Word of Mouth …
… Last year, I got a blistering note the week after the 100 Best Restaurants issue hit newsstands from a reader in Prince George's County. How, he asked, could a long list like ours not include a single restaurant in the county he called home? He stopped just short of calling me — us — out for racism, but beneath the bluster and insinuations and almost-accusations it was a good question. How could it? The answer, unfortunately, was: easy.
All we do, here, is hold up a mirror to what's going on. We reflect a reality, we don't make a reality. The fact is, the county at this point doesn't have a single restaurant that's good enough to make the list. That year, or this year.
I don't like that reality; in fact, I hate that reality. I wish more ambitious restaurateurs would choose to set up shop in the county. I'm not talking about CityZen. Who expects that? But where is the county's version of The Liberty Tavern?
(For that matter, I wish more ethnic mom and pops would, too. Where is the county's Thai Square, or Huong Viet, or Faryab?)
A lot of restaurateurs fancy themselves risk-takers. But you don't take a gamble by moving to the West End, or opening up on Slaters Lane in Alexandria. Those are safe havens. You take a gamble by going where no one has ever gone before; you force the action, the crowds, to come to you, by dint of your quality and originality and value. In New York, the equivalent of planting a flag in Prince George's would be opening up shop in Williamsburg, or DUMBO. It can be done. It ought to be done. Someone just needs to do it.
Andy Shallal is launching his largest Busboys and Poets in the arts district of Hyattsville next year. He's a restaurateur, one of the rare few, who understands what real risk is, and what real investment is. His place isn't fine dining, though. That's going to be the challenge.
Aside from racism, the excuse most frequently offered up as to why the stores and the restaurants don't come is: population density. It sounds like code language to me, which of course has the unintended consequence of making a lot of us fall back on the possibility of racism.
Money? Yes, the county suffers by comparison with Montgomery and Fairfax when it comes to the affluence of its residents, but that's largely a misleading statistic. Nationally, it's among the most prosperous.
But if pioneering chefs and restaurateurs are still a ways off, two of the most interesting, most delicious, places to open in the area in the past several months are both Prince George's County spots.
Muffin Man Caribbean Cafe, the onetime carryout (9434 Lanham Severn Rd., Lanham; 301-459-1144) reopened a couple of weeks ago as a cheery eat-in restaurant. The walls are awash in shades of lime and orange, which oddly enough I found both stimulating and soothing, and the dining room is big enough to fit a hundred.
The oversized muffins remain the draw for many — of the more than 25 baked on the premises every day, I'm partial to the carrot and the rum raisin — but owners Rod and Sherrie O'Savio are serving up what just might be the best Caribbean food in the area, with excellent roti (I'd go with the savory, brown-sauced goat, hacked up into big, soft hunks) and a fiery jerk shrimp that, with its huge, properly cooked crustaceans and careful saucing, could pass muster in spiffier, more appointed surroundings.
KBQ (12500B1 Fairwood Parkway, Bowie; kbqrealbarbecue.com) debuted in mid-November in Bowie — in other words, barely enough time to open the doors and develop a routine. But it's already established itself in my mind as the place to go for good, quality 'cue without lighting out for the territories — i.e., Charles County, where the legendary Johnny Boy's Ribs resides.
Warning: The stripmall, storefront setting is about as far from the scruffy roadside establishment that many of us wish our 'cue spots to be. It's too clean and bright, for one thing. Too suburban. The old-school album covers — Wes Montgomery, Marvin Gaye, Dave Brubeck — and the old-fashioned coke dispenser (with its bottle opener on the outside) are nice touches, and I could listen to the soundtrack (which plays those greats and more) all day, but it's hard to shake the feeling that you're sitting in a chain.
Until you take your first taste, when you realize the cooking is as country as the atmosphere isn't. Prince George's, like most counties, forbids the use of open pits, so owner Kerry Britt relies on slow smoking his meats before putting them on the grill. A pink "smoke-ring," indicative of good smoke penetration into the flesh, is the first thing you notice about the ribs and brisket. The second thing you notice is that they don't need sauce — another telling indicator of first-rate 'cue. The meat ought to be luscious enough, flavorful enough, without it; sauce is simply an enhancement.
The third thing you notice is that halfway through one of these monster plates of two meats and two sides, you feel as though you're at a rollicking backyard barbecue in August. And it's January.
I love the ribs and the pulled pork, but if I had to limit myself to two meats, it'd be tough to not make the hot country sausage one of them. Great pop on the casing, great spicing.
Britt, a hospitality industry vet, did a ton of 'cue catering before opening KBQ, and he seems to understand the value of taking every dish seriously. There are no throwaways here, and every dish is rife with distinctive little touches. Even the sides: The waffle fries come with skins on, one version of the corn bread includes jalapenos and cheddar, the potato salad is mixed with baby shrimps.
Both of these places deserve broad, enthusiastic support. But i wonder: Who outside the county's residents will make the effort?
You know why? Because the area has a lot more Salvadorans than Mexicans.
Nothing I can suggest is going to ease your pangs for homecooking, but you could take a shot at Taqueria Distrito Federal, on 14th St. Although my last visit there, a few weeks ago, was not nearly as good, as special, as I'd remembered. Could have been an off day.
I also like La Sirenita, in Riverdale, for the tacos, for the chile rellenos, for the chilaquiles and for the posole.
These aren't Salva-Mex spots, and they're good. But whether they hit the spot for a homesick San Diegan, that's another story.
Will you check back in with us after you've given them a try and let us know what you think?
And before we get too far along — let me welcome you and everyone else back to the chat after a long two-week break for the holidays. I hope you all had good and meaningful time — and good eating time, too — with your family and friends.
I'm rarin' to get back to our usual give-and-take — Tuesdays ain't the same without it — and I hope you are too. And I hope you had a chance to flip through — or better yet, read — the 100 Best Restaurants issue we just wrapped on.
Love to hear your comments, as always …
Let me tell you: We spent more time in Virginia than you'll know. Just because a place doesn't show up on the list, doesn't mean we didn't eat there. I said it before, I'll say it again: For every restaurant on the list, there are probably three others that we ate at and considered.
There's a lot of competition these days; a hundred spots isn't really that many. And if someday — a distant, distant day, I hope — we were to publish the list of the 200 Best, I'm sure you'd find a bunch of good, worthy spots. I'll say this: There are a number of restaurants that I enjoy, and have enjoyed for years, that didn't make the cut.
As for your accusation that places that advertise are those that tend to get reviewed … that's an old canard. Very ignorant, I'm afraid. What usually happens here, and it's no different from other magazines I know, is that advertising tends to get in contact with places after something favorable has been written about them. The places, most of them, figure: Well, let's run an ad and try to extend our run of good luck.
We keep a pretty strict separation of church and state, as it were.
What you see, on this list, is our enthusiasms — the places that made the best impression on us this year, the places that lodged themselves deepest in our memory.
Anyway, I'm hoping you and other Virginians will share with me and the chatters what restaurants you think ought to have nudged out some of the bottom feeders on our list.
I didn't use the term on my most recent visit to London, if that's what you're implying. So, no worries: bumpkinism avoided.
At least I hope so. Europeans are notorious for thinking all Americans are blithe-spending, cowboy-loving Bush supporters.
Thanks for the quickie history lesson.
Partly, I think, it's the language barrier.
But partly it's also the fact that it's a busy, chaotic place. A move 'em in and move 'em out place. I wouldn't expect the same niceties there as I would at Kinkead's, say. I surely wouldn't expect a free dessert.
If the food is great, as you say, and the prices are cheap, which they are, I can put up with a lot.
At a Kinkead's, or at a Komi, or at a Mendocino Grille, there's MUCH less benefit of the doubt for this sort of thing.
I am curious about what is standard practice for restaurants regarding gift certificates bought from previous restaurant management. My in-laws are long time Fairfax, VA residents who recently moved to a house on the Chesapeake Bay. Since they still regularly visit Fairfax, my husband and I thought it would make a nice gift to give them a gift certificate to the Bailiwick Inn in Fairfax.
Our thought was that they could decide to either spend the night in the Inn or have a nice meal in their restaurant. We bought a $250 gift certificate about a year ago. They hadn’t had a chance to use the gift certificate, so they invited us to join them for dinner at the Bailiwick before the certificate was a year old. They called the number on the gift certificate to make the reservation and we went there to have dinner the week before Christmas at La Rue 123. We had a nice meal, some wine, and we had no complaints about either the food or the service.
When the check arrived, my father in law, Don, handed the waiter the gift certificate and his credit card for the balance over the $250. The waiter took them and shortly returned to the table and told us that due to the change in management of the restaurant they would not honor the gift certificate. Don told them he thought that they should honor it, reasoning that the current owners had bought the business, both assets and liabilities. (I also notice that on their website, La Rue 123 does state, “We are located on the first floor of the Bailiwick Inn,” so they do not disassociate themselves from the Bailiwick name.)
The waiter re-iterated that they would not accept the gift certificate, so Don asked to speak to the manager or owner. The owner was not at the restaurant, but the staff offered to call him in. We waited for him to arrive and then he also told Don and my husband that he would not accept the gift certificate. He got quite irate and threatened to call the police to force him to pay. This did not sit well with my father in law, who replied that he was not trying to get out of paying, and he was free to call the police if he felt that was necessary. The owner’s response to this was to call the police! A policeman arrived (!) and told them that he could not force the owner to accept the gift certificate, so in the end Don paid the entire bill and we all left in a sour mood.
This was also particularly embarrassing to my husband and me since our “gift” had ended up costing the recipient quite a bit of money and aggravation. The story did not end up being a total loss, since during his rant, La Rue 123’s owner had told Don to try and get the money out of Christina’s, a bakery run by the former restaurant’s owner. The next day Don did go there. The very nice people there said that they would be more than happy to honor the gift certificate. But we intended to buy them dinner or a stay at an Inn, not cakes. And it certainly doesn’t erase the bad experience of La Rue 123.
I don’t know whether La Rue123 is obligated to honor the Bailiwick Inn gift certificate or not, but it seems to me, they should not have treated us as they did. Clearly, customer service is not one of their priorities. I certainly will never eat there again, and I have now told everyone I know never to eat there either. What is your reaction to this?
Whoaaaaa, Nelly. What a terrible night!
What do I think? I can understand the restaurant not honoring the gift certificate. But I do think that, had it handled things differently, an ugly scene might have been averted — and even, possibly, turned into something positive.
An offer, maybe, of a discount off your next visit might have done the trick. Would the restaurant have lost money? Sure. But it might also have gained a loyal customer.
As it is, you're vowing never to return and telling all the world about your experience.
I'm calling BS on this.
And I'd be interested in knowing who the rogue, heavy-breathing ad salesman was on this — if, in fact, the story is to be believed.
I hear these stories all the time, by the way. Just because embittered people want to believe something, doesn't make it true.
But I guess that's why we have the Internet …
Uh uh, no no: I never said to avoid it — what I said was that, at that point in my experience of the place, and given the steep prices, I was not going to recommend it to a chatter who was saving his pennies for a fabulous special occasion meal.
To me, that means saving up for a place in the top 5, maybe the top 10. And even though I'm high on The Source, it's not in that company yet.
As for Westend, I'd give it another shot if I were you. What weren't you impressed with?
Proof? Proof is a two-star place in my book. I think it did marvelously to have made the list in its first year.
What angry people? Are you talking about the angry letter-writer I heard from last year?
As I said, I understand the anger. Prince George's County has long been stigmatized, and when I bring the county up in polite conversation, I still hear too many ignorant comments from supposedly educated people who ought to know better — crass, unsubtle stuff along the lines of: "You take your life into your hands when you go there."
The county, its business leaders, need to make a more concerted effort to bring good restaurants in, it's absolutely true. Good restaurants, not chain restaurants. They need to not be content with the easy way, the plastic way.
But I think more restaurateurs, as I said, need to look beyond Virginia and Upper Northwest. The large population of African-Americans might scare off potential investors, but all the demographic studies will tell you: There's an awful lot of green in Prince George's, too.
If you're going to fly the flag of being a risk-taker, of being a bold entrepreneur, the county offers a great opportunity.
That's great to hear. And thanks for checking back in with us.
I wish I could be as helpful with this new challenge. I can't think of anywhere to go for dinner and dancing. And certainly not in Virginia.
Or, if you don't mind heading into DC, pick out a place on U St. — Etete, Oohs and Aahs, Busboys and Poets — and then head on over to HR-57 afterwards. It's the city's best (also the cheapest) place to hear jazz. I think it's still a three-buck cover (it's ten bucks for nationally known acts) and you can bring in a bottle of wine for, I believe, a minimal corkage fee.
To me, HR-57 is one of the glories of living in this city.
I hear you. Loud and clear.
Have you tried Osaka, in Cipriano Square? It's tasty sushi. Get the masago with a quail egg on top, and get the white tuna.
What else, what else … Siri's Chef's Secret has been around a long while. It's thoroughly decent Thai food; make sure to let them know you want the food to come out spicy. They do listen. The best things there are the red curry with pineapple and the crispy whole fish.
And Beijing, which is right next door to the historic P&G Greenbelt Theater — for my money, THE BEST place to watch a first-run movie in the area, with its gigantic screen and authentic, old-school feel — has a really tasty pepper salted chicken dish. I'd go back just for that.
The Source has a terrific mango souffle with yuzu sauce. And if I'm not mistaken, Gerard's Bistro is still doing a grand marnier souffle. Also terrific.
I'm blanking on others, for some reason. I had a couple of fantastic chocolate souffles this year, and they're just not coming to mind … Anyone?
Since you were so kind as to advise me as to a choice of downtown restaurants, I thought I would give you my own non-professional consumer review.
First of all, as an ex-newsman, I constantly read and admire all the skills that go into a restaurant critic's review.
Obviously next to sex, each one is probably the most erotic you can achieve with your clothes on.
So I want to thank you for your recommendation of Central. It was a nice, non-sexual experience. But still just food.
Charming, helpful personnel. Lovely decor.
OK menu with a few off-beat choices, I had bangers and smash. Enjoyed. Guests tried the burgers (tuna, shrimp). Served and presented beautifully. Minor glitches. French fries very greasy. "How can you spoil tuna fish?"
Price range OK for quality and style. Would I rush back? If I were single and loved ambiance, maybe.
Since I am new to the area and it is a long trip by car to downtown and we have some good eating nearer, probably not, except for theater.
P.S. The nine dollar banana split which I split with a friend was delicious! Thanks again.
"Tuna fish"? You were at Central, right? No tuna fish, there. If you had the tuna burger, that's all fresh tuna loin.
You should've sent the fries back — they'd have taken care of that in a jif.
I like the place more than you do. I think it's an interesting, exciting menu, and I think the cooking is a lot more rewarding than the ambiance.
To each his own.
And thanks for the commentary and the musings …
Yep, and I just got another chatter saying the same thing.
Actually, to judge by the emails and questions I get on this, year after year, there's a real need out there — at least among people of a certain age — for a place to dine and dance.
Be interesting to see how the restaurant fares …
That's odd. I'm wondering if this is the full story.
There are places I know of, here and in NY, where there's a rule — it's written, not unwritten, by the way — that customers can occupy the table for a length of time but no longer. I wasn't aware that Amici Miei is one of them. It might not be.
In any case, I think the policy stinks.
Thing is, though, customers vote with their actions — and if they continue to patronize places that enforce this policy, then there's no need to tweak or get rid of it.
Is it really worth it? To me, yes.
But maybe not to you. You have to be up for adventure. You have to be up for a very interactive kind of experience.
It's not the kind of restaurant, really, where you can go and lose yourself in a conversation with a group of friends, where the food and drink are part of the overall experience. There are high-end restaurants like that — Kinkead's is one of them. Vidalia is another.
Both terrific places.
Citronelle is something else. The food is a kind of art, it's the focus of your time, and you surrender a little of yourself — in a good way, a very, very good way — when you go.
Huh. I've never found the food at Mrs. K's to be top-notch. Or even second- or third- or fourth-tier, frankly.
I like the place, though, and the atmosphere. And the wine cellar sounds interesting. I'm curious to check it out. Thanks for the tip!
And thanks to all of you for all the great questions and the lively commentary this morning.
I'm off to lunch now … Nothing special, I assure you. It's not all champagne and caviar over here — or even savory goat roti and spare ribs and sausage. (Can you tell? I can't wait to get back to Muffin Man and KBQ.)
Eat well, everyone, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …