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Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide


Peter B Wolf
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Hi Peter--I think the amateurish, tedious, poorly designed "site" is a waste of time and the article that Doug Hanks wrote for the Post food section an embarrassment. (And Hanks is a really good writer.)  Cowen seems to read the Washingtonian magazine's two special issues on the 100 Best and 100 Best Bargain restaurants and doesn't break any new ground or offer any insightful or critical perspectives.  He doesn't seem to know anything about wine nor does he infuse his flaccid writing with much of interest.

He writes "In the last fifteen or so years, the Washington D.C. area has become a leader in ethnic restaurants.  We lag behind New York City and Los Angeles, but we vie with Chicago and the Bay Area for third place in the United States."  How would he know?  Is he talking qualitatively or quantitatively? Nothing about this list is informed or inspired or reveals any close examination or appreciation of chefs, modern cooking or traditional foods.  The few chefs he mentions by name are in predictable, unknowing fashion.

Hanks writes that "Tyler Cowen's Guide to Ethnic Dining" offers short, breezy and sometimes catty reviews." He goes on "But his approach -- analytical, methodical and often solitary -- is distinctly academic." (Later in the Post piece, Hanks writes "For all its economic grounding, Cowen's dining guide would wither under much scholarly review. He will pan a restaurant after one visit or a mere look at the menu, and recommend another on a hunch.")

So which is it Doug--hardly scholarly or distinctly academic?  (Hanks has written much better stuff than this.)

"I think of it as more than a list," the professor with a Harvard doctorate explains at dinner, projecting his voice as if sophomores might be dozing in the back row. "I think of it as a guide on how to think about food."  I broke out into hysterical laughter at that point Peter--thank you so much for providing the link. If this is a guide on how to think about food, he hasn't finished 6th grade let alone gotten a PhD.

OK--essentially, Cowen's main fault is that his style is pedestrian, neither reviewing nor assessing with any meaningful depth.  He passes on hunches and includes anonymous snippets of what others have written and thought. To my mind all this renders him utterly irrelevant.  You don't get taken seriously by saying you're serious.  I guess we're supposed to forgive him this because, well, this isn't his real job and he's giving all this away for free.

In this case, and unlike on eGullet, you get what you pay for.

I do agree with some of his observations--who couldn't?--but they're hardly unique ones and most have been written about, discussed in print and in foodie circles by others for some time.

For fine dining, he sounds like a guy who's eaten once at a few of the best restaurants--and seems in no position to talk about decline, menus, seasonality, value or chef changes.  He makes no credible references to or demonstrates awareness of fine dining in the elite cities of this country or abroad--why bother to illuminate or illustrate any point?

Just a few specific examples because there are way too many to waste more time over:

He naively neglects to mention Sushi-Ko, Kaz Sushi Bistro and Tako Grill in his perfunctory take on Japanese and Sushi restaurants.  That's enough of an omission to discredit this guy completely.

"Cafe Asia--Now the place to go in Rosslyn.  Surprisingly good, and quite cheap.  Tasty and spicy Asian food of all varieties."  Well, no, the place is abject, inferior, underwhelming, dumbed-down crap with terrible service.  It's Panned-Asian.

There are just too many "I am told, comes highly recommended" throwaway lines which serve to conceal the fact that Cowen doesn't know.  He recommends Tutto Bene like this--well, Tutto Bene sucks big time and is utterly unremarkable and easily forgettable.

Cowen rightly mentions Myanmar Restaurant, 7810-C Lee Highway, Falls Church--but so what?  even Phyllis got that unknown, garishly lit but surprisingly pleasant hole-in-the-wall place right years ago and she never ventured far out into the burbs until her malaise and decades of bias caught up to her.

"Cafe Atlantico, recently reopened near Chinatown" oh really?  This guy is timely and astute.  For years now Cafe--in that location-- has been one of only a handful of exciting interesting DC restaurants that also happened to garner heaps of serious media attention.  Jose Andres hasn't been there for 2 years and Christy Velie is pushing it in slightly different directions.  Cowen writes "The premier nouvelle Latin and Caribbean restaurant in this area" and "So far I see no signs of decline, but I am expecting them, given the squareness of the new clientele."  That's helpful, huh?

I'll let Cowen in on two by now well-known secrets--first, this part of town hops, despite its promximity to the Mall and an influx of tourists, Jaleo and Cafe Atlantico still have tons of young, beautiful people vying for elbow room that--far from being square--are appreciative of the eclectic and interesting cuisine and wine--offered at a bargain relatively speaking. Second, our Chinatown is getting so squeezed out it's more a China-hamlet.

"Entotto, Reservoir Road and McArthur or thereabouts, NW. The most refined Ethiopian place around.  Run by an Ethiopian woman and her French husband, modeled after the place they had in France.  Definitely worthwhile, you cannot go wrong here."  Well, yes you can--go wrong, I mean. Terribly wrong. Three times in fact I've had service underwhelmed only by the food.  And I really, really wanted to like this place because of the cute story about the Ethiopian chef and her French husband, which has been repeated ad infinitum.

I'd read Sietsema and Eve Zibart in the Post and in online discussions and read the whole Washingtonian gang first.  (If Brett Anderson were still here, I'd still suggest reading him--alas, he's missed.)  And Malawry is a much better writer and I think understands food a whole lot better than this guy.  There you have it.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I keep wanting to reply to this thread, and then realizing that I cannot say anything that Steve didn't already say. I read the Post story when it came out and wasn't interested enough to pursue the guide itself at the time. I did go poke around it just now and he does get it right occasionally (I live very close to Udupi Palace, and I'd gladly eat there three times a week) it's amazing to me he'd report on hearsay rather than visiting places himself.

Peter, what did you think of the guide?

Oh, and I miss Brett Anderson too. And Steve, you flatter me. :smile:

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Malawry, I don't even remember how I got onto that page, I mean how I found the guide on the web. But I knew one of you would answer my question. The writing / reporting / "dreaming" reminded me of some college travel guides from the Sixties, aka "Washington on Five Dollars a Day".  I like to thank Steve Klc for his thorough disection of it. I do not visit DC too often, once twice a year, my brother in law lives in Burke. So, my guide is "eGullet", where ever I go.

I am constantly amazed how all of you experts out there are time and time again willing to respond to us merely mortals. When I read Klc, Shaw, Plodnicki, Bux, Perlow, Cabrales and all the other's posts, I can sometimes even forget to eat my own cooking, as just reading about it satiates me. I mean professional stylish lecture, plus culinary know-how, and worldly intelligence makes this forum a pleasure to go to and just wanting to read on.

I only wish, I had have had a better education to correspond with all of you on your higher level. I, at times am ashamed to post as I seem to not being able to express myself as others so eloquently can. Verbal disputes and conversations seem to be easier to handle by me, and style often does not matter then.

Peter
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Peter, I may have dissected that guy's site, but dining still comes down to alot of factors that aren't on the plate--and it hardly takes such extensive knowledge or experience to commicate about one's dining experiences.  Your comments about places in Burke or elsewhere are welcomed, sincerely, and I think you risk devaluing what you have to offer.  Please do not read posts of others and be scared off--this isn't a competition and no one is judging you.  The only style you need to be concerned about is what you wear in Paris.

I hope it didn't seem that I came down too hard on that guy Peter, but he and the Post food section asked for it by putting that site together and running that article.  It wasn't personal. They opened themselves up to criticism in a way that most posters to these boards do not.  That Post article took up precious column inches that could have been put to much better use. I'd have a different reaction if Cowen just posted his thoughts about a place here on eGullet.

And there are many different ways to appreciate food and restaurants.  Do feel free to share some of yours, what you liked and to ask questions.  And remember, even experts disagree and even the best chefs still have new things to learn.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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  • 1 month later...

This guy is still a putz.  (Sorry that wasn't more stylish Peter :-) Check out his latest update--he reworked the intro and fine dining section--though it remains underwhelming, unaware and laughably out of date in so many instances.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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A somewhat related question.  

From talking to some from DC and a visit to the International Safeway a while back, I arrived at the conclusion that the DC area, because of all the embassys and all the military and government types who served aborad, probably would have the best assortment of ethnic restaurants in the country.  

Not baiting here but am curious if anyone who actually lives in DC and therefore knows about what he/she is talking, feels the same.  I do know that Philadelphia's Ethiopian and Pho restaurants emigrated from the DC area.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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  • 3 weeks later...

Holly--your question has come up and been discussed indirectly within several threads on this nascent DC board, but you have added an interesting wrinkle--causality. Yes, DC has been diverse cuisine-wise for a long time, even before it became cool in a Saveur magazine kind of way to read, write, discover and wax poetic about the intricacies of all these cuisines.  Adams Morgan in 1980 had already been a wellspring of culinary ideas and ethnic exoticism for some time. I find I mention Phyllis Richman all the time (usually I assign some degree of blame to her for something I don't like about the DC food scene or how it is been mis-perceived historically) and I'll mention her again here--for she was the driving force, the largest non-chef, food personality on our food scene for two decades--and while some complained that she didn't leave the downtown core enough to get out into the suburbs to ferret out enough of these ethnic gems (nor recognize that once someone moved out to the burbs, they generally stayed there to eat) one thing she got right for its time was to embrace this explosion of ethnic cuisines and convey a wealth of information about foreign cuisines and cultures in her reviews.  She was always a terrific writer, accessible and interesting, and no doubt was the first introduction and a reliable ongoing guide to these exotic terms and strange dishes for many a Washingtonian.  She stretched us significantly and well at the low end.

Where I'm intrigued, and possibly take issue with you, is your conclusion: "that the DC area, because of all the embassies and all the military and government types who served abroad, probably would have the best assortment of ethnic restaurants in the country."

I wonder if that question might be much more complex and difficult to answer?

 

If anything, I wonder if we have ethnic culinary diversity moreso because of economics--that we've had substantial and diverse pools of poor immigrants and laborers settle here--that the two richest counties in the country (Fairfax and Montgomery) surrounded DC, so there was the right mix of affluent professionals requiring maids, nannies, gardners and housekeepers, construction laborers, service and support workers that our local population base was unwilling to fill?

Now, was our area more welcoming because it was the National seat of government, with the overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal District itself riddled with large pockets of poor neighborhoods--where immigrants and non-resident, illegal aliens could more easily find housing?  Did ethnic restaurants spring up to serve this ethnic clientele more so than the government/military/diplomatic/industrial lobby?  I suspect so--but was it this consortium that was responsible for those ethnic restaurants opening in the first place?

My personal and by no means scientific opinion of these embassy/military/government types is that they knew very little about good food, are very conservative and have had much less effect on the development and ongoing success of our ethnic culinary diversity as one might assume.  Except if you are talking about steakhouses. (We have great depth of steakhouses, which Tom Sietsema profiled and was nominated this year for a James Beard journalism award for.) When I started eating in these ethnic restaurants 24 years ago, it would not be uncommon to be the only white person in the place.  Now, of course, these restaurants have many layers of customer support.

However, if you were to go back to the 60's rather than mid to late 70's--perhaps what laid the groundwork for such ethnic explosion later were all those embassy staff workers--who sent money home--and then had relatives emigrate; American diplomats who worked abroad and brought foreign service employees back to the States with them; Chinese who made connections because of Nixon; Vietnamese who made connections because of the war, etc.

Also, we can't downplay the role of DC's wealth of Universities which have always been open to foreign students--perhaps more so than in other cities?--so it's not just poor service workers and their families but sons and daughters of wealthy accomplished people coming here as well.

Maybe another way to approach this is to compare DC with NY--are elements common to both cities and which might have come to bear on the diversity and early development of ethnic cuisines--as opposed to a similar development in other large East coast cities?  And what does that say about the populations which support such restaurants?

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Steve -

I think any major city has the wealth of universities and diversity of lower income immigrants.  I doubt if it is any more so in DC, but could be.  I agree that both probably account for much of the demand for ethnic cuisine.

One bit of common wisdom goes that one can almost always find a good SE Asian restaurant near a military base.  The logic being that those returning from Vietnam and Korea had developed an appetite for and knowledge of the various SE Asian cuisines and wanted it.  I took that bit of common wisdom one step further, concluding that with the Pentagon, the beltway bandits hiring ex-military and the bases around DC, along with State Department and other US Agencies, that there would be sizable demand from those posted overseas.

I was also influenced by a visit to the International Safeway store in Northern VA a while back.  Those showing me around said it existed mostly to feed embassy row and those working out of the embassies.

I put two and two together and came up with three, four or five.  Not sure which and I don't know DC well enough to run specific comparisons between cities.  

Guess I was wondering if, for the above reasons, 1) DC has more diversity of cuisines and 2) if cuisines have been introduced into the US in DC and expanded to other cities.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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