First Taste: Barndiva in Healdsburg, CA

Barndiva is one of those places that we Midwesterners hope to find on a trip to the West Coast. As its website states,  the restaurant is “a celebration of all things local,” which is California means some pretty awesome produce. And it’s in an old barn that has been remade to create a fabulous, casual, and comfortable setting. And after a day of wine tasting and a big lunch, it was especially nice that the fare wasn’t rich or heavy.

My appetizer was one of the prettiest I have ever laid eyes on. I thought from the description that it would be small, but I was very happily mistaken. Heirloom tomatoes were paired with compressed watermelon, basil, and watercress. I savored every bite.

For my dinner, I chose another appetizer, a riff on a BLT, using pork belly, basil coulis, cherry tomato, potato chips and baby lettuces. I’ve been eating way too much pork belly lately since it’s all the rage right now, but this was the most innovative use of it that I’ve experienced.

The Zucchini & Bellwether Farms Ricotta Lasagna was delightful as well, with handmade pasta and a light tomato vinaigrette. We also enjoyed the  crispy young chicken, which was extremely moist and flavorful.

In addition to the dishes hitting on all cylinders in terms of taste and style, the servers were quite compelling. Our favorite, and the most knowledgeable server we encountered during our stay in Healdsburg, was a retired businessman who loves and knows his wine. He directed us to Littorai Vineyard, which turned out to be a fortuitous recommendation since that ended up being my favorite Pinot Noir of the trip.

Barndiva is always listed as one of the must-go places in Sonoma in magazines and websites. It’s on mine now as well.

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SEI Restaurant–Washington DC

To say that SEI restaurant in Washington, DC is a sushi restaurant doesn’t do it justice. Yes, it has some pretty terrific and beautifully prepared sushi. But what makes this Penn Quarter gem glitter beyond its white and amber decor is the inventiveness of the small plates on the menu.

Building a meal around these eclectic dishes is not easy, only because there are so many intriguing choices. And since there were just two of us at the table, we didn’t come close to sampling all that we wanted to try. But we savored each dish that we did order.

The sashimi pizza has a thin crust and is topped with salmon, tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, salmon roe and wasabi aioli. It was hard to distinguish the flavors, but it was gorgeous and fun to eat.

The lamb chop with red curry was as tasty as it was pretty. It was accompanied by Indian Idli, which tastes like polenta and was the perfect foil for the smooth sauce.

Though they were out of the pork buns, we consoled ourselves with Korean tacos. Short rib meat was paired with kimchee in corn tortillas, and though they didn’t wipe out my longing for a Momofuku style pork treat, the tacos were tasty.

The duck edamame hash was presented in a mold and topped with a perfectly cooked fried egg.  We were loath to break it, but once we did, we devoured it.

We also enjoyed the Triple Tuna sushi roll, just to be sure that SEI does sushi well. They do.

Other offerings we wanted to try but didn’t have room for in our stomach? Seven pepper tots (tator tots served with sriracha honey ketchup), tuna poke with wonton chips, wasabi guacamole, and fried rice cakes with kimchee.

I had the opportunity to meet sommelier Andrew Stover at the DrinkLocal Wine conference in St. Louis last month, as he sipped his way through the weekend looking for Missouri wines to bring to DC. He has a passion and commitment to regional wines, which is evident from the inclusion of wines from Michigan, New York, Virginia and New Mexico on the restaurant’s wine list.

Service was unusual. There seemed to be a tag team system, which in theory is a good idea because diners are never ignored. But we found it to be a bit annoying. Each of the two servers on our team kept coming to our table, asking the same questions (would you like a drink, ready to order?), as though the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.

The food ruled the evening though, and I am anxious to try SEI’s older sibling, OYA on my next visit to DC.


Sei on Urbanspoon

Acqua Al 2 in Washington, DC

Acqua Al 2 has come to Washington, DC. Its owners know a thing or two about what constitutes authentic Italian cuisine. Started in Florence, Italy, the restaurant’s only other  North American outpost can be found in San Diego.

Acqua Al 2 took over a charming little space in the up and coming Eastern Market section of DC in early summer. Since that time, it’s been wowing diners who revel in the homemade pastas and  steaks that taste like they came straight from Tuscany.

On our visit, we couldn’t resist the pastas, sampled several and even ordered a second round. Maccheroni all Vodka looked bland but hit all the right notes with its spicy vodka tomato/cream sauce, Fussili  Lunghi  alla  Fiaccheraia, pasta with a spicy tomato sauce  proved that simple is often best, and the Cannelloni  Mascarpone  e  Funghi, certainly didn’t resemble St. Louis’s standard, but was every bit as decadent. And the gnocchi, essentially a potato dumpling, was light and airy (and then smothered in a rich cream sauce.) The homemade bread and focaccia was the ideal vehicle for mopping up all those sauces.

The two specialties of the house are the filet mignon with blueberry sauce, a combination which I just couldn’t bring myself to order, and Tuscan style rib eye (read blood rare) served on a bed of arugula, which I did order but they forgot to serve. I think it was a miscommunication rather than neglect–the server thought I was just asking how it was prepared and didn’t realize I had actually ordered it. No worries, I’ll be back and I had more than my fill that day anyway.

The restaurant is long and narrow, rustic and comforting, and on the night we were there was filled with families, groups and cozy couples. With its extensive menu, this is the kind of place where family style dining is preferred–more to try, more to love.

Acqua Al 2 on Urbanspoon

Five Fifty-Five in Portland, Maine

Portland, Maine has no lack of fabulous restaurants. And it has more than its fair share of James Beard award-winning chefs. One of them, Steve Corry of Five Fifty-Five, does an awesome brunch.

While sipping a Bloody Mary, the server brought out the cutest, most delicious little peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, courtesy of the chef. My son and his girlfriend were frequent visitors to the restaurant, so they knew to order the freshly baked cinnamon buns with  cider caramel and vanilla icing. Wow. Nothing like starting with dessert. It was hard to restrain myself from eating the whole thing, but I knew I needed to save up for the lobster eggs Benedict that were coming my way. I had heard about this dish, called “Traitor’s Eggs” and was told that if it was on the menu I had to order it.

It’s Maine, so how could I not order lobster in any form? This was an easy sell.

I was not disappointed. There were large chunks of lobster underneath the poached eggs and the hollandaise sauce was lively and lemony.

Sadly, my son has left Maine so I probably won’t make it back to Portland in the foreseeable future. I’ll miss it. Not only is the scenery spectacular, but I’ve had some incredible meals there. This was one of them.

Central Michel Richard Washington DC

At the end of a long weekend of eating substantial meals in DC, my son and I were not up for another one. Yet we certainly wanted to enjoy another evening together and we had to eat, right? We had previously made a reservation for Central Michel Richard, and though it has its fair share of rich bistro fare, there are other paths a diner can follow, so we stuck with the plan.

The menu has a generous mix of appetizers and salads, as well as a very appealing list of sandwiches. We chose to split two burgers–one lobster, one tuna. And French fries, of course. Boy, did we do it right! The burgers were outstanding and just so fun to eat. Both were formed to exactly fit the homemade bun, and they were each topped with a fabulous potato tuile for additional texture.

The French fries were crisp and, naturally, the perfect accompaniment.

We also enjoyed, at our server’s suggestion an interesting and reasonably priced Napa cuvee from Tudal Family Vineyard. It was a blend of Merlot, Zinfandel and Sangiovese, not the usual suspects, and very tasty with our burgers.

This unexpected meal was the perfect ending to a lovely weekend.

Central Michel Richard on Urbanspoon

Inn of the Anasazi–Santa Fe

Most people think of the Inn of the Anasazi as the top hotel to stay in while visiting Santa Fe. That it is. But I also love to eat there. Whether enjoying tortilla soup  and a tuna tostada at lunchtime, snacking on nachos and buffalo sliders with a beer on the patio, or going all out with duck mole enchiladas, blue corn crab cakes and a lamb porterhouse with adobo sauce in the dining room, it’s all excellent quality, beautifully presented and well-executed.

Santa Fe is one town where I prefer the local joints, but as a big fan of the Anasazi, it’s my one exception to that rule.

Anasazi Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Proof–Washington, DC

There’s a very good reason why Proof is considered one of Washington, DC’s hot spots of the moment, in the hopping Penn Quarter. Although I’ve only been there once, I can’t express my enthusiasm enough. Incredible food, exhaustive wine list, attractive decor and a fun vibe all combine to make the experience a special one.

We started with pork confit on jicama slaw with a red pepper lime emulsion, an incredibly pillowy gnocchi with tomato and basil, and stacked tuna tartare with crispy nori tempura.

Do I have your attention yet? No? Okay, let’s move on to the entrees.

A gorgeous vegetarian napolean, with crispy tofu standing in for the usual pastry layer, honey glazed duck with yam puree and pomegranate emulsion, and sablefish with pumpkin seeds, raisins, garbanzo beans, spinach and romesco sauce. The latter dish was the only one of the evening I wouldn’t order again, not so much because it wasn’t enjoyable, but rather because it wasn’t as exciting as the other dishes.

The menu changes monthly to keep up with what’s in season, and servers are knowledgeable and engaging.

Restaurants come and go all the time; it’s such a tough business. Proof has been open for three years, but it’s still hard to secure a reservation or even find a seat at the bar.

And to think it’s known more for its spectacular wine inventory than the food.

Proof on Urbanspoon

Oyamel–Washington, DC

Put Oyamel on your list the next time you visit our nation’s capitol. This attractive restaurant features small plates and authentic Mexican flavors, best enjoyed family style to experience the entire array of offerings on the menu.

Mole is an intense sauce, made with a variety of chile pods, fruit and nuts. Oyamel makes several different ones and pairs them with meat or fish. The scallops with green mole were a particular treat, as was the chicken and rice smothered with poblano mole.

The best dish? A quesadilla with huitlacoche and tomatillo salsa. Huitlacoche is corn smut, popularly referred to as a Mexican black truffle. Whenever I see huitlacoche on a menu, I always order it because it’s rare and incredibly delicious (check out a similar dish in Kansas City at Frida’s, along with their fabulous squash blossom quesadilla.)

We also enjoyed wonderful chips and salsa, a corn tamale, duck confit flautas and a taco with Yucatan-style pit barbecued pork with pickled red onion and Mexican sour orange, though the latter didn’t have the oomph of some of the other selections.

The choices get harder during weekend brunch, when some incredible sounding egg dishes are added to the mix.

And, not surprisingly, the drink list includes a dazzling variety of margaritas, including the Classic which can even be ordered by the pitcher.

What’s not to like about this place?

Oyamel on Urbanspoon

Five Bistro in St. Louis

Five Bistro is an anomaly. It’s in on the Hill, the cozy Italian section of St. Louis, yet it’s not an Italian restaurant. It does share a common trait with many of its Hill peers however, in that is family owned and operated, with a strong emphasis on service. Joe and Bonnie Devoti manage the front of the house: son Anthony is the executive chef. Though I didn’t meet Chef Anthony, his parents were charming, appropriately attentive , and they ran the restaurant as though it were a walk in the park. The service throughout the evening was impeccable. It’s not a stretch for me to suggest that the last time I may have had service of this quality was in a Danny Meyer restaurant, ironically a St. Louis boy who made good and is building a restaurant empire in New York City.

But man/woman cannot live on service alone, so let me assure you that the food was every bit as compelling. The menu changes daily depending on what the chef finds at market, so the ingredients in every dish scream “fresh” and the vegetables taste just picked. All meats and cheeses are locally sourced. Everything is homemade, including the outstanding foccacia, which was served with olive oil ( a bit like gilding a lily). And  the ravioli. The night I was there, the housemade pasta was stuffed with roasted beets, pecans, and local goat cheese, served atop mushroom and cauliflower puree. It looked rich, but was light and dreamy.

I chose the scallop entree, and though it was  pricey for the size (2 large scallops for $25), each of the scallops was sweet, succulent and perfectly prepared. The Chioggia beets, snap peas and squash that accompanied the scallops were crisp and bursting with flavor. The dish, served on watercress, was finished with a light champagne vinaigrette.

Other menu options included an appetizer tart with stilton bleu cheese, caramelized onion and tarragon with a balsamic reduction and micro greens, housemade charcuterie, a sprout salad with more of those sweet beets, beef tenderloin, a pork special, a half-chicken with gnocchi and rabbit.

Desserts are identified on the menu as a “sorbet tasting”, a “pastry tasting” and a “chocolate tasting”. The server described each one lovingly as he explained that though each has at least a couple of components, they aren’t too big to conquer. And conquer we did, sampling each of the evening’s chocolate desserts.  One was a kind of caramel nouget dipped in chocolate and served with homemade chocolate ice cream, the other  was a slice of flourless chocolate torte with homemade mint ice cream. Each was art on a plate.

The wine list is small (read:manageable),  incredibly well-conceived and fairly priced.

I was pleased with the size of  the portions, (it’s nice to have room for dessert) though they may not satisfy the hungriest appetite. To counter that possibility, there’s a 4 course option for $45 that’s hard to beat.

The restaurant is casual yet tastefully appointed, walk-ins are welcome and big parties can be accommodated. If you want a  quiet evening, ask for the front room. The back room is also lovely, but larger and more lively.

My only regret is that this gem is not in Kansas City. If it were, it would be my go-to place for a casual evening (for a glass of wine and an appetizer at the bar) or a special night out. Though it has received some well-deserved accolades, Five Bistro has largely flied under the radar. I can’t believe that will be the case for long.

Five on Urbanspoon

Ris–Washington D.C.

I go to DC periodically and enjoy hitting the trendy spots about town. On my last visit, I had delightful meals  at two bistros, Ris and Central Michel Richard.

Ris is in Foggy Bottom, right near Trader Joe’s and George Washington University. Chef Ris Lacoste is in the kitchen, for the first time in her own restaurant. The dining room is large and, depending on where you are seated, can be loud.  There’s nothing cozy about the place, but we had a nice table in the back where we received attentive and professional service.

The menu is modern American, and while you’ll see many dishes you recognize, Chef Lacoste has put her own spin on them.  We started with posole, which was chock full of tender chunks of pork and hominy, and topped with radish slices and sprouts. My favorite dish of the night, and in fact the entire trip, was her take on soft shelled crab. We were in DC during the height of that crustacean’s seasonal appearance, so I had it more than once and this rendition was sensational.  The crabs were small, so the plate featured two of them, on fava bean puree accompanied by a flavorful onion jam. It was so much more lively than the ubiquitous lemon butter theme, and the crab really popped in this setting.

Dinner spotlights other cuisines of the globe–a glistening lamb shank sat atop a creamy yogurt based sauce and was sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, while the thai salmon and soba noodles floated in a broth redolent of red curry.

The wine list was pricey, but hey, this is Washington, DC.

As is often the case, I found the choice of appetizers to be more inspired than the entrees. Next time around, I’ll try to grab a seat at the bar and try a few more.

Look for another post to follow shortly about Central.

Ris on Urbanspoon