Crimson

My interest in Crimson was twofold: first, their whiskey lounge had been recommended by the bartenders at a different whiskey lounge. Second, I had a coupon passport that entitled me to a free whiskey with the purchase of another whiskey. So, whiskey. The diner was just an added bonus, and a weird concept.

The diner on the ground floor was, in fact, nearly empty when we came in, even though it was 7:45 on a Friday. Maybe Crimson diner gets busier with the brunch crowd, or maybe this is just a really strange combination of restaurants. Personally, I don’t think of drinking fancy cocktails while I’m ordering eggs benedict, but you do you, people.

Our server talked us into the fried green tomatoes, and we also ordered a plate of their deviled eggs to share. The fried green tomatoes were excellent, and prepared me for a great meal, though admittedly, most of their awesomeness was derived from the spicy mayo and crumbly cheese on top. The deviled eggs were made with pickled eggs, which I like as a general concept, but it didn’t really add anything. No issues with them, though.

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Crimson’s menu is, in a word, overwhelming. I was actually stressed out looking at this. Breakfast? Dinner? Small plates? Entrees? Burgers? There are just too many options here.

Among other dishes at our table were my rainbow trout, which I settled on after about twenty minutes of agonizing over the decision, my husband’s monte cristo, and my mother-in-law’s fried chicken sandwich.

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The trout was a big, full-sized platter; so big that I barely ate half. The fish was cooked well, the potatoes were nicely crisp and the carrots were soft. The whole thing was drowning in caper butter, which sounds delicious but honestly felt a little lazy. Everything tastes good when it’s covered in butter and this was at least half a stick of it.

The fried chicken sandwich was excellent. The chicken was moist on the inside, super crunchy on the outside, the bun had a subtle sweetness, and the whole thing was great with the tartness from their house pickles. Although it normally comes with chips or fries, Crimson was happy to oblige a side salad, which would have been great if it weren’t the most stupid and uselessly composed salad of all time (my husband, who also ordered a side salad, ate his lettuce rolled up with his hands like you might imagine Ariel would do in The Little Mermaid, if Eric had served her salad).

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Here’s a monte cristo. It was delicious, was made better by the addition of currant jelly, and came with another stupid salad. No major complaints, but also no great praise. If you can put ham on bread and operate a griddle, you could make this at home. You’d probably also make a more eater-friendly salad.

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My mother-in-law is a sucker for milkshakes, and totally deserved an alcoholic one after a really long work week. Similar to Ari’s Diner, Crimson’s selection of flavors is nothing extraordinary. They were willing to make a small concession in trading vanilla for chocolate ice cream in their coffee-themed shake. The result was okay. This is no Ted’s Bulletin shake, let’s just say that.

After dinner, we went downstairs to check out this famed whiskey lounge. The music-thumping, dimly-lit, leather-clad downstairs bears no resemblance to the old-school diner vibe of upstairs. They had a not extremely large selection of whiskeys, but it was nothing to sneeze at either, and they had some interesting stuff from places, like California and Colorado. Remember that passport coupon I had? It entitled the bearer to a buy-one-get-one on “any whiskey $15 or under,” which is basically like Maserati advertising a sale on economy compacts. I understand that whiskey ain’t cheap, but come on, Crimson. Try to write a coupon that’s a little less dripping with douchiness.

Price: $35 per person.

Bottom line: Crimson tries hard to be Ted’s Bulletin but comes up short. The food was alright diner food with a hefty price tag (update: and more expensive than Ted’s!) The whiskey lounge downstairs is worth checking out if you have a group too big to fit inside Copycat, or just happen to be hanging out in Chinatown.

Old City Market and Oven

When I made my “to-eat” list for the summer, I called Old City Market and Oven “The Place Near Whole Foods” because I can’t possibly be expected to remember this long of a restaurant name despite the fact that I drive past it once a week and every time I do drive past it, I think “Huh. I should really remember the name of that place so I can go eat there.” I had to do a thorough scouring of google maps to find the right place. After a long day to cap off a long weekend, I was thrilled to see that Old City Market would deliver food to me for the low low delivery charge of $5.99. Fortunately for them, my laziness won out over my cheapskatiness on this one occasion only.

Their menu is long and varied and I thought all was lost when I couldn’t narrow down my selection past the final two dinner contenders. But then my husband said, “You choose for me. You know what I like.” Have more beautiful words ever been spoken? A more selfish wife might have ordered herself two sandwiches with little thought for her spouse. A more selfish wife could have ordered the roast salmon sandwich she kind of wanted.

I ordered the summer corn salad as a side. It sounded pretty standard but I was starving and they’re a little lacking in side dishes. For my first sandwich–I mean, my husband’s sandwich, of course–I got the skewer chicken sandwich, and for myself I ordered the pear and chorizo panini.

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The corn salad was refreshing, I can’t lie. Red bell peppers and cilantro made it stand out. It was a good-size portion too, but it was nothing super innovative.

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The skewered chicken flatbread was solid. The chicken pieces were moist and lightly spiced, tzatziki and feta are always winners, and the addition of artichoke hearts was mildly interesting. The flatbread itself felt fresh and homemade, with a texture somewhere between a flour tortilla and naan. 10/10 would eat again.

Now we come to my panini: it doesn’t look like much, and it wasn’t exactly what I expected, but damn it was tasty. Crispy multigrain bread held up only okay to the addition of fig jam and chorizo grease, but it had a nice texture. The pears inside were ripe and plentiful–maybe too plentiful as they kind of overwhelmed the meat. The jam was pretty sweet too. The chorizo, while not being the whole sausage I was expecting but rather thinly-sliced cured meat, was still delicious and mildly spicy. My only other commentary was that provolone was way too mild of a cheese to stand up to the other bold flavors in this. Stinky brie or bust. But for real, I wolfed this down and not just because I was hungry; it was actually really good.

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Price: $12 per person.

Bottom line: You want some fresh, semi-creative, and reasonably-priced noms near H Street? You could probably make all this food yourself but why? They deliver.

The Eleanor

The Eleanor takes up the first floor of one of the many ugly high-rise apartment buildings in NoMa and used to be a restaurant called Union Social. Union Social died and I said “good riddance” without even trying it. I didn’t even need to go there to know it was overpriced, generic TGI Fridays nonsense.

The Eleanor is owned by the same people as Bar Elena on H Street. This should have been my first clue. They’ve turned it into a two-lane mini bowling alley/adult arcade/tiny facsimile of Dave and Buster’s. A sign on the outside admonishes children that their presence will not be tolerated without their parents. I like bowling! I like pinball! I’m fun! Most importantly, I don’t want to be reminded that teenagers exist when I’m on summer vacation! This is my kind of place.

Their tap list is pretty nice and included solid beers from near and far, including three sours. Cocktails looked good too, and I ordered a Rosa de Jamaica. We also nabbed an order of their hushpuppies, which are served elote loco-style. They were pretty okay. Hushpuppies are more my mother-in-law’s jam. They were barely moist with lots of your stereotypical powdery parmesan cheese and some (but not enough) spicy mayo. Hushpuppies are so dippable, I don’t know why they didn’t include a dipping sauce.

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Everyone at the table received their drinks and hushpuppies and then we waited basically forever while our waitresses (PLURAL!) helped the other, like, four tables that were occupied. We had menus down. We were just talking. I was making decidedly un-casual glarey eye contact with them. I understand slow service if you’re busy, but they weren’t. Finally, we managed to summon them via Jedi mind tricks and were able to order. Here’s the only preliminary you need to know about our overall order: my husband made a big deal about ordering the chicken sandwich with fried chicken (an option that appears on the menu) and with cheddar instead of American cheese. Why is American cheese even an option at a fine dining establishment? This is not McDonald’s. A better question yet would be Why is American cheese even a thing? Four year-old me could tell that that shit is disgusting and only vaguely cheese-esque. Is this the new status quo in Trump’s America? I don’t know about you, but processed cheese product is not how I want my country represented. Alright, you got it? Fried with cheddar.

Here’s the M. Night Shyamalan plot twist: the chicken sandwich arrived and it was not fried and it had American “cheese.” Bet you didn’t see that coming! Besides the mix-up, it  was lame. The Eleanor uses chicken thigh for all their chicken needs, a bold move in our low-fat boneless breast-loving culture. I love dark meat chicken. But not when it’s full of gristle, as this was. Come on, guys. Lettuce, red onion. This sandwich was basic.

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Also pictured here is my father-in-law’s spaghetti sandwich. What fresh hell is this? I think a carb-happy kindergartner may have conceptualized this meal. Worse yet: every part of this was store-bought, down to the spaghetti. My father-in-law said it best with “everything on here just tastes old.”

I ordered the tomato and kimchi salad with an addition of smoked salmon. The salmon was good, but, once again, definitely store-bought. The tomatoes were fresh too, I guess. But this was not a dinner-sized salad, nor was it even cohesive. Tomato and [a tiny amount of] kimchi is not a stretch, but then there were a bunch of pita chips topping it, like flat croutons. Except you can’t even use a fork to eat pita chips. It’s literally impossible. I just ended up pushing them to to the side because they weren’t even good.

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My mother-in-law had the lobster roll and loved it. Her appreciation for her sandwich was partly a function of her forgiving and enthusiastic nature, but I have to admit that it was the best meal in our group. The lobster was tender, it had a good ratio of mayo to meat, and the bread was an appropriate medium for the food (in contrast to spaghetti, which does not require additional bread). Then we waited about twenty more minutes for the check.

“This was so good!” chirped my mother-in-law in her usual, very kind and generous way.

“NO,” said the rest of us.

Price: $30 per person.

Bottom line: I hope one day the curse will be lifted and this location can finally have a decent restaurant. Until that time, don’t let the bowling gimmick cloud your perception of an otherwise blah eatery.

Jackie Lee’s

Tipped off by a friend about the burgeoning Kennedy Street/Manor Park/Super-Sketchville food scene, we ventured out tonight to Jackie Lee’s. A quick note: when anyone talks about the burgeoning Kennedy Street food scene, what they mean is “we have one restaurant that isn’t a front for a money laundering scheme!” That one restaurant is Jackie Lee’s.

Walking up, I felt like we were about to check out Freddy’s place in House of Cards. If anyone dares challenge me on my assessment of Kennedy Street, tell me one other restaurant that is even open. Exactly. But walking in, the vibe definitely changed. Was it divey? Yes, but in a manufactured way. It was dark and vaguely smokey-smelling. A vending machine at the back was selling candy bars but giving away condoms for free. We were the only people in there without nose rings. White hipster parents bounced babies on their laps.

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We sat at the bar and ordered a couple of drinks. I got the Sweet and Spicy rickey because it was a very reasonable price. They have no beer taps but a huge bottle list that includes some actually good beers. My cocktail was everything I hoped: nothing super fancy, but solid, strong, and spicy.

We ordered some barbecue from the food menu. I had the smoked turkey with collard greens and some hush puppies to share. My husband got the brisket (no big surprise) and coleslaw.

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Hush puppies: crispy and sweet, and not overly greasy. They served them with spicy mayo that was not really spicy. The turkey was incredibly moist and very, very smokey. I don’t know how they got it this smokey. It was maybe slightly over-salted but I am willing to overlook that. The collards were tender and juicy.

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Pulled brisket is not the best way to eat brisket, but this was still solid. Very moist, but somehow blander than the turkey. The coleslaw was really crispy and peppery. When we finished these, we were still hungry. So we had to hang our heads in shame as we ordered yet another meat/side combination (this time the pork with a single corn muffin). Yet again, the pork was second to the turkey, but still moist and flavorful. The corn muffin was incredibly sweet. Jackie Lee’s gives only one barbecue sauce with their meals–a very molasses-y tomato-based sauce that paired well with everything but was not unique (nor, I’m guessing, house-made).

Price: $25 per person.

Bottom line: Not life-changing barbecue by any means, but still pretty good! I would come here again for a cheap, easy, solid meal and drinks of a similar nature. Just make sure you order more than one meat and one side; they’re smaller than you think!

JoJo

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JoJo was yet another pick by my father-in-law, whose qualifications for choosing restaurants include “Does this place have whiskey?” and not much else. Fun fact: JoJo does! It also has live jazz!

Sadly, we were seated away from the jazz, upstairs in a cozy booth. Even with reservations, we didn’t get here early enough to get their prime music-viewing seats. After some deliberation (and a too-short beer draft list), three of us decided to split a bottle of Malbec, and I ordered the A Train cocktail (aka Manhattan with a related name). I was satisfied with everything: my cocktail was very strong, and the wine was tasty.

I had a hard time choosing food, not because the menu was so extensive (it was!) but more because I was stumped when it came to their classic food. Being at JoJo made me feel like Betty Draper in Mad Men or something; the cuisine was all out of some 1950’s fancy restaurant playbook. Steak, herbed chicken, wilted spinach, that kind of thing. Part of me really wanted one of their salmon dishes, but the other part of me kept nagging that I cook salmon all the time at home. I eventually settled on the blackened chicken with shrimp.

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I’ll be honest. Was this chicken-veggie-rice combo fairly standard and basic? Totally. But damn if it wasn’t tasty. The vegetables were varied and roasted perfectly. The shrimp were coated in a sweet mustard sauce. The chicken was moist and had the right amount of seasoning. Even the rice was surprisingly okay. I could have cooked this dish at home, but it wouldn’t have tasted this perfect.

My in-laws were up next with the lobster ravioli and the steak in bourbon sauce. Once again, it was pretty good ravioli, but elevated just a little. The vodka sauce it came in was rich and interesting. The steak was cooked a beautiful medium-rare. My father-in-law had ordered medium but I assume the chef thought that would be an affront to all steak everywhere (it is) and decided to cook it to his or her own specification instead. I appreciate that level of decisiveness. The bourbon sauce was rich and alcohol-y.

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My husband had the Triple B burger, which is really just a normal burger with remoulade (read: mayonnaise). It was cooked to specification and had ample meat and toppings. The shoestring fries were also quite tasty, although the whole thing was very classic again.

Price: $40 per person.

Bottom line: At JoJo, you pay a premium for cool live music. Prices are high but not outlandish, and the food is unimaginative but executed well. Like your grandma’s house, but with Manhattans, reasonable portions, and a stand-up bass.

Ivy City Smokehouse

I was not expecting much when we walked up. I’d checked out the menu online and waffled about coming here. I’m a barbecue purist, and when I saw that their back room is set up as a club, I got skeptical. It sounded like a set-up for one of Stefan’s club recommendations on SNL: “If you’re looking to combine loud hip hop and lox, look no further than the Smokehouse club across from Fish Pro Wholesale…”

They quickly redeemed themselves by seating us on the gorgeous roof deck and we were met with probably too many good options. Fortunately, I narrowed it down by deciding to try only house-smoked foods. But first–drinks!

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Despite being served in plastic (an unforgivable offense given that this is not a frat party), my cucumber mojito was a perfect, refreshing mix of flavors and still liquor-y enough. It was everything you would want when you’re drinking something on the roof of a building on a Friday evening. The draft beers are 12 ounces but at $5-6 each, still a deal in DC.

For the appetizer, we ended up with the salmon candy board, one of the five options of house-smoked fish. I couldn’t be happier with this. The fish itself was sweet and smoky without being overpowering, although it didn’t pack the spicy punch I was promised. The chive cream cheese was perfect. Even the tartar sauce, usually my worst seafood nemesis, was inoffensive.

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For my meal, I had the mixed greens salad and paid a whopping $9 to add house-smoked rainbow trout. Now, I love salad, and I will pay $20 for a dinner salad while feeling only a little stupid about it, but you gotta deliver.

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And deliver they did. They had me at candied walnuts and pickled onion. Not only was the salad itself interesting, they did not cut corners in adding this fish which was only slightly less delicious than the salmon we had in the appetizer. It was smoky without being too dry, and definitely not over-salted. As you can see, there is basically an entire fish on here. I was extremely satisfied after eating this.

Now, on to the more important story, and for this we have to backtrack about five years. My husband once went on a business trip to New Orleans, and on his way to the airport he stopped in to a Jewish deli and ordered a Reuben. Now, if you’re like me (aka a normal person), you don’t exactly associate New Orleans with good Jewish delis, but that Reuben became the stuff of legends. Also, personally, I can’t even remember what I ate last week, let alone five years ago. I think it may be time to let go. For years he tried in vain to find an equivalent sandwich in DC (and in Chicago at an actual Jewish deli!) and was so let down that he eventually gave up and moped around. After much argument and pleading, I convinced him to try Ivy City Smokehouse’s Reuben-style pastrami sandwich. It was smoky, it was piled with meat, the bread was buttery, and it had Swiss cheese dripping off of it. And after polishing it off, my husband declared it both “the best Reuben in DC” and “the best Reuben I’ve had besides that one in New Orleans.” Here it is, in all its glory:

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Oh yeah, the fries and slaw were pretty good too. Just get this sandwich.

Service was a little slow, but you’re sitting on a roof deck, so what’s the hurry?

Price: $40 per person.

Bottom line: Ivy City Smokehouse’s unique and delicious offerings of all kinds easily earn it a place at the top of my Favorites list.

Halfsmoke

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When I checked out their menu, Halfsmoke looked like essentially Chipotle with hotdogs. So basically, a perfect place for my husband’s grandmother. I was really confused about why a Chipotle knockoff would take reservations, and I felt like a total dumbass making said reservations, but when we arrived, Halfsmoke turned out to be so much more than just Chipotle and more than just sausages. They were also…

Trapper Keepers! Yes, Halfsmoke organizes their menu in actual old-school Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers. The unicorns and rainbows were super appropriate too, because it turns out that Halfsmoke exists in some fairy dreamworld where leprechauns deliver housemade bratwursts and cocktails only cost $5.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the drinks. Let’s just say they have craft beer and decent house cocktails and I have literally never paid so little money for a drink in my entire life and happy hour runs until 8 oh my god.

Halfsmoke is really only Chipotle-esque in the sense that you pick a format (rice, salad, sandwich, or flatbread), a sausage, and fixins. They have a few pre-designed recommendations, but nahhh. The four of us (grandma didn’t show up, that ingrate!) each ordered our food in a different format. I ordered a salad with the lamb merguez, broccoli rabe, roasted red peppers, spiced eggplant, and tahini dressing. I hate eggplant and I ordered it as a test, because sometimes it’s really good and sometimes it tastes like eating a shoe. Impress me, Halfsmoke. I dare you.

My husband got a flatbread with mumbo sauce, smothered onions, a halfsmoke, and beer cheese. I don’t even know what to say about this combination of foods except that this man is very lucky to have me to cook for him. Moving on… my father-in-law had a rice bowl with halfsmoke, mustard slaw, crispy onions, and honey mustard sauce. My mother-in-law, true to form, had a large piece of bread that happened to come with bratwurst, bacon, and crispy onions.

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I have many good things to say about all of these dishes. First, the sausages were just really good. All of them. Next, the eggplant test worked! This eggplant was tender, spicy, and savory, possibly even the best I’ve ever had. The lamb was the perfect protein for this dish. I wish I could have had crispy onions on mine too because these were delicious from the other dishes I tried around the table. The mustard slaw had a powerful flavor without being too much. The roll that the sandwiches come on was seriously good. I know some sandwich places that could learn a thing or two here. The flatbread was a light, crispy texture that my husband unfortunately destroyed with a mountain of bad decisions. Mumbo sauce is great and classic DC, but don’t hold out hope for making it your pizza sauce. He did finish the flatbread though, so I’m not sure if this reflects well on Halfsmoke or very, VERY poorly on my spouse. Somebody please save this man from himself.

I’ve never seen my mother-in-law more excited about anything than she was about the prospect of homemade funnel cake. And even though Halfsmoke doesn’t exactly advertise alcoholic milkshakes, they are a distinct possibility, what with regular milkshakes and happy hour-priced liquor. So my husband also got a vanilla milkshake with Maker’s Mark, like the real grownup he is.

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I have only a few suggestions for improvement. First, more ice cream flavors and a mixologist dedicated to adult milk shakes. Second, I know I joked about leprechauns before, but actual leprechauns or maybe fairy godmothers might be nice. Finally, they need someone in the kitchen to safeguard against the ungodly combination of mumbo sauce and beer cheese, like a kitchen bouncer. And when the kitchen bouncer hears a terrible flavor mixture, he can come over to whoever ordered that and flip the table over or something. Mr. T might be a good candidate for this job. So it sounds like Halfsmoke has some hiring to do. Chop chop!

Price: $20 per person.

Bottom line: You can get a fantastic meal and a great cocktail at Halfsmoke for less than a mass-produced Chipotle burrito, so what are you even doing with your life?