My Mom's Butter Chicken: To Die For 08.28.2010

During the ‘90s, my mother started making a mind-blowing butter chicken. She has a history of making mind-blowing chicken curries so it was no surprise that the butter chicken would be just so. The chicken curries were – and still are -- juicy, perfectly moist.

Prior to the butter chicken, the curries were the typical brown color and, as in most Indian homes, she used chicken drumsticks. I don’t know the reason for the drumsticks, but I suspect the majority of chicken drumsticks in the world are being consumed by the subcontinent. The butter chicken recipe calls for cubed chicken breast.

As you might imagine, my mother’s cooking is fabulous all around (and you would be correct), but getting a recipe out of her is near impossible. Not because they are closely guarded secrets of some Indian family, but because she does not work off of recipes. And when you ask her how to make something, her response is always (frustratingly) the same: “It’s easy.” That’s it. That’s all you get.

I managed to get a list of ingredients – with no measurements, of course – and with a little experimentation, came up with a recipe. Enjoy, and let me know how your version turns out. Some of the ingredients can be found at your local Indian grocery.

Also, if you’re dining out, butter chicken is known as chicken makhani in Indian restaurants. I’ve yet to eat bad butter chicken anywhere, but my mom’s is the best.

-- shb

My Mom’s Butter Chicken Recipe

Serves four just fine, decadent for two really hungry people.
Do not keep for more than 24 hours. I don’t know why but that’s the rule.


• Three boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed

• Plain yogurt (enough to cover but not soak all the chicken cubes)

• 1 teaspoon black salt (more if you like)

• 1 cap-full vinegar

• 1 table spoon lemon juice

• 1 teaspoon paprika

• 2 tablespoons turmeric


• Hand-and-half or heavy cream (enough to cover chicken cubes once they are in sauce pan)

• 1 cup tomato sauce (you may want to add more later, depending on your taste – adds tartness and color)

• 2 tablespoons (or 3 depending on taste) dried methi leaves (Indian grocery). The aroma is intense; you’ve been warned

• Black salt (keep adding pinches until it tastes right to you)

• 1 teaspoon turmeric (more if you want it more yellow)

For a kick: mince a green chili (seeded) and add to sauce


1. Place cubed chicken breasts in a bowl

2. Pour yogurt until yogurt covers – not soaks – chicken cubes

3. Blend into chicken-yogurt mixture: 1 teaspoon black salt, one cap-full vinegar, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon paprika, and 2 tablespoons turmeric. Blend well.

4. Cover bowl and let sit for at least three hours. Longer is better but no need to go crazy and do an overnight.

SUPER TIP: While the chicken marinates, clean up the mess you’ve made in the kitchen, making sure to clean all surfaces touched by the raw chicken. Cleaning up is not only hygienic, it’s also efficient. It’s no fun to sit down to a meal with a messy kitchen. After you’ve cleaned, fix yourself a glass of wine (a white burgundy will do just fine) and relax.

Just before marinating time is up, heat the oven to 350 degrees.

1. In a baking pan, pour chicken in marinade and place in oven for 10 minutes

2. Turn chicken over and keep in oven for another 10 minutes

3. Take out of baking pan, and with a spatula, move chicken pieces – not the marinade – into a heavy saucepan

4. Put saucepan on medium heat and pour half-and-half or heavy cream into pan just a tad below the tops of the chicken pieces

5. Throw in tomato sauce, methi leaves, black salt, and turmeric.

6. Stir until blended; simmer for 15 minutes

Serve with basmati rice.

For Indian meals, I like to cook the rice with a few cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, and cardamom. Delicious!

Best Wine Lists 08.22.2010

I have no idea why we continue to get Wine Spectator magazine. Neither of us reads it, but Eric and I live on the false hope that all of our subscriptions will get read one day when we have time. They won't and we won't. The Aug. 31, 2010 issue of Wine Spectator, however, caught my attention.

The cover story is about the "Best Restaurants for Wine Lovers".  The Wine Spectator list is divided up by rankings and does not read like a phone directory, which is helpful. These are the categories -- there are of course more details as to the judging but I've included one or two criteria within each tier:

  • Award of Excellence (tier one: wine lists with well-chosen selection of quality producers and at least 100 selections);
  • Best of Award of Excellence (tier two: restaurants that exceed the tier one requirements, wine lists have variety and depth, and offer 400 or more selections, some more than 1,000; and
  • Grand Award (tier three: restaurants with "uncompromising, passionate devotion" to their wine program, with more than 1,500 selections, and selection of mature vintages)

New winners and upgrades are also noted. Additionally -- and just in time for a tanking economy -- the magazine points out restaurants that "feature inexpensive wine pricing".


There are 40 DC restaurants on the list, but no Grand Award winners. There was one upgrade: Adour at the St. Regis, which went from tier one to tier two (Best of Award of Excellence). I ate at Adour shortly after it opened in 2008 but didn't feel like drinking. It may have had to do with the fact that I was pregnant but didn't know it. I remember the cellar being impressive and Eric happy with the wine.

New to the List

New to the list this year are Bibiana Osteria Enoteca, Cityzen, Cure Bar & Bistro, The Jockey Club, Kellari Taverna, and Plume. I've not tired Cure, Kellari, or Plume, and of the others I can confirm that the wine selection is good.

The Jockey Club is at the Fairfax Hotel in Dupont Circle across from the Indian Embassy and the Phillips Collection, and has been around through several iterations of the hotel. When I go there now, I eat and drink in the lounge, which evokes a Washington-politico vibe. The bartender makes up incredible old school cocktails. My favorite is champagne with creme de violette with several sugared violette petals floating around in the glass. The taste of the champagne, creme de violette, and the slight crunch of the sugared violette petal is delightful, especially in the summer.

Tier Two

Under the second tier category (Best of Award of Excellence), Wine Spectator lists Adour, BLT Steak, Bourbon Steak, The Capital Grille, Charlie Palmer Steak, Cityzen, Plume, and Proof.  I recently dined at Proof and did the tasting menu. The wine was fantastic. My only problem with Proof is that for some reason the sommelier changed midcourse. There is something comforting about a sommelier staying with you throughout the whole meal.

I've not eaten at Bourbon Steak but have visited the bar; on a Friday evening, unfortunately. The place was packed and quite the scene. I was with five other people and didn't hear a word they said.

Tier One

Tier one consists of: Ardeo Restaurant, Bibiana, Blacksalt, Bobby Van's Grill, Bobby Van's Steakhouse, The Bombay Club, Brasserie Beck, Cafe Atlantico, Clyde's of Georgetown, Cure Bar & Bistro, Fogo de Chao, Hook Restaurant, Jaleo, The Jockey Club, Kellarie Taverna, Legal Sea Foods, Mei N Yu, Morton's The Steakhouse (two locations), Occidental Grill & Seafood, Old Ebbit Grill, The Oval Room, Oya Restaurant & Lounge, The Palm, Poste Moderne Brasserie, The Prime Rib, Rasika Restaurant, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse (two locations), 701, 1789 Restaurant, and Smith & Wollensky.

I've dined at all the Ashok Bajaj restaurants and had my wedding reception at The Bombay Club -- all have a good collection of wine, the wine at Rasika being my favorite. I highly recommend doing Mini Bar, the chef's table at Cafe Atlantico. Mini Bar seats only six and offers wine or champagne pairings with a creative 30-course tasting menu. I recently went to Mei N Yu and was not impressed. The space is warm and inviting, but I found the service lacking in those qualities. I had dinner and cocktails at the bar; I'll give it another chance for the wine.

Where is Citronelle?

I found surprising that the Wine Spectator list did not include Michele Richard's Citronelle. The restaurant has a stellar wine list. The last time I ate there, sommelier Mark Slater -- who since has gone to Ray's the Steaks in Arlington, Virginia -- was pairing wine for us at the chef's table and brought out, among other solid estates, Chateau Latour. I had high expectations of the $350 per person chef's table menu, and the Chateau Latour was icing on the cake.

There are several other notable restaurants missing and I'm guessing they did not want to participate or were disqualified for whatever reason.   

Chez Blume 08.19.2010

It's been a while since I've written, which means there has been a lot of eating. Or life has become all-consuming. Either way, it's interesting. There has been plenty of dining out but I want to start with dinner last night at Chez Blume. We aspire to fantastic meals every night but after a day of work, a commute, kids, etc. etc., it's often not possible. We still aspire, Eric more so than me.

Eric made grilled salmon, glazed with maple syrup (salt and pepper). The orange-pink color was beautiful, and the fish tender. On the side, spinach ravioli from Trader Joe's with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. I've eaten plenty of ravioli purchased from the refrigerated section of a store, but Trader Joe's is the best. It tastes fresh. I recently had truly fresh spinach ravioli at Villa Mozart in Fairfax, and this was an incredible likeness.

Earlier yesterday, I had steamed two heads of broccoli for the kids -- they love broccoli. Eric threw in a potato and made a creamy broccoli soup, which was delicious. The color was reminiscent of pesto.

Let me go back to the salmon for a bit: I do not like salmon and don't understand the fuss. Oh sure, the health benefits, but the taste? It's too fishy. So for me to eat and enjoy salmon says a lot about the preparation.

In recent years, I've made an effort with salmon because my daughter, Adventure Girl, loves salmon. Adventure Girl needs no inspiration to eat salmon, but it is important, especially as a Life Giver, to set a good example. Perhaps we'll have a moment when she's 35 and I reveal my true feelings about salmon, and she'll say:  "I don't know who you are." We'll see.

The success of last night's salmon was due to cooking time, and just the right amount of maple syrup: it wasn't overpowering, nor was the salt. Much of the salmon I've eaten in my life has unfortunately been overcooked, bordering on rubbery. And the longer salmon sits -- cooked or otherwise -- the stinkier it gets.

To drink, we had a glass of 2005 Rodney Strong Chardonnay (Sonoma County) -- perfect for a summer night. Adventure Girl had boxed apple juice from Trader Joe's.

A Tale of a Terrible Tiramisu

Okay, so this is the final blast from the past piece. In 1998, after a little urging, I wrote a piece about my first experience making tiramisu, that sensuous Italian dessert. The experience was interesting, to say the least. I also was urged to submit the piece to the Washington Post Food section (which appears each Wednesday), which I did, and it was published. So, here it is.


 A Tale of a Terrible Tiramisu

[FINAL Edition]

The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.

You've told everyone about the tiramisu you had the other night, drooling on and on about its airy, creamy-cake texture and its hint of brandy so delicately intertwined with espresso that you swear you had died and gone to heaven.

When I made tiramisu for the first time, it wasn't exactly something to live for, let alone die for.

It was 1993, my first year out of college. Up until then, I had avoided any type of cooking. But Sara, a friend and now former colleague, loved all things Italian, most especially tiramisu. For Christmas that year, Sara gave me an Italian cookbook with an extensive tiramisu recipe.

I lived with my parents in Germantown, Md., at the time, and one evening while they were out, I decided to make this heaven in a loaf pan.

It took me almost two hours and visits to four grocery stores to gather all the ingredients--God forbid anyone in the suburbs should want to use mascarpone cheese.

In my mother's spacious kitchen, I carefully created the coffee mixture with espresso, sugar and brandy. I whisked the eggs with just the right wrist movement. I then lined the bottom of a loaf pan with ladyfingers dipped in the coffee mixture. I had trouble getting the ladyfingers to lay just right to form an even bed, but persisted. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day.

"The ladyfingers should be soaked with the coffee and will expand a little," the recipe said. I saw this happening. "Continue with more ladyfingers, lining the bottom of the pan lengthwise with them. You can trim them if they don't fit exactly," it went on. I did have trouble laying them out evenly--ladyfingers just aren't created in a single size.

In fact, I began thinking it was odd to use ladyfingers in a dessert. In India, where I was born, we use ladyfingers for main courses and side dishes. But for desserts? It's just not done. But really, I thought, who am I to question the Italians?

Once the pan was filled with alternating layers of ladyfingers, mascarpone cheese and shaved chocolate, I wrapped the loaf pan with wax paper and put it in the refrigerator for six hours.

The next morning, I flipped over the loaf pan, as instructed. A blob of tiramisu settled onto the serving dish quite easily. I began to lose hope: This was the most unattrac-tive dessert I had ever seen.

I finished the loaf with an icing made of whipping cream, vanilla and confectioners' sugar, and dusted it with cocoa powder and additional shaved chocolate. I carried the serving dish with tiramisu to my parents and suggested they try it.

My father lifted his eyes from behind his glasses with a look of disbelief. "I'm not going to eat that," he said. I proceeded to lecture him about life and how one should always try new things. "It's Italian," I coaxed. "It's exotic," I pleaded. He didn't bite. "No," he said, going back to his newspaper. "It looks disgusting."

My mother, who embodies the encouragement of the world, looked at me with all the unconditional love she could muster. "Maybe later?" she said. "Fine," I huffed. I turned around and went back to the kitchen. I placed the tiramisu on the counter top and stared at it. It looked awful.

The next day at work, I began questioning people about tiramisu. "Have you ever eaten tiramisu?" I asked two colleagues in the break room. "Yes," gushed Linda."Incredible," drooled Mark.

I explained to them that I had made tiramisu over the weekend and it wasn't really edible to me or my family.

Neither could understand why. Linda went on to explain, "You know, sometimes I make tiramisu with real sponge cake."

"Sponge cake!" I blurted out. "That makes a lot more sense. Have you ever made it with whole okra?"

Linda and Mark looked at each other.

"Whole okra?" Linda asked.

"Yes. You know, ladyfingers--whole okra?"

Linda turned her head to me, looking confused. "What are you talking about?" she asked.

"Ladyfingers are whole okra," I said, obviously.

Linda turned to Mark again and turned back to me.

"No," Linda said, trying slowly to speak through her laughter. "Ladyfingers are sponge-cake cookies."

Word quickly spread through the office that I had made a dessert with whole okra.

"Didn't you think, 'Why on Earth is a vegetable being used in a dessert?' " Sara asked, breathless from laughing.

"No," I said defiantly. "The recipe called for ladyfingers and I used ladyfingers."

The pain, the anguish and the utter embarrassment. But how was I to know? Distraught, I spent that evening calling my Indian friends to confirm that, in fact, whole okra is commonly known in India as ladyfingers.

Even my grandmother, who doesn't know a word of English, knows what ladyfingers are. When I stayed with her in India several years ago, she would tell me in Hindi to buy a half-kilo of ladyfingers when the vegetable cart rolled around in the early afternoon.

Needless to say, I have not since then made anything without tasting it or seeing a picture of it first. This has not, however, stopped those who know about The Incident from asking me anytime I cook something: "Is there okra in it?"

Tiramisu (6 servings)

Here's the recipe I used to make my ill-fated tiramisu. Just remember to use the right ladyfingers. The recipe is from "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian" by Jeff Smith (Morrow, 1993).

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups espresso or triple-strength regular coffee at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup brandy

2 egg yolks+

1 pound mascarpone cheese

8-ounce package ladyfingers

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, shaved (use a box grater)

For the icing:

1 cup fresh whipping (heavy) cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

For the garnish:

Cocoa powder for dusting
Shaved chocolate

Stir the espresso, sugar and brandy together in a bowl until the sugar dissolves. Put 1/3 cup of the mixture in another bowl and set the remainder aside. Whisk the egg yolks into the 1/3 cup of coffee. Add the mascarpone and whisk together just until smooth. Do not overmix or it may begin to separate.

Line the inside of a 9 1/2-by-5 1/2- inch loaf pan with a large sheet of wax paper. Tuck the paper into the corners, being careful not to tear it. If you have another identical loaf pan, carefully press it inside the lined pan so that the wax paper will be forced into the shape of the pan.

Dip 7 ladyfingers one at a time into the reserved coffee mixture and begin to place them crosswise in the lined pan. The ladyfingers should be soaked with the coffee and will expand a little. This will only take a few seconds; be sure not to soak them so long that they fall apart. Continue with more ladyfingers, lining the bottom of the pan lengthwise with them. You can trim them if they don't fit exactly. Spread on half of the cheese mixture. Sprinkle with 2 ounces of the shaved chocolate.

Layer again in the same manner with 7 more ladyfingers, the remaining cheese mixture and the remaining chocolate. Top the loaf pan with the remaining soaked ladyfingers. Fold the wax paper up around the top of the pan, cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 hours.

Invert the chilled loaf pan onto a serving platter and tap the bottom of the pan to remove the loaf. Remove the wax paper.

Whip the cream, vanilla and confectioners' sugar in a bowl until stiff. Spread the whipped cream all over the inverted cake. (Or use a pastry bag to decorate it with whipped cream.) Place the cocoa in a fine strainer and dust the top of the cake. Sprinkle with additional shaved chocolate. Slice and serve.

+ NOTE: Uncooked eggs may be contaminated with salmonella and should be avoided by young children, the elderly and anyone with immune system deficiencies.

Per serving: 789 calories, 13 gm protein, 65 gm carbohydrates, 52 gm fat, 346 mg cholesterol, 28 gm saturated fat, 320 mg sodium

Credit: Special to The Washington Post

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

Blue Duck Tavern

This is another piece I wrote in 2006. I now remember why I never launched a food blog. I got pregnant, and that led to some interesting eating and low energy. And then I got pregnant again, which led to some bizarre eating and a complete lack of energy. Two kids later, I think I'm back to my old self.

This piece is about Blue Duck Tavern, which is located at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Washington, DC. I've been back there several times and enjoy it, but am satisfied by only a few dishes on the menu. I plan on going back and have yet to try the tea cellar.

I had lunch today at Blue Duck Tavern, which is located at the Park Hyatt on 24th and M Streets, NW. I know: hotel restaurant. They're tricky, but I've always been open to them and rarely have I been disappointed. After all, if you have a big meal and you're tired, you're not too far away from a bed.

The Park Hyatt has undergone renovations and I approve of each and every one. The hotel, as well as the restaurant, is minimally decorated. Lots of neutral colors, glass dividing spaces instead of walls, and lots of space: nothing is crowded. I also found the staff to be friendly and knowledgeable.

I arrived at the restaurant and sought out my friend Tom, who warned me he was in shorts -- August in Washington will bring out the most relaxed behavior in us all. I wound my way through the restaurant and found him seated in the corner in the back. Unacceptable. We asked the waiter to move us by the kitchen and he complied.

The kitchen is open, as restaurant kitchens seem to be more and more these days. It was really lovely. The French stove was massive and covered on top with stacks of frying pans. The kitchen staff and the chef were moving deliberately, preparing dishes, bringing them to a central station, where after last minute touches were made, the food was sent off on a silver tray lined in white linen. I noticed a bowl of steak frites and made a mental note to order them. When given the opportunity to enjoy frites and mayonnaise, I don't pass it up.

I had a hankering for champagne so the first order of business was to order some bubbly. It's hard to find good champagne by the glass so I was excited when the waiter told me he had Pol Roger by the glass; I love Pol Roger. The cost was $16 for the glass, which is about half and a bit more of what a full bottle costs. Tom had a glass of red wine.

I was irritated that the music was so loud and had to ask the waiter to repeat himself because I could not hear him. Is it too much to ask for some peace and quite while I'm eating? Is the restaurant attacking my senses in order to divert my attention from the food?

The menu was not massive, for which I was grateful. One needs choices, but not so many. The waiter had explained to us that the idea behind the serving style was to share the food. To start, Tom and I shared soft-shelled crab fried in batter alongside a remoulade. Delicious. We also shared the steak frites (divine -- he with mustard, I with mayonnaise). He ordered leeks, which I did not eat but he seemed to enjoy. I don't care for leeks (but do enjoy leek soup) and these leeks looked a little droopy and buttery, but not in a good way.

For the main course, I ordered trout with bacon. I had expected a disguised trout but received a trout with it's head still intact. Tom was kind enough to do the dirty work and chop off the head and tail. It was good but we both agreed (because we shared) it did not make any statements. It was tender and I wanted very much to taste the bacon but did not. It was either not strong enough or had been subdued in the cooking.

Tom ordered grits with chanterelle mushrooms and fava beans. The grits were so creamy. They were not stick-to-your-stomach grits; they were simply perfect: flowy but not too flowy.

For dessert we ordered the apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I was assured the apple pie was warm but in fact it was not. I decided not to make a fuss. Despite it not being warm, it was fabulous. It was of substantial size and therefore perfect for two. Tom asked for an after-dinner-drink and was brought a small but full glass of a Muscat-like beverage.

In addition to the food and great view of the kitchen, Tom and I also enjoyed the people-watching, which consisted mostly of Washington-business-types and some out-of-towners probably staying at the hotel. There was a man who appeared to be in his 70s with a significantly younger woman, who was quite elegant. We pondered their relationship for a bit but decided they were father and daughter.

We left the restaurant through the hotel lobby and explored the tea cellar, which was a peaceful space. There are some teas in store that are well over $100. A woman stacking glasses in the tea cellar told us that earlier in the day a tea humidor had been delivered. I made a mental note to return for tea.


Several years ago, I thought about starting a food blog for the same reasons I just started one. I wrote a few pieces, one of which is below. This piece was based on a visit to Famoso in October 2006. I've been back a few times and can't say that it's gotten better. I prefer the cafe downstairs called M Cafe -- to be discussed in a separate post.


If you were wondering where the older, nouveau riche types were going to dine in hip, modern surroundings north of the District line, wonder no more! Famoso will serve the purpose quite well. It is not yet open for lunch but when it is, I suspect that the ladies-who-lunch will find their luncheon needs met here in between shopping jaunts at Saks and Neiman’s and every store in between.

Famoso sits atop the MaxMara store in Chevy Chase. Also in the line of stores are Ralph Lauren, Barney’s, Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Cartier, Dior, Louis Vuitton, among others. The whole strip of stores officially has been dubbed “The Collection at Chevy Chase”.

You must enter Famoso by elevator and upon entering, are at the doorway of a chic bar and lounge with a Euro-trash ambiance, a tad more severe than CafĂ© Milano in Georgetown. We did not have a reservation and the maitre’d escorted us through the almost-empty dining room to a table in the back. With our backs to the wall we could see the entire room, which was minimally decorated with manufactured art.

The restaurant started to fill up quickly and almost every well-coifed person who walked in had a two-kiss relationship with the maitre’d. I found out later that the maitre’d is the “Maitre'd extraordinaire Ralph Fredericks most recently of the Coeur de Lion at Washington's Henley Park Hotel.”

The menu was divided into the traditional Antipasti, Insalate and Zuppe, Risotti, Paste, and Pesce and Carne.

We ordered sparking water and Eric got a martini, dry, straight up with olives. He’s not fussy about his gin but is mildly disappointed when there isn’t any Plymouth. After a little back-and-forth about various gins, Eric settled on Beefeater. It arrived with three plump, stuffed olives. I point this out because we have a ritual of sharing the olives and these olives were odd. I tasted one after Eric and agreed it tasted fishy. We informed our waiter who informed the manager. The manager arrived at our table officiously and informed us that the bar uses various types of stuffed olives. Another waiter who had gone to investigate the matter just then announced that the olives were stuffed with anchovies. I’m not a martini drinker but Eric confirmed my thoughts that anchovies do not belong in a martini.

The waiter was apologetic and whisked over a glass of red wine for Eric, on the house.

While we waited to order, we noticed that glasses of champagne were brought to various tables around the room to diners with two-kiss relationships with Ralph. The man carrying the champagne was the sommelier. He carried two glasses of champagne with the fingertips of both hands and stuck his elbows out to the side, as if carrying a crown on a pillow. Another waiter followed behind him, carrying the champagne in just that precise way.

As you know, I don’t care for music – loud or otherwise – while eating, and Famoso plays its Euro-techno/new-age music loud. We were also sitting right under a brand new Bose speaker on the ceiling so that may have made it louder for us.

I had had a tough day (actually a tough week) and was in no mood to be adventurous. I wanted the old standbys. I picked the fried calamari (gran fritto dell adriatico con verdure croccantsi for $15) and the risotto parmesan (risotto con fagiano e tartufo mantecato nella forma di parmigiano for $29) and stuck with sparkling water throughout the meal. Our waiter, John, was terribly excited I was getting the risotto. He described the creaming of the risotto in a wheel of cheese. On the menu, next to description of the risotto, the restaurant had noted it was the “2001 Winner of the ‘Golden Spoon’ – Best Risotto in Canada.” (The chef, Gabriele Paganelli, is from Canada.)

The calamari was fried perfectly but had an anchovy aftertaste. I couldn’t figure out if the taste from the olive remained with me or if the calamari had been cooked with anchovies. Mixed in with the calamari were julienned pieces of zucchini, carrots, and eggplant fried in the same manner as the calamari, and a spicy tomato sauce.

In between courses, three women were escorted to a table near us. The most stunning of the three while floating to her seat, gushed seductively to the waiter: “Thannnnnk you sweetheart!”

As I continued to observe the drama in the room, the sommelier rolled the wheel of cheese to our table. He poured pure alcohol into the wheel and set it on fire. Other diners looked our way. He then ladled the risotto into the wheel of cheese (mentacato) and stirred for a few minutes before ladling it onto a plate. He showed me a truffle (“This is a truffle.”) and shaved it on to the risotto. I could tell the risotto would have been delicious if the chef just had not given it that extra dash of salt. It wasn’t an overpowering saltiness but it was too much. Eric disagreed; he said it was perfect.

Once we completed our main courses, we settled back and resumed people-watching. We had no dessert partly because we were full and also because the dessert menu was not impressive. Eric had an espresso and I had Jasmine Mist tea.

Final thoughts: I probably will not come back to Famoso for food but will definitely come back for a beverage in the lounge. I recommend that you do go there for the experience and ask for a table up against the back wall. There are a few tables where couples can sit side-by-side, which is nice.

The maitre’d was friendly enough but gave his full attention to diners he already knew. He came to our table a few times, appearing to do so under duress. It would have been perfectly fine had he not visited us at all.

During the meal, one waiter came to our table and observed I was taking notes in a small notebook. He laughed nervously and asked if I was a spy. I said that I was.

Snacking: Zapp's Potato Chips 08.02.2010

Potato chips don't rank as essential in my life, mainly because people who do often eat them do so with great vigor, resulting in a lot of unnecessary noise. The sound of food crunching is the equivalent of nails scraping a chalkboard for me -- unless I'm the one eating and doing so in private. From time to time, I will pair a lunch sandwich with healthy-ish chips, which is what I did on Monday.

Potbelly Sandwich Works, a fabulous sandwich shop that deserves a post of it's own, is just down the street from my office and has a number of potato chip options but one is featured prominently, both at the store and on Potbelly's website: Zapp's Potato Chips. I cannot distinguish one kettle recipe from another, and so it is the case with Zapp's. I did, however, find the potato chips to be delicious and the packaging entertaining.

I got "REGULAR FLAVOR" bag, which is 1.5 ounces. On the back of the bag, I learned that Zapp's are made in the company's custom-made fryers which, "combined with premium ingredients results in a crunchier, tastier potato chip". There is a small note from Ron and Anne Zappe (Ron Zappe, who started the company in 1985 in Gramercy, Louisiana, died in June 2010 of throat cancer) that ends with: "Enjoy, and laissez les bon temps rouler!" (Let the good times roll?)

I also like that the bag notes: "For a good time and online ordering please visit our FunSite" -- how can you not like a business that encourages you to have a good time?

Il Mulino 07.29.2010

It's difficult to go wrong with Italian cooking and Il Mulino satisfies as comfort food in a pinch.

A little background on the scene before I dive into the food: Il Mulino is in a not terribly impressive area of Washington, DC -- Vermont Avenue, north of the McPhearson Square Metro. There are lots of businesses and law firms and things get quiet after rush hour. I've eaten at Il Mulino three times, each time for a business lunch. And each time, the restaurant was mostly empty, and the service slow. When I ate there on Thursday with five colleagues, we were one of four tables with customers.

Il Mulino first opened in New York City by chefs Fernando and Gino Masci. The restaurant's website boasts that it was voted best Italian restaurant in New York City for two decades by Zagat's. Il Mulino is located in 13 different cities, including Tokyo, Las Vegas, Aspen, and San Juan. My recent experience at Il Mulino doesn't motivate me to go back, but I am curious about the flagship in New York City.

Now, the meal: We started with a bread basket -- white, wheat, and seasoned bread crisps. The white bread was fantastic: it was so soft and tasted fresh. Along with the bread was a plate of diced eggplant that had been sauteed in olive oil and herbs -- it was delicious. The combination of the eggplant on soft, white bread was utterly satisfying. Perhaps I should have ordered another round and called it a day. But no.

I don't know how much time passed from when we ordered our main course (no one ordered an appetizer) but it was enough time for us to discuss a number of current events, a few work issues, and learn that our summer intern had gone skydiving the previous weekend -- this was big news. Two people at our table inquired about the mechanics of Facebook and we spent some time explaining that. I was surprised to learn that I had more Facebook friends than the summer intern.

The main course finally arrived. I had ordered the gnocchi in tomato sauce with mozzarella -- all of it appeared to have been glopped on to the plate. Several large balls of mozzarella were planted in the gnocchi and rapidly melted from the heat of cooking. As I ate, the mozzarella went from warm and soft to cooling and chewy.

The portion was large, enough for two people really. I had not eaten breakfast and was sure I was going to finish it all, but I didn't. You can go both ways with gnocchi: I've had gnocchi that didn't taste or feel heavy in the belly, and then there was this gnocchi at Il Mulino that weighed me down. I did not eat fast but I had to catch my breath a few times. I love tomato sauce with pasta and am partial to sauces that are runny, rather than thick. The sauce with this gnocchi was perfectly salted but the texture -- not runny or thick -- tasted as if a step had been missed or it needed to stew a little longer.

A colleague and friend (and also a curmudgeon) ordered mushroom ravioli, off menu. I thought that was a nice touch. I discussed with him my thoughts about Il Mulino and he remarked, "It's a shell of it's former self." He noted that the menu used to be robust and interesting, and claims Il Mulino has seen more customers. When the menu was passed around at the start of the meal, two people at our table noted that the menu was scaled back. I have nothing against simple, paired down menus, but the options at Il Mulino were limited.

Il Mulino
1110 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20005