The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Fearless–Or Just Trendy?–Critic

September 24th, 2009 · No Comments · Posted in food news

An indispensible guide, even if you disagree with the ratings

An indispensible guide, even if you disagree with the ratings

Publication of a new dining guide for our home town is reason for celebration. So when we received our copy of Fearless Critic covering the Washington, DC, area I felt a bit like Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, who is swept away when the new phone book arrives with his name in it. I wanted to dive right in to see if our favorite joints are listed.

Sad to say, there is no mention of The Reef, or Joe’s Noodle House or Simply Home or Perry’s or Cafe St.-Ex. These are all places that have become like well-seasoned arm chairs for us, places where we’ve come to expect a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere and delicious food, thoughtfully prepared. Okay, so The Fearless Critic turned up its nose at some of our favorites. What else has it got? Digging a little deeper, we found intriguing entries for newer eateries right in our neighborhood. Obviously, we don’t get out enough. Some we had never heard of.

So we decided to try one. Bingo! Our first outing, to a place called Tabaq on U Street NW, turned out to be a smash by our standards. The rooftop dining room under its glass aviary has one of the best views in the city. The nouveau Turkish menu is superb. And even though the service can be uneven (dining one night recently with two other couples we waited interminably for drinks, even though the restaurant was nearly empty) the airy and visually stunning setting cushion any lapses.

That’s the thing about dining guides: even if you make only one valuable new discovery, it’s worth the price of admission.

Fearless Critic also covers the cities of Austin, Houson and New Haven in different guides. In each case, the guides rely on a core of reviewers who declare themselves fiercely independent and brutally honest. They write some snappy copy. But I wonder if their judgments are truly aimed at the best our restaurants have to offer as much as which are creating the most buzz. You have to love the way they uplift small ethnic eateries whose food far surpasses their decor. But the urge to celebrate unheralded holes-in-the wall frequently results in some bizzarre ratings anomolies.

For instance, we also are big fans of Great Wall Szechuan near Logan Circle. Most of the food is standard take-out fare. There are only a few wobbly tables to sit at. And when we order delivery, we always request they hold the Styrofoam and the industrial white rice. Yet their classic mala dishes, loaded with Szechuan peppercorns, are outstanding and rare for the city. We delight in the saucy string beans and the twice-cooked pork belly. But does this really rate higher than established white table cloth dynamos like Equinox and Kinkead’s?

Ben’s Chili bowl is a kick, but the food is some of the worst processed stuff on the planet. Better than the arctic char at  Cashion’s Eat Place or the original tapas at Jaleo’s?

The Florida Avenue Grill has been on the same corner for ages and as such ranks as one of the city’s classic soul food diners. But better than the pastured veal chop or green tomato, bacon and lettuce sandwich at St.-Ex?

Likewise, we love it that we now have a fairly authentic Mexican joint within walking distance–Distrito Federale. I had some dynamite pork shoulder in tomatillo sauce there just the other night. And Pupuseria San Miguel in Mt. Pleasant appears to be serving up outstanding Central American. But can you really rank them higher than, say, Black Salt or Cafe Atlantico?

The more I look at the listings and the frequently disjointed ratings, the more I see a disconnect between the trendy and processed versus where our modern food movement is currently taking us. Todd Gray at Equinox, Bob Kinkead at Kinkead’s, Anne Cashion at Cashion’s, Jeff Black at Black Salt, Jose Andreas at Jaleo’s and Cafe Atlantico, even the ownership at Cafe St.-Ex, The Reef, Perry’s–all have distinguished themselves with their concern for ingredients, their involvement in promoting sustainable and even locally grown foods. It’s hard to imagine placing them behind Styrofoam takeout and industrial whipped cheese and canned collards. Yet that is the world Fearless Critic lives in.

Come to think of it, this book really should have a section devoted to restaurants that serve sustainable and locally grown food. Isn’t that where all the buzz in food is these days, thank you Michelle Obama?

Fearless Critic also pertuates the American inability to distinguish between authentic Mexican food and Tex-Mex. All are lumped together under “Mexican,” as if cheese nachos had been handed down from the Aztec kitchen. The hat tips to Alero (blech!) and El Tamarindo (yuk!) are downright incomprehensible. Lauriol Plaza and Austin Grill are both cited, yet there is no mention of the Rio Grande, an established franchise with impeccable food and roots in Dallas that years ago set the gold standard for Tex-Mex here. The rest are pale immitations.

If you want something approaching real Mexican, try Oyamel or Mixtec or Casa Oxaca or even the little takeout joint in Adams-Morgan, Tacos Pepito’s.

Why bother to mention the undistinguished Sala Thai on U Street when a true gem, Simply Home, maybe one of the best Southeast Asian restaurants in the city, is a mere block away? And why the dreary Chinatown Express, with its pasty noodles and steerage-class accomodations, and not Joe’s Noodle House, a sensational little Szechuan place with a mind-boggling menu and international quality? La Fourchette in Adams-Morgan does not make the list of noteworthy French restaurants, yet for escargots, steak frites or any number of other classic bistro dishes, it’s hard to think of anyone who makes them better.

Oh, well. Part of writing reviews is inviting disagreement. And I suppose I disagree plenty with Fearless Critic. But this guide covers 500 places to eat in the metropolitan Washington area. We’ll be mining it for a long time, making more discoveries in our own neighborhood. I would consider this indispensable for anyone who likes to eat out. And for all those out-of-towners who ask where to eat, you’ll always have a good answer. Keep this book within easy reach.

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