Tuesday, February 20, 2007 @ 11AM

Tasting Notes … 

I’ve never been all that big a fan of the original Nage in Rehoboth Beach, which always seemed to me to be trying too hard with each and every dish it sent out from the kitchen. It’s the culinary equivalent of the little girl who wanders into mommy’s closet and tries on every piece of clothing and jewelry she can get her hands on. No single effect will do; every dish must send the diner into three or four or five different directions. The opening of a second restaurant off Thomas Circle hasn't curbed those tendencies any. Too bad, because, as some of the simpler dishes show (a potato and seafood soup, a seared tuna sandwich), a dialed-back approach could yield dividends. …

… I was thrilled to stumble upon Caramelo Bakery in my recent explorations in Wheaton. This is a small Venezuelan-style panaderia and pasteleria, with such Latin sweet staples as tres leches cake and guava tarts. The heart of the place, though, is its selection of Venezuelan pastries, which include wonderful, oblong-shaped, cinnamon-and-sugar donuts filled with a pineapple-flavored custard and tiny, scallop-edged pastry shells piped with a rich, almost fudgey dulce de leche. Can't wait to return for more. …

… U St. is dense with nightspots, but one of the most likeable and lowkey has got to be Selam, a cozy, low-ceilinged space with a curving bar and a slender, short, fierce-eyed owner whose personality fills the room. His name is Haile Gheresus – or, as he likes to be called, “Kuchi.” Kuchi has six children, and they help him out at the restaurant when they can. In the kitchen, though, it’s a one-man show. Kuchi is the cook, and that same big-heartedness shows up in the heaping portions of sharply spiced Eritrean stews that are spooned out onto the platter-sized round of injera. The place fills many needs: It’s open for breakfast, for plates of eggs and yogurt. It stays open until 1:30 on weeknights, ideal for a drop-by after a game or a play or a movie or a concert. And it’s a community gathering place at all hours of the day. Kuchi lives above the restaurant, but it’s clear that Selam is his home. On my way out the other night after dinner, I thanked him for his hospitality and generosity. He stopped me at the door, insisting it was too cold to go home without “a shot.” I told him thank you, but to no avail: He pulled me by the arm toward the bar and had his son pour me a drink. Thank you, Kuchi. U St. could stand a few more spots like Selam. …

Alexandria, VA
Saturday night I went to Restaurant Kolumbia (1801 K St., NW). I met the Chef Jamie Stachowski and his wife Carolyn (restaurant GM). Carolyn mentioned that they are having a hard time bringing in a dinner crowd. Her conclusion was that after people leave the city for work, they don't want to return for dinner, which makes perfect sense to me. After my dinner, I did some research to see what other diners experienced. Most of the comments of others were not very positive, but I didn't experience poor service or anything that would lead me to believe that someone would not return. On the contrary, the Chef provided a huge tasting board of all of his specialties, complimentary. My friends were very impressed. Of course, everyone in the restaurant industry knows you … so you would receive much better treatment. What is your take on this place? They are in the 100's Best, so you must think something good …
First of all, let me say right off: When I visit restaurants, I always do so anonymously. I don't give my name, and I don't announce my presence. So let's squelch that notion right there, that I always receive preferential treatment when I go out to eat.

Occasionally, I am spotted, yes. But you would be surprised at just how often I am treated dismissively or rudely or negligently. For instance — my recent visits to Bebo, which you can read about in the March issue.

As to Restaurant Kolumbia … Yeah, I like the place. It's not perfect, no. And there is an undeniable tension at work here, of trying on the one hand to service the expense-account crowd that dominates K St. and, on the other, still do the kind of personal cooking that Chef Stachowski wants to do (pierogis, charcuterie, etc.). But as I said, I like it, and wonder what would become of it if it were suddenly freed from the sterile canyons of K St. At heart, this is a mom-and-pop.

It's interesting the answer that Carolyn gave you, as to why they're having a hard time bringing in a dinner crowd. The city is not what it was ten, fifteen years ago. People are coming into the city to eat and go to shows and listen to music. Downtown is hopping.

K St., not so much. And that's because K St. isn't a culture zone. Nobody thinks of it as an attraction for restaurants or bars or clubs. It's an odd place for a mom-and-pop.

Penn Quarter
Looks like Oyamel reopens February 23 for dinner! What to try?
At the "old" Oyamel, I often found that the simpler things — the least fanciful-sounding dishes — were the way to go.

The disappointments for me always came with the plates that promised lusciousness — a lamb shank cooked in parchment, say, or a duck with rose petal sauce. I wanted to love the oxtail tacos, but they were, in the end, a bit too clean for me, too refined.

I'll be curious to see if the new, re-jiggered Oyamel, with new chef Joe Raffa (ex-Majestic Cafe) at the helm, has learned a lesson or two since leaving Crystal City.

Capitol Hill, DC
Any suggestions for the best in the city to get a big old plate of nachos?
Good question!

You know? This is tougher than it ought to be.

I used to be a fan of the nachos at the first Austin Grill, in Glover Park — a big old messy delicious plate of chips, black beans, pico, and not-too-gooey Colby cheese. Unfortunately, the original Grill is no more.

Rio Grande makes a pretty mean plate of nachos — but they're in Bethesda.

If memory serves, Old Glory, in Georgetown, does a pretty good job with its version of nachos — and you can get it topped with pulled pork.

It's been a while since I've dug into a plate of nachos — and dug into one within city limits — and I'd be interested in hearing other suggestions. Anyone?

By the way, I just want to elaborate on those technical difficulties — in case anyone is wondering why the responses are coming so slowly today.

The short answer: We still haven't solved the problem.

Basically, what's happening is this: An intern is emailing me your questions, and I'm routing them back to her, and then she's entering them into the system, one at a time. It's time-consuming and oddly antiquarian, but I just didn't want to cancel today's chat, and I appreciate everyone's patience in following along with us. Thank you, and keep those questions coming. We may not get to them all today — in fact, I doubt we will at this rate — but it's nice to know that you all haven't bailed on us. : )

Restaurant Culture
Much was made of the fact that two African American coaches faced each other in the Superbowl. There can be no doubt about the historical import and implications of two black coaches in the biggest sporting event in the country. However, the more significant point of Tony Dungee and Lovie Smith coaching in the Superbowl is that both of these coaches have eschewed the militaristic, boot camp drill sergeant mentality of running a football team. They have clearly proven that there is a management approach that does not involve abhorrent behavior and can yield the highest results. Restaurateurs would be wise to heed that message. Too many chefs and owners have been reared in kitchens and dining rooms run by less than benevolent tyrants. As they ascend from line-cook, to executive chef, or from junior manager to general manager, this repugnant style of management becomes their own. Rarely is the cycle broken. In few professions – sports, and restaurants being notable exceptions – would it be acceptable to threaten employees with violence, throw a clipboard or plate, or berate one’s staff publicly and with as much venom as can be mustered. At best, this is emotional terrorism and felonious assault at worst. Both the dining public and restaurant employees bear culpability for this behavior. We happily lap up the stories of abusive coaches/chefs and their “antics” as shown on ESPN or regaled over drinks at the end of a shift. We laugh at the “eccentricities” of many great chefs almost suggesting that occasionally grotesque behavior is a fair trade for learning from their genius or enjoying the fruits of their work. Dungee and Smith have both declared pride in the fact that they “don’t yell or curse”. While I am sure that there are chefs who can make the same claim, I just haven't worked with them. Dungee and Smith’s approach is in the minority among their colleagues. Yet they met in the Superbowl, and a different management style won.
Your missive begs the question: Who, pray tell, have you worked for? ; )

Beautifully thoughtful commentary, by the way — and I couldn't agree with you more. The interesting thing about both men isn't the fact that they're African-American; the interesting thing is that they're not bullying brutes in the mold of a Parcells or a Buddy Ryan or a Bobby Knight. They're exceedingly decent, integrity-filled men

They're also exceptions to the rule.

The Parcellses, the Knights, the Gordon Ramseys — they may not be the norm, but they do garner more than their fair share of attention. It's too bad. But antics like this are good copy.

I've worked for bullying, blustery editors — editors who think that abuse is management, or some kind of form of motivation, and that the workplace is best understood as a kind of boot camp. It takes courage to realize that it's all just shtick.

Washington, DC
Macaroni and cheese is my favorite food. Where can I find the best?
Well, it all depends on what style of mac-and-cheese you're looking for.

If you're looking for something down-and-dirty, something gooey and luscious and with no pretense of being anything more than good ol' homecooking, then I'd hit the soul food kitchen Oohhs & Aahhs, on U St. Or the soul food restaurant Flavors, in Falls Church.

For something more refined — a better quality cheese, a perfectly cooked noodle — then you'll want to head on over to Vidalia, on M St.

Personally, I prefer the more down-and-dirty varieties, but that's not to say the upscale Southern version at Vidalia is bad. It's not. It's actually quite good.

To me, though, mac-and-cheese is home cooking. Something best kept simple.

Washington, DC
Hi Todd, I really miss good frittes–crispy on the outside, almost a creamy potato on the inside. I loved the frittes at Rudy's, the best dive bar in New Haven, CT. But now that I'm in DC, all I can find are wispy little bits of crunch or large potato wedges. Any suggestions for cheap frittes with good dipping sauces? Many thanks! -Hot Potato
Fries with dipping sauces? Can't help you there.

But …

For cheap fries, I love the ones at Red, Hot and Blue in Laurel. They're exceptionally crispy — you can hear the crunch from the next table. They're also really, really cheap. They make a great side dish, along with the corn salad, for a plate of pulled pork and chicken or ribs, or a pulled pork sandwich.

Less cheap, but even better, are the fries at the new Michel Richard Central. The true measure of any fry is how good it is after it's no longer hot. Central's fries are not only good cold. They're even good when they've gone damp, as I discovered when I pulled a cold, slightly soggy leftover fry from a bag and popped it into my wife's mouth one night at home a few weeks ago. She reached into the bag for more. Soon enough, we were fighting over the remainders.

College Park, MD
They got great frites at Poste.

The staff is fond of telling diners that they're even more delicious if you opt to have a little truffle oil drizzled on top. Good, but not necessary. These are terrific fries all by themselves.

Mount Pleasant, DC
I've also got a suggestion for fries and dipping sauces. While they may not be the best fries in the world, I am a fan of the fries at Amsterdam Falafelshop in adams morgan…crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and they have a appealing golden color…they really are good. (so are the falafels..) And the dipping sauces are tasty too, dutch mayo, ketchup, and a spicy peanut sauce that is realllly good. you should try it.
Yes, yes, of course. And they go down beautifully with that Dutch mayo.

My biggest complaint about them is the price — $3.50 for a cup of fries?

Old Town Alexandria: Big ol’ plat o’ na cho’
Chadwicks in Old Town. It's a mountain of sinfulness!
Thanks for chiming in, Old Town. Definitely have to check that out next time I'm in Alexandria.

But what's this with sinfulness? Too Puritanical for my blood. Nothing but nothing about food is EVER sinful. Good food, that is. Honest food. Bad food? Bad food is an abomination.

Columbia Heights, DC
Todd! I've been craving me some good Caribbean food with this cold weather. I'm tired of my usual spots like Negril and Tropicana. Do you have any recommendations? Thanks. Love the chats, and please please please keep rooting out these out of the way places for us.
I like a place called Caribbean Sea, which is on New Hampshire Ave., just south of East-West Highway in Maryland.

This is an all-seafood place (it sells seafood in a ice-filled case up front) and the curries are strong and spicy and full of depth. The bill can get up there, especially if you go in for the Deviled Lobster, but you can also find the (more gently priced) likes of shrimp curry and crab cakes. Good stuff.

You'll also find a good-sized appetizer of assertively spiced, peel-and-eat steamed shrimp. I know, I know. It's not exactly what you think of when you think of Caribbean cooking. But you'd be foolish to not get yourself a plate when you go.

That's all, folks.

What a morning — and early afternoon. Thanks for sticking around. And thanks for your questions and your patience through all this fits and starts.

Eat well, be well, and let's meet back here again next week — with, we all hope, a kinks-free chat …