Tuesday, January 9, 2007 @ 11AM

Myongdong , India Curry House, Muffin Man, and this year's 100 Very Best Restaurants list.

Word of Mouth …

Myongdong just reopened about five weeks ago, after a year on hiatus while the Beltsville shopping center it was part of was being renovated. The new place gleams, and the kitchen is turning out the tastiest Korean food this side of Annandale. No barbecue here. The focus is noodles. Good ones. I loved a bowl of buckwheat cellophane noodles topped off with slices of brisket, Korean chili paste, hardboiled egg and toasted bands of seaweed, and a bowl of delicately flavored clam broth piled high with chewy broad noodles, strips of cucumber, baby clams, and drizzled egg. There's also homemade kimchi, fabulous steamed dumplings and a showstopping platter of fried chicken — an entire, cleavered chicken whose bite-sized pieces have been dunked in a honey-spiked batter and deep fried until crunchy. Seasoning is customizable, thanks to the pinch bowls filled with salt and red pepper.

The first red flag for me at India Curry House, in Clarendon, was the shiny Zagat 2006 sticker in the window — a not-expunged leftover from the previous owners, Queen Bee. The second red flag was the presence of beef on the menu. What followed — astringent, one-note chutneys, dull curries, mediocre breads — could hardly be described as surprising. The surprise: the prices. $14.95 for a thoroughly modest portion of lamb korma?

A woman in line the other night described the signature item at Muffin Man to me as "da bomb." No kidding. If only every muffin were as good as the ones at this Caribbean storefront in Lanham — golden-topped, perfectly baked and unforgettable. There are — count 'em — 27 kinds to choose from, including the familiar (an excellent chocolate chocolate chip, lemon poppy, blueberry) and the unfamiliar (pistachio, sweet potato, guava). I still keep thinking about the rum raisin, a huge, fluffy thing studded with raisins soaked in actual rum, and the cream cheese chiffon, after it warmed up, was marvelous, too. I arrived just as the shop was closing — too late to try out the Caribbean fare — but I'll be returning, and soon. Can't wait to try the roti.

After a sluggish start, PS 7, in Penn Quarter, has found its rhythm, not unlike its surging tenants a few blocks away, the Wizards, whose blue, copper and black color scheme the new place seems to be evoking. There's a lot to like these days. Peter Smith's cooking is both muscular and delicate, Naomi Gallego's desserts show real finesse, and the sound system could be channeling my iPod: Brubeck, Mingus, Coltrane, James Brown. Now, if only the waitstaff could refrain from pitching "Chateau Potomac" and complimenting diners' wine choices as "excellent."

……………………………………………………………………….. 

Upper Marlboro, MD
Why isn't the Seasons Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown in the top 100 restaurants? My wife and I have eaten nearly every Michelin 3 star restaurant in Europe and the Seasons, in our opinion after 2 visits, ranks right up there in quality and the wow factor. We had a 3 course prix fixe menu one night and ordered ala carte the second time with 3 courses also. Several amuse bouches were served each time. We would rate this restaurant at 2 stars out of 3 for wine and service. The chef trained at the George V in Paris. They certainly are head and shoulders above many of your top restaurants listed in the top 100. Eat there and I am sure you will agree. Roland Young

Roland,

Thanks for the question.

I wish I shared your enthusiasm for the place.

In the end, that's what it comes down to — a passion for a restaurant, a strong lingering memory of a place. And in making the choices for the list this year, I just couldn't work up enough passion to put Seasons on.

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 loved a bowl of creamy fennel soup with black truffles and a coddled egg. Meanwhile, the service manages to be both too casual and too impersonal. And the prices are extraordinary — among the highest in the city.

I'd recommend sitting at the bar and ordering the marvelous apple tart — so crunchy, it shatters  — but unless you're in the hotel on business and someone's picking up the tab, I think there are other places more rewarding.

Alexandria, VA
Hi, Todd. I follow your chats and the advice in your reviews faithfully. Following your recommendation, our monthly gourmet dining group went to La Sirenita in Riverdale a couple of months ago and loved it. There were 22 of us with, as you can imagine, varying tastes, and everyone left happy. My husband and I had the pork and posole stew and found it extremely good. The waitstaff was helpful and attentive, the food was great, and we thank you for a wonderful recommendation. Best to you and your family in 2007.

No, thank YOU, Alexandria.

It's always gratifying to hear of a recommendation that worked out so well. La Sirenita is a terrific place, especially for, yes, the posole. But also the tacos, the wonderful chili rellenos and the various seafood soups. 

Where are you going next with your group, if I can ask. Or what sorts of places have you been already?

Does anyone else out there have a dining group? I'd love to hear some of your stories. I think it's a great idea.

Alexandria, VA
I have been following the 100's Very Best Restaurants for literally 10 years. I have copies of the 100's Best list dating back to 1997. Over the last 10 years, I have highlighted and dated the restaurants that I have visited. This year, I am a little concerned about how many restaurants have just two stars. The majority of the restaurants on the 100's Best this year have only two stars. How can this be? They are one of the best but only rank with two stars? I like the idea of ranking them in order, however, I think that too much emphasis may be placed on their ranking or lack thereof. What happened to Washingtonian having a "printable version" of the 100's Very Best? It was so handy. Thanks, Ld

How can this be?

First of all, you have to remember: Two stars is considered — check the identifying box — "worth a drive." 

That's not bad. That's good.

If the majority of restaurants on any dining guide are three-star places, then either someone is waaaaaay too easy a grader, or every talented, ambitious chef in the country has up and moved to that city to open a restaurant (and cook in it, too).

I want to offer a little perspective here, if I can, Alexandria.

Back in the day — that day being before I became Dining Editor — the magazine regularly featured a 100 Best with one-star restaurants on the list. And almost all of those one-stars were expensive or very expensive restaurants.

You won't find a single one-star, or one-and-a-half star on this year's list.

Washington DC
Todd, Had lunch at Black Salt. I sat at the bar and I must say the service was disrespectful. The server as I observed gave priorty to what appeared to be regulars even though I arrived earlier than they did. I ordered my first appetizer and try to order wine but the server did not present me a wine list until I asked for it, by that time my first dish arrived I had eaten the majority of it before I got my wine. My next dish came out 40 minutes later and all I ordered was a soup. The server obviously forgot about me. The server made an attempt to apologize but it was not genuine at all. The server tried to pasify me by taking the wine off my bill. The quality of the food was good, but that one employee spoiled it for me. Bottom line is I did not feel WELCOMED based on the way I was treated. A words of advice to every restaurant owner: PLEASE TRAIN YOUR EMPLOYEES TO CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE YOUR CUSTOMERS FEEL WELCOMED. Everybody who come in your door with money to spend are important. Treat every person like a regular and you will always have a full restaurant.

Hm. This one's tricky.

I've always believed that problems at restaurants are inevitable, and that it's how a restaurant deals with those problems that counts. 

It sounds like the servers made an attempt to deal with it, but that you were already put out by being ignored earlier, and that the efforts they made to appeal you felt disingenuous to you. 

I don't know what the lesson here is, except that sometimes I guess there's just no way to make up for a gaffe.

I can say that you ought to have taken your complaint to a manager, but I'm not sure the onus is necessarily on you in this case. If your dissatisfaction was that evident, a conscientious server ought to have gone to the next level to seek help to handle things.

I don't know. I wasn't there.

But I do know that being made to feel welcome is a highly personal thing, hard to quantify. If you weren't made to feel welcome initially, then you're probably not ever going to give the place the benefit of the doubt later.

Bethesda, MD
I have two restaurant week reservations for this week- Acadiana and Charlie Palmer Steak. We can only keep one as we only have a babysitter for one night. Which one should I keep??? Thanks!

It's no question at all, Bethesda: Charlie Palmer Steak.

DC
Congratulations to you and your staff on a job well done. I'll take a page out of last year's issue for my comment on this year's. What You'll Love: The rankings. What You Won't: The cover. The chefs definitely deserve praise but are not as appetizing as last year's cover featuring the lobster ravioli from Maestro. Best dish (picture). The mosaic of surf and turf. Tasty! Price: Inexpensive, check your local newstand today.

Thanks, DC.

I wonder how the assembled chefs will feel, to hear that you would much rather gaze upon a plate of lobster with ravioli than their freshly scrubbed mugs. Then again, they are chefs.

Centreville, VA
To whom are restaurant reviews targeted? I would like to know what your take on this is. My take is that it is not the public. I frequently try restaurants rated by this magazine and most of the time am disappointed. I will give one example, a sandwich place in Chantilly that supposedly had "the best chicken salad sandwich ever!". So I have tried it 3 times. It is a mayonnaise sandwich on thick bread with some chicken, gristle and one time bone. Now how can this get a rave review from anyone? And if they are giving it a rave review, what business to they have being in the restaurant review business?

You're talking about Hot Breads the Indian Bakery, in Chantilly.

I wrote about both the chicken tikka masala sandwich and the chicken salad sandwich on the chat and in the magazine, too. I never said the latter was "the best chicken salad sandwich ever!" I never even said it was "the best chicken salad sandwich ever." 

It's a tasty little sandwich for three bucks. Three bucks.  

Who would burden a three-buck sandwich with such expectation and scrutiny?

DC
Hi Todd. What's the status of I Ricchi? It was a perennial top 100 establishment but has slipped the last couple of years. I always thought it was too pretentious and the bang never equaled the buck. I haven't been there for a while and was wondering if it was worth taking a trip back.

Guess what, DC?

Your long-ago assessment is remarkably up-to-date.

Washington, DC
Would you explain why my neighborhood fave, Cafe Saint Ex, was not included in the top 100? I was very disappointed. The many lunches and dinners I have had there have been excellent. He does wonderful fish, great mussels, the grilled rib-eye is the best I have had in a long time. His salads and veggies are all locally sourced and he is devoted to family farms and small fisherman. HIs beet and goat cheese salad has converted some beet hater friends into beet lovers. His pureed vegetable soups taste like the essence of the vegetable — light and creamy without any cream at all. Its chef, Barton Seaver was named as a rising young chef this year along with Eric Ziebold, Cathal Armstorng, RJ Cooper, Tony Conte, Tony Chittum, Katsuya Fukusima whose restaurants were included — and ranked highly –in the list . It seemed to me that you were highlighting these new young chefs on this year's list. So, why didn't it make the Washingtonian's list? PS

Good question, DC.

Seaver's a young talent to keep an eye on, no doubt about it. It's a likeable place, and he has a good grasp of what a cafe in that neighborhood ought to be. The menu doesn't ever force things, and the wine selections show real imagination.

But we saw a good deal of unevenness over the course of the year, and that, ultimately, is what kept it off the final list. The re-opening of Bar Pilar might have played a part in this unevenness; I don't know. But I do hope that Seaver continues to cook like he's capable of cooking, and that the restaurant continues to grow and mature.

Alexandria, VA
Hi Todd, I have a 30th Birthday coming up and have a party of as many as eight people. I made a reseration at Corduroy … but I am getting mixed reviews from other diners. Can you please make a suggestion for a place that I can go to celebrate — a nice place that will take a reservation. Thanks, Ld

Happy 30th!

You won't get a mixed review from me, Alexandria. Corduroy's a gem.

Washington, DC
How did you decide to rate the Top 100 restaurants? It seems to me that distinguishing in a ranking format is a recipe for disaster, as it implies that such subtle distinctions are really able to be made, and/or useful. Is the restaurant ranked 21 really better than the one ranked 22? Wouldn't it have made more sense to do a modified star rating, or a tiered rating, rather than individual distinctions?

Recipe for disaster?

Only if you think that a list like this is some kind of Olympian document, etched in stone and inviolable.

I wanted, first of all, to have some fun with this, to make a little mischief and get a larger conversation going. That's one of the things that magazines should do. And it's one of the things that all critics — whether their beat is film, theater, or restaurants — should do, too.

If you read the reviews carefully, you'll also see that many of them offer pointed criticisms. It's the only time, in some cases, that we'll be writing about some of these restaurants all year. So why not be candid and forthright in telling the reader what it will be like? We know they're good; they're on the list. But that's not to say they're all equally good. Making distinctions like this — to me, that's largely what this enterprise is all about.

I think our selections are solid, and God knows, a whole helluva lot of work went into making these assessments. But in the end, what you hold in your hands is a personal list — the picture as it looks to us right now. Not six months ago, and probably not six months from now, either.

Is there a difference between 21 and 22? Of course there is. At the moment, we like 21 slightly more than we like 22.

Ulan Bator, Mongolia
Ee tru u mak gud noodl?

Me play Borat, tu.

Ee tru.

I mak gud noodl. I put in d pot miso n bonito flak, noodl, weed from d sea n salmon. Mmm.

Hyattsville, Maryland
Hi, Todd, I'm new to your chat, but thanks for covering all the great hidden spots to eat in the area! Can you look in your crystal ball and tell when we are going to get great (or, heck, I'd settle for good) Thai in inner-beltway Prince George's County? I'd think a budding entrepreneur could make a fortune. Thanks, Tired of driving to DC

Welcome aboard!

The forecast is gloomy for Thai coming to the county. But then, Thai cooking is down all across the area. Outside of Columbia Pike — which has Rincome, Thai Square and Bangkok 54 all on a two-mile stretch — and outside of Taw Vigsittaboot's tiny kitchen at Thai X-ing on Florida Ave. and 6th St. … there isn't much to get excited about.

The good news? Myongdong, see my intro above. It's a wonderful spot, and deserves to be flooded with patrons.

DC
Not a single woman chef in the DC metro area that can be termed part of the new guard? How depressing.

It's a shame, you're right.

But we're just the mirror, here.

Don't think we didn't churn this over in meeting after meeting after meeting. There are pastry chefs who are women, to be sure. And good ones. But ultimately, I'm not interested in that kind of tokenization.

What it comes down to is this: Can you name a woman under 40 who is heading up the kitchen at any of the Top 50 restaurants in the area?

Five to seven years ago, you could.

Reston, VA
Hi Todd, I have been following Washingtonian's 100 Best Restaurants ratings for years now and always try a lot of the restaurants you recommend. Thank you for your hard work. This year though I was very disappointed again for not finding my FAVORITE place in your 100 Best: FIORE DI LUNA in Great Falls. I dine there on a weekly basis, I have been with many different friends and we ALL rave about the food. The presentation, quality, and freshness is amazing and I have never had a bad experience. I would love to hear your decision not to include such a great place!

For a neighborhood spot, yes, sure.

But we didn't feel that that Fiore di Luna was much more than that — didn't feel it was worth making a thirty minute drive for. And freshness, funny enough, was the thing we found most lacking.

Alexandria, VA
What about Ann Cashion? She counts. Ld

No question she's talented.

But she's not one of the New Guard, which we defined as chefs who are 40 and under.

She also doesn't have a restaurant in the Top 50. 

 

Capitol Hill, DC
"On the first day of Restaurant Week, a great chef served to me…" (Sing with me!) Tender monkfish cooked in parchment with lemon, herbs and olive oil. Although I walked right by it (its a bright blue light on Penn Ave), I had an outstanding experience at D'Acqua last night – we strayed from the RW menu a bit. Roberto Donna strolled in right around the time the chocolate/lemon profiteroles were served, too. Talk about eye candy! Off to Agraria tonight for part II. Thanks for the 100 best. I noticed there was nary a chain restaurant on the list (few if any). How do you compound your "best" with the readers' best survey that is chock a block with chains? Moreover, how do you convince your readers to support the non-chains and try something new? ever consider a "best of the chains" list as an aside? What are you favorites?

Thanks for the report, Capitol Hill.

Sounds tasty.

Straying from the menu a bit … isn't that par for the course for Restaurant Week. "Hmm, well, this looks pretty good. But this over here, on the regular menu, looks FANTASTIC." (I can hear Richard Kind, thundering in my ears.)

No chains on the list, you're right, and not because we intentionally excluded them. As Ernie Grunfeld once told me, answering a question I'd asked about trading Kwame Brown: "The players tell you what to do." Well, the restaurants tell us what to do. 

The readers have their favorites, and that's a good thing. But for a critic, it's dangerous to confuse "favorites" with "best." I have a lot of places that I'd say were favorites of mine, and none of them made the list. Favorites has a lot to do with mood, how well you know the staff, how many memories you've made at a place, etc.

Good luck tonight at Agraria.

Oh, and before you go: Roberto Donna — eye candy?!

 

WDC
Todd – When you participated in a chat on eGullet in 2004 you said the following: "First of all, I don’t like lists." and "As I said before, I don’t like lists." What changed?

Who said anything changed?

I was hired by a magazine that trades on its list-making, as almost all glossy magazines do. But that's not to say that I love lists any more than I did.

That's one of the reasons I liked the idea of ranking the restaurants this year from 1-100. It introduces an element of fun to things. It underscores that a list like this is not meant to be a Document for All Time, but a direct reflection of the team doing the work — its tastes, its passions, etc.

What I object to with most lists is the good, gray tone, which never seems to acknowledge that it's all just good, clean sport.

Fairfax, VA
Todd, what happened to Le Tire Bouchon? They just fell off the list after years? Thank you for the great work you and your team do every year!

Le Tire Bouchon was a bottom-runger last year. If we had done the rankings then, it would have probably come in somewhere between 95-100.

This year, with increased competition, it was a late cut. 

Washington DC
Hi Todd! I have friends visiting from LA and want to take them out to eat while they are here to something interesting. Since they come from the land of Asian food and burgers, scratch that. We have an Ethiopean night planned, and one person is allergic to shellfish..any thoughts?

Afghan, maybe?

Not a ton of that in LA.

Lots of options here: You could go to Faryab in Bethesda, Afghan Grill in Woodley Park, Kabul Kabob in Alexandria. 

No worries about shellfish, and the flavors are sure to be big and bold.

The other possibility is to take them to Indigo Landing, out on Daingerfield Island (off GW Parkway). Lowcountry cooking is not something you find a lot of in LA. This is surprisingly detailed comfort food, and I think it's best appreciated when you can go with a group, when you can order a lot of different things and pass plates, in true Southern style. View's good, too: Planes flying into National, the monuments aglow in the distance. 

Washington, DC
Todd, You answered my question (why ranking all of the restaurants rather than tiering them or finding some less exact method of distinguishing them) by defending your choices of restaurants to include … but I wasn't questioning your choices; I was questioning your methodology. Assume I agree with your assessment of what are the top 100 restaurants in DC (or, more accurately, that I agree that it's a reasonable personal assessment) — what does it add to rank each restaurant? If your goal was to get people talking, then I guess it was successful, but if that chatter is nitpicking over whether a restaurant should've been ranked 21 or 22, is that really helpful? Maybe ranking within genre, or within neighborhood, could be useful as it would assist people in making dining decisions. But an overall ranking — I'm just not sure what it adds to the debate, or to the overall dining scene. What did you intend it to add?

I think you're giving too little credence to the getting people talking part.

For years, the dining section of Washingtonian was not known as something that got people talking.

Talking matters.

And no, the chatter I've been hearing — you should listen to my voicemail and read through my emails — is definitely not nitpicking over 21 and 22.

Having a little fun, stirring the pot, yes, this was a goal. But not the only goal. So was helping the reader to make distinctions. Last year we added half-stars, which turned a four-tier system into a nine-tier system.

Ranking the restaurants goes a step beyond that, further clarifying a crowded field.

There's now an identifiable Top 10, Top 20, Top 30, Top 40 … As long as you're going to have a Top 100, why not have a Top 10, etc.

I look at a place like Cashion's, which comes in at two stars, and a place like Acadiana, which also comes in at two stars.

Without the rankings, that suggests those two stars are equal. They're not. 56 places separate the two restaurants. That's interesting to me.

I also believe it's valuable to the reader.

DC
Do you feel like you've opened a can of worms by ranking the 100 best? It will probably be expected to continue in years to come. Keep up the great work.

Oh, is the can ever open!

Thanks for the nice words, DC.

Gotta run, folks. Lunch awaits.

Before I go, I just want to say to you all: Please take advantage Restaurant Week, and be sure to consult the webpage for my list of picks for the week. Also, be sure to share you experiences — the good, the bad and the ugly — with me throughout the week. I'm at tkliman@washingtonian.com

Eat well, as always, and let's do it again here next Tuesday at 11 …

More from News & Politics