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.
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.
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.
Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Falls Church
#1 Combination and #2 Roast Pork. $3.75 apiece. Vivid reminders of what the boring and/or dumbed-down others all miss—the peppery bite, the pronounced sharpness of the pickling, the balance between meats and condiments, the lightness of the loaf.
* Mama Chuy, DC
Working from their perch in a rowhouse across the street from Howard University, a brother-sister team from Guadalajara (by way of Chicago) have delivered one of the great surprises of the season — a taqueria that aims not merely to be authentic, but to win your hungry heart with its commitment to exactitude and detail. Start with an order of the superlative housemade chips — as salty, thin and crunchy as you could hope for — and guacamole, then move on to the tacos and sopes, each presented in easy-to-handle cocktail-size portions. The carnitas sopes (tiny discs of fried masa slathered with refried beans and topped with luscious cubes of marinated, grilled pork) might just be the best three bites of Mexican food you’re going to find within city limits.
* new this week
Just thought I’d tell you that I’ve loved your column since I started reading it back in September. So far you’ve directed me to awesome Bahn Mi (Bahn Mi DC), a fantastic bar with good food around the corner from work (Boundary Stone).
Your judgement is held in such regard that my friend and I are going to pack up the car this weekend and truck out to Elkridge for some tacos.
Given the questions and comments you’ve fielded about RW lately. I also wanted to pass this along, from no less than Marc Vetri himself via his facebook page. (I’m a huge Vetri fan, I don’t think we have anything in DC that comes close to any of his establishments…no, not even Fiola).
I found it fascinating that a chef would come and say the following. thanks again for all the great recs, I’m hoping RandR is another winner.
From Vetri …
“Restaurant Week Facts: Just because someone tells you that you’re getting a deal, it doesn’t mean that you really are. RW is a short sighted way for restaurants to make a quick buck by lowering their standards, making one menu so its easy to turn and burn, while basically getting the same or MORE cost per head cover. Why not right?
“Well here’s why. The deal that you think you’re getting is non-e…xistent. You end up spending more money than you normally would. If you really do the math, at $35 a head for only food, you’re definitely spending anywhere from $45-$65 a head on food and wine before tax and tip. Unless you have no drinks at all, which is highly unlikely. And you can only order a couple things.
“Do you know how many restaurants have a $45-$65 a head average with drinks. A whole bunch, Amis and Osteria both fall within that range. And you can order whatever you want on the menu. So basically, to sum it up…you’re going to a restaurant that you read about, spending the same money, getting much less of a choice, being waited on by a server who is simply not happy to be there that week…(rightly so I might add). There’s just no way that can have a positive outcome. Another question was why do restaurants do it if its no big deal.
“The fact of the matter is that restaurant week started a couple years back when the market went to hell and everyone was struggling. It was one week to make people feel good and get out to celebrate a little. It was a good thing. But like a good thing that is overused and taken advantage of, it has turned into a big mess. Everyone tries to get the most out of it, food is less desirable, service is less attentive, tips are lower and everyone is miserable at the end of the week. Do yourself a favor, save your money, and go to a restaurant that makes you happy because you know that the food and service will be great. Forget about the quick deal that really is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors.”
I think Marc Vetri makes a good point. Even if he is being self-serving in making it.
I’m of the same mind when it comes to Restaurant Week dinner. It’s just not the deal it used to be, back when. But I think RW lunch is still a very good deal, and something to be taken advantage of.
I hope R & R is a great time, and thanks so much for the thumbs-up on the recommendations.
I wanted to throw something out there for discussion, since I heard a couple of guys talking about it on the radio last week and it got me thinking …
I’m interesting in hearing your favorite parts of foods. Not the foods themselves: the parts.
As in — the muffin tops that Elaine from “Seinfeld” was obsessed with.
One of mine is: the dark part of a slice of prime rib, what Eric Ziebold at CityZen calls “the culotte.”
My wife and I, who have traveled throughout Spain countless times, find it hard to believe that Estadio and Jaleo are among the 100 best restaurants in the area, and rated 3 stars.
Even though we have had a good time at both and many of the small plates are very acceptable, many of the tapas bars — even in small cities and towns in Spain — are far superior to the offerings at these two DC spots. Put another way, if Estadio and Jaleo are among the 100 best in this area, it doesn’t exactly reflect on the DC area as a dining destination or “hot spot.” And we both think its collection of restaurants is much better than that.
Agreed: There are probably a dozen tapas bars in Spain that are as good as, if not superior to, these two restaurants.
In Chengdu, I could stand stand somewhere along Qintai Road, in the Qingyang District, close my eyes and point in any direction and come up with a place better than Sichuan Pavilion, in Rockville.
There are probably 100 sushi spots in Tokyo alone that blow away Kushi, Sushi Taro, etc.
Whether a place’s cooking fails to measure up to what you’d find overseas doesn’t really matter. 15 and 20 years ago, The Washingtonian’s list was filled with French restaurants. Do you think any of those places was as good as what you would have found at that time in Paris?
I’d be very interested in hearing which two area restaurants you would replace Jaleo and Estadio on the list with …
Thanks for the recommendations for Philly last week. We had brunch at Garces Trading and it was excellent.
I had their rendention of steak and eggs; my wife had the Scotch eggs, which I can only describe as an egg cooked within a crispy gingerbread-like crust. Both dishes were inventive, tasty, and substantial.
Thoughful wine and beer selection as well. We also really enjoyed Mercato– very small, intimate Italian BYOB. We started with the antipasti. I had short rib ragu; my wife had veal. The tiramisu at th end was fantastic. None of the dishes strayed too far from tradition, but they were all delicious. It was loud–and again small–but everyone was clearly enjoying themselves and we had a wonderful time.
Nice! And thank you for chiming back in to let me know …
I love the brunch they do at Garces Trading Co. Next time up, you have to get the French toast. Made with homemade cranberry bread, cut thick and fried to a surprisingly deep brown. With lemon mascarpone and pistachio rum butter.
Doesn’t sound amazing — in truth, it doesn’t even sound like it’d work. But it does, it works. It’s a wonderful dish.
I like their pizzas too.
And the bakery on the premises — really hard not to blow a bunch more calories and a bunch more money on the way out …
I wanted to mention an event this Friday eveningthat the chatters might be interested in. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery is unveiling a portrait of Alice Waters (from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA).
At 6pm, Jose Andres sits down with Alice in the gallery auditorium for a discussion about food, cooking, and restaurants.
At 7pm, there’s a reception with food and drinks catered and served by (in the flesh!) Mike Isabella, Jose Andres, Cathal Armstrong, Nora Pouillon, Adam Bernbach, Todd Gray, Haidar Karoum, Susan Gage, and others. And, of course, the portrait will be unveiled.
The event isn’t free, but it’s tax deductible, and definitely a chance to be around some of the best chefs in the country.
It sounds like fun. Thanks for posting this for us …
OK, I just did a search to find out the cost. “Not free” — that’s one way of putting it!
From the promo material:
Join us at 6 p.m.
Conversation ticket with reserved seating
Portrait presentation and chefs’ reception ticket
Behind-the-scenes tour (September 2012) of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition semifinalists
One ticket for the Portrait Competition opening reception (March 2013)
Signed copy of book by Alice Waters
$900 tax deductible
Portrait presentation and chefs’ reception ticket
Signed copy of book by Alice Waters
$450 tax deductible
Portrait presentation and chefs’ reception ticket
$170 tax deductible
Join us at 7 p.m.
Portrait presentation and chefs’ reception ticket
$70 tax deductible
The WSJ just had a front page piece on this last week by their health writer. My favorite: brownie corners.
Right, there’s a woman who’s invented a pan — a brownie corner pan — where you get four corners for each brownie.
Now, if only someone could design a pan where you ONLY got corners!
Speaking of parts of foods …
Who likes the crusty rice at the bottom of a paella pan?
My favorite part of the turkey is probably the pope’s nose — which, by the way, Franklins in Hyattsville is now serving as a seasonal appetizer. Two “turkey tails” with a Korean dipping sauce and pickled cabbage. I’ve yet to try them but just typing the words in that last sentence makes my mouth water …
The # 2 roast pork was awesome!! It was my first banh mi, so thank you for the suggestion. Btw, any idea where it gets that deep red color from?
Why, food dye of course!
No, seriously …
But you liked it, right? That’s what counts, right? …
Good morning Todd,
I really enjoyed the dining guide like most readers i was surprised in both good and bad ways by your choices and thoughts. One thought however was when you downgrade restaurants I feel is though you owe your readers an explanation.
Source went from #6 on your list to out of the top 10 and down 1 full star. I love this and other restaurants but would like to know what changed your mind one way or another on the different restaurants.
The reason for The Source downgrade?
I found surprisingly flat versions of previously brilliant dishes, and also a certain sloppiness creeping in to a kitchen that had always managed to turn out such clean and controlled cooking.
And the prices there keep going up and up and up …
— the crust of 2 Amys pizza
— the salty/crunchy/cheesy tops of baked oysters
— and definitely blistered cheese on anything!
How about — the skin on an expertly fried chicken?
Actually, Nate Garyantes at Ardeo+Bardeo has that as the garnish — the superb garnish — for his green chili chicken-and-hominy soup.
I can see having that as a stand-alone item, a bar snack — I mean, who wouldn’t eat four or five of them while sipping a cold beer and waiting for your dinner date?
OMG, the bottom of the paella pan is the absolute best, and something that’s non-existent in DC! Josh Andres should be ashamed to called is “risotto” a paella
Here we go again … : )
Have you been to Kushi recently? Do you recall how well the previous LivingSocial deal there was received?
Yes and no.
Yes, I was there recently (and had a very good meal, including two rounds of nigiri to finish and not a single meh piece among the bunch; all were pretty exquisite). No, don’t have any idea how the LS deal was received.
Wrote to you last week about RW and your answer (doing RW because they feel they have to) as well as the first post from today’s chat sort of saddened me. I wish the restaurants that don’t care about RW, feel “miserable” by the end of the week would just not participate.
I agree some restaurants provide lower quality menus- for example some steakhouses offer 1 steak item as an entree choice. I also agree the price has risen steadily and at some place it’s just not worth paying for the choices on the limited menu.
That being said, I went to Ardeo + Bardeo last week for RW and was very pleased.
#1- Ardeo + Bardeo offered up it’s most of it’s entire menu for RW, which tells me they aren’t afraid to let me get away with a “deal” and they’re not afraid of serving what their regular fare.
#2- The service was pretty great. Our waitress was prompt, not overly attentive but available if we needed her. Her recommendations for food and drinks were spot on. The food came out a little slow, but it was to be expected.
#3- The food was phenomenal. We loved everything we ordered – reflecting back on recommendations by the waitress.
#4- The manager came around and asked how our meal was. This really did it for me. It showed me they care and value their customers, regardless of the “deal.”
If a restaurant is going to participate in RW, they need to take a page from Ardeo Bardeo. We will gladly return, and pay full price. If other restaurants don’t care about this sort of response from the extra attention they get for Restaurant Week, they should save face and not participate- allowing them a chance to not provide a bad experience.
Thanks for chiming back in …
I thought Ardeo+Bardeo did a great job last time around, too. It’s pretty obvious to me that this is one of the places that gets it. The non-verbal language there is very good. That’s one of the things to watch with RW, the signals you’re getting when they’re not trying.
By the way, I just thought I’d pass this along. It’s from a woman I know, who lives in my neighborhood. She read the chat last week and felt compelled to share her insider’s take on RW …
“Todd, I just read your blog about Restaurant Week. On the DL I can share that when I worked at the Capital Grille downtown a few years ago they haaaaaaated it. CG never had trouble filling seats so RW just replaced full fare diners with discount diners. The servers complained the loudest, of course, since lower prices=lower tips. In Open Table, several spots each time slot were blocked to save space for regular customers who were usually unaware of RW. Enjoyed your blog as usual!”
Uh…who is Josh Andres
Didn’t you know?
Jose’s latest reinvention is — himself!
Have you been to Hill Country recently? Because I was there recently and got the impression it has gone way downhill. Almost all the food was a disappointment.
The brisket was tepid and *very* fatty (even for brisket), the beer can game hen was soggy and tasted weird, the sausage was overcooked and the pork rib was awful. Even the cornbread was dry and short on flavor. The only saving grace was the mac & cheese.
It was a shame because I visited Hill Country last year, shortly after it opened, and was impressed by most of the food, and very excited to have a good barbecue place in the city. I Have you had a similar impression lately?
You know, I haven’t been back since late summer. Clearly a visit is in order; thanks for the (dispiriting) report.
Jaleo has felt tired lately. Last trip to Oyamel was mediocre. But Zaytinya Saturday night was firing on all cylinders. It even pleased the visiting fickle New York City folks and the vegan at the table!
HORTA SALATA salad of cooked and raw greens, smoked olives, fava Santorini, ladolemono, pistachios. So good we ordered it twice!
CRISPY BRUSSEL AFELIA brussel sprouts, coriander seed, barberries, garlic yogurt.
SEASONAL MUSHROOMS sautéed mushrooms, dates, toasted almonds. Didn’t sound too exciting but perhaps one of the best dishes of the night.
HÜNKÃR BEĞENDI braised lamb shank, eggplant-kefalograviera puree. Love this dish.
ADANA KEBAB skewered ground lamb, house-made harissa, grilled tomatoes, sumac, onions.
FRIED SQUID crispy squid, garlic-yogurt sauce. Super tender squid.
ÍMAM BAYILDI roasted eggplant stuffed with onions, tomatoes. I would have to easily rate Zaytinya the best of the Jose Andres Empire right now.
You mean — the Josh Andres Empire. ; )
Thanks for the wonderfully detailed report …
adding to your love of crispy skin…the skin on the crispy duck at Peking gourmet is amazing!
Isn’t it? I would pay just to eat the skin!
What else … ?
I know there are people out there who love the skin on the pudding, but I’ve never been one of those. Kinda off-putting, actually. But I do love the top of a creme brulee!
I went to La Chaumiere this past weekend. Food/venue was excellent. We didn’t do the restaurant week menu, but it was offered.
Regardless, I was baffled by the “honesty” from our waiter. He basically steered us away from the restuarant week menu, stating that it was of lower quality/portions than the regular menu, and the price wasn’t that much lower.
Obviously, I suspect this of all restaurant week menus, which is why I stopped years ago, but I was shocked to hear it straight from the waiter!
He’s either a great waiter, or he’s really putting on a clever salesjob for the restaurant.
I would guess the former.
It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I like a very engaged waiter like this, a take-charge sort who essentially sees his job as that of a go-between. Steering you clear of dishes that don’t really work, stumping on behalf of others, guiding you in every way possible to the best experience you can have.
By the way, I’m glad to hear La Chaumiere performed so well …
Re: favorite parts of foods. I really like the air bubbles in pizza, charred or not. We fight over those pieces in my house. They are highly prized
I like them, too.
But something to be fought over? Wow — who knew?
Lately, on those few nights I cook at home, I’ve been taking a page from Chinese cooks and using broccoli stalks — dispensing with the florets, which are okay, probably best handled with slow roasting, and slicing the stalks thin. They make for a great quick wok dish. Get the vessel good and hot, drizzle in some oil, add some minced garlic and some dried chilis, swirl for a bit, then a pinch of salt, and then add the thin-sliced stalks. Fantastic.
crispy salmon skin, face cheeks and eyes of a whole fish, crispy edge crust of apple pie, sucking the marrow out of a bone. Love these stuff
Now that, right there, is the definition of a food lover!
I wish, frankly, that this is what we all thought of when we heard the word “foodie.”
Thanks for chiming in … I love your loves!
Hi Todd —
Thanks for doing these chats. Do you know of any place in D.C. or Northern Virginia that serves a good, or even decent, Cuban sandwich?
Or, do you know a place where I could buy the roast pork and cuban bread to make my own? I know it’s a difficult ask but the heart wants what the heart wants.
Thanks ahead of time.
No, I hear you. I get cravings for them all the time …
There aren’t a lot of places doing them, unfortunately.
I’m going to direct you to Bayou Bakery, in Arlington, run by a highly pedigreed pastry chef in David Guas, and Cuba de Ayer, in Burtonsville, Md, a cozy hole in the wall operated by the husband-and-wife team of Jessica and William Rodriguez, a couple of Cuban immigrants.
Those are the two best Cubanos you’re going to find in the area right now.
La Limeña, in Rockville, makes a decent one, too.
Good luck, and I’d love to hear back from you, see what you think … Happy chowing!
Favorite dish parts …
Those cocoa puffs that Michel Richard puts on damn near every dessert. I love them, even if he really is just using a bag of cereal.
The wing on a good roast peruvian chicken. Crispy and seasoned and with a dip in green sauce THAT is the answer to the best wing in the city question from a month ago.
The middle of a good almond croissant. Maybe I should just buy some marzipan?
You know what I love on an almond croissant? The thick bottom. You get the crunch there, and then that hit of almond paste.
As for wings — oh, yeah. Anything joint on a good chicken is great. I love the neck.
Those cocoa crunchies that Richard puts on some of his desserts, by the way — including his chocolate mousse — are made from scratch from what I understand. So, he makes his own puffed cereal and then coats them in ganache.
I’m with you; I could eat a dessert of just the crunchies.
He introduced a dessert at Citronelle some years ago that I loved, with those same crunchies (only they were three or four times as big) in a cereal bowl, filled with milk that had been steeped in beragmot, the whole thing topped with flakes of dark chocolate.
You have to really love cereal to like a dish like that, and I’m a cereal lover.
A pretty hilarious way to end dinner at a four-star restaurant, digging into a bowl of cereal. But that’s Richard …
I will second your Pope’s Nose…and throw down the juice you suck out of a steamed crawfish head and the mustard from steamed crabs.
Love crawfish heads. Love ’em.
And that mustard — the tamalley — is definitely an acquired taste, but once you have it, you really do tend to seek it out. Great to know you’re one of the seekers, Van Ness …
I’d love to assemble a meal just out of all the parts we waxed poetical about today. It’d be one helluva meal, and one helluva good time, too …
Maybe someday, somewhere … a gathering of readers and host … who knows?
Anyway, something to think about …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]