Pound the Hill

Location: Capitol Hill

Price: $$

Rating: 3 out of 5

Summary: A fantastic coffee house that still has ways to go as a restaurant

Pound the HillAlthough we had heard great things about Capitol Hill’s Pound the Hill for breakfast and coffee, our interest to visit for dinner was peaked with a Living Social coupon. Little did we know, at night the coffee house turned into a modern American restaurant. The casual, but intimate atmosphere of the cafe leant itself easily into a fantastic evening dining ambiance. However, it turned out that the restaurant’s kitchen was not able to make the transition as easily. While everything we ordered sounded great on paper, what we were served didn’t match up to our expectations.

Our first small plate was the Duck-fat Tater Tots, garlic parmesan potato tots, served with liquid horseradish and a house-madeDuck-Fat Tater Tots BBQ sauce. Despite the menu’s inflated description, these tater tots taste no different than any other that we’ve Hummus Platterordered before. Only the addition of the light sprinkle of garlic and parmesan made the tots stand out. The horseradish and BBQ dipping sauces were the real treat of the dish, the homemade BBQ sauce making the dish worth ordering again. Our second small dish was the Hummus platter, creamy chickpeas, Greek feta, Nicoise olives, and served with toasted pita. Much like the first, this plate was nothing out of the ordinary, featuring an average hummus dip and a Shrimp Platefew pitas cut into slices. Our final appetizer was the Shrimp Plate, butter-sautéed shrimp, roasted garlic olive tapenade, and basil served with truffle-oiled crostini. Following the pattern of the previous small dishes, the shrimp were unremarkable and the flavors from the add-ins did little to boost the shell fish’s character.

Our first entrée was the Farmhouse Pasta, orecchiette pasta with house-made sausage, braised kale, cubed roasted Farmhouse Pastabutternut squash, and a sprinkle of pecorino cheese. With better-than-your-average boxed pasta and slightly spicy homemade sausage, the beef broth sauce was the real star of the dish, highlighting the savory yet spicy ground sausage and the choice of shell shaped pasta. Although we are fans of butternut squash, it didn’t combine well with the other flavors in the bowl and turned into an odd addition. The cheese and braised kale were nice additions that elevated the pasta’s profile.

For our second choice, we selected the Slow-Roasted Short Rib, beef short rib sitting on top of herb garlic beef Slow-roasted Short Ribjus, red potato and saffron puree, and roasted rainbow carrots. The meat itself fell apart easily and seemed to be cooked perfectly, but the weak flavor from the roast and sloppy concoction that was billed as red potato and saffron puree took away from the dish. Where usually a rim of fat on the cut highlights the expert quality of a beef rib, it only added to the bodiless texture of the beef and brought no additional flavor to the table. Although some of the execution on the dish may need some tinkering, we doubt it would have solved the very “average” flavors we tasted.

Warm Autumn Spice DoughnutsDespite our meal’s shortcomings, we knew that Pound the Hill is best known as a coffee house so we decided to order coffee and dessert. This turned out to be the best decision we had made the entire meal. We ordered the Warm Autumn Spice Doughnuts, small balls of fried dough with a cinnamon-ginger caramel dipping sauce. Missing the typical hole in the middle of the fried dough, these doughnuts were possibly some of the best that we have had in Nutella Lattedc. The caramel sauce was more of a drizzle on the donuts, but still worked perfectly with the fried dough. We also ordered a Nutella Latte, a specialty of Pound the Hill that tasted like terrifically composed hazelnut mocha, not too sweet and not overbearing.

Despite a great atmosphere and an impressive dessert, the core of our meal never came together and left us yearning for the dishes we had read about on the menu. Everything we ordered sounded fantastic, yet the execution wasn’t there. Instead, it was a blur of mediocrity. Most of these faults are simple fixes and, with some fine tuning, Pound the Hill could be a great destination for an evening meal on Capitol Hill. Until then, we will stick to the dessert and coffee.

Pound the Hill on Urbanspoon

The Chesapeake Room

Location: Eastern Market

Price: $$$$

Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary: A superb showcase of the area’s best seasonal flavors with minor mis-steps in execution 

As the blue crab season winds down, we were glad to have finally made our way to The Chesapeake Room, one of few restaurants we hadn’t sampled on Barrack’s Row. Usually when we’re on 8th St, we have a different restaurant in mind or look at the menu and opt for a cheaper option (there are plenty around). Yet, the open-aired seating at the bar and cozy atmosphere of the back patio complimented the night’s weather so well that we couldn’t resist. In hindsight, we can’t imagine why it took us so long to make the trip.

Before we had even started our dining experience, it was obvious that one of the highlights of The Chesapeake Room was the ambiance. The open air seating was lovely, the deep, atlantic blue walls and rich wood moulding offset by the candles. The atmosphere was casual, but refined. We sat on the patio, complete with ceiling fans and rolling upholstered arm chairs. Our server bent over backwards to find the right bottle of wine to match our first thoughts for entrees and sold us on more than one of our ultimate selections.

Our first order was the Cucumber soup, freshly pureed cucumber with sour cream and parsley. Crisp and light, the soup had a surprisingly full body for that with a cucumber-base. This was thanks in part to the addition of sour cream that also lent some pleasant tang without dominating the cucumber flavor. The aftertaste had a slight spice and brought out a great finish on the soup. If you usually don’t partake in sour cream, we recommend you simply ignore the fact that it’s there and enjoy the combination, only a slight tang from the cream catching on our tongues. Besides enjoying the soup itself, it was refreshing to have a chilled soup that didn’t have a tomato base and reminded us what we loved best about summer.

For our second order, we chose the Cream of crap soup, a creamy mix of lump crab and cayenne pepper. While there wasn’t a large amount of actual crab in the soup, the crustacean’s flavor shown through brightly and what crab we did enjoy was wonderfully delicate. WIth a full body that didn’t weigh down our palate, this was one of the better versions of this classic dish that we have encountered this summer.

With the name Chesapeake Room, we would have been remised not to have ordered the Maryland crab cakes, two cakes of lump crab topped with a small amount of whole grain mustard creme and served with a watercress salad, house slaw and house mac-n-cheese. The crab cakes had little filler and were bound by a a black pepper and mayo combination, allowing the succulent flavor of the  quality crab to boldly shine through without any extras getting in the way. The mustard creme topping the cakes complimented the crab well and thankfully the amount of sauce didn’t drown out the fresh crustacean.  Unfortunately, everything else of the plate seemed like a throw-away after thought, the mac-n-cheese having a grainy texture and very thin body. While we appreciated the attention given to the crab, too often restaurants follow this pattern of serving two crab cakes and leaving you with nothing else on the plate to look forward to.

For our final plate, we decided on the Eastern shore bourbon & honey glazed farmhouse chicken, served with a mix of jasmine rice, sautéed green apples, white raisins, arugula and topped with a honey curry sauce. Served bone-in, the chicken was tender and a joy to eat, the glazing on the skin highlighting the sweetness of the chicken with notes of honey. The honey curry sauce covering the bird seemed like a forced combination and, while the chicken tasted well enough with the it, each aspect of the sauce seemed to compete with each other. The jasmine rice mixed with small pieces of green apple and red onion gave the dish a soft, sweet/tart mixed character that we had seen attempted before, but not successfully executed until now.

The Chesapeake Room prides itself on bringing an organic, sustainable & free range dining experience while bringing to life the natural & fresh taste of each season. Everything we were served whole-heartily supported their boast and, combined with on of the most inviting atmospheres in the area, put it in our minds as one of the better restaurants available on Barracks row. Although some items on the plates could be improved or given more attention, the meal overall sold us on the idea of coming back again before the end of the blue crab season. It may not be the cheapest option on 8th St, but it’s hard to argue that you don’t get your money’s worth.

The Chesapeake Room on Urbanspoon

Top Chef Cooking Class at Asia Nine

As soon as the finale of Bravo’s Top Chef Season 9 aired, we received an email notice from Asia Nine, a Penn Quarter restaurant that we’ve visited many times before for both dinner and happy hour. They were announcing an Asian fusion cooking class with none other than Chef Paul Qui, Executive Chef of Uchiko in Austin TX and the most recent contestant to receive the title “Top Chef”. Along with Paul was Chef Edward Lee, Executive Chef of 610 Magnolia in Louisville KY and fellow contestant on the show (as well as our personal favorite on the season). Asia Nine explained to us that they chose to host this particular event as Asian cuisine, fusion and authentic, have been a rising food trend this year and have been following the careers of both chefs for a while. Before the cooking class began, we were able to talk with chefs Paul Qui and Edward Lee for a few minutes.

We posed that the culture for many young chefs seems to be moving around to different restaurants every few years or less to gain as much experience under as many executive chefs as possible. Our question was whether it was better to pull inspiration from as many restaurants as possible or to find one restaurant that fit a young chef’s style and develop his or her craft there solely. Paul commented that it is important to get different experiences and learn in different kitchens to develop your own craft, but you need to stick with restaurants that fit your style and not just some big named restaurant. Ed added that some people do try to pad their resume by working in so many kitchens or studying under so many famous chefs, but the most critical thing is to find a place that suits you as a chef.

For our next question, we asked if there were any of their competitor’s dishes they saw in their season of Top Chef that they were impressed enough with to put on their own menu. Both of the chefs immediately said “No”, that while everything on the show was great, their menu “is a matter of pride.”

Asked if either of them were fans of the show prior to being chosen for the 9th Season, Ed said that he hadn’t really seen a full season before and usually jumped in half way through. Paul agreed that when the last eight contestants were left would he pick it up, the last seasons he watched were the end of Season 8 All Stars and Season 6 (Las Vegas). When asked if there was a previous season’s challenge he was glad not to have done, Paul couldn’t think of any, but voiced his loathing for the Culinary Olympics (gondola) challenge, however stipulating, “It is what it is. They can do whatever to me. It’s fine.”

When asked how a novice or average person could best start cooking Asian cuisine, Paul cautioned that “Asian cuisine” is such a broad term, styles differing from region to region, and it was best to first find a style that you enjoyed. Ed reminisced on one of the first books he bought as a kid by an old London chef named Kim Hon who wrote “these incredible Chinese cookbooks…still the best cookbooks for Chinese cuisine, which is kind of like the basis of modern Asian cuisine.” As it turns out, the series is unfortunately out of print.

Since on Top Chef a contestant is forced to compete in a wide range of styles and challenges, we wondered if their experiences in the season caused them to afterwards change their styles or menus of their restaurant. Ed said frankly, “I haven’t changed my cuisine because of what happened on Top Chef…Maybe our scope has broadened, but our process for making and producing is that same as it was, a slow and calculated process.” Elaborating on how their own kitchens work, both Paul and Ed added that there are plenty of voices in their kitchen, each sous-chef having a voice and hand in making a dish. “If you have more palates involved,” Paul said, “it’s like a think tank to create a dish.” “Otherwise, it becomes all about your ego,” Ed summarized.

For our final question, we asked if there were any restaurants in the DC area (besides Asia Nine, of course) that either of them preferred or were looking forward to visit while in town. Having grown up in northern Virginia, Paul said that his mom did a lot of gourmet cooking so he never really had a reason to visit that many restaurants in the area. He did add that he just went to Jose Andres’ America Eats Tavern and was a big fan the chef’s Mini Bar. Ed mentioned that he had eaten at Rasika the night before and imagined he would also visit Graffiato by Top Chef alum Michael Isabella.

As the chefs took to the instruction table in front of the then seated crowd of 110 eager onlookers, Ed announced that he would demonstrate how to prepare Quick Fried Squid and Bacon Salad with Ginger-Apple Zest. Cooking first the bacon, crisping the meat and rendering out most of the fat, he removed the bacon and quickly added the squid. Ed cautioned to only use fresh squid (the man-hole was used in this instance) and that many people screw up dishes with squid because they cook it for too long, producing a protein with the texture of a garden hose. The squid was sautéed quickly, the chef adding soy sauce, lemon, and pepper, and then instructing that the once the ingredients are add the squid is pretty much done already. The bacon and squid combination was added to a bowl of watercress before the addition of a spoonful of fresh Tahini (sesame paste) vinaigrette the chef had also prepared. Finally, Ed grated fresh ginger and a Ganny Smith apple on top of the dish, mentioning how this ginger/apple combination was great on almost anything, especially seafood. As we are served Asia Nine’s duplication of the chef’s dish, we had to agree that the apple & ginger gave the dish a fantastic cool, acidic taste. The smooth Tahiti sauce worked seamlessly with the squid, complimenting the seafood taste perfectly. The crumbled bacon gave savory taste of fat and a nice contrasting crunch to the soft texture of the squid.

Next up was Chef Paul’s Green Curry Mussels with Spiced Potato Chips and Basil. As he heated a pan and drops green curry and white miso pastes in vegetable oil, the smell of the curry blooming spread through the restaurant like a thick cloud, causing many in the audience to both cough and laugh. Paul added that some people have tried to have him cook with their family’s own curry and the scent usually much more potent. Garlic, shallots, ginger, and large cuts of lemongrass were added and sweated until they’re translucent. Cleaned mussels were then dropped in, coated in the curry mixture and steamed to open after the addition of some white wine. After they open, Paul mixed in some coconut milk and Kaffir lime leaves and simmered. Finally, mentioning that he liked to finish many of his dishes with some sort of fresh citrus, Paul squeezed fresh lime juice over the pan. The mussels and sauce was transferred to a bowl and garnished with potato chips and basil leaves. Although he prefers to use freshly made chips, Paul mentioned that Lays will substitute if you don’t have the time. The curry flavors we tasted in our dish went fantastically with the mussels, the coconut milk elevating what is usually just a broth to a sauce we eagerly scooped up with leftover mussel shells. After given a moment to soak in the same sauce, the basil leaves added a great herb twist.

While it was not demonstrated on stage, our third course was Asia Nine’s own Spiced braised short ribs, a great cut of beef oven cooked with a Panang curry mixture, lemongrass and stock. With only a small nudge from our knife and fork, the meat effortlessly separated from the bone. The short rib was superb, tender and juicy. While the curry sauce that surrounded the beef as it cooked tastes great in its own right, the heavy-handed flavors seemed to cover up the savoriness of the short rib instead of complimenting it. Although each of the dishes we enjoyed were paired with a wine, we have to applaud Asia Nine  for the California red blend chosen to match up with this final course, the Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot ensemble by far the best compliment to a dish in our meal.

As the other guest and we finished up our final course, Paul and Ed both returned to the demonstration table to field some questions from the audience. What has changed for them since the end of Top Chef? Less time in their kitchens and many more photo-ops. What was their worst/most difficult challenge? Setting up a restaurant in 5 hours for Restaurant Wars right after an all night BBQ challenge. Best hangover food? Fried chicken. Both of the chefs were in good spirits and took time for pictures afterwards with many of the fans in the crowd. They were great presenters and the dishes that Asia Nine’s kitchen reproduced were fantastic. The entire event was well executed and made us eager to see what the restaurant had planned for the rest of the year. Being in the presence of such great chefs encouraged us to expand our own cooking repertoire and pay closer attention to genuine culinary leaders like Ed and Paul beyond what we see on TV.

For a look at Asia Nine’s prepared chef profiles and the event’s recipes, check out Asia Nine Top Chef Cooking Class Info.