Category Archives: Restaurants

Thip Khao — Lunch on 10 June 2017

I’d never tasted Laotian cooking before I went to Thip Khao last week.

The restaurant came with great credentials: It’s on The Washingtonian’s “100 Very Best Restaurants 2017” list, and The Michelin Guide, which started rating Washington restaurants just last year, included it on the “Bib Gourmand” list of recommended restaurants offering two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less. (The “Bib Gourmand” list is sort of Michelin’s version of a JV team—no stars yet, but keep an eye out, because some of them have the potential to go far.)

Siin/Muu Haeng

Siin Haeng

Most of the reviews of Thip Khao recommended starting with what the menu called “Siin/Muu Haeng — crispy sesame jerky, ginger, sriracha.” The “Siin/Muu” in the name indicated that the diner had the option of choosing either beef or pork. I chose beef.

I can’t come up with a better description of Siin Haeng than the one in the Washington Post’s review:  “…sun-dried beef teased with lemon grass and ginger should be what American beef jerky aspires to.”

Knap Paa

This is what my main, Knap Paa, looked like when it was served.

Just for a second, I hesitated. I get a tiny bit nervous whenever I see pod-like vegetation. I think it’s because I was traumatized as a child by watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers on TV late one night….


Whispering to myself, “They’re only banana leaves, They’re only banana leaves,” I eventually opened the packet. Inside was a small serving of monkfish grilled with rice, lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger, and dill.

NB You don’t eat the banana leaves.

And this is the plated meal, including the sticky rice that arrived in a little basket, called a “thip khao”, which is where the restaurant got its name.

So, how was it?

Okay, but I wasn’t overwhelmed. Given the choice of another meal at Thip Khao or a return to Nam Viet, I’d take Nam Viet in a second. The Knap Paa was bland, and I could barely taste the monkfish.

Perhaps part of my dissatisfaction is a result of my decision to order from the regular menu, instead of opting for a second, much hotter menu that Thip Khao calls “The Jungle”.

Maybe next time.

Nam Viet — Lunch on 6 June 2017

There was a long period when I probably averaged about five meals in Vietnamese restaurants for every hamburger I ate. (This was before hamburgers went upscale.)

Nam Viet, in Cleveland Park, was one of my default choices when I wanted an excellent and not-too-expensive meal, but it’s been at least two years since I last visited.

My loss.

I was in the neighbourhood yesterday, dropping off equipment at the Comcast service center—I’ve finally cut the cord on overpriced cable! Nam Viet was right across the street, and it was lunchtime.

Fried Quail

Fried Quail

I started with the fried quail appetizer, and, oh, was it good. I’d never order this unless I was dining alone, because eating quail is even messier than eating lobster. Quail is small and bony—the smaller bones are actually edible—and, really, it’s finger food. Nam Viet serves it with a glazed sweet house fish sauce and caramelized onions, on a bed of lettuce.

Caramelized Chicken

Caramelized Chicken

My main, from the “Chef Specialties” menu, was a huge serving of Caramelized Chicken with fresh ginger and onions. The sautéed, all-white-meat chicken came in a lidded bowl, with a side of steamed rice.

The sauce was nothing less than amazing—sweet and rich and syruppy. I wanted to taste every drop.

All in all, this was one of the best meals I’ve had in months. I’m thinking of making lunch at Nam Viet a once-a-week appointment for June and July.

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent — Now in Theatres

Until a couple of days ago, I didn’t know this film existed, but it’s become my Must See movie of the month.  Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, produced by Anthony Bourdain, is an overdue look at the fascinating Jeremiah Tower.

Here’s the film’s official synopsis:

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent explores the remarkable life of Jeremiah Tower, one of the most controversial and influential figures in the history of American gastronomy. Tower began his career at the renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1972, becoming a pioneering figure in the emerging California cuisine movement. After leaving Chez Panisse, due in part to a famously contentious relationship with founder Alice Waters, Tower went on to launch his own legendary Stars Restaurant in San Francisco. Stars was an overnight sensation and soon became one of America’s top-grossing U.S. restaurants. After several years, Tower mysteriously walked away from Stars and then disappeared from the scene for nearly two decades, only to resurface in the most unlikely of places: New York City’s fabled but troubled Tavern on the Green. There, he launched a journey of self-discovery familiar to anyone who has ever imagined themselves to be an artist. Featuring interviews by Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl and Martha Stewart, this delicious documentary tells the story of the rise and fall of America’s first celebrity chef, whose brash personality and culinary genius has made him a living legend.”

And here’s a recent interview with Jeremiah Tower and Anthony Bourdain, discussing the documentary on CBS This Morning:

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, fresh from the Tribeca Film Festival, is now playing at a single theatre in Los Angeles and a single theatre in New York, but will expand to another 11 cities on Friday, 28 April 2017, with many more venues to follow.


For a great look at the early days of Chez Panisse, you can’t do better than this excerpt from David Kamp’s book, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation which Vanity Fair published under the title “Cooking up a Storm”. Kamp combines a thoroughly researched look at the origins of Chez Panisse with gossipy stories about the drug-drenched environment and the complex sexual entanglements of the key players.

Feud: Bette and Joan, the first of Ryan Murphy’s accounts of famous “complicated” relationships, has just ended its season. He’s tackling the story of Prince Charles and Lady Diana next. If he’s at a loss for a third season, he should consider the story behind the decades-long debate about whether Tower or Alice Waters was most responsible for the rise of Chez Panisse to the first ranks of American restaurants.

Ristoteca Oniga, and the Best Meal I Had in Venice

Restaurants in Venice are likely to be more famous for their high prices than for their great cuisine. It should be a first-rate seafood city, but Barcelona and New Orleans have no need to fear Venetian competition. Of the dozen or so places I tried, all of them highly recommended by Yelp, TripAdvisor, or other independent sources, only one of the full-service restaurants made me crave a second visit.*

That was Ristoteca Oniga, near Ca’ Rezzonico, in the Dorsoduro sestiere.

Like many of the restaurants in Venice, the exterior looks shabby and uninviting—Island weather conditions can be rough on buildings. I never made it inside, though, because it was a perfect spring day, and Oniga, which fronts on a pleasant square called Campo San Barnaba, has lots of outdoor seating.

Campo San Barnaba

Campo San Barnaba

Breads

Breads

A nice selection of fresh bread is always a good sign. I’d never seen those round baked goods that look like big Cheerios before, but I ate every crunchy one of them, and could have eaten more.

Mussels and Clams

Mussels and Clams

These sautéed mussels and clams with a tomato and garlic sauce made up the single best dish I had in Venice. The picture is deceptive in that it doesn’t convey the size of the serving. Those croutons, for instance, were the largest I’ve ever seen. I didn’t count the mussels, but the discarded shells filled two big bowls.

Monkfish

Monkfish

The shellfish starter set a high standard for anything that came later. The monkfish with tomatoes, olives, and capers, came close.


The people at the next table were from Los Angeles, and, like me, were delighted by the quality of the food, and impressed with the American-sized servings. We joked about being overwhelmed, and they let me take these pictures of what was left of their meal after five hungry adults had had a go at it.

Must also mention that the service was also excellent, and the server was exemplary.


*I’m specifying “full-service restaurants” to exclude things like cicetti bars and Venice’s multitudinous gelato shops, which are irresistible and addicting. It was a rare day in Venice that I passed up a double scoop of wonderful.

Lunch at Trattoria Cherubino

Trattoria Cherubino is a small family restaurant a few streets away from Piazza San Marco. It’s been around forever, has no website, and has a reputation for serving authentic Northern Italian seafood.

Spaghetti alla Veneta

Spaghetti alla Veneta

My First Course, my Primi Piatti, was Spaghetti with Cuttlefish. The cuttlefish morsels had the taste and texture of mushrooms, and the spaghetti got its colour from the cuttlefish’s ink.

Cuttlefish belong to the same class as squid and octopuses, and I’m beginning to have doubts about eating them. Octopuses in particular seem to have a surprisingly high intelligence. I need to research this a little more.

Frittura mista dell'Adriatico

Frittura mista dell’Adriatico

This dish, mixed fried fish from the Adriatic Sea, was challenging.

It really was a mixture. I counted at least nine different sea creatures, only four of which I could definitely identify. I was at a loss as to how some of the fish should be eaten. Was that part edible? Is that an eel? Should this be eaten whole?

But travel is about discovering and trying new things. If I’d just wanted American food, I might as well have stayed in Washington, and sent out for Lechón Asado or Pad Kra Prao Gai. So I soldiered on.

It was a memorable meal, and the service was friendly and charming, but I’d probably order a different main if I dined there again.

Ca’ D’Oro — Octopus vs Meatball

Ca’ D’Oro (Alla Vedova)

It’s officially Ca’ D’Oro, after the name of a nearby palace, but the natives know it as Alla Vedova — “The Widow’s Place”. It’s hidden away on an easy-to-miss street, has no website, and features yet another less than enticing façade.

Oh, and it’s good enough to be listed in the Michelin Guide, which describes it as:

“A historic restaurant with retro charm run by the same family since the late 19C. The concise menu focuses on Venetian dishes, especially fish and seafood, although the meatballs are also legendary.”

Polpette

Polpette

Those “legendary meatballs” that the Michelin Guide mentions are called “Polpette”. They’re made with ground meat—pork and maybe veal for the ones I tried—grated cheese, fresh parsley leaves, garlic, and minced onion. The formed meatballs are dredged in breadcrumbs and fried.

At Ca’ D’Oro, you can have them as the starter to a full meal, or you can eat them, and sample other cichetti, while standing at the small bar at the restaurant’s entrance. They cost €1.50 each at the bar, €2.00 at the table.

But here’s the surprise:  Maybe I was expecting too much, but I wasn’t overly impressed. They were all right, but they weren’t nearly as good as the polpette at the restaurant Bibiana, right here in Washington. Who’d’a thunk it?

Octopus

My main, Polpetti in umido—octopus stewed in tomato sauce—was much more interesting. This was a dish meant to be eaten slowly, savouring each bite.

Score this one for the molluscs.

Cichetti at Cantinone Gia Schiavi

Cichetti

Cichetti

Let me tell you about cichetti.

Cichetti are finger food—small snacks, usually just a bite or two on a piece of bread, eaten standing up in a cicchetti bar or a restaurant. It’s common practice to spend an early evening moving from one venue to another, sampling as you go.

They’re served through the day, so it’s also possible to put together a lunch composed of a few cichetti. That’s what I did.

Venetians tend to take light breakfasts and have late lunches. In between, a couple of cichetti make for a good mid-morning snack.

Cantinone Gia Schiavi is a wine bar and a wine shop that has a reputation for making some of the best cichetti in Venice. Entering it was like going to a party—it was packed with people drinking wine and socializing. No seats or tables; everybody stood and mingled.

I selected the half-dozen cichetti in the picture above, and carried them outside, to eat by the canal.


After lunch, I walked over to the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice’s great art gallery, and spent the rest of the day there.