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D.C. Dining
From Chinatown to NYC
(Published May 15, 2006)

By MARTY PEARL

This issue's featured charity eats have special meaning to me. Capital Cooks at the Design Center brought out a dozen or so good restaurants to feed us in the beautiful model kitchen displays. Among a lot of very good food, the lobster hush puppies that Executive Chef Craig Hartman of the Morrison-Clark Inn did were absolute knockouts.

The event was a nice way to show off the kitchen equipment, and one of the charity recipients is Brainfood, an organization with which I have been associated. They help high school age kids -- usually recent immigrants -- to become more accustomed to American society and concentrate upon food and cooking to help the process. A couple of years ago I led one team in a cooking competition with about six groups of their peers, each under the tutelage of a professional chef. We took second place in the event, but I think we were big winners in the process.

The other charity eat I attended was another big deal. I went to New York for the American Heart Association's Chefs With Heart banquet at the Mandarin Hotel. A couple dozen of New York's most famous chefs, including Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant (who just the previous night won the James Beard Award for New York's best chef), prepared heart-healthy cuisine and a dozen California wineries poured mostly great reds (very good for the heart you know) to match the foods.

I am the happiest and luckiest guy in Washington, as I survived a massive heart attack a year and a half ago. I was too stupid to know what happened and went two months before I saw a doctor. The wonderful folks at George Washington University Hospital gave me a quintuple bypass, and now I'm better than new. But I implore you all to learn the warning signs for heart attacks and strokes, and even if you are as much of a baby as I was about seeing doctors, go and get that annual checkup.

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Last week's trade shows were both on the same day and left me a little overwhelmed. The New Zealand wine industry showed their wares in the afternoon at the Wyndham Washington hotel, and they can be justifiably proud of the Sauvignon Blancs which, in my opinion, were real winners. To complement the drier whites, they flew in a crew from San Francisco's famous Hog Island Oyster Company, who shucked Kumimotos and Sweetwaters all afternoon. It was a tough stretch: go to a wine table, sample three wines, go to the oyster buffet and eat a half dozen, repeat. Like I have said before, I love my job.

Later that same day I went to The St. Regis for the tasting of Chianti Classicos. These rich lush wines seemed delightful this year, but frankly my tastebuds were fried by the time I left the New Zealand tasting and I couldn't appreciate the Italians as well as I should have. So I will have to rely on the opinions of some friends whose palates I respect, who suggested that the recent offerings from the last few years will begin to mature a bit faster than usual into pretty good wines with full bodies and good nose.

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I am old enough to remember when travel was truly an adventure and a special treat. Some of the earliest pictures in my mind are of boarding a Martin 404 at the Plattsburg airport in northern New York for a family trip to New York City, circa 1951. The men were all in their best suits and fedoras and the women all wore dresses -- and I think I remember white gloves. The crew met us at the bottom of the boarding ramp and greeted each passenger -- many by name -- as an important guest. In those years a typical entry in our local paper would read, "Mr. and Mrs. Jones and their son Fido left today to visit relatives in Cleveland. They will fly on Allegheny Airlines and are expected to return on the 17th."

Skipping ahead a few years in my mind brings memories of taking flying lessons and becoming a licensed pilot at the age of 17, due mostly to an older brother who was a jet fighter pilot in the Air Force. I loved both the concept of flight and the magnificent view from the cockpit of our third-hand Piper Tri-pacer that was almost as old as me. As I grew older and took more commercial flights around the country or overseas, I would always ask for the window seat to enjoy that magnificent 100-mile view and would try to book any trips by air for the daytime so I could stare at everything past the tip of the wings.

As much as I love to fly, I now avoid it on almost any trip shorter than 500 miles. A flight to New York City takes longer than driving when you factor in the travel to and from the airports along with the waiting and "security" screenings and, at best, I feel like a sardine being processed into and out of a can with the lines and crowds. As bad as airline food used to be, I can't remember it being any worse than a cold bag of take-out fast food that you grab at the airport now unless you took time to cater yourself a better meal before you left. In general, the romance of flight has begun to abandon me, even if there are no weather delays and missed connections.

Of the remaining options, what is the best way to get to New York these days? If you are traveling alone, the price of driving becomes a bit steep after you factor in parking in the Big Apple, which is twice or thrice D.C. prices. The train is close to airline prices, but doesn't go any faster, either, these days. The bus is cheaper and not much slower, but entails a terrible mob scene at the stations at both ends and is a cause of constant frustrations as you stand in an unmoving line to buy tickets and watch the scheduled run you hoped to catch pull out without you.

With all those hassles, I thought I had a reasonable alternative in recent years -- the so-called Chinatown buses. Most important to me is that they have been convenient and relatively comfortable. The handful of companies that run these trips depart from (and arrive at) a few scattered storefront Chinatown and downtown locations without massive lines. The buses are generally new and clean and, with rare exceptions, uncrowded. At the New York end, they usually give you an option of midtown or Chinatown arrival and departure locations, and even with a stop to stretch your legs at a New Jersey Turnpike rest area seldom take more than 4 1/2 hours, and often less time. The price is dirt cheap. Even with recent increases, most lines charge $20 each way and $35 round trip. Greyhound/Peter Pan recently lowered its advance computer purchase prices to meet this competition.

Last week I paid the price for the convenience I have been enjoying. Monday, I took the 6 p.m. departure from Seventh and H streets NW. I bought a nice turkey sandwich and a can of soda from Capital Q to eat, took a newspaper and leftover puzzles from Sunday's paper to keep me occupied after it got dark, and settled into two open seats for the duration. At about 7:45 p.m., the bus died two miles south of the Delaware boarder on I-95. At this time we learned that the driver apparently knew some very strong language in a Chinese dialect, which he used on his cell phone, but he seemed to lack the ability to communicate in English -- which was to become our greatest source of frustration. I want to make it clear that we had no traffic accident; there was no injury nor blood and guts spilled on the highway. We were simply stuck sitting on the side of the road for 10 minutes short of six hours, and the worst part was having no conception of when we would ever move again. Most of us had eaten our bag lunches in the first hour on the road, and eight hours later needed at least some water, if not a meal, but we were all afraid to leave the bus to walk to an exit a few miles away for fear that the replacement would arrive and leave in our absence. At a little after 1:30 a.m., the new bus came. A half hour later, the company bought us a round of sandwiches and sodas at the next stop northbound. At about 5 a.m., 11 hours after leaving Washington, we hit the bricks on the street next to Penn Station.

Will I continue to use and recommend these small companies for less than my air travel distances? Probably, but with the following caveat: bring an extra bottle of water and a couple of oranges with you, because you can never tell when you will enjoy a Gilligan moment. It is apparent that these new operators do not have the facilities of their bigger and older competitors when something does go wrong.

***

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