July 10, 2007

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Word of Mouth …

Gonzalo Di Laudo is not one for accentuating the positive. In fact, the owner of the new Pizza Zero (4925 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda; 240-497-0751), actually seems to relish the chance to emphasize the negative. "We started with nothing here, no kitchen, no electricity. Nothing. Everything from scratch, even the building. It was auto parts," says Di Laudo, explaining the restaurant's decidedly unprepossessing name.

Good thing for him that the pizzas betray a real promise, otherwise some waggish customers and critics would have been all too happy to seize upon the name as a fitting proclamation of their essential worthlessness. Di Laudo has built his entire operation around the wood-grilled pizzas of Argentina, his native country. The crusts are more thin than thick, a little sweet and a lot crisp; they possess the snap and texture of crispbreads, only they're much lighter and much more delicious. What the grill gives them is an irresistible hint of smoke.

Those expecting a sparsely decorated boutique pie will no doubt be put out by the cheese, which is applied with a heavy hand, completely blanketing the individual-sized crusts. Doesn't bother me, although the best parts of this pie are the crusts and the toppings, among which (there are 31 in all) you'll find such palate-awakeners as chimichurri sauce, bresaola, serrano ham, smoked tuna and boquerones. (The Argentinians like their flavors big and bold.) If you'd rather not go to the trouble of trying to come up with a harmonious blend of flavors, there are 28 pre-set combinations that use tomato sauce as their base, as well as six pre-set pizza blancas (without sauce).

The restaurant is open seven days a week, but the best days to drop by are Mondays and Thursdays. That's when the kitchen makes its enpanadas. They're fabulous when they're fresh — delicately fashioned, lightly crispy and filled with, among other things, ground beef or chicken, cream of corn, or spinach with fresh mozzarella. …

… The move from the cavernous showroom in Crystal City to the cozy confines of 7th and D seems to have liberated Oyamel (410 7th Street NW; 202-628-1005) from the burden of its early ambitions, recontextualizing it as a satellite of celebrity chef Jose Andres’s other small plates-erias, Jaleo, Café Atlantico and Zaytinya, all of them within a short walk of one another in Penn Quarter, and giving it the rare opportunity of a do-over.

While Andres and chef Joe Raffa have ratched up the boldness of the flavors, they have curbed the tendency for self-hype (well, mostly — twice on the menu we’re told that a selection is a favorite of executive chef Andres) and the inflated promises of revelation. Saucing, a weakness of the original, has improved markedly, from the terrific trio of salsas to the complex moles that animate most dishes. A fabulous pumpkin seed sauce, helped along with a slick of pumpkin seed oil and a scattering of toasted pumpkin seeds, is so good, you could scoop it up with a warm, fresh tortilla to eat all by itself; it’s even better in tandem with two, fat scallops, the nutty bitterness of the sauce playing against the sweetness of the medallions, which are seared to a medium-rare translucency. A thick, smoky chipotle sauce has more body than the meatballs it bathes, which are soft and almost spongy. A mole Almendrado sauce (made with ground almonds, chili and a trace of bitter chocolate) transforms a plate of simple grilled Cambray onions into something substantial and memorable. The mole verde is big and tangy enough to mitigate the unctuousness of the braised short ribs.

Those dishes that read more conventionally are no less rewarding, perhaps because they’re not all that conventionally rendered. The tamales retain their rootsy simplicity and heft despite being so much lighter than the lard-intensive versions at most Mexican restaurants. A version of caldo Tlapeno is similarly deceptive: A spoonful of chipotle sauce  lends a smoky backtaste to an already  rich, oil-beaded broth. A tortilla soup works the other way: A thick, velvety puree that looks as though it might make a full meal on an oppressively hot night, it’s more delicate than hearty, with a remarkable clarity to it that allows you to appreciate the taste of tomatoes, onions and garlic. The refried beans, amped up with melted Chihuahua cheese, are as rich and luxuriant as any dish made from humble beans can be. The guacamole is made tableside in a mocajete, your server smashing and mixing the fresh avocados and seasonings in a giant, shallow mortar and pestle — the Mexican equivalent of fileting a Dover sole or flambeeing a baked Alaska. It’s no empty show. You’re not likely to find a better preparation in town. My mother, not at all a guac lover, was digging in for seconds. Another of my guests snatched the wooden serving spoon, for furtive licking.

Is it worth $13? Is any guac worth $13? Of course, this is the great deception of all of Andres's small plates emporiums, with their promise of endless adventure — a night of plenty without having to pay the price. Except it never seems to work out that way. Few dishes at Oyamel exceed $9, but don’t expect your bill for two to come in at less than three digits — especially if you’re planning on drinking. The hibiscus margaritas, good as they are, are dispensed in what can charitably be called juice glasses. They also cost $11.

You can order a “big” plate if you have to — there are three of them, expanded versions of smaller portions — but what feels so exciting in a few bites becomes a little less interesting when you’re sitting with it for fifteen minutes. I’d also resist the allure of the tacos, which, despite all the detail that has gone into them, are still less than gratifying — still short of the sloppy, lusicious ideal you find in a great taqueria. The best of the septet might be — no joke — the grasshopper taco, a heaping of crunchy, chili-slicked critters sandwiched between two soft, two-ply corn tortillas and dolloped with guac. I was hard-pressed to get anyone else at my table to partake, although that had more to do with the idea of eating bugs than with the smell, which was heavenly.

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Vegetarian, VA
Hello Todd. I will be getting married soon and I would like to take my friend/officiant to a restaurant with stellar vegetarian dishes. Ethnic and/or non-VA options are fine, but I am looking for a place with terrific ambiance as well as food. Please help!

Congratulations! And what a nice, thoughtful gift.

I'd look into a place called Passage to India, in Bethesda. It's a relaxed and almost elegant space, and there are some terrific veggie options to choose from. This is refined, linger-over Indian cooking, as opposed to the quick in and out of many curry shops.

I think you'll do better there on both counts than with places calling themselves "vegetarian."

Let us know how it turns out, please. 

 

Rockville, Maryland
Which Yank Sing? Hi Todd! I'm headed to S.F. and want to go to Yank Sing after reading your rave review! But, ther are two branches – – one on Stevenson Street near Union Square, and one on Spear Street. At which one did you eat?

Yank Sing. Probably the highlight of my eating this spring and early summer.

I went to the one on Stevenson St. 

My wife and I hadn't planned on it, but we ended up making it the meal of the day, and easily ordered enough dishes for four. Four for dim sum, which tends to involve a boatload of dishes as it is. 

It's worth it. Killer stuff.

Greenbelt, Maryland
Todd: I wonder if you know anything about what has happened with Grace's Fortune. It's not considered one of the 100 best on any of your lists, but perhaps you may know about the current situation of the restaurant, which is located in Bowie, MD. The last 2 times I have been there have been very disappointing: the prices have "shot up" 15 to 20 percent, with some cutbacks in some of the extras. The quality and quantity of the food itself remains the same, but the restaurant no longer has a "buzz." The number of diners has fallen off almost 50 percent, possibly because of the sharp increase in prices. The staff has changed considerably, although some of the old wait-staff is still there. It looks as if Grace has sold the place and it is now under new management. I have heard that Grace is opening new restaurants in other locations. Has she sold the place in Bowie?

No, sorry, I'm not aware of anything.

I do know that she opened a new restaurant in Lanham, a Japanese-Chinese place, with an emphasis on tableside cooking and grilling.

I haven't been to Grace's in Bowie in a couple of years, but you've made me curious to investigate. 

I always thought Grace did a terrific job in running a restaurant. The food was often satisfying, and sometimes really good. But that's not what made it distinctive. What made it distinctive was that the place is so beautifully and so richly decorated. That and Grace herself. She was always a picture of elegance, drifting by your table to check up on you in her gorgeous cheongsam.

Thanks for writing in …

 

 

Washington, DC
So can we discuss good Restaurant Week selections now that reservations have opened up? Which restaurants typically have the best selections?

Nope, we can't. ; )

Seriously, what's with this intensely long-range planning, people? That's two weeks in a row, now.

It's summer. It's hot. Can't we put down the weekly planners and the Palm pilots and the BlackBerries for just a little while? Must we schedule every moment of our crazy busy lives? Must we be so quintessentially Washington?

Bethesda, MD
Went to 2Amys this past Sunday. Waited for an hour at 6 pm- then once we were seated had very erratic service. The waitress kept putting the wrong dishes down in front of us. Now, I understand you don't go to 2Amys for four-star service, but if she can't remember who ordered what wouldn't it be better to just ask rather plunk the wrong things down leaving us to pass dishes across the table to each other? Then the pizza was undercooked. I was sort of shocked as I love 2Amys pizza- but the dough was amost gummy. We had to saw at our pizza, ripping it to shreds, merely to cut a bite off. However, the dinner did end with an up note as the black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream was to die for. All in all, a very disappointing experience though. Do you think this was just an off night? Should we have sent the pizzas back?

Oh, I'd have sent the pizzas back in a minute if they weren't to my liking. They're not cheap. And that's just unacceptable, especially when we're talking about a "boutique pizza."

I'm not sure your night was an aberration. The place recently lost its pizzaiola — "pizza-maker," in plain English.  There's bound to be some ups and downs.

Still, I'd been finding underdone pies there for a while, even before the loss of the chief overseer.

At the moment, the place seems to work best as a place for grazing on small plates (bright and often boldly flavored), knocking back some good inexpensive wines and indulging in dessert (including some of the best ice cream in the city).

 

Restaurant Week
Hi Todd – would you recommend The Oval Room for Restaurant Week? Any other places in particular you would recommend?

Man oh man …

OK, just this one.

I would recommend it, yes. With an asterisk.

That asterisk is for the staff, not the kitchen. I'd be very interested in seeing how it responds to the demands of Restaurant Week. I have found the restaurant to be far more interested in servicing big-ticket diners and diners who do a lot of drinking (sometimes, one and the same thing). RW, on the other hand, brings a flood of bargain-hunters who are looking to live a little like a fat cat, even if only for a couple of hours.

I'm singling out The Oval Room in this regard, but the fact is, I could be talking about any number of high-profile DC restaurants, many of which don't appear all that grateful for the RW business they get. It's too bad.

Alexandria, VA
Todd, I wanted to follow-up with you about where I went to dinner before Justin Trawick's show at the 9:30 club. I did research Oohhs and Aahhs, but I agree that it would have been a better place for an after show treat. I made a reservation at Etete. The Ethiopian place off of U Street. I think the it was an amazing experience. I remember reading somewhere that you thought the service was very good. I think you described it as family-like… anyways… my experience was pretty awful when it came to service. We had to wait for a long time and most of the time, I just got tired of waiting and I had to get up and find my server. I was not very happy about that. It took so long for the waitress to come over to us, I had to go find her to tell her that we were ready to order and this is after a 30-40 minute wait. Also … I had a hard time picking something from the menu that didn't have jalapeño or green peppers in it (I'm allergic). But I got the Yefem Tibs as my entree and I loved it. Next time I go back I know to order more things from the menu to try. I will not order, however, the tomato salad. The dressing was such a disappointment. It came right out of the bottle… like a Kraft Italian. I tried the Sambusa (Lentil) and loved it. It reminded me of empanada's a little bit… Do you have another suggestion of where I can try more ethnic foods but won't run into the Green Pepper or jalapeño problem? Thanks. Always a Pleasure. Lisa

Lisa,

Thanks for the update. And I'm glad you had a good time at Etete. It's interesting: I've never had a problem with the service there, but I've also never gone there before trying to make a show. 

If you're looking for other good ethnic spots … shoot, we just published a whole issue of them, essentially, in June's Cheap Eats. One that's in the city and doesn't go in for jalapenos is Malaysia Kopitiam. The food's consistently tasty, and there's a lot to choose from. Give it a go.

And, of course, there are always kabob houses. The area is full of them, and there's a lot that's good.

My favorite is probably Ravi Kabob (either I or II, both in Arlington). You'll run into the "jalapeno problem" if you order the terrific karahi, but if you stick to the skewered meats, you shouldn't have any worries. Fantastic stuff. Really, this is some of the best eating you can do in the entire metro area. And you can afford to do it often.

 

Bethesda, MD
Which are the best restaurants for outdoor dining – not in Bethesda.

Don't want to eat out in your own backyard, huh? I hear you.

The Lowcountry-themed Indigo Landing, on Daingerfield Island, is a prime perch (view of the water, the monuments and the planes coming and going from National). So is the new French bistro, Cafe du Parc, at the Willard. A little touch of Cafe Society, without the waiterly hauteur. (Also, without quite as much charm.)

If you want something a lot less expensive, there's Zorba's Cafe in Dupont Circle. Terrific inexpensive Greek food and good people-watching opportunities from the outdoor, umbrella-topped patio.

 

Washington, DC
For a restaurant critic, perhaps it seems strange to emphasizing Restaurant Week when it's a few weeks off. But many "average" diners see it as a rare opportunity to try places that are otherwise unaffordable. Also, reservations go fast at the more popular places, so it makes sense for Joe Blow to have his ducks in a row early.

Well, okay — I'm reversing course on this one, after your note and a flood of others just like it this morning.

You made some good, compelling arguments. Just another reason I love coming on here every week — your passion and interest.

One of the reasons I demurred, initially, was that I haven't had a chance to look into all the options yet, but clearly a lot of you have, so I'll get on it later today and see what's what. 

I'm guessing it's going to be too late for a lot of you to wait until next week, so we'll try to get something posted on the Best Bites Blog by tonight or tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.

And thanks for all the feedback on this … 

Annapolis, MD
Hi Todd, I've enjoyed reading your blog. My sister's birthday is coming up and a group of about 10 are looking to celebrate by trying a new (mod-priced) place in the Annapolis or Baltimore area. One of our favorites is Pazo in Fells Point- the food and atmosphere are fantastic- what would you suggest?

Have you been to a place called Chameleon Cafe, on Harford Rd.?

It's a small, independent, chef-driven restaurant, set in an old, warmly painted house, and with an eclectic, seasonal new American menu. I like it. 

The appetizers are stronger than the entrees (not unusual; a lot of places are like that), so if I were you, I'd consider front-loading my order. The crudite plate, with its beautiful, hand-carved vegetables, is especially good, and I like the pates and terrines, too.

Alexandria VA: Dixie Bones BBQ in Woodbridge report
Good Morning Todd, On Sunday I went to Dixie Bones for thier Sunday Brunch. For $10.95 you have a choice of meats ;brisket, pulled pork, and chicken. Among the hot and cold sides were mac and cheese, beans, cole slaw, cabbage, collards and cornbread. I'd say the stand outs were the pulled pork ,collards and mac and cheese. The pork was juicy and had a nice hint of smoke. The very cheesy mac was made a bit custard -like with eggs, which I like. Collards were done right with ham hocks and still had a bite, not soggy at all. Dissappointments were the very dry chicken and bland cornbread. It needed sweetness. There were 4 bbq sauces to choose from, including Alabama white sauce. The service was very friendly and the wait wasn't bad at all. Looking around I noticed that platters and portions were huge with a la carte menu items. There were lots of styrofoam doggie bags leaving. Have you been there recently? Thanks for the chogs!

So you've been reading your Cheap Eats, huh?

Yeah, Dixie Bones is a good one. I don't know how anyone leaves there without a doggie bag or two or three.

I'm surprised to hear about the chicken, though — it's usually excellent.

And I hope you didn't leave without getting the pecan pie –? It's as good as you'll find in the Deep South.

washington, dc
Aw, let's help out the restaurant week diners. Sure, it can be a frustrating time to dine out, and some restaurants look down their noses at the bargain hunter, but that's all the more reason we should tell people about the good places. Corduroy is always a best bet for RW. 1789 also gets great reviews and is one of the first to book up. I've also had great RW meals at Rasika. That should get the early planners started!

You're three for three, DC.

Those are all consistently good RW performers, Corduroy especially. 

Washington, D.C.
How many people make multiple Restaurant Week reservations, only to cancel the "extras" at the last minute once they make up their mind where to go? I find this very rude. It has become harder and harder to make restaurant week reservations. I have noticed on this chat and on Ask Tom that people write in saying that they have made 3-5 reservations and they ask for advice on which to go to so they can cancel the rest. Is it too much to ask to have a little consideration for other people?

I'm with you.

And you know, there's no way to stop it. 

Maybe the thing to do would be to encourage more restaurants to extend their Restaurant Week into Restaurant Weeks.

Off the top of my head, Corduroy and Charlie Palmer both extend the week, as do some others. It's a great practice, so long as these restaurants can afford to do it. I bet it'd keep the dining rooms hopping during a slow, dull August.

So what do you say, restaurateurs? Who wants to turn Restaurant Week into Restaurant Month? 

Alexandria, Va- Why do we plan ahead for RW?
…because a consistently top performer, Corduroy, had NO prime time openings as of yesterday when Open Table began taking RW reservations! What's up with that? Two Amy's- I've been reading many complaints about inconsistent and underdone pizza. I think a good preemptive move would be to ask for the pizza "well done'. Have a great day!

What's up with that, is that Corduroy is a terrific restaurant that takes RW seriously. (Which is to say: It doesn't take itself too seriously.) But yeah, I'm as surprised as you are that it's weeks away and you can't get a seat during the sweet spot of dinner.

Announce that extension, Tom Power. Do it. Do it now.

As for pizza … wouldn't it be funny if there were a steakhouse-type designation for boutique pizzas? It's not a bad idea, actually, when you consider that with these kinds of pies, people tend to fall into one of two camps. They either love them nice and blistered, or not at all.

So, sure — a well-done pizza for some, and a medium or medium-rare for others. 

Are you listening, Ruth Gresser? Peter Pastan? Do it. Do it now.

(We've got from chat into an odd, public form of hypnotherapy … ) 

 

 

Washington, D.C.
I went to the Oval Room during the last RW, and service was just fine from beginning to end. The things I've learned from many RW trips to restaurants I wouldn't otherwise be going to (due to lack of funding) are: keep reservations/show up early, dress well, have impeccable manners, be a good tipper, and don't dawdle after the meal since we all know the restaurant is likely booked solid (move to the bar if you have to). Since I'm a young person and often go with groups of young people, just being a good polite patron with a smile on your face can make a big difference. Oh, and it never hurts to order wine to help bring the bill up a smidge 😉

You're on target with much of this. Unfortunately.

Why should a person have to exhibit impeccable manners and dress up like he or she is going to a wedding or funeral in order to be not mistreated at a restaurant? Why should a person have to put on a nice, polite smile?

That's a load of c-r-a-p — excuse my restraint.

This isn't a job interview. You're a customer. You're paying for a service. I mean, right? At its simplest and most crass?

I agree with you, that it makes good sense to do all the things you say. But who wants to have to go through all of that to go out to dinner — especially at places that don't rise to a four-star level of excellence?

uh, no – not restaurant month, please

Todd, I hope you won't mind my cry against "restaurant month" here. I love the idea that great restaurants should want to offer a slice of their wonder (be it lunch or dinner) at bargain prices for those out for a bargain or those who might not otherwise afford or want to spend lavishly on a meal. I have been surely disappointed by some otherwise good establishments with their performance during restaurant week, which implies that perhaps it's not taken seriously. What a shame, especially when it opens an opportunity to gain a loyal customer or two and perhaps to serve to pick up business during a time when Washington DC is typically slow – August. I agree, though, top performers have been Corduroy and Rasika.

No, no – the idea is that, with a month and not a week, more places might be encouraged to take things more seriously. It's easy to slough off a week, a lot harder to slough off an entire month.

My apologies, everyone for the long, long delay – Nature wiped out my power right while I was in the middle of answering this last question. (Interestingly enough, right while Roy Haynes, on my iTunes, was in the middle of one of his fiercely percussive drum solos.)

As always, be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11. . .

And don't forget to check in with the Best Bites blog tomorrow for some kind of Restaurant Week look-see. 

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