Tuesday, May 8, 2007

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Congratulations …

To Michel Richard, RJ Cooper and Mark Slater, each of whom won a James Beard Award – the Oscar of the food world – at the annual ceremony in New York last night.

Richard was honored as Most Outstanding Chef in the Country, the top honor of them all. It’s Richard’s second Beard; previously he won for Best Chef California. Slater, meanwhile, was saluted as the country’s Wine Professional of the Year for his work at Richard’s Citronelle.

Cooper, the chef at Vidalia, was recognized as Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. It’s the second Beard award for Vidalia. Jeff Buben, the restaurant’s proprietor, won one in 1999.

….

Word of Mouth …

The trendies were out in force over the weekend at Casa Oaxaca, the new Adams Morgan restaurant (a spinoff from the folks at Arlington’s Guajillo) with cooking from Oaxaca – that’s Wa-HA-Ca, as the black t-shirts the servers all wear lets people know – the culinary region of Mexico where mole originated.

The place had a familiar air, the air of a giant party that was long underway, as if the owners had siphoned off some of the spillover crowd of earnest young strivers standing for hours in line at nearby Lauriol Plaza.

But no matter how much excitement coursed through the color-splashed dining room, Casa Oaxaca isn’t yet ready for prime time.

I salute the owners for allowing you to pick out your own brand of tequila for the margarita, and for spiking the sangria with brandy, but both drinks are too weak to induce a real buzz. Likewise, the moles – there are multiple varieties, not just the bitter chocolate-infused sauce — are more gentle than I would have hoped for, given the restaurant’s emphasis, tasting neither refined and elegant (like the best moles can be) nor rustic and full of gusty, spicy punch. It doesn’t help that the meats I sampled last weekend were generally tough or unluscious. The snapper ceviche was diced so finely, it was difficult to appreciate the quality of the fish (which might have been the idea). A plate of giant, flopping ravioli came strewn with huitlacoche (otherwise known as “corn smut,” and an honest-to-god Mexican delicacy) and squash blossoms; it was a wonderfully delicate and light-tasting dish, a real departure from most of what passes for Mexican cooking in these parts; too bad the ravioli themselves were chewy rather than tender, and so hard to cut they spattered sauce all over the table.

The less said about a botched deconstruction of bread pudding that tasted like caramelized croutons, the better.

Casa Oaxaca, 2106 18th St., NW; (202) 387-2272

One of the best-kept secrets in the area is a tiny, two-stool bakery in a dilapidated Oxon Hill strip mall called Desserts by Gerard. Residents of Oxon Hill, who can’t believe their good fortune, are no doubt happy to keep it that way.

The quality of the work, at its best, exceeds most of what you can find in the fashionable precincts of Upper Northwest and the tony inner-ring suburbs of Virginia. Surprised? Now get a load of the prices: A gorgeous 10-inch custard berry tart will set you back just $15.95. A textbook strawberry shortcake that can easily serve eight to ten costs $32.95. How about something smaller and simpler? Croissants, which, elsewhere, are often as costly as they are chewy and dull, come in at just under two bucks — $1.85. And they’re good.

The owner and chef is Gerard Huet, whose resume is studded with high-profile positions, including, most notably, a stint at Jean-Louis at the Watergate. His repertoire is vast, and not everything hits its mark (the eclairs are a bit of a disappointment, and the red velvet cake tastes more of French refinement than Southern excess), but there’s a lot to love. The piled-high raspberry tart is fantastic, the pecan pie is nearly as good (French refinement, in this case, resulting in a pie that’s surprisingly light for all its sweet density), and a square of chocolate-ganache draped chocolate cake puts you in mind of a sophisticated ho-ho.

Huet also makes sandwiches, big, properly overstuffed sandwiches at seeming odds with his classical training, and they’re worth driving for all by themselves – especially the creamy chicken salad, served on brioche, seasoned with a pinch of curry, and given some crunch with the addition of sliced tart apple, and one of the best renditions of egg salad around.

Desserts by Gerard, 6341 Livingston Rd., Oxon Hill; (301) 839-2185

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Washington DC
I have a "fine diner" coming to visit next week and she wants the very best soft shell crabs–Short of going to Solomon's, can you make a suggestion?

Is it me, or do you make "fine diner" sound like "persnickety houseguest"? : )

What I would do if I were you, is call up the following restaurants — Equinox, Vidalia, Kinkead's and Blue Duck Tavern.

I don't know for sure that they all have them on their menus right now, but these are among the best places in the city to eat this wonderful local delicacy.

Good luck in your search, and I hope you and your friend are eating well next week! 

Soft shell crabs … Boy oh boy, it's truly one of the best times of the year to be a food-lover in this city.

Alexandria, VA
Todd, I know there's always a lot of buzz around Citronelle but I'm leaning very heavily towards thinking that it's totally unwarranted. My girlfriend and I went there for our anniversary dinner and the service was horribly rude. When we asked to be moved because smoke from the bar (this was in 2006, obviously) was bothering my girlfriend, they seemed miffed that we should disturb their seating arrangement. The cuttlefish appetizer made my girlfriend feel ill, and I found a T-shaped bone about half an inch long in my rabbit mousse and was told that it wasn't anything bigger than what could "normally" be there–this after the waitress stared incessantly at me during a coughing fit because the bone had been stuck in my throat. My talk with the maitre'd, although somewhat personable, ended with a "come back and just trust us," and our letters to Chef Richard have gone unanswered. We thought that this experience might have happened because we are young diners–both in our early 20's–although other upscale restaurants, most notably Cathal Armstrong and Todd Thrasher's line of Alexandria restaurants, have treated us much better. Any thoughts?

That sounds like an absolutely, positively awful time. It also — I have to say — sounds absolutely, positively unlike any experience I've ever had at Citronelle.

I do think that in this instance, if things are truly as bad as they sound, a restaurant ought to do more than simply say: Come back and trust us. If everything went down as you say, then the burden is on the establishment to earn back that trust.

Also … Restaurateurs, managers and servers will surely beg to differ, but in my experience, young (or young-looking) diners in upscale restaurants — diners who don't dress to the nines and who don't buy a lot of wine — are sometimes overlooked and dismissed. I didn't say always, and I didn't say often. But sometimes.

Of course, sometimes those young diners — ill at ease with the environment — are wont to see discrimination when it doesn't really exist.

Chevy Chase, MD
Are there any local (vs. national chain) restaurants that offer good, gluten-free options, esp. pizza & pasta? Thanks

Boy, you know? Nothing is coming to mind.

Anybody out there in chog-land who knows of a place or two? 

alexandria, va
Is it still appropriate to tip at day spas for services over $200?

Wrong chat, pal.

But, since it has to do with the subject of tipping, I figured I'd go ahead and respond. My advice: Tip. And tip well.

If the service is good — not great, but good — you should tip twenty percent. And more than that (your judgment) for anything that goes above and beyond the norm.

If you're looking to become a regular at a restaurant or bar, tipping generously is as good a way I can think of to ensure that you're going to be welcomed back with open arms on future visits. 

Alexandria, VA
I'm looking for a restaurant to celebrate my birthday with my husband and my parents. Something along the lines of Del Merei or the new Overwood. What do you know about Georgetown's new restaurant, Hook? I love the idea behind it and we're willing to try a new place. The catch? My birthday falls right after Mothers' Day, and that's the only night we can all go out! If Hook isn't recommended, are there places that might not be too crazy on Mothers Day at dinner time? Thanks!

The problem with Hook is, it's closed on Mondays.

You might want to give the new Cafe du Parc, on 14th and Pennsylvania, a try — especially if the weather's good. You can sit outside and drink and eat and linger and pretend you're a member of Cafe Society. The food's good (sometimes very good), the portions are hefty, and the prices — since it's aiming to replicate a bistro — are relatively modest (entrees, for instance, hover around 16, 17 bucks).

I'd book soon, though. 

Still a gem of a place?
Hi Todd. I finally found Thai Xing, which you wrote about in DEC2005. Do you still think it's the treasure that you first discovered? Granted, it's a little leap of faith- both in finding the out-of-the-way haunt – and wondering about this humble haunt. But, oh the intoxicating aromas, the dynamic balance of sweet, spicy, tangy. I think magic happens when the ingredients come together – in a way that I don't find happening in many Thai restaurants. I do understand the idea of ordering ahead; the wait could be long (especially if you're short on time). This is not a criticism (only a caveat) because I think it's understandable when you see that it's a one-man operation. Do you still go – and get excited? Thanks for scouting out this hidden secret in DC – and glad to know that DC Thai can soar.

Actually, I first wrote about tiny Thai X-ing in the summer of 2004, when I did a weekly column for the City Paper.

I haven't eaten there in probably six months, but my last visit was every bit as tasty as all my previous visits had been. 

Yes, it's slow, and yes, there's no place to sit, but so what? This is probably the best Thai cooking within D.C. proper.

One man (Taw Vigsittaboot), one kitchen, one vision. The salmon in red curry, in particular, makes me (and my wife) swoon.

Alexandria, VA
I heard that there was a gluten free menu at Austin Grills. Legal Seafoods has a gluten-free menu. Here is a link that has some places from the Celiac group in the area. You'll have to look to see which ones are actually in DC as opposed to NoVa or MD. http://www.dcceliacs.com/dcceliacs/WACSSG_…restaurants.pdf Hope this is helpful. Lisa

Absolutely. 

Thanks for chiming in with this, Lisa …

Alexandria, VA
I am weighing options for a special dinner and am leaning towards Maestro. What's your take on this restaurant and will I enjoy my experience?

Will you enjoy your experience? Only if you like exquisitely made pastas, beautifully prepared fish courses, great wines and expert service. : )

We ranked the area's best restaurants in January, from 1-100. Maestro clocked in at Number Two on our list. And frankly, wasn't all that far from Number One. 

 

Washington, D.C.
Thank goodness for Beck's. Now I can get a seat at the bar at Central again.
And thank goodness for Cafe du Parc, which will (eventually) ensure that you can (eventually) get a seat at Beck's.
Arlington, VA
Hi Todd – I'm heading to Vegas this summer on a trip with my girlfriend. Do you know of a good restaurant to take her for a birthday dinner somewhere on the strip?

Did you recently win the lottery? ; )

I'm serious: Is money no object?

Centreville, VA
Todd, Love the chat…thanks for all of your hard work! I recently dined at Central and while the food was very good, the service was just OK (re: not bad, but not exceptional either). Granted, I don't expect Citronelle-level service, but it seems these days I can't get away from servers who come up to the table and blurt out whatever they have to say, without regard to the pace of conversation at the table…on a Mon night, in a half full restaurant, no less. I can't understand how, in a city of power lunches and dealmaking, this type of behavior can be so commonplace. Thanks for listening…

I don't like it, either.

Don't know that I'd deduct points for service on that basis alone, though. Anything else go wrong? 

Toronto, Ontario,Canada
I will be in Bethesda and also near the Maryland soccer complex the weekend of May 25,26,27,28 with my son's soccer team. The boys on the team are 17 years old. I would like some help choosing restaurants that are not too expensive but serve great food and will accomodate a crowd (about 40 people) Your suggestions would be appreciated.

Great food, not expensive … that's a rare combination, especially in Bethesda.

How about tasty, crowd-pleasing food, good times and not expensive? That I can give you.

I think the place you should be looking at is called Rio Grande Cafe, and it's well-acquainted with handling a large group.

Good luck, and please write back to let us know how things turn out.

Adams Morgan
We tried Casa Oaxaca this weekend also… liked it, but didn't love it. Highly recommend the chicken tres moles. But nearly $20 for an entree is high for a neighborhood restaurant, and if their ambition is fine dining, there's a disconnect somewhere. At this point, I'd rather go down the street to Mandu.

I don't think their ambition is fine-dining — but they're definitely aiming higher than most Mexican restaurants in the area, and they're changing for it.

I'm interested in returning and probing deeper into the menu, but at this point, the place seems a little more interested in catching a buzz and servicing a young, stylish crowd than in turning out detailed, soulful regional Mexican cooking.

Arlington VA
We are devastated by the hopefully temporary loss of Eastern Market. While we wait for the next reincarnation of this treasure, where can I find home made pasta to take home in the area? And do you know who made the incredible home made pasta that was sold inside the market?

I don't. Does anybody out there?

Mayor Fenty, by the way, has promised to find a temporary location for the Market's terrific vendors. Good news. Stay tuned.

Meantime, I'd try The Italian Store — 3123 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-528-6266 — or Litteri's, which is located in the wholesale food market near New York Ave. and Florida Ave. 57 Morse St. NE; 202 544 0183.

More restaurants for gluten Free
Legal Seafoods – obviously you and i know it's AMAZING there – if she's got the money for it! The Baja Fresh is pretty good – there are a few in town – kinda cali-mex fast food – not greasy – pretty good Outback and PF Changs is always good, but I don't know if they are in the city… Ruth's Chris Steakhouse – good but pricey Chipotle – good for lunch, good price – big burrittos! Don Pablo's – I know there's one in the Potomac Yards strip mall Chicken Out – There's one in the Ballston Mall – pretty good Clyde's – nice restaurant – I know there's one in Georgetown and a new one in Chinatown – medium priced, nice atmosphere, lots of businesspeople go there McCormick & Schmick's – the list says it's only in Reston but there's one downtown – again another business-type lunch place but good food and okay priced I think that's it – I'm sure she'll find lots of options in the city and there are Whole Foods all over the place. Hope this helps!
Maybe the coffee's not kicking in this morning. Because I can't tell if this is some kind of poker-faced hijinks or the real deal.
Lincoln Park
Hi Todd, I wrote in a couple weeks ago about an awful exp. at Bebo. I am writing back b/c I went back about a week ago and had a much better exp. The service was much much much better. They were still out of the first few items we tried to order, but that happens at any restaurant. We dined on the later side of a Thursday eve. and as our aps arrived EVERY light in the restaurant went up ALL the way–last call style. Our server was speaking with us at the time and scurried away while gesturing at the lights and had them brought back down. All in all a much better time!

Hey, going from truly awful and humiliating to comically inept — I'd call that progress!

That's big of you, Lincoln Park, returning to this forum to give credit where credit is due. 

Washington DC
Need a downtown DC fine dining restaurant with a private room for 12-13 people to sit comfortably. Here's the kicker–both the restaurant and the private room need to be handicapped accessible for a person in a scooter. Can find one, or the other, but not both. It's a special occasion so we want a really nice place. Any type of cuisine is OK. Thanks for your help.

That is a kicker. I'm stumped.

Any managers reading along out there who think their place can accommodate this group? 

 

Alexandria, Va.:Home Made Pasta at the Farmers Markets
Good Morning Todd! Another great chog…. There are vendors at the Dupont and Del Ray Farmers Markets who sell fresh pastas and sauces.
Good morning to you too, Alexandria. And thanks for those terrific suggestions!
Washington, DC
Any word on the (relatively new) cafe Napoleon? A friend has chosen it for an after-work meeting spot. Do you know if there's anything worth ordering, or should I stick to drinks? I'm usually very adventurous when it comes to French food (offal, garlicky snails, stinky, runny cheeses), but a bit leery of taking a chance on such a new place.

In a word: Ugh.

(OK, that's not a word. But still … )

Stick to the drinks, then head to either the new Central, the new Beck Brasserie or the new Cafe du Parc for really good and (really pretty affordable) French cooking.

Fine Dining/Handicapped Accessible
Call Vidalia … I know it doesn't appear handicapped accessible, but I think they have an elevator.
Really? Interesting.
Toronto
Spending the weekend in DC (18 – 21 May). Booked for Komi. Looking for two other restaurants that are interesting and less expensive. Prefer something downtown or in the Penn Quarter. Suggestions?

First suggestion: We need to get you some nouns

Here's a few places to look into — Poste and Zengo (both in Penn Quarter, the former a tasty New American bistro, the latter an Asian-Latin spot that gives fusion a good name), Montmartre (a good French bistro in Eastern Market), Circle Bistro (good, Frenchified American cooking in the West End).

All of these made our recent 100 Best list, and all are worth your time and money.

Lisa
Todd, See if this link works better for you http://0039f02.netsolhost.com/favorites/WACSSG_favorite_restaurants.pdf Can you replace it? PLEASE!
Consider it replaced! : )
Del Ray, VA
Todd, Some very good friends of mine are moving from the area and we're going out to dinner this weekend. What is the one restaurant that they shouldn't miss before they go? — (besides Citronelle, which we've been to) Thanks so much the suggestion.

I'd say Maestro. 

But that means leaving town without eating at either CityZen and Palena, both terrific.

 

Alexandria VA: Taking his girlfriend to dinner on the Vegas strip
I'd recommend the Eiffel Tower restaurant at the Paris Hotel. The food is good and the view is spectacular.

Good one!

And you're just a wealth of information this morning, Alexandria. Thanks for the shout-outs … 

Alexandria, VA
Hi Todd, Since Mother's Day is coming up, I researched all the restaurants that are serving Mother's Day brunch using Opentable.com. They were all very expensive, except Restaurant Piccolo, in Georgetown. I made a reservation at this restaurant for brunch. Can you tell me anything about this place? Have you ever heard of it? Have you eaten there before? It this a restaurant I should be taking my mother to? I would appreciate ANY feedback. Thank you.

I wish I could help you — but I've never eaten there. 

Has anyone?

If you're really concerned about spending too much, and your mother is half-way adventurous, I'd avoid the traditional Mother's Day brunches and head out for something like dim sum at Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd. in Wheaton.

It's a great experience, very relaxing, and the food is varied, interesting, delicious and affordable. In fact, that's where I went with my own mother a couple of years ago.

Washington DC: Taking His Girlfriend To Dinner On The Vegas Strip
The 9's SteakHouse @ The Palms Hotel is slightly off of the Strip, but is worth it!
I don't know it, but your enthusiasm for it gets my attention — and maybe also the attention of our boyfriend-splurger? Thanks for chiming in, DC …
Washington, D.C.
Todd, I was at Poste Brasserie this weekend and noticed that the restaurant has an entire patio, that is quite beautiful! The best part of the patio was a vegetable and herb garden. What is the story with this? Does the restaurant use these or are they for show? Thanks for the great chats!

The gardens are practical, not just aesthetic.

If you eat, say, the wonderful, cooked-to-order donuts at brunch, you can taste a little hint of lavender in the batter. Well, the lavender comes straight from the garden.

So do many of the herbs that find their way into chef Rob Weland's dishes.

The patio is also one of the better spots in the city to sit and linger on a nice, warm night — and still a pretty well-kept secret, too.

Sitting out on the patio, drinking and eating and whiling away the day … sounds pretty good right about now, doesn't it, as you sit at your desk and stare at the screen and chomp away at your turkey sandwich and chips and diet cola?

Get out there and enjoy the gorgeous day, everyone. 

And, as always — eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …

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