Swank Modern Interior and New Chef Dazzle at the Morrison House
At long last the Morrison House the elegant boutique hotel in Old Town, Alexandria has shed its dowdy decor to feature a snazzy redo by Los Angeles–based DH Design. In the dining room the facelift is reflected in soft colors of sage and sand. Banquettes are covered in a soft honey tone and dark wood tables give a hint of tavern style. The outdated bar with its clubby red leather wingback chairs has given way to an elegant reception room for private events.
The new, more fashionable style is reflected in the bar area which has moved to just off the foyer. Black and white photographs of notable intellectuals and their famous quotations signal the hotel’s design aesthetic has moved into the 21st century. And so has the food.
Virginia native, Bobby Surdam, has been brought on as Executive Chef at the re-christened Ashlar Restaurant and Bar where the menu has turned toward colonial traditions and a tavern style of fine dining. Surdam comes well-schooled by some of DC’s leading chefs including Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel’s and Brian McBride formerly of Blue Duck Tavern. Of late Surdam helmed the kitchen at Red Owl Tavern in Philadelphia, another Kimpton property. Surdam’s approach is an upscale interpretation of American regional cooking using the finest ingredients from Mid-Atlantic farms and beef producers, as well as local Maryland seafood.
Complementing Surdam’s dishes, Lead Bartender Maria Concepcion, draws from colonial era spirits once imbibed in homes and taverns in Alexandria. To that end, Virginia whiskey, beers and wines are well represented. And that’s fine. But its her elegant cocktails, flips, syllabubs and punches, made with rum, madeira and sherry, spirits that were once brought into the port city by ship, are the most alluring. Well-researched colonial era recipes have led her to offer a variety of punches harkening back to the days of Alexandria’s grand balls and receptions. Sampled at the ribbon-cutting reception in May were two such recipes – one made with Broadbent Rainwater Madeira and another a non-alcoholic Lavender and Honey Lemonade.
Last month we dined at Ashlar and here are highlights from our June supper.
Snapper Crudo with radish, dill, pickled cucumber, jalapeno, beet chips, spring onions andespelette – lovely and light.
Spring Gnocchi with asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, fava beans, English peas and mint pest – a sensational dish in which every element harmonizes yet each shines on its own.
Another is the rockfish, delicate and aromatic with an ethereal smoked tomato broth that includes calamari from Judith Point, briny cockles and Prince Edward Island mussels.
We bypassed the four different steak cuts for lighter fare, although I’ve heard raves about the bison strip steak from Gun Powder Bison & Trading Co. in Monkton, MD and the American Wagyu hangar steak from Snake River Farms. All steaks are served with a choice of béarnaise, red wine jus or green peppercorn jus.
If you’ve never visited this unique hotel and just want to get a feel for its charms, try its Happy Hour on the patio and unwind over local oysters and charcuterie, or cheeses from North Carolina’s Goat Lady Dairy.
Majestic Restaurant Returns to its Lofty Perch with New Chef
After the departure of Chef Shannon Overmiller and Cathal Armstrong early last year, The Majestic has had its ups and downs. A new chef to replace Overmiller didn’t last long and the restaurant decided to close its doors for a reboot. Thank heavens, it did. The original Art Deco period décor has since been enhanced with a skylight, tin ceilings, a Jazz Age mirrored light and an eclectic collection of prints, paintings and photographs filling every inch of wall space.
But let’s turn our attention to newly minted Executive Chef Gaby Hakman. Let’s hope she stays on. Hakman, who hails from a Greek/Israeli family with a long history as restaurateurs, honed her chops in New York City and Miami’s South Beach where she cooked in some of the hippest restaurants that young people tweet about. There among the trendoids, she had a chance to strut her stuff and develop her modern approach to Mediterranean cuisine.
My first introduction to Hakman’s cooking was a beet salad that I can’t get out of my head. Beet salads are on nearly every menu these days, but what makes this one stand out is the details. Hakman roasts sweet baby beets – golden, rosy red and dark purple beets – adds orange supremes, cascades toasted pistachio nuts over the top, and positions the yummy bits over a creamy sauce of whipped goat cheese. It’s her approach that’s exciting and the combination of earthy, creamy, sweet and fruity that makes this salad sing.
Another is the charred octopus. Here Hakman treats it to the smoothest puree of chickpeas, a drizzle of harissa and serves the wood-charred tentacle with arugula and plump Greek olives.
Rosy red steak tartare has the requisite capers, anchovy and cornichons but with a homemade lemon mayonnaise to boot. Fish is served whole and grilled over a wood fire. A head-on dorade (aka bream) gets a slather of salsa verde over its crispy skin and is sopped up into tiny roasted potatoes. It’s a typical Greek preparation found in seaside tavernas.
Two other dishes I heartily recommend are the Roast Chicken Panzanella, a perfectly executed, spit-roasted, soul-satisfying bird and melt-in-your-mouth Lamb Meatballs spiked with currants and pine nuts. Both are tender and juicy in their own way.
Pastry Chef Michelle White, who does double duty at another of Alexandria Restaurant Group’s spots, Virtue Feed & Grain is a treasure. Her Coconut Cake is truly sublime. I have slaved over a coconut cake myself and know full well that if done right, it can take half a day’s labor. I have never baked another, though it’s certainly worth the trouble if you have the time and inclination. If not, White’s is one of those small miracles.
Ditto for what the staff calls her “Caramel Crack Cookies” served with Nutella Budino, a happy marriage of mousse and pudding topped with whipped cream.
True Food Kitchen ~ A Restaurant from the Master of Healthy Eating
Phoenix-based Dr. Andrew Weill has your health in mind. Founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, Weill is the bestselling author of numerous books on healing, aging, wellbeing and cooking, including his seminal cookbook, True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure (Little, Brown and Company, 2012) with Co-Authors, Sam Fox and Michael Stebner. Many of the 125 recipes culled from the book reflect the philosophy behind his collection of twelve health-conscious True Food Kitchen restaurants. Located around the country, this one is located in the Mosaic District of Fairfax, VA.
As a world-renowned pioneer in Integrative Medicine, Weill introduces diners to his healthy eating philosophy in this rustically-designed restaurant reminiscent of a Topanga Canyon restaurant.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at the bar is the comforting whirr of juicers churning out cocktails and mocktails made with fresh seasonal ingredients.
The restaurant’s menu trends towards Asian and Mediterranean cuisine as Dr. Weill’s recipes draw inspiration from his own anti-inflammatory food pyramid. Pizzas are crafted with daily-made spelt and flax dough, eggs are organic, beef is sustainably raised, and fish are sustainably harvested. All boxes checked!
On a recent visit I sampled a few items from their seasonal menu and found a lot to swoon over and one that didn’t meet the high bar the restaurant sets for itself.
Edamame Dumplings and Kale & Avocado Dip got us off to an impressive start, and there was much oohing and aahing over a trio of “Natural Refreshers” – Medicine Man, a combo of anti-oxidants from seabuckthorn, pomegranate, cranberry, honey, black tea and soda; Kale-Aid, made from kale, apple, cucumber, celery, lemon and ginger; and Honey Bee Ginger Beer from ginger, honey, chai spices and lime.
Crisp-crusted braised artichoke pizza showed nice acidity from lemon ricotta, and the vegetarian Street Taco was a satisfying choice for my vegan accomplice.
Unfortunately, my sea bass, a lovely and delicate white-fleshed fish, had spent too much time in the saute pan, though its accompanying cushion of asparagus, sugar snap peas and roasted mushrooms in a lemon-nooch emulsion was heavenly. Did I tell the server it was dry? Yes. Did they offer to redo it? Of course. Did I know what “nooch” was? No. But I did a bit of research and discovered it’s short for nutritional yeast. I am not a vegan. End of discussion.
We went for a trio of desserts. All the better to try three out of four of the daily in-house made sweets. On this day they were strawberry crumble, coconut chia pudding and a chocolate delight topped with ice cream. Though I can’t recall the precise descriptions, I can only hope we didn’t disturb the surrounding tables by fighting over the final spoonful.
When to Spring for a Lavish Luncheon
The stimulating “Author Series” at the Hay-Adams recreates the salons of yesterday when acclaimed writers held court in private homes. Though the trend of the ever-popular bookstore tradition of nightly author talks continues, those fold-out chair gatherings can’t compete with a lazy afternoon spent on the 9th story rooftop of the Hay-Adams listening to a featured author while enjoying an elegant three-course luncheon.
Nicolas Legret, who has been promoted to Executive Chef since the departure of Chef Peter Schaffrath, has shifted the hotel’s cuisine to reflect his heritage.
His superb execution of familiar French classics – a Provencal vegetable salad, an exquisite seafood boudin blanc with bouillabaisse reduction, and seasonal peach and cherry clafouti with crème fraiche ice cream – accompanied by champagne and Sancerre, proves that the hotel is serious about stepping up its culinary profile in a very competitive town.
At last month’s white linen event the conversation was lively between noted author Kristin Hannah and the assembled guests. Hannah explained how she began writing with her mother who was terminally ill with cancer. At the time Hannah was studying law and this was a way for the women to spend more time together.
Her first manuscript was 600 pages, but when she submitted it her agent’s response was, “You may have talent, but frankly it’s impossible to tell.” Thankfully for her legion of fans she kept at it. “I had an insatiable appetite for writing,” she revealed.
Now a successful author of 21 historical romance novels, the tawny blonde told guests that she writes in longhand and she doesn’t like to diagram characters, plot and motivations. “I realized that my best writing is when I am more fluid,” she said in answer to a question about her methodology. She also spoke of her commitment to writing romance novels. “Women’s stories are far too often lost, forgotten, or overlooked.”
After lunch Hannah signed books for the tony crowd who included author, journalist and former U. S. Chief of Protocol, Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt.
Next in the series will be Executive Editor and Executive Vice President of Random House, Jon Meacham, whose latest book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, will undoubtedly draw a different crowd. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, will speak on the relevancy of the Bush era model of governing by diplomacy and prudence in domestic affairs.
The Hay-Adams is located across from the White House at 800 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC 20006. Tickets to the September 23rd luncheon will be available for purchase online beginning September 3rd. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202.835.2263.
Food and Flowers ~ Recipes from Kitty Morse’s Book “Edible Flowers”
A recent trend to decorate dishes with edible flowers hasn’t been lost on author and TV and radio personality Kitty Morse whose book Edible Flowers – A Kitchen Companion with Recipes (Chefs Press) was first published in 1995. Morse was in the forefront of the food-and-flower movement and a revised and expanded issue of this book is still sought after by cooks and caterers who like to pretty up the plate with eye-catching blossoms.
I was intrigued by Morse’s book which reminded me of my first experience using flowers in food. Inspired by famed naturalist and author Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962), I bravely sautéed daylily buds into a stir-fry. From there I graduated to sprinkling violets, marigolds, redbud blossoms and dandelion greens into salads. I’d come a long way from the child who spent summers sucking the nectar out of honeysuckle flowers.
Morse, a native-born Moroccan, has penned ten cookbooks, five of them on the cuisine of Morocco and North Africa. Her memoir with recipes, Mint Tea and Minarets: A Banquet of Moroccan Memories, was chosen Best Arab Cuisine Book/USA/2013 by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
Morse has graciously allowed me to share two of her recipes with you. Note: If you don’t have a garden to forage from, farmers’ markets often carry edible flowers. But be sure your blossoms haven’t been sprayed with any chemicals. Another source for edible flowers is online at www.MarxFoods.com.
Cherry Clafoutis with Lavender Blossoms
The subtle aroma of lavender infuses this classic clafoutis, a rustic dessert from the Limousin region of France featuring cherries suspended in a thick pancake-like batter that puffs up.
- 3 tablespoons fresh or dried lavender blossoms, divided use
- 1 cup warm milk
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups fresh or frozen Bing cherries, pitted
- 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons almond meal
- Fresh or dried lavender blossoms, for garnish
- Whipped cream, for garnish if desired
If using fresh blossoms, strip them off the stems. Place 2½ tablespoons of the fresh or dried blossoms in a small sachet or tea infuser and place in the warm milk. Cover and infuse for 30 minutes. Discard sachet and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease an 8×8-inch baking dish or 4 individual dishes and dot the bottom(s) with the butter and cherries.
In a bowl, whisk the infused milk, sugar, eggs, almond extract, flour, almond meal, and remaining lavender blossoms. Pour the mixture over the cherries. Set the baking dish or dishes inside a larger pan filled with enough warm water to reach halfway up the dish sides.
Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until set. I prefer this served warm. Garnish with lavender blossoms and a dollop of whipped cream, if desired.
Chilled Lilyed Melon & Mango Soup
Daylily (Hemerocallis species and cultivars) live a mere 24 hours. This graceful native of Asia, one of the few edible lily varieties, has long been prized for its color and beauty, as well as for its culinary properties. The petals are crunchy and fresh testing, much like a crisp lettuce leaf. In China, tiger lily buds (Hemerocallis fulva), or “golden needles,” are dried and added to soups or stir-fries. Beautifully presented, this chilled melon-mango dish makes a light and refreshing summer starter or dessert.
- 1 mango, cubed
- 1 medium in-season melon, cubed
- 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
- 1 cup sliced strawberries
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons orange liqueur
- 5 daylilies, for garnish
In a blender, purée the mango, melon, and orange juice in batches until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate. Rinse the blender and purée the strawberries, sugar, and orange liqueur. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate. Chill the purées for 2 hours before serving. To serve, ladle the melon mixture on one side of a shallow soup bowl. Ladle the puréed strawberries next to it without mixing. Cut 1 daylily into thin strips and sprinkle on top. Decorate each bowl with a whole flower and serve immediately.