Tuesday, January 30, 2007 @ 11AM

Word of Mouth …

Bar Pilar isn't really a bar, in the sense of a place where hard-working, uncoiffed folks go to drink cheap liquor and escape the judgments of the world for a few hours. It's full of earnest young men who curse one moment and talk about their "issues" the next, and put-together young women who greet each other, Euro-style, with discreet pecks on the cheeks. It's the far-from-pub-grub food that makes the place interesting: Spanish white anchovies on garlic toasts, house-pickled mackerel with thin slices of grilled bread, a sometimes-luscious confit of pork with tart grapefruit segments, soft rectangles of pan-fried polenta with blue cheese crumbles. At its best, the cooking reminds you of that friend of yours who shops at Whole Foods and keeps up with all the latest culinary trends, but who — mercifully — wants to please you more than please himself. There are misses, too, among the almost 20 small plates (overdressed beets, a not-braised-enough chicken with black eyed peas) but the prices are right (everything's around seven or eight dollars, excluding the desserts, all of which go for three bucks), the wines are affordable and interesting, and it's nice to know that two people can eat well and interestingly in the city without ever coming in sight of three digits on the bill. …

… How far has Nooshi fallen the last couple of years? The drunken noodles used to be one of the better dishes coming out of this pan-Asian kitchen in the Golden Triangle, a tangle of broad noodles capped with a few spoonfuls of ground, spiced chicken and several tears of Holy basil leaves. Now? It's no longer a noodle dish; it's a beef dish with a few noodles.  What I dug into the other day at lunch could best be described as "Asian manwich." …

… A few weeks back, I mentioned the huge and inventively flavored muffins at Muffin Man in Lanham. The cafe also turns out some of the best Jamaican food in the area, including a wonderful jerk shrimp (spooned atop the rice and peas, allowing the starches to pick up the heady mix of spices from the jerk), and a combo of goat curry and braised oxtails that tastes of the kind of long, slow, all-day cooking you long for but seldom find from many Caribbean carryouts. "Your meats … ooohhh … gives me shivers," a happy customer on his way out the other night told owners Sherrie and Rod O'Savio, who laughed and laughed. They know they have something special here, and are excited by their forthcoming expansion, which will give the all-stools cafe 100 seats come Spring. Stay tuned. …

Bebo Trattoria continues to be an uneven ride. And service has little improved since the place opened in Crystal City a couple of months ago. The pacing is either clipped and efficient — perfectly suited to helping diners who want to catch a movie, but incongruous with the notion of lingering over your meal and enjoying a bottle of one of the excellent and affordable Italian wines — or nonexistent. And the staff's arrogance tends to magnify the problems created by its ignorance. Not long ago, a waiter spilled an anchovy sauce on one of the cushions of our booth. A manager appeared, wiped the cushion off, and declaimed, "Perfect." The fishy smell did not go away, however. And one of my guests was forced to throw a napkin over the cushion to exit the seat. The same manager appeared, later, to troubleshoot a problem at dessert. The affogato we'd ordered was incomplete; the dish of vanilla ice cream, though wonderful, was missing its crowning pour of espresso. The machine, the manager said, was not working — information we might have liked to have had before placing our order. "It's half an affogato," he said, cheerily, attempting to turn a serious problem into an easy solution. Half an affogato? I remembered thinking. So, what is that? An "affo." Which also pretty much describes the service.


Indian Head, MD
What ever happened to Bish Thompson's Seafood Restaurant in Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, MD?

Bish Thompson's!

Wow, a blast from my culinary past. I haven't thought about Bish Thompson's in a long, long time.

The place hasn't been around for, I think, at least a decade. O'Donnell's is one of the last of the old-style family fish houses left, and it moved from Bethesda to Gaithersburg in the early 90s — if I'm not mistaken.

Bish Thompson used to be one of my favorite places to go — my pick for a birthday dinner when I was a little kid. I used to call it: Fish Thompson's.

I still remember having dinner in there one night with my parents and a big group of relatives when a couple of gunmen entered and made their way around the dining room, emptying wallets and claiming jewelry and watches. The weird thing was that, after they'd left, dinner resumed pretty much as normal.

Old Town Alexandria
Some very strange things going on at the Majestic Cafe. Dylan Coolidge was brought in from Portland, OR. to be head chef. Apparently he's been dismissed and is now headed somewhere else (after one week at Majestic). Bob Beaudry is off for a well-deserved vacation after taking over for Chef Joe Raffa. January 28 might be the last open day for Majestic for some time. It's hard to run a restaurant with no people in the front of the house and no chef in the kitchen. A shame that this fine restaurant might be going away.

The thing is, given its location (the heart of the tourist district of Old Town) and given its retro-styled look, it's bound to be successful, no matter what the Majestic's investors decide to do to the place.

And I think they know that.

We're not going to have a real good idea of their intentions are for a while, but all the signs, so far, are not promising.

The Majestic was far from perfect. It was a little expensive for what it was, for one thing. But it was hard not to like it. The look, of course, but also the pride and the sense of detail that the staff and the chefs brought to it. I loved eating brunch there — and I'm not really a brunch man — and I also loved the various Southern-style pies and cakes that were an essential part of any meal there. You could always count on them being good.

Eastern Market
A funny story regarding Montmartre. One Saturday night, as I was passing by, a fire broke out in the building sharing a wall with it. At least 6 fire trucks roared up, sirens blasting. Several firemen got suited up and several others unwound the fire hoses. The restaurant was full to the brim but no one got up to leave. When the firemen were ready, they took large sledge hammers and broke out all the windows. The nosie was deafening and thick black smoke billowed out. Finally a few dinners came out to see what was going on but most just stayed inside eating. I laughed and told some one that I had heard the food was really great and now I knew that it really must be.

What a great story.

You're right — shows you the power of good food — OK, and probably the power of a lot of good wine, too.

I see a theme developing already this morning, folks. Restaurant disasters. And not mishaps, either. Not oh-there's-a-fly-in-my-soup kinds of experiences. Uh uh. Epically bad nights out.

Come on, let's have 'em. 

Everybody's got one, right? One tell-the-kids story of a night out gone horribly wrong? 

I'd love to hear more …

Falls Church, VA
Hi Todd, taking a friend out as he just passed the CFA exam. Can you suggest a nice (highend or semi-highend) restaurant around the District that has a big screen TV, perhaps in the bar area. Nothing romantic of course! Any cuisine. Purpose is to watch the MD basketball game. Thanks.

My pick would be to sit at the bar at BLT Steak, the new (and expensive) Frenchified steakhouse on I St. NW

Bryan the bartender — or is it Brian? — is one of the best in town, and if he's working, I'm sure he'd do what he could to get the game up on the tube. Problem is, there's only the one TV. Best, probably, to call ahead, and ask a manager if they plan to show the game (and specify which game.)

Finding a restaurant with a TV that's tuned to the game isn't as easy as it sounds, even with the proliferation of TVs in restaurants these days. In a lot of places, CNN still reigns supreme. Of course, that's still better than finding C-SPAN on the tube. C-SPAN with the sound down, that is.

I'm often looking for a place to catch the Wizards after dinner. No easy task.

I think it's a shame that too many bartenders and managers are slow to catch on to the fact that the boys — 26-17 and atop the Eastern Conference — are entertaining and buzz worthy and ought to be getting tube priority over non-local college ball and the like.

Alexandria VA
Not a restaurant question, but a food inquiry. I grew up in Chicago, and am throwing a super bowl party this Sunday. I plan to serve Chicago style hot dogs, and am having some difficulties finding the very specific ingredients needed for a true Chicago dog. I can get the all beef, natural casing dogs, poppy seed buns, mustard, chopped onions, tomato wedges, pickle spears and celery salt. Can you or your readers, though, recommend a store that carries the neon-green sweet relish and sport peppers that round out the dog? Thanks – Go Bears!

You know, I don't. I wish I did.

But yeah — let's toss it out there and see if anybody can come through for you. Chatters?

Sounds like a fun party, Alexandria. What else are you serving to recreate a little taste of Chi-caaaa-go?

Washington DC
I am a concierge at a local hotel and recommend restaurants to my guests. Recently, my husband and I had dinner at a local restaurant. Although it was not busy ( never more than 6 tables, at very scattered places in the meal , several were finished and waiting for their checks). It took 15 minutes for us to receive the requested wine list ( We asked twice). Our 2 course meal lasted, not by our choice, for over 2 hours. We decided to bite the bullet and order dessert, even though it added a full hour to our meal. At no time did anyone ask us if we wanted another bottle of wine, even though we were finished with our first one for quite a while. The were more staff members wandering around than customers, but none of them seemed to have any idea what they were supposed to do and thus did nothing. No extra bread, no water refills. The food was interesting but not enough to make up for the service. To top it off, they knew who I was.I left feeling that the restaurant just didn't get it . I was very disappointed as I had really hoped to like the restaurant, but after the disasterous evening I really do not dare to recommend it to my guests. Imagine my surprise to see this restaurant in the top 40 of your 100 best while the Tabard Inn, which is one of my favorite restaurants and always receives glowing reviews from my guests was way down in the 90's. It really gives me some "food for thought" regarding your list and how useful it can be to me. ( in the past I've used it religiously).

Funny thing is, I've heard many of these same complaints about the Tabard Inn.

It's often hard to take the measure of a place. And especially when you're trying to take that measure in a single night. That's one reason why, as critics, we visit these restaurants as many times as we do.

Anybody can have an off night. Who knows what happened earlier that day, or is happening that night, to throw things off. It's easy to assume that because a place isn't busy, it ought to be functioning as smooth as clockwork. But that's not always the case.

We're all looking for "sure things" when we go out to eat.

But I tend to think that you're more likely to find those kinds of guarantees at the good ethnic restaurants, which have very little turnover, are often family operations, and seldom change their menus.

At the white tablecloth level, among places that take risks and trot out new dishes every couple of weeks, that kind of rock-bottom consistency is becoming, I think, rarer and rarer.

You do find it more often, however, at places that are more cautious, culinarily speaking, and unlikely to take chances.

Washington, DC
" A good night gone bad" – I feel it is important to share when good service turns bad and the management kills the experience (Sonoma, Cap Hill) Saturday A week ago last Saturday night a small group of friends and I went to Sonoma for dinner. After numberous bar visits to check the place out, my girlfriend and I decided why not have a little dinner party at Sonoma. We made reservations for 8:45 (we not seated until 9:30) and enjpyed cocktails on the second floor while we waited. Dinner was good, not great and the wine was nice. Overall, the dining experience was fine; until the bill came. My party was a party of six and gratuity was added. I was surprised but not mad as the 18% was less than we were ready to offer (server's loss). As there were three couples, three credit cards were used. We wrote clearly the last four digits of the cards on the back of the bill with an amount to be added for each. The server took them away and came back with totals not reflective of what we wrote. We kindly clarified what we thought was already clear (our server as apparently an AGM) and he ran them again. This time the totals matched our request. We settled out and went on our way. Monday The real burn occured Monday morning while checking my account for the weekends transactions. I had not one, not two, but four seperate charges from Sonoma. I contacted Sonoma via their web site and within a few hours I had their management looking into the issue. Shortly thereafter my servers (also and AGM) called me and we concluded the phone with what I thought was a clear resolution. All charges were to be dropped and a mutually agreed upon price was to be included to cover dinner and gratuity. Tuesday The next morining I found not only had an incorrect charge been applied but the four charge holds resulted in my account putting me into the negative. I contacted Sonoma once again to explain the issue and they requested documentation supporting my claim. I asked for an appropriate fax and never received one. I waited half the day with now reply and found on my own a fax number to their event coordinator. Wednesday Having received little attention from Sonoma at this point I asked my tip be stricken from the charge, I called out the multiple errors from the server and asked for immediate attention. At this point all correspondence was occuring through the managers blackberry and my work account I was returned with a demand to cease attacking his servers (which I did not) and to discuss the issue face-to-face. Additionally, I was directed to direct all further emails through a generic [email protected] address. Needless to say, my patience was through. I quickly replied that I would in fact stop in to resolve this issue. When I did so later that day, the only management available was the AGM who was my server on the night in question. I discussed the issue with him and he informed me he had been removed from the resolution process. Thursday I notified Sonoma management of my previous night's visit and no GM. The reponse I recieved is as follows," Do not contact my staff as they are not authorized to discuss this matter with you or anyone for security reasons. This is my fourth (actually third) and final request to you on this subject.All inquiries to be sent to info@sonomadc.com. You will be advised when your matter has been been processed fully". This was not the response I was looking for as I had no control of who was working the door and I was specificly requested to come into the restaurant to discuss the issue. Not knowing who would be receiving email from the generic address I recapped the entire process and asked for understanding as it was me who was the vicitm and not Sonoma. Having felt slighted by Sonoma I copied all email correspondance to her sister restaurant Mendicino asking for help. Result – nothing. Friday Too burnt out on the week I did not contact Sonoma. Saturday I noticed money had been credited to my account correcting the previously agreed price but no correspondence on what else was to occur. I once again respectfully requested an email, phone call, and/or fax explaining hoe Sonoma was going to fully right the situation. Monday. I have received an email from Sonoma's contract specialist stating my account will be refunded for the dinner in full with no apology, explaination, or acceptance of not providing even satisfactory customer service. I told told however that the manager I had been so unsuccessfully dealing with was on an, "extreme para-ski-hunting in Idaho and unable to check his emails." Apparently my vicitmization had interfered with his extreme sports trip planning. It's so sad that a place which I had previously raved over could turn me so quickly. As the above illustrates, I can not simply let this go. As someone who has been in the restaurant business for 10+ years, I am embarrased and disgusted for such pretentious management. Thank you for your time in reading this.

I wonder if the folks from Sonoma and Mendocino Grille are following along and are willing to chime in with their side of the story?

We'll run long this week if we need to … 

annandale va
Todd: I have very serious concerns about what is happening at Le Gaulois Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. First the food — beef stroganoff with a single mushroom and roasted potates added directly to the meat — more potatoes than meat at $15.95. The person sitting next to me couldn't eat it. Her daughter's leg of lamb was fatty and $16.00. This dish was formerly $11.25 less than two months ago. She also did not finish her meal. The old standby's are disappearing and the prices are skyrocketing -.mussels that were formerly $5.75 are now $9.25. Chicken livers at dinner are a whopping $18.25 (my husband and I ate liver during the lean years of our marriage. An omelet is $12. Forget about dessert. Two deserrts that were $6.95 are now $10.25 – higher than many NYC restaurants. The new chef seems more interested in making money than good food. He uses cheaper cuts of meat i.e., chicken leg, Trout, and liver. Grilled garlic sausage over sauerkraut and a boiled potato was priced at $14.95. One can buy Aidell's sausage at a quarter the price. I notice new silverware and plates. I deeply resent having to pay for new items that seem unnecessary . I could go on and on, but I would like this complaint taken seriously because I have loved this restaurant for many years. I hope you will review Le Gaulois in the very near future.

I'm keeping my eye on Le Gaulois, don't you worry.

It's an interesting situation this longstanding place now finds itself in. The new ownership group feels the need to modernize, in order to keep up with the times and the changing expectations of a new generation of diners. Yet too many changes are, as you suggest, going to alienate its many loyal and devoted customers.

Be interesting to see how things play out over the next year. 


Baltimore, MD
My husband and I will be in DC next month for dinner and are curious about a good place for coffee and dessert in DC and/or Alexandria/Arlington should we decide to bypass dessert at the restaurant. Ideally it would be open a little later so we're not rushing. My husband fancies himself a dessert "expert" (he prefers if restaurants have a pastry chef kind of "expert"). Thanks Todd.

You want to get yourself over to a place called Buzz, on Slaters Lane in Alexandria.

It's owned and operated by a former restaurant pastry chef, Lisa Scruggs, and offers plated desserts in addition to a number of excellent bakery goods — including what I think are, right now, the best cupcakes in the area.

Tenleytown, DC
Epically bad experience–I was in a BBQ restaurant near Atlanta, GA (can't remember the name now–nothing too high-end) and a family across the restaurant was dining with two younger children (maybe 6 or 8). Right while I was putting the first or second bite of food in my mouth–and while simultaneously happening to glance at the children), the younger child vomits. Agressively. All over their table. The parents, trying to do the right thing, immediately grab the kid and head for the restroom. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but to get the kid into the restroom, they have to walk past several other tables. Along the way, the kid throws up again, hitting at least two other tables, the floor, and maybe even a diner or two. I have no idea what the kid ate (well, some idea, based on what I saw), but the amount, the intensity, and (worst of all) the odor of his puking was stunning. So what do you do when you are enjoying a nice meal and this happens? You stop eating. Pretty much everybody that saw it, heard it, and then smelled it lost their appetite. The restaurant was one of those pay-first, pick up your food places, so they didn't have to comp anybody (nor should they have–not their fault). But even though it wasn't their fault, it was months before we went back. Thanks for the memories…


Now THAT'S a classic!

Beautifully told, too.

Although, as we're approaching the lunch hour, I've got to imagine that there are a whole lot of angry choggers out there …

Alexandria, VA
RE: BLT steak, is this the DC restaurant that is serving actual Kobe beef?

That's the one.

Actual Kobe beef — at actual Kobe beef prices.

If you want to sample the real deal, the melt-in-your-mouth beef that other restaurants have been lying about serving for years and years, then you'd better be prepared to pay the price: It's $130 for a five-ounce serving.

I say good for BLT Steak for having the Kobe.

But shame on them for advertising on a signboard in the restaurant that it costs $26 an ounce without making it clear to customers that they must order a minimum of five ounces.

Falls Church, VA
To say that my husband is not an adventurous eater would be an understatement, couple that with the fact that he is ultra concerned with the cleanliness of eating establishments (he reads the paper to see where there have been health code violations/shut downs), and we don't get out to many of the more exciting (for me) ethnic restaurants . I am dying to try Pho, can you recommend somewhere in or around Falls Church, or anywhere really, that would not offend my husbands sensibilities? Thank you!

Opposites attract?

I understand that a Pho 88 just opened in Falls Church. Now, I don't yet know if this is an extension of the Pho 88 in Beltsville, but if it is, then you're in luck, because the Pho 88 in Beltsville — which made the most recent Cheap Eats list — is one of the cleanest, brightest pho parlors I've been to.

Also one of the best. The broth, here, is richer than most, and for me, everything comes down to the broth when you're talking about the dish they call the "Vietnamese penicillin."

If you go and check it out, be sure to report back and let me — sorry: us — know how it turned out.

The owner of Pho 88 in Beltsville is Allan Tan, so if you see him or see his card, you'll know that it's a branch of the original. 

Washington, DC
I've been craving some rich, buttery english scones with devonshire cream and lemon curd (In my neighborhood at home, there's a traditional english tea room, complete with overstuffed, loudly apholstered armchairs, mismatched cups and saucers, and a few fat cats lazing around–like your eccentric great aunt's parlor). Aside from high tea at the Four Seasons or the Ritz, is there anywhere I can get good scones around here? I'm not exactly missing the newly trans-fat banned scones at Starbuck's, but even those would have been a good stand-in for the real thing.

Ooooh, that does sound good now, doesn't it? Especially on a cold, blustery day.

Other than the Four Seasons, though, I'm drawing a blank.

A lot of the scones that are sold at the big, commercial bakeries aren't really scones — or not in the sense that you're talking about, the rich, buttery kind that crumble delicately at the first bite.

I wish I had an answer, if only because now I'm jonesing for one myself.

If I think of anything, I'll be sure to tell you about it next week. And anybody out there who has a recommendation, just go ahead and drop me a line — tkliman@washingtonian.com — or post a comment on the chat for next week.

And let's have more of those epically disastrous restaurant stories, please.

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