I've had three excellent meals out in the last few weeks, all concocted from fresh, locally sourced ingredients. One was served at low tables in a parking lot in Oakland where all the guests sat on cushions and the wine was BYOB — my first-ever encounter with the underground dining experience known as Ghetto Gourmet. The other two were pleasant surprises dreamed up by the Dairy Queen Mother for my visit to our nation's self-important capital: Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA, and Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC.
The Hometown Team: Ghetto Gourmet
Ghetto Gourmet is the brainchild of Jeremy Townsend, 29, "a poet, promoter and former boilermaker and South Pole tunnel digger," according to this January SFGate article. (That's him under the Ghetto Gourmet pirate flag, left.)
Essentially, it's a roving restaurant with a different chef, private (and unpublished until the last minute) location, and menu every week or couple of weeks. Some of the chefs are well-known local restauranteurs: Peter Jackson, who started Canvas in Oakland's Montclair district, was our food maestro for the night.
But what really sold me was the menu, billed as a "celebration of the heirloom tomato." I've been dropping twenties on heirloom tomatoes at the farmer’s market this summer as if they really were silver candlesticks that had been in the family for years. At $40 each for five courses, this was a bargain.
I had sort of accidentally-on-purpose forgotten to tell the Potato Non Grata that we'd probably be sitting on the floor, but even I hadn't pictured that we'd be sitting on cushions on an asphalt parking lot. Still, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make it look festively Moroccan — white tablecloths, white Christmas lights, candles. We cracked our backs and settled in at a table for eight, knowing only the friend who'd invited us. Each of the group had brought a bottle of wine or two to pair with a course. Here's what we ate:
My favorites were courses 1, 2, and 5: the salmon was buttery-moist, and the tomato leather was kind of like a fruit roll-up made of sundried tomato. Others pronounced it "weird." The tomato salad (right) made me curl my toes in pleasure. The tortellini were good but the broth was overpowering, and the game hen was a little boring, probably suffering from having been cooked elsewhere and then being reheated in the hosts' kitchen.
Even though by dessert my legs had gone numb, the mousse jolted me back upright. I don't usually like white chocolate, but this tasted more like the essence of chocolate and a lot of cream. The slight acidity of the Early Girls cut the sweetness just perfectly.
And best of all, the company was equally to our tastes: sweet and salty, adventurous and informal. Townsend himself served the plates while a guitarist plucked classical music on a tuffet, and a couple who'd joined out table started a discussion about Michael Pollan's new book that I tried very hard, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to stay out of. It was a perfect evening, and I can't wait for the next one.
The Challenger I: Restaurant Eve
The Queen Mom loves California food, but this time she wanted to show some hometown pride. "Food in DC is much, much better than when you lived here," she said. I nodded and pretended to believe her.
We were busy running around, and I didn't have a chance to research where we were going: Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria. So when I sat down — we were in the Bistro, as opposed to the Tasting Room — I was pleasantly surprised to read on the menu that the restaurant was committed to using "the freshest ingredients that local farms and markets can provide" and "the best of the season." And when I read that housemade charcuterie was among the appetizers, as was carpaccio (raw beef) from Roseda Farm and veal sweetbreads, I started to get very excited. This was my kind of restaurant.
I resolved to risk annoying my fellow diners to find out more about these sweetbreads. A friend has been extolling his enjoyment of organ meats, and had given me an article from Gastronomica called "The Modern Offal Eaters" that I read on the plane out. (More on that article another time. Thanks, Aunt Biddy!) It's been long overdue for this born-again carnivore to dip her tongue in some offal, and there's no way I'd be cooking it myself.
Also, it's really hard to find sweetbreads or brains from either ethicurean-friendly or factory animals – the happy, good stuff goes to restaurants, and the other is quite dangerous. The USDA no longer allows beef or sheep brains to be sold because of disease concerns – most cow livers are too abscessed from their corn diets to eat, etc., etc.
So I asked the waiter, in as non-California-snobby a manner that I could manage, "Those sweetbreads — I don't suppose the veal is, well, humanely raised?"
His eyes lit up. "All our meat is sustainable and humanely raised on family farms," he said proudly. "The eggs in the market salad and the pork and veal all come from this farm called Polyface —"
"NO way!" I interrupted. "Not Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm?"
YES way, as it turns out. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. It was like visiting Rome and finding out the Pope was going to stop by your hotel, except food is my only religion.
After beginning with a pretty stellar cocktail made from mashed ripe peaches, blackberries, and vanilla vodka — "summer in a glass," said the waiter, and it was — I had the "market salad": fresh cherry tomatoes, green beans, radishes, potatoes, a little lump of fresh goat cheese, and half of a deviled egg arranged prettily on a plate. It was good, crunchy and flavorful, but not particularly out of the ordinary for a California foodie. And then the entrées arrived.
My sweetbreads were like eating meat from an alien. They were long and oblong, lightly breaded and pan roasted, accompanied by fried oysters and beans with country ham. (A “classic preparation,” the waiter said.) They tasted like no food I'd ever had before, and the best description that I can come up with is they had the chewy, spongy consistency of a cross between a scallop and a thick white fish, and a flavor somewhere in-between chicken breast and heaven.
Sweetbreads, for vegetarians and the innocent out there, are neither sweet nor bread. They are the thymus glands of young calves or occasionally lambs. They come in two parts — a thin, long lobe called the throat sweetbread, and a round lump called the heart sweetbread. They are soaked in several changes of water in order to make them pretty and white (they often have blood clots in them, apparently) and then blanched to firm up the texture. The heart sweetbread is considered the better one, but I didn't know that until afterward; I was perfectly happy with my throat glands. They were the hit of the table.
Queen Mom had the runner-up: a confit of house-cured Polyface pork belly. Pork belly is the same cut as bacon, only sliced the opposite way. This was braised until it became a bacon-meets-pot-roast lump of fatty goodness. My friend had a dry-aged ribeye steak from Roseda Farm that was pretty much the most delicious steak I'd ever tasted.
Except, as I just learned from a little research, it wasn't grassfed. It was local, and it was free of hormones, but it was raised on a corn diet. Which is kind of a bummer. I also learned that when Cathall and Meshelle Armstrong — the husband-and-wife, chef-and-manager team who opened Restaurant Eve in 2004 — feel like taking the night off, they take their family to McDonald's or Outback Steakhouse. That just doesn't make sense to me. It's like hearing that Yo-Yo Ma listens to Muzak in his spare time.
But my sweetbreads were delicious, and I ate them with no guilt.
The Challenger II: Nora
Our next gustatory stop in the DC area was Nora, which bills itself as the "America's First Certified Organic Restaurant" — so pure of heart that even the waiters' uniforms are made of certified organic cotton. Nora's chicken and duck come from Amish farmers in Pennsylvania; its veal (never confined) and heirloom pork from Spring Water, also in Pennsylvania; and its beef and dairy from Organic Valley co-op. It even offers a mostly organic wine list.
Dairy Mom and I spotted the same tasty Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from Brooks that we had enjoyed at Eve on the list, but without the appellation "Janus." The sommelier explained that Brooks has both organic and nonorganic vineyards, and that this one was a blend of grapes from different organic vineyards while the Janus was a slightly superior bottling from a single vineyard that unfortunately was downstream, pesticide-wise, from some nonorganic vintners. The nonorganic version at Eve had been $65, and Nora's was only $46, so we decided to try it again. Even though both were bottled in 2004, the organic one tasted younger (perhaps because of the absence of sulfites) and slightly less full bodied. But make no mistake, Oregon pinots deserve their reputation, and both went down easy.
As did the tasting menu. I had buffalo mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes (yum!), a mushroom and leek tart (good but the crust was slightly too sweet for my taste), and local grassfed filet mignon with mashed potatoes and wild mushrooms. I've never had grassfed filet mignon before, although I have eaten the regular kind at someone's house where I couldn't bear to be rude. It was intensely beef-flavored and pretty tender, although not nearly as tender as the steak from Eve — but that's not a fair comparison, as one cow spent its life walking around and the other stood in a feedlot wolfing corn all day. The Queen Mom's rice-crusted soft-shell crabs from Chesapeake Bay were scrumptious.
All in all, two fine dinners, good enough to rival many I've had in California. DC has come a long way. But for true ethicurean eating — where the food is consistent both in taste and in provenance — I've got to say the West Coast still has the upper hand.