November 7, 2006 @ 11AM

Eden Center, a new chef at Mendocino Grille, Red Sky in Laurel, outside-the-beltway restaurants, Ledo's pizza, NYC vs. DC eats, Italian food, restaurant dress codes.

To read Todd's introduction click here.

Washington DC
Todd, Thank you for all of your wonderful comments on Viridian and my cooking over the last few months. Unfortunately, I will no longer be manning the stoves at Viridian any longer. I wish the staff all the best of luck and would like to say thank you to all of the people who have enjoyed the restaurant in recent months. Sincerely, Antonio Burrell


Best of luck to you, wherever you wind up next. 

And let's hope that Viridian can fill the talent gap in the kitchen. Under Burrell, the 14th St. restaurant had just begun to hit its stride. The cooking was mostly sure-handed, with some interesting ideas showing up on the plates to keep things interesting — especially for a menu that aimed to emphasize lighter preparations.

A few years ago, when he was manning the stoves at Gabriel, on P St., I had written of the chef: "That's Burrell, emphasis on the beurre."

But he showed that he was able to work in a new, wholly different setting from his classical training.

New Orleans, LA
Todd, I have been an avid reader of all things Kliman for a while now. I have been living in DC by way of New Orleans for about 3 years now, and your chog is a way I can stay connected to food. Obviously, being from New Orleans, food is a subject near and dear to my heart. My question for you is this: How did you get to where you are? You basically have my dream job and I was wondering if you could share a brief synopsis of the roads that took you to this point. What suggestions might you have for someone who wants to persue a career in food writing/ critiquing? Thanks for everything!

Thank you, NOLA.

It's a tough one to answer, to try to synopsize.

In some ways, one thing just led to another, and I kept following the opportunities that opened up. But I've been writing professionally since I was 15, and through all that time, I kept trying on subjects that I thought interested me, only to discard them when I got bored and restless. I've written about politics and media and culture and books and sports and who all knows what else. I've traveled with my subjects, and spent weeks and months with a subculture tracking a story. 

Great experiences, all of them, but then food writing got ahold of me, or should I say got into me, and all those other subjects just seemed to fade away.

Food writing is writing, and you can only write really well about what you really care about. 

Of course it helps to know your subject, but if you eat widely and travel and try to process those experiences into words, if you read a ton, you don't have to have had to go to cooking school to write about food. I suppose that that  experience is invaluable, but also invaluable is being able to connect the world of food to the larger world, and to put restaurants and eating into a context. And that's the kind of writing that I like and admire.

I don't know if that gives you any insight.

If not, please feel free to drop me a note … 

Alexandria, Va
Hi Todd, My trip to Portugal…(Chevy-Chase, Md) It doesn't make sense to judge a restaurant by is location!…. TAVIRA…is very pretty restaurant in very queer location;…The basement of a bank isn't where'd I'd expect to find a real treat. but what a treat it was….my friends ordered the roasted baby suckling Pig and we could not have been happier with our red snapper for (2) baked in sea salt. It was brought to the table steaming hot, where our delightful waiter prepared it for us. Haven't tasted anything tha good in a long time. I will conclude by saying our server was charming and informative and made our visit a real memory.

I don't judge a restaurant by its location, that you should know by now.

I just wish I liked Tavira more than I do.

I haven't written if off — I don't write any place off — but prompted by your report, I'll be sure to pop in again for a refresher visit. 

beltsville md
I live not too far from Laurel, therefore I was excited to learn about a new restaurant, Red Sky, reputed to be the best in Prince George's County. But some friends of mine recently went and were very disappointed. Have you been? What do you think?

In a word: Ugh.

The Post called it the best in the county, and the restaurant touts that claim in its tableside spiels from the waitstaff. It's a looooong spiel, by the way, one that begins with the dreaded question, "Have you dined with us before?" (When the spiel was over, my wife leaned across the table and asked: "What is this, a timeshare?") 

Red Sky has pretensions of being a serious, upscale restaurant. But it feels like a chain.

I didn't like seeing all the duplications on the menu (a lot of dishes are paired with the same sides), I didn't like seeing Riesling misspelled, I didn't like paying in the mid-30s for a steak that was abominably oversalted, I didn't like seeing a generic, frozen peanut butter pie hitting the table for dessert.

Chevy Chase, Md
Here is one of my all-time pet peeves; please comment. Last Thursday night, our son invited my husband and me to an 'upscale' Italian restaurant in DC. At the end of the meal, I was looking forward to my cup of tea. Although it was elegantly served – and poured – the cup was filled only 3/4 of the way. To a tea drinker, this is taboo. (No refill was offered).

Are you listening out there in restaurantland, waiters and waitresses and managers?

I can tell you, Chevy Chase, that yours is not an isolated complaint. I hear it often.

It's interesting to me that places can expend so much energy on researching cuisines and hiring fancy-dancy architect firms and devising a menu with all sorts of rare, exotic ingredients, and yet overlook so many simple things — things that the scruffy but lovable diner down the street gets right nearly every time.

Tea — even from out of the box — is just one of those things that goes a long way to making people feel at ease and at home. 

And it costs — what? Pennies a serving. 

Damascus, MD
This is an open-ended sort of question, complaint, observation: whatever happened to REAL Italian restaurants, particularly in this area? I journey all over the area and only come across "pretentious-Italian" food. And reading the various publications, including the "revered" Post, I've concluded that the writers and chefs who are publicized, don't know a _____ about Italian food.

I think we all want to know how to fill in the blank, Damascus. : )

I hear you. Loud and clear.

Basically, what it comes down to is this: In this area, you're going to have to look hard, really hard, to find those chianti-and-checkered tablecloth kinds of places. We simply don't have them in abundance, mostly because we simply don't have Italian families in abundance.

It's not what this area does well.

The kind of cooking you're talking about falls under the banner of regional Italian and micro-regional Italian. It's very trendy right now. When it's good, it's awfully good, and you come away dazzled by the lightness and simplicity and directness of it all.

When it doesn't work, when everything doesn't come together, well — you start pining for the old-style Italian cooking. Where, you begin to ask, is the sense of generosity and abundance, the simple, soothing heartiness. You begin to feel gyped. 

You won't hear it from a lot of food writers these days, and its era might appear to be over, but Italian-American cooking is one of the country's culinary glories.

rockville maryland
Wow, your new look is impressive! Nice work and congratulations to all the persons responsible for it.

They did a fantastic job. We're all pretty proud of it over here.

And the good news? It will only keep getting better and better …

Clifton, VA
When are you going to do more reviews of restaurants outside the beltway? Your as bad or wrse than your competition at the WP. And maybe a taste test between dry aged prime beef and dry aged organic beef? I have tried both from the Organic Butcher and prefer dry aged organic since it ahs more beef flavor.

You obviously haven't been paying attention, Clifton.

Saravana Palace, which I reviewed in October, is in Fairfax County. (It's a gem, by the way, if you haven't gotten out there, a place that is going to up the ante for all Indian cooking in the area. Not just Indian vegetarian.)

I reviewed Foti's, out in Culpeper, in February.

For our most recent Cheap Eats issue, we ranged far and wide across Northern Virginia and Maryland. Did you get out to Johnny Boy's Ribs, in La Plata? Or Dixie Bones in Woodbridge? Neither is the holy grail of barbecue, but both have their strengths — Johnny Boy's for its pulled pork and sandwiches, Dixie Bones for its smoked chicken and pecan pie.

If it's worthy, we'll write about it.  

As for your taste test idea … what would interest me even more is a comparison between wet-aged vs. dry-aged. Wet-aged is gaining currency with a lot of restaurants around the country. It has its detractors, who say the beef that emerges isn't as nutty or complex as dry-aged. True enough, but it compensates for that by being exceptionally juicy and tender.

College Park, MD
Hey — did you see Ledo's Restaurant on Oprah?

I did, I did.

(All thanks due to TiVo, a tool for which I otherwise have an on-again, off-again relationship. I guess I didn't realize when I got it, that it would be holding my TV hostage.)

That was a terrific segment, with Oprah's pal, Gayle, sitting down in the wood-panelled room of the original Ledo Restaurant — now called Tommy Marcos's Ledo Restaurant — with Tommy Marcos himself, now in his 80s and still showing up four days a week to work.

Gayle got it right: There's nothing like Ledo Restaurant pizza.

The biscuity crust, the sweet sauce, the smoked provolone cheese subbing for mozzarella, the rectangular shape.

Notice, by the way, that I did not say: Ledo's pizza.

If you've eaten at one of these offshoots of the original, you haven't had the authentic Ledo Restaurant experience. The restaurant made a mistake by franchising itself in the '80s — a mistake it now readily admits. 

Worst of all, was that thousands upon thousands of people don't know the real thing.

This is, frankly, one of the hometown treasures that legions of transients and transplants simply don't know about. They should.

It's not an elegant, technically perfect pie with lots of prime, carefully sourced ingredients (a la the pizzas at Phoenix's revered Pizzeria Bianco, also featured in the segment) but hey, good is good.

Washington, DC
You know, I've been wanting to explore the Eden Center, but frankly I'm a little intimidated, so I've been sticking to the tried-and-true — places I've read about, places with reviews posted. Have you been to any of the nooks and crannies? Are there any dishes I should try?

I've tried many of the nooks and crannies, DC. The Eden Center is one of my favorite places to visit.

Hai Duong, located in what I like to call the catacombs — the mall behind the outside mall — does a good job with bun, bowls of vermicelli noodles topped with the likes of grilled shrimp and pork, with sprigs of mint and carrot. It's a meal-in-itself, and cheap, too, at just five bucks a pop.

I also like Thanh Son Tofu — an all-tofu spot, with everything from tofu savories (love the mock lobster, which is actually curled and red-tinted) to sweet (soft, custardy blocks of tofu topped with a sweet ginger syrup). 

A lot of places do good banh mi — crusty Vietnamese sub rolls stuffed with pate, meatball, chicken, even braised ham, and gussied up with cilantro, carrot, and incendiary white hot peppers.

Hope that helps, some. 

Washington, DC
I was talking with a friend of mine about the relative merits of food in NYC and food in DC. I thought I was holding my own. But he says, there's no place in DC to get something to eat at 3 in the morning besides Ben's Chili Bowl and Julia's Empanadas. I couldn't come up with anything — frankly, I'm not usually looking for food at 3 in the morning — but is that really true?

Don't you just love that conversation? Defending a city that needs no defense to a snickering, chauvinistic New Yorker?

Here's the thing.

New Yorkers are always trying to compare DC with New York. But more and more, the comparison ought to be to LA. To really and truly understand what's going on in this city, you have to venture far and wide — into the farflung counties of Virginia, especially, and beyond just Silver Spring and Bethesda in Maryland.

At that hour of the morning, your best bets are to head on over to Hollywood East Cafe or Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd. for Hong Kong-style Chinese cooking, and a menu that serves up some appealing arcana (fried anchovies).

The newly opened Bob's 88 Shabu Shabu, in North Rockville, stays open until 1 during the week, and it's a lot of fun to sit at the tables and swish meats and fishes and vegetables into the boiling hot pots.

You have to get in the car, and you have to drive a bit, which no one in New York would ever consider doing, but which most Angelenos do without even thinking. 


Downtown (West End)
Hi Todd – where should I go nearby for an inexpensive lunch today? Am feeling uninspired by the pb&j I packed.
Hmm. CF Folks, on 19th St.? See what Art Carlson's got cooking?
Todd, I'm looking for an upscale Italian restaurant for when my Italian fiance comes to DC. Any recommendations…cozy/intimate atmosphere is just as important as the meal.

So … Would that be upscale Italian? Or upscale Italian-American? ; )

Just making a little more mischief …

If you want to knock her socks off, take her to Maestro, in the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons. One of the best meals you'll eat all year, although the atmosphere and the cooking itself — though often peerless — is not even close to what we've been going back and forth about throughout this chat. 

Lower down, I like A La Lucia in Alexandria, for its canneloni and malfedini — honest-to-God red-sauce dishes, prepared with care.

Washington DC`
Question re the chat: why so slow? 17 minutes into it and only 2 questions so far

Blame me. Still getting used to new technology, and a new way of doing things.

Patience, patience.

Can I ask you all to plan on sticking with us a little longer today? I'll alert the authorities …

riverdale maryland
What have you done (in the way of announcing) to let people know you're back?


(How's that?)

I know, I know — it's got nothing on John Riggins's now-legendary announcement that he was returning to the Skins: "I'm bored, I'm broke, and I'm back."

What's your opinion on the male flip flop issue…My date and I were not allowed to dine at Indebleu (I had eaten there numerous times before…waiters wear jeans) because he was wearing open toed shoes….

Interesting question.

I think it's fascinating and hypocritical, actually, that a place that permits its waiters to wear jeans won't allow customers to saunter in in flip flops.

Of course, what you have to realize is that those jeans aren't just any old jeans. They're designer jeans, and by some strange style calculus that I can't begin to fathom, that makes them akin to slacks and a form of dress-up.

I'd write management and letter and ask them to explain themselves. 

College Park, MD
So would you consider Italian-American food a separate category of ethnic food from Italian?

It deserves its own category, absolutely.

Same thing with Tex-Mex. Regional Mexican cooking is a wonderful thing. But Tex-Mex is not less-than. It's its own thing, a legitimate, proud cuisine — although a generation of cookbook writers and food writers all twitter at the merest mention of it, and see it as something hopelessly kitschy.

Here's the thing: Cooks have no choice but to use the raw materials they've got. No choice, even though they might pine for the ingredients from back home. They adapt, and they adopt. That's what cuisines, and cultures, are — living, evolving things.

Do you know of any area restaurants with live singing, opera, etc…(more professional than Mimi's).

Only one that I know of — Trattoria da Franco, in Old Town Alexandria.

They have a monthly opera night, bringing in singers from the Kennedy Center. 


re: Italian food
I think I can understand to a degree about wondering what happened to the red-and-white checked tables of Italian dining in D.C. However, I do think that is an United States concept of Italian cuisine. Italian cooking (and what I love about it) relies on the use of fresh, local ingredients – simply prepared – to transform each individual ingredient into a flavourful and loving meal. Cooking in this type of abundance is part of the dynamic generosity of Italian kitchens. Thanks for letting me share.

The thing is, we're talking about apples and oranges.

Italian-American cooking — or what, in this country used to be just called Italian cooking — is an adaptation of an Old World cuisine. It changed because of the products that were available (and not available) — America in the early to mid- 20th century was not America at fin de siecle — and it changed because of the demands of its new audience. Can't blame the cooks for that — that's what cooking is — and the result, when it's good, is very good.

washington, dc
At what point does a restaurant's atmosphere make it undesireable even if the food is said to be good? I ask this because I am going to San Diego (my hometown) and am looking for a new and good restaurant in the Gaslamp District where a few of my friends and I can catch up. Unfortunately, many of these restaurants are more pre-occupied with being trendy. One restaurant (which I have been told is excellent) has a myspace account, occaisionally holds fashion shows, and bills itself as "the best place to drop a benjamin." I just want to have dinner with my friend, without a side of trendiness.

It's the age-old dilemma, isn't it?

You want to go somewhere that's delicious; your buddies want to just see and be-seen.

My advice: Don't rock the boat. Go with them, and have a good time.

When you're on your own, that's when you get in your car and get on the hell out of downtown, and go somewhere good and interesting.

Speaking of which … I have somewhere good and interesting awaiting me this afternoon.

Thanks, everyone, for your questions and your patience on this first Tuesday back. It's wonderful to be back in the pocket again …

Eat well, be well, and let's me back here next week. 

(And don't forget to get out there and vote.) 

Todd, I have enjoyed your online chat immensely today…Say it ain't over yet, please!

It's over. : )

Feel free, though, to drop me a note …