Monday, December 29, 2014

DC Spotlight: Sundays at Thai X-ing on 9th Street

For years, friends would tell me that I just had to try the delicious home-cooked vegetarian Thai food at Thai X-ing (pronounced "Thai Crossing").  And for years, I declined -- for one reason only:  the "restaurant" reportedly was the chef's living room, and the living room reportedly was a favorite hangout of the chef's cats.  No thanks.  But my years of waiting are over, because Thai X-ing recently opened a new location near the corner of the 9th and U Streets in a bona fide, first-class restaurant space.

Sunday nights are 100% vegetarian (no fish sauce!), and for only $30.00, you get an unbelievable nine-course meal.  Although the new space has a full bar, everybody brings their own bottle(s) of wine, because a $5.00 corkage fee in DC simply can't be beat.  The menu is prix fixe (chef's choice, although I'm told the menu does not vary much from week to week, and the famous pumpkin curry is a staple), and most dishes are naturally vegan and gluten-free.  Everything is fresh, spicy, and delicious.  The only challenge may be getting a reservation, which should be done in advance on the restaurant's website.  See below for some pictures of my unforgettable vegetarian Thai feast.

Papaya salad and vegetable soup

Starting at the bottom and going clockwise: noodle salad, pineapple curry tofu, pumpkin curry, mushroom string bean tofu, and a side of brown rice with beans (not pictured:  vegetable stir fry)

Drunken rice noodles
For dessert, sticky coconut rice with mango

Thai X-Ing on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Madrid, Spain (Sept. 2014)

A couple of months ago, following my short trip to Lisbon, Portugal, I spent a few days in Madrid, Spain.  I've written a lot about Spanish tapas, many of which are naturally meat-free and great for vegetarians (click here, here, here, here, and here for some of my prior posts).  

But I always find Madrid a little bit more challenging.  For starters, the traditional method of enjoying tapas in Madrid does not provide the consumer with much choice.  Rather, you order a drink, and the tapas are simply served, not ordered (of course, they are basically free, so as my mother used to say, "beggars can't be choosers").  This custom can be a little awkward for vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions.  And in sit-down restaurants, where larger sized tapas (usually called raciones) can be ordered from a menu, many typical vegetable-based dishes (like sauteed mushrooms and garlic), often contain pieces of ham or sausage.  The experience can be frustrating.  Although Madrid -- like most big cities these days -- has a lot of vegetarian restaurants to choose from, such restaurants, in my opinion, often are frequented by other tourists and do not provide the traveler with a very authentic Spanish experience.  

I am happy to report, however, that I found one place where vegetarians can enjoy authentic Spanish cuisine in a place that is popular with madrilenos.  The Mercado San Ildefonso is essentially an upscale food court, and it literally has something for everyone.  Whether you are a vegetarian, meat lover, wine drinker, or have a sweet tooth -- you can find what you want here.  At the same time, the festive atmosphere (I counted at least three bars, not including several specialty wine and beer stands) and shared tables make it easy to socialize with locals.  

The Mercado San Ildefonso is located on Fuencarral Street, near the center of Madrid.

The market has three levels of food and drinks!

On the first floor, you can get a selection of cheeses at the Cheese Tavern or some fresh fruit and juice at Street Fruit.  

First-floor food stands, including Cheese Tavern and Street Fruit (near the back)

Here is a birds-eye of the second floor.

But I started my visit at the MyVeg food stand on the second floor, where I picked up a made-to-order salad consisting of exceptionally fresh ingredients.

MyVeg offers fresh made-to-order salads.

This green salad with fresh tomatoes and warm mushrooms was delicious.

I then moved next door to the Granja Malasana, where I ordered a half Spanish tortilla covered with asparagus.

Spanish tortilla with asparagus
And at the next stand over, DP Tapas, I grabbed an order of Andalusian gazpacho. 

Andalusian gazpacho topped with drizzled olive oil and crispy garlic

It's possible to spend hours eating and drinking at Mercado San Ildefonso, but in my opinion, no visit would be complete without tasting the wines at Taninos.

Taninos Vinoteca

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lisbon, Portugal (Sept. 2014)

A couple of months ago I spent two very short days in Lisbon, Portugal.  While that certainly was not enough time to explore fully the city's vegetarian options, I did have a few good experiences that I'd like to share.  

Having done my research ahead of time, I understood that traditional Portuguese cuisine consisted heavily of meat and seafood.  Vegetarian travelers will not go hungry, however.  Most restaurants, I found, offer some sort of egg omelet, and a number of traditional Portuguese soups are naturally vegetarian.  I had the traditional pumpkin soup twice, including a small appetizer-size version (pictured below) at Open Brasserie Mediterranica, the restaurant at my eco-friendly hotel, Inspira Santa Marta.  This restaurant was very sensitive to diners' dietary restrictions and offered several other vegetarian and vegan items, which were clearly identified on the menu.

Traditional Portuguese pumpkin soup
Open Brasserie Mediterranica's menu clearly identifies vegetarian and vegan items

Portuguese wine bars also are a great way to experience traditional cuisine.  Although these places don't usually serve hot meals, they offer enough meat-free wine pairing snacks to fill you up.  My feast at Winebar do Castelo is pictured below.  It included various cheeses, olives, jams, olive oils, bread, and even gluten-free crackers for my travel partner with the wheat allergy.  The atmosphere, service, location (next to the castle), and, of course, the wine were all fabulous!

Wine, olive oils, jams, cheese, olives, bread, and gluten-free crackers at Winebar do Castelo

And no visit to Lisbon is complete without trying the city's signature pasteis de nata, which are vanilla-flavored egg custard pastry tarts.  The original and most famous version of these is served at Pasteis de Belem in charming Belem (be prepared to wait in line), but I also found equally delicious ones closer to downtown at Manteigaria in Chiado. 

Lisbon's famous are pasteis de nata (vanilla-flavored egg custard pastry tarts) are vegetarian but not vegan, and are not to be missed if you can eat them.  TIP: sprinkle some cinnamon on them to make them extra delicious!

Finally, like most big cities, Lisbon has a number of vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants.  Although these restaurants may not provide the same traditional Portuguese experience as some other places, they are a good option for travelers who plan to spend more than a few days in Lisbon and tire of eggs, soup, cheese, bread, and pastries.  I really enjoyed my tropical salad, chock full of protein-rich beans and fresh fruit, at the international-themed, veg-friendly (and somewhat divey) The Green Room.  The chef also was very accommodating of my travel partner's food allergies.

This tropical salad at The Green Room was very satisfying, as it was full of chickpeas, black beans, and fresh fruit and greens.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

DC Spotlight: The Minibar Experience

First, my apologies to any regular readers out there who have been wondering where I have been the last couple of months.  To be honest, I've been pondering how to go about my next post, which features a destination restaurant that so many professional food writers already have reviewed (see here, here, and here, for example).

As those reviewers will tell you, at Minibar by Jose Andres, you don't just have dinner - you have "an experience."  And because those reviewers already have covered the basics, I will not attempt to describe the wizardry and performance art of molecular gastronomy (or how I was directed to consume a couple of dishes within seven seconds after they were served, because who knew that food could be so "time sensitive"?).  Nor will I glorify the exclusivity of being one of six people in a private seating who is pampered by a team of highly trained chefs and servers.  And finally, I will not, no matter what, dwell on the the exorbitant cost of the Minibar experience or bemoan that, even after 28 courses, I left feeling a little hungry.  

The wizadry and performance art of molecular gastronomy - in action!  Here they are preparing the first course, a "hot and cold pisco sour" (and the second of many, many more alcoholic drinks to come - the first is that near-empty glass of cava sitting on the counter!)

Here the chefs are creating an "almond tart with blue cheese."

Instead, I will focus on what gets me really excited - a first-class restaurant experience that welcomes vegetarians with open arms.  Of course, given the exorbitant cost (okay, I digress for a word of warning: you may need to take out a second mortgage on your home to cover the bill), any vegetarian willing to spend the amount of money required to participate in the Minibar experience (not to mention the patience and persistence required to score a reservation) should be welcomed with open arms.  But Minibar makes it known up front.  The website states:

"We always strive to make accommodations for our guests' dietary needs or restrictions.  All dietary restrictions and food allergies for the entire party should be noted and specified during the reservation procedure so that we can best accommodate your needs.  In particular cases, a chef may contact you to discuss the restrictions.  In the case of potentially life-threatening food allergies or other serious health issues, please speak directly to manager or chef in advance and explain your situation.  The minibar menu cannot be made to accommodate vegan diners."
While unfortunate for vegans (indeed, cream and cheese were recurring ingredients in a number of dishes), I was over the moon that both my dining partner with food allergies and I could enjoy this experience together (and it may be worth noting that my dining partner's wheat allergy needed very little accommodation, as most of the menu is naturally gluten-free, according to the host).  After a number of detailed email exchanges with the restaurant to discuss our dietary restrictions, the standard 28-course meal was customized specially for us.  So, while a number of the dishes were naturally meat-free and did not need to be modified, a number of others were changed substantially (and even became the objects of envy for several omnivores in our seating).  This "rubber ducky," for example, was filled with green apple sorbet for us instead of foie gras ice cream, as it was for other diners.

The vegetarian "rubber ducky" is filled with green apple sorbet instead of foie gras ice cream.

As other reviewers have written, the focus of each dish is intense flavor and texture.  The evening I was there, there also seemed to be an emphasis on Spanish and Japanese themed ingredients.  Some of the more interesting dishes I experienced are pictured below.

The "frozen lake" is a thin layer of ice dressed with sherry vinegar, freeze dried powders, edible flowers, and whipped cream that sits atop a layer of applewood smoke.

Pesto Fusilli (the fusilli pasta actually is injected with pesto, for a super intense flavor)

Andalucian Tofu

Fabada Asturiana (Spanish bean stew)

Parmesan Egg with Migas

The dishes are served one at a time, as the chefs provide elaborate explantions of each, and the waitstaff serves up drink pairings and attends to your every need.  Right when you think the evening can't get any more magical, the waitstaff welcomes you into the adjacent Barmini (you can read the Washington Post write-up here), a luxurious cocktail bar with the atmosphere of a posh boutique hotel lobby.  There, you will have the opportunity to order more drinks (probably not needed, but what the heck), while the waitstaff showers you with an array of sweets and desserts.

The dessert phase of my Minibar experience (which actually takes place at the adjacent Barmini) included raspberry wasabi bonbons, chocolate minibars, saffron pate with fruit, ice-cream filled doughnuts, and whisky bottles . . . plus coffee, tea, and more drinks!

A cotton candy cake for the members of my seating who were celebrating birthdays

TIP:  To improve your chances of scoring a reservation, let the restaurant know that you are flexible with respect to your preferred date and time.  Also, definitely tell them if you are celebrating a special occasion, so that the guest of honor can be showered with extra special attention.  And finally, for the sake of your fellow Minibar experience goers, treat this upscale, once-in-a-lifetime (for most of us, at least, with regular jobs) adventure with the respect it deserves, and dress to the nines!   

minibar by Jose Andres on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Miami Beach, Florida (June 2014)

Here are a few updates from a recent trip to South Beach.  Click here for my previous post.

First, my favorite go-to spot for casual Cuban food, David's Cuban Cafe, has closed.  While I was a bit devastated by this discovery, I quickly recovered upon learning that Lario's on the Beach, Gloria Estefan's longstanding restaurant on Ocean Drive, recently reopened after being closed for more than a year for renovations.  The place looks gorgeous -- very tropical and romantic -- and still features live Cuban music.  While the menu offers a few vegetarian entrees, I decided to piece together an authentic Cuban meal with all traditional side dishes -- black beans, white rice, sweet plantains, and fried yucca (click here to read more about how I ate my way through Havana, Cuba).  But I started with a more contemporary-style avocado salad, which was beautifully presented and also delicious.

Fresh avocado served with tomato, red onion, and diced cucumber, and tossed in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette

A hearty vegetarian meal made with traditional Cuban side dishes -- white rice, black beans, sweet plantains, and fried yucca

Larios on the Beach's newly renovated dining room (photo from the restaurant's website)

Second, my fellow Washingtonian and favorite celebrity chef, Jose Andres, has opened The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel.  This place offers a true first-class dining experience, with outstanding service in an upscale but very comfortable dining room (I felt like I was being served in the living room of a very fancy but somewhat quirky mansion).  The host took note that I was there to celebrate a special occasion, and immediately welcomed me with a glass of sparkling wine.  This theme continued throughout the night, from the beginning when I was seated at a special table, to the end when I learned that my server had comped the dessert.  The food also was outstanding, and most importantly, the vegetarian options were plentiful!  The restaurant blends traditional Spanish cuisine with flavors from around the world.  Each dish is tapa-sized and uniquely presented, and each bite bursts with intense flavor and texture -- everything was delicious!  

Mini gazpachos, served with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, breadsticks, and sherry vinegar

Watermelon and tomato skewers with pistachios

Twenty-vegetable quinoa "couscous," served in a tamarind broth

Pisto - vegetable stew, with zucchini, eggplant, and a golden egg (and bread on the side)

TIP:  If you want to check out The Bazaar, but don't want to break the bank, go instead to Bar Centro, which is the restaurant's outdoor lounge, where you can order a drink and sample a couple of tapas.

Finally, for a more laid back (and much less expensive) meal, head to The Cafe at Books & Books on Lincoln Road, where you can dine outdoors and choose from an expansive selection of healthy and hearty vegetarian dishes, including an entire listing of vegan entrees.  

Grilled organic tofu and avocado salad, with carrots, sprouts and snow peas on a bed of greens, served with orange-miso dressing

Warm organic quinoa and red bean salad, topped kale and crispy chickpeas (special)

Larios on the Beach on Urbanspoon

 The Bazaar by José Andrés on Urbanspoon

The Café at Books & Books on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 21, 2014

DC Spotlight: Dinner at Proof

Vegetarians who also are wine lovers will fall in with love Proof, a romantic wine bar located in DC's Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood.  

Proof is the first of a trio of first-class sister restaurants that also include Estadio and Doi Moi (read my write-ups of the those two here and here).  Although Proof does not (yet) have a separate vegetarian menu like its sister restaurants, it always offers a number of hearty meat-free appetizers, salads, and cheese plates, in addition to several tasty side dishes.  All three restaurants are featured on the Washington, DC Restaurants page of this website.

Proof's dinner menu changes a little each season, but fortunately for me, my favorite vegetarian entree -- the napoleon of crispy tofu, wild mushrooms, and spring vegetables -- is a year-round staple. 

Napoleon of crispy tofu, wild mushrooms, and spring vegetables, including baby bok choy, snow peas, green beans, and served with a sweet chili garlic sauce
TIP:  This place books up well in advance, so make your reservations early, especially if you want to dine there on the weekend.  And don't forget to try the wine!

Proof on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 30, 2014

Santa Barbara, California (May 2014)

I just returned from a few days in Santa Barbara, which, like many places in California, is a city where vegetarians will not go hungry.  Californians certainly love healthy eating -- and the vast array of smoothie bars (check out Backyard Bowls) and veg-friendly cafes (check out The Natural Cafe) make it easy for vegetarian travelers to find a quick bite.  

But as always, I was on the lookout for a first-class dining experience, and was delighted to find just that at Pierre Lafond's State Street WineBistro.  

The WineBistro is located in the heart of Santa Barbara's lively downtown, and its large windows and outdoor seating make it an ideal place for people watching along State Street.  The restaurant features organic produce and local wines, not to mention great service.  I could not have been more pleased with my meal.  Although it was difficult to decide what to order given the expansive selection of vegetarian options, I settled on this protein-packed red quinoa and sprouted mung bean salad, which was covered in a tasty cilantro-lime vinaigrette.

Red quinoa and sprouted mung bean salad with grape tomatoes, roasted corn, avocado, wilted baby Earth trine kale, and a cilantro-lime vinaigrette

This salad was served as an entree and was so filling that I did not have room to try anything else, which was disappointing because the menu not only had an endless list of vegetarian soups, salads, sandwiches (including a house-made, gluten-free veggie burger!), and flatbreads, but it also had an entire section of other appealing vegetarian entrees.

If I ever return to Santa Barbara, I'll look forward to grabbing another window seat at the WineBistro!

TIP:  Go for lunch or an early dinner while the sun is still out to take advantage of the outdoor seating and large picture windows.  Santa Barbara gets chilly after dark!

Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 13, 2014

DC Spotlight: Dinner at Le Diplomate

Following up on last month's post about new restaurants along 14th Street, this month I review dinner at DC's most popular hotspot, Le Diplomate.

Although I previously had brunch at Le Diplomate (and LOVED it), I was reluctant to try it for dinner because the menu (all French, of course) offers very few vegetarian options and almost no vegan options.  Of those, I tried the green salad and mushroom tart -- both delicious.  The potatoes au gratin (not pictured here) also were delicious.

Green salad

Mushroom tart

But my dining partner, who not only is vegetarian, but also is allergic to nuts and cheese, had a more difficult time finding menu items to enjoy.  Not to worry!  Le Diplomate is a true first-class restaurant, and like so many first-class restaurants (such as those in New Orleans, for example), the outstanding service includes special accommodations for vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions.  Our server spoke to the chef, who happily cooked up this beautiful vegan entree of roasted mushrooms and cauliflower, sauteed spinach, and mashed potatoes.  

Specially made vegan entree of roasted mushrooms and cauliflower, sauteed spinach, and mashed potatoes

From the service to the food, and from the wine list to the cute French decor, this place lives up to the hype, and vegetarians are not left out! 

Le Diplomate on Urbanspoon