A Cheap Eats Challenge: Washington vs. New York

Has Washington's food culture evolved enough to compete with New York, the country's gastronomic gold standard? Serious Eats founder Ed Levine and I decided to find out. See our gallery for photos of the challenge. - Tim Carman

Market Lunch, 225 Seventh St. SE, 202-547-8444, www.easternmarket-dc.org
Buzz Bakery, 901 Slaters Lane, Alexandria, 703-600-2899, buzzbakery.com
Palena Cafe, 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW., 202-537-9250, www.palenarestaurant.com
2 Amys, 3715 Macomb St. NW, 202-885-5700, www.2amyspizza.com
Pitango Gelato, 1451 P St. NW, 202-332-8877, and other locations,
Fojol Bros. of Benethiopia. Follow the truck on Twitter @fojolbros
Taylor Gourmet, 1116 H St. NE, 202-684-7001, and other locations, www.taylorgourmet.com
Comments We visited on a Friday, which meant no Blue Buck (blueberry-buckwheat) pancakes. Levine dissed the buttermilk pancakes as not crispy enough at the edges, though he thought the grits were "solid," and he "really liked" the bacon-cheese-egg-potato sandwich. I appreciated the market's bear hug of its Mid-Atlantic and Southern roots; it doesn't cram its authenticity down your throat. Levine wants desserts to channel something more than sweetness, and at Buzz, he found nothing (not even the sweet potato pie) that "makes me think I'm tasting something for the first time." By contrast, I thought executive pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac's kitschy chocolate chip cookie, with giant polka dots of chocolate, was satisfyingly chewy and crispy. It's a destination cookie. Frank Ruta's juicy, loosely packed truffled cheeseburger, which frequently incorporates dry-aged steak trimmings into its blend, could make a competitive eater on his 99th hot dog hungry again. We sampled it at the end of our tasting marathon, and the funk-forward burger on a brioche-style bun was "an unalloyed pleasure ... even at this unlikely and unpromising juncture," noted Levine. During recent visits, 2 Amys has disappointed more than delighted, turning out soggy and undercooked pies, but this time Peter Pastan's pizzeria was in prime form. Our margherita pizza looked ready for a glossy magazine shoot, its outer crust spotted with char and its toppings so evenly distributed, it seemed as if someone had used a protractor. "It's like a work of art," Levine said. Started in Baltimore, Pitango has become a D.C. institution thanks to Noah Dan's absolute refusal to allow commercial ice cream practices to creep into the making of his artisanal gelati. Dense but not in-your-face intense, the flavors never dominate the inherent milkiness of the gelato. Levine loved the richness of the caffe espresso, while I still daydream about the cardamom. Benethiopia is a rolling homage to the sizable Ethiopian community that calls Washington home. Cooks Lula Habte, Russell Bailey and Christian Kloc produce sauces and stews (such as beef berbere and carrots and green beans) of surprising complexity, which even Levine acknowledged. In fact, given that he had nothing negative to say about this "very pleasant surprise," his relatively low score is suspect. Say what you will about Taylor Gourmet's grand expansionist plans, co-owner Casey Patten has created the Pattison Avenue, a superb I talian roast pork sandwich, a model of ingredient-driven simplicity. Levine said the Pattison "hit all the right notes." I appreciate that Patten has refused to try to "improve" upon a classic, instead intensifying an already great combination of flavors.
Scores Levine: 84 Carman: 86/85 Levine: 85 Carman: 90/87.5 Levine: 94 Carman: 94/94 - Levine: 92 Carman: 94/93 Levine: 91 Carman: 92/91.5 Levine: 89 Carman: 93/91 Levine: 91 Carman: 94/92.5 -
NYC Maialino, 2 Lexington Ave., Manhattan, 212-777-2410, www.maialinonyc.com Dominique Ansel Bakery, 189 Spring St., Manhattan, 212-219-2773, dominiqueansel.com Prime Meats, 465 Court St., Brooklyn, 718-254-0327, www.frankspm.com Motorino East Village, 349 East 12th St., Manhattan, 212-777-2644, motorinopizza.com Otto, 1 Fifth Ave., Manhattan, 212-995-9559, ottopizzeria.com The King of Falafel, 30th Street and Broadway, Queens, 718-838-8029, www.thekingfalafel.com Parm, 248 Mulberry St., Manhattan, 212-993-7189, www.parmnyc.com
Comments Under chef Nick Anderer, this trattoria turns out roast pork sandwiches, fried pork terrine, black pepper bacon and pork sausages in keeping with the restaurant's name (translation: "little pig"), though not at the expense of more delicate bites such as the silken olive-oil muffins. Levine thought the breakfast was well worth the price, and I agreed, despite over-poached eggs and mushy ricotta pancakes. Levine is enamored of this Old World operation, recently opened by Dominique Ansel, former executive pastry chef at the very French Daniel. Levine thought everything - espresso dark chocolate cake, apple tart tatin, canele, kouign-amann and Paris-Brest - was "spectacularly executed," which is hard to argue with. Except for the canele, which I thought was so waxy, it tasted like a child's toy. Levine and I agreed that the blend for this half-pound Black Angus burger had the unmistakable funk of dry-aged meat, which should be enough to satisfy discriminating burger freaks. It would have satisfied, too, except for some miscues from the kitchen, like the complete lack of char and the over-layering of lettuce, which added a telltale watery, garden flavor to our burger. Levine thought the outer crust of Motorino's margherita pizza was "much higher than 2 Amy's," but what I first noticed was the crust's leopard spotting, which was blackened to a degree I've never seen in Washington, clearly the more conservative char town. I love the flavor of char. I also loved the salt level of Motorino's chewy, bready crust. Like Dan at Pitango, Otto pastry chef Meredith Kurtzman takes an artisanal and seasonal approach to gelati in such flavors as salty peanut and olive oil. And because she works for Mario Batali, Kurtzman focuses more on presentation, with drizzles and garnishes, as opposed to, say, ice cream in to-go cups. Levine calls it, flat out, "gelato as the ice cream gods meant it to be." I bow before the gods. Fares "Freddy" Zeideia is one of those colorful characters who was born to work the streets, at once friendly and fiercely dedicated to his cuisine. He makes most everything from scratch, save for his pita. Levine says Freddy personifies "the great street food we found all over America." I found Freddy's ultra-crunchy falafel addictive but thought his dry shawarma relied too much on sauce for flavor. A new spinoff project from neighboring Torrisi Italian Specialties, Parm is a modern, if self-conscious, diner whose turkey sandwich, noted Levine, "changes the way serious eaters think about turkey sandwiches." I thought that the sandwich needed less rosemary and that Torrisi should stop drowning its star meat under a tsunami of toppings and condiments.
Scores Levine: 93 Carman: 92/92.5- Levine: 95 Carman: 91/93 - Levine: 92 Carman: 90/91 Levine: 94 Carman: 95/94.5 - Levine: 95 Carman: 95/95 - Levine: 94 Carman: 90/92 - Levine: 94 Carman: 90/92

GRAPHIC: Cara Kelly and Wilson Andrews - The Washington Post. Published Dec. 20, 2011.