29 June 2009

Hot Plate: From Grits to Fine Hits

Here's another article from Roll Call. I haven't eaten at Palette yet, but I've been intrigued ever since it opened. Now I've got a good reason to make a point of it. After so many stories about National Guard troops who come home from a stint in Iraq to discover that they don't have jobs to come back to, it's nice to read about a place that kept the job open. So hooray for Palette and thanks Arnel Esposo for your service to our country.

June 25, 2009
By Alison McSherry
Roll Call Staff


Local chef Arnel Esposo mastered the art of cooking while dodging bullets. Now the executive chef at Palette (1177 15th St. NW), Esposo first learned to cook during his tenure in the Army.

Over the past 20 years,he has transitioned from preparing meals for thousands of hungry soldiers to creating tasty dishes for hungry Washingtonians. While the chef always had an interest in cooking - he used to help his mom shop at the local market as a kid - Esposo decided to enlist in the Army after graduating high school in 1989.

"There was an option to be an infantryman or a cook," Esposo says. "I followed my grandfather's footsteps. He was a cook in the Army." After completing basic training, Esposo was sent to eight weeks of cooking school in Fort Lee, Va., where he learned to prepare meals for thousands of people at a time. Each day he was charged with preparing bacon, eggs and grits for breakfast.
"Of course grits, I've always had fond memories of grits," Esposo says with a smile. Early on in his cooking career, the young soldier had a mishap with grits. Because he was born in the Philippines and grew up in Maryland, grits were not a staple in Esposo's diet.

"The first time I made grits, they were so lumpy," he says, adding that after tasting the offending item, his commanding officer screamed at him to drop and do 20 push-ups in the middle of the kitchen. Esposo explained that grits were not a typical breakfast-time treat in Maryland and that he had never made them before.

"He said, 'OK, from now on for the next 30 days, you'll do grits every morning.' So I perfected making grits when I was 18 years old," Esposo says with a giggle.

After his release from the Army, Esposo used the GI bill to attend the Baltimore International Culinary College. This training led to an apprenticeship at Kilkea Castle in Ireland, where he mastered fine cuisine. After two years across the Atlantic, Esposo returned to D.C.and did stints cooking at the Citronelle and the now-closed Red Sage before arriving at Palette six years ago.

"I enjoy being in D.C.," Esposo says. "I think we're up there as far as cooking goes."

While restaurant cooking can be stressful, Esposo says there is nothing quite like the harrowing experience of cooking for thousands of troops in the middle of a war zone.

"It's horrible. I mean it's a 24-hour job, seven days a week," he says of his experience cooking in the Middle East during Operation Desert Shield. "At 2 o'clock in the morning you're waking up to boil water and you're firing up the stove to warm it up and cook for thousands of troops."

Desert Shield wasn't the chef's only brush with war. In 2007, while he was serving in the National Guard, Esposo was called out of the kitchen and shipped to Iraq. While he was employed as a professional chef in Washington, Esposo became an infantryman.

"Believe me, I wasn't ready," he says. "I wish I'd stayed in the kitchen." When Esposo returned from serving a year in Iraq, his job at Palette was waiting for him. In fact, his colleagues at the restaurant went so far as to send him care packages while he was overseas. While cooking for the troops is a hard task, Esposo says cooking in a restaurant is more challenging.

"As far as cooking for a daily event for thousands, you can really see what you can do, but a la carte is more challenging," he says. "You have a lot of people that come in, and you don't know what they want."

The menu at Palette is a mixture of Pan Asian and American cuisine, with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Esposo buys locally grown foods and cheeses whenever possible. "We just want to keep it unique," he says. "We're focusing on being unique, local and honest with the food we have."

Several months after returning to Palette from Iraq, Esposo was once again called out of the kitchen - this time to keep order during President Barack Obama's inauguration. Esposo was only given 24 hours notice.

"I was really kind of ticked off about that," he says. "It was very, very cold. I was wishing I was in the kitchen that day." Despite the frigid temperatures, Esposo was still able to revel in the moment and enjoy watching the historic event unfold before his eyes.

He stood guard at the inaugural opening concert held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On Inauguration Day, the chef stood guard along the parade route.

"I was lucky because when the president got out of the limo, he was right behind me," Esposo says. "I turned around. I had to look like everyone else does." Now, at the age of 41, Esposo is faced with a decision. Does he re-enlist in the National Guard or does he let his contract expire and focus full time on cooking and spending time with his wife and two young sons?

"I don't even know if I want to give it up," he says. "I feel that I owe my career to the military. I'm a third-generation [soldier], and I feel like I'm obligated to fulfill my time and duty."

Esposo is still enlisted in the National Guard, and for now his he is directing his focus on his cooking and whatever doors it may open. "This career can take you pretty much anywhere," he says.

2009 (c) Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

21 June 2009

Anniversary dinner at Café Lurcat, Minneapolis

For our anniversary this year, we wanted someplace special. The dilemma was – someplace special, like someplace we’ve been before or someplace new? We finally decided that for this anniversary (No. 35), we didn’t want to take a chance. So we decided to go to a reliable standby. That narrowed the range somewhat, but there are at least a half dozen ‘favorite places’ we could have picked. The one we finally decided on, the one we were absolutely sure would delight us, was Café Lurcat. It didn’t disappoint.

Start with the space. It’s gorgeous. White table cloths give it a formal, dressy feel. High ceilings give it a spacious, airy feel. Comfortably spaced tables strike the right balance between intimate and social – you’re close enough for some discrete spying (absolutely necessary for checking out what other people are eating) but far enough away to protect your own sense of privacy.

Our table was a primo location by the window overlooking the alley and with a view of the street and Loring Park. The people-watching was great. Linda even spotted an old friend from Duluth. (They came in to greet us. And when we finished, we went up to the rooftop of Joe’s Garage to visit with them.)

We ordered a bottle of wine. It was Francis Blanchet Pouilly Fume. It was very reasonably priced and was a great accompaniment for the food we selected.

Café Lurcat’s menu is a combination of house specialties and seasonal specials. For our starter, we decided to split the salmon tartare, which was a seasonal special. It was served atop diced pineapple and was seasoned with chili vinaigrette. It was garnished with thin slices of radish and edible flowers. Really great.

Linda’s entrée was a café specialty – scallops. They were cooked just the way she likes them, cooked through but still tender, not dry and rubbery. They were served on housemade creamed corn and wild mushrooms with dots of pungent blue cheese. My entrée was a seasonal item – halibut with roasted tomatoes and scallions. The fish was moist and flakey and totally delicious. We also ordered a side dish of roasted cauliflower, which also was amazingly tasty.

Service through the evening was attentive without being annoying. Our wine glasses were filled when we needed them, but never overfilled. He was very knowledgeable about the wine and guided us to make a great selection. He also gave good advice about the menu items.

It’s fun to try new places. But for a very special occasion like this, I’m glad we chose a reliable restaurant that we knew would come through.

19 June 2009

Check out the Strib's new food blog

I like how the Minneapolis Star Tribune is using social media to complement and supplement its treeware version. I became a fan of Taste on Facebook. Now they've started a food blog. So I'm including it in my blog roll on the left. Check it out.

14 June 2009

United Way Happy Hour at Big Island

For the Land O'Lakes United Way campaign last fall, a co-worker and I auctioned a private, gourmet event at her family ‘cabin’ on Big Island in Lake Minnetonka. We actually did a similar event a year ago. For that one, our boss brought fresh fish and seafood from the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. This time, we decided to do a happy hour and boat cruise around the island.

Even though this wasn’t a dinner, I don’t think anyone left the island hungry. You can see the menu in the photo on the left. Lydia made the grilled shrimp with Gianni dipping sauce and the guacamole. I made two kinds of quesadillas and the vegetable tray. Since this was a ‘happy hour,’ we also did a couple of signature cocktails – Cosmopolitans and Sidecars. (After the party got going, one of the guests also mixed up a couple of Singapore Slings.)

I made two kinds of quesadillas. One was pesto, fresh mozzarella, and roasted red bell peppers. The other was inspired by a Minneapolis restaurant, now defunct, called Nikki’s Café. Several years ago, on one of the three-day weekends (I can’t remember if it was Memorial Day or Labor Day), we went out of town and came back on Sunday afternoon (to avoid the holiday traffic jam on Monday). We were feeling pretty stressed and decided to go out. At the time, we’d never eaten at Nikki’s, but we knew it had live music on Sunday night, so we went there.

We had a Nikki’s pizza – chicken, walnuts, and goat cheese. (At least, that’s how I remember it.) We loved the pizza, the drinks were great, and the music was fantastic. Nikki’s became a regular favorite for us, and it was a sad day when it closed.

So my Nikki’s-inspired quesadilla was pesto, chicken, walnuts, and goat cheese. I heated them on a gas grill. It’s the first time I’ve ever made grilled quesadillas. They turned out great. With the leftover ingredients, I made them for my son and his wife when they came to our house for dinner the next day. He said they were the best quesadillas he’s ever eaten. (That’s saying something because he’s no slouch in the kitchen himself.)

Grilled chicken, walnut, goat cheese quesadilla (as inspired by Nikki’s Café)

1 pkg. (8-10) 10-inch flour tortillas
¼ c. prepared pesto
½ lb. cooked chicken, cubed or shredded
½ c. walnut pieces, toasted
6 oz. goat cheese
Olive oil

Spread 1 tbsp. pesto on ½ of a tortilla. Scatter on chicken, walnuts, and dot with 2-3 tbsp. goat cheese. Fold over tortilla. Brush with oil. Grill for 2-3 minutes per side, or until lightly toasted.

10 June 2009

Hot Plate: You’ll Never Go Hungry For Long

I've written several posts on DC restaurants. But I recently read an article in Roll Call about 'cheap eats' in DC. Roll Call is sort of like a community newspaper for Capitol Hill. I thought the article filled a gap in Krik's Picks coverage of Washington restaurants, so I asked permission to post it. Here it is. Thanks, Roll Call.

June 4, 2009
By Alison McSherry
Roll Call Staff

It is essential for any intern living in a group house with a crowded kitchen and minimal income to know where to find inexpensive food. Luckily, there is a smorgasbord of choices when it comes to eating on the cheap in D.C.

Monday nights bring half-priced pizza to Capitol Lounge (231 Pennsylvania Ave. SE). Large cheese, pepperoni or veggie pizzas are all reduced to go perfectly with a bottle of beer. On Tuesdays, the bar offers 25-cent wings. This deal draws a crowd, so be sure to get there early. If you’re willing to up the ante and spend a whole $1, swing by on Wednesdays for Fiesta Night when soft tacos go for $1 and quesadillas will only set you back $4.

Over at Wok and Roll (604 H St. NW) in Chinatown you can get a cheap meal and a history lesson. Not only is the restaurant a haven of fried rice and avocado rolls, but it is also housed in the Surratt House where John Wilkes Booth and others conspired to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

At happy hour, which runs from 5 to 8 p.m. on weekdays, Wok and Roll offers $1 pieces of sushi along with $2 beers. Even outside of happy hour, the menu is budget-friendly. Lo mein starts at $8.50, and a variety of noodle soups are available starting at $6.95.

Vapiano, the cafeteria-style Italian restaurant with locations downtown (1800 M St. NW) and in Chinatown (623 H St. NW), offers low-cost food in a decidedly hip environment. The restaurant is operated like a cafeteria, with patrons standing in line at a counter to order. While it may take a few minutes to order your food, Vapiano is well worth the wait. Pizzas featuring fresh ingredients start at $7.95, while big bowls of tasty pasta top out at $10.95.

In fact, no dish on the menu exceeds $11. Vapiano is also extremely convenient for groups. Customers are given a plastic card on entering that serves as their bill, taking the pain out of breaking up a check among friends.

California Tortilla (728 Seventh St. NW and various other locations) is a great spot for cheap burritos that cost less than $10. The Chinatown location also offers the “Burrito, Soda and Movie Deal.” For a mere $12.99, patrons get a burrito, a soft drink and a voucher for a movie ticket at the Regal Cinema across the street. This deal is valid after 4 p.m. on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday.

Burgers abound in D.C. While they may not be the healthiest dining option, they can be extremely cost-efficient. Good Stuff Eatery (303 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) offers more than 10 different burgers, priced from $5.49 to $7.69 and topped with everything from avocado to chili to pickled daikon. Turkey burgers are available for the health-conscious and mushroom burgers for vegetarians.

Some of the more creative offerings include Spike’s 5 Napkin, the chef’s eponymous burger, and Colletti’s Smokehouse burger, named for general manager Mike Colletti. The burgers are so tasty that Michelle Obama recently visited the Capitol Hill hot spot to indulge.
While the first lady may have chosen Good Stuff Eatery for lunch, President Barack Obama chose Five Guys Burger and Fries. This burger joint has locations all over town and features a simple menu. Serving only burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese and fries, this restaurant is perfect for curing a hangover. A “little burger” — which consists of one patty instead of the usual two — costs a mere $3.40, while a hot dog is only $3.29.

The Billy Goat Tavern (500 New Jersey Ave. NW) beats the competition when it comes to pricing. This tiny bar and burger joint offers a cheeseburger for a mere $3.25. Not only does the Goat offer cheap grub, but it also offers ample outdoor seating, making it the perfect spot to get some fresh air after a long day at the office.

2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.