Friday, October 24, 2014

Dining Out: Hotel Tabard Inn

In college, I used to travel to Washington D.C. once or twice a year to visit one of my best friends. When he stayed there post-graduation, I continued my annual visits. When he finally left our nation's capital to move to New York, I never went back.

Over Columbus Day weekend I returned to D.C. for the first time since 2008! I was lucky enough to spend the weekend with two sets of friends, each eager to show me their favorite places.

On my first morning in town, we woke up and took the Metro to the Farragut North stop. Our destination? The Hotel Tabard Inn.

Despite the cold and rainy weather, the hotel's entrance was lush and blooming with brightly colored flowers.

We had a reservation, so only had to wait a minute or two for our table to be set. Once seated, we headed straight for the drinks. Two bloody Marys and a bellini.

A bloody Mary is such a science. It requires a delicate balance of vodka to tomato juice to garnish and the Tabard Inn version was an eight out of ten. Quite good!

While we looked over the menu, our waitress brought us a complimentary basket of baked goods. It was a mix of muffins and savory focaccia bread.

The banana muffin I sampled was heavenly. It crumbled onto the plate in the best way.

It's not common to order an appetizer round and an entree round at brunch, but hey, when in Rome, right?

To continue our brunch of gluttony, we asked for one of the house made donuts. You can order them individually or in a batch of six.

The donut was light, airy and dusted with sugar.

It was served with a beautifully swirled cup of vanilla whipped cream.

Unable to ignore this next item's description on the menu, we also ordered the half pound warm cinnamon roll. Yes, that's real.

In my opinion, a great cinnamon bun is defined by its frosting. This half pound monster was seriously lacking that signature drizzle.

With our teeth rotting, we decided to move onto more savory breakfast items.

One friend went with the grilled bistro fillet served with poached eggs, hollandaise and home fries.

He ordered the fillet medium rare and thought it was perfectly pink on the inside, it was a bit overcooked on the edges. Despite that, he raved, "This was a great take on the classic steak and eggs. The hollandaise was excellent, as were the poached eggs and the home fries."

Next to him, his fiance was enjoying the salmon eggs benedict. She too devoured the hollandaise sauce, but said it would have been great to have the sauce on the side since it was so rich.

She continued on to say, "The eggs were poached perfectly with exactly the right amount of runny yolk. The salmon was smoky and the homes fries were the best I've had anywhere."

I took a major departure from my usual choices and went with the frittata. It was caramelized onions, shiitake mushrooms, pecorino cheese and a side of mixed greens.

The caramelized onions were absolutely the best element of the dish. I couldn't get enough! Though I must admit, watching my two friends experience total euphoria eating their home fries left me a little envious.

At the end of our brunch we felt like we needed to be rolled out the door. We were stuffed! That being said, we vowed to come back and order just desserts. The Tabard Inn dessert menu includes something called death by chocolate, a milk chocolate banana tart, a sticky toffee pecan pudding cake and a vanilla creme brulee. I mean, come on. I need all those things.

Visit the Hotel Tabard Inn at 1739 N Street NW, Washington D.C. 20036.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dining Out: Parla

For the last few months I've had a new North End restaurant on my "must-try" list, Parla on Hanover Street. In typical Molly fashion, I became obsessed with it because of one flashy decor item - it's marquee letter sign.

The Parla dining room is small, but fantastic. In addition to the marquee letter sign, they have about ten tables, a four seater bar and a bunch of fun, unique decor.

I love this piece of art work which looks like an oversized wine label.

We made a reservation and thank goodness we did! Everyone who tried to walk in without one wound up being turned away.

After a few minutes of waiting at the table, a waitress appeared with the drink and dinner menus. I love the pattern on the drink menu.

It took extensive deliberation, but we were finally able to choose our cocktails, the bee sting julep for me and the bootleg old-fashioned for my dinner date.

The bee sting julep was habanero honey infused whiskey, sugar, fresh lemon and a mint garnish.

It came in the most beautiful, copper cup, ringed with a subtle but sophisticated dot pattern.

The cocktail had the perfect hint of spice from the habanero. The waitress told me it was super spicy, but like Goldilocks, I found it just right.

My friend went with the bootleg old-fashioned. It was rye, brown sugar bourbon simple, peychaud's bitters, orange and luxardo cherry. You may remember me saying this in the past, but I love these giant square ice cubes. Rather than small crushed ice, these ice cubes are meant for liquor drinks. They don't melt quickly, but they still keep your drink perfectly chilled.

My friend said, "I really loved this drink. It was definitely a twist on the traditional old-fashioned. It was just a little bit sweet." She liked it enough to have two!

With drinks in hand, we began to peruse the dinner menu.

To start, we shared the daily salumi and cheese plate. That day, the specialities were coppa and fontina.

The presentation was shockingly lackluster and the coppa could have been sliced thinner.

Post-coppa and cheese, we indulged in the crispy herb polenta which was served in an iron skillet.

It was like fried mozzarella, but lighter. If you took a bite with the chunky tomato sauce, it was excellent.

For the entree round, my friend was super adventurous and selected the ramen noodle carbonara. On the menu, the dish is described as slow roasted karabuta pork belly, chilies, egg, broccoli rabe, guanciale dashi and parmesan cheese.

She said, "This was not what I was expecting based on what I read on the menu. Talk about a unique presentation!"

After a few spoonfuls, she continued, "There are a lot of great flavors. The meat is delicious. Though I'm unsure what to do with the side plate of toppings."

The plate she mentioned was this:

Once she dumped the goodies into the bowl, she cheered, "Now the bowl is spiked with extra flavor and heat! I wish I had known I was supposed to pour it all in." Clearly this dish should have come with a manual!

I opted for the root vegetable tortellini which was carrot pure, ricotta salata, honet-nut walnut froth, roasted salsify and shaved black truffles.

The presentation was enticing, but the dish was visually one hue and tasted very one note. It was all one texture. It needed some kind of crunch like a sprinkle of nuts or a fried or crisped topping.

Though we had already sampled our way through most of the Parla menu, we knew we had to save room for dessert. Each of the three desserts listed looked excellent, so we asked the manager for his recommendation. He told us to get the donuts and the s'mores. Who could resist that suggestion?

The concord grape and maple donuts came in the most unexpected presentation. Please forgive the horrible contrast of the next two photos, I had no choice given the lighting in the restaurant!

As you can see, each donut came with a grape jelly filled eye dropper. The dropper was standing up straight, coming right out of the donut! In order to fill the donut with grape jelly, you had to squeeze the dropper. I have to say, I wish one of the servers had explained this to us. We weren't given any kind of instructions, so we had to fiddle around a bit before we could enjoy the dessert.

On their own, the donuts were too doughy. The dollop of whipped cream actually tasted more like butter.

The second dessert, the s'mores, came to our table covered with a silver warming tray. When it was lifted, smoke came off of the dish! Parla uses a smoking technique to give the s'mores dish that true campfire feel.

Again, the server didn't explain to us the presentation of the dish or how we were meant to eat it, so we basically tackled it blind and hoped we were enjoying it the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Our favorite touches were the pink peppercorn marshmallows and that smear of rich chocolate sauce on the plate.

For me, Parla is a place that takes cool and interesting risks, but needs to work on sharing those intentional choices with its diners. Half the fun of eating at a restaurant is hearing about the food, where its sourced from, why the chef chose those flavor combinations and if its required, how to eat each dish!

Let's face it, the best part of Parla is still the marquee letter sign.

Have you been to Parla yet? What did you think of their creative take on Italian food?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrate: National Pizza Month

There are so many great things about the month of October - the gorgeous foliage, the crisp fall weather, weekend apple picking, pumpkin coffee and desserts - but the best thing may be that it's National Pizza Month.

Who better to talk pizza with on this momentous occasion than Chef and Co-Owner of Area Four and A4 Pizza, Jeff Pond? While Jeff and his team were busy firing up pizzas, I had the chance to fire off a few questions on his love of 'za.

What is your first memory of tasting really killer pizza?

Jeff: The first really good pizza I ever had was at a place called Pizza Time in Bridgeport, CT. It was down the street from my house, and I was probably nine or ten, maybe eight years old. It wasn't anything crazy in terms of today's standards, but there was nice cheese, a good sauce and the chef/owner made his dough in-house.

There are a lot of pizza shops and restaurants in Boston. What makes the Area Four and A4 pies special? 

Jeff: The dough, the oven and the length of time we choose to cook our pizzas at. The Neopolitan pizza - the 90 second cook - remains really trendy, but we're not trying to do that. We do a nice, artisanal pie with a three and a half to four minute back time.

In your opinion, what is the most underrated pizza topping? 

Jeff: Soppressata instead of pepperoni. It might not be underrated, but it is sometimes unknown.

After talking with Jeff, I knew I finally had to make my way to A4 Pizza in Somerville. I've been a long time customer of the Area Four location in Kendall Square, but I hadn't been able to visit its sibling.

A4 Pizza is located just outside of Union Square, right across the street from Market Basket.

Inside, the space is small but warm, cozy and inviting. The bar runs along the entire left wall, eventually stopping just before the pizza oven. From any seat at the bar you can see the pizzas going in.

We waited about 15 minutes before seats opened at the bar and then grabbed three stools. A very friendly bartender delivered us menus. The A4 menu has two sections, each with a simple header, "Pizza" and "Not Pizza." 

Before ordering any pies, we started with drinks. Wine and beer for the girls and Bantam cider for me. If you haven't had Bantam cider it's super delicious and it's made right here in Somerville! In fact, the bartender informed me that Bantam has a tasting room. Apparently it's right near the Target in Union Square. Adding that to my list! 

With drinks in hand, we ordered up two appetizers to share, starting with the roasted cauliflower. For some reason, perhaps because it came served an iron skillet, I presumed the cauliflower would be hot. It was actually served room temperature, which was a surprise. 

I love cauliflower and this was definitely an interesting take. Almost like rolling your cauliflower through pizza sauce. 

Next up, the mixed greens topped with shaved pecorino. This was a great first round dish because it was tasty without being too filling. You have to leave room for the main event. 

For pizza, we shared two pies, starting with the classic margherita. Though made from simple ingredients, it was fantastic. The crust is the ideal ratio of crispy to chewy and dotted with those delicious bubbles created through the cooking process. The sauce was flavorful and a nice compliment to the creamy mozzarella. 

We were tempted to devour this entire pie, but resisted and took it home. 

We also sampled the shiitake mushroom pizza.

This pie is topped with mushroom sauce, fontina, gremolata and Baffoni Farm eggs. I don't know about you, but I absolutely love egg on pizza. 

With this particular pizza, the crust was really just a vehicle for consuming all the incredible goodies! The mushroom and the egg were such a rich, harmonious pairing. 

As you all know, I am a huge dessert person. Sadly, A4 only offers a dessert special on the weekend. That dish is a unique collaboration with their neighbor around the corner, Union Square Donuts. 

There are still 11 days left to celebrate National Pizza Month at A4 Pizza or Area Four. Trust me, you need to experience that margherita pizza!

Tell me, what's your favorite pie?
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