Someone asked me this weekend whether any recent restaurant meals have been disappointing. I mostly demurred because I’m still in pandemic mode when we all agreed not to say anything critical about restaurants just trying to survive. But things feel different now. Restaurants are bustling. Reservations at hotspots like Albi and Daru are impossible to come by. And people (like the person I was talking to) want to know as much as they can about where to spend their money for a night out. Plus, I’d never punch down or take on an easy target. So let’s start talking openly again. It might feel awkward at first but let’s move forward and see how it goes. (Although I did just watch All Quiet on the Western Front and quick spoiler alert: the let’s-move-forward strategy isn’t always a winning one.)
L’Avant Garde, 2915 M St NW, Washington DC (Georgetown) Rick’s Rating 7.7
Restaurant reviewers tend to call places like L’Avant Garde “luxe,” which is codeword for “thank god I’m on an expense account.” Those of us paying our own way can’t hide behind euphemisms. It’s turn-out-your-pockets pricey. Appetizers hover in the $30-$40 range. Main courses are priced like the weather in April — starting out in the 40s and topping out in the mid-60s. The Amish roast chicken with frites is $47. Granted, the chicken is Amish but I don’t care what its religion is. It’s not twice as good as countless roast chickens in town at half the price. Maybe some wine with dinner? The cheapest bottle of red is $90 and the vast majority are well into triple-digits.
Don’t get me wrong. The owners of L’Avant Garde can set whatever price points they please. And I’m willing to spend my last dollar on food. I literally have the receipts. But when prices get this high, so does my bar. The dishes get judged on a different scale. So while all of the dishes I tried were good to very good, only two of them met the standard the restaurant set for itself. One dish cleared the bar with room to spare — the SalaNova lettuce with shaved parmesan and Riviera dressing. The salad is, in fact, a single head of lettuce, beautifully dressed and delicious. Washingtonian rightly calls it one of the best salads in town and at $27, it’s a (relative) steal. I also felt good about the Instagram-friendly raspberry macaron and its crisp/chewy, meringue-like cookies.
Based on food alone, L’Avant Garde would score an 8.3. The 7.7 is an adjustment downward to reflect the price-value dilemma.
SalaNova lettuce, shaved Reggiano Parmesan, Riviera dressing
Amish poulet roti, frites, mesclun, roasted jus
Large raspberry macaron with vanilla mascarpone cream and raspberry coulis
Opal, 5534 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC (Chevy Chase DC), Rick’s Rating 6.9
I don’t get Opal. It’s been crowded since it opened last year in the space on upper Connecticut once occupied by Arucola. Maybe a welcoming vibe in an upscale neighborhood starved for good restaurants explains its success. Because the food mystifies me. I’ve been twice, and except for the fantastic wood-fired bread, I’ve never had anything I’d be excited to order again.
To be fair, maybe it’s me. Maybe I just don’t like the chef’s palate. I have the same issues with Nina May, Opal’s sister restaurant. For me, both restaurants have menus that look great on paper but they fall short on execution. The cooking feels stodgy and under-seasoned. Sometimes sourcing ingredients from local farmers isn’t enough. You still can’t throw a tangle of carrots into an oven and expect them to cook evenly. You’ll get a bowl of carrots like mine, a mix of overcooked, undercooked, and perfectly-cooked carrots, depending on where they were in the pan.
One side note. Joy by Seven Reasons opened nearby around the same time as Opal, roughly targeting the same audience, so they get compared a lot. Joy is a bit pricier but the cooking is better than Opal. Here the price-value assessment cuts differently. I’d rather spend a bit extra for the food at Joy than have another just-serviceable meal at Opal. But I’d love to be proved wrong. I know there are Opal fans out there. Please see me in the comments and tell me what I’ve missed.
Clams with Saffron Tagliatelle
Ricotta Dumplings with brown butter, squash, and Calabrian chile
Rainbow Carrots with whipped feta, pickled shallots
Planta, 4910 Elm St, Bethesda MD, Rick’s Rating 6.5
I totally understand why someone who’s vegan or eating with a vegan would want to eat at Planta. Or someone who’s kosher or eating with someone who keeps kosher. It must be nice for those folks to be able to order from the whole menu without reading the fine print. As for the rest of us, I can’t think of any excuse.
Planta isn’t one of those vegan restaurants like Oyster, Oyster or Fancy Radish that celebrate vegetables for what they are. Those places challenges you to appreciate the natural deliciousness of a rutabaga or a maitake mushroom in ways you never thought possible. Planta takes a different approach. Planta tries to replicate the tastes and textures of familiar animal-based foods with vegan substitutes. The problem is that the substitutes never measure up to the originals. I’m looking at you, bang-bang broccoli (even battered, fried, and smothered in sauce, I miss the shrimp), “ahi tuna” sushi that’s really sliced watermelon (trompe l’oeil is fun until you put it in your mouth), and pizza “cheese” made with nuts and nutritional yeast (I don’t know what nutritional yeast actually is, but I don’t want either of those words near my cheese).
The bottom line is you can’t compete with the real thing. Imitation will always come up short. Ron DeSantis will soon find out that you can’t out-Trump Trump. And sorry, Planta, you can’t out-flesh flesh.
Bang Bang Broccoli with sweet chili and peanut sauce
Campanelle Pasta with creamy basil pesto, broccoli rabe, and sweet pea
Central Michel Richard, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington DC (Federal Triangle), Rick’s Rating 7.2
The late, great Michel Richard opened Central in 2008 and it quickly became one of my go-to’s for delicious and often whimsical takes on American and French classics. When Richard passed away in 2016, I thought that was the last I’d have of his cooking. But I was wrong. Not only is Central still going but they’ve added Michel’s name to the marquis and continue to crank out many of his iconic dishes.
It’s emotional for me every time I visit. Sometimes I feel grateful that I don’t have to live in a world without Michel’s burgers, gougères, and fried chicken. Other times I feel the loss more acutely, and being in the same room and eating the same dishes that Michel oversaw just a few years ago feels more like a museum patron than a diner.
This time it felt like something else, like everything was a bit off and ersatz. It felt like one of those K-Tel compilation records from the ’70s. Sure, on its face it looked like an amazing collection of your favorite artists, but when you got it home you discovered it wasn’t the original recordings. There were subtle differences in the way Glen Campbell asked Susie for directions to the playground that bothered you more and more each time you listened. It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t what you knew, and you resented your mom for cheaping-out and insisting that you wouldn’t be able to tell difference. (No I don’t need to talk about it, but thanks for your concern.)
So is the chicken actually drier than it’s ever been? And is the seasoning seriously lacking? Or does my mind just want to believe that Michel never sent out a dry chicken or an under-seasoned vegetable? I have no idea but that’s what Central Michel Richard is up against, at least for me: rosy retrospection.
Michel’s Fried Chicken
I didn’t even get to my nominee for most annoying restaurant of 2023. Shōtō, for those who aren’t familiar, is a newish Japanese spot on 15th St. that became infamous last summer for turning away Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley for wearing Birkenstocks in alleged violation of the restaurant’s “no flip-flops” policy. With all resulting the bad publicity, I thought for certain they would have dropped the foolishness. Nope. We got a call the day before our reservation call reminding us that they have a dress code and do not allow sandals or crocs. That seemed like an ominous sign that they hadn’t learned a thing, unless the ban on Crocs was a subtle way of keeping out Mario Batali.
Things got worse in-person. No one seemed happy to see us. No one seemed to care if we were enjoying our meal or needed anything. I almost longed for a server to come over and ask how we liked our first few bites. The manager did finally come over, but only to tell me to turn off the small light I use to take pictures in low-light environments. It didn’t give off any more light than a phone flashlight people use to read menus, I explained. It doesn’t matter, she said, we consider it a flash and we don’t allow it. I was about to say you can consider it whatever you like but it’s not a flash, but by that time she had sashayed away to harass other tables. I’m not giving a report on the food. All I remember is it was way too heavy on the attitude.
I stand with Marjorie. Semper fi.