Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype?
The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 a.m. on Kliman Online. From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the ‘burbs and exurbs to hitting the city’s streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.
Winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country’s best newspaper column about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, and Men’s Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies. He is the author of The Wild Vine, a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its biggest present-day champion, a dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Bangkok 54, Arlington
My most recent meal at this checkerboard-paletted hole in the wall on Columbia Pike was a quick one, consisting of just three dishes—two of them as good as anything I’ve eaten in the past six months. Irregular slices of freezed, then slow-roasted tofu coated in a dry sauce of chilis and dressed up with tiny leaves of fried basil doesn’t sound particularly prepossessing, but I’ve never had a tofu dish I’ve loved more. If you’re a meat eater and make a point of swearing off any and all dishes that feature tofu, then you need a policy re-think. A red curry was every bit its equal—the heat and lushness of the sauce knitting together a plate of perfectly cooked shrimp, thick squares of tender, roasted butternut squash, toasted cashews and a mound of judiciously prepared brown rice.
La Limeña, Rockville
Lately I find myself with inexplicable cravings for Peruvian, and this Rockville restaurant—newly updated, with china and silverware replacing plastic plates and knives—is where I head … for great food (tiradito, ceviche, anticuchos, aji de gallina, alfajores) and great value.
The honesty and simplicity of chef Tony Chittum’s make-it-local-or-make-it-from-scratch approach has never been in question. But these days there’s a newfound coherence in his plates, a clarity that brings even his heartiest, most soulful plates into tight focus. The desserts, with Tiffany MacIsaac in the fold now as guru of sweets for all outlets in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, have never been better.
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, DC
This jumping fish house in the 14th St. corridor is Jeff and Barbara Black’s fifth place, and by far their most fun—in the room and on the plate. The other surprise? The excellent value—a reminder that among the benefits of a mini-empire is the ability to leverage high-volume purchasing into cut-rate deals. Don’t miss the marvelous twist on mariscos, a seafood-laden salsa with fresh-fried chips.
The best, most sensual, most fully realized restaurant in the area remains Johnny Monis’s lair of a place, a sparely appointed East Dupont townhouse with—check it—no menu.
Daniel Singhofen scrapped his a la carte menu this past April, replacing it with a $65 five-course tasting menu. The move seemed premature, given that the chef had yet to establish his Dupont Circle townhouse restaurant as a landmark dining destination, one that had endured many seasons and fads. But Singhofen and company appear ready to make the leap. Courses are imaginatively conceived without straining for effect, and the execution is clean and precise without lapsing into austerity. Best of all, Singhofen imbues these sophisticated dishes with a quality more precious than all the tricks in the molecular gastronomer’s toolkit: soul.
R&R Taqueria, Elkridge
Best Mexican food in the area, and it’s not even close. And—it’s in a gas station. Worth the drive to Elkridge.
Ex-New Heights chef Logan Cox has taken his sauce-painted bowls and fascinating juxtapositions north up Connecticut Ave., making this modestly done Cleveland Park dining room one of the most intriguing places to dine at the moment. His rabbit loin transforms a typically dry, stringy meat into a kind of luscious barbecue, and his vegetable composition plate—that stale relic of the early aughts—is so good, it could stand alone as a (light) entree.
Liberty Tavern, Arlington
The menu at Liam LaCivita’s brawny ode to Americana is rife with abundantly portioned plates of meat and pasta, but it was two comparatively light non-meat plates that impressed me most on a recent visit—a Portuguese-style swordfish with escarole, white beans and housemade sausage in a clam-and-saffron broth, and a simply grilled branzino surrounded by black pellets of squid-ink-soaked fregola nero.
* Fiola, DC
Fabio Trabocchi’s edge-of-Penn Quarter restaurant has put its tentative beginnings behind it. The dishes emerging from the brick-framed, herb-potted kitchen find the prodigiously talented chef moving further and further from the controlled elegance of his work at the late Maestro. They also find him cooking with a renewed confidence and conviction. The best of these plates—an astonishingly flavorful ragu of wild hare with thick bands of papardelle, a double-cut, prosciutto-wrapped veal chop with toasted hazelnuts that accent the sweetness and nuttiness of the meat, a bowl of tender meatballs in a tomato sauce that frankly puts most Italian grandmothers to shame—marry rusticity with refinement. Desserts—including a fabulous cone of sugar-dusted bomboloni, with pots of apple marmalade and cinnamon gelato—remain a rousing finish.
* new this week
My boyfriend and I will be celebrating our three year anniversary on NYE. We’ll go out with friends on NYE, but would like to go out for a nice dinner on New Year’s Day.
The only problem is that a lot of spots seem to be closed. Any recommendations of where to go in DC? We’d like to stay around/under $100 per person.
New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday, which limits options. But here are 5 possibilities for you:
* Central Michel Richard
* Cafe du Parc
* Bourbon Steak
All have tables currently available, according to our intern Carrie Schedler. Thanks for the help with this, Carrie.
Good morning, everyone. What’s on your mind on this gray, oddly balmy day? Where’ve you been eating lately? …
re: restaurants in Savannah.
One thing you won’t at a restaurant like Wilkes in Savannah is people from Savannah. Pure tourist magnet.
Two restaurants that are wonderful are Elizabeth’s on 37th st. and 700 Drayton. Both are elegant and sophisticated.
Now a question: I have eaten twice at a restaurant and each time there was an item on the check that I did not order. I pointed this out to the server and it was removed but I am concerned (and possibly paranoid) that games are being played. At what point do I talk to the manager?
Re: Mrs. Wilkes’ — true, true, true. And yet it’s one of the few places still of its kind anywhere in the country. I think that alone makes it a place worth hitting.
Thanks for the other recs. I don’t think you’re in time to satisfy the needs of the chatter who first asked, but I’ll add them to my list for sure.
As for your question: At what point do you talk to a manager? Immediately.
If anything strikes you as odd or not right, immediately notify a manager. About anything. It’s infinitely easier to solve a problem in the moment, or just after the moment, than it is via email after the fact.
Managers all tell me: They absolutely want diners to alert them to problems as they’re happening. And/or to give them honest feedback about the experience that’s still going or just ended. The good ones really do crave this kind of information.
I will say, however, that giving feedback like this — speaking up about an experience, and going into detail about its shortcomings — is not something most diners are going to relish doing. I can tell you that many, many times in the past I have indicated to a GM that everything is fine, when in fact a dish was overcooked or undercooked or marred in some other significant way. And I’m the one always telling you all to speak up, to make yourself heard. It’s not easy.
There are times you just don’t want to get into it with someone, and have a nice night turn into some kind of a scene — even a small one.
But I will also say that if it’s a decent place, that kind of speaking up will almost always benefit you.
Have you been yet? I’d love to get your take on it. Do you have any idea about the future of this place? Do you anticipate a steady increase in prices, similar to Komi?
I’m wondering if I need to check it out very very soon.
I have. And I like it.
I haven’t been enough to offer much more in the way of a take on it, but I do expect it to evolve a good bit in the first six months. And I also expect that it will become more personal and more idiosyncratic — both good things — as it does.
I hope that the prices remain steady for a while, or even drop a little. A night, here, is nothing close to what a night out at Komi costs, but I think the place’d be more true to its intentions if the prix fixe came down a bit.
What would be the number one thing you like to experience, that makes a dining out exp, great!
The food, of course.
I’m not really sure where you’re coming from with this question, because to me it just seems so obvious.
A place with abysmally poor service but really good food? I think I’d still want to eat there. I mean, wouldn’t you? Good food but lousy decor and a lousy setting? I’ve been to many a place like this and come out happy.
Now — mediocre food but lavish surroundings and good service? That smacks, to me, of phoniness.
Are there things that restaurants can do — things beyond service, food, atmosphere, that is — to enhance the experience?
One of them is to be sincere.
One of the things that makes a place like Little Serow so winning, is that the staff is just so nice and warm and hospitable. You never get the impression that it’s a function of having been drilled-in over and over again. The words, the actions — they’re not rote and expected. They’re fresh, and natural. It’s wonderful. And amazingly rare.
Whats the name of the tofu dish you were describing in your blurb on Bangkok 54? It sounds awesome!
I believe it’s called Spicy Roasted Tofu with Basil.
And yes, it’s worth getting in the car and driving for if you ask me.
How is this not on your “where I’m eating now” list!?!
I went 2 weeks ago, and am still thinking about it daily. Besides the boudin blank at Marcel’s, this steak and cheese is the best thing I’ve eaten this year.
I realize it makes no sense how I mention both in the same sentence
Can’t wait to go back!!!
I haven’t been, is one reason.
Thanks for the enthusiastic prompting …
I have been to the new Ray’s to the Third, which, in the Ray’s canon, comes across as a slight cut above Ray’s the Steaks at East River and a slight cut below Ray’s the Classics. I had a good meal there, and was impressed — as I often am at a Ray’s joint — at what a good value it is.
Glad to see the cold-smoked, fried chicken, a highlight of my early meals at RTS at ER, has been tapped for duty here. You can get a nice, juicy piece of it along with a mound of fries and five or six crunchy fried jumbo shrimp for $16.99.
Eating here is like eating at a more upmarket version of the old Hot Shoppes. Not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.
I enjoyed the Gusher burger — two patties sandwiched around cheese, in this case blue cheese that (sorry — this isn’t appetizing, but it IS accurate) oozed like pus from a sore when I cut into the meat. Good stuff, unfortunate image aside.
A story in the DC City Paper suggests that Michel Richard may be not be very involved in the day-to-day operations at new meatball shop. Should we care? Have you been, or heard anything about the food there since it opened?
I’m not sure it’s really news that Richard is not that deeply involved in day-to-day operations. I wouldn’t have expected him to be.
From what I understand, he came up with the recipes and also had a say in how the menu would read and how the operation would be streamlined. Beyond that, I don’t know what anyone would want him to do. Greet customers at the door? Ladle out the food? Vehicles like this generally exist as easy money-makers for big-time chefs.
I heard that the chef at Trummer’s on Main just up and quit. Is this true?
That’d be news to us. And to Trummer’s on Main.
We just put in a call to the Clifton, Va., restaurant and were told that chef Clayton Miller is still there.
Had the worst dining experience in years at Cuba Libre last week. The server was terribly rude in general. The first bottle of wine that was brought to us (15 minutes after others at the table had their drinks) had clearly gone bad. The server was incredulous that we were claiming a bottle she just opened was skunked (it was).
It was another 20 minutes for a replacement bottle to arrive. In the meantime, she tried aggressively to upsell and was rude when we stuck with original orders. She spilled an entire glass of water on one person at our table. Later, she spilled salsa down the jacket of another.
This was the breaking point and the manager did come over. However, all he offered was his card to have the diner’s salsa-stained jacket drycleaned. Barely an apology.
We were so frustrated we just ate and left. How can a place with $30 entrees justify treating customers in such a way? I shared this story with a number of people in the last week and while no one had had quite the experience we did, all agreed the service there is terrible and no was I spoke to went back after an initial bad experience. I suspect this place won’t be around in a year. Just wanted to share!
Wow, that’s an epically bad night. All around.
I’m sorry to hear it.
I would venture to guess that an apology from the manger would’ve gone a long way toward easing your anger and resentment. Offering a card, that’s easy. Problem, meet solution. Saying “I’m sorry” is harder; it takes empathy.
I hate hearing stories like this.
From last week’s chat …
would you want to eat at a sushi restaurant that smelled fishy!
Of course not.
I was simply pointing out that one of the things that makes sushi unique is that its dishes generally have no aroma. It’s one less way that sushi can entice us as diners. And I think that makes it all the more important that the food be presented beautifully and harmoniously.
Looking for some good Indian recommendations either in DC, around georgetown or Dupont, as well as out in the VA burbs.
Also, went to the Korean BBQ restaurant Honey Pig a few weeks ago and it was great! would definitely recommend bringing a friend who knows Korean as the menu can be a bit overwhelming, but overall excellent food! -Will
In the city, the one place I’m going to insist you go to is Masala Art, which is probably my favorite place to go for Indian right now. Richly embroidered cooking in a small, beautiful dining room. Every so often, I find myself with cravings for its butter chicken. You can find lots of decent versions of this dish around town. But none, I think, as good as this one.
Heritage India, on Wisconsin Ave., in Tenleytown is a good fall-back option.
In Virginia, I like Bollywood Bistro, in Fairfax, and Curry Club, in Ashburn.
Hope that helps. I’d love to hear where you end up going, and how your meal was …
My very good Ethiopian friend is getting ready to open an Ethiopian restaurant which will be serving Ethiopian dishes as well as other dishes such as pasta, salmon etc.
We had a discussion yesterday and I suggested that she should stick to Ethiopian dishes but I was not able to convince her. Do you think it’s good/bad idea?
Any successful ethnic restaurants that she can visit that used this type of strategy?
Thanks for you time.
It’s an interesting question.
I can’t offer much more than a general sort of response without knowing her background in cooking and her aim for the restaurant, but I will say that if she is basing this decision on her belief that Ethiopian is too exotic and specialized for most diners, then I think she is mistaken. I think if ever there’s an area to support an Ethiopian restaurant — a gone one — then it’s here.
My worry for her would be that some diners would look at a menu with a split-attention like that, and conclude that the owner was lacking the courage of her convictions.
Personally, I think that restaurants that are narrowly focused, that don’t try to mean or be all things to all people, stand the best chances to succeed.
I wish her luck.
For us non-cookers and with no family nearby (can’t afford to fly home) to celebrate Thanksgiving, can you recommend a good restaurant to celebrate Thanksgiving with all the fixings?
A report from the Maryland ‘burbs: Swung up to Maryland Homebrew in Columbia. Great place for beer/wine/and cheese making supplies.
Afterward, stopped in at Red Pearl for lunch. The shrimp (har-gow) and shu-mai dumplings were both great. The eggplant stuffed with shrimp was fine, but not particularly flavorful. The baked char-siu-bao were one dimensional and not very interesting. The Dan Dan noodles I really liked and was licking the bowl clean, although I could have used little more ma-la. Overall I thought it was a good lunch for $20 (totally stuffed afterwards) and would enjoy sampling more of the menu with a larger group. Dim-Sum for one doesn’t really cut it!
Afterwards swung through H-Mart and Hung Phat Vietnamese Grocery in Wheaton to pick up some Asian supplies. I see no reason why H-Mart couldn’t open a DC branch, edit the store down to include veggies, meat/seafood, condiments/noodles and the frozen/prepared food sections…I know I would shop there regularly.
Surprised to hear the char siu bao weren’t better. I wonder if you didn’t get a good batch –?
This was the cooked-to-order dim sum, yes, not dim sum poached from the rolling metal carts? Because $20 sounds cheaper than I remember.
Anyway, thanks for the tasty report.
And yes, I agree wholeheartedly re: H Mart — this town could stand a couple dozen more of ’em.
Is Little Serow modeled after Next in Chicago in that the menu is set and that no substitutions alllowed for people who might want just seafood and vegetarian options? Thanks!
In that sense, yes. But only in that sense.
Grant Achatz’s Next is, rather consciously, a Western chef’s interpretation of Thai cuisine. Johnny Monis’s Little Serow, at this early date, isn’t very cheffy.
There’s not a lot in the way of filtering or translating going on. It’s not what you usually find when an accomplished Western chef tries his hand at an Eastern cuisine. It’s not fusion.
What it is, is a very reverent, very loving take on these dishes and flavors and techniques. So far, that’s the single biggest thing that strikes me about the place, this quiet playing-against-expectation.
In regards to speaking up, I was dining at Moto in Chicago and told the manager who was passing by that a dish was too salty.
Next thing I know, the manager comes back and tells us to follow him. I was confused but followed compliantly, thinking that we were going to be escorted into a back corner to be beaten senseless for speaking up. My companion and I were led downstairs to the kitchen where the chef greeted us and let us know that he appreciated that we spoke up since he didn’t realize that the line chef was oversalting the food.
He then proceeded to show us his next innovative dish with smoking technique and asked us our opinion. Needless to say we were the envy of all the diners when we came back upstairs. So speaking up does have its rewards.
I’ve never heard or seen this happen before. That’s pretty wonderful.
Being beaten senseless for speaking up — that’s reserved for Moto’s spinoff restaurant, Moto Mafioso.
Yep went to Red Pearl on a Thursday afternoon for lunch, so it was cooked-to-order dim sum. 4 dishes off the dim sum menu and the dan dan noodles came to around $20 (not including tip). Most expensive item was the dan dan noodles at $4.95.
That’s a really good deal.
I’m with you, I could stand a bit more pungency in the dan dan noodles, but that doesn’t keep me from slurping down the entire bowl.
Thanks for the details …
Re: WIlkes/Savannah re: restaurants in Savannah. A reader said: “One thing you won’t at a restaurant like Wilkes in Savannah is people from Savannah. Pure tourist magnet.”
While Mrs. Wilkes is absolutely a tourist magnet, both times I’ve been there I’ve sat next to native Savannah residents. In fact, both times they’ve also then recommended other places for us to check out. Like you said, it’s an interesting dining experience, and worth a visit.
“Interesting,” in my book, trumps a lot of other things.
Not all tourist magnets are interesting. In fact, I’d say very few are.
But there ARE some, and these are to be sought out, I think — so long as you can stand the crowds. And the crowds are as much a feature of the place as the long wooden tables and the heaping bowls of butter fresh vegetables.
I’m off to rustle up some lunch.
Thanks for all the questions and comments and rants today, everyone. I appreciate it.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]