Monday, June 1, 2015

Washington Social Diary: Let's Eat

Fresh peonies and other spring flowers to go with the fresh spring foods.
LET'S EAT, AND TALK WITH CHEF PATRICK O'CONNELL
by Carol Joynt

The other night at dinner with some new friends one of them said she’d heard I was a restaurant critic. My reaction was a combination of amused, flattered and caught off guard. No, not a critic — if anything, more of an appreciator — because having owned a restaurant for a dozen years I came to see “critics” with new eyes — necessary, perhaps, and sometimes game-changing, but not the most friendly role for a lover of food. Rather than having to write about all restaurant meals, I’d rather just write with praise about the good restaurant meals.

We were six of us, sharing a feast of Indian food at Rasika West End – Cauliflower Bezule, Chicken 65, Assorted Pappadum, Mango Shrimp, Palak Chaat, Green Peas Samosa, Chicken Tikka Masala, and lamb a few ways, every dish extra spiced to “Indian tastes” and with lots of helpings of cilantro-infused green sauce. We ate well and mostly talked about food.
Colorful, pretty and delicious Rasika West End.
There’s no question I love food. I love food the way some people love horses, art, literature, contact sports or opera. Its possible to love them all, but I can take a deeper dive into a good meal the way my track-loving friends can break down the field of the Belmont Stakes. I can give you metrics, optics and unpack the finer points of kitchen talent and server finesse. But I’d fail at writing a professional review.

Late spring, leading into summer, is a gift for the food obsessed of the mid-Atlantic. Finally, we have soft shell crabs from the Eastern Shore (rather than Virginia, North Carolina or Louisiana.) The pick of the crop — the small, sweet, “buster” crabs, drawing top dollar — still get shipped north to the powerful chefs of NYC, but some of them make it to DC. In fact, my entrée on Saturday night at Chez Billy Sud was the classic presentation of “Soft Shell Crab Almondine,” reminding me of the first time I had the dish at a once beloved but now long-gone French bistro in Manhattan.
The terrace at Chez Billy Sud on Saturday night. On the menu: Soft Shell Crabs Almondine.
The scene along lower 31st Street in Georgetown, a boulevard that has become defined by restaurants, ranging from pizza, to French, to haute American and Italian.
But it was my first time I had soft shells that made me picky about how I like them served — sautéed in a little butter versus coated in batter and deep fried. It was a sunny May day and my boyfriend and I visited friends of his, a married couple, at the tip of Solomon’s Island, Maryland, where they owned a windswept, white clapboard house on the banks where the Patuxent meets the Bay. We waded in the shallow water, pulling the busters up from the sandy muck, and the wife – who grew up there — cleaned them and tossed them into a cast iron pan (while we still had wet sand on our feet) and, after only a few minutes of high heat, served them to us on plates with some wedges of lemon. The second batch she served between two slices of white bread with a schmear of mayo. This was heaven. 
Maryland blue crabs, which come into season in June, just as the soft crab harvest ends.
Hard shells, fresh out of the steamer.
Soft shells are at their peak just after the first full moon of May. That is when the locals eat them. They move on to hard shells in June, for traditional reasons, after the schools close for the summer. Because of modern handling, its possible now to get soft shells all summer long — into October — but the true soft shells are a May thing. Also, true soft shells have soft shells, not slightly crunchy. At that point they are shedders. Also, smaller is always better; i.e., sweeter, and ask if they’ve been frozen and if they have then politely decline.
 
There’s more to the regional bounty of this season and all on display at the area farmers markets. Beautiful asparagus spears that come from the rich soil of the Maryland shore and the Virginia valleys.
Local asparagus, from either the Maryland shore of Virginia countryside.
The winter may have been brutal, but for the first time in a few years the strawberries are exceptional, dense and sweet. I’ve been plying them into everything from daiquiris to short cake, omelets and pancakes, or simply eating them out of the farmers market container. I’ve thought of pulling the old White Mountain ice cream maker out of the back of the closet to churn up some strawberry ice cream.

Sadly, morel season is about to come to an end but they can still be found at some markets (Balduccis in Old Town Alexandria, VA), if not literally hunted by you. But there are lots of mushrooms at the farmers markets.
Sweet spring strawberries. Buy them by the flat and go crazy.
A homemade strawberry daiquiri that practically matches the habañero salsa (but don't drink the salsa!)
Patrick O'Connell, last year, showing off a fine haul of fresh morels. The hunters bring them to his kitchen door.
The mushroom selection at the Palisades Farmers Market on Sunday May 31.
The sturdy greens of late winter and early spring, the ones that like the last frost also are abundant; collard greens and kale, for example.

Kale is actually a vegetable and kale is trendy, but don’t let that be a deterrent. Have you tried it baked? A favorite thing to do is come home from work, toss some shredded kale in good olive oil, salt, pepper, put it on parchment on a baking sheet, slide it in the oven at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, and then — after changing out of work clothes into, you know, what’s actually comfortable — having the baked kale chips with the cocktail du jour.
Fresh picked young lettuces.
Mint in the garden.
Fresh basil ... a staple of spring and summer.
Fresh farm eggs are back in the farmers markets. These are from the wonderful Whitmore Farm in rural Maryland.
If I haven’t already stirred your appetite, I’ll leave you with some inspiration. The May guest on my Q&A Café interview program was chef Patrick O’Connell, founder and owner of The Inn at Little Washington (about which I’ve written here many times).
We talk a lot about food, but also the incredible journey of taking an old rural garage and transforming it into one of the world’s most acclaimed inns. It receives top ranking from all the travel media and has won many James Beard Awards, plus routinely all the stars the travel guides can bestow. If you haven’t been, go, or at the very least get his new book, “The Inn at Little Washington: A Magnificent Obsession.”

We taped the show on May 21, outdoors under a tent. It was pouring rain and the temperature was 52 degrees. You may see our breath. You’ll definitely see us laugh a lot. The laughter kept us warm.
Patrick O'Connell and CJ right after taping The Q&A Cafe, outdoors, under a tent, at Tudor Place historic museum. It was a May day, but wet and cold (thus keeping on the Uggs).
Patrick laughing, because it was a good story, and to keep warm.
The dedicated audience at interview waits for it to begin on the lawn of Tudor Place. Brrrr.
Cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake, adorned with the cover of Patrick O'Connell's new book.
And while I may be food obsessed, I’m also sports obsessed. Our next Q&A Café is Thursday, June 25, with ESPN sportscasters Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro. Among other sports, we’ll talk baseball, the NBA final, Tom Brady and Roger Goodell, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, and the ongoing epic saga of Washington’s football team. Details here.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt