November 14, 2006 @ 11AM

Citronelle, restaurant price-gouging, Galileo, Comet Ping Pong, Ray's the Steaks, Thanksgiving plans, Romantic Restaurants, NYC vs. DC food debate.

To read Todd's introduction click here.

oxon hill, md
What's going on with galileo? is it moving or what? thanks

Galileo is on hiatus. Word is they'll be returning in a year. The building is being gutted and rebuilt — all thanks to asbestos.

Meantime, you can find chef Roberto Donna and much of his crew in Crystal City, in the space that just months ago belonged to Oyamel. The new place is called Bebo Trattoria.

The menu is closer, in feel and in price, to that of Donna's osteria than his more formal dining room, with lusty pastas, simply grilled fishes and bright, lively salads all sharing the bill. Eventually, pizzas will be slung, too.

The question is, what will become of Bebo once Galileo moves back in? 

Fairfax, VA
I believe you posted a list last year of restaurants that were open on Christmas day. Will you be doing something similiar this year and/or is there a way to see last year's list. Thanks

Hold your horses — er, turkeys.

And that goes for all of you, not just Fairfax.

We'll be posting a nice and tidy little compendium soon on the website.

By the way, I'd really be interested in hearing about some of your previous T-Day dinner-out stories, choggers. Did any places surpass your expectations? Or, alternatively, did any place disappoint you with its promise of homecooking and a family atmosphere?

On a side note, I gotta think it's really hard to capture a true, family atmosphere in a restaurant setting. I mean: the lingering generational resentments, the pregnant subtexts, the passive-aggressive remarks across the table, the sense of everybody needing to be somewhere, anywhere, but dreading where we actually end up. ; )

Really, how do you convey that? 

Reston, VA
What do you think of Chesecake Factory? I absolutely love it. My second favorite place is probably IHOP, with Five Guys and Potbelly tied for third. We're blessed to have so many wonderful places to eat here in Washington.

Reston, Reston, Reston …

You forgot Panera and Red Lobster and Olive Garden!


Brooklyn, NY
As a lifelong DC resident who recently moved to NYC who reads your chog when I' homesick I wanted to ask you why you always mention ethnic restaurants when you defend NYC against DC. Isn't the simple fact that there are 20-25 restaurants in NYC that would be the best restaurant in DC, and that the best in DC are not even close to the level of the best in NYC? I've eaten in almost all of the better DC restaurants, and as much as I like Komi, Cityzen, Citronelle, Palena etc they don't come close to the meals I've had here. One of the things that NYC has going for it is supply chain that is worlds stronger than DC, and the level of produce Manhattan restaurants have to cook with is much higher than even the finest restaurants in Washington are cooking with. Mentioning the ethnic restaurants is a way of changing the terms of the comparison (whether or not its correct is another question) to hide the obvious fact that the high end restaurants here are no more expensive (with a few exceptions) and worlds better than what DC has to offer?

You got me, Brooklyn — reframing the argument for my own purpose.

But see, the argument is flawed to begin with. How do you compare a city the size of NY with a city the size of DC? Sheer numbers tell you it's really an apples and oranges discussion.

As to your contention that the Apple has 20-25 restaurants that could vie for the top spot in this city … what, pray tell, are you smoking?

Citronelle and Maestro aren't as good as Per Se. But that's about it.

The truth is that NY is strongest in the casual but ambitious mid-range places — the kind of restaurant where two people can eat really well for about $90. 

One of the reasons I talk about the ethnic food in DC is because there's so much of it that's good, and a lot of people simply don't recognize or appreciate the riches in their own backyard.

I'm also not one of those food lovers or food writers who makes the distinctions between fine dining and everything else — ethnic food, barbecue, soul food, etc. What matters, to me, is what's good. It's one of the reasons I gave the excellent Saravana Palace, a place where the most expensive entree is $12, the lead spot in the Oct. issue of the magazine over the glossy, revamped Black's Bar and Kitchen. It's a better restaurant.

What is it Duke Ellington used to say? There are only two kinds of music: Good and bad.  


Is Ray's the Steaks better than Ruth's Chris? I am not even that impressed with Ruth's Chris…frankly. I just want a good steak.

For my money, yes.

The steaks are better. And the sides aren't extra, either. (They're also generously portioned, and as rich and homey as you could ask for.)

I also put a lot more value in restaurants where the owner is on the premises, and has a stake (sorry … ) in what happens every night at dinner. 

Ray's the Steaks isn't everybody's idea of a good steakhouse, though, and I can appreciate that. It's not dark and clubby, the service isn't formal and deferential, the waits are long, customers aren't wearing suits and ties (hell, some of them come in shorts and T-shirts tucked out), and the decor — as I wrote in my recent review of the new Ray's the Classics — "has all the charm of a train station bathroom."

As I said, getting an idiosyncratic, utterly distinctive experience that hasn't been test-marketed by corporate suits isn't for everybody.

oxon hill maryland
Do your readers have any suggestions what to serve a Vegan guest for Thanksgiving?

Readers. Love that, Oxon Hill. Readers.

As if I, your dear critic, has nothing to offer in the way of a good, vegan dish.

Sure, I eat meat. Adore it, even. And yes, I did just launch this edition of the chat with my delicious memories of the veal and duck I recently consumed.

And yes, I did once write about purchasing an entire lobe of foie gras for my anniversary, some of which I sliced thickly and seared and ate with my wife, and some of which I slipped into ground beef for foie gras burgers.

But still …


New York, New York
In last week's chat you called New Yorkers "snickering chauvinists"! Other than rank envy, what's your issue with New Yorkers? One would think all food critics adored the Food Capital of the World. Nevermind that if D.C. were so spectacular, it wouldn't be impossible to find decent pastrami there. I'd bet that if you tasted just one slice of pastrami from Katz's deli, you would pack your bags and flee the pit that is the District of Columbia.

Jeez, you snickering chauvinists are a persistent little bunch.

And your screed just illustrates what I've been saying for years. Why do you all insist that every other city in the country, every other locale, replicate what you used to eat back home? And not only replicate, but reproduce right down to the most exacting detail?

That, friends, is foodie chauvinism.

The unwillingness — or is it inability? — to be open to new food experiences, and embrace a new area on its own terms. 

canton ohio
Hey, I know you! I'm visiting family here for about a week and enjoying exploring your city. In the bookstore at the mall, I came across an anthology of food, aptly titled "The Best Food Writing of 2006," and one of your pieces was included. My cousin then turned me on to your chat and I am having a lot of fun reading it. Food/Fun – Fun/Food. Delicious combination. Thank you.

"Came across," huh? Not — "bought and read"?  ; )


Washington, D.C.
Now that Rumsfeld is gone and Democrats have retaken Congress, where are some hip places to eat I can take my despondent Republican friends?

If you take them to Comet Ping Pong on Connecticut Ave. NW, they'll only be fighting mad — and they'll probably vow to return to power with even more righteous anger than before.

This is not so much a pizza joint as it is a kind of long-running performance art piece that just so happens to serve pizza. There's no written out menu, no sign out front, the servers wear their regular clothes, and the only thing you'll find on the walls (scarred, of course) are severe, stylized black-and-white photographs. That sort of arty, post-mod, meta-ness, plus the size of the pizzas (tiny), plus the cost of a meal (high), will have them frothing at the mouth about cultural elites and the need for a return to small-town virtues and values.

Price Gouging
Our fault for not asking, but a special that's appeared at Al Crostino several times is an angel hair pasta with lobster and tomato sauce. Considering that the most expensive of Al Crostino's pastas tops out at $13 (and the most expensive entree at $17.50), we were a bit shocked when the special–which includes a very small amount of lobster–hit the check at $29 with no warning. Good, but not twice the price good.

Like father, like son.

Al Tiramisu, the parent restaurant, is notorious for this … what to call it? a policy? or a practice? I guess it depends on how cynical you are. 

So yes, you gotta ask.

But asking isn't easy, is it? And that's what places tend to trade on.

You're with family, you're with friends, you're having a good time, and you don't want to spoil the good vibes by letting something so vulgar as money enter into the equation. So you don't.

Or, you're on a date, and too aware of looking like a skinflint to broach the subject with your waiter. So you don't.

Believe me, I sympathize.

And you're right … the specials at Al Crostino can be good, but not twice-the-price good.

chillum maryland
Hey, man, what kind of family do you have T. Day dinner with? If I were you, I'd run for the hills!

I was joking.

I love my family. We have a good old time, whenever and wherever we celebrate any holiday.

But you can't tell me you haven't sat down to a meal with an extended group of family and not experienced even just a little bit of what I wrote about.

winchester virginia
I have so many food gripes I don't know where to start. Not gouging, necessarily, but trying to get a really good meal for a really good price is almost laughable. I'm not interested in fast food places nor can I afford Citronelle when I come to Washington (twice monthly). I'm forced to consider so-called ethnic restaurants, when all I'm really interested is excellent American cuisine that won't flatten my billfold! So there!

I couldn't agree with you more, Winchester.

What's really too bad, is that, in this area, if you want affordable, American cooking, you're too often reduced to looking at midlevel chains.

Time and again, when we were putting out the Cheap Eats issue, we found that most non-ethnic restaurants either weren't inexpensive enough to be considered for the list, or weren't that good. 

I wish it weren't the case, but it is.

dupont circle
What's on the menu for your personal Thanksgiving?

So far, all I can tell you, Dupont, is that we'll be feasting on an heirloom — or heritage — turkey.

These are special birds, going back more than 200 hundred years in this country, predating the arrival of the European colonials.

Unlike industrial, mass-manufactured turkeys, they don't have an overly plumped up breast, and they're not round. They look like birds. I remember the one I cooked last year, how it wouldn't fit into the roasting pan but flopped over it, like someone exhausted sprawling out across a chaise lounge.

The skin comes out beautifully — thick and crispy — and the meat is richer and softer than industrial turkey meat, a little more like a wild bird.

They cost more, but I think they're worth it.

York, Pennsylvania
What irritates me more than anything in some of the expensive restaurants is when the printed price on the menu is for the 'entree' – that's it – the 'entree'…a piece of meat or fish just sitting there, unaccompanied. A potato will cost you; a vegetable will cost you; and a salad? – almost the price of the entree itself. So the number(s) beside the item are not always what you will be paying.

Thanks for chiming in today, York.

You've got to be really careful with that kind of a menu setup, and you've also got to be careful when you're eating small plates, as a good friend is always reminding me. The tabs can add up in a hurry, and what looks pretty inexpensive at the outset has the potential to induce sticker-shock at the end.

Clifton, VA
2 hr wait for mediocre food at Cheesecake Factory. Not. Never understood why folks like it when Arties has better food or Coastal Flats. Now FIve Guys ahs the best burgers and fries around. My Rough Collies can tell the difference between 5 Guys fries and Mcds fries. Gentle mouth doesnt work with 5 Guys! Could you please review more VA restaurants out in Centerville/Manassas and Gainesville. 19 out of 20 herding dogs prefer 5 Guys over the competition. Real working dogs know good food!

Hey, Clifton — why not let's put those herding dogs to good use in a taste test one of these days? That'd be loads of fun.

As to your urging us to write more about Centreville and Manassas and Gainesville … what do you like out that way these days? Other than Panino?

Curious to know, and always open to suggestions … 

Todd, What for you is the most romantic restaurant in DC?

You've got the wrong guy for this one, DC.

And I say that because one, I put an inordinate responsibility on the food to work its magic. To me, the setting is secondary. Great food can transport you to another time and place, whereas a beautiful setting with passable food is a pretty limited experience.

So, my choices might not be everyone else's. I like Marcel's, I like Citronelle, I like Maestro — even if they might not meet most specs for a conventionally romantic atmosphere.

But then, I'm not conventionally romantic. 

Which is to say, I wouldn't depend so much on a restaurant to do the work of sweeping your lover away. That's your job, and wooing isn't something that you turn on and off.

(TK's tips on love, over and out.) 

Hi Todd, You've helped with my visiting grandparents before, so I'm hoping you might have some advice again! My grandparents are pretty conservative eaters–French, Italian, American are pretty much it–and will be in town on a night I had plans with a couple of (mid-20s) girlfriends. They have very nicely offered to take us all out. Do you have a suggestion for a group of 5 in the downtown/Dupont/Foggy Bottom area with: good food for both us more adventurous young eaters and their basic tastes (though they appreciate quality), a relatively quiet atmosphere and not over the top expensive? Moderate to somewhat pricey is fine. California wine is a plus!

Lucky for you — and even luckier for your girlfriends.

I'm going to point you a little further afield — but not by much.

Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar, in Georgetown — which I'm reviewing in the December issue of the magazine — is exactly what the night calls for, I think. Good French cooking, a lot of California wines, and a lively but cozy atmosphere. 

Enjoy yourselves, and please report back to let me and everyone else know how it turned out.

Arlandria, VA
Good Morning Todd, It would probably benefit our elitist choggers from NYC to have an open mind when experiencing the cuisine of a different city or region. As a reader of your columns and chogs, I get the sense that you do that. You seem to evaluate food and experiences on thier own merit. Different is just that: different. Not necessarily good or bad. So, NYC choggers: Why the need to bash DC? Do you really need to be mean and belittling to make yourselves feel good? You have great food and restaurants. Enjoy them. We'll do the same.

See, I never said "elitist." So nobody come back at me with that one! : )

You're talking my language, Arlandria. You're talking my language.

In that spirit, choggers, and in the spirit of the first half of today's chat — get out there this week and eat a banh mi at the Eden Center or slurp down a bowl of pho from any number of Vietnamese noodle soup parlors in the area … scoop up a mound of tibs or wat with some injera at any of the fine Ethiopian cafes hugging U St. … chow down on the excellent lamb fateh or lamb chops at Lebanese Butcher in Annandale … tuck into a sizzling karahi, a kind of Pakistani stir-fry, at the terrific Ravi Kabob in Arlington … make an indoor picnic of spit-roasted chicken from El Pollo Rico, with some potato salad and black beans …

Enough. My stomach is growling already.

We're over time today, folks. Thank you all — wherever you are — for a fun and lively and utterly unpredictable morning, as always. And please keep those questions coming.

Meantime, eat well, be well, and let's meet back here again next week …