Dispatch from DC: Part 2

My week at the National Harbor in Washington DC got a little more complicated after I posted last week, from the perspective of someone who counts service as an important factor in overall eating satisfaction. On Wednesday and Thursday, we had weird/bad service at three different spots at the National Harbor – the Belvedere lobby bar at the Gaylord, Freshii and Ketchup. All three spots tried various methods of correcting their own inadequacies, but they still left a bad taste in the mouth, so to speak.

The outstanding bright spot in all this mediocrity was my beloved Grace’s Mandarin. Grace’s Mandarin is one of three Grace’s restaurants in Maryland, but has a much more upscale imprint than any kind of chain I’ve ever visited. Grace Tang, the owner, has been on the scene at least two of the three times Melinda and I have dined there, keeping her excellent staff in line and presiding over her jewel box of an Asian fusion masterpiece with authority and expeditiousness.

Grace’s Interior

Melinda and I both knew our appetizers before we even set foot in the joint. She, a potsticker aficionado, didn’t even blink before deciding on the chicken gyoza. I had glanced at the menu ahead of time and set a date with the pork bun sliders, a clever combination of the dim sum classic and the new American staple. We also started with a round of Grace’s imaginative cocktails: the Mandarin Bellini for me and the Sneaky Lychee for Melinda. These were both strong yet perfectly balanced.

You gotta have pork buns, hon

Behold above, the glorious pork bun sliders! Bask in the majesty of their pillowy, steamed buns – like fat, soft tortillas hugging the thinly sliced pork! Dip into the fabulous homemade hoisin sauce, the majestic Asian version of BBQ! The fact that Grace’s makes their own hoisin is not surprising, exactly. I mean, this is a fine dining locale. But it was a pleasant treat, as the bottled version I use at home has never been my favorite of the Asian condiments. In any event, I loved this little appetizer oddity. The pork was not remarkably flavorful on its own, but the fatty meat played well in the sandbox with the bland lushness of the buns and the sweet, complex-with-just-a-hint-of-spice hoisin. A+

Melinda’s gyoza were ab-fab. Filled with chicken and cilantro, probably a little lemongrass and scallion too, these pan-fried and steamed purses were bursting with bright, fresh flavor. Because they are not deep fried at Grace’s, like at so many other places, they were a bit difficult to tackle with chopsticks. Melinda uttered, while chasing one particularly stubborn bugger around her plate, “I fought the gyoza and I won.” Indeed.

And the winner is…Melinda!

We wanted to order vastly different entrees to bolster the blog effect, so I went the sushi route and Melinda ordered from the noodles & rice section of the dinner menu. Her National Harbor rice, though pricey at $28, was a winner. The scallops on top were gigantic and perfectly cooked, creamy and moist on the inside and just crunchy on the outside, probably due to a quick dusting in either corn or potato starch. There also was a load of succulent crab meat on top, and tons of shrimp going through the nicely textured rice. The side sauce was the star, though: it had egg running though it, with a crab flavor that was sweet and savory, almost addictive. Fantastic.

Fried rice for the gods

I went for the maki sushi combo, and was pleased with everything, though most bowled over by the excellent spicy tuna roll, which was properly spicy and tightly and expertly rolled. The fish in the salmon avocado roll was very high quality, evidenced by the lovely stripe of fat running through it, and the California roll was packed with delicious, pop-in-my-mouth roe. I should note here that I also wanted to try the toro/fatty tuna cut roll, but they were out of this renowned ingredient. This is the third time I’ve tried to order toro and been thwarted! What the?

Sushi makes me happy

We had experienced the fine desserts at Grace’s when we visited in 2010, and we weren’t about to miss them this year. We ordered both the Magic Cube and the Grace’s Signature Dessert, which is fried bananas with vanilla ice cream, honey and coconut. Let’s be honest, frying bananas is just a good idea. The light tempura batter is unobtrusive enough to let the banana flavor shine, and the combo of honey, vanilla ice cream and shaved coconut is a sexy little symphony alongside those crispy sweet planks.

A Magic Cube and its friend, fried bananas

The Magic Cube is one of those cool pastry feats that make a show like Top Chef Just Desserts a hit: a layer each of white chocolate and dark chocolate mousse, with a fresh cherry center, somehow cut into a cube and coated in dark chocolate. White chocolate is not my favorite flavor in the world, so this was only OK for me, but it’s certainly cool looking and fine enough.

What pushes Grace’s from good to great is not only its innovative, impeccable food. The entire restaurant, all three floors, is a feast for the eyes. From the 33 foot towering gold Buddha by the entrance to the gorgeous blue and white porcelain vessel sinks and brass bamboo-styled waterfall faucets in the ladies room, everywhere your eyes settle in this wonderland is dazzling. The ambiance just cannot be beat, from the soft, modern techno music, chair covers for those patrons who put coats on the back of their seats, hot towels upon arrival, to the sight of Grace instructing her well-orchestrated staff. Grace’s Mandarin receives the first 10 I’ve given on the BHS scale. I would come back to this restaurant over and over again, to delight in the food, service, fantastic bar, luxurious restrooms and over-the-top elegance. This is a place worth budgeting into your next DC trip, for sure.

Some other points of note for your trip to National Harbor:
  • McLoone’s Pier House is new this year. Our dinner there, after dark and in the winter, was probably less stunning than what this restaurant was intended for. The décor is almost Spartan, which I think is because the whole point here is to watch the sun set over the Potomac. That said, the food was a plus. Melinda and I dined here with friends Mimi and Doug, and everyone was happy, if not ecstatic, about the food. Mimi and I had the special, which was a great deal: a 1 1/5lb lobster, steamed, with risotto and green beans for only $19.95. Doug ordered oysters on the half shell, and I was stoked, because I’ve never had raw oysters before. Mimi fixed mine up with cocktail sauce, lemon and hot sauce, and I was in love. The taste was salty, bright and exciting. I’m no longer an oyster virgin! A 7 on the BHS scale.
  • Mimi and Doug stayed at the Westin National Harbor, and we stopped by their room so I could tell you about it. Not as grand at the Gaylord, this hotel is uber modern, almost industrial in feel. It’s sleek, shiny and comfortable. Here you will find better priced accommodations, and I can report that it is clean and still offers great views of the water.
  • Another friend, Randi, joined Melinda and I at Ketchup one night for dinner. This is part of the Dolce Group, partly owned by Ashton Kutcher, and predictably trendy. Dining here is like you’ve fallen into an Andy Warhol painting, in a good way. Unfortunately, our waiter Kevin, a newbie at Ketchup and eager to please, was so overzealous he managed to completely disrupt our fun night out. I enjoyed my succulent short rib in a rich demi gravy and granny smith apple/bacon mac and cheese, but not Kevin’s numerous-bordering-on-obtrusive interruptions to our fun girls’ night. Kevin, buddy, you meant well, but you kind of ruined our mojo. Better luck next time. A 5 on the BHS scale.

A collage de Harbor Nacionale: BHS and Buddha, lobstah, Melinda beneath the lights and mac at Ketchup

So, I’m back at home now and trying to find a place to review for you for next week. Then it’s only one more week until a rash of little trips to Corning, Watertown, NJ, Albany and more. Spring is about to break up in here, y’all! Thank Heavens! In the meantime, contemplate your getaway to the DC area and a meal at Grace’s Mandarin, or maybe treat yourself to a Big Hungry Shelby t-shirt for Valentine’s Day! Just look at all the fabulous people already sporting them:

Aren’t you jealous? Imagine how good looking you could be in one of these babies. I KNOW! To secure your very own, message me on Facebook or let me know in the comments. The next order is being placed toot sweet. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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