Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Liberty Tavern

I've actually had this little write-up in my pocket for months. But until the new year came around to kick-start my motivation, I didn't have anywhere to post it...

One night this fall, Mark and I ventured across the river into Arlington. Normally, I try to avoid doing this at all costs, as one of the basic assumptions underlying my zombie apocalypse survival plan is that I will be in the District when it starts.* However, I had missed my last two book club get-togethers, and believed I was in danger of being ousted, so Mark and I decided to make a night of it (Virginia Is For Lovers, after all). It all worked out for the best, actually, as he went to write at a coffee shop while waiting for me to finish up chatting with the ladies. It was a beautiful night, so we took a short walk over to Liberty Tavern, a bustling restaurant just off the Clarendon metro station.

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Walking into the restaurant, we were greeted by packs of slightly boozy Northern Virginia young professionals milling about the bar area, chatting each other up (I’m not being judge-y. It looked like a fun time was generally had by all). The hostess told us the wait would be about 20 to 25 minutes, which is typically my cue to peace out and take it to the next closest eatery. But we were in foreign territory, and not at all in the know about near-by alternatives, so we decided to wait. The hostess got my cell phone number, and we grabbed a couple of beers at the bar and settled into the lounge-y section to wait. Mark noted excitedly that a nearby group of ladies was eating cupcakes, and speculated that perhaps the restaurant had the treats on their menu. But then I spotted the Cakelove logo on the lid of the cupcake box. Mark slumped back into his seat, muttering, “So, they’re gross cupcakes.” I agreed. We’ve got no Cakelove.

We'd barely made it halfway into our Miller Lites when my cell phone rang, and the hostess led us to the less frantic, but equally noisy dining area upstairs. Still, it wasn’t so loud that we had to scream at each other across the table, just lean in a bit, all romantic-like. Our server promptly greeted us, dropped off the “Early Autumn Dinner Menu” and took our wine orders. (This is generally where a reviewer would make some sort of insightful comment about the wine selection, but that’s not where my expertise lies a.k.a. I know nothing about wine. We each got glass of Pinot Grigio. It was nice.) I love when restaurants do a seasonal menu, and I love this time of year, so I was really looking forward to the meal.

We settled on the Apple/Endive salad and a half order of the gnocchi for starters. After we ordered, we were given a substantial basket of a variety of pretty good breads – warm and soft – with a fairly nice-sized tub of butter. While it was simply good and not mind-blowingly delicious, we demolished that bread, and were pretty close to being finished with it when our starters came.

The salad ($9) came in a startlingly large portion, with heaps of julienned apple and endive, pecans, bits of smoked bacon, and generous chunks of blue cheese. The combination of ingredients was fresh and bright, and tied nicely together with a creamy, tangy buttermilk dressing.

The gnocchi ($8) was even better. The little potato dumplings melted on my tongue, like the best gnocchi should, and was accompanied by cubes of roasted butternut squash, and Oregon Porcini mushrooms (yay! My homestate!). I got to scoop up all the delicious Porcinis, since Mark’s not a fan of mushrooms (because he’s a crazy person). As good as all that was, the sauce was the real revelation, a gorgeous velvety combination of Rogue River smoked bleu cream (again, Oregon, yay!) and sage, with the sweetness from the squash and the earthiness of the mushrooms playing important supporting roles. I thought it was a perfect showcase of fall flavors, and next time I’m at the restaurant, if they’re still serving it, I’m getting the full portion. Maybe two. (My ideal death? Drowning in that sauce).

For our main courses, we got two of the restaurant’s six featured pizzas. We ordered the Vermont ($14) (after paying respect to my origins with the gnocchi, we had to honor Mark’s old stomping ground), which was topped with Cabot white cheddar, prosciutto, caramelized onions, granny smith apples and sage. We also ordered the Italian Fennel Sausage pizza ($13), with crushed tomato, mozzarella, fontina and whole basil leaves. Both pizzas were solid. The crusts were good, flaky and nicely crisped on the bottom, although I prefer a slightly heavier hand with the salt on my pizza dough. I thought that the Vermont would be too busy for my liking, but all the ingredients played together pretty well, with the slight sharpness of the cheese and the sweetness of the caramelized onions balancing out the saltiness of the prosciutto. While I’m not really sure that the apple slivers really added anything, they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the pizza overall. The other pizza was really good too, although the fennel sausage was much saltier than I would have liked. One nice touch was that the basil leaves were added either after baking or near the end of the process – I really can’t understand when places cook them along with everything else. Why would I want wilted/crunchy basil on my pizza? If you’re going to go that route, you might as well use dried basil, you know? Anyway, I enjoyed the freshness that the basil brought to the pie.

We ended up taking about a third of each pizza home with us and skipping dessert (stupid bread basket and lack of foresight, you have screwed me once again!). I will say, however, that as we were leaving, the table next to us got their desserts, which looked delicious, and we seriously considered sitting back down. If Liberty Tavern’s sweets are as good as the rest of its menu, it probably would have been worth it. Overall, a pretty great, reasonably priced restaurant, well-worth the Metro ride.

*Another assumption is that I will have easy access to a samurai sword. I admit that perhaps my plan is a wee bit specific in parts, which may make execution difficult.

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