A trip report: vegetarian Staunton, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.

December 5, 2010 at 10:22 pm (Trip report)


Derek and I recently spent Thanksgiving in Staunton, VA.  We had a lovely time with his family and mine, but it seems we didn’t do much over the week except cook and eat!  One notable exception was  an excellent game of Wise and Otherwise, from which I learned the very deep African saying:  “In the dreams of a chicken… barley is barley.”  I also quite enjoyed Derek’s completion of the Dutch saying starting:  “Coffee has…”.  Although I correctly identified the correct saying (“Coffee has two virtues: it’s warm and wet”), I liked Derek’s version better:  “Coffee has a black life, but a white death.”

See, I told you our trip was food-centric.  Even the two sayings that I remember from Wise and Otherwise are food related!  And now for the trip report…

Thanksgiving:

This year I made three dishes:  a vegan version of Berley’s orange ginger sweet potatoes, collards with garlic and lemon, and the Jamaican red beans and rice with thyme from the AMA cookbook.  Making the red beans and rice was probably a bad idea, since I’d only made it once before.  I just thought that some beans would be nice, and something spicy.  Plus, Derek had liked it so much after I made it for the first time.  For some reason the red beans and rice turned out extremely bland, however.   Almost everyone liked the sweet potatoes, although my dad said they were too sweet.  I almost agree with him.  If I wasn’t making them for Thanksgiving, I think I would cut the sweetener down a bit.  We had about 18 adults at Thanksgiving and I made about 10 pounds of sweet potatoes.  We had leftovers after lunch on Friday, but just the right amount I think.  I made four bunches of collards, and they were all gone by lunch on Friday.  Next time I’d make more.  There was tons of beans and rice left.  If I make it again I won’t double the recipe.  Of course, if they had been more flavorful maybe more of them would have gotten eaten.  My mom made her classic tofu and gravy and mushrooms dish, with frozen tofu.  I quite enjoyed it, and I think everyone else did as well, as it was all gone by Friday lunchtime.  I’ll have to get her recipe.

Staunton:

Staunton Grocery:  Although this restaurant is called a grocery, it’s actually a somewhat upscale restaurant that focuses on local, seasonal produce.  They have a two-course lunch prix fixe for $15.  I started with the roasted beet & shaved fennel salad with ricotta salata, young Arugula, hazelnuts, and cocoa nibs.   The beets were cooked perfectly.  I find that my roasted beets are often either a tad too crisp or a little too soft–these beets were perfectly al dente.  There was just a touch of ricotta salata, but its saltiness complemented the beets nicely, as did the arugula.  I don’t recall the fennel.  The hazelnuts and cocoa nibs, when you happened to get one, added a nice nutty/chocolately flavor.  The chocolate flavor rested on top of the beet flavor, more than complementing it, but still I enjoyed it the few times I bit into a nib.  There was no vegetarian main dish on the lunch menu so the chef made me a pasta with autumn vegetables.  The vegetables were all perfectly cooked and tasty, and the ghee-based sauce was tasty.  The portion was quite small for a restaurant–probably just 2 ounces of pasta and 1 cup of vegetables.  But I thought it was appropriate for half of a lunch prix fixe menu.  For dessert Derek and I shared a piece of pecan tart–it was kind of like a pecan candy bar, or a pecan pie with more nuts than goo.  The tart was served with a parsley sorbet that was marvelous.  The combination of the green parsley flavors and the nutty tart was heavenly.  I finished the meal with a cup of excellent black tea that put forth complex, floral aromas.  Derek’s coffee, however, tasted horribly burnt.  Overall the food wasn’t terribly interesting (at least the vegetarian food), but it was all really well executed and tasty.  I’ll definitely go back next time I’m in Staunton.  Rating:  B

Baja Bean:  Although this sounds like a coffee shop, it’s actually a Mexican restaurant.  We were looking for a place to get dinner late on Tuesday night, and it was the first place we saw that seemed to still be open.  The salsa was pretty bad–big, hard chunks of tomato floating in a liquidy broth with absolutely no spice.  I asked if they had any spicy salsa and they brought me a saucer of their habanero sauce, which was indeed fiery.  I ordered the big burrito–a burrito filled with seasoned, mashed black beans, rice, guacamole, lettuce and tomato.  The burrito was topped with an ancho chile sauce and a little bit of melted cheese.  The ancho sauce didn’t quite taste right to me, nor did the seasoning on the beans, but Derek liked both a lot.  The burrito was *huge*.  I ate half and was completely stuffed.  Then Derek and his father had a go at it, and there was still more left at the end of dinner.  For $6 you could easily feed three adults with that burrito!  I also tasted Benard’s “enchiladas de salud” which were filled with grilled veggies, tofu, and spinach.  The tofu was actually quite tasty–nicely grilled and salty.  Actually, whereas my burrito was relatively low salt for a Mexican restaurant, the “salud” enchiladas were heavily salted.  But tasty.  Benard got his enchiladas on corn tortillas instead of the normal flour tortillas, and the tortillas had been fried in oil to soften them.  Not so “salud” perhaps but they certainly tasted good.  The enchiladas came with rice and beans on the side.

Other places to try in Staunton:  Shenandoah Pizza, Zynodoa, Cranberry’s

Baltimore:

Woodberry Kitchen:  When Derek was in Baltimore for ICFP, he visited two restaurants that he liked a lot: Salt and Woodberry Kitchen.  Salt wasn’t so vegetarian friendly though, so Derek decided to take me to Woodbery Kitchen in Baltimore to celebrate our tenth anniversary (officially, it was only our third anniversary since our wedding, but that’s such an arbitrary place to start counting).  The restaurant was huge, and packed.  We started with a “snack” of smoked pecans.  Wow.  They were amazing.  The pecans were subtly smoked, subtly sweet, subtly salty, and with a melt-in-your-mouth texture.  Derek and I gobbled them up.  Derek and I shared two appetizers.  The first was a “flat bread” with pears, mustard cream, arugula, and goat cheese.  It turned out that flat bread was just code for pizza.  Derek said they probably didn’t want to call it pizza because they didn’t want people to expect of tomato sauce and stringy, melted cheese.  But even called flat bread, I think it was the best flat bread I had all year.  The crust was wonderfully puffy and charred, and the heat of the mustard and arugula complemented the sweet pears wonderfully.  The cheese was a nice, relatively light accent.  The only quibble I have is that the pear slices were just a tad soft for me– I would have preferred them more crisp.  The second appetizer was whole royal trumpet mushrooms baked in the oven with butter, garlic, shallots, and thyme.  They were well cooked, but tasted about how I expected.  I’m not in love with royal trumpet mushrooms, and wouldn’t have ordered them, but Derek loves them.

After the excellent starters, my main dish was a bit of a let down.  I ordered “Anson Mills Sweet Corn Polenta, Stewed white & kidney beans, butternut squash, radish”.  I was expecting a big, creamy bowl of polenta and a hearty stew, but what I got was a kind of dry pile of polenta grains surrounded by a thin tomato and bean sauce.  There was hardly any butternut squash.  The polenta had a nice corn flavor, but it was quite austere.  And I found the sauce a little too sweet and one-dimensional.  I did like the cooked radishes, which were an unusual addition to a warm dish.  The dish reminded me a lot of one of the fall dishes from Peter Berley’s cookbook.  It wasn’t bad, but neither was I really in the mood for the dish.  I was recovering from a cold and wanted something more comforting.  I ended up taking most of the dish home in a doggy bag.  Next time I got to Woodberry Kitchen I think I might skip the main dishes and just order appetizers and sides.  There were so many delicious sounding vegetables sides I wanted to order.  Derek and I couldn’t resist an order of mustard greens and chard with garlic and pickled anaheim chile.  They were very salty, but very tasty.  The mustard greens weren’t bitter or tough at all.  I couldn’t get enough. Derek’s pork shoulder (which he said was one of the best meat dishes he had all year) came with fingerling sweet potatoes and buttered turnips.  I’ve never had fingerling sweet potatoes before, but wow were they good.  They even had their skins still on, and I love sweet potato skins.  Amazingly, I even liked the turnips.  They were mild and sweet.

For dessert Derek and I shared a wooki tart and some kind of peanut butter “shake”.  Neither of us cared for the peanut butter shake much (which is saying a lot since we both love peanut butter), but Derek liked the wookie tart.  It was kind of like an upscale candy bar, with a chocolate crust, nougat, peanuts, caramel, and vanilla ice cream.   I thought it was pretty standard.  They could have at least added a more interesting ice cream flavor.  It was no comparison to Staunton Grocery’s pecan tart with parsley sorbet.

Despite the poor showing in the main dish and dessert department, I liked the pizza and pecans and greens so much I think I’m tempted to give the restaurant a rating of A-.  I’ll definitely go back next time I’m in the area.  However, there were two things that I really didn’t like about the restaurant.  The first was that it was cold–there was a draft blowing on me making me cold the whole evening.  It even bothered Derek, who is usually quite warm.  It really detracted from the whole experience.  Second, the service was way too fast.  The minute we took the last bite off a plate the waiter whisked it away.  And as soon as we finished one course the next course arrived.  They’re into local and seasonal eating, but apparently not into “slow food.”  I guess they’re so popular they have to rush their customers through the meal to make room for the next seating.  Rating: B+

Washington D.C.:

Cafe Atlantico:  When Derek was in D.C. this summer he went to Cafe Atlantico for dinner and liked it so much he went back for brunch on the same trip.  I’m always up for Mexican, so we went there for dinner with Derek’s friend Chris, who was graciously letting us crash at his place for two nights.  We started with their “tableside” guacamole.  It was pretty good, but not the best guacamole I’ve ever had.  I would have preferred it chunkier and with more lime juice.  But still, I quickly helped gobble it up.  Still feeling a little sick, I really wanted a warm appetizer, but all the vegetarian appetizers were cold, so I ordered the “Beetsteak” Tomato Salad.  It was lettuce over big slices of beefsteak tomato and “seasonal” beets.  I wasn’t impressed at all.   It didn’t taste bad exactly, but the tomatoes were clearly hothouse tomatoes with mediocre texture and little flavor, and the beets and tomato didn’t really compliment each other.  I think the salad was designed more for the pun than the taste.

For my main dish I had one option:  baby artichokes with caramelized zucchini puree, cotija cheese, and tomatoes.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect what I received.  The dish had four small artichoke hearts, one at each corner, and each filled with some sort of thick, yellow puree.  It kind of looked like egg yolks, but clearly wasn’t.  I don’t know what was in it–it was creamy but didn’t really taste like anything in particular.  In the middle of the dish was a greenish, brownish puree.  It must have been the zucchini puree, but I couldn’t taste any zucchini.  It just tasted kind of… brown and green.  There were also some slices of oven-roasted tomatoes, but the tomatoes again tasted like out-of-season supermarket tomatoes.  Roasting them helped but couldn’t disguise their lowly origins.  Overall I was not very happy with the dish.  Nothing tasted bad but nothing tasted particularly good either.  I had some artichoke hearts recently in a salad at Le Noir, and they were amazingly flavorful.  These artichoke hearts barely tasted like anything.  What a waste of four artichokes.  The dish was interesting to look at, but most of the flavors were indistinct and there was no clear direction to the dish.  I thought about sending it back but Derek liked the dish and ate up half of it happily.

The desserts at Cafe Atlantico weren’t particularly memorable.  I know that Derek wasn’t too excited about his “coconut two ways.”  My chocolate cake with banana was fine, but nothing special.

Overall rating: C.  Given the prices I was pretty disappointed in Cafe Atlantico.  Derek was quite happy with his meat, but their insistence on serving mediocre out-of-season produce tells me that they don’t really have respect for vegetables.  I wouldn’t recommend this restaurant for vegetarians.

Dukem:  My sister recommended this Ethiopian place.  She took my parents there for dinner and they seemed to enjoy it.  I’m not sure that we ended up in the right place, however, because the place we went to was more of a tiny store than a restaurant.  It had just two tables, and you ordered from the cashier.  It turns out that what we went to was Dukem Ethiopian Market.  Dukem Restaurant is next door.  I think they serve the same food though.  We ordered a big veggie sampler plate.  It came within about two minutes, so clearly they have everything pre-made and just waiting to be scooped onto the injera.  Overall the food was good, but I guess I’ve outgrown my love for Ethiopian, because I went to two highly recommended Ethiopian restaurant in New York, and now this one, and none of them excited me that much.  I remember injera being really flavorful and sour, but the injera here didn’t taste of much.  The food seemed like well-prepared Ethiopian food, except for one yellow lentil dish that tasted a bit fermented.  The other dishes were fine to good, however.  Surprisingly, one of my favorite was the potato and cabbage dish, which I normally find bland.  But this one had lots of nice sweet spices in it.  Still, I found myself wishing I was eating Indian instead.  Derek, on the other hand, liked the dishes more than he expected.  His first taste of Ethiopian was at a mediocre restaurant in Pittsburgh, and so he’s always been a bit down on Ethiopian. He’s still not that excited about it, but Dukem seems to have raised his overall impression a bit.

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