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Special Section: Washington, D.C.

Recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., I have some suggestions for you, should you be headed to that city. If I could offer only three tips, they would be these: First, read up on the city and her attractions beforehand. Some tours, etc. require reservations, and these can be difficult to get on short notice; reservations for some popular restaurants should also be made in advance. As guidebooks go, I particularly like The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C., currently in it’s 7th edition. Second, don’t drive in D.C.!!! The traffic is exceptionally nightmarish, particularly at any time even vaguely close to rush hour. The excellent metro system, which is efficient and mercifully easy to figure out, can get you to most places you’ll want to go. Third, when you head to The Mall, as you probably will, familiarize yourself with directions before you go. Why? A significant number of young men have taken to “helping” tourists by giving out free maps of The Mall (available from many other sources) and a pitch for money simultaneously. They always turn out to “have been doing this for 5 years” and, coincidentally, to be homeless and looking for cash from you. These men do NOT work for the city, and their aggressive pitches for money for having helped you out (even if you didn’t ask for assistance, which happened to us) do not deserve to be rewarded. 

My companion and I stayed six nights at the Washington Suites Georgetown (aka Washington Suites Pennsylvania Avenue), located at 2500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW; the phone number is (202) 333-8060. The hotel location is terrific; only a few blocks from a metro stop and a Safeway market, close to restaurants and the Georgetown area. Note that you’ll hear ambulances going by, as GWU Hospital is also just a couple of blocks away. I love the fact that the suites have two rooms plus a small but well-equipped kitchen. A continental breakfast is usually included in the price of your room, and there are laundry facilities in the basement. The staff are friendly and helpful. The biggest downsides are the lack of an exhaust fan in the bathroom and the old-fashioned heating/cooling system (it works, but the hotel can only have one system on at a time, problematic in spring/fall, and getting a temperature to your liking in your room can be a challenge.

Attractions:

Where do I start? There are altogether too many to choose from in this city! Most D.C. museums are free; most draw crowds at busy times. It’s always a good idea to arrive just after the museum opens, and if you’re carrying a purse or bag, it will be inspected for security reasons. I’ll list the attractions we visited, in no particular order. One other thing: if you are a member of The Smithsonian, something everyone should consider becoming, be sure to take your membership card with you! There are a lot of museums in this town affiliated with the name “Smithsonian”, and those gift shop discounts are always welcome.

---National Air and Space Museums (South Side of The Mall, near the U.S. Capitol, as well as the newer Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA; www.nasm.edu). Everything you always wanted to know about flight but hadn’t even thought to ask. Planes hang from the ceiling  like giant mobiles suspended over a baby’s crib. Great exhibits, particularly those on the earlier days of flight. If there’s any way you can do so, go with a pilot/aviation freak; they can tell you a lot you’d never find out on your own. Above all else, go early, and try to avoid both venues on weekends, when they’re jammed. Currently, the Udvar-Hazy Center is one vast hangar with brilliant displays on three viewing levels and a pathetic excuse for lunch options; it’s slated for expansion in both aspects. You can drive to Udvar-Hazy, but The National Air and Space Museum runs a shuttle between the two sites (paid reservations/tickets are required for the shuttle; see the website for more information). Don’t forget your camera!

---National Postal Museum (2 Massachusetts Avenue, NE, next door to Union Station; www.postalmuseum.si.edu). This is a small but generally well-executed museum. Exhibits change, but, as of this writing, one of them, “The Queen’s Own”, shows the development of the postage stamp and how it led directly to a great increase in the use of the mails. The postage stamp was created in England, and it’s amazing to see how so many other countries adopted a similar system within a relatively short space of time. The best exhibit was the huge array of postage stamps arranged by country of issue; there are stamps from 19th century America as well as more recent stamps from places like Madagascar and Liberia, and some of them are really beautiful. Skip the hokey high-tech exhibit unless you’re a kid. Overall, more interesting than I’d expected.

---Union Station (Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street, NE). If you can find a less-busy time to get here, and I’m not really sure any such period exists during a day, the gorgeous architecture in the Main Hall really is worth seeing. However, this is a major ground transportation hub for D.C., and it’s also a gigantic shopping mall with a heavy-duty food court, so it’s almost always crowded.

---U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Reception Rooms (23rd Street between C & D Streets, NW; www.state.gov/aboutstate, then click on Diplomatic Reception Rooms link). You must make reservations for this tour. The public is allowed into a limited number of diplomatic reception rooms; you’ll be given the tour by an experienced guide. If you’re a fan of American furniture and furnishings of the 18th and 19th centuries, this is for you. From silver knifeholders to amazing grandfather clocks to specialized and ornate writing desks, everything was given or loaned so that important visitors to this country could be entertained in style. Not suitable for young children. Regrettably, a few examples of modern (and peculiar) art have recently been allowed into these rooms, but I’m hoping it’s temporary insanity on the part of whoever’s in charge here.

---Hillwood Museum (4155 Linnean Avenue, NW; www.hillwoodmuseum.org). Another attraction for which you must make reservations in advance; note that this is not especially close to a metro station. Hillwood is the former home of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post, inheritor of the Post cereal fortune, often-married lady of society, and collector of French and Russian fine art. It is impossible to imagine the number of decorative art objects contained here unless you see the place. Scent bottles, porcelain figures, Russian liturgical objects (don’t miss the small display off the kitchen), candleholders, and endless others…they simply don’t make them like this anymore. The furnishings are just as impressive. A greenhouse of orchids, Japanese gardens, even a decent café (for which reservations are suggested). I don’t usually suggest tours, but if you don’t take a guided or audio tour here you’ll be rather lost, as few of the objects/furnishings have any written information nearby.

---National Gallery of Art: West Building (6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, on The Mall; www.nga.gov). Great! A massive collection that ranges over a timespan of at least six hundred years. This is the (mostly) classical wing of the gallery (modern art is in the East Building). Fabulous paintings, many by old masters; drawings; scuptures; and more. Note that sections of this gallery will be closed over the next few years for renovations; you can call the museum, I believe, to find out which areas are closed to the public at that time. My favorite thing to do here is get a map and just wander around, but if you haven’t time for that, guided tours are offered. 

---Freer Gallery of Art (Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW, on The Mall; www.asia.si.edu). Fabulous! I love the Freer, which combines displays of American and Asian art. It’s a small museum, but the displays are always magnificent. There are usually a number of breathtaking Japanese scrolls being shown, in addition to the famous Peacock Room. Not nearly as overwhelming in scope as The National Gallery. This museum is overlooked by many visitors, but don’t make that mistake. Not to be missed.

---National Museum of Natural History (10 Street NW and Constitution Avenue, on The Mall; www.mnh.si.edu). What a terrific museum! Minerals and gemstones, dinosaurs, mammals, an insect zoo (with live critters, of course), and much more. Immensely popular with families, as both kids and adults will be fascinated by the various exhibits here. If you want to treat yourself to some chocolate, go into the Mammals giftshop and buy one of the Endangered Species chocolate bars. Yes, they’re pricey, but the chocolate is very good and I’ve commended this company before for their “practice-what-you-preach” attitude regarding the environment and wildlife. Another museum in which you can happily spend an entire day.

Restaurants:

     Like any right-minded individual, I had compiled a “wish list” of D.C. area restaurants as long as your arm. Below are descriptions of those where we were able to eat:

---Breadline, 1751 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, D.C., (202) 822-8900. This small café does exceptionally brisk breakfast and lunch business; they aren’t really open during dinner hours and are closed on weekends. Sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and breads, with some vegetarian options always on the menu. The breads are very good. My prosciutto sandwich on walnut-whole wheat bread with gorgonzola and fig jam was marred by the fat-laden, thickly-sliced, chewy prosciutto, but the bread was excellent and the fig jam, delicious. For dessert, a chocolate mascarpone sandwich cookie featured a tasty mascarpone cream center; the cookie itself had a good flavor but was bone-dry in texture. Specials here need to be more clearly displayed.

---Cesco Trattoria, 4871 Cordell Avenue, Bethesda, MD, (301) 654-8333. A pretty and elegant restaurant within easy walking distance of the Bethesda metro stop. Outdoor dining in season. My panzanella was a plate of nice-looking chunks of tomato, cucumber, red onion, and croutons, with some lovely fresh basil. I’d have liked a bit more bread and that bread in a softer form, however, and the dish was too heavily salted. I had a special of a penne pesto as a main course, which was excellent---al dente pasta; fresh, earthy pesto; and the unusual touch of cooked green beans and strips of cooked potato in the dish. My companions enjoyed their osso buco and veal/spinach tortelloni, as well. We split a boozy zuccotto slice and a slice of meringata (chocolate meringue filled with chocolate mousse) for dessert; the latter was more interesting, I thought, given the addition of candied orange peel and praline bits. Service slowed as the meal progressed, but not to a serious extent.

---Persimmon, 7003 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, MD, (301) 654-9860. I like this restaurant. They don’t get everything absolutely right, but the ingredients used are of good quality, and the food is prepared with imagination. This is a small place, again within easy walking distance of the Bethesda metro station. My Duck Confit Salad with Maytag Blue, Pears, and Port Vinaigrette was a wonderful combination of textures and flavors. Mixed lettuces were topped with generous quantities of both the blue cheese and the duck, and the salad was garnished with potato crisps, almost certainly made in-house. As an entrée, my Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with Bacon Mashed Potatoes, Roasted Sweet Corn, and Corn Sauce was also quite good. Two generously-sized crab cakes with a lot of crab rested atop small mounds of stewed greens; adjacent to each was the “roasted sweet corn”, which turned out to be a relish that was too peppery for me (another member of my party who had ordered the same dish had no such complaint, however). The corn sauce was a nice extra touch, and the bacon mashed potatoes were well-prepared. I had a spoonful of a friend’s crème brulee for dessert, which was outstanding, before turning to my own coconut-lime sorbet, which had a perfectly smooth texture. I’d have preferred more coconut flavor, but it was still solidly good. Service is polite and attentive. An interesting menu, as well. Definitely worth a try.

---15 RIA, 1515 Rhode Island Avenue NW, in the Washington Terrace Hotel, D.C., (202) 742-0015 . The night we ate here, the air conditioning was broken. We weren’t told this when we came in, and the situation seemed fairly well under control with the fans they had going, although smoke drifted in from the bar area during our dinner, and perhaps functioning air conditioning would have helped with that problem. The management offered patrons free bottled water that night, “because of the heat”; we thought they were referring to the hot, humid weather outside! In any case, 15 RIA has eclectic décor, with armchairs and sofas done up in muted, darker earth tones. It’s a bit unusual but pleasing overall. The menu is small, but much of it sounded very promising, and I like the restaurant’s ideal of serving what’s in season. I could have gone for a special appetizer of a caramelized onion, fig, and blue cheese tart, or a salad of cherries with aged goat cheese, but instead I settled upon a jumbo lump crabcake (appetizer portion). This turned out to be one large crab cake, rather bland, but nicely complemented by guacamole, a red pepper coulis, and a few black beans. On the down side, I wasn’t impressed by the piece of shell I found in the crab cake. As a main course, I bypassed both the double cut porkchop with apricot chutney/mashed potatoes/bourbon vinaigrette and the blue cheese-crusted sirloin steak, and instead selected the four-cheese ravioli. Five large ravioli were topped with a tomato-pancetta sauce and parsley, with a squirt of basil oil on the bottom of the plate. All of the flavors and textures of this dish melded beautifully, and it was a standout. My companion chose the porkchop, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. For dessert, I contemplated the espresso crème brulee but eventually went with the hazelnut double ganache cake. This was more like a pie; a thick, soggy crust with pieces of hazelnut was the bed for a ganache so thick and rich it was difficult to eat. The garnishes were a chocolate sauce and---I swear---Rice Krispies ™ . Surely, surely, there must have been something else in the kitchen that could have been used in their stead? Thoughtful and polite service.

---Ristorante Luigino, 1100 New York Avenue NW, corner of 12th and H Streets, D.C., (202) 371-0595. We ate here on a Saturday night, and the restaurant, while not packed, was on the busy side. The kitchen here needs to be kept better organized; it took almost exactly an hour from the time we ordered until we received our main courses. Luckily, we had ordered appetizers, but those were a distant dream by the time our entrees arrived. I chose a La Caprese salad; three large slices of tomato (which should have been riper and better given the time of year) resting on olive oil, under thick slices of mozzarella with chiffonaded basil on top. Unfortunately, some of the basil was black, indicating it had been cut up some while in advance. As a main course, I asked the kitchen to omit the shrimp and zucchini from their potato gnocchi, and to merely serve me the gnocchi with their pesto. This they did. The large plateful contained a lot of good gnocchi, which were not heavy or doughy. They were rather afloat in the pesto, which had more of a sauce consistency than I’m used to and was a bit salty. The grated cheese, offered by an additional waitperson, was a disgrace; it was simply granular fragments of salt. My companion’s tuna dish looked an absolute mess. It was a large plate with an excessive pile of a tomato-wine-mushroom-onion sauce mounded over a generous portion of tuna steak. The sauce was mostly brown and chunky in appearance, and clearly no sense of presentation went into this dish. However, the tuna itself he described as “brilliant”. For dessert, we shared a special; one scoop each of hazelnut and pistachio ice cream with caramel sauce. In contrast to our main courses, the dessert arrived within 5 minutes of our ordering it, and the presentation was beautiful. The pistachio ice cream was excellent, with a delicate flavor. Unhappily, the hazelnut ice cream was of a granular texture, although it, too, had a good flavor.

 

 


Published: September 2004



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