THE ZAGAT Washington D.C. Restaurant Survey is out, and it shows that the winds of popularity are blowing differently this year.
Among its Top 30 Food Ratings, the Inn at Little Washington is first; last year it didn't even make the list. Also new to the list are some new restaurants (Willard Room and Occidental), some fairly new restaurants (House of Kao and Le Marmiton) and some old restaurants that haven't noticeably changed but suddenly have joined Zagat's ranks of the best (La Bergerie, Sakura Palace, Germaine's and Il Giardino). And dropped from the top were Cantina d'Italia, Montpelier Room, Maison Blanche, Generous George, Jockey Club, Bangkok Gourmet, Woo Lae Oak, Galileo and Thai Taste. All of these restaurants just missed top rank by a hair except last year's surprise winner, Generous George, which sank several points. Also new in the Zagat survey this year are ratings of 16 food emporiums and wine shops.
WHERE THE WILD SHRIMP ROAM --
Given the mad dash towards creativity among American restaurants, coming up with new combinations that stay this side of bizarre is an accomplishment. It sounds as if Carlyle Grand Cafe in The Village at Shirlington did well in revising its menu, adding compelling combinations such as veal chop with fire-roasted figs, catfish with oyster cream sauce, warm swordfish salad and grilled ribeye rolled in kosher salt and wild herbs, topped with soy butter. But then the restaurant went too far. Its menu boasts free-range shrimp for its grilled shrimp cocktail. Next we'll be hearing about free-range vegetables.
HOW SWEET IT ISN'T --
I thought at first that I must be complaining too much about dishes being oversweetened. At the West End Cafe recently the fruit-and- macadamia crepes tasted totally devoid of sugar. The crepes were unsweetened, the raspberries were unsugared, as was the whipped cream. The real suprise, though, was the sauce; the "creme anglaise" was not sweet custard sauce but more like a savory sauce for a main dish. I tasted it and tried again. Yep, no sugar. I passed it to the other people at the table to taste. Right, not the least bit sweet. Then the waiter came out with another plate of crepes in hand, apologizing and explaining that a new person in the kitchen had mistaken the mayonnaise sauce for the creme anglaise. He left the correct -- and very good -- crepes with sweet custard sauce for us and removed the first plate. He was not the only one embarrassed, though; after all of us in turn tasted the first dish, it was nearly gone, and I hated his thinking that we had liked it enough to actually polish off the dreadful concoction.
SUB SIGHTINGS --
A new contender in the ongoing search for the great submarine sandwich is at Vignola, 113a N. Washington Street, Rockville. For a mere $2.50 you get a hefty sandwich and a good show. The proprietor rattles on about food and philosophy, Italian style, as he splits and slashes the insides of very good crusty, chewy Italian rolls. Having made them ready to absorb more of his thick green oil and vinegar dressing, he squirts it on, then layers on salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and whatever bits of meat or cheese happen to suit his fancy. And that's it. No lettuce or tomato, no pickles or hot peppers -- although I suppose you could ask for them. It is a simple sandwich, and the Italian cold cuts are standard, but it is raised to heights by the bread and the dressing. Vignola also sells sausage and meatball subs; and its refrigerator and freezer are full of homemade pastas, sauces, salads, tortas and calzones. For me, though, the sub's the thing at Vignola.