Urban Bar-B-Que: Still not a consistent winner.

There must have been a hundred different reasons why I decided to include or pass over a restaurant for this year’s Dining Guide. I thought I’d give you a glimpse into a few of the restaurants that didn’t make the cut and why:

  • Comet Ping-Pong and Buck’s Fishing and Camping: Carole Greenwood’s departure, of course. Both places will need time to find their own level following her sudden exit.
  • Corduroy: This was a difficult one to exclude from the list. I respect Tom Power as a chef. I like the servers in his dining room, who are smart and authoritative while still maintaining a feather-light touch with diners. But my last meal at Corduroy cost me around $200 for two people. We didn’t drink a lot, either, a cocktail and two glasses of wine total. The food was generally well-executed — save for my softshell crab, which didn’t have even a whisper of the advertised 40-year-old vinegar sauce, but instead a more rounded and soft butter sauce. In all honesty, though, I really wanted more than execution for my money. Part of the problem here was timing: Just a couple of days earlier, I had paid about the same price at Obelisk and its many courses were a pleasant memory still reverberating in my head. As I walked out of Corduroy, it was the price that was eating at my mind. I turned to my dining companion and said, “I hate to say it, but I’m having buyer’s remorse.” A restaurant should not induce buyer’s remorse.

  • Urban Bar-B-Que: You might remember my recent raves about Urban’s Rockville store, where the owners installed a large Southern Pride smoker that has been turning out some terrific brisket and ribs. One day over lunch, however, I asked two of my friends — both serious barbecue men, each with a desire to open a pit here — if they had been to Urban since the change of smokers. They both looked sheepishly at me. They admitted they had been, twice each, and they both admitted that they didn’t like the results. Their confessions got us started on a conversation about how difficult barbecue is to produce; even the vaunted Central Texas ‘cue shacks have their off days, we acknowledged. But we also agreed that no smokehouse worth its dry rub should have four off days so close together. So I made a return visit to Urban following our discussion, and while I didn’t find the meats as poor as they did, neither did I find them as good as those first days when David Calkins was carefully tending the pits. This cannot be emphasized enough. Excellent barbecue does not happen by accident. A thousand and one things can go wrong without your expert pitmaster at the helm. This is why, I think, the best barbecue houses don’t franchise. Great pitmasters don’t grow on trees, like the wood used to make great barbecue.
  • Tallula: I had been looking forward to sampling former Mendocino chef Barry Koslow‘s menu at this hip dining room in Arlington. But I had also been looking forward to trying the blood-orange vinaigrette with my red snapper or the rich lamb reduction in my dining companion’s loin of lamb. Both were MIA. One missing sauce is bad enough, but two makes me think there are bigger issues in the kitchen.