December 19, 2006 @ 11AM

Viridian, Mark's Kitchen, Seasons, Domku, HR-57, the best mojitos, preview of the 2007 100 Best Restaurants issue, favorite gift cookbooks, BLT Steak, the New Deal Cafe, Michel Richard's cookbook, Maestro, pizza in Mount Pleasant, the Park Hyatt's tea cel

Word of Mouth …

Viridian, a relative newcomer, is already in Phase 3. In Phase 1, an earthy-crunchy ethos predominated, and it was hard sometimes not to feel that you were eating the work of a vegetarian trying meat. Chef Antonio Burrell swept in for Phase 2, and the cooking got a lot tastier, while retaining the goal of lightness and healthfulness. Phase 3? Probably still too early to tell, but I didn't see either an emphasis on lightness or healthfulness from new chef Jeff Orel, and a recent meal was one of diminishing returns …

… Takoma Park isn't just a no-nukes zone; it's pretty much a no-restaurant zone. Beyond Mark's Kitchen, there isn't much else, which has always meant that Mark's bears the weight of expectations for many residents. His bi bim bap isn't memorable, but it's tasty Korean short-order cooking, the crunchy, sesame-oil slicked veggies mingling with the runny fried egg and chili paste for a comforting meal on a cold, raw day. Wash it down with a fresh-squeezed carrot-orange-ginger juice …

… Dinner at Seasons, the restaurant at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, isn't as special as the prices — and the luxe reputation — lead you to believe. The menu is full of interesting ideas, but the kitchen tends to pile extravagance upon extravagance, and too often cheats with cream and butter — although I enjoyed a bowl of creamy fennel soup with a coddled egg. Meanwhile, the service manages to be both too casual and too impersonal. I’d return in a second, though, to sit at the bar and dig in to the marvelous apple tart — so crunchy, it shatters …

Domku, with its polyglot promise, is such a fascinating story, that it's easy to lose sight of just how good a place it is. And settling in for a full meal at dinner, as I did not long ago, is just as rewarding as going for brunch or coffee. There's little on the varied menu of Scandinavian and Norwegian dishes that disappoints, and the bright spots are numerous: pierogis, lightly dressed salads, good stews, a tasty pork chop plate, even desserts (a beet cake, and baked fig-stuffed dumplings). Founding chef Eric Evans left not long ago, but Kera Carpenter's place keeps humming along …

HR-57 is a kick-ass jazz club, not a full-service restaurant, but I was impressed by a slice of icing-topped cheesecake I ate there recently. This was not “our version of cheesecake.” It was cheesecake, simple and good. Note to oenophiles: You can bring your own wine in for just three bucks. Three bucks, to rent a table in the city for up to four hours and listen to a bunch of musicians blow the door off the building.

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Potomac, MD
I have been trying to call Galileo (202) 293-7191). When connected the message is that it has been disconnected. I called information and they gave me the number listed above. Please help. Thanks. Cindy Janis

Cindy,

Galileo is gone. 

Actually, that's not true. Try again: Galileo is in exile.

You can find Roberto Donna and crew in Crystal City, in the space that belonged, not so long ago, to Oyamel. The new restaurant is called Bebo Trattoria, and it's a simpler sort of affair than Galileo ever was. No entree tops 16 bucks, and the cooking is a lot closer in spirit to what he produced in his intermittent Galileo grill lunches or in the osteria by the bar. That osteria, by the way, was one of the great bargains of the city, although the mood was so dim and the service so uncheery that it was hard not to think of that front room as the ghetto of Galileo.

The new place is bright and light, and Donna seems to be rejuvenated. The big question is, what will become of the place once Galileo moves back into its asbetos-free, newly renovated building late next year? 

NW, DC
Where's the best place in the District for a mojito?

Cafe Atlantico, in Penn Quarter, makes a mean one.

So does Guajillo, in Clarendon.

Two years ago, there were all sorts of contenders and pretenders. Now, not so much. The mojito trendlet has faded.

It's too bad. I love mojitos. Rum, mint, sugar cane — what's not to like? My only complaint was that, at a lot of places, you couldn't choose your rum. Makes a big difference. 

These days, I'm into sipping rums, and have glommed onto Flor de Cana, a terrific Nicaraguan rum. The 12-year-aged is so smooth, it puts you in mind of a cognac. 

Matt from Columbia, MD
Hey, Todd — I was walking around downtown Silver Spring recently . . . and I passed by Z Pizza, which had a sign bragging that it was the area's "best pizza" according to Washingtonian Magazine. My question is: Huh? Really?? What's the deal?

What's the deal?

This is the deal: Z Pizza stuffed the ballot box, as it were. It bought up hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of copies of the magazine and had its customers scribble the company's name in the appropriate slot.

That's bad enough. 

But it gets worse.

You'd think it'd be an honor to be "named" the best pizza in the area by the magazine's readers. But no: Z Pizza has gone one untruthful step further, and now advertises itself as being honored as the best pizza in the area by the magazine.

"Best"?

It doesn't come close. It's not even what I'd call "good."

Chantilly, Va
Todd, I love what you've been doing with the coverage in your time over there. Lots of great stuff to read every month, and I feel like I've been learning a lot too as I turn the pages, behind the scenes stuff, insights into the goings on in the kitchen, etc etc. Can you tell us what we can expect with this year's 100 Best? Or are you maybe not at liberty to say?

I'm at liberty to tell you that this year, we've not only assigned stars to the restaurants that made the cut, we've also gone ahead and ranked them.

Yep. Ranked them — in order, from 1-100.

Why? Besides having a little good, clean mischievous fun?

Because.

Because it's another way of sorting out a crowded field.

Chefs with multiple properties will tell you that all their restaurants are equal — sort of like parents will tell you that they can't choose a favorite. Well, we don't need to spare feelings. You'll see which of the Blacks' restaurants is the best (hint: It's not the one you might think.)

You'll see which newcomers have cracked the Top 30 (one a relative unknown), and which older, more vaunted places have slipped out of the Top 50.

You'll see which so-called ethnic places are better values, and better experiences, than more conventional fine-dining restaurants.

What else to expect?

A wonderful fold-out cover with the new guard of chefs — all of them 40 and under — at a Last Supper-style table setting.

York, PA
There are a great number of food/cookbooks out in time for gift giving. Which one would you recommend?

My pick would be the new Claudia Roden book —

Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon 

Roden's books are always interesting and useful, with recipes that are well thought-through and good pictures.

(I can't fathom how any publisher can issue a cookbook with only a smattering of pics, or no pics at all, but it happens, over and over and over again.) 

The new book explores a culinary terrain that is still not over-mined, and makes it come to vivid life.

I can't wait to sit down with it and read more. And then stand up with it, and get to cooking. 

K St.
Am I missing something regarding BLT Steak? I was there last week and left much poorer and less than impressed. The noise level was unreal, the food good, the prices exorbitant, and although I loved the popovers, they are a bit much. What say you?

Well, I loved the popovers. A bit much? When is a warm, eggy, buttery, flopping-over breadstuff ever a bit much?

The prices? Yes, high. But no higher than any steakhouse. And the food, so far at least, is better than most. Better, and more interesting.

As far as the noise level, yeah, it's jumping. In a place like this, it doesn't bother me, and actually, the music ('70s and '80s R&B) and the level it's turned up to, is a bold departure from what you usually find at a downtown establishment. I give them points for that.

The place still needs time to settle in, but I'm not in a mood to do a lot of griping just yet.

College Park, MD
Can we play the "help me find a restaurant" game? Here are the rules: I need to find a place to take my in-laws for breakfast, tomorrow. Not too early, so we need to be able to get breakfasty food at 10:00 on a Wednesday. Preferably in Maryland, or easily accessible from the College Park side of the city. Some folks will want a protein-heavy, Atkins-ish breakfast; others will want a fiber-heavy, oatmeal-ish kind of breakfast. What have you got for me?

It's that time of year, isn't it — when trying to find a place to eat is like organizing the Potsdam Conference?

Ugh. 

You know what I would probably do? I'd probably go to The New Deal Cafe, in Greenbelt.

This is one of the best coffeehouses in the area, if, like me, you think of a coffeehouse as a real gathering place, an expression of community and culture. Good music, good vibe, and great conversations all around you (last time I was there, a table was arguing over the meaning of "Islamo-fascism" and invoking Marx). Coffee's good too, and you can also get some good things to eat, thanks to the handiwork of Ellen Siegel, who returned to her hometown to take over the kitchen. I've had excellent pies, quiches, and frittatas. You'll also find good, well-stocked sandwiches (on good bread, with good, fresh, organic ingredients), and good smoothies.

Speaking of Citronelle …
Did you check out Michel Richard's newest cookbook? Is it any good? Or is cooking maybe not your area of expertise as much as dining out is?

It's wonderful. Reads as good as it looks. 

And the recipes aren't all labor-intensive and intricate. Some, like a crispy potato gratin, are relative toss-offs. 

One of my favorites, is a recipe I played with a couple of years ago: a Michel Richard-style fried chicken. The deal here is, you puree some of the chicken with chicken stock and thyme in a food processor, then coat the pieces of chicken you're going to fry with the puree. Then, what Richard does is, he coats the puree-slathered chicken in bread crumbs he's made by picking off hundreds of tiny pieces from day-old bread. Me, I coated the chicken in panko, which worked beautifully.

The puree is what makes it. The chicken that comes out tastes more chickeny than chicken itself. It's the sort of intensification that Richard has made one of his hallmarks.

Columbia Heights
I'm a vegetarian, and really love trying new kinds of food. No fish, but I've given up on trying to avoid fish oil in Thai food. I just pretend it isn't there… Anyway, I've been intrigued by some of the Korean and Vietnamese restaurants I've been hearing about, but a friend told me those are not vegetarian-friendly cuisines. Are there dishes I can eat?

This is a fascinating subject, Columbia Heights.

Short answer: Your friend's right.

Most of what sounds as though it's going to fit the bill, isn't really, purely vegetarian. That's not to say you can't find a dish or two to satisfy you. The Vietnamese restaurant, Minh's, in Clarendon has a whole section — albeit pretty small — of vegetarian dishes. I'd be inclined to trust those. But anything that sounds vegetarian on a menu at a Korean or Vietnamese restaurant I'd say is highly dubious. That funky base that makes the dishes so complex and rewarding, that funk comes from fermented pastes that make use of dried shrimp or anchovy. And pork shows up everywhere, even when it's not listed as a signal ingredient. In Asian cooking, pork is not just a meat, the star of the show, it's a flavoring — a backnote, or a foundational layer.

And don't rely on a waiter or waitresses' approval of a dish. They often forget to mention the pork that makes its way, for instance, into an otherwise "innocent" vegetarian dumpling.

 

Alexandria VA
Going to my company's Christmas dinner at Maestro tonight – we'll be choosing from a limited menu – but can you give suggestions for some not to be missed dishes?

Now that's a company to work for.

I wonder how limited the menu will be?

My basic advice is this: Zero in on anything to do with pasta and fish. That's where Trabocchi really shines. Whatever it is, if it involves a noodle or it once swam in the ocean — get it. Don't think twice.

I was knocked out not long ago by a dish of branzino with Sunset Beach oysters and a foaming basil sauce. Truly great. One of the great dishes of the year for me. I hope that'll be there for you.

Almost as good was a martini glass filled with diced yellowtail and topped off with a Champagne zabaglione. The Champagne lent an almost bitter note to the frothy cream, which primed the palate for the intensely bright, clean wash of flavor coming from the yellowtail.

And Trabocchi's lamb agnolotti is as good as a pasta dish gets. 

Arlington, VA
Hi Todd- For Christmas, my in-laws have requested a gift certificate to a nice restaurant in DC. Our budget is $125. She does not eat fish; he is on a limited diet for health reasons. We are deciding between Vidalia and Palena. Which would you choose, or is a coin flip in order? Thanks so much.

See? Here's the value of consulting our new list.

Do I choose the No. 4, or the No. 11?

I'd probably go with Palena — but sit in the front, and order from both the Cafe and dining room menus. Opt for either a three- or five-course menu from the latter, and then supplement that with some of the cheaper dishes from the cafe.

Mount Pleasant, DC
Are you familiar with the pizza scene in Mt P? If so…what do you say is the best place for delivery pizza around there?

Really? There's a pizza scene?

I didn't even think there was a restaurant scene.

Radius i know delivers. I don't know who else does, though. Does Tonic? 

Your Humble Wine Columnist
Re: Mojitos – don't forget PX!

Right you are.

(About the mojitos, that is. But humble? Humble?)

Actually, this reminds me to let you all know that Don's look at the best wine programs in the area won't be appearing in the January issue. Space limitations — we ran longer than expected, and had to scale back some of the short accessory pieces we had planned, too.

This is a big, comprehensive piece (bigger and more comprehensive than last year), full of depth and detail, and I didn't want to see it compromised by cutting back on its observations. It'll be running in February.

 

Cheverly, MD
I just wanted to make a quick comment about the Tea Cellar at the Park Hyatt (where the Blue Duck Tavern is). I have now gone for tea there three times, and it is really fabulous. They know their tea, have a fun menu with plenty of interesting vintage varieties, and the afternoon tea tables has got to be one of the best value for fine pastry and dessert (although the all you can eat policy is a bit of doom if you are trying to not eat too much and just have to try everything). Have you tried it? BC

I haven't.

Thanks for the full report, Cheverly.

I'm a big fan of tea time. What could be better than a lazy afternoon of drinking good, strongly brewed tea, nibbling on sandwiches and pastries, and talking with someone you like?

By any chance, did you try the — no lie — $300 tea they have listed on the tea menu?

 

Bethesda, MD
Headed out to get a quick dinner at Bacchus tonight. We'll have our two month old in tow. Is this a pretty good place? We couldn't really think of a better local place casual enough to take a baby. Passage to India was another possibility but I'm not crazy about the prospect of trying Indian food. (I am a very boring eater).

Ah. The new Bacchus — Bacchus of Lebanon. New look, somewhat new menu. But the place is not what it once was.

You could always try Faryab, an Afghan place. It's casual, and the food, despite the exotic names of the dishes, is deeply comforting and accessible to a non-adventurous palate. Dumplings, stews, meat sauces, hearty soups.

If you give it a try, let me know how it turned out, please.

That's it, everyone. I'm off into the great stream of holiday traffic …

I hope you all have a great holiday. Enjoy the time you have with your families and friends.

Eat well, be well, and let's meet back here again next Tuesday …

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