The following events may or may not have occurred last evening. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
It was a dark and stormy night. With the kind of bone-chilling wind that howls through the trees and makes the roof trusses creak like the joints of a 90-year-old washerwoman. The kind of winter’s nigh’ that makes people question their sanity in choosing to visit the nation’s capitol instead of opting for the sunny, warm beaches of the Caribbean.
Or, it might have been in the mid 50s and calm, with clear skies. I dunno, I really didn’t pay much attention. Besides, what does that have to do with anything?
Ah, eating out on a Sunday night. Something we rarely do. But this was a special occasion, as my wife and I were meeting a fellow KKF member. In fact, we were to be his guests of honor -- VIPs for the evening as it were -- at the restaurant where he has worked for the past year.
Dining in downtown DC is not something that normally gets the air crackling with excitement for us. Sure there are many good restaurants -- and more opening every day it seems -- but our visits end in misses much more often the hits, and we have been left on more then one occasion with disappointed stomachs paired with drastically lighter wallets. Suffice it to say we are optimistically cautious.
The restaurant was located in the shadow of the Capitol, in a part of town devoid of residential buildings. Ironically, there is a large homeless shelter just a block or two away, which seems to punctuate the statement that there are no residential buildings nearby. Even more ironically (or perhaps tragically), the homeless shelter is across from, and adjacent to, two Bureau of Prison buildings. But I digress…
Downtown DC is horrible when it comes to parking. The only exception is on Sundays, when there are no time restrictions at the parking meters, and you don’t need to pay anyway. We had a quick shot up 395 from Alexandria, and exited the tunnel that runs below the Department of Labor Building within two blocks of the restaurant. On a gamble I bypassed the empty parking spaces across from the long line of homeless people waiting to be served dinner and drove to the corner closest to the restaurant, where we spied an empty space almost right in front of the restaurant entrance. This was an omen of the good things to come!
We entered the nearly empty restaurant (we booked an early time slot) and sought out the hostess stand. When I responded to the query of “Can I help you?” with “They call me… Wild Boar” the hostess tossed her head back and let out a delightful laugh, and said they were expecting us.
Within seconds of being seated we were attended to by several of the wait staff. They were extremely attentive and engaging. With menus and wine list in hand, we started sipping the cool, clear water that had just been poured when a man approached. He had a funny smile on his face, and was rubbing his hands together, like he knew a secret and was dying to tell the world. “Ah,” he said, “we have been expecting you.” He seemed to giggle a little with delight as he spoke the words. I shot my wife a quick glance, and I could see the mounting fear in her eyes.
The sever returned with a tray of house-made dinner rolls and rye/ raisin/ walnut bread. He ominously instructed us to focus solely on selecting entrees, as the chef and his team would take care of the appetizers. The dinner rolls were buttery-soft and light as air. But the dark bread really stole the show -- it was fantastic!
The chef emerged from the kitchen to introduce himself (I’m pretty sure my wife forgot to say ‘hi’, and instead immediately requested the recipe for the dark bread). He thanked us for coming, and assured us we would not be leaving hungry. I shot him a glance in return that said “better give it your best shot, ‘cause it ain’t gonna be easy!”
After working with the server to select a wine that could, well, pair with all sorts of pork products plus smoked fish and who knew what else, the first ‘tasting’ arrived. We each were served a small cast iron pot containing shrimp and grits. The grits were wonderfully creamy and light, and the shrimp were well-seasoned and nicely grilled. There were morsels of house-made andouille and a piece of pickled okra in each pot.
After we both made happy plates, the wait staff removed the empties, and asked if it was okay to take away the last dinner roll. My wife and I looked at each other for a second, and silently agreed it would be best for us not to eat another roll. And just as the bread was removed, the chef and one of the severs emerged from the kitchen and placed three platters upon our table -- one containing charcuterie, one containing pickles and one containing half a loaf of grilled, rustic bread slices. So much for ‘no more bread’!
There were 5 preparations on the charcuterie platter, including a glass jar of rillette, two versions of sausage -- one sweetened with figs and the other amended with pistachios and some blue cheese -- deli-thins slices of rolled up/ stuffed pork and a short stack of beef tongue. The pickles platter had a heaping pile of zucchini, a pile of peppers/ onions, and a small cup of mustard sauce. The grilled bread platter had, well, grilled bread. The grilled bread was a nice contrast of textures to the softer charcuterie items, and the acid from the pickles helped cut through the fat. The zucchini slices tasted like bread and butter pickles, and were way better then I would have predicted. The two takes on the sausage were interesting, with one gaining a sweet accent from the figs and the other the sharper notes of the pistachio and blue cheese. And I stepped up to the plate, so to speak, by tackling a couple pieces of the tongue, which is something I have only eaten once before in my life (as a kid) and swore I would never touch again. It tasted a bit like ham, and fit in well with the other items on the platter.
As we neared the end of the three platters we made a pact to take a few token bites of our entrees and have the rest put in to-go containers. And right as we were shaking on it the next pair of appetizers was delivered…
The first plate contained a hazelnut tart shell covered with a crème fraiche/ leek spread topped with sous vide diced pumpkin with a hint of maple, and a few woodear mushrooms on the side. It was a beautiful presentation. But it was the second plate that made my wife’s eyes light up, and sent me diving for cover under the table. Sweetbreads! And not the kind from Pillsbury you heat up in the oven and slather with yummy chemical icing spread. Oh, no -- what did I do to deserve this?!? I don’t eat things like this! I already ate tongue, for dog’s sake!!!
My wife smacked her lips and started to dive in, then paused and informed me if I wanted to be a proponent of snout-to-tail I would have to suck it up and actually try some of the weird stuff. Dang -- I hate getting called out like that.
The sweetbreads were lightly fried, and accompanied by dabs of pepper jelly and a softly cooked egg that floated on a thin lake of cheddar cheese sauce. I fulfilled my obligation, and tried a piece. It wasn’t half bad, especially with a dab of pepper jelly on top. The texture was light, yet slightly firm, and the surface was nicely crisp from the well-executed frying. There was a hint of mustiness on the finish, but nowhere near as bad as some organ meats can be. I made it through a little over half my share, when it was decided our arteries would consider it a favor if we did not eat any more.
The pumpkin tart was a good counterbalance, and allowed us to pretend we were being healthy by eating vegetables. Each component stood well on its own, but when combined into one bite the different textures and flavors elevated it above a simple sum of its parts. We were thoroughly sated now, and wondering if we could escape before anyone brought us any more food.
Too late! The server was back with a big smile on his face, asking if we were finally ready for our entrées. Then he did something peculiar, which was to place a spoon in front of each of us. It turns out we would be enjoying a palate cleanser, delivered in the form of pomegranate sorbet. While the flavor was on the mild side, it did it’s job -- as it had an extremely clean finish, removing the pork from my palate in preparation for my entrée of
Pork! Three ways! Presented on an oval cast iron skillet covered with a bed of pickled cabbage. A round of pork shoulder sausage, two rounds of andouille, and the star of the show, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on a plate, a rectangle of pork belly confit (yes, the fattiest of pork slowly cooked in a wonderous sea of pork fat) capped with a perfectly seared and crispy skin cap. So much for “let’s just take a bite or two or our entrees and get the rest boxed up to go…
The pork shoulder sausage was good -- I think -- as was the andouille. But frankly I have trouble remembering for sure, because I believe I blacked out when I tried the confit pork belly. I saw shooting stars followed by dancing hamsters and then I think Ghandi was silently standing over me, looking down with an all-knowing smile. When I regained consciousness, my face was slathered in pork grease, a speck of crispy skin was embedded in my forehead and my wife has a shocked look on her face. And when I slowly turned my head to the side, I saw a very large woman at an adjacent table looking at me with a burning fire of desire in her eyes. I stared back horrified, as she suggestively rolled her tongue back and forth slowly across her lips.
My wife’s entrée was house-smoked sturgeon with lightly cooked heirloom apple wedges and pickled local beets. The sturgeon was on a bed of parsnip puree. She exhibited much better self-control then I possessed, and had just a couple bites of each. She really loved the beets and apples, and thought the smoking was done with just the right touch. Now I had already eaten beef tongue and sweetbreads, and even okra and cabbage -- so I finally drew a line in the sand and refused to try the sturgeon (not a fish-eater -- sorry!).
When the server asked if we wanted to take the remainder of our entrees home with us, we gladly said yes, and also requested the remnants of the charcuterie platter, which we had protectively stashed on the side of our table where the bus boy could not reach it when he cleared the table earlier, for fear of receiving a forceful elbow to his rib cage, followed up by an atomic elbow drop administered by me, and a devastating kick to the groin by my wife. We were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief, as we had made it to the end of dinner. The table was cleared, and the wine bottle was corked and put in a bag so we could enjoy the last of it later in the week.
And then in a stellar display of “it’s better to ask forgiveness then permission” a platter of artisanal cheeses and honey was set down in front of us, and the server presented us with two small glasses and proudly displayed a bottle of outstanding port. The cheeses were goat cheese, blue cheese, smoked gouda and a fourth that was similar to manchego. The honey was a block of honeycomb. Another platter of charred bread was then set down beside it. I thought the bread was a ploy by the server to steal my wife from me, but when he told us the cheeses and honey were from Maryland (i.e., local), we relaxed, as we knew they would not be very good, and we would not feel guilty about leaving most of the platter uneaten -- including the bread.
Except the cheeses were fantastic! Easily the best goat and blue cheeses we have ever had, and the other two were not that far behind. And the honey was excellent. And of course the bread wasn’t half bad either… While we did not finish it all, we put in more of an effort then we though we had in us. What a perfect way to end the meal!
The chef returned to see how we enjoyed everything, and gave us the name of the dairy. If we weren’t about to pop from having eaten so much, we probably would have hot-wired a panel truck, driven to Maryland, broken into the dairy and headed back home with a few hundred pounds of the sublime cheeses. But we *were* about to pop, so we didn’t.
The server carried away the cheese platter remnants (destined for yet another to-go bag). He returned and placed a small dish in front of each of us. Uh oh! There is no way we could eat anything else! “These small plates are so you can share,” he said. Okay, well maybe that’s not so bad. We can each have a bite or two of a shared piece of cake or pie, just so we don’t insult the pastry chef, right?
The chef accompanied the server as he walked to our table, carrying an evil platter of death containing -- is it even possible -- THREE desserts. The first was “pecan pie in a glass jar”, the second an apple crisp in a small cast iron skillet, and the third a pumpkin mousse ‘bar’ that looked a bit like a napoleon. The pecan pie dessert was essentially the filling portion of a traditional pecan pie, yet vastly improved. The consistency was looser -- a smooth salted caramel that clung to the spoon yet was light on the tongue and fully flavored. It was capped with a few cookie dough chunks concealed in a heavenly mound of bourbon whipped cream. Upon the first taste there was no question that it would not be a one-and-done tasting… I consoled myself by saying all the curl reps from raising the forks and spoons throughout the meal surely must have burned off enough calories to allow me to eat half of this.
The apple crisp was no slouch itself, and was elevated quite a bit from the norm. The heirloom apples were firm and flavorful, with a nice balance between tart and sweet. Dried cranberries were mixed in with the apples, which is a sure way to earn a gold star from my wife. The apples were topped with a thick rolled oat and walnut crust capped by a scoop of transcendent buttermilk ice cream. All the components worked together beautifully, but in the end it was a tad too sweet/ heavy for us after everything else we had consumed that evening. …So I think we only polished off about half of it…
Which leads us to the pumpkin bar. A thin ganache poured over layers of chocolate mousse and pumpkin mousse on a thick rice krispie praline ‘crust’. How strange! Partially made from veggies! And not very sweet! In short, the type of dessert my wife covets above all others! On their own, some of the layers were ‘interesting’ to me, but when eaten together in one bite it really was something special. It was light and very flavorful. To the point where somehow we were able to make it all go away. I consoled my wife by telling her the pumpkin made it all okay.
The menacing duo of chef and the server came back out to see how we fared, and much to their amusement we pulled out crosses and bulbs of garlic in hopes of chasing them away before they could foist any more food upon us. We had arrived nearly three hours earlier, after weeks of training, knowing we had brought our A-Game. And we lost. They had kicked our butts. We had not stood a chance. They had us down for the count. We were begging for mercy. We had met our match, and been soundly defeated. All we had to take home with us were our battle-scarred bodies, extremely distended bellies, and half a dozen bags of leftovers and treats. Yes, just to rub salt in the wound, we were to be sent home with more pickles, dark bread and sausages.
Before being released, we were first led in shackles to the kitchen and paraded like prisoners of war in front of the victorious opposition. Then we were temporarily sequestered in cold storage, surrounded by dozens of racks full of brining pickles and sausage rolls. And we were taunted by the unflinching gazes of severed pigs’ heads, which seemed to be silently judging us and concluding we would not have the courage or perseverance to return next week to face the worst of all my nightmares -- headcheese!