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.

Ruta del Vino

I was panicked on our too-long rush-hour drive to Ruta del Vino in Petworth. I knew the place was small and refused to take reservations. There were five of us. I really didn’t want to be driving all over town on a Friday night without a clear plan. I did a tuck and roll out of my father-in-law’s car and burst through the door like someone about to object at a wedding to find…a basically empty restaurant.

Now, I feel kind of stupid admitting this, but not one of us drank a drop of wine at this wine bar. How Ruta del Vino can make a profit on $5 happy hour margaritas (or how they managed to be this empty with $5 happy hour margaritas) is totally beyond me, but we took full advantage of that deal. We took so much advantage of that deal that my husband spilled his second one all over me and was immediately brought a third one. The margaritas were great.

Most of us decided to go the share-plates route and we–I mean, I–picked out a few things to try. Let’s get down to business here.

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The first round included the grilled cheese (bottom) which I didn’t try despite my mother-in-law’s pleas. The beet salad (top left) was big enough for four of us to share, and the sweet beets were complemented by tart pineapple and salty cheese, with plenty of greens and cilantro. It tasted so fresh, and I can’t wait to recreate this at home. The empanadas (top right) were stuffed with kale, nuts, pumpkin, and raisins, and the pastry was deliciously flaky, but I feel like the stuffing could have used more sweetness or spice.

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Next came our two seafood dishes: the grilled octopus and chorizo and the tiradito del dia. The octopus was cooked to perfection, not a bit chewy, and went well with the smoky sausage. I wish there had been more of it. The ceviche was again a little small, especially given how delicious it was. It was slightly sweet from mango and grapefruit and simply perfect. One of the best ceviches I’ve had.

Our last share plate was actually an entree: the carne asada. We ordered it medium rare and that is exactly how it came out: a perfect pink throughout despite the thin cut, a good amount of meat to share, a fragrant chimichurri, and some spiced yucca fries that were soft and crispy.

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My husband’s grandmother ordered (or rather, she was forced to order) the pollo a la huancaina. It was a decent size entree and the chicken had a great crispy exterior. Even the potatoes were delicious. I loved everything about this.

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We ended the night with a “bartender’s choice” blind comparison of two mezcals (the $5 margaritas may have played a role in this decision), and we were not disappointed by the two very different and very unique liquors we were brought, one of which was a younger, clear, and bolder flavor, and the other of which had the smoke and burn of oak barrel.

Price: $50 per person.

Bottom line: I don’t know how Ruta del Vino wasn’t more popular on a Friday evening, and even though it was to my distinct pleasure and benefit that we easily found a table, it would be a damn shame to not fill this place up.

Primrose

Primrose inhabits a dumpy-looking space on 12th Street NE in Brookland that used to house an equally dumpy-looking Peruvian chicken joint. I never ate there, but I still felt a pang of nostalgia when I saw that they had closed, and then a similar pang of excitement with a tinge of white guilt when I saw that they had reopened as a chic wine bar. Naturally, I made reservations right away.

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You wouldn’t even know this was open if you didn’t gaze longingly through the tinted windows. The only sign of new life here is this sweet-ass mosaic outside their door. On the other hand, there are plenty of signs of life on the inside, where not only is it hopping with people, it’s also decorated with the feathers of about a hundred birds. Behold the carnage:

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This place is adorable! The bar is decorated with the classic shade of turquoise and in what may very well be an extremely offensive stereotype, all the waiters wear striped shirts. Let’s just give them all jaunty berets, hand-rolled cigarettes, and off-putting nihilism while we’re at it.

My husband was a little overwhelmed by their list, and started off trying to order the merlot but was rebuffed by our server: “Actually, I really hate this merlot. Can I bring you a different wine?” In a world where we actually know anything about wine, this might have been seen as condescending, but we live in the real world, and here in the real world, we are veritable wine ignoramuses, so his suggestion was well-received. My husband enjoyed the Viti Vini Bebi that arrived, saying it was “bold and intense.” (And yes, apparently the plural of ignoramus is ignoramuses. I looked it up).

I very much appreciate the slower pace of service at Primrose. It’s not slow because they’re forgetting you; it’s slow because they want you to relax and enjoy the thing you have in front of you. It made the meal so much more enjoyable.

We weren’t going to get an appetizer, then we waffled toward the cauliflower, but then the couple next to us had a cheese plate put down in front of them and I knew I had to have it. Confusingly/Europeanly, the cheese plates are listed under the desserts on the menu. “Well, let’s just get it for dessert and be fancy,” I said. But then I recanted at the last minute because I knew I couldn’t wait that long for cheese. It arrived a few minutes later. I regret that I didn’t have a photo of it because I inhaled it, like, immediately. It looked basically like every other cheese board you’ve ever seen, so I’ll just let you imagine it. The three cheeses were a hard. crumbly, nutty cow’s milk cheese, a cow/sheep blue blend that was fairly mild, and a semi-soft cow’s Camembert that was not as gooey as it usually is but very creamy. They were accompanied by apple compote, delectable cardamom-spiced dried apricots, and house-pickled vegetables.

We had another nice digestion break before the entrees arrived. And when they arrive, did they ever arrive in style. I had the trout:

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Could this plate be any more beautiful? The beets were soft and sweet, the sorrel cream was mild and creamy, and even I, a notorious potato-hater, liked the blue potatoes. The trout itself was extremely plentiful and cooked to crispy/flaky perfection. I couldn’t be happier with this meal.

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My husband had the short rib wrapped in pastry. For short rib, the meat was a little dry, but still flavorful. The roasted parsnips were spicy and sweet, and it had those strips of crunchy sweet potato on top that made my husband do an Italian chef-style hand kiss.

I think the slower pace and great food we had already had definitely influenced our dessert decision. Under normal circumstances, we’d probably forego dessert, but my husband was talked into getting a flight of aperitifs (admittedly, it didn’t take very much convincing), and we heard tell of the madeleine cookies with custard dipping sauces. We were supposed to choose only one sauce, but when we couldn’t settle on it, our wonderful waiter brought us two: the espresso and the pistachio.

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The madeleines were so cute! They were soft and buttery, although not warm, and were good vehicles for these delicious custards (which were good on their own, and the two flavors made a solid custard suicide). The liqueurs were all wonderful: from left to write is cognac, calvados, and armagnac (I preferred the calvados, but they were all wonderfully unique). I don’t remember the last time I was so happy and satisfied at the end of a meal.

Price: $60+ per person, worth every penny.

Bottom line: Primrose isn’t just an asset to Brookland, it’s a great new addition to DC’s restaurant scene. I hope its off-the-beaten-path location doesn’t deter people from checking it out. I can’t wait for summer nights on their patio. Bonus: after-after dinner drinks at Right Proper around the corner!

Nazca Mochica

I topped off Restaurant Week with Nazca Mochica, a swanky Peruvian joint just East of Dupont Circle. I sometimes feel like I’m a junkie chasing my next restaurant high. I always want to try something newer, more exotic, more interesting. It felt a bit disappointing to be eating Peruvian at a time like this.

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They’ve got some beautiful digs here, including a live stream from the central park of Lima. Like I needed one more reason to feel bad about not actually being in Lima (although in three short days I will be in Brussels, so maybe I’m still winning). Service started out a little slow (including not starting us off with a drink menu. I’m at the point in my life in which I am insulted while being mistaken for being younger than I am and ALSO insulted at being mistaken for older, so I’m sensitive to them not bringing me the drink menu right away). They did, though, and both wine and cocktails were exciting and reasonable. I got the beet and rosemary chilcano and my wonderful spouse ordered a glass of Malbec. “Blech! Is this cranberry or something?!” he said as he recoiled while trying my chilcano. I liked it a lot and appreciated the spicy ginger beer with the subtle sweetness of the beet, but let this serve as a lesson about there being no accounting for taste. Choose your cocktail wisely.

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This was the last time service was slow.

In fact, from this point on, it turned into a fast-motion meal with “Yakety Sax” playing in the background. Our appetizers came out even before the drinks, and a whole ninety seconds after ordering. It wasn’t one minute after we finished those that the entrees came out, and the dessert came as soon as our dinner plates were cleared. Our reservation was at 6:30 and I’m pretty sure we left the restaurant before 7:00. That being said, let’s go over the meal components:

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For the appetizer round, I had the ceviche and my husband got the causitas. That ceviche was ridiculously good. The fish was so soft, not a bit chewy or rubbery, had a light lime touch with something creamy (coconut milk?) as well. The bits of fried yuca complemented the fish well. And it was enormous! The causitas were very soft and plushy but, if I’m being honest, kind of bland. All three were the same with just slightly different toppings.

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For the entree, my husband (at my strong encouragement) got the seco de cordero and I had the pulpo a la parrilla. The perspective on this photo makes it look like I ate an entire sea monster, but in reality the lamb was much larger. The lamb was very tender with not a bit of chewy fat on it and the sauce was rich and winey with a slight spicy bite. It was top-notch and I think we’re both glad that I forced him to get this. Before I talk about the octopus, full disclosure: my husband recently called me “an octopus master” after I cooked PERFECT tentacles. I love octopus, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad. I started with the fat end, knowing it would be the inferior part and it was…quite chewy. I felt like some kind of hoity-toity Captain Ahab hacking at this leg with the provided steak knife. Fortunately, it improved from there. The sear on the tentacles was perfect (mmmm! Those crispy suckers!) and I liked the accompanying hominy. I wish this dish had had a green vegetable. Potatoes just don’t do it for me.

Finally, the part of the meal we had been waiting for: the alfajores. This is literally the only dessert Nazca Mochica has so we assumed it would be heinously good. Unfortunately, we were mistaken.

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What is this nonsense? The cookie-to-dulce de leche ratio was all wrong. I think the generally accepted rule on this is 1:1 and these cookies were just way too thick. I’m not sure I even tasted the caramel center. It was like expecting a Double Stuff Oreo and instead getting an Oreo that someone had licked the frosting out of and stuck the two halves back together.

Price: $45 per person during Restaurant Week; something closer to $50 or $55 per person at all other times.

Bottom line: I was satisfied after this dinner and not upset that I came here, but I’m not sure I’d come back. The Octopus Master(TM) is kind of above this. PS It has recently come to my attention that I also happen to be the Alfajores Master. My Peruvian coworker was impressed with my cookies, so it has been decided. And if I want to be depressed that I’m not in Peru, I can just watch videos at home.

Ana at District Winery

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Awwww yisssss. I’ve been waiting for this reservation for about six weeks. I literally only heard about this place from my weekly “What’s new in DC!” email from Yelp and I made reservations without knowing anything about it. I still didn’t have any idea where we were going when we were in the uber. I had just heard the words “district” and “winery,” and I was in.

District Winery has some prime waterfront real estate in Navy Yard. Their whole setup is impressive. Multitudinous bottles greet you when you arrive, along with not one but TWO levels of hosts (kind of unnecessary, but I’ll choose to see this as a mark of excellence) and the ambiance is great.

I felt like I should have ordered wine at a place with wine in its name, but their first house cocktail caught my eye and I couldn’t stop myself: “A Figment of Your Imagination.” If you hoped and dreamed that this cocktail would be a pun on figs, then I have some good news for you! It didn’t disappoint either; spicy rye, pungent walnut bitters, and a skewer of warm smoked figs on top made this memorable and definitely figgy. My husband ordered their house Malbec and was very satisfied. The cocktails were pricey but sadly not as pricey as the wine. They didn’t offer any economy-class wine, but it’s not exactly Trader Joe’s, I guess.

We went a little overboard tonight in the name of research. So, starting with the octopus appetizer: the pineapple flavor of the sauce was very apparent and peppery but the octopus itself could have been better texture-wise, both less chewy on the inside and more crispy on the outside. But I don’t want to dis it too much because we demolished it and it was not by any means the worst octopus I’ve ever had.

The entrees were where this place really shone:

20171103_185430.jpgBetween the two of us we had the celery root cappeletti (left) and the smoked duck (right). Starting with the pasta: the filling burst out in your mouth like soup dumplings full of pleasantly bitter celery root. The rabbit sausage in it was, for lack of better explanation, gamy in a good way, and the parm paired well with everything else in the dish. This was a perfect dish. The duck was mostly cooked well, although there were parts that were slightly more done than I would like, but it was served atop a sauce that was savory and smoky in all the right places, and made a great companion to the meat. The plantains and snap peas were plentiful and interesting, playing on the sweet/smoky theme.

20171103_192206.jpgAgain, research led us to pursue dessert and everything on the menu sounded interesting so we had a hard time deciding. After our server was absolutely zero help in making any of the desserts sound less appealing, we resorted to using a random number generator for choosing (I wish I were kidding about this) and ended up with the hummingbird cake. Literally nothing could possibly top the entrees, so I shouldn’t be too disappointed that the cake wasn’t everything I dreamed of. What it was: moist, nutty, served with a killer pineapple sherbet. What it wasn’t: particularly flavorful on its own. The sherbet was supposed to be the sidekick but it kind of pushed its way into the spotlight and covered up the main item. I kind of identify emotionally with the hummingbird cake and its subtlety. This cake just needed some less extroverted friends to hang out with, that’s all.

The service couldn’t be beat. It was a place that it felt normal to wear jeans, but they still folded my napkin for me when I went to the bathroom and replaced the silverware after the appetizer. From start to finish, everything was a little overpriced, but in a classy way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being ripped off. At least for the big price tag, I got well-composed delicious food.

Price: $50 per person.

Bottom line: It would be hard to eat a better meal in DC while wearing jeans. The food and drinks could be seen as pricey, but you could instead choose to see them as totally worth it. Go ahead, treat yo’self.

Maple

Maple is hidden among some other, more well-known 11th Street eateries: Red Rocks, The Coupe, Bad Saint, Meridian Pint, El Chucho, and Room 11 all populate this little stretch in Columbia Heights, and in general I’ve been more let down by these places than impressed, with the notable exception of El Chucho. I love me that elote loco.

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Maple is beautiful inside and out, decorated with exposed brick and innovative art. The ambiance is quiet and cozy, but not so awkwardly romantic that I felt weird being there with my in-laws. They have both a wine and cocktail of the day, although both the draft and bottled beer lists were pretty abysmal (Peroni? Really?!), but all four of us were able to find things that sounded good–the daily wine for my mother-in-law, a dry Anxo cider for my father-in-law, the amaro Manhattan for the hubs, and I ordered a mysterious cocktail, the contents of which I can no longer remember, possibly as a result of the aforementioned mystery cocktail. Drinks were served quickly and everyone was happy except me. Mine was citrusy, but entirely too bitter and herbal. The lesson here is don’t order cocktails if you haven’t heard of any of the ingredients. My mother-in-law loved the Saint Michel Incrocio Manzoni wine, which she enthusiastically called “the best wine she’s ever had.” In time, you, too, will learn to disregard this particular piece of praise.

For an appetizer, we ordered the burrata. It was creamy, melty, and served with cool, blistered cherry tomatoes. The negative is that there wasn’t more of this particular thing, but to be fair, it was a properly-sized appetizer, there’s just no amount of fresh mozzarella that could be too much.

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Now for the entrees…

Lamb ragu: fall-apart meat made this a standout. This was truly a lamb-lover’s dish. It was a solid amount of both the meat and the pasta. My husband took about a third of his enormous portion home “to be healthy.” He ate the leftovers as soon as we walked in our front door.

Pesto gnocchi: the gnocchi was quarter-sized and had the perfect texture of heavenly clouds. A certain someone may have called it “the best gnocchi I’ve ever had,” and I have to admit that the dumplings themselves were phenomenal. On the other hand, the pesto was meh and there was really nothing more to this dish. It was insulting to that gnocchi that it had to be served with such a bland sauce, but at least this error is easily reparable. A little salt and some spinach or green peas would brighten this up quite nicely.

Monkfish tagliatelle: Another great dish all around. Flavorful, well-cooked housemade pasta, broccoli, and carrots paired really well with the light fish. The fish was slightly overcooked and I could have used more of it, but it was perfectly sauced, the portion was not the insane mountain o’ pasta that I originally thought it was, and I appreciated the originality of it. This was totally worth the empty carbs.

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On to dessert: They had a decent whiskey list, especially considering the fact that it’s not a whiskey place. After-dinner drinks aside, we ordered the chocolate espresso flourless torte. Once again, it arrived insanely fast. If I could describe it in one word, it would be dense. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. The flavor was deep and rich, but where was the espresso I was promised in the title? If they just renamed this cake “Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Chew Chew Chew,” it would be acceptable. It was quickly labeled “the best chocolate torte ever,” but in this case, that could possibly be an apt assertion.

Price: $30 per person.

Bottom line: Maple was great and I would definitely go back. They had great flavors, service so fast that the servers might be actual wizards, and it was cost-effective too. However, I will wait until they switch their menu for the next season because it was pretty small. Maybe Maple wasn’t a drop everything and go right now restaurant, but it does make good fodder for I’m in the mood for something new. Yes, definitely make your way over here as soon as you have a Saturday night with nothing else planned.