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Phyllis Richman – Live!

Hosted by Phyllis Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 1998


By Elisa Nader/
Washington Post food critic Phyllis C. Richman recently came to the Internet 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."

If you missed out in today's chat you can either join us next week or post your thoughts in our ongoing discussion area which Phyllis visits periodically.

Following is the transcript from this Thursday's chat.


Washington, DC: Welcome back, Phyllis!

What was the culinary highlight of your trip?

--Ron in DC

Phyllis Richman: Thanks. Despite the heat, it's nice to be back. I love Washington in the summer, when it's half empty.

As for culinary highlights of me trip to Zanesville, Ohio, the pinnacle was the peaches I bought at the farmers' market on Saturday morning (eight peaches for 75 cents). They had more and richer flavor than any I've had in years. Otherwise, the mashed potatoes are good everywhere but not much else is, I'm afraid. I did have one nostalic meal: tuna noodle casserole. It was skimpy on the tuna, though, and might have been called just "noodle casserole."

But, it wasn't a food trip. In fact, it was a break from conscious dining. Great fun, for a change.

Washington, DC: I'm new to the Washington, DC area and I've been hearing about soft shelled crabs. Some co-workers have said they are best batter-dipped and fried, but no one can recommend a good restaurant that serves soft shelled crabs this way. Can you help?

Phyllis Richman: I disagree about batter-dipped soft-shells. I prefer them just floured and sauteed, but batter-fried crabs are excellent if they are quickly cooked at high enough heat that they don't get greasy.

Nearly every ambitious or semi-ambitious restaurant in town has them, not just seafood restaurants but also Chinese, French, Italian. And you can expect that they'll be good at any restaurant that's otherwise good.

The trick is to eat soft-shells only in season. By fall, what you'll be getting will be frozen ones--mushy and tasteless.

As for size, many prefer large ones. I think small ones tend to be sweeter, but more important is their freshness.

Washington D.C.: I have a friend coming into town this weekend who enjoys beer and onion rings. Have you found good onion rings anywhere in the area?

Phyllis Richman: Again, dozens of places have great onion rings. Just ask your server to find out if they are made in-house or whether they are frozen. Promise you'll send them back if they are frozen (which you can tell from the stiff evenness of the rings and the mushy onion).

The most unusual I've found, and definitely worth trying, are at the District Chophouse, on 7th St. near the MCI Arena. These are fat and juicy and crisp, piled on a metal pole that is heated to keep them warm, and they are sprinkled the parmesan. Hard to beat that.

alexandria, VA: In reading your reviews over the years, it appears that you prefer the more posh and upscale restaurants rather than the more middle of the road (not fast food) establishments. Could you comment on this?

Phyllis Richman: It's not really that I prefer them, but they are the ones that readers tend to have heard about and want an evaluation of. Also, the tend to be the restaurants that are more unusual and complicated, and so I have more to say about them. I am always looking for terrific cheap restaurants, so send along your suggestions.

Arlington, VA: I finally read your book "The Butter Did It". I enjoyed the book and your depiction of arestaurant critic being overwhelmed by recommendations to review people's favorite (or family) restaurant. How many "Mamma Maria"-type restaurants do you end up getting duped into trying?

Phyllis Richman: Thank you, thank you. In case there are ANY of you who have not read my food mystery, Mamma Maria's is the restaurant of our nightmares.

Yes, I come across a lot of them. I go to a lot more restaurants than I actually write about. If a prominent restaurant is bad, I willingly note that in print. But if a little unknown restaurant is bad, I see no point in telling people about that. The problem is, some weeks I try three or four restaurants that are not worth any ink, and then I'm scrambling to find something interesting enough to review.

But I still welcome suggestions. I find some terrific places from readers' suggestions.

Washington, DC: Phyllis, if you were on a deserted island, what three food items could you not do without?

Phyllis Richman: Popcorn, foie gras and broccoli.

At least today.

Washington, D.C.: What should one do when one sees a live roach at a restaurant? I've been told that even the cleanest place has a bug or two, but this is the type of thing that makes me never want to return to a restaurant.

Phyllis Richman: I sympathize with your point of view, and if you see more than one cockroach you have a right to be suspicious of the restaurant's hygiene. On the other hand, in a big city, cockroaches sometimes find their way to even the cleanest places. If you see one, you should point it out to the maitre d', the hostess or the manager. In other words, somebody in charge. Too often the waiter just apologizes and doesn't bother to pass along the bad news. That's true with any problem in a restaurant.

Last week I was dining on a flagstone terrace, and the owner pointed out to his maitre d' that there was some grease or something on the flagstones. The maitre d' said he'd take care of it, but the place was very busy at the moment and he went to attend to customers. A few minutes later, a woman slipped on the grease and fell. A waiter rushed up and helped her up and apologized profusely, promising to tell the manager. Did he? Not by the time I was finishing my meal. So I did. Such things get lost or shoved aside on a busy evening.

Arlington, VA: Hello. I went to Barolo on the hill on Saturday night with some friends from out of town. I was under the impression that this was a Roberto Donna venture? I ordered the lobster ravioli which was not too memorable although the other meals (another pasta entree and a fish entree) were better. I thought the overall "experience" would have been better. Is it fairly new?

Phyllis Richman: This is a Roberto Donna venture, which means he has installed a chef and backs the place. It doesn't mean that he is cooking there. I is about three months old now, and my review will be in this Sunday's magazine (which means it will be posted on this Style Live site tomorrow).

Falls Church, VA: Ms. Richman,
I've been enjoying your chat columns for several weeks but have yet to see you answer wine-related questions.
Please advise on proper tipping etiquette when one uses the services of a wine steward (who helps in selection and pours throughout the meal). Do you base the steward's tip amount on the price of the wine or of the entire meal? How do you ensure he/she gets his/her fair share of the tip, especially if he/she is assisting another customer as you're leaving?

Phyllis Richman: I don't think there is a hard-and-fast rule about tipping wine stewards. Some people tip them directly--five or ten dollars if they have been very helpful. But usually tips in a pricey restaurant--the kind with a wine steward---are pooled, and he or she gets a percentage anyway.

Washington, D.C.: Phyllis,

We recently moved to Northwest near the National Zoo. A friend of ours told us about a "best kept secret" over on 16th Street in the Woodner Apartment Building called, "Fio's". I don't remember a review from you on this place and was wondering if you had already done one. If not, we just LOVE it there...awesome food, down to earth prices and a nice selection of reasonably priced wines. What do you know?


Phyllis Richman: Fio's is a restaurant I like a lot, even though the cooking is inconsistent. It is a funky and very inexpensive place in the Woodner apartments, and it is run by offspring of the original AV Ristorante chef. The menu is full of unusual dishes, and the prices are so low that I tend to forgive the flaws. It is one of the few places that makes (wonderful) granitas from fresh fruit as well as espresso.

Washington, DC: You said in a past on-line Q&A that you only ate hot dogs once a year because of the nitrates and nitrites they contain. I was wondering if you eshew cold cuts and other prepared meat products that contain these chemicals.

Also, do you think a vegetarian, or someone who doesn't eat red meats, would have a chance at being a restaurant critic?

Phyllis Richman: I eat them in moderation.

As for a person with dietary restrictions being a restaurant critic, that would pose a problem in any but a vegetarian publication. A critic has to be able to report on every part of the menu.

Ellicott City, MD: Would you share your favourite Food web sites with an ethusiastic Foodie? I already love the Washpost StyleLive section.

Phyllis Richman: Try Epicurious and StarChefs.

Washington, DC: What do you think about restaurants that make you wait for 10 or 15 minutes when you have made a reservation?

Phyllis Richman: I hate it. I think that if you, the diner, keep your appointment, the restaurant also should keep its appointment.

On the other hand, a friend recently told me she enjoyed waiting 10or 15 minutes before being seated. It gave her a chance to look over the restaurant and absorb the scene before her view was limited by a table.

Arlington, VA: I read in yesterday's Food Section about Lauriol Plaza's plans to expand. Is there a time when a restaurant becomes too big to maintain its quality? (I thought Cactus Cantina went downhill after it expanded into the property next door.)

Phyllis Richman: It is definitely harder for a large restaurant to maintain its quality than a small one, just as it is harder to keep the quality when one person is running two restaurants. When Cactus Cantina opened, I thought the quality of Lauriol Plaza dropped. EVentually it picked up, but it was never as good as in its early days. That said, the expansion could be all right, given that Lauriol Plaza has already slipped. Maybe it won't slip further. I'll be watching for what happens.

Washington, DC: I've never had a good meal at a buffet restaurant, although there are certainly places with good buffets. Can you recommend any, and have you ever found edible food at a purely buffet restaurant?

Phyllis Richman: I agree that most buffets concentrate on variety and quanity to the detriment of quality. The best local buffet I've found was the Friday night seafood extravaganza at the Mayflower Hotel's Promenade. I'm not sure it's still operating, so check first if you're interested. The Sunday brunch buffets at Gabriel's and at the Kennedy Center have some very good things on them, though they also have their weaknesses. Does anybody remember the Kozy Restaurant in Thurmont, MD, when its buffet was full of fresh, homemade country cooking? Last time I tried it, it was all from boxes and cans, or at least tasted so.

Arlington, VA: What kind of food would you like to see come to Washington?

Phyllis Richman: Scandinavian. A great deli. Hungarian. A diner that made everything fresh and from scratch.

Anyone else?

Alexandria, VA: You have been in the D.C. area reviewing restaurants for years, seeing the best and the worst it has to offer. Knowing you've experienced, would you ever consider opening your own restaurant? If so, what cuisine would you serve and what style would it have?

Phyllis Richman: I think a restaurant is just about the hardest business in existence. Its hours are long, it depends on the whims of the weather and outside events, yet it requires perishable ingredients. It requires many kinds of skills and employees, some of which are in short supply. And it is just plain hard, on-you-feet work.

I'd never run a restaurant. I admire and applaud those who do, at least those who do it well.

Silver Spring, MD: New York has its pizza. Chicago has its pizza. Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks.

What does Washington have that it does better or differently than anywhere else?

Phyllis Richman: Crabs. Steamed crabs, soft-shell crabs, crab cakes.

And. . . Senate bean soup.

Greenbelt, MD: When you review a restaurant, how do you manage to taste so many different things? Do you request samples of different dishes, or do you have friends with you and everyone tries different dishes? I've always been curious about the review 'process'.

Phyllis Richman: I go to a restaurant with one to three guests, and we each other differents. I taste them all (so do my guests, usually). Then I return to the restaurant, usually two more times, and taste all those dishes, too. So I get a fair sampling of the menu. It would be nice to be able to order just samples, but I dine as a normal diner, expecting normal servings.

Arlington, Va: In response to what DC needs,
how about a real diner, smack in the middle of downtown?
Baltimore has'em, New York, Philadelphia, but here you gotta go to the 'burbs.

Phyllis Richman: I'm with ya'.

Washington: Regarding cheap restaurants, you can't beat Cafe Luna on 17th and P. I'm always surprised that it doesn't regularly make it onto the "Cheap Eats" lists.

Question: What's a good, moderate restaurant downtown that's kid-friendly but still serves sophisticated food.

Phyllis Richman: I like Cafe Luna, but I think its food is just ordinary. It is all right, reasonably prices, but no standout, even for the price.

I think any restaurant is kid-friendly if the kid is friendly. The problem is often that the kid isn't happy to sit as long as a meal takes. Friends have helped their problem by making blank pages into a book, which they take to a restaurant along with crayons, pencils, magic markers and such. They give it to their daughter and suggest she write a book about their dinner. When my kids were little, I used to ask them to help me review the restaurant by copying the menu. That kept them busy. And recently I found that my daughter, when she was young, used to clean up the restroom, hoping that would help the restaurant get a good review from me.

Bethesda, MD: Think the folks in Baltimore would take execption to saying that Washington has the best crabs.

Phyllis Richman: Well they should. I don't think Washington has the best crabs. I only meant that crabs are a specialty here (as they are in Washington and Norfolk, e.g.). You don't find them often outside of this region.

California, MD: My husband and I recently moved to southern Maryland (St. Mary's county). We are very disappointed with the quality of food and poor service found in many area restaurants. Can you recommend a good restaurant in our area?

Phyllis Richman: There are good restaurants in Southern Maryland. I'm very fond of the Frying Pan and the barbecues along the highway that leads to the southern tip of the state. Casey Jones in La Plata has some surprisingly sophisticated cooking for a down-home place. Somebody has suggested Lagoon to me, but I haven't tried it. Ditto Linda's CAfe.

Vienna, VA: I am a fanatic for Southern fare: collard greens, key lime pie, black eyed peas, etc. I am not looking for atmosphere as much as I am looking for a down-home Southern Fry. Any suggestions?

Phyllis Richman: If you're looking for them on an elegant scale, you'll find them at Vidalia and Georgia Brown's. In less decorative (and less expensive) surroundings, you'll find them at Florida Ave. Grill and Levi's - it's on Bladensburg Rd, near the big Goodwill store, but I think it has recently chaned its name to some woman's name (same owners).

Arlington, VA: I've had hard shell crabs at Obreyki's in Baltimore and have fallen in love with peppered crabs. Are there any places within the Beltway that prepare crabs this way?

Phyllis Richman: The thing that makes O'Brycki's unique it that it seasons its crabs with black pepper rather than red. Here we use red pepper.

And adding to Southern Maryland list while answering this, steamed crabs don't get better than at Robertson's and Capt. Billy's in Pope's Creek in S. Md.

Alexandria, VA: Speaking of crabs...I know my friends and I wait all year long just to roll up our sleeves and pick some meaty, steamed crabs. We frequent a couple of places in Virginia (Ernie's on Fern St. for example...) any other suggestions?

Phyllis Richman: Oh, yes, Ernie's is a perennially good place. And in D. C. , the Dancing Crab, just off Wisconsin AVe.

Germantown, MD: Where in the Maryland suburbs can you find a really good corned beef on rye? I can't find anything to compare with New York City (Katz's on Houston Street, for example)

Phyllis Richman: Ha. You joke.

The Second Ave. Deli, my favorite in NY, does send its food to DC by FedEx. It even has a catalog. (And a great video tape, in case you want to learn to cook the stuff on your own.)

Annandale, VA: I have enjoyed taking cooking classes from some of our better chefs around town. Have you ever participated in any? Have you ever considered reviewing them?

Phyllis Richman: When such classes are given in the chef's onw kitchen, this is an interesting way to get a look at how a kitchen is run and how a chef works. Even when it is in a school (such as L'Academie de Cuisine), it is a fascinating way to learn about what you eat even if you aren't going to be trying it yourself. And of course it is a pleasant way to learn to be a better cook. I can't recommend any particular ones, but the Food Section has a special cooking-class issue every fall.

DC: Phyllis, I just read the review about Barolo, does this mean that my computer is super advanced or are you reviewing it again or what? Now, please suggest a great place to get ice cream beside's ben and jerry's and thomas sweet's, i am dying for something new. I Love Ice cream, I love it, i love it , ILOVEIT!!!

Phyllis Richman: Oops, was my reveiw of Barolo last week? I got turned around from vacation, perhaps.

I don't know any great ice cream place other than those you mentioned (and the Haagen Dazs store in Georgetown). I like the ice cream at Gifford's in BEthesda, though it isn't up to the old original Gifford's. There's a place called Max's in Glover Park, but I haven't tried it.

Washington, DC: Do you take suggestions for reviews? There is a new restaurant in our area that we really enjoy and were wondering how any given place ends up being reviewed.

Phyllis Richman: Yes, I do take suggestions. Just send them along--by mail or email. Since I get a lot of them, it helps if you are specific and persuasive, giving me examples of what's special there.

Once again, time has whipped by so fast that I didn't get to many, many of your question. I'm sorry. I'm typing as fast as I can. Try again next week.

Don't melt in the meantime.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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