Ashley Messick has a thing for lists—even her book club focuses on reading the 100 best novels of all time. So when the 27-year-old Capitol Hill staffer saw The Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants in February, a familiar bell went off, and suddenly she was eating—and blogging—her way through the places on the list. From Komi to Marvin is a blog where she shares her experiences through charmingly snarky write-ups and the occasional Food Porn Pic of the Day. (Shrimp toast at Four Sisters, your honor has been compromised.) Over dinner at Eatonville (a new restaurant that’s not on the list) we got to know the woman who’s showing us the love.
Why did you decide to do this?
“It was completely on a whim. A coworker of mine brought in The Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants list on an especially slow day at work. I started crossing off all the restaurants I had ever been to, and after living in Washington my whole life, I had only been to about 35. I knew if I didn’t give myself a deadline to eat at all of them, I never would. So I gave myself one year. When I told my friends about it, they were positive I wouldn’t finish, so I thought starting a blog would be a good way to prove that I actually ate everywhere I said I would.”
How have you been financing it?
“With a lot of creativity. Since I pay for everything myself, I try to look for restaurants that offer special menus. Proof has a great lunch special for $13, where you can order a glass of wine and an entrée from the bar menu. It’d be great if I could order lobster and truffles at every restaurant, but if I did, I’d end up living in my car. Luckily for me, there are just as many great affordable restaurants on the menu as pricey ones.”
What’s your deadline?
“My end date is February 8, 2010. As of right now, I’m on par to finish in time, but I’ve still got my white whale—the Inn at Little Washington. That’s the only restaurant that I’m a little worried about getting to.”
What’s your modus operandi for ordering?
“At first, I really only ordered things with my favorite ingredients—bacon or goat cheese. After a few restaurants, I realized that you can only do bacon and goat cheese in so many ways. Since then, I’ve used the “best dishes” section of The Washingtonian’s reviews to guide me. As long as it doesn’t recommend some eggplant special, I try to leave my meal in the hands of professionals.”
Are you undercover?
“I’m undercover in the sense that I never tell the restaurant I’m reviewing it. But I like to take pictures, and I haven’t figured out a way to do that without the waiter noticing. Hopefully, they just think I am really into photo-documenting my day.”
What’s been the most interesting response to your blog?
“Without a doubt, the most interesting and unexpected response has been total strangers who e-mail me and ask to join me for dinner. At first I thought it was strange, but I figured that if I met them in a well-lit restaurant, I could always flee if they ended up being serial killers. Luckily, it worked out great. I really like it when a reader wants to go with me to their favorite restaurant on the list. That way, I get great recommendations and insider tips.”
Has the project changed the way you think about food?
“It has in the sense that I now think outside the box when picking what I’m going to eat. Some things that sound so disgusting or weird on the menu wouldn’t have stood the test of time if they weren’t worthy. Whether it’s raw mackerel at Kotobuki or rabbit pâté at Mendocino Grille, I’ve learned that it wouldn’t be on the menu unless someone along the way thought it was delicious. And it has made me reevaluate what I used to think was good food. Really good hamburgers just don’t stand up to really good seared duck breast.”
Does it give you a new perspective on being a food critic?
“It does, because now I realize that being a food critic doesn’t always mean eating what you love. I’m not a fan of French food, but unfortunately (for me at least) there are plenty of French restaurants on the list. While I’ve learned that nothing can be too terrible when served in a puff pastry, I still would much rather have some nice souvlaki.”
What’s been your favorite place so far, and why?
“Komi is undeniably the best restaurant I’ve eaten at in Washington. Not only is the food unbelievable, the entire dining experience is comfortable but so special at the same time. I was also really impressed with Kotobuki and Comet Ping Pong—they’re definitely my favorite bang-for-your-buck restaurants.”
What’s your food background?
“I grew up with a mom who’s a great cook, who never dumbed down her cooking to a kiddie level. Since I’m an only child, she fixed me the same dinner she fixed for her and my dad. Eating interesting things when I was young has made me an adventurous eater now. We also traveled a lot as a family, and eating different cuisines opened me up to more than just steak and potatoes.”
Is this something you could see yourself doing as a career?
“I always assumed that a career that required professional eating and critiquing couldn’t be half as great as it seemed, but so far it’s better than I hoped. So who knows? My real dream would be to take over for Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. I’d gladly eat a lizard if I could do it sitting in the middle of the Amazon.”
What’s up with you and lists?
“I blame it on the Montessori preschool. I take a lot of joy in systematically crossing things off a list.”
Will you do it again next year?
“As long as people want to read what I have to say, I’ll keep at it. Maybe next year I’ll try the Eat Cheap list. I’m sure my wallet would appreciate the change.”