Word of Mouth …
… A question I get every so often is: "So where's really good to eat in Baltimore?" And often enough to have it lodged in my skull: "Why is that the Inn at Little Washington and the Inn at Easton — both more than an hour away from downtown DC — get onto the 100 Best List but not any places from in or around Baltimore?"
Not long ago, I tried to answer both questions with a single visit: Charleston, in downtown Baltimore's Fells Point (the developers and p.r. hacks are insisting on calling it Harbor East, but trust me — it's Fells Point.)
My meal — four people on a Saturday night — reminded me of something Phyllis Richman once shared with me: "Whatever you hear about Baltimore restaurants, subtract 30%."
The dominant impression of the cooking that night was of an insistent richness, but without the depth and resonance that great luxury dining ought to deliver. Here's my notebook entry from that visit, banged out the next morning on my laptop:
" … too much cream in the corn soup … too much salt in the ceviche … the fried oysters were big and sweet and fine, but you'd expect a lighter, more elegant coating for a refined restaurant … a fried green tomato dish with lobster salad was dull, dull, dull … foie gras was cold in the center (the waitress gently admonished me, saying they keep it cool so as to preserve a hefty portion size, and that next time i should indicate i like a warmer center); c'mon, it's all fat anyway — I'd rather have something small and exquisite than sizable and middlin' … a warm potato salad: dull, dull, dull — the potatoes the least interesting thing on the plate …
" … shrimp 'n' grits were literally soaking in a warm pool of butter, and the shrimp were chintzily sized and portioned … the country terrine was shockingly, offensively mild … sweetbreads came with an over-reduced sauce … the duck was excellent, but only three slices? … grouper was good, but the risotto was undercooked … squab, ordered medium-rare, came out rare (it was good, though) …
"desserts were pretty good (and pretty), the bread basket is excellent, and the wine list is very strong. but is all of that enough to send somebody from the DC area? And an exceptionally expensive meal, at that — $74 for three (small plates) courses, with dessert thrown in "complimentary." love that. …
"my sister-in-law couldn't get over the fact that we were sitting in a very nice, very elegant restaurant — and facing a huge parking garage. 'couldn't they have done something with that window? some fabric or something?'" …
…Finally, to all you who've been asking about places to eat on X-mas — (today is turning into Answer Man day) take a look at this handy X-mas dining guide that Sara Levine and Marissa Conrad at Washingtonian.com just put together. …
Now, let's get to your questions. Onward …
It's funny, but I still get outraged when I spend a huge sum of money — even if it's not my own — for a hugely disappointing meal.
I think it's really important to be really candid like that, really questioning, when it comes to the luxury dining spots. They get less benefit of the doubt.
That's not to say that with a cheap eats spot the gloves come off, but there's a lot less risk for you, the diner, when you're spending thirty bucks or forty bucks for two. The night's not riding on it.
Glad to hear you got a response, DC. I thought that'd happen, if not in "real time," then shortly thereafter.
(Real time. Love that. Which means, of course, that whatever's not "real time" is fake time. Inauthentic time. Ideal, isn't it, for a culture in which everyone is either on TV or aspires to be on TV.)
I agree with you re: restaurants and timely correspondence. That stuff has got to be taken seriously.
Maybe now that you've brought it to the attention of a wider audience, things might begin to change, a little.
Thanks for the email.
Curious — anyone from the other side of the divide care to respond?
I went to CityZen a few months ago with several of my friends. Our party of 7 met up early for drinks in the lounge, and we were thrilled to be together for our first experience at this very popular and well-respected rising star on the restaurant scene. Our servers were very pleasant, and the food was delicious and interestingly prepared and presented.
We especially loved the little box of rolls, which went very quickly at our large table. When we asked for another serving of the rolls – since we assumed it was the standard bread for the table, our server hesitated and seemed very uncomfortable. He said he would check with the kitchen.
More servers appeared and presented our meals. The bread never came, and no one spoke of it again. We felt uncomfortable, confused, and ignored. And frankly, for the price per person, ripped off. My partner wrote a letter of complaint to the manager shortly after our visit. That was also ingored.
For a little bit more money, we decided that the Inn at Little Washington might have been a better choice. We have no plans to return to CityZen, and have discouraged friends from going there.
Why did they ignore our request? And at such great cost?
I'm going to try to put myself in CityZen's shoes for a second, and guess that they'd probably say that the mini Parker House rolls are "a gift from the kitchen" — in restaurant parlance, a little added something — and not to be confused with regular "bread service."
But I'm with you on this.
Hard-core foodies understand things like this, they get what "gifts from the kitchen" means. But most people, which is what restaurants are populated with — most people — aren't going to understand that this bread is not to be confused with the other bread. They figure, "i'm paying good money, really good money, and all I ask is for another order of bread."
Seven people, I'm guessing you spent around $1,500. An extra order of rolls hardly seems unreasonable.
I suggest that CityZen make the effort to keep more on hand each night.
But then — I can hear it now, from certain quarters — they would lose their distinctiveness, their specialness.
Fact is, those mini Parker House rolls began as a surprise (and became an inducement to order a particular cut of beef), but have since become a bit of a shtick — every table now gets one, pretty much.
I love them, i think they're one of the best things you can pop in your mouth in this city — but I still find this whole story a little ridiculous.
Take a look at the link I posted in my intro. Some of the best restaurants in the area are going to be open and serving.
Hope that helps.
That's a bad night. I'm sorry to hear that.
And Kinkead's should be sorrier. I'd hope someone from the restaurant is reading along.
I've always thought Kinkead's was one of the more consistent places in town, not the sort of spot you drop a lot of money on only if someone else is footing the bill. I think it's an aberrant night. But that's not to say you're going to fancy going back any time soon. I understand that.
Regarding the service … my advice, there, is always to sit in or around the bar — which is not to cast aspersions at the waitstaff, just to say that it's a lot more fun and interesting down there than in the more muted, more sober upstairs. Good barmen, good conversations.
Addressed and also written about.
It's not shabby, no. But it's not very different from what it was.
If I'm disappointed, it's because i would have loved to see Bryan doing his thing. Bryan unbound. Bryan being Bryan. I loved his cooking at Veritas — I can recall precise, vivid details of my last meal there.
My wife, after her first bite of a roast chicken with foie gras sauce, looked up from her plate and said: "Puccini."
To which I said, not unreasonably: "Say what?"
"Puccini," she replied. "I'm hearing Puccini. It tastes like Puccini sounds." She dug in, took another bite, then closed her eyes in rapture.
(And hey, why is that you all know my name, but all I know of you is — DC, or Petworth, or Cheverly? Doesn't seem right, now, does it?)
But to answer your question … Lots of good places that I think'd fit the bill. Central, Vermilion, Circle Bistro, Beck, Poste, Cafe du Parc, the new Westend Bistro.
I love that bit about the food being more important than the catching up. Enjoy your meal, and don't, of course, tell your friends.
Only the locals, or only the hole-in-the-wall-scouring food critics? 😉
Thai X-ing is still a mystery to many. But as I've said many, many times — that salmon in red curry is one of the great dishes in the city.
Amsterdam Falafel? Eh. Not a fan. You can do a lot better than that.
I'd put all the following on my short list: Pyramid for Moroccan, Etete for Ethiopian, Malaysia Kopitiam, all in the city and all really, really affordable.
If you can extend your definition of the city to include parts of Virginia and Maryland, then the list gets a lot longer: Huong Viet and Minh's for Vietnamese, Ravi Kabob I and II for kebabs, Myoung Dong and Gom Ba Woo for Korean, Faryab for Afghan …
Hope that helps, some. And let me know where your and your group end up eating.
Keep it clean, people! Keep it clean …
Actually, my wife, sitting across from me at the table, just howled with laughter.
But in all seriousness … sorta sentimental, kinda likeable, a little earnest, basically soothing. Hm. Maybe the chicken pot pie at Liberty Tavern, capped with a baking powder biscuit?
Fun game, fun game.
Where could I go to taste …
… Bill Evans
… Sly Stone
… Charlie Parker
… The Stones
… Miles Davis
Demanded? I didn't hear demanded in the writer's note or tone.
And this person, Don, isn't that person. So let's not confuse this thing and make it more complicated.
I'll return to what I said before: The fact that they're not part of "bread service" is immaterial. They're bread.
The diner asked for another box. There's no harm in asking.
And the fact is, some diners apparently do get — or have gotten — a second. Someone I know recently asked and received another box. So it's not impossible.
Course, isn't the idea to come up with a particular dish? Harder that way …
But yeah … Maybe Jose Andres and Kats Fukushima could come up with a cocoa-powder-filled atomizer that riffs on and pays homage to "Ko-Ko." Hmm.
Who's got 'em?
But just so you know — the place isn't what it was.
I still like the half smokes at Ben's (the chili, though, has gotten watery).
Cocktail attire, maybe black tie makes me think of Marcel's, at 24th and Penn.
It's expensive, but it's also really close, the staff will pay good attention to you, and if you arrange it, they'll even ferry you to and from the Ken Cen. Food's good, and the place has a big night air.
Have you thought about either Palena or Vidalia? I think you'd enjoy yourself at both spots. If you haven't already been, and really love good food, you owe it to yourself to give them a try. And even if you have been, the menus change often enough that you're not going to feel as though you're trodding over old terrain.
I think you're being too dismissive of the meat of this complaint.
I don't get the impression that they wanted those rolls as badly as you and some others I haven't included on here seem to think. The impression I get is that they'd already spent a ton of money at dinner, and that they asked for an extra order of bread and were rejected. And that that rejection, coupled with the huge amount of money they'd spent, spoiled the mood of conviviality and well-being that a great restaurant can create when everything's humming.
That one thing, yes — but a restaurant manager once told me that the job of a manager is to minimize what he called the "bruises." Minimize, or eliminate, the bruises, so as to sustain the "fantasy." One bruise, and the fantasy — the fantasy that all the world is good because you're being taken care of and the food and the wine are splendid — is gone.
Harsh, but that's the truth of the business at that level.
And again: hard-core foodies will get the difference between a "gift from the kitchen' and "bread service." But to the average restaurant-goer, bread is bread.
I don't really think it's asking too much of a restaurant at that level — a restaurant that aims to pamper and dazzle its customers — to fork over an extra box. The cost is minimal, and diners tend to remember little niceties like that. They also tend to notice, and speak up, when they feel slighted.
There are, but you know, the communal table isn't what it's cracked up to be — for one thing, it's not really communal. We did a piece on this last year in the magazine. People don't sit together, at least not in DC they don't. They sit at the same table, but at opposite ends, or with wide spaces between them.
You get the illusion of communality, but it's purely gestural, a gambit by restaurateurs and chefs to create the sort of warmth and conviviality you find in small spots in Europe.
If you want a communal table, you're really better off sitting at a bar. And not a quiet, yuppie one, either, but a busy, lively one, where people actually drink.
There are a number of communal tables in the area — Buck's Fishing and Camping … Sonoma … Logan Tavern … and I know I'm forgetting a few more …
Etete is what it is, and it's good.
You mentioned Habesha. I really like Queen Makeda, which I wrote about several months back. It's a much spiffier, more comfortable place since shutting down, renovating and re-opening. It's not the same dank, dark place it was. But the cooking's just as tasty.
Expected, no. And most of the time, twenty percent should do it.
Twenty percent, though, if everything was to your liking — fifteen percent is the old standard.
Yep: don't bother with the crudos, look for the sablefish, and make sure to save room for the lingonberry linzer torte with taleggio ice cream for dessert. Actually, you don't really need to save room: the food is light and portions aren't all that big.
That's it, everyone.
I've gotta run and catch some lunch. Liked the feistiness today; good stuff. Keep it up.
Eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …