Tuesday, January 23, 2007 @ 11AM

Ravi Kabob, Montmartre, Ruan Thai, and more

Word of Mouth …

If I weren’t a critic, and could eat wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, then Ravi Kabob, in Arlington, would surely be in my heavy rotation of places. My most recent meal was no different from previous meals in being wonderful from beginning to end: fresh, hot breads; the best bone-in chicken kabob in the area; an enthralling lamb karahi, the Pakistani border dish cooked in a hammered steel wok and shot through with enough ginger, garlic and chilis to flush out your nasal passages; and excellent gulab jamun, two puffy fried balls of dough doused in a clear, sticky syrup. What was new, this time, was a wonderful dish of lamb’s brains, its texture of soft, curdled eggs set in stark relief by an insistent, curry-like spicing. …

… Did I say heavy rotation? Put Montmartre in there, too. I was reminded, again, that this is one of the best values in town, one of the few places in this inflationary restaurant age where two people can eat well and savor a bottle of wine for less than a hundred bucks. It’s also one of the most consistent. I can’t ever remember being let down by a meal at this cozy, darkly lit Eastern Market haunt. Stephane Lezla’s menu seldom changes, but that hardly matters. I recently rediscovered the pleasures of the seafood choucroute, a splendid dish of both delicacy and robustness, the rusticky salmon-and-fennel terrine, and an excellent cauliflower soup. …

… I’m in a proclamating mood, so I’ll just come out and say right now that Ruan Thai, in Wheaton, is turning out the best Thai cooking outside of Virginia. Not everything soars, but I admit to a sort of affection for a kitchen that is as stubborn and idiosyncratic as this one. It’s not just that Krisano Sucsopinunt – who does the cooking, and runs the place with her sister and brother-in-law – doesn’t let her dishes succumb to the cloying sweetness that creeps into too much Thai cooking for American audiences. It’s that she has such an obvious love for the tangy and funky. The result is a roster of some 100 dishes that hardly resembles what you find anywhere else. A plate of grilled beef is typical, full of smoke from the grill, a subtle, grainy crunch from the rice flour tossed on top, and a mouth-puckering sourness from the liberal shots of lime and fermented fish sauce. The cripsy duck with basil and chilis is more conventional, only in the sense that it doesn’t deviate too much from standard preparations. Those are often greasy, though, and dull. This one is fabulous, with strong hits of cinnamon and basil perfuming the meat, which is alternately tender and crunchy. Desserts bring one of the best renditions of sticky rice in the area, including a version topped with a soft, luscious custard.

……………………………………………………………. 

cheltenham md
i would like to take my wife out for our annv. on to a nice restaurant a five or four star restaurant in dc if you know of one

Know of one?

By the way, I can tell the urgency of the request, Chelltenham, by the lack of punctuation, which is why you're getting the first answer from me today.

Have you picked up your latest copy of the magazine? (Nice, shameless plug, huh?) 

We've ranked all the top restaurants in the area, in order. No five stars — we don't go that high — but there are three four-star restaurants by our reckoning: Citronelle, Maestro and CityZen.

But get that reservation in as soon as you can. These restaurants fill up quickly.

Tucson, AZ
Hi My husband and I are coming to Washington for first time in March We will be there for 4 nights,he is from London and becoming Us citizen.. Anyway,,I have anxiously been following you countdown I have booked Restaurant Eve for Sat B day dinner… I am thinking of Komi, Palena and Oya for the other nights.. We are in our 50's and like really nice restaurants..like about any food..Also like to people watch. any suggestions.. THANKS so much for answering!! Sincerely Caroline in Tucson AZ

Caroline, hi:

Thanks for reading.

Restaurant Eve, Komi and Palena are all terrific places.

I'd bypass Oya. If you want to spend some time in Penn Quarter, which is a really bustling, dynamic area (sporting events, the Shakespeare Theater, high-concept restaurants, a mix of people from all over the city), I'd recommend Poste in the Hotel Monaco or Zengo. The former is a contemporary bistro with interesting ideas; the latter is a fusion restaurant — Asian and Latino — that rarely seems to be forcing the
issue.

If you're interested in seeing the real city for lunch — as opposed to just official, establishment Washington — I'd suggest going to one of the Ethiopian restaurants in and around historic U St. The city's Ethiopian food is among the best in the country. Etete on 9th St. is my current favorite, with cooking that is complex and soulful. It made our
recent list of the 100 Best restaurants in the area.

The half-smoke is also a quintessentially DC eating experience, and you can find the definitive version at Ben's Chili Bowl, which is a few blocks away from Etete on U St. The place is full of atmosphere and character. Historical note: This is where Bill Cosby proposed to his wife, Camille. It's also one of the few businesses that survived the '68 riots. Today, it's one of the old-guard restaurants that anchor the surging U St. economy.

Best of luck, and I hope you and your husband eat well when you're here. Please keep me posted on your adventures, and drop me a note when you're here if you can.

Lorton, VA
To follow up on my question from last week about Asian food near Dupont Circle. Our friends came, ate and left. They found Mandu on their own. They liked the bulgogi, thought the mandu could have a bit more spice and loved the dolsot bibimbap. They went on the Friday night they arrived, appreciated the fast service and had high praise for the kitchen. They described the food as "Seoul style" and very good. We suggested Gom Ba Woo for Saturday lunch. To quote; "kimchi heaven" and "the best kimchi I've ever eaten" and "Annandale really is Korean, isn't it?" All in all a very pleasant and happy time was had by our friends. Thanks for the suggestions (even though they ignored every one of them)

Love the follow-up, Lorton. Good chatiquette.

That's funny about your guests. Typical, too, right? Recommend a half dozen places, and watch how they somehow end up hitting none of them.

I'll tell you what, if you had told me they might venture beyond Dupont Circle — I remember you saying that they didn't have a car — then I would certainly have included Gom Ba Woo in that list of picks. It's a special little place, with, yes, some of the best kimchi you're going to find in the area. This is kimchi to make a believer out of you — if you weren't a believer in the first place. To go along with fabulous, luscious barbecue and excellent renditions of sul leung tang, the milky-colored beef cartilage soup that is as soothing in its own way as a big, heaping, steaming bowl of pho.

For whatever it's worth, this is the place — out of all the thousands of restaurants in the area — my wife asked to be taken to for her most recent birthday.

Silver Spring, MD
Its a restaurant that I haven't been to in years. Mrs. K's Toll House.

So this is, what? The flip side of a rhetorical question?

Not a question masquerading as a statement, but a statement masquerading as a question. Interesting.

Anyhoo. Mrs. K's.

My most recent visit was a couple of years ago. I can't say I'm looking forward to going back. I don't have my notes from that meal in front of me, but I do distinctly remember a dish of duck l'orange I ate. One, because it was duck l'orange. Nobody serves duck l'orange anymore. I remember saying something to that effect to my tablemates, and we all began pining for the long-vanished culinary past. And then the dish arrived. The sauce was sickeningly sweet and tasted more of the bottle or jar than anything long-simmered over the stove. The duck was soft, stringy and fatty. If I had been blindfolded, and the dish thrust before me, I would have sworn I was eating a plate of barbecue.

On the other hand, it's a lovely place.

Washington, DC
I am the person who asked you about St Ex not making the list. I am definitely not a publicist. I live around the corner from St Ex and I eat at St Ex and Bar Pilar quite often and like them both very much so I wanted to understand why St Ex was not on the list. You explained why and I respect your answer. Although I had never had a disappointing meal, friends mentioned that the food had been uneven. Barton really loves fish and as you probably know, he taught fish at the CIA for two years, I think. It shows. anyway, definitely not a publicist, just an enthusiastic neighbor —

Defending the nabe. I can understand that.

That unevenness — you hit it on the head; that's the thing the place needs to work on.

On the other side of the ledger: I'm a fan of the wine list, a lot of dishes are smartly done, and it really seems to understand what it should be striving for and what it shouldn't.

It's definitely a restaurant worth keeping an eye on.

Alexandria, VA
Hi, Todd. So I have a reservation to celebrate my birthday at Farrah Olivia by Morou. I am wondering if you have any suggestions as to what is good. A little background, I have never tried Foie Gras (don't think I want to), I don't eat Duck, or Rabbit … if you catch my drift. Is there anything on the menu for me? Thanks! Ld

So you're saying you don't want to eat something like a loin of tuna dipped into hot water for blanching, then dunked in a chilled soy bath, then cut into slices and shingled atop a plate, where it's to be swabbed into a small mound of powder made by dehydrating a glass of Merlot?

It's a challenging place, Ld. Sometimes the gambling pays off handsomely, and sometimes it fails utterly.

But I've got a couple of dishes for you. One is the cured quail, in which Asian, French and American flavors all come together in a seamless effort. The drumsticks are turned into breaded and deep-fried lollipops, the rest of the meat is glazed and tender, and the whole thing sits atop a sort of liquidy creme brulee with vegetables.

Another is the lamb with mint — only here the mint is in liquid form, tucked into tapioca pearls that pop when you bite them.

If you think of it, drop me a note and let me know how your big dinner turns out.

Adams Morgan, DC
Todd, Excellent Top 100 list. I have been following the "debates" on your blog for the last couple weeks and one item that I am surprised no one has commented on is the ranking of Cashion's Eat Place (my vote is that it is way too low). As frequent diners living in the neighborhood my wife and I have had some of our best DC meals there. I would generally recommend staying away from the beef (other than the veal porterhouse) as the poultry and fish are great and the game (duck, squab, rabbit, etc.) is perhaps the best in the city. And just so you know this is a "real" review, I think brunch at Cashion's is the most overrated "brunch" experience around. Its no better than what an average joe with a pan can do. Do you have any recommendations for great game? Thanks and eat well.

I've had some really good meals there, too.

Just not as many in recent years.

Or I'd dig into something like the soft shell crabs, which are expertly done, and come away sighing — only to find that the next course was only ordinary … or, worse, forgettable.

I like the place, but I don't think you can deny that it's lost something off its fastball.

As for game … I'd have to send you to either Restaurant Eve or Marcel's. Both of those chefs revere their game meats, and it shows. 

Washington, DC
I love the chat and the new Washingtonian food section. A question and a comment. I agree with your earlier comment when praising Montmarte that Washington has too many expense-account overpriced restaurants. True many ethnic eateries serving terrific food (Bangkok 54, Thai Square, Etete, anything in Eden Center, anything in Annondale, Kotobuki, Charrito Caminante, 2 Amy's etc.) are bargains. Where can the young couple who loves to go out to eat but does not want to pay $20+/entree look forward to opening in the near future? What new and affordable restaurants are you excited about which are open or opening soon in the area? I love the cheap eats and the keen eye the Washingtonian keeps on restaurant prices in the area. Just want to know where can we bargain-eaters look forward to in the near future. The second comment is that Bill Cosby did not propose to his wife at Ben's. That is the kind of silly gossip that flies around DC, but should not be perpetuated. Mr. Cosby brought his future wife to Ben's on dates and did a news conference at Ben's in the 80's to celebrate the success of the Cosby show. But I have not heard, nor been able to find a single credible source that says Mr. Cosby proposed at Ben's. Skip the gossip and tell us about the great bargain restaurants. Thanks. Really love the chat.

Hmm. 

I'll stand corrected, then. Or sit corrected, as the case may be — with a warm cup of coffee and an even warmer laptop. 

St.-Ex, which I mentioned above, isn't new, but it would have to qualify as one of the better options for staying under twenty bucks an entree.

Coming up?

Well, there's Central, from Michel Richard of Citronelle, which opened a few weeks ago on Pennsylvania Ave., and Brasserie Beck, from Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's, which is scheduled to launch in April.

Both are being touted as affordable dining options, which I think is slightly misleading. They're affordable in comparison with Citronelle and Marcel's, two of the most expensive restaurants in the city. Is it possible to eat at Central for under a hundred bucks? It is. But you have to watch yourself — which is hard, when so many things sound so inviting — and choose wisely.

Regardless, the new casualism is great for the city. I hope to see more of it.

Potomac, Maryland
Hi Todd, we follow your writings for the magazine. quite impressed with your list, we have tried several restaurants on your list. My wife and I recently went to Indique and were surprised that it was ranked 98th. We had a wonderful time, the food was incredible, the waiter suggested several dishes, some spicy some not. Breads were fantastic as well as the entrees. Overall a great experience. Have been to a few restaurants on your list but I think 98 was a surprise ranking for Indique. Plus we got to see the mayor of DC there. enjoy your day and keep writing

It was a surprise to us, too, in light of where it came in last year.

The opening of a second location, Indique Heights, in Chevy Chase, was a major culprit. The kitchen suffered, and the service suffered, too.

I hope they've right themselves, as you suggest. We'll see. Remember: We're just the mirror. We reflect what is.

For the moment, there are many other Indian restaurants that excite me more. 

Dividing restaurants
I see that "Palena and Palena Cafe" are #4 on your list of the top 20 restaurants. My question is why do you compartmentalize some restaurants and not others? Palena is clearly two separate dining areas/experiences from your perspective as was Galileo/Galileo Bar/Laboratorio before it was reduced to rubble for the ongoing renovations. Clearly if Palena is two separate dining rooms, then why don't you separate ALL restaurants? Restaurant Eve comes to mind. The bistro and bar are completely different from the tasting room, yet they continue to be considered as one and the same. Cityzen and the bar at Cityzen are perhaps another example. Why?

It's an interesting question.

With no easy answer.

(And actually, I hope we continue to struggle with it, because that would mean that more restaurants take the initiative to divide their operations into a formal spot and a casual one.)

Eve is a great example. And I can tell you that our assessment was based off of our visits to both the Tasting Room and the bistro. I think the prose of the review makes that clear. In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to indicate that in the header, too.

I don't think CityZen and CityZen bar belong in the same discussion. 

Alexandria, VA
Thanks Todd, I will let you know how it goes. My birthday is Monday the 29th, but we are going on Sunday to dinner. I probably will not try the Quail … but the lamb I might eat, but mint doesn't sound appealing. Do I need to branch out or what?! 🙁 Ld

Well, I know a not-so-adventurous eater who recently ate the lamb and the mint and was not at all put off.

Courage, my friend.

And forgive me for the oversight — I should've mentioned the salmon, which is one of the best dishes on the menu. Just a luscious piece of perfectly roasted fish.

Don't let the accompaniments — the names — bother you. Enjoy the bold flavors. Most of these accents are used to help, not hinder, the taste of the putative star.

Washington Dc
What is your opinion of Willow restaurant in arlington? Any can't miss dishes? This restaurant seems to be under the radar screen and I'm trying to figure out if that is justified or not.

My opinion?

It's inconsistent.

The rib-eye and the roasted chicken are probably the most reliable dishes here, along with the flatbreads and fontina-and-prosciutto fritters. And many of the desserts are keepers, including a terrific cookie plate.

When it's good, it can be good.

After all, it did make our Top 100.

But there's a sloppiness that creeps in at times. And the waitstaff isn't as warm or as knowledgeable as the softly lit, sophisticated environment would lead you to expect. 

Washington, DC
The St. Ex poster reminded me of what is most striking about this year's Best 100 Restaurants: there are a fairly large number of decent restaurants that didn't make the list. I don't think that was true a few years ago. In fact, there were quite a few sub-par restaurants that always made the list.

Good point, DC.

Many years ago, I remember seeing a lot of one-star restaurants on that list — one-star restaurants that were characterized as "expensive" or "very expensive."

It's also a matter of the changing face of the city. There are a lot of good, new restaurants out there. Competition's stiffer than ever.

Alexandria, VA
Cashion's Eat Place has gone down hill ever since Ann went to help open Johnny's. I have been to Cashion's Eat Place since she opened Johnny's and to be honest with you, I was hardly impressed. My boyfriend who works with Ann (won't mention names) agreed that the meal was sub-par and we agreed that we would not be going back. He didn't even tell Ann the next day at Johnn'ys about our meal. Basically, he lied by omission. Typical guy … anyways. I think the rating for Cashion's Eat Place is too high. There are far too many places that are better. Just my two cents worth. Todd do you think that Ann has spread herself too thin? Ld

Too high!

I love it.

Several postings ago, it was too low. Too low, too high … You know? I think the ranking is juuuust right.

I don't know if Ann Cashion has spread herself too thin, as you say, or not. But I do know that the place, while it still has its charms, is not quite what it was.

New Casualism
Hi Todd, The new casualism is nothing due to the fact that there are more and more restrictions on entertaining by lobbyist etc. – Pharmaceuticals entertaining doctors – gone (see today's washington post) . Most of these upscale places were depending on bulk of their business from people who entertain on "expense accounts" – do you agree?

Interesting subject. 

Unfortunately, I'm pressed for time, which leaves me with that old, familiar feeling, of staring at the final essay question and realizing I only have time to scribble a few lines in the blue book.

My inclination is to say: disagree.

I tend to think the new casualism is being driven by baby boomers, who now control the money and who want to be able to dress down when they eat out, and by the incredible affluence of a society that thinks nothing at all of people who choose to eat out at a restaurant four times a week. A generation ago, restaurants were happy to see you once a month. Now, they expect to see you once a week, at least.

Lookit — still scribbling, and my time is long since up.

Anyway: Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week. Same time, same bat channel …

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