Restaurant Week tends to be a pretty divisive topic among the DC foodie community. People either love it or hate it. Accept it or avoid it. With great anticipation, the various message boards spin into a tizzy once the restaurants are officially announced.
Personally, I like Restaurant Week. I often use it as an opportunity to try out new restaurants in towns or visit places I have been meaning to get to but often forget about. Much planning goes in to my Restaurant Week schedule. There are certain places that are known to book up fast, so once the dates are announced I usually jump on OpenTable right away to snag a reservation. Over the years I’ve had some great experiences at local restaurants during Restaurant Week—notably Bistro Bis, PS7, 1789, and the Prime Rib. I’ve also had a few disasters, Notti Bianche being the most memorable when they clearly sent a piece of fish out that was at least 2 days past its sell date. For the places I enjoyed, it served as a wonderful first impression, and in many cases I have returned over and over again (PS7 is pretty much my version of Cheers).
This years picks for Restaurant Week had an unplanned Southern theme. My three choices were dinner at Vidalia and Art and Soul and brunch at Firefly. My reviews are below:
The last time I was at Vidalia I was 19 years-old and had traveled from Boston to DC with my father to start my very first summer as a DC intern. This was 8 years ago and from what I had heard, a lot had changed at Vidalia. I had fond memories of Chef Buben’s classy Southern cuisine. But just a few years ago there was a much publicized revamp of the menu. I was excited to share my meal with my Southern food-loving friend Allison. Unfortunately the complete meal didn’t live up to my high expectations.
It should be mentioned first and foremost that the service was wonderful. You often hear about rude or lazy service during Restaurant Week but everyone at Vidalia treated us as if it was any other night—probably not the easiest task when you are seating double the amount of tables you normally would on a Tuesday night.
Vidalia offers a very generous menu during Restaurant Week, with few up-charges. They also allow you to choose from a 3-course menu for $35.09 or a 5-course menu for $45.09 (an incredible deal, if you ask me). 5-courses seemed a bit too much, so we went with the 3-course tasting. For me, the appetizers were the high point of the evening. I ordered the sweet garlic velouté with fried frog legs and a meyer lemon dip. This was a pitch perfect first course. The frog legs were delicately fried and rested in a thick garlicky soup. It all came together beautifully and hinted at a refined quality of Southern cuisine. My friend’s appetizer looked beautiful (I did not get a chance to taste it). She ordered a raw copia with some sort of coco sauce and a mint gelée. The flavor combinations sound odd at best but she said it was delicious.
It was the entrée section that both Allison and I felt the meal fell short. I try not to eat pork products as much as possible. Many of the entrees included pork so in order to steer around those options I went with the roasted leg of lamb. It was served with small, whole eggplants and a delicious fig jam. There was nothing wrong with this dish, it was perfectly cooked. It just came across as boring and a little uninspired, especially compared to the amazing appetizer selections. Part of this might have been my dish choice. But I also think there are ways to make lamb Southern and exciting and this wasn’t one of them. My friend ordered the one vegetarian option—the caramelized Vidalia onion crepe with a fried hen egg on top. While the dish looked interesting, the crepe had very little going on inside besides onions. After awhile it all became a bit too much. Perhaps if they had included other vegetables, it would have been a tastier dish.
Dessert helped our meal end on a high note. Whenever I mentioned to someone that I was going to Vidalia for dinner they told me I must try Lemon Chess Cake, so naturally that’s what I went with. This dessert did not disappoint. It was light, sweet, and tangy. I would love the recipe for this cake because it tastes so fresh and light and therefore not that bad for you (but I’m sure it is). Allison ordered the pecan bar served with vanilla ice cream.
Overall this was a nice meal, but I came out feeling a bit disappointed, especially with the result of our uninspired entrees. I often find the first course offerings at restaurants are more interesting than the second courses. Vidalia just might be one of those places.
Vidalia- 1990 M Street, NW Washington, DC 20036 (202) 659-1990 www.vidaliadc.com
Art and Soul
For my second Restaurant Week dinner I headed up to the Hill to check out the new hot spot Art and Soul. Coming right off the heals of his appearance on Top Chef Masters, Art Smith (Oprah’s personal chef, from the days when Oprah was fat!) opened his first DC restaurant at the beginning of the year and it has been a tough reservation to get since then. So my friend Jen (from the wonderful Beets and Bonbons) and I booked well in advance. I was a little skeptical about booking a second Southern restaurant right after eating at Vidalia but I had been dying to try out Art and Soul, so I forgot any semblance of a diet and dived right in. In my opinion Art and Soul did not disappoint.
It had been a long, tough day with the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, my personal hero, occurring early that morning, but the minute I walked into the stylish and vibrant Art and Soul I knew I was in for a mood lifter. The walls are covered in pop art of famous leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And the tables were decorated with fresh herbs.
Art’s menu is hard to choose from because everything sounds so good. While we were deciding on our orders the friendly waitress brought out a cast iron skillet filled with light, fluffy bread that peeled off into leafs. I’m not entirely sure what type of bread it was but it was fresh and delicious.
For a first course I went with the grilled shrimp served with a mildly spicy chili limon sauce and a grilled corn succotash. The shrimp was prepared perfectly and paired well with the light sauce. My only complaint was it was speared on a sugar cane stick that made it close to impossible to take off. I almost had a Pretty Woman moment where a shrimp went flying across the room. Despite the difficulty I had eating this dish, it was delicious. Jen ordered the gazpacho soup with shrimp. From what I could tell she didn’t love this dish. She said it tasted like “a bowl full of bloody Mary mix.” Probably not the most delightful thing to eat with a spoon.
The second course was a win-win for both of us. I ordered the crispy whole trout that was lightly dredged in cornmeal and pan fried. It was served with a vinegary spring bean salad and a perfectly-matched rhubarb vinaigrette. This dish was incredible! All the flavors went together perfectly and balanced each other out. I would order this dish again and again. Since Art Smith is known for his chicken, Jen ordered the chicken with goat cheese drop biscuits and a wonderfully thick gravy. This dish sang the songs of the South.
A quick note on Arts plating: I love it! As you can tell from the pictures, the kitchen takes a layering approach to the plating, which I really appreciated. Some how this presentation helps to marry the flavors and bring the whole dish together.
Even though I was starting to feel full, I couldn’t pass up dessert…it was included in the $35.09 price tag after all. Again, this course was delightful. I ordered the chocolate cheesecake. Art and Soul’s rendition of chocolate cheesecake is beautifully light, almost mousse-like with a delicate crust. It was very rich, a chocolate-lover’s dream come true. Jen ordered the peach pecan crumble with vanilla ice cream. It tasted like a single-serving version of peach crisp.
Overall this meal received two thumbs up in my book. I will certainly return again. They put their best foot forward during Restaurant Week, which only leads me to believe that they can perform excellently under pressure and just as well during regular service.
Art and Soul- 425 New Jersey Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20001 (202) 393-7777 www.artandsouldc.com
For my final Restaurant Week adventure I made a last minute reservation for brunch at Firefly to catch up with old friends. At $20.09 this was a great deal. I had been to Firefly a few times for drinks and dinner but lately it seemed to have fallen off my radar screen, which was pretty odd considering it is only a few buildings down from my apartment. I’ve always liked the charming décor at Firefly and thought it would be a fun place to enjoy a relaxing Sunday brunch on a sunny afternoon.
Our server seemed a bit scattered, placing our bread basket down only to quickly pick it back up and bring it to the table next to us. He also forgot a few drinks and only seemed to refill my friend’s coffee on a regular basis. But that aside everything ran pretty smoothly.
The Restaurant Week brunch menu gave you the option of a cocktail, main course, and side. They were very generous with their portion sizes and had a pretty full menu to choose from.
I started with my favorite morning cocktail, a mimosa. Firefly sticks to the classic version of the drink, which I appreciated. For my main course I ordered the Sun’s Special, a mushroom and cheddar omelet served with crispy home fries and marble rye toast. Since my dish already came with a few of the side dish options, I ordered the mixed greens with a sherry vinaigrette as my side. The salad was quite large (a full-sized dinner plate) and lightly dressed. While nothing was overly fancy or exotic everyone seemed really happy with their meal. We didn’t feel rushed or hovered over, so we were able to sit back and catch up for over an hour.
After taking part in Restaurant Week at Firefly they are back on my radar screen and I will make sure to place them in my rotation of Dupont Circle brunch places.
Firefly- 1310 New Hampshire Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20036 (202) 861-1310 www.firefly-dc.com