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Hi, I’m Doug, and I Ate the Swamp Thing for Lunch

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The levels of self-consciousness progress from the feet up.

For example, least embarrassing is to wear mismatched socks. Chances are no one will notice. An unzipped fly is worse, but you can get away with it if you’re dealing with people who are fairly unobservant, or choose not to look down at your crotch.

At the mortifying end of the spectrum: the dreaded food-stuck-in-the-teeth. There’s no getting out of that one. When you talk to people, they’re staring right at your face. Any remnants from lunch stuck in those pearly whites are gonna stand out.

I know this reality all too well, which is why I’ve made friends promise to always tell me if I have a bat in the cave or food in my teeth; I also use the camera on my phone to inspect my teeth after any meal with green, leafy vegetables.

The other day at a conference I bolted off to Taylor Gourmet at lunchtime and picked up my favorite sandwich — the Pattison Avenue with roast pork, sharp provolone and broccoli rabe.  Broccoli rabe is my nemesis — as much as I adore it, it ALWAYS gets stuck in the teeth on the left side of my mouth. I made a mental note to check myself in the mirror when I got back to the conference.

Then I forgot.

Cut to three hours later at the networking happy hour at Cities Restaurant & Lounge. Good times — drinking red wine, meeting interesting people, making conversation, exchanging business cards. I excused myself to use the restroom, happened to catch my mug in the mirror and…

SWEET MOTHER OF GOD.

I practically jumped backwards in horror. Stuck between my teeth in THREE places were dark green pieces of Taylor Gourmet broccoli rabe.  To make matters worse, the red wine had turned my tongue purple and stained my teeth. It dawned on me that I’d spent the last 45 minutes smiling and chatting with my mouth looking somewhere between ‘creepy’ and ‘revolting.’

There’s no doubt in my mind that anyone I spoke with at the happy hour noticed my oral disaster. Let this be a lesson to everyone — never, ever, forget to check your teeth after a meal. And always carry dental floss.

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Did I Order Le Diplomate’s Worst Dish?

If Le Diplomate were a movie on Rotten Tomatoes, it would boast an almost 100% fresh rating.  Its staff would be putting the final touches on their Vera Wang gowns and prepping acceptance speeches for next week’s Oscars. That’s how much DC folks love Le Diplomate.

Which is why I’m feeling disappointed about my recent meal there.  It’s like I missed out on something.

Let’s start with the positives.  Le Diplomate draws raves about its bread, for good reason. My friend Amanda and I tore through this basket; we were all over the cranberry bread, especially.

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No complaints about the ricotta ravioli either.

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I’m usually quite good at selecting one of the more interesting entrees on a menu.  But  I may have brain cramped this time, because with duck confit, braised lamb and grilled loup de mer among the options, I went with the steak frites, probably the most mundane dish among the bunch.

What happened? Well, I hadn’t eaten a steak in years, and it sounded so appealing to me at this particular moment. I also figured if any place was going to prepare a steak to remember, it’d be Le Diplomate.

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It was good; it just wasn’t GOOD.  Surprisingly, the steak was overcooked; my medium-well request had become well done.  The meat was tough in places, especially near the ends.

I’d been hoping for more. With all the hype surrounding Le Diplomate, I expected a hangar steak so divine that the memory of it would burn into my brain.

Amanda and I shared a dark chocolate Napoleon for dessert.

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Not the type of Napoleon I thought it would be. I prefer layers of thin puff pastry over this harder, thicker almond layer on the bottom.

All in all, kind of underwhelming. It’s possible Le Diplomate was having an off night. This was the eve of a huge snowstorm, so maybe the chefs were rushing and just hoping to get home.

My prevailing thought is that I ordered one of the weaker dishes.  Friends and colleagues wax poetic about the duck, lamb and branzino; I’m kicking myself for not going that route.

So either I screwed up, or the place is like Jared Leto’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” — critically acclaimed, with me scratching my head trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Le Diplomate
1601 14th St. NW
Washington, DC
202-332-3333

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Afghan Grill’s Mantoo (Meat-Filled Dumplings)

A few years ago I produced a TV food segment about manti — tiny, meat-filled Turkish dumplings.  As the chef herself said, “It is not easy making the manti. This is occasional food.”

She wasn’t kidding.  After making the dough, she rolled it out and cut out squares the size of a postage stamp. Each square was dabbed with the meat filling, and the four corners of the dough were pinched together to form a star shape. The process was laborious, to say the least; she had to crimp dozens of manti just to make enough for a few servings.

It was right then that I realized I would never, ever, under any circumstance, be making manti at home.

(They were a marvel, incidentally.  We ate a full meal after shooting, and I’ll always remember those delicate, little dumplings.)

I hadn’t eaten manti since that day, until a recent dinner at Woodley Park’s Afghan Grill.

In Afghan cuisine, the dumplings are called mantoo. They’re basically the same idea, only larger, the size of ravioli.

Afghan Grill knocks them out of the park.

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Everything is working here; the lightness of the meat filling, and the red sauce with a drizzle of garlicky yogurt sauce. But it’s really all about the bite of that dough — soft and pillowy, yet 100% al dente. You can taste the care that goes into making each one.

I imagine mantoo are slightly easier to make than manti, since they’re about five times bigger. Nevertheless, I’m leaving these dumplings to the professionals. When a chef says they are “occasional food,” I’m taking her word for it.

One last thing: when you’re at Afghan Grill, try the dessert of vanilla ice cream with cardamom, almonds and rose water. Trust me.

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Afghan Grill
2309 Calvert St. NW
Washington, DC
202-234-5095

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The Mixed Bag That is Union Market

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Union Market is no Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Let’s get that out of the way up front.  I don’t know that it’s even trying to be like Reading Terminal. The expectation was my own — that Union Market was a scaled-down version of the legendary Philly market. It’s not.

I’m not quite sure what Union Market is, really.  It appears to have helped revitalize an up-and-coming area of DC.  The collection of food merchants and vendors have created nice niches for themselves, catering to primarily upper middle class clientele (from what I could tell). I’m not sure that the general neighborhood population would be able to shop or dine regularly there — and that’s not a good thing.

My friend Leah and I paid a visit to Union Market on a recent weekend. We’ve shared several food experiences together, the best being dinner at Little Serow.

We walked in and took a lap around the place. There was a nice energy inside, although it was quickly apparent that the crowd was rather homogenous. Well-heeled yuppies and hipsters in funky eyeglasses abounded.

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I saw people enjoying brunch at what looked like an old-style soda fountain; there were fish, meat, wine, and cheese vendors, dried herbs and spices, pricey boutiques, dessert stops, and a host of food stalls. Didn’t see a single produce vendor, but I’ve been told one exists.

We wandered around pondering our first move until Leah spotted this lady selling steamed pork buns.

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Sold! Pork buns sounded perfect for our first sampling of the day.

We placed our order and waited. It was a lot of work for this poor woman. She was cooking solo, making each bun by hand, then placing them into the steamers.

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After 5-10 minutes, they were ready. Leah and I took our two buns apiece and found a table.

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These were very good. Denser than the steamed buns you’ll find at dim sum, and the pork was shredded, rather than chopped. There were also some chiles in there, because these had a kick to them!

We were off to a good start.

Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there.

The sandwich line was long at Red Apron Butchery. A good sign, right?

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And what could sound better than a “Porkstrami” sandwich?  Thin slices of pastrami-style pork, mustard, and sauerkraut on Red Apron’s own bread.

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I hate to be so harsh, but… the sandwich was kind of terrible. Leah knew she didn’t like it after the first bite. It took me several bites to realize that things were going wrong. Mushy, lifeless bread (begging to be toasted) formed a sandwich around sliced pork that was half meat, and half fat. You can see it in the picture. Half the meat was inedible, and I ended up picking it out and forming a mound of fat on the tin foil.

The sauerkraut was the best component of the sandwich, but even that couldn’t save it. Really disappointing.

We took another lap around, looking for a dessert to make up for the porkstrami.

We stopped at the Harvey’s Market stall and admired the great looking meat. Leah asked the young guy working the counter, “Where is this lamb from?”

He paused, sort of shrugged, and with a confused look, said, “I’m not sure. New Zealand?”

He ambled off to go check.

I looked closely at the label on the lamb. It read, ‘Shenandoah.’

Then I read the signs placed on the display case: ‘Local.’ ‘Maryland.’ ‘Local.’ ‘Virginia.’

I’m venturing a guess that the young guy was a hair off base with his New Zealand answer. Unless New Zealand is considered local, and there’s a Shenandoah, New Zealand.

Leah and I walked some more, finally settling at the cupcake stand. I’m not much of a cupcake person, but splitting one between the two of us sounded about right. We picked out a cookies ‘n cream cupcake.

Leah tried to cut the cupcake in half, but the thing was chilled solid. She could barely work her way through it.

And it tasted bad. Not the texture of a cupcake at all; more like cold cookie dough with a mound of frosting.  A couple of bites were all I could handle.

As food success goes, we went 1 out of 3.  That’s good for a baseball batting average; it’s not so good for sampling food.  It’s possible we made the wrong choices, or the particular vendors we stopped at were having a bad day. I’d like to think what we ate isn’t representative of the market as a whole. That’d be a real shame.

I’d like to return to Union Market again, because my first impression was … iffy. What does it want to be? Reading Terminal Market has something for everyone, and seems to function as both a tourist destination and a stop for Philly regulars of all types. Union Market exudes a more exclusive sheen. Rather than being exclusive, isn’t there some room for inclusive?

Union Market
1309 5th St. NE
Washington, DC