Ask Tom Sietsema: On salty food, speedy meals, crawfish in a ‘lobster bisque’


(By Edwin Fotheringham)

A periodic peek at the Post food critic’s e-mail, voice mail and in-box.

‘How’s this for a speedy meal? Forty-five minutes, start to finish. At McDonald’s? No, at Cafe Milano,” writes
J. Greenberg from the District. “As soon as my husband sat down with his drink, the menus were in our hands, and the waiter suggested two entrees he thought would be ‘perfect’ for us. They were: halibut and osso buco. Our wine arrived, and 10 minutes later, our entrees. I felt as though I were finishing a marathon. Out comes the coffee, the bill and off we go. And it was my birthday, which they knew about from the git-go. The food was absolutely delicious, but will we ever go there again? Never. I’d rather run a mile on my own.”

I shared Greenberg’s complaint with the general manager of the popular Italian restaurant in Georgetown. “Our policy is to let the diner dictate the pace of the meal,” Stephen Miskiel says. “We don’t want to rush anybody.” While neither of the waiter’s dinner suggestions took long to make (the osso buco, for instance, would likely have been braising for hours), the swift arrival of the main courses may have felt faster, given that the couple didn’t order appetizers, a detail Greenberg shared with me in a follow-up e-mail. As for the celebrators getting their check with their coffee, Miskiel says Cafe Milano’s policy is “bill upon request.”

Greenberg says she and her husband didn’t say anything at the time. Miskiel wishes they had. To any diner hoping to experience a leisurely meal, the restaurateur advises giving staff “extra guidance. Let us know you want to enjoy yourselves,” and “the server will get more involved.”

I see a market for personal-size “Slow — Diners at Play” signs.

***

Part of “a gaggle of serial brunchers,” Rachel Cooke is on the hunt for a place where she and her girlfriends can catch up on a Sunday morning. “We’re all so busy with weddings, new jobs, babies, etc., that we haven’t sat down — all eight of us — in a very long time.” The catch? Although the destination can be anywhere in the region, the District reader wants the restaurant to have a “cool” element.

My list would start with Bombay Club , the romantic Indian restaurant downtown, which offers a lovely buffet spread, including champagne and live piano music, for $27.95. On the Hill, the Balkan restaurant Ambar serves a $35 all-you-can-eat (and sip!) spread that includes mezze, sandwiches, soups, crepes, egg dishes and endless bloody marys and mimosas. In Logan Circle, Estadio features winning Spanish small plates as well some of the city’s best cocktails (my favorites are laced with sherry).The arty Ripple in Cleveland Park is the Sunday source for lamb burgers, egg white frittatas and house-baked English muffins, while Ethiopic in the Atlas District encourages customers to eat its chilled vegetable salads and racy meat stews (and everything else) with their fingers. Up for a drive in the country? Set your GPS for Clifton, Va., and the historic and garden-like Trummer’s on Main .

***

“My wife and I continue to be amazed at how salty restaurant food is in D.C.,” e-mails Martin Levy. Extreme thirst follows every restaurant meal. “Happens all the time and not only in the chain places,” says the reader from Crofton, Md.

“I know it’s impossible to campaign for less salty food, but what can a diner do to have a restaurant use less salt in what you order? We have requested them not to add extra salt, but it doesn’t seem to help.”

In search of an answer, I turned to Brian Patterson, a veteran instructor at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, a training ground for professional chefs. His response supported, and helped explain, the reasons for Levy’s salty restaurant experiences.

“Chefs don’t make an impression through moderation; they make a statement through impact,” Patterson says. “I don’t teach my students to make daily meals; rather, I am training them to make that meal that will be a special occasional night out.” Significant salt, he says, “is necessary to bring out the flavors of foods that are fried, or rich in fat or protein.”

Patterson suggests salt is good for a restaurant’s bottom line: The seasoning “promotes thirst, and that’s always good for the sale of libations and water. That’s why salt is so prominent in many amuse bouche,” the snack some chefs send out as a welcome.

The instructor, who calls salt “a volume knob on flavor,” also thinks it’s tough for chefs to go easy on the element. “Just as rock stars like to make an impression with powerful amplifiers, so chefs like to dazzle with flavor and, therefore, crank up the salt. And asking a chef to modify their salt is like telling Keith Richards to turn down his amp.”

Patterson’s advice to Levy: “Seek out simpler foods from chefs that are more about sustenance than showmanship.”

Other chefs have suggested avoiding braised dishes, to which salt has been added throughout the cooking process, and requesting that sauces be served on the side.

***

Great American Restaurants, of which I’m a big fan, makes a ‘Lobster Bisque,’ ” w,rites David Clayton in an e- mail. When the Alexandria reader ordered it once from the Northern Virginia-based restaurant group, which includes Artie’s , Carlyle , Coastal Flats and Sweetwater Tavern, he noticed a crawfish tail in the mix.

“I noted this to my waiter, who matter-of-factly said that they use both lobster and crawfish in the soup. As a devotee of all things Cajun, I don’t have any problem with this food-wise — dem’s good eatin’. But my propriety alarm started buzzing; if they’re using crawfish, then how much lobster is in there? And what other ‘fillers’ are they using? I mean, I’d be just as happy buying ‘Lobster and Crawfish Bisque’ if that’s what it really is, but probably not ‘Fish Stew.’ And I’m wondering if this kind of unadvertised substitution is an acceptable and/or standard practice.”

The most popular of the company’s soups uses 25 pounds of lobster bodies for every seven-gallon batch of bisque, says Chris Osborn, vice president of kitchen operations at Great American Restaurants. The result is strained and served in eight-ounce bowls with “close to an ounce” of langoustine (previously crawfish) for garnish.

“A bisque is not a chowder,” says Osborn to anyone looking for more seafood in his creamy and spirited bisque. The lobster flavor in GAR’s hit soup, in other words, comes completely from the stock — and contributes to truth in labeling at the restaurant.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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