Winter Staycation

INSATIABLE

Compass Rose’s menu of international street food moves deftly from Georgian Khachapuri and Spanish patatas bravas to this Indian salad, Bhel Puri Chaat.

With a winter full of work travel, my husband Jason and I won't be getting away. To be more accurate, I won’t be getting away. Jason has made it quite clear that he is considering flying to a beach somewhere while I tour the nation’s great convention centers.

In lieu of a getaway together, we’re doing a little international tourism right here in DC’s food scene.

Comfort and cocktails at Slipstream

Walking up 14th looking for a late dinner, Jason and I stumbled upon Slipstream (SliptreamDC.com, 1333 14th St. NW),  a coffee shop-cum-cocktail bar-cum-restaurant. Lured by the promise of a bowl of ramen, and chef Jonathan Bisagni, formerly of Toki Underground and Doi Moi in the kitchen, we grabbed a table.

The menu’s creativity and attention to detail started with my cocktails. I chose an “Into the Nightlife,”  which was rich, dark and strong from espresso and coffee bitters, with smooth, full body from the egg and a nice alcoholic backbite of Rye.

While I drank I sampled one of the day’s two shrubs--a blend of strawberries and vinegar. For those who don’t know, a shrub is a cocktail or soft drink made by mixing a vinegared syrup with spirits, water, or carbonated water.I chose their daily cocktail, a warming blend of the shrub with Redemption bourbon. Stop by from 4:30 - 6:30 to check out the shrub cocktails of the day. $6 for one or $10 for both.

Before I start sounding too drunk to rate the menu, let’s talk about the food. The seared Skipjack tuna was nearly sashimi, tasting mildly of salt and strongly of sea. The lightly dressed greens got a punch from bright, acidic, pickled brown Beech mushrooms and a smear of citrusy Ponzu butter on the side of the plate. While good separately, this dish is at its best when the flavors combine as a whole.

The ramen was gorgeous! The broth had a silky texture with a nutty, toasted flavor. The pork belly was meltingly tender, while still meaty and the perfectly cooked egg ran out over the fresh noodles. It was comfort food in a bowl, rich and mild with a buttery mouthfeel, the bright burst of ginger at the bottom of the bowl and a subtle hint of umami bringing it into subtle balance.

Intrigued by a menu selection of “toasts”we order the duck liver mousse and raspberry jam, served on a thick slice of toast. Despite the highbrow ingredients it delivered notes of cranberry and Thanksgiving stuffing, herbal and buttery. The sweet, rich flavor could be breakfast or dessert while the savory notes make it at home in the middle of dinner.

So yeah, we liked it. Chef “Johnny”has created a comfort food menu, filled with rich flavors and silky textures that is subtle. The richness is never cloying and a deft use of umami brings each dish into balance without overpowering earthy notes.

‘Round the World at Compass Rose

Compass Rose (compassrosedc.com, 1346 T St. NW) sits one building off 14th Street next to CaféSaint Ex. Walking into the row house transports you into a dimly lit, cozy space, reminiscent of an international food bazaar.

The manager, Mark (in full disclosure, a good friend) and our server, Tess (who we’d never met before, but would love to have a drink with) took us through the menu of shared plates. Our only regret was that we couldn’t possibly eat it all in one night.

Owner Rose Previte has traveled the world with her husband, David Greene, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition. Upon returning home, she wanted to share the flavors and street foods she had discovered with DC’s diners. Lucky us!

The highest of the highlights? We started with Bhel Puri Chaat, an Indian salad. Light and citrusy, the fresh taste of mint is balanced by crispy pops of puffed rice. Fried potato cubes and carrot shreds add richness to balance the beautifully bitter flavor of large radicchio leaves that we heaped the salad into and ate with our hands.

The Lebanese Lamb Kefta is based on a recipe from Rose’s grandmother. The meat was perfect, tender and moist, not spongy, with wonderful smoke and complex, but subtle spices. Juice literally ran down my chin with each bite. Freekeh, served along side, is like a barley tabouleh. The larger, slightly chewy grain delivers a light salad, fresh and green (in flavor and color) with lots of parsley.

For pure decadence, you have to indulge in the Khachapuri. This Georgian comfort food, which Jason described as a bread canoe, is filled with cheese and topped with an egg yolk and a large pat of farm-fresh butter. Our server whipped out two forks, broke the egg yolk, and swirled everything together. The cheese mixture - blending ricotta, mozzarella and feta - is curdy, creamy and chewy.

Most impressive is Compass Rose’s ability to capture distinctly different flavors from country to country with a subtlety that transitions easily from dish to dish. When you go, go hungry.

Alphonse, That Little Italian Place

DC’s food scene is not lacking for high-concept, chef driven osterias , and we even have great delivery options now (I love you Pizza Parts & Service!), but the good ol’fashioned American-Italian restaurant has been fairly elusive. Enter Alphonse Italian Market and Osteria (AlphoneseDC.com, 1212 U St. NW).

Alphonse is your neighborhood Italian restaurant complete with fantastic thin crust pizza and perfectly cooked and sauced pasta. With ready-to-eat dishes, cheese and meat cases and dry goods, you could eat here seven days a week. If you’re looking to start with just one, let me suggest Monday, when bottles of wine are half-price. As our dinner guests that evening stated, “At that price we can each get one!”

While Alphonse may look like the pizza place you grew up with - right down to the red and white checked table cloths - the food is anything but. Our arugula salad was bright and fresh. Toasted pine nuts and sweet currents balanced the peppery greens. The celery root soup with sausage meatballs immediately caught my attention. The celery root flavor was clean and earthy, balanced perfectly by the richness from the meatballs and a drizzle of fruity olive oil.

The two pizzas we ordered had just the right, light char on the edges of the crust with a sauce that tasted fresh tomatoes and little else. Jason’s Carciofe paired sweet pork, rich artichokes, and fresh arugula. Our friend Mark’s Pollo pizza offered the classic pairing of chicken and pesto with sweet cherry tomatoes, grounded by smoky shallots.

My cousin Sarah and I ordered pasta. Her pappardelle was tossed with a hearty, rich bolognese while my bucatini came surrounded by sweet, fresh mussels and topped with puttanesca. Both were delicious, but most impressive was the difference in the pasta. The pappardelle was tender, without being mushy, the perfect sensation when slurping broad, flat noodles. My bucatini, on the other hand was on the firmer side of al dente, an equally perfect preparation for the thin, hollow tubes of pasta.

Happy travels

After a month of delicious dining we’re sitting safe and warm at home, quite satisfied with the lack of road closures and flight delays required for a great meal here in the city. Enjoy!

Jonathan Bardzik is a cook, storyteller and author living in Washington, DC. Known for his weekly, live cooking demos at Eastern Market (Saturdays from March to November), Jonathan loves cooking fresh ingredients as much as seeking them out in DCs growing restaurant scene. His first cookbook, Simple Summer: A Recipe for Cooking and Entertaining with Ease is available now (and would make a wonderful gift!). Grab a copy and find out what Jonathan is cooking at www.jonathanbardzik.com or his Facebook page Jonathan Bardzik.Need some foodporn? Follow @JonathanBardzik on Twitter and Instagram.