City Paper is not for tourists
The accusation had given Massimo Fabbri pause, and it wasn’t even directed at him. You might recall that last summer a diner accused Vidalia of using “inferior” ingredients during Restaurant Week (Young & Hungry blog, 9/1/2009). It was a charge, legitimate or not, that struck a chord with the Ristorante Tosca chef, who thought: If the semi-annual promotion is really designed to attract newcomers to a restaurant—and not just fill seats during a slow period—why do so many places refuse to put their best food forward?
The idea of dumbing down a menu just to make a buck off Restaurant Week suddenly struck Fabbri as short-sighted, sort of like trashing your property right before an open house. Which is why Fabbri decided that for this winter’s promotion he would showcase “the exact same menu that [we] showcase during regular business hours.” The only potential stumbling block to the chef’s scheme was, of course, Tosca’s principal owner, Paolo Sacco.
Fabbri, who has a stake in Tosca, swears that Sacco saw the wisdom of the idea, but I tell you what: I’d have paid good money to see the look on the owner’s face when Fabbri suggested sliding the wild mushroom-crusted pork tenderloin (a $36 entrée on most days) onto the Restaurant Week menu, which maxed out this year at $35.10 for a three-course dinner. I suspect the F-bomb has never been dropped so frequently inside that stately downtown restaurant.
However he accomplished it, Fabbri won the argument—to a point. His Restaurant Week menu wasn’t an exact match of his regular one. The foie gras, Dover sole, and risotto with lobster were all MIA. (C’mon, you didn’t take Sacco for a complete sucker, did you?) But still, no one would have reviewed Tosca’s Restaurant Week menu and pronounced it wanting. There was imported buffalo mozzarella, burrata, prosciutto di Parma, jumbo lump crab meat, Mediterranean sea bass, lamb chops, and that pork tenderloin. Only two items came with upcharges: the New York strip ($8) and the free-range rack of veal ($12).
I ate like a king for $35 at Tosca on the first night of Restaurant Week.
Granted, it helped that Fabbri’s wife, Alexis, had spotted me and passed the news along to the kitchen. What that meant was that my three-course meal turned into a five-course feast. Fabbri wanted to make sure I sampled two items that I didn’t order from the promotional menu. I guess I could have refused them, but I was already feeling like a trashier version of the Salahis, crashing a white-tablecloth restaurant more suited to button-down pharmaceutical lobbyists than a rumpled alt-paper food critic dining in his flannel shirt and jeans.
Fabbri’s appetizer of turbot in a “thyme crust” was a model of simplicity and misdirection. The promised crust was a mere sprinkling of thyme, which suited me just fine since I consider the herb an improvised explosive device, ready to bomb whatever dish with its concussive woodsy and pungent aromas. In this preparation, the herb was a mere accompanist, adding a background note to the pan-roasted fish surrounded with a chorus of other colors, like blanched baby Brussels sprouts, braised fennel, and roasted cauliflower. The dish was supported on the bottom by a simple turbot-bone-based stock enhanced with pale aromatics, so as not to mar the clear, clarion ring of this gorgeous broth.
The appetizer was Fabbri’s opening statement on Restaurant Week, and he followed it with a discourse on pasta-making. His fresh tortelli, stuffed with robiola cheese and black truffles, was almost canary yellow in color and absolutely lush on the tongue; you didn’t have to chew it as much as allow it to melt on your tongue. The filling matched the pasta in texture, while the truffles and porcini-mushroom sauce added earthiness without overwhelming the delicacy of the robiola and its eggy casing. This was pasta that reminded you why Italians look down on French cuisine.
The lessons continued right into my third and fourth courses, which were two of Fabbri’s signature dishes, crispy Mediterranean sea bass and carrot pappardelle with rabbit ragu. The latter was not only flawlessly cooked but historically accurate. The sauce—a partner, not a dominatrix—included game meat and not shrimp or crab or pork sausage, one more indication that Fabbri was not about to pander to a wider audience during that pander-ready tool called Restaurant Week.
Near the bottom of the menu that hovers over the cash register at Toan, there’s a small footnote to customers explaining that the Silver Spring noodle house does not use any MSG in its soups.
“You really don’t use MSG?” I asked the young man behind the counter.
When he said no, I raised a question about standard practices at pho parlors: “Don’t most pho shops use MSG?”
“Yes,” he said, “but that’s why our soup is darker than other places’.”
“How long do you simmer the broth?” I asked.
He said they simmer those bones for nearly 24 hours. What’s more, he said the cooks take care to maintain the fat layer atop the simmering pho, so the soup doesn’t lose heat or flavor. He even mentioned that Toan offers customers the option of ordering a side of spring onions in melted fat, for those who like to bolster the flavor of their pho. This apparently is the Vietnamese way.
The pho at Toan went down like liquid foie gras. Or rendered beef marrow. This broth was slippery rich. It was so rich, flavorful, and full bodied, in fact, that I felt very little need to doctor the broth with Sriracha sauce and hoisin.
It was a good thing I was so taken with the broth. The proteins I requested—rare eye of round, fatty brisket, and soft tendon—were in short supply in my large serving of pho ($7.35; $6.45 for small). Once I popped the few slices of beef into my mouth, I was left with a dense wad of soft rice noodles.
I found plenty of other pleasures in that bowl, though. First among equals was the interplay between the silken noodles and the crunchy sprouts, a contrast of textures that, for reasons I couldn’t ascertain, was more pronounced in this pho. It was a soft crunch that I returned to again and again, as fascinated by the interplay as a baby with a shiny object.
On my way out the door, I asked the young man what Toan means. Without missing a beat, he said it was Vietnamese for “perfect.” I’m not sure about the validity of his translation, but I will say this about Toan’s pho broth: It comes pretty close to perfection.
Ristorante Tosca, 1112 F St. NW, (202) 367-1990.
Toan, 736 Cloverly St., Silver Spring, (301) 879-8626.