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D.C. Dining
Sampling the city's best on a budget
(Published February 6, 2006)

By MARTY PEARL

Today's question is, "How do you enjoy the house specials and signature dishes of a few dozen of our area's best restaurants and wash it all down with some very good wines and spirits and not have to sell your house to pay the bill?"

Hint: Think charity eats! Our area is blessed with an abundance of good chefs and restaurateurs with hearts of gold. They are approached almost every day by all kinds of organizations that ask them either to donate gift certificates for fund-raising auctions or to set up a table to serve food at large walk-around buffets.

The restaurant and beverage people come through like champs and at many of the tastings each table's efforts represent thousands of dollars worth of food and labor costs. The relationship between these groups is somewhat symbiotic, as the food and wine purveyors wish to support good causes as well as show off their fare to potential customers, and the organizations' memberships usually already reflects a part of the restaurant's clientele.

Now, what does that mean to the hungry reader?

First, check out your local neighborhood school fund-raisers and such, where you will usually find some restaurant gift certificates available at significant savings off menu prices. Second, follow the big charity and promotional eating events.

Last Monday, I was at the French Embassy to celebrate the opening of the Cezanne exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. The embassy and the Chamber of Commerce of Provence, with the help of Air France, flew a group of that area's noted chefs here and paired each with a local French chef for a week full of culinary adventures. At the Maison Francaise we had the opportunity to sample a couple of dozen spectacular dishes with a number of Provencal wines (mostly rose), all for $65. While we may not spend that amount each night for dinner, the chance to try these offerings any other way would have entailed thousands of dollars in travel costs and at least a few weeks of eating our way through a good chunk of French countryside. (Mind you, as I typed that last sentence it became clear to me that such a trip doesn't sound bad at all. But I digress.)

On April 11, Share Our Strength will sponsor D.C.'s part in Taste of the Nation -- America's largest series of tasting events, which draws upward of 55,000 people annually at about 60 locations around the country for the purpose of alleviating hunger as a national problem. For a $75 donation ($50 is tax-deductible), you will support an efficient organization for an excellent cause and your own hunger will not be a concern for at least a week! About 50 of Washington's best restaurants will serve their dishes, and plenty of wines and spirits will be available. I often think when I attend this type of eating event that I will camp out in front of just one table and eat my fill from my favorite sushi chef or indulge in just lobster salad sandwiches till they close down, but then something close to sanity returns and I wander the room chatting with my chef friends and sampling their offerings until I am about to burst. (Oh dear, the sacrifices I make for my job!)

Anyway, the point of all this is that even if you are on an expense account/trust fund budget and dine out nearly every night, there is no way you can try all the new restaurants that open around the area let alone return to your favorites on a regular basis -- there just aren't enough dinners in a year in relation to the number of places worth testing, so the big eating events give you the chance to try dishes from kitchens you may be considering and support a good cause at the same time.

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Today's featured restaurant is Kolumbia at 1801 K St. NW. Chef-owner Jamie Stachowski and his wife Carolyn (who runs the front room and acts as the sommelier) do a bit of an Abbot and Costello act about who is the boss; but whoever is in charge seems to be doing things right. This is a truly excellent restaurant. Jamie started cooking young, and by 1981 was working at the famed Ma Maison in Los Angeles with America's first celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck. After tours with a few other well-known L.A. chefs, he went to the esteemed Le Perigord in New York before joining Jean Louis Palladin at The Watergate in 1984. He has bounced in and out of our area ever since, opening Paul Loukas' eCitie about six years ago to wide acclaim as one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country and now has brought his accumulated skills downtown.

He refers to his style of cooking as "fine-modern." I enjoy both his American standards and dishes that are created with French and Middle-Eastern techniques and spicing. He is a saucier in the classic French style, and his cooking reflects both Jean Louis' experimental approach and traditional "old school" philosophy. He enjoys preparing most every kind of dish, but gets extra pleasure working with fish because of the finesse required. Kolumbia's prices seem to range just a touch lower than many of his competitors in the area, with most dinner entrees in the $22-$28 range. But Jamie also tries to offer good value with lower lunch prices and a daily "bar lunch" with a couple of meal choices at $9, and some dinner specials under $20. While Chef appreciates that there are many other fine restaurants in the area, his pet peeve is a "dumbed down" restaurant -- a multimillion dollar venture in decor with no substance in their cuisine.

While Jamie's menu changes regularly, I am happy to recommend a few of this week's dishes including sweetbreads in Perigord sauce, oyster and mushroom stew, winter fish soup, butternut squash ravioli, onion and fresh white anchovy tartlets, black cod with onion crust, and roast venison with chestnut puree. On Feb. 11 at 1 p.m., the restaurant will pair with Linganore Winecellars, Maryland's premier vineyard, for a cooking class/wine class/ tasting banquet in conjunction with the D C Dining Society. See the society’s ad in this issue of The Common Denominator for information and reservations.

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In my ongoing search for inexpensive Chinese takeout/delivery, my offering this issue is O'Tasty at 1764 Columbia Road in Adams Morgan. This is another of our Chinese, sub sandwich, fried food, chicken wing places that seem to be all built from the same plans and who copy each other's menus down to the misspellings, but some of their dishes rise a bit beyond the usual. In particular they do noodle dishes quite well and I can suggest the beef chow fun at $6.75 as a particular bargain, and the spicy Singapore rice noodles for half a buck more. I am slowly working my way through other parts of their menu with mixed results.

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There is a serious battle raging in the Virginia wine industry. Chad Zakaib, managing director of Jefferson Vineyards and a representative of the Virginia Wineries Association, told me that without help from the legislature, the state may lose up to a third of its 107 commercial wineries. The issue is complex but essentially over the continued ability of small growers to sell directly to stores and restaurants versus the three-tiered system which requires use of distributors (who make the case that their involvement allows for more efficient marketing and tax collection). If you enjoy drinking Virginia wines, you may want to find out more on this issue before it is too late. I leave it up to you to decide whose ox is being gored.

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Nobody won the wine dinner for two at Smith Point Restaurant by sending in a great question or comment, so we will carry it over for next issue. H. G. gets a drink on me for coming close. Write to me at Chefmartydc@aol.com.

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Write to Marty Pearl at ChefMartyDC@aol.com or at The Common Denominator, 3609 Georgia Ave. NW, Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20010. Messages may be left on his voicemail at (202) 722-6397.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator