Monday, September 8, 2008

Diana Takes a Bite of the District: Iron Chef Battle of the Dinners

Washington DC. Two nights. Two dinners. Two very different outcomes.

On Saturday night, Ashley, Ashley's boyfriend Elliot and I crossed a perilous length of sidewalk to dine at Rice, a trendy Thai restaurant known for its crazy flavors of sticky rice. On Sunday night, Elliot crossed a perilous length of sidewalk to bring back spices, lentils, naan and other assorted items for the preparation of a grand Indian-style feast. Whose cuisine reigned supreme? You'll find out. After reading the next eight paragraphs.

Rice started out as a fierce competitor. Despite their no-reservations policy, we were seated immediately at a nice-sized table in the corner of the somewhat noisy space. Wines by the glass were respectable and relatively inexpensive, and we all agreed that the Green Tea dumplings with shrimp, crab meat, pork, water chestnut ($7) were a pleasant way to begin our meal. I found them so pleasant that I hinted we should order another round of the girthy suckers. My plea fell on deaf ears, and I made do with my one and one/third dumplings until my trough-sized portion of Chicken Pad Thai ($14) served omelet Ayuthaya style arrived at the table.

I know what's coming. Shock. Horror. Severely raised-eyebrows condemning my choice of entree. Pad Thai may very well be the greatest foodie faux pas in Asian cuisine, and I suffered greatly for my ill-conceived order. While there was nothing inherently wrong with my dish, it lacked the flavor, spice and creative twist that I crave from Thai food. It was disappointment at first bite, and it was all my fault. As soon as I tasted Ashley's sauteed ginger tofu with mushroom and mixed vegetables ($14), I knew I had gone very wrong. Unfortunately, she didn't seem too keen on her dish either, and we were forced to salve our tongue wounds with dessert.

Elliot was satisfied with his overtly spicy special dish (something containing tofu, glass noodles that resembled rigatoni, and some other items that I can't recollect but that all packed a serious punch of mouth-burnage) and was too stuffed to partake in the glorious bowl of coconut ice cream Ashley and I ordered. Drizzled with a dollop of raspberry sauce, the ice cream was the perfect way to refresh our palates after our nondescript main courses. We especially appreciated the chunks of coconut laced throughout the full-fat ice cream.

The next night, Ashley and I returned home from a 4-mile hike at Great Falls, starved for sustenance. On our way back, we picked Elliot up from Whole Foods and proceeded to pepper him with questions about how long it would take for him to create his feast of Indian Dal and warm whole wheat naan bread using the recipe he found on the Whole Foods website. Seeing our hunger-crazed eyes, he answered "20 minutes." I immediately countered, "But doesn't it take at least 45-minutes for the brown rice to cook?" He fell silent for a moment, thinking. "Yes. So eat a small snack, but nothing too big because I'm making a lot of food!" He boasted happily. I nodded, satisfied by his comment about "a lot of food." (Plus he bought us Santa Cruz lemonade for a "treat.")

After returning to their apartment, I immediately set about making the brown rice. I prepared it using just water (fine for a dish that has so much flavor, but I typically use some broth when cooking rice), and then made myself useful by chopping and seasoning some okra to be roasted and served as a side dish. It didn't exactly roast right and may or may not have ended up in the trash can. (We blamed it on the okra -- house guests are never in the wrong!)

While the rice was busy ricing (and I was busy showering off the dirt I accumulated on the hike), Elliot chopped, diced, sauteed, and simmered. By the time my hair was dry, the apartment reeked of curry, onion and other things that made Ashley and my eyes bleed with tears. Windows were cracked, lemonade was poured, naan was dusted with olive oil and warmed in the oven, and the table was set for our grand stinky Indian feast. With no appetizers or dessert to compete with the dumplings and ice cream at Rice, the heat was on. Elliot's Whole Foods Indian Dal (sans the jalepeno peppers and cilantro) would have to be seriously tasty if it was going to win the battle of the dinners.

With the enhancement of red pepper flakes and salt (to taste), the Indian Dal exploded into my mouth like a car bomb. I groaned in appreciation, feverishly scooping the fragrant, chunky stew-like Dal onto the warm naan flatbread. There was no dispute on the outcome -- this was the perfect incarnation of hearty and nutritious comfort food. It was exactly what Ashley and I needed after our long day climbing rocks and channelling our inner nature girls.

In the Iron Chef: Battle of the DC Dinners, Elliot's cuisine reigned supreme. And in the course of my Washington DC visit, it was the moments spent with Ashley and Elliot that far superseded the Georgetown cupcake red velvet, Eastern Market crepe, Teaism salty oaty cookie, Potbelly's sandwich, and Chai I consumed over my two-and-a-half days of biting the District.

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