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D.C. Dining
Russia House offers 'jewel-box ambiance'
(Published March 20, 2006)

By MARTY PEARL

This week's featured trade show was definitely a pleasure to attend. UBI France (the French agency for international business development) sponsored "The French Wine Road Tour 2006," which visited five American cities offering information and samples to our retail and wholesale wine sellers from three dozen very high-quality wine companies that do not currently have distribution in the United States. Our local venue was the embassy and throughout the four-hour tasting, a couple hundred of our local wine pros happily considered what to add to next season's inventory out of about 300 or so labels that were available.

I have found that even when I "swirl, sniff, sip and spit" at these large events, my tastebuds start to get pretty fried after sampling a couple dozen wines, and when each winery wants you to sample six to 12 selections, the room starts to seem a bit big to me. With so many selections, I tend to lose some of my professionalism and don't spit the really fine wines. Even when taking detailed notes, I have difficulty separating my reactions to so many different aroma/flavor inputs, so my technique then becomes finding a few friends in the room whose judgment I trust and sharing thoughts on groups of wines with each of us trying a few different styles from different wineries. Then, at a later date, I get a few samples of the selections that most impressed us so that we can try them with food in a more controlled and sedate atmosphere.

I will be offering you my thoughts on some of these new offerings shortly with my emphasis on what I think are the best values. A wine that sells for $100 a bottle is obviously not 10 times better than another at $10, but I believe that at each price range you can certainly find both something worth the money as well as a waste of your resources. At a few recent D.C. Dining Society events, we have been enjoying Paul Goerg champagnes. Their non-vintage blanc de blanc brut was recently written up in the New York Times as the finest champagne in the world at under $30 retail, and I would agree with the Times' assessment. I found the flavors to be quite complex with a crisp lasting finish, and if you enjoy good champagne, I think you will be able to compare this sparkler with some much more expensive labels. One of the more sophisticated wine lists in the country -- The Escoffier at The Culinary Institute of America -- features this selection, and I look forward to opening my next bottle.

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Since we are already talking about champagne, the logic of a quick word about caviar seems apparent. The ridiculous prices we pay for sturgeon roe -- $50 to $200 an ounce -- seems so far disconnected from the real world as to be surreal. A century ago the Hudson River supplied New York City with a huge enough crop of caviar-producing sturgeon that what we now consider a rare delicacy was a part of most saloons' free lunches with the purchase of a nickel beer! Over-fishing and pollution destroyed the Hudson industry, but we now hear of sturgeon returning to those waters just as we are being cut off from our Caspian supplies by new regulations, which are attempting to protect against extinction due to poaching and the same water pollution problems we saw here. There are currently mariculture efforts to farm raise these fish in France, the northwestern United States and a few other parts of the world. Companies such as Tsar Nikoulai and Sterling have developed to the point that their products are on a par with the best from Iran and Russia, if nearly as pricey, and indigenous species such as American paddlefish produce eggs nearly as good at moderately lower prices. At considerably lower cost, we find very nice salmon and trout roes that are quite good on their own and stand up well when mixed with sour cream to create a dip of sorts. Lumpfish roe is also often sold labeled as caviar, and quite frankly, to me it is a waste of money -- and it is often the reason many people who have only tried it say they don't like caviar.

Locally, my favorite restaurant that offers this delicacy is The Russia House Lounge at 1800 Connecticut Ave. NW. They offer high quality at high prices, but sell caviar only in 30 gram (just over an ounce) containers so that every portion is guaranteed to be the freshest possible. They offer a nice selection of champagnes as accompaniments, and the other traditional beverage of choice, vodka, is represented by the largest selection in the area. The rest of the food there is also excellent, with an emphasis on Tsarist fare from before the October Revolution of 1917, and the jewel-box ambiance is lovely either for an evening's indulgence in alcoholic beverages or dinner in one of the small or private dining rooms.

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This week's grown-up food event was the 2006 Madison Freedom Awards held at and sponsored by the Madison Hotel. The event annually honors two people who have done much in their respective fields to protect the freedoms embodied by our Constitution. This year's recipients were Michael Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the D.C. Board of Education. The awards luncheon included a good salad, grouper and a nice selection of desserts, but the real foodie event was the evening gala. The entire second floor was used for a walk-around buffet featuring foods from the six inhabited continents. Attendees were greeted at the foyer by a large selection of canapes and smoked salmon and a display of Skyy vodkas. The main banquet room featured a huge raw bar of shrimp, crab claws, oysters and mussels; I did not leave that area for too long during the evening. In other rooms were boneless prime rib, pork loin, leg of lamb, rack of lamb, paella, BBQ shrimp, steamed mussels, Chinese dumplings, sauteed fish fillets, coconut chicken, and a huge assortment of pastries and chocolate fountains. Each room had a bar with more spirits and wines. The evening's entertainment was provided by singers from the D.C. Public Schools' Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I just love awards galas.

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Our winner of dinner for two this week is Dori Leonard, who writes: "Possibly the best pasta in the city (and certainly the cheapest) I am surprised you haven't done a piece yet on is Pasta Mia in Adams Morgan. If you are willing to brave the long lines and the chef, who frequently comes out of the kitchen to talk to people who have the audacity to criticize her cooking (I've seen her yell at a customer for asking for a dish without pesto), Pasta Mia is the best Italian experience in D.C. The pasta is fresh, steaming hot and incredibly delicious, and the portion sizes are enough to feed a football team. I especially recommend the tortellini rosa, which is fresh cheese tortellini in a cream tomato sauce with grated parmesan on top. All dishes are less than $15, and the house wine isn't bad either. It's hard to save room, but the tiramisu is worth it. I highly recommend you check it out!"

Remember, e-mail me at chefmartydc@aol.com with your comments or questions about the D.C. dining scene, and the letter that I think is most interesting gets a free dinner for two at Smith Point in Georgetown, courtesy of Executive Chef Nate Bearfield, who will also select wine to accompany your meal.

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Write to Marty Pearl at ChefMartyDC@aol.com or at The Common Denominator, 3609 Georgia Ave. NW, Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20010. Messages may be left on his voicemail at (202) 722-6397.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator