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. A finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, he took home first-place honors for feature writing, in 2013, from the Association of Food Journalists.
He is the author, most recently, 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. The Richmond TImes-Dispatch hailed it as “an outstanding piece of literature.”
Kliman 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: email@example.com
TK’S 10: WHERE TO GO NOW
Taqueria el Mexicano
7811 Riggs Rd., Hyattsville; (301) 434-0104
Best Mexican cooking in the area right now. Nothing else comes close. Get the pork in adobo, the mole poblano, the posole, and the sopes. And don’t skimp on the handmade tortillas.
2931 S Glebe Rd., Arlington; (703) 549-8299
Imagine a Clyde’s, only foodier, cozier, more contemporary, and less focused on pleasing the widest swath of diners. Terrific, attentive service, too. Go for the campanelle bolognese, the mushroom pizza, the shrimp ’n’ polenta, the steak with salsa verde and an egg, and end with an excellent olive oil-topped chocolate budino.
10120 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax; (703) 877-0988
The kitchen works magic. Not all the time — I’ve had a couple of eh dishes over the course of two visits. But then you turn up something like the mushroom casserole with pork (best not to study its long, dark tadpole-like fungi), or fish fillet with bean curd sauce, or Divine Incense Mint Pork (chewy-crunchy strips of pork belly with fried mint) and you simply can’t stop eating.
Amoo’s House of Kabob
6271 Old Dominion Dr., McLean; (703) 448-8500
The kabob is exalted at this Persian stripmall gem. Don’t miss the kubideh, which doesn’t even need a knife, and the salmon, thick hunks of lightly charred fish, cooked to an ideal coral-centered medium. And don’t come at all if you’re not going to spring for at least one of the rice dishes, ideally the aromatic shirin polo, with saffron, currants, and candied orange peel.
325 Pennsylvania Ave. SE DC; (202) 627-0325
Minoru Ogawa was previously in charge of sushi operations at every Mandarin Oriental property along the Eastern seaboard. He shops with the utmost care for his product, and is a purist at the bar, abjuring gimmicks, fads and clutter. When Ogawa is around, there’s no place in the area I’d rather go for sushi.
1099 New York Ave. NW DC; (202) 628-1099
The most casual of the restaurants in Fabio Trabocchi’s collection, and an immensely assured operation from top to bottom, and from its opening nibbles to its pastas to its dazzling preparations of fish and seafood to its exquisitely crafted desserts.
4709 N Chambliss St., Alexandria; (703) 642-3628
Best Ethiopian food in the area right now. Every item I sampled on a recent, abundantly topped platter was vibrantly colorful, subtly (but assertively) spiced, and memorable. Vegetarians, take note: this is the spot to go when you’re in the mood for kik alicha, mesir wot, and azifa. The latter, in fact, is easily the best version of the dish I’ve eaten in years — the flavors sharper and more focused, the tang tangier, the mustard bite, more mustardy. It’s also a pleasure to see lentils that are cooked perfectly — no crunchiness, no mushiness.
The Alley Light
108 2nd St. SW, Charlottesville, Va.; (434) 296-5003
The chef at this unmarked speakeasy, Jose De Brito, is a lone wolf in the foodie herd. He thinks for himself, which would be reason enough to pay a visit, but here’s the best part: he doesn’t also cook for himself, to gratify his ego at the expense of your pleasure. Let every other chef fry their brussels sprouts; De Brito mashes them with a bacon-infused cream to create a kind of palaak paneer, then roasts them slowly, along with pearl onions, bits of bacon, and chestnuts that turn soft, dark, and caramelly sweet. He uses sunchokes, those suddenly trendy tubers, to lend a sharpening edge to a fondue-like soup that coats the tongue with the rich, resonant taste of Roquefort. I can’t remember the last time I saw green beans on a menu, let alone as a stand-alone dish, but De Brito shows you how something so unsexy can be made marvelous, tossing the beans in an almond vinaigrette and then showering the plate with a snow the color of putty — foie gras, grated from a frozen block. And that’s just the vegetables.
1601 14th St. NW DC; (202) 332-3333
You don’t need to be told, or reminded, about the place, but let me just say that the dishes coming out of the kitchen, under chef Michael Abt, have never been better. The tete de veau is excellent, worth coming for all by itself. It doesn’t go with the burger, no, but you can’t come here and not get the burger, probably the best in the city at the moment. And Fabrice Bendano, the dean of DC pastry chefs, has taken over dessert. If you want to understand why this qualifies as such a monumental hire, order his profiterole, which manages to be both new and old, intricate and effortless, richly satisfying and conversation haltingly dazzling.
KBQ Real Barbeque
9101 Woodmore Ctr. Dr. Ste 322, Lanham; (301) 322-1527
One of the two best barbecue spots in the area right now — the other is DCity Smokehouse — and I go back and forth on whose ribs I crave most. The ones here are soaked in advance of cooking in a housemade mojo criollo, then rubbed with herbs, and smoked slowly out back before hitting the grill. No sauce when they come to the table — they don’t need ‘em.
KHAN KABOB, IN CHANTILLY:
A quick update on Khan Kabob in Chantilly — Mr. Khan is now back in the US, but might return to Pakistan after Ramadan. They did have the lamb brain karahi, which was excellent.
My only experience with lamb brains had been in Turkey, with a cold mezzo including a whole lamb brain, which I found a little daunting. These were more like scrambled eggs mixed into the karahi.
The place was jumping too, as people were streaming in for iftar right at sundown.
That’s great to hear. I’m glad he’s back and that the place is jumping.
Thanks for the report.
Your description of the texture of the lamb brains is right on. Very much like eggs, or curds. So that if you didn’t know that they were brains, you might never think BRAINS.
Done right, it’s a fantastic dish. I’m glad yours was great.
Good morning, everyone. What do you have on your minds? Where’ve you been eating? Traveling? What’ve you been cooking? I want to hear it all …
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: SEASONAL PANTRY, IN SHAW:
RE: Seasonal Pantry (I’m the pretentious twit Clifton thinks should have thought to ask who was cooking)
Following up on your question regarding the explanation for Dan O’Brien’s absence since I missed the chat today. I will say we feel validated in our annoyance. For $148 per person I guess you expect the full experience which I don’t think we got.
When the meal started they said he was away for the weekend on vacation. It definitely didn’t sound “emergent” or unplanned. So maybe his absence is actually not uncommon?
You also asked about the food – it was a different menu than what we expected based on what others have reported or posted online (no avian or terrestrial based proteins besides an egg). It felt like it was missing a course before dessert. Not sure if that was a function of Dan O’Brien being out that night.
Wine: French Sauvignon Blanc and a Grenache
Food: Overall well executed and tasted good but the agnolotti was mushy and the dessert was oddly sweet.
1- Radishes with homemade butter – FYI: radishes are locally “foraged” (this alone begs a number of follow up questions)
2- Cold Asparagus Soup with Crab Salad on Cracker
3- Homemade Cornbread with Schmaltz and Fried Chicken Skin
4- Coddled Egg over Spring Vegetables and Carrot Puree
5- Fried Green Tomato with Trout Roe and Shrimp
6- Agnolotti in a black walnut cream sauce
7- Seared Scallops with Snow Peas and Mushrooms
8- Pot de creme with Rhubarb Compote – Or something like that.
9- Salted caramel and chocolate chip cookie
Thanks for coming back on and posting this …
I spoke with chef O’Brien last week. He was pretty upset with your original post, with the idea — if I have this right — that he is being held to a different standard from other chefs in the city (some of whom are rarely in their kitchens). I invited him to come on and respond. He declined.
My view on this is that his restaurant is a different sort of restaurant from those other restaurants. It’s more like an intimate dinner party presided over by a chef, as I said last week. One seating a night, 8 or 10 people. I think you’re right to have the expectation, going on, that you don’t just get the chef’s food, but interaction with the chef, a chance to ask him questions, a foodie sort of back and forth.
What do the rest of you think?
I’m with the chatter above on this. Where do you stand?
Is the chatter right to think that the experience, in this case, includes table time with the chef and not just the chef’s food?
Or is that unrealistic, and holding O’Brien to a different standard?
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: BRINE, IN MERRIFIELD:
Service issues at Brine
Hey Todd – Friends of ours had such a great experience at Brine in the Mosaic District that they wanted to take us the following weekend.
And they were right – the food was great. Unfortunately though, the service we got was miserable! One of my companions was brought the wrong entree (totally excusable, I was the server and I made mistakes), next the right dish was rushed out undercooked (also excusable, things happen) but our server never apologized! The manager comped the meal that was wrong twice and bought us a $6 dessert but never really apologized either. The owner of the double re-fire had to eat by herself and the rest of us had to awkwardly
I loved my meal, everyone else loved theirs but this left an AWFUL taste in my mouth (pardon the pun). Should I attribute this to growing pains, wait a couple months and go back? Or are you hearing that this is a continuing issue?
Thanks for writing in about this.
This is an interesting case, because on the one hand, the staff did a lot to try to make up for it — comping an entire meal, bringing the table a free dessert.
But the lesson, here, for the restaurant is that it didn’t acknowledge the error with a direct apology. We’ve seen this come up again and again in this forum, that what irritates diners is the lack of acknowledgment of the mistake, the lack of an apology. Acknowledgment and apology go a long way.
Apparently, even longer than a comped meal and a free dessert.
So, just to toss this out there and widen the discussion — if you had to choose just one, which one would it be:
A comped meal for one diner, plus a free dessert, with no apology?
Or an apology and a free dessert?
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: FAMILY MEAL, IN FREDERICK:
Wanted to report back on a recent dinner at Family Meal in Frederick.
We had the deviled eggs to start (killer, overstuffed and very mayonnaise-y, with a little bacon for crunch) and a fresh, delicious green tomato gazpacho. I think we agreed, my entree was the hit of the table: cornmeal crusted catfish with smoked tomato gravy, served (per request) over wilted spinach in place of the smoked pintos.
The fish was perfect: sweet, not at all greasy or muddy-tasting, and served as a nice, crisp contrast to the silky, smoky accompaniments. The tomato gravy was as comforting as Campbell’s–in a good way. My hubby had the salmon filet with green and white asparagus and potatoes, which was well-executed if a little unexciting.
Our friends had the kale salad with chicken (way underdressed, a smallish portion, and not nearly as good as the one she had at Volt) and the fried chicken and biscuits. The overflowing basket of chicken looked amazing, but a few samples (we always share!) made me glad I chose the lighter route. The meat wasn’t very flavorful, and to me, the skin had this odd pre-cooked/old flavor. Maybe it just lacked seasoning.
Call me a churl, but Popeyes is hard to beat in my book! Who is cooking your favorite fried chicken these days, Todd? So I have something to dream about until this diet ends.
BTW, I would be remiss if I did not mention that service at Family Meal was excellent.
Your catfish dish sounds wonderful. Makes me hungry, just reading about it.
That fried chicken, when the place first opened, was phenomenal. One of the best fried chickens I’ve eaten in the past few years. I’m sorry to hear it wasn’t much of anything. Really too bad.
Popeye’s: a friend is always trying to drag me to Popeye’s, especially after restaurant meals that are less than satisfying. I mean, yeah, hard to beat, in that it goes right to the pleasure centers of the brain, because it’s engineered to go there, but an hour later you have to take a nap.
Favorite fried chicken right now — first thing that comes to mind is Bon Chon. Hard to resist. And also highly engineered to please.
Founding Farmers also has a really good fried chicken.
Who’s had some great fried chicken lately?
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
I think it is unrealistic to hold him to a different standard. If he is required to be there for every dinner service he would literally end up working himself to death.
Don’t we all deserve a vacation? Everyone takes a vacation and work goes on. That is why you have a great support staff than can execute your vision or carry out the assignment while the main principal is away. I am sure the poster takes vacations and work doesn’t stop while they are away from their job.
Yes, Seasonal Pantry is different and unique. As you stated one seating for 10-12 people per night. Knowing Chef O’Brien he would not have taken a vacation if he did not have 100% trust in his support staff being able to execute his menu while away.
But can’t it be argued that part of what the place is selling is something apart from the usual old restaurant meal that everyone else offers?
This is the thing now in the world of food and drink across the country — to make customers feel that they’re getting something that regular old folk don’t get. Something hidden. Something different. Something more refined. Something more hands-on.
What is Seasonal Pantry? Is it a tasting menu meal like any other? Or is it a tasting menu meal that means to collapse the distance between the dining room and the kitchen? Personal. Intimate.
If that’s the case, if that’s what is being sold, then isn’t the chatter right to be disappointed and express it, even if the food was good?
I have visited Brine a few times in the Mosaic. I too have experienced hiccups in service. I started sitting at the bar to resolve those issues.
And — good call; bartenders, I think, are generally really good servers. They nearly always have a personality, and are good at multi-tasking.
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
I think in the setting of Seasonal Pantry I’d expect the chef to be there as it truly is a different experience rather than just a head chef who has an incredibly talented team guiding the restaurant when they’re absent.
When we did minibar we certainly didn’t expect Jose Andres to be there, but Ruben Garcia was, who, at least at the time (it was the old location) ran the show, not sure if he still does. And they never billed it as Jose Andres being there, just his extremely talented team. Heck, Ruben Garcia and Katsuya Fukushima competed as a team on Iron Chef America representing minibar. I’ve had fantastic meals at Komi with and without Johnny Monis.
But when it’s billed as something one-on-one with the chef in question I expect them to be there, like Chef Nobu at the omakase counter at Sushi Taro.
Interestingly, regarding that minibar experience, my wife originally planned on taking us there for our anniversary but we couldn’t get a seat, so we opted as a fallback to do the Vidalia 24 dinner with RJ Cooper. But then he left the restaurant just a few weeks prior to our reservation. We were forging ahead with it but really not excited about it as he was a big part of the experience and reviews were not nearly as good in the post-RJ iterations. but we got a call from minibar a few days before that they had an opening and we went there instead. We’ve since had many fantastic meals at Rogue 24.
Thanks for chiming in …
It’s interesting, this distinction between meals and “experiences.”
But I think it’s important to a conversation like this, because there are restaurants that are selling one and there are restaurants that are clearly selling the other.
In one sense, I think what some of us are saying is that we hold the places that sell “experiences” to higher standards than the places that sell meals.
Are we right to do that?
Do the restaurateurs and chefs want us to or don’t they?
And should we anyway, if not?
OTHERWISE & CHINESE TAKE-OUT IN ALEXANDRIA?:
Hi Todd –
First, I really enjoyed reading your Otherwise column this week on Mexico City. I hope they have plans to send you other places around the world!
Second, since I’ve moved to Northern Virginia, I haven’t found a place that I like yet for good Chinese take-out (there are just those nights when the cravings hit). Do you have any suggestions that deliver to and/or are in the Alexandria area.
How about TemptAsian?
This is one of Peter Chang’s former homes. He hasn’t been there in years and years and years, but the cooking, while not up to Chang of old levels, is good. Give it a shot, especially if you’re a fan of Szechuan.
And thanks for the enthusiasm for last week’s Otherwise. That was a fun one to write. Keep reading …
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
I have to agree with the chatter on this. I haven’t been to Supper Club but often frequented the market at Seasonal Pantry when it was open. I think Dan is very talented and his vision and concept for Supper Club is different than a restaurant.
It seems as though Dan is upset about being held to a different standard but he wants a different standard when it suits him. The website for Supper Club used to post a menu, then it posted the theme/protein that would be highlighted for the week in advance, now nothing. A diner has no clue what to expect when he/she spends $130-$160 for a meal.
That is very much a different standard than what is placed on other restaurants/chefs in the area. Any substitutions (hard to figure out if you’ll need accommodations for an allergy without a menu) are subject to a surcharge and require the approval of the chef. Dinner is at 8pm, no ifs and or buts. And if you drop $150 on a ticket a month in advance and an emergency comes up, you may be SOL.
So yes, Dan is being held to a different standard. But he is also holding himself and Supper Club to a different standard and asking diners to do the same.
I think this is a really strong argument.
And voiced without vitriol or grievance.
Thanks for writing in …
I’ll be interested in hearing other takes on what you say, as well as other takes on the subject …
WHEN COMPING ISN’T ENOUGH, CONT.:
I would take the immediate apology over the comping.
In my case, it was a long wait between appetizers and entrees. As my 9 year old sons (slowly) ate their meal, we waited. And waited. After a good long time, I finally got up and asked our waiter about our entrees. He explained to me that they put entree orders in only after the appetizers come out. It was complete bull. Our breadbasket sat empty on the table for a good long while and we got no inquiries if our sons my want a refill on their drinks. The waiter had clearly forgotten about us and then gave me attitude.
The manager later came over and apologized for the delay. He said a large party came in and the kitchen was backed up. Fair enough, but that does not excuse the waiter ignoring us for awhile or giving me a lecture about procedure when I inquired. I was upset and did not enjoy what was a pretty good entree. We did get a discount on the meal, but my experience had already been ruined.
I should note we had previously had a good experience there and have since returned. This time we got the A team and a wonderful meal.
Ah, the lecture about procedure.
I and friends of mine well know the lecture about procedure.
This might feel right, at the time, for the staff. To let diners know how things work behind the scenes, so that diners will understand and be patient and more informed next time.
But it’s a big mistake, I think. Diners want fantasy, not reality. They don’t want to know about behind the scenes, unless it’s to give them a tour of the kitchen or share a process that — here again — no one else (they think) is being hipped to.
Some months back, I was at a place I won’t mention. An order at the counter operation, but tended by a chef. He was peeved at the order in which I gave my instructions, and promptly told me how to place my order, the words to use, etc., for next time. I thought but didn’t say: what next time?
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: BANANA LEAF, IN DC:
At the recommendation of the Cheap Eats issue, I had a delicious dinner at Banana Leaf last weekend. The lampri, pork curry, chicken roti with a fantastic sauce, and hoppers with fried egg were all interesting and tasty. (The only weak part was the generic-tasting sampler of lightly fried appetizers.)
And I loved the BYOB policy. I understand that a liquor license is an economic imperative at many places. But the BYOB allowed for a substantially less pricey meal, as we brought a six pack of DC Brau that went great with the dishes. Really, unless a place has an unusually talented bartender or sommelier, I’d generally prefer BYOB over in-house booze.
Do you know of any other good BYOB places in the area?
Thai X-ing, in Shaw, is the one that leaps to mind.
And a slew of places offer corkage, for varying fees, but I don’t put them in the same class as BYOB.
I’m so glad to hear you had such a good meal. Thanks for the report …
I’m struggling to come up with some of the other BYOBs. There aren’t many, but I know there are a few …
I also wanted to chime in and say that the Otherwise column on Mexico City was a fun read!
I went in high school and had my first taste of mezcal (we went to a small farm where they produced it, and I distinctly remember the hundreds of flies that looked like they were being churned into the liquid…), though naturally with our chaperones we didn’t have the same experience you had.
I also had a chance to try grasshoppers, which seem like nothing in comparison to those big ol’ beetles you ate!
I’ve been curious about escamole since the last Top Chef finale challenged the chefs to use them– is that something that’s available anywhere around here? Or is it too much of a delicacy?
Hope The Washingtonian keeps sending you abroad! I also really liked the Ethiopia piece you wrote a little while back.
Escamoles aren’t even available all the time in Mexico City, from what I understand. It’s a treat when restaurants have them in.
I liked them, especially in a corn tortilla. A delicate, nutty flavor.
As for being sent abroad — my Ethiopia trip was for the magazine; this Mexico City trip was not.
But yeah, I hope there are more trips like this in my future — with less mezcal next time, and less altitude sickness …
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT. :
With something that is along the lines of a chef-centric supper club, I don’t think it’s at all odd for people to assume that the chef will be there preparing the meal. You’re purchasing tickets to sit at the Chef’s Table and expect him/her to be there.
It seems like O’Brien is maybe transitioning from that type of format to a more regular restaurant format (including expanding the number of days it’s open) and expectations are coming up against that.
It seems that a workable enough solution to this is to list who the chef will be on days he is not there (“with guest chef so-and-so” or “featuring longtime sous chef X whose specialty is seafood”). That way there is transparency about the experience. People will know in advance what they are getting.
I don’t think a different standard is being imposed on the chef. It’s the standard people assume based on the type of operation he’s has been running. It’s totally great that he’s evolving the concept a bit but people need to be aware of that.
Thanks for writing in.
It strikes me that a restaurant idea like this could not have existed in the pre-chef-as-personality era.
In this sense, Seasonal Pantry is not unique. A lot of places, now, are very much creations of this new era.
But what do all these places have in common?
They’re not just “chef-driven.” They’re chef-as-personage places.
The chef is more than a technician in the kitchen preparing a meal. The chef is the frontman, the personality — in essence, the one you, the diner, are paying for.
INEXPENSIVE TO MODERATE DINING FOR AN ANNIVERSARY?:
Hello. My sister asked me to recommend some places for an anniversary dinner. Moderate to inexpensive, preferably in NoVA or DC, probably not Asian.
Their go-to place was Two Quail in DC. Everything I recommended was too pricey or too fancy.
Please help! Thank you.
How about Tazza Kitchen, in Arlington?
Scroll up to the top of the chat, under the list of 10 places I think are putting out good meals at the moment.
It’s right in their price range, it’s not Asian, and it’s not fancy.
Let me know if they go, and what they thought of it.
Good luck …
CHEFS NOT IN THEIR KITCHENS, CONT.:
I know it’s very different, but just curious to hear comments on this: if you finally get in and find out Aaron Silverman is not cooking, what would you think? (in my experience I have the confidence in his team and overall skills that there wouldn’t be much of a difference, but if you came out of town, and waited in line for 1-2 hours and found out that he wasn’t cooking, would it be different?)
If I go all the way to Portland, San Francisco, or anywhere really, and look forward to a very special dinner where the chef is the star and if he’s not there, I’d be disappointed because I couldn’t judge if it is the real experience or not.
I’ll be interested in hearing what all of you have to say about this.
I can see being disappointed, for all the reasons you say. But personally, if the food’s great, then a good bit of my disappointment drains away.
Chefs like to say that the word “chef” doesn’t mean “cook,” it means overseer, the one in charge, the chief. Which is true. But as a diner, it feels kind of lousy to hear that, doesn’t it?
Especially since so much of what chefs are today, the life that some of them enjoy, the esteem they’re held in, owes itself to the culture of celebrity that has risen up in the past decade and a half. Go back fifty years. Go back thirty years. What did people think about chefs? Not much, if they thought about them at all.
You can get great food when a chef isn’t in. You can get lousy food when a chef is in. But in some way, that’s not the point. The point is that a lot of diners have an expectation. Right?
Not necessarily because an individual chef or restaurant creates that expectation, but because the culture creates it. Is that fair? No, it’s not. But it’s the reality. All chefs are part of this larger culture, whether they see that or not.
Where do all of you come down on this?
FAMILY MEAL, CONT.:
I had the exact same experience with the chicken at Family Meal a year or so back. It was fine, but nothing special at all. (Then again, I too am a Popeye’s junkie, so maybe that affects expectations somehow.) I felt that way about the whole meal, though — fine, but nothing that I particularly felt compelled to return to.
If only you had had that chicken in the beginning …
It really was something.
A place like that, calling itself Family Meal, emphasizing upscale comfort food, has got to nail a dish like that. It’s got to be, not just good, but great. And every single time.
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
re: Seasonal Pantry
As the originator of the question, I can say I certainly didn’t want to upset O’Brien.
The meal is billed as a “Supper Club” and I think we went in with a different expectation for that meal experience than we would for a meal experience at a more traditional restaurant. He should be able to run his business how he wants and go on vacation or be away from the stove.
That doesn’t change that the wine service didn’t live up to the food.
I think a lot of people on here are saying that you were right to go in with a different expectation. For whatever that’s worth …
I wonder what you would have felt about the night had the chef not been there, but you find every dish to be stellar and memorable and the wine to be a good complement to the food.
I want to echo other readers in saying that your “Otherwise” columns have been extraordinary reads. Thank you for them- I’m particularly a fan of the Caitlyn Jenner and Mexico City posts.
A great opportunity to peer into a few of the unique experiences you’ve had, both as a teacher and a food writer.
And this is extraordinarily nice of you to come on and say. Thank you.
I’m really excited about this column, and hope that you’ll keep reading each week. I also hope that I can sustain the energy to be doing the kinds of pieces I’ve been doing.
Thank you and thank all of you for this great support …
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
I think that is a great question. What is Seasonal Pantry?
Should we label these types of establishments as ‘dinner parties,’ ‘supper clubs,……etc and not really as restaurants?
Would Mini-Bar fall into this category? It only seats a limited number of diners and Jose Andres is not there every night to greet diners. Should we hold him to the same standard as Dan O’Brien?
Does a ‘dinner party’ mean that you are entitled to receive one-on-one time with the chef?
You mentioned labeling them. It seems to me that there are invisible labels.
A lot of what the hipper, more interesting places are about these days is separating themselves from the great mass of places that fall under the heading “restaurant.”
Restaurants with no signage, so that if you don’t already know about them you’re out of luck.
Supper club dining.
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
From their website:
Seasonal Pantry hosts a multi-course dinner for 12 guests Wednesday through Saturday evenings right in the middle of the market. Using mostly local ingredients, Chef Daniel O’Brien cooks simple, fresh dishes right in front of his guests. Prices range from $130–$160 per person, depending on the featured menu for that week.
By definition, no Dan O’Brien, no Supper Club.
I understand Jose Andres doesn’t cook in his restaurants anymore, but he is not advertising a chef’s table saying he does.
I have been to Seasonal Pantry with chef O’Brien cooking and it was a great meal. It is a very intimate meal – smaller than the yearly Thanksgiving dinner I cook. It would be greatly diminished without his presence. I am sympathetic that he needs to take time off – he just needs to note when you buy the tickets that someone else will be cooking (and knock $10- $20 off the meal so people feel better).
I think this sounds reasonable.
I also think that your reading of the website description is right, too.
Thanks for writing in …
What do all of you think of this suggestion? And/or this reading of the website?
BON CHON, SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
Your counterpart in Philly, Craig LaBan, did a tremendous takedown of the BonChon that recently opened up there. It wasn’t as epic as Wells’ poetic smackdown of Fieri’s Donkey Punch Emporium in NYC, but it made some waves, to be sure.
I’m going to have to side with the majority opinion: O’Brien is setting the seperate standard himself, thus making his venture different than a standard restaurant. He is therefore liable for the clear and present danger that is inherant in operating a chef-personage driven dining club. Ergo, ad sum, etc.
I think there’s a pretty emphatic consensus out there that SP is different from a conventional restaurant. Again, for whatever that’s worth. Chef O’Brien can and should do what he wants. But it’s interesting to see how the place is perceived …
As for Bon Chon — yeah, I saw it. I think Craig LaBan does a great job, and I enjoyed reading this one. At the same time, I’ve liked the chicken, a lot, at the locations I’ve been to in this area. It hasn’t been recently, however. A year ago, I think, is the last time I availed myself of some of that super crunchiness. It was really good.
I wonder if this isn’t a case, in part, at least, of expectations. If you have them — and I mean, not just at Bon Chon, but with nearly any kind of operation — I think you’re bound to find a meal wanting in some way if it isn’t great.
I’ve gotta break away from all this great discussion. Sorry. But thank you for such a terrific chat, everyone. Great questions, thoughtful musings. I love it when we can chew over topics like this …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
And please look for Otherwise this week, which I think you’ll have fun with …
[missing you, TEK … ]