Friday, May 22, 2009

Food + Drinks / Paley's Place

Last Monday at a graduation barbeque, some of my friends and I were reminiscing on the last time we finished school, 18 years old, ready to leave home for the giant adventure that was college. This feels kind of like that, we thought. Except with more drinking.

Indeed, drinking was the constant throughout the weekend – the one cure-all for those awkward moments when you realize that you just introduced your grandmother to that guy you “know” from that party three years ago. Yes, Grandma, this is my … friend… Yeah… Somehow everything seems just a bit calmer, or more funny even, with a glass of wine in your hand.

Of course, we had to do something to soak up all the extra booze.

My parents and grandmother arrived last Friday evening, starving from a day of flying. Originally we were going to cook dinner that night, but they were so hungry that we jumped off to Por Que No? for tacos and margaritas. Por Que No? is a pseudo cantina-type restaurant that opened up a second location near my house about a year ago. They mostly serve tacos, although there are a couple of salad type options and they have tamale specials as well. And strong margaritas. I tried these for the first time a couple weeks ago with Katie and Sarah to celebrate the end of our theses. I ordered a large, and drank it with one of the aforementioned salads. It wasn’t until I was firing off arbitrary Facebook wall posts two hours later that I realized how much tequila was actually in those drinks.

Anyway, this time I came prepared (except for my camera – whoops!) and ordered a small to go with my pescado taco and veggie taco. My mom and dad had the carne asada and the carnitas, and my grandmother ordered Bryan’s bowl, a massive container of beans and rice, meat, salsa, and cheese. We also had the guac and chips (not free). My tacos were good – I love the way they crust their fish in a cornmeal batter and serve it with mango salsa on the pescado. I tried my mom’s carne asada, tasty as well, with just the right amount of spice. Really, though, the best part of Por Que No? is the guac and chips. They fry their own tortilla chips in house and their quac is mostly just avocado – with none of that extra stuff to cover up the creamy subtly of the fruit. I could probably eat just that for dinner.

The next day Ben and Arthur arrived and we ate our official celebratory meal at Paley’s Place in Northwest. I had wanted to try the restaurant for years (readers of the New York Times dining section will no doubt recognize the name, as the restaurant was praised as one of the top in the country a couple years ago), but it’s a bit out my poor student budget to eat there properly. It’s perfect for visiting parents.

We had an early (6:30) reservation to better accommodate my grandmother, and then even showed up 20 minutes early. They went ahead and seated us at the table and we all enjoyed cocktails (I had a gin gimlet with local Aviation – crisp and refreshing after a long hot day), bread, and an amuse bouche of caprese salad:

The flavors were all spot-on – the best of tomatoes, basil, goat cheese, and balsamic, but the mouthfeel lacked contrast; it was a little too consistently mushy.

Arthur wanted to pick out the wine (surprise, surprise), but when he looked at the menu realized that he needed his glasses (I left them at home dear, style is more important than sight). Our waiter needed little more than to see his discomfort to bring over a box of glasses collected from forgetful guests. Arthur picked out a pair speckled with rhinestones. Stylish.

Anyhow, my mother can’t drink red wines, so we started with a bottle of white Burgundy (can’t remember the name!) – not too sweet, but with enough body to hold up to our varied dishes. This bottle lasted us through appetizers and part way through our entrees, and then we ordered a cleaner, crisper Cassis from Provence (Clos Ste. Magdeleine). This embodied my favorite type of wine – very dry and citrusy – and I probably drank more than my fair share, as you will see later.

As far as food goes, we started with salads and charcuterie:

(starting from top, going clockwise) Roasted Beets with horseradish cream, George’s Gathered Greens with lemon and olive oil, Wine-cured Prosciutto, Coppa, and Testarossa. Everything on this plate was awesome, especially the Testarossa. We ordered it before asking what it was – turns out its pickled meat from the pig’s head. Very fatty but very flavorful. My mother asked the waiter for an explanation of its flavor profile and he offered, There are so many ingredients, it would be hard to name them all. He did actually say that he has requested the ingredients from the chef and could do it again, but we didn’t push it.

We all ordered different entrees (half-orders, so we could eat more desserts!) and shared. I had heard great things about the Sweetbreads, which came fried with bacon-braised black lentils, wilted greens, and house ham:

I had never had sweetbreads before, and these certainly didn’t disappoint. They reminded all of us of pork belly, in that they were very fatty and kind of chewy, but they also had an almost footy flavor, like a good mushroom or a complex cheese. The lentils and greens were delicious as well, especially in a bite with the meat.

Ben had a Pork Roast with apples:

Quite good, if a bit obvious, and the only entrée that didn’t come in half-portions.

My grandmother had the Risotto with spring peas, carrots, Parmesan, and mint butter, which I didn’t get to try or photograph because, well, she’s my grandmother and it would have been awkward.

Arthur had the Rabbit Ravioli with snow morels, fava beans, and bacon:

I love love love rabbit and pasta combinations (maybe for the same reason I think croquettes are the perfect vehicle for oxtail – they prevent the meat from being simply a stringy blob), and I can’t say no to fresh beans of any sort, so I of course enjoyed this quite a bit.

My father had the Heirloom Bean and vegetable cassoulet:

The best part about this dish (it tasted good, but was a little boring) was that it came in its own miniature Le Cruset Dutch oven, and we know how appreciative I am of well-used miniature restaurant dishes.

My mother ordered the fish special, Halibut with fennel and greens of some kind (didn't write it down and it's not online!):

At this point in the evening I was … a bit tipsy and pretty food-drunk, and I thought that it made sense to try to cut a bite from her plate while it was balanced on the edge of the table. Right. No sooner had I sliced my knife into her food that the plate tipped and crashed onto the floor:

Clatter and laughter ensued. My face turned crimson, and when the waiter came over to see what the ruckus was, my parents joked about how I had had so much wine because I was about to graduate. I didn’t hear them, so I told him the same thing five minutes later. Whoops. Embarrassing.

Luckily, my mom got a new piece of fish, which was apparently better than the first, and all was right with the world.

Earlier in the evening, when we walked into the restaurant, we had admired the cheese cart, and so, well into our second bottle of wine, we decided to order cheese as well as four desserts:

Sticking with the French theme, we had (from top, going clockwise) Fourme d’Ambert, a Paley’s Bar, Tomme Brulee, and Valençay Cendre. I don’t know too much about cheese, as I am lactose intolerant and so only eat it when in situations like this one. I, did, however thoroughly enjoy all of these, especially the Fourme d’Ambert. Thinking back on it now, even though I am a huge lover of sweets, I think the meal might have been better if we ended with the cheese course. Not that the desserts were bad in any way. They were just okay. Completely outshone by the rest of the meal. But here they are anyway, for your viewing pleasure:

Coconut Cake with macerated Strawberries and Panna Cotta

Warm Chocolate Soufflé Cake with Toasted Hazelnuts and Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream

Almond Torte with Rhubarb Compote and Mascarpone Ice Cream

Crème Brulée, with a candle for me

Oh, and as if the night wasn't excessive enough at this point, we all ordered some type of digestif. I shared Clear Creek Pear Brandy with Ben.


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