Monday, January 19, 2009

Anthony Bourdain's D.C. Episode - UPDATED

Tonight, at 10:OO PM EST, Anthony Bourdain's episode in Washington, D.C. premieres and here is my two cents.

I guess I should explain that I do not consider myself an expert on food; I just know what I like. I don't even use the word "foodie" to describe myself as it's annoying and it connotes something vaguely yuppie that gets under my skin.

I should also admit that I don't care much about European food; given the choices in this area, I'd rather find an Asian restaurant of any kind over a French restaurant or cafe.

But, I have spent most of my life in this area and I pay attention to stuff; If I try a new restaurant and have a dish I'm not familiar with, I usually run off and look it up online to learn more abut it and see if what I had was in any way authentic or accurate.

Because I'm enthusiastic about the places I like, and because I'm fat, people assume that I must know what I'm talking about when it comes to food. Maybe I do for certain cuisines.

Well, for some reason, Comcast already had this Bourdain episode available on its On-Demand service weeks ago. I watched it and was simultaneously happy and disappointed with Bourdain's journey to this area.

I am going to try to highlight the positive but I have to deal with the negative.

Tony spends far too much time at an adequate restaurant in D.C. -- Clyde's, I think? -- with an expert from the Spy Museum. I have no interest in the Spy Museum and am guessing that the parent company of the Travel Channel, the Discovery Channel, has a financial stake in the place and is using this Bourdain segment as a sort of advertisement for it.

UPDATE: As of July 2010, I think the Travel Channel is now owned by the Food Network.

Bourdain also ventures to the very famous Ben's Chili Bowl which *is* a D.C. landmark but which I've never been to (hangs head in shame).

I was delighted to see that Bourdain took local writer George Pelecanos with him. I met Pelecanos recently at a used book store in Silver Spring that I've been shopping at for almost 18 years now -- the great Silver Spring Books.

I was a very happy Bourdain fan to see that he did indeed find The Eden Center in nearby Falls Church, Virginia. Frankly, Bourdain could have devoted the whole episode to this place as there are more than 100 Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese restaurants in the complex. Bourdain's segment takes in a Vietnamese bakery typical of many in this area where a customer can easily see the French influence on the Vietnamese cuisine.

The bakery, Song Que, is a new place in the Eden Center and it takes the spot of the much loved Four Sisters Restaurant -- same owners -- which has moved out of the complex and into a new location in Falls Church.

Side note: The old Four Sisters Restaurant in the Eden Center used to be the most upscale establishment in the complex and perhaps a trifle less "ethnic" to all outward appearances. By that I mean that you would see lots of white people eating at the Four Sisters Restaurant but almost no white people eating at any of the other 99 restaurants in the Center.

Admittedly, it can be intimidating to go to a place where you may not be familiar with all of the dishes on the menu. Some people would never go to a restaurant that has ducks and pigs roasting on display for patrons but to each his or her own.

The clip at the bottom of this post has the entirety of Bourdain's visit to the Eden Center.

Check out this recent post on the Four Sisters Restaurant in their new location!

Bourdain also partakes of Latin American and Ethiopian cuisines in the Virginia suburbs. There are thousands of different Latin American restaurants in both Maryland and Virginia and it is quite easy to find Peruvian food, for example, in this area. I need to explore that more myself.

As for Ethiopian, I am intrigued but by no means an expert. This area is rightly famous for having a lot of good Ethiopian restaurants in various suburbs and in D.C. itself. Bourdain seemed more intent on having a rare beef dish not even on the menu than highlighting good Ethiopian food.

I tend to get disappointed with Bourdain when he ventures into this "bizarre foods" territory; that's what the Andrew Zimmern show is for. To his credit, Bourdain usually does a good job at illustrating everyday dishes from all over the world and how those dishes fit into the lives of the people in the places he travels to. But, hey, you've got to get viewers and sometimes he has to go for the "ooh look at this!"-dishes.

Then Bourdain devotes quite a bit of time to the Minibar and its chef in D.C.. Most people in this area 1) can't afford to eat at places like this or 2) don't have the time to eat at places like this because their work schedules are too full. Again, it's a case of the exotic and has more to do with D.C. wanting to be like NYC and less about what already makes this area special and unique.

But Bourdain's biggest mistake is getting crabs in D.C.! I wanted to throw something at the screen.

Now, I'm not a big crab guy despite being a Marylander but I respect the culture and I know that one goes to Baltimore, or the Eastern Shore, or Chesapeake Bay, or Annapolis for crabs, not to a ramshackle fish market in D.C.!

That fish market is most likely trucking in the crabs from Maryland anyway!

With all of the good seafood in this area, I'm still amazed that the producers thought that this segment represented anything other than a tourist trap; the same crabs probably cost half the price in Annapolis.

So while there were moments of this episode where Bourdain seems to be making the point that the story of D.C. is the story of its suburbs, he doesn't do a good enough job of doing that.

Lots of big cities have places like Minibar in their hearts. But few cities have the wealth of Vietnamese or Korean restaurants that Northern Virginia has, or the amazing number of seafood restaurants along Chesapeake Bay.

And as the Travel Channel is affiliated with the Discovery Channel, and as that channel's headquarters is in Silver Spring, Tony could have walked over to the marvelous Mandalay Restaurant and Cafe -- perhaps my favorite restaurant in the D.C. area!

I'm still a fan of Bourdain; maybe one day he'll just do an episode on the Virginia or Maryland suburbs and hit all of those places?

Details on this episode are here.

Here's another blog link on the episode that is a bit more brutal than I am.