Barbecue, Macarons, Pizza & Burgers

By jim berman, Feb 7, 2014 | | |
  1. Exploring
    A few days in Georgetown & Glover Park, Washington, DC
    Jim Berman

    While on hiatus from my day-to-day calling, I have explored some locales that I had not really ventured to and through. Going back to sixth grade, my long-time friend, David, is a gracious host and even more generous with the space in his Glover Park home. Invited to explore the area around Washington, DC, I bounded for the iconic Wisconsin Avenue strip with its (seriously) countless restaurants, dives, bodegas, "gentlemen's clubs" and Whole Foods. Over the years, I had done the usual Smithsonian adventures along with the Washington Monument, National Archives and Bureau of Engraving and Printing. And the food in those near surrounds, without dropping a hefty dose of what the Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces, can be daunting. There are great restaurants around the Mall, DuPont Circle and throughout downtown. There are myriad food trucks that offer mobile goodness to the famished pedestrian traffic. Of course, there are the 'traps' that box up chicken pieces and parts, forlorn in off-putting coating with sauces of questionable origin and construction, that gouge the unsuspecting tourist. Looking for some variety, David had pointed me in the direction of some local places that would excite a burgeoning appetite without dinging my dieting wallet.

    Arriving late on a ridiculously cold Thursday night, David hustled me down Wisconsin Ave in DC's northwest, just outside of Georgetown, to the lesser known  neighborhood of Glover Park. A little after 9:00pm, we ducked into Arcuri (arcuridc.com) for the warm embrace of a pizza salvation. Arcuri offers a succinct menu that is beyond refreshing from the 'do all, be all for everybody' mentality. We went hard on the Meatball antipasti - ever so gently pink, I'm guessing from some pork? - blended with ricotta and parmigiano. Very delicate in heft and brilliant in flavor. Seriously. Not some dense throat-clogger that we really have come to expect as the standard. Arcuri brings the meatballs to a very different place on the ball-shaped topographical map of goodness. We did a side of the crispy potatoes, dripped with a cheesy mix of pecorino hit with rosemary and garlic, as we waited for our pizza. Potatoes were chunks rather than medium or large diced, uniform pieces, cooked firm, but not hard, brown, but not burnt. The simplicity of the preparation really made the skill of the kitchen shine an artful glow on the ingredients and bring a potato revelation that is lost with overly-fussy potato calamities. Another delicious, warming hug. For pizza, we went with the "Smokey." The crust had the height of deep-dish, but that is where the similarities ended. The density was very airy and, well, not at all dense. The sauce was obviously well made. How so? Well, it tasted like tomato. I know, strange concept, right? There was a bright, slightly acidic kick to the sauce that didn't mask from where the sauce originated; it was not washed in too much seasoning, over cooking or fuss. The namesake smokey delivery comes from the smoked mozzarella and smoked pepperoni that, with a restrained hand, scatter the top of the pie. A nice touch to add depth to the garnish is the guanciale - a bacon-like smoked pork meat 'bit' from a pig's cheek. The salty, smokey, tomatoey, cheesey-fat sang operatically on top of the airy crust. There wasn't the heft in my gut that can go along with pizza less craftily conceived and constructed. The first stop in the area was a memorable one and the first to make it on the list to make a repeat visit. Arcuri does one helluva job on food. You have to  give some serious hoopla to a menu that has prosciutto, pancetta, speck, guanciale, pepperoni, bacon and fennel sausage. Porkophiles rejoice!

    The next day was an adventure through DC's museum offerings, paying particular attention to the Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org) and a walk to see the nation's founding documents over at the Archives. It is renewing and, perhaps, a bit humbling to bear witness to the doctrines and struggles others have endured - or succumbed to -  to serve a dose of perspective and humility. Ya' know, sometimes the crap we go through really isn't just that bad. Go see Lincoln and imagine what he was shouldering.
    I met up with a former student and current member of the brigade at the Ritz Carlton on DuPont Circle for some dinner along Wisconsin Ave at Rocklands Barbecue and Grilling Company (rocklands.com). I am an absolute BBQ junky. Load a baster with real, smoke-ringed, slow-cooked, pulled chicken and jam it into the nearest artery. Rocklands location in Glover Park is the real deal; sparse seating, noisy interactions, smoke-filled (thankfully!) and barbecuey deliciousness abounds. I wanted to try all the side offerings, but that would be a bit excessive. Gluttony is not necessarily a bad thing from time to time, so I went for the slaw, the creamy variety spiked with peas and, what I think was caraway, made for a hearty and pleasant approach to the cabbage salad. The Texas Corn Pudding - think unbaked cornbread - had a little hit of jalapeño that proved a pivotal balance of the sweetness of the corn. The BBQ joint staple of Macaroni and Cheese was craftily built with big cheesiness and that viscous construct expected of the classic side. Good stuff! The Old-Fashioned Mashed Potatoes picked up where most depart; the good folks at Rocklands remember the salt. Potatoes take on an extraordinary amount of salt without getting salty, but rather enhances that dirty/earthy/mineral potato flavor that makes that tuber taste so good. The seasonal Beet Salad was a refreshing take to BBQ joint salad offerings. Sweet and hearty, and quite surprising to find here. Nuggets of bloody red beets, pickled and oniony; another Rocklands 'don't miss!' I had to go with the Pulled Chicken sandwich. Damn! Smokey and roasty and bold without the sickening sweet drip of overly sugary sauce that has become synonymous with the BBQ landscape. Rather, the ever so slightly piquant, onion-kissed sauce compliments the chicken rather than smothers the flavor of the meat. The soft potato roll is the perfect canvas to transport the chicken to artistic immortality. Of course I had to get some cornbread to sop up some of the BBQ sauce because, well, sauce should never be wasted. Rocklands is ever so generous with providing their sauce in a warm cauldron, free for the taking to allow more liberal dowsing, should the need arise. Rocklands' root beer is great; that peppery, sweet carbonated elixir is a great addition to the spread. The crew behind the counter at Rocklands are enthusiastic about hefting their food to the masses; patient and nice are always welcomed virtues in a dining experience. And, yes, I made a return trip later on my trip, for the long drive back. Just saying.
    The morning brought a walking trek down the big hill to Georgetown. Not for the faint of heart, the walk from Glover Park through Georgetown is a few miles of which most, as you would expect, is uphill for the return following the days' explorations. Plenty of distractions along the walk to break-up the long trek, replete with retail overdose. There are the usual chain spots with cookie-cut footprints as well as plenty of unique digs that beckon a stop; used book stores with plenty of character make for good distractions.
    I saw a Dean & Deluca in the near distance as I strolled M Street. Always a sucker for boutique, epicurean offerings, I started to make my way. A detour, though, as a sign offering Intelligentsia coffee redirected me to Olivia Macaron (oliviamacaron.com) just to my left, tucked into a cute plaza. I am a big fan of Intelligentsia and do not often get the opportunity to imbibe. A quick bolt up the few steps to Olivia's counter awash in an ivory setting brought a revelation. The spectrum of color from the macarons dazzled in the neon white trim of the gentle space that Olivia occupies. I ordered a cappuccino made with the attention-drawing promise of Intelligentsia as a little conversation of this fabulous place abounded with the genteel crew. The menu of offerings is neatly projected onto the wall through an LCD projector one would usually see being used for PowerPoint and TV displays. This mode delivering the menu, I remarked, would provide an  easy way to make modifications should food-cost change or market fluctuations would change product offerings. In talking with the nice lady behind the counter, we struck up a bit of banter as I noted that I was investigating opening a place of my own but was hesitant in taking on such a risk. Well, we spent the next half-hour allaying my fears, her sharing her experience opening this gorgeous spot and the fun staff at Olivia Macaron doing all but taking my hand and reassuring me that I should move forward.
    ***​
    Customer service can often go beyond serving; it can be a generous sharing of care, concern, encouragement, understanding and even generosity. The people at Olivia Macaron are all of those gracious characteristics and more. They seemed genuinely interested in encouraging me and lifting my spirits when, well, some lifting needed to be done. Playing through my head, "the kindness of strangers," as these gentle friends transcended delivering coffee and macarons and brought hospitality to life. I am not sure they will ever know what good karma and juju they deliver through sincerity and heartfelt encouragement.
    ***​
    The macarons transcended all experience to date. The Green Tea macaron was perfectly sweet with that verdant, savory mouth-feel of the Japanese tea elixir. I threw any trepidation out and asked for their suggestions, and was over-the-moon with the Licorice offering. The dark, fennel profile worked beautifully as the sweetness of the almondy-meringue sandwich nestled the aromatic filling as artfully as the colors that were splayed upon the counter. Oh, and don't let me relive the Salted Caramel offering. Sweet up front and the caramel finished each bite. I am a firm believer that you can taste the emotion of the cook or chef preparing an item; these macarons were made by caring hands. Artfully assembled with a clear nod to elegant presentation and a complete understanding that food has to taste great not just look good. There is no denying, Olivia Macaron are beautifully delicious.  And, yes, I made a return trip there, too.  Don't judge me!
    A quick trip into the Dean & Deluca was a kidney punch. There are people that can really do some serious fiscal damage on amazing products that, I hope, they appreciate. I will never be able to revel in what a store like Dean & Deluca offers; I don't begrudge anybody for being able to shop there, nor do I think Dean & Deluca is off the mark for offering $20 per pound pasta salad, $14 per pound green beans with dressing or $17 servings of take-out mac 'n cheese with a smattering of lobster. If there is a market for their wares, then by all means, supply the populous. Rather, it is just eye-opening and quite humbling that this is a world I will never know. The products are the ultimate in opulence that drip of built-in luxury. Jealous? Perhaps. Sad? More than a little.

    Departing M Street with my Intelligentsia cappuccino, expert in execution, (walking past no fewer than 8 Starbucks) I, again, found myself in the bustle of metro DC. The allure of the Spy Museum, in its kitschy appeal drew me in. More levity than the previous day's museums, the Spy Museum and connecting gift shop are fun distractions that reek of half-silliness, half-conspiracy theory.

    Sean met me for lunch and we stumbled upon Shake Shack (shakeshack.com) just around the corner from the Spy Museum. I am a big fan of Danny Meyer's empire of quality-driven restaurants. A little visit at Gramercy Tavern last spring with the operation's Apple-like focus on style and substance, I am a fan of the hospitality approach Meyer and his team exude through every pore. Read Meyer's Setting the Table to wrap your head around his philosophy and you will understand. Shake Shack is the eater's entry-level dive into the empire. With no disappointment, Shake Shack boisterously offers a crowded, raucous experience of seat-yourself, grab a burger and enjoy a shake. I am not usually a burger eater, so perhaps that was the underlying factor for my absolute enjoyment of my selection. Capped with a crispy, fried portabello mushroom, muenster and cheddar cheeses, the burger was, juicy, flavorful and simply delicious. Sean went with a hot dog dowsed in an ale-cheese sauce and topped with crispy fried shallots. The focus really is on fast food. But don't get all crazy! Not that type of fast food. Rather, good food served quickly; it can be done! For just a dollar or two more than you would pay at one of 'those' places, Shake Shack turns dumb fast food on its ear.

    A lazy climb up Wisconsin Ave from the city, still bloated with burger belly, the radar for tonight's dinner already started beeping. Back in Glover Park, a glimpse at Surfside (surfsidedc.com) looked like the evening's destination. The do-it-yourself approach to taco, salad, rice bowl and burrito making  is a novel, if not completely foreign concept. Over-stuffed burritos were loaded with all the MexiGoodness that Surfside could muster. For dinner, I had to go with the month's feature of Lamb Tacos with yogurt sauce, beets and cucumber. Plenty of tenderly cooked lamb scattered among the chilled garnishes made the duo of tacos surprisingly filling. The rice served alongside was, after a belly full of tacos,  not really needed, but flavorful with a discerning hand of cooking understanding. I was just full. One caveat with Surfside; it is a seat-yourself place that makes for a little difficult challenge of lassoing a table in the time it takes for your food to be prepared. On this particular night, I was not so lucky and had to pack my dinner to be eaten in the quiet solace of my host's home. The rooftop seating at Surfside looks and sounds appealing, nay a freezing night would not have made for a good time. In the spring for a return visit? Absolutely. I hear the starry canopy makes for a fun backdrop whilst gorging on quesadillas and burritos.
    ***​
    Over a few days, I learned a lot about the food of the area. No, that is not true. I learned that there is a lot to learn about the food of the area. A few days were barely a start. I did get to meet some great dishes that I would like to see again, not just a quickie date. I met people as strangers that I left as, well, friends. There is a gentle kindness that really does turn the little things into the big things. There were explosive flavors, keen designs and just good times with friends. The excitement of exploring is like the sauce of hunger; it makes the meals taste better.

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  1. jim berman
    Thanks for the comments! I found the food scene to be brilliant and bright... and I was really only exploring the more casual aspects. If you turn up the heat and move towards fine dining.... goodness!... there is an abundance of fantastic selections on nearly every street. Hey, @KaiqueKuisine, the good folks at Olivia Macaron ship their creations. Just saying. :)
  2. kaiquekuisine
    K-girl IKR, those macarons made my mouth water XD 
  3. kaneohegirlinaz
    And people think that the food scene in the DC area is lacking.