Monday, June 27, 2011

What's Food Got To Do With It? Casa Havana Restaurant, Grand Cayman

On what basis do you choose a restaurant? I'd venture to guess for three main reasons: Type of food, atmosphere, and location, location, location. I am feeling like I won't post more long-winded restaurant reviews here. That type of detail belongs on a site like Yelp or TripAdvisor.

I decided this when I looked back on our big family vacation this Spring Break in Grand Cayman, The Carribbean. The location was gorgeous and has any number of beautiful restaurants with delicious food. But really, does that make for a good lunch or dinner out? What if the time you spend there is lousy, or you were having a proverbial "bad day"? Of course I want to know if a restaurant serves exceptional french onion soup, or desserts to die for. That is the rudimentary ingredient of a great time out. But if you ate that key lime pie while you were being fired, or your boyfriend started the "dumping you" conversation in the middle of your calamari appetizer, it would be a bitter experience indeed, no matter how amazingly prepared it was. Not fair to the restaurant, but it's the reality.

And this really could have been the case a few times on our vacation. The vacation itself was bittersweet, like the Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate I used to love getting in my trick-or-treat bags as a child. Sweet because it was the first trip my immediate family (my husband, 2 kids and I) took with my parents and brother in years. Bitter, or at least sad, because my father has moderate stage Alzheimer's and he needed to be watched almost constantly so he wouldn't wander, break something, or worse. So yes, we enjoyed the brilliant colors and sights of the Carribbean Vacation, including a trip to Stingray City. How could a person be luckier than to go on such a trip with her family that she loves? And yet, we also observed my father in the body whose mind is steadily eroding.

One evening my husband and I did steal away for an evening out alone while my parents bonded with their grandkids. We wound up at Casa Havana Restaurant, part of the Westin Casuarina Resort and Hotel on the long stretch of Seven-Mile Beach. Guidebooks say the place looks like a 1950's Havana restaurant. (I'll take their word on this, since I was born in 1970 and have never been to Havana.) We sat at a table on the breezy, arched veranda, the length of which was lined by tiki torches. The modest number of patrons conversed in calm tones that seemed more British than American. About fifty feet away, the waves gently rushed up the beach. Amidst this backdrop the food was truly wonderful, and mostly I enjoyed the details of its preparation. The Caesar salads were prepared tableside by a tall, affable surfer-cum-waiter from the United States. He rubbed the bowls with fresh garlic, and he tossed the salads with a homemade dressing while chatting with us about The Cayman Islands. I ordered an appetizer of piquillo pepper panna cotta, which I found to be an intriguing taste of smooth mild cheese flavor with strands of hot dry chili pepper. Thumbs up for creativity on this one. But what really made this place stand out was what happened next.

While we waited for our main meals-- the pot-roasted chicken and the pork loin, respectively -- my husband and I began discussing what we observed in my dad. We observed when the changes began, how our relationship with him has been changing, and how all of this is affecting us and our relationships with each other. I wondered, if I could go back in time and insert myself into my teenage body via an "Our Town" method, what would I say to that earlier Dad? The intellectual, sardonic and at times vitriolic physician with dark hair and an intense expression? How do I go back, and tell him, "you know, even though you don't always believe it, your daughter loves you very much"? Through tears, I concluded that the important thing is not whether or not I could go back, but that that is what I would say if I could. And once the tears started, they just kept flowing for a while. On we talked, on they flowed. Then after about 10 minutes, I wiped my eyes and laughed at something funny my husband said, then looked up. Just then I saw the waitstaff, waiting discreetly by the door with dishes in hand. They had evidently been there for a few minutes, and only when they saw that I was in a state to receive the food did they make their way to us. Now that's tact, and it is a quality I don't often see, or at least notice in restaurants nowadays. But it was just what the evening called for, and it really pushed the place into the higher stratosphere of evenings to remember. So, touched and spent, I tucked into an incredibly tender dish of roast chicken. And this is a meal I will always, always remember, that stands out among the sea of amazing restaurants in Grand Cayman.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cheff Geoff's Part 2

I did promise to tell you about my lunch at Cheff Geoff's in Fairfax, didn't I? In a nutshell, it was tasty and fun, and this time Ellen and I met up for our monthly lunch get-together. The place was once again very busy, which surprised me, given that it was a Friday afternoon. A bustling office and corporate crowd dominated the place and kept the waitstaff hopping. Despite this, the young gal who attended us was friendly and attentive, bringing us our salads as soon as she was able. Mine was a salmon salad with all the requisite ingredients: Tender fillet, crunchy romaine, light and tasty dressing. At the end I caved and ordered the miniature fried donuts with assorted dips: Chocolate and raspberry. To top this off I savored a pot of hot tea, an elegant touch on this windy Spring day.

I will note that the place was loud. The thrum of the crowds and clinking of glass evoked a power lunch in Manhattan. This is good for a lively lunch, but not a mellow, leisurely one. For that, Ellen and I decided to meet at San Vito's the following month. This is a low-key Italian eatery closer to our homes. Everything moves a bit slower at lunch there, though still with a touch of sophistication. Sometimes I need a dose of Big Apple-type energy like I did today. Next time around, it will be the comforting simplicity of a smaller, slower restaurant that moves more like, say, Eastern Long Island.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dinner with friends at Cheff Geoff's

Dinner with friends at Cheff Geoff's

Dinner with friends is a rare event in our lives these days, so if Hubby and I make such plans, we love having great company and a delicious restaurant experience.  Thus was our plan this past Saturday, April 9th, 2011.  The first part we had covered.  We were dining with another couple we know, Ellen and Steve, whose company we love.  The second part, however, was an unknown:  Cheff Geoff's restaurant in Vienna near Tyson's Corner.*  And happily, it made the cut and then some. 

Cheff Geoff's is nestled in a cul-de-sac just off the Hermes and Tiffany Shops at Fairfax Square near Tyson's Corner. A simple red awning marks the restaurant, and if you drive up to it, valets will park your car.  Or park nearby on your own if you prefer, which is what we did.

We entered a moderately-sized space with Modern/Asian-inspired, minimalist decor, walked past the bar and were seated at a corner booth. Have I mentioned how tired I am of colonial decor with flowery wallpaper, waitstaff in bonnets, and fussy beribboned bouquets?  That atmosphere dominates a lot of "good" restaurants in Virginia, but lately I have craved the opposite.  So I liked this place already.

Our waiter "Joel" was a real sweetheart - funny, personable and knowledgeable about the menu.  We should be so lucky as to have him serve us the next time we come.  Thanks, Joel!

The menu at Cheff Geoff changes seasonally, my friend informed me.  
Here was the breakdown for my husband and myself this time:
The food was presented artfully and whimsically.  We all shared a very mild and chunky guacamole with plantain chips - a yummy and creative combination underscored by the chips, which were stacked into playful vertical positions to mimic fries.
Also ordered to share were sliders - adorable mini-cheeseburgers, soft rose-toned ground meat (just like traditional meat loaf) with buttery buns.  
Fried calamari came with 3 dipping sauces and lemon, attentive little details that  made us curious to sample the squid dipped in each sauce.
Drinks:  Citrus Derby (did I really drink two?!) and an Apple Martini.  Not too sweet, but well-balanced on the tongue.  Our friends selected drinks from the extensive beer, wine and spirit list. 
I chose the mahi mahi fish tacos with a marinated salsa and soft corn tortillas.  Spiced just right, though by now I was fairly satiated by the appetizers.  So it says a lot the entrees that I savored them so thoroughly. 
A word:  If you come here, you MUST try the sweet potato fries--heavenly!  Even my husband, who usually only tolerates these tubers on Thanksgiving, ate them with gusto.  And our waiter brought them instead of the regular fries, at Steve's request, without fuss.  It is a real plus when the staff accommodates the  patrons this way.
I sampled Hubby's pork chops with blueberry butter, and they were full-flavored in a way that complemented my lighter "fish-dish".  Ellen ordered a dish with a different interpretation of pork, grilled, with the charcoal-edged flavor of meat cooked on open flame.
Dessert:  Our waiter, Joe, brought the platter and I joked that I would say, "Okay".  He explained each selection, and then left the platter and went away!
So there we were, with a tres leches cake slice, a chocolate souffle, dulce de leche ice cream and chocolate crunch, still-warm sugar and cinnamon donuts, and an overall feeling of indulgence as we sampled everything.  I am partial to the tres leches cake, so that is the most pleasurable "sweet" memory.  And oh, those donuts!

 Prices here range widely, from $7.99 appetizers to $45 entrees and everything in between.  In the words of my friend Ellen,  "It's anything you want it to be.  Budgeted appetizers or splurgy gourmet dinner.
Cheff Geoff is a lively place - it really fills up around 7pm, like most places in Northern Virginia, so book reservations or be prepared to wait if you go on Friday or Saturday.  Don't come here for a quiet dinner, because the atmosphere is too energetic for that.

I love its fun vibe. Cheff Geoff is cosmopolitan with fresh, fusion food, a nice splash of elegance with Joie de Vivre, and in my opinion this is the best combination for a good restaurant.  Chef Geoff takes food seriously enough to make it good, but has fun enough that it is not pretentious.  You get the sense that the chef and waitstaff work hard and enjoy what they do -- a welcome attitude in this time and place.

I'm having lunch here in a few weeks.  Will let you know about that too!

*There are three more Cheff Geoff's locations in the Washington, DC area.

Cheff Geoff's Tyson's
8045 Leesburg Pike
Vienna, VA 22182

Sunday, February 20, 2011

2941 Restaurant

It's been awhile since I've reviewed a restaurant, but here we go:

Yesterday evening, my husband and I went to a belated Valentine's Day dinner at a restaurant in Falls Church, VA, called 2941.

In terms of atmosphere, the place does not disappoint: The building is modern, with a lovely koi pond at the entrance and lots of glass. The vast, contemporary interior will make any fan of I.M. Pei or Frank Gehry very happy. It is breathtakingly sleek. A gas fireplace sits off to the right-hand wall, a welcome touch on this very windy Saturday.

The waiter staff was extremely courteous and attentive. A good thing, because we did not understand about one-third of the ingredients listed on the menu. The cocktail listed drinks that sounded retro and exclusive. I chose a mysterious and bold-sounding drink, The Kidnapper, made with Laphroiag whiskey (a peaty brand I have not seen since traveling to Scotland in 2009), cinnamon stick, cherry, and some chocolate hints. This brown concoction tasted as strong and wild as it sounded. We envisioned drinking it with beef bites in a rustic cottage in the Highlands of Scotland. Hubby drank The Vesper, listed as "A favorite of James Bond", made with vodka, bitters, a lemon wedge, and citron. This one I found light and refreshing, a stark contrast to my Kidnapper.

The waiter started us of with salmon canapés, "compliments of the chef".. One exquisite puff pastry each to whet our appetites, with delicately smoked, meaty salmon inside.

Then we ordered our meal. We could choose either from the a la carte menu on the left, or the fixed-price Tasting Menu on the right. Now
here came my only real complaint about the restaurant: The waiter stated that the Tasting Menu would only be available if both of us ordered it, because the chef would have problems timing the serving of our dishes otherwise. While I respected the need for orderly dishes,
this limitation struck me as excessively rigid. And my husband said he wasn't hungry enough to order the seven-course Tasting Menu. So regrettably, I cannot tell you how it is, though it looked delicious, with items such as a fondue plate, another with crab, and several others. The a la carte menu carried about eight dishes, one with veal and another with foie gras, neither of which I eat. The only item available from
the Tasting Menu as an a la carte option was the Dover sole, which I ordered, along with a green salad. My husband ordered the swordfish
and salad. The waiter inquired about any food restrictions before placing our orders.

My husband always requests bread. At 2941 it included thin slices of olive, plain white, and chocolate-cherry bread which we promptly devoured. The portions were just right. The salad greens were fresh and delicious, with a subtle dressing that tasted of Marsala and
balsamic vinegar. Our main courses also rated high. My Dover sole was the best I have ever tasted, tender and moist on potato cakes with a wonderful beurre blanc sauce. The balance of flavors was perfect. Husband's swordfish was also a "10" in terms of the fish itself, but the
caramelized teriyaki-based sauce overpowered it a bit. We agreed that if it had about one-third of the sauce, it would have been a better
dish. As it was, it was still amazing, a "nine". We each had a glass of Albarino wine, ordered from the extensive wine list. Another plus:
Albarino is a light, crisp white wine from Galicia, Spain, under appreciated, but wonderful with seafood. I rarely see it in restaurants,
but here it was. Another plus for 2941.

Then the desserts. The choices remained intriguing. "I probably won't eat more than two bites", Hubby said. The waiter assured us that the desserts were "French portions", not large. So despite hubby's statement, I just couldn't pass up the "Lemon Shaker", a dessert that sounded exotic and yummy: Lemon custard with tiny scones, cardamom ice cream, and coconut cream. South Asian-English fusion, and
pure heaven. Hubby ordered the chocolate flour less cake with pecan ice cream. Also delicious.

In the end, 2941 is marvelous. The care put into each individual dish is evident. Every detail about this restaurant, from the decor to the dishes to the prices, spells out "special occasion". You don't come here because you are hungry on a weekend. You dine here on a special
night, and if you have an open mind and willing palette, you will have an unparalleled culinary adventure. We shall be back. And when we are hungry enough, we can then both try the Tasting Menu.

2941 Restaurant
2941 Fairview Park Drive
Falls Church, VA 22042

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I just want coffee!

I am in the throes of a technology-induced caffeine crisis.  (TICC.). Finally,  rapid-fire appliance innovation is too much for me, and I am in Future Shock.  

I'll explain.  For the past several years, we have brewed coffee with a filter machine.  We buy whole coffee beans, usually from Starbucks, fill the machine with water, and it's done after about minutes.

But that all changed when we visited my folks in Florida last month.  My mother wowed my husband with her new "Nespresso" coffee machine. It is a pretty cool coffee-maker, albeit a bit gimmicky:  It makes individual espresso-style cups of coffee with a frothy finish on top.  And all you do is add water to the machine's pitcher, drop a sealed, metallic-colored "capsule" into the top, close the lever. Press a button, and voilà!  About one minute later, one hot espresso.  I enjoy it as a novelty item.  Like an ice-shaving machine in a bar or the scorching tool used to make a creme-brûlée, this device is interesting but not crucial to my daily kitchen appliance needs.  I just want coffee.  But my husband thought otherwise, and so did my mother.

"Do you want one?".  She asked, a generous and ambitious woman who gets her loved ones hooked on material delights that she provides.  Like Santa Claus.  Or a crack dealer.  And my husband, who takes his coffee like tar, replied "cool!" with a gleam in his eyes.  I felt more ambivalent.  As a Taurus, I am a fixed Earth sign who likes stability, especially in the Big Things:  House, Husband, Family, Coffee.  I wasn't so gung-ho on a coffee-making system that would require us to completely revamp our method of buying and making coffee.  I just wanted basic coffee. We were already getting basic coffee.  Why mess with the formula?

But my people-pleasing impulses won out, and three days after we returned home, the Nespresso machine arrived.  If you have never seen one, its pointed arch-front looks vaguely ecclesiastical,  like the an Early Gothic Cathedral.  That's appropriate -- getting my daily, crucial hit of caffeine does feel like an act of worship.  As it was late at night during the week, we lay out all the needed implements for the following morning.  Thus we were ready to put it to work at 7:30am the following morning.  How hard could it be?   On the first try, the machine emitted its characteristic whirring and grinding noises, but nothing came out of the spout.  Second try:  Same thing.   As caffeine withdrawal loomed on the horizon, I settled for an instant coffee (thank goodness I had a supply), while my hubby decided to go to Starbucks before work to get his caffeine fix.  Later on my mother walked me through the coffee-prep process via FaceTime on our iPhones.  Finally it worked!   Excitedly I e-mailed hubby at work to tell him this.  To successfully make my first cup of this coffee I had needed a landline phone, FaceTime on a smartphone, and email.  When did life get so complicated?

The following morning, I proudly made two individual coffees for my husband and myself.  We selected one black and one brown capsule, respectively.  However I was well aware that our starter set of 16 caplets would dwindle fast.  I consulted the voucher and my mom's instructions via e-mail on ordering more caplets with the discount coupon that arrived with our order.  I am not terribly tech- savvy or organized, so this took a lot of mental effort.  Finally I assembled the receipt, barcode tab, and voucher, and took a picture if them all with my iPhone camera in a rare impulse to keep records.  Then I sent them off to Nespresso Club HQ.  Maybe at this point you think I am a passive idiot who should have made her husband do this legwork, since he was the one who wanted the machine in the first place.  You are probably right, but at this point it was easier to just do this stuff than explain it to him.  Wives everywhere can probably relate.

So now, all we could do was wait and drink our daily cups.  Next big hurdle:  Deciphering the flavors of the 16 different capsules.  At first it had been easy enough to pick out the strongest coffee:  Black and brown capsules per my mother's own supply in in her home.  But then what? Our starter-set included capsules in metallic hues of blue, orange, yellow, brown, red and green.  The Nespresso had arrived with a complete, bound notebook of instructions, including a mini-visual encyclopedia of all the available coffee flavors according to their capsule colors.  Each capsule bore an elaborate, Italianized name:  Volluto.  Indrya. Capriccio.  We examined the names and to our horror, discovered 4 sets of decaffeinated coffee!  Why?!  Ugh!  So we picked out those useless caplets, noting that "decaffeinato" was written in light, elegant script across the top. My concern amped up.  I was now a General realizing that her family's battle against caffeine-withdrawal was being threatened with dwindling supplies on the frontline.  My husband looked at me in alarm.  
"What coffees did you re-order?  Did you choose the espresso dark, or did you get the same sample set?"
 I realized with a sinking feeling I did not know.  The voucher had been checked off with "Bundle set", whatever that meant.   And I did not know how soon the coffee would arrive, either.   According to the instructions, I could obtain more Nespresso capsules at William-Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, and Sur La Table, the closest of which was a 30-minute drive from our home.  I know, it is a low- ranking problem compared to most.  All people should be so lucky as to worry about something so trivial.  But all this effort for a cuppa morning Joe?  And what would these ongoing capsule-orders cost us?   Already I longed for the days when we could go to the local grocery store to pick up a package of coffee beans and other supplies.  Meanwhile, I waited with bated breath for the capsule shipment to arrive.

Update:  We have been using our Nespresso machine for 3 weeks now.  A substantial supply of capsules has arrived via UPS to our house.  The average cost per capsule/cup of coffee is roughly $.55, which is still way cheaper than Starbucks.  So all is well for the time being.  But I still keep the old machine stashed in the garage, just like my grandmother always kept a wad of cash in her mattress.  Because, as she used to say, "uno nunca sabe (one never knows)".  

For better or for worse,  I now have coffee.

Nespresso machine:
Pros:  Compact machine, efficient order/shipping, excellent coffee, rapid brewing time.
Cons:  Expensive machine, capsules available through limited channels, wasteful packaging.