Hidden Gems


If you haven’t finished your holiday shopping yet, you don’t need us to remind you that you’re running out of time.  Hanukkah begins at sunset next Tuesday, and Christmas Day is just a few days behind that.  Unless you’re willing to pay for express shipping, most online retailers won’t guarantee delivery in time for the holidays at this point.

Fortunately, you’ve still got plenty of time to shop if you Think Local First.  We’ll save the pitches about supporting the local economy and encouraging eclectic and diverse retail options for another time…right now, all you need to think about is the fact that you can buy your last-minute gifts right up until the Night Before Christmas if you shop in-store.

Stumped for gift ideas?  If you’re shopping for someone who loves cooking, eating or drinking in the Washington area, we’re here to help.  From now until Christmas Day we’ll be offering twelve of our favorites – some old, some new, all tasty.  We’re starting off with a delicious source for sweet treats on Barracks Row:

On the first day ’til Christmas, my true love gave to me…a Caramelized Pear and Goat Cheese macaron from the Sweet Lobby!

The siblings, originally from Trinidad, are both graduates of MIT with degrees in engineering…not your average patissier‘s background.    Winnette fell in love with macarons and French pastry while in Paris, and she has been applying her scientific training to perfecting her recipes ever since.  When the opportunity came to open their own shop on Barracks Row, these Hill-dwellers jumped at the chance.

While their technique and attention to detail are traditional, some of the flavors that the Sweet Lobby works into their macarons are anything but ordinary.  Think black sesame pumpkin, hazelnut praline salted caramel (yes, all those tastes are in one macron) and chili-spiked chocolate.  The little treats are sold individually or in stylish orange-and-cocoa boxes of 4, 16 or even 40!

Despite (or possibly because of) their delicate texture and air of refinement, it’s highly unlikely that macarons will ever supplant cupcakes as DC’s go-to sugar fix.  Thankfully, the Sweet Lobby has you covered on the cakier front, as well.  With buttercream frosting (on most) and cake that is moist and dense, they’ll go toe-to-toe with almost any DC cupcake contender.

Since opening in June, the Sweet Lobby has been establishing a reputation as a go-to source for some of the most delicious macarons this side of the Seine.  The complex little pastries, with their brittle shells and near-liquid interiors, demand a perfectionist’s touch.  Fortunately for us, the Sweet Lobby has Winnette and Timothy McIntosh.

And as if the cupcakes and the macarons weren’t enough for such a small space, the McIntosh siblings sell madeleines and shortbread in several flavors.  They’ve also created Steep, a line of custom blended loose-leaf teas.  Work with the Sweet Lobby staff and you’ll be sure to find a gift combination that works for your loved one.

The flavors of both the macarons and the cupcakes change daily, so you’ll want to check in with them via Facebook or Twitter to get the latest update. Prices are better than many competitors’, with cupcakes selling for $2.75 and macarons go for $1.75 each.

The Sweet Lobby
404 8th St., SE
Washington, DC
The Sweet Lobby on Urbanspoon

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We have to hand it to Prince of Petworth.  There we were, on our way to take a sneak peek at Rogue 24 in Blagden Alley off of 9th Street, NW, and we get an email from a friend pointing us to PoP’s post announcing the opening of SUNdeVICH in a nearby-but-different alley off of 9th Street, NW.  We had no idea they were even close to opening, but thanks to PoP we were able to drop in just as SUNdeVICH opened its doors.  We went in anticipating bold flavors, and we weren’t disappointed.

Of course, first we had to find the place.  Walking up to N Street from Rogue 24, we could see the alley we were looking for through a parking lot, but to get there we had to head out to 9th and then cut back in.  It being their first day, SUNdeVICH didn’t even have a sign in the window yet.  We might still be wandering around the alley if we hadn’t seen someone enter the corner garage through a sliding glass door.  This was the place!

We had read about their intention to provide “a wide range of bold flavors,” representing cuisines from across the globe, which immediately sets them up to encounter two potentially fatal challenges: a “jack of all trades, master of none” approach that sacrifices expertise for diversity of flavors; and a menu so scattered that it becomes a minefield of bad combinations.  So we decided to try a sandwich and a side to check out the flavors – both on their own and in tandem.  Two gallon-sized containers of pickles at the cash register caught our eye, so we had them throw in a whole pickle to round out the meal.  What we found was surprising.

Will we be going back to get our passports stamped with other flavors soon?  Find out after the jump.

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We’ve owned the fact that we’re pretty green when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine.  Sure, we can pho with the best of them, and we’re no slouches when it comes to enjoying banh mi, but sit-down Vietnamese is still something we’re learning as we go.  If a recent visit to Present is any indication, this is going to be a delicious education.

Present had been on our radar for quite some time in light of Tom Sietsema and Tim Carman’s glowing reviews, but somehow it never quite broke through from our “some day” list to attain “gotta try it” status.  Credit those group-buying sites for once again prompting us to shuffle our dining priorities: were it not for that discount we probably still wouldn’t have visited.  It also allowed us to try more dishes than we otherwise might have, another big win.

When we arrived at Present, I made a mental note to give A LOT of credit to the reviewers who tracked down this hidden gem.  A nondescript storefront in one of the countless strip malls that line Arlington Boulevard, Present doesn’t exactly shout “culinary destination.”  Even so, we walked through the front door ready for a good meal.

A lot has been written about the beautiful, descriptive dish names, but we were soon in over our heads.  Should we try the Smokey Petal, the Pilgrim on the Beach, or the Gregarious Lemongrass Chicken?  We wanted a meal that represented some of the best of what Present had to order, so we turned to the expert: we asked our server.

Her recommendations and the feast that followed after the jump.

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You know the drill: we open every write-up about a taqueria talking about what a tough time we’ve had finding good Mexican food in the DC area.  Since we started, we’ve received a couple of good recommendations, and we’ve been fortunate enough to find a few winners on our own.  At this point, I may be willing to concede that we were looking in the wrong places to begin with.

From now until April 1st, we know exactly where to look for by-the-book tacos in an unexpected setting: Tacos Impala.  This pop-up taco stand has taken up residency in the Philadelphia Water Ice Company’s digs at 1204 H Street, NE, and they’ll be turning out the tortillas for another two months.  If you miss out, you have only yourself to blame.

Everything about this classic street food is handmade fresh on a daily basis, from the corn tortillas to the chopped radish, onion and cilantro that make up the only available toppings.  Even the two sauce options – a green, tomatillo-based salsa verde and the milder red ‘Sauce Impala’ using guajillos – are made from scratch.  They make ingredient runs to the Florida Market six days a week.  And they show a deft hand when it comes to spicing the meats and beans that fill those homemade tortillas.

The story on what brings these tasty tacos to H Street after the jump. (more…)

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When a restaurant routinely appears among the top 20 of Washingtonian’s best restaurant lists,  it can hardly be called “under the radar.”  Even so, it seems like 2941 frequently fades into the background when DC diners are thinking about places to celebrate a special occasion with a high-end meal.  We’ve had a few in-the-know friends recommend it, but it just doesn’t come up among suggestions as often as you might expect.

from 2941 website

Maybe it’s the location – 2941 is just inside the Beltway in the Falls Church/Tysons Corner/Mclean area.  It’s not Metro accessible, and it’s even off the beaten path relative to most of what you think of when you think of Tysons.  But it’s precisely that remove that made 2941 a great choice for a recent birthday dinner.

The setting feels like a rural retreat once you get past the fact that it’s located inside an office building.  Couple that with attentive, helpful service and a tasting menu that is changing almost constantly to reflect the season’s bounty and you’ve got the makings of a fuss-free gourmet getaway.

More on the food and everything else that makes 2941 such a good time after the jump. (more…)

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Jennifer Weiner, an insanely talented and successful novelist, once described her daily writing routine: A nanny comes to her home in Philadelphia every day to watch her daughter while Weiner walks around the corner to her favorite coffeeshop to write for about 4 straight hours. End workday. As soon as I heard her describe this my head snapped up and I said to myself “that’s what I want.” There is a lot implied with this type of workday. First of all, she’s successful enough to write full time, not squeeze it around a 40+ hour desk jockey work week like most writers I know. Secondly, she can afford regular help based on her writing income. And, perhaps most notable to food and coffee devotees, she lives within walking distance of a coffeeshop that is awesome enough to draw her in every single day.

Regardless of one’s career aspirations, that third piece really hits home for a lot of us.  An area isn’t a neighborhood unless there is a destination-worthy coffeehouse nestled around some corner.  I challenge you to name a great neighborhood in DC that doesn’t have a coffee shop of pride. Eastern Market? Peregrine. Clarendon? Northside Social. DuPont? Teaism. H St NE? Take your pick of Sidamo, Sova, or Ebenezers.

Lately we’ve been exploring what other neighborhoods have to offer so no matter where you go, you’ll be able to caffeinate yourself at a moment’s notice.

photo courtesy of The V Word

Tryst – Adam’s Morgan
Let me hook my thumbs into my suspenders and remind you that back in myyyy day, Tryst was just about the only coffee/lounge game in town unless you considered Starbucks or its cousins an option. Tryst is the grandaddy of the DC coffeehouse scene. Like a hipster church, you can mark your weekly calendar by the Sunday morning gathering of young urbanites sipping coffee and enjoying a pastry along with their free wi-fi. Some of them may have even been there the previous evening, when Tryst turns from Friends-style coffehouse to casual lounge with cocktails and light food on the menu. Service can struggle at times – not surprising considering the ebb and flow of the crowd – but Tryst continues to serve as a happy starting point for many an epic night out in Adam’s Morgan.
Tryst on Urbanspoon

Three more coffeehouses after the jump. (more…)

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Maybe it’s our status as a tourist destination.  Or maybe it’s a question of smart use of existing resources.  Whatever the reason, Washington has an abundance of surprisingly good restaurants that just happen to be located in hotels.  CityZen, Blue Duck Tavern, Corduroy’s first incarnation: all technically hotel restaurants.  Even some of the biggest names to arrive on the scene in recent memory (BourbonSteak, WestEnd Bistro, Adour) are situated in high-end hotels.

Even among all these standouts, we remain consistently impressed with the restaurants attached to Kimpton hotels in the area.  We’ve made no secret of our deep, abiding love for Poste, and we’ve had positive experiences at Urbana, Brabo, Bistro Bis and Firefly.  In each case the restaurant’s ambience makes it very easy to forget that there’s a hotel here, as well…it just feels like another dining destination.  It’s not until the bill comes and that “charge it to my room” option appears that we’re reminded of the connection.

Image from Morrison House website

A few weeks ago we learned that that’s not the case at every Kimpton restaurant, when we had the opportunity to check out the Grille at Morrison House.  As an incentive to register for the Modern Gentleman series they held last year, Morrison House offered participants a complimentary dinner for two (to show off what you’ve learned).  All that’s to say that we may have had a less than representative dining experience, though it had nothing to do with our status as bloggers.

The kind of meal we wish we could get from room service after the jump.

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Much like Magellan, the limits of my horizon continue to expand before me. Saturday’s expedition took Mike and me to a busy strip mall in Annandale, VA. If you had asked me last year where Annandale was, I probably would have blinked at you a moment before answering “I dunno. Probably somewhere near Manassass or Hay Market or one of those.” “Those” being far away sounding suburbs I’d never bothered to visit unless they were a pit stop on the way to IAD or VA wine country. You know. Drive over country. Regardless, we’re turning over a new leaf at Capital Spice and this particular leaf is named IndAroma.

When we walked in on an early weekend afternoon, the bright, casual space was filled with young families and a large table of Indian aunties happily chatting away the afternoon. We were intrigued by this new bakery’s injection of Indian flavors into continental staples, manifesting itself into menu items like mango tiramisu. Traditional French pastries were also on hand as was a fun, light lunch menu option including Indian-influenced paninis and an entire section for chaats (snack plates that veer toward savory flavors).    

In the end, we couldn’t resist grabbinng some classic Indian flavors. I have never met a somasa I didn’t like (the same goes for mimosas, oddly) and IndAroma’s samosas kept the trend alive. Their golden, crackling exterior crisped and crumbled into warm potato-pea-spicy goodness inside. We paired these with generous portions of rich mango lassie. 

Although we were sated with our small lunch, we wanted to take a piece of IndAroma home with us. All of IndAroma’s pastries and baked goods are made in house, including a healthy selection of quickbread cakes (fuit, lemon, and plum), croissants, and cookies.  Aha! I knew a sweet tooth exploration opportunity when I saw one. We were invited to dinner with friends that evening and were slated to bring dessert.

I asked a member of the IndAroma staff which of the cookie selections were the most traditional Indian treats and she led me to nankatai – a rounded and puffed cookie that somehow managed to be dense and airy in a single bite. The cookie has slight flavors of cardamom and (perhaps?) the lightest touch of saffron. Wanting to bring a variety of options to dinner, we also grabbed a box of salted shortbread cookies and pistachio cookie squares. The entire plate was a hit that evening and I don’t think it was just the ghee talking.

IndAroma
6548 C Little River Tpke
Alexandria, VA 22312
IndAroma on Urbanspoon

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DC is a food city worth its ice-melting salt but there are some missing pieces in our flawless plan. We listed out some destinations we wish we could move part and parcel into our fair capital. But the real question is, what restaurants do you wish would move to DC? Share the wealth.

Tartine (San Francisco) – I have long lamented the state of bakeries in the DC area. While we have a few noteworthy destinations, I have yet to come across a single bakery and cafe that suits all my needs. And this is no diva list. My needs are simple. I want a bakery that can make a killer croissant  and bad ass espresso in the same building. I want an organic feeling cafe where I can sit down and enjoy both of these masterpieces along with a book or across the table from a good friend. Tartine has mastered this equation. I wish they would bring it this way. I’ll even help them scout neighborhoods.

Hot Doug’s (Chicago) – DC is a one hot dog kind of town. Bless our loyalty but we are Ben’s bitches. I’d like to see Hot Doug’s, a Chicago hot dog institution, set up shop and give Ben’s a run for its money. Sure Hot Doug’s can’t touch Ben’s when it comes to DC history and culture. But how about a quality dog with creative, well-executed toppings? Feeling fancy? Try one of Doug’s a dogs topped with foie gras or sauternes duck sausage topped with truffle aioli, foie mousse and sel gris. Even if you are a classicist, at Hot Doug’s the dogs have a satisfying snap, the toppings are on point, and the prices are right. Please visit, Doug. DC needs you.

Casa Bonita (Denver) – I’ll level with you. The food, it is terrible. Mostly mass produced Mexican from a conveyor belt. The prices are ridiculous for the quality. I’m sure if there were actual windows or if the lights were ever turned all the way up I’d find the whole restaurant to be a mess of sticky children’s birthday party filth. But I also think DC children and DC’s young at heart would be a happier bunch if Denver’s infamous La Casa Bonita were in our town. What’s a few overpriced sopapillas when your restaurant has cliff divers? And a video arcade cave? And one of those old timey sepia photo booths where it looks like you took your family to the wild, wild west and your wife and daughter are common saloon whores? Even South Park opined the pleasures of Casa Bonita. I mean, how do birthday parties in DC survive without this place?

Casa Bonita
Casa Bonita on Urbanspoon

Three more holes in DC’s foodie heart after the jump. (more…)

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When storms like SnoMageddon hit DC, communities emerge. Few of us escaped those powdery weekends unscathed and without social stories. Twenty-something transplants may have found themselves cross-country skiing to a friend’s place with a case of beer to toast the snow in style. More settled residents emerged to check on elderly neighbors and shovel out pathways. Communities are a tricky thing. What defines one? How do you know if you live in a community versus a random collection of homes? One real estate guru opined that a true livable neighborhood is any place you can be served breakfast within walking distance of your front door.  For many DCers, that walkable breakfast is replaced with a caffeinated beverage from a local purveyor.  

Residents of the H St corridor have three coffee options just steps from their stoop: the delightful Ethiopian Sidamo, the true coffeehouse (with booze!) Sova, and the unassuming corner stop Ebenezers. Operating within a bean’s throw from Union Station metro on 2nd and F St NE, Ebenezers has been pouring  fair trade coffee to local residents since 2006. 

Ebeneezers is the longest tenured of the H St trinity coffee shops  and receives the least attention. Perhaps local beanheads, many of whom may not have been around in the pre-H St-is-a-hip-place days, take it for granted as the first coffeehouse stake in the ground. What it lacks in Sova’s living room cool or Sidamo’s everybody knows your name vibe in makes up for in gales of natural light and friendly service. 

Patrons mirror the neighborhood demo: mostly 20something. Mostly professional. Dogs are more common than strollers. On warm summer evenings (remember those?), friends run into eachother on the generous front patios while DC’s dedicated workaholics continue to stream by from Union Station on their way home. Sunday morning sippers may be surprised to hear worship services booming from the basement: Ebeneezers is run by a local church. Agnostics needn’t fear; Ebenezers isn’t a proselytizing beard. I like to think of it as a bonus that my morning coffee will be served by a fresh-faced barista who woke up hangover-free that morning, unlike other favorite caffeine haunts (cough::Peregrine::cough).

Ebenezers Coffeehouse
201 F St NE
Washington, DC 20002
Ebenezers Coffeehouse on Urbanspoon

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