Word of Mouth …
A couple of weeks ago, I recommended Pesce, in Dupont Circle, to a chatter looking for "a moderately-priced seafood restaurant in the city." I dropped by recently, eager to suss out the handiwork of new chef Bernard Marchive and to get my first taste of the season of shad roe. Unfortunately, Pesce's current version of the dish seemed to have been created for people who don't really like this seasonal, regional delicacy: I could barely taste the usual musky succulence of the roe through the sweet, tangy tomato sauce. I enjoyed a plate of clams in a spiky coconut broth (great for sopping with the restaurant's good, thick-cut bread) but both main courses were marked by muddled flavors (an overcooked monkfish with butter beans, an eggy, thick-cut homemade linguine with a salty sauce made from leeks). The cleanest, purest flavor came in the blueberry ice cream that flanked a blueberry tart. A night at Pesce isn't cheap (around $140 for two, with tip and tax and two glasses of wine), and when the kitchen is off, as it was this night, the charm and warmth of the place is little compensation. I applaud the restaurant's honesty of approach (bringing in a haul of fresh fish every day, finding local farmers to support) but hey — you can't eat a philosophy. …
… Delia Nagar is ingratiatingly bossy — a cranky den mother. And she sees everything and misses nothing from behind the counter of Teddy's Roti Shop, a West Indian walk-up tucked among the townhouses and storefronts of a somewhat desolate stretch of Georgia Ave. NW. Watching a customer about to toss the virtually-empty plastic bottle of homemade juice into the trash, she upbraids him: "Drink up. Don't leave my drink." A customer wanders in for a plate of channa, the long-cooked chickpeas that Nagar's place specializes in, explaining: "I'm too lazy to cook for myself." Nagar is quick to pick up the boast in the complaint; anyone too lazy to cook, after all, is not exactly hurting for money. "Don't you go bragging," she says. All this would be overbearing, if not for the quality of the food. This is some of the best West Indian cooking around. The specialty is buss up shut (so named because — after the pancake-y fry bread called roti is smashed up with two spatulas while still hot on the griddle, to make it easier for tearing — it resembles a busted-up shirt). I like a version that comes with bone-in chicken curry, but a goat curry is also excellent. Each comes with the rib-sticking channa, along with another side of curried potatoes. To wash it all down? A bottle of the good and nutmeggy Irish Moss, or any of the wonderful made-daily juice blends. You're not likely to finish it all — a fact that Nagar, before handing over your order, is sure to point out. …
… Bastille is finding its groove. The Alexandria restaurant, now in its sixth month, is a charmer, a cozy, softly-lit wine bar of a place, and its chef, Christopher Poteaux, is cooking with heart and, sometimes, distinction. The boudin blanc might not rise to the sublime heights of the light-as-fluff rendition at Marcel's, but it's well-made, delicate, smartly accompanied by a luxurious parsnip puree and a tangy onion compote — and only six bucks. Not too far behind it are a smooth, well-strained chestnut soup (again, six bucks), and a hot and cold foie gras plate (a seared slice of lobe and a salt-topped torchon) that's about as good as you can hope to find in a foie gras dish that goes for twelve bucks or less. Poteaux, who headed up the kitchen most recently of Aquarelle, but who before that put in stints in the kitchen at Daniel in New York and L'Orangerie in L.A., has fashioned a menu that looks to the future but is unapologetically rooted in the past. Main courses aim for a hearty robustness, but get there without the aid of a lot of cream or butter. A roast chicken with forty cloves of garlic wisely rides the line between being rustic and refined, while an otherwise ordinary steak frites is boosted by a fascinating peppercorn sauce (made with Asian long peppers and chocolate). The pork chop is disappointing, relatively speaking, but the savor of the chop is noteworthy, as is the slow-baked apple that comes alongside it. The list of wines is modest but interesting and full of range, and offers the option of half-pours, making it possible to switch from a white to a red (or to sample a variety of wines from appetizer through dessert) without getting hammered. Tempting as it is to pair a dessert wine with any of the roster of sweets (my pick: the gingerbread cake with a drift of fresh whipped cream — made by the chef's fiancee, Michelle Garbee), I'd opt instead for a cup of tea. For just $2.75, you get a level of service (a beautiful polished silver pitcher) and a quality of brew (strong, full-bodied, aromatic) that even the best high-teas in the area can't match. The level of attention — from start to finish, and from the smallest detail to the biggest statements — is impressive, and speaks well of this young, ambitious operation. …
My first thought is to say that this is the tricky thing with recommendations. A dish can change from night to night, and even within the course of the night — especially with a new restaurant still in the process of fine-tuning its operation.
But it may also be just a difference in taste. I like the "faux" gras, and love the "accompanying duck thing" — the duck rilletes. Rich and luxurious. The oysters are breaded with, I believe, hand-picked bread crumbs (literally, a person in the kitchen picking off pieces of old bread). The flattening technique you talk about doesn't bother me, not when the oysters are as good as the ones I ate. And you may have meant loosing as "losing" — losing all of its juices. But if it was a slip of the fingers, it was an accurate one: I thought they were far more juicy than most fried oysters I'm accustomed to getting.
I haven't had the onion tart, nor have I had an oversalted salad.
I did mention a number of other dishes that I thought needed work, though. It was not an unqualified rave of a report.
Yep, shad roe.
You seldom see shad, the fish, anywhere around here in shad season. The roe is the thing, although even that is not what I would call prevalent. Some specialty shops, a handful of restaurants.
Chefs have told me that the fish is too hard a sell, especially because a younger generation of diners simply hasn't grown up with it. It also is full of bones, so by the time the thing is de-boned, it looks, as I remember Todd Gray telling me some years ago, "pretty beat up." Difficult, then, to fashion that filet into something that looks elegant and appetizing. Or so the reasoning goes.
I'd love to see a lot more of shad and shad roe on restaurant menus.
Chefs are fond of talking of their love of the seasons, and their love of local and regional vegetables and meats and fishes. Well, shad and shad roe are as local and regional and seasonal as you can get. It's a wonderful delicacy, and deserves the support of food lovers, old and young.
If you happen to see sightings around town — in the stores, in the restaurants — please drop me a line.
Spoken like a true butter chicken fan!
Can we extend the definition of city to include Maryland and Virginia? Because I really like the version at Passage to India, in Bethesda — maybe the most elegant butter chicken you'll find in the area, with an almost velvety gravy and extremely tender chicken. A more gusty rendition can be found at Bombay, in White Oak. This one has a pronounced tomatoey tang.
I'm also a fan of the butter chicken at Bombay Curry Co., in Alexandria. Love the assertive spicing. The only drawback has been chicken that is less-than-tender at times. The gravy, however, is so good, so addictive, that with a nice plateful of fluffy, long-grained rice, it makes a fine meal all its own.
You can chalk a lot of those complaints up to unreasonably high expectations.
And you can chalk those unreasonably high expectations up to the shop's own aggressive hype-age.
The M'Dawg-ers promised to serve gourmet hot dogs, made by Greggory Hill, of David Greggory. Nice! But the Hill dogs aren't all ready yet, nor are most of the dogs, it turns out, going to be made by Hill. Hm.
Places need time to find their legs — which is one reason I tend to wait a few weeks before making a visit. It would've been a good idea for the place to have everything lined up before throwing open the doors.
Clearly you didn't pick up a copy of the Cheap Eats issue, out last June.
Because one of my favorite places in the city is in there, and fits all your needs: Zorba's, just off the northernmost exit of the Dupont Circle Metro.
I've been going there ever since I was a young, hungry intern making squadoosh and then even after when I had stepped up to making a pittance.
I love the gyro platters, the tabbouleh (lots of parsley!), the chickpea and lemon salad, the hummus, the taramosalata, the spanikopita, even the steak subs and pizzas.
Zorba's is a gem. In the warmer months, you can even sit outside. I challenge anybody to find me another place in the city where you can eat so well, so cheaply, and have the privilege of dining al fresco, to boot.
Thanks for writing. I appreciate the feedback.
There are two things I'd like to bring up.
One is that the list we just put out reflects many, many visits over the course of the past year. Any restaurant can have an off-night — and I'm not just referring to the possibility that the dishes weren't cooked well on your recent visit. The diner can never know just what is going on beyond the dining room — can never know the kinds of personnel problems (with management, with the staff, with the kitchen) that are going on behind the scenes. It's possible there was a defection that week, or even that day. Little things in a restaurant can create huge ripples.
The other is that, beyond telling readers about great and good places, and making distinctions among them, one of the purposes of the list is to weigh in with a yearly critique of the area's restaurants. After all, to leave off a restaurant like Black's Bar and Kitchen or Acadiana (No. 99) is, potentially, to draw more notice than to put it on: "Are they even aware of these places? Don't they know the scene?"
And these are by no means "bad" restaurants. They deserve their placement on the Top 100. But they are not deserving of the louder acclaim we reserve for those restaurants that are cooking with great passion and precision, and that go out of their way to make their customers feel cared for and special.
Addie's was booted this year from the list, being a shadow of its former self. And no other Blacks restaurant got more than two stars. Number 83 is pretty low down — especially, as I noted in the introduction, for a restaurant that spent $2.5 million on a renovation. Cooking is what counts with me — a certain distinctiveness in the kitchen. That, and the ability to take care of people.
I'm glad to hear about your experience at Foti's. It was a three-star restaurant a year ago, when I first wrote a lengthy review of it. But it was not the same place this past year, as key defections (including the loss of the sous chef, and the loss of the talented sommelier) and the crush of customers that follows a review took their toll. I hope it can withstand its growing pains, as I wrote in the recent review.
Thanks for the tip, Bethesda.
Not the most attractive-looking item in the case, is it? It's always a toss-up as to which is the least desirable sea creature in any fish case, the swollen, altogether alive-looking sacs of shad roe or the veiny, purplish hunks of monkfish.
Tellingly, you didn't say whether they're carrying the fish. My guess is no.
It's as sweet and meaty and delicious as any fish that you can get your hands on.
Two thoughts, Bethesda.
(I'm in a two-thoughts mood today.)
One is that there's a reason that the best pizza joints and rib joints only do one thing. And that's because that one thing is so damn hard to do well — well, and consistently.
I'd write to the owner, and let her know of your disappointments — and let her know, also, that you continue to keep coming back.
The other thought is that what you consider burning and charring, Mia's might consider to be "blistering." I know, I know — it sounds like a fine distinction. But in boutique pizza parlance, blistering is thought to be the thing that you shoot for — a lightly blistered surface.
According to Ruth Gresser, the owner of Pizzeria Paradiso, where Melissa hails from, customers either tend to like the blistering or not. There's little in between. The problem is that when a place like Paradiso or Mia's or 2 Amys — boutique pizza shops — errs on the side of not-blistered, then the pies tend to come out soft in the middle, and runny.
So they either stick to their guns and allow all their pies to develop a blistering, or they stick to their guns and let all their pies be slightly soft and doughy in the middle.
Whichever they choose, they risk alienating an entire base of fans. It's tough.
I say: Stick with the blistering.
But make sure that every pie emerges from the oven exactly the same — make sure that consistency is not an issue — so that customers know which side of the philosophical divide you come down on.
I think it's better, yes, absolutely.
I mean, the proof is in the list; Zorba made the cut, and Yanni's didn't.
Your comment reminds me of something important — that even middling places have great dishes. It's something we, I, tend to forget, caught up as we food lovers all are in a place in its totality: the whole menu, the service, consistency, etc.
But one dish can keep you coming back to a place, over and over and over again.
I'd be curious to know: Are there any places, choggers, that you wouldn't necessarily recommend to a friend or a coworker, but which you keep going back to, year after year, just because of that one memorable, scrumptious dish? Hit me.
The answer? Scroll up.
I think Bastille is ideal for what you're looking for. It's not a bustling bar scene, more of a cozy bar scene — a place, perhaps, to come back to after you've gotten your groove on somewhere else. I like it.
I also like that the wine list is so strong in reds from the Loire Valley, and that a number of the appetizers can work effectively as small plates. That boudin blanc, for six bucks, plus a soup, maybe the hot and cold foie gras plate or an order of frites, and you're going to be having yourself a good ol' time.
I've noticed that, too.
I've seen restaurants do this, but usually after the first year.
At this point, I don't have any insight as to the rationale. I do know, however, that the prices aren't the only thing that's changing; the menu keeps changing, too. The seafood tower, for instance, is gone.
There's a lot of tweaking going on, a lot of revision. This isn't a finished product yet, or close to it, and all judgments at this point are probably premature.
Growing pains. Seems to be a theme today.
Thanks for the report, DC.
What did you try on the menu?
(By the way, I love the way people in Maryland and DC always regard driving out to Virginia as something akin to "lighting out for the territories.")
The best alternative, and a pretty damn good one: the bar at Taberna del Alabardero. Terrific wines, too.
Do not — repeat: do not — think that La Tasca (with locations in Penn Quarter and Clarendon) is worth giving a shot. It's a British-owned tapas chain (?!?), which should tell you most of what you need to know.
The rest of what you need to know is this: It's dreadful.
You might want to look into a place called Vetri — an intimate, chef-owned place (Mark Vetri is his name) with personal, distinctive Italian cooking.
It's a restaurant similar in aim and vibe to Obelisk, but lustier.
Many of the places that do dim sum, also are equipped to handle banquets.
That list includes: Fortune in Falls Church, New Fortune in Gaithersburg, and, I think, Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd. in Wheaton.
Another place to look into is Mark's Duck House, in Falls Church. They do Chinese banquet for many different price levels (a real plus) and are pretty accommodating.
Hope that helps. Let us know how it all turns out.
I'll tell you, I'd be just as frustrated as you are.
It's very unprofessional. I don't know that I'd go so far as to suggest that it's happening because you're not a VIP, although I can't say I blame you for thinking those thoughts, not in a town where powerful people are always getting their way.
And I'm only sorry now we're getting to this question so late in the chat, because I'd love to hear from managers and wait staff about this.
So let me leave the question hanging, for next time: What advice can you give us, managers and waiters and waitresses, for someone looking to book a private room? Take us through the steps.
Meantime, I hope everyone has a chance to get out there and enjoy some of this beautiful if chilly day.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
Last but not least …
Thanks, DC, for that quickie, approaching-the-tape take on Eleventh Street.
Later, everyone …