Tom Sietsema: Give yourself the gift of a break this holiday


Oysters at Occidental Grill & Seafood. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 19, 2012

Family and friends are in town for the holidays. Maybe you feel obliged to show off some sights. Perhaps you need an escape from four walls, or simply a pick-me-up. Some inspirations:

Drink up!

Cold weather calls for hot drinks, and the one that warms me most this season is poured at the Eddy Bar at the youngest Hank’s Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill (633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-733-1971). Home to shaker and stirrer extraordinaire Gina Chersevani, Eddy Bar is where anyone older than 21 can experience the essence of the season in a glass.

Cucurbita in the Rye ($11) combines scorched milk infused with Tahitian vanilla, star anise and cardamom “because I’m obsessed with it,” Chersevani says. The dairy is chilled, strained, punched up with Redemption rye and juiced fresh pumpkin, then finished with walnut bitters. The last are spritzed over the cocktail using a stencil in the shape of an acorn. Aww. The image is as heart-warming as the spicy, frothy, not-too sweet libation.

As with all her drinks, the challenge with this one, Chersevani says, is “keeping it light, so you can eat it with fish” from the restaurant’s surf-centric menu. Mission accomplished — and bonus points for a brew that tastes just as good chilled as warmed.

Luxury on the (comparatively) cheap

Not everyone can afford a $185 tasting menu or wants to spend three or more hours at a table. But what if an exciting chef trimmed the cost and the time of a meal? That’s what R.J. Cooper has done at the avant-garde Rogue 24 (922 N St. NW; 202-408-9724) in Shaw, which opened with 16- and 24-course menus, and in August added a four-course option for $75. Not exactly a stocking stuffer, it’s a serious gift for the adventurous gourmet, and with four choices per course, the list gives patrons plenty of room to roam.

As with the lengthier menus, this one commences with a wooden paddle hosting a foie gras lollipop, a croquette that thinks it’s poutine, a feather-light fried pickle chip and a teeny pot of cocoa powder “soil” sprouting a baby radish — a highly amusing amuse bouche. The rest of the show is up to you. On a recent taste-tour of the deal, I began with thinly sliced Japanese snapper dappled with foamy coconut milk, and continued with one of the richest pastas now playing: smoky spaghetti accessorized with sweetbread nuggets and truffle fonduta. Scarlet bars of wood pigeon on midnight-colored rye spaetzle followed, with pumpkin cubes and apple cider foam for company. It’s easy to boost the bill if you ask for the “captain’s” pairing of drinks, but the extra $55 is well spent. Cooper’s pared-back menu offers the joy of discovery without the feeling of too much food or science, and the opportunity to admire his work at your leisure, but not forever.

Dinner after the show

Your tribe has inspected the National Christmas tree on the
Ellipse and trooped around the forest of smaller pines to find the boughs representing its home state.
Where to for dinner?

The Occidental Grill & Seafood (1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-783-1475) is not only nearby, it’s one of the holiday’s best-dressed dining rooms. Behold the garlands of greens over the bar! The dashing army of nutcrackers lining the window sills! Grandmother will appreciate the linens on the tables and that she can hear everyone’s stories. There’s a pretty lamb carpaccio and dry-aged rib-eye for the dedicated carnivore, briny oysters and arctic char for the pescetarian and French onion soup to warm up cold hands. A special of risotto ringed in emerald oil trumpets wild mushrooms as much as grains of rice, and the waitress is so nurturing, you want to hug her when she brings the check.

Even if you’re alone, you’ll feel as if you’re in good company, thanks to the hundreds of photographs of Washington power brokers and celebrities staring down from two floors of walls.

Brunch with a different point of view

The red and black walls are better suited to evening, and the light of day reveals a floor scratched as if by a stampede of stiletto heels. Even so, brunch at P.O.V. (get it?) Roof Terrace & Lounge atop the W Hotel (515 15th St. NW; 202-661-2400) is a meal made memorable by bird’s-eye views that are generally found only on postcards. Who else can deliver smoked salmon pizza with a side of the Washington Monument?

The drill: $45 buys you a three-course brunch, starting with a pastry basket and a pitcher of eye-openers. Take your choice of mimosa, bellini, sangria or a zesty bloody mary. The cooking isn’t going to make you give up your doughnut routine at the Tabard Inn, but like a hot dog roasted on a campfire, even a merely pleasant short rib hash topped with a fried egg tastes better in view of the view.

Last-minute gifts

The District’s youthful Union Market gets tastier by the week. One of the freshest attractions at the “urban village” is Salt & Sundry (1309 Fifth St. NE; 202-556-1866), a boutique source for tableware, linens and home accessories collected by local food scribe Amanda McClements.

Warning: A casual look-see can turn into a triple-digit splurge. But I really did need something to jazz up my next batch of mulled cider (to the rescue: Spiced Apple syrup from Morris Kitchen in Brooklyn), and I was running low on matches (Good Dog Match Co.’s yellow box makes an adorable kitchen companion). Open Wednesday through Sunday, Salt & Sundry is host-gift heaven. The next six people who invite me over are going to get a handsome oval plate with a pig drawing in the center — unless, of course, I decide to serve six people myself.

Spend $75, and you get a snazzy burlap bag inked with the store’s logo. That wisp of a taste maker behind the counter is McClements, happy to ring you up.

More from the 2012 Holiday Guide:

2012 Ski Guide

Gift ideas for everyone

Holiday food and entertaining tips

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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