My friend Keerin, who is a vegan, recently sent me a list from the Washington Post of the best restaurants for vegans and vegetarians in the area. She challenged me to try them out with her, and we hope to get through the whole list at some point.
Surprisingly, my favorite pizza place was on the list - Pizzeria Paradiso! They celebrated their 20th anniversary last week and were offering special deals, including all-you-can-eat pizza and beer for $20! We hopped at the chance and met up at the Dupont Circle location. We found out that while the AYCE pizza part was true, they were only including two $6 draft beers in the deal - which is only half of their draft list, and half of those they were out of. So we only had 3 or four beers to choose from, but they were also having a happy hour with 1/2 price drafts so we were fine.
We have been to Sushi Taro before, but this time we decided to try the Omakase - a personalized dinner with the chef and owner, Nobu Yamazaki, presiding. This is the ultimate dining experience at this already fantastic restaurant (that flies its fish in fresh from Tokyo daily). You must make a reservation in advance (and they can be hard to get, as there are only 6 spots per night). We booked a holiday Monday and were lucky enough to be the only ones there - earning Chef Yamazaki's undivided attention. The Chef's wife will e-mail you ahead of time asking about preferences and restrictions. She also informed us that the restaurant had received some blowfish, and asked if we would be willing to try it. "Rare poisonous fish? Sign us up!" we said. When we arrived, we were escorted to the Omakase counter, which is tucked behind a screen in the back. To the left we could see the entrance to the kitchen, and behind Chef Yamazaki's workspace was a pretty bamboo garden.
We began by ordering sake and were offered a variety of sake cups to choose from. We were introduced to a fantastic sake that we had not tried before - Dassai 23 - it is a nigori (unfiltered), but is clear instead of the usual milky color. Chef Yamazaki informed us that the 23 stood for the percentage of the grain that the rice was polished down to (50% is the norm for the highest tier of sake). Then the Chef grated fresh wasabi (one of our very favorite things) for us. The flavor of fresh wasabi is vastly different from the green paste you find most places - ask for it whenever possible. The first course was Yamazaki's signature sesame tofu, which is made daily from sesame and a Japanese mountain root. It has the most distinctive texture - soft and silky and creamy, but more solid than regular tofu. It was served in a bonito broth and topped with fresh uni (sea urchin). I have had this dish before at Taro, and I am such a huge fan of it. There is nothing like that tofu out there anywhere else. The second dish was albacore and bok choy. The third dish was one of my favorites - Japanese hairy crab with an egg yolk based sauce (somewhat like hollandaise). It was sweet and creamy and all kinds of delicious. Next came the famous blowfish or fugu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fugu). Yamazaki sliced the fish into extremely thin pieces of sashimi, so thin that they were translucent. The fish was slightly chewy (one of the reasons it is sliced so thinly), and had a very delicate flavor. The Chef also finely sliced the three layers of skin, which each had a different texture and flavor. I preferred the chewy, rubbery, outer layer of skin. After we finished, Chef Yamazaki asked us if our lips were tingling. "Ok, good" he said when we told him "no". So I guess we didn't get any poison! I would definitely try blowfish again (prepared by someone as skilled as Yamazaki), the flavor and texture were very unique.
The next dish was a combination of many elements: conch that had been cooked for 2 hours so that it was still chewy, but not painfully so; a square of savory monkfish liver pate topped with sweet ponzu gelee; warm, soft nuts stuffed with fish cake; a tiny fried whole fish simmered in a sweet soy glaze, with a lovely delicate crunch from the bones; and lastly, a candy sweet kumquat in syrup. After that came the sashimi course, where Chef Yamazaki showed us boxes of fresh seafood and said we could have whatever we wanted. He told us that the best parts of the fish are saved for the Omakase counter. We tried fatty tuna, blue nose, and alfonsino - which I had never even heard of but was one of our favorites. Another of our favorites was the wagyu beef, seared quickly on a grill, and served with fried garlic chips, chives, and a citrus soy and salted plum sauce that tastes somewhat like bbq. The New Zealand salmon was creamier than other salmons I've had. We also had a wild yellowtail that was incredible, very different from it's domestic counterpart. The sweet shrimp were something that I remembered from our first visit to Taro - they are incredibly creamy and sweet; the texture is unlike any other shrimp. Somebody in the main restaurant must have ordered a prawn dish, because Chef Yamazaki took the leftover heads and fried them for us. Fried prawn heads are one of my very favorite things - salty, crunchy, briney goodness. We tried the live scallop, which was sweet and creamy. The Chef told us that the scallop liver was edible, but that the flavor is very strong and that he didn't normally serve it to people. I told him that I had read about it and wanted to try it. It was good - somewhat like foie gras. This choice apparently put us on the "adventurous" path (which I will explain later). We told Chef Yamazaki that we didn't really prefer mackerel, and he decided to change our minds. He served us sweet mackerel, then minced us a delicious tartare. We could have kept ordering sashimi forever, and he would have let us, but we felt it was time to move on.
After the sashimi course, we were served blowfish soup with fish cake and turnip, then tempura fish and vegetables. Next came a delicious grilled skewer of miso marinated duck and fresh bamboo. I mentioned before that we asked to try the scallop liver. This made us seem adventurous to the Chef, who served us a couple of dishes "because we like the scallop liver". The first was a dried squid with innards. Usually the innards are cleaned out of squid before it is prepared, because the flavor is so strong. The dish was was almost like squid jerky, with a strong ocean flavor from the innards. The second dish was a bright orange mound of sea cucumber entrails that were salty and slimey and not my favorite. After that we were served hot sake infused with blowfish tail, before moving on to the sushi course. We ordered all of our favorites from the sashimi course and watched as Chef Yamazaki expertly crafted the sushi by hand. Again, we could have ordered forever and he wouldn't have stopped us, but we were very full. We were given a dessert menu to choose from. I chose a pineapple and wine compote with a vanilla panna cotta and red wine ice cream - it was very good. Jasper had a banana and chocolate crepe. Then we were served a block of gelee filled with fruit.
It was a fantastic experience. We learned so much and had a great time talking with Chef Yamazaki, plus the food was incredible. This is definitely a rare occasion, however, as the total for 2 people was around $400. I would love to try it again in a different season.
An old friend of mine (think High School), came into town on business and we wanted to go out somewhere near Dupont Circle, where she was staying. We decided to try out Firefly, a bar and restaurant just south of Dupont. It was a Saturday night after 8, and the place was PACKED. Luckily, I had made reservations, something that I would recommend on weekend nights. They have only a very small bar section, 8 stools at the bar, and 3-4 bar tables. The decor is really cozy - there is a giant lantern hung tree in the middle, birch trunks along the walls, and candles everywhere.
The cocktail menu was really creative and we had a hard time choosing just a few drinks. I tried a grapefruit and campari drink that was gorgeously pink and perfectly bitter. My friend tried the Bacchus - involving vodka, white wine, and white grapes. Both drinks were strong but not overpowering. Later, we both tried the Opal - rum, chai tea, cream. Unfortunately it was WAY too strong, we could barely drink it. Not the sweet, creamy drink we were expecting.
The food menu is split into Picnic (small plates to share) and mains. Based on reviews I had read, we decided to order several small plates and skip the mains. I can't say whether we missed out on a main, but every small plate we had was fantastic. We had deviled eggs with smoked paprika, caper powder, and garlic chips. They were pretty addictive, but an order ($5) only comes with 3 eggs. We also had the roasted baby beets with goat cheese, pistachio, fig vinegar, and micro arugula. The creamy goat cheese and spicy arugula balanced the sweet beets perfectly. The cheese plate contained a smokey blue, triple cream cow, soft goat, and Gruyere accompanied by a cranberry relish and micro greens. The portions of cheese were fairly generous. Then we had the ricotta gnocchi with oxtail ragout, marjoram, and Parmesan - perfectly cooked, savory, comforting. We also ordered a side of Parmesan truffle fries that were heavenly - served with some kind of tangy dipping sauce. This were so addictive that we had to order a second batch - paired with a sparkling wine as suggested by the bar menu. At this point, we were ridiculously full, but interested to try the desserts after seeing how playful the dinner menu was. We decided to split the caramelized banana split with ginger, maple-cinnamon, and vanilla ice creams. The cinnamon ice cream was our favorite, followed by the ginger - which was studded with bits of crystallized ginger - the vanilla got a bit lost with the other flavors. I LOVED the crunch of the caramelized surface of the banana, combined with the creamy interior. I may have to caramelize all of my bananas at home now.
All in all, it was a wonderful meal - fun, whimsical, and playful. I would definitely recommend it for getting together with friends. The decor is perfect for dates, but it was really loud - so maybe better on a slower night?
We went back to Taro in October to see what it was like on a regular night (as opposed to a holiday). We both ordered the sushi tasting menu which comes with come cooked dishes and some sushi. I won't go into too much detail this time because, frankly, the cooked dishes were forgettable. Sure they were savory and good (except for the frequent use of large, chewy matsutake mushrooms), but they were not really special - not like that incredible sukiyaki from February. The sushi, however, was fantastic - the standouts being fatty tuna (of course), white salmon, and the wagyu beef (I realize this is not a fish, but my goodness it was amazing). We have decided to skip the tasting menu the next time we go and just order sushi a la carte, because the fresh fish is definitely the star of Taro.