Foodie Free-for-All

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By Candy Sagon
Sunday, May 3, 2009

PassionFish has been open for only three months, but Joe Heflin has already been to the Reston eatery three times and posted lengthy reports about its offerings on local online review sites.

Tonight will be his fourth visit, and it's evident on this January evening that the restaurant staff is aware that he and his wife, Carol, are in the house. The hostess has reserved Heflin's favorite table, the one her computer records show he has requested before. She leads him to his favored perch on the second level of the restaurant, which features a view of the entire first floor.

"The first time I came, they put me at a table in the back. I asked to be moved to this one, because you can watch everything that's going on," he explains.

Heflin, known on local Internet food sites as Joe H., is no ordinary diner. At 62, he is the dean of Washington's influential cadre of self-appointed restaurant critics and food commentators, a group that includes Don Rockwell, founder of the foodie-free-for-all DonRockwell.com, and Amanda McClements, creator of a relentlessly upbeat blog called Metrocurean.com. Unlike Rockwell and McClements, Heflin doesn't preside over his own Web site. But he has been posting snippets, reviews, comments, suggestions, advice, tips and tirades on Chowhound.com and DonRockwell.com for nearly a decade -- an avocation that hasn't gone unnoticed by Washington's restaurant owners and chefs.

Heflin first got a taste of the food at PassionFish in October, when Washington chef and entrepreneur Jeff Tunks invited him to a preview reception that featured free appetizers and introduced him to the chef. It didn't take Heflin long to return to the restaurant for dinner on his own dime. Afterward, he immediately posted a glowing review of PassionFish on DonRockwell.com, calling it "the best in western Fairfax County" and gushing that "as a 20-plus year Restonian and native born Washingtonian I am honored that a great restaurant has finally come here." On Chowhound, he wrote that, "the fried calamari rivals Baltimore's Charleston for the best I have had. This is frying as high art. Serious. Jeff Tunks also makes outstanding gumbo, perhaps a throwback to his days [in New Orleans] as the chef at the Grill Room of the Windsor Court in the early and mid-'90s (when this was considered by many to be NOLA's best room)."

He is, he acknowledges, infatuated with food and restaurants. And that's not the only thing that's notable about Heflin: He earns his living selling amusement park rides around the world. Though his profession has nothing to do with food, it has allowed him to travel widely and dine at scores of Michelin-starred restaurants in countries such as France, Italy and Spain. He brings those experiences to the table when he eats out in Washington. In the past, he says, this area had some restaurants that measured up to Michelin standards -- the now-closed Maestro, for example, and Michel Richard Citronelle, which remains open but has, in Heflin's assessment, slipped in its attention to detail. At the moment, Heflin argues, Komi is the only restaurant in Washington deserving of a Michelin star.

At PassionFish, Heflin closely quizzes the waiter about the menu, asking if the Norwegian crab legs are available and if the clams are whole-belly rather than strips. Told that the crab legs didn't come in, he is briefly distraught.

"You don't have them?! Oh, my God, that's too bad. They are fabulous," he says glumly. When the waiter recommends ordering the cioppino, Heflin quickly shakes his head. "The gumbo is much better," he declares.

Heflin resembles the gentlemanly "Pink Panther" actor David Niven. He has a mustache and neatly combed brown hair that is lightly gray at the temples, and he wears rimless aviator-style glasses. He's wearing a dark blue blazer with a silky red pocket square and a crisp blue-striped shirt with a white collar. Dressing nicely when eating out is important to him. He can't abide it when people show up at fine restaurants wearing clothes better suited to doing yard chores. "It's disrespectful," he says.

We end up ordering three appetizers, a soup and the gumbo, which Heflin says is as good as he remembers. Then we choose three entrees, but executive chef Chris Clime sends out a complimentary fourth -- a terrific beef dish that's not on the menu. Heflin samples it without hesitation. For dessert, we try the brown butter ice cream. Heflin is underwhelmed by it. "Not enough flavor," he asserts, "and I can taste ice crystals." But an order of freshly fried doughnut holes is sublime; Heflin is right, frying is an art here.

When we finally get up from the table, Clime rushes out to say goodbye to Heflin and gauge his reaction to the meal: "Did you like it? Did you like the turf I sent out to have with your surf? It was great to see you."

Heflin is greatly embarrassed by this, calling me several times in the next few days to insist that this has never happened before. He worries that I'll get the wrong impression -- that he likes to draw attention to himself or considers himself a reviewer. But Clime is no dummy; Heflin is not only a regular, which all restaurants appreciate, his online opinions carry weight with other diners. Heflin ultimately agrees that, after all these years, "I have something of a following," but he adamantly adds: "What I write are not reviews. They're more like essays. I just want to share my experience with other people who share my passion."


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