Wednesday, April 18, 2012

D.C. Travel Log and General Food Related Ramblings

Remember when I made empanadas a few weeks ago?  I talked about how the first time I had empanadas was at this little place in Washington, D.C. called Julia's.  Well, that post sparked a conversation in my family about how we might be due for a trip down to D.C. - if only for empanadas and a stop at our favorite cafe Tryst.  So, last Thursday night, my family and I packed our bags and the car, and drove down to D.C. for the weekend.
We arrived late Thursday night at our hotel near Dupont Circle, which was right outside of Adams Morgan.  I promptly passed out in the clean white bed with the sheets tucked in so tight I felt like I was in a straight jacket (which was actually quite pleasant...maybe lunatics aren't crazy, maybe they just like to be cozy.   Straight jackets and padded cells suddenly don't seem so bad).

Now let me interject here and tell you about how the Confoys vacation.  We begin our trips weeks before with lots and lots of research.  If we're good at one thing, it's research - partially due to father's degree in Library Sciences (yeah, I didn't know that existed either).  We do our homework when it comes to vacationing, and we usually have a whole packet full of print-outs and lists and itineraries.  One of my dad's favorite parts of a trip is running out to the AAA to pick up the latest maps of the areas we're visiting.  That being said, we normally have a massive list of things to do and then our vacation ends up being less sitting-on-the-beach-with-a-fruity-cocktail and more running-around-trying-to-hit-that-last-museum-before-it-closes.  Which, don't get me wrong, I love.  I love taking full advantage of the places I'm in and cramming everything into one weekend.  However, I think on this vacation, we all needed a little breather.  So, while research was conducted and folder jammed with print-outs and map bought, we picked out a couple things that we wanted to do and then just kind of wandered around for a day and a half.  Things we didn't get to, we didn't worry about, and if something else serendipitous popped up along the way, we did it.  We actually got a lot done for not having tried, and the room for spontaneity gave this trip a completely different feel from the ones in our past.

Since Friday was our only full day in town, we woke up early and hit the hotel buffet for breakfast.  Now I am not a fan of buffets.  I actually avoid them like the plague, or swine flu or yellow fever or whatever other pleasant things live on most buffet's spit-shields.  However, this "buffet" was more of a made-to-order breakfast station with serve-yourself fresh pastries and fruit.  Basically, it wasn't that awful.  Actually, I did find something there that I am going to steal and pass off as my own and probably write a blog posting about in the near future - fruit shooters.  They were shot glasses filled with juiced strawberries, mango, peach, and even a cantaloupe mint combo that was fantastic.  My breakfast consisted of about five of those.  And then two giant glasses of orange juice.  I have a little bit of a fruit juice addiction if it wasn't apparent.
Breakfast was followed by an afternoon of walking the Mall - the Washington Monument, Vietnam War Memorial, WWII Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.  I tell ya, they never get old.  And neither do the people.  The Mall is the most amazing place to people watch.  Don't people understand that over-sized Hawaiian shirts, fanny packs, khakis, and socks with sandals is a cliche, that they are mocking themselves?  Apparently not.

We grabbed a snack at the National Gallery of Art's outdoor cafe and sat in the sculpture garden to rest our weary legs.  The next stop was going to be the Shakespeare Library, but on the way we stumbled upon the Botanical Gardens.  I had never been, but was sold on the place as soon as I walked in; I asked the woman at the help desk where the bathrooms were and her reply was "just walk straight through the jungle".   There was a special orchid display which I took far too many pictures of.  We never made it to the Shakespeare Library, but I have to say, no one really minded - well, maybe my dad did a little, but if he did, he didn't let it show.

Then family nap-time at the hotel commenced.  It was lovely.  However, family nap time coincided with family-picking-dinner-restaurant time which was a little less lovely.  While it didn't reach the point of blows, it was semi-frustrating and anxiety inducing.  Long story short, we ended up driving around D.C. for over an hour before ending up at joint two blocks from our hotel.  And let me tell you driving in D.C. is the most ridiculous thing in the whole world.  If it's not the stop lights every ten feet, it's the streets that suddenly become one ways, but only between 7:23 AM and 10:48 PM on days with an odd number of letters.

The restaurant we ended up at was The Cajun Experience, a New Orleans style cozy little place with live music and very large portions.  The first sign that we were in the right place was the presence of  Pimm's Cup on the drink menu.  For those who don't know, Pimm's is a gin based English liquor that's spicy and citrusy and when served with ginger ale, a slice of cucumber and banana, its the epitome of summer.  Literally, it's summer in a glass - okay, figuratively summer in a glass, but seriously, it's amazing.  The second sign was the presence of crawdads on the menu.  Everywhere on the menu.  They are one of my favorite seafoods and I rarely find them in restaurants.  The third sign was the presence of alligator in the appetizer section.  Well, that was more for my brother than for anyone else, but it definitely sealed the deal for him.  So we got fried green tomatoes, oysters, and alligator bites to start our Cajun experience.  And of course I had to try the gator.  I mean, it's alligator for god's sake!  When are you going to have another chance to try alligator?  And you know what, it tastes exactly like how you'd think it would taste: a mix between seafood and poultry, which let's be real, is what an alligator is, right?

I got the crawfish etoufee which was ridiculously good.  The crawdads were cooked perfectly, not chewy or tough.  And the gravy had just the right amount of kick - spicy without blowing out my taste buds and losing the other flavors.  It was a warm, filling, hearty dinner that I needed after a long day of walking.

The next morning we headed out early in search of another favorite Confoy D.C. spot - Tryst.  We stumbled upon Tryst eight years ago when we stayed in Adams Morgan.  Tryst is everything you'd ever want in a cafe and then some.  It's a big warehouse-esque space full of miss-matched couches and overstuffed chairs, old coffee tables and lamps from your grandmother's house.  The best part?  They serve animal crackers with their coffees.  Yes, animal crackers.  Right on the saucer of your flawless cappuccino.  It's almost too much.  Well, not until you add granola with steamed milk and fruit and another cappuccino and a black currant vanilla scone.  Then it's too much.

Besides coffee and typical cafe breakfast pastry fair, Tryst offers full breakfast, lunch, dinner, and cocktails at night.  After seeing a drink called the 6th Borough (Bulleit rye, Carpano Antica, chocolate bitters, and sea salt), I wished that we had another night to spend in D.C.  But a couple hours lackadaisically sipping coffee, eating treats and reading a good book made up for it.

On our way out of town, we stopped at Julia's to grab some empanadas to enjoy for dinner when we got home - you didn't think this post would end without more empanadas, did you?  After that we hit up the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (no, I did not make that up), the country's largest Catholic church.  While we aren't a religious family, we are architecture geeks, so this was fun for the whole family.  Legitimately.  Before we got on the road after touring and sufficiently photo-documenting the basilica, we went in search of some place to grab a quick snack before getting on the road.  That place turned out to be Boundry Stone Public House, a small bar with an even smaller menu.  However, there were vegetarian and vegan options, and a selection of varying and constantly changing specials (the risotto special switched while we were ordering), and it was all astonishingly good.   We got an array of snacks, including a falafel sandwich, hummus, slow braised pork quesadillas, chile cilantro deviled eggs, and kalamata olive risotto balls.  While the plates were small and simple, the presentation was impeccable and tastes complex.
It was here that I also found my new favorite summer beer: Flying Dog's In-Heat Wheat.  My brother thinks it tastes like soy sauce, but I got more of a smoky BBQ, sitting-next-to-the-grill-flipping-burgers-drinking-beer flavor.  Now I just need to buy a case of that baby and plan a summer grilling dinner party...or just keep it all for myself.

This mini-vacation really reminded me why I love D.C.  I'm not a big city girl, I would much rather live in a small village in the countryside with a general store that acts as grocery, diner, video rental, and post office.  However, there is a certain level of culture (art, food, architecture) that only a city can provide.  What I love about D.C. is that it's the perfect mix of both - little neighborhoods like Adams Morgan with its old buildings, and tree-lined quiet streets, has such a small town feel you forget that the White House is less than three miles down the block.  The hamlet of Adams Morgan also has fantastic restaurants featuring food from around the world, antique stores, art galleries, specialty food stores, cozy cafes, and basically every other great thing about big cities without the big city part.

But you want to know what my favorite part of the weekend was?  Waking up in my own bed Sunday morning, stumbling out into the kitchen and seeing a giant plate of empanadas just waiting to be eaten for breakfast.  And let me tell you, the one's I made failed horribly, in a burning, melted, scarred car-wreck of a way compared to Julia's.  Guess that just means I'll have to keep trying until I get it right.
Pear and Almond, Peach and Guava, Apple, and Pineapple Coconut Empanadas

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