Cities always energize me. The bigger the city, the more jazzed up I feel. It makes sense, right? There’s always something going on in cities: cars rushing by, metro lines criss-crossing beneath your feet, and people scurrying every which way.
By comparison, in the rural countryside of Virginia Beach where I live and work, not a whole lot goes on. Maybe a flock of birds flies overhead or a dog barks or a neighbor mows his lawn. It can be a little boring—peaceful, yes, but not very thrilling. That’s why I love escaping to the city for a few days.
Recently Peter and I hopped in the car and headed up to D.C. for sightseeing, shopping, and dining. The traffic gods were with us, and even I-95 was without its usual tie-ups. Our friend Beth, who lives in Fairfax, agreed to let us park at her house so we could use D.C.’s fabulous public transportation system. She dropped us off at the Metro, and armed with passes we bought from vending machines, we caught the subway into the city.
I love public transportation as much as I love cities. The two go hand-in-hand, of course, since most big cities have efficient metro systems. There’s something about being a commuter that’s so different from isolating yourself in a car. Not that people interact much on the Metro. Most are reading or dozing or checking email when they can get a signal. As for me? I’m energized by all this activity and can’t wait to head out onto the city streets.
That’s the other thing I love about cities: all the walking you do. Wearing comfy shoes is paramount since invariably you will cover a few miles a day. Our hotel, Georgetown Suites, was a 10-minute walk from the metro in a nice quiet neighborhood a block from M Street, Georgetown’s shopping district. Our suite had a nice little kitchen and sitting area and our windows overlooked a courtyard with huge sycamore trees. After we dropped off our bags, it was time to shop!
To be honest, I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic shopper. I’m always looking and never finding what I want, it seems. But this foray onto M Street was different. Everywhere I looked I found just what I needed. Shoes, check. Christmas presents, check. Boots, check. Even though some of the chains where I shopped are also here in Tidewater, I could see a big difference in quantity and quality of items. Being unable to find shoes made of leather is one of my pet peeves when I shop locally. But in Georgetown, almost all the shoes were made of leather. What’s up with that?
After our shopping escapade, Peter and I couldn’t wait to dive into one of Georgetown’s trendy restaurants. We chose El Centro DF, part of Chef Richard Sandoval’s restaurant collection, a lively venue with a dining room downstairs and a lounge area upstairs. El Centro DF features “destination menus.” Twice a year Chef Sandoval, who was raised in Mexico City, travels to different Mexican states and creates dishes that celebrate that area’s distinctive culinary traditions. Oaxaca was the featured region during our visit, a Mexican state known for its bold flavors and unique dishes.
But first a margarita! El Centro’s choices all sounded delicious, making it hard to decide. I opted for the Spiña, created from a pineapple- and Serrano-infused blanco tequila with agave nectar, fresh lime, chili, and ginger. It was the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. Peter chose a Pepiño margarita, which was similar to mine, but instead of pineapple, it was infused with cucumber flavor. Very fresh and flavorful, Peter said.
Tableside guac is highly recommended at El Centro, and we soon discovered why. Creamy and chunky, the guacamole was a party in my mouth, the perfect choice for a starter. If you’re feeling adventurous, they offer a guacamole with bacon, roasted corn, and pumpkin seeds. Or go really wild and try the version with crispy grasshoppers. Hmm, maybe next time.
Our server also recommended the Acapulco-style ceviche, which was so good I jotted down the ingredients: shrimp or fish filet of choice, orange juice, lime, habanero, chipotle, adobe, cilantro, tomato, onions, and avocado. The result is a fabulous combination of flavors in a tomato-based marinade. You can find many of Richard Sandoval’s recipes on El Centro DF’s website, but not this one, unfortunately.
For our main course Peter and I shared one of the Oaxaca specialties: braised short ribs in mezcal-mole sauce served with pinto beans, sautéed zucchini, and mushrooms. We loved the smoky flavor of the brisket and, after shredding it, filled corn tortillas with the brisket, beans, and veggies. Yep, it was good. So good in fact, we had no room for El Centro’s signature dessert: churros served with your choice of chipotle caramel sauce or cinnamon-chocolate sauce. Now we have a good reason to go back!
The next morning we decided to do some sightseeing, beginning with the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism just a block from the National Mall. Its mission is to champion the First Amendment, which guarantees our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right for people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
While this may sound a little dull, the museum does an excellent job of bringing journalism to life—its history, turning points, tragedies, and more—through interactive exhibits and state-of-the-art displays. I visited Newseum once before and knew I wanted to return. Allow a half-day to explore this museum, and if you’re a news nut, you can easily spend a day wandering among its seven levels of exhibitions.
For lunch Peter and I headed to one of our favorite restaurants, Jaléo, a Spanish restaurant in D.C.’s Penn Quarter with a quirky, fun vibe and excellent food and wine. We decided not to go overboard and eat a big lunch since we had dinner reservations, so we opted to share our favorite dish: grilled fresh tenderloin from the legendary acorn-fed, black-footed Ibérico pigs of Spain served medium-rare with roasted apples. That together with a bottle of nice Spanish red wine plus some crusty bread and olive oil for dipping, and we were happy. We took our time and relaxed at our corner table, watching life go by on the busy streets of D.C.
Now it was time to look for sparkling gems. No, we weren’t in the market for jewelry. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History was only a short walk away, and its minerals and gems department is a stunner, especially if you like colorful, radiant stones. A friend had told us to check out a carved crystal near the Hope diamond, so we found it and got lost in its smoky-blue depths, sharp angles, and random tiny air bubbles suspended forever in the giant crystal. Nature is infinitely amazing.
We’d walked to the mall from Georgetown that morning, a distance of about two miles, but we opted to take the Metro back. Later we learned we could have taken the bus, the D.C. Circulator, for $1 and gotten dropped off a block from our hotel—something to remember for our next visit.
ELEGANCE & CHARM
After freshening up, Peter and I headed to one of Georgetown’s most popular restaurants, 1789, housed in a beautiful Federal-period home on a leafy residential street. A favorite of politicos and dignitaries (Bill Clinton is a fan), 1789 exudes elegance and charm yet retains a cozy, homey feel. It’s almost like you’re dining at your wealthy grandmother’s house—think Limoges china and valuable antiques—and she is sparing no expense. Indeed, service throughout the night was extraordinary, and the food was exquisite. At the kitchen’s helm is Chef Samuel Kim, whose passion for food is evident in both the dishes he creates and the ingredients he sources from local purveyors.
We started with cocktails and then dove right into our first course: charred Spanish octopus for me—smoky, tender, and oh-so-good—and a lobster pappardelle pasta dish flavored with Pernod for Peter. We savored every bite. Next, the chef sent out one of his signature dishes, Foie Gras Torchon with citrus marmalade, candied fennel, red watercress, and cumin, which we enjoyed with a glass of Cotes du Rhone. The “foie,” as Chef Samuel called it, was buttery, velvety, heavenly. It’s one of my favorite dishes, so I was a happy camper.
I’m a firm believer that when you dine out, you should order food you can’t make yourself. Well, at 1789, I daresay all of the entrées fall in that category. Top-quality ingredients combined with creative, flavorful preparations add up to amazing dishes that rate among some of the best anywhere. My main course was Long Island duck breast—pink on the inside with crunchy flavorful skin on the outside. The tasty duck was served with black trumpet mushroom, turnips, kale, and winter radishes with a yummy foie gras truffle on the side.
Peter’s main was a venison loin from New Zealand served with spätzle, rutabaga and cabbage, bacon, caramelized pear, and cocoa nibs. The grass-fed venison was moist and tender, not gamey at all, and its savory flavors mixed well with the chef’s choice of veggies and condiments.
We begged our server not to tell us about the desserts, but of course he told us. We couldn’t resist the flourless chocolate-espresso tart with hints of salted caramel and toasted hazelnuts, which was creamy, decadent, and oh-so chocolate-y. Our over-the-top meal was fit for royalty—no wonder 1789 attracts those-in-the-know.
Before we knew it, our city break was over. On the way home the next day, Peter and I decided we need to visit this world-class city at least once a year. It’s so close and there are always new sights to see and restaurants to discover. And visiting D.C. doesn’t have to be a splurge. Many museums in our nation’s capital are free, public transportation is affordable, and D.C.’s streets are lined with restaurants to fit every budget.
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