December 26, 2006 @ 11AM

Bebo Trattoria, Oya, El-Chaparral Meat Market, Woo Lae Oak, Minh's, Restaurant Week, January 2007 100 Best Restaurants issue, Pizzeria Paradiso.

Word of Mouth …

The new Bebo Trattoria, aka Galileo-in-Exile, is an odd mix of ingredients. The service, gray and sometimes joyless, leans toward the formal, with fine-dining flourishes ("Excellent choice, sir") at odds with the exuberantly colored setting and simple, straightforward Italian food. The crowd, too, mingles young professionals fresh from work in the sterile canyons of Crystal City and older Galileo loyalists who've made the harried trek in from the city. Nothing on the menu tops $18, and there are delicious bargains up and down the list, including a veal carpaccio topped off with shaved celery and a creamy mound of polenta with garlicky sausage — vivid reminders that even when he's not working at full-throttle, Roberto Donna is still capable of sending diners into swoons of contentment. There are more than a few dishes that feel like toss-offs, too, and they only reinforce the air of self-satisfaction clinging about all the apparent abundanza. You can't help feeling at times that management believes it's doing us all a great favor by making such cost-reduced riches available in the hinterlands. …

… Restaurants with as throbbing a pulse as Oya's don't generally sweat the details in the kitchen. Why? They don't have to. Being there, not eating there, is most, if not all, the pleasure. Oya, though, looked to be an exception, particularly after it ditched its upscale Caribbean theme and settled into a more rewarding French-Asian groove early this year. But two recent meals of sloppy and/or indifferent cooking have convinced me otherwise. …

… One of the best lunches you can find in restaurant-jammed Clarendon is at El-Chaparral Meat Market, which isn't a restaurant at all but a grocery and butcher shop run by the charming and gregarious Santo Mirabile. So it's not a sit-down lunch, but a to-go lunch, and a terrific one. Ask for a couple of the restaurant-quality saltenas, flaky, buttery pastries filled with chicken or beef, and a giant-sized alfajore, in which two, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies sandwich a thick layer of soft caramel.

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Vienna, VA
Hi Todd, Love your chats! I am getting married in Fairfax in February and am looking for a place for rehearsal dinner in Virginia – probably for about 15-20 people. I would love to showcase something unique to the DC area for my out-of-town guests while still keeping dinner to $25 a person or less. I was thinking Korean (I'm Korean) or Vietnamese restaurants, but my fiance's side is less adventurous with food. Any suggestions? Thanks so much & hope you had a nice holiday!

First of all: Congratulations!

The first place that springs to mind is the new-ish Woo Lae Oak in Tysons, because it's an offshoot of the original Woo Lae Oak, only with a more fusion-minded menu. In other words, you'll still find things along the lines of bulgogi and bi bim bap and seafood pancake. But other dishes aim to cross Western ingredients with Korean-style saucing and spicing. Or vice versa.

That might appeal to the two different constituencies you need to satisfy — and the place is certainly big enough and beautiful enough to fit the occasion. 

If you're thinking Vietnamese, you should think Minh's, in Clarendon. It's a more comfortable, more relaxed setting than what you'd find in many of the Eden Center restaurants, and the food is accessible enough for newbies and intricate and layered enough for devotees.

Hope that helps. Best of luck, and if you think of it, Vienna, let me know what you end up deciding.

NoVA
Todd, We're somewhat new to town and like to explore one or two new places during Restaurant Week. Cafe Atlantico was great but Tabard Inn was just ok, for example. I'm a bit surprised at places that participate in the "promotion" but effectively "demote" themselves with lower-quality food than their normal fare. So my question is this: Which restaurants serve up a faithful low-cost preview to their full-cost menu during restaurant week? On a similar note (if I can slip in a two-fer), what do you recommend as a top-quality restaruant that gives good value — I'm hoping here for $50-70/person for food better than the upscale/casual places that you argue so cogently against.

I'm with you; I've never really understood that attitude from participating restaurants.

Either you go all in, or you don't. But loading up your menus with boring soups and salads? Sending out wan-looking squares of farm-raised salmon and dry chicken breast as entrees?

Still, there are a number of places that take the week seriously — places that don't believe they're doing the customer a favor.

I'll be putting together a guide to RW next week, but two places I can tell you about that are going to be high on that list are Corduroy and Charlie Palmer Steak. If you haven't seen our 100 Best issue, out now, both made our Top 20. They're excellent restaurants, and their RW menus — besides being delicious — are legitimate deals.

By the way: Welcome to town, NoVa. I'm glad you found this chat.

Bethesda
In your new 100 Best Restaurants (I like the ranking–it's very helpful) you have 20 Virginia restaurants, 21 Maryland restaurants, and 59 DC restaurants. It makes me wonder if you and all your critics live in the District and have a hard time finding your way into the suburbs. Why would there be such a geographical imbalance?

I'd hardly call it an 'imbalance.' It's a reflection of reality.

The best restaurants are in the city. So are the best museums. So are the best theater companies.

You assume that because you see only 41 places in Maryland and Virginia, that we didn't spend a whole lot of time in the 'burbs. I would venture to guess that for every five places we visited, only one managed to make it onto the list. Trust me: We did our due diligence.

I will say that things are beginning to change, and that, in recent years, you're now seeing places on the order of 2941 and Restaurant Eve opening up in the inner suburbs. That's only going to happen more and more, as more restaurateurs realize that you don't have to limit yourself to downtown to make it as a white-tablecloth kind of place.  

 

Washington, DC
Hey Todd. Marcel's and 2941 made it into your top ten, but didn't make the cut in the Post's annual dining guide at all. Any thoughts on that?

I've always thought of the Post's dining guide, even going back to the days of Phyllis Richman, as being more of a Critic's Favorites than anything else.

That kind of approach frees up the critic to put together a list that reflects his or her personal taste. And there are only 50 selections on that list, not 100, so the need to change things up from year to year is greater.

I'd be inclined to think the fact that 2941 received no mention from the Post and a Top 10 from us has as much to do with the needs of that dining guide than anything else, but who knows? Could be simply a difference in taste, as I tend to think it is with Marcel's. I find the service unparalleled and the huge, ready-for-the-hunt plates of classical French cooking often sumptuous. The prices are high, but luxury doesn't come cheap.

McLean, Va
I was wondering if Pizza Paradiso was dropped from the Top 100 because it has gone downhill with the opening of a second location, or was just topped by newer and better restaurants?

Good question, McLean.

If we had done the rankings, 1-100, last year, Pizzeria Paradiso would have been a bottom feeder — i.e., a restaurant in the low 80s or 90s. So it's less a case of anything the restaurant has done, or has not done, than a case of increased competition at that level.

It's still a two star place. Just not a two-star place that made the cut. I can think of scores of others.

That's one of the primary reasons I wanted to rank the restaurants this year, by the way — to see, for instance, how much distance was between a two-star place like Cashion's, at No. 57, and a two-star place like Gom Ba Woo, at No. 100.

Tenleytown, DC
Hey, Todd, I'm loving this issue! Thank you. The pictures are amazing, the writing is lively and full of insights, and I'm finding the rankings to be just fascinating. For instance, I always got the impression that Acadiana and Ceiba and DC Coast were such critical darlings, and here I find that they're toward the bottom of the top 100. And TenPen (sp?) which is also from that same group, didn't even make the list. I'm not here to nitpick, just wanted some sense of the process. Thanks, JD.

Thanks, JD. 

And just to let you and everyone else know: I'll speak more to the behind-the-scenes on January 9th, when I host the official 100 Best chat.

But your question's an interesting one, and I can't resist, so …

Seeing places like Acadiana come in toward the bottom might be a shock to some, but if you think about it, it really shouldn't be. Restaurants like this aren't bucking for the Top 10 or Top 20 or Top 30. They're not meant to be foodie destinations. They're meant to please a lot of different constituencies. Their strength is that they know how to deliver just enough high-end touches to keep things interesting and keep the press engaged, while making sure that entrees never crack $30 and service never gets stuffy and the cooking — despite the occasional presence of foie gras, say — is always comforting.

To me, this is one of the great values of ranking the restaurants from 1-100, to be able to see the larger picture more fully and clearly. 

More to come, as I said, in two weeks, although please keep those questions coming. 

That's it, folks.

Enjoy your New Year's, and as always, eat well, be well, and let's meet back here again next Tuesday to do it again … 

Oh, and don't forget to knock back a drink or two today and get on the good foot to honor the memory of the beloved Godfather, Soul Brother No. 1, Mr. Please Please Please. I miss him already.

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