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D.C. Dining
Seeking the 'ultimate' $100 brunch
(Published March 6, 2006)


DISPATCHES FROM THE FRONT LINES: The war against unhealthy food just got more complicated again. According to the National Institutes of Health, "reducing fat intake may have small effect on risk of breast cancer, no effect on risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease, or stroke... The results from the largest ever clinical trial of low-fat diet are reported in three papers in the February 8 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association." What does this mean to folks who have tried to lengthen their lives by depriving themselves of the pleasures of a big thick juicy cheeseburger or slab of roast beef? Was the joy of tofu enough to make up for the sacrifice? The truth is that I am not sure, and how do we keep track of all the changes in what the white coats think is good or bad for us?

I have loved food in all its guises for my entire life, both on a personal and professional level. I have often eaten unwisely but well, and it is certainly counter-intuitive that greasy eats can't hurt us. I have always read (if not adjusted my diet to follow) the latest reports on nutrition and healthy eating, and as the survivor of a major heart attack, I have been much more careful if not perfectly in line with current theory. Over the decades what we were taught about food and health has certainly changed and changed again. Kids of my boomer generation were pretty well imbued with the concept that whole milk was the perfect food, and we were supposed to drink about as much of it as we could stand -- now it is being eliminated from school lunches in about a dozen states. As a youth, eggs were the next perfect food; as a younger adult, they would kill you; then one a day was okay. Coffee caused cancer! Coffee helped cure heart disease! A few centuries ago, tomatoes were considered poison; now we believe that when cooked, they release a strong anti-cancer chemical reaction.

Some of the doctors that I have asked about these changes may be as confused as the rest of us, but counsel moderation. Similarly, recent reports suggest that we aren't getting the benefits we expected from taking vitamin pills and different kinds of supplements. The healthiest diet is still probably a well-balanced one with lots of raw fruits and veggies and a few less bags of fast-food fried potatoes and greaseburgers, as much as we love them. If you are like most of us and eat for both pleasure and refueling purposes, you probably aren't getting all the nutrients you need, so maybe add a glass of V-8 juice a day or something that seems sensible to you. I have often said that if life was fair, broccoli would be the cause of our ills, and Ben and Jerry would have the cure.


Last issue I threatened you with a report on the area's ultimate $100 Sunday brunch. I am still on my quest to find it, so, in the meantime, try this alternative on for size: 15 RIA in the Doubletree Washington Hotel. This one is seated menu service with the exception of the option of the unlimited Bloody Mary bar for which they make you walk a little and charge an extra $11. The selections are a mix of breakfast and lunch items, and there is plenty for everybody's tastes. Executive Chef Troy Walker celebrates the local farmers' markets and uses as much organic and regional produce as he can find available. Keeping with tradition, you will find freshly squeezed juices and fresh-baked pastries. Appetizers included some good soups and salads, but I managed to avoid something called a granola parfait. The smoked salmon platter with bagel and appropriate accoutrements at $9.75 was excellent. The entrees ranged from several typical egg and pancake dishes between 8 and 10 bucks, with the Benedict a nice choice at $8.50, to more dinner-oriented fare like crab cakes, scallops, roast salmon and a pretty good N.Y. strip steak, which was a bargain at $15. Good sides like breakfast meats and cheese grits are $3 each, and macaroni and cheese and several veggie dishes, each big enough to serve as an entree or share with several eaters, are $6. The room is very comfortable for a winter day, with a cheery fire burning and friendly servers who offer good coffee and unobtrusively know how to help you face the day.


This week's trade show was Coffee Fest at the convention center. There were about a hundred exhibitors pushing their coffee brands and the same number with cookies and equipment and related necessities, and maybe 3,000 or so attendees considering the merits of selling us their cuppa joe. This is an industry that I just don't understand. I traded coffee on the international futures markets in London and New York for many years and, before the great rise in oil prices, it was the world's number one international commodity. I have sampled the best beans that the industry offers, and for the life of me I don't see what some of these chains are selling that's worth $5 a cup. If you are in a fine restaurant, a part of the price of the coffee goes to offset the cost of the surroundings and the service, but to stand in line for that? I studied economics in grad school and understand that the days of the 10-cent cup with free refills at the local diner are over, but you can buy the world's best coffees -- Jamaican Blue Mountain, at around $35-40 a pound or Hawaiian Kona for around $30 -- and make your own at less than $1 a cup. What are these places selling? It certainly isn't ambiance.

Anyway, what can you say about the brands on the market today? You have Arabicas for brewing and Robustas for instant and different beans from different countries with different roasting styles and blends and flavorings. The permutations are enormous and the industry just keeps getting bigger. Pretty soon it will be like computers building computers -- you will need your java to stay awake to sell more java! What did I learn at this year's conference? Nothing new. Sorry, but I can't help you on this one; I just suggest you get a good machine and brew your own after sampling enough different beans to figure out what you like and save a few thousand dollars a year.


Our charity food event this week was The St. Jude Hospital Gourmet Gala at the Mellon Auditorium. It was another case of "round up the usual suspects." Two dozen of the area's best chefs fed the crowd a course or two of their house specialties and, combined with the auctions, the evening raised just under a quarter million dollars for a great cause. A few lucky bidders in the $8,000 to $12,000 range got the services of groups of famous chefs who would come to their homes to cook for a dinner party -- the only restrictions were that the chefs didn't wash dishes and they required plenty of wines to lubricate their artistic impulses. Bravo!The food was delicious, of course, and, as usual, my only regret is that I no longer have the capacity of my youth and cannot return for a second plate of shrimp and grits or crawfish etoufee. As a matter of fact, it is starting to get more difficult to eat just one serving of everything. Oh, the horror!I asked a few of the chefs about their commitments to these types of events; they can be asked to take part in fund-raising challenges three times a week. Jeff Tunks of D C Coast, TenPenh, Ceiba and Acadiana was quite succinct. First he considers the cause -- most are worthwhile, but some might strike closer to home in trying to solve a particular problem that affects people that they know. Second, they consider who is asking for their help -- both the quality of the organization and how they are a part of the restaurant's customer base. Third, there seems to be a process of familiarity in that a few of a circle of chefs who are friends with each other (and most of them are) tend to participate in the same events annually after they have begun to establish a pattern.


Lazy, lazy, lazy people. I asked you to e-mail me with a few answers or suggestions and win a great dinner for two at Smith Point Restaurant, courtesy of Executive Chef Nate Bearfield. Not one prize-winning-worthy e-mail! Same offer: E-mail your comments, questions or concerns about our local food and restaurant scene to me at, and the author of the most interesting correspondence (in my opinion) gets the free dinner for two.


Write to Marty Pearl at 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