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 writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, Lucky Peach, 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 was a finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, and recently took home first-place honors for feature writing from the Association of Food Journalists.
Kliman 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.
He previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock’s humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Cafe Rue, Beltsville
I’ve got a lot of affection for this one-man band. Cole Whaley, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine, is not just the owner and chef — he’’s also waiter, runner, and busser of this likable little hole in the wall in a fading Beltsville strip mall. There’s no other menu in the area quite like this, a delightful hodgepodge of soul food, yuppie bistro small plates, and Frenchified sweets. His crispy Brussels sprout dish may be the best I’ve had in a year full of crispy Brussels sprouts dishes — the outer leaves separate slightly, and he gets a chip-like crunch on them. And I love the enhancements — a touch of coconut oil for richness, a drizzle of clover honey for sweetness. The miniature crab cakes are hard to resist, and disappear quickly. Chicken and waffles are the heart of the menu, and the Cotton Club-derived combo comes in four varieties, including one with red velvet waffles and one with Sriracha-glazed chicken that calls to mind the sweet-spicy crunch of General Tso’s. I like the “classic” — the boneless, white meat chicken has surprising juice, and the waffles are thick and fluffy. Come dessert, the Francophile chef indulges his love of patisserie with five kinds of macarons (the cream centers are a touch dry, but he nails the difficult outside) and a surprisingly successful attempt at that recent darling of the NY foodie world, the cronut. More to like: the dining room is dressed up with art from the owner’s own collection, and bossa nova on continuous loop makes any day feel like a lazy Sunday.
Sushi Capitol, DC
I kind of hate putting this on here. The place is already not large — you could stand in front of the iconic Hawk ’n’ Dove, its next-door neighbor, and miss it — and the crowds that are sure to come now will only mean that I won’t be able to get in when I want later. And I’m going to want. This is a diminished sushi scene: Makoto is no longer special, Kushi is in decline, and Sushi-Ko I is gone. That leaves Sushi Taro and Sushi Capitol, and at the moment I’m not all that certain I’d take the former over the latter. Capitol is not as polished an experience as Taro, but neither is it the Zen-like spa of hushed voices and restrained manners — an Important Restaurant to save up for when you are looking to mark an occasion. This is a simple, unassuming spot, a workaday spot, with good, well-sourced fish and a chef who knows how to enhance the raw product without sacrificing the elegance essential to the form. Minoru Ogawa was previously in charge of sushi operations at every Mandarin Oriental property along the Eastern seaboard. He’s a purist at the bar, abjuring gimmicks, fads and clutter. The pieces are small, with tiny pads of rice, and the fish is sliced thin and delicately and draped just so over the pads. This doesn’t just make for an elegant presentation; it ensures that each bite is in balance, with the right proportion of fish to rice. I was in most recently for the omakase, which, at $50 for somewhere between 16-20 pieces, amounts to a sweetheart of a deal in the sushi world — particularly when the yellowtail is so sweet and still tastes of the sea, and the various white fishes are not simply there for padding, and the hand-rolls (passed across the bar as soon as they’re finished, their wrappers warm and crunchy) come with fresh-chopped toro. If you order a la carte, don’t ignore the rolls. The Florida roll, draped with whitened bands of blowtorched salmon belly and sliced avocado, is a stunner in every sense.
Thai Taste by Kob, Wheaton
On a three-block stretch of Wheaton, near the intersection of University Blvd. and Georgia Ave., can be found two of the area’s best Thai restaurants — Ruan Thai and Nava Thai. Time to add a third. Phak Duangchandr — Kob, to friends — has set up shop in the tiny space that originally contained Nava, in the back of Hung Phat market. Thai food fans may remember her, or at least her cooking; for 19 years she operated the Thai Food Carryout at Thai Market, near the old Safeway in Wheaton. The new setting, electrified with a paint job of orange and day-glo green, gives her a chance to expand her repertoire of dishes, while staying true to the from-scratch traditions that earned her a devoted following. The emphasis is on street food and homecooking, with a good many dishes you simply won’t find anywhere else, like bamee moo daeng, a meal-in-a-bowl of tender egg noodles, red-edged roast pork, baby bok choy, and fish balls; or kai yad sai, an omelette stuffed with ground chicken punched up with fish sauce and soy sauce; or a salad of shrimp paste-flavored rice, onions, cucumber and sweet, sticky pork). But even familiar tastes, taste different here — funkier, more pungent, and definitely hotter (a shrimp fried rice, alive with fistfuls of Thai basil and a generous pinch of chilis, set my heart to racing). Some customers have already been asking for more rice to accompany their orders. Partner and manager Max Praserptmate says he is willing to accommodate any requests, but adds that his aunt’s cooking is not the aberration; it’s the great majority of Thai restaurants that are the aberration. “The taste,” he says, “is what you’re supposed to get from your Thai food.” Duangchandr imports many of her spices from Thailand, and toasts and grinds them herself. All the condiments on the spice tray, including a terrific chili vinegar, are made on the premises. Meats are given a long soak before hitting the grill — 72 hours, in the case of the pork that is pounded and threaded onto a skewer to create a must-order starter called moo yang. The other must-order starter sure doesn’t sound like it — when was the last time you had fried shrimp wontons that were any good? These are fabulous. Kiew tod comes to the table looking more like a plate of tortilla chips, the mix of shrimp and white pepper bundled within a sneakily rolled edge. The crunch is junk food-loud; it’s hard not to believe they weren’t engineered in a lab. No beer or wine yet; Praserptmate says soon on both. I would take the money you’d ordinarily spend on a drink and spring for an extra dish or two (most are under $10, and many items will survive into the next day).
The kind of big-hearted restaurant that takes you to another place (Baltimore? St. Louis?) and maybe another time (late’ 70s). Come on a weekend night, when there’s a two-piece band and the place is humming and you’ll feel as if you’ve just crashed a wedding reception. I love the GM in coat and tie who shows you to your table, maitre d’-style. I love the waitress who turned to me one night when I was trying to decide between a lamb dish on the menu and a lamb dish that was a special, and said, “Listen. Listen to me,” and insisted I order the latter. She was right. The meat was rich and juicy and drenched in a lemon-spiked gravy. Alongside it: lemon roasted potatoes and green beans cooked with tomato and mint. True to the homestyle nature of the place, you couldn’t see any white space on the plate. Another great dish is the fried cod, delicately light, with a fluff of skordalia in the center, a sit-down Greek fish and chips. The menu has no weak spots, as far as I can tell. I’ve been three times, now, and nearly everything that has come out of the kitchen has ranged from the good to the terrific. Vegetarians can revel here. Iman bayaldi, a dish of roasted eggplant drenched in cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce, has the tight, knitted flavor of expert long-cooking. It comes in a massive portion, and costs just $7. There are stuffed grape leaves without the ground beef, filled with well-cooked rice and pine nuts and wrapped in fresh-tasting leaves that still have some good chew to them. If it takes wrapping up some food for leftovers in order to manage dessert, then do it. The version of galaktobouriko — presented in small, crunchy pieces, almost like bites of fudge — is one of the best I’ve eaten in years; the baklava (served warm, and nearly spilling its crunchy, nutty, sticky filling) is stunning; and the centerpiece of the yogurt with honey and walnuts is a scoop that has been strained almost to the consistency of a cheese, with a tanginess that goes on and on and on.
Rose’s Luxury, DC
I love the crackle in the room when you walk in. I’m not talking about mere noise; lots of restaurants have noise. I’m not even talking about buzz, that sense that a new place is hot. This one has an energy that is unmistakable, a sense that you have entered a kind of rare and cherished zone where the enthusiasm of the kitchen and the staff is returned in kind by the diners, who all seem to walk out the door with smiles on their faces. It’s not hard to understand why. Rose’s Luxury has an old-school vibe, and a sort of making-it-up-as-we-go-along feel, from the homey, unassuming way the menu bids you to settle in and order to the dinner party-run-amok vibe to the yahrzeit-look-alike votives to the beer glasses that are sawed-off wine bottles. The chef, Aaron Silverman, logged stints in such high-profile kitchens as Momofuku in New York and Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, and you don’t have to look hard to see elements of each of these places in the room and on the plate. Like his mentors David Chang and Sean Brock, he aims to bring off a marriage of extreme playfulness and extreme precision. The bulk of the menu consists of a dozen small plates in which Silverman sets out to cross the wires, compositionally speaking, and see what happens. A pate is a braiding of French, Italian (garlic bread are the toasts), Vietnamese (the rich, crushed-peanut topped spread brims with star anise), and I want to say Jewish (the brine for the jalapenos, onions and cukes that add crunch and tang tastes deli to me). It’s seamlessly done, and highly addictive. He crosses high and low in a soup that tastes at once like liquefied popcorn and a delicate lobster veloute (the sweetness calls out for some sort of counterbalancing ingredient, or more lobster). It’s not all derring-do. His gnocchi are more properly a kind of ravioli, stuffed with fennel and mint, sauced with not-too-much butter and topped with a generous scattering of crunchy toasted breadcrumbs. You’d be hard put to find five better pasta dishes in town right now. The final course is a page not out of Momofuku or Husk or McCrady’s, but out of Komi — share plates for two. In one, you lay luscious slices of perfectly smoked brisket on griddled Texas toast, add on tangy strands of pickled cabbage and smear the whole thing with a fluffy horseradish cream. The other is built around a beautifully brined pork chop — sweet and aromatic and rich as the best pork can be — with potlikker beans and a textbook red-eye gravy. The final act needs re-staging. The lack of a pastry chef doesn’t help, nor does the tendency to over-think and over-embellish. Quenelles of chocolate cream sprinkled with dried rose petals and intended for spreading on slices of charred bread feels twee, not interesting, and hardly satisfies. More of the sink-in simplicity of the share courses would go a long way. Still, this is one of the most exciting debuts of the year. I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the most exciting debuts of the past three years.
Khan Kabob, Chantilly
The best karahi I’ve had in ages, maybe ever, is a version here made with lamb brains. The brains, for the leery, resemble tiny curds, and the sauce of garlic, ginger, cilantro, tomato and chilis is so concentrated, and so smoky, that even after you’ve had your fill it’s difficult to stop dipping your torn naan into the hammered metal vessel. Tariq Khan, the owner, was for many years part of the Ravi Kabob empire; he’s created a worthy rival.
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: RESTAURANTS AND EXPECTATIONS …:
I just wanted to give a report back on a job well done by Water & Wall for going all out with a special occasion. I was celebrating my birthday and every person we encounter wished me a happy birthday, they printed our menus with happy birthday, gave us complimentary prosecco and put a birthday candle in the dessert we ordered.
All those special touches made an amazing meal even better. The food was fantastic and I would go back again anyways but the extra touches makes me want to wholeheartedly support their restaurant.
I hear you.
And good for Water and Wall — for going to such great lengths for your birthday meal.
I don’t want anyone out there in restaurant land to get me wrong. I’m not saying restaurants NEED to do this for birthdays, anniversaries, etc. But please don’t ask us whether we’re celebrating something if you don’t plan to acknowledge that fact in some tangible way. Whatever that tangible way is.
Good morning, everyone. Beautiful day — and after a really nice string of beautiful days. I can’t believe we’re actually having a Spring.
What’s on your mind?
Where’ve you been dining and chowing?
What are you craving and need help locating?
DINING SOLO AT ALINEA, IN CHICAGO?:
I’ve never been to Chicago, which as a food lover, I’ve recently come to see as a serious oversight. I would like to plan a trip there around a visit to Alinea.
While I will be traveling with my boyfriend, he does not have the means or interest in food to spend that much money on dinner, and I myself don’t have the funds to cover him to that extent. I contacted Alinea and they said what they’re really selling is the table, not reservations, so even if I were to dine solo, I would still have to pay for 2 seatings.
I don’t have any friends in the area who might be interested in dining with me. Do you know how solo diners have gotten around this (or do other chatters have experience with this)?
I’m used to eating alone when I want to try extravagant places, but I hate to think that I have to miss out on what by most accounts is an extremely special experience because I can’t pay for an empty seat.
What an interesting question. A complicated question.
I’ll be interested in hearing who out there has been in a situation like this, and what solution/s there might be.
I guess you could always hit up a site like Craigslist and advertise your dinner slot.
Maybe I could tweet it out to the people who follow me on Twitter and see what response I get.
Tough one …
ISO: GOOD DINING OPTIONS FOR A (MOSTLY; I WILL EAT A CHEESEBURGER ON OCCASION) VEGAN DINER?:
July will mark my two-year anniversary of being a plant-based eater (no meat, no dairy). I don’t like to say vegan because my family does partake in special treats every now and then (read: I will devour a cheeseburger on occassion), so I don’t like to say vegan.
The only place I know of in DC that caters to leaf-eaters is Sticky Fingers.
Do you have any suggestions of restaurants that can whip up tasty plates for someone like me?
Vegan, except when I eat a cheeseburger.
But hey, whatever.
I take it you haven’t heard of Ovo. In College Park. I wrote about it maybe a year ago.
Bad name — ovo, for a vegan restaurant? But the food is good. The “proteins” are very sophisticated. I love a dish of mushroom protein with lotus, baby corn, and green curry, with either brown rice or white. And there’re about four or five dishes there that I go back for — dishes I’d call good, and not just vegan-good.
Back to labels for a second. They’re too pat and tidy. I abhor them. Even people who tell you they don’t like labels, generally require them. It makes things easier, they say. As if that’s a good thing. Making things easier, in most things that matter, is very often making things simpler, is making them dumber, is taking the edge off, is tra-la-la-ing over subtlety, nuance, complication.
So many interesting books, films, plays, dishes, etc. defy easy classification. Because their maker refuses the totalitarianism of rules, codes, norms and knows that crossing boundaries and blurring lines, genres, etc. is where things get really interesting. Not following prescribed codes is not a conscious thing for this person, however. That’s the key thing. It’s unconscious. It just happens. Blurring, crossing is innate to this person, it’s play.
Playing. Experimenting. Trying.
Until some literalist, some dullard, comes along and says: What do you call it? What’s it supposed to be?
And slots it, and categorizes it, and succeeds, in so doing, in shaping how that thing, that original thing, is forever after perceived. Because now it’s perceived through the filter of the literalist who needs to sum it up in 25 words or less and sell it.
COUSIN’S IN TOWN, STAYING AT THE ST. REGIS — WHERE SHOULD WE GO FOR DINNER?:
My cousin is in town and would like to have dinner this evening. She is staying at the St. Regis on 16th & K and has requested something relatively convenient and healthy.
She lives in New York and her standards are pretty high. The last two times she was in town, we went to Kaz Sushi Bistro and Estadio.
I am thinking of either going to the Bombay Club or Woodward Table. Is there anywhere else you might recommend? I do not dine in that part of town very often.
Well, right there in the hotel is a restaurant called Decanter. Can’t get more convenient than that.
It’s the same gorgeous space — designed by famed architect David Rockwell — that until recently housed Adour, from Alain Ducasse. And the chef, Sébastien Rondier, was part of the Ducasse team in the kitchen during the Adour era.
If you go, I hope you’ll drop back on next week and give us a report …
DINING SOLO AT ALINEA, CONT. …:
I plan to visit Chicago at some point and would love to dine at Alinea as well as some other fabulous restaurants.
My boyfriend is also not as much of a food lover as I am, but is slowly evolving. I would enjoy having a female friend to dine with in the DC area if we are compatible.
Maybe you could put us in touch with each other?
I’d be happy to put the two of you in touch.
How great is this?
What a simple, perfect solution.
I hope we can somehow extend the idea on this chat and bring people together in other ways. Just tell me what ways those should be. But I’m absolutely game.
ISO: SOFTSHELLS, WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK …:
Where can I find decent soft shell crabs without breaking the bank?
Preferably with fresh vegetables that showcase the season?
If the price is right I’d like to go back every week until the season is over but I need something I will rave about not something I can make at home at 1/5th of the price.
Now that’s a softshell lover, talking.
Having ‘em once a week til the end of the season.
I aim for the same thing. Not always easy. But that’s my aim. I can never get enough of softshells.
I think your best bet is either of the two Hank’s Oyster Bars.
I had a preparation not long ago at Fiola Mare. More expensive than I think you’re looking for — $28 for one. But this was a stunning preparation. And, for a Marylander, a rather unorthodox one.
Among locals, the tendency is to think less is more. It usually is. Let the softshell shine through. But the softshell here was like the lead of a tight ensemble. The preparation included roasted red peppers, briny black olives, fried bread crumbs, and, not least — certainly not least — a couple lobes of live sea urchin. The combination of the sea urchin and the olives was, by itself, fantastic, a sort of dish within the dish.
Sweetness, creaminess, saltiness, brightness …
IDEAS FOR AN OVER-THE-TOP COOK-OUT? …:
I’d like to break in my new deck in a couple weeks and have 20-30 friends over for a barbecue.
Aside from doing a whole pig or something like that, does anyone have a favorite thing to make for a big audience?
I’d love to do something more exciting than burgers and dogs, especially if it can be something special, I’m just coming up blank on something that can be mass produced.
How about tofurkey for 30?
Because nothing says smoky outdoor goodness like processed tofu.
I’ll be interested in hearing what sorts of ideas you get from the chatters.
I’m not a griller, and anything I can come up with is also kind of expensive.
Who’s got suggestions?
FIELD REPORTS: G, COLUMBIA ROOM, ZAYTINYA:
Another shout-out for a great job by a restaurant while celebrating with G’s tasting menu this past Saturday. My wife and I went there as part of our anniversary celebration this weekend and they gave us a complimentary glass of prosecco to commemorate the occasion.
Certainly a nice touch on what was a fantastic meal.
My mouth is still watering over the spaghetti with chicken livers, brown butter and sage. Perhaps more of a fall dish compared to my wife’s seasonally appropriate tomato ravioli with asparagus, but damn was it satisfying.
My wife said her cheesecake dessert was some of the best she’s had, and she loves the stuff.
I don’t remember the name of the two gentleman who handled service for the most part, but they were funny, engaging, and added to the experience.
I planned our Saturday celebration, and she did Friday night (it’s our first anniversary, so we dedicated the whole weekend to it), and she took me to the Columbia Room.
They wished us a happy anniversary upon entrance but that was as far as it went, which was fine. Though as much as we enjoyed the experience there, after having gone to barmini a few times, we found that we could do another round or two there and still come out less than the Columbia Room.
Dinner after was at Zaytinya which is one of my favorite places, so all in all a great evening and weekend.
Pretty great weekend, it sounds like.
And good going, G, for making your anniversary memorable.
Just to reiterate, because I’ve been hearing from people in restaurant land ever since last week’s chat about expectations and occasions.
G didn’t HAVE to do what it did, here. A glass of prosecco is a nice touch. But not necessary — and I’m sure you and other chatters would agree.
It all comes down to the expectations that are set when making the reservation. Raise the expectation of something special and you had better come through, or you run the risk of letting the diner down.
CHEAP EATS 2014:
Okay, I admit I’m a list guy. I’ve eaten in 63 of the 66 “cheap eats” ethnic restaurants from last August and was looking forward to the last three. I’m also making a list of every country, city and ruler that has ever issued a coin from the 6th century BC to the present (400+ pages so far and still counting).
Perhaps a bit obsessive-compulsive, but I really enjoy lists.
So as you might expect I have some questions about this month’s issue with the new Cheap Eats issue.
(1) Will there be a second Cheat Eats issue in August (or later) limited solely to “ethnic” restaurants?
(2) There is no single listing of which restaurants “made” this list. Will there later be an online listing? If so, will all 25 burger restaurants be on it?
(3) Did I count correctly that there are 85 restaurants on the June 2014 list?
Thanks in advance for indulging the rule-bound folks like me.
Thanks for asking.
The idea was that last year, instead of the usual Cheap Eats, we did the Ethnic Dining Guide, with more than 120, I want to say, reviews. I think we did a pretty comprehensive job, as these things go — I think we took readers in and out of the many culinary cultures that make the region such an interesting place to eat and shop. Restaurants, stores, cooks, nuances of the cuisines, pairing options for dishes, how to order, how to comport yourself, etc.
This year was about giving space to the things we didn’t include last year. Burgers, pizza, barbecue, etc.
Everything should go online soon.
And just so you know — the usual Cheap Eats will return next year.
CHEAP EATS, CONT.:
A couple of follow-up questions.
(a) The little blurb at the beginning of the Cheap Eats 2014 article says it’s “our annual guide to bargain dining” which has “the area’s tastiest indulgences that can be had for $25 or less per person.” But the list includes the $30 lobster burger at Central. Has the limit been raised?
(b) Does this mean that the years-long stretches of being on the Cheap Eats list ends in 2014 for such long-time faves as Hong Kong Palace, A&J Restaurant, Four Sisters, Rabieng, La Limeña, La Caraqueña, Shamshiry, and Cosmopolitan Grill?
The package is not meant as any kind of commentary on all those great places you mentioned.
They’re still gems.
If I had to guess, most, if not all, will return to next year’s list.
This year’s edition was an attempt, I guess you could say, to spread some attention around to the sorts of places we didn’t feature last time out.
And the burger feature was intended as a stand-alone, though many of the burgers can be had for less than $20.
RESTAURANTS AND EXPECTATIONS, CONT. …:
I am on the same page with you on birthdays, Todd.
If they don’t give me an expectation I expect nothing from restaurants.
Can I make a suggestion though: if they are going to do something special, can they maybe consider other options than dessert?
I don’t like birthday cake and I don’t eat dessert unless it’s really creative or very good classic.
So, if I am celebrating, I’d rather have a piece of cheese or even better a sip of an after dinner drink appropriate for the place (amaro, limoncello, bourbon, grappa). I think this is something that would work for the restaurants since they’d be showcasing something most people don’t know about, and when I come back and order the same thing their profit margin is larger. Obviously they need to see if the table is open to this, but during a celebratory meal there are plenty of opportunities to observe a group or someone special’s likes (types of wine ordered, food questions etc.) and surprise that person with something unusual.
I always remember the places that go out of their way to do something different, not the ones who just bring out a dessert I barely take a bite of.
Just my two cents.
Now we’re getting into something I’m not comfortable with.
I understand that you’d prefer cheese or a digestif to cake. I might, too, given what passes for dessert at most restaurants these days.
But if a place decides to favor me with something on a special occasion, I take it and don’t grumble. I don’t even wonder, even just privately, whether something more suitable to my tastes might be possible.
Really, truly — it’s the thought that counts here.
CONNECTING AT THE TABLE, CONT.:
How about a dining club where we can find other “foodies” to dine with?
Most of these kind of setups are for romantic hookups which I have no interest in, but I’d love to dine with people who are interested in food and good conversation around it. In DC or elsewhere.
I love this idea.
No idea how to carry it out, but I’m absolutely open to hearing what you, all of you, have to say on the subject.
It’s great to think that we might be able to extend our weekly forum somehow …
ALINEA, CONT. …:
I had a dinner for 2 at Alinea couple years ago and I am not sure where they would seat a single diner because there was no bar, and even with us they gave us a bit of a cold shoulder because my dining companion was not a foodie and ordered one glass of wine and not the wine pairings.
The server was like a nazi soldier explaining things as if we were completely ignorant (as someone who’s dined all over the world and is familiar with various techniques and ingredients I am not sure where she got that from, except for maybe my age, I was in my early 30s at that time, but still nicely and appropriately dressed, and my companion was in his 50s with a jacket etc.)
In the end I am glad I went for the experience, but I probably would have had less fun alone since the design is pretty minimal, there is no music and noone to chat with, and part of the experience was chatting about the food (and the server’s attitude).
I would have said something to the manager if my dinner companion wasn’t paying for the dinner because it was my birthday, but in the end it’s not an experience I rave about or am dying to go back.
One note: Grant Achatz wasn’t there that night, I am not sure if that made a difference. But I dine alone in all kind of places and that is not a place I’d go back to unless with complete foodies.