Hank’s Oyster Bar – Washington, D.C.

Steve is traveling a lot these days and that means he’s eating most of his meals in restaurants. And while our blog posts are generally intended to highlight the tasty things we’re cooking at home, we’re mixing it up with the occasional restaurant review.

We happened upon Hank’s Oyster Bar on a trip to Washington, D.C. a few years ago. It was a lucky find after wandering around Dupont Circle and struggling to find inspiration among the many little eateries in the neighborhood. Steve returned this week while on a working trip to D.C. It was as good as we’d remembered.

You go to oyster bars to eat oysters. Hank’s oyster offerings change regularly and usually include a nice mix of both east and west coast varieties. On this most recent visit, the raw bar featured a meaty, briny variety from Point Judith Pond, Rhode Island. True to their name, the Salt Pond oyster is one of the saltiest I’ve ever eaten and that’s a good thing. I tried one with a little lemon and a touch of mignonette. Perfection! They paired less well with the grated horseradish. The Sweet Jesus oysters from Maryland were a little flat, but like the Barcats from Virginia, they were fresh and clean tasting. Honestly, anything would have tasted a little weak after the Salt Ponds.

As tempting as the lobster roll and Old Bay fries were, the menu specials were too interesting to pass up. The heirloom radish dish was incredible. A mix of julienned Watermelon, Black Spanish and a green variety I didn’t recognize, were tossed in a light vinaigrette and embellished with a dollop of creme fraiche and a generous spoon of red tobiko. It’s an interesting mix of flavors and textures. The radishes were cool, crunchy and earthy. The vinegar brightened the radishes flavors without overwhelming them. And the cream, well … cream makes everything a little better. The briny, oceanic flavors of the tobiko were the best surprise of the dish. I thought it was a clever play on “surf-n-turf” to combine the mineral, earthy flavors of the radishes with fish roe. We need to replicate this dish at home!

The evening’s specials menu included wild Pacific salmon served on a mound of cool soba in a puddle of rich, soy based sauce that was almost too salty. But the soba noodles stood up well to the intensity of the sauce. The salmon was perfectly cooked rare to order. I tried to get them to prepare it virtually raw, but my server couldn’t wrap her head around the request. I was perfectly satisfied with the compromise.

I’d forgotten that Hank’s serves up a small handful of dark chocolate chunks with the bill. It’s a great touch and a nice surprise if you aren’t expecting it. And of course I ate it all in spite of the generous size of the pieces.

This was my third visit to Hank’s. There will be others when our travels take us back to D.C. With its consistently fresh, seasonal menu and uber friendly service, I recommend you add it to your list of good eats in the nation’s capitol.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Finally, The Big Eat – Part III: The French Laundry

We chose not to photograph inside the restaurant. Enjoy the pics of the grounds.

Day three in Yountville started with a modest breakfast in the hotel. In anticipation for our big dinner at The French Laundry, we enjoyed a relatively light lunch at Hurley’s, dining on olive oil poached tuna niçoise and Crab Louis salads. Both hit the spot without being over filling. We thought it best to go into dinner without hunger headaches and the salads were a refreshing departure from the big meals of earlier restaurant visits. After a long walk around the small town of Yountville and a trip to the sauna and steam room at the Spa Villagio, we were ready to sit and eat for the next three hours. Our meal at The French Laundry would soon be a memory and we wanted it to be perfect.

Reservations were set for 8:45. Arriving a few minutes early, the host seated us in the front room while our table was being prepared. The French Laundry is a model of service, as you should expect, and they work very hard to make sure every guest feels as though they should be there. As it turned out, we waited with a certain celebrity couple (Nicole Richie and Joel Madden –Happy Anniversary!) who did a very good job of keeping a low profile thanks to the discretion of the host. [We’re assuming TMZ is no longer interested in something that happened over a month ago, with no pictures.]

The French Laundry's garden with a view of the Napa Valley hills.

The restaurant is divided into three small dining rooms, one downstairs and two upstairs. We were seated upstairs with four other tables, variously populated with couples and groups, most celebrating some sort of special occasion. We were seated at a large round table next to one another with a view of the other guests giving us an opportunity to “see how it’s done” for those who were seated earlier.

The wine list is 112 pages long and is presented at the table in iPad form, open and ready for your review. We love to drink wine, but we don’t love wine as much as the people who composed the remarkable list. The sommelier patiently helped us reduce our choices to a couple of light reds, each in the $100 range. We selected a delightful French burgundy that we nursed throughout the meal. It was just enough and nicely suited to the evening’s menu.

The first bites, or amuse bouches,  arrive in the form of small, warm, cheesy, one-bite gougère. The gougères are quickly followed by the now ubiquitous Salmon Tartar Cornets – bite-sized dollops of fresh, minced wild salmon atop a light, crisp cone filled with red onion seasoned crème fraîche. The “dish” is gone in two delicious bites. That’s OK, because the meal is just beginning and the real starter was just a few minutes away.

Chef Thomas Keller is known for many things, but the one thing diners at both The French Laundry and Per Se, in Manhattan, have come to expect is his glorious “Oysters and Pearls.” Small, beautiful white covered porcelain bowls arrive warm, filled with delicate Island Creek Oysters swimming in a rich pool of “Sabayon” of pearl tapioca, topped with a remarkably large dollop of white sturgeon caviar. We’d heard about this dish from friends who have dined before at the FL, but we had no idea what to expect. While now “common” to FL and Per Se diners, nothing about this dish says “average” or “pedestrian.” Every bite was as good as the last.

Up next, an interesting Salad of Roasted Hawaiian Hearts of Palm with Petite Radish, Cilantro and Citrus “Vierge.” This precious portion stood out not for the flavor of the hearts of palm (simple, but not memorable), but for the fascinating use of citrus in the vinaigrette. We suspect the kitchen used finger limes to produce the capsules of fresh fruit that popped delicately with each bite.

We supplemented the “salad” course with the Moulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine” served with Cippolini Onions, Oregon Huckleberry and Celery Branch. The restaurant is known for its flawless execution, evidenced by the mid-course swap out of warm brioche toast. On cue, our server deftly removed the half-eaten portion of toast and set a new, warm piece of toast down to accompany the remainder of the terrine. We were impressed!

A beautiful head of cabbage.

The fish course consisted of Sauteed Fillet of Gulf Coast Red Snapper with Jingle Bell Peppers, young Fennel, Niçoise Olive, Arugula and Noilly Prat dry vermouth (adding vermouth to sauce is a tip we learned from Julia Childs). The fish, tender and oceanic, paired beautifully with the subtle Noilly Prat. Here again, the sauce was the standout.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Fricassée” came next with Hobbs’ Bacon, Red Wine-Braised Cabbage, Chestnuts, Tokyo Turnips and “Beurre Rouge.” Lobster, once a peasant food and used as fertilizer, is now king of the seafood chain. The smokiness of the bacon played nicely with the crustacean. We could have eaten more, but then, more was to come.

Our next course stands out as one of the evening’s greatest successes: Georges Bank Sea Scollop with Sunchokes, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Fig Compote, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Guinness-Chocolate Sauce. That’s right, Guinness and chocolate in a sauce with scallop. We get the affinity between the two, but with shellfish? Seriously?!? This one blew us away. The scallop was grand! Seared to a perfect crust, tender and barely cooked at its center, this was a scallop to remember. Swiping a bite through the sauce added complexity without overwhelming the sweet, briny morsel. Our first thought was that we wanted more sauce. However, that might have overwhelmed the scallop and then we would have ended up with a chocolate dipped scallop. Less is definitely more with the sauce for this dish!

The friendly chicken.

Next up, a glorious Four Story Hill Farm “Poularde” with Baby Beet, Tardivo Radicchio, Walnuts, Watercress and “Sauce Périgourdine.” Sophie, one of our charming servers, assured us that this chicken didn’t come from the FL hen house nestled among the garden greens across the street from the restaurant. Good thing too, because Jason had a bonding experience with one of the curious hens the day before and we couldn’t bear the thought of noshing on one of those lovely ladies. The meat was savory and richly satisfying, balanced by the bitter radicchio and spicy cress.

What came next will be remembered as one of the evening’s biggest surprises. “Tripe a la Provençale” in a sauce of San Marzano Tomatoes, Capers, Black Kale and “Pain de Campagne” arrived with our curiosity piqued. Steve learned that Thomas Keller is particularly fond of this “scrap” meat when he read Grant Achatz’ (Alinea chef and former sous chef with the FL) book life, on the line, so we were excited to see it on this tasting menu. Tiny pieces of extraordinarily tender tripe stewed in a simple tomato sauce couldn’t have been more spectacular. We’ve only shared tripe once or twice before at one of SF’s taco trucks, just to say we tried it. And now that we have a taste for it again, we’ll be certain to give tripe another try, maybe at a taco truck, fine restaurant, or maybe even at home (a future blog post in the making).

Elysian Fields Farm “Cote D’Agneau,” Chanterelle Mushrooms, Nantes Carrot, Roasted Mizuna and Madras Curry shocked us not only because of its delicate flavor, but also because of the scale of the portion. This was a large lamb chop and the kitchen didn’t skimp on a thing. The meat was unusually “mild” and the fat … well, we could have eaten more and it took some restraint to resist the temptation to gnaw on the bone when all was said and done.

We’re now starting to get that over sated feeling, as I’m sure you, the reader are too. This is not a good thing because we still have cheese and dessert to come and we want, or rather NEED, to enjoy it. The cheese course consisted of a warm bowl of Andante Dairy “Nocturnes” served with Yukon Gold Potato, Flowering Quince and Burgundy Truffles. A ripe, sheep’s milk cheese, the Nocturnes represents some of the best local cheese making to be found. The standout of this dish was the potato. Cut to the tiniest dice, the crunchy toasty bits were packed with earthy flavor. They paired nicely with the rich cheese and the sweet quince. We confess, this composed cheese dish had more than enough flavor to satisfy any happy glutton.

The rest of the flock.

A palate cleanser of Sour Cherry Sorbet, Coconut “Petit Beurre” and Vanilla Soda took the edge off the rich, ripe cheese course. How were we ever going to get through two desserts and all the other lovely sweets we knew were coming at the conclusion of the meal?

First dessert consisted of Alpaco “Mousse Au Chocolat,” Spice Pudding, “Panna Cotta,” Fuyu Persimmon and Almond “Glacée.” Whoa! The marvel of this dish was the cylinder of panna cotta lying on its side, holding its shape as it gleamed and sparkled in the light of the dining room. How did they do that? Our guess, from watching way too many cooking shows, molecular gastronomy. Silky and cool, this one reminded us just how satisfying panna cotta can be.

We also selected the “Pommes Anna” served with Funnel Cake, “Pruneaux d’Agen,” Rum “Anglaise” and Salted Caramel Ice Cream. This was a beautiful dessert. The apple was sliced ever so thin, stacked into a multi-layer round and cooked to tender perfection. The funnel cake was a delicate, playful companion to the sweet apple. Salted caramel ice cream, now available everywhere (even homemade in our freezer), added just the right amount of richness, though we were finally at our limit and barely finished.

Some lovely blueberries that will one day be on the menu.

The menu complete, we sipped the last of our wine and savored the recent memory of the fifteen or so things we’d just eaten. Our server returned to the table with a “special treat” of coconut cake – a congratulatory gesture from the kitchen to say Happy Anniversary (19 years! We met when we were in preschool.). We know the staff is prepared to help lots of diners celebrate special occasions given the likelihood that many of the guests on any given evening have made this special pilgrimage to honor an important occasion. Nevertheless, we felt personally recognized by a group of professionals who care deeply about the service they provide.

Next came the restaurant’s signature “Frozen Capuccino,” a creamy mousse of coffee topped with whipped cream. That’s right, more cream … and chocolate … and sugar. And then a tray of house made chocolate truffles, each with its own uniquely flavored ganache filling. Oh, and a bowl of crunchy, chocolate covered macadamia nuts. No lie. We tasted a couple of nuts and promptly threw in the towel. Not another bite. Any more and we would be miserable beyond redemption. A cup of coffee was all that we could muster at this point in the evening. We asked our server to box up the truffles and the rest of the nuts.

Our goodie bag and a few extras from Bouchon bakery.

Before leaving, we were presented with a bag that contained our boxed up goodies as well as a couple of bags of short bread cookies. A copy of the evening’s menu is delivered along with the bill and the night finally comes to an end. It was about 11:30 when our server invited us to join him in the kitchen to take a look. We gathered our things and headed downstairs where we waited for another group to complete their kitchen tour before heading in. We were most fortunate to get some one-on-one time with Executive Sous Chef Philip Tessier who graciously congratulated us on our anniversary and answered our questions about the kitchen. This was a memorable end to an unforgettable evening.

Stuffed to the gills, we made our way back to the hotel in a cold light rain. Yountville was quiet and sparkling. Our food holiday was now complete and our bellies were full. Three days of total indulgence now behind us, it was time to return to the real world. Damn!