Sunday, December 31, 2017

Shake Up at Shaya

The shake-up at Shaya is having an impact on the kitchen, it seems. The day we dined there, the beautifully conceived dishes were poorly executed. An unsurprising development when the originating chef departs under a cloud of ill will.

Shaya is meant to take the canon of Israeli, Palestinian, and other Middle Eastern dishes and elevate them to new heights. I can see how these riffs on old standards once worked brilliantly.  But new improvisations still have to come together in their own right. Here are some examples of how they don't quite do that any more.

Pita bread: Shaya makes their own pita bread in a special oven, on view at the back of the restaurant. The loaves are served warm and slightly charred; from the outside they seem perfect. But the oven seems to be cranked up a little too high, because the insides are not quite baked through. To someone familiar with the texture of Palestinian pita (hubz), these are just a beat off.

Hummus with lamb ragu: The lamb in its luxurious sauce is meant to elevate the more modest "hummus b'lahme" -  a Palestinian dish traditionally made with bits of simply grilled lamb. Shaya's sauce is amazing, and somehow combines haute cuisine with rusticity. It is to the dish's credit that I was still able to appreciate this, despite it being over-salted.

Schnitzel sandwich: Oy!  I am willing to bet money that Alon Shaya would have ensured that the chicken breast was properly beaten with a meat tenderizer to produce a thin, elegant slice of meat. All those who remember their Ashkenazi grandmothers preparing this dish will find this thick slab to be a travesty of their childhood comfort foods. To make up for the dryness of the too-thick chicken breast, the kitchen has schmeered on a hefty layer of harissa mayonnaise. But the proportions are off and there is no bringing them back.

It seems clear that, absent the chef's personal orchestration of the kitchen, the cooks are trying to play the notes, sometimes missing them, definitely not playing music. The parade has passed by, and we are into the second line here.

Shaya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, August 8, 2015


I have a lot of respect for Jose Andres. Let me just say that before I start my rant. But in the case of Beefsteak: the maestro thought of a clever name, sourced top ingredients, and stopped there. A visit to the West End eatery is a lesson in how good food is not enough. At least 4 flaws detract from good eating at this establishment, all of them having to do with JA's lack of experience with build-your-own meals. Here is what I mean:

  • Bad signage: the  white on beige lettering is small and hard to discern. But having clear instructions on how to build your own bowl is critical, given that the ingredients and possible combinations will be novel to most people. This is a problem that Chipotle, with its familiar burritos and tacos, does not have.

  • Limited and incoherent "favorites":  At Chop't -- arguably the model for Beefsteak -- the array of possible combinations is made more navigable by suggested "house favorites" - most of them tempting. I don't need to waste time figuring out how to build my own, because somebody who knows about food has already done that work for me in a thoughtful and mouthwatering way. Beefsteak only offers 4 suggestions, none of them compelling, even once the lettering is deciphered. To make matters worse, most of these offerings are salads, disconnected from the sauces and grains on offer.

  • Serving vessels are not appropriately sized: I was saved from the build-your-own confusion by the Beefsteak Burger -- not because I was able to pick it out from the illegible menu, but because I had read about it in the Washington Post. So that is what I eventually ordered. But once it was handed to me and I settled down at a table, it proved impossible to lift out of the bowl, which was only a millimeter wider than the burger itself. I won't describe the slippery mess that ensued when a quarter cup of mayonnaise, very ripe avocado, and a large slice of tomato slid out of their bun, and I was forced to scoop them up and try to rebuild the burger.

  • Staff are badly trained: I am pretty sure that Jose Andres' sense of how to proportion sandwich ingredients does not include a quarter cup of mayonnaise on a single bun. I ended up scraping most of it off.

  • Garbage cans are nowhere to be seen: Perhaps if I were not already so unhappy, this would have been a virtue. But at that point, having glanced around and not seen where to dispose of the remains of my meal (including almost a quarter cup of mayonnaise and most of the avocado which had slipped out), I just left it on the table.

I am not especially proud of this, but honestly -- the Jose Andres team has no clue about how to design any aspect of a fast-food meal experience. They need to find a new consultant to compete with their better established competitors.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Beauregard's Thai Room

Whitney Houston’s funeral was the weekend our groupon to Beauregard’s Thai Room was set to expire. Very inauspicious. I pooh-poohed Chris' suggestion of calling for a reservation, but when we got there, the only place we could be seated was in the tap room. I've never seen this at a Thai restaurant before, but Beauregard's has a sportsbar-like tap room, complete with a blaring TV. And so we were doomed to eat our meal while coverage of the funeral was going on...and on and on. We dined to the first bars of I Will Always Love You playing repeatedly. The couple next to us scarfed down their meal and got out of there are quickly as they could.

And here is our meal itself:

Thai Cellophane Noodles. Not too appetizing.

Pad Thai with chicken. Chris was unhappy.

Dear readers, this was not a good night, on so many levels. Since I had read that Beauregard's was more elegant and pricy than most Thai restaurants, we took a peak at the other dining rooms to see what all the fuss was about. Yes, the upstairs was a tad more upscale, in the way of a dowager fallen on hard times. It had a dingy colonial feel to it, the room the "better paying customers" may be shown to, as Chris put it. On the other hand, the outdoor patio, which has also had rave reviews, showed promise. So perhaps, Beauregard's, if I come back in the summer, I won't always hate you.

Beauregard's Thai Room on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pig's Head for Dummies

When it comes to head-to-tail restaurants, I don't know my ass from my elbow. And if you're like me, neither do you. So here I am sharing what I have learned from my first encounter with pig's head, at Mike Isabella's Graffiato.

1. When you order pig's head in a tapas restaurant, it's not going to be the whole head.

This seems obvious now, but at the time I was thrown by the name" "pig's head".  I did try to get clarification from our server, by asking if the dish actually looked like a pig's head. He said yes. But of course, the answer to that question depends on what your notion of a pig's head looks like. The better question would have been: is it a whole pig's head?

Lesson learned: when it costs $10 and is expected to arrive within 10 minutes, it's not going to be the whole head.

This insight logically leads to the next point:

2. A pig's head has many parts. If you are not getting the whole head, you need to ask which part.

Pig's Head with Sausage and Braised Red Cabbage
Once the tapas-sized portion had arrived, I was too stunned to ask the server what it actually was. But as it turns out, there is an astonishing number of people out there writing passionately about the various parts of a pig's head. The next day, I skimmed through the tales of butchery -- accounts of home chefs disarticulating their first porcine skull, using boning knives and crap saws to cut through cartilage, sinew and bone -- to focus on the parts themselves. (These accounts really made me wonder: how desperate are we to rediscover where our food comes from? In their descriptions, the writers make an attempt at humor that is really the literary version of nervous laughter; then swear to leave butchering to a professional next time.)

First, there are the obvious parts:

Snout (pure skin and fat)
Tongue (must be scraped free of tastebuds)
Ears (hairy and need to be shaved, but then offer a nice crunch of cartilage)

But it was the insides of the head itself that interested me. It seems that this can be divided into three categories that need to be separated:

Pure meat: the largest pockets can be found in the cheeks, underneath the eye sockets, and near the brain at the base of the skull

Flesh mixed with collagen and fat: this is the part I think we were served at Graffiato. It corresponds perfectly with Chichi Wang's description: "the amorphous, somewhat undefinable mass of fatty tissue and gelatinous collagen that's holding everything together on the head." Although Wang writes fondly of a "softer, creamier texture that's pleasantly gooey and gummy," I beg to differ. Masses of fatty tissue is not my idea of pleasant.

Refuse: teeth, bones and rubbery bits.

Head cheese is another possible meaning of "pig's head": various parts of meat, fat, tissue and tongue from the head are braised and formed into a meatloaf. Some chefs use scraps, others mix in choice pieces of meat. Some recipes call for further slicing, breading and sauteeing of the loaf. Some come with delicious sounding sauces.

It seems the possibilities are endless, which is why, when you see "pig's head" on the menu, you really should not take it at face value. Whether you willingly plunge into the unknown, or try to press for more information, try not to be in the situation we were in, where your server arrives with pig's head for dummies.

Photo credit: Chris Svoboda

Graffiato on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen

Finally, I thought, a place to get decent banh mi in the District. The Southeast Asian version of Chipotle -- how could it be bad? But it was not to be. I ordered the chicken and pork meatball banh mi, with Asian greens (thai basil, cilantro and mint) and chopped peanuts, to go. Raced back to the office clutching my paper bag. And was profoundly disappointed.

The baguette (if you can call it that) was way too bready for banh mi, overwhelming what is supposed to be a delicate balance of flavors. Ditto for the meatballs, which were overspiced for this particular dish. No way the greens and peanuts could fulfil their task of complementing the main filling, if this is what they were up against. And that spicy meatball flavor lingered way too long after the meal, if you know what I mean....

But here's the thing. Those very meatballs get high marks from others, when served in the context of the noodle bowl. Tom Sietsema likes them. The server at Shophouse likes them. And yesterday, when I saw the line for Shophouse spilling on to the sidewalk and asked a couple of people what they liked, the answer was: the pork and chicken noodle bowl.

So, I  still want to like Shophouse, and am willing to believe that other dishes will live up to their reputation. It's quite possible that the disappointment of  the banh mi -- which seems to be particularly difficult to execute properly -- is not a good reflection on the other offerings. So perhaps, sometime in the not too distant future, Antoinette Ego will write something glowing about them.

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Choking it down on Lufthansa

Silly me. I thought airplane food was improving. Must have been those posts Antoinette Ego wrote about the meals on Korean Air and Tam. So thank you, Lufthansa, for bringing me back to reality. Over-peppered boiled chicken with nameless brown sauce? Now that's more like it. Limp vegetables? Yeah!

Antoinette Ego says: Forget about the food. Lufthansa was one of the only airlines to fly out of DC when everyone else shut down way before Hurricane Irene actually posed a problem. You got where you were going, didn't you? So stop whining.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


When your dining companion tells you that the highlight of her meal was the spiced pecans, you know that you have failed to impress. So, while Vinoteca, with its lovely decor and happening bar scene, is surely date-worthy, here are some menu items to avoid:

Duck Prosciutto was the main culprit. Readers will know that Antoinette Ego is a big fan of prosciutto, especially boar prosciutto, but duck is a different animal. Think about it for a moment. The wild boar is a lean old codger, what with all that running around foraging in the woods. Duck, on the other hand, is plump by nature, needing to be bouyant in the water. And farm raised duck, which are often force-fed (yes, with a funnel) to fatten them up for foie gras, are especially fatty. Nancy pronounced the duck prosicutto "too rich," which turned out to be a euphemism for "inedible". Whatever flavor the duck had to impart was lost in fatty tastelessness.

White wines by the glass: we sampled one from the lower end of the price spectrum (Seven Sisters Buketraube from South Africa,  $8) and one from the medium range (Louis Michel & Fils Chablis from France, $14), both of which were forgettable. You may have to splurge on the upper end ($16) to find something memorable.

The best dish was the ahi tuna appetizer. Sleek and fresh, I would say this was better than the average ahi tuna appetizer. Recommended.

I also spied some intriguing items on the menu that I would be tempted to try if I ever found myself back at Vinoteca. The cheese flights in particular. There is a "cow flight", a "sheep flight" and a "goat flight". If you can find the right wines to pair with these, you may have the makings of a good date.

Antoinette Id

Vinoteca on Urbanspoon