Tuesday, January 16, 2007 @ 11AM

Farrah Olivia, Madjet, Central, 100 Very Best Restaurants

Word of Mouth …

Morou Ouattara's invocation of Africa is subtle but unmistakable at Farrah Olivia. One night, he fashioned a filet of salmon into a loin, wrapped it in caul fat – a technique used to retain the juice of a piece of meat – seasoned it with ground anise and slow roasted it to a soft pink lusciouness. He completed the composition by pairing it with a toasted couscous made from yuca spiced with candied ginger, and a sauce of “refried” tomatoes, which had the intensity and smoky sweetness of sundried tomatoes. Those same refried tomatoes turned up in a simpler construction, as the sauce for a plate of black-eyed pea fritters. If you asked a Moroccan chef to come up with a hush puppie tagine, it might taste something like this. A steak tartare looked like any other New American version of the dish, two turrets or raw beef surrounded by a mound of grated radish and a raw quail egg. It was the inclusion of berbere oil that nudged me to realize that Morou’s inspiration is actually Ethiopia, with its berbere-spiked kitfo. …

Madjet serves up some of the best-looking platters in all of Little Ethiopia, pinching the folds of the injera to create sectional dividers for the various stews that are spooned atop the spongy, tangy bread. It also has the most interesting menu by far, thanks to a kitchen that likes to mix and match (scattering a stew of derek tibs atop a pool of red lentil) and concoct its own creations (including a potent, stick-to-your-ribs combination of chick peas and lamb and boiled egg it calls "vayyagra.") …

… The new Central, with its endless blond wood and clean, open lines, puts you in mind of nothing so much as a trendy sushi bar. Five blocks from the White House, and you'd swear you were in the heart of SoHo. It even has the requisite wanna-bes and stargazers. "Ooh," the woman at the table next to me cooed one night, "is that Mr. Michel Richard sitting over there? So cute." Central is billing itself as a bistro, and touting the idea that you can get out of a Richard restaurant for less than $75 a person if you watch yourself. Here's another way of looking at it: You can dig into a plate of luscious "72 hour" shortribs with frites and nod along to Nelly Furtado on the sound system.



Washington DC
Was it just me, or did the comment last week regarding Cafe Saint-Ex read like a press release? I smell a publicist!!! Go ahead…re-read it. It reads like it was written by someone getting PAID to hype the joint and the chef. Doncha think??? Just my two cents…

And here I thought I had my suspicio-meter cranked up high as it is.

I mean, it could have been, sure. Anything's possible.

One of the reasons I picked the question to answer was because I thought it brought up something interesting with regard to the 100 Best package. Barton Seaver is a young chef, and Cafe St.-Ex has promise. I thought it provided a good opportunity to explain some of the reasoning behind the decisions we made. 

But now you've got me curious to go back and re-read it.  

Washington DC
Todd, Agraria gets no love from you and your critic colleagues and I guess that fine. I been having some great meal there. I 've read all the commentary about this restaurant and it had a rough start but it is getting better and better. Lastly , I am of no relation to anybody at this restaurant just wanted to share my genuine experience, Thank you and keep up the good work.
Alexandria, VA
Todd, Had some good eats at A to the G to the R to the A to the R to the I to the A. I am a DJ by trade. My girl friend and I loved it. PEACE!

Why do I smell a P to the L to the A to the N to the T? 

(Oh, well, at least you all waited about a month or so before you all started back up again.)

((I refuse to take full responsibility for this smack-down, by the way. The chatter who kicked off the thread has kicked my suspicio-meter up a notch or two or three.))


Petworth, DC
Great Restaurant Week experience at Circle Bistro. A nice amount of choices, few surcharges that were only 2 to 5 dollars, nice sized portions, attentive service, good pacing, and probably one of the best Maitre D's I've come into contact with lately. The steak tartare and scallop with fennel compote appetizers were wonderful. The hanger steak was a huge portion of meat that could only have been better with a bit more basic seasoning of salt and pepper. The Loup de Mer was cooked to perfection. The desserts were fantastic down to the SOLO cup impression on the top of my panne cotta which gave us a quick laugh at the end of dinner. All in all, a lot of praise to be handed out to Circle Bistro for their treatment of restaurant week.

Good for them, Petworth.

Doesn't surprise me a bit. Thanks for posting. 

rockville md
hello i just want to know were can i take my boyfrind off for his birthday i really don't want to spin alot but i want the night to be nice can you help

I can help.

A little.

You didn't give me a lot to go off of, though, so I'm going to make a few assumptions here. I'm assuming something in or near Rockville, and I'm also assuming you don't care too much about what kind of cuisine it is.

I've got a couple of possibilities: Bob's Noodle 66 for Taiwanese cooking, and Bob's 88 Shabu Shabu for Taiwanese-style shabu shabu. Neither is that dudded-up a place, but both are sure to give you a good time. Shabu shabu is a lot of fun for a date, because you're doing the cooking yourself (swishing meats and fishes and vegetables around in a hot broth), and doing it slowly, which encourages a lot of talking. The menu at Bob's Noodle is more extensive, including a fantastic Taiwanese hamburger (braised pork tucked into a steamed bun), an oyster pancake with Chinese catsup, a casserole of ginger-stewed chicken and the gotta-try-em fried duck tongues with crispy basil.

Actually, the other Bob's has these, too. Repress your squeamishness, and get these little bundles of garlicky crunch and fry. Unforgettable and delicious.

Cheverly, MD
At your suggestion we went to try Myongdong in Beltsville, MD tonite– and WOW! It was really great– esp the kimchee and the ricebowl. Dinner for two was $18. Good service, nice place, we will surely be back. You may want to post that the name on the signs for this place read Oriental Noodle (the only place we saw the name Myongdong was on the menu). Thanks for a great suggestion up in our neck of the woods!

You're so right — anyone driving by would surely miss it if what they were looking for was a restaurant called "Myongdong."

It's a gem, isn't it? Easily the best Korean cooking this side of Annandale. I'm glad to see the place has returned after a year's hiatus while the shopping plaza was being renovated. A year in any business is a long time, but especially the restaurant business, which is so dependent on word of mouth.

Next time, you need to get the batter-fried chicken and alternate bites of chicken with bites of kimchee. It works phenomenally well, and made me remember that a lot of Southerners never eat fried chicken without a few shakes of hot sauce.

Not as good, but no slouch, either, is a place just up the street called Gah-Rham, which sends out a terrific and  unusually varied assortment of panchan and offers good barbecue. That's two good options for Korean cooking in Beltsville.

Vienna, Virginia
Hi Todd! Restaurant Week is behind us and wanted to share what a nice experience I had at Taberna del Alabardero. The RW menu was limited to 2 choices for each course and while the salad dressing was a bit salty (oddly enough) the food was beautifully presented and very tasty. The restaurant's interior is gorgeous and the service was personable and very efficient. I actually like that you have to ask for the check – feels very authentically European that way! I like to linger after the meal so I did not feel rushed even during a Friday night on RW. I'm not sure that I can afford Taberna del Alabardero at non-RW prices but I will definitely speak well of the restaurant to others and isn't that what RW is all about? Thanks!

Thanks for the report, Vienna.

I like having to ask for the check, too. And not being made to feel rushed even on a Friday night — that's remarkable.

I'm not particularly fond of the RW practice of offering such a pared-down menu, as many of you know. I think it's in a restaurant's best interest to offer the full run of the menu — even if the rewards are not evident immediately. But there are a number of places around town, and Taberna is one, that manage to rise about their own restriction. Good for them.

Petworth, DC
For RW I went to Circle Bistro on Tuesday and Bistro Bis on Wednesday. Am I crazy? Two French restaurants one after the other? Actually it was eye opening. While both restaurants had a good menu selection, good service, good pacing, etc….the only thing that BB had on CB was a celebrity sighting (Steve Kroft from 60 Minutes). The cooking was much more refined, subtle, and innovative at Circle Bistro. I would say that both did a great job with RW though. Very large menu with few upcharges ($2 – $5 at CB and $3 – $10 at BB…the $10 being for Steak Frites). I sampled the Steak Tartare at both and while both were good, the version at CB packed just a bit more flavor and had better texture. The garlic chips at BB were a slight edge over the frites at CB though. I had a fish entree at both…Loup De Mer at CB and Mahi Mitonnee at BB. The Loup De Mer was fantastic. Served with baby turnips and raw greens with a broth that was poured over the fish and vegetables when you felt you needed more. Wonderful aroma and subtle, but delicious, flavor. The Mahi Mitonnee at BB was a bit of a letdown. In a tomato based broth with white beans that just seemed, well, in all honesty bland and not well balanced. Both were very good, but CB when put head to head against BB won the battle.

Nice compare-and-contrast, Petworth. Very thorough.

I would give you an A, but you've run all your ideas into a single paragraph AND your topic sentences are nonexistent. ; )

If I were you, I don't know how much I'd draw from this "battle." It's Restaurant Week. It's not a normal week. Everything is different during Restaurant Week, including the menus. I'd be reluctant to say that one is a better restaurant than the other. I think you're on firmer ground to suggest that one restaurant is be the better Restaurant Week restaurant.

Oh, and if Steve Kroft counts as a "celebrity sighting," then this town is really and truly starved for wattage.

Arlington VA
Hi Todd Love Indian food and have been going to Passage and Heritage for the last 2 years. Your inclusion of Saravana in the top 100, especially right after Passage is incomprehensible. In my opinion there are far better Indian restaurants than Saravana, namely Bombay Curry company, Delhi Club etc. As much as I agree with you on the really exclusive cooking at the Passage to India in Bethesda I beg to differ on the Saravana inclusion. One of the local food blogs even talks about the lack of cleanliness of the place. I am on #26 (have skipped 9 so far) and will go thru your 100 before summers.

And I beg to differ with you.

(Actually, I don't beg. I never beg.)

I've eaten my way through nearly 2/3rds of that menu, and continue to be impressed by the detail and excitement of the cooking. Delhi Club has declined, and its curries hardly compare. Bombay Curry Company is a nice little place, with some big hits (the chicken wings, notably) and some misses. Saravana's menu is long and varied, and in all the meals I've eaten there, I've turned up nary a dud. What can I say? The lunches and dinners I ate there this past year were among the best, most memorable I ate all year. That's what this list comes down to, ultimately. The meals that made the biggest impression.

Did you eat from the menu, or from the buffet? To me, eating from an Indian buffet, no matter how good, is ultimately to miss the measure of a place like this.

I've also never seen anything but a spotlessly clean Saravana Palace. And honestly? Do you mean to tell me you're relying on an anonymous food blog from an unlettered source for accurate information? A food blog that might have visited the place once, found a speck of something or other on the wall, and then posted a report?

Alexandria, VA
Since last week's session, I went to 701 Pennsylvania Ave. for restaurant week (for lunch). My entree was Salmon Crab cakes – had mango salsa with it. It was the strangest combination of flavors … I don't think I would order that again. The best thing about my experience was the service. Great Service. Has this restaurant has EVER been on the 100's Very Best list? Thanks, Ld

It doesn't sound that strange of a combination to me.

Mango and salmon is a pairing you see a lot — or, well, USED to see a lot, in the early to mid-90s, when salmon was showing up on every menu and salsas were showing up with a lot more than chips.

What else did you have? Any appetizer? Dessert? 

701 hasn't been on the Top 100 since I took over as editor — that's two editions, by the way — but as to whether it ever made the list, I don't know. I'll scour the archives later today and see if I can't come up with an answer.

Washington, DC
Have you heard anything about Chef Antonio Burrell? We were sad to see him leave Viridian, which has suffered greatly (where has TS been eating?). I want to keep up with the young chef. I think he and the rest of the youngsters are the next wave of talent for DC and has me excited about the future.

Burrell is going to be manning the kitchen at Rain, a new restaurant, lounge and nightclub in Fairfax.

The place was due to open at the end of 2006. Then came the inevitable delays. Word is that it will be any day now.

You can expect a Nuevo Latino menu, which means that Burrell, who has gotten around these last few years, will be reprising the flavors of the now-defunct Gabriel on P St. Gabriel was three stops ago, preceding Bistro Bis and Viridian.

Silver Spring, Md
Hi Todd, I had a wonderfull dinner last Saturday night. I must tell you that we were a party of 5 and like most restaurants gratuity is included. When the bill came I was engaged in a converstation and was not sufficiently focused on my credit card transaction. I inadvertently added another 20% tip on the check. The waitress came out to my car and told me that the tip was included and to recheck the tip I left. In this age where honesty seems so lacking in so many areas, it's good to know there are still people like Jesika.

Nice to hear.

Where does Jesika work?

I think a letter to the management of the restaurant is always a good thing in those circumstances — right? if you're going to lodge a complaint when things go wrong, why not take the time to praise the work of an employee who makes you feel looked after and taken care of. But if you don't have the time, or aren't so inclined, it would be nice to single her out for her attentive eye in this public forum.

Are you still out there, Silver Spring? 

Washington D.C
Great list of 100 very best! I beg to differ with you regarding Sarvana Place as number 21 and a place like Indique at 98.

Boy, a lot of begging going on today. 🙂

I stand by the list. Saravana Palace, at its best, is superb. And Indique has struggled of late, since opening a second restaurant. (Even so, it was always as much about the mood and the decor as it was the cooking.)

What you may be experiencing is a post-100 Best shakeout. I've already gotten reports of shakeups within kitchens since the list hit the stands.

A new vigilance, an increased focus in the kitchen or in the front of the house, or both, can do wonders for a place. Let's hope that that's what's happening.

Similarly, a previously unheralded place with a tiny staff, beset by swarms of first-time customers, can suffer as a result of all the new attention.

That's one reason why we have such things as The Needle in the magazine, to keep tabs on all these places throughout the year.


Bethesda, MD
Following up on last week- we went to Charlie Palmer for restaurant week per your suggestion and were not disappointed. The food was great- from the gratis amuse bouche to the dense chocolate caramel pave dessert. Yum!

There's a reason I've recommended Charlie Palmer Steak for Restaurant Week for years and years now — ever since Restaurant Week began in the District, in fact.

The place takes it seriously. I'd still like to see more choices on the RW menu, but there can be no arguing over quality — it's good and it's consistent. And service is not in the least condescending to all those budget-conscious diners.

Lorton, VA
I asked this before and didn't get an answer, hoping it will this time. I have friends coming to town who have been living in Asia. They spent time in South Korea and want to eat familiar food. They're staying near Dupont Circle and won't have a car. Where can the go that you'd recommend to have Korean (or any Asian food for that matter) food?

I can't yet offer the new Mandu as a recommendation — although it's certainly within striking distance, being a short walk away in Adams-Morgan.

Yee-Hwa, which is downtown, is pretty good, but it doesn't get me excited the way the best places out in Annadale do. 

Without a car, that's about it for them for Korean cooking.

Thai cooking in the city is pretty middling, at best — with the notable exception of Thai X-ing, which is a takeout and not a restaurant.

Their best bet might be sushi. Sakana on P St. is a good spot, with a bustling atmosphere, and good and sometimes inventive rolls. It's also reliably consistent.

Let me know what they decide to do, please.

As for the rest of you … keep those Restaurant Week reports coming in. I couldn't get to them all this week, but I'm eager to read more of your dispatches from the front.

As always, eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week …