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D.C. Dining
Cherry blossom time is also sushi time
(Published April 3, 2006)

By MARTY PEARL

DO NOT ALL GO TO THIS RESTAURANT AT ONCE!!! If you frequent some of the food and restaurant related chat rooms and message boards, one complaint that seems to be nearly universal is that many good neighborhood Chinese restaurants around the country have been replaced by all-you-can-eat buffets of questionable quality. I know what they're talking about because I have been to a few.I now express my deep regret at writing about Fortune Star Buffet at the corner of Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane. The place has good food and it is a bargain to boot. I can't figure out how they can possibly operate at a profit. For $12.95 at dinner and on weekends you get all you can handle, including lots of shrimp and crab dishes, some decent sushi, a nice array of dim sum, a couple dozen hot selections, steaks and chops cooked to order, Peking duck and even oysters on the half shell. My biggest problem is that every half hour or so, they bring out a fresh tray of mixed lobster and crab in ginger/garlic sauce and I'm not fast enough to get there before it disappears. The food is constantly refreshed and replenished, and the atmosphere is "Chinatown light" with two-thirds of the place filled with Asian families. It takes about 25 minutes to get there from downtown on the Red Line and it is well worth the trip, but I repeat: DO NOT ALL GO TO THIS RESTAURANT AT ONCE!!! Like Yogi said, "Nobody goes there anymore because it is too crowded." I want to be able to go there, paperback in pocket, and nosh on dumplings and garlic spareribs for a couple of hours without having to wait in any longer lines than they already have.

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We attended the opening party of the sixth in the popular series of Sala Thai restaurants at 2300 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. The dining rooms are calming minimalist Zen decor, but warmed a bit by a cheerful staff and good live music. In recent years it seems like Thai restaurants have expanded in our area faster than Chinese, so most folks are familiar with what was a rather exotic cuisine not too long ago. Their cooking is quite sophisticated and varied as a crossroads trading nation would be apt to have. The influences of the larger Asian nations meld with exceptional seafood, meats and wonderful produce. We enjoyed a nice jerky style beef and drunken noodles from the party's buffet and tried the traditional pad Thai and Thai style wonton soup from the menu listings. I look forward to returning soon to sample more of the menu. It looks like the outdoor seating will be a pleasant place to dine now that the weather is becoming predictably nicer.

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This week's trade show offered extra entertainment. We were at The Roof Terrace Restaurant on top of the Kennedy Center for Winebow's spring portfolio tasting -- nearly 1,000 labels from a couple of hundred worldwide wineries and dealers. What struck me about the wines themselves was the depth of quality we are seeing from a lot of areas not previously known for producing great wines. Some big name Burgundies are still the stars in my book, but there are lots of new producers giving them a run for their money, and that seems to be the point. In the last few decades the price of fine wines has mirrored Manhattan apartment costs -- unbelievable increases -- but we are now seeing so many really good drinkable things coming to market that you no longer have to spend next month's paycheck for a case of something interesting. It looks like there will be plenty of nice things to try below the $20 range, and they will soon put a lot of supply pressure on the higher-cost famous bottles. Of course, if you still want to drink a premier cru from your birth year on your birthday, you can spend a couple of grand for the privilege, but it may be nice to sample an unknown name for a celebration at one-hundredth of the cost. I have been paid to taste wines for almost 40 years now, and I really enjoy constantly finding good new vineyards and labels that I haven't previously seen.The added entertainment? Besides a lot of nice people to chat with, the weather played a part. The wine displays were all inside, but there were a number of tables set up outdoors on the terrace with its magnificent views of our city. A front came through without much warning and some 40-knot winds rearranged the furniture, to everybody's chagrin. Fortunately nobody was injured from flying debris, but watching the tablecloths fly above the monuments into the low clouds was a bit of a guilty pleasure.

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We are now in serious charity eats time. The biggies, Taste of the Nation on April 11 and Zoofari on May 18, are just the tip of the iceberg. We are already at the point that you can't stick a toothpick into a shrimp without some good cause benefiting. Last week I went to two events with similar goals. On Sunday we drove to The Sheraton in Annapolis for the Junior League of Annapolis' Chefs By The Bay fundraiser. This group actively supports teen empowerment, mentoring and a number of programs to provide safety and compassion to young people -- and especially young mothers.The food and auctions there were a reminder that the District has no monopoly on either good deeds or good restaurants. Plenty of community support went into the evening. About 20 restaurants and caterers from that area (with a few Baltimore institutions also in attendance) provided a great meal with the expected seafood theme. There was crab in almost any description, but I have yet to see the tuna fleets steam up the Chesapeake to provide all of that fish which was served! There was too much to get into the individual dishes here, but a few standouts that I have to mention were the jumbo lump crab risotto from Carrol's Creek Cafe, the lamb from the Lebanese Taverna Cafe, and what may have been the best cake I ever ate -- the seven-layer caramel from Caroline's! I must remind them that my birthday is May 11.On Wednesday night we were at Linkup and Listen, the fundraiser for CrisisLink at the Clarendon Ballroom. This group provides trained counselors on telephone hotlines for those who are suicidal or the victims of disasters. Suicide is one of the highest causes of death among our young people, and the number of attempts is staggering. The support for this group is also strong, and legislation promoting the new 211 "help" lines is progressing both in the states and in Congress. [D.C. recently activated its "211" line.] The food and drink here was again excellent. There was an unending supply of passed snacks from the Ballroom's kitchens, a one-man sushi assembly line from Sushi-Ko, and a nice buffet of crispy calamari, steak and salads. The bar served top-shelf libations all night, and the live auction was accompanied by plenty of pastries and cakes to keep the bidders' energy levels high. Overall, another good evening matching a good cause. This column doesn't have the room to list all the worthwhile food events in the area, but if you have a tooth for sushi, Washington has become the raw fish capital of the world for the next couple of weeks. The Cherry Blossom Festival annually brings a score of Japan's top sushi chefs here to join a number of our own for both competitions and grand tastings. A few of our restaurants and hotels also do very nice sushi specials and you can't peel a shrimp these days without somebody sticking a block of rice under it. If you never caught this boat, now might be a good time to see what all the fuss is about when you see folks like me getting huge smiles -- when you thought we were just eating bait.

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I am your travel editor, but it has occurred to me that in the last couple of months I haven't really traveled anywhere worth writing about, except for a few day trips for interesting meals. That will change shortly as we get into the season for some national food shows and chef's events that will require a few journeys that are usually fun and interesting. Until then, I have decided that I will share with you the benefit of the pilot's license that I earned when still a lad with much lesser girth. Herein begineth your first lesson in learning how to fly: Air is much softer than mountains and trees and buildings and such. Therefore, except when taking off or landing, try to stay close to the middle of the air and don't get close to its edges. You have now completed your first flying lesson. Good luck with the rest. What other newspaper would teach you how to fly?

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If you have a specific question about who is doing what at the tastings and banquets, I will be happy to answer any questions that you want to e-mail to me. The offer of a free dinner for two at Smith Point Restaurant -- courtesy of their Executive Chef Nate Bearfield, who will select some wine to complement your meal -- still goes to whomever sends me what I consider to be the most interesting comment or question about our local dining scene.

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Marty Pearl is founder and chef of the D.C. Dining Society. Contact him at ChefMartyDC@aol.com or in care of The Common Denominator at 3609 Georgia Ave. NW, Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20010. Call him at (202) 265-0477.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator