Dispatch from DC: Part 1

As promised, I’m on the road. One of my clients is the KYDS Coalition in Broome County, which is a wonderful organization dedicated to keeping youth safe from the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Because of this relationship, I have the privilege of accompanying Melinda, who is the project coordinator for KYDS, to the annual conference for her grant program. So we’re at the gorgeous National Harbor in Maryland, just across the Potomac from Washington, DC. Like Downtown Disney or Baltimore Harbor, the National Harbor is a complex of resorts, hotels, restaurants and shopping. In other words, a mecca for a girl like me.

If you have a trip to DC in your plans for this year, the National Harbor is a great base of operations. We’re staying at the Gaylord National Harbor, a behemoth of a resort overlooking the Potomac River. The lobby soars 19 stories, and houses a dancing waters fountain and a swanky atrium bar called The Belvedere. When we were here in 2010, we logged happy hour at The Belvedere every evening, and very much enjoyed the expertly made bloody marys and snacks there.

The lobby rising behind me as I enjoy the view at The Belvedere

We arrived at the National Harbor on Superbowl Sunday, and chose the Cadillac Ranch as a good spot to watch the game. The Cadillac Ranch is a Texas-themed chain restaurant, based apparently on the presence of BBQ-centric items on its menu and a mechanical bull on the premises. It was a good bar in which to view the game, but I’m not risking the professional reputation I may or may not have in order to recommend it to you. We ordered buffalo wings and pulled pork nachos, and both were overpriced and disappointing. The nachos were crowned with crappy cheese sauce, none of the promised scallions listed on the menu, and we paid $4 extra for about 3 tablespoons of overly sweet pulled pork. Gross.

Day two improved greatly, with a pretty delicious lunch served at the Gaylord as part of our conference, and dinner at the fantastic Grace’s Mandarin, which I will cover in detail next week. Day three, we had a satisfactory lunch at Potbelly Sandwich Works, which is a national chain, but affordable and completely acceptable for a quick bite. My roast beef sandwich actually had good flavor, and was just the right size for lunch – not gargantuan, but right-sized for the $4.50 price tag. Our afternoon snack came from Cakelove, which is a local DC-area chain of cupcakeries. The guy who founded Cakelove, Warren Brown, used to be on Food Network, if the name is ringing a bell. Below is a cell phone snap of my pumpkin spice cupcake with cream cheese frosting. If you’re a frosting junkie, Cakelove is worth the $3.25-a-cupcake output: the cream cheese crown on this baby was sugary, rich and creamy. But if you appreciate balance and superior, moist cake as I do, I think Cakelove will leave you wanting. I’ve now patronized this company twice, and felt disappointed with the flavorless, dry cake on both occasions.


Dinner Tuesday was Melinda’s choice, and as we had enjoyed our dinner at Public House last year, I enthusiastically agreed to her selection. Public House is billed as upscale American, and the interior is bar-dominated without being rowdy. We were seated in a cool little banquette all warm and cozy, bopping along to the classic rock soundtrack. Since we had both had cupcakes mid-afternoon, we weren’t super hungry, so we decided to split a bunch of appys rather than do entrees.

The clam chowder was really fine – broth-based and not overly thick and creamy like so many. Also, I find so many chowders to be overrun with potatoes and celery – this one had corn, bacon and really finely diced potatoes. A thumbs-up!

A delicious chowdah

Next up, a menu item destined for my table: risotto fritters. We both found the fritters themselves to be pretty bland – as if they had cooked the Arborio rice in plain water rather than the traditional chicken stock. The upside of this dish was the dipping sauce: a goat cheese base enriched with red wine and topped with cherry jam. Sounds like an odd combo, but it paired nicely with the fried rice balls. Having had arancini AKA fried risotto at other places, I was underwhelmed by these, but the dipping sauce certainly saved the dish from total mediocrity.

Dear Public House Chef: try chicken stock next time, and a little parmesan at the end!

Our final choice was a winner: blue crab and artichoke dip with grilled pita. The dip came in a cool little crock and was topped with toasty breadcrumbs that hid some treasures: generously big chunks of creamy, rich lump crabmeat and quartered artichoke hearts. The menu also touted asiago cheese, but we didn’t taste that factor up in there. Instead, I was sensing cream cheese and a little julienned spinach. But it’s cool – this was tasty, and jam-packed with crabmeat, which is what we were looking for.

This dip did not make us crabby. Heh.

We also enjoyed a couple of excellent bloody marys graced with lots of horseradish, pepper and worcestershire sauce with our dinners. We girls love a good bloody! I should also mention that we were in and out of dinner here in about an hour – our appetizers literally came in less than 10 minutes which was surprising, but nice. I remember the menu last year being larger – I feel like the economy has made a lot of great restaurants pare down in that arena. All in all, we gave this meal a six on the BHS one to 10 scale. Everything was good, but a few little tweaks could have made it great – like more flavorful risotto or more cheese flavor in the dip. I will tell you this – the wind was blowing fiercely and the Public House is very close to our hotel, so proximity was a strong factor in our dinner satisfaction, as was the inviting atmosphere and good service. To drinks and three appys came to $48, which is no bargain, but you can’t really expect too much of a value here in touristville USA.

We’re down here through Friday, so I will have another dispatch. I can’t wait to tell you about the sublime Grace’s Mandarin! You would have just finished reading about that meal, except I am a huge knucklehead who made the rookie mistake of forgetting to bring her camera cord with her to DC! So stop in next week for some really pretty pictures of dynamite asian fusion cuisine. And in the meantime, join me on the Big Hungry Shelby Facebook page or over on Twitter for more bites! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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