Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Word of Mouth …

9 o'clock on a midweek night in Gaithersburg, and you might think you were in the thick of downtown. Nearly every table at La Flor de la Canela, tucked in a tiny strip of shops off Rte. 355, is full. There's actually a din.

And no wonder: For a place that emphasizes affordability, it hardly smacks of economy class. The waiters all wear crisp black jackets with the restaurant's name stitched on the breast pocket. Fresh cut carnations grace every table. Delicate chandeliers of wrought iron and smoked glass hang above the tables. The chairs and cabinets of baroquely carved wood suggest a conquistador's wine cave, an impression deepened by the soft, moody light.

The cooking is every bit as evocative, detailed and, sometimes, transportive. From first to last, which is to say, from the expertly concocted pisco sour with its cap of egg white foam splashed with bitters all the way through to dessert, including an order of oicarones (anise-flecked flecked donuts ringed with a light caramel sauce) and a superb tres leches cake that somehow maintains its structural integrity in spite of its rich, three-milk soak, the portions are huge, the cooking consistent, the rewards unending.

In between drinks and dessert, there's marinated, grilled beef hearts that, for six bucks, deliver some of the intensity and interest of a great steak; a marvelous creamy shrimp soup stocked with peas, potatoes, corn, limas and a poached egg; made-to-order ceviche (an enormous platter for two also comes with delicately fried calimari); building block-sized hunks of beef stewed in a cilantro sauce and flanked by perfect oiled rice and a side of the exceptional canary beans (imagine a cleaner, more sophisticated version of smoky campfire beans); and a plate of shredded chicken meat cloaked in a clingy, creamy sauce made from milk-soaked bread, garlic, cheese, and peppers. … 

… See the young woman behind the counter at Tay Do? She might look the part of the dutiful daughter pitching in to help tired, busy parents. But cheeky Jennifer Nguyen, all of 24, runs the place.

That’s not the only way that Tay Do, which moved from the catacombs to a coveted spot on the visible, outer ring of the Eden Center, flips the script. Unlike its often workmanlike neighbors, the dining room is dramatic and bold, with hanging chandeliers and swaths of bold, vibrant color, courtesy of Nguyen’s father, Johnson, and brother, Barry. Her mother, Claire, handles the cooking, and her range and skill are on display in every section of the multi-part, nearly 200-item menu.

Where to start? You can hardly do better than the Vietnamese sausage rolls, a bundle of mint and vermicelli and warm sausage packed into a tight rice wrapper and so good, you’ll be tempted to order another round. But rice crepes the size of a woman’s handbag and beautifully turned out also beckon. So do the meals-in-a-bowl called bun, a nest of cold vermicelli noodles providing a perch for grilled shrimp or grilled pork, or, in one memorable rendition, four grilled sausages. A broken rice dish with grilled pork, shredded pork and pork loaf amounts to a kind of pork three ways, yielding up as it does a variety of intensities and textures (the grilled pork a smoky bite of barbecue, the loaf almost a terrine, soft and assertively spiced).

There’s also pho (it surpasses the efforts of most pho parlors), spicy hot pots teeming with veggies and seafood, and excellent congee (a version with slices of ginger, shrimp and crab stick is delicate and soothing). …

Congratulations …

To Jonathan Gold, who last week won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his L.A. Weekly restaurant column — the first ever for a food writer, and well-deserved. Gold is unfailingly interesting, frequently hilarious, and a joy to read from week to week; maybe the highest praise you can give him is to say that his writing about food is every bit as good as eating the food he writes about.

A few days ago, he sat down for an interview with NPR

……………………………………………………………..

Washington, DC
I'm getting ready to move from DC. What are the one or two restaurants I shouldn't miss before leaving?

Instead of one or two, I'm going to give you a multi-part answer as an early send-off:

If you're feeling flush … Citronelle. The best restaurant in the city, and one of the most inventive chefs in the country, maybe the world.

If you want to experience the apotheosis of rusticity and refinement in the area … Palena. Cooking as soulful and as controlled as any you're going to find anywhere.

you're hankerin' (it's always hankerin', too, never hankering) for a taste of old D.C. … Horace and Dickie's.  Ginormous fried fish sandwich, served up in an atmosphere that mingles white and black, young and old, blue collar and white collar and no collar.

If you're in the mood for something that nobody else has … Tommy Marcos's Ledo Restaurant, in Adelphi. This is the original, not to be confused with the crummy franchised knockoffs. You're not going to find pizza that looks like this (it's the shape of a cafeteria tray) or tastes like this (biscuity crust, smoked provolone mixed with mozzarella for the cheese) anywhere else.

If you want a true taste of some of the dominant cultures that make up this crazy-quilt region … Shamshiry (Persian) and Ravi Kabob I and II (Pakistani) for kabobs; Etete for Ethiopian; Tay Do (see above), Viet Royale and Minh's for Vietnamese; Faryab for Afghani; Gom Ba Woo and Gamasot for Korean.

And what am I leaving out? 

Arlington, VA
My girl friend's birthday is coming up and I want to take our out for a great lobster meal. Her absolutely favorite dish is steamed or boiled lobster with a bucket of melted butter on the side. Can you recommend any place either in the DC area or Annapolis that has great steamed lobster. I am looking for a very casual place that, and here is the hard part, also has descent non-sea food options for me. Though the great is the top priority, Thanks,

This shouldn't be a toughie, but you know what? It is.

This just isn't a lobster town, and certainly not a town for what I think you're looking for — someplace where you can sit in a rough-and-ready atmosphere, with sheets of paper covering the tables, and get down to business cracking open some lobster.

Around here, when you're talking about an environment like that, you're talking about crab.

All the places that I can think of that have lobster on the menu are much, much more upmarket. 

Still, unless you're willing to consider Red Lobster (I'm guessing that's a big, fat "no!"), then you might want to expand your options. I'd look into the following: Kinkead's, Oceanaire, the Sea Catch, and McCormick & Schmick's.

No guarantees, of course, and the costs are going to be high, but I think those are your best bets.

Laurel, Maryland
Hi, Todd . . . need a recommendation for an upcoming blind date. Here's what I know: her name's Rena; she sounds great; I'm supposed to suggest a great wine bar for meeting. I was thinking Sonoma, but can you suggest some places a little less Capitol Hill?
I love it. It's sort of like the inverse of an advice column — you consult me before the date for my suggestions, not after.

And who knows? Maybe the recommendation leads to something big down the road …

Now, I don't know how soon your date is, but there's a new wine bar, called Proof, that is expected to open any day now in Penn Quarter. It bills itself as a wine bar, just like Sonoma, and should be what you're looking for.

But also … how about a couple of other spots that aren't literally wine bars but that have good wines by the glass and offer up a good atmosphere, too?

The new Cafe du Parc, at 14th and Pennsylvania, is one — if the weather's good, you can sit out on the sidewalk, very Cafe Society-like, and sip wine and people-watch (always good if conversation flags) and maybe split a plate of the terrific short rib terrine. I think it'd be pretty great for a first date.

Firefly, off Dupont Circle, is another. Good wines, and a cozy place to sit for a few hours and get to know one another. Same goes for the Tabard Inn.

washington DC
I heard the long time head waiter from corduroy is leaving the restaurant ! He actually waited on me couple of times and he does an excellent job with a european style. Do you think the service level at the lovely restaurant will be same after he is gone? Wish you good luck waiter !!!

I hadn't heard that, no.

If it's true — and well, even if it's not — perhaps the folks at Corduroy can chime in and fill us all in.

I can't think of a better testament to a waiter's charm and competence than to be singled out for high praise like this. Except, of course, if you had actually bothered to mention him by name. ; )

College Park, MD
For the person who wants to try what's great here before leaving the area — are you leaving out Indian food? And what about Maryland crabcakes?

Right you are! On both counts!

The coffee, clearly, has not kicked in yet this morning …

For Indian, I would heartily recommend Passage to India, in Bethesda, whose curries are the most elegant and refined I've come across in the area, and whose tandoori meats and fishes are almost unfailingly succulent. Great pickle plate, too. 

For crabcakes … Nothing has really knocked me out in a while, which may be because the crabmeat these days is coming from distant locales (Louisiana, Venezuela, SE Asia). I like a version at Central (with a leek tartar sauce), and I like a version at Vidalia.

For something simpler and homier, I still have a great fondness for the fried crabcakes at Roy Todd's place in Cambridge, Md., called Seafood Odyssey. I haven't been in over a year, but Todd also ran a crab processing plant in the back, and the meat that had been picked (all lump, and all from Maryland — no small feat) found its way into his thick, crispy fried cakes. That, and a cup of his terrific cream of crab soup, is as good and affordable a taste of Maryland as you're going to find. Prices may have gone up since, but last I was there, I got some good change back for my twenty.

 

wash, dc
Todd, I'm heading over to Rasika for the first time and am looking forward to a divine experience. First, I hope I'm not wrong in my expectation of divine and transforming for the evening? Second, any not-to-be missed items on the menu of which I should take note? Third, how is the wine list or am I better off sticking with their cocktails? many thanks,

"Divine and transforming" is pushing it. And especially if you're accustomed to eating Indian food that's full of punch and heat and spice.

Remember, this is fusion cooking above all, and it aims for a sophistication not usually seen in the curry shops. Mostly, I think, it succeeds — you should enjoy yourself. 

Keep an eye out for the galouti kabob, which comes in two, long perfectly fashioned sausages of assertively spiced minced lamb (along with a potent green chutney for swabbing them), the palak chaat (which is so unlike most other versions of this dish, the leaves of fried baby spinach waving in the bowl like curtains in the wind).

Among the main courses, I'm partial to both the lamb rogan josh (served not in chunks but as a thick shank in a pool of the aromatic gravy) and the lightly cooked, pearlescent black cod, which is about as luscious as fish gets.

The staff likes to tout its wine list, and you can't miss the big, colorful cocktails landing at all the tables next to you, but I tend to think a cold glass of Kingfisher is the best pairing you can do.

Alexandria, Va.

Dear Mr. Kliman,

My daughter and a few of her friends are looking for recommendations for dinner before their high school prom on April 28th. The prom is being held in the Hilton Crystal City so somewhere in Crystal City, Old Towne or Shirlington would be nice. As you can well imagine, they would most like to eat somewhere with tasty food, reasonably priced with a pleasant atmosphere (they will be wearing evening gowns and tuxedos). Could you make some suggestions? Thank you in advance for your kind consideration of my query.

Sincerely, Kathleen

Kathleen,

I'd suggest Indigo Landing, which is on Daingerfield Island — halfway between Old Town and the airport. It's the former Potowmack Landing, and has a terrific view: planes landing and taking off, the monuments, the water. The cooking is Lowcountry, and ought to satisfy the revelers: big, deep flavors of Southern classics and new-fangled takes on Southern classics. Most entrees aren't going to nudge past $22, and a good many are in the teens.

My big suggestion is not about the place or the food. It's about being taken seriously as a table.

A lot of restaurants are leery of a table of teenagers, and especially of teenagers on their way to prom. Servers are inclined to brace themselves for a bad tip, and spotty service might be sure to follow. So, in order to make sure that things go smoothly, I'd suggest that you call the place in advance and explain that your daughter and friends are mature people, and love good food, and that either you'd like to take care of the tip in advance — or that you are okay with the restaurant including a twenty percent gratuity in the check.

Good luck, and please be sure to let me know how the restaurant handles things on the phone, and during the meal.

Richmond, Va
Hi Todd, Who is the next chef that you are planning to invite for the chat session? How about Walter Scheib, the former executive chef of the white house?

Planning? No plans. Although I do hope that everyone enjoyed the give-and-take with Chef Wiedmaier. The idea was simply to keep the space up and humming while I was gone, and give all of you chatters something to sink your teeth into — I was going to be overseas last week (until a family emergency kept me at home).

Would you like to see future guest chats? 

And with what chefs, or restaurateurs, or authors, or butchers, or bakers, or candymakers?

The Scheib suggestion is a good one. 

Washington, DC
I am getting married in a few weeks, and was wondering if you had any recommendations for a moderately-priced, a-little-more-than-just-casual restaurant that can accomodate a small group of 15 people for my rehearsal dinner. Private room would be nice, but even a semi-private area would be fine. I was hoping for Distric Chophouse or Rosa Mexicana (my guests are all staying near the convention center), but alas their minimums are far too high for the available rooms. I was hoping to spend $1500 or less on this dinner, but mainly I'd like something that's not too upscale since the wedding itself is at acadiana. Thank you!

Congrats on your impending nuptials! (By the way, I love writing the phrase, "impending nuptials." Almost as much as I love offering pre-date dining advice.)

Have you thought to call Zaytinya? Or Poste? Or Ceiba? All are either right near, or pretty near, the two places you mention, all of them (to the best of my knowledge) have separate rooms, and all of them are fun, lively places.

Better yet, none of them is too upscale for your own good.

Washington, DC
I seem to be alone in my love of Turkish Delight—I can't find a proprietor in the area who offers it, and no one else I've asked for advice on its wherabouts has any idea. Have you had any turkish delight sightings around town?

I haven't, no.

But I wonder if Stella's Bakery, in Rockville, carries this sticky, wonderful confection. Or Athens Grill, in Gaithersburg, which makes one of the better baklavas you're going to find around here, and also has good rice pudding, too.

If you have any luck with either of those two, be sure to let us know. And that goes double if it's really good Turkish Delight. 

Alexandria VA
My husband and I are going to Williamsburg in May to explore and celebrate our first wedding anniversary. Do you have any restaurant recommendations? We love just about any food, especially seafood, and I'd be especially interested in eating a meal that was authentically colonial in nature. Also, is the Williamsburg Winery worth visiting? Thanks!

I wish I could be of some help, here. But I haven't been to Williamsburg in ages.

Has anyone? Any must-trys? 

Silver Spring, MD
We have done several pre prom dinners at Dino and always find them a delight to do. Rather than the pre concieved notions that you describe, we ahve found groups of well dress very excited to be taing part in one of the first "big deal" experiences of their lives. And just like with all large groups, we do add the gratuity. Anf this is not a solicitation for business…. we are already booked that night with a pre-prom party! Dean

That's Mr. Dino, everyone, in case you didn't know. 

Nice to know, Dean. Thanks for chiming in.

 

Washington, DC
Todd: Help! Situation: Need a place for lunch IN Union Station (not near, so no Bistro Bis or Johnny's). Any suggestions?

Why do I have the distinct impression that the P.A. announcer has just bellowed that the 12:38 to Boston is now boarding?

OK, let's keep this quick — and thanks for checking in on your laptop, D.C. … or is it your BlackBerry? 

Two words: chicken samples.

You know what I'm talking about, I'm sure. The place is called Sakkio Japan Chicken. Anyway, no need even for a name — just wander around the food court, and wait for someone proferring a toothpick like a Hare Krishna proferring a flower to approach you. Take it. Then go and order a plate with some rice. 

This is a food court, remember, so it's not going to be real chicken so much as a pressed approximation thereof. But it's good stuff. Grilled, then glazed, and absolutely, totally addictive.

Kudos for Corduroy service
Hi Todd, I wanted to echo my praise for the level of service at Corduroy. It is unmatched (in this city, so far) for their excellence and attention to detail and polished professionalism. It seems a rare vision, even in the better dining establishments – and it's a shame that it's becoming a lost art – because when it is top-notch, it often goes unnoticed, but when it's bad, it will knock-down an otherwise delightful evening out. I wonder if the above-poster and I had the same waiter – and if so, what a loss for Corduroy. I am curious, though, how Corduroy trains/treats their staff. I have assumed well because of the execution of the service. This may be a wrong assumption, but I do know that in the great restaurants in NYC that shine for their service (in addition to food, etc.) the way/the environment the restaurant owners/management treat their staff is key to the level of service provided to customers. Thanks

Interesting posting. I wouldn't say it's unmatched, although it does shine bright. And that's no small thing.

Thanks for chiming in today.

Mount Pleasant, DC
Chef Wiedmaier was not nearly as good a chog host as you are, Todd.
Maybe so, but I can't make a boudin blanc worth a damn. : )
Alexandria Va: Turkish treats
The chogger may want to call the Mediterranean Bakery on Pickett Rd. in Alexandria's West End. It's a large place with meats, cheeses and baked goods.

Good one!

Thanks for pitching in, Alexandria. 

Rockville, Md
Hi Todd, Keep up the good work! I have been a fan of Bombay Bistro in rockville for years . The food has been very consistent. Weekends there is always a line and have more than once occasion seen Tedd Koppel in the restaurant.. I cannot think of any restaurant in the area that also serve some very good wines by the glass. The restaurant – with a completley open kitchen was greatly admired by my foodie friends from New York and the Mussels they serve are exquisite. I have a very interesting proposition – get carryout mussels from your favorite five restaurants in town including Bombay Bistro and do a blind test… You will be amazed! You wil know what I am talking about! Cheers! Congratulations to the whole community of food writers for Jonathan Gold winning the Pullitzer prize .

I wish I shared your enthusiasm.

That's not to say you won't have a good time at Bombay Bistro — I just think a lot of other, similar places (similar  ambitions, similar prices) are now doing the job better. 

Williamsburg, Va
The Fat Canary is a very popular restuarant with a changing menu which reflects it's use of seasonal items. It is next to the Cheese Shop ( great sandwiches) and upstairs from a wine store. If memory serves, they will allow you to buy a wine from the store and have it served with your meal. Reservations are a must and should be made in advance. Blue Talon Bistro is a lovely restaurant serving real bistro favorites, and offers daily specials. Again, make a reservation or you may get lucky and get some seats at the bar (and watch classic Julia on the flat screen)

Thanks much, Williamsburg!

Three suggestions! And speedy too.

Washington, DC
Get Michael Landrum a guest spot here. That would be entertaining. Or Gilliam Clark for similar reasons — both have opinions as strong as their talents.

On the other hand, if you're already well-acquainted with those strong opinions, then the chat wouldn't offer all that much in the way of discovery, would it?

I'm wondering if choggers would be interested in hearing from people with a particular expertise and the ability to enlighten us as to the ins and outs of their profession, and maybe even to offer up a fair number of trade secrets, etc. — someone, say, like Mike Smollen at the wonderful butcher shop in Gambrills, Md., called My Butcher and More? 

Yes? No? Maybe?

A cheese-monger? A fish-monger?

A chef of a cuisine that, for lack of a better word, still seems "exotic" to most people? 

Washington DC
I would cetainly agree with Todd about Passage to India – another good place to go for Indian is Indique or Indique Heights – where in my opinion not only can you get some regional curries etc but also get some crab tikki (crab cakes- indian style) and a lot of very interesting small plates and some of the best desserts.

And I would certainly agree about the desserts at Indique Heights — a real high point for that restaurant, and for the area.

But neither Indique Heights nor Indique strikes me as the sort of place you must absolutely not miss before splitting town. 

silver spring md
Todd, your breezy, wonderful way of writing and describing food is worthy of the second Pulitzer Prize! The Washingtonian is lucky to have you – your style is a 'shot-in'the-arm,' if you will.
I appreciate the compliment, Silver Spring, but Gold has been doing this now for more than two decades and is truly in a class by himself.
new york
Hi Todd, For a person starting a restaurant, how important is to have a publicist?

Interesting question, NY.

It all depends on what your intention is.

A publicist will certainly get your name out there, and your "story." And that might guarantee you the attentions of the media and the bloggers.

But it might also backfire, and you might find yourself a victim of hype-age.

Me, I like to find places on my own, and to come at them without the "framing" that a publicist provides. I don't discriminate against places that have someone shilling for them (even if I use words like shilling to describe the process), but I do admit to an admiration for places that are small and independent and have to rely on their wits and talents and their ability to take care of people.

williamsburg
For something relatively inexpensive but good, the Cheese Shop and it's adjoining restaurant (the name escapes me right now) are great. There are three taverns that would offer a more "authentic" Williamsburg experience. All three are different, so you should check out the Williamsburg website and see which one you might like best.

And another vote for the Cheese Shop!

Thanks for the additional tip, too. 

Washington DC
Does Robert Shoffener still work for the washingtonian?

Yes.

Although I would say "write for," rather than "work for." And that the term for his rate of production is "occasionally," as opposed to "regularly." 

Arlington, VA
Todd, you seem to be better suited for book writing than for magazine review writing. I notice that you can't seem to keep up with other critics (sadly even Sally Squires at the Post). Have you thought of looking for a new job where you can write what you want to write as opposed to trying to cram in a review with your clearly alternate agenda?

"Keep up with"?

Who said I'm trying? It's simply impossible to maintain a once-a-week pace when you work for a monthly, and anyway, I see my mission as being entirely different from that of a weekly critic. I try to look at more than just what's on the plate in my long review each month. (The shorter reviews are different.) In that big, lead piece, I'm less interested in taking a Consumer Reports sort of approach — get this, get that, avoid this — and more interested in getting at what a place is saying, and how is reveals something larger about food or the city or what have you.

And "alternate agenda?" You make it sound like I'm trying to be Michael Moore.

I'm just interested in writing about what interests me, and in putting out a section every month that is relevant and lively and full of enthusiasm, and that shows a regard for good food wherever it may exist — upscale, downscale, fine-dining, or "ethnic."

 

alexandria, va
what is up with the lack of mid range Italian that doesn't break the bank, and doesn't buy pre-made pastas. I ate at a respected place last week and the gnocchi and two filled pastas reminded me of the pastas I've purchased at The Italian Store, from the cold case.

It's just not a strength of this area. Although the place I wrote about two weeks ago in "Word of Mouth … " — a tiny warren in Silver Spring, across from the AFI, called Da Marco — has what you're looking for. Well, mostly. About six of the pastas are homemade, and they're good. 

It's a neat, worthwhile spot.

And speaking of neat, worthwhile spots, I'm off to one right now for lunch. Thanks for all the interesting, sometimes pointed questions today. And keep 'em coming.

Meantime, eat well, be well, and let's do it again here next week at 11 …

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