Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ambar Balkan Cuisine

Amazing Cheese Pies
We set out for our next stop on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon on what has been an otherwise cold and bleak DC winter. Down on Barracks Row crowds of people were out enjoying the day as we stepped into Ambar to try our third Richard Sandoval brunch (last year we visited El Centro and Masa 14). It was #ClassicSandoval; this time with a Balkan twist. Overall score: 3.83/5.00

The Deal

Ambar is Sandoval’s newest restaurant in DC, having only opened about a year ago. Like his other brunches, Ambar offers a $35 Unlimited Brunch. Everyone at the table must participate in order to get the deal. Another fusion restaurant, its aim is to “put together the finest products of the New World and Old World.” There is a nice, brief history on their website. The deal is a good one and standard fare for DC bottomless food and drink. Average price score: 3.81/5.00


The Ambar brunch menu features three drinks: Traditional Mimosa, Ambar Mimosa, and a Bloody Mary. You can switch between them during the unlimited brunch, and we tried all three. Everyone liked the Ambar mimosa, which has peach puree and blood orange but tastes more like pear. The traditional mimosa was also delicious and medium in strength. The questers that tried the Bloody Mary were also pleased, finding it flavorful, well rounded, not too spicy, and not too strong. Average drink score: 4.00/5.00


Definitely the highlight of the brunch. With the small plate unlimited brunch we were able to try almost everything. Our waiter recommended the Cheese Pies first (pictured above), and we are so glad he did. After our first bites we immediately wanted to order three more… per person. The menu features an abundance of prosciutto and cheese—two things I love. Even the eggs benedict has prosciutto on it, and it’s phenomenal. Other highlights include the salmon omelet, the roasted mushroom crepe, the Balkan salad, and the Balkan Panini. The fried potatoes and steak both have a hint of garlic and are delicious.
Steak & Fried Potatoes
We sampled all the desserts. The cinnamon sweet sourdough and strawberry waffle clearly were the best. C’mon, they both had Nutella; the other desserts didn't stand a chance.

The Mezze Platter for Two was more trouble than it was worth. The tiny portions of meat, cheese, and bread come on an oversized cutting board that takes up half of your table and is $16 if you’re not doing the unlimited brunch. I’d say skip it and move on. The Balkan Burger was OK. The patty is a mixture of beef and pork and tastes more like a sausage than a burger. The fried chicken sandwich had a quality cutlet but a powerful slaw. We’re still not sure how we feel about it.

Mezze Platter
What actually would have made my brunch experience better was a cutting knife. We shared our dishes, and trying to cut burgers and sandwiches with the knives on the table gets frustrating after a while. So if you plan on sharing your plates, ask for a proper knife. :)

Overall the food was really good and is reflected in the score, but in terms of the other Sandoval restaurants we've tried I’d choose El Centro or Masa 14. However, other questers choose Ambar. I may be biased because I love Latin food but hey, you gotta do you. Average food score: 4.38/5.00


This is where it received a mediocre score. Though we liked the food and drink, they came very slowly. There were too many long stretches of time with no food in front of us and with our glasses empty. However, our waiter was friendly, helpful, and gave us some good recommendations. Average service score: 3.38/5.00


It was a great day for brunch, and we all enjoyed our time at the restaurant. Some people docked points for what they thought of as ill-fitting music, but it wasn't too loud and I didn't notice it until someone pointed it out at the end of the meal. The noise level was low, we were able to have good conversation, and we were right inside of a nice outdoor bar area. Average ambiance score: 3.56/5.00

If you find yourself on Barracks Row, Ambar should be near the top of your list of brunches to try.

Ambar Balkan Cuisine
523 8th St. SE
Washington, DC 20003
tel. 202-813-3039

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

District Commons

George Washington statue
Washington Circle, Foggy Bottom
Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran once said “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” We should all take solace in this thought, that the sorrow and disappointment to arise from the premiere Brunch Quest outing of 2014 might serve to make all of the others that much better by comparison.

And just how bad was this first brunch to warrant such a judgment? I honestly think the comments from my own scorecard sum things up rather well: “Mediocre food, weak mimosas, and bad service.” But you don’t have to take my word for it: District Commons received an all-around score of 3.04, lower than that received by any restaurant we visited on Brunch Quest 2013. Let’s review each component of the meal to see how things broke down.

The Deal

Located in Foggy Bottom, District Commons offers bottomless mimosas or Bloody Marys for $16 with the purchase of any entrée. The plates themselves varied significantly in price, from $10 to $21, but they generally averaged around $15.  As neither of these numbers (especially for the drinks) is particularly low, it only figures that “Price” received the second lowest score of any category this week: 2.93.


Among its few advantages is the restaurant’s array of menu options. Entrées ranged from brunch classics like Eggs Benedict and Huevos Rancheros, to southern staples like Country Friend Steak and Shrimp & Grits, to more unusual fare like Toasted Coconut Pancakes and Roasted Portobello Mushrooms. This variety, however, did not make up for the subpar quality of the food itself. While there were a few particular complaints (the salsa was very spicy, but lacking in flavor; the Benedict was bland), overall, there was just a general sense of being underwhelmed by the food. Given the price, this is a serious disappointment.

Easily the brightest spot on the menu was the Hot Pretzel Baguette. These delectable delights were served warm, fresh from the oven, with sides of butter and beer mustard. While it would have been nice to get them for free, $2 certainly wasn’t an unreasonable price for something this delicious. The only possible complaint is that the baguettes were too small and disappeared too fast! These things alone probably helped buoy the “Food” score up to a 3.43.


An almost universal complaint among Questers was that the mimosas weren’t strong enough. I must say I concur with this assessment. Though not unpleasant, these drinks just didn’t pack the kick one would hope for from a brunch like this – especially considering how much we paid for them. The Bloody Marys also received mediocre reviews. These factors all contributed to an overall drink score of 3.36.

Weak drinks can be forgiven, to a certain extent, if the service makes up for quality with quantity. Unfortunately, this was not the case…


Where to begin here? Despite our making a reservation, upon arrival we found that they had not prepared a table of adequate size for our group. We were forced to squeeze together, take extra chairs ourselves, and request additional place settings. Ordering and receiving food didn’t take exceptionally long, but it certainly wasn’t speedy either. Additionally, when someone in the group ordered oysters, she found that some of them had been crushed with the metal condiment cups they were served with – unacceptable!

However, the real disappointment when it came to service was the drink refills. Rather than mixing pitchers of mimosa to bring around to the tables, servers would collect glasses individually and replace them with full ones the next time they came around. If you’re wondering how this turned out, know that words and phrases like “poor,” “very slow,” and “eternity” were bandied about by our Brunchaneers. One participant claimed to have received only three mimosas in the course of the (roughly two hour) meal – ridiculous. Thus, it should be no surprise District Commons’ lowest score came for “Service” at 2.36


Though the atmosphere wasn't noticeably unpleasant, this place is LOUD. This is likely due to a combination of the layout – one large and open room – and the plethora of hard, flat surfaces which seemed to comprise everything in the restaurant. While some of Questers complimented the music selection, this too served as a loud impediment to pleasant brunch-time conversation. Though we've brunched in less pleasant places, this one did nothing with its atmosphere to improve our experience, earning it a 3.14.

Despite District Commons' shortcomings, we had a pleasant day in the neighborhood and continued our merrymaking at a local bar.

District Commons
2200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20037
tel. 202-587-8277

Photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid Licensed Under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Masa 14

This place blew me away. Between the food, the drink, the service, and the atmosphere, it’s no wonder why Masa 14 is one of the most highly sought after brunch places in DC.

It is in such high demand that the Brunch Quest visit to the restaurant was limited to only 3 people. I am told that trying to get a reservation there last year went something like this:

Masa 14: Hello, Masa 14.
Quester:  Hi there, I would like to make a brunch reservation for 10 people in 3 weeks.
Masa 14: How about 4 people in 2 months?
Quester: We’ll take it!

This past New Year’s Day, however, we were able to secure a reservation for a larger group. That experience I’ll detail below.
The Deal

Masa 14 offers an “Unlimited Pre Fixe Brunch” for $35. That’s bottomless food and drink until 3pm and it’s perfect for Masa 14’s small plate style. It allows you to sit back and hang out with your friends while the wait staff brings you a variety of delicious food and drink. The plates range from $5-12, so as long as you put in your fair share of eating, it comes out to a really good deal.


#NailedIt. The mimosas here were perfection in a glass, the ideal combination of champagne and orange juice. However, most of us didn’t start with a mimosa as Masa 14 offers 5 other brunch drinks and you can switch between them throughout the meal. The other drinks include the Masa Mimosa, Bloody Mary, Bacon Bloody Mary (with bacon-infused vodka), Lychee Bellini, and Lemon Lager. I started with the Masa Mimosa, which is made with champagne, mango puree and blood orange. It was really good but super sweet. Not ideal if you plan on drinking quite a bit, which is easy to do since the wait staff is so attentive to refills. Side note: in case you’re wondering, the Lemon Lager tastes like cream (vanilla) soda.


You can get bottomless drinks at all of our brunch stops, but this bottomless food deal is more rare. And with so many interesting options on the menu at Masa 14 you just want to try everything. And you should. And can! Basically you order your food in waves, run down the list of the things you want to try. When you’re done with those, order again. And again.

From the egg dishes to the burgers, everything we ate was delicious. A couple of pizza shout-outs go to the Masa Breakfast Pizza (bacon, egg yolk, jack cheese, pico de gallo, and arugula) and the Prosciutto Flatbread (goat cheese, cantaloupe, arugula, truffle, and lime). I also have a new food rule: all rice should be bacon fried rice. No exceptions.

Make sure you save some room to make a strategically placed order in the Pan Dulce. We saved it for last and it was a sweet end to a sweet brunch.  I recommend you do the same.


I alluded to this earlier: the service here was phenomenal. (Shout-out to our waitress Ivana!) We were seated right away, and our food and drinks came out immediately. Our waitress was excellent, attentive and always around to refill our glasses, which is essential if you want a top score on this Quest. She was so good that when I wanted to switch to the traditional mimosa, I couldn’t because each time I turned around my glass had already been refilled. I literally never saw the bottom of my glass. I eventually had to order the next drink while still on my previous and had two going for a while.

Around 2pm, our waitress came over to apologize that the kitchen was backed up because the second kitchen was down. Honestly, we hadn’t even noticed; a testament to the service here. Regardless, we were there past the 3pm brunch closing time, and they were still serving our drinks and checking on our food. Awesome. I also know from last year’s more intimate Quest visit that the staff can guide first-timers through the ordering strategy for bottomless food. So never fear, this place is great for brunchers of all levels and parties of all sizes, assuming, of course, you can get a table.


This was a memorable brunch experience and definitely a top contender for the best brunch in DC. Since there is barely any ordering and the food and drink just keep coming, it’s a great place to focus on conversation and hanging out with your friends. Plus the bill is really easy at the end, a consideration when you’re in bigger groups. I loved the atmosphere and their music selection is great for a feel-good brunch. Some music highlights include: Jackson 5, Parliament Funkadelic, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Low Rider, Superstitious, and Staying Alive.

Make your reservations now. Masa 14 is in demand and you should be on the inside looking out.

Masa 14
1825 14th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20009-4425
tel. 202-328-1414

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Be About It

The Concept

Last year a group of friends set out to find the best brunch place in DC.
Because, let’s be honest, brunch is the best meal of the week. What other meal offers you bottomless alcohol? So every weekend for 3 months we sampled eggs, breakfast pizzas, steaks and of course, mimosas, to see which DC brunch place tops them all.

The idea was conceived by my good friend and avid bruncher, Ruth, for her birthday. To have the ultimate birthday brunch we would go out each week in the hopes of finding the best, in order to celebrate the best. It’s called Brunch Quest. Be About it.

It was so much fun that we are doing it again, (and again), and launching this blog to track our fun and share our reviews with DC and the wider brunching population.

The Rules

To make it on the Brunch Quest list, the spot has to meet the following criteria:

1.       Be highly rated online by foodies such as the Bitches who Brunch
2.       Offer bottomless mimosas

After each brunch, we rate the meal and experience based on 4 categories: Food, Drinks, Service, and Price.  And in a friendly twist, rate the person to your left as a brunch partner (punctuality, conversation, and attractiveness are a few suggested categories to consider). Ratings are on a 1 to 5 scale (1 being the worst and 5 being the best). Below, we share the final scores of last year’s Quest, based on the averages of those in attendance:

Medium Rare
Masa 14
El Centro
Local 16
Ardeo Bardeo
Level 1
Station 4

Pulpo came out on top by a very small margin. But we actually wound up at Scion for the birthday brunch because it was better suited for a large birthday crowd.

Brunch Quest 2014: Still About It

We’ve got t-shirts (last year’s in the picture above), and we’re ready for another round of carbonated vitamin C. Coming up this year is a whole new list of restaurants. We’ll post our detailed reviews each week here on this blog.

Though the Quest is February to May, some of us more committed folk have completed a few off-season work-outs this fall and winter. Reviews of those brunches will follow shortly.

We’re really excited for this year’s Quest, and we hope you’ll follow along. If you see us on the trail, come over and say hey. #stillaboutit