September 25, 2007 @ 11AM

Ask food & wine editor Todd Kliman a question about Washington area cuisine and restaurant news.

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Word of Mouth …

… The lipstick-red shack squats on an otherwise business-less corner across from the Rockville Metro. Unprepossessing? That's putting it charitably. It would be easy to walk right on by and look elsewhere for a bite — to presume that, like the dreary bus stop joints of yore, Al Carbon (200 Park Rd., Rockville; 301-738-0003) will be content to trade on being accessible, without bothering to strive for memorable.

Inside, though, the walls are awash in cheery yellows and oranges, the floors are stylized with ranch-hand brands, and the atmosphere banishes all thoughts of the subway terminus outside; you'd swear you were sitting in one of those airy, funky cafes that turn up throughout the Southwest.

More good news: The kitchen at this cozy Mexican/Salvadoran pit-stop yields up just as many surprises, with food that might occasionally lack polish but never lacks for integrity and soul. I could see making the beef soup a regular part of my eating-out rotation. It's a wonderful rendition, brimming with brisket-tender hunks of on-the-bone meat, leaves of cabbage, carrot, and onion, its rich (but not too rich) broth flavored with what to this palate tasted like dried sweet guajillo peppers. Chicken, slowly turned over a charcoal grill, is served on a fetching wooden board, where it's flanked by a small bowl of black beans and a huge mound of rice (made fresh, not scooped from a pot that's been sitting all day). As slow-cooked birds go, it's not as addictively good as those at El Pollo Rico, but it's juicy, meaty and satisfying. You can dress it up with a visit to the fixins' bar, which includes a tangy, green tomatillo, a red salsa the color of a Scotch bonnet pepper (without, thankfully, the unrelenting heat of that gnarled little pepper), and an excellent, freshly-made curtido punched up with cilantro and lots of lime. A whole fried croaker (the fish changes each day, depending on what the kitchen brings in) was slightly overcooked, but still tasty, with its spice-rubbed skin and still-flaky meat.

I'm eager to return to try the pupusas, which are cooked out in the open on the grill that flanks the cash register and look like what I can only describe as cheese-oozing flapjacks. …

 … Indigo Landing (1 Marina Drive, Alexandria; 703-548-0001) will be shuttering for six months, beginning next Monday.

"Even before we moved in," says Dan Mesches, whose Star Restaurant Group moved into the prime, waterside location previously occupied by Potowmack Landing in May of last year, "it was much more of a summer, spring, early fall kind of destination." He added that, for two years now, the restaurant has suffered "a really big drop-off after Labor Day."

A restaurant closing for six months? Does Indigo Landing plan to remain a seasonal restaurant?

The announcement is as odd as the timing, because I was all ready to report on my latest meal there.

Here's what I'd scribbled before Mesches called:

It's a truth of restaurant-going that, the more spectacular view, the worse the food. Indigo Landing, the low-key but ambitious restaurant situated on the marina at Daingerfield Island, promised to prove the exception to the rule, uniting a matchless setting (waterside dining, monuments in the distance, planes taking off and landing at National) with unexpectedly detailed Lowcountry cooking.

Lately, it's reneging on that promise. The richly outfitted bread basket remains a winner, as does a lavish, three-tier tower of shellfish, but the muddled flavors of several menu standbys on a recent drop-by (most notably, an expensive seafood "bog" and two fish entrees) points to a kitchen that has become complacent; even the trusty shrimp 'n' grits was more workmanlike than wonderful. If form holds, even the dazzling glimpses of the Potomac won't be enough to keep me coming back. …

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WDC
Todd – Thanks for the 2941 recommendations last week. I had the Honey and Soy marinated Chilean Sea Bass, and it was divine (as was the bread basket!). Thank you again. Now I have another question – Where to dine in DC? My in-laws (mother, father, brother and sister) are all coming to DC in a couple of weeks at the same time. Mom and Dad are not adventurous eaters, and Sis likes to eat really, really healthy. We'd like someplace casual where everyone can find what they want, the food is good, the price is not too expensive (entrees $10-$20), and they take reservations. Can you help me out? Pretty much anywhere in the District is do-able. Thanks! Beth

Sure thing. Glad you had such a good meal.

I'm going to go the unorthodox route on you here with my next reco: Domku, in Petworth. I don't think they take reservations (I also don't think it'll matter here), it's casual, the menu is varied, Sis can get salads and whatnot, and, for the city, it's reasonably priced.

Now, I know a restaurant that classifies itself as Eastern European/Scandinavian sounds as though it's going to scare off the unadventurous, but think about it: pierogies, Swedish meatballs and whipped potatoes, gravlax … those foods are pure comfort for an awful lot of us.

Bethesda, MD
Well, Though I've lived in the DC Metro region for 42 years, I haven't really dined out here for the last 10 years. I travel a lot and prefer European Dinning- specifically French and Italian. Is there a reason why Washington restaurants prepare food that is invariable over-salted, over sweetened, or is a mish mash of clashing flavors? The big rage in culinary Europe seems to be the pursuit of bio-organic ingredients. Is there any restaurant in the DC area that sources natural ingredients?

A lot of restaurants in the area are big into "sourcing." So much so, that sourcing has become a really irritating foodie word these days. I mean, really — Sysco is a source, too.

In the current climate, "sourcing" confers a kind of saintliness, a purity of purpose. A chef (or, well, his or her team of cooks) still have to cook the raw materials that the chef's finder has oh-so-judiciously procured. Others may disagree and parrot the honesty-of-approach argument that Alice Waters has remained on-message about for three decades, but to me, it still all comes down to what happens in the pan. Good ingredients is a head start; it's not a substitute for talent.

End of monologue …

You seem to favor a particular style of cooking, is I think all it is. That, and you may not have eaten at enough restaurants in the city in recent years.

Oh, you can find examples of all the things you're talking about. You can also find evidence to the contrary, lots of it. It all depends on where you're looking.

 

Reston, VA
Quick note on the new Il Fornaio in Reston — I had some squash and walnut ravioli there for lunch, and it was quite good. Service was also good, with the usual upscale touch of people offering fresh pepper and parmigan. A bit pricey for a suburban lunch at $14 or so for a modest portion. Good bread with olive oil. More when I get there for a nice dinner….

Thanks for the report, Reston!

Which reminds me: A lot of you choggers out there, you come online with us every week, and all you do is read. Read and read and read. You don't WRITE, you don't share STORIES, you don't tell us where and what you've been eating … nothing. Would it KILL you to regale us once in a while with the story of a nice meal you had? A simple meal, doesn't have to be such a big deal. A burger, even. But no …

(I figure with Yom Kippur still pretty fresh in my mind, I'd lay a little Old World-style Jewish guilt on you silent sorts. Right? What could it hurt?)

((By the way, for those of you who are not terribly well-acquainted with Jewish tradition, "what could it hurt?" is the answer to about a gajillion questions.))

Washington, DC
Hey Todd, Last week I asked for suggestions for Central, and you said to tell you about the experience. Well, I should have taken your advice. My roommate/best friend and I decided to forgo all burgers and she opted for the mussels while I got the scallops. Three and a half hours later, we both got food poisioning! Her's was a lot worse, and mind might have just been from dipping in her mussel broth as opposed to the scallops alone. At any rate, we were really ill and both stayed home from work the next day… I have to say I was shocked that such an expensive, fine-dining restaurant would leave me with food poisoning. They did promise to refund our meal when we called the next day.

Yikes.

And how great do I feel now?

Although I have to say: Food poisoning is a pretty mysterious thing. There's no way of knowing for certain that you got it from that particular restaurant; the bacteria can live within your system, if I'm not mistaken, for a day before it manifests itself. If in fact it was the restaurant, I would bet that it was not the food itself that did the deed; it was the handling.

Incidentally: The restaurant's offer to refund the cost of your meal may seem an admission of guilt, but I don't think it's that so much as a bid to try to keep a customer. In other words: smart business.

Washington dc
Top Sommelier is Leaving DC??? Whats that about?
Can't a guy leave?
Alexandria, VA: Winter closing and the pizza debates
Good morning Todd, What do you think of Indigo Landing closing for the winter? I associate restaurant hibernation with shore points and vacation spots whose population is depleted in the cold months. But DC? The view is as great in July as it is in January. Second question. With the ever popular and recurring debates on who puts out the best pizza (choosing among good pies is a great problem to have) including Bebo, have you tried nearby Cafe Pizzaiolo which serves NYC and Neopolitan style pizza? Thanks.

I agree with you, you put it perfectly: "The view is as great in July as it is in January." But either a lot of people don't agree with us, or the restaurant isn't telling us the full story. Wouldn't be the first time. 

And I don't know if it's a related thought, or purely unrelated, but as I noted above, the place has slipped.

As for pizza … Clearly, clearly, you haven't picked up the latest copy of the magazine, which includes my story, "Pizza Wars." Pick it up. I spent a couple of months eating at all the boutique-pizza restaurants that have cropped up in the city in the last couple of years. There's a lot out there that's good. And yes, Cafe Pizzaiolo is excellent.

This is a frankly stunning turn of events for the area, which, as you all know, has never, ever been known for its pizza. 

Still, this boom shouldn't be greeted as the dawn of an authentic pizza culture. This is a gourmet boom, a top-down boom, a boom that is driven by "source"-conscious chefs. We'll know that things are moving toward something truly special when more places like Moroni & Bros. in Petworth pop up — simple, unassuming operations that put you in mind of the kind of pizza parlors you see in Philly and New York.

Dupont
I had a good meal at Cafe Du Parc this weekend. Our delicious wine was reasonably priced, and the mussels were some of the best I've ever had (its all about the garlic and butter!). In my opinion, they are better than all 3 varieties at Brasserie Beck. The entrees were just okay – next time we will just share mussels, bread, wine and a salad!

Oh, no question they're better — stand firm behind that opinion, Dupont! In fact, I can't think of a pot of mussels I've eaten in the city in the last year that I've enjoyed more.  

 

Brightwood, DC
Dear Todd, Perhaps because I haven't lived in the South, I'm indifferent to the appeal of "shrimp and grits" as (an admittedly often tasty) offering at upscale places like Vidalia or Indigo Landing or Georgia Brown's. Am I missing something about the dish or its importance to (authentic) Southern cuisine? Or is it largely an ambitious chef's self-imposed challenge — doing it right and doing it one's own way at the same time? Thanks,

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think what you're saying is: Shrimp and grits is tasty and all, but what's all the fuss about?

In which case: You may not have had a truly killer rendition of the dish. Or, just as possible — you just may not like it all that much. Nothing wrong with that.

I've had good versions at upscale spots, but you know what? I can't say I loved them that much more than simpler, more humble preparations. It's, after all, a simple, humble dish. It really needs to not be burdened with such high expectations.

Incidentally, there's a tasty version on offer at CF Folks on 19th St. Are the shrimp beautiful? No. Is there a rich, complex stock that's swirled into the grits? No again. But the sum is greater than the parts.

Which, in a way, brings us back to "sourcing."

When the sum is greater than the parts, that, to me, is what good cooking is about. Alchemy. Synthesis. Bringing seemingly disparate elements into seamless cohesion.

(And no, I'm not saying that you're going to find seamless cohesion at CF Folks — not for $10.95, you're not. But this one dish is better than its ingredients would suggest.)

Alexandria, VA: Cheesesteaks
Debating pizza pies in DC is getting to be like debating cheesesteaks in Philly! I remember you got to dig into a cheesesteak on your last visit to Philly. I wanted to share (as a Philly native) that Al's Steak House on Mt. Vernon Ave. in Del Ray does a nice job of preparing a well stuffed roll with chopped beef, provolone and pizza sauce. Don't be put off by the mispelling ie: cheese steak. It's better than calling it a steak and cheese. Thanks for chogging!

Good memory! And yeah, Al's is an Alexandria institution.

It's good to see that up-through-the-cracks places like that can survive and maybe thrive amid all the development and upscalification.

Tenleytown, DC
We had a fantastic, soaring meal at Palena (in the cafe) the other night. The fry plate was a great starter (breaded, fried lemon slices! thick onion rings! mashed potato balls!). The roasted chicken was so good–this dish was simultaneously haute cuisine and down home, a perfectly prepared and deeply flavorful bird. I finished with a cheese plate. I know Palena (even the cafe) is a bit pricey, but this is a great neighborhood place.

That's a great fry plate, isn't it?

Which reminds me: In the current issue, we survey the explosion of haute fries around town, using the excuse of the ongoing bistroification of the city to do some crunching.

I've gotta say: I love fries, and Palena's plate is excellent, but the idea of chefs going to culinary school and serving rigorous European apprenticeships and amassing a glossy set of kitchen toys to turn out … french fries? … is pretty darn laughable. In the end, how much can you improve upon McDonald's?

Silver Spring M.D.
Good Morning, I have a comment to make about the recent articles in the magazine. A question was asked about where to eat around College Park, and you mentioned Da Marcos, First of all there's a much better place down the street named Sergio's which has been there for years, with real authentic Italian food not some pasta joint, with bland and boring pasta dishes, not some deli turned into a restaurant which by the way uses imatation crabmeat in it's pasta dish which cost about $18.00 what a bargain!! I dined at Da Marcos about a week ago and when I mentioned to the owner that I needed my meal for me and my date a little faster to catch my movie time he turned away and ingnored me, (the place was nearly empty at the time) I dine at all the local SIlver Spring restaurants, and believe when I say Da Marcos should stick to subs and let other real restauranteurs handle the restaurant business. Thank you and keep up the good work Todd

To each his own, but Sergio's is not what it was. I was served canned mushrooms on my last visit. The food was depressing.

And just to make a clarification: I didn't offer Da Marco as a reco for eating in College Park. I mentioned that it wasn't FAR from College Park, and that it is affordable and worthwhile. I still think that.

WDC
Thanks for the reco on Domku. We've actually ate there last time. Any other possibilities?

Well, given your parameters — in the city, a health-conscious diner, unadventurous 'rents — what about Colorado Kitchen?

The 'rents will feel at ease because so much of the menu is what might be termed "comfort food," your sister will enjoy the goat cheese fritters with a Green Goddess-dressed salad (if it's even on the menu, still), and you can stay in the city and stay within budget.

Prices are edging upward, though — it's hard to stay under $20 an entree in the city at a good restaurant in the city these days. 

 

Bad day?
Todd, you seem to have a negative edge to you today. From jumping on a 'chogger's' use of the term 'sourcing' to laughing at local chefs making good fries. What's up with that?

Actually, no — GREAT day.

Negative edge? I'm feeling exuberant and puckish, inclined to make a little mischief.

But even so, I didn't think I was "jumping" on the chogger so much as jumping off the point he'd made about chefs and market ingredients.

As for the fries — sorry, that's just how I see it. You may see me munching on my fries and enjoying them just fine. I can have a good old time with a plate of fries at an upscale restaurant. But the other part of me, the critic part, can also take a step back and look, and look hard, at the larger phenomenon. Can, and should.

 

Alexandria
Why do people always claim to "know" the authenticity of a certain type of cuisine, just because they grew up eating it? i.e. "I know true Indian food because I grew up in India or I am Indian." Well, your might be Indian, but your pallete may suck! And i would hate for anyone to think that the food I ate growing up was true american food (sorry mom). And what is true (fill in the blank) food anyway? I hate to tell you, but every cultures cuisine in diverse and specific dishes of that culture are made in different ways depending on who is making it. There is no such thing as a generic version of any culture's cuisine. Now that i am fully on my soapbox, why do people want to take visiting guests to a restaurant that serves the type of food of the guests' home country or state. If I come all the way here from Japan, do you honestly think i want sushi? Do you honestly think that very many places in DC do cajun better than Louisianna? Then why would you take a person from Louisianna to a DC cajun restaurant? If I go to Italy and my host wants to take me to the best local hamburger joint, i will throw up in my own mouth!!!! Thanks for letting me vent.

No, thank YOU — I love when you and others come on here and vent.

I mean, if not here, where? If not now, when? (With apologies — but also props — to Hillel, the great Jewish psalmist.)

What I always find funny is the line that goes: "Well, you know it's gotta be good, because the dining room is filled with [Thais, Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc., etc.]

Yeah, well, Applebee's is filled with Westerners. 

Dumfries
This chat is moving slow today, did you have a big breakfast this morning?

Wait, and I'M the one with a "negative edge" today? Sheesh.

Tell you what, all you who sit and wait: Think of it as the difference between slow food and fast food.

It's supposed to be a chat, isn't it? A chat isn't a rat-a-tat-tat. 

At least not for me, it isn't. But then, I have always preferred the pleasures of a long, slow and thoughtful conversation, a real conversation, to mere chit chat. 

You want to know a story about a burger?
I love the burgers at Food Matters in Cameron Station in Alexandria. The meat is so flavorful and the bun is nicely toasted and accompanied with bibb lettuce and red onion. The fries are salty and crisp. This is the best gourmet burger I've ever had – plus the service at the wine bar is friendly and the wine options are really nice. To boot, I live may 100 feet away!

Good to hear it! Thanks for the report.

And lucky, lucky you. 

Washington, DC
Which small town city has the best food? I say Charleston, SC, where everything has soul, history and most importantly, cream and butter. Which big city, city has the worst food? I say Atlanta, a sea of chains and generic steakhouses.

Good one.

I think Charleston has only gotten better and better as a food town. It's got some great low-end spots (Jack's Cosmic Dogs in Mt. Pleasant is sublime, for what it is, and I really enjoy Miss Kitty's House of Fine Foods), and the abundance of fish in and around the peninsula, plus the local vegetables, plus the strong culinary culture of Lowcountry, is a blessing for the finer-dining spots.

Atlanta, I don't really know well enough to weigh in on. I do think that Las Vegas, for all of its supposed allure as a dining capital, is a false-fronted surface, no substance. Beyond the glitzy restaurants, what do you have? Apres Robuchon, it's nothing but ten-dollar steak dinners on the Strip. It's a steep, steep drop. That's not a real food culture. 

WDC
Dear Todd, Any word on Adeline? Thanks,
I wrote about the return of Gerard Pangaud a few weeks ago in this space. The restaurant re-opened yesterday. Give it time.
Washington, D.C.
Hi Todd, Do you think Sommeliers are necessary to the dining experience or are they extraneous? More often than not, I do not find them helpful or very knowledgeable. I wonder if sommeliers are tacked on as part of a growing, more snobby food scene emerges? I know wine but do not consider myself a connoisseur, so I look forward to learning more. I am surprised, sometimes, by the answers that I receive. Thanks.

As with anything else, there are good ones and not so good ones.

Wine snobs will disagree with me when I say this, but there's something offputting to many people I know about a guy (it's almost always a guy, even with the very recent emergence of women in the field) sidling up to the table in a crisp suit and, perhaps, a tastevin around his neck, to ask what you'd like to drink with dinner. 

If you're not knowledgeable, you can feel that you're being schooled — talked to, not with. There's the possibility for many of being exposed as a cheapskate. 

It may not be rational at all; in fact, in some cases, it's probably entirely IR-rational. But that doesn't mean it ought to be dismissed.

A good sommelier will deal with that fear. Will demystify the experience, a little. Will introduce you to new tastes. Will imbue you with a sense of excitement about wine in general.

That's a lot of work, to try to overcome a persistent perception, to fight the cliche. Some succeed. A lot don't.

Silver Spring
I had dinner at David Craig in Bethesda recently. Just ok. The pastas were good, not great (the pumpkin ravioli was terrible, like something pre-frozen) and my entree (whole fish) was ok. Overall, I don't really see the fuss for a $150 dinner for two. On the other hand, my recent dinner at Kinkead's was excellent. Great wine (reasonable markup), wonderful soups, an excellent lobster with navy bean and corn succotash, and a wonderful whole fried snapper. Service was excellent and the overall feel was much nicer than David Craig. I know that Kinkead's is more destination restaurant and David Craig is more neighborhood kind of place, but the prices were similar (Kinkead's was 20% higher) but my evening felt much more special at Kinkead's. So bottom line, "praise" to Kinkead's and "what's the big deal?" to David Craig. Your thoughts?

My thoughts? Almost.

Kinkead's is extremely consistent. David Craig, much less so; I liked the place an awful lot when it first opened — liked that it was a personal, chef-driven restaurant in a sea of corporate mediocrity, liked that the cooking had a depth and a soul. It's not worth giving up on, for precisely those reasons. But it needs to find its level.

Al’s
A steak and cheese with provolone and pizza sauce? Sounds like that reader is from Philadelphia, OHIO.

I haven't had it, so I can't vouch for this particular version of Al's steak and cheese, but if it's good, it's good.  Doesn't that matter a lot more in the end than mere authenticity?

Of course, authentic AND good, that's absolutely wonderful. 

Arlington, VA
Whatever became of Persimmon in Bethesda. Is it still open, is it still good. I use to like my meals there when I lived in Bethesda, but it did not seem like it was the type of restaurant that would survive there. People in Bethesda like to think that they know and appreciate good food, solely because they turn their nose up at Friday's and Crapplebees. But in truth, most of them are nits with lots of money who end up waiting in line for two hours in Bethesda for the same food that is being served at Friday's and Crapplebees. I know you can't agree in public, but I also know that you agree with me on the inside.

Still open, yes. But past its prime.

And please — I don't wanna get flooded today with letters from people who are accusing me of bashing Bethesda, again. It's not me; it's the astute chogger from Arlington. 🙂 

Frederick, MD
Re: S&G, I agree with Todd, but Shrimp and grits should never cost 30 bucks like at Vidalia, unless they are cooked in foie gras stock and are sprinkled with truffle butter.

"Agree with Todd but … "?

That's my point exactly.

Mount Pleasant, DC
Hi Todd- Just a quick note on Dino, I know Dean Gold checks out the chog once in a while…Dino has definitely become my favorite restaurant in the DC area. Not only is the food delicious every time, but the service is spectacular. I've got a "favorite waitress" there (Biljana)…never met a more attentive waitress! Even when I have not been served by her, I've been impressed with the wait staff. It is so nice to go somewhere, eat and drink so well, and not have a single complaint about anything. I find that this is so rare around here. By the way, the fresh mozzarella and tomato salad is to DIE for. Juicy yellow tomatoes, an almost-creamy fresh mozzarella, tangy balsamic vinegar…and with that hot crispy bread they keep bringing to the table….well I am addicted! I hope Dino sticks around! 🙂 Chloe

You say: "checks out the chog once in a while." I say: "is glued to his computer screen every Tuesday at 11."

Thanks for the report, Mt. Pleasant.

And how great is it that you think enough of a waitress to single her out by name on this forum? We could stand a little more of that on here.

Criticism is welcome, surely, but I would love to see more praise from all of you out there for the gracious, attentive men and women who do a mostly thankless job — and who are, in case their bosses need reminding, the incredibly important liaison between the front of the house and the back.

WDC
This seems to be a longer-than-usual chat. Are you eating leftovers today for lunch? 🙂

Yeah, really.

Actually, I'm just in a groove with my keyboard and enjoying the back and forth.

Truth is, I haven't even given a thought to lunch.

(OK, now I have.)

Time to make plans. 

That's all for today, everyone. Keep sending in those reports from the field, and be sure to come back next week with props for the servers who take good care of you.

Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week. Same time, same bat channel … 

bethesda
What is up with bashing Bethesda today? All restaurants are nice and serving what they can best do. Given enough patience and chances we all could learn to be in our respective comfort zones and niches. I have found lousy attitude and sometimes lousy food in real upscale restaurants (read $180/person) and have had fabulous meals at even the chain restaurants lioke TGIF, CheeseCake, Olive Garden etc. A little humility, smile and politeness on my part has always has gotten me a great dining experience.satisfactory
Equal time …
Alexandria, Va: Cheesesteak with sauce
…is what it's called in Philly. Now if I pulled a Kerry and ordered it with swiss…well then by all means I deserve to be from OHIO!

And what's up with the OHIO bashing, huh? ; )

Take care, everyone …

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