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Washingtonian's 100 Very Best Restaurants Issue


vengroff
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I couldn't help picking this up off a newstand today. I don't know DC's restaurants very well or this magazine at all. I just figured it might introduce me to a few names that should go on my list of places to try, and one set of opinions about them. I'm posting here because I wonder what other members think of this magazine and the reliability of their reviews.

The online version is here, but it is ast year's.

On their star scale, "four star restaurants are among the best in the country." Galileo, Gerard's Place, Inn at Little Washington, Kinkead's, Maestro, Michel Richard Citronelle, and Vidalia are listed as being in this category.

Suprisingly, to me at least, there are several pages of advertisements in the middle of the review section under the heading "Hall of Fame." The ads feature some restaurants that made the list and some that did not. It seems like you can be featured prominently in the story either by being judged to be good, or buy buying space.

Judging from the contents of the rest of the magazine--for example, a wedding planning guide and an article on who's buying and selling multi-million dollar homes in the area--it's probably not one I would regularly read.

Other opinions? Should I read on or cut my losses at $2.95 and chuck it.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

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Vengroff, thanks for starting this thread. I've long meant to bring up Washingtonian in discussions here, but never remembered to when I was in front of a computer.

I am not a regular reader of Washingtonian. As you detected, it's a soft lifestyle magazine for the upper middle class populations of the Washington area. As for their restaurant coverage, I've never been able to make up my mind as to whether or not it's worthwhile. I mean, they devote a lot of pages to restaurants in every issue. Once a year they do the 100 very best as a cover story, once a year they do a cheap eats cover story, and once a year they do a "food issue" with information about where to buy the best foods of all sorts, prepared, ingredients, ethnic, bakeries, etc. They clearly consider coverage of area dining and eating to be a serious part of their mission.

So why am I turned off? Largely, I've been misled too many times by slapdash reviews, especially in the three compendium issues. These days I know way more than what you see in the food issue. I don't think there are 100 excellent cheap eats in the DC area, and the ones I've tested that Washingtonian sent me to have been disappointing at best. (Especially the Wheaton places!) I was really turned off that they ran a picture of Tom Sietsema, the Post's restaurant reviewer, a few months after he was hired. I can understand if Washingtonian takes a Shaw-style editorial approach to reviewer anonymity, but there's still no excuse for throwing Sietsema's visage before the public in open disdain of his incognito style. How tacky is that?

Klc often mentions one of their regular reviewers as worth following. I forget the name of the guy. And I've wondered if I'd feel more positively about Washingtonian restaurant coverage if I got over it and started reading them regularly for a few months. Since Brett Anderson left the Washington City Paper, the Washingtonian seems to be the only area publication besides the Washington Post devoting column space to in-depth restaurant reviews...and perhaps that's worth something.

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While I've yet to dine at Kinkead's (among other restaurants), I wonder whether it might be more of an "institution" than a place offering a potentially excellent cuisine experience. It's supposed to have decent fish, according to other reviews I have studied (?). :blink:

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Rochelle--of the four restaurant critics--the only one that I "know" fairly well is Tom Head who has some title like Executive Food & Wine Editor. We've attended some of the same functions usually arranged by restaurant publicists and I find him charming, erudite, sincere and knowledgeable. I trust his judgement and I believe if he didn't like my desserts at Zaytinya, for instance, he'd say so in print. I know the other critics--the ones assigned to "beats" like DC, MD and VA not at all. However, of the three--I feel I know and trust the Virginia reviewer simply because I eat at many of the restaurants she covers and I think she does a good job finding out about the worthy places and then says the right things about them. She was on top of the Elysium and Le Relais and Restaurant Seven before Tom Sietsema--and she nailed each one of them as excellent restaurants each with alot to like. Another thing I like about Tom and the VA reviewer is that neither are lazy--they're on top of what is going on.

There's not much to draw me to Maryland that I can't get better or just as cheaply close to me in Virginia, so you'd be in a much better position to offer some critique of how good a job the MD reviewer does in timeliness and prioritizing.

My personal opinion of the 4 star restaurants listed by Vengroff hasn't changed much since I've started posting on the site--and that is that they haven't been among the best in the country in their category or price point for some time, except for Maestro, which is so new it hasn't had a chance to start mailing it in or coasting. The very good pastry chef of Galileo is no longer there--she got married and opened a bakery--Pangaud and Michel Richard may be geniuses but their restaurant experiences have inconsistent troublesome service issues reported all the time, and the others are too conservative, too safe, hyped way past their due to generate much interest for food savvy people. I'd still go to Les Relais, Elysium, Cafe 15 and Maestro before any of the others at the high end.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I was actually in DC with my family over the weekend and Mrs. P and I had the chef's tasting menu at Citronelle on Friday night (we sent the little P's off to the Capital's game via the metro.) I immediately picked up a copy of the magazine as how could I pass up an issue with the 100 best restaurants? From an outsiders perspective and not knowing most of the restaurants, but as someone who has pretty good instincts based on what they read as to whether something is worth writing up to begin with, 100 restaurants was a stretch for that town. 50 would have seemed more legit to me and even that is probably a strech too.

Citronelle was very good though a little traditional for me, even though they try and liven things up with Asian spicing and ingredients. I could eat there anytime, but there isn't really anything to distinguish it from upper middle French restaurants in other cities. Richard's technique is a little unusual and that creeps into the cuisine. But it is more of an affectation and stylistic and doesn't go to the core of his cuisine. Probably the best dish we ate was roast Maine sea scallops on a bed of shredded jellyfish. And a chestnut soup thickened with pureed porcini mushroms and Foie gras was another standout. They sat us at a table adjacent to the kitchen and they turned our chairs so we were facing the chefs all night. It was quite a show. They did have a great wine list and we had a 1996 Meo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanee Chaumes which was stellar. And the service was great too but someone called ahead for us so I can't say what happens for tourists.

I wonder how Pangaud's restaurant is? When he was in NYC, he didn't impress me at either location he cooked in.

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Plotnicki- I had a fairly good experience at Gerard's Place last spring. I had lunch, and did the whole $29.95 for three courses thing. I had a much better time that evening tho, at Cafe Atlantico.

mike

Edited by mikeczyz (log)
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Steve--then again, neither did Jean Louis.

"And the service was great too but someone called ahead for us"

And therein lies the longstanding rub Steve. And it ain't just tourists or rubes who leave underwhelmed. I've been there in the company of Beard award-winning chefs and sommeliers (from NY and Chicago) who left underwhelmed. This shouldn't matter at a restaurant deemed one of the very best in the country let alone DC. Of course power diners dropping nice money on wine and/or known to the house can be expected to be treated well there. I had one amazing experience at Citronelle in the company of several French chefs that is still possibly the best dining experience of my life--foods, wines, service transcendent. Then repeated poor or inconsistent efforts mostly dulled down by service or hospitality issues and often at times by perfunctory food--or food that should have been more special given the price point and ability of the chef. And I know my way a little around fine dining at this level in terms of expectation.

We ate there last the week of Thanksgiving and had such an inept, comically indifferent server--though very very good food--that we actually also tipped another table's server as we left, slipping a $20 into his hand--because we struck up a relationship with him as he kept looking over our sad table, smirking, he kept folding our napkins, pouring our wine, replacing our silver, nodding to the busboys to remove our plates before the next course arrived, etc. as he weaved his way around his table not once failing to give them wonderful service. And they actually were tourists.

As we've discussed on many other threads--you should be considered in the elite national class by nailing service and hospitality and graciousness and professionalism throughout the whole process--and for every diner. This is not to deny that there is and always should be a way for certain diners to receive an even more special experience--as you argue rightly for figuring out and then acquiring--but the "basic" experience has to be universally and consistently special as well. And this is before you even bring price into the equation--which you did not attempt to factor in in comparison to other high end meals you've had in other venues. To me, that's where Citronelle sometimes lets "the average high end diner" down. (Well, that and Citronelle's almost systemic arrogance--phone, host greeting, brusque waiters--excepting the valet guys, who are usually very nice but I think they work for the Hotel. Very few DC restaurateurs take the Gramercy Tavern/Danny Meyer lessons to heart--many don't even bother paying lip service.) What did the tasting menu run and how was it if you bring price to value considerations in?

And you're right about Michel getting Asian spices, using them subtly, oddly even at first but always seemingly in just the right "genius" ways. I admire that instinct, that touch. Cranberries...with cumin, that kind of thing. Odd then wonderful. Too bad the restaurant experience is not just about the talent or palate of a chef. So if you are in the position to have someone call on your behalf, by all means do. Otherwise, try going to the four I mentioned above: Les Relais, Maestro, Cafe 15 and Elysium. Maestro would be the least overtly conservative. But what I've said all along is the high end is not what distinguishes dining in this city specifically in comparison to other elite food cites--as your comments about Citronelle seem to bear out, Steve. Is it correct to say that even though you had the best that Citronelle could offer to a power diner it still wouldn't rate as a very best in NYC let alone nationwide?

Where DC is really starting to compete--and you wouldn't have much way to judge this Steve simply because you're not here often enough--is mid range and mid-to high. That's the story. Otherwise, the usual suspects underwhelm with conservative cooking which lacks interest and vitality--and which can't in good conscience be ranked against the best fine dining restaurants in the country at comparable price points. That's where the local reviewers sometimes let the locals down--but then their job is in part to talk up the local scene.

And Steve, you also didn't mention the desserts or petits fours--did any stand out? too conservative? was there anything you could sample given your allergy?

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Hard to assess where I'd put Citronelle on the continuum of French restaurants. It is very un-NYC like in feel. But if I had to compare it, it reminds me most of the oldline restaurants like Lutece. Formal but not too because it is almost in a bistro setting. Citronelle is a bit more generic then that but only because it is in a hotel and the space has a bit of a generic feel to it. But the scope of the cooking reminds me more of that type of place then anything else. Like if La Cote Basque if it was actually serving good food. Or maybe a place like JoJo if it was good.

I don't think the food at Citronelle makes a big statement, nor is it intended to. And I don't say that as a criticism. Because the trick to the cuisine is that it is very delicate and subtle. In speaking with the staff, they feel that Michel's background as a pastry chef gives him a unique approach to the flavoring and the architecture of the dishes. From my limited experience I could understand that comment but would need to eat there three or four more times to really understand it.

As for it being in the "elite national class," I think they are not in the highest tier but in a tier just below. And I think that is a matter of scope more then anything else. They are just not working at the same level of intricate technique as a place like FL or J-G if you ask me. So when you ask how they would fare in a place like NYC, they would be at the top of the Rachou, Schillinger etc. class. Whether or not they would ratchet it up to be in the Daniel or Jean-Georges class is something I can't answer. I don't think it's a function of being able, I think it's a function of desire which might mean why Michel owns restaurants in DC and Santa Barbara, two places where he is a big fish in a medium size pond. I can't find my credit card receipt but I recall the cost to be $150 per person. I thought that was reasonable considering the meal they served us and the size of the portions.

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My personal opinion of the 4 star restaurants listed by Vengroff hasn't changed much since I've started posting on the site--and that is that they haven't been among the best in the country in their category or price point for some time, except for Maestro, which is so new it hasn't had a chance to start mailing it in or coasting.

I must say the one that intrigues me the most is Galilleo, or more specifically, the Laboratorio. I happen to enjoy well-executed Italian food, but in this case there is something more to it.

The whole story of Roberto Donna, at least in the versions I've heard, is like a medieval morality play. The talented, successful chef seeks his fortune outside the kitchen where his name was made. He is tempted to build an empire of star-powered cuisine, from spaghetti and meatballs to a truffle tasting menu. Initially, there is some success, but over time he finds himself spread too thin and his multiple concepts begin to wilt. Seeking redemption, our chef builds a temple to the faith that once guided him. A laboratory where his personal taste, creativity, and skill are combined with the finest seasonal ingredients on a nightly basis.

OK, so that's over the top. In the end it's got to be all about the food; that's really the point. If the buzz I've heard is accurate, Donna recognizes that too. He has returned to a very direct, literally hands-on, involvement with the food he presents to his Laboratorio guests. I, for one, look forward to being among them in the coming months.

And, of course, I will share my thoughts here once I do get a table.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

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I have the issue, but not on me...so I can't look at it now. I have been to a bunch of the places listed...and they are good.

Examples (by memory):

I ate at Malysia Kopitiam again today. I had one of their curry noodle soups, yum.

We had a very good meal at Nizam's (Turkish in NVA) last night. What they described at orange baklava...wasn't baklava...but was yummy. The rest of the meal was good as well.

I can't remember if Jaleo (DC) was on the list...but i ate lunch there (alone) yesterday and was very impressed. We are trying the Bethesda branch tomorrow since I need to try more items. :biggrin:

I know 4 sisters was listed but we had a lackluster meal there the one time we tried it.

We had a nice meal at Tony Cheng's seafood once. Not the best chinese I've had, but it was good. They even whacked the crab in front of us so we knew it was fresh (alive).

Bombay Bistro is very good.

Not bad for only being in Dc one weekend a month, eh? :biggrin:

I can comment on more places when I have the mag in front of me.

-Jason

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