Top 5 Surprise Picks for Vegetarians

Vegetarians

Chances are, if you’re a vegetarian in the District, you’ve already “steaked” out your go-to restaurants that reliably offer vegetarian fare. However, with more and more inside-the-beltway diners celebrating fresh produce done right, vegetarian stunners are springing up on menus in unexpected places. In an effort to expand your options, we share with you Top Five Surprise Picks for Vegetarians:

Mandu

Potato

While Korean BBQ and vegetarians don’t necessarily sound synonymous, Mandu (now with two locations) is a vegetarian mecca. Almost every dish can be made vegetarian (if it’s not born that way to begin with). Choose from sizzling bibim bap, egg-dipped zucchini and eggplant, glazed veggies and tofu off the grill or chap-chae sweet potato noodles, just to name a few. This is a chance for vegetarians to get in on Korean cuisine that’s surpassing sushi as the frontrunner Asian food in pop culture. See the menu here.

Kapnos

Eggplant

Kapnos, which BTM visited earlier this month, captured our veggie-loving hearts. They have 20 items on their menu that are vegetarian, and many of them contended for our top pick. From smoky hen of the woods mushrooms to potato garlic phyllo pies, you really can’t go wrong. Not that you have to, but you could easily make a meal out of their delicious bread and flavorful dips (four of which are vegetarian). See Mike Isabella’s menu here.

Firefly

Cabbage

Also ringing in with around 20 vegetarian options is Firefly. It’s no surprise that this forest-canopied restaurant treats its veggies with tender loving care. We can personally attest to the Goat Cheese Gnocchi, which we selected as the Best Thing on the Menu. Also delicious:  Farro Salad, Fried Green Tomatoes and 3 Bean Risotto. See the menu here.

Volt

Raddish

Why should fancy tasting menu adventures be for meat eaters only? We imagine that’s what star chef Bryan Voltaggio asked himself when he designed the “Tasting of Fruits and Vegetables” menu at Volt. Six mouthwatering courses showcase earth’s natural candy in ways we’ve never thought of. See for yourself, here. We’re headed there in two weeks and will report back.

Taylor Gourmet

Bok Choy

Moving now from gourmet tasting menus to Taylor Gourmet. Why shouldn’t you be able to enjoy a hoagie just because you don’t eat hog? Taylor Gourmet, with its multiple locations, has five great hoagies (subs, grinders, heroes, sandwiches …) just for you. We’re particularly intrigued by “Christian Street,” containing portobella mushrooms, arugula, roasted red peppers and goat cheese. In case you have room after hoagie heaven, don’t forget Taylor Gourmet’s risotto balls. We’ve already requested these in lieu of a birthday cake this year. Here’s hoping the candle stays put. See the menu here.

Other suggestions for surprise vegetarian-friendly spots? Share with us in the comments section.

Chez Billy: Saucisse Merguez

Chez Billy Saucisse Merguez

Stop what you’re doing and skip the 14th Street small plates scene and hop on Bus 52 or 54 instead. Get off in Petworth (home of our favorite prince) and visit Chez Billy for an impressive meal full of small miracles:

  • The portions were the right size.
  • The cocktails were inventive and worth their value.
  • The mackerel was fresh, not fishy.
  • The harissa wasn’t too spicy.
  • The beef bourguignon wasn’t too wintery.
  • The dessert wasn’t too sweet.
  • The service was so friendly we could have stayed all night.

We came away enjoying every last bite and will be back to try more dishes. Heck, we’ll even dry more dishes if they feed us in blueberry panna cotta.

The Best Thing on the Menu: Saucisse Merguez – Grilled Spicy Lamb sausages, White beans, Charred Scallions and Harissa was a standout. Why anyone makes sausage with meat other than lamb, we’ll never know after trying these rich, gamey links. The scallions were a special treat, reminding us of our very first post from Estadio and the warm heat of the harissa brought everything together.

Other notables included the boudin noir (warm blood sausage terrine), chilled corn soup with pickled cantaloupe, the confit de canard (confit duck) and the special of the day, short rib beef bourguignon. The Chef had just returned from honeymooning in France, and boy were we the beneficiaries. While this was a BTM contender, we try to stay away from recommending specials in case they do a disappearing act before you get to the restaurant.

Chez Billy Boudin Noir

Boudin Noir

Chez Billy Chilled Corn Soup

Chilled Corn Soup

The atmosphere is charming, which should come as no surprise since the building is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Its rich African American history, having originally housed Billy Simpson’s House of Seafood and Steaks, saw the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Martin Luther King Jr.

So, in sum, step away from the small plates and step into Chez Billy for some modern French fare that is sure to impress (and at prices, that again, are a small miracle).

Saucisse Merguez not your BTM? Post your favorites in the comments section. 

If you liked this, you may also like Le Diplomate, Le Pain Quotidien or Poste.

Westend Bistro: Pan Roasted Salmon for 425 Calories

Westend Bistro Low-Cal Salmon

Washington is a city that revolves around dining – Maybe you’re a 20-something with an insatiable hunger for networking and small plates, or a lobbyist lunching with gentle persuasion on K Street, or just a good friend being dragged to yet another non-profit fundraiser happy hour complete with “heavy apps.” This is all before the weekend hits and we know DCers live to brunch. With all this eating, our waistlines are bound to take a hit that even the most aggressive CrossFit WOD or death-defying pole dancing class can’t fix.

Enter Westend Bistro, an oasis of delicious healthy food in a vast desert of trending devilish indulgences. We left our meal guilt-free and extremely impressed. The Best Thing on the Menu: Pan Roasted Salmon with Three Lentil Salad, Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette, Olive Tapenade and Sundried Tomato Pesto appeared in the much appreciated “Bistro Light” section of the menu, accompanied by other mid-section mindful meals. This small portion of the menu includes calorie counts, eliminating the guesswork and mystery. The acidity of the salmon’s accompaniments hid the fact that little to no butter was used, and the plate was so colorful that it added to the satisfaction.

Salmon wasn’t the only fish that stood out at Westend Bistro. Chef Devin Bozkaya‘s passion for poisson was quite apparent and we’re not surprised by his marine mastery since his career began in Anchorage, Alaska and continued on to Seattle, Washington. The Tuna Carpaccio was an actual magic trick. It appeared to be one impossibly thin slice of tuna rather than the small circular slices one is accustomed to. The Pan Roasted Bass with Mushroom Risotto, Lemongrass and Coconut Sauce and Baby Bok Choy was another winner.

Westend Bistro Carpaccio Westend Bistro Bass

The Ritz-Carlton restaurant is also a respite from the small-plates craze. With great gusto we each chose the ONE dish that struck our fancy. Committing felt good again.

Pan Roasted Salmon not your BTM? Post your favorites in the comments section.

Firefly: Goat Cheese Gnocchi

Firefly: Goat Cheese Gnocchi

Escape for an evening of enchantment and whimsy when you enter Firefly, a true fairytale of a restaurant. Adorned with beautiful birch bark and a central tree, you get the sense that you are in for an ingredient-centric meal that features sustainable food as the star.

Thanks to local-born Chef Daniel Bortnick’s strong command of produce, you can enjoy four seasons of flavor no matter what the month. Spring claims our favorite dessert of warm zucchini bread with basil corn ice cream as well as the halibut served with carrot puree, spring pistou, fingerling potatoes and snap peas. Summer highlights include fried green tomatoes and a farro salad full of a garden’s treasures. There are hints of fall in the smoked lamb shoulder, another winner. Finally, winter is represented in one of Firefly’s signature dishes, a personal pot roast, which we would likely be writing about if it wasn’t 100 degrees.

But the Best Thing on the Menu: Goat Cheese Gnocchi with Morel Mushrooms, Sweet Corn, Squash and Truffle Vinaigrette stands alone atop of the flavor pyramid. Replete with earth-driven umami goodness, this winning dish combines elements of all four seasons. Needless to say, it warranted multiple orders from our table.

In a city that loves customization and catering to dietary needs, Firefly takes their menu options to the next level by offering gluten free dinner, lunch, brunch and dessert menus in addition to the cutest kids menu you’ve ever seen. It appears Chefs Danny Bortnick and Todd Wiss know their clientele, which is made up of primarily locals despite being housed in a Kimpton Hotel.

Think you’ve experienced all the magic once dessert is through? Just wait for the whimsical way they deliver the check.

Goat Cheese Gnocchi not your BTM? Post your favorites in the comments section.

Out of Town Edition – State Bird Provisions (San Fran)

State Bird Provisions' Pickled Anchovy-Sesame Pancake
Guest Post: Eric & Ashely

With the well-known dearth of quality food in DC (PSYCH!), longtime FoBTM (friends of BTM) escaped to the food mecca of San Francisco to see firsthand what this first class food city is all about. In between copious helpings of sourdough and avocados, we had a chance to dine at some of SF’s most delicious eateries, including a stop at State Bird Provisions – the 2012 James Beard award winner for Best New Restaurant.

The unique menu and dining style at SBP is split into “commandables” and “provisions.” The standing menu of commandables has long-time favorites like their namesake, the CA State Bird, an amazingly crispy, juicy and tender quail with lemony onions, and a helping of savory pancakes. Meanwhile, dim sum carts meander through the crowded restaurant, offering diners a peek at the daily specials or “provisions.”

You may be thinking, “oh no, not another gimmicky small plates agenda,” which we FoBTM are totally out on. Instead, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and friendly servers describe each dish in detail, allowing diners to conjure what their meal might look like (and taste like) before making difficult choices. With plates coming out of the kitchen every few minutes, you can pace your meal however you’d like, not end up with too much food and save lunch money for the rest of your trip. The best of both worlds.

Lucky for you, the Best Thing on the Menu: Pickled Anchovy-Sesame Pancake with Crème Fraîche and Basil is on the reliable list of commandables, upping the likelihood that you can try the dish on your next trip to San Fran. Gently pickled anchovies and just-picked radish sit atop a thick, brioche-y sesame pancake. A touch of sour cream and you’re eating the best version of latkes and herring you’ve ever tasted. Even one anchovy-hating FoBTM needed a second bite. With most dishes priced around $10, you can eat stacks on stacks of pancakes, instead of spending stacks on stacks on stacks.

Not a fan of anchovies? Try the Charred Octopus in Tomato-Chickpea Salsa or Garlic Bread with Buratta. Or, you could follow the advice of this four-year old.

It won’t be long before other restaurants mimic SBP’s distinctive dining style, and as long as they can come close to matching the quality of the food at State Bird Provisions, we are looking forward to what the future brings.

Pickled Anchovy-Sesame Pancake not your BTM? Post your favorites in the comments section.

Dirty Dinner: The Best Thing We Did All Summer

Pulling up to the expansive, 165-acre Calleva Farm, you are greeted with warm smiles, fresh popcorn, beaming red barns, friendly livestock, overwhelming rustic charm and a sense that, at least for the evening, you’re family. The summer series of Dirty Dinners at Calleva Farm provides locals and urbanites alike the opportunity to escape for an evening of homegrown good times.

Calleva Farm Dirty Dinner Hayride Dirty Dinner Guests on Hayride

A great first impression is made when a plaid-clad tractor driver pulls up to offer hayrides of the property during the welcoming social hour. Equipped with a crisp “mocktails” and skewers of fresh fruit, you’re whisked away to learn about all the moving parts of life on a farm. There’s something to be said for seeing where your food comes from, only hours before you eat it. It helps us DC folk who are accustomed to convenience and perfection understand how much work truly goes into a meal.

Calleva Farm Pig Dirty Dinner Table Setting

After the social hour, which also allowed us to get up close and personal with livestock, Dirty Dinner guests were ushered via dinner bell into what can only be described as a glass dining terrarium, open yet protected from the rain. It was like the best possible outdoor wedding: simple, natural, rustic, authentic and overflowing with heart. As an added bonus, we were serenaded throughout dinner by local band Smoke N Mangos.

Smoke N Mangos at the Calleva Farm Dirty Dinner Dirty Dinner at Calleva Farm

The guests varied in age as well as in their connection to the property. Young city dwellers that luckily made reservations before the summer sold out rubbed elbows with older couples whose kids went to camp at Calleva. We straddled the median line between these two groups at Table #4 allowing us to hear the din of new DC parents enjoying a night out without kids (they rented a party bus so they could enjoy the local West Virginia wine) and at the same time, the chatter of seasoned couples providing insight on what makes Calleva so special, spirited and innovative.

The Best Thing on the Menu wasn’t any one dish, but rather the ingredients as a whole. Most of what was served at the Dirty Dinner came from the farm and the few exceptions came from within a 50-mile radius. It was like mounting the summit of the local food movement. It goes without saying then, that the word that most perfectly encapsulated the dinner was fresh. Sauces, spices and perfect plating stepped aside to let ingredients take center stage. We devoured three kinds of hummus with just-picked veggies, “cucumber noodles” with pesto sauce, Moroccan chicken thighs, homemade pizza and so much more.

Dirty Dinner Pizza and Bean Salad Dirty Dinner Menu

The dish that really got guests talking was the snakehead fish, which was served with purple potatoes and a salad of fresh herbs including dill and Thai basil. Snakehead fish is actually an invasive species wreaking havoc in the Potomac, so we diners happily did our part controlling the population. Top DC restaurant Little Serow occasionally has snakehead fish on the menu, accompanied by similar herbs. Kudos to the culinary team of Eric “Flash” Hill and Ben Ritter on a great six-course meal that was a celebration of local flavors.

There are about 20 spots left for the September 14 Dirty Dinner. Click here to book. Also keep an eye out in January, when dates are released for 2014. Best Thing on the Menu will be sure to inform you when they begin taking reservations.

Calleva is a family operated farm that hosts kids year-round for educational experiences. Three brothers, Nick, Alex and Matt Markoff have joined forces and combined their respective backgrounds to bring outdoor experiences to our area. Learn more about Calleva programs here.

Click here for more pictures from the Dirty Dinner.

Sign of the Whale: Philly-style Soft Pretzels

Sign of the Whale's Philly-style Soft Pretzels

Best Thing on the Menu was starting to get a little stuffy, so with some prodding from our followers, we sought an opportunity to show our IDs at the door, eagerly await bar stools and dive in to dive-bar cuisine.

When was the last time you got your bill at a bar or restaurant and smiled? That’ll probably happen if you visit Sign of the Whale on M Street NW. Sure you might have to listen to amateur karaoke, drink out of plastic cups or find alternatives to traditional toilet paper, but the beer flows cold and cheap and there are some great eats.

Sign of the Whale’s Best Thing on the Menu: Philly-style Soft Pretzels with Horseradish Dipping Sauce won’t disappoint, and by glancing at other patrons, they’re quite popular.

When those two steamy, buttery, salty hot pretzels arrive, they have the power to turn any bad day around, and for only $4.00 at happy hour! We suspect they take a bubble bath in butter, but we chose not to ask the chef this time. While we typically don’t recommend Philly anything served outside of the City of Brotherly Love, we let this slide because Sign of the Whale is regarded, at times, as a Philly bar.

We aspire to one day try Chef Donny Frazier’s “Man Overboard Burgers.” Who wouldn’t want the “Humpback Whale,” which consists of two half-pound burgers served open faced on two grilled cheese sandwiches topped with waffle fries and tater tots covered with chili and cheese sauce? If only there was an alternate universe where you could forever maintain your collegiate, consequence-free eating abilities. Reading about that burger makes us feel better about the two orders of pretzels.

One fun fact about Sign of the Whale is that they offer the opportunity to put your day job on hold for just one night to step into the shoes of a bartender. Click here to learn about their Wednesday guest bartender opportunity.

Philly Soft Pretzels not your BTM? Share your favorites in the comments section.

Top Five Eats to Beat the Heat

DC is at the height of swelter season and so we thought we’d provide some recommendations on five treats to eat in the heat. If you venture out in the humidity, head to the following five spots for these cool dishes.

Mari Vanna's Borscht1. Mari Vanna’s Cold Borscht

Borscht is the perfect chilled, colorful summer soup. Unlike its hot winter counterpart, laden with beef, potatoes and sour cream, this vegetarian version is light and refreshing. Just don’t wear your best summer whites to eat beets. For more on what to order at this charming Dupont Circle Russian establishment (besides vodka), click here.

B TOO's Fried Orange Sherbet2. B TOO’s Fried Orange Sorbet

This is like the tempera ice cream you would beg your parents for when they “dragged” you to a sushi restaurant to “expand your horizons” when you were little. Fried ice cream is back with a bang at B TOO. This temperature impossibility sits atop sweet, candied fennel and is surrounded by fried basil leaves. Quite simply, it’s summer on a plate. For more on this Top Chef-studded Logan Circle restaurant click here.

Sushi Taro's Sashimi Omakase3. Sushi Taro’s Sashimi Omakase

You may not know the meaning of the Japanese word omakase, but chances are you’ve eaten a tasting menu or two in your time. Omakase essentially means you’re getting the top, chef-recommended selections of the day. And at Dupont Circle’s Sushi Taro, where they fly in a large portion of fish from Tokyo, you’re in for a wild ride. Sometimes, it’s far more fun to let the experts decide! There’s nothing steamy about sashimi, it’s light and fresh and the perfect summer eat. For more on Sushi Taro, click here.

Del Campo's Scallop Ceviche4. Del Campo’s Grilled Scallop Sushi Ceviche

It’s sushi, no it’s ceviche, no wait, it’s both! Del Campo continues to turn out great grilled items and this one in particular is perfect for warm weather. The scallops sit atop nigiri sushi-like rice mounds and are adorned with a smoked uni sauce. A little bit of raw, and a little bit of heat. We just visited Del Campo in Chinatown and had the special opportunity to interview Chef Victor Albisu. Click here to hear his thoughts on the most popular, and most daring, menu picks.

Teddy's Crab and Avocado5. Teddy’s Crab and Avocado

Teddy’s is a great second edition to the presidential-themed dining establishments in DC. We admit that Dupont Circle’s Teddy might be a little more fun in the winter, when it’s time to pack on the pounds by eating game meat, carbs from the heartland and rich desserts. However, there are a couple items on the menu today that are ripe for summer consumption. The best of which is their crab and avocado dish served with grilled corn and a sauce that’s worth soaking up with their homemade breadbasket. See our pick for Best Thing on the Menu here.

Agree/Disagree with our top dishes? Tell us in the comments section or on the BTM Facebook page.

Del Campo: Rolled Wagyu Skirt Steak

Del Campo's Rolled Wagyu Skirt Steak

Del Campo is exactly what DC has been waiting for: It’s the answer to our cooped-up in-condos-without-a-grill gripes. At Chef Albisu’s South American asado oasis, flames have kissed everything from cocktails to dessert.

In a special interview with Best Thing on the Menu, Chef Victor Albisu elaborated on his grilled cocktail menu, grilled ceviche, smoked caviar and a very umami-tasting smoked uni sauce. In addition to adding smoke to almost every dish, he also pays homage to his heritage. His mastery of meat comes from observing butchers from Uruguay and Argentina at his mother’s shop in Northern Virginia; his perfect empanadas are an inspiration from his Cuban baker father; and the fresh and feisty ceviche is a gift from his Peruvian mother.

Chef Albisu pointed out some of the most popular picks including the octopus causa and wagyu empanadas. He said more daring guests order the beef heart anticucho, which contains both grilled and raw elements. However, the Best Thing on the Menu is the: Rolled Wagyu Skirt Steak.

He got the idea for this rolled flavor powerhouse from a dish in Argentina called Matambre. Tender skirt steak is stuffed with Parmesan cheese, Dijon mustard and burnt onions and then rolled and braised. We noticed that the dish came with grilled veggies and a stick of bone marrow, just for fun. In our interview, the chef explained that the bone marrow is a gift from the kitchen that plays the roll of adding richness, like butter typically does, at American-style steakhouses.

You may need to run your mouth through the neighborhood car wash after dining at Del Campo, but the addictive chimichurri sauce, creative cocktails and ability to get the gourmet grill fix we crave will keep us coming back.

If it’s easier for you to visit Del Campo by day, Chef Albisu has launched Street Food Fridays, where he steps onto the street to cash in on the mobile cuisine craze to offer chorizo sandwiches called “choripans.”

We also look forward to visiting Chef Albisu’s Taco Bamba next time we ‘burb out in Falls Church, VA.

Rolled Wagyu Skirt Steak not your BTM? Post your favorites in the comments section.

Brainfood Burger Battle: Best of the Best

Mad Fox Brewery Co. Burger

Sunday’s Brainfood Burger Battle was a quintessential summer activity that left us smelling of mesquite and sleeping sitting up. Ten of the DC area’s top chefs got sweaty and smoky in the Poste courtyard to compete for bragging rights, and a good cause. It was so hot that the chefs had more wardrobe changes than a magician’s assistant, but they still managed to flip fantastic burgers. Click here for photos from the event available on the Best Thing on the Menu Facebook page.

While three official awards were given out, People’s Choice (Poste), Chef’s Choice (The Source) and Judge’s Choice (The Source), BTM had its own take on the carne contenders.

Best Meat Blend: The “110% Burger” by Poste’s Chef Dennis Marron

Poste's 110% Burger

This mathematically impossible sous vide burger was made out of brisket, chuck, short rib, beef cheek and bone marrow.

Best Lamb Burger: Firefly’s Chef Todd Wiss

Firefly's Lamb Burger

Lamb is encouraging burger lovers to think outside the beef. Until recently, you could only get a lamb burger at a Greek restaurant. Thank goodness for the newfound popularity and sweet, gamey flavor. The aioli on this bad boy was amazing.

Best Bun: Granville Moore’s Chef Teddy Folkman

Granville Moore's Beef Bulgogi Burger

Teddy used a pretzel bun to house his beef bulgogi burger.

Best Schmutz: Ripple’s Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley

Ripple's Burger

Marjorie’s California-inspired burger game with two colorful dollops to dip your burger in: smoked egg yolk yellow and avocado green.

Best Outside the Bun: Iron Gate’s Chef Anthony Chittum

Iron Gate's Lamb Pita Burger

There’s only so much brioche one can eat. Kudos to Anthony for going with pita instead. We can’t wait for Iron Gate to open this August!

Best Overall: Our pick for best burger went to Mad Fox Brewery’s Chef Andrew Dixon.

Mad Fox Brewery Co. Burger

Andrew’s short rib burger was topped with crispy pork belly, beer cheese, relish, arugula, and a friend potato chip. It also came served on a pretzel roll.

Mad Fox Brewing Co. is located in Falls Church, VA. The best day to visit is Wednesday because they offer a uniquely concocted “Epic Burger” that continually changes. You can wash down your Epic Burger with another Wednesday special, the Crazy Cask. Mad Fox’s beer scientists go to work in creating a funky brew; a recent one involved Fresno chilies. The team at Mad Fox are fun, friendly and offer 10-12 of their own beers on tap. We can’t wait to make the trip.

All proceeds from the burger battle went to Brainfood, a non-profit youth development organization. The DC organization uses food as a tool to build life skills and promote healthy living. Local high school students participate in programs that include hands-on cooking classes, lectures, field trips and community service projects. Learn more at http://brain-food.org/.

Where can you get the best burger in DC? Post your favorites in the comments section.