Strangers often imagine that getting paid to eat is one nonstop party, an assignment larded with sumptuous delicacies and the kind of indulgent service that a Trump would expect.
Friends of food critics know better. "Do we have to go there again?" they ask when a reviewer needs to return for the third time to a restaurant where the kitchen is as clueless as the waiters. Following up on promising leads from tipsters ("It was better than Paris!"), the stomach-for-hire travels hours away from home, only to find that the creme brulee at Better Than Paris wouldn't pass muster even in Peoria.
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A wry veteran of thousands of restaurant meals once summed up her job: "I eat bad food so you don't have to."
True, to an extent. But good food -- sometimes wonderful food -- turns up, too, and over the past 12 months I've experienced plenty of mouthwatering meals.
On occasion, I've encountered a single dish that soars above the competition, lingering in my memory as a role model. As the year winds down, I find myself reminiscing fondly about some of these highlights, and I can't resist passing them along. Dig in:
CUPCAKES: There are many things that make me smile when I check out the goods at Baked & Wired (1052 Thomas Jefferson St.; 202-333-2500) in Georgetown -- the butterscotch-oatmeal cookies, the occasional cherry pie, the made-from-scratch dog treats -- but none whisks me back to childhood faster than whatever cupcake ($3.50) owner Teresa Velazquez has on display. The selection varies, but you can always count on true flavors and moist crumbs. Hope for coconut, chocolate (using Velazquez's grandmother's recipe), orange poppy seed or nutty, spicy carrot generously gilded with smooth cream cheese frosting. And don't even think about sharing.
FALAFEL: At the trim Amsterdam Falafel (2425 18th St. NW; 202-415-6489), the Middle Eastern snack of mashed chickpeas, shaped into balls and fried to a neat crunch, gets slipped into warm pita pockets and dressed up with a choice of nearly 20 toppings. Picture shredded beets, turmeric-tinged cabbage, green herb sauce and eggplant puree -- everything arranged in a colorful salad bar and yours for the garnishing. That said, the fluffy-centered fritters are scrumptious on their own, liberally seasoned with garlic, cumin, parsley and coriander. A sandwich made with three of them costs $3.75; one with five goes for $5.25. As friendly as the guys behind the counter are the hours of operation: This Adams Morgan newcomer is open daily for lunch and dinner, and until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
HOT DOG: Forget the stuff you see on street carts around town. The model on the bar menu at Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-537-9250 ) in Cleveland Park is a sausage of distinction -- a blend of pork, pork liver, cloves, coriander, paprika and more -- ennobled by a pillowy fresh-baked bun. A blend of three mustards and tangy sauerkraut lend more zip, and where else can you brag that a former White House chef, Frank Ruta, whipped together a hot dog for you? It costs $10 for an all-American tribute, plus potato salad, and is well worth it.
LINGUINE WITH CLAMS: No one does simple better than the Italians, and few kitchens serve a finer rendition of this classic dish than Al Tiramisu (2014 P St. NW; 202-467-4466) in Dupont Circle. "People love it!" crows Luigi Diotaiuti, the exuberant host. Here's why: The olive oil is extra-virgin, the garlic is warmed until mellow but not browned, and the clams are imported, usually from Italy ("less meat but more flavor," Diotaiuti explains). Add a little white wine and fresh parsley, and you have a meal to remember for $15.90.
LIVER: It doesn't have to be dry, tough or, well, too "livery." See for yourself at Bistrot Lepic (1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-0111) in Georgetown, where the meat is sliced thick, gently sauteed to a rosy hue, then showered with capers, black olives, slivers of garlic and vinegar to balance the liver's richness. Whipped potatoes and bright green beans complete the lusty package, offered as an entree for $17.95. Enjoy this guilty pleasure with one of the 30 wines by the glass.
ROTI: Historically, this flat, unleavened bread sustained laborers in Trinidad with a rib-sticking staple they could eat using one hand, without having to leave the sugar cane and rice fields. At The Islander Caribbean (1201 U St. NW; 202-234-4971), chef Addie Green wraps the thin, slightly nutty-tasting bread around curry-scented shrimp, goat, beef, chicken, kingfish or potatoes, then serves the edible package ($7 to $12), also called roti, in sandwich paper to keep it warm. A burrito by way of the tropics, it's best washed back with the house-made ginger beer and traditionally eaten sans knife and fork.
SALTENAS: They take several days to make and look like empanadas after a heavy workout, all shiny and pumped up. Saltenas also taste like a dream, each faintly sweet, braided pastry hiding a mini-casserole: shredded chicken or ground beef plus a delightfully soupy mix of onions, peppers, peas, chopped egg and a hint of cumin. El Pike, with four branches in Virginia and Maryland (the 16-year-old original is at 4111 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-521-3010) , sells about 4,000 of these Bolivian snacks each week and, unlike some of the competition, does so not just at lunch but at dinner, too. The price can't be beat: $1.99 for a national treasure that will carry you through the day.
SQUID SALAD: Squid and fruit might seem like an unlikely marriage, but only until you get the chance to taste the two together, in one of my favorite dishes at downtown Washington's underground Malaysia Kopitiam (1827 M St. NW; 202-833-6232). The refreshing salad combines apple and green mango cut to resemble matchsticks and tossed with fresh mint, fried shallots and shredded squid ($4.95). A lemon grass vinaigrette ties the elements together for an appetizer that veers from sweet to hot to "Wow, this works!" in each bite.
Freshness isn't a quality diners want to see only on their plates. When she got her bill for brunch at Normandie Farm in Potomac, Jean Macdonald was surprised to see that she and her sisters had been charged $7 per glass of champagne "instead of the $3.50 listed on the [restaurant's] web site," the Wheaton reader wrote me in an e-mail. "If they want to raise the price, that's fine. But don't advertise one price and then charge another." Macdonald mentioned the discrepancy to her waiter, who said he would check with the manager. "We waited almost 15 minutes before our waiter came over and told us that the price was correct and he could do nothing about it," she wrote. Back home, with a printout of Normandie Farm's menu in front of her, Macdonald then called general manager Kay Hussain, who told her that the price had changed because the restaurant was pouring a better grade of bubbly. "He said he would buy me a drink the next time I was there," said Macdonald, but she had been so put off by the restaurant's inept initial response that she declined. More than a week after her visit, I checked the Web site myself and saw champagne still listed at $3.50 a glass. "Our mistake," Hussain told me when I called to investigate the problem, which he blamed on the Web site's designer and promised to remedy. Subsequently, the restaurant gave Macdonald a refund for the difference, and visitors to Normandie Farm's Web site no longer see the price of champagne by the glass. Note to restaurants: Macdonald's complaint is one of many I have received about Web sites that aren't up-to-date. Suggestion to diners: If you really need to know, it never hurts to ask.
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