February 6, 2008

Restaurant Week Visit #3: Bistro Bis

For over a year now some friends have been telling me that I've just got to try Bistro Bis, near Union Station, in the Hotel George. So I thought, what better time to try it than during Restaurant Week? I had also recently read that Bistro Bis is one of the best restaurants to visit during RW because they offer choices that are actually representative of their regular menu. In addition to the offerings at the RW lunch and dinner prices ($20.08 and $30.08, respectively) you can try other items from their regular menu by just paying a few more dollars, so you really are able to get a taste for the restaurant. I went there for dinner and it was quite good.
My fellow diner started with Onion Soup Les Halles, a "rich broth with sweet onions and sourdough croûtons topped with gruyere and emmenthaler cheese." It was very tasty, not too salty, and the cheese was delicious. After the soup was finished we were still trying to find pieces of crusty cheese baked onto the lid of the soup bowl. Yum!
For the first time in my life I ordered snails. I've never had anything against them, but I've just never been curious enough to try them. But I figured, we can't both have the onion soup, and so I ordered the Fricassée d’Escargot, "sautéed wild burgundy snails with roasted garlic, chanterelle mushrooms, pearl onions, lardons, parsley butter and veal jus"
~ this cost an additional $3 and it was worth it for the experience. I'd say I have a fairly adventurous palate, but I think I may have a mental block against eating snails. I managed to finish them, but it wasn't easy. The mushrooms were delicious, as was the sauce, and my companion declared the snails delicious, but I don't think that I'll order snails again.
For an entree I ordered the Côte de Porc Sardalaise, "pan roasted rib chop with garlic, bacon lardon, fingerling potatoes, swiss chard and honey thyme vinegar sauce." As someone who does not eat much meat, I generally make an effort to eat meat when I go out to make up for the lack of it in my daily diet.
And I'm so glad I did. This rib chop was delicious. Tender, savory, with perfectly cooked little potatoes and a sauce that complemented the flavors in the meat and the chard. Highly recommended.
My friend ordered the Salmon Aux Lentilles,
"seared mustard crusted filet with bacon
lardons and red wine braised beluga lentils." This was a big hit for both of us. I cannot remember the last time I tasted such fresh salmon!

I also love lentils and lardons - how can you go wrong with this dish? Needless to say we were both more than pleased with our entrees and the appetizers. No I wasn't crazy about the snails, but I think that's more about me not liking snails than about Bistro Bis not knowing how to serve them.
We were so excited when it came time for desserts. My partner gourmand ordered the Chocolate Toffee Bread Pudding "served warm with hazelnuts and toffee anglaise." This was good, but I prefer bread pudding without chocolate. The hazelnuts were toasted and delicious, and there is almost no way to err when combining them with chocolate. The toffee sauce was also tasty, and in all the dessert was not heavy, but still rich and tasty.
I ordered the Bistro Apple Tart with
"caramelized apples, crisp pastry, vanilla bean crème fraîche and calvados sauce."
This was probably my favorite dish of the night. I love apple tarts and this one was delicious. A perfect light and flaky crust, not too much sugar in the tart, just the right drizzle of calvados sauce to give a hint of flavor without overpowering the tart with sweetness, and the creme fraiche was a delightful addition both asthetically and flavorwise. Please order this if you go to Bistro Bis.
*Not remembering much about the restrooms but that probably means they were up to my standards. I do remember that they are down a flight of stairs. I'm sure there is an elevator, since it's a hotel, but that was a little out of the way. Great service, great space with high ceilings and an open kitchen, and I love the ties that the servers wear. I will be back here, definitely.

Restaurant Week Visit #2: Il Mulino

2. Il Mulino, Downtown DC: Mine was a lunchtime visit, which means the restaurant offers a 3-course meal for $20.08 - A way of ringing in the new year, I suppose. How excited I was when I read on opentable.com that Il Mulino in New York is "the No. 1 rated Italian restaurant in NYC for the past two decades!" I mean, does that sound like a fabulous restaurant or not? And I have to admit, I thought we'd be getting a great deal by trying them out during Restaurant Week, since it's listed as such an expensive restaurant. I'll start with some plusses right away. The first plus is that because of my computer stupidity, I accidentally canceled my reservation while surfing around on opentable.com, and when I realized there was not another reservation to be had online, I called the restaurant, explained my predicament, and they said if we could come 30 minutes earlier, they could fit us in somewhere, even though they were booked. I must admit I was imagining teeny table situated next to the bathroom with some folding chairs. But when we arrived, after checking our coats, the maitre d' showed us to a lovely table by the window in the front of the restaurant. Wonderful! We ordered a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water, and the waiter brought it to the table along with an ice-filled glass harboring lemon and lime wedges and tiny straws. After pouring our water he placed the bottle behind us in an ice bucket to keep it cold. Soon after we sat down, we were brought (as is everyone) a small dish of Caponata (an eggplant "stew" similar to ratatouille) to snack on. This was difficult for the next 5 minutes since we had no bread, but once the bread arrived, we enjoyed the caponata, although it could have been room temperature instead of cold out of the fridge. We were handed the small Restaurant Week menus, but we couldn't help but notice that absolutely every other table around us received the RW menu plus the regular lunch menu when they sat down... Hmm...
For the salad, one could choose either the Insalata Mista (mixed salad), Insalata di Rucola (arugula salad), or Insalata Caprese (tomato and mozzarella salad). [Names of dishes are approximations - I do not pretend to remember each specific title.] We both chose the Caprese salad, which was, by the looks of the other salads on the tables, definitely the best choice. The other salads looked good, but the Caprese salad was actually quite delicious, with the highlight being that the mozzarella actually had flavor! The salad consisted of 2 slices of mozzarella with 2 slices of ripe tomato, about 2 drops of olive oil, and some basil to garnish. The olive oil was delicious and if there had been just 2 more drops of it, I think the salad would have been perfect. Bravo!
The entree choices were Pappardelle with Sausage (my choice), Porcini Ravioli in a Cream Sauce (my fellow diner's choice), a Trio of Pizzette (3 little pizzas ~ I did not see anyone order this), and I think there were either one or two other pasta choices. The pappardelle were very good - freshly made and al dente, and the sausage was tasty, not too sweet or too salty, but when you got to the bottom of the plate you saw just how many onions were in the tomato sauce: too many.
The ravioli were also good - as a mushroom lover, it's hard for me to disapprove of just about anything with mushrooms - but there was just too much sauce on the plate. The sauce, buttery and creamy, was delicious, but so rich that just 1/4 of what was there would have been plenty.
According to their RW menu, there was a choice of 2 desserts: Ricotta Cheesecake and Tiramisu'. My co-diner and I had decided we would share and order one of each, when the waiter came and told us that he would be making a combination of the 2 desserts. There was a dessert station set up in the center of the restaurant where the waiters would all create this "special combination." I'm not really sure what would happen if you only wanted one choice, either Tiramisu' or Ricotta Cheesecake, because it seemed like you had to get the combination. Anyway, it was an overdone and overdecorated plate. Cheesecake, Tiramisu, Zabaglione, and Fresh Whipped Cream with Fresh Berries, plus a Pirouline in the center, a big drizzle of chocolate sauce, and powdered sugar. After tasting everything, just a few of the fresh berries with the cream would have been perfect. The cheesecake was ok, just not so flavorful, and the Tiramisu' was dry. Upon closer examination, I found that the savoiardi (ladyfingers) had not been dipped in espresso(!!!) The Zabaglione was ok too, but it did not belong on that already overburdened plate.

The overall ambiance is, well... I'm not sure there is one. The bar looks like an Italian bar, but then there are tapestries hanging on the walls, and medieval-looking wrought-iron candelabras hanging from the low ceilings, right next to dirty air vents; there's a huge montage in the center of the dining room that looks like a display window for an Italian deli, which I guess is supposed to make the restaurant look more authentically "Italian" - only I don't remember any fine Italian restaurants in Italy ever having stacks of canned tomatoes, boxed pasta, and other items that you can find in any grocery store in the middle of the dining room. That stuff belongs in the kitchen. The ladies' restroom was fine.

Our lunch was good, but not great. If Il Mulino in DC is anything like it's NYC homebase, then I'm seriously wondering WHO was voting it the #1 Italian restaurant in NYC for 2 decades??? Perhaps I did not get the full experience since I ordered from the RW menu, which honestly I felt offered a small selection of mostly the "poorer" dishes from their menu.

After doing some research (and unfortunately after my lunch at Il Mulino), I realized that the best restaurants to choose during Restaurant Week are those who offer all or most of their regular menu, so that the customer really gets a chance to experience what the restaurant has to offer. Hence my next restaurant choice.