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Cuba Libre Washington, DC now open! Diners to enjoy 50% off through October 7th.

Streetscape Facade. Photo by L. Shapiro

The Latin-inspired Cuba Libre Old Havana Restaurant & Rum Bar, is officially open for business, as of October 1st. I’ll be there for dinner on Friday but unless you go yourself, you’ll have to wait for my review. But as always, you shouldn’t just take my word for it, you should experience it yourself. Besides, how many times can you get away to Cuba on a weeknight?

Two weeks before the opening I got a sneak peek of Cuba Libre’s remarkably thematic design which is a collaboration of craftsman Kevin Hale and his firm, Artisan Industry of Nashville, Tennessee and Cuban American architect Carlos Sobrin, of the Orlando, Florida firm Cuhaci & Peterson (see slideshow here). With experience in theatre production, the design team created the Old Havana circa the 1950s the “Vegas of it’s time”, according to Chris Perrupato, General Manager of the Orlando, FL Cuba Libre who is in town helping with the DC opening. The restaurant’s main dining room (seats 170 total) and bar with high top tables, that seat 50 are along an intimate streetscape lined by recreations of two-story buildings with balconies, windows and doors highlighted by ornate moldings, and wrought iron railings modeled after photos of actual Old Havana buildings.

Maybe for the first time in the history of a DC restaurant opening, guests will receive half off of their opening menu. For the first week of opening, diners at the new “Nuevo Cubano” restaurant will receive a 50% discount on their dinner on opening day, October 1st til the 7th. Executive Chef Jason Kaufman said, “It’s our way of showing we’re dedicated to getting it right. People are a lot more forgiving about their food being late if it is at a discount. People are happy when they are saving money”. Then from October 8-13th, guests will be offered a 25% discount before the full price menu begins October 14th, two weeks after their soft opening. Guests can call to make reservations and reservations online can be made after September 25th.

Dining Room view from Door. 'Calle'. Photo by L. Shapiro

Cuba Libre’s menu showcases the flavors of various Latin regions featuring piqueos, or small tasting plates, ideal for experiencing a multitude of delicious flavor combinations was specifically developed for Washington by Chef-Partner Guillermo Pernot. Orlando GM, Perrupato said, “The structure of the DC menu is completely different than our other locations. The concept of small plates is different for us but that is the trend in DC and that what makes DC unqiue is so many ways. The small plates are great. You’re never having to wait for an entree to come out. There is no lag time.”

Executive Chef Kaufman said his favorite dishes are the Bay Scallop Ceviche and that most popular dish of all Cuba Libre locations, including Atlantic City and Orlando is the Churrasco a la Cubana. A Grilled skirt steak with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, parsley, lemon and onion sauce, watercress and rosemary mushroom escabeche salad. Besides its ceviche and ropa vieja (Cuban stew), Cuba Libre is known for and its expansive rum menu. With more than 75 premium and flavored varieties from Brazil, Haiti, Nicaragua and Tortola, as well as the restaurant’s six Cuba Libre branded rums by Demerara Distillers in Guyana which are aged up to 21 years. Fresh tropical fruit juices are also incorporated into the specialty cocktails. Cuba Libre’s house specialty, the mojito is available in 15 varieties and made from an authentic Cuban recipe. Fresh sugar cane juice, called guarapo and lime juice is pressed daily in-house (see photos). These are the coolest kitchen gadgets you’ve ever seen; however, the Zumex alone will run you about nine grand. In addition, the restaurant also features an extensive wine selection, primarily from Spain and South America.

In a few weeks with weather permitting, Cuba Libre will open their 66-seat sidewalk café. In addition, when the dust settles sometime in the near future, on Friday and Saturday nights after dinner hours, around 10–11 PM, the tables will be moved back for dancing and Cuba Libre will heat up with Latin rhythms as professional salsa dancers perform colorful floor shows. The resident DJ overlooking the floor in the mezzanine booth, will spin Salsa, Meringue, Bachata and other Latin dance music to keep guests heading to the dance floor well into the night. (801 Ninth St. NW, 202-408-1600).

Join the Great American Dine Out to Help End Childhood Hunger.

For once, gluttony isn’t a sin, it’s encouraged. But let’s not get too carried away, it’s only for one week! Beginning this Sunday, hundreds of DC area restaurants are offering great promotions, featuring special dishes, and donating part of their proceeds to participate in the Great American Dine-Out from September 19th to September 25th. During that week, five percent of participating restaurant’s proceeds will be donated to Share Our Strength, a national non-profit working to combat childhood hunger. For one week, we won’t judge if you eat out every night because the more that diners consume the more dollars will be donated to help make sure that no kid in America will grow up hungry.

For the third year in a row, DC area restaurants will align forces with other restaurants nationwide to support the dynamic organization and its “No Kid Hungry” campaign.  Some of my favorite restaurants are participating, such as Art and Soul, P.F. Chang’s, and Carlyle. Try newcomers such as Estadio and Ping Pong Dim Sum.

Attention Tweeters: September 20 is the first-ever Great American Dine Out Tweet-a-Thon! From 9 to 9, please tweet about the Great American Dine Out using the hashtags #DineOut and #NoKidHungry. Follow @Dine_Out  on Twitter (@Dine_Out) for the latest developments and RSVP for the Great American Dine Out Facebook event, too.

Carmine’s DC packs the house and stuffs the belly. Great for groups and family fun.

Carmine's Exterior. View from street.

Carmine's Exterior.

The new Carmine’s DC, a New York outpost of the famous family-style restaurant is doing what they set out to do — pack the house and stuff the belly. The largest restaurant in Washington, DC with more than 20,000 square feet and 700 seats, Carmine’s has managed to draw thousands within days of opening. In fact, according to Jill Collins, who is managing their public relations effort in DC said, “Carmine’s did 1,000 covers on its first Friday of business -and it had been open only 3 days.” With their enormous portions, (each dish designed to serve 4-6 adults), it’s impossible to leave there without being completely full to the brim.

Carmine's Family-Style Menu.

I was there for their opening on Tuesday, August 3rd and to interview Alicart restaurant group CEO, Jeffrey Bank but this past Friday night was my first time ever trying Carmine’s famous cuisine. I had relatively high expectations, since I had heard good things but was somewhat skeptical. What is so remarkable, especially for a restaurant its size is that their sauces and pasta are made from scratch daily and every dish is made to order.

What is also quite impressive is that Carmine’s has a special “menu” that provides recommendations of dishes for those with dietary restrictions, vegetarian, vegan, or have food allergies, including gluten. This is not yet available on the website; however, it may be added in the future.

Eggplant Parm

Part of the decor, yet is also functional is the enormous menus that hang on the wall in prominent places throughout the restaurant (see photo on left).  Bank said, “There are no daily specials at Carmine’s. The menu hasn’t changed in 20 years. We’re not big on creativity but we’re big on consistency. The food is the same in each location. With our enormous portions — it’s a tremendous value.”  Bank added, “There are many popular dishes, such as the Fried Calamari, Caesar Salad, Eggplant Parmigiana, Linguine with Clam Sauce, Rigatoni Country Style, Chicken Scarpariello, the 46 oz Porterhouse, and Chicken Contadina.”

Chicken Saltimbocca

With a group of 6 adults, we ordered two appetizers, three entrees, and two desserts. For the first course, we ordered their famous Cesar salad and the Eggplant Parmigiana. Yes, it’s true that I don’t like eggplant but I have heard so many good things about Carmine’s Eggplant Parm that I decided to try it. Quite to my surprise, I loved it and thought that it didn’t even taste like eggplant. The tomato sauce was tangy, just the way that I like it. Also, I could see why people rave about their Cesar salad and why it has been one of their top sellers since the first Carmine’s opened in 1990.

The Cesar dressing is thick, creamy, and has just enough anchovy to taste the way a good Cesar dressing should. The recipe in the Carmine’s cookbook, which Bank graciously gave to me when I met him on opening day, calls for anchovy fillets, garlic, egg yolk, red wine vinegar, lemon, and spices. I’d love to know how much Romaine lettuce Carmine’s goes through in a day! They probably could set a Guinness Book World Record for the amount used per year. We had only Cesar salad leftovers. We scarfed down the Eggplant parm. I think we would have finished off the salad also but I think people were saving room for the next course. Rightfully so! These portions are huge!

Server holding Lasagne.

We ordered three entrees, the traditional Lasagne, Chicken Saltimbocca, and the Seafood pasta with red sauce. The lasagne was enormous (see photo below which gives you an idea of the scale). After trying a couple of dishes with Carmine’s marinara sauce, I knew that I would like the lasagne. It was hearty with a meat sauce and thankfully not too much ricotta cheese.

Of the three entrees that I tried, the Chicken Saltimbocca was my favorite. The chicken is pounded flat, with prosciutto, and fresh sage leaves, dredged in flour, and then sauteed. It is served on a bed of spinach with a white wine sauce and melted mozzarella on top. The seafood pasta was a huge portion as well. It was chock full o’ seafood pieces such as lobster, calamari, mussels, clams, and jumbo shrimp. The pasta in the red sauce was delicious but I had a hard time eating the seafood, especially the lobster pieces which were often mostly shell. We had a lot of leftovers of this pasta and since my husband couldn’t join us for dinner, I brought it home to him. He loved it. I wasn’t surprised since he enjoys more hearty seafood fishes than I. He has eaten the pasta for two meals and we still have more left in the fridge.

Bill being serenaded for his Birthday.

For dessert, we ordered the Tiramisu and the Strawberry shortcake. One of our guests, Bill was celebrating his birthday so they brought out the Tiramisu, which was as large as a pie, with a candle on it. In addition, one of the staff song Happy Birthday to Bill beautifully. The entire restaurant cheered and clapped. The Tiramisu which means, “pick me up” in Italian was delicious. It tasted like creamy chocolate custard. Carmine’s uses super-rich Mascarpone as well as whipped cream and then tops it all with large chocolate shavings. I didn’t taste the espresso coffee flavors at all (which I don’t really like anyways).

The enormous strawberry shortcake was like a huge mountain of cream with strawberries decorated the way a Christmas Tree would with a stand of pound cake. It was difficult to serve but it was delicious. It was as large as my head!

Me holding the Strawberry Shortcake.

My only complaint is that the servers serve you and it takes too long. I would prefer to serve myself so I can put what I want and the right amount on my plate.

Bottom line: Carmine’s serves great food and makes dining in groups a lot of fun. The value for the amount of food that you get is unmatched. The decor is rustic and the photos on the walls makes you feel like your at Grandma’s house eating at your Nonna’s dinner table.

For more info: Carmine’s Website for reservations and more information. Carmine’s DC:425 7th Street NW (Penn Quarter metro)
Map/Directions : Google
Telephone: 202.737.7770

New EatWonky food truck prepares to hit the streets of DC.

How do you like your “wonky”? With gravy? or without? That’s right …  now Washingtonian’s are going to Eat Wonky! Starting next week  the guys behind eatWonky (www.eatwonky.com) are putting the rubber to the pavement with a new set of wheels on the streets of the District. They’ve passed inspection, have their business license in hand, and the truck will be arriving to DC in less than 5 days, I was told today.  They plan to start limited service in the next few weeks, so keep your eyes peeled!

Poutine, a native dish of Canada’s Quebec region, is making its way further south of its border. Owners and childhood friends, Jeff Kelley and Minas Kaloosian are ready to smother and cover DC, literally. The wallet-friendly includes Wonky Fries – eatWonky’s interpretation of the Canadian staple, poutine, comprised of fresh-cut fries topped with ”squeaky cheese” and gravy, their signature item, the Wonky Dog (an all-beef hot dog topped with Wonky Fries) and Grilled Cheese sandwiches (made with the same cheese, spices, and served with a side of gravy). They will even offer a gravy-less version and those for Vegetarians.  There will be something for everyone.

Food Truck license plate. Photo courtesy of EatWonky.

Kelley and Kaloosian drew their inspiration for eatWonky from the street food scene they experienced on a recent visit to Vancouver.  “We wanted to create something for our food truck that no one is doing anywhere else in the country,” says Kelley. “Where better to start a grassroots culinary uprising than in the nation’s Capital?”

Patrons can follow the team’s progress on Twitter (@eatwonky) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/eatwonky), and will soon have more Wonky access, including an online store with eatWonky merchandise, at www.eatwonky.com.

You can even win a lifetime discount of FREE eatWonky. Spread the word by asking your Twitter followers are following @eatwonky (& DMing us about it). http://fb.me/xdG0PTQ7

Chat with CEO of Carmine’s of New York, Jeffrey Bank.

Today I had the opportunity to meet the Chief Executive Officer of Alicart restaurant Group, Jeffrey Bank.  He’s in Washington, DC to oversee the opening of the new Carmine’s DC located at 425 7 Street NW in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. Everyone’s been chomping at the bit awaiting its opening. Today when I was there around 12 p.m. there were dozens of people standing around and peeking in the windows, which are now uncovered. They are in fact open this evening at 5 p.m. for dinner service.

I was excited to meet Mr. Bank but I didn’t know what to expect since I don’t spend that much time with New Yorkers but I really enjoyed speaking with him. He’s funny, witty, and he knows his stuff. Carmine’s is a big business. He said that last year, Carmine’s served over 800,00 meals and is the 2nd largest grossing independent restaurant group in the country.  This month Carmine’s is will celebrate its 20th year in business. The first to open was in New York City on the Upper West side.  Since in December 2004 Carmine’s opened at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City and in July of 2005 Carmine’s went international when it opened Carmine’s Atlantis at the Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Now Carmine’s can add the nation’s capital to it’s list of locations but do Washingtonians really know what to expect from a big New York family style restaurant?

Carmine's DC is Now Open!

Carmine's DC is Now Open!

Bank said, “Carmine’s is like going to an Italian wedding or to your Italian Grandmother’s house for supper. It’s a big feast!” He said that when diners come to Carmine’s the first thing the server asks is if they’ve ever dined at Carmine’s before — that they need to know what they’re getting into.  He added that Carmine’s is well known for what he calls, “the Wow! factor” — guests are surprised by the over-sized, very generous portions which are made to serve 4-6 people.  In addition, he said that, “everyone is treated like a VIP. Everything is made to order.”

So what’s on the menu? There are no daily specials. You aren’t handed a menu when you’re seated.  The gigantic menus are posted on the walls for all to see. Bank said, “the menu hasn’t changed in 20 years. We’re not big on creativity but we’re big on consistency. The food is the same in each location and with our enormous portions, it’s a tremendous value. A group of college kids could come here and share a salad, some pasta, and a dessert and split it and pay seven bucks. You can’t beat that — it’s an incredible value”. Even for lunch, Bank said that there are lunch sized portions and their hero sandwiches comes with a free salad. Bank also said that, “the DC prices are actually lower than the New York City restaurant menus.”

Bank said that, “the number two dish is the Chicken Parmigiana” he added, “there are many popular dishes … the Fried Calamari, Caesar Salad, Eggplant Parmigiana, Linguine with Clam Sauce, Rigatoni Country Style, Chicken Scarpariello, the 46 oz Porterhouse, and Chicken Contadina.”

The Executive Chef at the Carmine’s DC, Terry Natas has been with Carmine’s for 6 years. He started as an Executive Sous Chef at the Atlantic City, NJ restaurant and was eventually promoted to the Executive Chef at the Atlantic resort Carmine’s in the Bahamas. Bank laughs, “Yeah, poor kid.” Chef Terry also served at Virgil’s, their barbecue restaurant, which Banks said will open in the DC area in the next 6-7 months.

The new Carmine’s DC is housed in 20,000 square feet with 700 seats, a colossal 40 seat wrap-around bar, a 50 seat cocktail lounge, 3 separate dining areas thanks to movable walls and 6 private dining rooms all equipped with state of the art technology. For private dining rooms, there are no rental fees — everything is already there, another great value.

At the bar and lounge, there are purposely placed outlets for guests to plug in their laptops, netbooks, phone, iPods, you name it. Oh, and if you forget your charger, no problem — the bartender has extras to loan. It’s incredible! It’s better than Starbucks — and way more swank!

Chandelier donated to Carmine's by Doug Jemal

Bank said that they came to DC because they thought the “demographic in DC worked for them”. He added that Carmine’s is perfect for the student, the “little red hat club” (old ladies going to the theatre) (I couldn’t help but laugh when he’s describing this), lobbyists, tourists, and of course, businessmen. Yesterday, the Dictrict of Columbia Mayor, Mr. Adrian M. Fenty credits that the new restaurant will bring 200 new jobs to Washington DC in the Washington Post. Bank said that they signed a 25 year lease and they plan to be here a while.  Inside the DC location, there is the nostalgic signature Carmine’s décor with walls strewn with black and white photographs depicting Italian American families surrounded by hanging chandeliers. Bank said that there are two very special chandeliers and one very special photograph on the wall. Douglas Jemal, President of Douglas Development donated two antique chandeliers that are worth over $60,000 a piece. Bank said that only the DC location has them but joked that Mr. Jemal could donate them all of the restaurants if he wanted. In exchange for his generous offering, Doug has his photo on the wall in the bar lounge area.

Worried about trying to get a reservation? Don’t! Bank said that they only take reservations for half of the restaurant’s capacity so that there will be tables available for walk-ins. Pretty cool … is it possible to fill up all 700 seats? I think tonight they might be surprised! Go get em’ foodies!

So You Think You Can Grill contest ends Friday. Enter your recipe now!

Summertime is here! Sunny warm weather signals for many Washingtonians that it is time to break out their grills. Everything is better, grilled. Right? So You Think You Can Grill? Enter your best recipe in the grilloff contest to prove it!  The deadline for submissions is this Friday, May 21st so there’s still time to send in your favorite grilled beef or veal recipes for a chance to go head-to-head in the cook-off at the Food and Wine Festival at National Harbor  next month where I will be a judge! I’d love to see some of my friends there so, hurry and submit your entries!

The Beef Checkoff, through the Northeast Beef Promotion Initiative (www.pabeef.org), is looking for the best amateur grill masters in the National Capital Region to turn up the heat in the Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.™ tent at this year’s  Food and Wine Festival at National Harbor.  DC area foodies, local gourmands, backyard grillers and wanna-be chefs, if you have a sizzling beef or veal recipe that thrills your friends and family, you should submit recipe, today. Only amateur chefs and grill masters, please, with an original unpublished recipe that’s prepared on the grill or in an outdoor kitchen.

The top four recipes, selected by the The Beef Checkoff Advisory Panel, will go head-to-head in a two-round cook-off under the Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.™ tent at this year’s Food & Wine Festival at National Harbor on June 12th and 13th.  In addition to bragging rights, the grand prize winner will receive a brand new Weber grill, a copy of The Healthy Beef Cookbook, the chance to have their recipe published on www.BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com and a set of steak knives.  Who couldn’t use a new grill just in time for warmer weather?!

Deadline to enter is May 21st at 3 PM EDT. Join me, I will be a judge for the Cook Off event. Remember: Only amateur chefs and unpublished recipes are eligible.

The Beef Checkoff Program was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. The checkoff assesses $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable assessment on imported beef and beef products. States retain up to 50 cents on the dollar and forward the other 50 cents per head to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which administers the national checkoff program, subject to USDA approval.

Invite to LivingSocial

In the spirit of Earth Day I think it would be cool to mention that today’s LivingSocial deal is 69% Off an Environmentally concsious maid service to Clean Your Entire Home (2-3 bedrooms) Check it out: Invite to LivingSocial.

 Let Green Clean do your dirty work for a fraction of the regular price. For $50 these environmentally-friendly cleaning machines will make your one-bedroom home look spotless — a service that will regularly set you back $160. For $60, they’ll scrub a two-bedroom place, and for $70 your three-bedroom home will shine. Not only does everything they touch turn to clean, they only work their magic using safe, non-toxic, biodegradable products. Whoever said being green wasn’t easy?