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 . . .
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.
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.
*Boundary Stone, DC
Really more the kind of place to drown your troubles—or create a few—but I’m just waiting to go back to this faux-divey Bloomingdale bar for the blue cheese-stuffed arancini and deviled eggs (both of which could fool you into thinking you’d stepped into a three-star restaurant menu), a plate of confited chicken thighs that only needed a few shakes of salt to come alive, and the stellar fish ‘n’ chips, whose flaky cod is encased in a beer batter so thick it could probably survive baggage claim.
There’s a lot to love about Mark Kuller’s wine bar-plus, beginning with its tossed-off sophistication, the sense you get that everything just seems to have fallen into place and nobody’s straining too hard for effect. The cooking, under the direction of Haidar Karoum, reinforces the feeling with dishes that deliver the complexity and intricacy of fine dining while coming across with the easy approachability of the corner bistro: superlative foie gras (seared and served atop a cherry-studded short cake), crisp-skinned branzino in a saffron broth, a knockout plate of spaghetti and meatballs (foie gras is the crucial ingredient, an ingenious way of lightening the texture of the meat without resorting to bready filler). There’s a wealth of good, interesting wines to pair with these plates — wines you’re simply not going to find anywhere else in the city. The restaurant, to its great credit, makes them available in two-ounce pours that encourages you to try things you wouldn’t ordinarily.
* new this week
Thank You for your advice. Passage to India was realy a treat. Terrific food, excellent service professional waiters. The Maitre d helped us throughly because my girlfriend had a lot of food allergies.It’s sad to see they didn’t make in your 100 Best list this year.
That’s great to hear.
Had our experiences been so knock-out, they likely would’ve. But hey, like the Brooklynites of old used to say of their Bums — dere’s always next year …
Happy 2012 to all of you. I hope you had a great time with your families and friends, with lots of good eating and drinking.
I’ll be interested in hearing about some of your experiences …
Before we get started, I just wanted to pass on my condolences to the family of Joe Natoli, Sr., who passed away a couple of weeks ago at age 89. Joe was the owner of Generous Joe’s, in Greenbelt, a warm and funny and generous guy — the guy who made me my first hot pastrami sandwich.
It was my first day of elementary school, and my mother hadn’t thought to send along any lunch money. Imagine the embarrassment of a 5-year-old standing in front of a stern, hair-netted cashier, unable to pay for a meal and so therefore unable to walk his tray to the table like all the rest of the kids. I called my mom’s office, she came out and got me — crying, inconsolable me — and we drove to Joe’s. The sandwich remains with me to this day. My tears dried up at that first bite. I became a lover of pastrami, and a lover of Joe’s. R.I.P., Joe, Sr.
For Immediate Release
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012
Elisir Restaurant 2012 Revised Filtered Water Charges Policy. In with the new, out with the old.
In an attempt to offer a better service to our patrons, Elisir Restaurant in its first month of operation implemented a minimum charge of $0.29 per person for filtered/purified water. Elisir’s original intent was to provide a higher quality product to all its guests and to offer the opportunity to consume a better one without incurring out of control bottle charges.
Our goal is, first and foremost, to please our customers by offering a superior quality service and to provide them with the best possible dining experience by implementing a level of attentiveness and comfort with personalized care. It has occurred to us that our water policy is presently not meeting Elisir’s goals. It is therefore our intention to continue on our mission of quality service but with new options.
For this reason Elisir has revised its filtered/purified water charge policy by eliminating the originally imposed $0.29 per person and by implementing an a la carte bottle water charge of $3.95 instead. And of course, D.C.’s tap is always a free option. This policy is effective immediately with the sole intent to better please our clientele with a warmer quality service the way it was intended in the first place.
Thanks for passing this along, Enzo.
I imagine you probably got ripped pretty hard for this. ; )
But seriously … why not just filter the water and pass it on to your customers free of charge? Can it be that laborious and expensive a process?
Hi Todd and congrats to you and your wife on the new baby!
I’m nervous today…starting a new job in Annapolis after working many years in Alexandria. Can you fill me in on the dining scene in that area? What would you recommend for lunch/dinner?
Happy New Year and thanks again for your chats. I’ve truly relied on them during a “1 year” period of unemployment and will continue to do so!
That’s really nice to hear. Thank you.
It’s not as if you’ve gone to a dining wasteland. There’re options.
For lunch, I’d have a hard time resisting Potato Valley Cafe, off State Circle. Superlative roasted potatoes with all sorts of toppings, including a veggie version with mango, black beans, red peppers, onions, sour cream, etc. That’s my favorite. And it’s a very reasonably priced lunch, too.
I also like the Main Ingredient Cafe, which appears at first glance to be a sort of lightly updated diner. But the cooking has a surprising degree of finesse. There’s a wonderful seared, sesame-crusted tuna over greens that makes a great lunch.
Joss is on Main Street, and is one of the better sushi bars in the metropolitan area. I like to sit at the bar and ask one of the chefs what’s come in that day.
By the way…loved your response to the person who chimed in from Bowie. You are spot on regarding PG County area/restaurants.
In fact, my husband and I frequent Bangkok Golden in Ft. Washington for Thai food and we absolutely LOVE IT!
It’s a good place. And a nice place.
I wish it had the Laotian menu that its sister restaurant in Falls Church has. That’s one of the great hidden dining experiences in the area, that Laotian menu. Just fantastic.
One place I left off of that list of good country restaurants, and just because I was in the moment and typing fast, is Muffin Man Caribbean Cafe, in Lanham.
Good muffins (carrot cake, rum raisin and cranberry are the best by far), and good island cooking. The two dishes I go for most are the roti and the jerk shrimp. The roti can be had as a vegetarian dish, with potatoes and veggies instead of goat or chicken, and it’s a good way to eat something hearty and satisfying without being larded down all day.
Hey Todd, here’s a report of my porcine adventures over the Holidays:
Calabria Pork Shop (Arthur Ave, The Bronx) – The name says it all! Italian deli with 100s of salumi hanging from the rafters. Some of the best cure meat product I’ve ever tasted.
Parker’s BBQ (Wilson, NC) – A short 5-10 minute diversion off the I-95. A plate of chopped pork, a piece of fried chicken, some over boiled potatoes dusted with paprika, Brunswick stew, and some hush puppies will set you back around $8. Parker’s has an institutional no frills southern dining room feel…but the parking lot was packed at 1:30 on a Thursday afternooon with locals.
Wilber’s (Goldsboro, NC) – Scary legit. You can smell the wood smoke and fried chicken in your car as you pull into the parking lot. This place is like your favorite dive bar turned BBQ joint. So local you get the look when you walk in…you are not from these parts. Sit down at the small counter and the waitress hands you sweet tea, no questions asked, because it’s a given you will be drinking sweet tea. Plate of chopped pork, 2 pieces of fried chicken, potato salad, slaw, and more hush puppies than you can eat will run you about $10. Wilber’s is approx. a 20 minute or so side trip off I-95 or I-40.
I love your description of Wilber’s. I can definitely picture it. I wish I could also taste it.
You had yourself a good time, it sounds like.
Who else? Who else has got some fun eating/traveling adventures to recount?
It occurs to me I should take a moment now to thank some of the people who were kind enough to feed me over the holidays. … Dierdre, thank you for the fantastic lamb curry your mom whipped up. Debbie and Mike, thank you for the perfect latkes and perfect brisket. Debbie and Matt, thank you for the take-out Chinese food (for me, always the best way to celebrate X-mas). Nora, for letting me dirty up your kitchen with my pork project and for putting out such a nice (and beautifully presented) spread. My mom, for the wonderful latkes and (light!) kugel and the pistachio cake with eight cute bendy candles. Ellen, for running out and picking up crab legs and shrimp and pastry and a great selection of cheeses (when neither of us felt like whipping up a last-minute party) and making New Year’s so cozy and nice …
Wondering what you think of the recently announced idea of the rotating Chefs at Rogue 24 backing up RJ Cooper while he has heart surgery? There are some great chefs and it sounds interesting but do you think they will be that closely involved during their week?
I think it’s a great idea.
(And I want to wish a very speedy recovery to chef Cooper.)
I’m not sure what you mean, though, when you say — “that closely involved.” In what?
Where do you go for great peking duck in the Washington area?
Gotta be Peking Gourmet Inn, in Falls Church.
The place may not be what it was, but the Peking duck — I last had it a couple of months ago — is still fabulous.
Not cheap — I believe it’s $42 per duck — but you get the royal treatment when you order it. A waiter will debone it tableside, separating the marvelously crunchy, mahogany-colored skin from the meat while also scraping away a good bit of the fat that hasn’t been rendered off in the roasting.
You’ll get warm, thin pancakes, a small bowl of hoisin sauce, and a side of thin sliced scallions.
Resist the urging to order a side of cucumbers. You don’t need them.
And you need to make it clear to the waiter about two things. One, you want him to slice off more of the meat for you than just the breast meat. The more luscious stuff is closer to the bones. And two, you want to be sure to tell him that you don’t want the staff to just spirit away the carcass when you appear to be done. There’s meat on there, for one thing. And the bones can be used to make a good, rich stock.
I ordered the swordfish as you recommend but found it unpleasantly salty, though the white beans were good. Also ordered the arugula/beet salad. The arugula was from a bag (so it lacked the smoky taste of “real” arugula), and the beets were much too soft. Not a satisfying experience.
I don’t know what to tell you. That wasn’t my experience — if it had been, I wouldn’t have thought to recommend it so highly.
I remember the dish being very “up,” but I didn’t think its saltiness was overpowering. Believe me, I’ve eaten a lot of overpoweringly salty dishes lately.
I thought it was a pretty wonderful dish. The swordfish, the saffron in the broth, the clams, the escarole, the sausage, the white beans …
Just curious — did you tell a waiter or a manager about your experience with either dish?
What area is Annapolis working in?
If they are downtown Sammy’s Deli (owned by Bob and his Wife the type of people like Generous Joe who spotted me a sandwich or two before payday knowing I would be back) is a good choice for a nice deli sandwich, I was always amazed how good event the veggie sandwich was.
And El Toro Bravo makes good quick lunch specials. I always liked their enchilladas and chimichangas.
If they are out by the mall, Punk’s Backyard Grill is a nice choice.
And if they are in West Annapolis they should go to Regina’s.
All good to know about, but I wouldn’t put any of these ahead of Potato Valley, Main Ingredient Cafe and Joss.
But as long as we’re lengthening the list, what about Carlson’s Donuts & Thai Kitchen, on West. St., one of the craziest spots in the metropolitan area?
Donuts and Thai food, exactly what the name says. And the Thai food, served on paper plates, is pretty good. I’d definitely be a regular if I worked in Annapolis. And the donuts are made there.
I’ll be dining at the Atlas Room this weekend to kick-off the new year. Do you have any recommendations on which dishes I can’t (or perhaps should) pass up?
Well, to start with — the wonton soup, which is so vastly superior to the thin, flavorless concoction you get from your corner take-out joint you’ll think you were eating a different dish.
What else? There’s really not much I’d steer you away from, and a whole lot I’d urge you to consider … The lamb meatballs. The short rib ravioli. The Fisherman’s Chowder. The chicken flatbread. The grilled vegetable gratin, which isn’t at all the dutiful sort of dish you tend to see on restaurant menus like this one — prepared with so little conviction you can tell the chef only included it out of some misbegotten sense of obligation to his vegetarian customers.
Regarding Rogue 24, closely involved meaning if they’ll be in the kitchen, or will it be following their menu?
It would be amazing to see someone like Bryan Voltagio or Jose Andres in the great kitchen at Rogue 24 but guessing that may not happen….
I think its an awesome idea as well and a great way to help the Chef and a testament to the small/close restuarant community. Wishing him a speedy recovery!
My understanding is that they’re going to be in the kitchen, working with the Rogue team to put out the dishes they’ve devised.
I could be wrong, but as I say, that’s my reading of things.
I really is a neat idea, and for a time at least, turns Rogue, which had its tentative start in New York as a pop-up restaurant, back into a pop-up restaurant for the next two months.
Re: Elisir – Do I understand this right? The price of water just went from $0.29 to $3.95? My, that is an improvement.
I think you do understand this right. 😉
I’m waiting for the day some restaurant decides to levy a chair tax.
Happy New Year!! So, I really need your help for this coming Saturday.
I have friends visiting from NYC and want to take the somewhere trendy/fun with good food. I’m thinking along the lines of Graffiato or maybe even Ardeo + Bardeo. I have not been to the latter yet after the merge. They’ve always taken us to most amazing venues in NYC and I’m hoping to impress them with a little of DC. Please help!!!
Oh, and I should point out that one is a vegetarian (but eats eggs, cheese, etc). Thanks so much. I have your dining guide on my coffee table! It’s a fabulous centerpiece. Thanks much!
Nice. That’s great to hear …
I’d take them to either Fiola or Proof, both in DC. For what you’re looking for, I think they’re just about perfect places.
Good luck. It’s always hard when you have New Yorkers in tow and you feel the anxiety and burden of having to prove to them that you don’t live in the sticks.
Anybody remember that great Roz Chast cover of the New Yorker about ten years ago? A hilariously dead-on depiction of that sensibiliity — in which, once you venture a hundred miles beyond the Upper West Side, it’s pretty much all “Deliverance.”
I’ll be interested in hearing where you end up. Drop me a note for next week …
Please tell me 2012 will be the year some dessert effectively knocks the cupcake off its throne in our area.
Do you have any thoughts on potential dessert trends we’ll enjoy? Perhaps something a little lighter, like a good baklava? Speaking of baklava, where do you think the best in our area can be found?
Kabob Bazaar, in Clarendon, used to carry a really exceptional one (it was made off-premises). I haven’t had been back there in a couple of years.
But here’s a sign of how good it was: Every time since, driving or walking past on the way to somewhere else, I’d think about that baklava and my mouth would water.
I don’t have any predictions about any other grab-and-go desserts.
I think one reason the cupcake is so popular is because it’s not a slice of cake. It has as many calories as a slice of cake — probably more, in some cases. But a slice of cake looks, to the young, weight-conscious, pilates-doing, bottled-water-drinking urban professional, heavy, indulgent … diner-ish. A cupcake? Aww, so cute …
I’d love to see somebody open a soft pretzel shop. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Then again, soft pretzels probably code too downscale for this city, calling to mind soft suburbanites at the mall gorging on them at Auntie Em’s.
Soft pretzels are Philly. We’re not Philly.
In that same vein, I wonder if that’s the reason we don’t see any Cinnabon shops downtown or in the citified precincts just beyond the city center. Too suggestive of the suburbanite fatty, and not cute at all — garish, gargantuan …
Traveled to NYC for NYE (attended an interesting “ball” in Brooklyn). Mostly stuck to the Astoria area for dining.
After driving from DC, finding parking (!), and touring the American Museum of Moving Image (the Jim Henson’s Fantastic World exhibit was wonderful), we were quite ravished. We popped into Bareburger for burgers and fries. I had an excellent veggie burger (any vegetarian in DC can tell you it’s almost impossible to find a satisfying, tasty vegburger around here). The fries/onion ring combo was delicious, finger-lickin’ good – probably because the dipping sauces were fantastic (the curry ketchup and chipoltle ketchup were a nice addition). And of course, nothing washes down burgers and fries better than a cold, refreshing brew!
The next day, we stopped into La Casa Del Pan (a small Columbian bakery on Broadway) to find something to “carb up” before drinking for NYE. 😉 It was here that I was introduced to pandebonos – soft chewy bread rolls with a cheesy inside (reminded me of stuffed crust pizza). I need to find a bakery in DC that makes these – I’m going to be dreaming of them for months!
When departing the city, we stopped in to Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee. I grabbed an everything bagel with jalepeno cream cheese – and I finally know why my friends from NY won’t shut up about how amazing NYC bagels are. Could have been hungover me talking, but that bagel was a game changer. I would move to NY for that bagel. So many delicious NYE food memories – I would start my diet now, but next week I’ll be in Belize. Rum punch, anyone? 😉
Don’t taunt us like this.
And after regaling us with stories of great-sounding food, too …
Happy New Year!
A good friend is giving me a belated Christmas gift of a gift card to a restaurant of my choice. She did the same for my birthday and I chose Estadio.
What restaurant would you choose if given about $75 (for 2 people)? I’m leaning toward Pearl Dive.
I was going to say …
It’s one of the few restaurants in the city itself where you can come in under budget while also eating and drinking really well.
We spent the New Year in Atlanta for the bowl game. We had some great meals.
In particular one at Empire State South was incredible with lots of interesting menu selections done so well! They had an amazingly tender beef heart dish that really impressed me. I ended up getting the cookbook, which the chef signed for me.
We also really enjoyed the baked goods from Bakeshop and some BBQ from Slopes, my Hubby’s dream BBQ that he remembers from youth, where we met a just retired Cincinnati Bengal who was an Auburn Alum also in for the game. The BBQ was good smokey, but tender and moist and they had some really nice sides.
I’ve heard good things about Slopes, and have it on my list the next time I’m down in Atlanta. Thanks for the write-up.
Oh, and I didn’t get the chance to change my reservation to Proof for my holiday date with the boyfriend. Had a somewhat average meal at Graffiato.
He raved about the countryman pizza though.
However, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Columbia Room. Very cozy and intimate (the 10 person bar wasn’t packed until the very end of our reservation). I had one very memorable drink. My boyfriend took a sip of his 1st drink and wasn’t pleased so he asked the bartender to make him something different. We found out at the end they didn’t charge us for it – very accomodating considering we paid $17 per drink for the others (tax/tip included).
I think they were accommodating BECAUSE you were paying $17 per drink for the others.
Thanks for reporting back. I appreciate it.
Pho Bar & Grill, H Street NE. Boy do I want to love this place, but I can’t.
After a few visits with slow confused service I think I’m done. Last bowl of pho was mediocre with little meat. Pho DC remains the go to option anywhere east of downtown.
Still, I’d take just about anything in either the Virginia or Maryland suburbs over it, though.
Happy New Year. I had an excellent meal at Little Serow a few weeks ago, some of the best Thai food I’ve had, but the bill came to $140 including drinks, tax, and tip, which is a bit more than Ruan and Nava Thais, my usual spots.
I also thought that Little Serow played with notions of authenticity: there aren’t any Thais or Thai-Americans who are going to pay that much for Thai food (and I say this based solely on the small sample size of one visit), nor is 17th st known as an ethnic food haven.
I kind of wanted to go around the corner to Bua to ask their staff if they had been to Little Serow and what they thought. There’s just something unseemly, although perhaps it’s just discordant, about spending $45 per person on Thai food cooked by Johnny Monis and being surrounded by yuppies and hipsters (self-loathing, this) while eating it.
I wonder how the folks dining at Komi feel to find out that its chef and sommelier downstairs at a Thai place instead of cooking and serving at Komi.
Also, I wish more places had the service that Little Serow and Komi do. My wife and I brought our 3 month old – only I walked into the restaurant and put our name down, and when staff saw my wife, baby, and I they ran out, asked if we preferred a 4-top, and made googley eyes at our baby for the duration of our meal. We hadn’t seen that sort of interaction outside of Indian/Asian/Latin places in the ‘burbs, which I guess goes back to that authenticity question and comment above.
Thanks for giving me a space to overthink and ramble, and here’s to a great 2012.
You raise some really, really interesting questions.
If you’d raised them a half hour earlier, I’d have had more time to dive into them. But perhaps it’s a good thing you didn’t.
I think the prices are high, too. $140 is a lot, and it’s also what I paid the last meal there I had.
I think the prices either need to come down some, or the level of invention needs to come up so that the dishes remain true and rooted but are a bit more mediated.
Contrast that, now, with a meal at Bangkok Golden, off the Laotian menu (I pick it because the flavors are similar; Laos shares a border with northern Thailand, the inspiration for Little Serow, and the flavors are pungent and popping and smoky). That meal will cost you, oh, about $50 or $60 for two. … All of you out there who haven’t been, need to go. It’s a terrific meal.
At the same time, I think it’s worth pointing out that while Little Serow is staying true to its source, it’s also working at a different level. The ingredients are impeccably chosen — from the meats on down to the produce. I actually smelled CUCUMBER when I walked in the door the last time I was there. When has that ever happened, anywhere? All the gaos, or pastes, are made from scratch, as are all the sauces.
And as you say, the service is wonderful, the best in the city. There’s a sincerity there that stays with you long after you’ve finished your meal.
Lunch calls … Thanks, everyone, for all the travel tips and local tips, too, and for all the comments and questions today.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]