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Restaurant Review: Walker’s Grille

Slightly off the beaten path but well worth the drive, Walker’s Grille is a new, eco-friendly restaurant that recently opened in Alexandria.  The restaurant is part of a new, environmentally conscious building concept—it is located in a Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) building and its mission is to meet, maintain, and perpetuate sustainable practices and implement green design and green restaurant strategies.

All that eco-friendliness and green modeling and the food’s good, too.

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon—and despite being located in an office park—the dining room was packed.  My three dining companions and I were seated in the bright and spacious dining room.  We were immediately overwhelmed by the choices in front of us—not because there were too many items on the menu (a la Cheesecake Factory) but because there were so many options that sounded so good.

We each ordered an appetizer.  And, okay, we may have gotten one extra.  We started with the frites, the crab and shrimp dip (with a crusty French baguette), mussels, filet sliders, and the fried prosciutto wrapped mozzarella.

If I had to pick one item on the menu that I liked more than any other, it would be the mussels.  Not generally a seafood person, this is a bit surprising.   The wild Maine mussels were served in a broth of caramelized fennel (which I also hate!), shallots, grape tomatoes, bacon, and Sambucca cream.  I really could’ve poured it into a glass and sipped away.  The portion size was ample for sharing—we even had some left over.  The bread that accompanied the mussels was perfectly toasted and ready to sop up the broth.

The shrimp and crab dip was chock full of both fruits of the sea and had a great creamy base—which, even to me, didn’t need even a grain of salt.  The bread was warm and crusty.

If you don’t like cheese of the moldy variety, the filet sliders may not be for you.  While the thin layer of Oregonzola horseradish butter that was spread upon the medium cooked piece of filet (and under the caramelized purple onions) was not overpowering, it definitely gave the three pint sized burgers an extra kick.

What I was most excited to try were the fried “prosciutto” wrapped smoked mozzarella.  The “prosciutto” is in quotes because it is, in fact, a thin slice of Virginia Surryano ham…but you could’ve fooled all of us.  Definitely tasted prosciutto-y.  So, get this:  take a thick round of mozzarella.  Put a piece of basil on it.  Wrap it with the ham.  Pop it into the deep fryer.  Put it on a long platter on top of a balsamic reduction and top it with cherry tomatoes.  It’s as rich as it sounds.  And who doesn’t love some fried cheese?  And pork?  Some of my fellow diners had a good time trying to redevise the dish—deconstructing it, serving it as a slider.  The components of the dish make it ripe for interpretation.

I’d say the frites were my least favorite, but only because they had some stiff competition.  They are handcut and were cooked so that they were not too soft, not too crisp.  The lemon thyme dipping sauce was a fan favorite.  There was also a peppercorn sauce of some sort and a sweet chutney (with a hint of cumin).

By the time our appetizer plates had been removed, we were full.  But onward we went.

We had two burgers at our table—the ‘Shroom and the L’oeuf.  Both were made from Meyer Natural Angus beef and cooked to specification.  The ‘Shroom came completely smothered in Gruyere, caramelized onions and, of course, the Cremini mushrooms.  The L’oeuf (or egg, for those of you who aren’t Francophiles) was a diner lover’s dream (or someone who’s hungover):  a perfectly cooked fried egg that released its yolk upon touch lay atop the burger patty and was accompanied by muenster cheese (a non-classic choice), caramelized onions, bacon, and a truffle aioli.  All kinds of different flavors, all good on their own and all working perfectly together.  The only downside to this selection was its mess factor—the fork and knife come in handy.

The Chicken Francaise was better the next day than it was the first.  This tells you two things:  that there was so much I couldn’t finish it in one sitting and that I, someone who doesn’t like leftovers, liked it so much that I did, in fact, eat it two days in a row.  The chicken scaloppini lived up to its proper definition:  small, thinly sliced pieces of meat dredged in flour, sautéed, and served in a sauce.  Except it wasn’t a small piece of chicken.  The sauce was a lemony one, the acidity of which mixed well into the house made  linguini served alongside it and worked with the spinach, artichokes, and sundried tomatoes that came atop it.  The bitterness of the tomatoes, the bland (in a good way) of the wilted spinach and the tart of the artichoke and lemon sauce all melded together in such a nice, comforting way.

The last entrée we had was the buttermilk chicken.  A huge breast that was fried, as the diner said, “perfectly.”  Moist chicken, crispy crust…made you just want to take a bite onto your fork and dip it into the truffled mac and cheese that came with it.  Except that each element was so good on its own you didn’t really want to mix them but, rather, savor each on their own.  Sometimes—more often than not—the flavor of truffle can be too much but, in the case of this side, you only tasted it at the very end, allowing you to really enjoy the fancy cheeses and al dente pasta before the surprise of the truffle hits you.  This entrée also came with peas, carrots, and cipollini onions, but you know how I feel about veggies.

Think we should be full now?  Beyond the ability to put another bite in our mouths?  You are mistaken.

We had dessert.  What’s another couple hundred calories at this point?  And how can you not when you know they’re all made fresh daily?  We shared the carrot cake, a chocolate mousse cake, and a pineapple upside down cake.  If forced to rate them, I would, in that order, best to less best.  The carrot cake was moist and tall and had just the right amount of cream cheese frosting (with a hint of vanilla—I love icing with a hint of something special added into it).  The chocolate mousse cake was exceptional because it was a biter dark chocolate mousse and not the boring milk chocolate variety (and, part of that deliciousness came from  Nutella); the bottom of the cake was a hazelnut cookie crust—another pleasant surprise.  The cake sat on top of a generous pool of pomegranate coulis, the tartness of which worked well with the bitterness of the dark chocolate.  The pineapple upside down cake was more crunchy waffle than it was cake—in fact, it was kind of a turnover and not upside down.  Regardless, it was tasty but didn’t compare to the other two.

I went 27.5 hours before I ate again.

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Restaurant Review: Black Market Bistro

Tucked away in a quaint little post office in Garrett Park, Maryland (with a not so quaint Amtrak track right behind it), Black Market Bistro is a part of the Black’s restaurant family (my second favorite local group, after the Great Americans, of course). 

Despite the bustling, filled to capacity dining room, the overall feel of the place is warm and comforting.  The wait staff is extremely pleasant and gracious; our waitress never once huffed about the fact that she had to come by four times before my two dining companions and I were ready to order (and, it wasn’t like we really needed to look at the menu–the three of us are pretty standard in what we order when we dine together). 

The specials for the evening highlighted the greatest joy of summer:  the heirloom tomato.  There was a crostini with ricotta cheese, basil, and tomato.  There was also a gazpacho with basil.  Our choice was the heirloom tomato salad.  Our tomatoes (all shapes, sizes, and colors) came served with small balls of mozzarella and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.  The tomatoes were perfectly ripened–not grainy or mealy, they were juicy  and crisp.  The balsamic was the perfect acidic counterpart to the sweetness of the tomatoes. 

The other menu appetizers seemed to mostly be of the seafood variety; while appropriate for the season it was not, to me, appropriate for the area (call me a snob, but I’d prefer to have my seafood closer to the sea).  There were several different musssel dishes (one Thai inspired, one with garlic, shallots, and tomatoes), and some cornmeal crusted oysters.  There was also a squid salad and an atipasto platter. 

The dinner menu was quite varied.  Thin crust pizzas started off the options.  The dinner entrees, much like the appetizer ones, had many seafood choices–trout, salmon, tuna, and shrimp.  There was also the typical fare of chicken and steak but, of course, we all three gravitated toward the burger.  I know that, to write a proper review, one must really sample as many different items as possible.  We?  Failed.

However.

The burgers were fantastic (and at least we had them different ways).  With the options of cheese (cheddar, pepper Jack, provolone, or Point Reyes bleu) and bacon, we went crazy with variations.  The burgers came cooked to order (perfectly medium rare), the juices soaking perfectly into the sesame seed bun (as one friend said, “You don’t see these much anymore…it’s more of a Kaiser world.”).  The burgers come with a salad and crispy onion strings.  French fries appear no where on the menu.  The mixed green salad left much to be desired (including dressing, in my opinion) but the onion crisps were a welcome accompaniment. 

And then?  Comes dessert.  BMB makes all breads and desseerts in-house, daily.  (Aside:  the bread basket held several slices each of regular white baguette type bread and what we determined was an Irish soda bread with currants.  Neither disappointed.  What was slightly disappointing was the pre-packaged pats of butter.  I prefer a vat of real, don’t have to open a gold wrapper, spreadable goodness.)  We each ordered our own dessert and, among the three of us, were able to sample the root beer float (“Root beer does something amazing to the texture of the ice cream”), the blueberry pie slab (a la mode, of course, and a slab it surely was), and the chocolate panna cotta (“This really is quite chocolatey”).  The blueberry pie, which was my choice, was so beautiful–the granulated sugar sprinkled all over the crust made the pie sparkle.  The garnish of fresh peaches tasted as though they had been picked straight from the tree and delivered to the pie man (after which they were marinated in some sort of citrus). 

Before we knew it, we had been sitting at the table for almost three hours.  Not once did anyone try to rush us and not once did we ever realize the amount of time we had spent eating and laughing.  If you’re looking for a kind of out of the way place (I mean, it’s right off of Rockville Pike, between Kensington and Rockville) with a comfortable atmosphere that offers a seasonal and well-priced menu and you don’t mind the occasional freight train rolling through, Black Market Bistro is the place for you.

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Restaurant Review: Chef Geoff’s (Tysons)

To celebrate my mom’s birthday yesterday, the gang headed out to the “new” Chef Geoff’s location in Tysons (where Colvin Run Tavern used to be).  I can’t say that it was the best birthday dinner ever…in fact, for the most part, we probably should’ve taken her up on her offer to cook her own birthday dinner.

The place was jumpin’.  The bar was super crowded with a young to mid-age crowd.  Standing room only, in fact.  CG has some great happy hour specials…like $5.95 burgers and $8.95 pizza .  They also have $7.95 Super Mugs (33.8 oz), $2.95 Long Necks,  and $5.95 Estrella Wines Daily at the Bar from 3 until 7 pm.  Happy Hour goes all night on Monday and Tuesday.  Note:  much to my brother’s pleasure, they have PBR in a can for $2.95.

It will be at this point that I admit this was my second visit to this CG location (and my third or fourth overall).  I haven’t been overly impressed either time.  In fact, on my last visit, the highlights were the truffle parmesan popcorn (thus confirming, in my own head, my theory that popcorn is the new trendy foodie appetizer, soon to take over for the deviled egg) and the Oreo ice cream I had for dessert.  Everything I had in between was mediocre at best. 

Back to birthday dinner.

So we sit down and look over the pretty extensive menu.   My brother’s eyes immediately fall upon the duck corn dog appetizer (served with purple mustard).  Why not?  We decide to get an order of those and an order of the tuna sashimi Napoleon with wasabi aoili (which I had sampled on my last visit).  The tuna was fantastic when I had it before; it melted in your mouth.  The wasabi aoili was not nearly as overpowering as it sounded.  In fact, the overall flavor of the dish was sweetness.  It was truly delicious.  Too bad, this time around, the kitchen messed up and never brought us our appetizers.  No corn dogs or tuna for this group.  (Note:  I always find it interesting when the waiter/waitress thinks they’re doing you a favor when they say, after you do not get something you order, that they will make sure it’s not on the bill.  Really?  Thanks.)

Let’s take a moment to discuss the bread basket–usually one of my favorite parts of the meal.  This bread was nothing spectacular.  It was undercooked on the inside yet managed to have a tasty crusty crust.  The bread at CG is served not with butter (shameful!) but with a roasted red pepper dip concoction that is very low on flavor.  Even with a generous sprinkling of salt, it was still a bit bland.

On to dinner.  My brother ordered what was perhaps the best dinner choice on the menu:  the pork chop with blackberry compote.  He was a bit apprehensive about the blackberry part of it, not wanting to mix in fruit with his pig.  He was going to get it with a chimichurri sauce before we advised him that chimichurri goes better with a red meat than a double cut pork chop (because, as we all know, pork is the other white meat).  He agreed and thank goodness he did.  The pork chop came out thick and juicy–really, it was cooked to perfection.  It melted in your mouth (and I know, because he was nice enough to share a bite).  The blackberry compote was not as daunting as it originally sounded; the sweetness was not overwhelming and contributed nicely to the flavor palette of his dish.  One thing to note:  there were no side dishes that came along with this $21.95 entree. 

Christine ordered the Sonoran fish tacos, which were a special.  They came on mini tortillas and were decked out in corn salsa and slaw. They were accompanied by sour cream and guacamole and, the piece de resistance:  fried plantains.  Except they were resistable to her, so she passed them along to the birthday girl who seemed to enjoy their blandness.  

My dad ordered a burger.  My uncle ordered a burger.  The birthday girl ordered a burger.  My grandmother ordered a burger.  Guess what I ordered…ha, guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.   The burgers all came out to specifications.  And while there was nothing really to complain about, there was also nothing really to brag about, either.  I’ve had good burgers (hello, Mortons) and I’ve had bad ones and I’ve had many that fall in between.  This was one of those burgers.  I would have enjoyed it more if the pecorino cheese were not grated to the point of being powdery (think Kraft parmesan in the green container).   For me, the oddest thing was the shape of the burger.  Instead of being patty like (and I know, from hours of Food Network, how to make the perfect patty), it was a ball.  It was round rather than flat.  This made it difficult to bite into and a bit cumbersome to keep between the bun without losing toppings. 

The burgers came with your choice of salad, french fries, or sweet potato fries.  For a $2 upcharge, you could get tator tots.  This was a no brainer for me.   My plate was placed before me and I saw eight tator tots.  Eight.  Even a five year old can eat more than eight.  Compared to the pile of regular fries that everyone else got on their plates, I was a bit disappointed.  This couldn’t possibly be a normal sized order.  Had I tasted the tots before I got myself all disappointed, I could have averted these feelings.  Ore Ida wins over CG tots any day (though the green chili aoili was flavorful and a good dipping sauce for the regular fries, as I soon discovered).   My side of carbs were thickly shredded potatoes in a tot form.  Biting into them, I was met with a dense mess of seemingly congealed potato.  With a smoky taste–the secret ingredient, we determined, was liquid smoke.  And no one was appreciative.  Instead of adding an interesting flavor and a new take on the traditional tot, this just added to my sadness.  I should’ve gotten the sweet potato fries.  Thankfully, we ordered a side of those for the table.  They were delectable and perhaps the second best thing we ordered.  They were thick cut and full of flavor.  They came with ketchup as a dipping option but were tasty unadorned.

We opted out of dessert, as I had made one of my mom’s favorites and went back to my house for that.  Even though I know that the desserts at CG are quite delicious.  But maybe not as good as this pie.  I mean, really?  chocchippie

All in all, CG appears to be best for drinks and apps.  Go out, have a strawberry mojito or a Palmer in the Weeds, get some corn dogs or popcorn, and then come over to my house for homemade burgers and Ore Rida tator tots.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Restaurant Review: Counter Burger

Finally, after months of walking by the empty shell of the restaurant it was about to become, Counter Burger at Reston Town Center (RTC for those in the know) is open for business! 

Last Friday I “had some shopping to do” and had heard that this long anticipated restaurant had opened its doors to the public.  Thus, I recruited my friend and dining partner, Erin, to join me on a shopping and dining excursion.  We were not disappointed.

First things first:  the name.  I’m not really certain if it’s called The Counter Burger because they have a huge, soda shop like counter in the middle of the restaurant or because it is unlike (haha, counter to) any other burger place around.  Both would fit the bill, here. 

Upon entering its doors, you’re immediately taken aback by its bright and shiny interior.  The place is very welcoming, in a retro yet non-retro kind of way.  Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and old school Madonna sing to you as you accept your clipboard from the hostess and step back to read about your options.  The music was definitely upbeat and dance worthy.

According to the website, there are over 312,120 different burger combinations.  An eighth grade math teacher could totally use this joint to teach permutations (wow, look how I pulled that out of nowhere).  The best thing about this place (aside from the sweet potato fries–to be discussed later) is that there are choices.  Lots and lots of them.  So many that, for a moment, you may become overwhelmed. 

But then you get over it, because their ordering process is so…ordered.  It is just one big checklist, handed to you on a clipboard and with a cute little putt putt golf type pencil.  The first thing you pick is your protein (as a fan of Top Chef, I appreciated them calling it this).  Your choices are between beef, turkey, veggie, or grilled chicken (I, personally, wouldn’t consider a veggie burger a protein, but no one asked me). 

Next, you pick a cheese–they have a lot of “different” choices, such as horseradish cheddar (which they were out of), gruyere, feta, goat cheese, and the traditional American and Swiss. 

After you get your cheese on, you have a choice of up to four  included toppings.  These include everything from sprouts and sliced carrot to olives to roasted corn and black bean salsa to hard boiled eggs.  If you’re a burger purist, there’s also lettuce and tomato and red onion.  The choices, though, are astounding, and to choose four things that actually all went together (as opposed to, “oooh, that would be cool on a burger”) was more difficult than you’d imagine.  From there you’re directed to the premium topping options–sauteed mushrooms, fried eggs, homemade guac…you get the picture.  These selections were an additional dollar each. 

Next, you move to your sauces.  If you think you had hard choices before, think again.  Hard not only because there were so many options (ginger soy glaze, mayo, peanut sauce, Southwest Casesar, red relish, spicy sour cream…) but, also, because you had to make sure your choice “matched” all the other flavors you had already selected.  (One thing to note:  all sauces are served on the side “In case,” according to our waitress, “you end up not liking them.”) Erin and I both agreed that, as their restaurant consultants, we would have suggested starting with the sauce and then proceeding with the options backward.   But, alas…

Finally, FINALLY, you pick a bun–English muffin, hamburger bun, or honey wheat bun (there’s also an option, for the carb conscious, for a burger bowl).

Ok, so Erin and I went. To. Town.  I was more traditional in my choices.  I chose the 1/3 lb burger (beef, please!) on a regular hamburger bun (carbs be damned!).  I topped it with cheddar cheese, red onions, tomatoes, pickle slices, and lettuce.  My sauce choice was the country buttermilk ranch.  Ranch?  Yes, because I was a forward thinking consumer and knew that that flavor would blend well with what else was to come…the fries. 

But first, Erin’s burger!  After choosing the beef, Erin went non-traditional.  Her burger consisted of gruyere, sauteed mushrooms, sauteed onions, lettuce, and garlic aoili spread.  On a regular bun. 

Both burgers were fan-tastic.  Cooked to our liking (medium), they came out piled high with our toppings and were almost too big to manage.  Almost.  The bun was fresh and soft and embraced the meat and the toppings quite nicely (that’s one thing I can complain about with regard to Ray’s Hell Burger–their buns need help!).  There was just the right amount of toppings.  Erin and I both found, though, that after a while it was too much, so we opted to take one side of our bun off, which led us to think that maybe, maybe, next time we’d get the burger bowl. 

As our sides, we shared a half portion each of the onion strings (delicious!  Flaky and tender and bite size) and the regular fries (decent, but not spectacular).  These came accompanied by the buttermilk ranch (see how I just arrived at a taste junction?) and the sweet bbq sauce.  We also had a single size portion of the sweet potato fries, which came with a horseradish mayo.  Now, I know.  On the surface, this sounds like a disgusting combination.  But boy oh boy, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t the best part of the meal. 

And, because it’s important to me, I’ll have you know that Counter Burger serves Coca Cola products.  They also have milkshakes (the milkshake of the month was of the cherry pie variety).  We didn’t even venture to look at desserts (not because we were full, though, but because the gelato place next door just opened, too, and we didn’t want to be tempted). 

The service was excellent.  Our drinks were constantly refreshed, they got our order perfectly right, and the food was delicious.  For a place that had just opened three days prior to our visit, this was something we did not expect.  A spilled drink here, an overcooked burger there…but, fortunately, we had a perfect meal (except for the slight lapse in time between getting our meal and the arrival of the sweet potato fries).  I can’t wait to go back and try a different combination.  Maybe I’ll go in with the goal of coming up with the weirdest combination ever.  Or maybe I’ll just get a cheeseburger with L,T, M and call it a night. 

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