes. But a second visit to Roots is certainly in order.

While pulling into the parking lot, I see Ryan, having just parked, walking towards the restaurant. Being the humanist that I am, I try to run him over; Being the clutz that I am, I miss. Oh well. The dinner was still on. So, I catch up with Ryan and we walk into the restaurant.

The first impression I had upon entering is that the good folks of Clarksville aren't much for eating dinner at 5pm. High tea, maybe, but not dinner. I could hear my footsteps echoing in the long silent empty corridors....maybe not, but the place was mostly empty.

The second impression I got was one of bright, bold, bemused (sorry, that's the closest I can get to "cheery" while trying to be alliterative), and did I mention bright? The actual space usage hasn't changed much from when the place used to be Donna's. It continues to have a very cafe-like atmosphere, which I like. Part of the space is enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass windows that brighten up the restaurant considerably. The rest of the space is decorated in brightly colored walls with large photographs of people from all over the world. I was happy with the decor; comfortable and cheery, it made me feel right at home.

Act III: Vegetarianism at Vork

The menu at Great Sage is small but well-crafted. First of all, the menu covers are made from something that resembles cork (possibly cork itself). Great Sage offers only organic beverages, including organic teas, coffees, wines and beer. Most importantly, it offers organic hot chocolate in the form of Dagoba Hot Chocolate (they, for some reason that escapes me, don't advertise this fact on their menu)! In addition to their bevragiation, the food items seems to range through a good breadth of vegetarian (and vegan) options, consistently showing a twist of innovative flair.

Both of us start by ordering our drinks. In keeping with our predelictions, I order the Dagoba Hot Chocolate and he orders an "Evening Green and White" tea. The drinks arrived handily: my hot chocolate was yummy and correct: they didn't offer to spoil the taste of the Dagoba by adding whipped cream on top. Ryan's arrived with an hourglass timer and instructions from our server (PJ) to let it seep for 3 minutes but not a second more. Meanwhile, we we perusing the menu to see what we wanted to eat. I was amazingly enough not too hungry since it was still barely 5:30 (and this should put paid to all those rumors about me wanting to eat lunch at 11 and dinner at 5), so I opted for splitting an hummus platter (chickpea hummus, roasted red pepper humus and edamame hummus with pita) with Ryan and an appetizer portion of the Santa Fe salad. Ryan ordered the special which was a seitan piccata with a quinoa pilaf and collard greens.

   

The hummus platter was good, though a little mellow. I had never had edamame hummus before and liked it. All three hummuses had a firmer consistency than I was used to, but Ryan assured me that whenever he made hummus at home (apparently a lot), it had about the same consistency. Just as we finished the hummus, our entrees arrived. My salads was a nice blend of black beans, avocados, corn and tofu along with a host of other veggies. It was nice and just the right size for me. Ryan's seitan dish looked appealing and the seitan was nicely done (apparently they made the seitan in-house for that dish). I had never had quinoa before and enjoyed its texture and taste. Ryan fell in love with the collard greens and could have done with some more of those. We ended up being quite happy with our food and drinks.

Of course, there were still desserts to be ordered. Neither of us, no matte how stuffed, was going to leave without having dessert. It turned out that we both decided to go with the "Hot Fudge Cake A La Mode", a dessert that was almost too chocolat-y. Mine was good but parts of it felt like they were slightly burnt, which detracted from the overall taste. Ryan didn't have the same problem and loved his.

Act IV: Customary Conclusion

All in all, both of us liked the place and the food. It's a good place to bring vegetarians (and vegans) or even the health-conscious/organic food-lovers. Too bad there aren't more places like this in the DC area.

Ratings

Great Sage Review
Service Friendly, informative and timely
Decor Comfortable with bold, bright colors
Food Interesting vegetarian fare

March 20, 2005

Buddakan: Simple Serenity

Players: Dids and moi

Act I: Dali'ing in Philly

I had heard about the Dali exhibit at the Philadelphi Museum of Art a while back and being a Dali fan, was all excited and giddy like the proverbial schoolgirl. However, finding someone who not only was interested in Dali but also had the time to come along with me on a day trip to Philly was kinda challenging. Finally, Dids agreed (something about having a week off between jobs). Sweet! A nice car ride to Philly and back with oodles of Dali in the middle. The only thing that could make this better was eating a a nice place. So of course, we planned on having dinner in Philly, and we chose Buddakan.

The day of the trip arrived and it turned out to be a nice sunny March morn. Dids and I girded up for battle with the inevitable traffic on I-95 (which is done by either practicing curses and certain gestures or by entering a zen state of mind where none shall intrude -- we chose the latter) and got into my trusty Saab. Interestingly enough, there were no delays on 95 until we had reached Philly. That didn't mean that there weren't idiot drivers on the road who insisted on straddling lanes, refusing to use turn signals, or inisted on going at the minimum speed on the fast lane. No, it just meant that we arrived in Philly without slowing to a crawl for more than a mile or so along the way.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was imposing and pretty big. Having set out focus on the Dali exhibit, we didn't get to see much of the rest of the museum. The Dali exhibit itself took almsot 2.5 hours to get through. The museum itself was rather packed; moreso than I would have imagined for a weekday. Word of advise: if you want to see the Dali exhibit, buy tickets in advance. When we got to the museum at 11am, the earliest tickets that you could buy were for 2:30pm. Luckily we had already bought ours for 1pm.

Since I'm not writing about art, I'll refrain from going on at length about the various aspects of the exhibit, but suffice it to say that it was well done, with pieces organized around Dali's various phases. There were some stellar pieces by Dali present there, including some not very famous pieces from his very early period and his late religious phase.

However, we finished up the Dali exhibit and spent some time meandering around the museum getting false directions from employees about where to find a particular Vermeer. *shrug* Soon dinner beckoned and we headed over to Buddakan.

Act II: Whither Shall We Go?

Now, I conveniently skipped through the whole decision process about where exactly to have dinner in Philly. As you may know, decisions of this magnitue are never easy for me. So many choices, so little time. This being especially true for Philly, where I had never been before, and isn't a normal destination for me.

Of course the first place I look nowadays is OpenTable, and in this case, they did have listings for Philly. So, I started looking at their Top 10 list for restaurant bookings in Philly. As I looked through the various restaurants, there appeared to be a sameness in their web pages. Enough that I started wondering what the heck was going on. A little research uncovered the fact that Stephen Starr owned fully half of the restaurants in that list: Morimoto, Buddakan, Tangerine, Alma de Cuba, etc. Weird and a little disconcerting. Kinda like Philly had a restaurant mafia. You only hope that the restaurant food doesn't exhibit the sameness and uniformity that their web sites do.

Well, for us the choice ended up being between Buddakan and Morimoto. I've wanted to go to Morimoto's ever since it opened, sicne I've been a Iron Chef (the Japanese original, not the American clone) fan for years. However, neither of us were in a sushi mood, and if I went to Morimoto, I would undoubtedly have to have the Omakase. So, we decided on Buddakan. I should mention that both Tangerine and alma de Cuba were in our short-list, but were thrown out for one reason or another ("dinnae feel like cuban food laddie" and "Tangerine seems ok").

So, Buddakan it was, looming buddha and all.

Act III: Idol Musings

We arrived at Buddakan early since the museum threw us out at 5pm. After some meanderings, we got to Buddakan jsut after 5:30. At that point Buddakan looked pretty empty and we were seated immediately. The first thing that strikes you as you enter Buddakan is that it's pretty dark. It's got the whole chic mood lighting thing going on. However, to offset that, a lot of Buddakan's decor is white. This works in its favor by creating more reflected light than would otherwise be there. The dominating colors presetn were white and dark wood. Even the wait staff were dressed in white: white slacks/jeans with a white t-shirt. Lemme just mention that this is not a very flattering uniform for most of the staff there. It does allow the staff to blend in to the background (go white walls!).

The one thing that Buddakan does well is the ambient noise level. There's almost a perfect blend of ambient noise and the level of chatter created by the patrons. It was very hard for us to hear conversations going on next to us, but we didn't have to shout to talk amongst ourselves. I really liked that.

Last, but certainly not least, I must pay homage to the looming buddha statue. It is the focus of the restaurant and the only brightly colored decor (yellow buddha with red background). A very conscious effort to make people focus on this over-sized calm, serene expressioned idol. I'm torn between liking it and thinking it's crass commercialization of the Buddha.

We got seated right next to the waterwall that seperates part of dining area from the reception area. It was kind of cool. However, I should have asked to be seated in the mezzanine floor: better view.

Act IV: Repast Re-pasts

Buddakan has a decent-sized menu but unfortunately not one with variety in it. We started off with a couple of drinks: the Zen-gria and some concoction with prickly pear in it. The former was nice and light, while the latter tasted heavily of alcohol. Both tasted good.

The appetizers, as happens lately with a lot of restaurants, looked more appetizing (sic) than the entrees. After a lot of debate, we settled on the edamame ravioli, the pan-seared diver scallops and ahi tuna on watermelon (the special for the day). The edamame ravioli was interesting: the filling consisted of edamame and fingerling potato paste. The scallops were very good and the combination of sake-marinated pineapples and a black vinegar syrup melded together very well. As for the tuna, the ingredients themselves (tuna and watermelon) were great. However, the flavors didn't seem to work well together and left me with a very unsatisfied palate.

The entrees were uninteresting to me. While I appreciated the simplicity of the dishes, the fact that there was nothing that leaped out at me as being interesting, innovative or even unusual was a disappointment. I chose the Japanese black cod after some thought. There were a couple of other entrees that were in the running: the wasabi filet mignon and the chilean sea bass, but it wasn't a red meat day and the chilean sea bass is being hunted to extinction. So, the black cod it was. If you are a lobster kind of person, I would suggest that you go with the Angry Lobster IV entree. The people next to us had ordered it and it looked great, served in a great big bowl with lots of garnishings. The cod, as with everything else, arrived startlingly fast. The fish was wonderfully cooked with a very subtle flavor. The accompanying wasabi mashed potatoes were divine. They made the dish. The only reason I didn't completely scarf down the mashed potatoes was that I was leaving some room for dessert.

Dessert is always a crucial element to any meal, and Buddakan delivered in this department much better than it had in the others. My first instinct was to go for the chocolate bento box (warm chocolate cake, dark chocolate panna cotta with cocoa-ginger biscotti, white chocolate-espresso pot de creme, milk chocolate mousse cube atop hazelnut crunch, chocolate almonds and bittersweet sorbet!!!!!), but it was meant for two, and someone at our table isn't a big fan of chocolate desserts. So, we ended up ordering the "Dip Sum" doughnuts and the gingerbread pudding. both turned out to be finger-licking good. The doughnuts came with chocolate sauce, blackberry jam and a ginger cream, and dipping the doughnuts in those sauces was fun and delicious. The gingerbread dish was very subtly flavored inspite of being so rich. We ended up doggy-bagging them since we couldn't finish everything.

Conclusions

A wonderful experience in everything except cuisine. And the only reason that I say that is because I was disappointed with the innovativeness of the dishes and ingredient combinations. The food itself was well cooked and implemented very well. The decor was nice and simple and the ambience cool.

I should also make mention of the overly eager staff. Our server was good, helpful and knowledgeable. However, she as well as others of the wait staff tended to want to hurry us along in our meal, which was irritating, to say the least. When you get asked 3-4 times whether you are done with your appetizers, it tends to become frustrating.

Ratings

Buddakan Review
Service Friendly, helpful and rather too quick
Decor Simple whites and dark wood, with looming buddha
Food Simple, Good but nothing extraordinary

February 27, 2005

Joy America Cafe: Alice In Wonderland

Players: Samantha and moi

Act I: Finding the right Rabbit Hole

So Sam is in Baltimore visiting a friend and wants to do lunch on Saturday. I blithely agree, not realizing how much of a pain it is trying to find a good restaurant in B'more that is open for lunch on Saturday. So, I try my site of first resort: opentable and they only have a few restaurants that are available, most of which didn't seem too attractive. I would have chosen to go to the Black Olive, but that's a place that you go to for dinner in order to get the full impact. All my favorites (Saffron, Brass Elephant, Tio Pepe, etc.) were closed. Grrr. So, after looking around some more, I discovered Joy America Cafe which is in the American Visionary Art Museum. Never having been to AVAM, and not having a clue as to what "Visionary Art" was, I was intrigued. I tried finding reviews of Joy America Cafe on the web, but that proved to be as elusive as trying to discover what visionary art meant. There were a handful of short, non-insightful reviews (and while this review may be non-insightful, it won't be short. That I promise!) on AOL CityGuide, Frommers and the like, but nothing substantive. However, the few morsels of information that were present were interesting enough for me to decide on Joy for lunch (sic). Reservations , of course, were made through Opentable.

Act II: Wonderland

Getting to the museum is easy. It's located in Federal Hill on Key Highway and is close enough to walk to from the Baltimore Science Museum and that part of the Inner Harbor. If you are coming from the Inner Harbor, you will see an old brick building with the museum name written on it. If you turn into the street just in front of the museum, there is a decent amount of metered parking. When we got there at around noon, there wee still about a dozen spots left. However, when we left at 3pm, I don't think there was a single open parking space there.

The museum, at first glance, seems kitschy. The front facade is a mosaic of blue glass, which is attractive but makes you wonder what the inside will be like. When looking at the works inside, it was hard to characterize what visionary art meant. We decided that it might be folk art with a modern twist to it. The variety of art in there is amazing. I think the most attractive quality of the museum and it's exhibits is the approachability and touchability of the pieces. A sense of delight descends upon you while going around the museum -- from the amusing robots made of recycled materials to the sequin-encrusted bed and mermaids -- the whole museum elicits a sensawunda.

The Joy America Cafe itself is located on the third floor of the museum. Just tell the nice folks over at the front desk that you are eating at the Cafe and they will provide you with a personal escort right to it.

Act III: A Mad Tea Party

The restaurant itself seems moderately sized. As you enter, the left side is full of tables and the right right is more of a bar area. The decor seems to be minimalist modern with a twist. At the very least, it was pleasant and went tolerably well with the museum theme. The dining area has a large arced window that has a view of the inner harbor. I'm told that it looks even better at night. When we got there, there was virtually no one in the restaurant, and I kinda felt foolish for making reservations. However, by the time 1pm rolled around, the place was full. The crowd frequently the place leaned towards the middle-aged range, and was very obviously contained a representative sample from the more, umm, art-aware citizenry.

We got seated immediately and got a table that was close to the view of the inner harbor (though it would be hard to get a table that didn't have some part of the view). Our server was friendly and very helpful (as well as being attractive and having an accent that was music to my ears). The menus were quirky and amusing. Both of us had menus with different covers. The inside of the menu consisted of artistically torn pieces of paper taped with various decorative stickers to sturdy paper backing. Overall, a very nice effect.

The menu items themselves showed strong evidence of southwestern and latin influences. For the most part, the dishes were not vegetarian, but there were at least a couple of appetizers and entrees that were vegetarian (and they try to be vegan-friendly in those dishes according to our server). Admittedly, seafood is a highlight of the menu.

Act IV: Eat me, Drink Me

We started off with a couple of drinks: the Chocolate Rasberry and the Dark & Stormy. The former is one of the better chocolate cocktails I've ever had -- mixed perfectly so that all the flavors blended together. The latter was a strong mixture of rum and ginger beer (real ginger beer). They also had the standard mojito and caiprinha on the menu along with a few other cocktails. The bar, I'm sure, could make anything that you wanted.

We couldn't quite decide what we wanted since pretty much everything looked good. We decided to start off with an appetizers and finally settled on the Empanaditas. The stuffing in the empanaditas had just been changed from a vegan-friendly mix of various vegetables to a mixture of ham, shrimp and rice. This was served on a sauce of jalapenos and rice. The empanaditas were good, and tasted even better with the sauce. Our server mentioned that the sauce was made out of rice instead of cream or other dairy products to keep it vegan. Of course, with the new stuffing, they kept the sauce the same because so many people liked it.

Of course, now that we had our appetizer, we had to decide on the rest of the meal. In what is becoming a trend for me, we decided on finishing off with more appetizers. We ordered a ceviche and a chalupa. The ceviche was a tuna and shrimp ceviche with lime, habaneros and garlic. It was absolutely delicious. The chalupa was a crispy flatbread with potatoes, chorizo sausage, and roasted garlic. It tasted good and was very filling (which our server had warned us it would be). At this point, we decided not to order anything more since we wanted to have dessert. There were several more dishes I wanted to try: the black bean soup, another ceviche, some of their salads, their crab cake entree and their tuna entree. All those sounded good, and I guess that's going to have to wait for another trip to Joy America.

The dessert menu looked good enough to be the whole meal. We ended up ordering the "Seven Tastes of Chocolate" and "Tres Leches de Joy". The former being seven different and great chocolate items, and the latter being a version of the standard Tres leches, with coconut flan, a creme brulee and a caramel flan (I think). Both of the desserts were very good. If I did have more of an appetite, I would have tried the chocolate cherry empanadas, too.

Act V: Conclusion

I loved the Cafe. The food was good, the view wonderful and the service great. They also seem to have a good bartender and some awesome desserts. It helps that the cafe is inside the museum, both from a stylistic perspective as well as an contextual one.

Ratings

Joy America Cafe Review
Service Friendly, Quick, and Helpful
Decor Modern minimalist with a twist
Food Delicious & Intriguing nouveau southwestern

February 04, 2005

Corduroy: Just like the fabric

Players: Rekha and moi

Pre-prandial

The last-minute decision was to go to Corduroy for dinner. Rekha had initially suggested the Willard for dinner, and we eventually decided on Corduroy. So, we decided to instead go to Indebleu and the Willard for drinks.

The Willard was what I expected it to be...old world with a well-dressed crowd. It seemed like a nice place to have a drink -- friendly, quick service and a nice, quite decor. Rekha liked it rather more than I did. We had a drink each and tons of the bar nuts before heading for Indebleu. All the museum'ing had made us hungry (the reason for the outing was to see an exhibit by Cai Guo-Qiang at the Hirshhorn)

At Indebleu, we did the usual: drinks and dessert. This time for a dessert, we had the "Choco Sutra", which is a concoction of several different chocolates (white chocolate waffle, flourless chocolate cake and a dark chocolate ribbon around it) with brandied cherries over a pomegranate glaze. It sounded great, looked cool and tasted pretty decent. I infinitely preferred the profiteroles and hot chocolate dessert over this one. My big problem with this one was that there was no subtlety in the dessert. The only interesting part was the pomegranate glaze and that was mildly overdone.

Having sated ourselves with drinks and dessert, we proceeded to waddle on over to Corduroy

Initial Impressions

Corduroy is located on the second floor of the Four Points Sheraton at 12th and K. By the time we walked over to it, it was sleeting/snowing, for which neither of us was prepared, and we were just happy to reach any safe harbor at that point. Even though there is a big sign on the hotel for Corduroy, you could easily miss it if you were looking for a restaurant at street level.

Once you walk up to the second floor (or take the elevator) and look around, you realize that Corduroy still has a very ordinary presence: located next to the fitness center, it almost looks like a hotel cafe or dining room. To extend that impression even more, the rest rooms for Corduroy are located outside the restaurant and past the fitness center.

Once you enter Corduroy, it continues to be subdued and quiet. However, it does something magical and presents more of a warm, comfortable atmosphere than one would expect. The restaurant is done in dark wood, mirrors and shades of brown, with occasional nondescript artwork on the walls. One of the things I tend to dislike in restaurants is mirrors on the walls. If you are seated facing the wall (and hence the mirror), you usually can see everything that is happening behind you as well as yourself. This tends to be distracting to me (and no, not because I'm narcissistic and keep staring at myself). If I happen to be seated with my back to the wall, I have to deal with my companion(s) being distracted. However, Corduroy dealt with this problem well, by having only half-length mirrors and hanging them at such an angle that I could only see people in the immediate vicinity behind me -- and I couldn't see myself. It was perfect, since I was never surprised by waiters showing up behind me, and yet I didn't have to deal with what was happening in the rest of the restaurant.

The name of the restaurant, however, continued to confuse. About the only genuflection towards the name that we saw was in the menus, which were covered in corduroy. A nice touch, but I'm sure it felt a little lonely being the only touch of corduroy decor. Not that I want to see a restaurant swathed in corduroy.

Once in, we were immediately seated at a table (me facing the mirrored wall, of course) and thereupon all inspection of decor ceased, and the perusal of the menu began.

Repast

The first thing you notice about Corduroy's menu is its simplicity. The focus is all on the main ingredient, whether it be salmon, or cheese. It was very evident that the chef wanted to highlight a central ingredient rather than create a fusion of tastes. This seemed inline with Corduroy's no-frills approach to decor. We settled on the "Buffalo mozzarella porcupine" as the appetizer, though there were a couple of other tempting starters. For the entrees, there was not much competition for us. We both ordered the fish dishes: tuna for me and salmon for Rekha. I was briefly seduced by the wagyu beef dish but decided to stick with the fish.

The appetizer arrived relatively quickly. As the name hints at, the dish is a ball of mozzarella in a shell of fried phyllo dough that has been "julienned", resembling a porcupine. The mozzarella is accompanied by a tart tomato sauce and a basil sauce, which combined well with the cheese.

The main courses arrived minutes after we finished the appetizer. I had ordered a seared rare tuna over sushi rice and a sesame vinaigrette. It tasted very good, in part due to the well-sized chunk of rare tuna at the center of it all. The sushi rice and vinaigrette added a nice touch, almost like sushi but with a twist. I enjoyed it a lot, though the portion was a mite generous for me. The salmon came with wild mushrooms and had a very homogeneous flavor to it. It tasted pretty good, but wasn't remarkable in any way.

As usual, even though I was stuffed by this point, we couldn't resist dessert. Well, I couldn't resist dessert. Rekha decide to opt out. I ordered the pistachio bread pudding. It turned out to be a a square of cake-like pudding with layers of pistachio pate sanwiched inbetween. The overall taste was very good, with the nuttiness of the pistachio shining through. Unfortunately, I couldn't do justice to the dessert since it was on the heavy side, and had to leave it half-finished.

Conclusion

I liked corduroy. The ambience was warm and comfortable, with a subdued, almost introverted feel to it. The focus on a central ingredient was refreshing and the food was good.

I haven't mentioned the service at Corduroy so far, because it wasn't much of a factor. It was quick, mostly unobtrusive and helpful. This is a good thing.

Ratings

Corduroy Review
Service Unobtrusive and helpful
Decor Comfortable and subdued
Food Good, solid and pleasing