Word of Mouth …
… The soondubu at Vit Goel ToFu (4121 Chatelain Rd.; Annandale; 703-333-3436) arrives looking like something out of the witches' scene in Macbeth, a tiny black cauldron in the midst of a boil so roiling, it's actually sputtering.
When it settles down, finally, you crack the raw egg that's brought out with the dish into the bowl, letting the hot, red pepper broth, teeming with cubes of soft, custardy tofu, cook the egg. What happens next is one of the fascinations of eating soondubu, a process that asserts the primacy of texture in eating — in this case, soft, gelatinous texture — and delivers a culinary illusion so good, the kitchen at Citronelle would be envious. The egg takes on the consistency of the tofu in the bowl, which was, to begin with, the consistency of a soft boiled egg.
It's magic in a bowl, in both senses of the word. There's nothing else I'd rather eat on a cold, gray day than one of Vit Goel's meal-in-a-bowl tofu soups.
Soondubu is the focus of this L-shaped, blond-wooded soup parlor, housed inside what looks like an abandoned elementary school; you access it by traveling the length of a corridor full of boutiques and prying open a wooden door. The dining room lacks style and drama, perhaps, but it does convey a remarkable sense of serenity, as if eating a good, restorative bowl of soup really is akin to an act of meditation; even the keening Korean pop on the sound system does nothing to dispel this feeling of having wandered into an oasis of calm and order. Fittingly, the service is the antithesis of pushy; you have to flag your waitress — they're all women — down to get a beer, and you may find yourself with your hand up in the air for a while, like a frustrated taxi-hailer in the midst of morning traffic in Manhattan.
The menu is small, by the standards of most Korean restaurants, with their casseroles and barbecues and seafood pancakes: Eight varieties of soondubu, plus excellent Korean short ribs (thinly sliced, sweetly glazed, dusted with sesame seeds and served on a pile of sauteed onions on a cast iron skillet), tasty bulgogi, and a couple of stir fries. Every order, of course, comes with an assortment of panchan; I love the spicy bread-and-butter pickles, and the kimchi is as good as it gets, firm and fresh and full of pungency and heat.
The reason to come, though, is the soondubu. And it's reason enough to make this a part of your regular dining out rotation. The menu invites you to customize your spice level with each bowl. The gradations of heat go from — and I love this, a bit of inadvertent humor but telling, somehow, for a place that dares you to find it and dares to serve up such a specialized menu — "spicy spicy" to "white." …
Obelisk is doing fine, just fine. It cracked our recent Top 25. (Eve, on the other hand, cracked the Top 5.)
It's still a cozy, comfy place — to my mind, one of the best dining rooms in all the city — with terrific, smart service (every restaurant should have a staff so good) and a kitchen that strives to put the focus on the quality of its ingredients.
My wish is that the antipasti that begins every meal here, were the meal itself. Great, great stuff. Antipasti, a good glass of wine, and I'd be thrilled.
I don't. I wish I did.
You've got me reminiscing … There was a place that I wrote about a few years ago, out in Herndon, called Zuhair's Cafe, that was terrific. I was a big fan.
The place closed a while ago, unfortunately.
The food, though served on plastic plates and with plastic knives and forks, was great. First-rate kabobs, excellent braised lamb shank, and, best of all — kibbeh mosul. That's the name of the Iraqi dish that resembles a cross between a quesadilla and an Armenian meat pie. It comprises layers of crushed bulgur, stuffed within which was a mix of ground sirloin, cinnamon, and raisin paste. Done right, the thing is so aromatic, so evocative, as to summon comparisons with a Moroccan tagine.
The owner had bragged to me about his chef hire — a chef with a big reputation back home, a man he had wooed and bargained with for weeks, eventually agreeing to pay for his apartment.
The chef came from … Detroit. (Which, admittedly, does have a huge Iraqi population.)
What do I think about it? I think it stinks.
My advice, if you're not ordering wine, is to order sparkling water. I think it sends a signal: Here is a serious diner, a discriminating diner. Better yet, ask which kinds of sparkling water they have.
And sparkling water — even if it's being pushed these days with all the aggressiveness of a street corner hustler — is a very good foil for rich foods. Those bubbles'll clean your palate and good, just the way a good, well-chosen wine would.
In general, asking questions about the menu — informed questions, preferably — is a way of signaling that you're someone who knows and is comfortable with the fine (or finer) dining experience. And someone who is comfortable with the fine dining experience is going to be more likely to tip well.
Well, RGGOD (neat, I get to play Dear Abby … er, Dear Amy),
I think they might be persuaded to put it back on if, oh, I don't know, they got wind of a show of support for it in a public forum like this one. : )
Why do places take menu items off? Because they can. Or because the chef wants to show that he (or she, but most always a he) is not limited to doing just these few items. Or because it would appear (or so the restaurants think) that the media is enamored of places that stay fresh and alive, not merely repeating themselves with the same old, same old.
It could be, and in this case I think it is, that the restaurant is reworking its recipe and will return a version of the dish at a later time, when it's happier with the result.
((By the way, chatters … I think RGGOD is on to something special here with his identifier. I'd really like to see the rest of you follow his lead, and come up with something interesting to put into the "location" field.
((Not that I'm encouraging a "Savage Love" kind of thing, oh no, no no no — but something that'll let us both [you for coming up with a phrase, me for turning it into a handle] have a little fun, here. What do you say?))
Thanks for reporting back, Cheverly.
I think Nava Thai's pretty special. Which isn't to say that everything there is a home run — but you can collect a lot of doubles and some triples, too, in addition to going yard with the pad thai, the grilled chicken with sticky rice, the Floating Market Soup, and the pork in panang curry.
As for Muffin Man, you know, maybe it's me, but I didn't even think twice about eating out of a styrofoam box. To me, good food is good food.
I also think it helps to remember that most Caribbean restaurants in the area are largely take-out operations. Styrofoam and plastic's the norm. When I go out for Caribbean food, I'm not generally zeroing in on cutlery; I'm looking for sharpness (good amounts of vinegar in the jerk, for instance) and pungency and complexity in the spicing (not just a blanket heat). Muffin Man delivers on those counts.
Yeah, it's not really all that cheap; but those shrimp are massive (and cooked correctly), and the quality is certainly there.
Here we go again. Back to the concierge thing.
I'm going to guess that you, yourself, are a concierge? I could be wrong, of course, but you do, after all, make it a point to bring up my comments about the work of concierges.
A little background, for the rest of you: The concierge community is up in arms over something I wrote in this space a couple of weeks ago, about the fact that, when I'm traveling, I don't tend to put a lot of store by their restaurant recommendations.
By their recommendations for sights? Sure. For tourist attractions? Why not. For shows? Wonderful.
But restaurants? No. Why? Because I believe them to be, in most instances, mouthpieces. I believe that the restaurants with the biggest publicity machines, the biggest campaigns to woo the concierges, tend to get the most mentions.
I have seen excellent concierges, concierges who really know their city and can offer up a good restaurant that is off the beaten track, or a restaurant that flies under the radar. But most are geared to serving the business class, and their recommendations tend to reflect that sensibility — even if the seeker of information isn't a member of business class.
Me, in most instances, I'd sooner consult an alternative weekly or a restaurant critic or a cabbie.
If this were radio, you'd say: "Long-time listener, first-time caller."
(You'd also probably say: "I'll hang up now, so I can listen to your answer.")
The place I'm going to steer you to is a place I wrote about a few weeks back, called KBQ, in Bowie. The space isn't down-home by any stretch — it looks like a chain, actually — but don't let that put you off. Good brisket, good ribs — all the meats are smoked, and smoked slowly — molassey beans, homemade cornbread, and excellent hot country sausage. Oh, and a cheapie slice of Key lime pie for dessert.
Check in with us again and let us know what you found when you went …
Howsabout two newbies, Clifton?
The Source — I think you'd prefer the downstairs lounge — and Westend Bistro, both with food that's miles better than what you ate at Oya.
By "specials," I'm guessing you're not up for paying a premium for dinner.
That area's tough, because there's not a lot that's in the in-between slot, that is, in between Citronelle and King George. Not a lot that's good, I mean.
You could give Ceviche a shot; it's in the space that used to be the original Austin Grill. Fun spot, although the kitchen is off to a somewhat shakier start than expected. There's also Leopold's Kafe + Konditorei, which is pretty consistent, with interesting, better-than-you-think food for a place that has such a preening, presumptuous air. Both places also have wine lists.
Finally, there's always Martin's Tavern, for a bowl of oyster stew, a juicy burger and a relaxed and comfy vibe.
Interesting. Yours is the first positive word, I think, I've ever heard about the place. (I love the idea of prime-era Sinatra playing when I walk in, but my one and only experience there was lamentable.)
By the way, and this is not to question you, but rather the wording on the menu — I seriously doubt that that pasta was homemade, if by homemade we mean made on the premises. More than likely, it's a fresh pasta that Timpano bought and either rolled out and boiled or just boiled.
Even plucky independents, the kind of small places where you'd assume everything was made by hand, often don't make their own pastas. Just a heads up.
One more heads up: Those shrimp? I'd lay down good money that they're frozen. Most shrimp at that level is. Even a cut or two above. In fact, these days, unless you see the heads on those suckers when they hit the table, I'd assume that you're getting frozen.
So they still say. I guess the question to ask at this point is: What year?
I'm hearing that they're having staffing problems — as in, there don't seem to be enough good, qualified people to fill a dining room of that size.
I hear you.
You know, the place I think I'd go myself is Bistro d'Oc, across from Ford's Theater. Very cozy, great atmosphere (the vermillion-colored walls really do set the mood), the prices aren't bad, and you can dig into the classics like profiteroles and creme brulee.
Interesting trickle-down theory. Let's hope you're right.
As I said last week, I really do think that chefs and restaurants could do more to "build up the culture" by not merely bringing in local produce and being market-conscious, but by rooting themselves and their menus in the actual culture of the city.
That means bringing an Ethiopian influence or two to a fine dining menu. It means playing with the flavors of a bowl of pho, and finding a way to translate those tastes into a Western style dish. It means recognizing that Maryland cuisine — or Chesapeake cuisine — is part of the culinary heritage of this area, and that crab imperial and Norfolk seafood platters should be reinvented for a new age. It means getting out of the kitchen to see that kabobs and pupusas are all the rage in Maryland and Virginia, and that these snacks are great and worthy vehicles for upmarket experimentation (so long as the experimentation is not TOO upmarket). It means making half-smokes, in one way or another, as much a staple dish as crabcakes are. Etc., etc.
It means connecting the dots, is what it means — dispensing with a generic cosmopolitanism and looking for legitimate ways to unite fine dining and ethnic dining, upmarket and no-market, elegance and street food.
Westend Bistro's inclusion of an Eastern Market salad on its menu is the right idea — but it's mostly gestural, not substantive. Eastern Market isn't the sort of place we go to for greens and salad-makings; it's not Greenmarket, in Manhattan.
I'd love to see menus that go well beyond this attempt, and really strive to reflect the foodways of this city and region, while still staying modern and innovative.
(I'm feeling very Carlo Petrini all of a sudden.)
Anyhoo … I'm off to lunch.
Eat well, everyone, and let's do it again next week at 11 …