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Last spring, several months after Carole Wagner Greenwood opened Greenwood at Cleveland Park, the chef read a review of her restaurant by Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman. “Carol [sic] Wagner Greenwood has found her audience,” the write-up began, and although Richman went on to be critical (the appetizers, she wrote, were better than the entrees, the restaurant as a whole “alternately delightful and frustrating”), her overall impression was positive. Greenwood says she was “flattered.”
The review Greenwood initially read was a computer printout, dated May 13, an early peek Greenwood had obtained from a friend at the Post. The Washington Post Magazine, in which the review eventually appeared, didn’t come out until May 31. But to Greenwood’s surprise, the review that the public read was markedly different from the one leaked to her.
Richman correctly contends that the food descriptions in the two reviews were basically the same, and, regardless, she and her editors change copy as they see fit. “Carole got an advance copy of [the review] off the computer right after I’d written it,” Richman says. “It hadn’t been edited yet, and we go through a pretty elaborate editing process here. We talk about the review. Often [the editors] have to cut it.”
But what Richman describes as a nuts-and-bolts procedural decision Greenwood sees as a calculated attack, prompted by Richman’s displeasure that someone had peeked over her shoulder. After Richman found out about the AWOL critique (“Carole showed it to our photographer,” she says) the issue came up in her meetings with editors. “It’s possible in some way that [the change] was sparked by [Greenwood’s getting the story],” Richman explains. “Would we have had that conversation otherwise? Who knows?”
What got published doesn’t qualify as a full rewrite, but there’s a notable difference in tone between the two reviews. The “found her audience” lead was supplanted by a detailed description of a conversation Richman had had with Greenwood, in which the chef had asked that the writer postpone her visit: “She complained that the restaurant was too busy,” it read. “[T]he staff had turned over, there were problems with the kitchen and with the service, she hadn’t had time to develop the menu.” Later, Richman wrote that the entrees one night “were a disaster”a statement that was absent from the first version and that, to a chef hoping to frame a thumbs-up from the Post, felt like a pan. “In the second review,” Greenwood complains, “all the good things were totally muffled.”
Copies of the magazine, Richman says, arrive in the Post office early in the week preceding its Sunday street date, so it’s common for restaurateurs to obtain early copies of her reviewsbut not before they’re edited. While neither Richman nor Tom Frail, the magazine’s acting editor at the time of the Greenwood incident, will comment as to whether a leaker was identified and punished, the critic says that to her knowledge such prepublication problems are rare. She only knows of one similar occurrence, which happened to involved Greenwood’s former restaurant downtown. In that case, Richman didn’t discover that the chef had gotten a preview until well after the reviewwhich, both parties agree, wasn’t positivewas published.
Animosity between chefs and their critics is natural, and given Richman’s near-iconic status within the local restaurant community, the writer is used to causing a fuss. But two weeks ago, when Richman, in a Turning Tables item, recounted an incident in which a Greenwood patron was served a whole roasted head of garlic even though she told her waiter she was allergic to the stuff, the chef couldn’t help but feel she had become a dartboard.
“Carole believes that when Phyllis mentioned her restaurant again in a Turning Tables item, that it was sort of like piling on,” says magazine editor Frail. “That’s not the case at all. Phyllis in many cases has done Turning Tables items on restaurateurs whose restaurants she has already reviewed. She has given up trying to persuade them that she doesn’t have a vendetta against them.”
Greenwood dismisses the garlic incident as a “service mix-up” and not an example of her distaste for altering dishes at the request of a customersomething that’s plainly stated on her menu. But if the Richman-Greenwood imbroglio unearthed anything beyond the ire that the critic can raise, it’s the chef’s ability to stir up controversy. In her published review, Richman wrote that “Greenwood is one of the most loved and hated restaurants to have opened in Washington in ages”a second-version insertion undoubtedly inspired by the gossip mill, to which Richman also alluded.
Tales of institutional prickliness at Greenwood abound, and judging from my own visit early last year, I think it’s fair to say that the staff had its own ideas about who was serving whom. (“If you could just please be quiet and wait,” is one comment that sticks out from the notebook.) Former regular Christine Burkhardt says she had visited the restaurant “like 20 times” before she was asked “to leave and not come back” following an argument wherein she pointed out that her roasted chicken (which is also brined) was red at the bone.
Greenwood contends that any service peculiarities were front-of-the-house problems remedied by the recent hiring of manager David Lynch. “I would say that 95 percent of the people [who] come in here love it,” Greenwood says. She recently hired a PR firm to help soften her public image, but she has no plans to temper her stubbornness toward special requests by diners. “I kind of joke about it. But basically what I’m telling [customers] is: You’ve got to eat it this way. And if I thought we were keeping people out, I would stop it immediately.”
In the chef’s defense, I’ve had nothing but pleasurable experiences at Greenwood since Lynch came on board; he’s been a pro at handling his boss’s modest infamy. Customers who pay high prices don’t like to be told what to do, and given that this is Washington, it’s plausible that Greenwood has attracted a few customers, fresh from a day of power-playing, game to see if they can get yet another stubborn professional to bend over. When I ask one Greenwood employee to comment on his boss’s management style, he says she’s better than most in that “if she yells, she always makes sure to apologize later.”
And it’s difficult to argue with Greenwood’s food. The ever-changing menu has its mainstayssea-fresh oysters, a heaping bistro salad that allows gorgeous produce to speak for itselfand in spite of the now public mishap, I hope the chef doesn’t curb her habit of garnishing plates with whole heads of roasted garlic. Few restaurants manage to match food and ambiance as unobtrusively as this one, which sits in a building that formerly housed a Kenny Rogers Roasters and is appointed with little more than sunshine-yellow paint, soft lighting, and, currently, a pumpkin. And the chef’s respect for the integrity of her materials isn’t a trendy pose: She employs sweet corn for its flavor as well as its color, and Greenwood’s ruddy prime-aged sirloin is one of the best steaks in town, period.
Dictatorial or not, Greenwood argues that there are plenty of restaurants that allow their customers to rewrite the menu. “My thing is that here you [have] the opportunity to eat someone’s food in a very personal style, [from] an owner who cooks every night and puts every plate together herself. So take advantage of it. If you don’t want that, there are other places to go.”
Greenwood at Cleveland Park, 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 833-6572.
One reader likens “the entire experience” at Ching Ching Cha to a “full-body massage,” and the teahouse’s staff echoes his contention that sipping high-grade tea is akin to tasting fine wine. Adding to the aura of elegance are the accompanying “tea meals,” which, for 10 bucks, include a bowl of miso soup, a choice of three vegetables such as miso-soaked celery and pepper-hot Korean squash, and one selection of either chicken (shredded and tossed with garlic, scallions, and sweet soy sauce), shrimp (covered in wasabi mayonnaise), or tofu (steamed and splashed with teriyaki). If all of that seems a touch too healthful, order the egg custard for dessert.
Ching Ching Cha, 1063 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 333-8288.
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