Fab day plus a new bar (Sotto) and restaurant review (Le Dip)

Yesterday was an absolutely wonderful birthday; the best I've had in years! Thank you so much to everyone who reached out via phone, email, Facebook and good old-fashioned card. Thank you for the flowers and warm messages of love and friendship.  Thank you for the hugs and compliments. 

 coffee at Leopold's Kafe

coffee at Leopold's Kafe

 two pals wearing springy shoes (CF, thanks for putting on your pinks for me!)

two pals wearing springy shoes (CF, thanks for putting on your pinks for me!)

After seeing friends, spending some time in the garden, playing with the kids and getting a massage, I put on a dress and heels, and T took me out for drinks and then dinner.

We started at Sotto, the new bar/smokery under Ghibellina on 14th Street. If you've read Em-i-lis for a while, you surely know  how much I love Ghibellina (full disclosure: I am friends with one of its founders/managers, but I would feel exactly the same way even if I weren't), so I was thrilled T and I were able to leave early enough to enjoy an aperitif before our 7:30 dinner reservations.

Sotto, which means 'below' in Italian, feels as hip and warm and welcoming as does Ghib even though its aesthetics are different.  It's a long, narrow space, a generous shotgun really, with a lengthy bar, cozy tables and a room at the rear for live music and private parties. The hooks under the bar and parts of the light fixtures and cabinetry are custom iron-work. It's not remotely heavy feeling and lends a extra layer of masculinity to the rough-hewn wooden bar (polished smooth but the shape is wonderfully organic), minimalist lights and doors behind which sit bottles of liquor and spirits aging in old wooden barrels.

As at Ghibellina, the wine, beer and cocktail lists are unique and inspired. I get so excited by a drinks menu that is so obviously well-considered and created by someone who cares. T had the Right Away cocktail, a blend of Rye and two different Amaros, and I had a flute of Brut Rosé which is always celebratory.

We wished we had room to try a few things, but I have been looking forward to dining at Le Diplomate for many months so vetoed the idea of ordering anything. That said, the menu looked fantastic, and I'm eager to return. Heavy on smoked meats, roasted vegetables and small snacks, the offerings are trim but sound heavenly.

Bravo to the Ghibellina/Sotto crew. I can't wait to return.

On to Le Diplomate, a popular French bistro on the corner of 14th and Q. The looks of the place are such that you can't walk by and not want to go inside immediately. It has great energy, and overall, the style is charming. 

I didn't expect it to be small inside, but I was surprised by how cavernous Le Dip is. There are several dining rooms as well as an extensive outdoor eating area, and, as I always do, I loved that the windows and doors could be thrown open to the elements on pretty days. The whole place was packed, with what seemed to be a mix of first-timers and neighborhood regulars. Despite the crowd, the acoustics are pretty good so we never felt we were front row at an AC/DC concert.*

My enthusiasm for Le Dip started to wane when I saw the wholly uninspired wines-by-the-glass list. Tom often wants beer with dinner (not Coors, people; good Belgian stuff!) so I tend to take the opportunity to try different wines. The options for bottles were solid, but by the glass? Forget about it. I started with a Burgundian white and later moved on to a Pinot which I didn't finish. I know, right?!

We started with a half-dozen raw oysters because, generally speaking, I love them. Two of the three tasted like seaweed, straight up. I like my oysters briny and OF the sea, but I don't order pricey bivalves to eat salty kelp, you know? And the mignonette was way too strong for the delicate oysters; vinegar gone mad I tell you, and I tend to love me some vinegar.

At this point, my interest in ordering anything but standard French fare had been completely tamped. Instead, I chose the mushroom tart and the warm shrimp salad with lemon beurre blanc and avocado, while T opted for the steak frites.

He was very pleased with his steak which did have a gorgeous, shellacky-looking exterior and a perfect (for Tom) medium-rare interior. The fries I stole from him were undersalted but he said I must have just gotten unlucky because his were fine.

My mushroom tart was beautiful to look at, but I was disappointed by the crust which was both slightly overcooked on the bottom and a bit more leaden than a good butter-based tart crust should be. The topping was nice, though I did add salt.

I beseech you to not order the $20 warm shrimp salad. I swear to you it tasted like something Red Lobster would serve. There is nothing wrong with Red Lobster, but I was not at Red Lobster and was also paying twenty damn dollars for a salad. You feel me?

There were five, not-Gulf shrimp sitting in a pool of warm'ish beurre blanc. The salad was cold, overdressed and desperately needed a zing. It literally cried out for some lemon and love. If this shrimp weren't your average Joe farmed guys, you could have fooled me. 

I wanted a birthday dessert in a serious way, but by this point, even T said, "Babe, let's stick with simple." Indeed. I chose the crème brûlée. Although it came with a dry madeleine, the reason for this pairing I cannot fathom, the crème brûlée itself was wonderful. The burned sugar shell was perfect -I could taste both almost-too-much caramelization and sweetness- and the chef did not skimp while scraping vanilla beans into the custard. Our waiter also brought some almond-based cakes with a candle. The cakes were tiny rounds, about the size of a quarter, and puffy. They were scrumptious. Truly sublime.

It's a surprise when dessert is the best course at a restaurant but it was a good way to go out last night.

The service at Le Dip left something to be desired. Or at least our waiter did. He was an odd combo of overly affected and absent, qualities which are not optimal alone but are certainly no good when paired. I have heard Le Dip's brunch is spectacular, so I'd go back to try it, but I'm in no hurry for now. 

T went to get the car because I had on these awesome babies, a gift from my sis, which are not made for distance strolling. And we came home and kissed the boys and called it a happy done day.

*No, I do not know if AC/DC even still performs live, but their volume is what I think of when I think LOUD! Spare me, I'm 39 now.