October 2, 2007 @ 11AM

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

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Word of Mouth …

Fans of the fantastic breads, the often sumptuous cooking and the parting-gift twirls of cotton candy at 2941 Restaurant had better hurry: Executive chef Jonathan Krinn and chef de cuisine Jon Mathieson will be sending out their last suppers this Sunday.

The chefs have formed "an equal principle partnership," they told me, and are thisclose to finalizing a deal for a place of their own in Tyson's Corner. The plan is to open the contemporary American restaurant in late summer or early fall of next year.

Meantime, 2941 will be bringing in an interim chef until it finds a replacement.

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Ever wondered what it would be like to be a panelist on The Food Network's "Iron Chef"? No, not the part about having to play verbal smackdown with the crustily imperious Jeffrey Steingarten, or having to restrain yourself from rolling your eyes at the fawning, foodie patter of Ted Allen. I mean the chance to sup and render judgment on the beguiling and sometimes bizarre concoctions that define the show's mission. About the closest you can get is to swing by Farrah Olivia (600 Franklin St., Alexandria; 703-778-2233), where Morou Ouattara, who is competing this season to become "The Next Iron Chef," is spinning out some of the most dizzyingly creative cuisine the city has ever seen from his perch on a  sleepy side street in Old Town.

If his fascination with foams and powders and his predilection for oddly named plates that involve multiple components (and require some assemblage at the table), is mystifying to some (a trio of diners at a nearby table recently lifted their eyebrows in unison at the prospect of a scallop "chop"accented with melon seed milk and a small mound of dust made from bacon), it's a balm to diners suffering from palate fatigue.

Surely you've tried gazpacho — but have you tried eggplant gazpacho? Cool, smooth and brimming with the bittersweetness of its signal ingredient, it's a reminder that the chef has long served up some of the most intriguingly conceived, most delicious soups around. At Signatures, his previous stop, he had a sushi menu adjoining the regular menu; here, instead, he deconstructs the genre with a single dish called "shocked escolar" (it's replacing, for the time being, a dish called "shocked tuna"). The chef surrounds postage-stamp squares of sweet, barely cooked fish with yellow ribbons of lightly pickled ginger, a mound of tapioca pearls filled with wasabi and a thin cocaine-line of powder made from Merlot. Halibut is too often a snooze of a dish, but this one commands your attention, the sweet lusciousness of its slightly undercooked flesh amplified by a limpid vidalia onion puree.

The menu, which changes frequently, is unified by a commitment to certain spices (anise, for instance, which formerly dressed up a filet of salmon and now animates the gnudi) and certain forms (like the sweet plantain fritters, a recent, less satisfying substitute for the exceptional black-eyed pea fritters). It's also unified by the chef's insistently global approach, which flattens distinctions and differences as it poaches liberally and joyously from the cooking of Asia, Africa and Europe. At peak form — as in the case of the cured quail, sauced with a kind of runny, savory creme brulee and drizzled with chorizo oil — the integration is so seamless, you're not even aware how heady it all is.

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I'll be on assignment next week, and then on vacation for a week after that, so we'll be out of touch for a few weeks. But fret not, choggers — we'll have a few terrific guests sitting in.

Next week, October 9th, it will be author Trevor Corson, whose new book, The Zen of Fish, as I wrote in Best Bites a few months ago, "conveys his lifelong fascination with Japanese culture — in this case, with the complex, mysterious world of sushi. It's a breezy but thoughtful read, full of insight and history, illuminating an industry and a cuisine we thought we knew." Corson grew up in the area, and, in fact, ate his first sushi some twenty years ago in the Asian Studies office at the Sidwell Friends School. The Arlington native was scheduled to travel for a summer-study scholarship to Japan, and his teacher "realized that once we got to Japan we would probably be served sushi, and decided we'd better have tried it before we left, to avoid any international incidents." The teenager found the raw fish to be both "repulsive and fascinating."

On October 16th, our host will be Dave McIntyre, who recently joined the magazine as wine columnist. Dave has written about food and wine for Wine Enthusiast, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and online at dmwineline.com. He also contributes a weekly post to the Best Bites Blog. Dave is an unpretentious and funny guy who knows his stuff but doesn't take himself or his wine too, too seriously. You'll enjoy him.

As for the following week … well, that's our mystery guest. Stay tuned. …

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Alexandria, VA
Had dinner at Taberna del Alabardero with my husband on Friday night–had a great meal, chicken and chorizo paella, was my first time here and will definitely return. Thoughts on this place?

Thoughts? I like it. Sumptuous setting, rusticky but elegant Spanish cooking, terrific wines.

Since you're thinking of heading back, keep in mind that they do a happy hour at the bar. They knock a few bucks off those glasses of wine, and you can munch on a few of the tasty tapas they offer.

It's a good way to experience an otherwise not-cheap restaurant.

Orange Line, VA
Hi Todd. Do you have any recommendations for a few affordable, non-traditional French or any other ethnic restaurant recommendations for Montreal and Quebec City? I only have a few more weeks before I go! Thanks.

Montreal! Great food town. I had a great time when I visited last August.

For good, interesting French cooking, I can think of a few recs off the top of my head — Montee de Lait, Au Cinquieme de Peche and Au Pied de Cochon. All are terrific. The latter is an over-the-top indulgence, with multiple preparations of foie gras and some of the most sumptuously rich food you'll find in the city — or any city, for that matter.

A neat touch: the sommelier makes the rounds in faded, ripped jeans. His wines-by-the-glass list is interesting and extensive.

But as I said, all three are worth your time.

French aside, you have to go to Schwartz's for the smoked meat sandwiches (one of the best things you'll ever eat, truly an epic experience) and you have to patronize either Fairmount Bagel or St.-Viateur for the wood-fired, hand-crafted bagels (the best in the world, no lie). I ate a bagel, at least one, every day I was there.

St.-Viateur is now shipping to the states; I wrote about their by-the-mail bagels several months ago — "The Best Bagels in the World? Oui! Oui!"

Enjoy the eating, and drop us a note about your adventures when you get back.

DC

Hi Todd,

Several well known chefs are lending their names to new restaurants in DC, including Michel Richard at Central, Wolfgang Puck at the Source, and Eric Ripert, who will be the consulting chef at the Westend Bistro in the Ritz Carlton. Do you agree with DonRockwell of donrockwell.com that the latter two are merely "hype-driven, let's-give-the-restaurant-critics-an-erection outposts" or do you think these chefs and the restaurants will have something valuable to contribute to the dining scene?

I think it's only fair to see how things play out.

It's easy to say that food critics get excited by these kinds of arrivals, but from where I'm typing, it's the chat boards that tend to fuel the discussion and fan the flames (even if, in accordance with the culture of online foodies, those posts are studiedly skeptical).

There are questions, major questions, about whether this kind of thing is good for restaurants. No doubt.

You mentioned Central. That's nothing. That's a second place in the city. Michel Richard, I understand, is in discussions right now with Jeffrey Chodorow (the brash restaurateur who took out a full page ad in the NY Times to pimp slap Frank Bruni) to clone Central six more dozen times around the country.

We'd all like to see a chef staying in the kitchen, the one kitchen. We'd all like to think the chef is actually cooking the dishes.

Talent has wings, though, and more and more, these things are becoming a sentimental notion. 

 

Foggy Bottom
Todd, Three things. First, my wife and I ate at La Perla of Washington (Penn and 26th NW) on a recent Tuesday night and I'm sorry to report a disappointing experience. Among the reasons why we'll be unlikely to visit again even though we live across the street: the cooking was unimaginative, the vegetables were overcooked, my boar chop looked and tasted exactly like pork, my wife's chicken dish looked like a thick soup on a platter, and there were no years listed for any of the wines, not even $200+ barolos. This just couldn't make up for the very kind and attentive service, including a visit from the grandfatherly Chef Vittorio. We didn't sample any of the tasty looking desserts in the display case. Second, I wanted to ask you what in the world you consider healthy eating? On September 25 you recommended Colorado Kitchen to somebody based in part on the goat cheese fritters being a healthy choice for the chogger's health-conscience sister. Goat cheese fritters? Fried cheese? How about lean protein cooked in very little fat with some vegetables? I'm sorry to rant about this but it always amazes me what some people consider healthy, especially someone like you whom I would consider very knowledgeable about food. Rant over. Third, keep up the great work! Seriously, I love reading your work. Your exhortation last week to write(!) got me off my butt. That and the fried cheese suggestion. Oops. I wasn't supposed to mention that again. Thanks! Foggy Bottom

Thanks for the note.

And thanks for the report on La Perla. It's no fun to have a place right across the street from you that you know you'll never come back to, is it?

Re: the goat cheese fritters. They're tiny. Little nubs, is all. They're an accompaniment — or were — to a plate of asparagus. The asparagus is — or was — the focus.

Now, a plate of goat cheese fritters, sure, I agree with you. But I don't see how a couple bites of cheese on a plate that emphasizes its vegetables constitutes an exercise in caloric excess.

Keep in mind, also, that the chogger was asking about a few other people in the party; i was trying to accommodate a broad range of tastes.

If someone is really as health-conscious as you seem to be suggesting, then eating out at a restaurant is, for the most part, really a pretty bad idea.

Rockville, MD
Kudos, to the Golden Flame Restaurant in Silver Spring MD. The prime rib is one of the best I've had in a long long time. I was wondering what are your thoughts about that place, or have you been there thank Todd

Seriously? That good?

I haven't been, no. But I'm really really curious now … 

Washington, D.C.
I can't believe how bad the food is at Restaurant Nora. I was there last week for lunch. Not only was the shrimp entree with bok choy and crispy yam strips bland and flavorless, but the dessert (creme caramel) was under cooked. The caramel lacked flavor and custard was mushy. To top it all off I ended up sick for two days (along with 4 other people in my party) from the food.

Disappointing AND expensive. It has all the earmarks of an eclipsed restaurant. I do like the bar and the bartender.

Just goes to show you how a place can coast for years and years on the strength of early praise and national recognition.

Remember, everyone: Those reviews have a shelf life. And the Zagat stickers in the windows of restaurants, I wouldn't trust them if they go back further than two years. And actually, I wouldn't trust them even if they're right up to the moment and shiny; all that means is that the company has decided to include the place in its handbook. Those stickers aren't the statements of quality they purport to be.

washington dc
I have a list of about ten restaurants that I think are overrated. Are you still doing that reader restaurant survey in the magazine? What are you two or three most overrated restaurants?

Oooh, okay — let's hear 'em.

Here are a few of mine, just off the top of my head: Inn at Little Washington, Indique and Galileo.

How 'bout the rest of you?

Germantown, MD
North of Bethesda…. Hi Todd, love your chats! It seems to me that in order to get a decent, affordable meal north of the beltway, we are restricted to ethnic "holes in the wall". Now don't get me wrong, I love nothing better than a great "hole" that the rest of my county neighbors stream pass on their way to Outback or the like. My hubby, however, prefers his food a little less ethnic. Is there anything mainstream, but still tasty in the county that you can recommend?

I think what you're looking for are the restaurants of Jeff and Barbara Black: Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park and Addie's in Rockville, in particular.

Solid places, both of them, with menus full of comforting, let's-not-get-too-carried-away-with-spicing-and-architecture-and-flavor-combinations cooking. They're also set, Southern-style, in charming, relaxed old houses.

Arlington, VA
Hi Todd – I'm heading to Cafe Atlantico for the first time in the coming weeks. Would you recommend having the weekend dim sum tasting menu or the chef's regular evening tasting menu?
Dim sum, all the way.
Alexandria, VA
My husband and I recently traveled to Middleburg/Upperville, VA thinking we were going to Restaurant 1763. When we arrived, we discovered it had been changed to Blackstone Inn or something like that. We were frustrated because 1793 specialized in German food and though the new menu was very good, we certainly wouldn't have traveled an hour for it. We think the restaurant should have mentioned the change when we called for the reservation. What do you think?

I dunno. The restaurant may have presumed you already knew about the change, especially if the change was not all that recent.

I would also imagine that the receptionist mentioned the new name when you called –?

Arlington, VA
My wedding anniversary is coming up, and my husband and I are interested in trying a new, romantic restaurant for dinner. I'm looking at a December 2006 article called Readers' Favorite Restaurants that picked the three most romantic–L'Auberge Chez Francois, the Inn at Little Washington, and Mrs. K's. Are you doing this survey and article again? If so, can you provide an early word on any new names cropping up that we might try?

The survey is published every December, and no, I can't tell you which names are cropping up. And not because I'm being coy, either. They're being tabulated by an outside organization, independent of the magazine. Serious stuff, huh?

L'Auberge Chez Francois is cozy and intimate, if a little formal for some (although well-suited to a special occasion), but as for the other two  … the I at LW is off-the-charts expensive and Mrs. K's, while charming, is terrible.

I've never quite understood the designation "romantic restaurant," anyway. Intellectually, sure, but not emotionally. Maybe it's just my contrarian nature, but I just don't think that romance is served by seeking it out so deliberately.  (I'm a capital-R Romantic.) You find romance when you least expect it, in life as in restaurants. A bad dinner can be romantic, if you have some great laughs and bond over the ineptness of everything that you experience.

Personally, I don't think you can do better than to go for sushi together, and take your time, and share each bite, and sip your sake.

Hi Todd: I was really excited about going to Vidalia because I had heard great things about the place – from lots of people. The shrimp and grits I had there was, unfortunately, awful. It was so over-salted that I practically choked with each mouthful, not good! I tried to eat most of it because it was so expensive. Anyway, this isn't to bash Vidalia. The wine and the dessert were fabulous.

Interesting.

I'd say it was an aberration, but that doesn't erase the fact that you paid a lot of money for a disappointing dish.

Mount Pleasant, DC
PS- Another quick question… I'll be turning 23 next month and instead of doing the overdone/boring "reserving a table/spending $500+ on bottles of liquor" at a club this year, I kind of wanna do brunch on a sunday with maybe 10 people…but I like to pay for my guests on my birthday so…do you have any recommendations for good brunch that could accomodate 10 people, and is not TOO expensive for a young lady? 🙂 Chloe

So, wait, let me see if I have this right: You'll spend $500 + on just booze, but you don't want the tab for food to get too high?

As a food lover, I have to say: I think you might be coming to the wrong place, Mt. Pleasant. Around here, we're inclined to do it the other way around. Splurge on the food, skimp on the booze. Better value, for one.

At least you're paying — that's a terrific gesture.

Here are some possibilities: the Latin dim sum brunch at Cafe Atlantico, the brunch at Poste, dim sum (the regular kind, with carts) at Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard in Wheaton.

And have a great birthday …

Gaithersburg, MD
Galileo? Really? Seriously, as the guest of a money-no-object lobbiest, I was able to eat guilt free, but the food was amazing. I would have loved it even if I were paying.

Oh, the food CAN be amazing, no doubt.

But all-the-time amazing?

Or — amazing if you should return without the big-shot lobbyist? Amazing if you don't happen to show up in a crisp, pinstriped suit? I wonder.

Dupont
Overrated (and, therefore, overpriced): The lobster burger at Central; Palena (main restaurant, not the cafe); 1789; and, of course, Galileo.

Boy oh boy, that lobster burger's dividing more people in this town than the immigration bill.

Keep 'em coming, choggers …

WDC
"six more dozen times"?!?!? As in 72 new Centrals?

They'd need to come up with a new name, then, wouldn't they? Central Michel Richard I don't think would cut it, not with all those scattered, far-flung outposts. 

How about: Diaspora Michel Richard. ; )

Tenleytown, DC
We had a disappointing night at Comet Ping Pong. We've had great pizzas there in the past, but this was a major off-night, with dreary, underwhelming and lifeless pizzas served sullenly. It looked like Carole Greenwood was not in the kitchen–but is that an excuse? How can a place like this, with such a small menu (and such great ingredients) seem to fall apart when she is not in the kitchen? Is pizza that fragile? Can't they train their people to get it right?

You're not alone — I've heard a number of complaints of late about Comet, all of them, I should mention, coming just after I'd gone to bed with my article on the area's boutique pizza explosion. In it, I wrote that Comet is putting out some of the city's best pizzas.

Greenwood not being in the kitchen shouldn't be an excuse, no — I mean, it's pizza for crying out loud. If you can't be consistent with pizza, what CAN you be consistent with?

 

Oakton, VA
Overrated new restaurant – Hook. Loved the service and decor but the food (not even the dessert) didn't measure up to the description on the menu.

Hook, too, is proving pretty darn divisive early on. Interesting.

Thanks for chiming in, Oakton. 

Please don’t hate me!
OVER-RATED RESTAURANTS Vidalia BLT

Hate you? Why? Not at all.

(No love for Vidalia today. Unless, of course, you're the same chogger who wrote in earlier to report on a less-than-wonderful meal there –?) 

Washington, D.C.
Todd, what is your most uncomfortable eating-out moment that you've ever had so far? I'm not giving any parameters on what might constitute "uncomfortable." Thanks,

Oh, I've had a lot of them.

The one that comes to mind, though, occurred in my pre-critic days, when my wife and I order a salmon dish and were served catfish.

We pointed this out to the waiter, who told us that, no, it was salmon. But the color, I said. It's white. Salmon is orange. Yes, the server replied: Salmon is orange when it's raw. When you cook it, it changes color. No, I said, it doesn't. It lightens in color. He left and returned with the box containing the raw fish. It was marked: salmon. Inside? Filets of catfish.

What ensued was not pretty, with much flexing of machismo on the part of the manager who interceded. All in all, a ruined night. But — GREAT COMEDY. My wife and I have never forgotten it.

That's all, folks.

This talk of fish reminds me to remind you to get your questions about fish and sushi in for next week's chat with author Trevor Corson. Should be a fun one.

Be well, eat well, and TC will be holding down the fort next week at 11 …

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