When it comes to French dining, I’m lucky enough to have eaten at everything from rustic bistros and cafes to classic fine dining. Last night, I was happy to find a new restaurant that nestled comfortably in between the two.

Bistro Cacao, a new French restaurant in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., may occupy a sweet spot. Bistro Cacao opened on  last December 15th, just in time for the biggest snowstorm to hit the District in years, and already has earned excellent reviews on Yelp and other online review aggregators.

We enjoyed a fine meal, with a few service hiccups, and plan to return again.

Atmosphere aplenty

Bistro Cacao is at 320 Massachusetts Avenue, occupying the same cozy space that Two Quail did for nearly two decades. I gather new hardwood floors and rustic wine racks were added to the previous decor; both are great upgrades.  The interior is similar to a well-appointed Victorian home, albeit with a few dozen more tables and a small granite bar. One room feels like your funky great aunt’s living room, decorated with antique knicknacks, paintings and candelabras. (The overall effect is pleasant, though I have no idea what green LED lights are doing there.) The other is updated and decidedly romantic, with intimate booths, red curtains and diffuse lighting.

The music that drifts over the scene felt straight out of Buddha Bar, perhaps inspired by the tastes of the Bolukbasi brothers, the restaurateurs behind Mezè in Adams Morgan and Ezme in Dupont Circle.

Room to grow on service

We experienced a couple of surprises. Our table wasn’t ready until nearly fifteen minutes after our reservation, with no apologies. And the hostess greeted us at the bar but failed to offer us drinks while we waited and talked with her, pouring a glass of water for another customer and promising a pour when she returned. (The host eventually filled our glasses with water and a decent Bordeaux). Once seated, a waiter appeared to stumble upon us to take our order. And later in the evening, the staff served us dessert menus – twice – before our entrees had arrived.

The more memorable moment came when we asked for a recommendation for a wine to match the duck we’d ordered. The pinor noir that arrived was thin, acrid and bitter. Even with the differences between the Oregonian reds we’ve been spoiled by over the years and French versions, this was unpleasant. When the host stopped by to ask about our experience of our appetizer, we had to be blunt about asking to return it. The hostess reappeared with two other reds to taste, both of which were much better, but surprised us by drinking both glasses after we’d sipped from them. (Both tasting glasses stayed on the table until after our entrees were cleared. )

That said, we found all of the staff courteous, responsive and quick to respond to any request. I have a feeling the kinks will get worked out.

Tasty French dining

I’ll be honest: I’ll put up with a dreadful atmosphere or miserable service in return good food. For great food, I can live with both. Bistro Cacao delivered excellent dishes at extremely reasonable prices. That, in addition to its proximity to home is why we’ll be back.

We started with Crevettes Flambées au Pernod. In theory, shrimp sautéed served with a cannellini bean and porcini mushroom ragu and finished with a lemon Pernod sauce should have been a welcome departure from the norm. In practice, while the shrimp were nicely cooked with a pleasantly smoky flavor, the beans were over-salted, overwhelming the sauce itself. The mushrooms were a bit sparse and didn’t lend their earthy richness to the ragu. That said, we finished the plate.

Leg of lamb

Unfortunately, the kitchen was out of venison by the time we were seated, so my companion for this evening of French dining chose the Carré d’Agneau aux Herbes (above). I found the mustard and herb crust a touch strong, and didn’t take much of whatever herbs accompanied the mustard, but the rack of lamb itself was gorgeous. Tender, medium rare, and delicious when bathed in the rosemary jus.

The other, Magret de Canard, Gratin de Pommes de Terre et Réduction a la Framboise (below) was delectable. The duck breast was properly rare and complemented gracefully the raspberry wine reduction. The potato gratin was creamy and gone all too quickly. I haven’t braised endives before. I’m a fan. The sweetness added through cooking was balanced by a lingering bitterness well.

We devoured our dessert, a fresh apple tart with marzipan and vanilla ice cream, encircled by a raspberry coulis. Wonderful finish.

apple tart

Apple tart

Great meal. We’ll be back.

French dining gets social

In 2010, it’s not surprising that a new restaurant will look for ways to leverage social media. Bistro Cacao has established digital outposts, including BistroCacao.com, a Facebook page and @BistroCacao on Twitter. With one tweet – truncated from Facebook, no less – Bistro Cacao isn’t making much use of that platform yet, but the Facebook page has some interesting features, including integration with OpenTables for reservations and use of events and photos.

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Crepe station @ #PinkSlipParty

Crepe station @ #PinkSlipParty

I’ve now cooked crepes for a crowd twice in the past two months, both times on the occasion of a Pink Slip Party organized by Laura Fitton (@pistachio) and hosted by the Betahouse.

Given the fact that I’m not in a position to hire any of the newly unemployed party-goers, cooking a delicious dessert for those involved seemed like a good bet for a contribution.

I’m happy to say that my crepes were well-received. So much so, in fact, that when the second party came around, there was some genuine third-party interest in me making them again. Jeff Cutler even recorded a short podcast, crepe tips from Alex and Gradon. My voice is hoarse (I’ve been under the weather) but it’s a good summary of the event and provides some interactive commentary and context for crepe making. Thanks to Jeff for being such an able and generous mobile reporter.

Crepe Tips from Alex and Gradon [MP3]

Jeff wasn’t the only media present: Our local CBS affiliate, WBZ, sent a reporter and video cameraman to tape a short segment, Newly Unemployed Celebrate With Pink Slip Parties. The Boston Globe also sent a reporter and still photographer. I’m happy to note both members of the media sampled crepes and pronounced them tasty.

As I prepared for the party, packing crepe pans, apron, knives, bowls, zester and spatula into my backpack, I realized I hadn’t posted about my first experience cooking for the crowd at the first Pink Slip Party. That’s a shame — I had a blast and the crepes came out quite well.

The second time around, creating the batter in advance was considerably easier because of the research I’d done in January. Specifically, it led to determining a “magic ratio” of ingredients. I looked through 12 different recipes online and in my collection of French cookbooks, comparing what had worked in the past to the sugggestions therein.

Experience and the sum of these recipes suggest the following:

1 cup of liquid (ideally 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup H20, though all-milk works)
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup of sifted flour
2 tbsp melted butter

That’s it. Well, not quite — a large pinch of salt and some vanilla flavoring for sweet crepes are worth adding as well.

And there is some craft to making it; I found that mixing with my Cuisinart was much easier for creating two quick batches than handmixing as I often do. It’s key to add the butter after mixing the first three ingredients as well and to try to allow the batter at least an hour or two in the fridge before use to settle to remove bubbles.

I was glad to see happy faces last night and clean plates coming back as party-goers sampled the Nutella-strawberry-lemon juice crepes coming from the stove top. I added some mint to later versions; tasty. The substitution of fresh, handmade whipped cream for the canned variety was a marked improvement too.

Gradon Trip, Crepe Chef Extraordinaire

Gradon Tripp, Crepe Chef Extraordinaire

The evening was all the better for having transferred some cooking knowledge to a new friend, Gradon Tripp. Gradon needed to pick up crepe-making so that he could cook them for his girlfriend’s birthday in a few weeks. I was happy to help him — Meg is good people too and deserves to enjoy the benefit some TLC expressed in food.

Soon after the normal mangling of the flip of the first crepe, Gradon was turning them out like an old hand on the line. Pretty half moons of lightly-browned delicacies dusted with cinnamon sugar and adorned with a spare berry slice or two.

I put the extra batter to good use today after carrying it back home in a Ziploc bag in my backpack. I sauteed onions, broccoli and ham until soft, adding as a filling along with a hefty pinch of shredded cheddar cheese. Delicious.

All that remains is the cleanup, as usual.

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One of the privileges of living in New England is the access to fresh fish from the Georges Bank and local waters. When the frigid temperatures of late January set in, I often find myself craving the hearty stews and baked dishes that epitomize some of the best seafood cuisine around. This past Sunday was no different. As I walked across the frozen fields of Dennehy Park in northern Cambridge, I fantasized about what I might find laid out on the ice.

Monkfish? More skate? Sole?A bag of mussels or fresh steamers from Maine?

When I arrived at the market, the mound of gleaming white filets at the center of the fish counter immediately drew my attention, not least because of the sale tag.

Cod Fish

Cod Fish


Cod is one of my favorite fish, though it is a  species I’ve had a few qualms about eating after reading Mark Kurlansky’s excellent “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.” In that excellent tome, Kurlansky details the history of Gadus Gadidae, stretching back to the dark ages when the Vikings jigged for codfish by hand over the gunwhales of their longboats.

Unfortunately, in choosing cod for dinner I made a decision that would not please Seafood Watch. They’ve put cod ‘on the list of fish that sustainability-minded American consumers should avoid.’ I knew better. I let my hunger for the cod’s tender white flesh overcome my commitment to choosing from fish that have not been dramatically overfished.

All that being said, this dinner was one of the best I’ve made in some time. I knew I wanted to model the meal on a delectable dish my sister introduced to me years ago at Henninger’s in Fells Point, down in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Henninger’s pan-fried oysters with Pernod & fennel cream sauce remain one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, anywhere. I knew that my dish might not match that idealized first bite but I was determined to adapt its memory.

When I left the market, I’d collected a medium-sized filet of cod (1.2 lbs), a fennel bulb, a small container of heavy cream, a sweet onion, a bunch of ruby chard, a package of fresh wild mushrooms (oyster, shitake & porcini) and a lemon.

Before I went shopping, I’d split a butternut squash purchased the previous week, deseeded it, set it cut-side downwards in a baking tray with 1/3″ of water and put it into an oven heated to 350 degrees F. One hour later, the squash came out fork-tender.

I rubbed the filet with three large pinches of  citrus salt, a kind gift from the very same sister, and set it aside.

I cooked the onion until it was just short of caramelized, sauteed the mushrooms in the same pan with a pat of salted butter and set both aside as well.

Cod, cream sauce & chard on the stove top

Cod, cream sauce & chard on the stove top

Finally, I shaved the fennel bulb with my chef’s knife and cooked it on medium high for a few minutes on each side, enough to add a bit of brown and fill the kitchen with the distintive, licorish-y aroma. I added enough white Bordeaux to cover the fennel, turned the heat to low, covered the pan and left the fennel to simmer and reduce. Fiftteen minutes later, I dumped the fennel slices, now translucent and tender, into a stainless steel bowl and used an immersion blender to combine them with 1/2 cup of cream.

I added that mixture to a saucepan and folded the onions and mushrooms in. I added a touch of salt and pepper, a bit more cream and some vegetable stock, andthen put it on the back burner.

Once the sauce was burbling away quietly, I focused on the fish and chard. I added safflower seed oil to a sauce pan and brought it to high heat, adding the cod when the oil was dancing. I cooked it on each side for two minutes, transferring the pan to a hot oven to finish the fish after I’d browned it and squeezed half of the lemon juice over the filets.

I’d cut the chard into thin strips, across the stalk, during prep.  I added the shredded mass to some hot olive oil in a sauce pan, sprinkling a dash of soy sauce and balsamic vinegar and tossing it in.

Cod with mushroom fennel cream sauce, squash & chard

Cod with mushroom fennel cream sauce, squash & chard

While I was working on the above, my ‘sous chef’ had been busy with the butternut squash. I’d ground up rock salt, allspice, cinnamon and brown sugar in my mortar and pestle. Once added, the squash puree was a tad oversalted. That clever, creative sous chef mixed in half a jar of orange marmalade to balance the salt. The result was tangy, sweet and had delicious citrusy notes.

The final dish was better than I’d expected, though perhaps not the match of Henninger’s oysters.  (I blame the absence of Pernod.) For once, there was very little I’d change in the preparation or cooking. A Sauvignon blanc might have been a better match than the white Bourdeaux but I enjoyed the combination of flavors. I would reconsider the use of cod, perhaps, as other species of white fish might do just as well under a mushroom fennel cream sauce. I’d love to add the sauce to crab cake, certainly, or even plebian chicken.

Next time. For now, I’m going to go enjoy the leftovers.

I had many reasons to celebrate life last year. As usual,  one of my favorite means of rewarding myself was to by trying new recipe. I learned quite a bit about cooking skate that day. When I cook it again, I’ll be more careful about getting the cooking oil to a higher temperature in the pan before I add the fish.


One of the best meals I’ve had in Boston was at The Blue Room with with my dad, step-mom and other family members. I had skate wing in brown butter and have always remembered the succulent, tender white flesh bathed in tangy sauce.

Skate Wing with Black Butter, and Arugula

Skate Wing with Black Butter, and Arugula, courtesy of StephenCooks.com

I wasn’t surprised to learn that skate wings were once used as fake scallops, before they became reasonably valuable commodities in their own right. Upon learning of my dinner plans, my housemate dismissed them as “trash fish,” being the consummate sportsfisherman.

I persevered in the face of his disparagement.

After all, I’d already invested in the filet.

The recipe I used was quite simple, adapted from several I found online (you can see them all at my delicious boomarks for skate).

The slowest element of the meal was, far and away, the acorn squash. I started that an hour earlier. After preheating the oven to 400, I cut the squash in half, removed the seeds and fibrous elements in the center and then added a pat of butter, teaspoon of brown sugar and a drizzle of brown sugar. I put the halves in a Pyrex baking dish with half an inch of water to avoid burning the bottom of the squash rind — a key addition, as I’ve burned them in the past in the absence of that moisture. 75 minutes later, these were delicious.

I began caramelizing a roughly sliced Vidalia onion on a side burner forty minutes earlier for an accompaniment, occasionally stirring to allow the onion to cook down evenly. As soon as the fish was about to go on, I removed the onion and added a tablespoon of butter and 2 ounces of grapefruit juice. I allowed this sauce to reduce while the fish cooked.

I heated 3 tablespoons of safflower oil in a large cast iron pan, allowing it to just begin to smoke.

I dredged the wing in flour that had already been seasoned with salt and pepper and shaking to remove the excess. I laid it gently in the skillet (remember: hot oil!) and covered with a spatter guard. 3 minutes per side and then on to a rack to allow the oil to drip off.

I was sloppy about presentation (the photo above is not of my dish, I’m afraid, as credit for that image is due to the excellent stephencooks.com) but anyone following these steps would do well to take care moving the wing, as it will flake quite easily at this point.

If I had it to do over, I’d allow a harder crust to form on the fish, which means allowing the oil to get hotter before I added the fillet.

That being said, this was absolutely delicious. Whole Foods gave me an unexpected present, as well: the wing had been deboned! That relieved me of the onerous task of removing the cartilaginous elements.

I was struck again by how similar the taste of the skate flesh was to lobster, though it wasn’t quite in the class of a fresh bug pulled out of a pot of steaming sea water.

Can you tell I’m already looking ahead to summer?

A blurry iPhone photo doesn’t do this dinner justice. Not even close. That’s the only regret I take from this meal.  I was in upstate New York with my parents for a few short days last April. When Dad asked me to cook the chicken breasts he’d purchased earlier in the week, I immediately wanted to make something that would be a departure from the norm, both for their palates and mine.

That creative impulse is what led to the ridiculously long title of the post. Grilled chicken with fruit chutney, glazed carrots and brussel sprouts provides the base of the meal. It’s one that I find intensely satisfying, even without the “X” factors of grapefruit or cranberries. That said, I’m glad I experimented with the ingredients available in the kitchen and local Wegmans.


Grilled chicken with pear-plum-grapefruit chutney, cranberry-honey-balsamic carrots and roasted brussel sprouts


Dad asked if I would like to cook tonight. I did the ingredients he’d selected some justice, improvising a chutney to dress up the chicken breasts he’d purchased. I minced a small yellow onion and sauteed it until translucent in 1/2 tbsp of butter in a medium-sized saucepan.

I chopped and added a ripe Bosc pear, a black plum and the flesh of half a pink grapefruit, slicing out each segment. After adding a tablespoon of brown sugar, some salt and a dash of balsamic vinegar, I left the mixture to bubble gently on the back burner.

In the meantime, I cut the stems from the brussel sprouts and took off the outer leaves. I sliced each in half and put them sliced face down on a non-stick baking pan I’d sprayed with canola oil. I put them in a preheated over at 350, along with three bell peppers. After twenty minutes, I turned them over and brushed the faces with a maple-balsamic-soy mixture (equal parts of each). The folds of the brussel sprouts held the liquid quite well, given this arrangement. I turned the oven off twenty minutes later, leaving them inside to stay warm.

Dad was kind enough to peel and slice the carrots into 1/4″ thick rounds. I sauteed them in a large saucepan with a pat of butter (a common theme, I’m afraid, but it tastes so good….). After they had softened up (about 10 minutes on low-medium heat), I added 3 oz of equal parts honey, unsweetened cranberry juice and balsamic vinegar and let it reduce. The resulting side dish had a pleasant, tangy flavor profile I hadn’t encountered before; I’ll be trying that again.

I used a tip I’d picked up from Gimpadelic last year, dousing the boneless, skinless breasts with olive oil, dry herbs, sea salt and ground pepper. In the absence of skin, the oil keeps the chicken moist (and delicious) on the grill.

Start to finish, this took less than an hour and dressed up chicken, carrots and brussel sprouts rather well. Given that Dad isn’t into spicy foods, I didn’t add any chilis or a habanero pepper to the chutney. Either are ingredients I’d certainly add in the future. Robin also suggested blanching the brussel sprouts for two minutes before roasting, to soften up the remainder of the stalk. Even so, an excellent do. When I roast brussel sprouts again, I’ll definitely employ this method.

I wrote this post last December, in the weeks following Thanksgiving when I was still craving more pumpkin pie. My greyhound subsequently ate the filling from one of them, when I unwisely left him alone with it for more than thirty seconds. Happily there was no dire outcome, at least on his end.  Lost pie or no, I had enough leftover dough to make a tart.


Earlier in the week, I made two pumpkin pies from scratch. I was proud of the outcome — lightly spiced, creamy dessert with flaky, tasty crust, balanced perfectly with some whipped cream — but I was left with a orange-sized ball of pie dough. I put it into the fridge, planning to use it later.

Last night, I found the perfect excuse.

Raspberry Nutella pie with tangerine zest

Raspberry Nutella pie with tangerine zest

A dear friend was enduring side affects from a flu shot that distinctly resembled actual flu: nausea, fatigue, aches, headache, loss of appetite.

I brought along my dough, some Nutella and a package of raspberries, hoping to make a treat that would appeal to that lagging appetite. The picture above bears proof to the success of the enterprise. I rolled my dough to about 1 mm thick, stretching it to fit the pie pan. I spread the Nutella around, rolled the crust inwards, dotted the creamy brown expanse with raspberries and sprinkled tangerine zest over the top.

Baking the pie at 450 degrees F for 20 minutes, followed by 10 at 350, turned the crust into a flaky delight and the raspberries nearly into jam-like consistency.

The audience (of one) declared the result to be a ‘mouthgasm,’ a compliment I deeply appreciate.

I’ve never had a Nutella pie until yesterday. I wasn’t sure if how well this would work.

As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried. The addition of berries for sweetness and the counterpoint of tangy citrus balanced the chocolate hazelnut wonderfully. The filling is so dead simple I won’t bother to share proportions. If you have pre-made dough, this is about as fast a baked dessert as I know how to prepare.

Making crust is straightforward. The following will work for any fruit pie. This following is a tried-and-true classic, direct from family. Enjoy it.

Chop up a stick of butter into small pieces. Do the same with an equal amount of neufchatel.  Pinch the butter and cream cheese into 2 sifted cups of flour until each piece of shortening is a flake. Don’t overmix. Add just enough cold water to bind into dough. Separate into two balls, cover and set aside for a few hours before baking if possible, though you can use the dough immediately if necessary.

Happy pie making!

I’ve been appreciating good food since I was born. Before that, even, as my mother’s diet while I was in utero reflects many of the tastes, ingredients and styles that I gravitate towards in dining our or cooking at home.

Alex with rainbow trout

Rainbow trout, fresh as can be

Research into the impact of the food choices of pregnant women has demonstrated the impact of eating fast food, diets lacking in essential amino acids or other nutrients. I know I’m lucky, in that respect. Mom was living on a farm, growing her own vegetables, harvesting fruit from trees and brambles, baking and butchering deer, chicken, geese or blocks of tofu. I’ve benefitted from those choices ever since.

I’m starting this blog because of my experience on that farm and in the years since then. Dreaming up creative combinations of ingredients for meals, often based upon the season, has been a deeply rewarding part of my life. That interest has been aided in no small part aided by the interest and skill of hunters, fishermen, gardeners and talented chefs within my family.  I find myself gathering wild foodstuffs and cooking for friends and family more and more these days.

Reading Michael Pollan‘s The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and’Animal, Vegetable, Miracle left me quite interested in becoming a more effective locavore and sharing my experiences. The work of  Alice Waters and Eric Schlosser and Pollan in extending the slow food movement has also impacted my culinary worldview. Given that I’d only been posting recipes, reviews and reflections to a personal blog, it seemed only natural to extend my writing efforts here.

I’ll aim for a post a week, more or less, and hope to integrate video into reviews or tutorials. I’m not a professional videographer or developer, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I work out the details of adapting the WordPress platform to foodblogging. I welcome your feedback on the food or writing, suggestions for improvements on either and general comments, both here and on Twitter. You can find me there @epicureanist.

I look forward to this new venture and hope you’ll enjoy a good read — and perhaps a good meal, if my review or recipe helps you arrive at either.