Monthly Archives: January 2010

Burger Bonanza

The B.I.G. Poppa at Ray's Hell Burger

Last week, I attempted to be a vegetarian—and failed miserably. I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult, since I tend to cook vegetarian meals most of the time anyway. But after a full week of subsisting on salads, sweet potato risotto, and roasted brussel sprouts (recipes to follow in a later blog post), I suddenly developed a serious craving for red meat. And boy, do I mean SERIOUS—I had dreams of devouring thick, juicy burgers and steaks for days.

On Saturday night, I decided it was time to end my short stint as a vegetarian and indulge my craving for red meat. My boyfriend (who was shocked I suggested we go out for burgers) and I excitedly headed to Ray’s Hell Burger in Rosslyn, known for its thick burgers, gourmet fixings, and bargain prices. Ray’s Hell Burger also gained a lot of publicity last March, when President Obama and VP Joe Biden made stopped in for an unannounced lunch visit. (On a side note, I love that we have a foodie First Family.)

Inside Ray's HB

Ray’s Hell Burger is located in a mini mall/restaurant row on Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn’s main drag. It’s right next to Pho 79 (another of my favorite haunts) and Guajillo, a festive Mexican cantina (more on this later in the post). Though short on ambience, it more than makes up for this shortcoming with its flavor packed burgers.

The menu offers a basic burger ($6.95) with your choice of gourmet toppings which range from charred jalepenos to Ray’s Heck Sauce. The basic burger can be cooked in various styles, including blackened with Cajun spices, Diablo grilled (brushed with a spicy chipotle marinade), and au poivre with a black peppercorn crust. Other fancier toppings are available at an additional charge: imported double cream brie ($1.50), roasted bone marrow with persillade ($5.00), and seared foie gras with truffle oil ($10.00) to name a few.

The counter at Ray's: clearly they thought I was crazy

There are also signature Ray’s burgers, all of which have clever names (I was definitely cracking up while reading the menu). I absolutely had to order the B.I.G. Poppa ($7.95; pictured above) when I saw it on the menu: not only for the hilarious name (the caption reads, “We like it when you order B.I.G. Poppa), but also for the delicious combination of ingredients. The B.I.G. Poppa is an au poivre (black peppercorn crusted) burger with cognac and sherry sauteed mushrooms, grilled red onions, and aged Danish bleu cheese, all on a grilled warm bun.

From the moment I tasted the B.I.G. Poppa, it was pretty much love at first bite–and confirmed that I am, in fact, a lifelong carnivore. The crackly peppercorn crust subdued the intense flavor of the bleu cheese, which allowed the flavor of the meat to really shine. Ray’s Hell Burger uses trimmings from its sister restaurant, Ray’s the Steaks (which is also AMAZING), in its burgers, so the patty is extra thick, juicy, and flavorful. The cognac and sherry mushrooms and grilled red onions added a decadent touch to an already luxurious burger, and the lettuce and tomato added a hint of freshness. I washed the burger down with a 16oz glass of the on-draft root beer ($2.00)—not too sweet, and perfect with the burger.

The Soul Burger

My boyfriend ordered the Soul Burger Number One ($8.95), dubbed “the hardest working burger in chow business.” The Soul Burger comes with applewood smoked bacon, swiss cheese, cognac and sherry sautéed mushrooms, and grilled red onions. In my opinion, it paled in comparison to the B.I.G. Poppa, but it was still delicious nonetheless. I could definitely taste the quality of the ingredients in every bite: the bacon was thick and not too smoky, the swiss cheese mildly nutty, the mushrooms earthy, and the grilled onions sweet. We also split an order of large fries, which were crispy and golden–but it was clear that the burgers were the stars of the meal.

After our burger bonanza, I was stuffed. I looked at my boyfriend and declared, “I’m so full, I’m miserable!” He agreed. But somehow…we still managed to have room for dessert.

Sopapillas at Guajillo

My boyfriend spotted sopapillas on Guajillo’s (pronounced Wa-hee-yo) menu and demanded we order it for dessert. Sopapillas are fried bread puffs drizzled with honey–almost like a churro minus the sugar and cinnamon. Guajillo serves theirs with a huge bowl of vanilla ice cream–a steal for $7. The sopapillas were definitely enough for 2 people (the waiter laughed when I asked whether we should order 2) and a delicious deep fried ending to a fabulous night.

Ray’s Hell Burger

1713 Wilson Blvd
Arlington, VA 22209
(703) 841-0001

Guajillo

1727 Wilson Blvd
Arlington, VA 22209-2503
(703) 807-0840

Ray's Hell-Burger on Urbanspoon

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Cafe of India: Not So Artful

After a delightful meal at Masala Art last weekend, I was eager for more delicious Indian food. Luckily, a couple friends invited me to lunch on Saturday and I instantly suggested we try Cafe of India, another new Indian restaurant in Tenleytown that opened just a few blocks away from Masala Art.

Despite the close proximity and similar cuisine, these are two very different restaurants. I really liked Masala Art’s subtle spicing, bold flavors, and elegant presentation. Though some dishes were better than others, I still gave it points for originality and the merits listed above. Cafe of India, on the other hand, is much less adventurous with its menu, and yet, does not manage to deliver on flavor or presentation.

Samosas

We began our meal with an order of samosas, a ubiquitous Indian appetizer of curried potatoes and peas stuffed in a deep fried fritter. The samosas were good, but not great, and the accompanying sauces were a bit too watered down for my taste.

Cafe of India's lunch special

For our entrees, we each ordered the lunch special ($10.95), which allows diners to choose 4 dishes from the lunch list. I ordered the punjabi chicken curry, lamb curry, aloo gobi, and eggplant bharta. All of these dishes, unfortunately, lacked depth of flavor. The eggplant bharta was extremely greasy; the lamb in the lamb curry was extremely tough. The chicken curry and aloo gobi were all right, except the chicken curry was lukewarm–tepid, even! Clearly the kitchen is having some trouble timing their dishes.

Naan, garlic naan, & onion kulcha

The best part of the meal turned out to be the least exotic: a warm basket of naan, or Indian bread. Since 3 of us ordered the lunch special, we were able to sample all 3 types of bread (each lunch special comes your choice of naan, garlic naan, or onion kulcha). My favorite was the onion kulcha, which is basically naan with scallions and green peppers mixed into the batter.

There are some redeeming qualities about Cafe of India which keep me from losing hope for this restaurant. The interior is surprisingly nice–a welcome contrast to the shabby exterior. And the wait staff means well and genuinely want to serve you a good meal. Unfortunately, there are some problems in the kitchen that will need to be addressed before I can come back to Cafe of India. For now, I’ll be sticking with Masala Art.

Cafe of India

4909 Wisconsin Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20016

202-244-1395

Artful Indian at Masala Art

Masala Art's artful interior

Apologies, readers, for the serious lack of posts over the past couple of weeks. Between starting my wonderful, fabulous (unpaid) 9am to 5pm internship, forgetting my camera, and eating some disappointing meals not even worth blogging about (ie: Art and Soul for restaurant week), I haven’t had much material for writing. But, fear not! The Unpaid Gourmet is back in action.

I have been dying to try Masala Art since it opened last October, for several reasons. One, I absolutely LOVE Indian food (and was spoiled last year by my roommate, Roohi, who’s mom would bring us yummy homemade Indian food). Two, Tenleytown was seriously lacking in Indian restaurants–in fact, before Masala Art’s arrival, I’m pretty sure there were none (and now…there are two! Cafe of India opened this week and is right down the street). And three, Masala Art is conveniently located a couple blocks from my apartment.

After reading a great review on Masala Art in last week’s Washington City Paper (the review, unfortunately, seems to have disappeared from the site), a friend and I decided it was time to finally try it. The restaurant occupies a peculiar space, in an old building right next to a Masonic Temple and Subway. But don’t let its spare exterior fool you. Upon entering Masala Art, I was struck by its spacious interior and tasteful decorating. Framed posters of Indian artwork and tiled mirrors hang on the walls, each one carefully chosen to complement the room. Tables are well-spaced–not too close together so you can hear other tables’ conversations, but not too far apart that you feel isolated.

Murgh tikka masala

My friend ordered the murgh tikka masala ($12.95), or butter chicken. The sauce was delicately spiced and not overly creamy–a nice change from lesser versions of this dish. I also thought the color of the sauce was beautiful. If you are not a fan of dark meat, however, I don’t recommend ordering this dish. Though the chicken was very tender, there was definitely more dark meat than white meat.

Tiranga paneer

I ordered the tiranga paneer ($11.50), which the menu describes as an “exotic kebab made with homemade cottage cheese and layered with tri-colored stuffing.” I had absolutely no idea what that description meant, but Tim Carman of the Washington City Paper said the dish was “a revelation.” I put my fears and slight lactose intolerance aside and decided to order it.

Honestly, I’m not sure I would describe the tiranga paneer as a revelation, per say. The paneer is basically 3 substantial blocks of cheese, which are firm in texture and more akin to firm tofu. The “tri-colored stuffing” is not really stuffing at all; rather, the blocks of cheese have 3 slits on the side, where the chef spreads a sauce or chutney in between. The result is unlike anything else I have ever tasted: not bad, but not great, either. The cheese was a bit smoky and heavy for me, and I definitely could only eat half the dish. I did enjoy the accompanying rice and lentils, though.

Nan and aloo anardana (sorry for my finger in the shot!)

My friend and I also shared an order of rock salt and cilantro nan and aloo anardana (potatoes with pomegranate seeds). The rock salt and cilantro nan ($2.95) was absolutely delicious. The rock salt and cilantro add a jolt of flavor and freshness to an otherwise boring basket of nan. The aloo anardana ($5 if ordered as a side), however, did not live up to expectations. They were a bit too tangy for my taste, but I did like the surprising spicy notes that hit you at the end of the bite.

Although I did not enjoy every single dish, I would definitely give Masala Art another chance. I thought the plates were presented beautifully, the prices weren’t too steep, and plus, it’s in my neighborhood. Up next, I’ll probably try Cafe of India. Anyone heard any news about it? Here’s to hoping a third Indian restaurant open in Tenleytown!

Masala Art

4441 Wisconsin Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20016-2141
(202) 362-4441

Masala Art on Urbanspoon

Not Your Average Diner

Luna Grill's whimsical interior

When I think of diner food, I picture greasy hamburgers, soggy french fries, and questionable chili followed by a nasty case of indigestion. Fortunately for me (and my dining companion), Luna Grill & Diner in Dupont Circle is not your typical diner.

When I first walked into Luna Grill, I was struck by the vibrant murals and eclectic artwork all over the walls. Tree branches hang down from the ceiling, perhaps in an attempt to add a whimsical, Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque touch to the place. The owners clearly made an effort to spruce up an otherwise small and uninteresting space, and in my opinion, they succeeded in their efforts.

Chicken panini & cream of mushroom soup

The main attraction at Luna Grill & Diner, however, is the surprisingly tasty food and affordable prices. I actually had difficulty choosing what to order, since most everything on the menu appealed to me. After debating over the chicken panini ($10. 95) and the hot meatball sub ($7.95), I decided to go with the chicken panini and a side of cream of mushroom soup (only $1.25 if ordered as a side with any sandwich or burger). The panini arrived fresh off the panini press, with the ciabatta bread perfectly crisped and melted mozzarella cheese and sundried tomato pesto oozing out of every bite. Juicy slices of tomato balanced out the richness of the pesto and cheese, and added some sweetness. The cream of mushroom soup was also delicious–a welcome respite from the cold winter weather outside.

The Alamo burger

My dining companion ordered the Alamo burger ($8.95), which includes bacon, cheddar, and BBQ sauce. The patty was thick, juicy, and pretty sizeable for a restaurant burger. Judging from the varying thickness and shapes of the fries, they were definitely hand-cut and freshly fried–a refreshing change from the cookie cutter, too thinly sliced McDonalds varieties.

Apple pie a la mode

Though extremely satisfied from our meal, we still managed to save room for dessert: apple pie a la mode ($3.95+$1.25 a la mode). This seemingly simple dessert had several layers of flavor and texture: the flaky buttery crust, the warm spiced apples, and the cold creamy vanilla ice cream, all made this the ultimate comfort dessert.

I will definitely come back to Luna Grill again, perhaps on a weeknight to try one of their scrumptious sounding Blue Plate Weekly Specials. If you’re tired of the same ol’ greasy diner fare, then head over to Luna Grill & Diner for some simple yet elegant twists on the diner concept!

Luna Grill & Diner

1301 Connecticut Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20009
202.835.2280

Luna Grill & Diner on Urbanspoon

Simple Squash, Simple Post

Even though winter has brought unusually cold temps, tons of snow, and general grumpiness to DC this year, at least one good thing has come out of it. The dreary weather is perfect for roasting vegetables, which is one winter treat I look forward to every year.

Roasted vegetables are so versatile. You can roast almost any combination of veggies: red bell peppers and red onions, for instance, or carrots and parsnips. You can also puree roasted vegetables into a dip or a soup, which will have the smoky, earthy taste of the vegetables. The Barefoot Contessa, for example, makes a wonderful roasted eggplant spread.

My favorite recipe for roasted vegetable, however, is butternut squash. Roasting the squash brings out its natural sweetness, and it is the perfect accompaniment to any dinner (particularly a roast chicken!). The recipe is also SO simple–I wouldn’t even call it a recipe! If you’re in a hurry or don’t feel like cutting an entire squash, the pre-cut squash sold in supermarkets will work fine too. Add this simple yet stunning dish to your next dinner party and it will be sure to bring your guests out of their winter blues!

Simple Roasted Butternut Squash

1 medium-sized butternut squash, cut into 3/4 inch cubes OR 1 package pre-cut butternut squash

2 T olive oil (can do more or less depending on size of squash)

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Put foil over a baking sheet. Pour the cut butternut squash onto the baking sheet.

3. Pour 2 T olive oil over the squash and toss until the squash is well coated with the oil. (Add more or less depending on the amount of squash.) Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

4. Place the squash in the oven for 15-20 min, until the squash can be easily pierced with a fork and is golden brown on the bottom.

5. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy!

LA Edition: Pampas Grill

Spicy chicken, picanha con alho, & side dishes

Every time I am in LA, I make it a point to stop at the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax. For those who are not familiar with this historic LA landmark, it is not your ordinary farmers market. Since 1934, the Farmers Market has housed some of LA’s most popular eateries, including Du-par’s, Kokomo Cafe, and Loteria. My favorite place in the Farmers Market, however, is Pampas Grill.

Pampas Grill is a small Brazilian churrascaria located in a quiet corner of the Farmers Market. One of my best friends (who is Brazilian) introduced me to Pampas about 6 years ago and I have been a regular ever since. Pampas features a self-serve salad and hot entree bar, so diners can get as much or as little as they want. My favorite dishes include the beet salad, feijoada (black bean stew), and pao de queijo (cheesy bread made fro yuca flour). The beet salad is simply diced beets, but the flavor is incredibly fresh and sweet. The feijoada, a traditional Brazilian dish, is earthy and smoky–delicious over the housemade rice and topped with some yuca powder. Pao de queijo is crisp on the outside, chewy and cheesy on the inside.

The salad bar

While you could easily fill up on the salad bar, make sure to leave room for the main attraction: Brazilian barbecue! Diners can choose which meats they would like, and servers will hand carve them right off the spit. I love the picanha con alho, or garlic beef. The beef is super tender and juicy, with just the right amount of fat. I also tried the spicy chicken, which was actually pretty mild for my taste, but still tasty. Other offerings include chicken wrapped in bacon, sirloin, and sausages.

Pampas determined the price of the meal by weighing your plate. Depending on how much you get, the price can be quite low…or quite high. (The plate pictured above cost $13.75–not too bad for the amount of delicious food!) If you’re looking for a fresh and flavorful taste of Brazil in LA, look no further than Pampas Grill!

Pampas Grill

6333 West 3rd St. #618

Los Angeles, CA 90036

Pampas Grill on Urbanspoon

Cranberry orange custard trifle

Holiday trifle

When I was a little girl, my mom would make a holiday trifle every year for Christmas. I loved the layers of rich vanilla custard, tart raspberry jam, berries, and brandy-soaked pound cake in every bite. In recent years, however, my mom has foregone the traditional holiday trifle, saying it’s too heavy for dessert.

First layer of Grand Marnier-soaked pound cake & oranges

This year, I decided to resurrect my favorite holiday dessert. My mom and I found a recipe for cranberry orange custard trifle, which sounded a bit lighter than the traditional trifle. Instead of berries  and raspberry jam, this recipe includes oranges and a sweet and slightly sour cranberry sauce, both of which add a sophisticated acidity to this otherwise saccharinely sweet dessert. The colors in the trifle were gorgeous as well, perfect for a festive holiday dinner.

Pouring custard over the cranberries

My family and friends absolutely loved the trifle and could not stop eating it. I will definitely be adding this recipe to my holiday repertoire–and you should too! The trifle would also make a spectacular New Years Eve dessert, for those of you who are still looking for something to make. Make sure to let it sit in the fridge at least 4 hours before serving–and that’s the hardest step, because you’ll be so tempted to eat it right away.

Cranberry Orange Custard Trifle

Adapted slightly from Red Book Magazine

Prep time: 30 min; Cooking time: 35 min; Chilling time: at least 4 hours

CUSTARD

1 ½ cups each heavy cream and milk

Peel from 1 orange

¾ cup sugar

3 T all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 T Grand Marnier

1 T vanilla extract

CRANBERRY FILLING

4 cups fresh cranberries (approx. 1 12 oz. bag)

1 cup orange juice

½ cup sugar

1 T grated orange zest

TRIFLE

1 (1 lb) pound cake, thawed, sliced 3/8 inch thick, and halved

1/3 cup Grand Marnier

6 oranges, peeled and pith removed, cut into segments**

**(I used two 15oz cans of mandarin oranges instead)

TOPPING

1 cup heavy cream

3 T confectioners sugar

2 T Grand Marnier

1 T vanilla extract

Sugared cranberries, optional

  1. Custard: In a medium saucepan, heat cream, milk, and orange peel to just boiling. In a bowl, whisk sugar and flour, then whisk in eggs until smooth. Gradually whisk in ¼ cup of cream mixture. Pour egg mixture into saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly until thickened, about 3 min. Remove from heat; stir in butter, Grand Marnier, and vanilla until blended. Pour into bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold.
  2. Cranberry filling: In a saucepan, combine cranberries, orange juice, sugar, and zest. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally until mixture thickens, about 30 min. Cool to room temperature.
  3. Trifle: Line bottom of a 3 ½ quart trifle dish with a single layer of cake slices. Brush with Grand Marnier, top with about 1 cup orange pieces, then about ½ cup cranberry filling, then about 1 cup custard. Repeat layers 3 more times. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
  4. Topping: In a cold bowl with cold beaters, beat cream, confectioners’ sugar, Grand Marnier, and vanilla until soft peaks form. Spoon on top of trifle; top with sugared cranberries, if desired.

Makes 16 servings.