R.J. Cooper’s “24” tasting menu abruptly ended this month at Vidalia.
Putting together this year’s Young & Hungry Dining Guide was an exercise in managing the chaos of the local dining scene. Several places that had all but secured a spot on my list of the 50 most fascinating restaurants — Inox, Teatro Goldoni, and Vidalia —suddenly found themselves on the outs. In Inox’s case, it was unavoidable; the fine-dining operation closed after putting up a good fight in this poor excuse of an economy.
In Vidalia’s case, R.J. Cooper‘s abrupt departure threw the kitchen into flux, lowering expectations enough to force me to give the downtown restaurant the boot. I say that even though Jeffrey “Mr. Obsessive” Buben continues to oversee Vidalia, no doubt applying the whip whenever his feverishly high standards are not maintained. But you cannot immediately replace one chef’s vision, particularly Cooper’s refined one, with another’s and expect instant results.
The same holds true for Teatro Goldoni, whose owners gave chef Enzo Fargione his walking papers for doing nothing less than making that dated, commedia dell’arte restaurant relevant again. With Fargione out of the way, Goldoni installed a more casual, rustic Italian menu, which instantly put the K Street institution in the same league as about 1,000 other places.
After bumping these three destinations off the list, I ultimately selected only 10 fine-dining restaurants for this year’s guide, which still represents 20 percent of my picks. The rest of the 40 slots have been taken up with casual or neighborhood or even fast-casual operations, which makes sense. These kinds of eateries continue to multiply like bacteria on raw chicken.
One of the traps of putting together such a guide is to fall under the spell of the new. All the hype that surrounds freshly launched restaurants can distract a critic from the more mature restaurants that still deserve attention. I tried to be aware of that as I compiled this guide. Seventeen restaurants from last year’s list held their spots this time around. Of the 33 other spots, 15 are occupied by restaurants that have opened since the 2009 guide, which means 30 percent of the list features new eateries.
That’s an uncomfortably high number for me. So I’ve decided to list the five veteran restaurants that just missed the cut.
- Corduroy: Chef Tom Power is a master at manipulating seasonal ingredients for maximum flavor.
- Blue Duck Tavern: The hotel restaurant still has one of the best brunches in the city.
- El Pollo Rico: The legion of Super Pollo fans is wrong. Those dry, lackluster birds don’t begin to compare to EPR’s.
- Poste Moderne Brasserie: Chef Rob Weland has turned his outdoor patio into a backyard farm for his kitchen — not to mention a backyard barbecue with his Poste Roasts.
- Joe’s Noodle House: Still my favorite spot for authentic Szechuan cooking.