Tuesday, January 29 at 11 AM

Todd breaks big news: Gordon Ramsay may be coming to DC to take over Maestro.

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Word of Mouth …

… I nearly did a double take when I opened the menu at La Fondita (4901 Decatur St., Hyattsville; 301-699-0785) a couple of weeks ago and saw, under a description of a quesadilla, the words "flor de la calabaza." I'd have figured on finding pumpkin flower at Oyamel, the sexy Mexican spot in fashionable Penn Quarter that likes to introduce its well-heeled, jaded young crowds to such exotica as grasshopper tacos — not at a tiny, one story A-frame house hard by the railroad tracks in Hyattsville.

That fact alone makes La Fondita interesting and worth a visit. The good news? It's not the only one.

Scarce in these parts — the restaurant is the only one I know of in the area that serves them — pumpkin flowers are common in regional, authentic Mexican cooking. They're similar to squash blossoms, with much of the same pleasant floral bitterness, and are sometimes served stuffed. Here, they appear to be pickled and spiced, which brings a much-needed sharpness to a dish that can get overrich in a hurry. The tiny yellow-bulbed flowers are layered atop a bed of queso blanco inside La Fondita's wide, thick corn tortillas (made fresh every day), which are then folded and fried until golden and crispy.

Another version, made with huitlacoche, the earthy corn fungus whose taste falls somewhere on the spectrum between sauteed mushrooms and black truffles, is just as good. These are quesadillas to make a meal from.

The rest of the menu is small, with tortas, tacos and combination plates. The tortas, Mexican sandwiches, are hefty and well-made, although the roll it's served on isn't as airy as some; a version with egg and chorizo is the kind of breakfast sandwich I could eat every day, for breakfast or for dinner. The tacos are served two-ply style, with a garnish of cilantro and a one-two punch of salsa rojo or salsa verde. Of the four I tried on my first visit, the one I liked best was the salty pork, a small, well-seasoned dice of red-tinged meat that hardly needs the additional saucing. The lamb was flavorful but the shreds were drier than they ought to have been; I chalked that up to having been served the last remains of the batch.

I didn't write off the lamb, and on my return trip left room for the lamb plate (there's also the option of ordering lamb by the pound; a pound of lamb for twelve dollars). This brought a generously portioned dish of slow-cooked (and intermittently fatty) lamb, including a couple of lamb ribs that were falling off the bone. The fat didn't bother me; I worked around it, picking off bits of soft lamb to stuff into one of the nubby, homemade corn tortillas. A small, finishing drizzle of salsa verde, for a little heat and a little tang, and I was a happy, happy man. I haven't had a better taco in months.

It came with excellent refries of black beans and rice seasoned with bits of corn and what I thought I identified as epazote, a pungent herb that imparts a sort of resiny, minty taste.

To wash it all down: a swig of Sidral Mundet, the fizzy, not-too-sweet apple cider soda from Mexico. A beer would have been good, too, but La Fondita doesn't have a license.

The beerlessness probably accounts for the make-up of the six-table dining room at dinner time — a lot of couples and families, as opposed to the groups of working men who descend on the taquerias in nearby Little Mexico at night to drink and slurp seafood soup and forget the day. The space is decidedly more feminine (the restaurant is owned and operated by a group of friends, all women, who come from central Mexico) than those taquerias, too. The pretty curtains, the colorful tablecloths, the hanging plates — all give La Fondita the feel of an especially homey home. …

… The kitchen at Maestro was remarkable for its serenity during dinner time, a result of the headsets the cooks were all made to wear by former executive chef Fabio Trabocchi, who absconded this Fall to run the show at Fiamma, in Manhattan. It sometimes made the pass look a little like a Time-Life Books operation.

But now serenity is about to find its opposite — in theory, if not in practice.

According to a well-placed source, Gordon Ramsay appears all but certain to take over the kitchen at Maestro, ending months of speculation about what restaurateur and/or chef was going to assume control of one of the region's best restaurants. The negotiation at this point is simply over money. Another source had told me, weeks ago, that the Ritz-Carlton was divided over who should command the kitchen; one faction was pushing hard for Roberto Donna, the other wanted someone outside the city, someone who could come in and make a splash.

Don't expect hurling imprecations, throwing plates and other made-for-TV theatrics. Ramsay himself won't be coming, although he will have total control. A hand-picked protege (a woman, according to the well-placed source) will lead the revamped Maestro. …

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Wash, DC
Dear Todd, Please help me! These cold days have brought to me an insatiable hankering to hit the perfect-pitch of spicy hot chocolate and the best-ever churros? Not willing to travel outside of metro-DC area – sorry, but true. To where o' but where shall thou lead me? Thanks,

Best ever? That's a high bar.

But I do like the churros at Churreria Madrid, in Adams Morgan, right off Columbia Rd. And Ceiba, downtown, does really light, really crispy churros with a nice, thick cup of chocolate.

You're so, so right. Chase those cold weather blues with a plate of churros and liquid chocolate.

Now I'm hankering, too.

Producer's note: You can see our recent guide to great area hot chocolates right here.

Rockville Maryland
My family and I had dinner at Nicaro Sunday night, and all seven of us were very pleased. Our waiter's enthusiasm and competence more than made up for his lack of polish, which pretty much describes the entire experience. Everything was at least very good, and several of our dishes – including a flavorful roast chicken with Peruvian potato puree, a creamy roast vegetable soup with pheasant garnish, and cappucino creme brulee – were far better than that. While I wouldn't put it among the top restaurants in the city, it can certainly hold its own among those outside the beltway. I don't agree with your observation in your review that it's not worthy of a special night out, particularly for those of us who want an interesting meal and quality ingredients but without the hassle of city driving (or the cost of valet parking). As you point out, it's not cheap, but unlike many downtown restaurants with similar entree prices, the entrees are not ala carte; they are accompanied by vegetables and the portions are nicely sized. We will definitely return, and look forward to watching the restaurant continue to grow.

I look forward to watching it grow, too. It's exactly the kind of place you want to see succeed.

Special to me means special, something you save up for, something that — if you're not a regular restaurant-goer, a three- or four-times a week-er — you plan for and dream about. I always try to remember that I didn't used to be so blessed, that I had to save up my money to eat out at the places I would read about. Many, many times I got burned. Too many meals were tasty enough, just not worth the big, big bucks. I came to dislike the kind of review that made you read between the lines, look for the clues that would tell you that a place was good but not that good.

I like Nicaro, although I have to say, the friends I brought with me on my meals were decidedly less enamored than I. I think, given the prices, they expected more — more pampering, more consistency, more distinction. They eat out a lot, lot less than I do. 

Anyway, I found their perspective interesting.

RE: Maestro
That would be most exciting having a Gordon Ramsey restaurant in DC. This is an excellent trend for DC restaurants, bringing in top chefs from the US to consult and put their names out there: Eric Ripert, Wolfgang Puck, and now Gordon Ramsay!

It's funny. I know an awful lot of people who are absolutely dismayed by the trend, who think that glossy, big-name, consulting chefs are a scourge upon the city.

I'm not one of them. Just offering a counterperspective, one I hear a lot.

I do think that the trend needs to be balanced by some roots-putting-down chefs who intend to stay in their kitchens and who are willing to set themselves the not-so-glamorous task of turning out intensely personal and expressive cuisine. 

Brookland

RW in review –

1. Westend Bistro – (Not participating in RW, but was easier to get a reservation.) Décor was okay. We ordered the salmon rillette for an appetizer (for 3 people) and it was such a large portion that we could not finish. (However we did finish the toasted bread that accompanied it and had to go to the regular breadbasket, so we would suggest more pieces to accompany the app.) One companion had the potato leek soup which was good, but not great. For the entree, 2 of us had the flat iron steak with the shallot sauce. Wonderful! The sauce was not overpowering and complimented the steak perfectly. The other companion ordered the tagliatelle bolognese, and was happy with it. For the table, we ordered and enjoyed the mashed potatoes and the broccoli rabe. For dessert, we ordered the chocolate mousse to share (as they were out of the chocolate creme caramel). It was good, but not really a mousse consistency – too runny. Overall, the service was impeccable and the best we've had in the city. (We go out monthly.) The bill was very reasonable for the food and service – even with our 4 alcoholic beverages. Would recommend to anyone.

2. Mendocino Grill and Wine Bar – Much smaller than expected. Very cold draft from front door all night. Menu was a good variety with about 6-8 options in each category; however at least half had an upcharge of $5-$9. My husband had the rabbit and gnocchi appetizer, which he loved. I had the mixed green salad, which was fine for what it was. For entrée, I had the scallops which were good but a little small, and my husband had the duck breast which he also loved. For dessert, I had the pumpkin bread pudding which was delicious and the perfect size. My husband had the goat cheesecake, which was good, but not as good as the bread pudding. The service was okay – sometimes rushed, sometimes slow, and twice they tried to give us food that we did not order (appetizers after we already had ours, and desserts that were not ours). Since we had upcharges on the rabbit appetizer and both of our entrees, I don’t feel that the value of going for RW was really there. Good, but not great.

3. Il Mulino – Very large, but with same cold air draft problem. Menu was much smaller for RW than regular menu (as I’ve been to the NYC and PR ones) – only three options for appetizers, 6-8 for entrees, and no option for dessert – only offered a shared plate for the table. The other two diners had not been and were quite impressed with all the bites once we sat – but especially the cheese and bruschetta. The eggplant rollatini appetizer was good, and the mixed greens salad okay. For entrees, the porcini mushroom ravioli was wonderful, and the veal marsala and the pollo fra diavolo were good. (The portions were so large we all took some home.) The combined dessert plate was fine for the three of us, but I could see how others would not appreciate having a “family-style” finish. However, it allowed us to sample three desserts – tiramisu, ricotta cheesecake, and zabaglione. The service was very good, except that we had to wait 15 minutes to be seated from our reservation time even though there were plenty of empty tables. Overall, we left very full and satisfied with our visit. Definitely worth it for RW, but a bit overpriced otherwise.

I know this is a lot of information, but I know how you like reports from the road!

Now that's information from the field! Good going, Brookland.

Re: upcharges. I find them dispiriting. You go out for a value meal, you see the tag, you figure: Ah, what the hell: it's only a few dollars more, I'm already here, I hate to spoil the mood, and the dish really does sound good. It bites you in the end, though. It bites you a lot in the end. And you wind up feeling bait-and-switched.

Do we really need these on Restaurant Week menus? If you can't figure out a way, participating restaurants, to serve good food at a good price — a good, all-inclusive price — then please, don't participate.

Arlington, VA
Todd, Help! I'm looking for the city's best crabcake and am not quite sure where to go. Thoughts?

I haven't done an exhaustive comparative survey in a while, but you really can't beat the crabcakes at Kinkead's. Big, meaty (heavy on the jumbo lump), light on the binder, and lightly seared.

I see a lot of needless experimentation from chefs on their crabcakes, like throwing a few pinches of curry powder into the mix.

Kinkead's gets them right. They're terrific. 

Alexandria, Va.–pizza report
Good Morning Todd, I wanted to give a quick report from the field about Valentino's NY Style Pizza in Alexandria/Annandale. I tried a couple slices over the weekend- thin crust "NY style" and thick crust square Sicilian. The thin crust was very good with mozzerella melted over slightly sweet tomato sauce. It wasn't greasy and could handle the traditional fold. The square Sicilian had excellent crust and a more tomato/less cheese topping. My preferrence is the gooey cheese thin crust, but both were worthy. Also, at each table there is garlic, oregano and parm in a shaker-all of which I availed myself of! The also had several other kinds of pies-buffalo chicken, bbq, mediteranean etc. And it's cheap! 3 slices and two soft drinks were about $12. Thanks for the chats.

Thanks for the report, Alexandria.

Cheap, good pizza. What a concept. I love the boutique pie trend, but it's a little unsettling to fork over sixty, seventy bucks for two for an appetizer, a couple of individual-sized pizzas and a couple of drinks.

Arlington, VA
Do you have a favorite fast food joint that you like to eat at when not reviewing sit-down restaurants?

Not really. I like the chicken sandwiches at Chick-Fil-A, and long, long ago I used to have a guilty pleasure craving for Popeye's — although it always left me feeling emoliated. I almost always needed a nap, too — and pronto.

I don't tend to run to fast food, though, when I want something real and cheap and good these days. I tend to go to Tommy Marcos's Ledo Restaurant — the original Ledo, different from the rest — for a light-cheese medium pizza (with onion, green olive and mushroom) or a taqueria or a bowl of chili at Hard Times (Cincinnati, five-way).

Clifton, VA

Aren't restaurant' with big name chef's Emerial, batali, Flay, Ramsey just really upscale chain restaurants? just a more expensive version of Riby Tuesday and Outback. Folks recognize the name and figure its safe to spend their money their.

Now back in July in Vegas I went to Delmonico where I ahd the best steak i have ever had at a restuarant and I have been to all the top steak houses in, DC, NYC and Chicago but this was best. not best ever, that is reserved for bone in rib eyes I get from my friend in VA who has prime, 28+ day dry aged organic, humanely raised beef. Local rules on the grill.

Interesting point you make, Clifton.

But I think it's a little too easy, and you gloss over a really key point: In the case of The Source (Wolfgang Puck) and Westend Bistro (Eric Ripert), they're more expensive than the likes of Ruby Tuesday and Outback, yes, absolutely — far more expensive. But they're also far superior.

We can sneer, rightly, at empire building, we can sneer at chefs who want to cash in, we can sneer at the ceaseless celebrification and commodification of cuisine (part and parcel with the ceaseless celebrification and commodification of the culture). Yes. All that.

But these are very good restaurants.

As for your Virginia friend with the prime, dry aged, organic, humanely raised beef — what's his number? : ) I could use a hook-up.

 

Arlington, VA
Hi Todd- I'm meeting my husband downtown tomorrow for lunch for a date (with two small children we don't get out much). Looking for something within a 5-minute walk of Metro Center. Any thoughts/suggestions? Thanks so much.

Good for you. Good for you for fighting for an afternoon date, away from the kids. I like that.

I hope I can make it a special day. How about trying Ristorante Tosca, for elegant Northern Italian fare? It's better than it's been in a long time, revivified under the leadership of new chef Massimo Fabbri. Good, homemade pastas and silken but still full-bodied sauces.

It's not the most romantic spot in the city — I mean, come on, the town's lawyers have practically turned it into a surrogate office — but the cooking should take you places. 

Washington DC

The other day I was with my Colleague in the just recently opened dinner restaurant “Chandelier Room” at the St. Regis.

The first impression on the menu was like entering a theater. The menu is set up in several different Acts chosen by the chef. We choose to start with salads from “Act two”. While my Colleague had “wrapped field greens with English cucumber” I decided to try the “Heirloom tomatoes and fresh Mozzarella”. The presentation of both dishes was impressing! As main course we decided to go for the “Grilled ACTion”. My Colleague went for the Colorado Rack of lamb while I didn’t want to be too risky and went for the Prime NY Strip, 28 day – dry aged. Just speechless to describe the meat!

Looking for a corresponding wine we decided to go for the wine of the day which was a Sicilian red wine which was also the more affordable one. The selection of wine is really unique such as the prices are too.

We finished the dinner with an Apple tart decorated with spun sugar and a classic Crème brûlée. Since I am not a coffee drinker at all I was really surprised by the Tea presentation of the Tea Butler. Overall I have to say it was an exciting dinner evening. I would recommend it.

Good to hear. And interesting to hear, too.

The St. Regis has kept a pretty low profile since the unceremonious exit several years ago of chef Timothy Dean, now in Baltimore, and the nasty battle of words that ensued (and made it into the papers). Thanks for chiming in, DC.

Virginia
As a Chef that has cooked in DC for the past 13 years. I have had first hand experience with not being hired due to the fact that they"Want someone from out of town that will make a splash". I agree it's not a bad thing however, there should be a balance. I was born in DC and have lived here all my life. I love this city and can't seem to get away from here. I have actually been told by some well known restaurant owners that DC Chefs can't cook! now, how ridiculous is that?

Pretty ridiculous.

People and their stupid blanket summations. It's wearying. Complexity is a hard thing for a lot of people. Gradations of gray.

It's too bad.

Arlington, VA
Todd, what exactly is a half-smoke? I like to try Ben's Chili place but before I go there, I hear their speciality is half smoke. Is that a different kind of hot dog?

What, you've never set foot in a 7-11? ; )

A half-smoke is a sausage, basically. It's a lot plumper and a lot more heavily spiced than a hot dog, with a thick casing that pops when you bite into it.

My advice is to forgo the chili — it's kinda watery — and just get a half-smoke with onions and mustard. And a side of the wonderfully crispy fries and a milkshake to wash it all down.

Them there's good eatin'.

You might need a Tums later on, though.

 

Arlington, VA
Hey Todd, hoping you can offer a good suggestion for a special birthday celebration I am planning for a big foodie! She is a "wanna-be" chef and eager to learn; I'd like to plan a cocktail party for her 30th bday and as a surprise have a professional chef come in for a hands-on cooking class/demonstration/dinner. Any suggestions on where to turn?? Thanks in advance!!

You know? I've never gotten a question like this one before. I can't even think of where to tell you to turn.  

There are a number of chefs who give cooking classes — Todd Gray, Roberto Donna, Robert Weland among them — but I don't know of any who'd come out to the house for a private coaching and then prepare a meal, too.

I'm posting this, though, on the off chance that a publicist or a manager or a chef will come forward and say: Hey, I'll do it.

Anyone?

Contact me via email if you're interested — tkliman@washingtonian.com 

 

D.C.
Kliman, Looking for a place in Silver Spring. Not interested in big chains and what not. Something casual, moderately priced and any cuisine will do. Any ideas?

Kliman, huh. Makes me feel like I'm back in junior high. "Kliman, hit the floor. Give me twenty." "Kliman, diagram this sentence."

(Sentence diagramming: Those were the days. I remember, in 8th grade, coming up with a way for our teacher, Mr. Lemmond, to make it more palatable to us. We divided the room into two, divided the class into two, brought in a timer and — voila! Diagramming for Dollars. No money changed hands, but Lemonheads did — that was our currency. We were always giving Mr. Lemmond boxes of Lemonheads, anyway. Diagramming went, in short order, from a thing we groaned at to a thing we clamored for. And see how it isn't paying off hansomely now, huh?)

Anyway, long digression …

I think you're looking at Mandalay (Burmese), which made our Cheap Eats list last year, and Jackie's (eclectic American), which made our recent 100 Best.

“upscale” chains
As far as I'm concerned, the more 'name' chefs in DC, the better. Having been to Ramsay's restaurants in London (flagship at Royal Hospital Road) and The London hotel in NYC (GR doesn't do the cooking at either one), I'll be first in line to dine at the replacement for Maestro. Ramsay, as with Puck, Keller, et al., oversees top-notch chefs who create excellent dining experiences regardless of whether the 'name' chef is in the house or not. Ramsay is not about what you see on the Hell's Kitchen TV show, particularly the U.S. version. His restaurants are first and foremost about the cooking. Thanks for the heads-up!

I'll tell you this: A lot of people share this perspective.

I'm a little more conflicted.

But thanks for chiming in today. 

Washington, DC
Is there anywhere in the DC area that you can get something similar to Outback Steakhouse's or Bugaboo Creek's bloomin'/bunyon onion, but from a restaurant that isn't a large commercial chain?

Nowhere that I know of.

Wouldn't it be neat to see Michel Richard or Eric Ziebold or Peter Smith or Morou or any other chef who dares to express his wit on the plate take up the challenge of turning a bloomin' onion into a fine-dining appetizer?

I'd love to see that.

If a hot dog can go upscale, and a PB&J, then why not a bloomin' freakin' onion?

Washington, DC
Where are the best beignets to be found?

I really like the beignets at Bardia's New Orleans Cafe, on 18th St. in Adams Morgan. Provided, of course, you get them when the oil's been recently changed.

Clifton, VA
Problem is opening a restaurant is an expensive proposition several million dollars or more. You go for chef for your place and he becomes the next top chef and leaves for NYC. Now what do you do? You have investors etc. You bring a big name chef to amange and the run the place. Name recognition and you manage your risk. But it kills creativity and originality. Soon every really big city in the US will have a Puck, batali, Flay and Emeril restaurant with prepackaged ingredients and menues. And none them will show off the local produce, seafood and products like a local will. Same old same old. Just like going to Mcd's or Popeyes just will cost $200 to get out of there.

I don't know that it kills creativity. And I don't think it has to mean that local products aren't going to be in play, just because the lead guy isn't a local guy.

The problem is, to know that a restaurant is going to be just like another, similar restaurant on another coast — or just like a restaurant from another country — is to lose out on something. To lose out on a sense of place, of rootedness.

You bring up local. I wish I saw more local on the high-end menus in the city, but I don't. And I wonder why not. There's a new commitment to local produce, yes, and to regional products, sure. But there's a certain flat cosmopolitanism to these menus.

A lot of Ethiopians live in this city, and their restaurants are among the glories of eating here. But do you see upscale homages to the Ethiopian stews that you find in Little Ethiopia? A couple of weeks back, Gillian Clark had a faux pho on her menu — brisket and noodles in a too-sweet spiced meat broth. It didn't really work, but I appreciated the attempt. Pho is big around here. Someone mentioned half-smokes, one of the defining snacks in the area. Why aren't chefs concocting homages to half-smokes on their menus? Crabcakes are a given, but aside from Ray's the Classics, who is serving a Crab Imperial, one of the signature dishes of Maryland cooking? Where is the flavor of the city, of the region? With all the supposed creativity in our restaurant kitchens, why isn't anyone making more of an effort to connect the dots?

Anyway, food for thought.

That's it, folks. Lunch calls. Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 … 

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