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  Phyllis Richman Live!
Hosted by Phyllis Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, February 11, 1999

By Craig Cola/
Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis C. Richman recently came to the Web live on Style Live!

In more than two decades of critiquing Washington restaurants from the hautest temple of gastronomy to the most obscure off-the-beaten track discovery Richman has become a household name for everyone in our area who loves to eat.

Every Thursday at noon, Phyllis will be on hand to answer your questions and field your comments about dining out in Washington. And, you can read Phyllis's Sunday reviews on Friday only on the Web!

Phyllis mentions several restaurants during her discussions. If you are hungry to find out more prices, location, hours, dress code, etc. visit our restaurant front, go to the "Find Places & Events" search box, enter a restaurant name or category, select "Search StyleLive" and click "Search Now."

Following is the transcript from this Thursday's discussion.


Washington, D.C.: I'd like to have a romantic dinner at home with my fiancee on Valentine's Day. I know you advocate eating in on the big night but eating out other nights, and I'd like to put together a finger-food melange to eat at home.

If you could design the ideal three-course no-utensils-required meal, with all courses selected at local specialty carry-outs or grocery stores (I'm thinking places like Fresh Fields, Sutton Place, Rodman's, Trader Joe's), what would you pick and where would you get it? And what wine would you pick to go with it? (And feel free to recommend different wines to go with different courses. We'll be happy to open more than one bottle!)

Phyllis Richman: It's a sunny Thursday afternoon, so it must be chat-line time once again.

Valentine's Day is closing in fast, and I hope that those of you who plan to go out already have your reservations. For those of you who don't, or who plan to eat at home and don't want to actually cook, the answer is easy.

First, buy some smoked salmon. If you can't find some that is sliced to order, at least buy a package that has been sliced by hand--in other words, thin and following the lines of the fillet, not that rectangular stuff. Buy a good well browned French baguette or thin-sliced dense dark pumpernickel (or bagels if you prefer) and possibly add capers, chopped red onion and sieved hard-cooked egg to the plate. CReam cheese if you like.

Want more? Buy some vegetables from a salad bar, and a dip if you like. Get some French pate--say, from the FRench market, or the D'Artagnan brand. Some fine runny FRench or Spanish cheese. A jar of imported roasted red peppers to spread out on a plate and top with anchovies (try the Italian vinegary pale ones called alici) or a very fresh soft whitei mozzarella cheese. Any other smoked fish or seafood could also fill out this sit-by-the-fire nibbling meal. The wine? Since it's Valentine's Day, champagne. The best I've had recently was Perrier Jouet, but any authentic French champagne would be good, and a few California sparkling wines are also excellent (Chandon and Schramsberg come to mind, but there are more). Also, if you are having dessert, or even a plate of walnuts and cheese and dried cranberries to nibble, look into a dessert wine. Muscat de beaume (sp?) or and orange muscat.

Have a wonderful evening.

Washington, DC : Is there any food you hate? How do you deal with that in reviews (do you make yourself eat something you don't like)?

Phyllis Richman: There are a few foods I don't like--sea slugs, black walnuts, etc--but none that I can't eat. Anyone who has food aversions would have a hard time being a restaurant critic.

Potomac, MD: Last week, you stated something to the effect of there were some exciting restaurants around the intersection of University and Colesville... well that is news to me...were you possibly meaning intersection of University and Georgia where I think there are some good Asian places. Thanks!

Phyllis Richman: You're right. I mistyped it. Thanks for pointing out my mistake.

silver spring, md: I'm still irked by my New Year's Eve experience at B. Smith's restaurant. Please tell me if I'm just naive:
I had reservations for 2 at 8p.m. for dinner. The B. Smith's rep on the phone took my credit card number and said 8 was fine. She gave no other information at all. When we arrived at 7:30, the dining room was nearly empty and we were seated. The menu we were given was prix fixe ($75 is more than I could eat in a month). I told the manager that I was not told on the phone that it would be prix fixe only. He never came close to apologizing, and said only that the restaurant ''may withhold some information'' if customers don't ask. Does that make sense to you? (Appalled, we left w/o dining there.)

Phyllis Richman: Sounds dreadful. Any restaurant that doesn't warn a customer about a special fixed-price should be ashamed. So new let me warn all of you: For New Years Eve, Valentines DAy and Mothers DAy (as well as restaurants-with-a-view for July 4), be sure to ask whether a special menu or special prices are going to be set on those days.

An apology: I'm having trouble with the Internet, so my answers are taking a long time to send. Please bear with me.

Annandale, VA: Phyllis,
Do you know of any places where you can get freshly shucked oysters (say Kumamoto or Belon) to go?

Phyllis Richman: That's hard. The places that serve them--Old Ebbitt, Legal Seafood, McCormick and Schmick, Georgetown Seafood Grill--might do them to go if you call ahead. Cannon's Seafood might have them. Anybody have better ideas?

Augusta, GA: As the black-sheep journalist son in a long line of restaurant owners and chefs, I'm a bit curious about your background. Did you work as a chef before you became a critic, or did you work as a journalist covering another beat before becoming a food critic? How difficult is it to write about a topic as sensual and abstract as the experience of eating, without falling back upon tired cliches and habits?

Phyllis Richman: No, I haven't been a chef, though I was a caterer for awhile. Nor did I cover another journalistic beat--at least after my years editing school newspapers. When I started writing professionally, it was about food and restaurants. And you're right, it is very hard to avoid tired cliches and habits (nor would I claim that I avoid them, hard as I try). The vocabulary of food is very limited. How many synonyms are there for crisp? So that's the challenge as well as the bane of a restaurant critic.

Adams Morgan: Cannon's definitely has belon.

Phyllis Richman: Thanks for the information. Cannon's delivers, too. It's a wonderful,utterly dependable seafood shop.

Washington DC: FYI: Sutton Place Gourmet will shuck oysters to go, but I don't know if they have a wide variety.

Phyllis Richman: One more. Thanks for your help.

Is this for Valentine's Day? Oysters would be a wonderful dinner.

Alxandria VA: Hi,
What do you think of small ethnic eateries for valentines day? Thai, maybe Indian or even chinese.

Phyllis Richman: If I were going out that night, that's where I would go. But many people's idea of a romantic dinner does not encompass a small ethnic restaurant.

Arlington, VA: I'm looking for some good, not too expensive Ukrainian restaurants in the D.C. area. Specialties like perogies, borscht, cabbage/rice roles.

Phyllis Richman: New York is your answer.

I haven't found even expensive Ukrainian food here--though there are some dishes as our few Russian restaurants (Balalayka, SErbian Crown, maybe one or two more). And there was a Polish Deli on Ga. Ave. in Silver Spring, but I haven't checked it out lately. Oh, and Misha's across from the EAstern Market has excellent Russian/Ukrainian carryout dishes.

Washington, dc: Fresh Fields, at least the one on Wisconsin, almost always has fresh oysters to go - last week I some some beautiful Belon's. On some weekends they shuck them for samples!

Phyllis Richman: There are far more sources than I expected. Thanks.

Potomac, MD: What restaurants come to mind with "a view for July 4"? Thanks!

Phyllis Richman: I've got one coming up on Sunday, March 7. A surprise for you all.

Washington DC: A few weeks ago, you had a column about a restaurant in DC, in the Washington Post Magazine. I believe near 14th Street. I remember it was a buffet lunch, it cost around 12:95 and you specifically said you had to get there by 12:00, otherwise the food would not taste as good. It was only about 2-4 weeks ago. Can you give me the name of the restaurant and the phone #. I'd like to get a menu faxed to me. Thanks

Phyllis Richman: I think you're talking about the FRanklin Exchange, at 14th and K. I'm not absolutely saying you have to get there by noon, but I've found the food at its perkiest then. Probably the buffet is refilled other times, too, but they are less predictable.

Falls Church, VA: I've been a vegetarian for several years, and I was wondering what your opinion is on restaurants in the area. Do you think the vegetarian offerings are generally on par with the rest of the menu, or are they an afterthought? Any suggestions?

Phyllis Richman: Five years ago I would have said they were an afterthought. Now I find that vegetarian dishes are usually imaginative and well done, sometimes the best parts of the menu. And I rarely find a restaurant that doesn't have at least one vegetarian option--or some interesting vegetarian appetizers that could add up to an entree.

Washington, DC: Re: shucked oysters to go: Fish Market in SW.

Phyllis Richman: Once again, thanks.

Arlington, VA: I have submitted a question every week for the past 2 months and it is never answered. I am feeling slighted. So...Are there any restaurents in the Arlington area that serve popovers

Phyllis Richman: Okay, okay, I'm sorry. But I don't know any restaurants that serve popovers in this area.

Washington DC: To risk sounding like a food illiterate, what's shucked oysters?

Phyllis Richman: They're raw oysters that have been opened.

Adams Morgan: Do you know if King Crab Legs have a particular season? I recently came across a web site with the "Soup Nazi's" recipe for Crab Bisque. I'd love to try it, but it calls for 4 lbs of Crab Legs to make the stock--a little too expensive at $12 a lb. I'd appreciate any info.

Phyllis Richman: No, kind crab legs don't have a season because they are frozen. THey thus should be available at any time, though I don't know why anyone would ever choose them above fresh crab meat of any kind.

Rockville, MD, : Phyllis, thanks for your great services, both in print and on line. My question: are customers tipping for carryout food at restaurants? We take carryout dinners home quite often, and the charge slip routinely has a tip line, which I leave blank. But there are services involved in preparing and packaging carryout food, although not as substantial as table service or pizza delivery, for which tips are routinely given. Any thoughts?

Phyllis Richman: Good question, and I'd like to hear other people's opinions on this ( especially any restaurateurs or waiters who have tuned it). I don't tip under normal circumstances--a standard carryout--although I might add something to a tip box on the counter. But in a restaurant that is mostly sit-down, and the server has to go to some lengths to get my carryout order, I do tip, usually up to 10 percent.

By the way, thanks for your kind remarks.

Potomac, MD: Hi Phyllis

Can you tell me what foie gras is? I hear so much about it...what do you think of it. Thanks!

Phyllis Richman: Foie gras is the liver of specially fattened ducks or geese. It is very rich, has a texture almost like butter and a very subtle taste, not like liver as you know it. I have described it generally as like delicate meat-flavored butter.I think it is wonderful, at least when it is fresh--not canned. It is also astonishingly expensive and so rich that you can--or should--only eat it in small portions.

By the way, it is pronounced like Fwah Grah. And it is often misspelled as fois gras.

Potomac, MD: I used to always think that when I saw a tip line on my reciept for my carry out I thought that the place was trying to get a tip out of me and I felt bad about not putting anything (not to mention couldnt believe that they had the nerve to ask me for a tip). But it took me a long time to realized that they are just using the same reciept as for their sit down customers!

Phyllis Richman: Exactly. Thanks for pointing that out.

Germantown, MD: RE: king crab legs for stock. In this area (MD/DC) I cannot imagine using salty rather tasteless king crab over MD blue crabs. FYI: At the Southern market in Baltimore, the sushi place uses fresh blue crab for the califoria rolls ( scrumptious).

Phyllis Richman: That is good to know. I'm glad to find some support for my crab-leg aversion.

Arlington, VA: I am wondering if there is any place to go for cheese fondue in the DC-metro area that isn't, well, as cheesy as The Melting Pot (Reston, VA & MD). Having lived in Switzerland for a while, I'm a bit of a fondue snob.

Phyllis Richman: Fondue has fallen out of favor in recent years, so I doubt you'll find another place serving it.

Arlington, VA: Do you know what ever happened to Gary's on 18th Street?

Phyllis Richman: It became an Italian restaurant called Fellini. As for Gary himself, I lost track of where he went.

Washington DC: What's your take on 'mainstream' restaurants such as ruby tuesday, tgi friday's, pizzeria uno? Do they offer enough value for the dollar, or am I better off going elsewhere?

Phyllis Richman: Chain restaurants generally offer a lot of food for the money, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's good value. I prefer more personalized restaurants, though I think the Daily Grill is better than most chain restaurants.

Fairfax, VA: I grew up eating Florida lobsters, and while yes, I know they're glorified crayfish, I still prefer them to Maine lobsters. Are they available anywhere around here, in either restaraunts or seafood stores, or am I doomed to eat claws?

Phyllis Richman: I can't imagine why any restaurant in an area where they catch "real" lobsters would serve Florida's spiny lobsters. I hope you learn to appreciate the ones we have here.

Washington, DC: Re: vegeterian dishes. If not on the menu don't hesitate to ask. Chefs seem well prepared for this these days. I was surprised at how innovative and appealing some of these are. One night when I took my vegetarian neice to Tahoga comes especially to mind. The menu that day had nothing totally vegetarian. Not only did they prepare one, but it was wonderfully presented, varied and offered with grace.

Phyllis Richman: Yes, yes, do speak up and ask when you find no vegetarian dish on the menu.

And, I'm sorry to say, the chef at Tahoga has left. The restaurant is conducting a search for a new chef. Anyone out there looking for a lovely restaurant in which to cook?

Washington, DC: If you wanted to eat at one Italian restaurant, would you go for the spare elegance and authenticity of something like Obelisk or one of Roberto Donna's empire?

Phyllis Richman: It depends. For spare elegance, I adore Obelisk. If I were going with more than one or two other people and wanted a wider choice of dishes (and had a big budget) I'd go to Galileo. But there other good, if more modest, Italian restaurants too.

Portland, OR: Phyllis,
When a restaurant changes its menu after you've reviewed it, do you update your review, or just say "Sorry, you'll have to wait till I review you again, which could be a year or two from now." I'm especially wondering this because with the internet, things can be updated, versus print. How often do you review a restaurant, and how do you keep up with the changes?

Phyllis Richman: That's a tough question. I reviewed Pesce a few months ago because it had a new chef. Now it has another new chef. If I review it again, is that fair to the other restaurants I haven't reviewed even once? Is it fair to readers who don't care about Pesce in the first place? If I don't, what does that do for all the people who go to Pesce or might go.

It's not just a matter of how quickly changes can be posted, but how long it takes to visit a restaurant several times for a review, and how limited a critic's possible mealtimes are.

Laurel, Maryland: The only popovers I've ever seen are at Normandy Farms in Bethesda and Phineas Restaurant in Rockville...sorry, nothing in Virginia.

Phyllis Richman: That's a start. Thanks.

Silver Spring, MD: Phyllis,
First of all, I love your reviews in the Washington Post magazines each Sunday. Keep up the good work.

I love soft-shell crabs. Can you tell me when they come into season and where the best places are to get them?

Phyllis Richman: They should start arriving in spring. AFter the shad season.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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