A restaurateur once told me that only a native can determine whether an ethnic cuisine is “authentic.” Over the months, I’ve thought a lot about that comment and what it means for food critics: that we’re often little more than arbitrary arbiters on the taste of a foreign cuisine, routinely oblivious to nuances and regional distinctions that a native tongue might detect in a meal. Imagine, for example, a German judging the quality of “American” barbecue by visiting a ’cue house in, say, Düsseldorf.
That’s how silly a critic’s job can seem. Which is why for my first trip to Annandale I wanted to bring along, if not a native, then at least someone who’s eaten extensively in Korea. Former City Paper staff writer Joe Eaton, who taught English for more than six years in Pusan, agreed to join me for lunch at Oegadgib, a spare dining room tucked behind some buildings off Little River Turnpike. It’s owned by Bum shin Lee, who tells us that “Oegadgib” (pronounced “way-gat-jeep”) is Korean for “grandmother’s house,” which turns out to be an abridged translation. Technically, Eaton later learns, the word means maternal grandmother’s house.
Translation aside, dining at Oegadgib feels like being thrown into the deep end. The lunch menu is heavy on soups, including one (chung gook-jang) made with fermented soybean paste. “Even many Korean people think this is gross,” Eaton tells me. Sure enough, Lee makes a face and plugs his nose in disgust when Eaton asks the owner if he likes the dish. How can I not try chung gook-jang now? Eaton takes the bullet for me and orders it. I go with the seafood soup.
The spotlight ingredients in my soup—mussels, octopus, baby shrimp, bay scallops—are rather chewy and tasteless, which you kind of expect for a dish that costs less than $9. But the broth, a steaming liquid scented with what seems like a thousand garlic cloves, tastes better than anything swimming in it. I prefer my broth far more than the semicloudy stuff in Eaton’s chung gook-jang, which smells like old beans and shoe leather.
Neither soup has a thing on Oegadgib’s banchan, a small array of side dishes that comes with each meal. Garlic again plays a forceful role in several dishes, whether adding punch to the wilted spinach (complete with stems) or a muted pungency to the kimchi’s more dominant elements of heat and sourness. Given all the spice, I thank God for the seaweed, which adds a much needed hit of sweetness with its apparent addition of corn syrup.
As we near the end of our meal, I ask Eaton the question that always enters my brain at ethnic restaurants: “Is this Americanized at all?”
“Not at all,” he says.
Blackfinn: More TVs than Black’s!
Tucked into a corner of Blackfinn Restaurant and Saloon’s menu, in tiny type, there’s a disclaimer stating that this Bethesda location of the national Irish/American chain is not affiliated with Black’s Restaurant Group, also based in Bethesda. I can totally understand why Jeff and Barbara Black would want to distance themselves from this joint.
The Blackfinn experience, as best I can tell, is not about food. It’s about making everyone who enters feel like they’re not pissing away their money at just another American sports bar, which is essentially what lies beneath the mahogany-wood finishes, the white tablecloths, and the large plush booths. In that way, Blackfinn is not as honest with itself as the previous tenant, Willie & Reed’s, which never pretended to be anything more than a neighborhood sports bar that knew its way around the grill. Blackfinn, on the other hand, has, as De Niro once said in The Untouchables, “enthusiasms.” With its surface gloss, hostess stand, and heavy bound menu, it would like you to believe you can eat as well here as you could across the street at Black’s Bar and Kitchen.
You can’t. You can, however, eat as well here as you could at any other restaurant with 15 or so flat-screen TVs in it. The classic beef sliders are a good place to start. They’re perfectly tasty—thin, well-grilled patties (one temperature fits all) topped with American cheese and grilled onions, then tucked into potato rolls. They’re White Castles essentially, ’cept they come with au jus, which is what all upwardly mobile stoners dunk their sliders in, I guess. But don’t make the mistake of super-sizing to the Black Angus Saloon Burger, unless you want a charred, overcooked wad of flesh with nary a touch of seasoning.
Blackfinn does serve a decent fish and chips. The fillet of beer-battered haddock—approximately the size of Yao Ming’s foot—conceals moist, flaky, and flavorful flesh. Everything else I sampled was marred by either overreach or underexecution. The overreach: The fish in the grilled tuna sandwich never stands a chance against the nasal-clearing wasabi mayo, the peppered bacon, and the ciabatta roll. The underexecution: The grilled sirloin tips are supposed to be marinated in a Guinness-laced liquid and served with a Guinness “gravy.” The meat tastes like it’s coated with Guinness Worcestershire—minus the Guinness.
Finally, a memo to Blackfinn management: If you’re going to bother with a hostess stand, you should consider having someone occupy it. The wife and I waited for at least five minutes for someone to seat us. We even watched a server grab menus from the stand and never make eye contact. The group in front of us finally gave up and left. But not before saying something that I will repeat to you: “Good luck.”
A Drip With History
How does something like this happen? I have been living in the D.C. area for more than six years and have never heard about the M.E. Swing Co. until just a few weeks ago when friend and food writer Melissa McCart introduced me to the coffee roaster, which has been around since, oh, 1916. Has Starbucks killed our sense of history as well as our palate for good coffee?
If you want to savor a bit of D.C.’s mud-hut history, just walk down to the Swing coffee shop at 1702 G St. NW and order a cup of Mesco, a blend that’s been around since the company’s founding. Now take that cup and go sit on one of the metal stools, which graced Swing’s old shop on E Street NW for decades. Then do something strange: Let the coffee cool. Current Swing owner Mark Warmuth says you can always tell a good cup of joe by how it tastes when it’s cooled. It should be deeper, richer, and more flavorful than when it’s hot. The Mesco blend is just that. Check for yourself.
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