Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new
restaurant merits the scorching hype? The answer to all these questions
and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 AM on Kliman Online.
From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of
four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the ‘burbs and exurbs to hitting the
city’s streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.
Winner of a James
Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country’s best newspaper column
about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, The Daily Beast and Men’s Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies.
He is the author of The Wild Vine,
a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that
rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its present-day evangelist, a
foul-mouthed transgendered multi-millionaire vintner on an obsessive
quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
Can’t wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world. Or write to him: email@example.com
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Rappahannock Oyster Bar, DC
This hopping oyster bar is the best of the early attractions at the new Union Market. Hop a stool and order up a platter of Rappahannock River oysters, either raw or roasted (the latter preparation transforms them from salty-sweet and light to rich and meaty and savory). You can wash them down with a small selection of craft beers, including Chocolate City Beer and DC Brau, or a glass of sherry. The surprise is the crabcake, a contender for the city’s best. Dropped onto the griddle with an ice-cream scoop and given a slight, flattening press to develop a good sear, it’s a massive thing, but also unexpectedly light and delicate for all its girth. It’s not that there’s no binder — every crabcake’s got binder. It’s that the binder that’s there is good binder, and smartly deployed.
8407 Kitchen + Bar, Silver Spring
Chef Pedro Matomoros’s lamb bolognese has become one of the signature dishes of the area, the burger has moved into the first rank, and desserts under vet pastry chef Rita Garruba have never been better. But if you have never made the acquaintance of this lowkey suburban sophisticate, go for brunch. Homemade beignets with sweetened creme fraiche are gratis, and the rest of the meal follows in that spirit of abundance and generosity. I can’t remember the last time I had a better plate of restaurant pancakes — all soft, fluffy insides and crisp edges, with lots of big, ripe blueberries that somehow managed not to have suppurated. They come with a local maple syrup so dark and rich and smooth you want to douse everything on the table with it. And the distinguishing touches don’t stop there. Those cubes of corned beef in the well-seasoned hash with poached eggs? Homemade. So is the smoked salmon. Wash it all down with a drink billed as a grown-up mojito that actually tastes like a cross between a mojito and a Negroni and delivers a gentle, antidotal bite.
Family Meal, Frederick
I have eaten a lot of great fried chicken across this great land — I’m talking about bang-your-fist-on-the-table great, now — and the tender, crunchy, pickle-brined bird at this stylized Frederick diner, the brainchild of chef Bryan Voltaggio, has already earned its way into that esteemed class. It’s worth driving the hour-plus north just for a taste, easy. The good news is, this isn’t some one-hit wonder. There’s also a fabulous basket of “pot pie fritters” — crunchy little salt-crusted croquettes that give way to a lush gravy studded with peas and bits of chicken — some lovingly treated vegetable sides, a good BLT made with pork belly, and an “adult” mint chocolate chip milkshake garnished with toasted marshmallow and spiked with Buffalo Trace. That’s right — a higher-quality bourbon for a milkshake than many restaurants bother to use for a mixed drink.
H and Pizza, DC
DIY, conveyor-belt, personal-pan pizza sounds like one of those slick, market-tested concepts that’s more about novelty than deliciousness. But this cramped, often-thronged H St. newcomer is a surprise—it’s novel and delicious (and cheap and fun). The oblong crusts (there’s a choice of three doughs, including multi-grain and whole wheat) are thin and crunchy, and if you opt for the tomato sauce (options there, too) you’ll be reminded of the sweet zestiness of a by-the-slice New York pie. I’d urge you to sublimate your need to DIY (not the easiest thing when the pie assemblers behind the counter are willing to pile on as many toppings as you want) and stick to their preset combinations — a simple meatball and cheese, say, or a veggie-heavy version loaded up with eggplant, mushrooms, peppers and a cracked egg. The dessert pizza—nutella, strawberries, dollops of mascarpone and a sprinkling of almonds—is superior to nearly every attempt of this kind I’ve had.
Cavo’s Cantina, Rockville
Tex-Mex is among the cuisines this area has never really done very well, and the recent spate of restaurants devoted to pumping out authentic regional Mexican cooking is only likely to make it more of an afterthought. What this low-lit, L-shaped cantina reminds us, is that done well, few meals are as festive or as satisfying. Cavo’s won’t wow you, but, aside from some service lapses, it gets almost all of the important things right—thin, crispy chips and homemade salsa; strong margaritas; a tasty tortilla soup; good fajitas; excellent chicken enchiladas. There are even a number of desserts, including the creamy-crispy cajeta, that are much better than they need to be.
Izakaya Seki, DC
Arguably the most exciting restaurant to debut this year. Hiroshi Seki and his daughter, Cizuka Seki, have fashioned a spare, intimate izakaya from a former barber shop on V St. It’s a no-frills setting that suggests a gallery and serves as an ideal backdrop for beautifully simple dishes that all but command you to slow down and focus. Hop a seat at the wraparound counter that consumes the entirety of downstairs to watch Seki, a sushi master with 50 years experience, work with grace, speed, economy and calm as he executes his repertoire with a small team of cooks: thick slices of veal-tender beef tongue with a painting of mustard-miso sauce; succulent filets of grilled mero, the Japanese term for Chilean sea bass; springy soba noodles with flakes of nori and tempura; and some of the most exquisite cuts of aji (horse mackerel) and yellowtail you’ll find.
Blue Duck Tavern, DC
On my Twitter feed a couple of months ago, I teased the news that made a “massive and exciting leap,” then sat back and watched the guesses pour in. No one came up with the right place, and to be honest, if I hadn’t been there to enjoy it, I would never have guessed, either. Sebastien Archambault is a major talent, and without overhauling the menu or concept has given a restaurant that had slid dangerously close to irrelevance in the past year or so the kiss of life.
Vin 909 Winecafe, Annapolis
I feasted on a couple of superlative pizzas not long ago, and they didn’t come from 2 Amys, Pete’s New Haven Style Pizza, Pupatella, Moroni & Brother’s, Comet, Orso, Haven Pizzeria, Graffiato or Menomale. They came from the kitchen at this always-swarmed, no-reservations wine bar, housed in a restored craftsman bungalow just over the bridge from Annapolis in tiny Eastport. The key players are Alex Manfredonia, who works the front of the (tiny) house, and Justin Moore; the pair met working at a restaurant in San Francisco, and headed east to take over the space previously occupied by Wild Orchid Cafe. Moore and his team produce a crust that’s close to perfect—thin, marvelously hillocked, chewy where it needs to be and crispy everywhere else, and hit with just enough salt. The Margherita is more heavily dressed than is usual, but it’s excellent, and so is an unlikely concoction of baked beans, Tillamook cheese, fontina and coleslaw. Don’t miss the spin on a lobster roll, with creamy, chive-flecked crab salad tucked between two griddled squares of bread; there’s a cup of seafood bisque for dunking.
El Chucho Cocina Superior, DC
When it’s on, an exhilarating tour through the intricate, layered flavors of regional Mexican cooking, backed by a long list of cocktails, margaritas, sipping tequilas and mezcals. Early hits: a smoky grilled corn cob impaled on a skewer, spritzed with lime, rolled in grated cheese and dusted with queso fresco; the tongue-shaped chips known as huaraches, topped with crumbled queso fresco and pickled onions and served with a sublime dark mole; a torta, or sub, that impersonates a Manwich and a Chicago beef sandwich all at once—chopped adobo pork dredged in a spicy Arbol chili sauce, garnished with black beans, onions, avocado and chihuahua cheese and then submerged in that same sauce again before serving (forgo the accompanying plastic gloves and give in to the sloppy lusciousness).
You’d never find it if you weren’t looking for it. Situated in the fascinating industrial sector of Rockville, amid a slew of old warehouses and specialty supply stores, this cozy Korean mom ‘n’ pop is about as hidden as hidden gems get. The cooking is vivid and punchy—great bibimbap, served several ways, along with a parade of soups, noodle dishes and stir frys. Order a soju to wash it all down; the mango and watermelon are fresh and gently sweet, a good counterpart to the garlicky intensity of the food.
Maple Avenue, Vienna
Some diners might be skeptical of splurging for $20 + entrees in a tiny, repurposed diner where the 8 tables are wedged together so closely the room can feel like one big dinner party when the drinks are flowing. Others might be skeptical of the menu, which bends in a dozen different directions, implying a kitchen with a scattered, be-everything-to-everyone vision— which is to say, no vision at all. But this is a surprisingly focused restaurant —and a surprisingly rewarding one, too, a place that feels like a personal statement, backed by an amiable staff that clearly aims to send you away smiling. The chef and owner, Tim Ma, does his part, too. He makes a mean shrimp and grits, and his beef cheek sandwich with beer battered fries is one of the best simple plates around. Don’t miss the bread pudding.
Fabio Trabocchi’s edge-of-Penn Quarter restaurant has put its tentative beginnings behind it. The dishes emerging from the brick-framed, herb-potted kitchen find the prodigiously talented chef moving further and further from the controlled elegance of his work at the late Maestro. They also find him cooking with a renewed confidence and conviction. The best of these plates—an astonishingly flavorful ragu of wild hare with thick bands of papardelle, a double-cut, prosciutto-wrapped veal chop with toasted hazelnuts that accent the sweetness and nuttiness of the meat, a bowl of tender meatballs in a tomato sauce that frankly puts most Italian grandmothers to shame—marry rusticity with refinement. Desserts—including a fabulous cone of sugar-dusted bomboloni, with pots of apple marmalade and cinnamon gelato—remain a rousing finish.
Mintwood Place, DC
Perry’s owner Saied Azali was lucky to land Cedric Maupillier, formerly the chef at Central and before that the chef de cuisine at Citronelle, for his rusticky new bistro. The Toulon native is doing typically great work—cranking out lovingly faithful renditions of such bistro classics as cassoulet (see if you can finish it without two glasses of wine) and steak tartare (the tiny, crunchy tater tots on top are a clever allusion to his old boss, Michel Richard) as well as offering up some sly, smart takes on tradition (frogs’ legs with black walnut romesco, a lamb tongue moussaka). There’s a whole boneless dorade with picholine olives and braised fennel that’s a knockout—beautifully conceived, perfectly executed.
* new this week
WORD OF MOUTH …: A Q-and-A w/ Nick Olcott, star of I Love to Eat …
… I Love to Eat, a play about James Beard, opens at Round House Theatre Bethesda next week (the show runs from October 17th through November 4th), and I have arranged to give away 2 tickets to a lucky — and persuasive — chatter today. (More on that in a sec.)
Written by James Still and directed by Leon Major, the one-man play stars Nick Olcott, who is perhaps best known as a director of theater and opera. A multiple Helen Hayes Award nominee, he currently serves as the interim director of The Opera Studio at the University of Maryland. For this production, Nick has let his audience in on his preparation for the role, sharing with us the books he has read and the recipes he has cooked in a thoughtful and witty online journal. You can read 2 of the 16 entries here: http://www.roundhousetheatre.org/2012/09/24/cooking-my-way-to-mr-beard-entry-1/
Nick is also a friend, and we connected recently to talk about the jovial Beard’s immense loneliness, American food culture then and now, and the famous JB onion sandwich.
Why a play about James Beard?
The best answer to this question came from a woman, about seventy-five years of age, who told me, “When I married in the mid-fifties, my sister gave me two books: Benjamin Spock and James Beard. Those two guys got me through a marriage and four kids.” Dr. Spock reared a generation of Americans; James Beard fed several. He was also a funny, fascinating and complex individual.
And why Beard and not, say, other large-bodied gastronomes such as Paul Prudhomme or Escoffier?
Ah, for that you must ask the playwright. These men are probably worthy of dramatic portraits, too, but it was playwright James Still’s version of James Beard that fell into my lap and lighted my imagination on fire.
Talk to me a little bit about your research. What did you read to gain insights into Beard’s life? What kitchens did you tour? Did you work your way through Beard’s books?
My major resource has been Robert Clark’s excellent biography, The Solace of Food. Mr. Beard’s own “memoir with recipes,” Delights and Prejudices was also very helpful, even though (like most memoirs) it gives us a better picture of how he wanted to be seen than how he was. The compilation of his letters to Helen Evans Brown, Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles, was useful in giving a glimpse of the private man, since not all of the letters were intended for publication.
I have been in restaurant kitchens and have some insight into life there, but I did not do that as part of my research. Mr. Beard’s food life was not really that of a restaurant chef. He served as a consultant for many restaurants, but he only ran a restaurant kitchen once, when he and friends opened Chez Lucky Pierre on Nantucket in 1953. By all accounts, he hated the experience.
Mr. Beard’s true milieu was the dinner party at home. He gave and attended them by the hundreds. His books focus on cooking for family and friends, not on restaurant food. While he definitely championed other restaurant chefs, and his Foundation does so still, his real concern was home cooking. And teaching. He was much more comfortable conducting a cooking class in his own kitchen than running a restaurant.
There was no way to work my way through his books; there are too many of them. I decided to approach his food chronologically, in the order he encountered it. I started with what he grew up with: fresh seafood. I made his mother’s clam chowder, steamed clams, and grilled scallops. I made vegetables according the recipes he attributes to people who supplied or worked in her boarding house kitchen: her Italian green grocer (Joe) and her Chinese cook (Jue-Let), whom Mr. Beard considered his godfather. I went on to make several of Jue-Let’s recipes, including his wonderful Chinese curry, which had a profound impact on Mr. Beard. I then branched out to recipes that he mentioned as “old-fashioned” or “once common” – things he would have encountered when he first started going to restaurants.
Then, after dabbling in the canapés and hors d’oeuvres (where he first made his mark), I moved onto the outdoor cooking books, where he had such a profound impact.
I haven’t had time for the bread yet, but I’m hoping to get there.
What are the 2 or 3 details from your research that helped you the most in building your portrayal?
On the positive side are his displays of generosity: the way he helped other cooks find jobs and get published, even when (as in the case of Richard Nelson) it turned out they were plagiarists. Mr. Beard couldn’t see dishonesty or disingenuousness. He had none in himself and couldn’t imagine it in others.
On the negative side, his self-destructive tendencies. Even after heart attacks and embolisms, he would go on Kentucky Fried Chicken binges and eat nothing else for weeks on end. He loved food, but in the end he used it to commit suicide.
Some months back, you mentioned to me the famous JB onion sandwich — why do you love this “dish,” or more to the point — what does it tell you about the man?
It’s amazing today to think of this simple hors d’oeuvre attracting so much attention. It’s bread, mayonnaise, onion, and parsley. Period. This got a review in the New York Times? I think we have to look at in the context of the era, when Cheez Whiz on a Ritz was considered a proper canapé. Mr. Beard’s “Onion Ring” (as he called it) was startling: entirely fresh, entirely raw, entirely bold in taste. It’s easy today to think it commonplace. At the time it was a revelation. And that’s what I think it shows about him. He dared to be simple, dared to be honest.
From a distance, Beard’s life would appear a fortunate one, not to mention a delicious one. How do you create drama out of it?
He cultivated an aura of well-being, but his life was not all that happy. He barely knew his father. He was close to his mother, but she appears to have been something of a tyrant. (Even as he praises her in his memoir, he says, “She was more a manager than a mother.) He was fat and unathletic in the American West. He was thrown out of college for sleeping with a male professor. His dream was to be an opera star, and he failed. Then to be a movie star and failed. Then to be a stage actor. He only stumbled on chefdom by accident. He gained fame as a chef, but his television show (the first cooking show on TV) flopped. He never found real love; he had a series of younger lovers who appear either to have been mentally unstable and/or only using him for his money and fame. While appearing in public as a jovial giant, he was in fact a deeply unhappy and lonely man. Like many great entertainers, he was covering up a lot of pain.
What’s been director Leon Major’s biggest contribution to creating the character of JB?
He’s unlocked a couple of sections of the script for me – passages where I didn’t understand what was going on. He understands the motivation for every moment, and he’s really helped me find my way through it. The biggest of those was showing me how guilty Mr. Beard felt about the endorsements and commercials he did. I hadn’t realized how severely Mr. Beard was plagued by the thought that he had sold out.
Are you a better — or different? — cook now, having pored over cookbooks and spent considerable time entering the world of JB?
I used to loathe cooking. Now I really enjoy it. What’s even more amazing: I’m a better eater. I realized that real food, made with fresh ingredients, is so much more satisfying than processed food. I used to have a real weakness for junk food, but the thought of it now makes me slightly queasy. I’ve been eating so much better that I’ve actually lost fifteen pounds, even while making recipes full of butter and oil.
Food culture in the US seems drastically different from when Beard was working. Did you envision this show as a comment upon that? JB was not telegenic in that slick way we associate with chippy cooking shows, nor was he shticky.
He certainly was not telegenic, and the clips I’ve seen of his appearances on The Today Show and of his 1960’s Canadian TV show are the opposite of slick. They’re almost painfully slow. The food prep gets done in real time. The emphasis isn’t on the “wow” factor. His presentation is honestly educational. The play makes an oblique swipe at overly elaborate Martha Stewart-type entertaining, and Mr. Beard inveighs in the script against “hot-shot” chefs who “mess around and modify” without having mastered the basics. But I’m not sure the play is intended as a commentary on today’s scene. It just enunciates what mattered to Mr. Beard.
Have you been in contact with the Beard Foundation? What help did you get from them?
They provided DVDs of the clips I mentioned above. Both the set designer and director have made pilgrimages to the Beard house in New York and have met with people from the Foundation. My schedule hasn’t made that possible for me. But the Foundation people have been helpful in every way we’ve asked.
Would you describe yourself as a food lover or even, gasp, a foodie? Someone who, for instance, constructs travel around food, someone who goes far and long in pursuit of great bbq?
I’ve definitely never been a “foodie,” if that means someone who knows a lot about food. I’ve always been someone who enjoys good food, and restaurants are always an important part of my travel plans. I’ve never chosen to visit a place because of a restaurant, but once I decide to go somewhere, researching the restaurants is a top priority. I remember a trip to Florence in the pre-internet age where I made reservations at the best restaurants by letter a month in advance to be sure I could get in.
Final, possibly unrelated question: As an actor, what do you think of the famous/infamous stunt/conceit around which Ruth Reichl constructed her memoir Garlic and Sapphires? — that is, dressing in costume/creating characters to review restaurants.
I read that book and honestly didn’t think a whole lot of it. It defied credibility for me that she really disguised herself so well that no one recognized her. She seemed so incredibly self-involved the whole time that I came away suspecting the only person she fooled was herself.
* * * * * TICKET GIVEAWAY * * * * *
To win, just answer this simple question: What’s your favorite food movie, and why?
As always, I’m interested more in the justification, and the expression of that justification, than the answer.
The response that moves me most wins 2 tickets to see I Love to Eat at Round House Theatre Bethesda.
Last week I promised a chatter that I would track down my mother’s kugel recipe. Here you go, Robin.
As I said last week, this is the best kugel I’ve ever eaten.
From “Our Favorites Cook Book,” compiled by Hadassah Sisterhood of Valdosta, Georgia, 1978-79.
For the kugel:
8 ozs. med. egg noodles
3 T butter or margarine, (plus addt’l for baking dish)
1/2 C sugar
2 cups milk, preferably whole
1/2 C raisins
For the topping:
2 T butter or margarine
1/4 C bread crumbs (from stale bread)
1/2 t cinnamon
16 oz. can sliced cling peaches, drained
Preheat oven to 350. Lightly coat baking dish with butter or margarine.
Prepare noodles according to package directions. Drain and transfer to large bowl.
Add the butter or margarine and toss until it melts and noodles are coated. Set aside.
In medium bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar until combined. Whisking constantly, slowly add the milk in a steady stream and whisk until combined. Add raisins.
Pour egg mixture over noodles and toss to coat. Transfer to prepared dish. Cover & bake 30 minutes.
Fpr the streusel:
In small saucepan over med-low heat, melt the butter. Add the crumbs and cinnamon and stir until the crumbs are completely coated. Remove from heat & set aside.
Remove kugel from oven, arrange peach slices in rows on the surface and sprinkle evenly with the topping. Return to oven and bake, uncovered, until the streusel is lightly browned and the custard sets (about 15 mins). Serve warm.
(May cool, cover & refrigerate. Rewarm in a 300 degree oven before serving.)
Follow-up from Last Week: BLTs …:
Regarding the BLTs, it’s not a traditional one, but I enjoy the softshell crab BLT at Muse (the Corcoran Gallery of Art cafe).
Properly fried crab, fresh lettuce, fried green tomato, good thick-cut bacon, Old Bay aioli, fresh crusty bread. It’s yummy.
(Full disclosure: I work at the Corcoran. But it’s one of the few lunches at Muse I’ll spend my tiny nonprofit salary on – I really, really enjoy that sandwich.)
I’ll have to remember that …
One more reason to visit the Corcoran more frequently …
Thanks for the great tip.
Re: Cooking and Eating in France and Italy, from Last Week …:
When on my honeymoon in Paris 12 years ago we rented an apartment for a month. One reason was so we could cook and the other was to travel on overnights and not have to carry everything we owned. One thing my husband did was sign up for single classes at Cordon Bleu.
He took a fish course. Then a molecular course, etc. . . you get the idea. While he cooked I shopped and did things he didn’t want to do. I’m married to an Executive Chef so he was doing classes that were for him about perfecting his technique and skills but I understand that they do beginners classes as well.
He loved it and didn’t have to be away from a kitchen for a whole month. Cordon Bleu in Paris is good.
Thanks for chiming in …
If you’re married to a chef, going out to dinner can never, ever be truly “getting away from it all,” can it?
Actually, it’s the same with a critic.
And I can’t remember the last time I read a book and just lost myself in it to the degree that I wasn’t making notes or studying or — something.
Re: Dining in St. Barths and St. Martin …:
My wife and I are headed to St. Barths and St. Martin in November for our honeymoon. Any restaurant recommendations?
We’re interested in both fine dining and more casual, “local” experiences. Any thoughts would be appreciated.
Sorry, can’t help you.
But I’m sure someone on here can … Oh, someone—?
Have a great time, wherever you go, and enjoy the temporary bubble …
Sichuan Jin River in Rockville …:
Just wanted to say that I took advantage of the day off yesterday to lunch at Sichuan Pavillion/Jin River and it was excellent.
The to-the-point staff is welcoming and gracious. I had the flounder with sour pickled cabbage & peppers, and my dining partner had the General Gao’s chicken. Both packed just the right amount heat (enough to slow your pace a bit and get the forehead sweat going) but retained their complex flavors (very rare) and neither were sloshed with grease.
The portions are generous and I can’t help but respect a place that, when they say something is hot & spicy…they actually give you something that is hot & spicy! Panda Express…step up your game!
Panda Express has a game? ; )
I’m glad to hear you had such a good meal …
There’s a lot to explore there — it’s a deep and varied menu, and there’s no much on that menu that’s not good. My last couple of meals have all been interesting and rewarding …
To those of you who haven’t been, Sichuan Jin River (nee Sichuan Pavilion) is not just a terrific genre restaurant; it’s one of the best restaurants in the area, period. Go.
Catching the Nats and Oyster Happy Hours …:
1)Can you recommend a family-friendly place to enjoy a decent meal and also watch the Nationals games on tv?
2)My parents are coming in from Maine for a few days and are crazy about oysters. Which oyster happy hours would you recommend?
Old Ebbitt Grill has a double happy hour — from 3-6 and again from 11-2 a.m. Everything’s half price. And by the way — that also includes the Orca, which comes with a dozen crab claws, a dozen clams, a dozen shrimp, a dozen oysters and a lobster. It’s normally a hundred bucks.
Senart’s, on Capitol Hill, is also a double-shot place, from 4-6 and from 11-1 a.m. Dozen oysters = $12.
Black’s Bar and Kitchen, in Bethesda, has $1 Chesapeake Bay oysters from 4-7.
As for the Nats … If you want to catch a game with other rabid (well, OK — rabid for DC, a place that does not cotton to rabidity; sorry, the carpetbagger Wilbon’s right) fans, then you probably want to hit a place like Duffy’s Irish Bar, near U St., or The Ugly Mug, in Eastern Market, where lots of Nats lovers gather. Or the Tune Inn, Capitol Hill. Or any sports bar — RFD, say.
Favorite Food Movie …:
FWIW, my favorite food movie has to be the British film “The Trip”, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.
It’s less about food than it is about the experience of dining out with a great friend, which is why it works. I don’t remember much of what they eat, but I can appreciate the mocking of foams and emulsions, etc — all that persnickety-ness that so often overtakes dining rooms these days. And the two actors have great chemistry and their banter (especially the Michael Cain impressions and the road-trip banter) are good for a laugh.
It makes me want to grab my best friends and take a roadtrip waaaayy up North to dine and get away from it all.
I haven’t seen it — which DOES NOT disqualify you, by the way — but it’s interesting to me that your words are on par with what an old friend of mine recently told me about the film. He loved it, and is eager for me to sit down and watch it with him. And also light out on another road trip with him …
Anyway, sounds like my kind of film. And the fact that it seems to have divided critics — I like that, too. I have a distrust of art that is universally embraced. Critics are currently divided over “Two Nights in New York,” Julie Delpy’s film, and I found it hilarious and insightful.
Thanks for writing in …
Re: Bastille, in Old Town Alexandria …:
Thank you for your recommendations for Bastille – we celebrated our anniversary there on Sunday night (great deal for a 3 course price fix meal!).
For a little background, I am 9 months pregnant. I asked the server for advice on choosing between two appetizers (the shrimp beignets and a foie gras) and eventually chose the foie gras. But when he brought out our appetizers, our server handed me the beignets as well and said “Just because.” I was so happy and they were both delicious – although I don’t know if it was the beignets or the aoili that was better!
I ended up eating all of both appetizers as my husband has a shellfish allergy and doesn’t love foie gras. All of the food was great, but I was stuffed by the end! At the end of the meal we were brought champagne (for my husband) and a sparkling juice (for me) to celebrate.
They truly made it a memorable meal and we can’t wait to go back! Thank you so much, Bastille!
That’s great to hear.
And thanks so much for writing in and sharing your experience with us …
The bit about you eating both appetizers reminds me of a meal my wife and I had in Paris when she was pregnant five years ago. Although in this case, the reverse is true. She got to the restaurant and a wave of nausea hit — no doubt made worse by the smells of cooked shellfish wafting over to the table. I ended up eating my meal and most of hers, too. Oh, the burden! …
That entire trip, I kept wondering when she would be a proper pregnant woman and stuff herself silly. It happened only once, when we hit two restaurants in one night. I still feel bad. The city of endless culinary riches, and I was the only one who could fully take part …
Favorite Food Movie, cont.:
I don’t think it’s right for me to win since I’m in the restaurant industry but just wanted to voice my opinion:
Favorite Food Movie: FARMAGEDDON.
It’s the story of family farmers that struggle to stay in business as government regulations change. It’s an eye opener for sure. We have close relationships with a lot of farmers, they work their tails off trying to provide for their communities and sometimes they get screwed by the big guys, the factories. Farming is an art.
Now favorite food movie: No Reservations. No need to get super sentimental but since we are a family owned/run restaurant, I really like the ending.
If you liked “No Reservations,” go see the film that inspired it — “Mostly Martha,” a German language film. (Title’s bad, but the film isn’t).
I think it’s far superior, with great performances. I can still see Martina Gedick when she takes the phone call that changes her life — the way her pinky flutters as she receives the news.
By the way — “farming is an art”?!
Re: Dining in St. Martin …:
In St. Martin you definitely need to check out La Cigale!
Have been there twice and it is a great quiet environment with excellent French cooking. Expensive romantic night. Everything we have had is top notch, and the macaron is the best I have had. I compare it with top notch restaurants in DC.
For casual in St. Martin check out the “lolo’s. they are little food stands set up with smokers/grills and they serve you local food-chickien, ribs, fish, etc. Food wasn’t bad but a very good local experience.
Also in St. Martin on Pinel Island is a place called Kabibuni. Fun day trip to pinel island and kabribuni is a great place to grab lunch. Very fresh fish.
I knew that wouldn’t take long … : )
Thanks for chiming in …
How great would it be to be in St. Martin right about now, eating super fresh fish and taking in the sun and sand …
Oyster Happy Hours, cont. …:
Hank’s also has a decent Oyster Happy Hour.
Yep, you’re right … that was a big oversight …
$1 oysters and 1/2 price raw bar from 5-7.
Thanks for the reminder!
Re: Pho in Rockville …:
Now that the weather is getting colder, I am craving for a good pho and want to start the season with a good one. Where is a good one in Rockville area (I know you spend some time in the area at the ethnic restaurants).
Well, hold on a second: I don’t only spend time in Rockville “at the ethnic restaurants” — I spend time at all the restaurants. I probably write more about the ethnic restaurants, because most of what’s good in Rockville falls into that category, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not eating at the likes of Addie’s and Black Market Bistro and Matchbox, too.
Now, on to the pho …
Have you been to Pho 75? It’s the granddaddy of the area’s pho parlors. Not only is it the longest-tenured, but it also remains one of the best of the (increasingly large) lot. And still one of the few where I can consistently find sawtooth herb on the plate of add-ons.
Favorite Food Movie, cont. …:
My favorite food movie is Big Night, but for a bit different reason that just the food itself.
I am a food-centric person, and always try to maximize my food experience with pairings, or taking the time to enjoy the food. My sister is totally the opposite. Recently when we spent couple weeks together, she asked me why I was so fascinated by food, when I was shocked, because to me the answer is “how can you not be?”‘ which she clearly is not.
To me, the movie is all about this. Food is such perfection in our world full of failures and mistakes, to me it’s a trip to and back from heaven every time you find what works for you, and there are many trips to heaven in this movie.
I love that despite all the harsh conditions, and the need to make money, Primo never lets go of this idea. He knows what makes a perfect experience, and doesn’t settle with less for making money. To him having a table full of good food is the remedy to everything, just like most grandmothers do. I love that he doesn’t let go of his passion and his standards because Secondo wants to make money.
I love that about it, too.
And I think you catch a good bit of what makes the movie good.
A good food movie isn’t really about the food. Good food writing’s much the same. The food is the portal to everything else — sex, loneliness, death, despair, etc. Unlike shows like “Top Chef” and “Chopped,” which are only ever about the food.
By the same token, I love books in which sex is a metaphor. I don’t like books in which sex is just … sex.
Road Tripping …:
A couple of roadtrip picks, good for folks heading out to the Shenandoahs, or just cruising down I-81.
Little Grill Collective (Harrisonburg, VA) – If funky, divey, college town cafe/diners are your thing, then head to the Little Grill Collective. Huevos Rancheros was a platter of rice, beans, eggs, and veg chili to keep you full for hours, but could have used a little much seasoning punch (cumin, garlic, cilantro would have helped). A liberal dash of hot sauce was in order. Two scrambled eggs loaded up with green peppers, onions, tomatoes, garden veggies, mushrooms & cheddar cheese was also good. The fried potatoes needed some work, very boring. Good place to go when confronted with veg/vegan veto. We got there around 9:30am and had a 10 minute wait, by the time we left about 20 people were waiting for tables.
Southern Kitchen (New Market, VA) – A 1950s southern diner throwback with formica counters, the place oozes small town Americana. The fried chicken was enrobed in a veil of crispy batter barely holding on. A shake or two of salt and pepper helped it out. The fresh slaw was excellent, mash potatoes were just ok, and homemade blackberry cobbler with ice cream made for a tasty end. It’s the kind of place where apple sauce is considered a vegetable side. Open daily 7am-9pm. Easy on/off from I-81.
I love getting these road reports …
Thanks so much for writing them.
You sound like me when I’m eating in diners and roadhouses —wanting desperately for pretty good food to Make That Leap with just a few shakes of hot sauce or a coupla pinches of salt …
Favorite Food Movie, cont. …:
My favorite food movie is probably Chocolat, for many reasons beyond the fact that it makes me crave decadent desserts.
There’s a real evident sexiness to the story line and the dynamic between the characters, further exxaggerated by the way she pours her energy and frustrations into baking and chocolate making at all hours of the night. You sense she’s pouring her heart into her craft, while also using it as a vehicle to mask her frustrations, her desires, her wants.
I find when I am unhappy I find solace in the kitchen and I feel a sense of release. I can say I feel at ease when I’m cooking, baking, creating something that someone may enjoy. Even if that someone is me.
And I can much relate to Juliette Binoche’s character…the way she stands back and enjoys the delight on someone’s face when they bite into one of her truffles or walk out with a dessert. It’s the lingering effect it has that makes all the difference…
That’s so funny — I don’t remember very much, if anything, from that film beyond the basic story, but I DO remember that moment you describe, the way Binoche would stand back and take in her customer’s responses, the deep satisfaction that would cross her face …
Thanks for writing in … You’re in the running. I think we have a three-way race at this point — the chatter who wrote about “The Trip,” the chatter who wrote about “Big Night,” and you …
Who wants in?
I got a prize of two tickets to what I am sure is going to be a terrific play …
Favorite Food Movie — er, well …:
So it’s totally not a food movie, but I loved so many of the food moments in Seinfeld.
The communal meeting at the diner and bitching, the Soup Nazi, the marble rye, the chicken roaster and black and white cookies.
There was just enough real life, and just enough outrageous in the episodes to make them just gut wrenching-ly funny. The way they discuss food mooching, hand washing, feeding other people and foodies. It wasn’t knock you over the head, but just like in real life, food was a common discourse. I just can’t think of any food movies that the food stood out in the same way for me, as something I remember when I see the items- like a marbled rye. Sure Ratatouille was great, but it just didn’t resonate in the same way.
And some other movies billed to be “food movies” just don’t make the food in them stand out in the same way, or touch on the most discussed and debated parts of food culture.
It’s hard to argue with any of this, and for that reason I’m going to throw you into the mix for the tix …
I think what you’re responding to, in part, in the films you don’t click with is a kind of Romanticism.
Almost all the great food movies are Romantic. Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night, Chocolat, Ratatouille, Mostly Martha, Tampopo.
I don’t dislike that the way you do. I mean, there’s good Romanticism and there’s bad, as in anything else, and although I don’t like to define myself (except, possibly, to define myself as what I am not), I have always had a deep and abiding interest in Romanticism. That sensibility excites me.
I also happen to think most of the food writing that’s interesting is essentially Romantic, too — a quest, a sensual rumination, a road trip, an adventure … Restaurant reviews that are memorable, are almost always Romantic.
Re: Dining in Philly …:
Headed to Philly this weekend for the first time. Any recommendations for lunch & dinner?
I know I run the risk of looking like I have no new ideas on this score, but if this is your first time in the city then I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend Osteria — even it’s for the umpteenth time on this chat.
I think it’s one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. And it’s a place I find myself thinking about often — occasionally, the thought even strikes me to hop in my car and drive up for lunch to have another taste of the rigatoni with chicken liver ragu and onions or the expertly made pizzas (I love the one with mortadella and pistachio pesto) or the fabulous roast vegetable board.
I also am high on Amada, a superlative tapas place on Chestnut St., and Garces Trading Co., which I think does an excellent weekend brunch.
Have you ever had a dish that you thought was enhanced by foam?
I was at an upscale restaurant on Saturday and ordered a dish that was entirely covered in vivid red but surprisingly tasteless beet foam – it was visually really off-putting and one of the weirdest dishes I have ever gotten in a restaurant. (The menu description did mention the foam, but I hadn’t really noticed it when I ordered because the other ingredients in the dish were all things I like.)
It got me thinking that I never had a dish incorporating foam that I didn’t think would be improved by leaving the foam off. (I’m not going to say what restaurant it was, because the rest of the meal and the service were excellent, so I don’t want to bash them publicly.)
I know you’re hoping that I’ll say foams are an abomination and should be banished from every kitchen in the land, but I actually have had foams that I think worked.
Not many. A few. But there are some out there that do what they are hyped to do.
By the way — I’d be interested in hearing what that beet foam went on top of …
Favorite Food Movie, cont. …:
Not sure if my first try went through. I love the movie Babette’s Feast.
Such a wonderful contrast between the austere landscape and surroundings of the town and its citizens and the sumptuous, sensual meal prepared by Babette.
Once a famous Paris chef, she has been living on a remote island serving as a housekeeper and cook to a pair of spinster sisters. Instead of returning to Paris after winning the lottery, she spends her winnings to prepare a meal that surpasses anything the townspeople have ever witnessed or could have imagined.
Old wounds are mended and former flames are rekindled over the food and wine that transcends their ordinary lives. It was such a sacrifice and labor of love from a talented artist.
I have to tell you, I adore this magical little film — which fact, I have to say, does not automatically put you into contention …
No, it’s your descriptions, the way you pithily convey the story and its themes and bring it all back to me. Wonderful …
Thanks for writing in, and jogging my memory …
Favorite Food Movie, cont. …:
Not really a food move, but found all the food scenes in Moonstruck really memorable.
Not being Italian-American, I remember finding all the food scenes in that movie completely novel when I saw it back in 1986 or 87 or whenever it was. The scene where Olympia Dukakis makes toad-in-the-hole and puts pimento on it (that scene always makes me hungry)… the fact that they put a sugar cube in the glass when they drink prosecco… the undertaker who appears to be eating crackers slathered with butter and Loretta scolds him for getting butter on his tie… the shot of a cappucino being made (this was before Starbucks made the cappucino mainstream).
I thought Seinfeld was a good call. I can’t eat a lemon poppyseed muffin without thinking about Elaine.
Good memory re: “Moonstruck.” Lots of great details in that film. I especially love the sugar cube bit …
And re: “Seinfeld,” many of the great moments took place at Monk’s Diner …
Notice, by the way, that many of the great food movies — or food moments — we’re talking about are “ethnic”? Or if they’re not “ethnic,” they’re French. I don’t think that’s a coincidence …
Favorite Food Movie, cont. …:
Favorite restaurant movie: “Soul Kitchen”- a funny, screwy, slightly dark but ultimately sweet film about two Greek brothers and a restaurant in Hamburg.
It’s not all about a restaurant, but it gets a lot of things right (changing menus, dealing with alienated clientele, juggling bills, and working with family).
If it was a Coen Bros. flick, it would be “Intolerable Cruelty” or “The Hudsucker Proxy”; my former go-to restaurant movie was “Big Night”, which to continue the comparison would be “The Big Lebowsky”- lovable, ignored at the box office, now considered a classic.
I’ve been meaning to watch it … Thanks for the mind-jog …
And speaking of the Coen Bros. — and going even further off-topic — there is a movie of theirs that was ignored at the box office and that will one day, I think, be considered a classic (or should, anyway). Not lovable, though I loved it — “A Serious Man.”
I think it’s the best film they’ve made. A great dark cosmic joke. Not for everybody, and of course it helps if you’re Jewish …
Foams, revisited …:
The dish was matsutake mushroom with bacon and some sort of green – may have been kale, I’m forgetting.
The individual components of the dish other than the foam were good, but they didn’t really seem to go together. Maybe the foam was supposed to tie it all together.
Or maybe it was just an ill-conceived mess. ; )
I’m heading off to lunch, everyone. I want to thank all of you for taking part today — the tips, the ruminations, and especially the thoughtful capsules of the films you know and love. They were great reading …
Time to pick a winner, and it was a very, very difficult call; I wish I could’ve gotten extra tickets from Round House and awarded three or four winners.
I’m going with the chatter who chimed in to praise “Babette’s Feast.” Whoever you are, please drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org today and I’ll connect you with the folks at the ticket office.
I’m looking forward to seeing Nick as JB the week after next. (Thank you, Nick, again for the great Q-and-A!) Should be a great show …
Be well and eat well, everyone, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …[missing you, TEK … ]