Word of Mouth …
Some of the most enjoyable meals I've had this summer have been at Cynthia's, a non-descript white tablecloth restaurant squeezed into a sprawling Severna Park strip mall. The kitchen is helmed by the husband-and-wife team Cindy Bennington and Brian Bennington. Brian does the cooking, Cindy makes the desserts and breads. Both worked in Los Angeles at the celebrated Patina, and Cindy also did a stint as pastry cook at Gramercy Tavern in New York. That the restaurant is named for her, not him, tells you something. It tells you that either Brian is a generous man, or a wise man. Or both. It also tells you that the desserts are reason enough to come here.
* "Breakfast at Cynthia's." It's as far from as adumbrated and over-the-top as "Breakfast at Citronelle," its obvious inspiration, but the dish — two fluffy biscuits buried under ripe summer fruit and drenched, hollandaise-style, with a prosecco sabayon — is plenty clever. And just as delicious.
* Like Michel Richard, with whom she shares an affinity for clean lines and precise flavors, Bennington loves her quotation marks. Patrons of Sabatino’s or Vacarro’s, those bastions of unapologetically old-fashioned Italian cooking in Baltimore’s Little Italy, would no doubt roll their eyes at her “lemon cannoli,” but I bet you they’d also hoard the wealth once they got a taste. The cannoli is a lacy tuile cookie, which is rolled while still warm and out of the oven into a cigar and filled with lemon custard. The richness and tang of the custard is underscored by the richness and tang of the sour cream ice cream. A handful of ripe, oversize berries is the single note of pure, unadulterated sweetness on the plate.
* Even when she tries her hand at something more conventional, she’s just as masterful. She’s not above milk and cookies, for instance — although milk, in this case, is a delightful Bailey’s Irish Cream milkshake. I love that the cookies are designed to call to mind Chips Ahoy — they’re small and studded with bits of chocolate, not at all the big, flecked-with-salt renditions that most pastry chefs are prone to turning out, lest anyone think they can’t improve upon a simple cookie.
* I tried every single sweet on the menu, looking for something to complain about. Sorry; no can do. I might not have mooned over the chocolate pound cake as much as the nectarine blueberry crumble or the chocolate souffle, but that’s only because the crumble and the souffle are perfect — their lightness and balance a kind of grace. To split a dessert, here — whether out of a sense of modesty, or because of some notion that it’s possible to be “virtuous” by declining dessert after consuming a multi-course dinner — is to miss the point of coming here.
* That’s not to say her husband can't keep pace. His seared foie gras, served atop a caramelized half-peach, was so good, I ordered it twice, letting a friend of mine have the joy of discovering it for himself on one of my later visits. After the first bite, he turned to me, sighed dramatically, then asked his wife: “What are the housing prices around here?” The foie gras is described as “seared,” but the surface is actually closer to a light crusting, not unlike what you’d find on a good steak. It’s also about twice as big a portion as you tend to find these days, and — unlike most foie gras preparations — cooked to a perfect pink unctuousness within. That soft, almost melting texture is echoed and even amplified by the soft ripeness of the peach. Richness? That’s easy with foie gras. But this one goes beyond mere richness. It’s an essay in voluptuousness.
* The duck breast is remarkable for its wild gaminess, with the result that it comes across, at times, like a chewier version of the foie gras. Proponents of pork often complain that today’s pork is a pale imitation of the pork of old. This duck is a throwback, so intensely itself, it makes most other ducks I’ve eaten in restaurants the last few years look wan and overbred.
* The halibut is cooked to a pearlescent moistness and served atop a corn sauce that approximates the sweet lushness of the flesh. It’s garnished with tiny coins of fried potato and a gorgeous summer succotash, which play up the sweetness of the dish, as well as provide a subtle textural change-up. It’s one of the few halibut dishes I’ve eaten in recent memory that I’d willingly return to.
* The salmon misses that mark, but not by much. A lot of restaurant chefs are guilty of trying to make fish conform to playing the part of meat, drenching a mild-tasting filet with butter and dousing it with heavy cream and then showing no compunction whatsoever in siding it with a heap of mashed potatoes. Bennington seems to wink at this tendency, painting his filet of salmon with deep, dark streaks of cabernet sauce so that it comes to the table looking like a spare rib. Then, intensifying the resemblance to pork, he surrounds it with a bacon-fortified puree of mashed potatoes and melted leeks.
Glad to see you review American Flatbread way out in Ashburn, last week! DC is still the foodie hub of the area, but we in virginia hope that the culture will follow all the business activity out here. (ok, a small dig at the urbanites, there) My contribution is that the only solid bets I can suggest past Tysons are Minerva in Herndon and Jasmine Cafe in Reston. Minerva is cheap, casual but great indian food, and Jasmine is very consistent moderately priced and with outdoor seating by the lake or a pleasant dining room. keep choggin…
Keep Choggin' — I love it. Could we get R. Crumb to do the design?
And thanks for the encouragement.
I do get around, you know. Last week, the outer reaches of Virginia. This week, the outer reaches of Maryland.
And I'm with you on Minerva. Consistent and tasty, and one of the best Indian buffets around.
My wife is having her 40th birthday next month and she is also pregnant. I would like to take her out to dinner at a special place since given her pregnancy and our financial situation she cannot really indulge in her first choice (a trip somewehre). Also, with our financial situation, we cannot afford to go all out (I would prefer less than $100 a person).. Right now, she is preferring lighter foods (e.g. salads, vegetables, light meats). Wine list is obviously not a factor. We also like quieter restaurants, nice settings, and a relaxed but not overly slow pace. An example of a setting, she loves the garden at L'Auberge Chez Francois although the food there may be too heavy for her taste. I would prefer Virginia but will go to DC as well. Any suggestions?
Congratulations and congratulations!
I can think of a few places that I think you'd both like, and that would also be suitably special: Corduroy, Komi and Kinkead's, all in town. These are three of the best restaurants in the area — all ranked in the Top 20 in our 100 Best Restaurants issue, in January. You can count on excellent food and excellent service.
Speaking of "lighter foods," it's funny — Kinkead's might have the heaviest preparations of the bunch, and it's a seafood place.
Good luck, Burke, and let us all know which way you decided to go on this …
Is there any restaurant or chef in the DC/MD/VA area that recreates the dinner from the movie "Big Night" as a special event? I experienced one in Portland, OR many years ago and it was really so much fun with the restaurant staff really getting into it with the soundtrack and the family style presentation of a the roasted pig and timbale. I'd love to go with friends again if it is offered here in the area. Thanks.
Boy oh boy do I wish …
Nothing like it in the area, no.
But let's see if, by putting it out there that you'd be excited about this and I'd be excited about this, we can't work up a little enthusiasm for the idea on the other end, among the chefs and restaurateurs.
C'mon: Who wants to be the first?
Before we close this thing down today, I want someone to step forward and say: Yes, Todd, beautiful idea. We are going to recreate "Big Night" at the restaurant.
The clock is ticking …
I love a good meal, but what is the best local (DC metro area) for desserts? I had wonderful black and white bread pudding at 1789, but I fear they may have changed their menu! Thanks, SS Sweet Tooth
I'm not sure that you can narrow it down to a single "best," SS Sweet Tooth. (Cute name!) Best for cakes and pies? Best for exquisitely turned out restaurant desserts?
What I can tell you is that, right now, some of the most memorable desserts are coming out of the kitchen at Hook, where Heather Chittum is now plying her craft. Especially her lingonberry linzer torte with tallegio ice cream.
I also really like the finishes at Central: chocolate mousse, Apple Brown Betty, caramel creme brulee, all excellent.
It's interesting. DC used to be a town of pies and cakes, but in the last few years, that's really changed, as a new generation of pastry chefs has been experimenting and innovating and changing perceptions.
There's been some good work, but you know what? It's gotten really hard, now, to find good cakes and pies at a restaurant. It's as if they're now regarded as a last vestige of the city's sleepy Southern heritage.
Too bad. There's nothing quite like a terrific, densely moist layer cake or a pie made from scratch with a crumbly, buttery crust.
Hi Todd, Have you been to Proof yet? I have reservations for Friday and wanted to hear your first impression. I usually agree with your opinions. So what to expect? Thanks! Hilary
Well, my first meal was a disappointment. My second meal was significantly better, although my memory of it didn't last all that long. (Good thing for notes!)
I like the idea of the place, like the energy, like the (funky) bathrooms, like the commitment to building around wine and cheese and charcuterie.
I'd like to see more places like it in the city.
At this point, though, I'm not sure I'd want to drop a lot of money for a dinner. It seems best to graze among a couple of small plates, nibble some cheeses and take advantage of the 2 oz. pours of wine to roam up and down the by-the-glass list.
I asked for some reccomendations last week on a restaurant to take my in-laws to. Just wanted to let you know that we went to Addie's in Rockville on Friday night, which was fantastic. Everyone really loved the food, although the bill was a little steep. On Saturday, we had a late dinner and just wanted burgers and sandwiches, so we went to Hard Times Cafe in Bethesda. We were also really pleased with the food and service there– and this time, the bill was pretty nice too.
"I asked for some recommendations last week" — Yes, and you didn't bite, so to speak, on any of the ones I suggested! : )
But seriously, thanks for the report. Addie's steepness, as you call it, is one of the problems with eating at Addie's. I'm not sure the prices are commensurate with the quality.
And Hard Times? I gotta say: I like the place. Always have. Quality ingredients? Hell no. But I like the chili (Cincinnati, five ways, with extra onions) and they make a good, juicy burger, too. And you won't be hurtin' when it's time to pay the bill.
What's the best place to get spicy thai food in the area? We didn't love Ruan Thai close to home, but Thai Corner is pretty good. In VA, we've enjoyed Thai Square and Thai Lemongrass. Any suggestions for really good Thai food at a place where they will actually make the food spicy if requested? Thanks!
Oh, they'll ALL make it spicy — if you know how to ask.
You have to convince the waiter or waitress that you really can take the heat — that even when it's got a pepper beside it, it's STILL not hot enough for you, no siree.
Thai Square will do that. So will Ruan Thai, which you ought to give a second chance to.
There's also Thai X-ing, the basement carryout around the corner from Howard University Hospital. One chef, Taw Vigsittaboot, does all the cooking. Tell him hot, and he'll give you hot. It's not a sit-down place, but it's turning out what's probably the best Thai food you can find right now within the city limits.
Thank you! I also noticed your mention of Vaccaro's in Little Italy above…. now THAT'S a dessert — you'd just have to roll me home! SS Sweet Tooth
If you like Vacarro's, then you really owe it to yourself to get on up to Cynthia's, in Severna Park. You may not want to leave.
And one more thing, SS Sweet Tooth: Henceforth, you are not to appear on this chat by any other name. Done? Done.
Hi Todd Long time DC resident moved to NY for 18 months now. Have a small group of people to take out in DC next week. There are a couple of visiting Indians amongst them and I remember your raving about a small Indian place in Bethesda (we are meeting at Hyatt, Bethesda for two days). I hope the atmosphere there is elegant and conducive for a business dinner. Thanks in advance for your help.
The place is called Passage to India, with dishes from the North, South, East and West. It's on Cordell.
It should be very conducive to a business dinner. I'd love a report back.
Hi Todd! A few friends are getting together tonight for a goodbye dinner as we go our separate ways back to school. We are looking for a fun, not too expensive place in Georgetown. All types of cuisine are okay! Thanks!
Fun, not too expensive and in Georgetown … Anybody remember that old kids' sing-a-long song, "One of these things is not like the other … "?
Well, there's always King George for steak sandwiches and falafel.
After that, it gets expensive — although Leopold's Kafe + Konditorei, in Cady's Alley, might be a good pick for the group. It's all the things you say you want, and with a relaxed, stylish vibe and a varied, interesting menu.
Update: I've yet to receive word of a "Big Night" blow-out dinner in the works.
I'm waiting …
I have a client who’s kind of funky (like software company, left-wing cool, "I hang out in Soho in New York City and go to Burning Man" kind of funky)…he would absolutely despise the normal DC steak and martinis dinner…any ideas of somewhere “scene-y” I can take this guy where we can hang out?
Does your hipper-than-thou client like good food and drink? Or is going out to a restaurant all about the frivolous pursuit of — I can hardly bring myself to type the words — "eye candy"?
I'm gonna assume both.
The easiest answer, then, is to take him to any of Jose Andres's restaurants in Penn Quarter. I'd lean toward Oyamel, though. The place is buzzing, the cooking is full of big, bold flavors and you can get a real (and really potent) Margarita.
Hi Todd, My fiancee and I are getting married in Old Town Alexandria early this October and would like to host our wedding party and out-of-town family for the rehearsal dinner (or lunch). We'd like to know what your recommendation would be for a group of approximately 20 (inc. children)? Our rehearsal will be at 1 o'clock and we don't anticipate it taking longer than an hour so we can do a late lunch or wait a bit and have a dinner. Thanks! Mike & Mel
If I were you, I'd look into either Vermilion, in Old Town, or the restaurant Bastille, right on the edge of Old Town. Both are good, rewarding places, with good cooking and relaxed, accommodating environments.
Let me know what you end up deciding on.
Hey Todd! My parents have their anniversary today and we (their children) want to treat to a nice dinner at a restaurant that is not too pricey but has great food. We all love cuisine that emphasizes spice such as Thai, Pakistani/Indian but prefer more authentic places rather than trendy fusion restaurants especially for such an occasion. We will not be consuming alcohol and would like to keep it under $20 per head. Thanks so much!
And you're in luck. I've got an inexpensive, memorable place for you.
You're writing from Fairfax, which means you're not terribly far from Saravana Palace, in Chantilly. It's got some of the best Indian cooking you're going to find in the metropolitan area. You can have a rich and varied feast tonight for under $20 per person.
Churls have written me to say that, since Saravana Palace doesn't offer beer or wine, they're not too keen on returning.
Ridiculous. Great food is great food. Drink a lassi.
Enjoy yourselves tonight, and let us all know how things turned out, okay?
I see this place recommended a lot. Would it be a good place for a newbie to Indian cuisine?
I think it would. The cooking is lush and elegant, and dishes such as tandoori chicken or salmon or so-called "butter chicken" — chicken in a rich tomatoey gravy — are good, safe introductions to a complex and richly varied cuisine.
If you're timid in matters of spice, be sure to ask your server to have the kitchen turn the heat down. They will.
About the Big Night dinner — I'll do it! Thing is, I can't cook. So the timbale will be a frozen pot pie. (But I promise it will be heated most of the way through.)
You're reminding me of that great Jim Gaffigan bit about Hot Pockets …
"I'm moving a little slow tonight; I had a Hot Pocket for dinner. Anybody else have a Hot Pocket? You never really see that on a menu. 'Let's see, I'll have the Caesar salad, and … the hot pocket.'
"There’s no waiter coming up to you, “Well, lets see … today’s specials. We have a sea bass, which is broiled, and we have a Hot Pocket, which is cooked in a dirty microwave. It comes with a side of Pepto.'
"'Is the Hot Pocket cold in the middle?'
"'It’s frozen, but it can also be served boiling lava hot.'
"'Will it burn my mouth?'
"'It'll destroy your mouth. Everything will taste like rubber for a month.'"
And on that unappetizing note … It's lunchtime!
Eat well, everyone, and let's do it again next week at 11.
(And maybe by next week, someone with some onions will have stepped forward to take up the challenge of the "Big Night" blowout dinner … )