One Block West, Winchester, VA

Along with The Inn at Little Washington and The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, I know of no restaurant in Northwestern Virginia equal to Ed Matthews’ One Block West, which is sadly closing on Aug 5, 2017. When I heard that One Block West was closing, and knew that I hadn’t yet even been there, I realized that it was because of people like me that it was closing – I always knew in the back of my mind that this was a great restaurant, based on feedback I received from trusted diners, but I’d never experienced it for myself, and I never quite knew *how* great it was – Winchester, VA is losing a culinary treasure.

Chef Ed wrote me after our meal, and told me that the menu that evening was “inspired in large part by a stroll through my home garden Saturday morning before coming to work.” That sounds like the boatload of BS many restaurants feed diners as a marketing tactic, but in this case, it was the absolute truth – it was obvious that basil was an important part of this meal, and the link that tied together all of the first courses.

I could rave, poke, prod, and urge everyone to get out to One Block West this week, but it won’t do any good, because neither hell nor high water could stop Ed from moving out to Oregon later this month. I reminded him that the total eclipse would be passing through his new home, and he seemed happy at having it as a bonus, but when I urged him not to leave the culinary field, he put his finger on his throat, made a cutting motion, and said, “I’m done,” adding that every restaurant in Portland had called him when they heard he was moving out that way. It’s their loss, it’s our loss – the only person who’s going to be happier because of this is Ed Matthews, who will finally have a chance to live the life he deserves. “I hope you become a realtor and make a fortune,” I told him, when I realized that he Really. Is. Done.

Before I went out to One Block West, I asked Ed what the tasting menu would be, and he said he wasn’t doing any more tasting menus, but when I arrived, he told me that he cobbled one together, and was offering it to others in the restaurant as well. What a meal this was – a meal which I’ll never forget, and a reminder that words alone do not support a business.

This post is a profound, albeit inadequate, show of my respect and gratitude towards Chef Ed Matthews: one of the great culinary geniuses ever to have graced the Washington, DC region.

The wines we had were perhaps my two favorite Virginia whites: one bottle each of Thibault-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay Sparkling Wine, and Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc. With dessert, we each had a wonderful glass of Calvados (what else should you have with a Clafoutis?)

Note: I asked Ed to take pictures of each dish before sending them out, so I wouldn’t have to fumble around with my iPhone during dinner – he was gracious enough to email them to me so I could use a copy. These are the actual dishes we were served:

Scallop Crudo – Scallop, Sweet Corn, Tomato, Basil Oil, JQ Dickinson Salt, Basil:

Wahoo Napoleon – Tomato, Half-Grilled Wahoo, Tomato Vinaigrette, Cilantro Aioli:

Insalata Caprese – House-Made Mozzarella, Pesto Oil, Balsamic-Marinated Cherry Tomatoes, Basil:

Thai Lamb Salad – Cold-Sliced Grilled Lamb (Lamb Marinated in Thai Basil, Mint, and Lemon Balm), Greens, Cilantro, Thai Basil, Cilantro, Cucumber, Carrot, Peanuts, Thai Lime-Fish Sauce Dressing:

Peach-Thai Basil Sorbet

Duck – Grilled Moulard Duck, Flageolets, Caramelized Tomatoes:

Cherry Clafoutis – Clafoutis, Blueberry Mascarpone, Crème Anglaise,  Blueberries, Pickled Blueberries:

When we waved the white flag, we were told that only one course remained: the Clafoutis. I joked with our server that I was a Clafoutis snob, and that a true Clafoutis should always be served with unpitted cherries, knowing full-well that in a restaurant, that’s not the reality. We were, of course, served our Clafoutis with our cherries having been pitted. Until my final bite – that son-of-a-bitch somehow managed to sneak *one* unpitted cherry into the back of my dessert, just because he could. Hilarious and remarkable!

I’m raising One Block West to Bold in the Virginia Dining Guide, and that is how it shall be retired.

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Sushi Bar at Sushi Ogawa, North Dupont

Let me start by saying I’ve never been to Japan, and I’ve never been to Masa.

That said, for my personal preference, Japan is second only to France for my favorite cuisine, and I am very much of a sushi and sashimi hound – it’s just about my favorite thing (along with foie gras, caviar, etc.)

I had, without much doubt, the best Sashimi-Sushi Omakase I’ve ever eaten on Wednesday night at the Sushi Bar at Sushi Ogawa, and I’ve been to most of the great sushi specialists in the U.S. and Vancouver.

The only option is a $100 omakase, and I highly advise all diners to call and see if Chef Ogawa will be working before they commit to this meal.

My friend made the reservation under her name, and I have no reason to think I was recognized, but boy, this sure seemed like more than the “12-14 courses” they advertise. I don’t rule out the possibility that I was spotted, but regardless, I’m spotted at most other top Japanese restaurants in DC, and nobody has put out sashimi and sushi like this before, not even the great Sushi Taro.

I had made an exception to my own unwritten rule (the only other one-visit Bold I’ve ever made has been Elements in Princeton, NJ), and initialized Sushi Bar at Sushi Ogawa as such (this was absolutely the best meal I’ve had in 2017, my dining partner said it was by far the best sashimi-sushi she’s ever eaten, and I’ve spent nearly 8 weeks this year in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles), but just to be prudent, I’m going to wait for other people to chime in.

There are numerous Michelin 3-star sushi restaurants in Japan, but I honestly cannot envision any sashimi-sushi-driven meals being much better than this, even though I’m sure they are. Still, this raised the bar for me, personally, by a fair amount. About the only thing that fell short of excellence was the crème brûlée (it was fine, but Koji Terano can rest easy).

If you go with another person, treat yourselves to a .720ml bottle of Eikun “Big Hawk” Junmai Ginjo sake ($65 on their list, and it will carry you through the entire meal).

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German Restaurants

This is posted out in front of German Gourmet in Bailey’s Crossroads:

German Gourmet is an absolutely fantastic German enclave – the best German market in the area (that I’m aware of), and terrific prepared foods. Yesterday, it was Bratwurst with sauerkraut and mustard, and they were fantastic – butterflied, so the juices co-mingled with their excellent roll.

Of course, when I walked out, my bill for the Bratwursts was over $70, because I was unleashed in their aisles of beer, wine, etc. – they have one of the very best selections of German beers of anyone in the DC area, and unlike many small, ethnic markets, their beer is all fresh – every bottle well before the expiry date.

I don’t know why I didn’t have German Gourmet in Italic, but it’s every bit as good as The Swiss Bakery or The Italian Store​​​​​​​.

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Little Sheep, Eden Center, Falls Church

So, how big is Little Sheep Hot Pot?

Big. In fact, *really* big. It was really big five years ago.

Based in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China, Little Sheep Group posted 2 percent of all Chinese dining-out expenses in 2010. Think about that for a second.

And then, it got *REALLY* big.

In 2011, Little Sheep Group was sold to the massive, $10+ billion Yum! Brands, Inc. (the owners of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc.) for $587 million, and it’s now a wholly-owned subsidiary – they recently opened their first Little Sheep Hot Pot in Eden Center.

Ironically, you’d *never* know it was a giga-chain.

This restaurant is somethng like Mala Tang, except it has big, *big* money behind it. It’s well-organized, family-friendly, and is designed for groups (definitely not the solo diner; unless you want a lot of leftovers).

Ordering involves a simple, 5-step checklist, where you check off your broth, your meat, your seafood, your vegetables, and your starch – whichever ones you want.

The broth is $2.95, and the extras are what cost the money. I *strongly* advise going with the “original” or the “Yin and Yang”; not the “Spicy” – it’s too much.

I got the Yin and Yang ($2.95), and for my meat, ordered the Dry-Aged Spring Lamb ($8.95). Tong Ho (a massive pot of Chrysanthemum Blossoms, $4), and Fresh, Thick Noodle ($4). Since it’s their soft opening, they threw in a generous little plate of Fatty Steak (Gratis).

Considering I made a quick decision, I was very happy with everything I ordered, but you can do even better if you look at the menu before you go, and add even more vegetables – maybe some large mushrooms, taro root, and the like. It’s the meats and seafood which will really set you back; not the vegetables. My hot pot, including tax (but not tip) was $23.05, and it could have *easily* fed two people, with leftover broth – one person gets the same amount of broth as four people. That amount also included a Diet Coke with unlimited refills.

All the meats seem to be frozen, and the non-seafood in particular are those thin, Steak-Umm-like things – the real treasure here lies in the vegetables. You definitely want some starch (noodles, potatoes, etc.) to thicken the broth as it reduces. The base broth seems to contain every kind of pod, twig, root, spice, nut, and berry known to mankind (the picture below is of the broth before I put a single thing in it – you can easily see that unless you’re a bonafide chili-head, you don’t want the entire thing to be spicy).

Here are some pictures to give you a better idea of what to expect. Do not let the “chain” aspect of this throw you off – it’s perfectly fine hot pot, and it was packed this afternoon for a late lunch on President’s Day.


 

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Ad Hoc, Yountville, CA

I can’t believe that as many times as I’ve visited Napa, I haven’t been to Ad Hoc. This is Thomas Keller’s “take what we serve,” family-style restaurant in Yountville, just down the Street from The French Laundry (pssst, that link will magically work in the next couple of months).

At first glance, Ad Hoc seems frightfully expensive for what you get, but it isn’t at all, and in fact, I can’t wait to go back. There’s a different, family-style, set menu served each night of the week, and since we went on a Monday, here was ours (there’s no difference going on a Monday than any other night, in terms of price, quantity, or quality – at least, none that I know of):

 <— This is $52 per person, which may seem expensive, but I’m going to try and explain why it’s a very good value.

People were grumbling about Eric Ziebold’s “Whole Chicken” for $56, even though that was for *two people* – well, Ad Hoc’s menu for two people is $104, and you’re getting “Fried Chicken,” so how am I possibly going to explain this?

Very easily. It’s been well-established by now that Ziebold’s chicken at $56 is a ridiculous bargain, considering what you get with it, and this set menu, at $52 per person, is also a very good deal (I won’t go so far as to call it a “ridiculous bargain”) – considering that it’s 100% of the food that you’ll be eating on this evening – and every single thing is fantastic! Or at least it was for us.

Wine, of course, is extra, but Ad Hoc’s wine prices are fair, and their wine list is expertly chosen – with this set meal, you have to go (or “you’re best-off going”) with a Rosé, since a Rosé is sort-of half-way between a red and a white, and will overlap both white courses and red courses – remember your Venn Diagrams from Geometry:

 <— Except that the overlap is much greater than this picture shows.

So, they naturally had a couple of Rosés to choose from, and our request for our server was simple: Bring us the palest, driest Rosé from France, preferably from the Southeast of France, that you have. He knew instantly which wine to pick, and that brings up another point: Our server knew every ingredient in every dish that we had on this evening, and also knew the wine list back-and-forth. Thomas Keller trains his staff very well, and you just don’t see this kind of knowledge in a lot of restaurants – this is worth a lot to the diner, even though it may be something that gets overlooked.

Our Grenache Gris: a 2015 Domaine de Figueirasse ($40) from the Languedoc region of France. “Do you know if this wine was bled off the top of the vat?” I asked, and he said, “No, its gently pressed..” How many servers are even going to know what “vin saignée” is? Bled Rosé can be fine, but pressed Rosé is just a better wine making method – I could write a 5,000-word thesis on why this is so, but it just is. Oenophiles are reading this right now, nodding their heads, and admiring our server – every single one of them.

This is an all-organic winery that was founded in 1905, and this is the wine you should be getting here with anything that isn’t a dark meat, such as beef or lamb – you’ll be happy, I promise!

Our meal began with a bread course (house-made bread (don’t forget, Keller’s bakery is essentially right next door) with the same, wonderfully creamy, salted butter you get at Bouchon. With it, came a perfectly dressed County Line Chicory Salad with eggs mimosa, pickled red onions, French Laundry garden radishes, and creamy garlic dressing – and when I say “perfectly dressed,” I mean that this salad could not have been dressed any better, and contained exactly the correct amount of dressing.

We took our time noshing on our salad, and even though the restaurant was completely full, we didn’t feel rushed in any way. Only when we were finished, and not a moment before, were the plates cleared, and within moments the main course and two sides arrived, and oh did they look good – and they were every bit as good as they looked. This is some of the best Buttermilk Fried Chicken I’ve ever eaten, and ironically, about the only better fried chicken I’ve had was in the next county over, but we’ll get to that shortly. The batter is dredged in buttermilk, and the chicken is served with Cauliflower Gratin and Mushroom & Carrot Ragout. I strongly suspect my dining companion will have more to say about these two side orders. Don’t let the picture of the chicken fool you – this was a huge amount of fried chicken, and we had some to take home for lunch the next day – you’ll have leftovers from this meal unless you play Offensive Tackle for the 49ers.

And there’s still more to come. One of the only truly generous cheese courses I’ve encountered in quite awhile (aren’t you sick of getting little slivers of cheese?) By the way, here’s a dirty little secret: Many retailers mark up their cheeses by (be sitting down when you read this) 100%. Cheese is not that expensive at the wholesale level – when you see cheese that’s $20 and $30 a pound, don’t blame the cheesemakers, and don’t blame the wholesalers; blame the retailers. Why do you think you see so many Groupon offers from cheese retailers, advertising 50% off their cheese? Do you think it’s because they want to lose money? Let that one sink in for awhile, and store it in your long-term memory. Back to the meal: *Look* at this amazing Andante Dairy’s Tomme Dolce, served with the most *amazing* Corn Pone and House-Made Mixed Berry Jam!

I

You’re *still* not finished, because there’s a dessert course – in our case, two jars of Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crumble and Whipped Chantilly, one of which is pictured here, turned over after being half-eaten – we thought coffee would hit the spot, so we got a French Press of Decaf Coffee with our dessert ($5 total, and worth it).

Well, I don’t know if I’ve convinced you that this dinner is worth $104 for two people (not including extras), but for my palate and budget, it was worth it and then some. Ad Hoc is a wonderful restaurant, that has many of the niceties that a Thomas Keller institution can provide – and don’t forget, he spends an *awful* lot of time in Yountville, which is essentially a one-street town. Ad Hoc is wonderful, and worth a trip from San Francisco – *absolutely* worth a trip if you’re in Napa or Sonoma counties to begin with.

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Rasika, Penn Quarter

I’ve been to Rasika many times in my life, perhaps a dozen or so. Although the restaurant has gone from being “just another good restaurant” to “one of the toughest reservations in Washington, DC,” stylistically, it doesn’t seem like it has changed much at all, except for a small amplification in flavor intensity many years ago, when it was still close to its birth year of 2005. The one exception is that I had a fine meal at Rasika on my previous visit, which is mentioned on the restaurant’s web page itself.

I wonder how many people remember that the talented Sebastian Zutant left Komi to become sommelier at Rasika when it first opened: Although award-winning Chef Vikram Sunderam has remained with Knightsbridge Restaurant Group throughout its lifetime, Rasika’s drinks program – which can easily account for half of the diner’s final bill – has changed over the years, and on my most recent visit, the services of Zutant have never been missed more, as Rasika batted 0-for-3 in the beverage department.

Getting a prime-time table at Rasika now requires making a reservation several weeks in advance – unless you’re fortunate enough to find a cancellation – but even at an off-time, you’re not guaranteed to find a table, as I found out when I walked in recently. Hoping to sit in the dining room, my choices were either to wait a couple of hours, or snag the only remaining seat at the bar, so the bar it was.

Wanting to unwind and begin my meal with a cocktail, I raised an eyebrow when I saw the Champagne Cocktail ($12) which is exactly what I was in the mood for. Unfortunately, the Champagne Cocktail at Rasika is made, not with Champagne, but with Prosecco, which is akin to advertising Kobe beef and selling Angus in its place. Still, I knew what I was getting into, as the menu clearly said the Prosecco was served with Ginger Syrup and Candied Ginger, and I knew the sweet ginger would mask any deficiencies in the Prosecco – I asked my *wonderful* bartender (and I’ll be referring to him again) if the drink was on the sweet or dry side, and he told me it was sweet, so I asked for a reduced dose of ginger syrup, and the cocktail he made me was in perfect balance – I’d suggest that, unless you’re in the mood for a sugary drink, you ask your server to go light on the ginger syrup. The only thing wrong with this cocktail was the name of it, which can be permanently fixed by the restaurant in a matter of seconds; until that happens, just be aware that you can buy entire bottles of Prosecco – at the retail level – for $12.

I wanted a snack to have with my cocktail, so I also ordered a piece of Mint Paratha ($3), and it was of average quality, with good texture and cooking; the only ding was that was a bit bland, but this isn’t supposed to be the center of attention.

For my appetizer, I ordered a curious item: Dover Sole Chutneywala ($15) – curious, because it was the only Dover Sole they had on the menu, and it was extremely thin. Wrapped in a banana leaf, it was dressed in a mild curry (or, more accurately, chutney) of coconut, mint, and cilantro, and accompanied by a little Kachumber on the side. I don’t quite understand how Rasika is able to serve such a small portion of Dover Sole, because this is expensive fish and there must be some minimum amount that a restaurant has to order – but Knightsbridge Restaurant Group may order larger portions of Dover Sole for its eight restaurants (economies of scale and all that). This was somewhat skimpy, and the Kachumber was of average quality, but the dish as a whole was novel.

I had finished my cocktail and wanted some wine before the appetizer, and having read the description of the dish, I went straight for a glass of Elena Walsh Gewürztraminer ($14), also something of a surprise because it was the only glass of Gewürztraminer on the list, and it was from Italy (Alto Adige to be exact) – it definitely piqued my curiosity. Unfortunately, the second I took my first whiff, I must have unintentionally scrunched up my face, and my bartender must have seen me, because he said, “Your appetizer will be right out, sir.” But that’s not why I scrunched up my face (and I didn’t know he was looking!); I knew from the very first smell that this wine had undergone malolactic fermentation – this is a secondary fermentation which turns malic acid (think: tart, green apples) into lactic acid (think: yogurt) – lactic acid is *not* something you want in your Gewürztraminer, and I was more than a little disappointed that out of all the Gewürztraminers in the world, this is the one Rasika selected to serve by the glass – it had a distinct bouquet of milky acids, and I was terribly disappointed. It wasn’t a “bad” wine, but the nature of the acidity was amoral – here, of all places, with their heralded “Modern Indian” cuisine, I wanted a white wine with a bit of grip to it, and I got a glass of flab – possibly a distributor close-out.

It had been awhile since I’d been to Rasika, and I over-ordered on purpose, thinking I’d enjoy it for lunch tomorrow as well. I’ve been criticized before for ordering “too traditional” at Rasika, so I wanted to be sure not to do that this trip. For my main course, I got Ananas Gosht ($20) – Ananas means pineapple, and Gosht means lamb, and this came with lamb, cashew nuts, pineapple, mace, and cardamom. Thinking this would be a red wine course, I ordered a glass of 2013 Jean Yves Perraud “Domaine de Foretal” Julienas ($12), Julienas being one of the more floral villages in Beaujolais, and the wine being 100% Gamay. There was only one thing wrong with this wine, and it was a deal-breaker: My bartender pulled a bottle off the shelf, and poured my glass, and it was about 75 degrees in the restaurant – the wine was about 20 degrees too hot. (And people are angry because Rasika didn’t get a Michelin star?) Refer back to the fourth paragraph where I mentioned my wonderful bartender. He asked me how the wine was, and I said it was good, but would he mind putting the glass in the freezer for about ten minutes? He didn’t bat an eye – he immediately said, “There’s absolutely no need for that – I’ll just open another bottle,” and he opened the (temperature-controlled) bottle storage underneath the back of the bar, pulled out a brand new bottle, opened it, poured it, and … it made all the difference in the world. He went above the call of duty opening that bottle – I would have been perfectly content just having mine cooled down for ten minutes (by now, I’m so used to asking for this, that it no longer bothers me that people don’t know how to serve red wine). I thanked him heartily, and made sure to leave him a good tip at the end of the night – his name was Dwight, by the way, and I wouldn’t mention his name if he wasn’t excellent.

As for the Ananas Gosht, I wish I could compliment it as much as Dwight – aside from having a single, paper-thin pineapple slice on top of the dish, the pellets of lamb were tough and tasteless. Precisely one week after I went to Rasika, I went to Raaga, an Indian restaurant you’ve never heard of before, because it’s an unknown dive in Falls Church. There, I ordered a Chicken Kolhapuri ($14.95). I urge fans of Rasika to go to both restaurants, get one dish of each to go, and compare them side-by-side – the results will either delight or depress you, depending on what your motivations are, and it won’t be a close call. Darn it I wanted to like this lamb dish, but it wasn’t in the stars, so to speak.

Well, of *course* I got three side dishes: a distressingly charred Eggplant Chili Garlic ($8) – the only inedible dish of the night because it wasn’t only burned, but it was scorching hot, and eggplant with skin-on retains heat for a long time; Zucchini Tamatar Kofta ($8), which was probably my favorite dish of the night, the zucchini dumplings made with mustard seeds and onion seeds, and an outsized portion of Cucumber Raita ($4), best-suited for a party of two, but I knew exactly what I was getting when I ordered it – it was slightly above-average Raita, but nothing memorable. The next day, for lunch, the Raita tamed the Eggplant – I was genuinely hungry again for lunch, and rather than choking down the eggplant when I was full, I was able to enjoy it the next day when I was hungry.

In summary, a typical visit at Rasika for me – why people are outraged that Rasika didn’t get a Michelin star is beyond my comprehension – it isn’t even close to being a one-star restaurant. It’s a good Modern Indian venue that’s one of the best choices in Penn Quarter. I even have it ranked ahead of Masala Art and Woodlands in the Multiple Locations Dining Guide, although I’m not entirely convinced it should be ranked higher than Woodlands. I guess if you want some wine with your Indian cuisine, it’s one of the best Indian restaurants in the area, but this visit made me miss Passage To India and Indique, both of which I’ve neglected now for far too long.

Ashok Bajaj is a brilliant restaurateur, and I hope he finally gets the recognition he deserves at the national level – taken as a whole, his set of restaurants is nothing short of spectacular. Nothing would be more fitting than if he won the James Beard Award this year for Outstanding Restaurateur in the United States.

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Fremont Diner, Sonoma, CA

On my previous visit to Fremont Diner in Sonoma, I had what must surely be the greatest breakfast food I’ve ever eaten (major bonus: It’s served all day long).

Last night, my friend and I hit it up for an early dinner, and unlike last time when we sat on the patio, we opted to sit in the ridiculously charismatic indoor portion of the restaurant, just outside of the bar and kitchen area.

We had dinner at Fremont Diner again this evening, and both of us agreed that this was simply an off-night for this staple restaurant which has been *so good* the two other times we’ve been here. Nothing was “bad,” but it just wasn’t the same outrageously good food we’ve come to expect from this gem. Maybe because it was Sunday night, and people had the night off? Maybe.

Drink: Screenshot 2017-01-16 at 02.05.24Screenshot 2017-01-16 at 02.05.40

Like the last time I was here, I started with a mug of Ruhstaller “1881 Sacramento” Red Ale ($5.99) which I loved so much the previous time I had it, and this is a great example of how setting, mood, and personal biology can affect your perception of a meal. We were both very tired, and the inside of the restaurant was full, so we were seated outside on the enclosed patio (which, I didn’t realize at first, didn’t have heat lamps (and needed them)), and as a confluence of everything, this excellent beer just didn’t hit the spot quite like it did last summer, even though it was probably the exact same product (or close enough). Also, just as before, my dining companion got a Gloria Ferrer Brut Sparkling Wine ($9.99, served in a Mason jar, and one dollar more expensive than it was this past summer) – when I asked her what she thought of it, she said, “It was fine – it wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad,” so she, too, may have had her personal perception of a fairly homogeneous product thrown off – this is an excellent example of how difficult it is to overcome personal bias in evaluating a product, whether it’s a restaurant, a movie (“Ugh, I’m tired – maybe something lighthearted tonight?”), or pretty much anything.

All this said, I’m going to reiterate that the quality of the food wasn’t quite what it was on my previous two visits, and this wasn’t because of personal bias; this meal was merely “very good” instead of “excellent,” and I have no explanation as to why, other than that it was a Sunday night in early January. I must also reiterate: “very good” means just that: very good – I love this restaurant.

Food: Screenshot 2017-01-16 at 02.04.27Screenshot 2017-01-16 at 02.04.16Screenshot 2017-01-16 at 02.04.02

I opted for an assortment of small items, my friend went with a larger sandwich, and we ended up splitting everything, getting a really good (albeit small) sampling of the offerings on this evening – Fremont Diner has a pretty big menu, and to get through everything would take twenty visits.

I ordered a Ham Biscuit ($3.99) with excellent, house-smoked ham, a honey-infused fruit jam, and granular mustard on a house-made biscuit; a Sausage Biscuit ($3.99), a patty of sausage with melted Cheddar and green onions on a house-made biscuit (the former was on the sweet side; the latter on the savory side); and an order of Deviled Eggs ($5.99) with pickled mustard seeds and seven herbs.

When I’d finished my beer, I wanted some wine, so I got a mason jar of Tin Barn Sauvignon Blanc ($9.50), a pleasant, quaffing wine which sticks to the “local and seasonal” theme of Fremont Diner, as it’s bottled in Sonoma Valley, right up the street (Tin Barn’s website).

On one visit, the biscuits were so amazing that we got an order of three to take home for later; this time around, they came across as “good, but not amazing” – like before, we had planned to get a pound of house-smoked brisket to go, but after our meal, it just didn’t sound so appealing, so we got no post-meal to-go order (although delicious, Fremont Diner tends not to have the healthiest cuisine in the world, so it needs to be absolutely outstanding in order to justify the calories). The deviled eggs came six halves to an order, or two dollars per egg, and when you break it down like that, it hurts – especially since these were icebox-cold, as if they were made before, and taken straight from the refrigerator – understandable, but not acceptable. I thought there was a bit too much mustard for the eggs’ own good, but these were still high-quality deviled eggs, most likely from a local farm.

My companion got an Oyster Sandwich ($13.99) with fried Pacific Coast oysters (not sure what type; not sure if it matters – I’ve seen large, wholesale jars of “Pacific Coast oysters” before – in fact, I noticed one the other week at Nasime (there’s no reason that oysters – especially ones to be fried – must be shipped individually and not pre-packaged – the ones at Nasime (assuming they were the same) were lightly dredged in flour, flash-fried, and used in a soup, and they were delicious). This sandwich came on a large, round roll – one that looked almost like something you’d use for a traditional pan bagnat – and thankfully, the roll turned out to be light and airy; had it been dense, it would have been too much bread for the sandwich, but it wasn’t. It was packed with fried oysters, some arugula, remoulade, and bacon bits, and was the best single item of the meal. The menu mentions that the bread was a “Model roll,” which I assume means that it came from The Model Bakery, right down the street – it seemed like it had been baked that very morning, and was quite good. The menu also says it comes with a “butter bean salad & juniper-pickled onions,” but what we had came across to me, strongly, as “refried beans and white rice,” which actually went very well with the sandwich. I didn’t pilfer a menu, so I’m going from the online version – I suspect the paper menu last night had the correct side order written on it, and I just don’t remember what it is.

A lot of bitchin’ I did, considering the entire meal, before tax and tip, came out to only $53.44, and we both left pretty stuffed, not quite finishing our meals. This was a lot of food for the money, and while it may not have represented Fremont Diner at its finest, this is still one of about three restaurants in the area that I would urge people to try (in fact, this past autumn, I prodded a friend to go there for weekend breakfast, and over the next couple of weeks, I got about five thank-you notes asking me how on earth I knew about this place).

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Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco, CA

Because of three people, my dining companion and I spend five hours trekking to Swan Oyster Depot in Nob Hill. Call me crazy, but just don’t ever call me apathetic (pathetic is fine; just not apathetic). We found a parking space *way* up high (it is in the Nob Hill neighborhood), but only about three blocks away. Even though it looks flat, if you see that intersection where the person is crossing the street, and take a right there? You’ll be walking up at a 45-degree angle. You’ll also be waiting in line – justifiably, I will add.

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To make the line seem longer, right through that glass window on the left side of the restaurant is a tantalizing display of today’s offerings.

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Swan Oyster Depot is nothing more than a counter, with no seats other than what you see at the bar, so when it fills up, it fills up quickly and with a vengeance – I don’t know what the seating capacity is, but it couldn’t be more than fifteen.

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When you finally get in (the wait isn’t *that* long), you’ll note the knickknacks of a very old establishment – in this case, over one-hundred years old – which include the James Beard “America’s Classics” award they won in 2000, and a motley menu featuring the day’s seafood. Note, by the way, the vehemently written sign about not having a website.

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On the bar in front of you, you’ll see Swan’s napkins, a brief history of the restaurant, and a better-than-expected wine list, which breaks down into two possible choices: a bottle of Muscadet, or a few glasses of Anchor Steam ($6).

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Swan isn’t built for dining; it’s built for eating. Eating quickly, and eating well. That quote by Bourdain (in the center picture above) isn’t at all wrong, and quite frankly, I think Swan Oyster Depot deserves a James Beard Award not just for being an “America’s Classic,” but for “Outstanding Restaurant in America,” although this is an owner-driven restaurant which may not even make it eligible. How much of an owner-driven restaurant?

The first thing we ordered was Smoked Salmon ($13 – when I saw the size of the plate, I panicked, thinking we got the $24.50 item, but there must have been something else listed that I didn’t see) and six Malpeque Oysters ($18-ish). The salmon came out right away, and it was as good as any smoked salmon I’ve ever eaten – there was some *extremely* potent horseradish on the bar as well – so potent that you need to beware of it, using only a few fibers. The Malpeques didn’t arrive, so I figured that Swan was following the trend of “serving things whenever they’re plated” – I was wrong.

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Next up was a half-dozen Cherry Stone Clams ($14), and these were the best Cherry Stone Clams I’ve ever eaten: batting two-for-two. As good as they look – that’s how good they were.

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Then, a cup of Clam Chowder ($2.75) that was perhaps my favorite thing in the entire meal. It was so good that we ordered an entire *quart* to take home (I think that was $20, and worth every penny). Alongside of that, a Prawn Cocktail ($14.50), and if you could say this meal had one weakness, this would have been it. These were great; they just weren’t life-changing; the clam chowder, on the other hand, was something akin to a religious experience.

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Back to the owner-driven part … a gentleman who was clearly in charge (there were probably a dozen people working the counter, about one for each diner), asked me if we’d like anything else, and that’s when I thought to mention the Malpeques, which never arrived. He *immediately* asked who took the order, and to be honest, we didn’t quite remember, and even if we had, he asked the question in a way that oozed menace, and goodness knows I wouldn’t want to get an employee in trouble just because an order was forgotten, so we simply said we weren’t sure. Don’t get me wrong – this guy wasn’t going to scream at the person (at least, not in front of the customers), but he was going to make *very* sure that this didn’t happen again on this evening. He was starkly polite – picture a manager of an old-school New York City deli, and you’ll have the exact countenance. In fact, Swan Oyster Depot reminds me of a deli more than any seafood restaurant I’ve ever been to in my life, with the possible exception of Durgin Park in Boston, but when I first went to Durgin Park in the 1980s, it had already lost the battle to becoming a tourist trap, so … deli. (In fact, Durgin Park has gotten *so* touristy that it’s now owned by, gulp, Ark Restaurants, which has an $80 million market cap trading on the NASDAQ.)

Within one minute, a half-dozen Malpeques appeared, with a sincere (but unnecessary) apology from the manager, and should I even bother to say it? Okay, let me take a different tack: I invented a saying, long ago – “The bigger, the blacker the blotch, the badder the bivalve,” meaning that oysters should ideally have a pearly white interior shell, and when you find ones that have large, black blotches, they’re usually the bad apples – still perfectly edible; just not the best of the bunch. Well …

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About the non-blotchiest Malpeques I’ve ever come across. Not only were they blotch-free; they were just plain free: They were not added to the check. How’s that for putting the customer first?

All this food came out to just over $100 before tip (this accounts for the oysters being removed, but also accounts for the quart of clam chowder, so $100-110 was the “true price” of this sensational meal – on a whole, the best raw seafood I’ve ever eaten, and a restaurant experience unlike any other. To quote that great American statesman, Anthony Bourdain, “If I died eating at Swan’s counter, I would die a happy man.”

And of course, as I flew into a panic when the manager told me Swan Oyster Depot was cash-only, he reassured me that there was an ATM across the street, just as he has done a thousand times before.

PisS – There is a very slang, somewhat crude, French word for “men’s urinal” that I have never before seen used in a real-life situation, not in DC, not in California, and not in probably twenty visits to France. Until now.

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Kabob Palace, Crystal City

I have decided that Kabob Palace in Crystal City has better food than Ravi Kabob.

Whether I’m right is open to debate, but that has become my opinion.

I’ve been to both restaurants over a dozen times each, and Kabob Palace has won me over. The service is always polite and friendly, too, but I’m talking strictly about the food. My goodness, I had a Keema (ground beef and potatoes) there the other night (it’s a Thursday-night special) that was *magnificent*, and it cost something like $10.95 for a huge portion, with chole (get the chole as your vegetable), salad, rice, and bread straight from the tandoor. It sounds like a lot of starch (potatoes, rice, and bread), but somehow, it doesn’t come across that way when you eat it.

I urge people to go here on Thursday evenings – even at 4 AM – and try the Keema. It will be crowded, and you’ll be waiting in line, yes, even at 4 AM. I update the Dining Guide several times per week, and people probably haven’t noticed that Kabob Palace is numero uno in Crystal City, with nary a challenger in view.

The Keema comes with one little tub of green sauce – you won’t regret asking for 1-2 extra tubs of sauce, even if it costs you something. You may not use them, but you may (and you can always take them home, and use them on something else). One tub gets completely lost in the dish – I prefer take-out, because I like to dump everything into a mixing bowl (with the (possible) exception of bread), and eat it like a dog. I use a fork, but that’s about the only difference between me and the dog.

When you’re in line there, peek over towards your right, at the range-top, and note the size of some of the pots with stews burbling away in them – you could bathe an infant in one of them. Have you ever looked inside of a Pho kitchen, and seen the size of the Pho pots? These aren’t *that* big, but they’re several-times larger than the ones they use at Ravi (not that this is good or bad; it’s just interesting).

I think they may also own Shisha Palace Cafe, next door, which is also open 24 hours. Note that in the former Cafe Pizzaiolo space on 23rd Street, there’s a third “kabob house” (I’m loathe to call Kabob Palace a “kabob house”): Grill Kabob. I look forward to someone reviewing it, but it won’t be me, because you’d have to pry me away from Kabob Palace.

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Hazel, Shaw

I’ve stressed for years that I don’t review restaurants; I review meals, and you all know by now that I have to call things as I see them, without any external influences. With that in mind …

Last week, I walked into an empty bar at Hazel, just as they were opening, and had a really nice, wonderful bartender who took good care of me all evening long. I *love* Hazel’s wine list, because it’s divided up in plain English – in a way that the non-wine connoisseur can figure it out without having to fear making the wrong choice. Having perused their menu, I knew I wanted a white with high acidity to stand up to their food, and so from the “Tart & Funky” section, I ordered one of Hazel’s two-most inexpensive wines on the entire list: a bottle of the recently-falling-out-of-fashion “Orange Wine” (which I happen to love) – a 2015 Meinklang, “Graupert” Pinot Gris from Burgenland, Austria ($40). I fell in love with this winery the first time I had it, because it’s not only a Vienna exurb (yet in an extremely rural area, mere miles away from the Czech Republic), but it also employs biodynamic practices – a philosophy which I embrace, not because of its wacky adjuncts, such as “harvesting by moon cycles,” but because they do so much else that makes so much scientific sense, so if you can swallow the kooky aspects of biodynamic viticulture, there’s an awful lot of logically sound methods at play. For a more detailed discussion about Burgenland, Graupert, and biodynamic agriculture, I would refer you to one of these experts, who are just out of my league when it comes to anything more than cheeseburgers: They’re the cream of the crop, and they’ll be able to help you sort through any questions you may have.

The wine was just as I thought it would be: tangy, acidic, Pinot Gris – barely recognizable as such, and smartly classified under “Orange Wines” (not to mention “Tart & Funky”). I don’t know who the F&B Director is at Hazel, but whoever it is, you have all my respect for fashioning such a smart, legible wine list, with good bottles starting at $40. Thank you for your hard work on this. I obviously can’t vouch for the list as a whole, but if this one wine is an example, it is *exactly* where I would place it, and even though it costs double-retail, I have *no problem* paying you for your expertise. Please write me and let me know who you are, as I wish to keep tabs on you going forward.

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Hazel’s food menu, divided into four sections (Vegetables, Bread & Batters (cf: Tail Up Goat), Fish & Shellfish, and Meat & Poultry), is also well-organized, and makes the diner’s life easy when it comes to decision making:

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I think I had Rob Rubba’s cuisine when he was (briefly) Chef de Cuisine at Tallula, but I’m not sure – there was a brief period of time at Tallula when chefs were going in-and-out like fruit flies (and I knew that losing Andrew Market was a huge mistake – arguably the best meal I had at Tallula came under his supervision). Anyway, this meal at Hazel may, or may not, have been my first experience with Rubba as Chef de Cuisine – I just can’t remember.

My meal here was a decidedly mixed bag, and I realize that I’m in a minority of just about “one” by saying so, as Hazel is receiving near-consensus raves and plaudits. Was my experience a one-off? Or, was it because I hadn’t eaten all day long, and my biology was just hangry-weird by this point? Or, was it just bad timing, possibly due to a miscommunication which may have been partly my fault? Read on …

The bartender who waited on me was positively delightful, and I’m kicking myself for not being able to find my receipt so I can praise her by name – she was a young, gregarious, woman of color who was working on a Tuesday evening, and I hope this review finds its way back to her, as she deserves recognition for her excellent work, both at understanding the restaurant, and also at making the customer feel like a welcome friend.

I ordered three courses, and she made it a point of telling me that the kitchen will course things out for the diner – my first course was very obvious, but there was (looking back) some confusion about my next two courses – I mentioned something about her picking which should be second and third (since, depending on the prep, either could have been second or third), and I don’t think I made myself clear, in which case, this is absolutely diner error, and no one’s to blame other than myself.

Course number one was the Atlantic Fluke Crudo ($15) with avocado, radish, shiso, and grapefruit ponzu. An absolutely delightful dish, both in terms of visual appeal, and also on the palate, the only possible nitpick I can find – well, there are two – is that the fluke *might* have been a little less spanking fresh than I’d normally want. Fluke is a very mild fish, and this particular fluke had a touch of the sea which caught my attention – nothing major, and it might even have been the grapefruit ponzu or shiso which imparted a slight aftertaste that deceived me; texturally, it was magnificent, and the only thing it could have been was “a little bigger.” At $15, this dish wasn’t cheap, but boy it sure was delicious, and I’d get it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I urge people – if they don’t mind paying $15 for a small-to-medium plate of crudo – to get this as their first course at Hazel (preferably with a bottle of the exact same wine I had). I took a picture of my second and third courses, and I really wish I had a picture of this, because it was the absolute star of the show.

My second course arrived right when it should have: Rabbit Nuggets ($14) with “Thai Flavors”, and curry mustard condiment. These were six “rabbit-tots” served in a paper bag (hopefully in order to keep them warm, and not just to look trendy – it served the purposes of being both). These were extremely rich, fairly heavy nuggets, and the “curry mustard condiment” came across to me as being from Southern Thailand – in fact, it came across as very much of a Massaman curry (peanut-based), even though I have no idea whether or not there were peanuts in the sauce – it sure tasted like there were. I enjoyed my first two tots at a leisurely pace, and began to notice they were getting quite heavy on the palate – not necessarily a bad thing, but “a thing” nevertheless. My bartender advised me that 2-3 courses are enough for an average person: I had ordered three, and I could already tell I wouldn’t have room for dessert, even though I wasn’t halfway through my meal.

Up until this point – this exact point – I was very much enjoying my meal, but then things just went downhill. My third course arrived less than five minutes after my second course had been served – I had only eaten two tots out of six – and I was in the unfortunate situation of having both in front of me, both needing to be eaten while they’re hot. The third course was the Gnocchi Bokki ($15), with pork-kimchi ragù, sesame seeds, and smoked pecorino. “Bokki” (and the related term “Bokkeum,” which you’ll also see on this menu) is Korean for “stir-fried.”

In front of me now were two courses that clashed as much as two courses could possibly clash, and I didn’t know what to do: Should I finish my rabbit tots, and let my stir-fried gnocchi get cold? No, that didn’t make much sense. But neither did anything else that I could think of. I want to stress that, looking back, I sincerely believe that I had mistakenly conveyed to my bartender that I wanted the courses together, even though that was the last thing I wanted.

Anyway, as you might imagine, “rabbit with peanut sauce” does not go with “gnocchi with kimchi,” and when I say “does not go,” I mean “pizza doesn’t go with hot fudge” – that’s how awful the combination was. To rub salt in the wound, kimchi does not go with pecorino: not in any way, shape, or form, and even within that single dish, the clash in flavors was almost too much to bear: It was quite literally disgusting. Why did I order it when it was clearly spelled out on the menu? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why.

Here’s a picture of what I had in front of me, and yes, that “white stuff” on top of the gnocchi in kimchi and Korean red-chili sauce is indeed pecorino cheese, to go along with my rabbit tots in what was seemingly a Massaman curry sauce (I got more peanut than mustard):

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I had about 2/3 of my dinner remaining, and it had instantly become something very close to inedible. I went back-and-forth – concentrating on one, then the other, then trying to mix the two, and was almost literally choking down both items – especially the Gnocchi Bokki, which was one of the most poorly conceived dishes I’ve had in a long, long time – there was nothing that could have saved this dish: It was horrible. Not quality-wise, mind you; just the complete, total clash in flavors – I went from being so happy, to being so miserable, all in a matter of minutes. (There’s a very good reason that Koreans don’t eat cheese with their Kimchi Jaeyook Bokkum: They don’t enjoy vomiting.) But I was starving because I hadn’t eaten all day, and knew I wouldn’t eat again that night, so I just choked it down, and left in a state of something not far from nauseated. I took the rest of the wine home with me, and enjoyed it later that evening, left my kindly bartender a good tip, and headed on home, wondering what in the hell had just happened.

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