Valentine's Day is one of the busiest nights of the year for restaurants. And despite a place's best efforts, love can turn disastrous. Here are two stories restaurants would like to forget.
Anthony Lombardo, Chef, 1789
This happened when I was working in Michigan. A guy decides he's going to propose, and he gives the manager this $30,000 ring because he wants it brought out in his date's tiramisu. The manager hands it off to this new pastry chef on the dessert station. Minutes later, the ring and the pastry guy were gone, nowhere to be found. He was going to pawn it.
One of the owners went looking for him, found him at a gas station, shook him down, and got the ring back. Meanwhile, we stalled the customer, and by the time he was starting to notice something was wrong, the ring was back in the restaurant. We shoved it in the tiramisu, she found it with her fork, licked it off, and put it on. She said yes.
Fried fugu. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user istolethetv.
There’s no more notorious food than fugu—a.k.a. puffer fish, a potentially deadly Japanese delicacy. So young sushi chef Jason Zheng caused a stir when he told the City Paper's Chris Shott that he hoped to offer puffer at the Hamilton, a new downtown DC 24-hour mega-eatery whose offerings include sashimi, nigiri, and maki rolls.
In Japan, sushi chefs-in-training test their skills by how well they can carve puffer. The fish contains a poison 20 times as lethal as cyanide. If the chef fails to remove the tetrodotoxin, diners are in danger. In Tokyo last November, a woman almost died after eating fugu liver at a two-Michelin-star establishment. The chef who prepared it was suspended for serving such a dangerous morsel.
Only one known Washington-area restaurant currently serves fugu: Kaz Sushi Bistro in DC’s Foggy Bottom. Kazuhiro “Kaz” Okochi orders the fish from Wako International Corp. in New York City, the only fugu importer approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Only a select group of restaurants are certified by Wako to buy the fish, and Wako lobbied for years to get approval; all of the company’s fish comes from Shimonoseki, Japan, home to an expert group of slicers trained to remove all traces of tetrodotoxin. The fish doesn’t come cheap: Okochi paid Wako $90 a pound for farm-raised fugu in 2011. The prices proved too steep for Terry Segawa, owner of Bethesda’s Tako Grill, who says he stopped serving fugu in 2010 due to rising costs.
When a twice-yearly shipment comes in, Okochi creates a $150 dinner featuring various preparations. He says he thinks his diners, most of them American, understand that fugu served stateside in legal restaurants is about as safe as any other sushi: “They don’t pay $150 to die from eating dinner.”
This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.
11960 Democracy Dr., Reston; 703-230-3474
Jeff Tunks’s split-level dining room is still the best place to eat in Reston—and one of the top seafood spots in the area. One evening, the kitchen sent out many impressive Asian-influenced plates, including a well-seasoned sushi roll filled with tempura shrimp, cucumber, and avocado; a fried whole flounder with a terrific tamarind sauce; and macadamia-crusted halibut on a tangy green-papaya salad. One complaint: The Clams Casino dip, which we once loved, seemed smaller and oilier. And was that Velveeta in the mac and cheese?
Joe’s Noodle House
1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-5518
Your tongue is still certain to be scorched at this Szechuan-heavy place in Rockville’s unofficial Chinatown, and the starchy, quick-cook street foods provide dependable comfort. But the misses are more numerous these days, including the steamed whole fish buried under a pile of pickled cabbage and chilies—the centerpiece was dismayingly fishy-tasting. We took refuge in the brightest spot among the six dishes on the table: a superlative stir-fry of pork, garlic, and black beans.
1101 K St., NW; 202-408-1717
On a nice night, the patio at this Belgian brasserie is a prime spot for people-watching, sipping beer (the list of Belgians is encyclopedic), and going halves on a bounteous pot of steamed mussels. Our current favorite among the pots is an odd preparation that makes the standard white wine and shallots look like spa food—this one smothers the mussels in a rich and chunky veal bolognese. The rest of the cooking follows in that brawny style. Even a grilled trout in a lemon-caper sauce is hearty. The Belgian waffle for dessert will send you flying over the edge, but you won’t be complaining.
This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.
It seems like much of Washington tucks into bed before midnight, but that’s when a night kicks into gear for many of the area’s chefs, line cooks, and bartenders. What are their top spots for fueling up and relaxing after a long day?
Chefs Omar Rodriguez of Jaleo Crystal City and Ruben Garcia of parent company Think Food Group hit the Passenger in downtown DC (1021 Seventh St., NW; 202-393-0220) for such late-night eats as a kimchee-topped hot dog or hummus with fava beans. Though Tom Brown’s amusing cocktail names—such as the Cougar Tail, a mix of Calvados, allspice liqueur, and lime juice—may entice some, this duo sticks to Manhattans, Sazeracs, or beer in a can, preferably Dale’s Pale Ale, Porkslap, or even Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Passenger mixologist Derek Brown occasionally goes for some Old World charm at Georgetown’s Bistro Français (3124 M St., NW; 202-338-3830), which serves until 3 am weekdays, 4 am weekends. “After a 12-hour shift,” he says, “what would you rather eat—a trio of foie gras textures or roast chicken and fries?”
Ed Witt of 701 in DC’s Penn Quarter likes the bars at the nearby restaurants Proof (775 G St., NW; 202-737-7663) and the Source (575 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-637-6100); he’s often joined by chef pals including Graffiato’s Mike Isabella, Bibiana’s Nick Stefanelli, Proof’s Haidar Karoum, and the Source’s Scott Drewno.
Call ahead and BlackSalt's M.J. Gimbar can order hard-to-get fish. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Just like fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish have seasons. We asked Jeff Black of DC’s BlackSalt seafood market to suggest other choices if what you’re looking for isn’t available. Plus, sustainability expert Barton Seaver gave us tips on what to avoid no matter what month it is.
For Grilling: Fish with some heft lend themselves to the grates of a grill—salmon, tuna, and swordfish are all popular. Chef Barton Seaver likes the smoky flavor grilling gives bluefish and wild striped bass. He also recommends shucking oysters and placing them cup side down—to cook in their juices—and drizzling them with a bit of herb butter.
Few foods inspire such strong loyalties as Peruvian roasted chicken. Each purveyor has its own blend of aromatic spices, which might include black pepper, aji pepper, black-mint paste, and a heavy dash of cumin. And each has you order at the counter while someone deftly hacks up the birds. Our critics tried nearly 20 chickens to find the best—not too salty, not too bitter, with moist meat and crisp skin.
Buying half a cow might sound daunting. But if you have enough freezer space and like to get creative with unusual cuts of meat, buying bulk orders of beef, lamb, and pork straight from the farm save money. Here are three farms area locavores swear by.
Former restaurant chef Jamie Stachowski now makes great charcuterie.
Like cooking with lots of veggies? A CSA share of a farm’s crop might be for you. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Even die-hard locavores may hesitate to sign up for a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) share, for which you pay a onetime fee for a season of weekly produce from a farm. Prices can be hefty, and you usually don’t have control over what you get—love it or hate it, that bumper crop of okra will be yours. But local agriculture consultant Renee Brooks Catacalos says CSAs provide a good value: “Chances are if you are a heavy farmers-market shopper or if you eat a lot of vegetables, you’re going to get your money’s worth.” To find a CSA, she says, figure out if you’re interested in what a particular farm grows. Some favor peach or tomato lovers; others go beyond veggies, providing eggs, honey, or bread. Splitting shares is common—and makes the weeks easier when your share features enough salad greens to feed a sorority house.
Some CSAs are flexible. Southern Maryland’s Even’ Star Organic Farm has a debit-like option (starting at $300) that lets members choose when to visit the farm or the Chevy Chase Farmers Market and pick what they want. To find a CSA that suits you, check out localharvest.org, which Catacalos and Even’ Star owner Brett Grohsgal say is the best place to start.