Saturday, November 21, 2015

If Dinner Parties Were A Competition - We Won. Again.

Dinner Party at Hotel Antolli
Undisclosed Location in Suburban Maryland, MoCo

Sorry for the self-aggrandizement and tooting of thine own horn you're going to be subject to here, but this one is too good not to tell you about.
I'm the co-founder of a charitable organization called Shooting with Chefs. We have an annual fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic and it's, for lack of a better word, unique.
Some of the area's best chefs help my organization create a day-long extravaganza of food, firearms, fun, fire, cigars, bourbon, and fundraising.
This year's event was the most successful to date. We raised over $54,000 in this one-day event that went directly to Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic.

We raise these funds through corporate sponsorships and donated auction items. The auction items range from hotel nights and chef's tasting dinners at exclusive restaurants to one-of-a-kind experiences created by world-renowned chefs at the winners' houses.  Last year I was lucky enough to be invited to a dinner where both Bryan Voltaggio and Mike Isabella provided dinner at a friends house. Here's a link to the post about that dinner: How to Win a Dinner Party.
A few smart friends of mine and I decided to pool our resources and bid on a private dinner at one of our houses prepared and served by Bryan Voltaggio, Graeme Ritchie and Dane Nakamura of Voltaggio Family of Restaurants this year and it was a rousing success. Read all about it.
Above is the first course we enjoyed: Turbot with cucumber, lemon, chanterelle mushrooms. 
For the dipping: Whipped lardo with crispy leeks and a chicken liver mousse if memory is serving me correctly. 
Here's another shot of the Turbot.
Corn soup with cotija, okra and guajillo. Smooth, cold, and buttery. 
Nothing like some perfectly seasoned and grilled octopus with fregola, almond, olive and Meyer lemon.
This dish bordered on flavor overload: Tonnarelli Nero, cooked in squid ink, with Maryland Blue Crab, jalapeno and sea urchin. 
Sometimes something is cooked so perfectly it's almost like a new food. Anson Mills Grits with coconut, calamari, shrimp, and the most exquisitely cooked scallop I've ever had.

For those of you who are not afraid of food with a face, here is one of the ultimates: Pig Face. There were two halves for the ten of us. I will not share the metode' with you as it was entrusted to me in confidence and I solemnly swore to only use the recipe for my own benefit moving forward.
Think of the best pork belly you've ever had. A thin layer of crispy skin with about two inches of fat-layered meat. Now think of that with more flavor and a crispiness that has none of the inedible portions that  you sometimes get with roasted pig. This was the bomb. It was served moo shu-style with lettuce wraps and various toppings/condiments. I know I'll never love this way again. (Yes, that's Whitney singing in the background.)
I had range officer duty the next day in Poolesville and Paul Antolli, host for the evening, was nice enough to bring me four slices of white bread and some of this for lunch. It was spectacular then as well.
This was adding insult to injury at this point, but when Graeme comes and drops a dessert in front of you you are compelled to eat it. Every last bit. Black Forest: Chocolate, dry cherry, sweet cream, and cocoa nib. Sounds simple. Looked spectacular and tasted better.
What's even better than some kick-ass cigars after a meal like that? Spending time shooting the breeze and smoking kick-ass cigars around the fire with some of your restaurant heroes who just made you and your friends one of the best meals of your life. We had a great time and the money went to a great cause. Brian is very generous to donate his time, money and effort to several charities including No Kid Hungry, Chefs for Equality, and others.  Bravo chef, and thank you.
And the parting shot! Left to right the lovely Mrs. Cheryl Bolen (AKA Mrs. Smelson), Dane Nakamura, Graeme Ritchie, yours truly, and Bryan Voltaggio.
If you're interested in something like this and want a crack at winning a dinner prepared in your home by Bryan, Mike Isabella, or some as-yet-to-be-named chefs (got a couple of special donors TBA at game time) at Shooting with Chefs IV to be held in June of '16 reach out to me at or
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pepita Cantina - Not Just Margaritas

Pepita Cantina
4000 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22203
I'm a fan of small restaurants. I find that that when you aim small, you miss small, which means that you're more likely to place your shots in the ten-ring. Pepita exemplifies that philosophy. It's a small place, with a small menu, but it's a bulls-eye.
Start out with the guacamole. Smooth, yet chunky. Home-made thick chips that don't break when you scoop the guac, and plenty of flavor.
Tacos are the main lunch fare here. I tried three including the smoked carnitas, the cabra diabla, and the taco de lengua. The cabra and lengua were my favorites. The tongue (lengua) was super-tender and flavorful, while the cabra, which is goat, had a sophisticated heated finish. No quick burn here, just a smooth, enjoyable heat. The smoked carnitas was good as well, but the other two provided the unique flavors I've come to know, expect, and love from Mike Isabella Concepts.
Here's a shot of the chunky Tuna Ceviche.
The quesadilla was a thing of beauty as well. Great flavors with a lingering heat.
Behind me was the bar, though I was here for lunch so there was no boozing. You can tell Taha Ismail is at work here with his well-laid out tinctures and bitters. He's one of the best in the business and it always shows through. Be sure to grab one of the specialty cocktails if you stop in.

Overall impressions: It's a great place to grab lunch, but I'm sure it's an even better place to go with friends and get your tequila going. WaPo said come for the drinks. I say go for the food. It's good, and it's a good value. You won't be sorry.
If you go, tell them you read about it on Pleasures of the Table!
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Brine - Best Oysters in the Biz, and More

2985 District Ave.
Fairfax, VA 22031
Looking for something a little different? Tired of steakhouses and small plates? Check out Brine.
We started with a No Juice, No Cherry, which is a rye cocktail, and a glass of Sex. Sex is a rose sparkler they have on tap if memory serves. Nice way to start the dinner. 
Brine owner Travis Croxton has his fingers in more pies than Tiffany Macisaac. Seriously. He helped Derek Brown with Eat The Rich and has several other restaurants which include Merroir, Rappahanock Oyster Bar, Rocksalt, and now Brine. Think steakhouse, but with the main protein being fish.  
Travis' family has been in the oyster business for decades and they have some of the tastiest oysters around. They are treated well here.
Besides the pristine oysters, there are many more composed dishes being sent out of Chef John Critchley's kitchen including Lambs and Clams, made with house-stuffed merguez sausage.
The gazpacho packs some incredible flavors. 

These are the exactly what I think of when I get a craving for oysters. The brine is light and the oysters are just the right size. They're so good I had to order another dozen.
This was the bucatini with guanciale and chili threads.
The radish salad.
The yellowfin carpaccio was tremendous. Lots of flavors and textures going on.

We shared the wood-roasted whole fish. Expertly done and very tasty.

Dessert was a chocolate bavarois with peanut brittle. No slouching on the finale.
Cheryl finished up with a liquid dessert: Mommy's Snow Cone. Orange mocha syrup with rum and ancho salt. Things I'd never think to put together, but ended up being greater than the sum of the ingredients. Very creative.
If you find yourself in the Mosaic district this place is certainly worth checking out. Twice. They take the steakhouse format and elevate it with serious creativity and skill in the kitchen as well as the bar. Expertly prepared proteins served a la carte with sides that you won't find elsewhere.
If you go, say hi to Chef Critchley for me and tell him you read about it on Pleasures of the Table.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm - They Crank Farm to Table to 11

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm
Lovettsville, VA
Looking to spend a lovely evening in the woods? You could do worse than The Restaurant at Patowmack Farms. It's a hike from the DC Metro. If you're staying at Hollywood Casino it's much closer. Pay close attention once you've crossed the little bridge and taken the right turn. It's a hard left up the mountainside. Don't bring your Ferrari's a dirt road and there are some spots where the clearance is...shall we say, low?
Here's how it works. There are three categories on the menu. Found, Grown, and Raised. None of them are exclusively found, grown, or raised, but they seem to hold fairly close to the stated genre.
Greg and I had the raised with the ladies had found and grown.
And here they are photo-bombing whilst I was trying to get an artsy-fartsy shot of the centerpiece.
Here they are being a little more civilized.
The grounds are perfect for events. The garden is beautiful with a nice view of the bridge.
From left to right: Me, Cheryl, Laura and Craig. We've had some pretty amazing dinners with this couple. 
God in the Garden
The "snacks" were creative and tasty. Everything seemed to follow the garden to table theme. 
Who doesn't like cheesy poofs?
Pork rinds.
Flat breads.
All of the snacks were good, though I was partial to the pork rinds and cheesy poofs.
This was actually my favorite dish of the evening. It was a pork liver parfait and it rivaled Michel Richard's Faux Graz for lightness, texture and flavor.
This was an interesting play on gazpacho: Apricot! It was served cold and was very nice.
Sardines with lentils...
Here's that pork liver parfait again. It was pretty as well as tasty.
I like it when restaurants give you something fun to play with between courses. Left to right: House-churned butter, Kosher salt (Malden if I'm not mistaken) and whipped pork fat.
Flavorful and grainy bread as the fat/salt vehicle.
Hopefully my doctor isn't reading this post. 
The whipped pork fat was much lighter than you might imagine. It wasn't like lard, it was more like very fluffy butter, but saltier. I liked it.
Pork belly with sour grits.
Kidney bean Akara with grilled beef hash. Tasted a wee too healthy.
Smoked chanterelle mushroom and mussel stew. The hay was what was used for the smoking. Interesting.
Nice view from our table.
The lamb kabob.
Poached chicken.
Here's a little video showing the beef on a stone.
Here it is all finished. I cooked it a little too rare though so I had to yell at myself, throw it back on the stone, and complain to the server. I comp'd myself. 8)
This was a little palette cleanser. I thought it was very pretty.
This was interesting. Cajeta Panna Cotta. When they poured the sauce over this the shell kind of melted into what you see below. The caramel sauce was off the hook.
Here it is post-melt.
Looks like RJ was up here with the blueberry sherbet dish.
The wineberry chess pie.
The sweet little bites were very tasty.
The coupe de gras: Olive Oil Chiffon.

Overall, definitely worth the trip if you have the time and the money. It's not inexpensive, but it's worth it for the experience.
Service was top notch and the wine pairings were unusual and inventive, which is what I'm always hoping for when I take advantage of the offering.
Thanks for reading! If you go, drive carefully, and tell them you read about it on Pleasures of the Table.