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Photo: Rey Lopez

From Mosh Pit to Peak Foodie: Outdoor Music Venues Step Up The Gourmet Goodness

Here’s a game: free associate “summer music festival.” Sunscreen, superstars, mud, Insta, #squadgoals…

Have you gotten to “gourmet mosh pit” yet? Didn’t think so. But that’s changing fast, and summer 2019 is set to be peak foodie season. The days of cardboard pizza are fading. Concertgoers are walking in with elevatexpectations, and music venues are responding with thoughtful menus that range from creatively healthy to Instagrammable decadence.

“The words extraordinary and unexpected should describe everything, including the food,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director of I.M.P., the legendary DC-based group that owns 9:30 Club and took over operations for the Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2004, waving goodbye to airline service-style food options. “We would rather err on the side of ambition.”

And ambition is absolutely the defining word for festival menus this year. Sean Kenyon, a globally acclaimed bartender and cocktail master, has been refining his processes for large-scale cocktail batching and is ready to debut his libations at Jiffy Lube Live.

“Well-executed cocktails are the result of well-executed systems,” Kenyon observes.

To make it happen, he constructed a system where the event bartenders are simply executing the final step: blending a spirit and a fresh mix.

“I look at it like we are opening a new cocktail bar every night in terms of experience expectations for bartenders, prep and visible instructions,” he says.

With a few spirits – tequila, gin, vodka – and a few mixer options that are all interchangeable, the guest gets to personalize the glass.

“We can change the ingredients within the system to maximize the guest experience without disrupting the overall operation,” Kenyon adds. “We are not just creating a cocktail menu. We are creating a system that lets us be nimble.”

Systems are also front-of-mind at Merriweather. I.M.P. ditched the previous corporate foodservice distributor – which according to Schaefer tasted like airline food because it was made by the same folks – and hired local caterers.

“We wanted the tastes of a neighborhood restaurant with an ambitious menu,” she says. “We want people to arrive hungry.”

In 2017, Wolf Trap overhauled its own menus and also broke away from corporate foodservice distributors; the venue now independently runs its own concessions.

“We took a major leap and selected a small, family-owned business that focuses on local sourcing,” says T.J. Pluck, director of food and beverage at Wolf Trap.

But well-executed systems still require a fresh feed of great ideas to execute.

“I’m a guy who likes change,” Pluck says. “We spruce up the menu every year.”

This season’s inspiration comes from a range of sources including social media, according to Pluck.

“Concertgoers love Instagrammable edibles that make people say, ‘Wow.’”

And people have a lot more exposure to strong flavors now, Schaefer adds, which means that spicier and funkier flavors are in play. Dietary restrictions can complicate menu planning but Pluck notes that “we always work hard to be sensitive and incorporate those into a concession stand environment.” Nearly all concert venues in the DC area now offer gluten-free and vegan options – something almost unheard of a decade ago at all but the most granola of festivals.

“I never thought that people would eat salad at a concert,” Pluck says.

So what can fans expect on their plates this summer?

“This year, we’re focusing on funky, fun, fair food that’s spiced up with flavors like raspberry and chipotle and funnel cake sandwiches,” is how Pluck describes the new menu at Wolf Trap.

Pluck is tapping into happy memories of growing up in the Midwest and enjoying Ohio State Fair food like elephant ears: funnel cakes, rolled, pulled, and topped with cinnamon and sugar.

“We’re always asking, ‘How can we do this better?’ and ‘What sets us apart?’ We’re always looking to raise the bar [at Wolf Trap]. For example, we’ll always serve hamburgers – but ours are made with prime beef and served on a top-of-the-line French brioche bun with arugula, aged cheddar and chipotle aioli.”

Over at Merriweather, Cathal Armstrong (of the legendary Restaurant Eve, and now The Wharf’s Kaliwa) has come on board as Merriweather’s food advisor.

“Cathal lives and breathes food creativity,” Schaefer says admiringly. “People will be coming as much for the food as for the performance.”

Guests will get to explore a menu that includes everything from freshly roasted, husk-on corn topped with Cotija cheese to a house-made jumbo lump crab cake on fresh brioche.

“They’re honestly better than in some fine dining places,” Schaefer says of Merriweather’s crab cake (her personal favorite).

Over at Jiffy Lube Live, in addition to fresh craft cocktails, fans can enjoy the buzzy Impossible Burger: a plant-based patty that bleeds and sizzles when it cooks.

“We have partnered with some great brands including Art Smith’s Art Bird, Questlove’s Impossible Cheesesteak, Guy Fieri’s burgers and new hot dog concept Dog Haus,” says Matt Rogers, Jiffy Lube’s GM and SVP for music.

“My personal favorite is the Art Bird Fried Chicken,” he says. “It is off-the-charts good.”

The folks who are overhauling menus and updating concert dining experiences are riffing off their own memories and tastes to create the perfect concert experience. Pluck is a musician and self-described band geek who says his dream job is working at Wolf Trap; he channels epic memories of concerts with Genesis (the 1992 reunion tour at Cleveland Stadium), The Police and Muse. 

Rogers finds the most fulfilling part of the job to be a providing people with an escape for two hours. Kenyon is also a musician; he pursued band life before committing himself to becoming one of the greatest bartenders in America, and his ideal festival night inspires his Jiffy Lube menu.

“It’s right at dusk, your favorite band is just coming on, the day is fading, your drink is complex and you’re surrounded by friends. Perfection.”

Learn more about the elevated fare and summer lineups at these three venues below.

Jiffy Lube Live: 7800 Cellar Door Dr. Bristow, VA; www.livenation.com/venues/14407/jiffy-lube-live

Merriweather Post Pavilion: 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Columbia, MD; www.merriweathermusic.com

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts: 1551 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; www.wolftrap.org

Photo: Courtesy of Pisco y Nazca

New and Notable: Le Kon, Little Sesame, Pisco y Nazca and more

On Tap keeps locals in the know about the hottest new food and drink spots around town and the top culinary happenings of the month. Read on to get the inside scoop on what’s new and notable in the DC area.

New

Le Kon
Open: September 1
Location: Clarendon
Lowdown: Top Chef alum Katsuji Tanabe, who has roots in Mexico and Japan, expanded his restaurant portfolio to DC with a new Mexican restaurant that draws inspiration from Asia. Springfield native Patrick Tanyag oversees the kitchen, which delivers playful and eye-catching creations with bright ingredients like watermelon radish, pickled red onions and cucumber kimchi providing splashes of color. It’s almost like the menu was made for Instagram: an entire roasted pig head is presented tableside before being broken down into carnitas for tacos, and cotton candy is piled on a Fruity Pebbles tres leches cake. Portions are generous, with massive grilled steaks and tacos served in family-style platters so guests can build their own bites. The large dining room is accented with navy wainscoting, marble tile mosaic table tops and an industrial concrete bar. A purple and red ombre corn husk wall hanging stands out above the booths and fanciful Day of the Dead scenes play out on the wallpaper. Le Kon: 3227 Washington Blvd. Arlington, VA; www.lekonrestaurant.com

Little Sesame
Open: August 28
Location: Golden Triangle
Lowdown: The original iteration of Little Sesame was an instant hit, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first standalone location opened with a line out the door that has continued to form each day during the lunch rush. Ronen Tenne, Nick Wiseman and David Wiseman are behind this wildly popular fast-casual hummus shop that serves up hummus bowls, pita sandwiches and seasonal salatim (vegetable sides). The three formed a vision for their bright and airy restaurant by traveling – both across the U.S. and in Israel, where Tenne was born – and exploring the diversity of food and design in various kitchens. Nick Wiseman says the menu pulls from the food traditions of Middle Eastern countries like Yemen, Lebanon and Iran, all of which are reflected in Israel’s cuisine. The hummus quite literally holds it all together, so its recipe was tweaked to perfection. With only a handful of ingredients, the hummus is made daily with the highest quality chickpeas and tahini. Then, it’s enhanced by additions ranging from whole roasted vegetables and fresh produce to herbs and spices. Items like the classic bowl with chickpeas, tahini and schug and the chicken shawarma with tahini, amba and smashed cucumber salad will always be on the menu, while other offerings will change with the seasons. Expect squash, celery root, broccoli, brassicas and more this fall. Little Sesame: 1828 L St. NW, DC; www.eatlittlesesame.com

Pisco y Nazca
Open: September 3
Location: Dupont Circle
Lowdown: The Miami-based Pisco y Nazca has brought a new option for modern Peruvian cuisine to DC. Like its sister restaurants, the bar at the latest location welcomes guests with a chandelier-like bottle display, and the rest of the dining room is spacious and open. The menu has an impressive array of ceviches, including a Japanese variation, a traditional preparation and a version with mushrooms. Starters include expected items like empanadas, anticucho carne and grilled octopus. The entrée selection plays on tradition as well, with arroz con mariscos, lomo saltado and a braised lamb shank with cilantro sauce. Of course, you can pair these dishes with Peruvian cocktails like a pisco sour or a Chilcano. Pisco y Nazca: 1823 L St. NW, DC; www.piscoynazca.com/dc

St. Anselm
Open: September 17
Location: NoMa
Lowdown: Joe Carroll, the man behind St. Anselm in Brooklyn, has teamed up with restaurateur Stephen Starr and Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley to bring the grill-centric restaurant to the Union Market neighborhood. While it’s often hailed as a steakhouse, St. Anselm is about more than beef. The cooking relies heavily on fire, with everything from Spanish octopus to Romano beans, a rack of lamb and a pork porterhouse hitting the grill that sits in the center of the open kitchen. When it comes to beef, the cuts are on the unusual side, like hanger steak and flat iron. The wine list also bucks convention, featuring light, high-acid red wines over heavy oaky ones. Plus, there will be a select few ciders, craft beers and cocktails. The surroundings straddle distinguished and whimsical, with snug private booths and vintage plates juxtaposed with embroidered banners from fraternal organizations and a taxidermied raccoon. There’s also a beefsteak room where the restaurant will host special events modeled after beefsteak dinners, which were political fundraising events common in the 1850s. St. Anselm: 1250 5th St. NE, DC; www.stanselmdc.com

Notable

Mr Lee’s Pop-up at Succotash
Location: Penn Quarter
Lowdown: Chef Edward Lee is transforming the upstairs bar and lounge of his Penn Quarter restaurant into a pop-up called Mr Lee’s. The concept is inspired by Asian night markets, with bold flavors in dishes like spicy pork belly and kimchi or duck confit, snow pea and basil dumplings. The menu will change weekly but will put an emphasis on ingredients from the neighboring farmers market. Signature cocktails complement the food, like the Miss Korea made with Soju, melon syrup, yuzu and egg white. Asian beers and spirits are also available. Mr Lee’s will run through the end of 2018. Mr Lee’s: 915 F St. NW, DC; www.facebook.com/mrleesatsuccotash or www.succotashrestaurant.com


Budweiser Marks Repeal of Prohibition Anniversary with Reserve Copper Lager

To mark the 85th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, Budweiser has partnered with Jim Beam bourbon to release a specially crafted Reserve Copper Lager brew. Brewed with two-row barley and aged on barrel staves once housing Jim Beam bourbon, the special beer features a delicious nutty taste, with notes of vanilla and caramel rye. Unlike other beers that are aged in the bourbon barrels, Budweiser chose to use the staves to give a more subtle bourbon taste and a slightly sweeter finish. The collaboration between two beverage makers that survived the Prohibition era has produced a terrifically tasty beer that will be available in bars and retail locations through the holiday season. Learn more about Budweiser’s Reserve Copper Lager at Budweiser.com.


New Culinary Team at Mirabelle
Location: Downtown
Lowdown: This chic upscale restaurant recently brought on a new culinary team and reopened in August with a new menu and a new identity in the kitchen. General manager and beverage director Jennifer Knowles has returned, and she’s joined by Executive Chef Keith Bombaugh and Pastry Chef Zoe Ezrailson. The menu features dishes that evoke memories of Knowles and Bombaugh’s experiences growing up on the South Shore of Boston, along with French cuisine marked by global influences. Lunch is served a la carte, but during dinner, there is the option to order a four-, five- or 12-course prix fixe menu. Wine pairings are available upon request. Many of the offerings are as fascinating to look at as they are to eat, like the grilled abalone with green curry tapioca served in a vibrantly blue polished abalone shell. Desserts follow suit – the lemon honey beehive is an artistic dome of Meyer lemon curd surrounded by toasted honey meringue. Mirabelle: 900 16th St. NW, DC; www.mirabelledc.com

Photos: Jean Schindler

Finnish Simplicity Reigns at Mikko

Lately, DC’s restaurant scene has been getting high off complicated-looking plates, exotic decor and ingredients we can’t pronounce. Wolfgang Puck called, and he wants his 90s life back. Not to be contrary, but there’s nothing I crave right now more than simple, clean flavors that don’t require a hovering waiter to explain.

Enter Mikko, the first restaurant from Mikko Kosonen, once chef at the Finnish Embassy, and recently of his eponymous catering firm, and now cheerfully ensconced on P St. and serving exactly what I’m craving.

With a minimalist Scandi look courtesy of local design agency INNATE, the cheerful, intimate space seamlessly blends retail, coffee counter, sandwich case, restaurant and bar. Order a cup of fish broth laden with cod, potatoes and dill, or one of the hearty pickled herring sandwiches on hearty brown bread, balanced with fresh cucumber and dill.

The contrast between the very preserved and the very fresh represents one of the most refreshing aspects of Finnish cuisine. The pastries have lots of fruits, cardamon and butter, and there are easy-drinking aquavit cocktails on offer.

Larger plates, including a wonderful venison with lingonberry sauce, are beautifully presented without pretension. The flavors are opinionated and crisp, honest and accessible. Just like Chef Mikko and his team. Now go eat!

Mikko: 1636 R St. NW, DC; 202-413-6419; www.chefmikko.com

Salted licorice ice cream.

Salted licorice ice cream.

Venison lingonberry.

Venison lingonberry.

Finish see bread.

Finish see bread.

Finnish Vodka.

Finnish Vodka.

A fish soup cocktail with Aquavite lemon soda and cucumber dill.

A fish soup cocktail with Aquavite lemon soda and cucumber dill.

Pancake and fresh berries.

Pancake and fresh berries.

Fish soup with cod salmon, potatos, peppercorns and dill.

Fish soup with cod salmon, potatos, peppercorns and dill.

Photo: Aja Neal

Behind the Bar: ARTECHOUSE, Calico and Service Bar

We’re all guilty of picking a drink from a cocktail menu based on whether or not it will look good on our carefully curated Instagram feeds. Don’t worry, we do it too. In the spirit of embracing all that’s aesthetically pleasing this month, we selected three drinks whose unique garnishes and color combinations definitely make them look as good as they taste. So go ahead, post away – we won’t judge you.


Photo: Fareeha Rehman

Photo: Fareeha Rehman

Chad Spangler
Co-owner, Service Bar

On Tap: How important is design when creating a cocktail?
Chad Spangler: It’s the whole package together that’s going to create that experience for you. Just because something tastes good or has pretty good intrinsic flavor doesn’t make it great if the presentation isn’t there. Drinking something is as much a full experience of the senses as anything. It should look great, it should smell great, it should taste great, it should feel great.

OT: What’s your most aesthetically pleasing cocktail? 
CS: Our most aesthetically pleasing drink right now is Rhubarb Vodka Soda. We launched it last year. I love almost monochromatic cocktails or monochromatic things, where you can have all different shades of one color on top of another. So that drink is a really, really aesthetically pleasing bright pink that’s all natural from the rhubarb that we get.

OT: What else can you tell me about the presentation of your cocktails?
CS: We like to have fun and we don’t take ourselves too seriously in any direction. We do some whimsical things, and we’re not afraid to put a little extra money into making our drinks look great and to get some cool glassware that people are going to talk about.

Photo: Fareeha Rehman

Photo: Fareeha Rehman

Chad’s Pick
Rhubarb Vodka Soda
Rose
Soda
Vodka
Rhubarb
Clarified citrus

Service Bar: 926-928 U St. NW, DC; www.servicebardc.com


Photo: Aja Neal

Photo: Aja Neal

Ian Fletcher
Beverage Director, Calico

On Tap: What do you think guests enjoy most about your juice box cocktails?
Ian Fletcher: I think it’s a nostalgia thing. People just gravitate toward them. It’s pretty unique. We worked with one of the designers that helped design the space; he did the labels and everything for us.

OT: Do you offer any limited-time cocktails?
IF: We use our frozen drink machine. That’s going to be rotating depending on how well they do. But the intention is that there is no set thing in the frozen drink machine. We’ve been doing piña coladas with espresso. We discovered it on accident. My friend and I were drinking piña coladas and we just happened to have espresso as well and [combined them]. Piña coladas are really, really sweet and espresso is tart and bitter, so it works really well. I think we’re going to do a banana daiquiri next.

OT: What makes your outdoor space unique?
IF: On the weekends, the chef is out there grilling. You can have 200 people back here and everything is designed to be sectioned off so even when it’s packed, you don’t really notice how many people are here. It’s kind of like you’re in your own little backyard world. You can smell the barbecue – it’s just a good feeling.

[Pictured above]

Ian’s Pick
Lavender Lemonade
Vodka
Lemon
Lavender
Raspberry
Giffard Crème de Mure

Calico: 50 Blagden Alley, NW, DC; www.calicodc.com


Bryan Tate
Mixologist, ARTECHOUSE’s “Fractal Worlds” exhibit (July 7 – September 3)

On Tap: What elements of ARTECHOUSE’s “Fractal Worlds” exhibit are incorporated into your cocktails?
Bryan Tate: Fractals as we understand them are geometric shapes. They’re also very mathematical, so from a looks and presentation perspective, we want to incorporate that fractal element. And from a taste perspective, we want it to taste good. But also, the ratios going into the cocktails are on a mathematical basis – the way that the fractals are formed.

OT: How do patrons use the augmented reality app when trying cocktails?
BT: The augmented reality app gives a next dimension experience of the cocktail that allows the guest to experience it in a way they never have before.

OT: What garnishes do you use?
BT: Dehydrated fruits and egg white. We have a way to print a custom image onto a piece of wafer and then put that on top of the egg white, and that in itself is augmented in the cocktail.

OT: What’s your creative process?
BT: It’s decorating as many layers of the experience as you can. The texture changes what it does with the foam or an egg white. Or use creme de coconut to give it a different texture – paint it with that. It’s really important to have the guest experience the cocktail in as many different ways as possible while trying to align our vision with the artist. That’s the really fun part where creating cocktails comes into play: trying to turn what they’ve done – unbelievable art – into a drink.

OT: What flavors are in the Fractal Jungle cocktail?
BT: Flavors with summer aspects: watermelon, honey, matcha, vanilla, blackberry, pineapple. Things that are summery without being too light [so you’ll still get] the full experience.

Photo: Courtesy of ARTECHOUSE

Photo: Courtesy of ARTECHOUSE

Bryan’s Pick
Fractal Jungle
Lime
Mezcal
Sherry
Vanilla
Campari
Pineapple
Blackberry

ARTECHOUSE: 1238 Maryland Ave. SW, DC; www.dc.artechouse.com