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Jun 15, 2011

Restless Derek Brown

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Derek Brown is busy.

Ostensibly, he's a bartender, though when pressed, even he can't settle on that.

No, Derek Brown is busier than that. In no particular order, Brown is a business owner, historian, writer, judge, consultant, instructor, and bartender, who in addition to manning the bar of his well-regarded cocktail club, the Columbia Room, is occasionally called upon to shake and stir libations for heads of state, European royalty and the nice couple who live at 1600 Penn. Ave.

Derek Brown is busy.

Brown's work behind the bar has resulted in heavy recognition from his peers within D.C. and across the country, including the James Beard Foundation, as well as magazines and newspapers that are as likely to quote him as employ him. In a city with quite a few great bartenders, Brown may be the best and is certainly the most well known.

Three years ago, I didn't have a clue who he was.

I was an assistant at the cooking school CulinAerie and signed up for a series of cocktail classes taught by one of the bartenders from The Gibson, the speakeasy off U Street whose pretentious concept was reason enough for me to avoid it. However, Brown was an affable instructor, and over the course of the three classes, I came away with a better understanding of the science of cocktails, as well as a drink of my very own. All thanks to the guy from The Gibson.

It's from that frame of reference that I began following Brown's career. Typically, we get to know the big name chefs and bartenders around town through articles and interviews. Before we eat their food and drink their drinks, we know their back stories, their approach to their craft. I've never met Michel Richard or dined at Citronelle, but given the number of articles I've read about the chef and his restaurant, I have a fairly good idea of what to expect from both. With Brown, I had nothing.

Instead, he was the bartender who taught my cocktail class. Afterward, I began going to The Gibson, even though I still believe the not-so-secret secret concept is tiresome. It was worth it for the show. Brown is as much an entertainer as a bartender. Every other drink was a minor pyrotechnics display, as Brown and the other bartenders squeezed citrus and fire across the tops of cocktails in the dimly lit lounge. Even the act of shaking a cocktail - an act as dynamic as it was loud - was a feat of strength and technique that captured the bar's attention. The craft cocktails scene was peaking in D.C. and Brown was starring at The Gibson.

The fact that he became such a renowned bartender even surprises him. Eleven years ago, Brown was just another aimless restaurant employee at Rocky's in Adams Morgan. Tired of waiting tables, Brown lied his way behind the bar claiming bartending experience he didn't have, slopped together a passable rum punch and began a new career. A decade after that miserable drink, Brown owns his own bar, married fellow bartender Chantal Tseng and GQ magazine declared his martini the best in America.

"My brother likes to say that if it wasn't for alcohol, I wouldn't have a job, a hobby or friends," Brown said.

Since his days at Rocky's, Brown went on to work as a bartender and sommelier around town, consulting with bars and restaurants on their beverage programs. He also began to study the art of cocktail making. Although D.C. isn't without a cocktail history, it's not New Orleans and it's not New York. With the exception of Sam Lek, of the former Town & Country, and Jim Hewes at the Round Robin, the city didn't have many great bartenders for the up-and-comers like Brown, Todd Thrasher of PX and Gina Chersevani of PS7's to turn to for guidance and advice. So they had to figure it out for themselves.

"We were students without teachers," Brown said. "So we learned things and figured things out along the way. Eventually, we got better and developed better techniques."

DSC_0039 After his stint at The Gibson, Brown opened the bar-in-a-bar concept, The Passenger and Columbia Room with his brother Tom. The spaces couldn't be more different. Up front is The Passenger, black and grimy, with Iggy Pop blaring through the air and Tom and PBRs behind the bar. It's a laid-back bar that specializes in Tiki drinks on Tuesdays and an eclectic punk soundtrack all week. But make your way through The Passenger - with a reservation - and you'll find The Columbia Room, a quieter, apothecary shop of a bar that puts Derek and his cocktails on display.

Back at The Gibson, Brown's fellow bartenders would bust his balls about the folks who would insist on the seats that clustered around his end of the bar. But Brown knew he made good drinks and put on a performance, so he ignored the comments. At the Columbia Room, there's no need to grab a special spot at the bar, all 10 seats face Brown.

He calls it the fishbowl effect, and while it can be unnerving, he's used to being stared at as he goes about his work. Every 30 minutes, a few new people come in as a few people head out. A drink to start, a drink for the season, and a drink of your choosing. Three cocktails, paced slowly. Throughout the evening, Brown makes light conversation with the revolving cast of guests who've paid $64 each for the pleasure. And though he's the sole bartender of the Columbia Room, when it comes to that final beverage, his time is yours, whether that means making a martini or spending 15 minutes hand carving a block of ice into a diamond for a Scotch on the rock.

Five days a week, that's where you'll find Derek Brown. The rest of the time he's busy.

Following Brown on Facebook offers an interesting glimpse into schedule. There are posts about cocktails he's working on for the Columbia Room. There are posts about his latest article in The Atlantic, or his Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post. There are posts from spirit tasting events in San Francisco. There are posts about the Museum of the American Cocktail, for which he is a board member. And there are posts from the parties and other functions he's been hired to bartend.

Then there are the things that he doesn't post on Facebook: the books he's working on (or trying to), the new bar projects he's considering, the consulting he's doing with Chef R.J. Cooper and Rogue 24.

Most people would be satisfied to own their own business and have a job they enjoy, but Brown is restless. All the extracurriculars, the writing, the consulting are stepping stones toward, well, something. While his goal isn't completely clear, all of it begins at the bar.

Brown wants to make a better cocktail. That's why he spends so much time tinkering with cocktails and thumbing through old recipe books. His martini, the one GQ liked so much, doesn't have a garnish. Why? He determined the sliver-thin lemon twist he once served with the drink made the beverage bitter. During our interview, the conversation took a tangent into bitters, which led Brown to tell me about The Meadow, his new favorite shop in New York that specializes in cocktail bitters, salts and chocolate, and to break out a few bottles to show me how good they were (they were). He did the same thing a few years ago when he discovered Fee Brothers bitters.

It's about refinement. It's about making the drink better.

For now, he's pursuing that drink at the Columbia Room. But he knows that in time, the broader fascination in craft cocktails will fade and only the cocktail geeks will be interested in his showmanship and his club. When the Columbia Room runs its course and the reservations stop coming in, Brown will move on to the next project.

He describes his long-term goal as positioning himself to be "patient zero for the good life." To create bars, beverages and a culture that celebrates the best parts of our drinking culture.

It's a vague goal, to be sure, but Brown's got a lot on his plate at the moment. He has to prepare for tonight's reservations at the Columbia Room, go over his next column for the Atlantic, touch base with a couple clients and wrap up out a few final details about an upcoming event. As he churns through his hectic schedule, that long-term goal might take shape, become a bit clearer.

For now, though, Derek Brown is busy.

Categories: Chinatown/MCI Center/Verizon Center, Cocktails, DC, Interviews, Liquor, Washington, DC
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Sep 08, 2010

ChurchKey: Ambitious Vision Is Realized As D.C.'s Very Best Beer Bar

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Everything you need to know about ChurchKey is on the draught list.

Look at it. Drafted on tan, heavy paper - good paper, hardy paper - it's a black script roadmap to 55 drafts and casks. Hoppy, spicy, fruity, smoky beers are offered by the taste and by the glass. Along side each beer is the name of the brewery, its style, its place of birth. There's the alcohol percentage, the serving temperature, the price and the proper glassware. In case you don't know a tulip from a pint, there's a key of glassware silhouettes along the bottom of the menu.

Churchkey6 It's polished, elegant and written for nebbish beer geeks, but designed to guide anyone through ChurchKey's substantial selection of beers. 

It's the best menu I've ever seen.

The bar is almost as nice. From the solid burnt orange bar with its inset of keys, to the gothic chandeliers and floor to ceiling windows overlooking Logan Circle, ChurchKey is a beautiful establishment that was built to impress.

Without a doubt, it is one of the best bars I've ever set foot in. ChurchKey is not just one of D.C.'s best beer bars, it's our most important bar. The Brickskeller was ahead of its time when its lengthy beer list made the record books. But Miss Havisham has had her day and D.C.'s beer scene has come into its own. Portland has the Horse Brass Pub and Brussels has the Delirium Cafe. Now, thanks to Michael Babin and Greg Engert, we have ChurchKey.

I'm not the only one who's noticed.

"I was very pleasantly surprised with the professionalism [of the ChurchKey staff] and especially Greg has a great knowledge," Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the Danish brewer behind cult beer favorite Mikkeller, told me via email. Earlier this year, Engert hosted Mikkel at a beer dinner at ChurchKey's downstairs sister restaurant, Birch & Barley. "It is hard to compare [to other beer bars] as ck is unique, but it is definitely one of the best beer restaurants I have been to."

Then of course, there are the local awards (two Rammys and the City Paper's pick for Best Beer Bar/Best Beer Menu) and national recognition (Food & Wine, The New York Times, Paste, All About Beer). Clearly, the arrival of ChurchKey and Birch & Barley has not gone unnoticed.


48580023 It's never easy, or cheap, to open a restaurant, much less two of them in a shitty economy. Yet, Babin (above, right), co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, did just that. Last year, he turned a former hamburger joint into a destination beer bar set atop an upscale restaurant. The establishments are treated separately, but are equally bound by a lineup of beers that stretch between floors and into the hundreds, all of which is overseen by a beer director that obsesses over every little detail. Needless to say, it was Babin's most expensive project, but it made Engert (above, left) a very happy man.

Before spending most of his waking hours at ChurchKey, Engert was (and is) the beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, including Rustico, Babin's beer-centric restaurant in Alexandria. Although Rustico was launched with a beer program, it was Engert who focused and expanded it.

He brought in interesting beers, cask ales and a hand pump, hosted beer dinners, started a library of rare beers, headed up beer themed events, and eventually started talking to his boss about an even better beer bar.

Babin and Engert knew there were limitations to what they could do with Rustico. There was only so much space, all of which was built before Engert was hired, and they wanted Rustico to remain a neighborhood restaurant. So a plan was hatched. Babin asked Engert what he would do if he could do anything. Engert responded with ChurchKey.

"Every single thing I wanted to do with beer here, I did," said Engert, who is also a partner in ChurchKey and Birch & Barley.

33680011 It shows. If you know anything about ChurchKey or the District's craft beer scene, you probably know these stats: 555 beers on hand, 55 of which are drafts, five of which are hand-pumped cask ales. It's impressive in its size and scope, but it's not the most impressive aspect.

No, the most impressive thing is the trio of coolers. Each cooler is set at a different temperature (42, 48, 54) based on the style beer being stored (for example, lagers are stored at colder temperatures than ales). The draft lines that run the beer from the coolers to the taps are insulated and cooled to ensure that the beer filling your glass is the same temperature it was when it left the keg.

It's an attention to detail most people will overlook, but it separates ChurchKey from most bars in the country, much less D.C.

33680014 Consider the bottle list. It's 500 deep, yet there are dozens and dozens of names you probably don't recognize. As he did with the beer list at Rustico, Engert organized the beers by flavor rather than style or place of origin. Understanding that hundreds of somewhat obscure beers don't sell quickly, Engert keeps a limited number of each beer. And when one sells out a new one usually comes in.

33680017 Engert's regular rotation of rare and eclectic beers, on draft and by the bottle, has led some folks around town to question how he gets such unique products. Some have suggested that ChurchKey and the
Neighborhood Restaurant Group can spend more money than other bars and restaurants, while others speculate that because ChurchKey is the popular beer bar in D.C., brewers and distributors are lining up to get their products in.

Engert said it's none of those things. Rather, he said, it's simply a matter of working harder than everyone else to find out about new beers entering the market, establishing relationships with the brewers and distributors, and keeping his draft lines pristine and his coolers at the proper temperatures. ChurchKey also maintains a stash of 76 casks that they ship to breweries to keep the hand-pump selections interesting.

And then there's the beer dinner series and meet-the-brewer nights, the vintage beer list, and the firkins (because five beer engines pumping fresh cask ale just isn't enough - and it's not), but I should stop. I should note that ChurchKey may be designed with beer enthusiasts in mind, but they make their nut on the curious and the uninitiated.

For Engert, ChurchKey is an opportunity to teach. The less you know the better. Come in and peruse the pretty draft menu or thumb through the bound bottle list. If you can't make up your mind, that's fine. Engert and his staff will show you the way. That's why he spends an hour and a half every day working with the bartenders and servers in ChurchKey and Birch & Barley on the beer program. If you have a question, everyone should have an answer.

"We believe very strongly that this would be an eye-opener for many people," Babin said. "You get people in the right mood to try new things."

Of the many trips I've made to ChurchKey and Birch & Barley since it opened last fall, I've only caught one bartender off guard. The guy gave me the wrong beer and assured me the stout I ordered was the bitter I received. However, he double checked with Engert, who relaized the mistake and got me the right beer. A rookie error by a new bartender that was quickly addressed.

That's it, though. Babin and Engert have hired a lot of staff, and all of them (well, most of them) are clearly well trained.

48580017 When ChurchKey is packed, I like to grab a seat at the bar in Birch & Barley. All the beer is the same and you get to admire the copper "beer organ" that houses the draft lines coming from upstairs. However, Birch & Barley's bar doesn't have direct access to the bottles or cask ales on the hand pumps. Nevertheless, the bartenders always seem more than happy to run upstairs for an order. It's a nice touch.

Babin and Engert are quick to note that much of ChurchKey's success - and Birch & Barley's for that matter - is also due to the work of Executive Chef Kyle Bailey and Pastry Chef Tiffany Macisaac. They're right to do so. Bailey and Macisaac do an excellent job servicing two restaurants with semi-distinct menus (there are some crossover dishes). They even keep in the spirit of things by working beer into a number of dishes.

I would add to that Nahem Simon, who's worked with Engert for years, bartending at both Rustico and ChurchKey. Simon is an excellent bartender and may be as well versed in his product as Engert.

So is there a bad thing to say about ChurchKey? Maybe some nitpicking.

DSCN5408 One man's eclectic beer list is another man's frustration. Engert obviously puts a lot of thought into his bottle beer list, but I think it's a bit over thought. As much as I like to try new things, I also have a number of favorite beers I'd expect to see at a place like ChurchKey. Rather than an obscure gueuze beer from Belgium, how about sticking in a couple Titan IPAs from Colorado?

I'd also like to see more local beers. Engert is skeptical of the concept of localism and builds his beer list around flavors rather than geography, but I can't see the harm in supporting local breweries. He's done a few events with Frederick's Flying Dog and Brian Strumke of Baltimore's Stillwater Ales, but he can do more by keeping a few bottles of our exceptional local breweries on hand.

Normally I knock beer bars that have a strong dining presence, but for all of Chef Bailey's hard work (there's poutine, people), the food is a supporting player at ChurchKey.

Finally, this might be might strangest criticism yet, but ChurchKey is just too popular. It's been open nearly a year, and it still draws a mob. In time, the crowds will thin and the line to get in will disappear. When that happens, ChurchKey will cease to be a scene and settle into being D.C. very best beer bar.

Score: 18 of 20 (beer: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 4 of 5, bartenders: 5 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)

The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20), The Black Squirrel (16 of 20) and Dr. Granville Moore's (15 of 20). And don't miss our special feature on D.C.'s best German bars.

(Note: The Best Beer Bar series is going on hiatus. I'm taking six months off to check out new beer bars or beer bars I haven't visited in a while. I will also be revising the criteria that I use to judge the beer bars. If you have any suggestions for places I should visit or what I should look for in a good beer bar, leave me a comment below.)

Categories: Bar/Club, Beer, DC, Interviews, Logan Circle, Restaurant Reviews, Washington, DC
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Jul 14, 2010

The Black Squirrel: Best beer bar is the best reason to head to Adams Morgan

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I don't care for Adams Morgan. I haven't since I was in my 20s, and even then I wasn't crazy about the neighborhood.

The clubs, chaos and shitty bars just aren't my scene any more, not that they ever were. I do love Madam's Organ, but even that ramshackle joint isn't enough to deal with the mess anymore. And as the good Ethiopian restaurants disappeared from the 18th Street corridor, there was nothing to draw me to the neighborhood.

Well, there was nothing.

33670003 A couple years ago, three friends who met in a bar opened a bar. A good bar. A very good bar -- The Black Squirrel, the hardest working beer bar in Washington, D.C. And they did it in the heart of Adams Morgan.

If there was ever any doubt that the craft beer revolution has changed D.C.'s bar scene, you need only consider The Black Squirrel. Before Gene Sohn, Tom Knott and Amy Bowman took over the space, it was another Irish pub, one of too many in the area. Like so many businesses up and down 18th Street, the Irish place failed. The fickle tastes of the twenty-something bar hoppers that crowd the sidewalks every weekend decided that pints of Guinness weren't their thing and so another Adams Morgan business needed a buyer.

33670008 Since the trio moved in and replaced the imported macros with American micros, they've established a following of neighborhood regulars and loyal beer enthusiasts willing to trek into Adams Morgan to experience what's on tap. Two years after opening, The Black Squirrel is on its second expansion. Last year, they opened an upstairs bar and lounge. Later this year, they'll outfit their freshly graffitied basement with a bar (with 30 to 40 draft lines!) and bring in live music. Soon enough, they'll open a second location and start brewing their own beer.

And to think they've done all this without Jägerbombs, drink specials or, frankly, much experience.

Gene Sohn spent his career in fine dining. After a three-year stint cooking at Marcel's in the West End, Sohn was ready for something different, maybe a place of his own. So he started talking to Amy and Tom, a long-time couple who were fellow regulars at the old Austin Grill in Glover Park. Amy is a health care writer, Tom a sports columnist, and neither has ever worked in the restaurant or bar business, but they were interested.  

33670021 Man, were they. In the past two years, Gene, Amy and Tom (far left, background and right, respectively) have operated one of the most interesting craft beer bars in the area. Their draft lineup isn't the largest in D.C., but beer director Melissa Yuckel (center) makes the most of what they got. Two taps are dedicated to Black Squirrel white and Black Squirrel black beers (usually a Belgian witbier and an amber), but the other 15 feature a regular rotation of American craft and imports, including Great Lakes' Eliot Ness lager, Great Divide's Titan IPA and North Coast's Brother Thelonious abbey ale. In the coolers, The Black Squirrel offers 80 to 100 bottles, the latest of which are advertised on the chalkboard next to Tom's favorite perch at the end of the bar. A couple months ago, they got on the growing firkin bandwagon and started tapping a cask of fresh local beer every Friday.

This alone would make The Black Squirrel a good beer bar (and the best damn bar in its neighborhood). But they're not done (I told ya, they're workin'.).

Because all of that is just not enough, Amy or the bar staff have made multi-state beer runs to pick up beer otherwise unavailable in the D.C. area (Greg Jasgur may be driving Three Floyds back from Chicago, but Amy's going up and down the damn East Coast). As a result, The Black Squirrel has held North Carolina Beer week, New Belgium beer week, Philly beer week and has more theme weeks on the way. Each time one of these new beers rolls into the bar, Gene rolls out new specials from the kitchen. North Carolina beer week featured Big Boss from Raleigh and pulled pork sandwiches from Gene. Philly beer week included beers from Yards and Sly Fox, and foie gras cheesesteaks with black truffle mousse (yeah it did). Now, they've cracked open cases of SweetWater beer from Atlanta and served them with an appropriately Southern menu of fried chicken, greens and grits.

"What we've learned from our type of customers is they want to be surprised," Tom said. And so the road trips and taps rotations will continue.

33670017 When Amy, Tom and Gene started talking about opening a place three years ago, the District's craft beer scene was just getting under way. There was Bierria Paradiso in Georgetown, the Brickskeller in Dupont Circle and its sister restaurant RFD in Chinatown, but ChurchKey was still two years from opening and Pizzeria Paradiso's cramped Dupont location didn't have a bar. Granville Moore's and Brasserie Beck had just opened, expanding the Belgian beer scene from Belga Café on Barrack's Row to the Atlas District and downtown.

Today, the beer bar scene is in full swing, yet The Black Squirrel remains a standout.

"We do have more of a domestic (beer) focus," said Amy, who described The Black Squirrel as a "hop head" bar. "It's sort of nice that they have their niche and we have our niche."

That niche includes location. Think about where all the beer bars popped up in the District: Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Logan Circle, downtown, even H Street, which is still pretty rough. For a neighborhood that's known for its Miller Lite bars and noisy clubs, its only craft beer bar stands out.

When they were considering locations for The Black Squirrel, Amy said they recognized that Adams Morgan was a club district that didn't have anything like what they were considering. However, it was more affordable than other locations around the city. Besides, for all late-night crowds and turnover in businesses on 18th, they knew a lot of people lived in the neighborhood who didn't have a spot to grab a decent meal and enjoy a beer. If they could attract the locals (they have), their business might just work (it has).

Another factor in their success is their staff. Tom said they attract well-educated, bright employees who understand the concept and are good with the customers. The problem with bartenders and wait staff with graduate degrees, however, is it's hard to keep them around.  

Now, I've never asked Melissa or their former bar manager Hollie Stephenson (who's heading up their brewing project) for their CV, but The Black Squirrel's staff is friendly enough, which is probably more important than their academic backgrounds (but who am I to argue?). After all, you can clearly run a successful beer bar and restaurant in a challenging neighborhood with absolutely no experience whatsoever.

When he was looking for business partners, Gene said he was more interested in finding someone who would be a good fit rather than someone with a restaurant industry background. As it turned out, it may be Amy and Tom's lack of restaurant experience that has been their greatest asset.

Gene runs the kitchen, while Amy and Tom handle the front of the house. Amy also takes care of marketing, paperwork, beer menu and stock levels and deals with the city. Tom oversees the staff, financing and works on new endeavors, like the second location and brewing project. It's a system that's working, but that's not to say there isn't room for improvement.

33670013 I understand the decision to open shop in Adams Morgan, but I don't have to like it. But because I like The Black Squirrel - and I do - I'm compelled to wade back into the neighborhood. To mitigate my misery, I tend to hit the bar earlier rather than later, which helps, but even in the late afternoon, Adams Morgan isn't great, it's just less shitty.

If Gene, Amy and Tom had opened The Black Squirrel in another neighborhood, I might've had my own stool next to Tom's by now.

During the interview, Amy said one of the keys to their success is the food, which Gene calls typical bar food, but done with fine dining quality. That's probably true (foie gras cheesesteaks, people). I've rarely been in The Black Squirrel without seeing families and couples having dinner. But as I've mentioned before, a good restaurant doesn't make a good bar.

It's kind of like kids in a casino. I like my bars to be full of drinkers, so the family sitting at the next table enjoying their meal always takes me a little out of the moment. A native of Houston, Amy said you can't go into a bar in Texas without finding good food. Well, I'd like to keep my bars and restaurants distinct, but that's just me.

As for the beer, Melissa does an excellent job making the most of the space she has. Of all the beer bars in the D.C. area, The Black Squirrel consistently has the strongest and most consistent selection of American craft beers. However, their selection of local beers is spotty. While you may find a couple bottles of Flying Dog and occasionally a Heavy Seas on draft, I'd like to see a wider selection of local beers (Hook & Ladder, Evolution, even Baltimore's The Brewer's Art), particularly from a bar that prides itself on its domestic lineup. After all, what's more American than supporting your community?

What they do have on hand does rotate a good bit, which keeps the beer and selection fresh. But the way they advertise the new beers is confusing. The chalkboard by the bar (and Tom) lists the new bottles. I know this because the first time I ordered off of it expecting a draft beer to show up, I was given a bottle and a glass. In my experience, my chalkboard lists are for drafts and printed lists are for bottles. However, the printed draft list is (occasionally) relegated to the menu and may or may not be current. Honestly, the best way to find out what's on draft is to ask, which is fine at the bar, but sucks when you're at a table.

The communication problems also extend to the Website. As far as I can tell, the only useful information on the Website is the phone number and address (maybe the food menu, too). The draft and bottle beer lists are out of date, and they never advertise all their special beer weeks. So, if you want to find out about an upcoming event, you need to connect with The Black Squirrel on Facebook. If you want to find out what's on draft, you better head down there. Pizzeria Paradiso, ChurchKey and RFD do a decent job of updating their beer selections online, and there's no reason The Black Squirrel couldn't do the same. When I'm trying to decide where to spend my money on a few craft beers, I like to know what my options are. Unfortunately, The Black Squirrel's Website doesn't help.

That said, roll the dice and see what Amy and Melissa have brought in. The Black Squirrel isn't the biggest place, and it doesn't have the most taps or the largest selection; but Lord knows they're all working hard and burning fuel to make sure that that 18th Street joint is one of the best beer bars we got.

And you know what? It is.

Score: 16 of 20 (beer: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 4 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)

The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), and Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20). And don't miss our special feature on D.C.'s best German bars.

The Black Squirrel
2427 18th St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 232-1011

Categories: Adams Morgan, Bar/Club, Beer, DC, Interviews, Washington, DC
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Jun 09, 2010

Planet Barbecue: Raichlen offers up one more great guide for the grill

Planet BBQ Steven Raichlen's business card says "Writer."

That was the first thing I noticed when the grilling authority, instructor, television personality and all around barbecue guru handed me his card. 

"Writer."

It turns out that for all the notoriety that Raichlen has amassed for mastering a world's worth of grilling and barbecuing techniques, he's basically a writer. Always has been, in fact.

"I'm not a chef or a pit master. I'm not qualified to be. But I am a writer," he told me after a recent talk he gave at the Smithsonian. Thumbing through his latest barbecue book, that makes sense.

Like its author, Planet Barbecue is a work of many things. First and foremost, it's a cook book. But it's also a history text, with sections dedicated to the origins of barbecue and country profiles that show how this popular American cuisine is common around the world. Between the recipes for bacon-grilled enotake mushrooms and hanger steak with Marchand de Vin sauce, are interviews with pit masters, Spanish chefs, and Laotian women who probably know more about grilling fish than Barton Seaver.

With more than 300 recipes and pages of color-photo instructions, Planet Barbecue is very much a cook book. It just also happens to be a work of non-fiction the size of a phone book.

Planet Barbecue is Raichlen's twelfth book and his last on barbecue. The genre has been very good to him, but he's ready to move on. His next book will be a novel -- a novel with somewhat of a food theme, but a novel all the same.

So if Planet Barbecue is the barbecue and grilling cook book he's going out on, at least he's doing so on a high note.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Raicheln's earlier cook book, BARBECUE! Bible, is a must-have for anyone who enjoys barbecue and grilling and wants to improve. It was also the book that put Raichlen on the map.

Like Planet Barbecue, the BARBECUE! Bible featured an international assortment of barbecue recipes. More importantly though, it came with tips and illustrated techniques.

BARBECUE! Bible taught me how to properly butterfly pork, grill lobster and rotisserie a leg of lamb. It also covered the origins of the barbacoa, profiled a restaurant in Mumbai and dedicated 500 words to Indonesian grilling. Turns out, Raichlen has been writing about more than grilled chicken and baby back ribs for some time.

As good as BARBECUE! Bible is, I like the selection of recipes in Planet Barbecue better. Raichlen hits all the necessary American recipes, including brisket, smoked pork shoulder, burgers, whole hog and ribs; and his selection of recipes from other countries is eclectic enough to be interesting, but not so much so to pass up. So while there are tips on how to grill onion and coriander brined lamb chops like they do in Uzbekistan, there's also a world's worth of steak and pork recipes. They may have come from other countries, but many of the dishes feel familiar even if their origins aren't.

When it came out in 1998, the BARBECUE! Bible became one of the authoritative texts on barbecue. The problem was, the book's focus on American and international barbecue recipes meant that the attention given to any one of those cuisines was a little thin. And as interesting as other countries' barbecue recipes are, they were a bit too obscure and I wanted more recipes from my own back yard. Planet Barbecue picks up where the BARBECUE! Bible left off. Add to that the detailed photo illustrations (a step up from the hand-drawn illustrations in BARBECUE! Bible) and additional techniques, and Planet Barbecue becomes the new must-have for barbecue enthusiasts.

Raichlen said he wanted Planet Barbecue to be an authoritative work, a bookend to the BARBECUE! Bible and How to Grill. With the combination of recipes, techniques and profiles, Raichlen expects this book to be used differently by different people: some will read it cover to cover, while others will only crack it for the recipes.

On the other hand, Planet Barbecue benefits from the BARBECUE! Bible. Like the earlier work, Planet Barbecue is a great cook book and an interesting read. However, I'm glad I have both books and the battery of recipes and techniques they provide. Each book is good, but both books are great.

Speaking of those barbecue recipes, in Planet Barbecue they are once again a best-of from around the globe. Raichlen covers grilled bread with DC's own Jose Andres, Balkan grilled veal and pork "burgers," and Singapore-style skate grilled in banana leaves. Each recipe includes a bit of info on where it comes from, what the ingredient is and a little info on the region or dish.

That's all well and good, but what's important is Raichlen has a recipe for Allen & Son's pulled pork, sauce and all.

Some of you just said, "Oh shit." I did, too.

I love Eastern Carolina barbecue, and Chapel Hill's Allen & Son is the epicenter of all things tangy, porky and right. Proprietor Keith Allen has finessed this beautifully simple combination of slow smoked pork shoulder and vinegar sauce into an unctuous nirvana. Given how protective pit masters and barbecue enthusiasts are about their recipes, I was stunned to see that Raichlen got Allen's recipe for that moist, tart pork. I'm also suspicious.

I mean, this might rank up there with the Colonel's 11 spices or the recipe for Coca-Cola.

I promise you, I'll be putting that recipe to good use this summer. I also promise that it'll never be as good as Keith Allen's.

Even as Raichlen traveled from country to country working on Planet Barbecue, he was already working on the novel. He will continue is popular PBS series Primal Grill, but is quick to admit that his delivery and style are better suited for writing than TV.

As middle-aged men stood in line for pictures and autographs, it's hard to think of Raichlen as anything but a barbecue authority. But Raichlen is writer and he's moving on. Fortunately for those fans, he's left them with a great body of work.

Grilled Veal Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Onions
(Where: Florence, Italy)

Excerpted from Planet Barbecue, copyright 2010 by Steven Raichlen. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. New York. All Rights Reserved.

1 pound small torpedo onions, cipollinis, pearl onions, or shallots (see Note)
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup balsamic vinegar, or more for taste
1 cup honey, or more to taste
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
4 thick loin or veal chops (each 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick and 12 to 14 ounces)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Peel the onions, leaving most of the stem end intact; this helps hold the onions together as they cook. Place the onions in a large, deep saucepan, add the red wine, balsamic vinegar, honey, and 3 tablespoons of the butter and bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce the heat to medium and cook the onions until tender - they'll be easy to pierce with a skewer - 12 to 15 minutes. If all goes well, the wine, vinegar, and honey will cook down to a syrupy glaze at precisely the same moment the onions are tender. If not, using a slotted spoon, transfer the onions to a plate and continue boiling the sauce until it is thick and syrupy. Return the onions to the pan, if necessary, and taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste and more vinegar and/or honey as necessary; the onions should be a little sweet, a little sour, and very flavorful. If you add more vinegar and/or honey, return the pan to the heat to let the liquid cook down. You should wind up with about 1 1/4 cups. The onions can be cooked several hours, or even a day, ahead and reheated just before serving.

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat one zone to high.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Generously season the chops on both sides with salt and pepper. (OK, I know they add the sale after the grilling in Tuscany and they don't bother with pepper. But I still maintain you get a better crust when you season the meat just prior to grilling.) Arrange the veal chops on the hot grate at a diagonal to the bars. Grill the chops until nicely browned on the outside and cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium. Use the poke test to test for doneness. Give each chop a quarter turn after 2 1/2 minutes on each side to create a handsome crosshatch of grill marks.

Transfer the chops to a platter or plates and let them rest while you reheat the onion mixture. Just before serving, stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Spoon the onions over the chops and sprinkle the parsley, if using, on top. Serve the chops at once.

NOTE: Baby torpedo onions (elongated red onions), cipollinis (small, flat, round onions), pearl onions - or any small whole onions or shallots are available from Melissa's (www.melissas.com). Although it's not strictly traditional, a few years ago I took to grilling the onions before simmering them in the wine and balsamic vinegar. This takes a little more time (although you can grill the onions at a previous grill session), but it gives the sauce an incredible depth of flavor. Brush the onions with oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill over a hot fire until browned on the outside, but still firm inside, 4 to 6 minutes per side.

Categories: Barbeque, Book Reviews, Books, Interviews
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Mar 24, 2010

Franklin's New Brewer Plans to Make a Best Beer Bar even Better

75900005
There's been a changing of the brewing guard in Hyattsville.

Charles Noll, Franklin's first and only brewer, has returned to upstate New York. In his place, owner Mike Franklin has hired Mike Roy, a New Hampshire native who was brewing and bottling at a Boston area brewpub chain.

Understandably, the switch caused some concern among Franklin's regulars. It caused a little concern for me. After all, I did just name them a Best Beer Bar. That means something, folks. Sure, Franklin's has also been touted by The Washington Post and the Washingtonian, but it's the seal of approval from your favorite blog that carries the weight around here. Charles was a talented brewer who built a loyal following and put the brewpub on local beer geeks' maps.

So how does Mike Roy follow that? By building on Charles' success and putting his own signature on the brewpub.

Although Franklin's is a favorite among local beer enthusiasts, the restaurant side of the operation is the money maker. Given the rise of craft beer and the notoriety Franklin's has gained, owner Mike Franklin sees an opportunity to improve the brewpub's brewing operation, a lot.

When Mike hired Mike (I know, this can get confusing), the owner told the brewer that if nothing else he expected him to maintain the popularity of the beer program. Ideally, though, both Mikes want Franklin's to be among the premier craft beer spots in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Based on the beers Mike Roy has produced in his short time at Franklin's, the new guy just might do it.

"You don't need 100 taps to be a great beer bar," Mike Roy told me. "You can have 10 taps and have a great beer bar."

(Quick aside. During the transition from Charles to Mike, the production of beer dropped a bit. As Mike Roy gets his new lineup of beers brewed, Mike Franklin put regional craft brewers on tap, including Heavy Seas, Troegs and Dogfish Head. He could've cut back on the number of beers available or put something cheaper on draft, but he didn't. That's worth noting.)

Out of the gate, Mike Roy is giving local beer geeks exactly what the want: hops and Belgian-style beers. Big, hoppy beers were a signature of his predecessor, and they will remain a staple of the Franklin's lineup, but they won't dominate the draught list as they did. Even Mike's first hoppy beer wasn't an IPA. Instead, Mike led with his hopped Scotch-style ale, Hop Zen. Scotch ales are traditionally a favorite of the malt-head set, thanks to their sweet, rich character, but Mike adds just enough hops to not only balance the malt, but give the beer a pronounced bitterness. It's a good beer.

In a couple weeks, the Hop Zen will be followed by a double IPA he's calling Hop Madness. Here again, Mike goes a little nontraditional. Most double IPAs follow the recent craft beer trend of big alcohol bombs (not that I'm complaining), ranging anywhere from 7 percent A.B.V. (Hair of the Dog's Blue Dot) to 18 percent (Dogfish Head's 120 Minute IPA), with most imperial IPAs pushing double digit A.B.V.s. So where does Mike's Hop Madness come in? At about 8 percent. As breweries continue to wage Cold War-like campaigns to make bigger, badder beers (See BrewDog v. Schorschbraeu), Mike is rolling out a double IPA his customers can quaff a couple of without  falling off their stools.

During our interview, Mike gave me a sneak peak of the double (yeah, it's a good gig). While the beer is still a couple weeks from finishing, the flavors were all there. The bitter Columbus hops were braced with a dark, caramel malt, and the Simcoe buds gave the beer a beautiful citrus, hoppy nose and taste. It's going to be a good beer.

In addition to the hoppy beers, Mike has brewed a couple Belgian-style ales, Golden Opportunity and Dubbel Vision. If anything, this is the style Mike plans to use to make his name. Golden Opportunity is a 6.5 percent Belgian-style golden ale that's a little sweet and fruity, with the tell-tale clove notes and enough carbonation to give the beer some bite. Dubbel Vision, a Belgian-style dubbel, is richer than the golden ale, with a slightly molasses-like character, but only bit higher in alcohol 6.8 percent A.B.V. Of the five beers Mike has on draught now (there's also a red ale, dry stout and a porter) these two Belgian-style ales are his best. (If you're keeping score, Mike has made a golden ale and a dubbel. So yes, a Belgian-style triple is on the way. One day, that triple might be available by the bottle in Franklin's General Store.)

Mike also plans to tinker with Franklin's standards: the Twisted Turtle Pale Ale, the Bombshell Blonde, the Sierra Madre Pale Ale, and the Private IPA. It's not yet clear how different these beers will be, but Mike says that when he's done, only the names will be the same.

Belgian yeast strains and hoppy Scotch ales aren't the only things Mike brings to Franklin's. He's also started a blog to keep customers informed about the beers on tap and what's coming up. It's part of his plans to interact with his new regulars, so they can stay in the loop on what he's brewing and he can find out what's working for them and what's not.

Mike says he likes feedback and enjoys interacting with his customers. I might chalk this up to a new employee saying the right thing about his customers, but Mike is a gregarious guy. I stopped by Franklin's to do a quick interview, but we ended up talking for two hours, including a good 30 minutes on yeast strains, hops and beer brewing software. When we were done, he waded into the crowd waiting for him at the bar.

During our conversation, we also covered how he got from Boston to Hyattsville. In short, Mike's previous job at the brewpub chain Beer Works wasn't the best situation and Franklin's gave him the opportunity to take over the brewing operation of a thriving business.

He actually cut his teeth at the do-it-yourself brewery, IncrediBREW. By guiding novice brewers through the brewing process, Mike ended up cranking out dozens of beers a week and learning a lot about raw materials, yeast strains and the brewing process.

Now he's in a situation where he can use his 10 years of brewing experience to make a good beer operation great. And as head brewer, it's his vision that will take the brewpub where he and Mike Franklin want it to go.

"The day that I rest on what I did in the past is the day I need to get out of this industry."

Categories: Beer, Hyattsville, Interviews
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Mar 10, 2010

A Restaurant By Any Other Name Is Not a Gastropub

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Gastropub: (British) A public house that serves high-quality food.

This Wiktionary definition is the best I could find for gastropub, but it's illustrative enough. A gastropub is generally understood to be a public house (read: bar) that serves equally high-quality food and beer. In other words, a place you're just as likely to go for a few great beers as a nice meal. The concept hasn't been around all that long, but it has certainly found traction here in D.C.

Well the term has found traction, the establishment of actual gastropubs, not so much. Jamie Leeds (above) is the co-owner and executive chef of one of D.C.'s two gastropubs, Commonwealth. Granville Moore's on H Street, is the other. I would be just as inclined to visit either for a few quality ales as I would their upscale dishes. 

Yet, a Google search of the terms "gastropubs" and "D.C." pulls up a number of restaurants that either refer to themselves as gastropubs, or are referred to as gastropubs. Againn is clearly a restaurant. So is Brasserie Beck. Both have good beer selections (Beck's selection of Belgian beers is excellent, in fact), but the small bar areas, large dining rooms, showcase kitchens and raw bars (is that a new trend, too?) indicate that these places were designed to be restaurants, not drinking establishments. Rustico, which was named D.C.'s best gastropub in 2008 by the City Paper, could be a gastropub, but Beer Director Greg Engert and the management of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Rustico, are very clear about the fact that it is very much a restaurant.

48580022 This also goes for the NRG's beer palace, ChurchKey. One floor below is Birch & Barley, ChurchKey's sister establishment. Executive Chef Kyle Bailey offers several dishes that could be served in any white tablecloth dining room in the District, including pan-roasted skate and braised pork cheeks. But because burgers and flatbreads are the focus up stairs, ChurchKey is not a gastropub (though, the deviled duck eggs with duck pancetta and sweetbread dishes nearly do the trick). And though Birch & Barley diners have access to all of ChurchKey's 555 beers, the six seats at the bar are an excellent indication that this is a place geared toward diners, not drinkers. Fortunately, no one at NRG refers to either establishment as a gastropub, so there's no issue here.

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped Urbanspoon. The restaurant review Web site lists ChurchKey and Birch & Barley as gastropubs. It also lists, Againn, H Street Country Club (you know, the place with the mini golf) and Scion in Dupont Circle as gastropubs.

Therein lies the problem; the more people misuse the term, the less meaning it will have. As Leeds puts it, the term gastropub is becoming the new bistro. Beer is trendy now, and the gastropub concept is closely aligned with it. And like the term bistro, gastropub is the exotic new concept. It's British, and right now things that are British are nearly as trendy as beer. So why call your restaurant a restaurant, when you could call it a gastropub?

On the other hand, it's fair to ask what difference does it make what a restaurant calls itself. Without a true definition, gastropub is more of an adjective than a noun, so it describes establishments rather than defines them.

The thing is, I like gastropubs. Back in 2004, my friends Emma and Tom turned me on to gastropubs during a trip to London. They lived around the corner from The Junction Tavern, a beautiful old pub in London's Kentish Town neighborhood. The Junction specializes in real ales from local breweries and offers an upscale seasonal menu. It's a model gastropub, and a fantastic one at that. Ever since then, I've been very interested (maybe a little giddy) when a new one opens up in D.C. -- and disappointed when it turns out to be just another restaurant.

To gain some clarity on the subject of gastropubs, I e-mailed David Bulgar, a reviewer for the British pub review Website, Fancyapint. David has visited his fair share of gastropubs.

So David, what's a gastropub?

58290018 "I think most English drinkers would define a gastropub as a pub that focuses on restaurant quality dining, often serving modern British cuisine. Some gastropubs manage to operate as a good place to simply go for a pint as well as food, while others kill the drinking experience by looking and feeling to much like a restaurant, not a pub."

Maybe Brasserie Beck does fit the definition. But as he said, the establishment should be as much a pub as a restaurant.

When Commonwealth opened in 2008, D.C. finally had its own gastropub. The decor is a nod to the concept's British roots (though not necessary for a gastropub), but more importantly, the beer list is solid, with a respectable mix of British and American craft beers on draft and in the bottle, as well as pair of handpumps mounted on the bar. Keep in mind, Commonwealth came along a year and a half before ChurchKey and its five handpumps opened its doors. Like the Junction, the food coming out of the kitchen struck the right balance between traditional pub fare and smart, upscale cuisine. Given all the Irish bars we have around D.C., I know not to expect anything more interesting than the perfunctory shepherd's pie or fish and chips, and an ice-cold Smithwicks. Leeds, however, offers a menu of local, organic, sustainable dishes and pints of real ale.

And it's because of the attention Leeds and her business partner Sandy Lewis pay to the beer program that makes Commonwealth as much a drinking destination as a dining spot.

As David said, this is what separates gastropubs from restaurants.

58290023 A gastropub, he said, is "first and foremost a pub. It will have all the features of a pub, i.e. a bar, an area for simply drinking, without the need to order food. An English drinker will be able to distinguish between a bar, a pub and a restaurant a mile off. Pubs are generally older, serve a range of ales and lagers on tap, and have simple wooden chairs and tables, maybe a pool table and or dart board, and sell crisps and nuts as snacks; bars tend to be newer buildings, the often do not serve draught ale, and commonly only serve bottled lagers, they will have more modern furnishings, and would not have darts, pool, the crisps and nuts etc, in their place will be a cocktail menu and louder music. A gastro pub is distinctive because it will look more like a dining room than a drinking room, with tables set with menus, wine glasses, etc."

Walk into Commonwealth or Granville Moore and the bar is the very first thing you see. At Againn and Beck, the first thing you encounter is the hostess stand, followed by the raw bars.

58290002 Now that the gastropub trend is gaining steam in D.C., in name at least, I went back to Commonwealth to talk to Leeds. Commonwealth was envisioned as a gastropub that would have a robust beer program, casual, but elevated cuisine, and ultimately a place that would be responsive to its neighborhood clientele. Leeds said Lewis developed the beer program, while the menu was her design. Wanting to do something besides seafood (Leeds and Lewis also own Hank's Oyster Bar), Leeds decided a gastropub would give her the chance.

To be honest, even Commonwealth wouldn't fit David's strict definition of a gastropub. In Britain, he said, most gastropubs are old pubs that decided to upgrade their menus. Well, London has a lot more old pubs than we do, so unless Leeds had taken over the kitchen at the old Mr. Eagan's, Commonwealth and Granville Moore are the closest we're going to get to true gastropubs.

Although beer was always a focus of Commonwealth, Leeds said she's surprised that her gastropub has become such a destination for area beer enthusiasts. Leeds said Commonwealth remains focused on catering to its Columbia Heights neighborhood, but its beer sales are "through the roof" thanks to all the regional traffic the bar gets.

Now, compare Commonwealth to Againn. I don't mean to pick on the place, but it's the latest restaurant to call itself a gastropub. Its beer selection is fairly large, but it's heavy on the familiars (Harp, Stella, Dogfish Head, Heineken), and has several multiples from a few breweries. Mind you, it's great that they carry five or six different beers from Founders and Brewdog, but it also shows a laziness or ignorance about beer. Rather than taking the time to select a few beers from a variety of breweries, Againn has padded its beer list by selecting many beers from a few breweries. Also, the staff is either too new or too indifferent to know much about the beer list. If you're going to run a gastropub, the staff should be knowledgeable about the beer. Situated between the raw bar and the dining room, Againn's bar seems like most restaurant bars: a place to have a drink while you're waiting on your table. It just doesn't feel like a place you want to spend an afternoon or evening drinking. 

Does this mean Againn is a bad place? No, it just means that it's a restaurant, not a gastropub. In fact, it has all the makings of being a good restaurant, and it doesn't have to call itself a gastropub to achieve that goal.

So if I want to go out for a nice meal, I may go to Againn. If I want to try a few quality beers, I may head to ChurchKey. But if I want both, I'll go to Commonwealth or Granville Moore's.

Categories: Bar/Club, Beer, Belgian, British, Columbia Heights, DC, H Street, Interviews, Local Food, Washington, DC
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Jul 23, 2008

Zagat DC-Baltimore 2009 Guide Released Today - A Chat with Tim and Nina Zagat

Zagat_3When it comes to restaurant reviews by diners, for diners, the folks at Zagat have been doing it longer than just about anyone else out there.  Beginning in New York in 1979, they have conducted yearly surveys of frequent diners (starting with their friends and expanding to include thousands of people in cities around the world) and using their results to provide their iconic ratings of venues' Food, Decor, Service and Cost.  With that sort of participation, is it any wonder that restaurateurs watch the guide closely and are quick to point out categories in which they score well?

Today's release of the 2009 edition of the DC-Baltimore (that's right, we still have to share) guide should prompt a new round of press releases and emails touting high ratings and inclusion on the "Most Popular" list.  And with yesterday's announcement of the participants in next month's DC Summer Restaurant Week, the timing for this release couldn't be better.  Available in local bookstores for $14.95 or at amazon.com for $10.17, the "burgundy bible" can give you a quick glimpse into the opinions of more than 7,200 DC diners as you prepare to make your Restaurant Week reservations.

Tim_and_nina To help promote the release of the new guide, owners Tim and Nina Zagat have come down to Washington from their home in New York.  Over coffee, I sat down to talk about some interesting statistical findings, a few surprises in the new guide and the role of Zagat's guides and other products in an increasingly digital society. 

I began by asking about the reasons behind the combination of Washington and Baltimore - a bit of New York snobbery, perhaps?  They assured me that it was more a concession to Baltimore than a snub to DC - while Washington could support a guide on its own, Baltimore's restaurant scene didn't quite do the trick.  Because the two are separated by less than an hour's drive, they felt that the combination allowed diners in both cities to see what the other had to offer and it allowed for a larger print run resulting in lower costs for both cities.  Take that, wounded pride!

The biggest news, for those who follow the guide's results closely, is Makoto's receipt of top honors in the category of Food.  While the Inn at Little Washington retained its place atop the Decor and Service categories, they placed second to the MacArthur Boulevard kaiseki establishment "by hundredths of a point," according to Tim.  This is in keeping with a national trend that has seen Japanese cuisine rise in prominence across the country - a result that the Zagats say was unheard of even five years ago. 

And that miniscule (but significant) difference in rankings is where the Zagats feel the strength of their model lies.  With thousands of reviewers, they have a series of filters in place that they use to weed out industry shills and others who might try to skew the results.  Those who do participate are asked to submit their opinions on a scale of 0-3 for each restaurant, from which the guide gives an averaged result (multipied by 10 to result in the 30-point scale).  This forces reviewers to think long and hard about whether a restaurant is excellent (3), good (2), fair (1) or poor (0).  They've experimented with other formats, including the more widely used 0-5 scale, but have found that more options tend to lead to results that drift toward the center as voters hesitate to give 5's and 1's and settle into that middle range for most of their rankings.

Here in Washington, the 2009 survey turned up some interesting results about our dining habits.  No longer a city of steakhouses and expense-account lunches, Washington's average meal is $4.33 below the national average.  Maybe that's why so many of those surveyed (62%) indicated that they are willing to pay more for food that is sustainably raised.  In addition to a preference for sustainable agriculture, seven in ten of us said that we consider local sourcing important.  Taking these results to heart, the Zagats indicated that they are looking into the most appropriate way to highlight green practices, commitment to organic ingredients and/or local sourcing as a "Special Feature" category for future ratings - much as breakfast, chef's tables and 'power scenes' are in this year's guide.

It should come as no surprise to D.C. Foodies that we are far more digitally inclined than our neighbors to the north - 37% of the participants in the DC survey indicated that they use online reservation sites like OpenTable while only 17% do so in New York.

As a writer for a food blog, I was especially interested in learning the Zagats' views of online reviewers and in hearing about their own evolving web presence.  Tim was quick to acknowledge the value in the multitude of local voices that the proliferation of food blogs provides - "You live here," he says.  "Who knows the food in your neighborhood better than you?"  But he went on to point out the need for common frames of reference to help people determine which voices mirror their own.  A sixty year-old married man, for example, is unlikely to seek out the same sort of establishment as a twenty-six year-old single woman.  According to Zagat, both voices are important (and useful on their own) but the blending of those voices is a strength of Zagat.

Nina was a wonderful ambassador for the Zagat web presence, encouraging me to take out my BlackBerry and check out the Webby-winning zagat.mobi site designed for mobile accessibility.  By registering at the main Zagat site and then signing in on your mobile device, you can access a significant portion of their content while on the go - helpful when trying to choose among the various restaurants in a given neighborhood once you're there.  Registration on the site also allows you to join the ranks of the Zagat reviewers - you can vote year-round and then submit your votes for the annual survey when the time comes.

After talking about the specifics of the new survey and the increasing importance of Zagat's online presence, we spoke for a while about the rise of celebrity chefs and television's increasing obsession with food.  Tim said he was unsure how he felt about the whole thing, and he took the opportunity to correct a misrepresentation in David Kamp's "The United States of Arugula."  Though he acknowledges criticizing Emeril's on-screen persona as reported in the book, Tim adds that he saw the run-away success that Emeril attained and told Emeril to "forget what I said about all that" six months later...though he might know something about food, he said, he readily admitted he knew nothing about television.

Despite the fact that they no longer participate in the surveys themselves, I was unable to get either of the Zagats to admit to any favorite DC restaurants ("Unlike Katherine Harris," said Tim, warming to District's political culture, "I try to remain impartial while I do my job.").  On their current visit, they stopped by Central last night and will be enjoying lunch at the new WestEnd Bistro today before joining a reporter from the Washington Post for a whirlwind tour of 15 restaurants tonight.

Tim said the tour will be more about impressions than dining, as even the smallest taste at each of 15 restaurants can dull the senses and make it hard to get a good read on a place.  That being said, he reiterated an assertion he has made for some time - that a diner can be 85-90% certain of the experience they will have in a restaurant within the first five minutes.  Attention to the decor, the service, views of neighboring tables' food, aromas and sounds all assert themselves within that first period.  We'll see if his record remains intact after tonight's marathon.

Categories: Advice, Book Reviews, Interviews, Restaurant Reviews, Washington, DC
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