Food critic Tom Sietsema looks into his mailbag

January 19, 2012

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

“Why are restaurants that are so inventive with every other course so reluctant to offer anything interesting at dessert time?” asks Randall Reade. The Washington reader thinks “there is virtually no variety” when it comes to the last course of the meal, which inevitably includes the “usual suspects”: flourless chocolate cake, creme brulee, ice cream or sorbet, apple crumble (or a variation), bread pudding and cheesecake.

Reade has a point. Restaurants dishing up safe dessert selections outnumber the more innovative establishments, such as the Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle, which last month featured chocolate chestnut dacquoise, pear-ginger layer cake and pumpkin-brandy pudding. Pastry chef Huw Griffiths, who changes the inn’s selection weekly, says variety is sometimes curtailed by fear of waste and economic considerations. Unlike, say, leftover meat, most desserts can’t be repurposed, which means pastry chefs have to create confections that “go off the shelf,” he explains. Tried-and-true desserts also tend to be profitable: A creme brulee that costs the kitchen $2 or $3 can be sold for as much as $9 at dinner.

“It takes a lot of hands to make complicated desserts,” says Tiffany MacIsaac, who oversees the bread and dessert programs at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s eight restaurants and two bakeries. “It’s a huge luxury to afford a pastry chef” and high-quality ingredients such as designer chocolate. Depending on the venue, sweets makers in the Washington market can earn between $40,000 and $75,000 annually — further reason some restaurant owners look to their sous or line cooks to whip up desserts rather than hire a specialist. My feeling is, dessert is a restaurant’s last chance to wow its customers. Why wouldn’t it take advantage of the opportunity?

P.S. to Reade: MacIsaac was upset to hear your complaint. She’d like to introduce you to her handiwork at Birch & Barley in Logan Circle.


(Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham)

***

An anonymous participant of a recent online discussion was put off by the $50-per-person cancellation fee flagged in a confirmation contract from CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental hotel. “We’re not the type of folks who don’t show up for reservations,” the chatter submitted, “but, hey, life happens, and 24 hours’ notice isn’t always sufficient for a party of six when ages range from the early 30s to early 60s. All of us find this off-putting. Are we being too sensitive, or is CityZen actually worth the hassle?

The short answer: CityZen, helmed by chef Eric Ziebold, an alumnus of the acclaimed French Laundry in California, is a four-star experience.

For a more thorough response, I reached out to the restaurant’s director, Jarad Slipp, who said the policy is in place to recover the establishment’s costs rather than to punish diners. (The check average at the 70-seat luxury property is $160 per guest.) “We understand things happen,” says Slipp, who enforces the cancellation fee on a case-by-case basis. If someone doesn’t call ahead and doesn’t show up, he or she is automatically charged, but “if we can re-book [the table], we won’t charge you.”

As a destination restaurant on the Southwest waterfront, CityZen can’t rely on foot traffic to fill empty seats, Slipp says, and the restaurant “never, ever, ever overbooks” to factor in cancellations. “If you have to wait 15 minutes, I’m distraught.”

***

Rick Flowe has a habit he doesn’t want to break but to boost. “My name is Rick, and I’m a mussel addict. Seriously. I eat mussels every day. Not a moment goes by when the beautiful bivalvia mollusca doesn’t haunt my reverie,” writes the Fredericksburg reader. His fascination has taken him to Asian-themed buffets and the Capital Ale House chain, and now he’s looking for “quality, quantity, variety and (comparative) economy” wherever they might be in the region. “Help me find the best places,” Flowe implores.

Nobody knows mussels better than the Belgians, and no Belgian restaurant in the area does them better than the tiny Et Voila! in the Palisades. Chef Claudio Pirollo serves mussels as both appetizers (with garlic butter in a gratinee, and with cream of endive and dry vermouth in a sauteed preparation) and as main courses. The latter, typically featuring Canadian Blue Bay mussels, are steamed in one of four broths and presented with terrific hand-cut french fries. Less traditional but plenty satisfying is Pirollo’s recently introduced burger made of chopped mussels, scallop mousse and fresh herbs.

Other fine sources for bivalves include Bezu in Potomac, which serves a saffron-scented mussel soup with corn; Food Wine & Co. in Bethesda, home to red curry mussels rounded out with lime, cilantro and coconut; and Jacques’ Brasserie in Great Falls, where the mussels are dappled with a green herb sauce.

***

Following a restaurateur’s complaint in this space (Ask Tom, Nov. 27) about the spike in diners, especially young ones, failing to honor reservations, I received an e-mail from a father who asked to remain unnamed to protect the privacy of his son, who as an 18-year-old college freshman returned home to celebrate Valentine’s Day in a local restaurant. He and his date were not seated until an hour after their 7 p.m. reservation, and only after several parties were seated ahead of them and the father had intervened with a call to the manager.

“My read on what was happening, based on what my son told me and the reaction and responses I received from staff, was that it was felt his reservation did not warrant the same level of deference as those held by others,” writes the parent. “Why? Perhaps because he would likely not spend as much since there would be no alcohol. Perhaps because he was young AND a minority (especially for the neighborhood in which the restaurant was located), they figured he would have a limited budget.” Granted, the couple would not have been ordering drinks with dinner, the father continued, but the young man grew up in the neighborhood where the restaurant is and had been given a credit card to use for the evening. “Thus, until the manager actually talked to me and more correctly sized up the situation, the restaurant seemed totally unconcerned about honoring their part of the reservation process.”

The situation left the now-22-year-old working man with a sour taste, writes his father. “He not only refuses to go back to that restaurant, although it is quite convenient to us, he has a little less respect for the reservation process than he might otherwise.” Dad’s advice to restaurants that prejudge clientele: “Perhaps the industry should take a look at how they treat young people before complaining about the under-30 crowd thinking that failing to keep a reservation is ‘no big deal.’ ”

The regular Dining column will return.

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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