• 07Oct

    On September 30, 2014 I had the pleasure of attending A Taste of Lettuce DC, a spectacular four course dinner featuring the different flavors of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, Wildfire, Joe’s, Big Bowl, Mon Ami and Community Canteen. The event was held at Wildfire, Tysons Galleria and included cocktail and wine pairings. The Executive Chefs from each restaurant provided a few words about their dishes, and I have paraphrased their comments in the descriptions below. It was a fantastic evening filled with delicious food and drinks. I will definitely be coming back to all of the Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants for more, and will be sure to attend other tasting menus with pairings. The Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants hold special events monthly.

    Hors d’oeuvres by Mon Ami Gabi:

    Chicken Liver Crostini with red wine mustard. This dish featured a crispy toast round with zingy mustard, creamy and light-as-air chicken liver, and was topped with a sliver of cornichon. The flavors were balanced well: a sour, salty, and slight sweetness from the chicken liver, and a slight warming spice from the mustard. The texture was very pleasant as the cornichon and crostini provided crunch while the chicken liver was soft in texture. The chicken liver and country pate Crostini are signature dishes of rustic French cooking, which is the essence of the cooking at Mon Ami Gabi.

    Country Pate Crostini with grain mustard. This was very similar to the chicken liver crostini, in flavor, texture and appearance. The biggest difference was the pate was a little denser than the chicken liver, but was still very light.

    Salmon Tartare on Gaufrette Chips. I really enjoyed the simplicity and playfulness of this dish. It was composed of raw chopped high quality and high fat content salmon atop a plain potato chip. The salmon had a wonderful soft buttery quality and this worked so well with the crunch and salt from the chip. I will have to take a visit to Mon Ami Gabi to eat more of this.

    Mini Mushroom Quiche Tartlets. The tartlets were soft and fluffy. They were well balanced and did not have a strong mushroom flavor.

    Wine pairing:

    Ruffino Prosecco DOC: A sparkling dry white wine with delicate bubbles, soft notes of apple, pear, and citrus, with a fruity and floral bouquet. I found this to be a delightful pairing.

    Second Course by Big Bowl:

    Thai Crab & Corn Soup. This dish featured sweet lump crabmeat, local corn, coconut milk and Thai Chili. It was moderate in spice, complementing the sweetness from the corn and crabmeat and the richness of the coconut milk. A beautiful kefir lime flavor and aroma permeated the dish, adding a little sour flavor to make the dish sing. I was pleased when I saw some kernels of corn still together, letting me know that whole ears of corn were utilized for the dish. The chef informed us that the chicken stock that is the base for the soup is homemade. I was not at all surprised that this was the case because it was clear from the soups wonderful flavors that no shortcuts were taken. Now that fall is upon us, I’m looking forward to heading to Big Bowl on a crisp day to warm up with this soup and to try others.

    Cocktail Paring:

    Limoncello Tini: This drink was sweet and sour, featuring Limoncello flavor. The acidity of the drink was nice, but the sweetness was just a little overpowering paired with the soup. I would have personally preferred this drink on its own or with dessert. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 14Jul

     

    Wildfire hosted another gluten-free four course dinner and wine pairing recently at their restaurant in Tyson’s Corner. As usual their superb skills in preparing gluten-free meals provided an evening in dining decadence that cannot be compared. An interesting twist to this particular evening was that for the first time, the menu was so enticing it even brought in non-gluten-free diners to participate. I was fortunate enough to be seated next to one of these non-gluten sufferers, who enjoyed the meal so much he swore he’d be back next time!

    I also have to agree that this was one of my favorite Wildfire events. From the beginning appetizers of spinach ricotta bites and olive bruschetta, I was hooked. The first course of herb crusted salmon was so fresh and prepared so perfectly, it literally melted in my mouth. The other culinary highlight of the evening was the white chocolate banana s’mores bar. Made with coconut, cinnamon and marshmallow, it was such a unique and tasty blend of flavors, I only wished there was more after finishing.

    Overall, the food portion of the evening can only be described as absolute perfection. Being pregnant at the moment though, I unfortunately have less to say on the wine pairing portion. However, I brought my sister along with me for the fun and she was more than happy to act as my wine taste tester. She declared them all to be great choices, but her favorite stand out of the night was the Lock and Key Meritage ’11. She described it as a full-bodied red that had a rich blend of flavors. I took a sip or two myself from her glass and I have to agree I also found it to be delicious. I will definitely be getting a bottle myself to enjoy for post-pregnancy time.

    The entertainment portion of the evening was also enjoyable. Editor-in-chief from Delight magazine, Vanessa Weisbrod and her husband, Eric, spoke about the challenges of living with a non-gluten-free spouse. They provided humorous anecdotes from their dating days as well as informative tips about their day to day navigation through the compromises of living with someone who has a gluten allergy. I found myself chuckling at times while listening to their stories, because I could relate to some of their issues from living with my own non-gluten-free spouse. My husband and I always joke that his favorite thing about me ever going out of town without him, is that he gets to gorge out on gluten. I return home to find empty pizza and breadstick boxes every time. After listening to Eric and Vanessa though, I know we’re not alone. Apparently, it’s normal to stare longingly at the bread basket while my husband partakes and my husband is not alone in groaning to coming home to a meal made with whatever gluten-free substitute I’ve used that day. These are the sacrifices/compromises we all make for coexisting in peace and luckily with the advancements the gluten-free product providers have made in recent years, it’s not even as difficult for us all to be satisfied as it once was. Overall, the topic was well chosen and I do think enjoyed by all who attended that evening.

    All I can say is my sister and I returned home that evening with full stomachs feeling satisfied. And I know, I for one, am counting down until Wildfire hosts their next gluten-free event.

    -JPM (Joyana)

    Wildfire - Tysons Galleria on Urbanspoon

  • 22Jul

    There are some people that are instantly likable. John Shields, author of Chesapeake Bay Cooking, host of the PBS series Coastal Cooking, and owner of Gertrude’s in the Baltimore Museum of Art is one of those people. (Unless you are a crustacean, in which case you need to run for your life.) Not only is John personable, but he also has a passion for – and possibly an addiction to – this region’s native cuisine. I was a little cautious about speaking with him about Baltimore seafood restaurants because as a restaurateur he might see such establishments as competition. But, John loves Chesapeake Bay cooking and has no problem discussing his favorite (and sometimes hidden) gems.

    John was the special guest at Wildfire’s annual Chesapeake crab dinner. I was happy to be present and follow along (crab in hand) while he taught us how to break the spice-covered crustacean down step-by-step. John informed us that due to some early season chilly weather, the current crop of crabs contain crustaceans that are a bit smaller and more expensive than usual; he speculated that this will change by early fall. John even visited our table later on to give DCFüd’s videographer (Cy, a Virginian with childhood memories of the river) a one-on-one lesson in how to break down blue crabs like someone who picks jumbo lump for a living.

    Wildfire’s Executive Chef, Eddie Ishaq, did a wonderful job showcasing crab in a variety of uses. The blue crabs were well spiced. The pan seared halibut with garlic spinach and sauce supreme was delicious. The ribeye medallion and crab cake were very well executed; that was the best piece of steak I’ve had lately and everyone agreed that the restaurant did an amazing job n the crab cake. That particular surf and turf masterpiece is on the menu at the Chicago Wildfire restaurants but there are normally only enough of that particular cut of steak for Windy City Diners, so Eddie had to order the meat three months in advance for this particular dinner when John (who often dines at the Chicago Wildfire restaurants) asked about the dish. We (Cy, myself, and the people seated at our table) would have preferred a wine or beer pairing over the dinner’s cocktail pairing.

    Below is our Youtube video: How to Pick Chesapeake Blue Crab with John Shields:

    Based on how wonderful the food was at this dinner, I definitely recommend trying Wildfire’s dinner events, such as the Chimay Brewery dinner on August 9th ($60 per person plus tax and gratuity). The courses will be:

    • Risotto Frito, paired with the Chimay Red Cap
    • Mussels Meuniere, paired with the Chimay Triple
    • Braised Sausage & Cabbage, paired with the Chimay Blue Cap
    • Pot de Creme (dark chocolate custard with whipped creme), paired with the Chimay Blue Cap

    -JAY

    Wildfire - Tysons Galleria on Urbanspoon

  • 21Jan

    Last weekend, we had brunch at Wildfire in Tysons Galleria. Wildire is a large steakhouse, and it does a good amount of business during its brunch service. Wildfire often has themed dinners, one of which was covered previously on DCFüd. But, back to brunch:

    We ordered the Classic French Toast and Lemon Ricotta Pancakes from the regular brunch menu, and because the frittata cannot be made without mushrooms (I’m allergic), we ordered the Scrambled Eggs & Bacon from the kid’s menu. We substituted cheddar cheese for American cheese in the scrambled eggs. The ricotta cheese adds a nice texture to the lemon pancakes. All of the dishes were rich and flavorful (full of dairy, which is good), as was the cornbread they served at the start of the meal. I could have just eated a few peieces of their cornbread for a meal (its so good!) but we were there for brunch! I also had a cup of tea: Mighty Leaf Earl Grey.

    The service was excellent (and attentive). although a bit slow, but it was a busy time of the week in a large restaurant. This meal definitely was a nice experience.

    -JAY

    Wildfire - Tysons Galleria on Urbanspoon

  • 04May

    The team at Wildfire Restaurant in the Tysons Galleria recently held one of their specialty dinners, those monthly events at which the chef gets to stretch his cooking out a bit for a select audience.  This event, dubbed their “All-Star Beer Dinner,” commemorated the beginning of the baseball season, and Executive Chef Eddie Ishaq brought a few tastes from his hometown of Chicago to the tables for his guests.  The beer selection was superb, too – the chef and his team paired each course with a specialty beer and the wait staff made sure that no one’s glass stayed empty for long.

    I arrived at the restaurant and was directed to one of the location’s private dining rooms.  Wildfire can host special events for up to 120 people according to their website in an expandable series of private rooms off of the main dining room.  The construction was interesting, too – the staff told me that the walls literally slide up into the ceiling to open up the additional spaces, but they’re also solid enough that we couldn’t hear any dull roar from the packed bar that evening.

    The tables were adorned with boxes of salted ballpark peanuts for us to munch on as we arrived, and each attendee was handed a D.C. Brau on the way into the room.  After a few minutes, the wait staff began circulating with mini half smokes and mushroom-Swiss sliders.  The half smokes were nothing to joke about, loaded down with chili and topped with chopped onions, and the sliders were superb, though I’ll confess that I’m not a huge fan of mushrooms on my burgers.  The crowd seemed to love them, though – every serving platter left the room empty as far as I could tell.

    After we sat down, we heard a few words from the estimable Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post’s DC Sports Bog (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dc-sports-bog).  Steinberg, a quiet, unassuming sports reporter whose blog is now in my RSS reader, regaled the crowd with stories from his beat, describing how he broke the story on the Nationals Park 8-lb. Strasburger (available on select game days at the Red Porch for $59) and covering the Torino Olympics for the Post.  Steinberg took the microphone between each course to tell us about the life of a sports reporter in the new media era – one point he made, for example, is that while the Olympic Games are incredibly popular with Post readers, covering them is tremendously expensive for media organizations, and the Post has had to cut back on its coverage team for the upcoming London games compared to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.  While Steinberg greatly enjoyed his trips to the Games in the past – and his ability to find a nontraditional story, like a wonderful cheese shop while covering the Torino games, seems unparalleled on the sports beat – he won’t be going to the U.K. this summer.

    The first course was an absolutely massive Buffalo Chicken Salad.  I’d heard from the staff on my tour of the restaurant that Wildfire’s salads are gigantic, and I was not disappointed.  No one at my table of 6 finished their salad – not for lack of trying, but the next courses on the menu looked good, too!  The salad was tossed with a full dozen ingredients, including a few nontraditional choices for a Buffalo Chicken dish – artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives – but those two ingredients particularly helped cool down the chicken’s heat.  The salad was served with Brooklyn Pennant Ale.

    The main course was a Chicago-style Italian Beef sandwich served with sweet peppers and cheese fries.  The sandwiches arrived wrapped in grease-spotted paper, and the cheese fries were served in paper sleeves just like you can get at the ballpark – nice touches, both of those.  The fries were crisp and hot, and the cheese sauce fantastic.  I spotted a couple of people digging the last of the sauce out onto their plates so they could finish it.  Waiters circulated during this course with Goose Island Honkers Ale, a made-in-Chicago label.

    Finally, dessert was served, a Boston cream pie accompanied by Sam Adams Double Bock, a hefty beer to complement the sweet cake, cream filling, and rich chocolate.  I searched in vain for an untouched cake that I could spirit away, but it seemed that everyone in the room had proudly tucked theirs away.

    As the meal concluded and we began rising from our seats, the Chef swung by the dining room to graciously accept a round of applause from the dinner guests and to announce the team’s next dinner special:  a “Pork and Pinot” dinner, their third annual, to be held on May 23rd.  The menu is posted on Wildfire’s website (http://www.wildfirerestaurant.com/sites/default/files/Pork%20%26%20Pinot%20_menu_155_%2712.pdf) and will include four varieties of Pinot Noir from the west coast, as well as several courses devoted to showing off the Bay Haven Farm hog being raised especially for the chef and his crew.

    I left Wildfire that evening having experienced yet again that most wonderful of restaurant meals:  a chef’s handpicked menu, cooked with love for the culinary craft.  Chef Ishaq raised his game that night, and it was tremendously fun to see it happen.

    Wildfire is located in the Tysons Galleria.

    -HML

  • 27Apr

    This is the 2nd article in a series– #1 (Dolce Veloce) is here.

    Restaurant kitchens come in all shapes and sizes, and after my last tour, I wanted to learn more about a big-time operation, a restaurant with an expansive dining room, a large crew of cooks and other staff, and at the eye of the storm, a talented chef managing the kitchen with aplomb.

    I was not disappointed.

    Wildfire Restaurant in Tysons Galleria is an outpost of a small chain based largely in the greater Chicagoland area.  Tucked away on the 3rd floor of the mall (though with its own dedicated elevator from the top level of the parking garage), Wildfire is a location I’d walked by several times when perusing the Galleria’s shops.  The restaurant is gently lit, a strong contrast to the bright lighting of the shopping mall, and is resplendent with dark wood and leather chairs throughout.  The dining room is sizable and abuts the open kitchen with the hybrid gas/wood-fired main oven, though the staff also works in a prep kitchen a bit further backstage.

    When I stopped by recently between lunch and dinner services, I found the Executive Chef, Eddie Ishaq, coolly directing his crew in the prep kitchen and slicing roasted sweet peppers for a special event the next evening (more to come on that in a subsequent post).  Chef Ishaq is a Chicago native who earned his culinary degree from Kendall College.  Having worked his way up the kitchen staff hierarchy at several Wildfire locations, Ishaq spent a short while away from the company at Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse in Chicago, but in January 2011, he accepted the appointment to the top job at Wildfire’s Virginia location.

    Ishaq manages a kitchen with massive output.  On a busy Saturday night, he said, his crew will push out more than 800 meals.  On Mother’s Day, they’ll serve about 1,800 people between lunch and dinner.  The kitchen remains open between lunch and dinner with 4-5 cooks manning their stations, but a busy night will require 12-15 cooks on the line.  Ishaq’s crew is 45 strong, but management told me that the cooks make up a little less than one-third of the location’s staff.  The Wildfire management team in McLean is transplanted from Chicago, but it takes more than 150 employees to run this 300-seat restaurant.  The chef was consistently proud of his cooks when I talked to him, but he also took a moment to praise the bottom rung of the culinary ladder:  “Dishwashers have the hardest job in the restaurant.  There are six of them.  Without them, we’ve got no plates, no silver, nothing.”

    Chef Ishaq described his restaurant’s menu proudly:  “Our specialty is as a steakhouse, but we have a little bit of everything to satisfy every palate.”  He explained that his cooks work especially hard to accommodate customers with allergies:  “We get allergy tickets left and right…but we’re here to satisfy – we don’t let people down.  If I can do it for them, I will.”  With even a small chain restaurant, the chef has a little less control over the menu than he might at a neighborhood store.  Chef Ishaq sends ideas up to his bosses quite a bit, but he gets to demonstrate his chops a bit with daily specials.  When conceptualizing specials, he said, the single biggest factor is the season, which governs what’s available and if he can get it fresh and cheap.  The restaurant also works hard to use local purveyors whenever possible – the chef mentioned a Pennsylvania farm that sends them fresh fruits and vegetables, and another purveyor who sells him “unbelievable” high-quality eggs that he usually moves during brunch in frittatas and sauces.  For Easter Sunday alone, he said, they restaurant had ordered 30 dozen eggs, and his staff went through 5 pitchers of Hollandaise sauce.

    He also gets a chance to show off at Wildfire’s special events, generally held monthly and described in more detail on the restaurant’s website.  He mentioned a recent Scotch tasting and dinner that garnered more than 60 attendees, and he’s currently thinking about some special cocktails and beer for football season.  The crew is also planning a pork dinner, with an organic Berkshire hog being raised especially for the restaurant.

    Ishaq explained that a day in his restaurant starts with prep lists.  His morning crew arrives between 8 and 8:30 – including one cook who spends several hours cutting and blanching potatoes for French fries – and begins the day’s prep lists, including an inventory of everything needed for the day’s service.  “We try to make everything fresh daily as much as possible,” the chef told me.  “If I have to make up half a batch, I’ll make half a batch.”  The menu at Wildfire is a fairly broad one, which demands that the open kitchen waste no space at all when storing cut and portioned fish, meats, garnishes, sauces, and the various other accoutrements of a professional kitchen.

    Lunch at Wildfire is, well, pretty wild.  Over the course of an hour and a half, tops, the crew will serve about 350 meals.  The Tysons Corner lunch crowd appears to be fairly corporate – witness all the office towers in the area – and the customers want to be in and out 30-45 minutes.  “It’s challenging when you’re only allowed to have a certain number of cooks on your schedule, but if we need to get our hands dirty, we jump in and knock it out.”  Tickets may come in fast and furious, but they go out like clockwork – his cooks are expected to get plates out in ten to fifteen minutes at the most.

    Between the lunch and dinner services, some customers will still be around, but his crew is generally working on transition.  The cooks are setting up for dinner, the chef is preparing for any private parties, and they’re all prepping for dinner service.  At about 4:00, his dinner cooks arrive, check their stations, and will work through dinner until about 11:00.  The dinner crowd usually arrives by about 6:30, and will stay until 9.  Chef Ishaq laughed as he described that difference from Chicago – the Wildfire locations there will be packed from 3:30 or 4:00 all the way until 9:00, but the Virginia crowd tends to work a little later.

    Yet despite the crowds, Chef Ishaq repeatedly told me that he thrives on the pressure.  He explained that he focuses even more closely on his plates when he’s busy:  “When it starts getting crazy, I want my eyes to see every single dish that goes out.  It gets crazy busy, but that doesn’t mean the quality of the food will go down.”

    The chef began assembling two of their most popular dishes for me while we talked – a macadamia-crusted Halibut filet served with asparagus, and their signature crab cakes.  The fish, cut and breaded during prep, is pan-roasted on an oiled cast-iron skillet in the main oven, which his staff keeps between 575 and 600 degrees.  After a bare few minutes and a turn, he added blanched asparagus to the skillet, and assembled the dish on a plate with a lemon-butter sauce.  The ease with which he moved, even having a stranger on the line next to him, was fascinating, and his crew’s movements around me that afternoon were seamless.  Whether assembling three-layer chocolate cakes with a light, chocolate mousse-style frosting (amazingly rich, yet light in texture), blanching potatoes, making sauces, or otherwise keeping up with the professional kitchen, not a one of his cooks blinked an eye while moving around me.  And their discipline doesn’t just extend to strangers in the kitchen:  “The key to a restaurant is portions – everything has to be consistent.  Working at a restaurant, your eyes have to be open all the time.”  Restaurants live and die on their customers’ satisfaction, obviously, and in my experience, a happy customer is one that comes back, orders their favorite dish, and gets it just the way they like it.

    The chef hit on another theme I’ve heard from pros in the business:  “Presentation is key.  If something doesn’t look appealing, there’s a very good chance that nobody’s going to touch it.”  The halibut, right out of the oven, was scorching hot and beautifully crisp, with a fantastic nutty flavor.  The sauce, a simple lemon beurre blanc, went perfectly with the fish.  The asparagus was tender, nicely seasoned, and plenty flavorful – even though it was simply prepared, the fresh produce he uses made a big difference.  His crab cakes were gorgeously seared and full of crab flavor, with just a hint of mustard in the sauce.  And he must be doing something right with those, because crab cakes Benedict is their most popular brunch dish – quite an achievement for this area, no?

    My impression of Chef Ishaq was that of a consummate, yet easygoing professional.  He gave orders to his crew during the afternoon prep without raising his voice, and he clearly enjoys his work.  Referring again to customers who ask for special dishes, he simply intoned with a smile, “…My job is to make them happy.”  In an operation this size, with a crew this large, with so many meals going out the kitchen door at once, it’s refreshing to know that the Executive Chef is that modest.

    And with his eye always on the customer, he’ll keep packing them in.

    Wildfire is located on the 3rd floor of the Tysons Galleria in McLean.

    -HML

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