July 3, 2007

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Word of Mouth …

… It's hard for me to restrain my enthusiasm for the two-month-old Masala Country in Centreville (6007 Centreville Crest Lane, Centreville; 703-815-8000; www.masalacountryva.com), the first outpost of the Indian fast-food chain in the region. Don't turn up your nose at the designation "fast food"; nothing on the menu at McDonald's has ever tasted as bright and pungent and alive as even a single spoonful of Masala Country's mint chutney. Diners accustomed to conventional tandoor and curries are in for a surprise from the menu, which mingles Indian street snacks (the poofy, spiced lentil-batter doughnuts called madu vada, the steamed cakes called idly), Indian-Chinese staples (Chilly Cauliflower, in which battered cauliflower florets are submerged in an incendiary garlic-chili sauce, and hakka noodles) and a fierce, cross-cultural imagination (howsabout a Mexican dosa? It's just one of — count 'em — 36 varieties). This is legitimate cooking that rivals, at its best, what you'll find at many more tastefully appointed Indian restaurants around the area. Of course, it beats most of them when it comes to price: The most expensive thing on the menu is $9. …

… How to explain Vapiano (1800 M St. NW; 202-640-1868), the new Euro "fast casual" pasta-and-pizza import that recently debuted downtown? Try this: The place is sleek and streamlined and German-looking, the cooks behind the prep counter sport red kerchiefs on their heads and could come from a diner in the South, the food is Italian, and the method of cooking the pastas is Chinese. You place your order with one of the kerchief-wearers, who pours a spot of olive oil into a shallow wok, pops a pre-cooked pasta into a vat of bubbling hot water, and begins to assemble your dish, mixing pre-chopped ingredients furiously with a spatula. It's a very "pre-" experience, right down to the "chip card," a plastic, debit card-looking thing which get scanned at the time you place your order. The pastas are okay when they're just out of the wok, a lot less so after five minutes, when things begin to clump. The pizzas are more conventionally cooked, and not half-bad; I like the crust. But the cheese tends to slide off it, and one of the pizzas I sampled for lunch recently (topped with prosciutto, sliced figs and acacia honey) was cloyingly sweet. …

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So tomorrow's the 4th. And the 4th to me has always meant food: steamed crabs, ribs, burgers on the grill.

Where and what are you eating tomorrow, choggers?
Memo to the Folklife questioner: T-o-d-d.

Restaurant Week
Any recommendations for restaurant week this summer?

You're planning a month out? Restaurant Week isn't for another month.

Personally, I'm just not thinking that far ahead for a meal.

Especially not when tomorrow's the 4th and I haven't figured out what I'm going to be building my day around, eats-wise. 

Brunch?
I am looking for a good Sunday brunch place in the Fairfax/Falls Church area, that is not too expensive and not too noisy. Got any suggestions?

What about Fortune in Falls Church for dim sum? It's one of the better dim sum spreads you're going to find in the area.

If that's not your idea of the ideal brunch — sorry; it's mine — then how about going a little closer in? The Carlye, in Arlington, has a more conventional spread in a nice, relaxed setting.

Career?
Hey Todd. I love your column–I tune in every day to see if there's any new info in the Best Bites blog! (Sort of addicted…) Anyways, I was wondering about your own career path–how did you get involved as a food critic? Any suggestions or advice for someone who is interested in a similar career?

Column? Let's not get carried away; it's just a few quickie scribblings I put down each week of some finds I want to pass along — and some places that I'd just as soon steer you away from

My path to this point is long and windy. Which is to say: I didn't set out to become a food critic. I've been writing for newspapers and magazines since I was fifteen, and, somewhere along the way, I got interested in writing about food — after writing about pretty much everything else. I love, and, in a way, wonder why I didn't think to write about food earlier.

The best advice I can give you is just to write. About any and everything, even if it's not related to food. And maybe, especially if it's not related to food. A broad background is a big, big help.

Is it important to know food? Sure. But I'm not writing for an audience of chefs and hardened foodies — even though they might think they're the heart of the audience. The goal is to be able to write about food in an interesting, graceful, and compelling way — to write for the person who isn't going to go to the restaurant (and wants a vicarious experience), as well as for the person who is. And that comes down to matters of prose.

Mastering all the little details and nuances of a dish — yeah, again, that's nice. But not conveying the feel and texture of the experience … not being candid about what a place is really like … not giving a full and proper picture to the customer who saves up money for weeks and maybe months to have a night out — that's a kind of dereliction of duty.

Washington, DC
For the Fourth: We're slow cooking some ribs on the grill, with corn on the cob buttered and wrapped in foil, baked potatoes, and home made vinegar slaw. YUM! Then we'll have a Mom's Pies cherry crumb for dessert. What could be better?

Backatcha with a YUM. Sounds terrific.

 

Washington, DC
My boyfriend and I are going to the Ken Cen to see phantom of the opera on saturday, and want to go somewhere nice for dinner beforehand. What's your recommendation for a pre-theater deal? Thanks for your great chats.

If you insist on a pre-theater fixe, I'd go with the one at Marcel's, at 24th and Penn.

You can dine on the first of your two courses, then have them ferry you to the Ken Cen in a leather-seated Benz. When the show's over, they'll pick you up and whisk you back to the restaurant to finish up with dessert. Pretty nice.

And it's a good chance to experience, on the relative cheap, some of the most luxurious, Old World cooking in the city.

Hope that helps. Let us all know what you decided to do …

Springfield, VA
So what are you doing for the 4th? Do you barbecue?

I don't. Not that I can't — I just don't have the opportunity (our backyard has a brick pit on the premises, but it needs some tweaking) or the time (not with all the eating out I do).

I'm thinking, for tomorrow, one of two directions — crabs or ribs. 'Course, to get the best of either, you've got to hit the road. Which I'm perfectly happy to do.

Anyway, thanks for asking.

Columbia Heights, DC
Hi Tom, I have a Folklife Festival question for you and anybody else out there. If you've been this year, are there any cooking demonstrations or vendor food that is particularly good? Thanks!

Good question!

I haven't been. Has anyone?

Washington, DC
What do you think makes a really good burger really good? I mean, I always thought it was just ground beef in a patty and cooked. So, why are there some restaurants that make really great burgers, and others are just average? Where's your favorite burger?

The big thing is, the beef can't be too lean. A lot of places make that mistake. Or they pack the thing too tightly. A good burger has a good amount of fat in it. Fat is flavor, and fat makes for a soft, melting texture.

One of the best in the area, right now, is the burger Tony Chittum's making at Vermiiion, in Old Town. It's soft, not too lean, not too tightly packed. And the thing just melts in your mouth. You eat a burger like that (topped, by the way, with crispy fried onions), and you wonder why more restaurant burgers don't taste like that.

This isn't a fancy upmarket burger a la Frank Ruta's truffled cheeseburger at Palena, with that amber-colored dome of a bun.

It aims lower, but hits a high mark just the same. Just a gorgeous burger.

Reston, VA
I'm planning a special night out for my husband's 35th bday. Was thinking either Restaurant Eve or Cityzen. Which do you suggest? Or should I consider another?

Apples and oranges. They're both terrific places.

Either way, your husband, lucky him, is going to have a great time.

My boyfriend dislikes breakfast, but has agreed to join me for a Sunday brunch in the city. I wanted to find a good buffet, so that I can take full advantage of this rare occasion, but it would be a waste for him, because he will only eat either pancakes or french toast. Is there a place near Dupont/U Street that offers both brunch and a la carte, or someplace (not IHOP) where I could get my fill of omelets, crepes, bacon etc. while he enjoys a pancake? Perhaps a hotel?

A place that does both brunch and a la carte?

Hm. I think you'd have better luck at a hotel than at a restaurant. Otherwise, I'd point you to Cashion's in Adams-Morgan. 

 

Apples and Oranges????
Not a true statement at all when comparing Cityzen with the tasting room at Eve.

Settle down, Hoss.

Since my quickie answer just won't do, a more elaborate one for the put-upon: I meant to say that they're different experiences. Eve is more relaxed, a little more charming. CityZen is more dynamic, a much more intense experience.

And yes, I was assuming that the questioner was talking about the Tasting Room.

Both places are special, and worthy of a big night out. (And wasn't that what the question was about?)

To my mind, and for my money, CityZen is, right now, the superior restaurant. But by how much? If you look at our rankings of the 100 Best in January, CityZen came in at No. 3, while Eve was not far behind, at No. 7. 

 

Tenleytown, DC
RE: Folklife festival We were there last Sunday. The food lines were long at the Northern Ireland and Mekong Delta exhibitions. If we go back, we'll tough it out for Northern Ireland…Not so long at the Virginia one, so that's where we went. The country ham and biscuit sandwich was okay, nothing great, though the chutney was an interesting addition. The strawberry shortcake was good–good whipped cream ('real', I think) and real biscuits, not those pastry shells. Could have used more fruit, but the biscuit really shined and we were happy. Cooking demos: Northern Ireland was interesting. We saw a protestant minister make 'skirlie', which is simple and smelled heavenly (butter/onions/thyme/porridge oats–didn't taste it but it seemed like a savory muesli, when all was said and done). We saw two Mekong demos–the dishes were interesting, but seemed more challenging, from an ingredient and equipment perspective.

Nice! Thanks for the field report, Tenleytown.

Anybody else? 

Laurel, MD
I've been craving a really good softshell lately. Ideally, a sandwich, like the po'boy at the Shack in Rehoboth… but I'll take anything crispy and good. Any suggestions?

Ah, The Shack. That would be The Seafood Shack on Baltimore Ave., which used to make a terrific softshell po' boy.

Glad to hear that you're a fan, too.

The softshells came from Crisfield, Md., and they would sautee two of them in a little butter with a pinch of Old Bay — nothing fancy — and then park them side by side on the roll. The claws, a blazing orange, would hang over the edge of the bun. It always reminded me of truckers with their sun-baked arms flopping out of the cab.

The softshells aren't as big as they used to be, not nearly as meaty. It's no longer a great sandwich, merely good. Still, it remains one of the best eats you'll find in the entire town.

As for around here … you know, I haven't come across a really great softshell sandwich this season. And I've tried many.

Anyone out there care to nominate a favorite? 

Bethesda, MD
Hi Todd – what are your thoughts on Mon Ami Gabi? I haven't heard much about it, and I am wondering how the food is.

It's middling. Not terrible, but not exciting, either.

But it's middling French food, which might explain its appeal.

If I'm spending my own money … no, I wouldn't seek it out. And — again, if I'm spending my own money — I probably wouldn't drop by even if I were in the neighborhood, either. 

And here's why: To me, mid-level restaurants, which this one is, represent some of the worst values in the industry. You'll spend about $70 for two. Maybe $80. That's not cheap.

I'd rather save my money by eating at the lower end, where there are so many great ethnic bargains, and, with the money I save on dining out, splurge on places at the higher end, like the aforementioned CityZen or Restaurant Eve.

Anyway, enough philosophizing.

Time for lunch!

Have a great 4th, everybody — wherever you go, and whatever you eat. See you next Tuesday. Same time, same bat channel …

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