In restaurants, I want everything (food, service, décor) to be both interesting and considered—and better, or at least as good, as I can do at home. Our favorite restaurant in Salt Lake had beautiful chairs that were torture to sit in, so we’d ask for a booth. My last meal there ended with a cocoa cake that had too much baking soda—yuk—and I’m pretty sure the pastry chef had no idea. Under a different pastry chef, the desserts had been excellent. Restaurants get lazy when they are the only show in town, when customers don’t complain, and when they can’t hire skilled workers.
I also expect to learn something when eating out: a new ingredient, combination, technique: a surprise or three. Surprises in food are like surprises in poetry—a pleasurable resetting of expectations, another way of thinking. At a recent meal out, I ordered the “apple tatin” expecting a new version of an apple-forward dessert. The re-imagined dessert featured whipped cream, two disks of pastry, and a small ring of pectin-set cooked apple. The pastry was stodgy, the whipped cream overwhelmed the fruit. It looked nice but I only ate a few bites. In excellent restaurants, surprises are managed by the chef—surely I was not the only eater who did not enjoy that dessert? Someone else must have complained about the pastry, not buttery or caramelly, more like a flavorless cookie, or left it on their plate? But maybe the chef doesn’t look at the plates on their way to the dish room or just maybe other diners thought it was fine. Yet good food is not determined solely by personal taste, and anyway, taste can be trained. It’s not a person’s palate that determines whether something is good, but techniques and ingredients. Those pastry disks were overworked. When I cook at home, I trouble shoot/correct my ingredients or technique. Too-wet sweet potato gnocchi made me vow to try including a russet or potato starch in the dough the next time. At home, guests are forgiving (or at least too polite to complain).
One highly touted hotel restaurant has a Vietnamese chef—I had dreams of a Slanted Door in DC, but we got Popeye’s with coconut milk and pandan, fried food carelessly executed. I had the classic pork with rice noodles and salad. The salad consisted of wide pieces of cucumber on leaf lettuce. Why not daikon and carrot julienne in rice vinegar? If a dish is classic, the reinterpretation should be at least as good as the original. The pork was fatty and gristly, the rice noodles mushy. Other new restaurants in our neighborhood have not made us want to return. One interpretation of bacon-wrapped scallops consisted of a slice of raw lardon around a scallop. The vegetables were overcooked and uniformly seasoned with gritty dried herbs and too much salt.
There’s also the sense of value—allied to “better than I can make at home”: at Oyster Oyster, the restaurant Washington Post Critic Tom Sietsema thinks is the best in the city, we paid $370 for two people, with three glasses of wine. The service was superb, and I asked the server “how is this made” about more than one dish. That pecan mousse with the candy carrot coating! Everything was both delicious and inventive—yet because the kitchen had imposed so many restrictions on itself: local, sustainable, seasonal, vegan, their fall menu featuring root vegetables (celeriac, kohlrabi, sweet potato, beets, mushrooms) and grains had us asking ourselves the next day: was it worth it? No, alas. One or more unusual and expensive ingredients can make the difference. Even a vegan restaurant can offer something hard-to-get.
Because I worked in restaurants as a server and hostess I understand the need to turn tables, to make a profit. Since we like to eat early—5 pm–if we walk in, I promise the host that we’ll be out in an hour if necessary. Yet we’ve had hosts tell us, an entirely empty restaurant behind them, that they can’t seat us because of reservations. Or tell us that a particular table is reserved (here’s looking at you, Bombay Club).
Restaurant service should be unobtrusive. Vivid in my memory is one server who explained (without my asking) what a caper was (and actually got it wrong), and the server at Sundance’s Tree Room, who, when I told him the cherry sorbet had been made with salt instead of sugar, said, “no it hasn’t.” Another waiter at that same establishment on another visit insisted (after my initial inquiry and after the dish had been served) that the blue cheese was not goat (anyone who dislikes goat cheese recognizes it; I can imagine ski dude carelessness creates problems for people with allergies or sensitivities). Another variety of obtrusiveness is over-describing and recommending. At the restaurant with the failed apple tatin, a server interrupted us to explain how everything was made. In most cases, it was obvious, and anyway no one cared. How hard it is to get all the aspects perfect: food, décor, service!
Two new DC restaurants deserve accolades:
I’ve eaten at Rania three times since it opened in October, each time with delight. (My wife says, when she leaves town, “please don’t go without me.”) On 11th street close to Pennsylvania Avenue, it used to be a bar. Now it offers 3 or 4 course prix fixe ($75 or $95) menus of inventive Indian food, with enough choices to please both vegetarians and meat eaters. Meals start with an amuse bouche, a deep fried murukku garnished with trout roe or a vegetable. The beef eater in our group raved about the short ribs. I ordered the chicken korma (meatballs) twice because of the white truffle shaved on top, the morel garnish. (That’s the photo at the top of this post.) Fresh oysters were slightly warmed from a creamy sauce with wasabi fire in it. Diners can choose two side dishes from a list of eight, including three kinds of bread, raita, rice pilaf, and black or yellow lentil dal. If you’re eating with others, the side dishes offer more tastes in the classic Indian style. Don’t skip dessert: what could have been an ordinary mango sorbet was made extraordinary by frozen fennel granita. The pastry chef employs all manner of French and Asian pastry techniques, including homemade marshmallows, puff pastry, and friandises (sweet little bites with the bill). Eating there is worth every penny. https://www.raniadc.com
While Rania is not as well-known as it should be, the newest Chang restaurant at 1200 19th Street NW, perhaps because of Peter Chang’s reputation, has gotten wide press. Everything’s good, but the crisp-fried cauliflower is superb. Succulent pig’s feet. Slightly too salty duck hot and sour soup. I love tofu skin because the texture is chewy, more chewy than al dente noodles, and it’s tofu that is somewhat hard to find in restaurants. Chang Chang serves it prepared very simply, with sauteed bok choy in a light soy sauce, an example of good ingredients and technique. At Chang Chang the desserts are also good—my favorite is the passion fruit pie on a rice crust garnished with black pepper spiced (surprise!) meringue. I also appreciate the selection of loose leaf teas and nonalcoholic drinks, for example lavender kombucha. Every item on the menu has been considered—no decision fatigue here, no “ho hum.” Lovely service, the three times we ate there, with servers considerate about turning down the music (loud music just makes diners eat faster), and thoughtful about not rushing us.
It’s a tough business, the restaurant business. But then, some diners notice perfection–and rave about it.