Tuesday, March 27, 2007 @ 11AM

Q-and-A with Chef Todd Gray:

"I Want My Customers to Be Biting into the Region"

Todd Gray is chef and co-owner of Equinox, a restaurant that has made its reputation simultaneously by catering to the movers and shakers of this city and by awakening diners to the culinary bounties of the mid-Atlantic region. I spoke with Gray by phone this weekend about shad and shad roe — those regional, seasonal delicacies that, along with softshell crabs, steamed crabs and half-smokes, define eating in the DC area.

You rarely see either shad or shad roe on restaurant menus, despite a lot of well-meaning talk from chefs about their fondness for market-based cooking. Make the case for shad and shad roe. Why should we care?

Certain things become available at certain times of the year. As a chef, you want to capture the moment, and celebrate the season. I think shad is indicative of Spring. It’s sort of the rite of passage with Springtime – on the West Coast, they have the running of the wild salmon, and here you have the running of the shad. It’s something we should be proud of, and take advantage of when we can.  Virginia is the leading shad fishing state in the Mid-Atlantic. Jefferson was a huge fan of shad. He had the largest fleet of shad boats known to man at that time. These things amaze me. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. My cooking is the cooking of the mid-Atlantic region, more specifically the Virginia Piedmont. I want my customers to be biting into the region. And there’s no better way to do that than by biting into shad.

(For more of Todd Gray on shad and shad roe, read it here.)

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Washington, DC
I am looking for a restaurant to celebrate my boyfriend's 24th birthday. I am looking for a place that can accommodate 10-12 people, have both meat and vegetarian options, and is relatively affordable (we are all broke recent college grads). Thanks very much!

You probably should be thinking of Indian food. Given the wealth of options around the area, a cash-strapped college student can hardly do better.

And especially if you're looking to meet the needs of both vegetarians and meat-eaters.

I'd look into Bombay in White Oak, if you're in Maryland, and either Bombay Curry Co. in Alexandria or Delhi Club in Clarendon. Bombay has especially good Malai Kofta, veggie dumplings submerged in a thick, creamy, lightly sweet curry. At Bombay Curry Co., don't miss the terrific wings. If I'm at Delhi Club, I'm zeroing in on the lamb chops, lightly spiced and wonderfully succulent. The latter two also have a fair number of good veggie options.

Enjoy, and I hope you report back when you can.

DC
I have to entertain the in-laws this weekend. I plan on driving to Annapolis to stroll around West and Dock St. Do you have any suggestions where to get a decent lunch on the water. Some friends have suggested driving to the Severn Inn or Cantler's for crabs. I've never been to either and would love some help. Thanks!

The operative phrase: Have to.  Good luck. : )

Cantler's is a good suggestion. Especially if everyone in the party is looking forward to feasting on crabs.

I'd also recommend a place called The Rockfish, owned by Charlie Bauer, who used to be involved with Cantler's. The kitchen is focused and detail-oriented, it's personable and warm, and I've enjoyed my time there. 

Washington DC
I appreciate the fact that you try out restaurants several times before you review them. I on the other hand need to be sure that I , or my guests, will have a good time the first time. Granted, any restaurant can have an off night, but that shouldn't mean that the entire restaurant and everything it offers falls apart. In my opinion well managed restaurants should be able to offset a sick chef or a missing waiterIn worst case senarios it should be up to the manager to resolve issues. Restaurants need to respect that diners are laying out big dollars. If they can't deliver a somewhat professional experience. they need to fix it. One of the problems I see is that many of the restaurants in DC do not sem to have managers on the floor during peak meal periods.

I agree with you that restaurants really do need to make a good first impression — because they make only get the one impression to make.

A meal out for most people is a big deal, not to be taken lightly. I certainly don't, and have no compunction about telling restaurants when they're not living up to their end of the bargain. Mailing it in, taking the diner for granted — these are huge offenses in my book.

I disagree with you, however, about the absence of managers on the floor during peak hours at many restaurants. At the newer, louder, more chaotic kind of restaurant — with small plates and a five page menu — you do occasionally go looking in vain for any assistance. But that's also the nature of these kinds of restaurants. At more stable, more quiet restaurants, I don't think that's the case.

Bethesda, MD
Todd We are heading to Savannah next week for spring break with the kids. Luckily for us we will have the opportunity to dine out one evening without the kids. We are looking forward to enjoying some of the local cuisine. Any recommendations? Someone mentioned Elizabeth's on 37th but have also heard some bad things about it.

Get yourself over to Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House.

It's a legend, and not a local legend, either. Esquire came calling in the '60s. It's a boarding house-style meal, everything brought to the table in big, heaping bowls that you pass on down to your tablemates. That in and of itself would be worth a trip, but the cooking is done with care and passion, too.

Word to the wise: The line starts long before the doors open, and there's only one meal a day — lunch.

WDC
Todd, Loved your piece on Tuna – though not the despressing reality it confirms that its near impossible to get good tuna around here anymore. Have you largely given up ordering it or do you still enjoy it with the caveat that its only worth ordering at The Inn or somewhere that presents it in a way that offers a great deal of flavor in addition to the tuna itself?

It's not just the depressing reality around here. It's pretty much everywhere.

Unless, that is, you're willing to shell out the big, big bucks.

That's not to say you can't find the occasional good piece of toro. But tuna is becoming like caviar, or lobster, or any other rarity/delicacy.

I've given up using it as a way, in sushi restaurants, of gauging the freshness of the fish, and I've given up judging non-sushi restaurants by the quality of their tuna. Mostly, I see it as a bonus these days if a preparation actually works.

Tucson AZ
Hi Todd We are back from our trip to DC..I want to thank you for all your fabulous help on our restaurant selections..they were ALL the most incredible dining experinces..we started with City Zen the first night ,then proceeded to Komi, Palena and ended with the Tasting Room at Restaurant Eve…All I can say is they were ALL spot on and the best food and service ever!! I could go on and on but needless to say we had fantastic experiences at all restaurants THANKS AGAIN for all of your reviews and helpful information Sincerely Caroline Freedman Tucson AZ

Don't thank me, Caroiine — thank the restaurants.

Great food and great service … it can seem effortless, and almost magical.

Unfortunately, it doesn't happen all that often. Many places simply don't care that much. You're reminded at every turn that you've walked into a business. You leave dejectedly, blaming yourself.

The ones that can bring you that kind of elation — that kind of feeling of being both cradled and anointed — deserve to hear it from us.

Loudly, and often. 

Rosslyn, VA
Todd, I'm the chatter who asked about bluefish last week. Wanted to give you and the chogger an update. We called Todd and Ellen Gray at Equinox, who were incredibly gracious hosts. They specially ordered the bluefish for us and ensured we had a wonderful meal and experience. The food was fantastic–while it's pricey, the exquisite and plentiful amuse bouches throughout the meal made our dinner long and full of unique flavors and tastes. The service was excellent and the ambience quiet; the chef checking in with us to ensure things were going smoothly and the bluefish was cooked to perfection helped as well. Thanks for the great tip.

That's wonderful to hear. Hats off to the Grays.

Bluefish is a local treasure, and I'd love to see more chefs and restaurants following the Grays' lead in putting this fish on their menus this season.

WDC
Todd, Any comment on Roberto Donna's launching a blog in response to your review of his restaurant or the criticisms he seems to be levyying at you?

For those who may not have been following along:

There have been two incidents in the past month, here and in New York, where chefs have responded to valid criticism by starting blogs or waging campaigns against magazines or reviewers.

Criticism is valid. It matters. It documents the way we live. It's intellectually honest.

Without good, serious-minded, candid criticism to uphold high standards, a scene doesn't improve. Without that kind of criticism, there is no vibrancy.

Critics don't simply sit around in a room and make judgments about who to like and who not to like. There's a process, a gathering of many dozens of details — the same for writing about restaurants as about books and film and theater and art, etc. In restaurant reviewing, the critic makes not one but several visits to a place (usually a minimum of three visits, sometimes as many as four or five) before writing a long review– on different days, at different meals, with different people — to assess an experience more accurately.

If there are minor inaccuracies that need to be corrected — and inaccuracies do crop up, as in any creative endeavor — they will be corrected. A review isn't a tombstone; a place can improve, and sometimes does. But done right, that review is an honest document of the dining experience.

Madison, Wis.
Mr. Kliman, We are invited to a Final Four party and must bring a dish representing Georgetown. Are there campus / city favorites that you could recommend? Thank you so much. Ann Langel Madison, Wis.

Erin Zimmer, my assistant, is a student at Georgetown — and as caught up in the Final Four madness as anybody, having partied all the way from the Hilltop to the White House on Sunday night.

She suggests replicating something called Chicken Madness from Wisey's, a sandwich with a "cult following of Hoyas across generations."

She writes: "Well over 100 Chicken Madnesses are prepared daily (not to be confused with similarly-prepared Burger Madness). For $5.45, the sandwich (always with free UTZ potato chips and soda) involves cheap white bread (part of the magic) and eight crucial ingredients. "Mounds of" chicken breast, provolone cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, sweet and hot peppers and onions. All mashed and chopped up on the grill. It can be dry without mayo, just to note. The sandwich is so revered, it receives write-in votes in the Georgetown student elections each year."

Too obscure for the party?

Then maybe a broiled bluefish with lemon and butter, or a dish of crab Imperial, or a plate of soft shells, or — yes — rum buns.

Back a generation ago, fish houses were more common in the city, and every meal began with a big, piping hot rum bun. 

Friendship Heights DC
So the big chef doesn't like criticism, huh? I find it funny because I had held off venting my dispeasure at that Crystal city eatery…until now. Here's the scenario: Last December our party (one couple celebrating an anniversary, one couple local and one couple from NYC) walked into a restaurant that almost at once was disappointing – a barren, uninviting decor (or lack of). My husband complained of the cold and asked the waiter if the heat could be turned up. His request was ignored. The food? The service? What can I say…medicore, at best. We all agreed we would never return. And Mr. Chef has the nerve to run to the newspaper, crying …"He doesn't like me." Newsflash Mr. Chef…Todd Kliman is NOT the only one who doesn't like you. Get real!

And rest assured — yours is not the only posting or email I've gotten on the subject. And far from the most disappointed and bitter.

(Just because this is my chat, by the way, doesn't mean that I don't welcome other perspectives on this. Feel free to fire away, folks.) 

Alexandria VA
We are thinking of going to Indigo Landing in Alexandria for dinner. What is your opinion on the food? I have heard mixed reviews. Thanks/

Count me a fan.

The cooking is unusually intricate, given the fact that nearly every dish, in keeping with the spirit of Lowcountry, is immoderately rich and hearty. Bryan Moscatello is a real talent, and I like the fun he seems to be having, the way he plays flavors off and against one another, the way he wrings the towel, so to speak, on a dish.

If you go, look for the fried rabbit. Tasty enough, but what makes the dish interesting and really good is the sauce, which begins with the rabbit stock that he makes to begin building it.

I also am smitten with the bread basket (ham sticks, "kiss rolls", mini corn bread muffins), one of the best in the area. 

Arlington, VA
This is a little off the D.C. dining scence but have you eaten at the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, VA since it was rebuilt after the fire? It has become a Relais & Chateau property since it re-opened and was wondering if the food was worth the 2 hour drive.

I haven't been yet.

Curious — has anyone? 

Washington, DC
Todd, My husband and I were at a high-end restaurant a couple of weeks ago. It started out as a terrible experience but turned into something really nice. But at first I felt pretty unhappy about it. We waited a long time before they took our order; the cocktails were not good (doesn't anyone know how to make a martini anymore?); they brought the wrong appetizer; and the waiter recommended a dish that was actually not very good. We were getting frustrated, but the manager stopped by the table and talked to us. He brought us a new entree, and a couple of glasses of nice wine for while we were waiting; and when we got the bill, we saw we weren't charged for the entrees. My husband wants to go back there for our anniversary. I still have some hesitation because there were so many problems, although I left feeling pretty pampered. What's your take?

I think you should consider yourselves lucky. 

And ought to consider returning.

There was a problem, and the management and staff came up with a solution. That's about as much as you can ask of a place.

Problems occur in restaurants all the time; every minute of every day, it seems, an error or a mistake or a crisis has happened. Problems are unavoidable. It's how a place handles its problems that matters. Making the gesture to the diner, dealing with what's wrong — that's not unavoidable.

The good and the great places all do this. 

They don't put the burden of proof on the diner. They don't assume the diner is in the wrong. They don't come to your table after the fact, after the night is over, and ask how everything was. They don't assume; they never assume.

They understand that, no matter how good the food, if you don't take care of people, if you don't make them feel that their time and their money are important, then nothing else really matters. 

 

WDC
Thanks for your thoughts on restaurant critiques and when restaurants respond. I for one totally agree with you and my experience – as well as those of many I know – at Bebo were well represented in your review. I just hope they react to the criticism by addressing it their performance as well. I wanted and want to love it. I've had good food there and some good service and I love the concepts and price scheme, so there's something to hope for…
And thanks for your perspective.
washington, dc
just wanted to pass along a good experience. My wife and I went to Eleventh Street in Clarendon last Thursday and had a wonderful time. We always stop in on Thursday because they have a great special, but this time we tried something different. The chef happened to be walking by and we talked to him about the menu and he suggested a few things off of the happy hour menu instead. They were very good especially the deep fried deviled eggs. We spoke to the young man, I forget his name, for awhile and he seems very nice. We really enjoyed our visit because of this particular interaction. Are there other restaurants where it is possible to talk to the chef, besides sushi bars?

Sushi bars are the easiest, because you're right on top of them as they're making your food.

Other restaurants? Well, the sushi bar-like Minibar comes to mind. The chefs — there are three — all seem to enjoy the give-and-take with the customers. Of course, they'd better, since the experience all but cries out for a Q & A. "Um, what am I supposed to do with this spritzer?" "Is that really foie gras in the middle of my cotton candy?"

Oh, and thanks for the report about Eleventh Street. It'll be interesting to watch how it evolves.

Bethesda, MD
We want to buy a gift certificate for a gift – we're thinking either Blue Duck Tavern or Central. Which would you recommend?

That all depends on the person you're buying for.

Blue Duck is good and interesting, and ideal for someone who wants to relax and settle in for the night over a big, comforting meal.

And Central? Central has a completely different pulse. Different menu, different vibe. There's a tremendous energy there, that flows from the kitchen on through the dining room. Rright now, it's one of the most exciting places to eat in the city. Maybe THE most exciting.

Arlington, VA
Re: Bebo. Our two visits have confirmed your findings and those of others. Stale bread, uneven food, and indifferent service that shrugs and laughs at the ineptitude of the place. It would be great to have more trattoria-like options…but I have to wonder if Chef Donna is using the casualness of the trattoria to excuse sloppiness. Is he in complete command at Bebo? Is his attention directed elsewhere?

Interesting, Arlington.

And interestingly put, too. 

xx
xx

I can't remember?

Does that mean I'm being hugged, or kissed? : ) 

Sterling, VA
Hi Todd, Love your blog I find it to be a wealth of information. I recently was down at the Verizon Center with my husband and had dinner at nearby Indebleu. I don't know if your familiar with it, but it was a wonderful place. The presentation of the meal was as good as the food. We started off with the shrimp samosa and then had the striped bass and chicken breast for our main course. All was tasty and perfectly cooked. It was a great dining experience. Have you been there before?

I have. Many times.

And I and my staff found the place to have slipped precipitously on our most recent visits for the 100 Best issue this past January.

Glad to hear you had a good meal, and let's hope this suggests that the place is finding itself again. 

As I wrote here a couple of months back, in discussing the 100 Best, I wipe the slate clean after I'm done with that issue — and after I'm done with any review. Restaurants are not fixed entities, with set destinies. They can change, and sometimes do. I, for one, am thrilled to see it when it happens.

Todd- please help!
Hi Todd. I am planning a dinner for four in DC. Quality of food is very important; it doesn't need to be fancy and experimental but high quality and simple would be in order. I need a lovely, comfortable (doesn't have to be upscale, stuffy) atmosphere but not loud, trendy and slick. Sevice needs to be excellent as well (no circus acts, please). With all this said, I have thought about Cordurouy (concerned about hotel-like atmosphere), Palena (concerned about service and quality of food of late), Bistro Lepic (noise level??) and Central? What do you think? Thanks for your help.

Help is here!

I wouldn't be too concerned about the atmosphere at Corduroy. It's not the most buzzing, happening place to dine, but the staff is really pro, and you can eat and drink really, really well for the price.

Central, scroll up, should fit the bill, too.

And Palena is sophisticated and intelligent, and offers wonderfully elegant but still soulful, egoless cooking.

The only one I wouldn't consider? Bistrot Lepic. It hasn't been the same since a chef and manager left to open Montmartre on Capitol Hill.

DC
Last week Sietsma made a comment about tasting menus, pretty much saying he didn't like them.. that it was too much food and too time consuming. Excuse me, but isn't this a critics job. Tasting menus are the trend right now in the US not to mention the norm in much of the world. This comment just seemed so out of line considering his job. What is your take on tasting menus.

Me? I love tasting menus.

I love trying to figure out the narrative of it, the way the dishes are sequenced and what that might mean. I love the surprise of it, the unfolding of experience.

And I'm all for lingering over a three, three-and-a-half-hour meal.

I've spent five and six hours at dinner.

But that's me. I know an awful lot of people — some of them have come along with me on my assignments ; ) — who really despise the thought of a long, relaxed meal and who just want to eat a couple of dishes and be done with it.

To each his own, I guess.

To me, going out to dinner is the main event. I don't need a movie or show afterward, and often, truth be told, don't want it.

Silver Spring, MD
We're way late in the game in planning our anniversary dinner for Sat. night. Having a baby at home will do that to you. All the very top spots are booked already obviously. Looking for something within a half-hour drive, great food, and quiet (it will be a rare night out without the baby). It could be any price or any cuisine. Currently have a reservation at David Craig (we like the idea of being somewhere where we can walk around afterwards and enjoy the weather), but wanted to see if you could advise on something else?

I like your pick.

When David Craig is on, he's ON. I've had some terrific meals there. My most recent meal, unfortunately, was not so hot.

Turns out, Craig wasn't in the kitchen. Oversalting was a huge problem. I'd call ahead to make sure, but chances are, he'll be there on a Saturday night.

Where else have you already tried? Passage to India, in Bethesda, has the best Indian cooking in the area (great pickles, by the way). It's also quiet and elegant. Corduroy, also on the quieter side, isn't terribly far from Silver Spring and meets all your needs.

Let me know which way you turn.

Meantime, I'm off to lunch at an undisclosed location to meet XXXXXX and eat XXXXXXX.

See you next week everyone!

Eat well, be well, and let's meet back here at 11 on Tuesday …

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