Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lunch at Oya

Before I jump into another restaurant review, I feel the need to explain myself.

I think that at this point, you probably think that I eat out too much, but I have to tell you that this summer I've been eating out far more than normal. I didn't start this blog expecting it to be all restaurant reviews.

Having said that, I recently had lunch with a friend at Oya.

Oya is described as a “contemporary Asian-French fusion restaurant” in D.C. I picked it first because it was close to some museums that I wanted to explore (namely, the National Portrait Gallery, which currently has a fantastic exhibit on Norman Rockwell).

I had originally wanted to eat at TenPenh, but I’ve already reviewed that restaurant for you, and I thought I would go someplace new. So, when I saw that Oya was conveniently located in the city, I checked its website. What caught my eye was their prix fixe lunch menu for $19, which includes an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. An excellent deal, and with a nice selection to choose from too. When I read online reviews and saw that others had enjoyed their experiences at Oya, my mind was made up, and I promptly made a reservation. (Note: Oya is one of those few restaurants that uses OpenTable, but gives you no points for making a reservation)

Unfortunately, my expectations were not met. I am actually a little sad to be writing this review, since it is not a very positive one.

To start the meal, a bowl of four warm, cheesy choux pastries was placed before us to munch on while we looked at the menu. As I have said before, I am not a big fan of things that involve cheese, but these little airy balls were a nice, savory start to the meal.

Our first appetizer was something that I had seen on the menu online and had gotten rather excited about: ginger butternut squash cappuccino with almond cloud and almond nougatine. The “cappuccino” came to the table hot and looked beautiful, but it was absolutely devoid of character or any real flavor. That is to say, I could taste the butternut squash, but the soup desperately needed more seasoning and the ginger was completely absent. It was bland and had no complexity. The “almond cloud” was more like a foamy, frothy, warm cream; it didn’t have any almond flavor at all. The almond nougatine didn’t really make an appearance either, and after several spoonfuls of the same flat taste in my mouth, I put my spoon down. It was a 5 out of 10. I would not order it again. It wasn’t bad, it was just lifeless.

Our other appetizer was a chilled ginger carrot soup. This soup was creamy, and you could taste the sweet earthiness of carrots. The ginger provided a warmth in the back of the throat, and while this soup too could have benefitted from a more generous salting, we gave it a 7 out of 10 for effort.

For our main course, I was actually given an incorrect dish. I had ordered scallops, yet I was given salmon fillet. While the fish looked good, it wasn’t what I wanted. I called our waiter over (a different server had brought over our food) and told him about the mistake. He apologized and told me that my dish would be coming right out. The wait was a little bit longer than I expected—I actually think a new order had to be placed for my dish, so perhaps my order was put down incorrectly?—but our waiter seemed very apologetic about the whole thing, and everyone makes mistakes, so moving on…

These scallops with seasame soy glaze, pad thai noodles, bean sprouts, and shiitake helped restore my faith in the kitchen somewhat. The scallops were cooked in the technique I’m seeing everywhere now (Blue Duck Tavern, Jaleo), in which they are caramelized and then immediately removed from the pan, so that the protein stays incredibly tender and just melts in the mouth. The entire dish can be described in one word: creamy. That isn’t to say that it tasted full of fat; there was a smooth, silky, melt-in-your-mouth quality to all of it. The pad thai noodles were in a citrusy, cream sauce that I enjoyed. The mushrooms were wonderful—earthy and flavorful. The scallops were nicely cooked and pleasing in their soft texture. My only complaint is that I wish there had been a little less soy glaze, as the natural sweetness of the scallop wasn’t allowed to shine through the saltiness of the soy (I got no hint of the seasame). Overall an 8 out of 10.

This tuna sashimi salad, unfortunately, was not what we hoped at all. I had read in reviews online about how wonderful seafood and sushi dishes are at Oya, and so when my lunch partner had been deciding between tuna and ribs, I suggested the tuna. I wish I had stayed silent. The fish tasted odd, off, as if it wasn’t very fresh. It smelled fine, but there was a fishiness to its taste that was not altogether pleasant. Besides that, the salad was lifeless. It had texture, yes, but it wasn’t flavorful and I just wasn’t excited about eating it and I wouldn’t suggest anyone order it. (My apologies to my friend who I did tell to order it)

This dessert was the banana bread pudding with rum raisin ice cream, caramel sauce, and coconut. The hot pudding was full of the taste of bananas, which I enjoyed, and the combination of the ice cream, caramel sauce, brûléed banana, and toasted coconut satisfied us, and helped us to feel that the meal hadn’t been a complete bust. We gave the pudding an 8 out of 10.

This is the bittersweet molten chocolate cake with mandarin orange anglaise and vanilla ice cream. I think the kitchen over cooked the molten cake a bit, for the center of it was not, as it should have been, molten. What I mean is that my dessert was essentially a moist brownie. I expected a melty, oozy, chocolate center, but this is not what I got. I got an unsophisticated chocolate cake. I also did not taste mandarin orange or any hint of citrus in the anglaise. Once again, my expectations were not met, and once again, I just couldn't make myself finish the dish. That is not to say that dessert was bad, but I expect so much better from a restaurant of Oya’s quality, especially one located in Penn Quarter in D.C.

As a place, Oya was nice. I liked the contemporary décor that focused on white and glass, with a touch of black. Service was good (especially about refilling our water glasses, which is something I always note, since I drink a fair amount of water). But as a restaurant, I would say that Oya failed. I will not be returning. DC has far too many good restaurants that I haven’t explored for me to give this one another chance. I’m not happy to say this, but I would give this restaurant zero stars out of four.

777 9th Street NW
Washington DC 20001
Tel: 202-393-1400

Overall experience: would not recommend

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cantaloupe Fruit Salad... with a surprise ingredient

This is a rather brilliant fruit salad, and I'm not saying that to praise myself. The idea for this salad actually came from our lovely host in Perpignan, France this summer. The woman, Martine, was a fantastic entertainer (as are most French women, actually). We rented out two bedrooms in her beautiful maison haute, and during our stay we had breakfast with her every morning. On one of our last nights in the city, she invited us to join her for a dinner party, and this salad was one of the things that she served.

As you can see, I wasn't kidding when I said she was a great entertainer. This was only some of the "finger foods" she served during the party. The salad can be seen in the three glass bowls (top left, top right, and center).

It's so perfect for summer. Or for fall. Or spring. Or heck, even winter. Any time is a good time for a fresh fruit salad, especially one like this. When we tasted this for the first time, we immediately oohed and aahed over it, and we asked Martine what she put in it. She shared with us her brilliant idea, and now I will share it with you.

I don't want to call this a "recipe," because honestly I judge people who claim to have "recipes" for salads. First of all, this requires no cooking. Secondly, a salad is something you make when there are vegetables and fruits in the fridge that you want to combine and eat as one dish. There is no given formula. It's all based on what you have. I have never, ever in my entire life wanted to make a salad but found myself prevented from doing so because some key ingredient was missing. So what? Replace it! Omit it! There is no such thing as a recipe for a salad. What you share with others when they like a salad is a dressingI accept that there can be recipes for dressingor a technique. So this is a new technique I have for you.

The idea is fairly simple: combine cantaloupe (this can be cubed or in little balls, as you can see I did above using a small ice cream scooper), grape or cherry tomatoes, and strawberries. I like that these all have different flavors and textures, but you can also throw in grapes, blueberries, peaches, watermelon, so on. I have had this salad with all of those ingredients, so you see, it is very versatile. The key thing is the melon and the secret ingredient.

Try not to lose any of the fruit juices! That's important to this salad.

Now, smash 2 cloves of garlic. Yes, you read that right. Smash the garlic cloves peel them, chop them in half, and toss them into the fruit salad. This is what makes this salad so special. I know you're a little frightened, but trust me. The salad doesn't scream garlic! or anything; it just has a certain je ne sais quoi to it that makes people think of balsamic vinegar or the likes. It is different.
The secret ingredient

Now add 2 teaspoons of olive oil. If you have a garlic infused kind, use that! (The brand Star is the one we have, and the garlic infusion is very nice, and handy when cooking.) Add ¼ tsp salt and the juice from 1/4 of a lime. Add ground black (or white) pepper to taste. Adjust the seasoning as needed; it really depends on the sweetness/acidity of your fruit.

If you want this technique in a "recipe" formula, look below.

Cantaloupe Fruit Salad

1 ripe cantaloupe
½ to ¾ cup cherry or grape tomatoes
½ cup sliced or diced strawberries
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
2 tsp olive oil
¼ tsp salt (increase as needed)
juice from ¼ of a lime (increase as needed)
pepper, to taste

Combine, taste, adjust.
If you're feeling timid, you can eat this right after the salad ingredients have been combined. If you trust me, allow this to "marinade" for a few hours in the fridge so that the flavors can deepen.
Garnish with cilantro, mint, or lime zest.
If serving to guests, remove the cloves of garlic. Those aren't for eating.

Lastly, enjoy!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lunch at Jaleo

Well there was a change in plans last night regarding Restaurant Week lunch. We were going to eat at Vermilion, in Alexandria, Virginia, but then we discovered that on Saturdays they serve brunch instead of lunch, and so we would be paying for eggs and hamburgers, and it didn't seem worth it to us, especially not with the drive. Thus, we made last minute plans to eat at Jaleo, a Spanish tapas restaurant that we've known about for many years. It has never failed us.

This was the Restaurant Week menu. For those of you who don't know, you can click on the photos to enlarge them, so you can actually read the menu for yourself! For $20.10 (for each person) we were allowed to order 1) one soup or salad, 2) one modernas y clasicas, 3) one pescados y carnes, and 4) one dessert. While we decided on our choices, we enjoyed some bread with olive oil. The olive oil is actually poured for you by your waiter into a little bowl with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a crushed clove of garlic.

We started with a gazpacho estilo Algeciras. The bowl was plated with diced tomatoes, diced green peppers, halved cherry tomatoes (which had been blanched and had their skins removed), crispy croutons, and parsley.

The chilled gazpacho was poured on top of this. The soup had a nice kick to it. It was bright and acidic (from the Sherry vinegar), and full of character. The textures in this really came together nicely and the flavors melded very well. We gave it an 8 out of 10, because while it was very good, it was still essentially just a fancy, cold tomato soup.

Then we had an ajo blanco con uvas, or a chilled almond and garlic soup. The bowl was decorated with lump crabmeat, green grapes, raisins, and sliced almonds, and then the creamy soup was poured on top, tableside. Each spoonful of this was smooth, rich, and creamy. It was sophisticated in a subdued manner, like the soft complexity of Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind. But while that was nice, Melanie just couldn’t stand up to the boldness of Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett, in this case, would be the gazpacho. Thus, we had to give this a 7.5 out of 10. Good, but not quite as good as its companion.

This ensalada de remolacha con cítricos had red beets, some citrus, some Valdeón cheese, pistachios, and Sherry dressing. Salads tends not to be wowers, and this one, while decent, was not something that I would order again. There are too many better things on the menu.

This manzanas con hinojo y queso Manchego was another cold salad. It included sliced apples, sliced fennel, diced apples, Manchego cheese, walnuts, and Sherry dressing. It was very interesting, but also forgettable. Looking back now, it doesn’t stand out in my mind.

This chistorra envuelta en patata frita was spicy chorizo that was wrapped in a very thinly sliced potato, like a little “bun.” The addition of the crispy potato was fun and add a nice crunch to the dish. As for the sausage, its flavor was very bold, but for me it just wasn’t balanced. The dish was too one dimensional, and also a little salty.

These dátiles con tocino ‘como hace todo el mundo’ were dates, wrapped in bacon, breaded, and then fried. Delicious sounding, yes? And actually, we have ordered this before, but this time around I was slightly disappointed. While the dish was served warm, and the dates were soft and sweet and the breading was crispy, I just didn’t get the bacon flavor. I wanted more bacon. The flavor of the dates overwhelmed any bacon flavor. If it hadn’t been stated that bacon was there, I would not have known.

This was described as their “very, very famous tapa:” gambas al ajillo. The shrimp was simply sautéed with garlic. It had a slight smell of wine, as if white wine has been poured into the hot pan of shrimp right before it was served. Yet despite this touch, I was disappointed by the dish. The salty seafood was one dimensional, and I didn’t get any strong smell or flavor of garlic.

This salmón con purée coliflor y frambuesas was very nice. I really enjoyed the buttery seared salmon, which was perfectly cooked. Salmon is often served a little bit dry, but this dish was beautiful. The fish was moist, and it went well with the pureed cauliflower and raspberries, which we thought was a creative mix of flavors. This was an 8.5 out of 10.

This dish was called Calamares a la Romana. It was fried squid with aioli. The calamari was fine: crispy on the outside and tender on the inside (although a little light in color… it could have been allowed to fry a little longer). The aioli was missing acidity, but had a nice strong garlic flavor. It was a simple dish. Would I order again? Yes. But was I impressed? No.

This vieiras con calabaza y naranjas was delicately seared scallops, with a creamy butternut squash purée, orange segments, and crunchy pumpkin seeds. The scallops were cooked so that they were just caramelized and then removed from the pan. This left them incredibly soft and tender, and I really liked that texture. It was different from the denser, chewier texture you can get when scallops are even just a tiny bit overcooked. The dish was well balanced, with the natural sweetness of the seafood, the earthy sweetness of the butternut squash, the acidity of the orange, and the crunch of the pumpkin seeds. I was impressed with the flavors. It was also very visually appealing (as you can see). This was a 9 out of 10. I would definitely order this one again.

This lomo de cerdo con salsa de cabrales was a pork loin with roasted onion and Cabralas suace. While the caramelized onion was sweet, and the sauce was good, the meat was, sadly, dry and overcooked. I wouldn’t order it again, and I suggest you don’t either. Sometimes the flavor of a dish can make up for over-done-ness of meat, but this was not one of those cases. I was disappointed.

This dessert was a flan al estilo tradicional con espuma de crema Catalana. The flan was incredibly smooth and light. It just melted in the mouth. It was incredibly elegant. The cream Catalan was lightly whipped and sweetened and it went perfectly with the flan. This dish was perfection, it really was. A flan is a very normal dessert, it is nothing impressive, but this one managed to wow us all at the table. I believe I shall give this dish my first 10 out of 10.

This espuma de avellanas y chocolate was a chocolate mousse layered between light hazelnut cake layers, and topped with caramelized hazelnuts. Now I am not a hazelnut person, nor am I crazy about milk chocolate, but this dessert was excellent. We’ve actually ordered it a few times before, and each time we really enjoyed it. It was delicate—not dense—and there was a play on texture with the crumbs of the cake and the airy mousse and the crunchy hazelnuts. A 9 out of 10.

This was the house-made cherry sorbet. It was a revelation. I told you that my family does not like to order ice cream for dessert when we go out, but today we broke that rule. I am so glad that we did. The sorbet was incredibly crisp and bright. It was bursting with the flavors of fresh cherries, and it wasn’t sour. It was delightful. A solid 9.5 out of 10. Or perhaps a 10 out of 10. I just hesitate to give two perfect scores in one review; you may think I’m going soft. But honestly, I can think of no way that this could have been better.

All in all, it was a very nice meal. Jaleo is a business casual type of restaurant, decorated in a very Spanish style with bright reds and oranges. We will, of course, be returning.


7271 Woodmont Avenue

Bethesda, MD 20814

Tel: 301.913-0003

Overall rating for the price: 8 out of 10
**note: Jaleo has many locations, I can only speak for the address above. I am also rating based on Restaurant Week prices

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

At-Home Treats from Blue Duck Tavern

I mentioned in my review of The Blue Duck Tavern that we were given a small tin of sugar cookies to take home. We opened this sweet gift a few hours after we got home and had recovered from our food comas.

The sugar cookies were vanilla-scented, soft, buttery, and delicate. They melted in the mouth sweetly, and had a beautiful, lingering aftertaste. A very nice gift.

We also had brought home in doggies bags two of the roasted confit of duck legs, which we also snacked on later. Out of laziness, we discovered that the duck actually tastes better cold. The chill seemed to make the bitterness I have complained of earlier completely disappear and the flavor of the meat mellowed out in a way that worked nicely with the texture of the meat.

The warm blackberry & nectarine crumble (scoop of crème fraîche included) was also delicious cold, even though it looked unappetizing. I actually started laughing once I opened the take-home box and saw how it had been packaged. How homely. Yet flavorful.

My thanks to the man who invented doggie bags and spurred the movement that made it socially acceptable to take home unfinished food from restaurants.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lunch at the Blue Duck Tavern

It's that time of year again. Washington, D.C. Summer Restaurant Week.
I love restaurant week. The idea of it is that a couple hundred well-established restaurants in metropolitan area offer lunch and/or dinner menus at a special price. At participating establishments, the lunch menu (which is generally two or three courses) is about twenty dollars. To be cute - and perhaps to also deal a little bit with inflation - the amount of cents goes up based on the year. So last year, lunch was $20.09 and this year it is $20.10.  This price is the same at all locations.  Normally, the dinner menus offer slightly more choices, and thus their price is about $35.  Again, the amount of change is based on the year. Not all restaurants participate in the lunch; some only do dinner. Some restaurants also offer special deals on bottles of wine during Restaurant Week.
Because restaurant week is so popular and it can be a really good deal (when very expensive places offer you lunch for approximately $20, it is still the same quality as their normal food, even if the menu is slightly altered, and most of the time the menu isn't altered, just shortened), you should make reservations as soon as you know. Normally the date for restaurant week is released about 2-3 weeks ahead of time. The most expensive and popular restaurants will book up completely within a day or two.
This year, we finally got a reservation at Blue Duck Tavern. We've known about this restaurant for a while, and have heard many good things about it, but we have never been quick enough to get a reservation for restaurant week. Till this year.

For our meal we were allowed to select a starter, an main course, a side dish, and a dessert.  This was actually quite generous.  Most restaurants just do a three-course meal (appetizer, main course, dessert). There were also many more choices compared to what we normally see.  With each part of the meal, we had six choices.  The standard that I've seen during my other Restaurant Week experiences is three or four options.

We began with an oven roasted bone marrow with a vadouvan crust. I asked our waiter what the “vadouvan crust,” and he explained that it was a type of curry that they sprinkled on top of the marrow, before it was roasted. As you can see, this starter was pretty big. The toasted bread was crispy and warm, and there was even a whole head of garlic, sliced in half and roasted, which you could rub against the bread. The large (beef?) bones were sliced lengthwise, and a small spoon was provided to scoop the marrow out. The dish was fatty and smooth, as expected, but could have been better salted. It was good—and definitely nothing we had ever seen in a restaurant before—but not something we would order again. Especially compared to the other starters, it lacked character.

These roasted Maine scallops with English peas, hazelnut, and brown butter were soft and tender, and perhaps the most perfectly cooked scallops I've ever tasted. They had been caramelized on the outside, but yet did not have the slightest bit of toughness that scallops can get when overcooked. These scallops melted on the tongue, and they were sweet—the way fresh scallops naturally are—and beautifully seasoned. I liked that this dish showed that while Blue Duck Tavern is about “simple” American fare (the menu lists where the produce you are eating comes from), the kitchen is not just standing by quietly. This food did not speak for itself, it trumpeted. We applauded. (I’m lying. Actual applause would have been odd.)

Our last starter was a chilled corn soup with cilantro and a corn emulsion. This was a stunner. It carried all the flavors and sweetness of gently roasted, fragrant corn. It was silky, light, and smooth. I was afraid that it would be thick, the way pea soup is, but it was not. It was refreshing, and a perfect summer dish, although it seemed to hint towards autumn a little bit, as the soup had a this delicate undertone of some warm spice that I could not place. We declared this to be a 9.5 out of 10, if not a solid 10.

This braised escolar with minestrone broth (top) was the first of our entrees, and we were unimpressed. There was a tanginess to the fish from its marinade that was not smoothly incorporated, and while the escolar was beautifully cooked, I was bored by it, even though it was texturally interesting, with the soft white beans and al dente pasta. I would not order it again.
The side dish (on the bottom in the picture above) was the baby beets with candied orange peel and marcona almonds. It was slightly sweet, slightly vinegary, and slightly tart in a very pleasant way, and it woke up my taste buds (a very good palate cleanser). Not sure if I would order it again though, since I think that lack the oomph and depth of flavor that I had seen in the succotash, which I describe below.

This braised beef rib with homemade steak sauce had that nice fall-of-the-bone texture that slowly cooked meat does. It was good and filling, but at the same time just average. The meat had a declining finish; the flavor just didn’t stay in your mouth. It wasn’t that the meat itself lacked flavor—the seasoning was all fine—but the flavor was so… commonplace. I think that had the marinade been balanced with a little bit of sweet or spice, the dish could have been much better. As it was, it was just decent.

This side dish was the summer succotash, which was actually my favorite of the sides. It was warm and rich with flavor. I loved the corn in this. I would order this again.

This wood oven roasted confit of duck leg with roasted plum vinaigrette and fresh greens was good. The portion was very generous—I only ate one of the duck legs out of three—and the meat was tender and perfectly seasoned. I like that the salad was lightly dressed and that fresh, sweet plum worked well with the confit. The dish felt light; though it was filling, it did not weigh me down.

The duck was fragrant, and my mother's eyebrows rose in surprise at her first bite. This is what I mean when I say I go out to eat and expect to be wowed. I do have one complaint though. There was a strange bitterness to the duck that I just couldn't place, and it diminished my enjoyment of the dish. I think it was actually from the wood roasting, which is odd. The meat was not burnt, just bitter, in the way that a non-sugar coated pill of medicine can be.
The side dish above was the hand cut BDT triple fries (you can see a bitten one the picture above, and the bowl in the picture above that one), which my father declared to be a 10 out of 10, although I disagree slightly. They were very good fries—there’s no doubt about that—but they weren't perfect. They were very thick cut, which my father said he liked because it allowed you to taste the potato and to really get that starchy texture in your mouth, which contrasted nicely with the golden brown and crispy outside of the fry, but to me, the fries were just a little too thick. I could have done with a little less starchiness. What was nice, though, was that the fries came to the table already salted and herbed (cilantro?), and so they didn't lack flavor. A garlic aioli stood as a dipping sauce for the fries. I found the aioli to be a little weak for my taste; it could have been bolder and more garlicky. Overall, perhaps a 8.5 out of 10 for both the fries and aioli.

This was the key lime blueberries tart with white chocolate cream and a citrus crisp. My mom, who does not like sour things at all, declared this to be too tart for her to handle, but I enjoyed the silkiness and creaminess of the filling, which had the strong scent of citrus, but the slightly subdued flavor of key limes, along with the sweetness of summer blueberries. The word which comes to mind when I try to describe this dessert is dainty.

This was the warm blackberry and nectarine crumble with crème fraîche. I liked the big chunks of soft nectarine, which were full of the flavor, and the huge blackberries which burst sweetly in my mouth. The crumble had scents of cinnamon and nuttiness, and the crème fraîche was a perfect foil for the balanced sweetness and tartness of the dessert. But, as much as I enjoyed it, I also couldn’t help but think as I was eating it that I could make this at home. I don’t like to think that about food when I eat out. The portion was huge though. Both my father and I ordered it, but together, even with the help of my mother, we could not finish one. We packed the other one—untouched—to bring home.

During our meal, not only did we get an excellent view of the open kitchen, but we also enjoyed stellar service. Our main waiter, as well as his helping servers (dishes are all served at the exact same time, so our table required three servers), and the general manager stopped by the ask us about our meal. They also replaced a napkin that I dropped with a new one, and very kindly wrapped up the food that we couldn’t finish, including the dessert. After we paid our bill, our waiter stopped by one last time to tell us that he hoped we enjoyed our experience, and then slipped a tin of sugar cookies into our doggie bag, telling us that it was an extra treat for us to enjoy. I thought it was a very nice touch.
I have to wonder, though, if our treatment was due to the fact that 1) I took pictures of every single dish that came out, 2) I took notes about the food, and 3) we all tasted each other’s food. Perhaps this made them nervous. This is not the first time that such behavior has caused increased attention. A few years before, at Hook in Georgetown, our waiter also seemed alarmed by my constant picture taking and our food sharing. I think this makes servers wary that we might be reviewers. They are not wrong. But now you know a way to get better service! (Sometimes.)

Blue Duck Tavern
24 & M Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20037
Tel: 202-419-6755

Overall rating: **, 2 stars out of 4

*Note: Restaurant Week in D.C. this year runs from August 16th to 22nd.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My grading system

For restaurant reviews, perhaps I ought to explain my rating system, as it may confuse you. I am a somewhat lenient grader, but here is how I think. Most of the time, I rate out of 10, since it gives the most gradients and you can see little nuances between an 8 and a 9. But when I rate out of 10, I am actually using two scales. The scale from 10 to 6 is the "good scale."

- 8 and above is good; it means I would return happily anytime, or would order the dish again (Obviously a 9 is a pretty good. I have yet to experience a 10).
- 7 to 7.5 means I would return depending on the occasion, or I might order the dish again, depending on what was offered
- 6 means I might return, depending on what others restaurants I could eat at and how convenient it was. I might not order the dish again, unless I couldn't find something else to eat. This means I wouldn't hesitate to order such a dish, but I wouldn't get excited about it either.

The scale from 5 to 1 is the "bad" scale." Generally anything that get judged with a 5 or below is something that I am reviewing so that you can avoid my experience.

- 5 is something I didn't enjoy
- 4 is something not good
- 3 is something pretty bad
- 1 or 2 is something truly awful

If I am rating based on stars, I use 4 stars to mean the very best. This is like Christian Etienne (Avignon, France) or Inn at Little Washington. Four stars equates to a 9 out of 10, or above.

- Three stars is still stellar, like my favorite restaurant in DC, CityZen.
- Two stars is a nice meal, like TenPenh or Volt (Frederick, MD).
- One star is something I would not go out and pay for myself, but I wouldn't object if someone else did. Meaning, it's not worth inconvenience, but it's still a nice place.
- No stars, well that's pretty self explanatory.

I normally reserve star ratings for nicer, more formal dining, because this is how other reviewers rate them.

Sometimes I give restaurants or dishes no rating. This is either because of laziness or indecisiveness. For those, I am sorry, and generally I don’t call them “reviews” so much as just written experiences that I am sharing with you.

I hope this clears things up!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lunch at Carpe Diem Café

This is the last of my reviews of meals in France! And funny enough, we chose this restaurant at random while we were going out (as opposed to most of our other places, which we always went to based on recommendations), because it was close to where we were doing some shopping. It also had fans inside. That last fact was important, because it was incredibly hot the day we went, hence why we were shopping inside of air-conditioned stores, rather than walking and sight-seeing.

The café was fairly crowded, but the service was good, the décor was nice (contemporary), and there was outside seating, inside seating, and a basement lounge. Casual dress, fine.

We order one two-course “formule” with coffee for 17€. It included a main course and dessert. We also ordered three entrées (meaning appetizers, in French). We weren’t feeling too hungry. Heat can do that to you.

This was the only plat that we ordered: a suprême de poulet, crème de champignon, salade, et pommes frites, which was part of the formule. The chicken was good and moist and the potatoes went well with the cream sauce, but overall it was just an average meal. What do I mean by that? I mean that it was fine as a family lunch, or even a casual business meeting, but I wouldn’t take anyone to this place for a date while I was getting to know them. I was unimpressed. Ideally when I go out to eat, I want to leave impressed.

This camembert rôti au caramel de miel, salade de noix (10€) was astonishingly good, especially for the price. I do not like cheese—especially soft cheeses, because their gooey texture throws me off and makes me think too much about their fat content—but this was a discovery. This was excellent. The warm, melty cheese was slightly caramelized and served on bread with the caramel-honey sauce, and some salad and walnuts… The flavors melded very well, and I was impressed. I was very impressed.

This salade de magret de canard aux fraises et fruits (12€) – included smoked duck breast, raspberries, and tomatoes. It was simple, but very good. Given the price, I would order it again, even though I wasn’t wowed, it was solid.

I ordered a gazpacho de concombres à la menthe avec sorbet melon (7€). It was cool and refreshing, and just what I needed on a hot summer day. Complaints? I wish the texture of the gazspacho had been a little bit smoother. The mint and cucumber were a nice combination and the flavors were great, but the texture was just too rough. I really liked the melon sorbet though, quite a nice touch.

This strawberry tiramisu was the dessert that came with the formule. Sadly, though it was very pretty and the idea of it sounded nice, it was a disappointment. I did not like the flavors nor the texture. I can’t even rate it because I disliked it that much. I put up the picture as a reminder that looks can be deceiving.

Carpe Diem Café
21 rue des Halles
Paris, France
Metro: Les Halles
Tel: 01 42 41 02 01

Overall rating for the price: 6 out of 10, average, good for a casual, inexpensive lunch