Image: Errol Flynn in The Perfect Specimen (1937).
Welcome to our weekly recap of activity on our site and a roundup of dining news from D.C. and further afield. A light week in the dining guide with only one addition and no closings(!). Though there appears to be much work on the horizon to keep up. In local dining news, the big story was Michelin making an interim announcement, the most important story might be the A.G. calling out restaurant fees, and the most compelling was how free coffee mixed with divisions in small-town Virginia. Nationally, jobs numbers continue to be strong, and some fascinating stories on the intersection of people and multiple culinary traditions. Hopefully that has piqued your interest, so let’s proceed.
Updates to the D.C. Recommended Restaurant List
Pho Viet – The shop in Columbia Heights does pho well.
D.C. Dining News
No Good Deed: In the Food Section(!!) Tim Carman uses words wisely to tell the story about how a celebrated bakery owner got “caught” being kind to those holding a vigil for racial justice in Virginia.
In The ‘Burbs: El Pollo Rico operation profiled.
Tire Manufacturer Restaurant Picks: Michelin adds eight new places in D.C. Stars and Bibs to be announced later, though judging from the list Causa and maybe Bar Spero might be in the running for the newcomers. They continue their soft spot for breakfast/brunch spots by adding La Tejana. Strangely they add Opal but still not Nina May. The other four are a couple new spots, Tigerella, St. James, and a couple stalwarts, Mandu (maybe they do read us!) and New Heights (they certainly read Tom). While Michelin began adding places during the course of the year, they are still not editing prior entries in real time. We will see if they correct mistakes when the new guide comes out in a few weeks; the biggest one being, of course, the lack of a star for Marcel’s. Finally, we note that the famous French guide is resolute in its refusal to include the most prominent and liked French spot in D.C.
Speaking of: Is French the new steakhouse?
Compensation: Both locally and nationally the use of additional fees is a topic of strong interest. The D.C. Attorney General sent out a notice that sought to warn restaurants. Not everyone was impressed. Business Insider did the now obligatory story without shedding any light. For some reason editors like to focus on the annoying aspect but not the reason why so many restaurants would choose to be annoying to customers.
Wine Culture: The slow, but now steady, progress of Blacks into the wine world. Though access to capital remains a significant obstacle for those looking to get into the ownership side.
Silicon Valley Bank went under. It is a notable lender to the wine industry in California.
Sherry-Lehmann, the iconic wine shop in New York, is in the process of going under. A useful reminder to not dip into your own stash.
The Emerging Economy: Jobs numbers are out. Unemployment remains low (though ticked up slightly), hiring remains strong, and wages dipped down. The leisure and hospitality sector led, with an increase of 105,000.
Credit cards operate as a separate economy. One of the aspects of that economy is a redistribution of wealth from the bottom half to the wealthiest through rewards programs. “Put another way, credit card rewards are essentially a tax on less affluent consumers, who are much more likely to pay for their goods with cash, debit cards or standard credit products that accrue no such rewards.” The Times has a piece in the opinion section, strangely not covered in the actual business section. What is interesting is the fee cost is much larger in the U.S., “typically at 2 percent to 2.25 percent of every purchase,” which is “eight to nine times as much as the prevailing swipe fee in the European Union.” That seems like a place where a national trade organization could work to gain leverage using combined market power to lower costs for its members.
Food and Culture: Bon Appétit looks at the evolving meaning and declining usefulness of the term “New American” to describe a style of cuisine. “Now, like fusion, New American is a label used for derision as much as description.” But there are good and interesting things happening that it would be helpful to capture. Like, “when chef Suresh Sundas puts burrata in the middle of a plate of black daal at DC’s Daru, is that not both American and new—in the sense that it is a product of the time and place and country in which such a mixture occurs so fruitfully?” When we use it in our guide we associate it with the “farm-to-table” seasonal cooking of the “California” tradition but often with inclusion of atypical ingredients or techniques. But Daru makes more sense to us to list as Indian because it is primarily drawing on that style.
Also, for the post-modernist handwringing over language, there is a larger story that B.A. is bumping up against but, because it is trying to figure out how to tie it back to being “American” cooking, is a story it does not do. That is the story of how more and more restaurants are falling into a new category of what might be called global or cosmopolitan, where the dishes are not anchored to a specific cuisine or tradition. Some are pure mash-ups like Cranes’ Spanish x Asian, the Italian by way of Japan Wafu style served at Tonari, or even arguably Peruvian Chifa dishes. But there are now places that seem to be drawing from all over and jumping around with no clear theme. Bar Spero may be inspired by San Sebastian, but one would be hard-pressed to call it Spanish. Lutèce may be modern French, but is barely tethered to the tradition. Same with Bresca or Imperfecto. The B.A. article mentions Rooster & Owl in its lede, which is also an amazing recognition of D.C.’s depth that two spots are mentioned in an article about cutting-edge cooking. Creative souls like to blur boundaries and break rules. Maybe the replacement for New American will be “N/A”? That would be too cute by half, but then again that is often the knock on such cooking. Or maybe we can draw on architecture and call it the “international” style.
On the flip side, The Times does a story on Suresh Doss, the journalist in Toronto putting the spotlight on the strip-mall restaurants serving food that draws on the depth of the immigrant community. “A former tech worker turned culinary blogger, Mr. Doss, 45, reports on food for The Toronto Star and the CBC, the public broadcaster. His guide steers the hungry from places like the Jus Convenience Jerk Shop with ‘insanely good’ oxtail to Lion City and its ‘celebration of Singaporean hawker fare.’ Then there’s Monasaba, a Yemeni place with the ‘best mandi’ (a blend of meat, rice and spices) in the region, and Mamajoun, an Armenian eatery with a menu based on ‘grandparents’ recipes.'” On the other hand, he also finds interesting combinations like the mash-ups we flagged above, “Teta’s Kitchen, an Indonesian and Lebanese restaurant in a mall near the city’s northernmost subway stop, tells the story of Canada’s easygoing multiculturalism. One of the menu’s highlights is ‘Pandan Kebab,’ fusing the Southeast Asian herb (‘the star of the show’) with the Middle Eastern mainstay.”
In the New Yorker, they profile a guy doing a similar thing in London. “As a critic, [Jonathan] Nunn has focused overwhelmingly on the cooking of diaspora communities—he has a special love for Cantonese food—normally in the suburbs.” Though he apparently does most of his food reviews on IG stories now. He started an online magazine called Vittles. In the article, Nunn notes something we also have sensed, “I feel like, as food has become a bigger and bigger cultural thing, the media has kind of shrunk.” There is something that sits awkwardly about the piece by British-based writer Sam Knight. The subtitle to the New Yorker article says, Nunn “has brought an exploratory verve to a staid food scene.” It implies a divide being crossed and Nunn is reporting back on these communities. The piece quotes him, “The reason London is a great food city, in my opinion, has nothing to do with what’s going on in central London.” It does tie him to a previous generation of writers, “Nunn is becoming to London what Jonathan Gold was to Los Angeles or Robert Sietsema and Jim Leff have been to New York—an urgent and exuberant champion of the best and most far-flung places to get Gujarati egg snacks or vegan Rastafari pasta.”
Doing some digging, it is as if the New Yorker fell into the same thinking that Nunn talks about in different, more interesting and more nuanced pieces about him: “If you submit it to me, I’m not gonna water it down or defang it,” he says, “I’m not going to try and push you to make it more understandable for a white middle-class audience. I’m going to treat the audience like they’re adults.” Knight vaguely references, but does not directly address that the division is a direct result of British history, not an oddity. In contrast, Nunn publishes work in Vittles that directly address the legacy of imperialism. Ironically, it is the Mel piece about why Nunn is a favorite “internet boyfriend” that provides the pre-buttal to Knight’s take: “While Nunn’s voice might be a crucial appeal of his work, it’s not all about him — it’s about the voices of the writers he commissions and the stories they tell, the restaurants he recommends and, essentially, the dismantling of elitist, inaccessible food media. ‘Restaurant writers who have the power to change the narrative also have a responsibility to be more diligent, writing about the role in the community these restaurants have and contextualizing them against the backdrop of citywide issues such as migration, gentrification, racism and displacement, not with the language of discovery and exploration but by amplifying voices from those communities,’ Nunn once wrote in an article about how restaurants on the Old Kent Road, a major road in southeast London, have, over years, made themselves indispensable to their communities.”
Perhaps the tip-off to the trouble is in the title of the New Yorker piece, “The Writer Changing How London Thinks About Its Food.” He is writing about shops and kitchens the are all over London. They are London. He is not changing how London thinks. He is changing how a certain strata of London thinks about the rest of London. It is as if the whole of the British empire has shrunk and Nunn, sans pith helmet, is reporting back from far-flung regions. It flatten Nunn’s work that seeks to flip the script. In this Guardian profile after he published a collection of essays about London’s food scene he described the work as, “focusing on the neighbourhoods that most Londoners actually live in, which traditionally ‘have been poorly served by food writing,’ despite the innovation occurring within them.”
For the Washington region, the work of Doss and Nunn sound very much like a certain economics professor’s guide, though Cowen does not get the same deference (we should note that Cowen’s commitment and productivity was a marker for starting this site). It is also a caution to those like us who raise an eye at the New Yorker piece the same week we post about a pho spot in Columbia Heights. To take on the task requires a certain degree of confidence – justified or not. As Knight says of Nunn, “He acknowledges the size of his ego, which can make him dismissive, especially of mainstream restaurant critics.” But you need a voice somewhere reminding you to check the ego, have humility, and be respectful to both subjects and readers. These are all questions and issues that are fascinating, important, and – when done well – illuminating. It is also notable that British food writing is so hidebound that they are just starting to have the larger discussions that started in the States years ago, but still have much ground to cover. Nunn also shares this secret: “The amount of mediocre food I eat is immense.”
Speaking of which, Cowen noted the decline of the importance of Michelin.
The Fields of Mines: Harvesting in Ukraine has added challenges. “Farmers who choose to climb into their tractors and work their land risk death or dismemberment by the mines, shells and other ordnance that litter the fields. Those who do not risk an economic crisis: The fighting has already cost the southern Kherson region three harvests, and there is no sign that farming will resume its role as an engine of Ukraine’s economy anytime soon.”
Farm Workers Seek to Harvest Union Members: Can the U.F.W. be revived in California? “Membership hovers around 5,500 farmworkers, less than 2 percent of the state’s agricultural work force, compared with 60,000 in the 1970s. In the same period, the number of growers covered by U.F.W. contracts has fallen to 22 from about 150.”
What’s The Cost of Top Chef? “You have a brand that can speak to and drive forward a lot of change. We should talk about sexual harassment in the kitchen. We should be talking about fair wages.” The bigger it becomes, the more it seems to produce diminishing returns. We lost interest but gave it one more shot during the pandemic. We got burned. One small way it corrupted food discourse was the overuse of the word “perfect.” It is a claim of exactness that is not defined and not that useful unless you are talking about something like the Trois Gros salmon.
Food as Therapy: Another Article on the Benefits of Eating with People.
Nay: “The supply of U.S. horses to the foreign meat industry has sharply declined from more than 300,000 in the 1990s. But the auction-to-slaughter pipeline remains notorious for its suffering. Investigations of auctions, holding pens, transport, and slaughterhouses have found animals injured, diseased, and starving, according to the report, compiled by the three animal-welfare nonprofits.”
A court rules impossibly that a cheese name that includes an accent is so commonly used that it no longer has to come only from Europe. This decision confirms the lower court ruling that Gruyère is a common brand name like cheddar or brie and not distinct like Roquefort.
Laura Reilly of the Post Business section, looks at how FDA is redefining “healthy” to be more healthy. Under the threat of losing the ability to call the Healthy Choice prepared meals healthy corporations pushed back. “The Consumer Brands Association, which represents 1,700 major food companies from General Mills to Pepsi, wrote a 54-page comment to the FDA in which it stated the proposed rule was overly restrictive and would result in a framework that would automatically disqualify a vast majority of packaged foods.” Sugar appears to be the biggest hurdle for the industry. The cheese industry says to call any product healthy is really not the point, it is about lifestyle. A linguistic pretzel that may explain the Gruyère decision. There is this tidbit in the story: “The authors [of a study] found that the most effective means of conveying nutrition information is a graphic warning label, as has been adopted in Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico and Israel.”
In the Post Wellness section, the creeping presence of artificial sweeteners and their risks.
A video explainer of ghost kitchens, especially out of big restaurant chains.
Odds & Ends:
California’s weather has been so intense that the National Guard is dropping hay from airplanes to feed trapped animals. (h/t Shawn Chittle).
Baldor Specialty Foods had an outage and Manhattan struggled with a very specific supply chain.
Sing along if you know the song. Driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
Teach Them Young: Parents across North America are eagerly buying their children food toys that reflect their own increasingly global tastes and evolving dining habits, and toy companies have taken notice. They’ve expanded their offerings exponentially in the past decade, with felt soft-shell tacos, plastic dim sum, plush charcuterie boards and, of course, wooden sushi like Sergio’s.
Teach Them Not To Be Jerks: Sushi sabotage in Japan.
That is it for the week. If you read this far, we appreciate your indulging our naval-gazing once more. We would note that for those looking to dine out in D.C. we do offer a free dining guide. Our site has 300+ recommended restaurants for the District. You can sort by cuisine or neighborhood in either LIST or MAP format.