All posts by Chef Mateo

Just a man in pursuit of all things delicious. Eat and Drink life!

March For Our Lives

Over a decade ago, the last time I was in the nation’s capitol, I took a couple of days to take part two of the foreign service exam. I had been teaching for over a decade, and was looking for a different challenge.

I just missed passing by two tenths of a point. Had I passed, who knows how I would feel now working for the current administration. Failing that test closed a door, but opened up a path to move to another industry. I assessed my skills and interests, and the intersection pointed towards a career in food and wine. My whole life I have been experiencing new places through food and culture, and figured that this was an obvious calling.

I must have been so preoccupied with the exam test results that I failed to plan a proper exploration of the food scene while in DC. In fairness, I didn’t plan too much time in town, and didn’t have the urge to celebrate nor drink my disappointment away.

When the opportunity to spend a weekend in DC came up, I was anxious to fill in the blanks and see what DC was all about, and check out a few monuments and historical buildings along the way.

A bonus in the timing of the trip was the blooming of cherry blossoms, which DC has in abundance.

What I hadn’t planned on was another senseless fatal shooting, the Parkland tragedy, and the simultaneous scheduling of the March for Our Lives demonstration.

My first thought was that DC would be too crowded and difficult to get around due to the planned march. When I returned to my senses, I realized it was an opportunity to be part of the solution, and with enough advanced planning, would be able to eat and drink too.

Of course it snowed on Wednesday and Thursday, causing the airport to shut down service. Undeterred, I switched the flight to Friday and stayed through to late Monday instead.

The first place my wife and I visited was Chercher, a casual Ethiopian spot, that for under twenty bucks, put out a veggie plate for two that we could barely finish. Extra servings of the spongy injera bread were necessary.

We hit the museums and monuments running, worried that it would be difficult on Saturday due to the crowds and blocked streets for the march.

I scored tickets for the African American Museum, (offered on line at 6:30 am every weekday) and was overwhelmed by the content and interactive media. The experience is intense. So much to se, feel, and learn. It requires patience, focus, and planning. This is a must visit several times over. We were still too stuffed to eat at the soul food café in the museum. I would like to return just to sample the goods.

Time for cocktails, so first up, The Sheppard, near Federal Circle, a classic looking speakeasy, velvety and quiet, with happy hour drinks that hit the spot. We ended up at All Purpose, a new pizza joint near the hotel. We shared a bottle of Etna Bianco. Wine list was short, but well curated. And we really appreciated the classic Italian Rainbow Cookie. Pizza was good, but I regret not having gone to a more ethnic place, which is what DC is known for.

The March was well organized and well attended. We were unable to get close to the stage, but used the Smithsonian Art Gallery to witness much of the rally. The windows were situated just outside the main stage. It was a perfect vantage point with fewer than a dozen people. After several speeches and performances, we felt the collective energy of progress through peaceful protest. So many Americans do care about the controversial issue of gun control. Hopefully change is a coming.

Using the metro to get around, we headed to Florida Avenue Grill, an old soul food establishment that did not disappoint. History meets people meets great soul food. The fried chicken was proper. Mac-n-cheese, candied yams, pancakes, and scrapple were also on point. Finished with a sweet potato pie and sweet tea so sweet my eyes filled with sugar crystals. The only miss was the biscuit, which just wasn’t up to the standard of the rest of the food. It is always nice to dine in history.

Over on U street there are a great many bars and youthful energy. After a little shopping, we hit the tiki lounge Archipelago first, which satisfied my umbrella portion of the program. Then we found Service Bar, a fried chicken cocktail concept that serves up a mean happy hour for seven dollar drinks. Great hip hop and a what the cluck deal, a bucket of fried chicken and a bottle of Krug for $250. When I am rolling in it in the future, I am definitely returning for that special.

For dinner we chose Maydan, a new Mediterranean restaurant with open hearth and loud music, that seemed even more popular as a bar. We sampled lamb kebabs and lebneh, hummus, carrots and eggplant. Items from the open hearth were charred and smoky and best. The pita was passable, but not on the same level. The wine list lacked imagination and was disappointing.

We met a relative for Sunday brunch at the Federalist Pig, a utopia for barbecue, with a proud, efficient staff serving very good barbecue. The pulled pork and brisket were excellent, and the brussel sprouts and mac-n-cheese also good.

Sunday night we headed over to Thip Khao, a Laotian restaurant that specializes in very specific regional cooking resulting in an acid driven, spicy, tasty combination of flavors.

Grilled chicken hearts in lime, fermented chili fish sauce pig ears with tamarind salt are just some of the standouts. The laab salad is a perfect blend of galangal, chili, cilantro, mint and other spices dancing a happy jig. It was too warm out for the soup, but every table around us seemed to be enjoying it. The aromatics alone almost changed our strategy. There are curries and goat stews, fermented fried rices and pork bellies, catfish and sesame jerky. This is a to be continued DC resto for us.

It turns out that on Mondays, many of DC’s finest are closed for lunch. We respect that, but here is where we would have been better off flying in on a Thursday instead.

Luckily for us, a surprisingly great lunch was served up by Duke’s, near Federal Circle. Duke’s came to the rescue.  Duke’s is just a great little café that puts a lot of thought into their menu, both wine, beer and food. The kind of place I wish we had back home on the Upper West Side. Some of the items on hand for a Monday were elote style local corn, a luxurious acorn squash soup, braised oxtail mash, truffle mac-n-cheese – it is too difficult not to want to skip the flight, stay the day and eat. The sandwich section alone would keep me as a regular most days. The vibe was chill, with Prince on the airwaves and daytime happy hour to boot. Nice sendoff for us indeed. Thank you Duke’s.

A quick meringue at Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, and off to Regan Airport via metro, quite seamless really.

We left DC reflecting on the rights of Americans to peacefully protest for change. DC seemed to be well integrated with like- minded people who care about their community and the nation at large, a place for many immigrants to settle down and showcase their culinary best. The cherry blossoms were blooming at the right time for the march. You could find them all over town, reminding us of the beauty and fragility of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basquiat to Bowie

Untitled, one of Basquiat’s major works from 1982, sold for 110 million dollars, is on display at the Brooklyn Museum .  It is a singular masterpiece, the kind one can spend a couple of hours in front of, and is a bonus if you are lucky enough to score tickets for the Bowie retrospective.

Trains to Brooklyn pose a challenge on weekends, but there are copious rewards at the end of the tunnel.

Hit up MeMe’s Diner for a filling brunch.  Start with the bagel babka and eggs with chili oil. After the show, walk over to the Brooklyn Library to score a slice of Salted Honey pie from Four and Twenty Blackbirds, sold in ready to go containers from the small cafe.  Head over to Barboncino for some reasonably priced Neopolitan style pizza, or Glady’s for some Caribbean jerk or curried goat and drink specials.

Snag a seat at the long bar at Tooker Hall.  Proper cocktails with friendly bartenders, who also provide skilled, balanced libations.

Leave with an image of SAMO.

 

 

A Persian New Year’s Feast

The most famous feast day in March is St. Patrick’s day, but not so for the people of Persia. The vernal equinox occurs precisely at the moment the sun crosses the equator on March, 20, 21, or 22. In harmony with the rebirth of nature, the Iranian New Year’s celebration, or Aide Noruz, always begins on the first day of spring. The tradition of welcoming in the New Year is a time honored custom in almost every culture. Washing away the old, and bringing in new hopes, wishes and luck is universal.For the past couple of years I have been invited to the Gordon household in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey to participate in their Persian New Year’s celebration. Mrs. Gordon was raised in Iran in the 1940’s and continues the tradition today for her family. One of the most important components of the holiday is the significance of the food that is prepared.

To prepare for the New Year, Iranians engage in a thorough Spring cleaning. Many households make new clothes, bake pastries, and germinate seeds as a sign of renewal. Hadji Firuz (troubadours) travel from house to house spreading good cheer and announcing the New Year.

Normally the festivities span thirteen days after the equinox, but the Gordons have adapted the duration to fit their schedules. During the first few days, the younger members of the family visit their older relatives and friends as a sign of respect. These visits are filled with sweet pastries and frosty drinks. On the thirteenth day of Noruz (sizdeh bedar) entire families leave their homes to attend picnics near a stream or river. Sprouts are then thrown into the water bringing an end to one year and bracing for the new year. Last year the Gordons visited relatives near the Potomac River and tossed sprouts as part of the ritual.

Traditionally, sofreh-ye-haft-sinn (a ceremonial cloth) is set on the carpet or table where seven dishes are displayed symbolizing the seven angelic heralds of life: health, happiness, posterity, joy, patience, rebirth, and beauty.

“Noruz is not a religious holiday. Many Iranians are Zoroastrian. When the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he ordered everyone to place the Koran on every table. The citizens were outraged. He tried to cancel the ceremony altogether. Not even the Ayatollah could match the will of the people,” Mrs. Gordon proudly tells. In its place, a copy of the 50 poems by the famous Persian poet Hafiz is displayed on the cloth.

The number seven has been sacred in Iran since ancient times. The seven dishes consist of sabzeh (sprouts), samanu (a pudding of wheat sprouts), sib (apple), senjed (lotus tree fruit), seer (garlic), somaq (sumac berries), and serkeh (vinegar). These ingredients represent the original basics of Persian cuisine.

Mrs. Gordon prepares the traditional menu of several dishes which are actually served on New Year’s Day. An abundance of small appetizers are laid out on the table to arouse hunger. There’s dolmeh barg (stuffed grape leaves) and nazkhatun (eggplant caviar) nestled next to mast va khiar (yogurt with cucumbers).

She begins the meal with a sumptuous noodle soup (ashe-reshte). The noodles are made fresh and are tied in special knots. Eating them helps unravel life’s problems. This is followed by a serving of nane lavesh (thin flat bread), panir (feta-like cheese), and fresh herbs, to be nibbled for prosperity’s sake. A main course of rice with fresh herbs and fish (sabzi polow ba mahi) is then brought in signifying life and rebirth. Kukuye sabzi is a favorite of all Persians. It is a vegetable casserole supreme, consisting of leeks, spinach, herbs and onions, all tossed with eggs and baked until crisp and brown. The Herb Kuku this year gets an eggplant twist, a mash with garlic, onion rings, and eggs.

This Noruz, Mrs. Gordon is shaking things up a bit by adding khoreshte gormeh sabzi ba polow (green herb stew with pilaf) to the mix. This is a hearty beef stew with sautéed chives, foengreek, scallions, spinach, parsley, and onion together simmered in a broth flavored with turmeric, cinnamon, and dried limes.

Then there is a mad dash for the tadik or sticky part of the rice. The bottom boasts a crispy, nutty flavor and texture, and is the cause of many a family fight.

The preparation of dessert begins two weeks before Noruz is well worth the effort. Homemade baglava and Persian cardamon cookies such as nune shekari (sugar) and badam choragi (almond) and halva provide a sweet-filled ending to the meal. A spice cake and non-traditional flan is also added for variety. Miveh (fruit in season) is offered for the weary tooth as well.

“The secret of the baglava lies in the thinness of the dough,” writes Maideh Mazda, aunt and recipe source to Mrs. Gordon and author of In a Persian Kitchen.

On a full stomach, I realize Noruz will be my third New Year’s  (Jan. 1st, & Chinese). As to the cycles of life, I believe that each individual’s birthday is the mark of the true new year, or personal rebirth and celebration. It’s a day to reflect on the past year, start anew, and make plans for the future. Perhaps that’s why people feel so special on their birthdays. As for Noruz, eat and drink life.

The old adage goes, “Good thought, good word, good deed – to the year end, happy indeed.”

A Little Bit Country and a Little Bit Rock-n-Roll

If you are looking for a city enjoying a renaissance, where there is music everywhere and the bar and dining scene rising, look no further than Nashville, Tennessee.

Over 100 people are moving to Nashville every day, average age of 29 years old, according to the locals I met in many bars while sipping Tennessee whiskey.

And you can feel the youthful, millennial energy in the air. Pedi-taverns parading up and down Broadway, honky tonks like Tootsies, Robert’s and Layla, Acme feed and seed, and legions of bachelorette parties snaking in like a party train into every bar with a musical pulse.

You can experience and sense the pride in the cocktail parlors like Old Glory, a converted laundry factory, or Patterson House, and old standby.

Continue reading A Little Bit Country and a Little Bit Rock-n-Roll

Happy Anniversary Pata Negra, the little Jamon bar that could…

On February 8th 2017, Pata Negra turns nine Years old.

Due to the ever changing Real Estate Market of New York City, specifically the East Village, I have been reflecting over the last near decade of restaurant landscape volatility.

If I were to throw a dart in the air, I would guess that over 100 businesses have come and gone since 2008, the year I opened Pata Negra. I assure you this is an under estimation. There are still over 50 closed storefronts with “for rent” signs and I am only referring to a ten block radius around 12th street and 1st avenue.

The question is why? Continue reading Happy Anniversary Pata Negra, the little Jamon bar that could…