Pho Deluxe, Fairfax

For those who haven’t clicked on the links, Pho Deluxe is a local chain that also has locations in Fairfax and Tysons Corner.

JSnake, on 02 Jul 2015 – 4:45 PM, said: Any good?

No.

I felt badly that I hadn’t been when you asked about it, so I made it a point to go to the Fairfax location of Pho Deluxe, and get a Large #38 – Phở Tái, Chín Gân ($9.95) , and I was terribly disappointed by my soup.

Seasoned pho-goers know that pho houses serve the best pho, and Vietnamese restaurants usually do a relatively poor job at it – it’s a specialty item, that is best done alone, or not at all. However, Pho Deluxe falls right at the midway point of being a pho house and a Vietnamese restaurant – it looks like a pho house, it acts like a pho house, but the menu is much more extensive, with about ten difference sections other than pho.

What this meant is that my pho was placed in front of me, and I immediately performed my pre-first-bite ritual: I broke the basil, put in the sprouts, and then flip-flopped the noodles and the sprouts, so the sprouts would cook on the bottom of the bowl, and the noodles would rest on top and not overcook. Then, without adding any seasoning, I took my spoon, and took a spoonful of broth – this is the moment de la vérité as they might have said during the French colonization. Well, the broth tasted mostly of hot, sodium-ridden liquid, without much discernible beef fat, and without much other flavoring. One spoonful is all I needed to know that this was a below-average bowl of pho.

If you ever seen me in a pho house, you can tell what I think by what I add: If I add nothing, then it’s great pho; if I add a bit of Sriracha and plum sauce – just a bit, because I think these two items are garbage food, and the twenty-something chefs who think its “cool” to use Sriracha in dishes are generally garbage chefs, then it’s decent pho; if I squirt out the Sriracha and plum sauce so that it makes the type of noise that has the entire restaurant turning around, you know it’s pretty much like this was – dilute, and most often made from starter mix. Obviously I didn’t see it being cooked, so I can’t say for sure how it’s made, but I will say they did a splendid job of imitating how bad pho should taste. Furthermore, we’re as close as we can come to cracking the unthinkable ten-dollar barrier – does anyone else remember the halcyon days of Pho 75 when a bowl was $4.95 and you left a dollar bill for a tip? Well, those days are gone, I’m afraid.

To add insult to injury – and this is no fault of the restaurant’s – I got a can of Diet Coke ($1.35) on the way out, and damned if this wasn’t a bad batch: it tasted like club soda, without even the superficial pleasures of artificial sweeteners so that I can pretend I’m drinking sugar. I thought my palate might have been tainted, but, no, this was a bad can of soda, as thirty minutes later, it still tasted pretty much like club soda (it *smelled* like Diet Coke, for whatever that was worth).

The Fairfax Pho Deluxe is in the front part of the shopping center that contains a whole host of stores that nobody every discusses – it’s the shopping center near Fairfax Circle with Artie’s, Bowl-o-Rama, and Lotte. As for the upcoming Courthouse location, I’ll let others fill me in on how that one’s doing; I’ve had enough for the time being. One interesting thing about their menu is that they explicitly state that their pho is available without cilantro for those who are sensitive to its flavor – I don’t remember ever seeing that before.

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Pizzaiolo Cafe on Fern, Fairlington

goodeats, on 29 Jun 2015 – 10:28 PM, said:

I was very sad to discover that the Shirlington location served cardboard cheese pizza now. Maybe it was because it was delivery, but I was rather disappointed with their cheese pizza ordered two weeks ago…lacked flavor, pizza very flat, cheese had no flavor, crust was hard, and even the boys (playdate) didn’t really want seconds….

I went to Pizzaiolo Cafe on Fern in Fairlington for the first time Wednesday evening, having absolutely no idea what to expect. I have fond memories of when Cafe Pizzaiolo first opened on 23rd Street in Crystal City – it was really good pizza, both the Neapolitan and the New York Crusts.

Let me start by saying something positive: This is a nice little bar to have good beer (they have six taps of fairly serious beers) and watch sports on either of their two flat-screen TVs. I started my meal with a pint of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, flanked by The Lonely Divorcée on my right (who was somewhat show-offy to the server, and loudly wished me “Bon Appetit!”), and The Yeungling Demander on my left (who complained that his Peroni wasn’t “amber” like Yeungling), and I overheard my friendly bartender (everybody is really laid back and friendly here) mention that Wednesday night is 2-for-1 pizza night. Two-for-one pizzas! I immediately knew what I was having for lunch the next day.

Since things were half-price, I went ahead and got two large pizzas: one to eat in, and the second to go, and figuring that I’d try to be as helpful as possible to our readers, decided to get one Neapolitan crust, and one New York crust to compare. I also figured that the Neapolitan crust would be better then-and-there, so I got that one to eat in, and the New York crust to go.

For my eat-in, Neapolitan pizza, I got a large Caprese ($16.99, but $8.50 at half-price) with fresh mozzarella, chopped roma tomatoes, garlic, sea salt, olive oil, and fresh basil (sounds like a no-brainer, right?), and as soon as it arrived, I knew it was a disaster. To start with, I have never seen more chopped tomatoes or more garlic on any pizza in my life – it looked like someone had shot both of these from a fire extinguisher, and the “Roma tomatoes” tasted old and of industrial quality, with a taste that was nearly metallic. No other topping mattered because there was such an enormous quantity of these other two, that the pizza could have come with hot fudge on it, and I wouldn’t have noticed. It was disgusting, it was the worst pizza I’ve had in memory, and I’m ashamed of myself for eating half of it, but I had just come from the gym and I was *starving*. If it’s any salvation of my credibility, I told my bartender to just give the second half to the kitchen staff (I was originally going to box it and take it home, but there was no way I was ever going to even look at this thing again). One other thing I should mention is that the crust was in no way Neapolitan, and was oversalted to a San Andreas fault.

Stuck with a second pizza, I left it out overnight, and took a peak at it the next morning. This one was the New York crust, a large La Famiglia ($17.99, $9.00 at half-price) with mozzarella, potato, bacon, roasted garlic, sliced tomato, and grana parmesan. Considering how low my expectations had fallen, I was pleasantly surprised … no, make that darned near amazed at this pizza, which was not only edible, but very close to being pleasant. First of all, absolutely get the New York crust – even after sitting out overnight, it was worlds better. The “potato” topping was thick (and I mean 1/2-inch thick) slices of fingerling potatoes which, when eaten with the grana parmesan, were darned good by themselves, especially considering they had been flavored with the bacon topping (not just bacon grease, but bacon). Would I come back here for this? No, but I have to say that I came pretty close to enjoying it, and nibbled on it throughout the day, heating it in my oven on two separate occasions. Needless to say, when faced with these two choices, go with the second one; run like the devil from the first.

And remember the bar, the pleasant staff, the flat-screen TVs, and the six worthwhile draft beers at the ready.

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Bob & Edith’s Diner, South Arlington

I’ve been up at the crack of dawn numerous times of late, and since I basically refuse to eat fast-food, that leaves me with precious few options for breakfast. However, I have had three different breakfast sandwiches, multiple times each, at Bob & Edith’s Diner, and feel very comfortable guiding you. I’ve had each of these sandwiches two, and sometimes three, times each. A very full breakfast would consist of any two of these sandwiches, coupled with one order of Home Fries ($1.89) – shredded potatoes, grilled and browned on a flat-top, crispy at the edges, soft in the middle, and not over-salted. Anyway, here are the sandwiches, in *ascending* order of quality – all of them are $4.79 each, and the only difference between them is the type, and quantity, of meat.

Good – Bacon, Egg, and Cheddar on English Muffin

Better – Sausage, Egg, and Cheddar on English Muffin

Best – Ham, Egg, and Cheddar on English Muffin

This ordering is generally the reverse of how I would think I’d prefer my breakfast sandwiches, the reasons being as follows:

The bacon is just a couple strips of bacon, not necessarily fried right then, and nothing particularly special. It’s okay, and I might like it more if the egg in the sandwich was runny, but it never is. While not bad, it’s eclipsed in both quality and quantity by the sausage and ham.

The sausage is a crumbly, well-browned patty, not links, and is coarsely ground, very browned, and irregularly cut, making it a pretty thick patty. It’s way above the norm as far as these things go, and you won’t regret ordering it if you enjoy sausage patties. By no means are these pre-cut patties – they’re from a loaf, and really well-fried on the griddle.

The ham is surprisingly good, and surprisingly plentiful. The last time I got two sandwiches (one with sausage, the other with ham), I picked each one up – they were wrapped in paper, and I didn’t peak to see which-was-which – to see if I could discern which was heavier. I switched hands, and in both weigh-ins, I could tell that the sandwich with ham was slightly heavier, and the reason is because they give you a *lot* of ham, and it’s *good* ham. If this was unfolded into one piece, it would be about the size of a football, but it’s folded over in thirds (making three layers), and then again in half (making six full layers of ham) – granted, they’re fairly thin layers, but this is real ham; not processed crap. It’s not at the level of cured country ham, but it’s actual ham, it’s very good, and there’s a lot of it.

There’s your Bob & Edith’s breakfast-sandwich primer for the day. Remember Bob & Edith’s is open 24 hours a day, and they’re happy to accept phone-in orders for pick-up.

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The Dairy Godmother, Del Ray

(Read the Mar 5, 2012 Minibite here.)

I was having a relatively rare hell-bent sweets craving the other evening, and had dinner (yes, dinner) at The Dairy Godmother, which was absolutely packed, with a line inside extending all the way to the end of the zig-zagging dividers, and wrapping around back into the restaurant with the back heading towards the restroom area (mercifully not out the door). It took a good ten minutes to reach the front, but like usual (although it had been awhile, probably over a year), it was worth it. I got a Large Sundae ($4.21, which, with tax, rounds up to an even number) with fresly extracted chocolate-vanilla custard side-by-side, the free almonds topping, my other topping (crushed nuts because I didn’t feel like fruit), and no whipped cream even though it was gratis. This was a very small “large,” but I thoroughly enjoyed it once I resisted the street temptation to start in on it walking down Mount Vernon and E. Del Ray Avenue. The Dairy Godmother remains as it has always been: a gem, rivaled only inside the beltway by what Frozen Dairy Bar *used* to be. This little sundae, very small for a “large” by today’s standards, is enough to keep The Dairy Godmother strongly ranked in Italic in the Del Ray portion of the Dining Guide.

“The Mother of Us All” (1947), libretto by Gertrude Stein, music by Virgil Thomson.

Please read this post from the Oldest Restaurants in the Washington, DC Area thread.

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Mussel Bar & Grille, Ballston

(See the Jan 23, 2011 Review here.)

Once more to Arlington. The mussels were very good. The beer was good, although I’m pretty sure my first glass was not what I ordered.

I had the opposite problem as agm: the beer and mussels were both very good, but the mussels were not what I ordered.

This evening, I went into the Ballston Mussel Bar & Grille, in the old Bob Peck Chevrolet building, on which they retained that classic diamond-rimmed arc, and even have a plaque on the sidewalk – many thanks to all involved for keeping some of the original character of that classic building. The bar is full of happy-hour activity from 5-7 PM, with notable – but not huge – discounts given on beer and wine – these prices are fairly expensive, so their discounted prices are still fairly substantial money-makers for them, especially given the added volume.

Sticking with drafts Troëgs Hopback Amber Ale ($5 at happy hour), I noticed that Mussel Bar had 108 bottles beers and 16 drafts (that is a *lot* of bottled beer!). The Hopback is not all that hoppy, in fact, the “Hops” take something of a “Back” seat (see what I did there?), and this is more of a Scottish Ale – amber-red, but lower in alcohol and even pleasantly mild, but having full flavor (it is, after all, brewed in Hershey, PA).

Also taking note of the $10 half-order of mussels happy hour specials for dinner, I got a half-order of Kennett Square Mushroom Mussels (usually $16), but the runner brought out a different prep: the White Wine Mussels (usually $15), and in retrospect, this was probably my fault; not theirs – he was looking around, trying to figure out whose order it was, and I flagged him down, and he put it in front of me. Well, I’m sorry someone else got my order, but I’m glad I got this – the broth is like a New England Clam Chowder: cream-based, with a *lot* of lemon, a half-head of soft, roasted garlic (sliced horizontally) resting in the bottom-center of the cast-iron skillet, parsley, and presumably some white wine, making for a delicious mussel broth. I made the decidedly foolish decision to try and count my mussels in this half-order to give diners some perspective, and gave up, deciding that there were about 50 mussels – over 4-dozen – and they were very tiny, each mollusk being the size of a large English pea, so the work involved in extracting and eating them was considerable, and even eating non-stop, it took me about 15-20 minutes to get through the order, not that I was complaining. I prefer small-sized shellfish in general, and while these were somewhat on the chew side, so what? For $10, this was a fantastic thing to order – a plate of about 5 slices of freshly heated bread showed up about ten minutes into my meal, and I immediately placed them into the broth to begin saturation, then flipped them after several minutes – they served as oyster crackers, and they served me well.

The only problem with this meal was the service – it’s a noise-box, just like so many other bomb shelters in North Arlington, and there were several distinct problems in communicating my needs – my second beer, for example, and when I finally got around to needing the check, I became The Invisible Man, having to wait several minutes before I even got any eye contact. It got to the point where I picked up my receipt, credit card in hand, and held it up to my chest so that anyone casting even the slightest glance would see the situation. I didn’t do this in any sort of aggressive fashion (I hate diners at bars who are aggressive in trying to get bartenders’ attention, essentially butting in line); but I decided it was the only way I’d be noticed, and even *that* didn’t work, as it took a couple of minutes even after assuming that position – the bartenders were off chatting with customers, or doing other things, and it was probably just a coincidence that nobody walked by during that seemingly interminable slice of time.

Nevertheless, I ordered according to the strength of this restaurant: happy-hour draft beer and happy-hour mussels, and so I got the biggest bang for the buck, rather than something another diner might find during non-happy-hour times and prices. My advice is to go here between 5-7 on weekdays, and order exactly what I did – you’ll be pleased. I turned down the slight up-sell of frites or sweet-potato fries, figuring the bread would be sufficient starch, and I was right – I also saw both the frites and sweet-potato fries on the way in, and they looked extremely greasy, and rather unappealing.

So you can consider this a good review of Mussel Bar & Grille, but also a review that happened to play into the restaurant’s strengths. Parking is readily available in the garage on either side of N. Glebe Road (but not the back side) for $2 an hour – the restaurant is right on the corner of N. Glebe Rd. and Wilson Blvd. – make sure to remember your ticket, as it’s an un-manned garage, and you’ll need to pay at the pay stations at the bottom of the elevators, which shoot you right up near the entrance of the restaurant, which, by the way, has a very pleasant patio on the N. Glebe Rd. side.

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Osteria da Nino, Shirlington

Osteria da Nino, not Samuel Beckett’s Tavern, is the best restaurant in Shirlington.

First, let me add that I went back to Samuel Beckett’s Tavern for a late supper the other evening, and only the bar menu was available. Starting off with a New Belgium Shift Lager, a respectable session beer that’s as good as anything I’ve found at Samuel Beckett’s, I went straight for the 800-pound gorilla that I’ve always avoided ordering here: Sam’s Lamb Burger ($14), fresh ground lamb mixed with spices, and topped off with Cashel blue cheese, served with hand-cut chips and lettuce, tomato, and onion on a sesame-seed roll. This burger was huge – probably 10-12 ounces, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and came positively slathered with a Cashel blue cheese sauce (I have visited the Cashel farm in Ireland, adore this cheese, and had every reason to be “pulling for” this sauce, but this was just gloppy and gross); the tub of ketchup and extremely garlicky mayonnaise for my fries went completely untouched (except for a fingertip-taste of the mayonnaise to gage the garlic). This sandwich was over-the-top, and while the lamb was of good quality (how often do you see such a large lamb-burger topped with Cashel blue?), it was simply too much gook – I ended up opening up my roll, scraping off the sauce, and eating the meat alone. Many people order this sandwich, and I suspect many people like it, but it’s just too much for me, and I’ll stick with more refined cooking here the next time I come. Onward!

I took hopsing’s post about Osteria da Nino very seriously when I read it, and kidnapped my young dining companion last night, smuggling him into Shirlington – Osteria da Nino is very close to Carlyle, but since it’s one building off of “the strip,” it was completely dead. This is a restaurant you have to know about in order to find it, and it’s going to need to get some publicity out there in order to succeed, especially at dinnertime. And succeed it should, because right now there’s nothing else this good in all of Shirlington. The Beef Wellington I had the other night at Samuel Beckett’s was certainly right up there, but that was a daily special, and I’m unconvinced Beckett’s can produce cooking of that high level of quality when the pub is crowded; perhaps it can.

I started off with a glass of Pinot Grigio ($8) as we waited for our two appetizers to split, and as soon as they hit the table, I knew we had found what has been missing from Shirlington for so long with Osteria da Nino – a somewhat spacious, spartan restaurant that could use a bit of warmth and interior design to bring together the cold-feeling hard surfaces into something resembling, dare I say, the product of a woman’s touch.

Fritto Misto ($12) was a large cone containing some unusual and delicious fried items: shrimp, salmon, and fennel (the fennel being the only miss, being cut too large and not cooked quite long enough) – still, this was an excellent rendition of fritto misto that is well-worth ordering. Seasoned perfectly by itself, it did not need the garlic-curry mayonnaise dipping sauce it came with, but we used it in moderation anyway. Delicious, and a perfectly contrast to our Insalata Burrata ($10), a fantastic combination of burrata, cherry tomatoes, plums, nectarines, and a bit of pesto – I’m not sure where the chef got this recipe from, but it works, and it works brilliantly. If this dish, or a variation of it, is on the menu, order it.

Garganelli con ragù di maiale ($17) was a good-sized bowl of piping hot garganelli pasta, with Papa Weever Farms pork ragu, fennel, spices, gremmalata, parmesan, and baby arugula. There was nothing surprising about this dish (unlike with the burrata), but it was satisfying, and a perfect foil to the Filetto di Branzino ($24) which came with a fascinating brick-sized rectangle of Sicilian tahboli (yes, it’s the same thing you’ll get in a Lebanese restaurant, except with pomegranates), arrabiatta sauce, and crispy faro. The sea bass was perfectly cooked, with its skin crisped just the way you want it.

“The Rules” of being a restaurant critic say you aren’t supposed to judge a restaurant after one visit, but I’ve never been one to follow rules. This is a very exciting, promising restaurant, and is so much better than anything I’ve ever had in Shirlington (Beef Wellington notwithstanding) that I’m making a beeline in its direction the next time I head down S. Quincy Street.

Parking is plentiful in a lot just behind the restaurant.

An important addendum: I got a text message from someone who saw this, warning me that their first visit to Osteria da Nino was a wonderful surprise; their second visit had more inconsistencies. Doesn’t it figure that the *only* time I ever question critics’ standards, is the time I get called out for possibly jumping the gun! :) Anyway, I’m not at liberty to go into detail, but you’ll probably read more about this later.

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Buzz Bakery, Alexandria

I set up my workstation at Buzz Bakery, armed with a Large Americano ($3.30), fortified by a somewhat expensive Extra Shot ($1.00). Buzz uses Ceremony Coffee Roasters, based in Annapolis. Note that Ceremony, in addition to having their roastery in Annapolis, is opening up a coffee house in Mount Vernon in Baltimore (up by our nation’s first Washington Monument, started in 1815 and finished in 1829, designed by famed architect Robert Mills (who also originally designed the more famous Washington Monument in Washington, DC). Mills also designed substantial parts of the Department of the Treasury building between 1839 and 1842, as well as many other notable Federal projects, ensuring his place among the pantheon (ironically) of legendary architects of Washington, DC and the the United States of America in general).

I also had a Gala Apple Fritter with Spiced Glaze ($2.50).

Despite all the rich history and “Buzz” surrounding Ceremony, my Americano was unacceptably bitter – every bit as bitter as a Starbucks roast, and needing every granule of turbinado sugar poured into it (I love raw sugar in my Americanos – it adds not only sweetness, but texture, as I don’t even bother stirring the drink. When faced with the choice of turbinado sugar or simple syrup, I’ll generally opt for turbinado sugar with iced Americanos. I let it sink to the bottom, then mash my straw all the way down there, making sure to get at least one crystal with each delightful sip).

The atmosphere of the original Buzz Bakery remains comfortable, although it’s getting a touch worn, adding to its charm. It’s really a nice place to set up a workstation and enjoy some coffee and a sweet, giving the customer a choice of indie rock inside, or a small, charming patio outside, mere steps away from a Capital Bikeshares rack. Have you joined Capital Bikeshares yet? You should, if for no other reason than that it allows you to park where there are actual parking spaces, pick up a bike, and ride it to your destination restaurant. I haven’t actually done this yet, but it’s in the master plan, and yes, I absolutely got the $75 annual membership (it’s now $85). I first saw a setup like this in Copenhagen in 2000, and it seemed so unbelievably progressive and *cool* at the time; I cannot believe it’s here in DC just fifteen short years later – my, how things have changed.

My apple fritter was positively laced with a caramel coating, and I’d be lying if I said the glaze didn’t hit all the right notes. I hate that sweets go so well with coffee, but they do, and so my dessert time is often reserved for the morning, doing a large disservice to our city’s outstanding pastry chefs. Note to all pastry chefs I talked with about a year ago: I apologize for not following through with my piece, but I got legitimately sidetracked in a big, unavoidable way – contact me, and you’ll understand when I explain things to you; otherwise, I’ll be getting back in touch, wanting to continue working on the story, hopefully sometime this year.

Since the extremely talented Tiffany MacIssac left Neighborhood Restaurant Group in May of 2014, and actually even before she left, when she officially moved from Birch and Barley to Buzz Bakery, and perhaps even before that, Buzz had gone downhill from when it first opened. I thought sure I had written Tiffany and said as much, but I don’t see anything in my outbox, so maybe it’s just something I had thought to do – she was destined for bigger and better things from the get-go, and I have no doubt that her already-successful career will continue to vault upward in future years.

I was in the mood for sugar this morning, and the fritter was just what I wanted (the other doughnut on offer was a maple-glazed yeast doughnut with bacon on top – please, God, hammer it into restaurateurs’ heads that the tragic bacon-in-dessert failure-fad is mercifully coming to an end, and please inspire important restaurant groups such as NRG to take the lead in terminating this awful, disgusting use of two otherwise fine items). Anyway, I hadn’t had much sugar in quite awhile now, and this blast of glazed joy was exactly what I wanted this morning; this fritter may be too sweet for some people, but it wasn’t for me, at least not this morning – I had to pace myself not to finish it before finishing my coffee). It was a delicious fritter!

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Sally’s Middle Name, H Street Corridor

I stopped by an empty Sally’s Middle Name at 5:30 on Monday evening, and had one of the very best meals I’ve had in a long time.

First of all, it’s important to note that Sally’s Middle Name (SMN) was still working out the final details for their ABRA licenses. They weren’t serving alcohol on Monday, but I was told with confidence that it was a matter of days, and almost surely by this weekend. Although a liquor license might take a bit longer than a beer and wine license, and although you should call first to be sure, it seems like they’re on track to be serving beer and wine by this weekend.

This is a charming little restaurant with a really nice marble bar. The menu is written behind the bar on a chalkboard, easily visible from all points in the restaurant. And the deeper I got into my meal, the more my head kept turning around, wanting to try more and more.

In lieu of wine (which this food richly deserves), I enjoyed a Rhubarb Shrub ($4). SMN has several non-alcoholic drinks that are beyond the norm, and this shrub made me glad that they didn’t have their ABRA license finalized, as I never would have tried it. Even if you do get alcohol, I would urge you to try this wonderful drink (and shrubs are generally not my favorite thing in the world, as I don’t love the thought of drinking vinegar; nevertheless, this was delicious).

Laugh if you will, but the best dish I’ve had in recent memory was SMN’s Snap Peas with Goat Butter and Mint ($6). This dish was so good that I would revel in eating it every single day if I only could. It is exactly what you picture: snap peas, mostly shelled, sautéed in a wonderful goat butter, with a dazzling undertone of mint that jolted me into realizing how few restaurants are actually *cooking* these days, certainly not at this level of quality and execution. Executive Chef Sam Adkins wasn’t in, but Chef de Cuisine Miranda Rosenfelt knocked this dish out of the park. She was back there, with her sauté pan, cooking my peas like her life depended on it, and what showed up in front of me was a golden shower of peas that I will remember for a long, long time. Get this dish. Trust me, just get it, and thank me later.

Rabbit Livers with Brioche and Cherries ($12) was another home run, and an absolutely perfect combination of flavors and textures, the only nitpick being that the brioche was a bit too saturated with butter, but I simply placed it on top of my rabbit liver, and pulled a Smash Burger, allowing the butter to drip down onto my liver. This would have been a very, very good dish with just the rabbit liver and brioche, but the cherries sent it soaring through the chimney.

I had only come in for a small, early meal, but there was no way I was leaving without trying at least one other thing, so I ordered the Virginia Green Beans with Lamb Pancetta ($8), equal in technical quality to the snap peas, and falling short only in the indefinable quality of magic. This was a great plate of green beans, and how often do you see lamb pancetta? Of note: SMN was also serving another rabbit dish, and it’s generally a great sign when a restaurant like this has multiple preparations of an unusual meat, because that means they’re butchering in-house.

Tempted by the house made ice cream, or a strawberry milk shake, or a babka, I instead left knowing that I would return in the very near future, and with the satisfaction of having stumbled upon what will be one of the greatest restaurants to open in the Washington, DC area in 2015. Go to Sally’s Middle Name *now*, while you can still get a seat. A standing ovation for this fantastic new restaurant, which is one of only a microscopic number of restaurants successfully combining the very best of the old world and the new.

And there’s no tipping! An 18% service charge is included on your bill, and there isn’t even a space on the credit card receipt to leave a tip.

I am initializing coverage of Sally’s Middle Name by ranking it *strongly* in Italic, and also ranking it #1 on the H Street Corridor in the Dining Guide. Bravo!

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Bangkok 54, South Arlington

My disagreement about Bangkok 54 with local critics, as well as with many diners, goes back over ten years, and continues to this very day. At the risk of losing readership, I urge people who think that Bangkok 54 is a superior Thai restaurant to set me aside as a restaurant critic, and to rely on other peoples’ opinions instead. I say this not to be belligerent, but to be consumer-friendly.

Twice recently, I have retried Bangkok 54, and I’m sorry to say that my opinion has not changed much at all. That said, it seems to be bustling with a healthy business, and I’m happy that diners seem to be enjoying it. Note that they’re open 7 days a week, from 11 AM to 10 PM (11 PM on Fridays and Saturdays), and that they deliver in a limited area with a minimum of $20 and no delivery charge.

Thai Curry Puff ($6.95) is something I occasionally enjoy at Thai Noy and Bangkok Golden, and also an appetizer that could easily be purchased pre-made rather than formed in-house, although I have no particular reason to believe this, other than that this is the type of thing that wholesalers tend to make. A vegetarian appetizer, filled predominantly with potatoes and a mild, sweet curry spice, these Three Little Puffs are served here with a typically thin, sweet cucumber-pickle “relish,” and the innards are a bit darker, and slightly sweeter, than your standard version, perhaps due to a bit of tamarind – or they may even be sweet potato. These are worth ordering, and plenty for two to share, although you’ll need to slice the third one down the middle.

Tom Ka with Chicken ($4.25) is a respectable version of this staple soup, which remains a consistently good value from restaurant to restaurant. Bangkok 54’s is a bit on the sour side (a good thing, given that it’s cut with coconut milk), but other than that, it’s a very standard version of Tom Ka Gai, perhaps with a touch more fish sauce than some – I adore this soup when a restaurant serves it in that torus-shaped aluminum soup bowl with a flame in the middle (does anyone know the name of this vessel?)

“That should be illegal” was the response from my friend when I told her that Bangkok 54 didn’t offer Pad Woon Sen, which is her favorite Thai dish. However, Spicy Noodle Salad ($7.95) came fairly close. Offered as a room-temperature appetizer, it’s cellophane noodles with minced shrimp and chicken, seasoned with “exotic spice and cilantros,” and without seeing the description, my friend mentioned that it came with quite a bit of cilantro. The first thing I noticed about this is how much liquid was in it, and that liquid seems to be predominantly lime juice, as this is one of the more lime-focused dishes I’ve had in quite some time. This is by no means Pad Woon Sen, but it’s an enjoyable appetizer that’s more the size of a small entree, although it contains only one or two shrimp; there’s a fair amount of minced chicken, however.

Spicy Catfish Curry ($13.95) had disks of somewhat dried out catfish, in a red curry sauce, with baby corn, Thai eggplant, snow peas, and young peppercorns (two bunches in the dish). While this dish had some potential, and the amount of catfish was fairly generous, it came across as an extremely generic, middle-of-the-road entree which could have come from most any Thai restaurant.

54’s Spicy Duck ($15.95) consisted of deep-fried strips of duck meat, quite dry, sauteed with fresh chili, garlic sauce, and crispy basil leaves. While this is the only item on Bangkok 54’s menu that is marked, “Must Try!” my companion – who has a budding interest in the culinary arts but is not an expert – did not recognize the meat as duck. This, despite the heavily battered strips being quite hefty in size. This is a dish that needs to be had shortly after preparation, as the garlic sauce quickly attacks the crispiness of the fried batter.

My favorite dish of the two visits, by far, was the Yellow Chicken Curry ($12.95), which I enjoyed so much on the first visit that I ordered it again on the second – on both occasions, it was worth ordering, and even a bit better on the second visit as the chicken was more tender. It’s slightly on the sweet side, and contains cubes of fairly dry, boneless chicken meat, brought to life in a mild, yellowish kari curry paste (an Indian-influenced Thai curry that is close in spirit to a Massamun dish) – it comes with an optional order of Roti ($2), a griddled bread which really isn’t optional, as it’s fantastic with this entree – cut into little wedges in the shape of pie slices, it takes this good dish, and turns it into a very good dish. It’s going to be difficult for me not to order this the next time I try Bangkok 54.

After these two visits, I cannot justify saying Bangkok 54 is anything more than a decent Thai restaurant, dressed up to appear a bit more formal than your typical strip-mall mom-n-pop Thai. Two fairly important reviews from over ten years ago appear to be allowing this restaurant to ghost surf, but you should not be swayed into thinking Bangkok 54 is anything more than “good” – I cannot rank it in Italic, and so it must remain as before.

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Samuel Beckett’s Irish Gastropub, Shirlington

(See the May 28, 2011 Review here.)

I stopped into Samuel Beckett’s early Saturday evening, at a time when Shirlington Village was packed outside, but the crowds hadn’t yet made their way into the restaurants there – I took a seat at the front bar (there’s also a much smaller bar in the back room).

One thing I noticed on this visit was that the selection of beers was ordinary, at best – there were plenty to choose from, but I was struggling to find something of interest. Often, in situations such as this, I’ll go ahead and try something I haven’t tried before, figuring that if I wasn’t going to be delighted with my beer, I could at least have a new experience.

The last time I had a Smithwick’s was at Duffy’s Irish Pub, and I believe that might have been the Pale Ale, so I ordered a pint of Smithwick’s Premium Irish Ale (a painful $7). Brewed in Kilkenny, Ireland by Guinness Brewery, this is a mediocre, mass-produced beer that leans malty and slightly sour, and reminded me of why I haven’t had one in several years.

Samuel Beckett’s is one of only two Irish pubs in the DC area that I have ranked in Italic in the Dining Guide (the other being Daniel O’Connell’s in Old Town). In my experiences, these two have stood head-and-shoulders above any of the others I’ve tried, and I was curious to see how well Samuel Beckett’s has stood up over the past few years – I was last here perhaps three years ago. Having confidence in the kitchen, and noticing that both items I got on my previous visit (the Tipperary Tart and the Vol-au-Vent) were still on the menu, I went ahead and ordered something of a high-risk dish – the daily special of Beef Wellington ($22), six ounces of steak, cooked to a perfect medium-rare (although my bartender said they were coming out medium), and served with a generous scoop of Parmesan Mashed Potatoes and Broccolini with a bit of dark reduction sauce under the Beef Wellington.

Well, not only was I pleasantly surprised “for an Irish pub,” but I thought this was one of the best Beef Wellington dishes I’ve had in many, many years. I adore Beef Wellington, and see it so rarely that I nab it whenever I can, but I haven’t seen it in a long time now – this was a fantastic version, so good that I almost ordered a second one to have for lunch the next day, but I realized that it wouldn’t reheat very well, and that (as my mom always said) “my eyes were bigger than my stomach.” The potatoes were delicious, and the broccolini, while well-cooked and coming in a generous pile, was plain, unseasoned, and the only thing on the plate that needed improvement. This was a big winner for Samuel Beckett’s that would draw me back on a regular basis if I could have some assurance it would be a regular dish on the menu.

For my second beer, I switched to a bottle of New Belgium Ranger IPA ($5), a stereotypical American IPA brewed in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was full of hops and citrus, and reminded me of why I so rarely get American IPAs. No matter – the Beef Wellington was the calling card of this unexpectedly wonderful dinner, and I hope to see that dish taking its rightful place on Samuel Beckett’s menu on a permanent basis. A fantastic job from the kitchen of this large Irish pub, which remains enthusiastically in Italic, and rests alone atop the restaurants in Shirlington Village – if there’s a better restaurant than this in the neighborhood, I’d love to hear about it.

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