Tuesday, February 27, 2007 @ 11AM

Word of Mouth …

I don't think there's a better place to unwind after a long day than the bar at Kinkead's. The crowd is up for a good time, and the steep prices notwithstanding, the atmosphere is unpretentious and even boisterious. You can have the full menu at the bar, but sometimes I just want a platter of the chef's pick of oysters — which recently included, among others, a selection of crisp Malpeques, plump, some sweet Chef's Creek, and a few sweet, cucumbery Sunset Beaches. The longtime barmen, quick to eavesdrop and just as quick to chime in with a quip, lend the place the touch of an Irish bar. They also keep a busy place running smoothly, and mix an incomparably smooth Manhattan. …

… If ever there were a place that was defined by a single dish, it's Matchbox. I know there's more to the place than just mini-burgers — among them, the smart, well-dressed salads and overambitious but still tasty personal pizzas — but the last couple of times I've dropped by with friends before or after a game we've started with a round of the burgers and some drinks. Take the edge off, the thinking went, and then order up a proper meal. Each time, we never got much past the first round. The burgers — which look like flesh-and-blood versions of the fun-size, plasticky toys you see in those home-ec aspirational games that little girls like to play — are as good as ever, with their uber-buttery brioche buns and their thick, unapologetically charred patties. They're buried, as usual, under a hail of salty, crunchy shoestring fries. …

… Standing at the hostess stand at The Occidental not long ago, a friend and I were perplexed by the ordering of formal portraits of recent U.S. presidents that graced the wall. The order went, from left to right: Reagan, Bush the Elder, Bush the Younger, Clinton, Carter. Turns out, the arrangement is meant to be ideological, and something of a conversation starter. Smack in the center of the lineup is the current president, she explained. To his right are his Republican predecessors, to his left his Democratic ones. Clever, huh? For some reason, I was reminded of all those times that politicians attempt to tell a joke a public, and bomb — coming across only as stiff and earnest and self-involved caricatures. The cooking, with chef Rodney Scruggs at the helm, does not bomb. It's not particularly memorable, certainly not more memorable than the lame conceptual joke of the entryway portraits, and there's an almost focus-grouped caution to some of these dishes — as befits an expense-account place a short walk from the White House. But there are highlights, too: house cured salmon with a drizzle of basil oil, a trio of perfectly seared fat scallops, and a plate called "Ivy's Pig in the Blanket" that tastes like an upmarket version of an Eastern European cabbage roll. …

… When it's good, Central Michel Richard is very good: The gougeres — which taste like miniature popovers ramped up with lots of good, salty cheese — are the perfect appetizer, the “faux” gras (which dispenses with fattened duck liver in favor of chicken liver and butter whipped together) makes for an addictive, fine-spun mousse to spread on toast; and the fried oysters are a marvel of frying, a shatteringly crunchy hand-breaded exterior encasing a sweet, still-saltwatery bivalve. When it's bad — well, it's still better than 90% of what you can find in the city, but you wonder what might have been. A recent order of lamb shank, served atop a super-creamy polenta that is virtually indistinguishable from the super-creamy whipped potatoes that side the fried chicken, was tender but also stringy and surprisingly dull. The fried chicken, had it not slipped free of its jacket of herbed and breaded crunch, would have been a killer dish. The surprisingly straightforward, no-tricks banana split seems like some sort of inside joke — ha ha, a four-star chef serving up a nostalgic taste of a sundae! But so far, the joke's on the customer: The ice creams are good, but the four sauces are unnecessary, and the whole thing never quite approaches the over-the-top lusciousness you want from of a banana split.


Washington, DC
We would like to celebrate the 40th birthday of one of my best friends and are looking for a restaurant that is relatively reasonable in price, but has good food and a nice atmosphere for a group of 10 or so. We would rather be in a place where we do not have to scream at each other across the table, but it does not have to be a private table. We thought of Maggiano's, but I wanted to see if there were any other ideas out there. Any suggestions? Thanks a lot!

Here's the thing: Maggiano's isn't really THAT cheap, not when all is said and done.

If I were you, I'd think about a place like Circle Bistro, in the West End — which made our recent edition of the 100 Best restaurants in the area. The prices are moderate, the atmosphere is relaxed and casual, and the cooking, under the direction of chef Brendan Cox, has soul.

Soul. Hm. More restaurants might want to look into that.


Washington, DC
We have always loved the mini-burgers and pizzas at Matchbox (in Chinatown) and have been regulars since it opened. It seemed like the perfect place to host a semi-private event. Unfortunately, we were treated terribly by the special events manager and the wait staff and left feeling very disappointed by the service as a whole. One week prior to the event, management changed the terms of the contract in a way that was very unfavorable to the hosts and the guests (after painful negotiations). During the event, all of the wait staff rushed the 20 guests through the entire meal and demanded one form of payment per table. As the host, they kept pulling me aside to discuss how quickly I could get the guests out of there and the payment plans, preventing me from celebrating my fiancé's 30th birthday and from entertaining our guests. After the event, we realized that we were charged 20% gratuity not only for the food and drinks we consumed, but also for the gift certificate they issued for not meeting a minimum guarantee (the 20%was later refunded). While it used to be our favorite restaurant, the horrible management and rushed service left a bad taste in our mouth and none of the 20 guests are eager to return.

Sorry to hear that, DC.

I'd be interested in hearing what Matchbox has to say. Can we get a manager or owner to chime in? Operators are standing by …



Bethesda, MD
Todd, Just wanted to let you know that you are doing a great job. The January 2007 Best Restaurants was excellent, the monthly Washingtonian is producing superb reviews and fine additional features and your dedication to finding smaller gems is appreciated. No, not your mother– but I'd written in to criticize your January 2006 Best Restaurants format and wanted to let you know how much I've enjoyed everything that has appeared since. As well, I continue to find the Washingtonian's restaurant reviews more balanced and reliable than the Washington Post's. Keep up the fine work!

Not my mother. 'Cause I was about to say …

Thanks for the kind words, Bethesda. I can tell you, we're working hard, and we take this stuff seriously — without, of course, taking ourselves too seriously.

Finding the "smaller gems," as you call them, is a mission of mine. To me, it's where a critic earns his stripes. Plus, it's just a lot of fun to make those discoveries, to ferret out deliciousness where you'd least expect to find it.

Involves a lot of not-so-good eating along the way, but hey … 

Since you're a regular reader, and since you show yourself to be pretty balanced of mind, what kinds of things would you like to see more of? Less of? 

Washington, DC
Todd, For our anniversary, I'm thinking of treating my wife to a weekend at the Inn at Easton, complete with dinner on Saturday night. From what you know of the Inn, would you recommend the experience? Also, can you recommend something else nearby for dinner on Friday night and/or lunch Saturday and Sunday? Thanks.

I would. I have.

The Inn at Easton made our recent 100 Best — and landed in the Top 20.

A stay at the Inn itself, nice as it is, is expensive — around $500 a night, unless you get a package. I love the not-frilly, not-self-consciously-quaint atmosphere, love that you can stay at a place that looks modern and sleek, but that's an awful lot to fork over to get it.

Unfortunately, I don't know the surrounding scene as well as I'd like, aside from a couple of diners and ice cream shops. I'm curious about Talbot 208, but have yet to go.

Choggers? Can you help an anniversary man out? 


Falls Church
Todd you know how you take complaints about restaurants, food service etc. etc..? I was wondering who can I complain to about your chats being sooooooo slow?

That would be me, Falls Church. Thanks to the new (but not necessarily improved) technology we have in place, I'm the host as well as the producer now.

No one screens the questions coming in, as before. I do that. So I have to pick and choose the questions myself. And cut and paste the questions and answers. And give them a quick proofing.

All of which, in part, accounts for the time between answers.

Also, I tend to look for interesting questions that will let me write and riff and go off on tangents, as opposed to just answering questions about service snafus and recommendations for a place that will host a large party on a Friday night. And those long replies take time.

(Note: I did not say I don't want to take questions about service snafus and recommendations. I do. Please don't stop sending them along. I just don't want the chat to become overrun with them.)

I do the best I can, wearing two hats.

Maybe someday soon we can get me a producer and a new technology that would allow for speedier replies.

Anyway, a guy can dream …


Washington, DC
I love your restaurant chats and think they are the perfect compliment to your print coverage. Have you ever considered sponsoring a weekly wine chat as well?


Interesting idea, DC. What do you envision, exactly?

I'm wondering if there would be enough interest, and enough discussion — enough of something TO discuss — to sustain a weekly chat. 

Bethesda, MD
Loved the article in this month's issues on the recent woes with high-level grade tuna. With no issue to expense, what would be the top two or three restaurants in the area that you would go to yourself right now to get your sushi fix, tuna or no tuna?

I'm glad you liked the piece. 

For those of you who haven't yet read it, I spent the past year eating tuna everywhere I got the chance — in DC, Maryland and Virginia, in New York, in Charleston, in Philly, and wherever else I traveled. In sushi bars, and in high-end American restaurants.

The state of tuna is sad and depressing, thanks to rampant overfishing and the dubious practices that have emerged to try to satisfy the demand (freezing, injecting the fish with dyes, etc.)

Tuna has gone from being an obscurity — remember, twenty years ago tuna was tuna fish — to being democratized to the point of ubiquity. These days, with tuna everywhere, the reality is that the only really good tuna is the tuna served at the very highest levels.

That's not just the case at sushi bars, either. That goes for any restaurant.

Anyway, to answer your question, Bethesda: I still think Sushi-Ko is the best in the area for sushi. And it's not unaffordable. But its tuna is getting there. Recently, they were paying $29 a pound for farmraised bluefin tuna from Europe. Farmraised, not wild. Two or three years ago, Russell Gravatt, one of the owners, told me that they were paying $22 for wild bluefin.

For the best piece of tuna I ate in the area all year, you'd have to go to the Inn at Little Washington — where the Hawaiian big-eye is served carpaccio-style as part of an appetizer called Fire and Ice, or seared and presented as the luxurious capper of a dish called Tuna Pretending to be Filet Mignon.

But the cost, the cost. You can only have it these as part of the fixed price menu, which is $168 dollars per person on a Saturday night. 


lincoln park
Help!! Is there anywhere is this city to find a fantastic coq au vain? My bf is from Belgium and craving it just like his mom makes… would love to surprise him and take him somewhere. Any ideas?

A fantastic coq au vin?


I haven't even found a really good coq au vin.

Has anyone?

Friendship Heights
Hi there! Any word when Sushi-ko will open at Wisconsin Circle? I'm very excited for its arrival. Thanks!

They're saying April. Which may mean May.

The new place, by the way, will be big — with seating for 200. And the kitchen, under the direction of Koji Terano, will go straight on through from lunch to dinner, a rarity among sushi places. So those of us who are looking for a taste of uni and sake at 3 in the afternoon, won't have to go without.

Reston, VA
Funny you don't find the new technology an improvement while US News & World Report, New York Magazine and the New York Times all see the new site as a vast improvement to a tiny backwater publication. Farewell. Chris Bradley

Wasn't talking about the overall site. Was talking about the technology that relates to the chats. Which, to me, is definitely better in some ways than the old technology. And in some ways, not as good. Hence, as I said: "not necessarily improved."

I wish you and your bride the best of luck in New York, Chris.

Fairfax, VA
Have you heard about this restaurant/bar/lounge in Fairfax City–Rain? I assumed it was some college hangout because I always see a long line there at night, but I stopped in after work and was a pleasantly surprised. The chicken asiago was amazing! What are your feelings on this place?

I have no feelings. I haven't been.

But I can tell you that you're the second person today to rave about the chicken asiago.

C'mon, people — let's go for the trifecta!

Alexandria VA
We have a girlfriend coming from NYC this weekend and would like to do dinner in DC. She's a vegetarian that eats seafood, so we're looking for a moderately priced seafood restaurant in the city, perferably one with a mid-atlantic or southern bent. Any suggestions? Thanks! BTW – I'm the person that was having a Chicago style superbowl party. Although I couldn't find all of the ingredients for a true chicago dog, my guests loved them! Almost all of our guests took the plunged and dressed their dogs Chicago style – though some claimed the hot dog was then too big for them and ate it with a knife and fork.

Thanks for the dog update, Alexandria.

And for you and your pescatarian girlfriend, I'm going to recommend Pesce, on P St. in Dupont Circle. Not a Southern bent, and not really a mid-Atlantic one, either — although you might find something like shad, that glorious regional specialty, on the menu this weekend.

Pesce, to me, has always been a gestalt place. It's not any one thing that stands out. But the service, the atmosphere, the quality of the ingredients, the charm of the chalkboard with its daily handwritten specials … all add up to something fine and good.

Washington, DC
What's your take on the Bruni/Chodorow battle in NYC?

Well, it's not a battle — not yet. Bruni hasn't fired back, and likely won't.

I can respect someone who wants a chance to respond to what he perceives as a bashing, but I thought the Chodorow letter showed him to be a petty vindictive narcissistic megalomaniac.

If you want the critic to stop taking shots at you, then stop opening garish over-conceptualized places with sloppy and ridiculously overpriced food.

lincoln park
thanks for such an honest answer…. it was the answer i was afraid i was going to get :(…………. im going to just have to try and make it myself, even though it won't be perfect i'll get points for trying!

You mean, the answer about the Inn at Easton?

I'm confused. 

Washington DC
re: Fairfax, VA hahahhahahahahhahahahahahahhahahahahahahahaha

Well, okay, if you're not going to, then I may as well do it myself:

The chicken asiago at Rain is to die for! 

Washington, DC
Todd, Did you happen to see the piece on amateur food bloggers in the NYT recently? It really struck a nerve, as I've been peeved by the phenomenon of bloggers, who may not have any qualifications or deep knowledge of food or the restaurant industry, receiving special treatment just because they have a camera phone and a website. I guess everyone's entitled to his or her opinion, but I wish people would leave it to the seasoned critics, who can speak much more eloquently and accurately on the subject. That saying "everyone's a critic" isn't new, but the proliferation of amateur food bloggers bugs me. Do you have an opinion?

I did see it. Interesting piece.

I don't see anything wrong with people expressing their opinions about restaurants in their blogs or whatever. It's just like anything else: A handful of them are good. Most of them are bad. (The majority of them can't write, unfortunately. Some of them who think they can write, overwrite.)

My thing is, you don't have to read them if you don't want. Nobody's imposing them on you.

What I find disheartening is this wanting to be an insider — this panting after the inner sanctum. A lot of them want access, and they find it, easily. They get invited to press dinners, and get feted with drinks and food, and then of course more invitations follow. Seldom if ever do they disclose these freebies. And seldom if ever do they disclose their affiliations and friendships.

And their writing is directed to others on the inside. When it's good, it crackles with aliveness, but when it's not, it feels indulgent and incestuous.

The best writing, whatever it is, comes from knowing a subject intimately but then writing about it from the outside. I always think it's best for writers to cultivate their apartness.

lincoln park
the answer about coq au vain

My apologies, LP. Of course.

And actually, with the question in front of my eyes again, I'm remembering a coq au vin I ate this past Spring at Les Folies, just outside of dowtown Annapolis.

Not terrifically memorable — otherwise, I would have remembered it straight off — but it might just do the trick on a cold night. 

Washington DC
Any word on the former chef at Viridian? My wife and I use to love eating at Viridian when he was there.

Um, which former chef would that be? There've been four in the past year.

Jeff Orel, the most recent to exit, lasted a matter of months. Antonio Burrell had the longest tenure; he's now at Eleventh Street Lounge, in Arlington. (That's his fourth restaurant, by the way, in the last few years.) 

The new chef at Viridian is Michael Hartzer, who years ago worked in the kitchen at Citronelle, then was the opening chef at Ray's the Classics, in Silver Spring. It'll be interesting to see what he comes up with, as a restaurant that began with earthy-crunchy intentions morphs into something more refined and elegant.

Would you look at the time?! It's lunch, people.

Thanks for all the questions today, and I'm glad we had smooth sailing — unlike that disjoined and frenetic session we all endured last week.

Eat well, be well, and let's meet back here again in a week. Same bat time, same bat channel. *



( * Note for the younger set: See, back in the day, there was this TV show, went by the name of "Batman" … )

Washington, DC
re: coq au vin during the winter it is often run as a special at Bistro Bis and I find their version to be delish

Thanks for chiming in, DC. Great tip.

There you go, LP.

And here I go. Later, everyone …