Word of Mouth …
Irene is no longer at Irene’s Pupusas III – the day-to-day operation is overseen by her son and daughter-in-law – but the cooking at this warm and lively Wheaton storefront shows no signs of slippage. The signature item is as good as ever – savory griddle cakes filled with, among others, zucchini, loroco, and beans, and oozing a soft queso blanco. Hefty but never heavy, virtually greaseless, they make a terrific mini meal topped by a few spoonfuls of the crunchy, spicy curtado, a lightly vinegary slaw, and a few squirts of salsa verde from the condiment bottle. And an exceedingly cheap one, too, since each pupusa is the price of a bottle of water from a vending machine. Irene’s menu makes space for a few Honduran dishes, too, including a Honduran-style taco that is rolled like a cigar, deep fried and buried under a mound of pickled cabbage as pink as a teenybopper’s nail polish, and a dish called bailadas, in which hunks of beef, supremely creamy refried beans, queso blanco, hard-boiled egg and slices of avocado are interleaved within the folds of a giant, flopping fry bread. You can conclude your meal with a commendable flan or a rarity called nuegados, deep-fried rounds of mashed yuca that come with a molasses dipping sauce. Or, even better, you can return to the regular menu for a tamal de elote, a thick bundle of soft, sweetened corn ringed by a thin, sweet sour cream. …
… Might as well go ahead and say it: The best place for oysters in the city right now isn’t an oyster bar. Isn’t even a seafood restaurant. It’s Central Michel Richard, where a half-dozen of the bivalves costs $16 and a dozen will set you back $32. That’s not cheap, but let’s look at what you’re paying for. It’s not just the quality of the sourcing, which, on a recent visit, meant only oysters from the West Coast – specifically, British Columbia – and only the best of the bunch that comes into the kitchen every day. It’s the degree of scrutiny, the attentive care, given to each oyster before it’s sent to the table. Each bivalve had been carefully cleaved from its muscle, there wasn’t a single piece of grit in any of the shells, and great pains had been taken to ensure that there was a good pool of briny liquor to surround and “sauce” the meat. There were three varieties, but all were uniformly plump, cool, sweet, and incomparably creamy. …
… Any restaurant with a menu as long and varied as the one at Peking Cheers – the Chinese menu, that is, as opposed to the American-Chinese one that the staff invariably hands you if you’re not Chinese – is bound to require multiple (and far-ranging) visits from a diner looking to render any kind of reasonable judgment about the quality of the cooking. Still, I found myself wanting to like the place more than liking it my first time out. The cook comes to this Gaithersburg store front by way of Joe’s Noodle House, and a number of dishes are familiar to me from Joe’s, including a dish of minced leeks with minced beef, black beans and slivers of garlic. It was a keeper. But the Peking duck, though generously portioned (a whole duck for $13 – which only reminded me of the flinty serving the now-defunct Yanyu once offered), was slightly overroasted; a tofu and spinach soup was soothing if dull; a plate of stir-fried potato strips with chilis was bland; and a special of beer-braised brisket with turnips in a broth spiked with chili-oil was fascinating and smelled wonderful, but turned up too many gnarled bits of brisket.
Mr. Kliman, As sushi and tuna fan, I read your article Rare Tuna with great fascination and truly thought Mr. Kliman has such a discriminating palate and the highest standards….and likewise Mr. O'Connell. Then I flipped back and looked at the first two pages again….and was disappointed. I'm quoting….the only tuna worth ordering….served at the highest level….this preparation….was describing the picture of Mr. O'Connell cutting what was presumably this highest grade tuna on a worn wooden cutting table. Huh? ….a worn wooden cutting table? What a great way to contaminate raw tuna to be eaten as sushi. The tuna may be of the highest grade, but the sanitary conditions under which it is prepared are obviously not. So I'm sorry, but if this is how Mr. O'Connell's rare tuna is prepared….it is not worth ordering.
Since your note came in a couple of days early, I had a chance to go right to the source for comment.
What follows is a response from Patrick O'Connell at the Inn.
Thanks for passing on the interesting observation. The butcher block was simply used as a convenient, moveable prop allowing the photographer to adjust the background and include the kitchen in her shot.
Our tuna is fabricated in a different area of the kitchen under carefully controlled conditions. It is good to know that people are so observant.
Coincidentally, the following note was en route to you today:
Thank you for recognizing and acknowledging the quality of our tuna in your excellent story in the March issue of The Washingtonian. Our purveyors are always pleased to know that their efforts are appreciated and that differences in quality are discernable.
Your readers are enjoying our tuna even more now that they know how much it costs us.
Congratulations on altering the landscape of restaurant reviewing in Washington.”
The Inn at Little Washington
I understand your dad's obsession. I love bluefish, too.
Unfortunately, for such a distinctive, and distinctively regional fish, it's too little in evidence around town. It's not the easiest fish for some people to like, being dark-fleshed and oily. It's also what purveyors will call a fishy fish, meaning that it's strong tasting. It's not a dull, firm, flaky white fish. The chef who cooks it has got to get out of its way. Broil that baby up with a little butter, a little squeeze of lemon, and you've got yourself something delicious.
Bluefish and shad and shad roe — these are among the piscatory glories of this region. We hear an awful lot of talk of the importance of seasonal and regional and local. Well, let's see a little more proof of it on the plate this Spring.
(OK, harangue over.)
I'd call up Todd Gray at Equinox, I'd call up Bob Kinkead at Kinkead's — both of these places have had it on their menus in the past — and I'd check with the kitchen at Oceanaire, which often carries as many as 17 varieties of fish a day.
Other than that? You got me.
Maybe there've been bluefish sightings around the city from some of your fellow choggers. Anyone?
The deal is that the place was saved from a likely fate of being turned into a sports-bar (or so went one of the rumors) by the folks who own Restaurant Eve, Cathal Armstrong and Meshelle Armstrong.
Armstrong has come up with a batch of recipes for a revamped menu of American comfort food, and Shannon Overmiller, who worked under him in the kitchen at Eve, will execute them.
The place should reopen again in about a month.
That's funny, Mt. Pleasant — I noticed the same thing this weekend. And wondered the same thing.
Is it good? It's fun.
And cheap. The beers go for a buck-fifty. And there's a special meal for every day of the week. Monday is fish and chips — six bucks. Wednesday brings Beaches and Cream day: a tasty grilled grouper sandwich plus a scoop of ice cream from the nearby Lazy Sundae, for eleven bucks. Go at lunch on a Saturday and you can knock back a pina colada and a coconut chicken sandwich for the same price.
Shad roe and pork belly, huh? That's an interesting little twist, since so much of shad roe is cooked in bacon fat, with crunchy bacon as a condiment.
And you sound like my kind of dinner guest. Love the dish? Then show your love and go back and get it again. THAT'S a real food lover.
Thanks for the report from the field.
This may seem random, but I felt like I should tell people. I have food allergies. I know it's a pain to deal with. It took me over a year after being diagnosed to be willing to start contacting restaurants to ask if I can eat there. I feel like it's a burden and I know it can be difficult to deal with. People like Maggianos are why I waited so long. Because I was afraid of it turning into something like this.
Below is what Maggianos had to say to me after I listed some foods that are issues and asked if they could be avoided:
Dear Ms. Brennan,
Thank you for your inquiry and for your interest in Maggiano's. In reference to your request for ingredient information, we require a physician's request to release ingredient information for our proprietary menu items. Please have your physician fax a letter to our Quality Assurance department at our corporate office in Dallas, Texas. The letter should include the name of our menu item(s) in question. The fax number is 972-628-8142. Thank you. Maggiano's Guest Relations Ref # 617578
This is what I sent in response:
I have to admit I'm blown away by your response. That was the most grotesque display of deficient customer service I have ever seen. I don't care to know what the particulars are regarding your ingredients. I just wanted to know You weren't going to kill me if I came there to eat. Clearly keeping my patronage is not of importance to you.
Days after this email I received a phone call from the Kitchen Manager from the Tyson’s location. I told her I had already heard from the corporate office, was VERY offended, and really didn’t need to waste any more time on it. She apologized for my upset and said she didn’t know they had contacted me. I offered to forward her a copy of the email response from them (she said she really wished she could see what they had written, which felt like she was fishing for a copy of the email). She was nice and rather prepared… She reviewed a list of dishes that would work for me. Their chefs cook everything from scratch in their own kitchens, and so are very aware of what ingredients are going into their menu items. This woman seemed willing to help me.
But later that night I found I had received a voicemail from their General Manager wanting to follow up on the email from corporate as well. I just wanted somewhere to go and have dinner. I didn’t want to get attacked by a corporate office and end up in the middle of a battle between the little guy and the head honchos. Thank God I had enough sense to contact several other places as well. Those response were far better. But this still left me feeling like I may need to go back into my shell rather than contacting more.
Sad and hungry, Nicole Brennan
Thanks for sending this.
I'm not interested in playing cop in this matter, in getting involved in an elaborate he said/she said as to who is right and who is wrong.
But there are a lot of people in the industry who follow these chats every week, and your perspective as a food-allergic diner is one they need to hear.
I still think Sushi-Ko, on Wisconsin Ave. in Glover Park, does a good job.
Tuna Six Ways may be more expensive than it was a couple of years ago, and the quality of the fish may be less dependable from visit to visit, but it would still be the first dish I would look to in the city to enjoy the king of fishes to its fullest.
I'd book a table at Restaurant Eve, on Pitt St.
It's right there in Old Town, it's neither stuffy nor loud, the food is terrific, the drinks strong and imaginative, and I'm sure the owners and staff would go out of their way to make the occasion a memorable one for you and your friends.
Just be prepared to drop some serious coin.
Two words for you:
Be sure to get the roti canai, which is delicious even without its chunks of chicken and cubes of potato — just swab the crunchy triangles of flatbread through the creamy, peppery sauce.
And don't miss out on the small whole mackerel, smothered in onions and peppers. Or the nasi lemak, which brings together a mound of coconut rice, a long-cooked leg of chicken, an egg, and a scattering of fried peanuts and green onions. Or a whole chicken cut up, fried and tossed with several handfuls of chili peppers.
It's one of the best, most interesting cheap places to eat you're going to find in the city these days.
Soaring rents have caused most holes in the wall to flee to the relative safety of Virginia and Maryland. Somehow, the Phoons have managed to stay on.
This is what I wrote about the place four weeks ago:
"The new Napoleon, on Columbia Rd., tastes as bad as it looks. And it looks like a cross between a garish, two-bit Vegas club and an Eastern European bordello. The food? Fries cooked in old oil, an outrageously overpriced steak, and a blanquette de veau that looks as if it came out of a can of Campbell's. Anyway, the wines are good."
This is tougher than you might think.
A good bar scene that isn't "obnoxious" or "hard to get a seat" in a place that is "lively". And in "Virginia." And that also has "exemplary" food.
(Sorry, I just succumbed to a bit of Zagat-itis there … )
You might want to give a call over to Colvin Run Tavern, in Tysons. Early on, the bar shouldn't be too overrun, and then you can repair to one of the dining rooms for dinner. My recommendation: The Shenandoah Room.
Only problem is, the bar is much more lively than any of the dining rooms, so your boss will just have to get her fill of liveliness at the start of the evening before settling into a cozier and quieter dinner.
Restaurants start out any number of ways — good, bad and ugly.
The only thing I would like to add, here, is that this pithy little paragraph was based on a single visit to the place — a quick take, an impression, and not intended to be taken as a definitive "review."
Which isn't to say that what I wrote is not reliable. I stand by it.
But I didn't roam across the menu, as I would have done in putting together an actual, full review — making three and even four visits — and so I don't know at this point if it's possible to turn up a good dish or two or three. It may be.
That first impression, though, was a doozy.
Platt? He didn't attack Platt. In fact, Platt was hurt and disappointed that he wasn't attacked for his own review of Kobe Club.
Are the local, would-be Chodorow's listening?
I have eaten widely and traveled widely, and written many different kinds of criticism, in addition to publishing articles, essays and stories on a range of subjects and in a range of publications since I was fifteen.
Food writing is writing, and it takes a good eye and a good ear (in addition to a good palate). The job is to be able to convey an experience, which is why — if you're sensitive and insightful and, well, ballsy enough — you can come from the world of political writing (like a Frank Bruni) or from a legal background (like a Jeffrey Steingarten).
Ruth Reichl once said that she thought it was her mission to write for the people who aren't necessarily going to go to the restaurant — the people who are going to read the review and live vicariously through it. They want an experience. They want interesting, lively writing. The foodies, the people who want to compare the specifics of a dish they ate with the critic's account — they're going to go to these places anyway.
I couldn't agree more.
And on that rather soapboxy note …
I hope you all have a delicious rest of the week.
Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next Tuesday …