Quick Restaurant Hits from Your Friendly Neighborhood Refugee

27 May 2010

Before we get into some bite sized restaurant nuggets, I would like to remind you all that I am celebrating the 2nd blogiversary tomorrow with an open question session and the window is still open to ask whatever.  Thank you to all of you who have sent email questions and left them in the comments already.  Feel free to ask more than one, the list is getting long but this is a joint celebration.

___________

Ardeo may not be on my list for anything else (inconsistency being the only constant will do that to a place in the same neighborhood as Palena) but their $25 (mimosas included) brunch might be one of the better values in the city.

Blacksalt is the reigning champion of seafood places in this area – at least in my mind – however, a recent lunch and dinner at Kinkead’s seem to indicate that they want to make an “everyone thought they were done” run at the title à la George Foreman.

The Palm (downtown location) feels about as dated as the first season of West Wing.  Their Prime Bites happy hour (really tasty noshes for $3.50 from 4:30 – 6:30 and after 9pm) however, lightens the mood but not so much the wallet.  The crowd is more interesting during the later portion of the evening… but that shocks no one.

Hudson has always had the feel of a place that is too hip by half for my tastes but they do make a damn fine Manhattan and I am still thinking about their bbq chicken pizza three days later.

I should have seen the problems coming when a recent first date countered with Brasserie Beck after my initial suggestion of Granville Moore’s. Both places have lost a step (more important for the former which is more expensive and doesn’t have the character of the latter) but she wanted Moules & Frites.  I’ve seen flashes of brilliance at Beck, but more commonly they yo-yo between visits and often on the same night.  My date was a bit pretentious, precious, and thought I should be way too grateful for the privilege, the woman was the same way… ba-dum-bum.

Mendocino Grille is still my favorite place to eat in the bastion of culinary mediocrity that is Georgetown, but am I the only one who really misses Barry Koslow’s hand at the stove?

Calling Matisse Café the best restaurant in Tenleytown may be similar to saying that they are the best team in the worst league in the city.  Saying that my last meal there makes me wish that I lived just a bit closer or they were in a more interesting part of the city, that’s a better compliment.

Note to Restaurateurs: I took a poll… even my deaf friends find your website music annoying.


Happy Blogiversary to Me – You’re Invited to the Virtual Party

26 May 2010

I missed my blogiversary – it passed last Friday – and I am not sure if it means anything that it just kinda slipped my mind.  I will leave that question to another time because I still wish to acknowledge the two years that I have been writing in this space.

This connection has been a real and important part of my life and I value all of the people who stop by to read, comment, cajole, support, question, challenge, or engage.  All of you form the foundation of an e-community that as just as valuable to me as those with whom I share brick and mortar community that had origins in this space.

Last year I asked everyone, readers, regulars, and lurkers alike to leave me a comment as an anniversary present.  Someone who shall remain nameless called that selfish and vainglorious, eh, I thought that it was harmless enough.  However, on this second blogiversary, we shall make the celebration a bit more reciprocal and inclusive.  From now until Friday*, I am collecting questions.  Leave them in the comments, send me an email** (restaurantrefugee at gmail dot com) and ask me anything you want to know about me, the blog, restaurants, wine, or any other area that might pique your curiosity.  The collection of questions and answers will be posted on Friday, the designated day of belated celebration.

Thanks for the last two years; it’s been a helluva lot cheaper than therapy.

___________

* You can send questions anytime you like, they just won’t be in the anniversary post unless I get them before it goes live on Friday.   As time permits, I will update the post to include questions received after Friday.

** All emails will be treated as confidential unless you indicate otherwise.


Reader Question: What to Think When a Night Goes Sideways

25 May 2010

I recently received an email from a reader who wondered if I had seen a New York Times blog post about a sticky situation at a restaurant.

Short version of the story: Chef/Owner of an upscale Italian place in NYC’s TriBeCa neighborhood twice dressed-down an employee.  In full view of an awkward dining room, the chef’s volume was so high and tirade so vituperative and long that one guest, the author of the blog post, eventually went into the open kitchen to tell the chef that the yelling was ruining his experience.  Shortly thereafter, the chef went to guest’s table to apologize and explain that the yelling was in service of “maintaining quality.”  The guest dismissed this excuse because it was still “ruining [his] dinner.”  The party of four is asked/told to leave the restaurant.

The author of the blog post, Ron Lieber, went on to discuss the way he wished that he had handled the situation, the chef’s response when contacted for comment – no further apology was forthcoming – and asked about who was right, and how the readers would have behaved in either party’s shoes.

I’d really like to be unequivocally on Mr. Lieber’s side, but neither man has any claim to moral high ground.   The author stood up to a bully but only because that bully’s behavior had an impact on the author’s ability to enjoy a meal.  Yes, Mr. Lieber does belatedly acknowledge that the affair “conjured up the particular type of nausea that results from watching people yank their misbehaving kids around on the subway” but he does so almost as an aside to the repeated references to the fact that he “was paying to eat there” and that the abusive behavior was “ruining [his] dinner.”  Chef Forgione, for his part, was primarily angry because he felt disrespected in the presence of his employees.

When the essence of the debate pits “Please stop being emotionally abusive to your staff, it’s fucking with the taste of my fois gras” against “How dare you challenge my ability to emotionally abuse someone who depends upon me for his livelihood?” both parties share blame in the erosion of moral framework of restaurants in particular and society in general.

If we, as a society, cannot agree that this is emotional abuse and therefore categorically wrong* then my faith in our world is fundamentally misplaced.  When will we cease giving a pass to certain people because of their talent in culinary arts, or coaching football, or producing prodigious amounts of money?

Emotional terrorism is a poor excuse for leadership, ignoring it is to condone it, and celebrating it is nothing short of profane.  Abusive chefs aren’t charming, their tirades and assaults are not reasonable prices to be paid for their “genius,” and applauding or rewarding that behavior with more fame, more restaurants simply makes us all complicit in the whole sordid mess.

* potentially a reasonable case might be made for the intellectual and emotional manipulation in the armed services but I do not believe that it consistently rises to the point of abusive.


Sunday Morning Mashup

23 May 2010

I ran into the worst clients and most awful couple ever the other day.

I was taking advantage of a lovely afternoon and spent a few hours on the patio of one of my favorite swanky hotels.  My only table companions were a cigar, an open bottle of champagne, and Todd Kliman’s new book The Wild Vine.  Sam and Toni breezed by me on the way to their own table on the opposite side of the courtyard.  My first thoughts of gratitude for having gone unnoticed were soon eclipsed by dread when I saw them waving at me and beckoning me to come join them.

I knew I should have just ignored them, but I try to be civil even with people this obnoxious when they used to be clients.  There was mindless chitchat that lasted about two excruciatingly long minutes.  There was a request for me to check my schedule for availability to do a dinner party for them.  There was general obfuscating on my part.  Just after we were said our perfunctory and worthless goodbyes but before I had actually turned my body to walk away, Sam said “Say Refugee, Toni has allergy problems, you mind putting out your cigar.”

It was all statement, there was no trace of request or favor, and it was said through that smug and entitled smile.

I had no pithy comeback, no well timed soliloquy on their pernicious sense of privilege, I just stood for a pregnant moment, returned the entitled smile and said “Absofuckinglutely I would mind, have a good day.”

******

Artie Shaw would be celebrating his 100th birthday today.  He was a brilliant player of several reed instruments, a prolific composer and big band leader, and by just about every historical account, a really stand-up guy.  He also happened to be the first musician to put a black singer, Billie Holiday, in front of a white band… and toured the South no less.

His most famous recording is Begin the Beguine and is considered by anyone worth their dancing shoes to be among the greatest big band songs ever.  Go ahead and listen… I dare ya not to bop your head.


In Which I Maybe Should Have Gotten Punched for Saying the Wrong Thing

19 May 2010


If you get four wine people together and ask them one question, you’re likely to get at least seven different answers.  That’s half the fun of wine discussions – the nuance, the context, the arguments – I love it all.  The gratis wine and food certainly don’t hurt either.  Thus when I get invited to speak on panels or judge competitions, it takes very little to convince me to attend.

That is unless a particular pretend-journalist is also an invitee.  Teddy and I have known each other since we were both low level restaurant managers meeting after shifts to bitch about our tyrannical owners.  I got Teddy into my wine tasting group – his talent was experiential rather than academic but he had a natural facility with descriptions.

Eventually he parlayed that ability into starting his own website. His small but loyal following grew when he got a mention from a mid-major publication.  It was a “for fun project” that Teddy decided to make a for profit escape from restaurant life… he never really loved restaurants.  A few sponsors came and then he made the decision to get in bed with a consortium of wineries.

He began taking monies from questionable sources and giving great press to those sources… and making a living and a name for himself in the process.

It was a souring experience for me, Teddy knew it, and it functionally ended our acquaintanceship.  We would still see each other when he would occasional post at the late night places.  I may not have been the most cordial to him.

A couple of years ago we found ourselves on the same panel discussion about something obscure that might only matter to 0.2 people who read this.  It didn’t take long before the other people on the dais were just kind of watching us ping-pong increasingly personal points of disagreement.  At one point, I might have accused him of “possessing analysis that has all of the depth of a hair-root.”

Teddy may have retorted something along the lines of “At least people know who I am and what I stand for unlike you and your shaky credibility and flighty career moves.”

I am fairly certain that I responded with “Yes, Teddy, we all know exactly what you are; the only debate is about the price.”

Surprisingly, there were no punches thrown.  Not surprisingly, we have never appeared together since.


In Which I Almost Get into a Fight with a 15 Year Old

18 May 2010


One of the best parts of running my own business is that I rarely have to commute during the busiest time periods.  I generally avoid the trains packed with commuters or too loud with teenagers.  A recent Thursday was an exception.

A couple of stations after I boarded three high school boys entered the train.  They sat in a manner that selfishly occupied more space than they needed, and conversed in a volume that selfishly included everyone in their profanity laced conversation.  F-Bombs and N-Bombs flowed like some of the crap that passes for hip hop these days.

Had I been listening to my mp3 player, I might have just cranked the volume, and swallowed my tongue for the next four stops.  Had they not been wearing gear from my high school alma mater, I might have tried harder to ignore them.

From my position, I only had to rotate a few degrees to face the “Alpha” of the group.

“I know you” I began in a tone that older black men get to use with younger versions of ourselves when they’re “acting-up” and know it.  “Yeah, I know exactly who you are.  You’re fake-tough.  You see, I can tell by the way you speak – pronouncing your G’s a little too carefully, dropping an SAT word here and there – I know you’re not really tough. I know that you sprinkle your expletives from some desire to sound how you think tough kids sound.  It rings especially fake considering your private school uniforms… from a place where I was a student 20 years ago.

“I went to school with guys like you, hell I even tried that fake-tough language once or twice.  But now’s the time you really need to stop, not just because you embarrass yourself and our school with all this phony and foul language around little kids and women.  By the by, it might fool some of the people into thinking you’re not fake-tough, but not me.  Nah, you need to stop now because fake-tough only leads to two things: trouble at home and school, and getting your ass kicked because you tried your fake-tough routine with someone who’s actually tough.

“So let’s just quit this whole farcical charade, shall we.”

I could see the adrenaline and decision making in his eyes – his pride was wounded and he possessed no easy retorts.  I had no regrets about my message or its tone, I do wish I had said all of it in a more private manner, giving him the option of a more graceful surrender before his friends.  To make his decision easier, I finished with “You know I’m right, and you should also know that I have your football coach and principal on my speed dial.”

The trio exited two stops later.  On their way off the train, the “Alpha” made some vaguely insulting comment about my suit being “busted.”

A woman who was standing not too far from me and had witnessed the whole interaction leaned towards me and said “some lessons are hard to learn.”

I laughed a bit before replying “He learned the lesson alright; he might have said my suit was busted, but notice that he didn’t curse when he said it?”


Didn’t Know about the Protruding Nail Until I Walked into a Hammer Shop

17 May 2010

In the black community, the Barbershop has long been the great equalizer, a faucet tap for the social consciousness, and a place where all manner of cultural, educational, and professional differentiation are brought low by the common need to get a haircut and discuss the problems of the world while doing so.  For the better part of the last 70 years, it didn’t matter if you lived in the toniest of areas, worked in the most gilded of towers, black men still needed to go back to their metaphorical Harlems to get a cut.

The bankers would wait next to the bus drivers.  The lawyers would talk sports with the restaurant cooks.  The professors would share space with the guys who were students of the streets.  It would make for excellent networking opportunities if discussing one’s occupation wouldn’t violate one of the more inviolable rules of barbershop etiquette: work talk usually means you’re bragging, being uppity, an asshole or all three.

The unwritten rules are complicated, filled with exemptions, and new ones can be added by the singular consent of the guy with the scissors.

And I had no idea how much I had missed it all.

For the past year or so, I have been getting my cuts from a lovely woman who doesn’t work in a traditional barbershop… actually Sydney operates from a beauty salon that caters mostly to Latin American women.  The conversations I could hear were mostly in Spanish and the ones in English were unfamiliar to me at best and of the “men-need-to-steer-clear” variety at worst.  Recently work has kept me from my normal every three weeks schedule and I was at least ten days overdue.

Dear non-black-male readers, I know that every three weeks may seem a bit excessive to you.  I know that some of you may also be wondering “but your hair’s so short why would it matter?”  The answer is within both of the questions.  Because my hair is closely cropped, it doubles in length in 21 days.  If your hair grew twice as long as you prefer to keep it, you might be sprinting to the shop too.

I walked into my backup barbershop a couple of days ago because I still couldn’t get an appointment with Sydney.  I sat for about 90 minutes as the entirety of the shop partook of conversation about the NBA Playoffs, President Obama, DC elections, Strivers Row, and a few more things I cannot recall.  Some of the talk was serious, some of it got called out as ‘barbershop woofing’, but all of it was a social balm.  There’s a “No Profanity” sign on the wall – it seems irrelevant because there is a varnish of reverence at all old-school shops.  We would no sooner curse here than we would in a church undercroft.

The cut wasn’t quite as tight, and surely didn’t feel as good absent the scalp and neck massage that I get from Sydney.  But I certainly don’t get the same visceral needs met with her.  As much as I made a big deal about finding Sydney, I think it’s time for me to tell her that we need to have an open relationship.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 236 other followers