Word of Mouth …
The new Hook (3241 M St., NW; 202-625-4488) is the kind of place where you see a tatooed, mohawked server waiting on a tableful of botoxed women in $200 jeans. The space is open and loud and white. It looks straight out of SoHo or South Beach, and like dining out in those style-conscious hotspots, you can't quite help feeling that people come here not so much to relax over food and drink as to revel in their great and abundant gifts — youth, vitality and money. A crisp-suited manager moves through the dining room, troubleshooting problems but looking for all the world like a sniper, tight and unsmiling. The chef, Barton Seaver, wears a faded green baseball cap down low on his brow — he looks like a prep-school kid who's just ditched his uniform — as he expedites orders and personally delivers plates from the open galley-style kitchen.
The food is light, clean, impeccably and imaginatively sourced, aesthetically pleasing, and — as my recent first peek showed — unaccountably bland. A square of halibut cloaked in a smoked cream sauce arrived at the table looking, my friend said, like "a block of cream cheese." It had been beautifully cooked, its insides pearly and soft. The cubed, hash-style potatoes with esplenettte oil were nicely done. But the sum was something less than its parts. Ditto for the asparagus with pistachio pesto and a beautifully fried puff of goat cheese. A lobster and saffron risotto was well-cooked, but not quite the lusciously rich and intensely aromatic dish it ought to have been. The crudo — the presentation of small, daintily portioned slices of raw fish that is meant to show off the kitchen's commitment to freshness — was served too warm.
Pastry chef Heather Chittum's desserts, on the other hand, were excellent: a terrific dark chocolate tart with aggressively salted cashews and a slick of caramel sauce, and a delicately rendered lingonberry linzer torte. They delivered the missing oomph.
Not all the signs are discouraging. I love the wine list, with its varied and imaginative and well-priced selections by the glass and bottle (note to management: lose the prosecco upsell at the start of service; it's insulting and bad-form). And I love that there's just a single safety pick among the list of entrees, which goes out of its way to introduce diners to new and interesting fishes (weak fish, wahoo, ribbon fish). Clearly, this is an ambitious young chef who is willing to challenge and even confuse, willing to force his audience to extend itself and try things — even to ask it to place its faith in him. Should they? Not quite. But I've got to think that this sort of daring is bound, at some point, to yield some real dividends. …
… For an indoor place, Llajtaymanta (7236 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-204-0593) feels awfully outdoors – the gingham table covers, the long-picnic sized tables for six, the waitresses in their lacy white tops and pleated red velour skirts conjuring up dancers at an open-air fair.
The food at this Bolivian gem is, likewise, big and festive. Consider the enrollado mixto, a massive pile-up of a thick-sliced meat terrine, sweet and spice-rubbed pork ribs, sides of hominy, pickled vegetables and, yes, a baked potato. Other plates are only slightly more modest: heaping plates of silpancho, or grilled steak topped with two runny fried eggs; a fried duck with no fewer than three starches; a breaded, fried rabbit in a tangy tomato sauce. Soups – whether the wine-fortified borracho, with beef, peppers, onions and a hard-boiled egg, or the surprisingly delicate peanut soup, with hunks of luscious pot roast, penne pasta and french fries — are meals in themselves. Even the masterfully light empanadas are super-sized; they resemble calzones.
A glass of mocochinchi, a spiced peach tea (with a peach pit sitting at the bottom), proves a nice counterbalance to all this caloric excess. Then again, if you want to blend in with the other tables of balladeering, laughing, and flirting customers, you might want to opt for a beer. …
Word of Mouth …
… Foodies rarely acknowledge the ways in which sourcing — to some, an issue shot through with questions of morality — is bound up in matters of money. I'm not coming out as an opponent of sourcing. I think it's wonderful that some chefs seek out produce and meats and cheeses with the fervor of a tickhound. And making a chicken taste like chicken, say, is no small feat in an age when the industrial, post-War machine has co-opted much of our food supply and made so many things taste like fast food.
But to listen to many foodies, sourcing is tantamount to holiness. A matter, some might have you believe, of personal taste. Those who are pure and good and devoted to all that food can be, seek out quality, artisanal suppliers at the farmers' markets and on the internet. Those who are not, buy from Safeway and Giant. Some of us have discernment, and some of us do not.
High-end restaurants have embraced sourcing as a reason for being. If a chef buys eggs from Polyface Farms, then you can bet your sweet amuse bouche that "Polyface Farms" will be modifying "egg" on his menu. Reading the menus at many big-name, big-ticket restaurants these days is like perusing a chef's shopping list. At one time, I have no doubt that it was meant to be helpful to the diner, a means of education, a chance to forge a connection between the table and the farm. These days, I can't shake the suspicion that it's mere bragging — proof of who's got the bigger roster of clients. ("See? Chef X, down the street, has six suppliers. I've got seven!")
Sourcing has become a craze, of sorts. And it's made chefs, some of them, a little crazy. An informant of mine, who works in the industry, told me last year about a local chef who claimed to be serving Shenandoah lamb, when in fact — because the informant supplied him his lamb — the lamb was frozen, from New Zealand. He also suggested to me that the presence of certain, attention-getting items from certain, attention-getting farms on a menu makes it possible for restaurants to get away with sneaking in lesser goods elsewhere — the sexy, sourced ingredients running interference. No less an eminence than Michel Richard, he noted, was serving frozen lamb amid his deconstructions and reconstructions.
The sourcing craze is catnip to an awful lot of food writers, who are all-too-willing to play the game, churning out reverential stories about chefs pursuing herbs on their motorcycles, citing suppliers for such things as onions in their reviews and giving chefs the benefit of the doubt — all because their heart is in the right place.
The unintended consequence of sourcing is to divide the food world into the haves and the have-nots. The places that get attention, the places that don't.
Most ethnic restaurants, being small, family-run operations, rarely purchase anything for their kitchens that's more special than what you might get at a grocery store. And yet Ravi Kabob, Etete, Nava Thai — to name just three — are among the best, most consistent restaurants in the area, thanks in no small part to the fact that their menus are small and their kitchens produce a limited set of simple dishes day after day after day. Etete isn't getting exquisite onions, but by the time you caramelize them for two hours (the basis for Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn's exceptional wats) what does it matter, really?
The newly opened Ghar-e-Kabob, in downtown Silver Spring, is an exception to the rule. I find it admirable that the restaurant is making such a concerted effort to source its products from local suppliers. A waiter one night assured a nearby table that the chicken in the chicken tikka masala was an Amish chicken, from Pennsylvania. Its vegetables, he added, were also purchased from local sources — though he didn't name names. Later, he brought out a take-home container to show us the restaurant's commitment to going green. It was made from recycled paper.
Beautiful, really. But the curries were thin and depthless. The chicken tikka masala I ordered (how could I resist the chance to eat an Amish chicken hot out of the tandoor?) was on the dry side. I'd looked forward to the various veggie curries, but I was hard put to see any benefit from all the local shopping the kitchen had supposedly gone to.
Not long ago at Equinox, I eagerly awaited a bowl of soup — made from, I presumed, locally grown spring garlic. The presentation was elaborate, the pouring of the broth, tableside, over the poached quail egg and buttered leeks that had been grouped in the center of the bowl. I dug in.
Garlic was the fifth thing I tasted, after salt and cream and bacon and butter.
Sourcing plus great cooking is one thing. But in the absence of that — and it's harder to come by than you think, believe me — I'll take great cooking. …
Where did I take her? We all went out for Korean food. Seafood pancake, kimchee, seul-lung-tang, heaping platters of barbecue, and cold glasses of Cass beer. Good stuff. And then, for dessert — soft, almond cream-filled buns and braided donuts at a Korean bakery and coffeehouse.
Thanks for the report on Indique Heights.
You and other readers — and yes, cronies of the restaurant, too — have been plumping for the buffet at Indique Heights for some time now. Let's just say I've made a note of it.
As for the best weekend buffet brunch … sorry, I just don't have a clear-cut favorite. Does anyone?
I'd love to hear your picks. Fire away, choggers. And good morning to you all on this bright, beautiful day …
Would you consider Silver Spring? Because Ceviche, while not spanking new, meets a lot of your specs: It's affordable, it's got a fun, pulsing vibe, and the food is good, too. Surprisingly so, for a place that seems to value style and mood as much as this one does.
The new chef, Javier Angeles-Beron, has ditched the loroco, that soothing Ecuadoran stew, but added an arroz tapado, a formed rice dish layered with ground beef and raisins and dressed up with crispy leeks, and a version of lomo saltado, the Peruvian stir fry, that uses tenderloin instead of the cheaper, tougher cuts of beef.
Otherwise, you might want to look into Leopold's Kafe + Konditorei, in Georgetown. The food is good (Austrian! both classic and modern), it's reasonably priced (most entrees can be had for less than twenty bucks), the atmosphere all but oozes Euro, and there's loads of people-watching to be done (smartly go-up young people and the sweater-wreathed older folks who foot the bill for them).
The cafe — make that kafe — is located in Cady's Alley, a hard-to-find side street parallel with M St. that fashions itself as a kind of Georgetown-within-Georgetown: an ultra-exclusive strip of shops for those who find the rest of this teeming, privileged area to be not quite up to snuff.
Thanks for the report from the field, Chloe!
It's going to be interesting to watch as Le Gaulois, in Old Town, tries to modernize and update itself without sacrificing its longtime audience.
Well, you can't say we don't provide equal time on the chat, now, can you?
There are two possible explanations here: Either your food was really, really, really good, or you're just not as gosh-darn picky as me. : )
And unlike a movie or a record, although we might have ordered some of the same things, it's entirely possible we didn't taste the same things.
I remember eating a dish of shad roe a couple of years ago with a friend that was so good, so perfect, we decided to get another one. Well, the other one — from the same kitchen, sent out just a few minutes later — was nothing special. How could this be? Timing is crucial — a few seconds more in the pan, and what was transcendent is merely middling. Timing, focus, any number of factors goes into play in a restaurant kitchen.
That's the tricky part of depending on guarantees from restaurants — also one of the things that makes eating out so interesting.
It's also one of the reasons why I don't like to commit firm judgments to print until I've been a few times.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to going back to Hook and seeing what visits two, three, and who knows what else will bring.
Affordable and sushi are not usually words that generally go well together. All-you-can-eat sushi, for instance, is one of the culinary abominations of the past two decades.
But you know? Kotobuki, on MacArthur Blvd., in Palisades, is pretty much a glaring exception to this rule. It does a really good job both with its fish and with its prices. If you haven't been, you're missing out. It's the best cheap sushi in the city.
Chloe! Long time, no hear! : )
I'm curious, too. Are you out there this morning, chogger who was set on going to Ristorante Piccolo for Mother's Day brunch?
Thanks for the P.S.
And I love that you went and decided to check the place out for yourself after checking in with us last week. That's my kind of enterprising eater!
Well, you can't do any better than Shamshiry, a wonderful Persian restaurant that sits in the ground floor of a Tysons Corner office building.
Charming, it's not, but it's got the single best beef kabob in the area (and the area, if you haven't noticed, is right now aswarm with kabob places), outstanding mounded and perfumed rice dishes, and a gloriously intense (and vividly colored) saffron custard for dessert.
With a simple restaurant like this, you don't expect a lot of niceties of service and presentation, but you get them, from the crisply laid white tablecloths all the way through to the elaborate and tenderly offered tea service.
I haven't been.
On the one hand, the place has been opened a relatively short time.
On the other hand — as my wife likes to point out of just-opened places — they are, nevertheless, charging you full price.
On the third hand (I tend to find that, like the narrator of Pnin, I need a third hand for these things) you did choose to give your money to a new place that has not yet established itself.
No easy answer with this …
I wonder if new restaurants would consider reducing their prices for the first three weeks, during the work-out-the-kinks period. It'd be a great gesture to their audiences — assuming, of course, they wouldn't go broke as a result. Big assumption, I know.
I gave my short list of places last week, but I don't mind offering it up again (with a couple of additions), since where to go to get soft shells is undoubtedly the question of the moment for anyone who lives in the region and loves good food.
A lot depends on availability, as it always does with fresh, seasonal product, but these are the restaurants I'd ring up first for soft shells: Kinkead's, Equinox, Vidalia, Blue Duck Tavern, Circle Bistro, and Hank's Oyster Bar.
I know some of you are squeamish when it comes to these local critters — the fact that you're eating the entire crustacean, shell and all, the musky, mustardy taste that comes from the tamalley inside, the softness of it — but truly, a good soft shell is one of the great glories of living in this area at this time of year.
Ilis and Manu — see above. Kinkead's and Vidalia are both terrific for fish.
Pan-Asian isn't particularly abundant, although you could try Asia Nora on M St. Its chef just left, so the kitchen is bound to be in a period of transition. Otherwise, I'd rather steer you to some really good Vietnamese food in the Eden Center (Tay Do, Viet Bistro) in Falls Church; look for the seafood hot pots at Tay Do, and the prawns in caramelized coconut juice at Viet Bistro. Minh's, in Clarendon, is also a terrific pick for Vietnamese — they've got an excellent sizzling catfish, to boot.
Beyond that, I'd look into any of the new and good French bistros that have opened: Central Michel Richard, Beck Brasserie, and Cafe du Parc.
Hope that helps, some.
Eat well, and please check back in with a report before you leave.
It is. Thanks for the check-in, Alexandria.
And it's not just you — I've been hearing some good things from others out there, too.
That's funny — I've been eyeing this place for some time, now.
Thanks for the report. Homemade, hand-pulled noodles is a special thing indeed, and I'm pretty much a sucker for anything with that hot mustard sauce.
Beltsville is proving to be a bit of a destination for Korean cooking, what with Gah-Rham, the recently re-opened Myoung Dong and — if you are to be believed — Dae Rae Won. It's not Annandale, and likely never will be, but still — it's good to hear.
Thanks for the tip — and for your thoroughness!
Now, see? I love this: a date night for you and your husband. That's the way to do it. The courtship continues.
Actually, come to think of it — married people (and older, divorced people, returning to the field) are probably the only people who date anymore. Young'uns, they hook up. Not the same thing.
OK, a place, a place …
Vidalia on 20th and M St. isn't cheap, but you can keep the costs down by sharing an appetizer and dessert, and by going for two-ounce pours of wine instead of the usual, six-ounce pour. It's a first-rate place for fish and seafood, the setting is warm and sophisticated, and I think you'd have a good, romantic time.
You could also pick from any of the new bistros I talked about above, if you're willing to venture further afield from seafood and American cooking. Central, Beck Brasserie and Cafe du Parc — all are terrific values, with good food and buzzing atmospheres.
I hope the two of you have a great and relaxing time. And I hope you'll let us know how the evening turned out, wherever you go.
As for me … I'm off to lunch now, everyone — back out into the field.
I hope you all have a chance to get out and enjoy the sunshine. And keep those good reports coming!
Eat well, be well, and let's meet back here next week at 11 …………