Monday, August 23, 2010

Washington D.C. - Restaurant Reviews

I will begin my Washington posts with a review of the restaurants I ate in while in D.C. First is Meskerem Ethiopian, then Tryst, the Mitsitam Cafe and finally the Marquee Lounge of the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Google Maps and Google Street View has been a real help in preparing this post to give you a feel of where I was.

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I went to Meskerem Ethiopian on Friday night and, out of several positive dining experiences, I would consider this the best of the lot and by far the most interesting. I was a little worn down from the flight in, but some walking around in the interesting Adams Morgan neighbourhood helped get my energy back and was ready for dinner and we decided on a restaurant I had walked by earlier in the day. I went with my mother and one other relative also there for the wedding. Meskerem is located on 18th Street between Columbia and Belmont in the Adams Morgan neighbourhood. This area features many bars and clubs and a large number of casual, mostly ethnic restaurants. The restaurant does not have tables the way we normally envision them. Diners sit either on carved, low-back stools or on round backless cushion-chairs arranged around what is essentially a large bowl. The menu focuses on stewed items with plenty of meat and vegetarian options. We ordered the Meskerem Messob, sort of a mixed plate with about 6 different items, accompanied by an Ethiopian-style Honey Wine. When the food arrived, it was all on a large concave platter that fit into the bowl/table. The platter was lined with Injera, an Ethiopian crepe, which tastes somewhat like sourdough bread with a rubbery but still quite enjoyable texture. I know this sounds like it wouldn’t taste good, but it truly does. We also received a side plate with several additional rolled pieces of Injera. The flavours of the food bear some similarity to Indian curry but the balance of spices are a little different. Some of the dishes have a sour edge to them, partially from the sauce and partly from the Injera. Others are spicy, but the best was probably one of the vegetarian items, some kind of spicy lentil-based puree with an amazing flavour. The wine was only slightly sweet and tasted a little bit like a Sauternes, a well-known French dessert wine. In reading the label, I found that the wine was made not only from honey, but with hops as well, which I’m sure contributes to the complexity of the wine. The mild sweetness matched well with the somewhat spicy food.

The service was fairly good, but not ideal. As this was our first time eating Ethiopian food, we wanted some additional information about what was included in the Messob, and whether we could substitute, but our server did not seem to understand. This was after we spent a good deal of time trying to get the server to our table. However, it was very busy so the wait for service was understandable. The cost of the meal was extremely reasonable, especially considering the quantity of food, the quality and that we ordered wine. The bill came to $85 US for three people, including wine, tax and tip.

Meskerem Ethiopian on Urbanspoon

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Rather than have dessert at Meskerem, we decided to find another place on 18th Street. Most establishments were bars, but just across the street and a few doors down, we found Tryst, a coffee shop and lounge. I really liked the atmosphere, kind of like a campus coffee shop, but bigger, a bit louder and maybe a little more sophisticated. I have since read reviews that complain of service being poor, but I believe the problem is that people are expecting restaurant style service when this is a bar/coffee shop. The service was acceptable, you just have to be more assertive in requesting service, otherwise you will get ignored for some time. Though several of the items we wanted were unavailable, there were still many excellent baked goods. I had cherry pie, and my companions had peanut butter cheesecake and a fruit tart served inside a danish. The pie was excellent, the cherries were loaded with flavour and it was not too sweet - even a little sour, which was quite refreshing after the meal we had. The others enjoyed their desserts very much as well. I also had a cocktail known as a Voodoo Lady - vanilla chai tea with dark rum. My mom had a really good jasmine pearl tea. The music was quite good, and I do have very picky taste in music. While it was a little loud, it was a good match with the overall vibe of the establishment.

Tryst on Urbanspoon

I did not eat go to any restaurants on Saturday, as this was the day of the wedding. I will not go into much detail here except to say the food at the reception was acceptable, considering that the wedding was quite large. In my profession, I have come to know a few things about catering large banquets. Even if a big event is held in a very fancy restaurant, you will not be getting the food they are famous for, as it just cannot be produced for 100+ people at the same time. There is also a tendency to dumb down flavours for events like weddings as everyone has different tastes and it is important to satisfy everyone. Finally, the difficulty inherent in serving a vast number of plates in a reasonable period of time and have them remain fresh and hot means shortcuts will be made and corners will be cut. Bearing all this in mind, the food wasn’t bad - I was even mildly impressed, though others at my table were disappointed. The wedding cake, from Incredible Edibles, was very impressive. The design was rather traditional, but the taste was surprisingly good. Wedding cakes have a reputation for not tasting very good, because the structure and decoration have usually been considered more important than the taste, resulting in a dense, dry cake. In this cake, each tier was a different flavour and the cake was very moist and tasty.

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I was with more family on Sunday looking for a lunch spot near Capitol Hill. Someone in our group had heard about the food court at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, and we decided to go there. The museum itself is located on the east end of the National Mall, near the Capitol Building and I will describe the visit in my next post. The Mitsitam café specializes in Native foods from across the Americas. It is a cafeteria-style setup with stations organized by region, such as Great Plains, Northeast, Mesoamerica, South America, etc. This was like no food court/cafeteria that I had ever seen. There were so many wonderful options, I had a very hard time choosing. I had finally settled on a Buffalo & Duck Burger, only to find the last one had just been sold (and to one of my dining companions! Grrr!). Instead I chose mole wrapped in tortillas. There was chicken mole with apricots and beef mole with peaches. I found the chicken to be slightly lacking in flavour, but still quite good. The beef, on the other hand, was exceptional. The others I was eating with had very good food as well and the beverages were also unique and very good. If one is comparing prices to food court or cafeteria food, the prices may seem high, but this is clearly restaurant caliber cuisine. In a fine dining restaurant you would easily pay much more than we did for food of equal quality. This is quite a find, especially considering the food court at the museum next door, the Air and Space Museum, is a McDonalds.

Mitsitam Cafe on Urbanspoon

By Sunday night, I was getting tired and, as we had had a late lunch at the Mitsitam café, I was not feeling up for another dining adventure. Instead, my mom and I ate in the hotel bar, the Marquee Lounge at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. It was really more of a lounge with deep cushioned chairs and a nice, relaxed atmosphere. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with onion rings with a Sam Adams Boston Lager and my mom had crab cakes with white wine and a cheese plate. The cheeseburger was well made, cooked correctly to order and the onion rings were excellent (the beer was good too, but I am already familiar with Sam Adams). The crab cakes were good as well, but we have certainly had better cheese plates. The cheese plate was not as good as what is served in Montreal, but I think that is because 1) cheese plates are popular and taken very seriously in Montreal and 2) Quebec has some amazing local cheeses that restaurants use eagerly.

Next post: Things to see in D.C.

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