December 11, 2007 @ 11AM

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

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Word of Mouth …

… It had the look of a hostile takeover, the chainification of Silver Spring. The early wave of restaurants in the newly gentrified downtown was heavy on plastic, light on soul. But independents have been pushing up through the cracks, among them Mandalay, Ray's the Classics, Jackie's, and Da Marco. Here are three newcomers:

Nicaro is by far the most promising of the bunch, with a menu of strong, rooted flavors that owe everything to conscientious shopping (mostly local) and a reliance on craftsmanship in the kitchen. Pedro Matomoros, the chef and owner, developed his approach at the influential Tabard Inn, where he manned the stoves for seven years before leaving early last year to open a place of his own. As they were at the Tabard, the terrines and rilletes are both handmade, as are the pastas (available — nice touch — in half-portions), and the oysters are well-sourced. A plate of coriander-crusted lamb chops with lamb sausage is excellent, a textbook example of how earthy, rooted flavors can be made elegant and sophisticated. Even better: the butternut squash soup, with ribbons of fresh, toasted coconut and a final garnish of micro-cilantro. Insistently spicy, wonderfully fragrant, it eats like one of the best curries you'll ever eat. No lie: I was seriously tempted to ask for a bowl of rice. Given the indisputably downtown prices, this sparely appointed, storefront twofer (a restaurant on one side, a spacious bar on the other) may come as a letdown to some. But although it lacks the sumptuousness of deeper-pocketed places, it does not lack for sophistication and warmth, thanks to a smart waitstaff and thoughtful touches throughout. The focus, though, is on the plate — not unlike its scaled-back neighbor, Ray's the Classics, just around the corner.

The second outpost of Olazzo (not a chain, a local chain — there's a difference) looks, from the inside, like one of those restaurants in lower Manhattan — a long and narrow slip of a place with tables crammed together and the long bar at arm's length. It's not as interesting on the plate as the mood might lead you to believe, but there are some tasty simple eats on the streamlined menu (good fried calamari, a tasty square of lasagna that tastes like somebody's grandma's), and Monday is half-price bottle of wine night.

The month-old Abol has what might be the best location of any Ethiopian restaurant in the area, just across the street from the AFI Silver. But although the space and the presentation of dishes and even the flatware live up to the choice digs (no spilling of stews onto a round of injera, here — everything is set out on plates, including a vegetarian platter that takes up every compartment of a sectional glass serving tray), the cooking is often oily and uninspired. …

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DC
Hi, I would like to publicly slam one of the best restaurants in DC. The complaint I plan to make shows that I don't eat at this type of restaurant very often and my opinion is probably not informed. Can you help me with this?

Well, hardy har har.

A little context, for those of you who didn't follow along last week (and shame on you, first of all.)

We had a chatter who complained about his treatment at one of the top restaurants in the city. Food was great, but the chatter (part of a group of 7) was put out by the fact that a request for an extra box of tiny Parker House rolls (intended as a "gift from the kitchen") was denied. The refusal, the chatter wrote, confused the table and soured what had been a fine night out.

I spoke with the chef, Eric Ziebold, last week, post-chat. He told me that a table of seven should have been given four boxes of the rolls. Didn't happen, according to the chatter, who initiated contact with me by email.

Most of the response to the chatter that came in to me — either via chat or email — was intensely dismissive and even hostile. With much of the animus centering on the fact that the chatter didn't seem to be someone who eats "at this type of restaurant very often" and is, therefore, "uninformed."

Sorry. That's just incredibly offensive.

I agree with you and others that criticizing a person or a place in a public forum like this is not something to be taken lightly.

But I don't think you can infer what you're inferring from the original posting. And, more to the point: Even if you were right, so what? 

Are you saying that only the perspective of the limited few who are knowledgeable about the nuances of fine dining should matter?

Not a very with-in sensibility, is it. If that were the case, then you'd have to dismiss the internet and all its message boards. Anonymity and hostility — and hostility because of anonymity — is the way of the 'net. The original poster doesn't know Ziebold, and you don't know the original poster. So assumptions fly, accusals fly.

Anyway, enough. On to the chow …

surigao city
Washington is such a very nice place to celebrate Christmas. Merry Christmas Washington!

Nice. A little sweetness and light … Thank you, Surigao City!

And where have you been eating, if I might ask?

Springfield, VA

Todd,

It's been a while since I have been online and been able to participate in the chat, but I just had to ask you about my upcoming dinner reservation at Le Paradou. My husband and I are celebrating our 4th wedding anniversary and I know absolutely nothing about this restaurant. I know that it is on the Top 100 Very Best List, otherwise, I wouldn't even bother 😉 … but what else can you tell me about it? The chef, the service, best dishes, some juicy inside stuff? Dying to know. Hope all is well. Always a pleasure, Lisa D.

Hi, Lisa. Welcome back, and happy anniversary!

What can I tell you? I can tell you that Yannick Cam is one of the best cooks in the city, and that his roots here go back a long, long way. In the '80s, his restaurant, Le Pavillon, was one of the city's top dining destinations. I can also tell you that you can expect — well, no, that I can't tell you. The restaurant runs hot and cold. It can be brilliant at times and uninspired at others. Or — one visit is sublime, the next leaves you wondering whether it's the same kitchen.

Best dishes? That depends, as I said, but his foie gras terrine with stewed apricots, his roasted lobster with Sauternes, his gazpacho with lobster claw, and his duck breast with foie gras tart, are all good bets.

Good luck, and be sure to check back in with a report …

Arlington – Expat
Thanks to you and the other Washingtonian staff for answering my earlier question about restaurants open on Xmas Day. I really appreciate it! Happy Holidays. Kathy
Not me — all thanks go to the staff for that one. Thanks, staff!
Arlington, VA
Good Morning Todd, With the void of Maestro as the top Italian fine dining spot in the DC Area, can you recommend another fine dining Italian restaurant where I can splurge? Is Tosca comparably good? I did like Obelisk but the dining room is a bit too small and would like a nicer setting.

Comparably good, no. Maestro was pretty unique, not at all your usual Italian fine dining restaurant. I mean, come on — test tubes of sauce?

But that shouldn't take away from the fact that Tosca, with chef Massimo Fabbri at the helm, is back. Good spot to splurge and indulge.

Bethesda, MD
So we finally tried Nark Kara Thai last night and even though I wanted to love the place, we were underwhelmed. The Ka Nom Jeeb were pretty good, and the larb was really great. However, the yum nua had overcooked beef and I was surprised to discover the drunken noodles were a gummy mess that was virtually tasteless. The Panang curry (ordered extra or Thai spicy) was only moderately so though otherwise pretty good. We were really disappointed – we really wanted to love this neighborhood newcomer. What do you think happened given the place is garnering so many good reviews?

The answer's in the question. 

A lot of places, post-review, struggle to keep their level. Particularly newer, smaller places like this one. Staff gets overwhelmed by the surge of business, kitchen can't find its rhythm, and people go away shaking their heads, wondering how mediocre food could be so highly praised. 

For a tiny, ethnic restaurant, many times a review isn't a blessing, it's a curse — lifting a place out of the realm of a simple hole in the wall serving a small population of regulars and exposing it to a wider audience with big expectations and different assumptions.

I'll have to go back. I've been hearing reports about how crowded the place has been, which is telling, because when I went and wrote about it on the chat and when Cynthia Hacinli went (three times) and reviewed it for the magazine, it was pretty empty.

It sounds as though it's not the place it was. But we'll see …

 

Website Performance Slow!
Your online session is really slow today….

Maybe.

I think it's me. A little too much to drink with dinner last night. And it's a gray, moody day, and the music that's playing is moody, too, and I don't know — I guess that's all got me in a different state of mind than the usual rapid-fire, rapid-response host you ordinarily read.

Keep in mind, though — I do produce this thing as well as host it, and that cutting and pasting and sifting through the queue takes time. Too much time, yes. Higher ups?

Tenleytown, DC
Todd, I enjoy reading your chat, but now I'm pretty confused concerning this whole CityZen thing. Today you say that the 'chatter' that came into you was "incredibly offensive" because it implied that the person complaining was someone who didn't eat at this type of restaurant very often and was therefore uninformed. While I didn't see any emails, I only saw that sentiment one place in last week's chat–in one of your later answers. You said, "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." So, are you the one being incredibly offensive? I don't eat in this type of restaurant very often (I can't afford to!) but I've gone to enough restaurants (of all kinds) to know that if my request is ignored once, I ask again. If the person working the cash register at McDonald's doesn't put more honey barbecue sauce in my bag, I ask again. I don't become confused. I don't write a letter to the company.

You can't compare a multinational fast food chain and a luxury, four-star restaurant that built its reputation on satisfying its customers' fantasies.

And calling someone a hard-core foodie is not, by the way, calling someone a god. What I'm saying is that hard-core foodies, that five or so percent of the dining population, are more attuned to these sorts of details than the average diner. Doesn't make them better than the average diner — just different. (Actually, it makes them abnormal — in that they're far outside the norm.)

Anyway, I'm of the mind that bread is bread, in this case. I think the distinction between "gift from the kitchen" and "bread service" is much too fine. I can see why customers would ask for more, and I can see the argument the original chatter tried to put forth (even if I think that the reaction was a little over the top.)

DC–Shaw
To to couple going to Le Paradou: This is by far my favorite restaurant in DC. If I may, I would like to make recommendations. The Chilled Carrot soup was a surprising delight. I love anything involving lobster, but I also enjoy the Crab Custard; it's absolute heaven on a plate. For entrees, my faves are the Turbot and Scallops, the Salmon or if you prefer meat, the Squab is delicious without being to heavy. In all of my experiences, the service is flawless and welcoming. The wine "list" is intimidating but great!

Another take. And thanks for the lengthy and exuberant report.

You seem to be one of the lucky few who has not experienced the ups and downs of the place.

 

MD
Craving for a grilled Oyster!! any suggestion pleaseeeeeeee

If they're still on the menu — the charbroiled oysters at Johnny's Half Shell.

Not grilled, but a lot of what you're looking for in a grilled oyster. They're fabulous. 

Bethesda, MD
If you had to choose a steakhouse for a business meeting in the Tyson's area, which would you choose? There are so many choices and I cannot make my mind up. Right in the vicinity of my work are Ruth's Chris, Mortons, The Palm, Flemings Steakhouse, Shula Steakhouse, and Capital Grille.
That's a toughie, with not a lot of easy separation among them. But in Tysons, I'd go with either Morton's or the Capital Grille.
Alexandria, VA
Where would we find some good authentic tamales in the DC metropolitan area?

I used to like the tamales at Guajillo, in Arlington. I say like only because it's been a while since I've had one there. But they were good.

In Laurel, Mango Grill has pretty good ones. You can also find pretty good ones at La Flor de la Canela, in Gaithersburg. 

And there are a number of Salvadoran spots that have pretty good ones, too. There's a place in Wheaton, next to the Royal Mile, whose name escapes me just now … Shoot. Haven't been in a while, but I used to love their tamal de elote, the sweet corn tamale that could just as easily make a great dessert.

Fuente, in Beltsville, also does a nice tamal de elote.

I'm leaving out scads of others. Anyone got a favorite?

Dupont
Hi Todd. Just wanted to report what a wonderful dinner we had last night at Blue Duck. The food was delicious and had great presentation. We especially liked the scallops, pork and duck entrees. The restaurant has great atmosphere too; we loved the open kitchen! Our only complaint was that the grits were too rich and heavy (and lacked that grit-y texture), and the house-made ice cream wasn't creamy – it was full of ice crystals. We plan to return for another special occasion in the future.
Nice, full report, Dupont. Thanks.
LA
Hello! Happy its food day!!! Todd, is there any place in DC fun place for fondue other than "Melting point"? Nothing personal on MP but not a big fan of chain restaurant…..

I know what you mean about Melting Pot. (I kind of like the name Melting Point. Someone should open a restaurant called Boiling Point. Boiling Point by Gordon Ramsey.)

There aren't any fondue places that I'm aware of. Although if I'm not mistaken, Bread and Chocolate does a warm pot of chocolate that you can dip cakes and fruits into. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, please. 

WDC
Todd, Just a note of encouragement on how you played the critique of the disgruntled Cityzen poster. I thought you handled it well (both sides seem a bit off here) and, as always, I'm glad to see you standing up for the average diner (even if my food obsession is starting to place me more in the category of foodie who's tempted to regard the average diner with a touch of disdain). Anyway, cheers and thanks!

Thanks.

See, this disdain thing — I don't get it. Although I applaud you for owning up to a creeping tendency that a lot of people won't own up to. I'm bothered by these kinds of stratifications, when a love of good food becomes somehow equated with good taste, with breeding, with sophistication. Great barbecue is as good, if not better, than any fine dining.

More and more, knowledge of food is becoming like knowledge of opera, something used to justify, to dismiss, to elevate.

DC
Had dinner at 2 Amy's last night, and sat upstairs for the first time. It was an entirely different dining experience. Not as noisy, cooler (temp), and much more leisurely dining. Our server was fantastic. We started with lots of small plates. I loved the escarole salad with anchovy dressing. The squash soup was delish as well.

Good report. (Love these reports, everyone. Keep 'em coming.)

That adults-only room is turning out to be a smart decision from Peter Pastan and team.

Washington DC
When is your 100 best dining guide coming out? Is it going to be like last year with the ranking – 1 – 100 ?

Two weeks!

And yes — rankings from 1-100. This year we're also offering an insider's tip section for each restaurant, rating the service for each and providing a quick look at how best to maximize your experience at each. Among other things.

I actually think this is the best 100 Best package we've put together since I came aboard just over two years ago.  

DC
The upstairs at 2 Amy's is not really "adults only." It's just that they don't have high chairs up there, so the kids tend to be older, less numerous. I agree that It's a very pleasant space and there is no drop off in terms of service.

You're right: It's not technically "adults-only."

But the effect is "adults-only." Which is to say: It doesn't ever feel like Romper Room up there. 

Burger fan
Hi Todd! When restaurants change a menu item and patrons complain, do they every change it back? I ask because my favorite burger in DC was Ceiba's chorizo burger. My boyfriend and I are on a burger quest to find the best bite in the metro area, and I was super excited to take him there for his first time! However, when we ordered our waiter told us they swapped out the sweet potato bun, pancetta, and tiny crispy fries for thin sourdough toast, tasteless carmelized onions, and way-too-thick and pasty yucca fries. It was nothing like the old version, and very dissapointing. The bartender felt our pain and even comp'd us a drink. This is probably the first bad thing iIve ever had to say about this group of restaurants, too.

Interesting question, Burger fan.

Will they change it back? If enough people clamor for a certain, cast-aside dish or a certain version of a dish, they will. And you've just begun to rattle the cage.

I'd follow this up with a letter, if i were you (although, trust me, they're reading) and maybe enlist some fellow fans in your campaign.

To my ears, this isn't a complaint, when customers raise their voices like this. It's actually a sign of affection. The opposite of love, as they say, isn't hate. It's indifference. 

 

Reston
For tamales try Teocalli Tamale in Herndon on Elden st. They have a successful restaurant in some ski resort area out west, and then this location in Herndon. Go figure. Do not go for the ambiance; go for fresh, simple food with plenty of flavor and as much spice as you want.
Nice report, Reston! I've never been, but you've got me all raring to go. Thanks.
WDC
Todd, Need some help deciding where to take my girlfriend for her birthday next month. We've been pretty much everywhere good in DC, except Mendocino. I'm hearing great things from them lately, so I'm torn between going there and going to Komi, where we LOVED a couple years ago, but haven't been back to since they switched to prix fixe full time (minimum of $84 per/person for food). I'm still a little uncomfortable dropping that kind of cash at Komi, but want to make sure this night is a blast (we're both foodies). What do you say? Is Komi worth the extra cash or is it time to try Mendocino where we can probably live a little larger by virtue of the lower price point? We love fish so that cuts in favor of Mendocino, but its a special occasion and we wouldn't do Komi without one, so that cuts in favor of Komi, but then Komi's ambiance is no Tasting Room at Eve. I can't decide – HELP! Many thanks!

I'll tell you what: the mood is a lot different at Komi than it used to be — softer lighting, much more subdued. Great feel, and the same warm, accessible staff.

And the cooking's even better. Go. 

(Guess who's moving up the Top 100?)

And don't be a stranger — come back on and let us know what your night was like.

 

DC
Another comment on the Cityzen controversy, being a regular old diner myself, I could totally see how someone would think the rolls were part of the bread service. I can also understand that the kitchen may not want to serve them in unlimited quantities. So wouldn't a better response from the restaurant instead of ingnoring the request which makes people angry, be to explain that the rolls are a gift from the kitchen and that the the waiter would be happy to bring some additional bread to the table?

Not a bad solution, DC. I think the thing is, in this case, it wasn't so much the rolls, it was the explanation of the no-rolls. 

I'm running late for a lunch, but many thanks to all of you for the interesting questions, the field reports and the wonderful back-and-forth. I love my Tuesday mornings. 

Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …

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