Q by Peter Chang, 4500 East-West Highway, Bethesda MD
The Salt Line, 79 Potomac Ave SE, Washington DC
In-n-Out Burger, Various locations in Western US
Everyone knows the importance of expectations when it comes to political debates. You don’t have to actually win the debate to “win” the debate. You just have to win the expectations game. Look at some of the polls after the last Presidential debates. Apparently a lot of people thought “I’m not a puppet, you’re the puppet” was the most brilliant comeback since Lloyd Bentsen clubbed Dan Quayle with a blackjack. Thanks, expectations.
But the impact of expectations go well beyond politics. Like they totally ruined the movie Sideways for me. Here was a nice little film that I probably would have been charmed by if I’d watched it cold. It had heart. It had humor. It had Paul Giamatti saying he wasn’t drinking any fucking Merlot. Unfortunately I didn’t watch it cold. I saw it after at least half the population of DC told me how amazing it was and how much I was going to love it. As it turned out, it wasn’t the greatest movie of our generation and I left the theater wondering what all the fuss was about. Thanks again, expectations.
This post is about three disappointing restaurant meals I’ve had in the past several weeks and how expectations played a role in all of them. I’m not saying that these meals were disappointing because of inflated expectations. But they made bad experiences worse. Sort of like going to a Nickelback concert and sitting next to a guy who air-guitars every song.
Q by Peter Chang
Other than maybe the Chang family, no one was more excited about the opening of Q by Peter Chang than me. Bethesda desperately needs a good Chinese restaurant and here was the great Peter Chang, not only opening in Bethesda but promising to make it his flagship restaurant! The most exciting part was that Chang was working on some new, high-end creations that would be unlike anything we’d ever seen. Bethesda was about to go from foodie desert to national destination. It was a lock. The only question in my mind was whether the Guinness people kept a record for most meals at a single restaurant because I was about to Katie Ledecky it.
Or not. It was a tough pill to swallow, but Q by Peter Chang fell well short of the high expectations I’d set for it. I wasn’t going to smash any records like Katie Ledecky. At best, I might smash up a gas station bathroom like Ryan Lochte.
First the good news. Chang’s greatest hits like dry-fried eggplant and cilantro fish rolls are as good as ever. And some familiar Chinese dishes like kung pao chicken and mapo tofu are terrific.
Dry Fried Eggplant, $11
Cilantro Flounder Fish Rolls, $8
Kung Pao Chicken, $16
Mapo Tofu with Beef, $14
Now the not-so-good news. Several other appetizers were uninspired and uninspiring, including the steamed vegetable dumplings, crispy pork belly, salt & pepper calamari and the house-special grilled pork belly.
Steamed Vegetable Dumplings, $8
Crispy Pork Belly, $12
Salt & Pepper Calamari, $12
House-Special Grilled Pork Belly, $12
The even worse news is that none of the pricey one-of-a-kind dishes were particularly memorable. The Coral Snapper, for instance, is a visually striking dish that has gotten a lot of attention in the press. And it certainly is technically impressive — the knife skills needed to cut the fish’s flesh into individual tendrils for frying are mind-boggling. Unfortunately, the tendrils are so narrow that the ratio of fish-to-batter is way off and the fish gets lost in the batter. And the sauce it’s soaking in is pretty to look at but largely one-dimensionally sweet.
The other dishes are somewhat more successful but well short of crave-worthy. The quality of the meats — particularly the beef — is high and they certainly are unique. But at this price point they have to do better, and right now they can’t even match the deliciousness of the kung pao chicken and mapo tofu at half the price.
Coral Snapper, $30
“Guai” Flavored Chicken Casserole with chicken Szechuan Pickled Pepper, Thai Chile, Tofu Skin, Jalapeño, Curry Sauce, $20
Sautéed Jalapeño Beef, $23
Kumquat Beef, $26
Braised Fish and Mixed Vegetables, $23
My wife said the decor at Q by Peter Chang reminded her of an airport food court. My initial thought was “you mean the best part of the airport?” but I’m pretty sure she meant it negatively.
I’ll go back occasionally for Chang’s tried-and-true apps and the standard dishes he does so well. But it’s not nearly the Shangri La I’d counted on. It’s like Sideways, only times ten. This one mattered to me. Walking out, I felt winded and almost had to take a knee. Thanks for nothing, expectations.
The Salt Line
I wasn’t nearly as invested in The Salt Line. But I started to get excited when I read some glowing online reviews and then someone texted me in the wake of my recent top-20 list. Salt Line’s great, he assured me, how could you leave it out of your top 20? So I went to check it out and found out for myself how I could have left it out — it isn’t very good.
The Salt Line is the most disappointing restaurant I’ve been to in a long time. Besides the burger and maybe the fry plate, there’s nothing I’d be interested in eating again. Even the lobster roll — one of my favorite things in the world — looked skimpy and underwhelming. I’ve seen lovely Instagram pictures of the lobster roll online and I think they must be using a fluffer.
The starters ranged from slightly above average (the clam chowder and the Parker House rolls) to completely forgettable (the little gem salad and the octopus).
Clam Chowder, $5
Parker House Rolls, $4
Little Gem Salad with bacon breadcrumb, hazelnuts, spring green goddess, $14
Grilled Octopus with pickled eggplant, seared red onion, warm fingerlings, balsamic reduction, $16
New England Smash Burger, $16
The burger is a respectable version of a burger style I love — the roadside variety that gets smashed on a flat-top so it develops a deeply-crusted exterior. The Salt Line burger isn’t as crusty as I like, but to be fair it was hard to tell because the burger had been sitting under the heat lamps (the American cheese had that telltale congealed look and the toppings had sagged). I didn’t send it back because the service was painfully slow that night due to post-Nats game crowd — it must have been an hour between the first and second courses and I just wanted to eat.
1/2 BBQ Chicken, $24
I don’t know what the excuse could be for the $24 BBQ chicken, which might be the single worst entree I’ve eaten this year. It tasted like something you’d find on a steam table at Golden Corral at the end of a long night. It was bone-dry and flavorless — an exacta matched by the accompanying cornbread — and looked like someone had just slathered some Open Pit on some desiccated chicken and called it BBQ.
Waterman’s Platter with fried fish, clams, oysters, and scallops, $30
I’m pretty sure the other food was waiting for the fry plate to cook because at least it came out hot. Pretty good but for $30 no bargain.
We tried some other dishes but I stopped taking pictures, which I never do, because I was so bummed out by the food and the service. The rockfish was well-cooked but clearly had been sitting like the burger because a skin had formed on the sauce. And the uni carbonara was a gloppy effort that didn’t benefit from the uni. (While I’m on the topic, enough with the uni. It was fun the first 135 times but now it’s played out. The only thing that’s jumped the shark more than uni is the phrase jumped the shark.)
Blueberry Ice Box Pie, $8
Fittingly, the dinner with one of the worst entrees of the year also had one of the worst desserts — the blueberry ice box pie. The crust was more like wet sand pressed into a dish than any kind of crust. The sand was topped with an odd custard and then blueberries and whipped cream. I ended up just eating the whipped cream and blueberries off the top to try to avoid the sandy and odd unpleasantness below.
Banana Split, $12
It’s hard to ruin a banana split and thankfully they didn’t.
A couple of caveats.
First, the restaurant was packed after a Nats game which probably contributed to the spotty service and food delays. But you know what? They were open for business and customers were paying full freight. It’s up to the restaurant to know what kind of volume they can handle without sacrificing quality. Plus, I could tell what the food would have been like without the timing issues and I don’t think I’d feel any different.
Second, I didn’t have oysters or anything from the raw bar; I also hear the roast beef sandwich is good. Maybe they’re the way to go. This may be the perfect time for me to test that thesis. My expectations couldn’t be any lower.
I recently flew to San Francisco for a family event. We landed around lunchtime and there was only one place I wanted to check out — In-N-Out Burger. I’d read so many articles over the years by West-coast expats pining for their beloved In-N-Out and bemoaning the indignity of having to put up with the likes of Shake Shack or 5 Guys until they could get back home.
I had eaten at In-N-Out years ago but that was well before Shake Shack came to DC. I needed a refresher to make a real comparison.
I was expecting it to be a tough battle. I love me some Shake Shack but the cult of In-N-Out was so powerful that I had built up a grass-is-greener narrative that In-N-Out must be better because we don’t have it.
In the end, it was a Super Bowl-style blow-out: a big build-up that ultimately wasn’t even close. In-N-Out’s Double Cheeseburger Animal-Style (extra Thousand Island dressing, mustard-cooked patty, extra pickles) was good, definitely a notch above 5 Guys, but several steps below Shake Shack. The pictures below tell the story. You can see the lack of crust on the In-N-Out burgers and the pale tomatoes even in mid-July. Now scroll down to the Shake Shack burger. Look at that beautiful crust, the juicy red tomatoes, the soft potato bun.
Shake Shack Burger
Shake Shack is just better, end of story.
Except for the hats. In-N-Out definitely has cuter hats.
I’ll even defend the Shake Shack fries, even though I know a lot of people aren’t into the crinkle-cuts. Compare the crispness of the Shake Shack fries below to the wan fries at In-n-Out. The Shake Shack fries just need a little salt. The In-N-Out fries need either a lot of ketchup or to be served “Animal Style” (see fries on the right, with melted cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and grilled onions).
Shake Shack Fries
Once again, expectations deprived me of enjoying what otherwise would have been a perfectly good burger and fries. I was grading on a false curve set by In-N-Out groupies. I’m sure I’ll hear from them online, maybe even get a troll or two. That’d be awesome.
In the end, it’s hard to know what to make of expectations. If you’re someone who loves to read and talk to other people about food and restaurants, they’re unavoidable. All you can really do is to be conscious of them and try to maintain perspective. I come from Minnesota where we specialize in helping others keep expectations under control. Ask a Minnesotan who just had the best dinner of their life how they liked the restaurant and this will be their answer: “Had worse.” It’s the most considerate, respectful response possible.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to Siren by Robert Wiedmaier tonight. It’s only been open a few months and I know very little about it. Don’t say anything unless you want to tell me you’ve had worse.