Hello, is this thing still on?

19 December 2010

While dining in a well regarded Manhattan eatery last week, I was stunned by the multitude of avoidable errors that this place made. Sure the food was good, maybe even very good, but there were so many decorative and service missteps that I had a difficult time focusing on my meal and the potential employers sitting across from me (yes, there is a chance that I may be moving to NYC; and no, I cannot discuss it here though I wish I could.)

As much as I hate giving away advice that I would normally be compensated to provide, the experience at that place prompted me to share:

Ten Common and Avoidable Misteaks Restauranteurs Make

  1. Cheap toilet tissue in expensive restaurants is incongruous but surprisingly common; it personifies the phrase “penny wise, pound foolish.”
  2. No one looks good under harsh lighting, please stop using it.
  3. If your restaurant lacks a mission statement, you’re doing it wrong.
  4. Seriously? You’ve heard about this for about a decade; how can you still not have hooks under the bar?
  5. Coco Chanel once said “that in order to be irreplaceable, one must be different.” The same thing applies to restaurants.
  6. The irreplaceable Ms. Chanel also suggested that a lady should always get dressed and then remove one thing before leaving the house. With the proliferation of overly constructed cuisine, the same should be said of every dish before it leaves the kitchen.
  7. Superlative service costs the exact same as mediocre service, why must so many places countenance the latter rather than seeking the former?
  8. Brag through your food, not on the printed menu. When menus are written boastfully, they make everyone more inclined to seek flaws in equal measure to flavor.
  9. Call your own restaurants frequently and from outside lines, you would be surprised by the dearth of telephone civility.
  10. No music on the website, use a minimal amount of flash, ensure that the hours, address & phone number are on every page, and answer your email.

p.s. Yes, I really did think that “misteaks” part was funny.


Recent Restaurant Recaps

14 October 2010

Just in case you were wondering if the inverse relationship between the quality of a restaurant’s view and the quality of their food still holds true, a recent (and forced visit) to the Charthouse in Old Town confirmed it. Over cooked and generally flavorless fish next to an over-priced and uninspired wine list was paired with indifferent service to leave me with the feeling that they are content to being in the league of vapid restaurants so long as the proximity to water and tourists keeps their coffers filled.

And because sometimes piling-on is entirely appropriate… their website commits two cardinal sins: music, and failing to have the address on the homepage. When will restauranteurs learn?

*******

Screwtop Wine Bar – I may be in the minority, but I’m not wowed by this place. The truffled popcorn they serve, gratis, at the bar is addictive, the ambiance is spare but charming, and the cheeses are very carefully sourced. However, if you’re a wine bar, what else should be the primary metric for evaluation? On this note, three recent visits have left me underwhelmed with both the wine list and the knowledge of the staff. Screwtop is a lovely place to spend the early part of an evening if you’re in that area, and you already know your way around a winelist, but I don’t expect to make a special trip in the near future. Not to pile on, but when a bartender flirts with my date when I go to the lieu, as the twitter kids would say #youredoingitwrong.

*******

Grand Cru Wine Bar – I adore their pricing model (retail wine shop with negligible corkage fees for wines purchased) and this is one of the more comfortable urban(ish) patios. However, their menu is in desperate need of an editor as it is fairly well stocked with items they do not execute well. This remains a lovely place to wile away an evening (especially when the weather cooperates) with a bottle of wine. When you get hungry, however, stick with the items they don’t cook (cheese and charcuterie) or the things they cook the least (salads and smoked salmon.)

*******

The three month old Chesapeake Room is a very well appointed space and an attractive addition to Barracks Row. The menu and cooking are, unfortunately, consistent with the general one-notch-above-mediocrity of the bustling lower 8th street area. Two brunches and dinner there were all culinarily flawed in some manner – over-salted or under-salted, sloppily plated, dull flavor combinations, and the like. As they’re still getting their kitchen legs beneath them, I am happy to give them additional chances… but mostly for drinking.

*******

Maddy’s is a Bar & Grille that has no illusions about being something other than that. Their food, however, is a lot better than it needs to be. With meaty and well seasoned wings, a good selection of sandwiches (all will leave some jus running down your fingers in a very satisfying and homey way,) an outstanding beer program, and a staff of pros who make you feel like a regular from your very first visit, I happily place Maddy’s on my list of favorite bars in the city.

*******

And on a final note… Dear Restaurant Owners & Managers, please teach your staff that an “I don’t know, let me check” is always preferable to weaving some nonsense from whole-cloth and unicorn tears.



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.


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.


Missing My Mentor, Drinking to My Mentor

7 March 2010
I’ve never done any research on this, but I suspect that anyone who bothers to keep a journal could lose an entire afternoon reading through a randomly found old one.
X
Earlier today I was perusing an old OpenTable database looking for the aliases a prominent food critic to pass them to a friend who is about to open a restaurant.  All of the notes that we recorded about our guests read like the well worn pages of a journal chronicling a particularly lovely, enthralling, and more than occasionally difficult part of my life.
X
My jaw landed on the table when I reached the note about one of my wine mentors who happened to be a regular.  The grief I felt the day I learned of his death two years ago came rushing back.  Then I began to think of his incredible generosity  – with his time, knowledge, experience, and, yes, his wine too.
X
TJ would call me the mornings of his reservations and in an almost conspiratorial tone, he would tell me about some spectacular bottle with an impossible to find combination of vintage and winery.  He would drop it off before the opera and give me precise instructions on its opening – “OK, Refugee, crack it about 3; at 5, give it a taste and decant it if you think it’s ready; you’re gonna wanna taste it again ’round 8 and maybe double-decant it then but probably no later than 9:30 or so.”
X
He would arrive about 10:30 adorned with a smile as big as a Pagliacci grin… but real.  “Did ya like that wine, Refugee” he would ask despite knowing that it was nothing short of sublime; and we would talk wine in the bar for a few minutes before taking him to a table.  I always learned more during his 90 minute meal than I did in any 90 minutes of my sommelier courses and that was only from the random two minute bursts of conversation peppered with wine talk.
X
One night he walked into the restaurant – solo and without reservation as he often did during the week – and placed a winicorn* bottle on the bar.
X
“Refugee, it’s been a really shitty day, you know what we do on really great or really crappy days right” he asked with his usual ebullience  – it was classic MT; he loved life so much that even bad days were reason to be happy.
X
I replied with the philosophy learned from him, “Exceptional wines are for days that are exceptionally good or exceptionally shitty.”
X
“Damn right! Get a coupla glasses and have a drink with an old man.”
X
We were about halfway through our glasses when TJ rhetorically asked “Do you know why I come here, why we do this?”
X
Knowing him well enough to know that he would answer his own question, I just took another sip to fill the beat before he continued.
X
“There’s enough crappy sommeliers ‘round here with enough hoity-toity pretentious bullshit to fill every Tastevin** in the world.  You’re not like that, your staff’s isn’t like that, and I figure if I can help a young somm be better, and have some fun in the process, well… well, that just makes the wine world a better place.”
X
With that, he drained the rest of his glass and said “I gotta run, a few more bartenders*** to say hello to tonight; share the rest with your guys at the end of the night.”
X
The night TJ died I went to one of my favorite restaurants with one of the best bottles in my cellar.  I had a glass with my friend, the manager; I told him about MT.  I asked him to share the rest of the bottle with his staff.
X
I am pretty sure that someone bartender will be hearing a few TJ stories this evening… and drinking really well later.
X
X
X
* refers to some impossible to find bottle, usually very small production and about as much cash as a mortgage payment.
X
** refers to the ceremonial cup awarded to people who have been admitted to the International Court of Sommeliers
X
*** in TJ vernacular, “every time a great bartender becomes a manager a little piece of [his] soul dies.”  There is no higher compliment that he gave to managers than to call him/her a bartender.

Recent Recaps from Your Friendly Restaurant Refugee

3 March 2010

Congratulations to all of the local nominees for the James Beard Awards.  There is no greater honor than to be recognized in this august group. It is my hope that each of the finalists enjoys this time.

******

Café Soleil isn’t on the radar of most members of the DC epicurean scene.  I am not about to suggest that anyone needs to rush to get there, but it is a place that is worthy of some attention.

The menu itself reads just like that of any French bistro… well anywhere.  Roast Chicken, Steak Frites, Onion Soup, Short Ribs, standard salads, and a burger would not be confused with cutting edge anywhere.  However, the food is solid… if unremarkable.  The gracious service and generous happy hour are worth noting.  Five dollar glasses of pleasant wine, house cocktails, and three dollar beers make this smallish, comfortably elegant bar a rather pleasant place to wait out a Metro delay, have a quick not-overly-committal first date,  or just spend a couple of hours boozing with friends after work.  If you get hungry while you’re there, the food may not inspire, but it surely won’t disappoint.

******

Eatonville* was not my idea for a low-key birthday dinner with a group of five friends.  However, when invited for a celebratory repast, one accepts or declines and does so graciously.  The menu at Eatonville is very reasonably priced and reads like the offerings of a really good diner.  When our food arrived, it was solid, perhaps even good when measured against their wallet friendly pricing.  Unfortunately the service was comically bad.  From the time we were seated to encountering our server and ordering our drinks, felt like ten minutes.  I hadn’t checked my watch so I cannot be sure, but it was long enough for me to note the time of our order – two beers and a bottle of wine.  Drinks took 16 minutes.  At this point it became a bit of a game to me.  40 minutes before ordering our food. Over an hour from the time we sat at the table to the appetizers emerging.  Of the ten total plates, only three arrived at their correct location.  15 minutes after everyone completed their first course before plates where cleared.

At one point during the evening, I excused my self – ostensibly to use the wash closet, but really to find a manager to explain my dissatisfaction with our perpetually empty glasses, delayed and not quite hot food, and general unhappiness.  The host couldn’t be bothered to find a manager for me.  By the time we were ready for our check – because we were late for a show for which we should have been incredibly early – we just paid and left.

The part of this that galls me most is that I swore off Eatonville after a similar experience many months earlier. I sent an email to the owner, general manager, and a couple other people.  It went unanswered.  So, fool me twice, and I feel like the worst kind of fool.

******

In some ways the people who opened Cedar Crossing Café** and Wine Bar no more than ten yards from the end of the Takoma Metro station, had a pathetically low bar to hurdle on their path to success.  In an area that has plenty of cash (in that zip code, median home value is well north of $500K and well north of the city average,) there is a conspicuous absence of actual restaurants.  The ones that do exist are largely a place for sustenance rather than cuisine, and the bars… well that’s a wholly pathetic subject unto itself.

A wine bar and café really just had to not trip over their own prep list and they would be moved to the top of the heap.

Since they opened a couple of months ago, and I have been in a few times, I have been impressed by the fact that they actually take their wine program seriously AND still manage to keep their price per glass under $10 on average.  In a city filled with wine bars where a c-note is the usual price of a first date, a well sourced and reasonably priced winelist is a significant accomplishment in itself.

Despite the positives about the wine list, I wish that I had more than tepid feelings about this place.  The very solid winelist, more than respectable stemware, and mostly impressive beer program, do not entirely mitigate the concerns.  As soon as you enter, you will be stung by the impact of their poor ventilation – upon leaving, place all of your clothes in the dry cleaning pile.  The menus and wine lists are printed on crappy paper that isn’t as sturdy as the carry-out next door uses – it just feels cheap.  While the food is also reasonably priced, it is inconsistently prepared at best.  A well seasoned sandwich might be teamed with a green salad drowning in oil but absent salt.  The same soup might be lovely one night and barely recognizable the next.

They’re still new and Cedar Crossing is staying on my list and I remain optimistic about their success.  Rough around the edges in an area where people are starved for anything better than places with barbed wire for edges is still a tactical advantage.  Besides that, the winelist is pretty damn good… so’s the beer… and the Manhattan too.  Maybe I can live with the dry cleaning bill and eat beforehand?

******

* I will not link out of pure spite and for the collective awfulness endured

** No link available… which concerns me on their behalf


How High the Moon

1 March 2010

It’s Friday night and I had a familiar perch for such an evening, a bar stool.  This barstool however, was in Chicago where I was summoned for an urgent meeting with a new client.  Two stacks of paper and my shiny new netbook, whose name is Ava, are open in front of me.  I tucked into this Lincoln Park bar mostly because there seemed to be plenty of space to lay out my work, and the bartender had an easy smile about her.

Just about the time that I finished my Manhattan a couple of women, who would have gotten noticed even if they were not two of only a few people in the place and a gust of cold air had followed them in the door, entered the bar and took residence a few feet from me.  Their interaction with the bartender suggested that they were regulars if not friends with her.  Without ordering, two glasses of wine appeared on the bar.

I’m mostly ignoring my beer while scribbling notes, clicking keys, and reading reports when one of the women looks in my direction and said “It’s Friday night, why are you still working?”

I took a pausing breath before responding, “Well, I’m in town for work, and there’s still work to be done… being here is better than the service bar in my hotel.”

“Didn’t think you were from here – Chicago guys don’t work on a Friday night.”

A few more random lines were bandied to and fro but they went back to their wine, and I went back to my work after a minute or so.

Just after 8pm my Crackberry buzzed.  I was dumbstruck by the message.  I must have read it four or five times before I exclaimed “Wow” far louder than intended.

“Care to share?” the woman sitting closest to me asked.

This was one of those moments when you have to tell somebody so I just told these two women I was certain I would never see again*.  “So, I write this anonymous blog… well mostly anonymous as I have met a few people through it, but that’s not really germane.  Through the blog, I invented a holiday last week, International Crush Day, dedicated to declaring crushes.  I wrote a blog post declaring a few of my crushes.  I wrote that I crush on Katty Kay because ‘smart with a British accent just sounds better.’”

“You mean Katty Kay from NPR?” one of the women asked.

“From NPR, and the BBC and newspapers, and the Meet the Press, and bunch of other stuff too” I replied.

“Yeah, she is pretty hot” the ladies concurred.

“Well she, Katty Kay for the love of bacon, just left a comment on my blog, and frankly, I’m a little school-girl giddy about it.”

Andi and Monica spent the next hour or so peppering me with questions about the blog.  We spent the next four hours drinking, eating, letting the place fill around us, and talking about whatever, but I was still floating on the notion that one of my famous crushes bothered to send me a message.

* I’ve seen them both again… and just might see them a bit more, but I’ll tell that story tomorrow.


And the R-Cubies Go To…

29 December 2009

Shameless Solipsism and a Couple of Wet Kisses have arrived in the form of the first annual (probably never do this again, but whatever) Restaurant Refugee Rewards or R-Cubes for short.  They are a collection of some of the posts of the last twelve months that had particular meaning to me, or got me in trouble, or simply had subjects that lent themselves to making another joke.  There are also a few other people’s work receiving awards today – though not nearly as many people as should get them so there maybe another installment of this tomorrow.

And the R-Cubies go to…

The Carrie Prejean Award for Pretty but Vapid Restaurants goes to Bar Dupont.

The What Would Happen If Dr. Ruth Looked Like Ginger Award for Sexpert Advice in the blogosphere goes to City Girl Blogs.

The Hallmark Award for Best Invention of a Holiday goes to National Crush Day

The Carl Lewis Sings the National Anthem Award for Shoulda Stuck to What you Know goes to All of my Attempts to Write Memes – Except this one which I thought was really good.

The James Lipton Award for Seemingly Simple but Terrifically Textured Questions goes to Megabrooke of Skrinkering Hearts who asked me “How Much is Too Much” in that interview meme that was going around at the beginning of the year.

The Infield Fly Rule Award for things you Should Know but Maybe Didn’t goes to Advice for Black Tie Galas and Capitol Hill Style’s Ball Tips and Tricks for Ladies that inspired it.

The Cowbell Award for Things I Need More of goes to Jimmy & Sophia.

The Urban Dictionary Award for Teaching me my Favorite New Phrase, Skin-Hungry, goes to I’m Gonna Break Your Heart.

The Oscar Wilde Award for Booze as Creative Lubricant goes to My Weekend as Three Rounds of Jeopardy.

The Max Roach Award for Consistently Leaving Comments Better than the Post that Inspired Them goes to my friend Brad.

The Joe Isuzu Award for Forcing Me to Be Creative with Truth goes to the Unnamed Woman Who Inspired This Post.

The Sarah Silverman Award for my Favorite New Funny and Irreverent Blogger goes to –The Fooler Initiative–.

The Don Imus Award for Unintentionally Causing Controversy goes to The Open Letter to a Few Women and the Subsequent Follow-Up.

The Snuggie Award for Ideas that Seemed Fun Conceptually but in Reality Not So Much… goes to Blog Reader Bingo.

The If Dr. Phil Wasn’t Such a Tool Award for Good Advice Given goes to A Guide to Fighting Fairly.

The Jennifer Tilly Award for Fiction Inspired by both Women and Poker goes to Playing Poker with an Old Foe.

The Donald & Ivanka Trump Award for Being Married to Each Other and Not Inflicting Themselves on Anyone Else goes to Sam & Toni.


RR-20: The Initial List

11 November 2009

There is a new feature here that may be helpful only to you locals, but I am happy to present the RR-20.

It is a list of 20 places where I happily will spend cash at any moment.  They aren’t necessarily what I consider the best restaurants in DC and the surrounding area (though at least ten would make that list;) but they are the ones that I implicitly trust with my evenings, afternoons, and well… money.    I trust them to always be exactly what I expect them to be which is a terrific hamburger, sublime fine dining, very good sushi or anything in between.

There is certainly a bias towards places in the city (leaving the city requires more trust than going around the corner) and places that can accommodate my preferences for dining at the bar.

I am still working on a more expansive version of this list with brief reviews/summaries of what to expect at each, but I’ve wanted to incorporate this list as a component of the blog for a long time.  It will be a moveable feast with frequent additions, subtractions, and may grow by another 10 names, but this is the initial RR20.


No Statute of Limitations

6 November 2009

My second to last high school football game was the single best half of football I played in my high school or college career.  We were playing one of our more heated rivals on their field.

As a defensive back, one of my favorite plays called for a corner blitz – we ran it three times.  Two quarterback sacks, and a tackle for a loss left our rivals in a pretty deep hole.  Of the eight passes the QB was able to throw, I intercepted two and my teammates grabbed two more.  On his way to the locker room for halftime, he blew a kiss to his girlfriend… I’m pretty sure we picked that off too.

The starters sat most of the second half.  We didn’t blitz on defense, or pass the ball on offense, but the final score was still 57 – 6.  Did I mention that it was their Homecoming Weekend? Yeah, it was a pretty severe beatdown.

I hadn’t thought about that day or that quarterback in a very long time.  When I walked into what I hoped would be the last meeting to ink a potential client, I still hadn’t thought about that day.  When I was introduced to their attorney, neither his name nor face rang any bells for me.

I went through my entire presentation, explained the myriad ways that I could help them launch a more successful restaurant.  As the attorney asked what my hometown was, I assumed it was just a question about my local ties to the restaurant community.  When he asked about my high school, I assumed that our paths must have crossed somewhere.

When he asked me if I played football, I was still unclear about where the conversation was headed.  He finally told me about that day, told me that we “beat [them] like a drum.” When he concluded with “we’ll call you,” I was pretty sure that call would be incomplete.


Culinary Dispatches from the Restaurant Refugee

3 November 2009

I’ve been to Restaurant 3 once more than their name and have been a little more impressed each time – the one time I had dinner being an exception.  Judging by the largely empty dining room and mostly full bar on my latest visit, I think the place is received mostly as a place for noshing and sipping rather than dining.  The good news is that they do a very solid job with filling that elegant but unpretentious niche in North Arlington.  Their wine list is approachable and affordable with many selections under $60 per bottle and several glasses under $10 (I am depending upon memory because incomprehensibly their website lacks both by the glass listings and prices – note to restaurateurs: that’s a huge party foul.)

As one would expect from a place where the bar is far better than the tables, the starters / bar menu are better than the entrées.  The Blue Cheese Potato Chips are guilty pleasure of the highest order – housemade chips served warm with melted blue cheese and big bits of bacon are irresistible.  The Mussels aren’t the best in the area, but they might be the best of any place that doesn’t specialize in them.  Steamed in beer and gussied up with Andouille sausage (according to the menu and the website, but they tasted more of spicy Italian to my palate.)  Short Rib Quesadillas might be the best example of Restaurant 3’s displayed, if not explicitly stated, mission and their most frequent miss.  In an attempt to make the mundane more interesting and elegant, they’ve dressed common bar food with a more engaging ingredient but they lose some of the charm of the Short Rib.  The tasty and tender are there, but the succulence of the meat is slightly overwhelmed by the gooey cheese.  The same is true of the Lettuce Wraps that are served with “slow roasted duck” (actually duck confit) that is marred with too little salt.  Given their exceedingly reasonable pricing, solid wine and beer program, and pretty good food, the occasional miss when they aim high is more than forgivable, it’s appreciated.

*******

One recent Thursday night I was driven from an unnamed Westend bar by too loud techno music that was inconsistent with the promised Sinatra Night that enticed me there.  My guests and I quickly decamped to Firefly which I had been eager to revisit after hearing good things about their newish chef.

We took a table in the dining room and went through a couple of courses, and a couple bottles of wine.  Little Bacon Meatballs over Potato “Spaghetti” with Olive Oil and Tomato Sauce had textural problems – it was powdery, and a little bland.  The Yellofin Tuna BLT had conceptual problems.  The strip of tuna was perfectly cooked, but so thin (maybe ¼ inch after cooking) that it was destined to be overwhelmed by the other flavors in the sandwich.  The only vegetarian entrée, a mushroom and [insert vegetable I cannot recall] casserole was just “eh” as described by my tablemates.  That lack of enthusiasm described my feelings towards the entirety of the shared meal.  It was just boring, made worse by the fact that the service was lackluster and not a single manager-type touched the table to inquire about our satisfaction (nor did the server check after the first couple of bites.)

*******

A Few Closing Thoughts:

While drinking with a former colleague who now runs one of DC’s nicer dining rooms, he told me about a problem they’ve had recently in their bar area.  Two purses have been stolen in the last couple of months.  This is not the kind of place where people would typically expect such things.  As a friend, I won’t name the place; but a public warning for increased vigilance and caution is warranted.

Advice to Restaurateurs: Stop using cheap toilet paper – it doesn’t save money, women hate it, and it just makes you look cheap.

If you have a jukebox in DC, there may not be a law requiring you to have at least one song by Chuck Brown, but maybe there should be.

Perhaps the only substantive culinary contribution Pizza Hut has ever made is the Priazzo*.  It was a true pizza pie that was made in a 1 ½ inch deep pie pan with a layer of pizza dough on bottom, sauce, cheese, and multiple ingredients in the middle, and topped with another layer of dough, more sauce and more cheese.  It was bliss of the highest order and nothing like a pedestrian stuffed pizza.  Surely there is a pizza joint or Italian place in the area that wants to bring this dish back.  I’m looking at you Pizzeria Paradiso, Matchbox, Coppi’s, Two Amy’s, and Pete’s.

* watch the YouTube video of the original commercials from the 80s for a visual description of the brilliance


Easier Than I Thought… I am, That Is

15 October 2009

It was an apple crisp night with stiletto rain falling – the kind of evening possessed with an inherent romance like a train ride to NYC, or farmer’s market Sundays.  I had watched the sky grow darker and the rain colder from the comfort of a heated and covered patio.  The surrealism of watching the elements but not being among them was augmented by the strange introspection I’d been feeling all day.  After finishing my newspapers, a couple of bourbons, and most of one of my favorite cigars, I decided I needed to change the scenery.

Within thirty yards, there was the Metro, a bus, and a cab each of which would have conveniently ferried me to my next destination; but I was in a mood to walk.

I am one of those people that some of you hate (for a host of reasons I am sure, but I reference just one) who carries a rather large umbrella.  Four blocks into my walk I hadn’t poked any eyes or other body parts.  Waiting at a stop light a woman comes to the right of my extended cover.  My mind flashed back to one of LiLu’s moments.  I raised my umbrella and tried to find my most non-threatening voice before saying “Happy to share.”

“Thank you, I’m tired of getting wet” she replied as she moved closer to me before continuing “Uhmm, that didn’t come out right.”

“I think were fine; I know what you intended” I countered as we both laughed a polite laugh.

Not wishing to be rude, I ditched the nub of a cigar still smoldering in my left hand.  We walked for a couple of blocks making the kind of awkward small talk that strangers thrown together by circumstance are prone to make.  At another stop light she faces me and says “I think I know you.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“Yeah, I think we’ve met before – you look really familiar.”

“I have to confess that I can be pretty bad with names and faces sometimes, so it’s quite possible – I’m Refugee; nice to meet you.”

“Now I know we’ve met because I had a feeling that was your name… oh, sorry, I’m Jade” she said with more animation than was required.

Given my history in these kinds of moments – I once introduced myself to a bartender I fired – I avoided the “how do we know each other” type of conversation while running though my mental rolodex trying to place our meeting.  We continued having conversation lite for another few blocks until landing in the general area of our destinations.

“Can I buy you a drink to thank you for keeping me dry?” Jade asked while pointing toward the entrance of a nearby watering hole.

Before I had a chance to answer the questions I should have resolved in my head before giving a reply, I heard myself say “It would be my pleasure”.

We had made our way to the back of the bar, got settled and ordered drinks before Jade excused herself to “freshen up.”

There was a beer waiting for her when she returned. I raised my glass to toast, but Jade interrupted with “I need to tell you how I know you.”

“OK, but shall we toast first so we can have a drink while you talk?”

“Cheers, then” Jade said.  “Let me be honest and tell you that I figured it out before I suggested that we have a drink.”

For some reason, I felt a sudden tension in my back like I was about to hear the worst of the scenarios I had conjured in my head.  “Go on” was all I could muster.

“That last couple of blocks I realized that I only kinda know you, and by kinda, I mean not really.  My friend who writes a blog knows you and she knows that I read your blog so she showed me your picture one day… I hope that’s not too weird.”

It was just a bit weird, but I kept my half-formulated thoughts to myself for the moment.  “It’s a touch off putting, but let’s not worry about it” I mostly truthfully declared.

Over the next hour and change, Jade and I had a rather pleasant conversation that only partly felt like an interview.  What follows are the more interesting interview questions and the ones that I think a few more people might want to know:

Why do you blog anonymously? When I started the blog the impetus might have been otherwise but I always suspected that I would write about restaurants.  There is an unwritten rule that restaurant professionals don’t criticize other restaurants publicly.  Given that I might get back into the business one day, and the nature of my current business I have to blog anonymously, though as evidenced by your friend with the picture, I haven’t always been so good at maintaining my anonymity.

That last post of yours was, uhmm, well you know what it was.  If you’ve got that kind of chemistry with her why aren’t you with her? That post was pure fiction – pretty sure I labeled it that way – and was just something I wrote to exercise some prose.  I’ve done it before… and, no, I won’t say if it was inspired by anyone or anything in particular.

Have you ever dated people you’ve met through your blog? A couple, and not sure if either was a good idea in retro(or current)spect. Though, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t do it again.  In a way, I think that meeting people whose thoughts you’ve read for a while is better than most of the random ways people meet.

Do you go out as often as it seems from reading your blog? Not sure how best to answer that question… sometimes yes, others no.  Part of what I do for a living requires me to be very social, and I certainly enjoy it.  At the same time, I enjoy staying home sometimes.  Fuck that sounded like I’m answering a question for a dating profile.

Are you ever going to finish that story about the night with the limo and the ball? I want to, I’ve tried to, I just hate the way the words are arranged on the page.  For some reason I just can’t seem to write about it in a way that makes me happy.  I know the point of it, the arc of it; I just can’t seem to tell it.

Are you going to write about meeting me tonight? Whaddayou think?


Mini Reviews: Recent Restaurant Recaps

30 September 2009

Yes, I know that I owe you all Part II to this story, but I’ve been a bit too lazy busy to finish writing it.  Until that happens, I am cleaning taking this post from the drafts and making it live.  Mini Restaurant Reviews and a couple of updates:

I have previously written that The Reef offers food that is “better than it has to be” given the fact that most people consider this a great place for consuming copious amounts of high quality beer.  That assumption changed with my two most recent visits.  The always dependable bison burger was grossly over cooked and generally lacking in juiciness.  The mac n’ cheese that accompanied the burger was simply bad on every level.  I know The Reef is committed to using high quality ingredients, but this cheese tasted like it could have come from a can.  Salt was conspicuously absent, as was an appropriate amount of cream.  Two bites seemed to be calories and cash wasted.

The muscles were even more problematic.  The first bowl arrived with five of eleven shellfish closed.  I sent it back, and they graciously prepared another – with a shocking four of eleven closed.  The fact that a bowl of muscles arrives with less than a dozen is problematic in and of itself, when better than a third are closed is a food safety issue and one that anyone who gets paid to serve food to the public should notice… especially the second time.  Still atop my list for beer, Sunday-Funday, and casual rooftop dining, but the Reef is off the food list.

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Speaking of dining in Adams Morgan, there are many factors which make that neighborhood’s culinary landscape difficult for restaurants to navigate, most notably is the general and normally accurate perception that good food is not easily found there and even when it is discovered, that it doesn’t rise to a level that compensates for the congestion, limited parking, and weekend party goers.  Evolve may not shatter that perception but they certainly challenge it.  I have dined there three times in recent months and each time found very satisfying and homey dishes.  The lamb burger was perfectly cooked, densely packed, and has a bun that sops and shines.  The French Fries are clearly dusted with some illicit and addictive substance because I couldn’t stop eating them and in what may be the highest compliment given to a French Fry – they’re really tasty even when cold.  Calamari comes with a crispy shell and tender interior with just the right amount of chewy.

Evolve may not be a place worthy of destination designation, but if you’re in the area, want a place to have a couple of drinks and nosh, it does that very well.

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Frank Ruta is a James Beard Award Winning Chef, Palena is a top five choice in the Washingtonian Best of List, and both may somehow still be underrated.  All of this makes me extremely conflicted when I dine there and order the Roast Chicken and the Truffled Cheeseburger, but that conflict didn’t stop me a couple of weeks ago.  Add the fry plate, and a delightfully cheeky rosé and it was a perfect late summer dinner.

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Some restaurants may find it a backhanded compliment to refer to them as a “light” version of another place, but when I refer to New Heights as Palena-Light I mean that in the most flattering sense of the phrase.  Chef Logan Cox is serving intricate and very precise food without pretense or affectation.  On my latest visit, I constructed a meal of three small plates and each was more delicious than the one it preceded.   House Smoked Salmon with a red onion chutney was silken in texture and a lovely foil for my glass of sparkling rosé.  The Fried Risotto Cake was creamy, cheesy, Arborio perfection.  I was a bit hesitant to order the Braised Pork Belly, Mussels & Octopus soup as that dish seemed more appropriate for cold weather dining, but the bartender gave me a knowing look when I mentioned this dish. I was not disappointed.  It was rich without being heavy.  The fat of the pork was nicely rendered, and the whole thing was balanced with a broth that had its share of smoke.  Finishing my meal with a five cheese board (for a preposterously low price of eleven dollars) that was served at the right temperature made me want to do my happy dance.

My one complaint: The option to order half glasses of wine would have been really nice.


A Path to Seeing Colors

4 September 2009

Relationship red flags can be as heavy as feather against the skin, or as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head.  The ones I ignored on the way to the altar were so glaring that when I drove past the bank in Dupont Circle, instead of the time and temperature the sign would flash “Refugee, Don’t Do It!”

Given that history, I normally have a more sensitive flagometer than most.  Being an hour late for a first date should have sent it into the “back the fuck away zone.”  Displaying the fallacy of “as comfortable at a black tie affair as a dive bar” should have been another.  But I sat through it anyway.

The School Administrator and I had plans to meet at the hip new wine bar that proved to be too hip to make me a drink for 15 minutes.  I decided that going next door to a very solid dive bar and updating SA via text message was the better way to salvage an evening.  Forty-five minutes later my date’s disagreement with my assessment was palpable.

“We don’t have to stay here; I just didn’t want to stew in my own juices next door” I said after the perfunctory “hellos” and “you look greats.”

A short cab ride later we faced each other from the opposite deep backed chairs at the Ritz Carlton.  It was yet another moment of failed logic.

We were two manhattans and two spectacularly overrated glasses of champagne into the evening when my cerebral clouds parted.  SA was neither Vicky Vale to whom to show any bat caves, a unicorn to chase, nor a windmill at which to tilt.

“SA, I think I should call it a night.”

“It’s so early; are you sure? I don’t see a second date after a first that’s so… er, short.”

“I think we’ll both be ok with that.  Let’s just call it the gift of obviousness.”


Patios, Roofs, and Balcony’s… Oh My.

28 July 2009

The Hotel Washington’s spectacularly unremarkable roof top bar and the newly renovated Point of View share the same stunning views of DC.  The drinks, cuisine and the décor have been updated and upgraded.  Sadly, mediocre service is still a component of this place.  Lines to enter are frustratingly long (even though I don’t wait in them) and woefully mismanaged.  Bartenders and cocktail servers are possessed with haughty pretentions that seem to expect a guest’s gratitude for their admittance.  With a round of drinks for my group of three being north of sixty dollars (including tax and gratuity,) I became even less enamored of this place where too many people wear sunglasses past the point of need, and take themselves far too seriously.

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About a half a mile away from P.O.V. is another newish rooftop hotel bar, the SkyBar at the Beacon Hotel.  The Beacon has never been known for high-end food or high quality service – I seem to recall one of the critics of record skewering the place with a one star review that was better than my zero star prior experiences.  I was coaxed into giving them another chance by a gorgeous summer evening and a stiletto wearing ingénue I have known for a while.

Sticking to beer on tap because of a frighteningly mundane and overpriced selection of wines by the glass is the smart way to go here – assuming that you like a dark brown ale more appropriate to cool weather drinking.  Still, I’d rather pay for the only beer on tap option, New Castle Brown, than spend twelve + dollars for a glass of wine that I know cost the bar six dollars for the bottle equaling a 1000% mark-up.

Overpricing and lack of seasonality aside, SkyBar is a pleasant place to spend an after work evening before going some place else for food.  Crab Hush Puppies were lacking in discernable crab flavor specifically, and flavor flavor generally.  Wasabi Guacamole had heat but not salt, and the Calamari Salad was rubbery and overly salted.

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Policy is another new place with outdoor space (sure, it overlooks an alley and the back of buildings but it fits with my open air/new place theme so just go with it.)  The look of this place is overly mod and severe with an all black interior on the dining room level.  Un-shaded tear drop lighting adds to the severity.  This place isn’t my style but I understand its appeals to some.

With all of its hipster striving, Policy may not seem like a place for serious dining, but the food is serious, and seriously good here.   The menu may seem like a 2001 Greatest Culinary Hits album – lamb lollipops, duck spring rolls, short ribs, hanger steak – but the dishes are executed very well and priced reasonably too.  For maximum enjoyment, I would recommend early week dining because this place can get loud without too much help from the music and chatter.

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Bar Dupont in the recently renovated Hotel Dupont is the new winner of the “We’re Really Pretty So We Don’t Have to Be Good Crown.”*  It is visually charming, but there are so many things wrong with service, food, management, and concept that the only nice thing that one of my favorite food bloggers and I could say after one visit was “at least the mustard was good.”

I’ve been back since that ill fated visit in part to confirm all of my harsh thoughts, and in part for the same reason I’ve had second dates with gorgeous but incompatible women.  I want so much to like the place.

I am fatigued with clueless restaurant owners who are satisfied with mediocrity as long as it yields profits and their fraternity of the lame is too full with members.  I place them in league with talented writers/directors who make shitty movies.  I don’t begrudge them the right to get paid for making bad movies, I just wonder why THEY ARE ok with it.

* don’t worry, Lauriol Plaza, you can bounce back and reclaim the title next year.


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