Whether the decor is faux '50s silver and neon or authentic greasy spoon, diners are classic Americana, down to the familiar menu items. Rich, poor, black, white--all rub shoulders in the vinyl booths and at formica counters. We explore the enduring appeal and nostalgia of the diner.
Mac ‘n cheese and truffle oil. Pop tarts made from scratch. Many local chefs and restaurants are updating favorites of yesteryear with high end ingredients, new techniques–and often with the prices to match. We examine the power of nostalgia and food, and the flavors that recall our favorite home-cooked meals.
- Todd Kliman Food and Wine Editor and Restaurant Critic, Washingtonian Magazine
- Eric Brannon Executive Chef and General Manager, Ted's Bulletin
- Michel Richard Chef and Owner, Central Michel Richard; Chef and partner, Villard Michel Richard at The New York Palace.
- Tiffany MacIsaac Home Beer Brewer; Pastry Chef, Birch and Barley (Washington, D.C.)
Michel Richard’s Lemon Eggceptional Recipe
Yields 2-4 eggs per person
For the lemon curd:
4 egg yolks, separated
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
For the meringue:
4 egg whites, separated
1/4 cup sugar
For Egg shell mold:
For the White Chocolate Shell:
7 oz White Chocolate
Using an egg-shaped rubber mold, fill with water and place in the freezer for one hour. Before it is completely frozen, dip a toothpick into each mold. Return to the freezer and leave overnight.
For the lemon curd, whisk sugar and yolks. Add butter to yolks, and whisk again. Place in microwave for 2 minutes. Remove from microwave and mix with whisk. Place back in microwave until mixture reaches a boil, approximately 2 minutes. Remove from microwave, cover, and place in the fridge.
Melt the white chocolate in a bain-marie or in a microwave. It should be just warm to the finger, not too hot.
Remove the egg mold from the freezer. Dip it in warm water for a couple seconds and then remove the frozen “egg”. You will have an egg shaped “lollipop” mold.
Holding onto the toothpick, dip the egg half way down into the white chocolate. Transfer it to a parchment paper or silpat, and hold in place for a couple seconds. Gently remove the egg mold from the chocolate, leaving the chocolate “shell” standing alone. With one frozen egg mold, you should be able to get 8 eggs shells.
For the meringue, whip whites with electric whisk. Little by little add sugar until firm.
Remove lemon curd from fridge. Fill a pastry bag with the meringue mixture. Squeeze meringue mixture into each eggshell half way. With another pastry bag or a teaspoon, place lemon curd on top of the meringue, in the shape of an egg yolk.
To serve: place each white chocolate egg in a ceramic eggcup or on a plate. Serve with a demitasse spoon, like you are eating a soft-boiled egg.
Michel Richard’s Fried Chicken Nuggets Recipe
Yields 20 nuggets
2 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 12 ounces each)
2 skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 6 ounces each)
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
8 ounces (about ½ large loaf) day-old Italian bread or country bread, crusts removed
1 large egg white
Canola or peanut oil for deep-frying
1 teaspoon whole milk, or as needed
Pull the small chicken tender from the underside of each chicken breast. With a paring knife, remove and discard the piece of sinew that runs the length of the tender. Set the tenders aside. Cut the thin pointed end off each breast and add that meat to the tenders. The tenders and trimmings will be used as the binder. Trim the breasts and thighs of any excess fat or sinew and discard.
Cut the tenders and trimmings into 1-inch pieces. There should be 1 cup. If there is less, add enough cut-up breast meat to make 1 cup.
Season both sides of the chicken breasts and thighs with salt, pepper, and about half the thyme.
To roll the thighs into a log: Lightly moisten the work surface, to anchor the plastic, and lay out a 2-foot-long piece of plastic wrap, with a short end toward you. Place the thighs end to end down the center of the plastic, starting about 4 inches from the bottom edge. Pull the plastic wrap from the bottom up over the chicken pressing it against the surface of the meat. Slowly roll up the chicken in the plastic wraps, being careful not to catch the wrap in the chicken and pinching in the sides from time to time to compact the roll. Twist both ends of the roll and tie with kitchen twine, forming a compact log. Then repeat with the chicken breasts, laying them end to end, with the thinner ends overlapping. Trim the ends of the plastic and refrigerate the logs for at least several hours, or up to a day.
Break up the bread and place in the food processor. Pulse to process into irregular bread crumbs. The largest crumbs should be no more than ¼ inch, but do not overprocess. You should have about 2 ¼ cups. Place in a bowl and set aside.
Place the reserved chicken trimmings in a small food process or blender, add the egg white, and puree until smooth. Transfer to a bowl. Whisk in a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until ready to use, or for up to a day.
To cook the chicken, fill a large pot with water and clip a thermometer to the side of the pot. Using a large pot of water makes it easier to maintain the temperature once the chicken is added. Heat the water to 160F. It is important that the water temperature remain between 155F and 160F as the chicken cooks. Keep a bowl of ice cubes next to the stove, and if the temperature climbs, add a few ice cubes to lower the temperature quickly.
Place the thighs, still wrapped in plastic, in the water and poach for 20 minutes, checking the water temperature often. If the chicken doesn’t remain under the surface of the water, wedge a wooden spoon in the pot to keep it submerged. After 20 minutes, add the breasts and poach the chicken for another 30 minutes.
Fill a large bowl with ice water. Remove the chicken from the poaching water and place in the ice water. If the thighs still look undercooked, return to the poaching water for a few more minutes. Once they are cold, remove the logs from the water and wipe dry.
To fry, heat the oil to 325F in a deep fryer or deep heavy pot. Meanwhile, unwrap the chicken and cut into pieces about 1 ½ inches in size. Cut the thighs lengthwise in half, then cut each half crosswise into 4 pieces. Cut the breasts lengthwise in half, then cut each half crosswise into 6 to 7 pieces.
Remove the chicken puree from the refrigerator, and whisk it. It should have the consistency of mayonnaise; if it is too thick, add enough milk to make it spreadable.
Dry the chicken pieces. Using your hands or a brush, coat each chicken nugget generously with the chicken puree, then place in the bread crumbs and roll in the crumbs to coat, pressing the crumbs so they adhere. Fry the nuggets, a few at a time, for 2 minutes, or until light brown and crispy. Remove from oil with a spider or slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Tiffany MacIsaac’s Hostess-Like Cupcake Recipe
White Chocolate Mousse:
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
7 ounces white chocolate, melted
1/2 cup heavy cream
Devils Food Cake:
3 cups granulated sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1v2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups cocoa powder
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 cups strong brewed coffee, warm
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup heavy cream
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons butter
3 tablespoons white chocolate, melted
White Chocolate Mousse:
Place yolks, eggs and sugar in a bowl over a double boiler and whisk until warm to the touch, about 2 minutes. Remove from double boiler and whisk until thick, about 2 minutes. Drizzle melted chocolate into egg mixture, whisking vigorously until incorporated. In a separate bowl whisk cream to stiff peaks. Fold into egg-chocolate mixture and place in a piping bag fitted with a large tip. Refrigerate until needed.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sift sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cocoa into a bowl. In another bowl whisk together eggs, yolks, buttermilk, coffee and vanilla. Slowly add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, whisking. Add butter and stir until just combined.
Spray a 12-cup nonstick cupcake pan with cooking spray. Fill each cup halfway with batter. Bake until cooked through, 18-20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature before filling and glazing.
In a small pot, bring cream to a simmer. Place bittersweet chocolate, butter and salt in a bowl. Pour simmering cream into the bowl and let sit 1 minute. Whisk until smooth.
Working with one at a time, remove cupcakes from pan. Insert the piping tip into the top center of each cupcake and pipe in white chocolate until full. Wipe any excess off top of cupcake.
Dip tops of cupcakes in glaze. Shake upside down to remove excess. Allow glaze to set 10 minutes. Place warm white chocolate in a piping bag with a narrow tip and pipe a line of loops across top of each cupcake.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's "Food Wednesday." It's a trend that's been going on for a while, and it seems to be only gaining momentum. Some of the most highly trained chefs in our area are turning their attention to some very humble dishes. Meatloaf, mac 'n cheese, cupcakes and something interesting happens in their talented hands. Those familiar foods are transformed into upscale versions of the dishes you remember.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWashington is filled with restaurants built in our nostalgia for foods from our childhood. And falling off the dining scene -- high end, white tablecloth dining. Joining us to discuss this is Todd Kliman. He is food and wine editor and restaurant critic with Washingtonian Magazine. He's a James Beard Award winner for his food writing. Todd, good to see you again.
MR. TODD KLIMANGood to see you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Tiffany Macisaac. She is the executive pastry chef at The Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which runs more than a dozen restaurants in our region, including Birch and Barley, Eat Bar, and Blue Jacket. Tiffany, last time we crossed paths, we were talking about beer, were we not?
MS. TIFFANY MACISAACI do beer, I do sugar, I do all the good stuff.
NNAMDIGood to see you again. Also in studio with us is Eric Brannon. He is general manager of Ted's Bulletin on 14th Street Northwest. He was formally Executive Chef for the restaurant. Eric, thank you for joining us.
MR. ERIC BRANNONThank you, Kojo. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from NPR's Bryant Park Studio is Michel Richard. He is a James Beard Award winning chef, and owner of Central Michel Richard in Washington, and chef and partner in Villard Michel Richard at The New York Palace. He's the author of several cookbooks, including "Sweet Magic: Easy Recipes For Delectable Desserts." Michel Richard, thank you for joining us.
MR. MICHEL RICHARDThank you very much. Bonjour, everybody.
RICHARDToo bad you're not here. The great thing about New York. I feel like I'm in (word?).
NNAMDIFor the time being.
RICHARDSo I'm lying. I'm lying. It's cold. It's very cold.
NNAMDIYes, and about to get snowing later here in Washington, D.C. If you'd like to join this conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the trend toward upscale casual restaurants? You can also send email to email@example.com. Todd, how would you describe what is going on in the restaurant scene in Washington today? This focus on upscale casual foods, a trend you've been noticing for some time.
KLIMANYeah. Restaurants are trying to find ways to send you out smiling and create memories when you're in. And this is economic, in part. And it's also cultural. I mean, American culture is popular culture, and American popular culture is junk culture. And, you know, we all love the candy and the treats and the Hostess cupcakes that Tiffany makes. You talk to Frenchman, you talk to Michel Richard. The dishes that speak to him, on some level, are gonna be ratatouille and escargot.
KLIMANYou go to any other culture that's a food culture, a really rich food culture. There are going to be dishes that go back generations upon generations upon generations. Here, the way we go back and we touch on peoples' memories, the common language we all have is junk food. We have burgers, we have fries, we have McNuggets, we have Pop Tarts, and that's our common culinary language, like it or not. And it's a fun thing to see. It's a funny thing, also, to see a chef who's got loads of training, served several apprenticeships, you know, making French fries and shaving truffles over them.
NNAMDIMichel, you're a veteran of the restaurant world. You first opened one of your high end Citronelle restaurants in Georgetown back in 1994, but you're current D.C. restaurant, Central, which won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2008, that's in line with the more casual fare we're talking about today. Tell us a little bit about the idea behind Central.
RICHARDYou're right. I've been in this country for 40 years. And I always work. I always worked very hard on trying deliver some fancy French food but for seven, eight years ago. But I've been dreaming for 10 years about creating a simple restaurant, like the democratization of food. Not too expensive. Accessible. I want the people -- I don't want anybody to (unintelligible) to come to my restaurant. They come to the restaurant. It's not expensive. I've great food like hamburgers and all of that. And it's -- we are doing well. We are OK.
NNAMDIOn that menu, there are a number...
RICHARDI'm very happy I did it.
NNAMDIYou've got comfort foods that we're talking about there. You've got meatloaf, you've got mac 'n cheese. How's that working out for you?
RICHARDVery, very nice. We sell a ton of it. If you come to Central for lunch, you're gonna see a ton of burgers. People are eating burgers. We have lobster burger, we have beef burger, we have lamb burgers, chicken burgers with lemon. We are doing pretty well, and the French fries -- we can't stop to make -- they're ordering the French fries like crazy. So good.
KLIMANWell, and it's interesting. Look at that lobster burger at Central's. It's terrific. I think it's 28, 30 dollars right now. So, it's not cheap. It's not reasonably priced, but it's not prohibited. It's not like sitting down to a four star meal with all the trappings and the (unintelligible). It's somewhat accessible. Take that burger, and it's made with lobster, obviously. But, it's got a scallop mousse. He's making a tweel (sp?) and the bon brioche. So you have all these techniques of typical high end, very refined French dining, and they're all going into this thing.
KLIMANThis package, because Americans understand a burger, and a burger is not threatening. Dining is, in a lot of ways, threatening to Americans. And things have changed with the sign of the baby boomers, but dining is still a thing -- it's intimidating for people. What wine do I order? Which fork do I use? How do I act in a restaurant? But you have a burger, and a burger is this thing. We all know a burger. We've been eating burgers since the moment we came out of the womb.
KLIMANWe all know a burger, and you take all those elements of French food, and you put them into the package of a burger, and people get it.
NNAMDIEric, for those who have never been, tell us a little bit about Ted's Bulletin.
BRANNONTed's Bulletin? We're part of the Matchbox Restaurant Group, which, we've recently had a lot of success in the past five years, really. Starting to expand the Matchbox brand. But four years ago, the owners put together a concept, almost as a dedication to their father. So, their father was -- is Ted, and they started really right there. And with the menu development, the chefs have gotten involved, it kind of started snowballing. You know, what did Ted like to eat? You know, the pre-prohibition 1940s West Virginia diner food. We started there.
BRANNONSimple stuff. The mac 'n cheese, the meatloaf, much like Michel's doing. Grilled cheese, tomato soup. These classic American dishes that the two owners, that are brothers, that their dad made them every day. The dad made it for the postman that would come in. He was the neighborhood chef, as they called him. So, it started there. We added that addition of the bakery, the Pop Tarts. Burgers were a big hit, obviously. We have a smoker, so we do good American barbecue, and as we kept adding more and more stuff, we realized, wow, you know, this is something that people can really familiarize themselves with.
BRANNONAnd that's kind of the big thing that we found that works for Ted's Bulletin. We recently opened our Reston location, so now we're up to three D.C. locations. And people come in knowing what they're gonna get.
NNAMDIYeah, because you've said the idea is to revamp classics we already know.
BRANNONYeah. Exactly. And like you mentioned before, the memory. For people to come in and actually eat a dish, and my best compliment I ever get when I get to a table, is when someone says, this is how my mom used to make it. And in an urban environment in D.C., they can have a chance to be teleported back to their childhood, and whether it be Midwest or southern United States. They have a moment in time to kind of transport and get that comfortable feeling. And that's, I mean, it's a warm feeling for all of us.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's "Food Wednesday," and we're talking about upscaling comfort food. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Why do you think we're so nostalgic for childhood foods like mac 'n cheese and Pop Tarts nowadays? 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet at kojoshow. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tiffany Maclsaac, you are a pastry chef. Tell us what you aim for when you create your desserts.
MACISAACWell, I mean, you always want to have that wow factor for people, something where they're familiar with it, but there's still a talking point. So, you know, it's kind of building on what Todd was saying. You know, if I put a dessert on the menu and it says it's a chocolate cremeux with, you know, coconut frangipane and candied almonds, people might not get it. But if I call it an Almond Joy, they're gonna jump right in.
MACISAACYou know, so finding that way to make something that is foreign to them a little bit more familiar is, you know, always great. I mean, I call the cookie and confections at Birch and Barley my worst best idea.
NNAMDIYeah, what's that all about?
MACISAACI can never take it off the menu now. It's a whole bunch of little, you know, versions of your childhood favorites, so it's a little Hostess cupcake and a cashew Snickers bar. Oatmeal Cream Pie, a Pudding Pop, you know?
RICHARDOh my gosh, I want one. I love that kind of food.
NNAMDIMichel Richard, why do you think we're so nostalgic for tastes from our childhood?
RICHARDI don't know, because maybe it was cheap and good and delicious. I don't know. I don't know, but for me, when I was a kid, my mother never give me delicious cake like you just talk about.
NNAMDIYou got a lot of escargot, though.
RICHARDNo, no escargot, no. Escargot was one time in my life, maybe. That's all. No, we don't. No. Escargot is too fancy. It's too fancy.
NNAMDIIt is too fancy with the Americans are still turned off by it. There was a story this morning on Morning Edition about Americans in China demanding American Chinese food. Todd Kliman, that's something you need to follow up on.
KLIMANI'll go there.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, many of the foods we remember most fondly from childhood were mass produced, pre-packaged stuff. Spaghetti and meatballs in a can, cupcakes in cellophane. We don't have to name names, but as Todd said earlier, much of this was junk food, was it not, Tiffany?
MACISAACIt was. I mean, I, you know, when growing up, we didn't get a lot of that stuff in my house, so, you know, for me, a big treat was my parents would let me go to McDonald's. That was a reward, you know, when I was a child. So, I think, as an adult, your palette changes a lot, but you still have these fond memories. Like whenever I recreate something, people say, oh, did you go and get a Ho Ho so you could remember what it tasted like? I said, no, I don't want to eat that. They're terrible. I remember what it tasted like.
MACISAACWhen I was a child, it was delicious. So, I'm just gonna, you know, let that fondness sit in my mind and have the better grown up version now.
NNAMDIBut Eric, how do you update these childhood favorites?
BRANNONWell, you know, it's actually, and coming from my previous years as the executive chef of Ted's Bulletin, at first I looked at the menu saying, you know, this is pretty easy stuff, right? How hard can it be to make a meatloaf? How hard can it be, but once you get into it, and you realize the freshest of ingredients. The process that it takes to end up with a product that you could put on a plate and charge 16 for, and expect people to come through the door, that's the challenge. That's what makes it difficult.
BRANNONAnd it starts with product, right at the beginning, being the freshest possible. And going through the proper motions, Going through the proper cooking procedures. The brazing, the long time smoking, the curing. Doing things so that, at the end, even though, yes, it may be a pastrami Reuben, but that pastrami is done right. And it's done right from beginning to end, so people not only can be familiar, like a Ho-Ho, or a classic dessert they had, but they're getting it in a fresh way. And maybe it's not as junky for you, because it's done right and it's done with fresh ingredients.
NNAMDITiffany, you feel people get especially excited about takes on familiar mass-produced foods. How come?
MACISAACI mean, they love it. Whenever -- you know, a lot of times when I'm working on something new I'll post a picture of something I'm testing on Instagram. And the things that get the most hits are all the junk food. I mean, people, they just have a fond memory of it. I think it was a treat for all of us to get to eat it. So you want to have it again. But when you get older, your taste buds develop. You know, you're not going to eat that and think that's still delicious. You want the grownup more refined version of it. So...
NNAMDIInteresting take, Todd Kliman...
RICHARDCan you tell me what a...
NNAMDIGo ahead, Michel.
RICHARDWhat is a hey ho-ho. What is that?
RICHARDYou're talking about something I never heard in my life, hey ho-ho. I don't know.
MACISAACIt's like, well, you know, the original version is a pretty flavorless chocolate cake with a shortening-based cream whipped into the middle of it. And then it's covered in cheap chocolate.
MACISAACActually, you know, I don't even know if there is any chocolate in it. I'd have to look at a label to see.
MACISAACA chocolate-flavored product. So, you know, we do a more refined take on it. And the people, they love it.
NNAMDIBut you're right, Todd Kliman, we remember these things from our youths and we remember them fondly. But as Tiffany points out, if you were to try to eat the identical thing later in life, it would taste -- this is all sugar. There's nothing else here. So you do have to refine it a little bit, don't you?
KLIMANYeah, I mean, I don't eat fast food. I don't actually get a chance so it's not that I'm trying to stay away. But making the rounds and eating out 10, 12 times a week, I don't often get a chance. But when I do I'm always astonished at how light the food is. There's nothing there. There's no there there. And it's air and it's sugar and it's salt. And so...
RICHARDAnd you love it.
KLIMANOh, you love it. You love it.
RICHARDNo, I never tasted it in my life.
RICHARDYou -- no, you told me about your obsession with KFC when you first got to America. And you have on your menu right now a bucket -- or you did, a bucket of fried chicken, an imitation of KFC.
NNAMDIBusted Michel. What...
RICHARDIt was different. Let me tell you the story.
RICHARDThree years ago -- I came to this country in 1974. I was completely broke, no money. A friend of mine took me a few miles away from New York to KFC and it was fried chicken. I grab and I bite into it and I loved it because inside was moist. It was crispy and delicious. And I base all my food on KFC. I took the recipe from KFC. Sorry.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Tiffany?
MACISAACI'd like to say that fast food is chemically formulated to be delicious. They work so hard to make it taste exactly the way you want it to taste but, you know, I mean, I probably eat McDonald's once a year when I've been out drinking. And then the next day I completely regret it and I don't have it for a year again. And then by the time I forget I think, oh you know, I'd really like a Big Mac. Then you go back to it. But I'd much rather have a great burger.
NNAMDIEric, a lot of highly-trained chefs like you are coming out of culinary school and turning their talents to simpler foods. What, for you, is the difference for you when you were cooking at fancier places often referred to as fine dining establishments?
BRANNONYou know, it comes down to kind of what I mentioned before, product. So in working in French restaurants and Italian restaurants in the past, you start with this phenomenal product, whether it be the best liver foie gras to the most high-end imported berries from the west coast. Whatever it may be that you're bringing in, you're starting with something phenomenal. You don't really need to do too much to it, nor do you want to do too much to it. You need to take and let the food feature itself.
BRANNONNow with simpler kind of -- especially old American cuisine, you kind of had to do a lot to it. You had to take something, maybe it was because...
NNAMDIYou couldn't make that creamed corn that easily, could you?
BRANNONExactly, no. So, you know, let's talk about creamed corn. It's one thing I always get really passionate about with my staff. Just saying, okay so it is creamed corn. There's nothing more to it. It's butter, some shallots, some cream but we are taking fresh corn and we're cutting them up off the husk. And we're doing this by the cases. You know, my prep ladies are back there cutting up, you know, hundreds of corn to get this one batch. But when you taste it you get the fresh pop of sweetness, the kind of still crunchy bit of the kernel. And you're not going to be able to get that without going through the proper process.
BRANNONSo I found as a chef, holy moly, you know, I got to step back. This isn't as easy as I thought it was going to be. And at the end of the day the guests can taste it and the guests can familiarize themselves with, it is the -- it's the same thing I got but this is not out of a can. And this is done right.
NNAMDIMichel Richard, that may surprise a lot of people that simple dishes are not always that simple to make. Talk a little bit about the challenges of working with these, I guess people would consider, humble recipes.
RICHARDI like it like the story about the corn.
RICHARDYou know, in France we don't eat corn. The corn we give to the pig or to the animal. But when I moved to this country they give me corn and it was absolutely delicious. And I made the corn soup here in my restaurant. And, you know, we don't blend it. We just cook it and we put it up on the plate. And I love the crunch, the texture of the kernel and a little bit of salt and the butter and the cream. Make everything delicious. It's -- I love it. I love it. It's simple and delicious.
NNAMDIWell, Todd, Tiffany, Eric, part of this movement toward more casual dining has to do with the financial climate today. Can you talk about how...
RICHARDYeah, you're right, money.
NNAMDIYeah, how prices fit into a restaurant's thinking about a menu.
BRANNONOh, if you look at...
RICHARDFirst to keep the food costs low -- food costs low and the labor costs low is tough, it's tough. But you have to be smart and to come up with something cheaper. The democratization of food, you have to be -- you have to give some not expensive food.
KLIMANWell, and that's the thing. If you put anything into a burger format you're probably going to be able to stay under high 20's for the most part. So you get a lot of places with a burger. And a burger at $15 now is no bargain. But that's become pretty standard around the D.C. area. I made a joke about it in a recent review, the $15 burger and that's just a matter of course for dining in D.C. right now.
NNAMDIWhere do prices fit into your thinking about your menu, Tiffany?
MACISAACWell, I mean, you always want to make sure, you know, if there's a group of eight people that want to come to Birch and Barley, maybe six of them really want to come to Birch and Barley and two of them are, oh I don't know, it's kind of pricey. So it's always nice to have a couple of options that are a little bit less expensive that are a little more familiar so that you get, you know, a broad range of people coming to your restaurant and having a way to enjoy it. I think that's super important. We want everyone that comes in to feel comfortable and like they're getting a value and turn it into the dining experience that they want to have.
NNAMDIEric, where does pricing fit into your business plan?
BRANNONYou know, with us at Ted's Bulletin and Matchbox, it's -- we look at it as value too, value on a plate. There could be value on a $30 plate, a $40 plate. There could be value on a $5 plate. With our menu, with what we're trying to bring in, we're very big on neighborhoods and families. There has to be something for everybody and there has to be a price point for everybody. So we do -- we take a lot of time, a lot of effort to look at our menu construction with value in mind.
BRANNONSo if it is a $14 burger, $13 burger, it's going to be a sizeable plate. There's going to be leftovers walking out the door even a lot of times. And they know that they're getting what they're paying for. And I think that that almost is more important to people these days than the actual dollar amount itself, whether it be, you know, the recession that came through years ago that is still affecting people. People want to know exactly what they're paying for and exactly what they're going to get at the end of the day.
BRANNONSo, yeah, I think we do a pretty good job. People usually have a hard time clearing our plates at Ted's Bulletin so...
NNAMDIMichel, I know this is something you'd had in mind when you opened Central, prices, correct? The democratization.
RICHARDYeah, democratization, and I was trying to come up with food for everybody. You know, I didn't want anybody to be an expert on good food to enjoy Michel Richard. My job was to deliver some very simple food like burgers or good sandwiches, good soup and sell it to (word?) . And we did very well. The burgers are doing well. The soup are doing well. The steak and the French -- I mean, it's pretty good. And the price, you know, is not too bad. Not cheap, cheap but not too bad. It's good.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. As you know, this is the fifth day of our winter membership campaign but we will be returning to this conversation about upscaling comfort food. A conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850. How does price fit into your restaurant choices, 800-433-8850? What do you think about this trend toward upscale casual restaurants? You can send us a Tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIBack to our Food Wednesday conversation on upscaling comfort food. We're talking with Eric Brannon. He is general manager of Ted's Bulletin on 14th Street Northwest, formerly executive chef for the restaurant. Tiffany MacIsaac is the executive pastry chef at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. It runs more than a dozen restaurants in our region including Birch and Barley, Eat Bar and Blue Jacket. Todd Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic with Washingtonian Magazine. He's also a James Beard Award winner for his food writing.
NNAMDIAnd Michel Richard is a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Central Michel Richard in Washington, and chef and partner at Villard Michel Richard at the New York Palace. he's author of several cookbooks including "Sweet Magic: Easy Recipes for Delectable Desserts." Michel, we got a question by way of email from Pria who says, "Is Citranel (sp?) coming back? If so, when. If not, why not and are you opening another restaurant in D.C.?"
RICHARDYeah, that's nice if somebody asks a question if Citranel's coming back. It's not coming back because we sold the hotel. We had problem with the hotel. It was a foundational. The hotel's been sold and Citranel is not coming -- maybe if I find a location. I was in D.C. last week and I was looking for location. I need a new location and I promise you that the minute I find the location, I will reopen Citranel.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Joseph who says two words, "Heart disease. Of course cream and butter taste good but do you focus on healthier preparations of these classic dishes given today's focus on better diets, Eric Brannon?
BRANNONYeah, you know, of course cream and butter to -- anything in excess is not going to be good for you. Our menu is designed with a lot of options. We have house pickled beets and salads and broccoli and grilled asparagus, veggie burgers that are handmade and vegan options. So, you know, as people design their meals they have every option and some fund tasty things there to choose from to kind of help their diets out.
BRANNONYeah, you could cheat a little bit with cream and butter but you got to understand that you need a little bit of greens in your life. So we offer a little bit of everything there.
KLIMANWell, and the fact of the matter is that traditional fine dining, whatever that means anymore, is larded with butter and butter and more butter.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Phyllis who says, "We want cheaper casual food because we all eat out now so much more often. Going to a restaurant used to be a once-a-week or special occasion event. When you eat out multiple times a week people want a scaled-back experience, not just in terms of money but in terms of cuisine too." What say you, Todd?
KLIMANWell, I think that explains why you're seeing so many more casual restaurants and so many restaurants that are pretending to be causal but charging $32 an entrée or $28 an entrée and stripping the tablecloths off and playing the music really loud. But they're really not casual restaurants. But I don't think it explains this kind of nostalgia and this kind of -- this sort of saturation of junk food culture in our food culture.
KLIMANYou take a look at the best restaurant to have opened this year, Rose's Luxury on Barracks Row. It's a terrific place. There's very little I can complain about it. At the same time it is really interesting, and I think it tells us a lot about the times we live in, that many of the best dishes are riffs on junk food, McNuggets. They have their own McNugget and they're using, I'm guessing, a meat glue to bind dark meat to white meat and -- or just parts of dark meat together to make a more juicy rich-tasting nugget.
KLIMANThey're doing cinnamon French toast topping it with a lobe of foie gras. That's dessert. Speak about.
RICHARDOo, ah, ah.
KLIMANSpeak about larding a dish. And foie gras seems to be the thing that people reach for, the thing chefs reach for to kind of guild that Lillian and send it up and give it that gloss of fine dining. You put foie gras on anything, they're -- there's a restaurant right now on H Street, Boundary Road doing a foie gras P B and J.
NNAMDIWell, Leslie in Bethesda, Md. thinks she knows why we are nostalgic for foods from childhood. She says, "Because as children we enjoyed that food in the company of others. Always rarely are children stuck in a cubby at their desk or in the library. They sit at tables on picnic baskets with their friends and teachers or families. And my generation knew that eating Ho-Hos and Oreos were a real treat. And they are not flavorless, my dear. Ho-Hos and Devil-O's are heavenly and special, Tiffany."
MACISAACWell, everybody has a different palate so, you know, I think that, like I said, I ate those things growing up, absolutely loved them. Do I like, you know, the more grown up version now? I do. But, you know, I agree with -- like for GBD for example, our fried chicken and donut shop, we built that place -- I mean, we wanted it to feel like a place that my husband the chef and I would hang out in. We wanted it to be a cool place where, you know, I like to liken it to every person that comes in there has the same spirit as somebody on their way to brunch.
MACISAACThey're going in there and they're about to make a huge splurge. They're going to use up all their calories and get their fried chicken, get their fancy donut. And, you know, people just come back over and over again because they love that feeling. They want to recreate it.
NNAMDIWell, you know, Eric, at Ted's you were the executive chef and you're now the general manager. That means you've overseen both the back of the house and the front. Does that mean you get to see how customers are responding to the food and the atmosphere? What's that like?
BRANNONOf course. Yeah, that was one of the most exciting parts of my lateral move to the front of the house. I was a chef for almost ten years. And as a chef you put your heart and soul into a dish and sometimes you don't get to see the smiling faces that are enjoying it. So it's fantastic to be out there and hearing those comments like, this is how my mom used to make it. Oh my god, this takes me back to my grandma's house and being able to spawn those memories.
BRANNONI get to kind of get the -- and I'll go back and tell the chef now because I know what they're missing. I know they're missing that kind of great customer feedback from the front all the way to the back. So, you know, if we -- we focus really big on the three things that make us successful, and that's food, service and ambiance. And being able to know the food and now being more important in the service and ambiance of the restaurant, people, they come in -- they're smiling when they get three steps through the front door. And that's important.
NNAMDIBefore we get to ambiance, back to your chef hat, do you feel like you're using all of your skills and training in the casual dining world?
BRANNONYeah, you know, like I brought up before, it's -- these processes are almost more difficult. The...
NNAMDIBack to the creamed corn.
BRANNONYeah, back to the creamed corn. Well, you know, making a pate or a balentine (sp?) or, you know, these processes are almost the same in a lot of ways. The way that we prep our meatloaf is almost similar to a pate. The time and effort we put into it in molding the ingredients together is very similar. The ability to make the -- our green beans, this is a slow cooking, braising process that takes five, six hours, much like some reductions in consommés and things that you learn in French cooking.
BRANNONSo it is very, very relative. The processes can be very, very similar. You know, even making tater tots properly is really difficult. And the product at the end of the day shows through culinarily-driven chefs.
NNAMDIAnd now to atmosphere. Todd, even if a restaurant is pricey, it seems the trend these days is for even more upscale restaurants to look casual. What has happened to the white tablecloth dining experience?
KLIMANGone, gone, burned.
KLIMANToo expensive and I think it's beyond just the expense. I think with -- as I alluded to before, when you see, you know, the big inroads that the boomer generation has made in changing dinging culture in America, the tablecloth is just this starchy symbol of all that I think Americans fear about going out to a restaurant. It's about minding your manners. It's about being buttoned down. It's about being polite. This is not a polite culture. This is not a stratified culture.
KLIMANAnd I think getting rid of these things -- and this is not just in this city and it's not just over the last few years. This has been a process going on across the country over the last ten, 15, 20 years. And it's this greater kind of egalitarianism and really American restaurants coming to their own. Dining in America is still a very -- you know, in this modern era it's still a very young thing. We're just getting -- you know, it's been 50 years since we had World War II -- the World War II era and everything that came after that with the mechanization of everything and the mass production of everything.
KLIMANAnd Americans are kind of finding their way back to food. And they want their kind of restaurant as opposed to the European model of a restaurant.
NNAMDIMichel Richard, do you think once we see those white tablecloth restaurants, we say, nuh-uh, can't afford this. It's going to be too expensive?
RICHARDYeah, exactly. I agree with you. I think when you leave the tablecloths on the table, the guests try to tell me, oh, white tablecloths, too expensive. I'm going someplace else. And they go to where? Central. It's cheaper and with (word?) tablecloth. They go to a cheaper restaurant.
NNAMDIBut Todd, there are also a whole lot of specialty burger joints, sandwich shops around town. How do they fit into these trends we've been talking about?
KLIMANWell, it's interesting. We've had these conversations for years now at the magazine when putting together the bargain dining issue, the cheap eats issue. And you have a burger joint -- not the burger joint but you have burger joints. And two people can eat at a burger place for under $50, which is, you know, our cutoff point, 50, $55 for two in this area. I mean, it's a very expensive area. But for two people to dine for somewhere under $55 is considered a value meal in this area.
KLIMANWell, you go to a burger place and two people are getting a burger. And, of course, fries don't come with the burger. Fries are separate and maybe you get a milk shake. And of course that's separate. Maybe the milk shake is spiked with booze and that costs a little bit extra too. You can eat for $50 but you're going to be getting a burger, a fry and shake -- you know, fries and a shake. And it's not a great value. Whereas if you go to say a Peruvian restaurant, you get a whole fish with the head on, you get oiled rice, you get black beans, you get a drink with it and you're having this very full and very varied meal.
NNAMDIWell, one thing that seems to be working for all of you, if there is one thing, Tiffany, Eric, Michel is that there has to be a theme.
BRANNONYeah, yeah. I mean, at Ted's that's a big thing. And the restaurant's modeled after the 1940s flapper era. All of the actual light fixtures in there is from the old Philly convention center that was built and held ballrooms in the roaring '20s and '30s. So we're using actual vintage stuff to give that décor and ambiance of the food and the presence we're trying to bring of 1930s, '40s. The bar has an apothecary cocktail look. And you feel like you're getting in a time warp when you walk in the door.
NNAMDIGot to be a theme at Central, huh, Michel/
RICHARDYeah, yeah, but I was thinking about the theme. I remember when I moved to this country in 1974, there was a lot of French restaurants in New York, and a lot of French restaurants in L.A. And now they're disappearing. We don't see them. Maybe in New York we have some but in L.A., in Los Angeles and Washington, we don't have too many French restaurants. The theme -- I believe they are looking for a theme or a good price on a restaurant. But maybe the good prices (unintelligible) are going to help you to succeed, with price, good food.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Michel Richard is a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Central Michel Richard in Washington and chef and partner at Villard Michel Richard at the New York Palace. He's the author of several cookbooks including "Sweet Magic: Easy Recipes for Delectable Desserts." Todd Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic with Washingtonian Magazine. He also is a James Beard Award winner for his food writing.
NNAMDITiffany MacIsaac is the executive pastry chef at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. It runs more than a dozen restaurants in our region including Birch and Barley, Eat Bar and Blue Jacket. And Eric Brannon is general manager of Ted's Bulletin on 14th Street Northwest. He was formerly executive chef for the restaurant. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Cats and dogs have become such a part of the family fabric that in many households, they're akin to children. "Science" journalist David Grimm joins Kojo to talk about how our connections to pets are changing laws, industries, and lives.
In both its spoken and written forms, the English language is constantly evolving. Grammar - the system and structure that underpin communications - and linguistics - the science of its study - can help us make sense of these shifts and changes. We talk with experts in each field about the quirks, foibles, understanding and glory of the written and spoken word.
Journalist and author Sarah Wildman searches archives, history books and European capitals for her grandfather's "true love" -- a young doctor he left behind when he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.