One of the problems with developing a writing persona named the “Five Paragraph Bitter Food Critic” is maintaining that mantle of bitterness even when surrounded by a sea of competence, class and quality. When I started the 5PBFC, I figured that given my average of 4 meals out a week, I’d have at least one clunker a week, thus providing DCFUD.com plenty of bitter material. However, as I looked over my 2007 notes of the year, I discovered something quite shocking: I had ten bad meals the entire year; and six of them came from two places, Bangkok 54 and Dad’s Backyard Burgers. That means the vast majority of my meals were anywhere from “decent” to “incredible.” It’s hard to complain about such a high batting average.
Now, I should go off on how absolutely disappointing Dad’s was. For a store that took nearly 3 years to build, I would have hoped for a burger experience that doesn’t taste like a green onion explosion. My first bite there was sadly the best; repeat visits were lousy and hardly worth mentioning. I’d love to support an independent burger joint, but their burgers tasted more like a kabob-spiced meatloaf – they may want to think about competing with nearby and always packed Merrifield Kabob than routinely-good Five Guys and sometimes-brilliant Elevation Burger. As for Bangkok 54, the former shining star of Northern Virginia’s Thai dining scene has declined in terms of food quality and handling; prepare to give birth to a food baby if you eat there and don’t stray far from the restrooms, just in case. Their dining room is lovely; it’s a shame the back of the house is having issues. They easily have been eclipsed by longtime stalwart Duangrats at Bailey’s Crossroads and the newish Mint further up Route 7 towards Seven Corners (review coming in 2008, a.k.a. next week).
However, I will concede to the goodwill of the Christmas season to concentrate on the positive. My dining year started off on a high note with the DCFUD.com staff at Bobby Van’s, followed by a delicious Restaurant Week experience at Taberna del Alabardero. 2 Amys continued to churn out quality pizzas, Ella’s did the same, and the chainy-but-good ZPizza offered a delicious pie with high quality ingredients for a decent price. Matchbox’s dining room expansion didn’t dilute the quality of their food one bit, and the District Chophouse provided a fine meal in a casual, but classy, environment. My well-publicized visit to La Perla offered better tortellini than expected, and Georgetown’s Filomena may be considered hit-or-miss, but I had two hits there in 2007, and enjoyed their good Sunday brunch, too. The new Liberty Tavern in Clarendon offered surprisingly good upscale bar food, though those looking for a quiet meal should head elsewhere – that place is louder than the wails of a screaming child at a southern Wal-Mart. Eamonn’s proved to be a welcome addition to the Alexandria scene, and I’m anxious to try owner Cathal Armstrong’s makeover of The Majestic with Shannon Overmiller’s cooking on King Street in 2008. Hank’s Oyster Bar in DC stars in the background with Trio in a new car commercial, and a new location in Old Town is promising. Fogo De Chao and Texas De Brazil fed my churrascaria dreams of well-seasoned Argentinean meat, and Macchu Picchu did a fine job representing South American neighbor Peru. Huong Que at the Eden Center served fine Vietnamese fare on multiple visits, and impressed some good friends from Chicago. Spices in Cleveland Park did a good job of clearing my sinuses while on a first date – yeah, thanks for that, by the way. No, that wasn’t embarrassing at all – but damn it tasted fine, and nearby Indique’s tamarind-enhanced drinks made even the rainiest of days much more delightful.
Bebo Trattoria opened up with much fanfare in Crystal City, though complaints about lousy service stick to the place like stink on a hobo. The Tortoise and the Hare opened up on Crystal City’s 23rd Street, taking over the former space of Stars and Stripes. Can’t say I’d complain about that a bit – Stars and Stripes had a big TV and good beer but a lousy crab cake, and T&H is promising a good American contemporary menu. Urban Thai still served quality food at a reasonable price, and the recent expansion of the Crystal City Sports Pub just gives more folks a chance to dine on their good bar food while following their favorite sports’ teams. Summer’s at the Courthouse Metro did the same, plus they put with my wails of anguish every weekend as I watched my beloved Ravens go from Super Bowl contender to laughing stock of the NFL in one calendar year. Al’s Steaks in Del Ray single-handedly made me gain a pound, and that was before I discovered the glories of Gladys Knight and Ron Winan’s Chicken and Waffles at the Largo Town Center. In my neighborhood of Shirlington, a new Cakelove outpost opened up; Busboys and Poets put in a second location with some fine Belgian beers on tap; Bear Rock Cafe’ offered good sandwiches and breakfast chow, and the brand-spanking new Saigonique fed me a wonderful ginger noodle dish on Christmas Eve in a beautiful dining room. And damn if Weenie Beanie doesn’t bring the goods every time I’m craving a half-smoke.
Heck, even the Pentagon got a decent eatery, the All-American Grill. Thank God for Sport and Health or else I’d be the size of a Beefcake-era Eric Cartman.
In the fine tradition laid down by every critic in every conceivable subject, this time of the year demands a “Best of…” list. I could try to spawn an internal dialog about which meal in the previous 12 months was the best, and categorize restaurants by price or location or cuisine. Instead, I’m choosing to look forward to 2008, to which places I missed in 2007.
* Central – we at DCFUD have been trying to have a writers’ outing here for months, yet somehow we went to the otherwise-fine-but-it-ain’t-Central Malyasian Kopitiam instead of an affordable offering from Michel Richard? We’re going this year, kids. Jay, save your money. You’re going. Even if I have to carry you in there kicking and screaming. You made me eat at Kam Fong; I’m making you eat at Central.
* The Majestic – the restaurant formerly known as the Majestic Cafe’ was a delightful, charming outpost, and the recent takeover and reimagining by Cathal Armstrong should make this one of the best mid-priced restaurants in Northern Virginia in 2008.
* West End Bistro – the early buzz over Eric Ripert’s newest restaurant was that the food was definitely good, but not imaginative. I would have to guess that as the staff becomes more situated and comfortable, this restaurant will bring more international buzz to the DC dining scene.
* Hook – Barton Seaver’s ambitious plan to serve only sustainable seafood deserves the respect of all diners with a soul. Plus, the guy can flat-out cook.
* Hooked – I grew up next to the Chesapeake Bay. I love seafood. Sue me. And a seafood restaurant out by Dulles and Ace Photo that doesn’t have cheap plastic fishnets on the walls and meals made of a mysterious element known as “krab” has my support.
* Station 9 – U Street keeps getting hipper and hipper, and this place promises an updated look on American standards.
And, hopefully the DC area will honor a few New Year’s Resolutions, and this year’s theme is to be A Little More Like Baltimore:
1) To have a good Jewish deli like Attman’s near the Inner Harbor East developments. Sometimes a nice Catholic boy like me wants a good corned beef on rye.
2) To have a decent BBQ place somewhere between Dixie Bones in Woodbridge and Urban in Rockville to compete with Rocklands. They’re the only game in NoVA, and while they’re a fine establishment, I shouldn’t have to long for Andy Nelson’s in Cockeysville.
3) To have a pit beef place anywhere. I don’t care where, but pit beef is a Baltimore delicacy that should be brought forth to the Nations’ Capital post haste.
4) To have more waterfront dining options. The Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Locust Point, Canton, Essex, Middle River – all loaded with everything from mega-chains to cozy family seafood places, and they all have serene water views. DC has a couple of high-end places in Georgetown and Phillip’s at the Waterfront. Advantage – Baltimore.
5) To create a vibrant neighborhood near the stadium – granted, this will be a work in progress, but one of the great things about Camden Yards is the proximity to great bars, restaurants and attractions. Making over an area best known for the desperately-missed dance club Nation, light industrial brown zones, and a grouping of *ahem* adult establishments is all going to take some time, but for the love of God, city planners, do not dare turn it into a soulless strip of chains and fern bars. You’re trying to do it with Chinatown/Penn Quarter, where fairly soon the only thing Asian in that neighborhood will be the tourists in town to watch the Wizards play Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets. You know darned well Prince George’s County will botch it with the National Harbor, as they’ve failed to put in anything with personality near FedEx Field, and that’s been open for almost a decade. But really, DC, you can do it. Look at U Street. Adams-Morgan. H Street. Cleveland Park. Those are areas where the city is trying to express itself with mostly-independent businesses. Don’t replicate a Loudoun County strip mall and restaurant park at the baseball stadium and lie to yourself, saying “it’s progress.” It’s regression to a mean, and the city deserves better.
6) To be like bICYCLE. If you ever find yourself on Light Street, south of the Inner Harbor between Federal Hill and Locust Point, you’ll see this charming, delicious bistro. It’s been open for nearly 8 years, and it’s still as good today as it opened. They strive for good food and consistency, and they hit far more often than they miss.