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 AM 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, The Daily Beast 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 present-day evangelist, a
foul-mouthed transgendered multi-millionaire vintner on an obsessive
quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
* Vin 909 Winecafe, Annapolis
I feasted on a couple of superlative pizzas not long ago, and they didn’t come from 2 Amys, Pete’s New Haven Style Pizza, Pupatella, Moroni & Brother’s, Comet, Orso, Haven Pizzeria, Graffiato or Menomale. They came from the kitchen at this always-swarmed, no-reservations wine bar, housed in a restored craftsman bungalow just over the bridge from Annapolis in tiny Eastport. The key players are Alex Manfredonia, who works the front of the (tiny) house, and Justin Moore; the pair met working at a restaurant in San Francisco, and headed east to take over the space previously occupied by Wild Orchid Cafe. Moore and his team produce a crust that’s close to perfect—thin, marvelously hillocked, chewy where it needs to be and crispy everywhere else, and hit with just enough salt. The Margherita is more heavily dressed than is usual, but it’s excellent, and so is an unlikely concoction of baked beans, Tillamook cheese, fontina and coleslaw. Don’t miss the spin on a lobster roll, with creamy, chive-flecked crab salad tucked between two griddled squares of bread; there’s a cup of seafood bisque for dunking.
* Blue Duck Tavern, DC
On my Twitter feed last week, I teased the news that made a “massive and exciting leap,” then sat back and watched the guesses pour in. No one came up with the right place, and to be honest, if I hadn’t been there to enjoy it, I would never have guessed, either. Sebastien Archambault is a major talent, and without overhauling the menu or concept has given a restaurant that had slid dangerously close to irrelevance in the past year or so the kiss of life.
* Indaroma, Alexandria
Thanks for this excellent find goes to regular reader, N.A. This Alexandria shop is a bakery and catering service with a small cafe. You order at the counter. Atmosphere is a flat-screen TV turned to a food channel. None of that matters when the food arrives—a palaak chaat that’s nearly as virtuosic and delicious as the tour de force dish that has become a signature item at Rasika; fantastic kati rolls made with rumali roti and not flour tortillas; and rich and vibrant curries.
El Chucho Cocina Superior, DC
When it’s on, an exhilarating tour through the intricate, layered flavors of regional Mexican cooking, backed by a long list of cocktails, margaritas, sipping tequilas and mezcals. Early hits: a smoky grilled corn cob impaled on a skewer, spritzed with lime, rolled in grated cheese and dusted with queso fresco; the tongue-shaped chips known as huaraches, topped with crumbled queso fresco and pickled onions and served with a sublime dark mole; a torta, or sub, that impersonates a Manwich and a Chicago beef sandwich all at once—chopped adobo pork dredged in a spicy Arbol chili sauce, garnished with black beans, onions, avocado and chihuahua cheese and then submerged in that same sauce again before serving (forgo the accompanying plastic gloves and give in to the sloppy lusciousness).
Of the crop of Neapolitan-style pizzerias that made their debut sometime in the past year, I’m most partial to this tiny Brookland operation, a joint venture of hophead Leland Estes and pizzaiolo Ettore Rusciano. Rusciano is a passionate craftsman, with an eye for balance (the best of these pies are chewy where they need to be and crispy where they need to be), a respect for proportionality, and an understanding of the importance of salt. That same great dough is used for the tasty calzones and sandwiches. You can even sample it in the must-order starter, the affetata, an attractive selection of meats and cheeses.
Green Pig Bistro, Arlington
One of the best and most intriguing of the current crop of Hipster Farmhouse restaurants (dishtowel napkins, bluegrass in the air, repurposed wood and yard-sale tchochkes throughout). The chef, Scot Harlan, an alumnus of the kitchen at Inox, cooks with precision and clarity, making light of a plate of crispy pig tacos (the pig, here, is salty, crunchy matchsticks of julienned ears) and even a country-style pate. There’s a fantastic drinks menu, and a not-bad selection of Virginia wines, including a Michael Shaps Cab Franc that sells for $5 a glass; it’s a perfect match for the rich, porky treats.
You’d never find it if you weren’t looking for it. Situated in the fascinating industrial sector of Rockville, amid a slew of old warehouses and specialty supply stores, this cozy Korean mom ‘n’ pop is about as hidden as hidden gems get. The cooking is vivid and punchy—great bibimbap, served several ways, along with a parade of soups, noodle dishes and stir frys. Order a soju to wash it all down; the mango and watermelon are fresh and gently sweet, a good counterpart to the garlicky intensity of the food.
Maple Avenue, Vienna
Some diners might be skeptical of splurging for $20 + entrees in a tiny, repurposed diner where the 8 tables are wedged together so closely the room can feel like one big dinner party when the drinks are flowing. Others might be skeptical of the menu, which bends in a dozen different directions, implying a kitchen with a scattered, be-everything-to-everyone vision— which is to say, no vision at all. But this is a surprisingly focused restaurant —and a surprisingly rewarding one, too, a place that feels like a personal statement, backed by an amiable staff that clearly aims to send you away smiling. The chef and owner, Tim Ma, does his part, too. He makes a mean shrimp and grits, and his beef cheek sandwich with beer battered fries is one of the best simple plates around. Don’t miss the bread pudding.
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.
Sidebar, Silver Spring
Chef Diana Davila-Boldin, a Windy City native, has improved upon her Chicago dog—grilling the link, griddling the bun and overloading the ripe, fresh toppings. The result? The best dog in Washington, and better than any Chicago dog I have ever had in Chicago. I’d give this poolhall/hipster bar/cafe a spot on the list just for that, but I also love her mini-falafel, her homemade sausages, her cod fritters, and the cochinita tacos that amount to a glorious precis of El Chucho’s Cocina Superior—Jackie Greenbaum’s forthcoming “inauthentic Mexican” restaurant, in Columbia Heights.
Mintwood Place, DC
Perry’s owner Saied Azali was lucky to land Cedric Maupillier, formerly the chef at Central and before that the chef de cuisine at Citronelle, for his rusticky new bistro. The Toulon native is doing typically great work—cranking out lovingly faithful renditions of such bistro classics as cassoulet (see if you can finish it without two glasses of wine) and steak tartare (the tiny, crunchy tater tots on top are a clever allusion to his old boss, Michel Richard) as well as offering up some sly, smart takes on tradition (frogs’ legs with black walnut romesco, a lamb tongue moussaka). There’s a whole boneless dorade with picholine olives and braised fennel that’s a knockout—beautifully conceived, perfectly executed.
East Pearl, Rockville
A superlative addition to the unofficial Chinatown of northern Rockville, this cheery, subtly modish restaurant is turning out uncommonly clean-tasting versions of standard Hong Kong-style fare, including shrimp dumpling soup, shrimp with walnuts, and soyed chicken—all spectacular. And don’t miss a Shanghai-style noodle dish that brings together angel hair, roast pork, shrimp, green onions and a generous spoonful of yellow curry powder into a light, greaseless and remarkably vivid whole.
*New this week…
This Week’s Contest: Cheap Eats We Missed
So now that you’ve had some time to dig into our 2012 Cheap Eats list, we’re ready for some feedback. What’d we miss, folks? Don’t just tell us the name of the spot we failed to include, tell us why it belongs on the list. Remember the rules: To qualify, a restaurant must have seating, and a full meal needs to come in under $25, tax and tip included. The winner gets a copy of The New York Times Book of Wine, a collection of stories from some of the country’s best wine writers.
the Citronelle story:
Todd, the person who told the Citronelle story said that it happened a while ago and specifically said that after they got their jackets/coats, they walked out into the cold.
I too thought it was odd that the person thought to mention it now, but he (?) did indicate that it wasn’t extremely recent.
The only time my husband and I went to Citronelle, service was so snooty, he swore he’d never go back, and he’s mellower than I am.
Well, no snooty service for the next 6 months … ; )
Actually, Citronelle may be shut down for longer than that. I got a phone message over the weekend from Michel Richard, and in it he mentioned the reported 6-month estimate but also suggested it might be “12 months, who knows?”
Whatever you might think of the service, it’s an important restaurant, and it’s a shame to think that Richard won’t have a playpen for that long a stretch of time. It’ll be interesting to see how he spends his time in the interregnum. Will that mean more attention for Central, and a tweaking of the program there?
I wrote to you about this time last year when Mellow Mushroom was trying to open and kept getting delayed. I was wondering what your experience was like, if you have been able to go? Have you ever tasted anything similar to the delectable Esperanza dressing?
Has anyone else?
Trying to find a good bistro for the weekend—similar feel to Mintwood Place, ideally. Is Central still very good? Prefer in DC if possible. Thank you!
Closer in spirit, I think, would be Green Pig Bistro.
Which isn’t DC proper, but Clarendon these days feels to me like a suburb of Georgetown, so …
Green Pig also has the dish towel napkins, the tchochkes, the brawny, porky menu … Since you’ve been to the one, you ought to check out the other, if for no other reason than to do a compare/contrast of the two places that right now define the Hipster Farmhouse aesthetic.
Top to bottom, I like the cooking at Mintwood Place more; I think Cedric Maupillier is a huge talent, and he’s putting out some of the most delicious plates in the city right now. But Green Pig is tasty, and fun, and I think you’d enjoy yourself there.
My sister, her husband, and my two nephews (6-year-old and 1-year-old) are coming to visit me in Washington this week!
I’m so used to dining out without kids that I don’t even know where to take them for dinners out on the town. Any suggestions for kid-friendly options? We’re looking to stay in DC proper or potentially venture out to Arlington. Thanks!
This might help.
It’s a guide I put together to go with a long essay I wrote on taking my son out to eat with me. Let me know if not, and I can see if I can find something else that might be a better fit. What kinds of foods won’t the kids eat?
Good morning Todd
I am looking to celebrate a recent work accomplishment. I would like to do a high end, classic Washington restaurant. I would prefer regional-based and price is not too much of an object. What would be your choice? 1789? Oval Room? a steakhouse? other ideas?
But if you’re not a strict constitutionalist with the way you define “Washington restaurant,” then I’d give a long look to Blue Duck Tavern, which I just made room for on my Where I’m Eating Now list.
Doesn’t have deep roots like 1789, but if certainly qualifies in the category of “sophisticated power spot.”
And—more importantly—It’s eating better than it has in a long, long time. I would go so far as to say that it’s eating better than it ever has.
I love lemon merigue pie! And now that I am in the third trimester of my pregnancy I love it (and want it) even more. The sweet and tangy, light and dense. For me, the perfect dessert. But I can’t find a good lemon merigue pie in the DC/MD area! Many of the bakeries don’t have it and if they do, they only sell by the slice. My baby (and I) need a whole pie! I got so desperate that I bought a lemon merigue pie at the local grocery store. It wasn’t great and it only whetted my appetite for a great lemon merigue pie. Please help a pregnant woman in the DC summer heat and point me in the right direction (perferably in the Rockville or downtown DC area) for great lemon merigue pie.
First of all, congratulations, and I hope you’re managing all right in this extreme heat. I can’t imagine the next couple of months will be any different. (And actually, I just heard that we’re in for a very, very warm Fall … )
I guess a good lemon meringue pie is part of the managing, huh?
I love the stuff, too—one of my favorite pies—and yet off the top of my head, nothing is coming to me at the moment …
Chatters, help: Who’s got one?
My 4 year old wants to go to a hibachi grill for her birthday…places that come to mind include Benihana, Sakura… any recommendations? Hibachi grill would not be my first choice, but the kiddo is the star on her birthday!
My wife and I have had this conversation, too. She thinks he’d enjoy going to a place like Benihana. I think he’d enjoy it, too. But my thing is, if he doesn’t know that it exists, then he doesn’t feel as though he’s missing anything, so let’s not bring it up, capice?. ; ) … I can see doing this at some point—going for the show, as it were, and then coming home and having a second (stealth) dinner.
I wonder if kiddo would enjoy sitting around the robata grill at Kushi—? Leaping flames, sweaty cooks, rotating meats on spindles … Fun times …
What do you think?
Enough of a spectacle?
I’m heading to Vegas in a few weeks with a group of old friends. Now the strip I know, but we’re actually staying in Downtown Old Vegas. Do you know of anything worth eating down there, or will we be just cabbing to meals we’d actually rather be eating?
Well, there’s Lotus of Siam.
That’s the only one I can vouch for.
Anybody else? Who’s got picks for “old” Vegas?
Good Morning. This past week I have visited Paul Bakery in DC and La Limena in Rockville. I have posted about them and if you have any feedback, I would love to hear it. Thank you and the link is povinthedmv.blogspot.com.
Good stuff, Andrew. Keep it coming …
I agree with you about the rice at La Limeña; it’s fantastic. I could make a meal of just the rice and beans there.
OK, and maybe a pisco sour or two … : )
You asked about the secret to the rice. I would be willing to bet that garlic figures into the cooking process at some point. It’s well-seasoned, so salt, obviously, and well-oiled, too — though not oily; my guess is that a good olive oil is used.
Do you mind if I give a little advice? Make it a point to write every day on your blog, even if you don’t have a restaurant to write about. Even if you think you don’t have anything to say. (It sure doesn’t stop most bloggers … ; )
Just write. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and how you look at things, and think about things, just from setting your thoughts down every day. And what could be better than that?
Blue Duck Tavern:
What did you eat there that put them back on the map? I loved this restaurant during the early years, but my last time there (about 2 years ago) was lackluster. Glad to hear that things are turning around.
My last meal prior to the chef change was lackluster, too.
Lackluster and expensive.
But everything seems to be singing now. The marrow bones are luxurious again. The crabcakes are worth it again (they’re served with a fantastic aioli that’s mixed with lobster bisque). A dish of roast suckling pig was surprisingly delicate, for such a heavy, rich dish — a terrific example, I thought, of Archambault’s technical gifts.
Best desserts I’ve had there in a long while, including a gorgeous and delicious lemon tart.
Three expecting fathers will be heading out to enjoy a night on the town. We have a 7 PM reservation at the Passenger for drinks. We need a restaurant recommendation for post Passenger. Something in that area would be great. We are open for almost any cuisine or price range. No red meat.
It’s a short walk from there to Fiola.
I don’t think you’ll be sorry.
And congratulations to all of you!
I think Bon Chon Chicken should be on the list. It’s cheap and it’s the most addicting fried chicken ever. I’m a newbie to the chain, and after having my first experience only two weeks ago, I’m craving it almost everyday!
It is, it’s addicting.
I know that feeling you describe very, very well.
It was in contention, I can tell you that. With Cheap Eats, there’re probably about 30-40 places that we give serious consideration to in the late stages of the process, and maybe 20 right up to the last minute.
Thanks for writing in …
Though I’m mad at you for planting that Bon Chon seed in my brain, making my mouth water for spicy Korean chicken … : )
Just a little gripe w/ the cheap eats list. It’s difficult to navigate. How can I just get a plain/simple list?
You scan the list of names to find the place or places you’re looking for. If you don’t find it, you just turn the page
Oh, wait—you mean online?
Well, then—speaking of gripes. My gripe is with your gripe. Buy the magazine.
Simple. Clean. Easy.
Are there any authentic Puerto Rican places in the area? I have a craving for mofongo with skirt steak and an ice cold Medalla Light!
There’s Manna, in Takoma Park.
And … I don’t think anywhere else.
I haven’t been there in a while, but I remember liking the mofongo. They do a version there with shrimp.
Thanks for the reminder; I’ll have to get over there soon and see what it’s like these days …
Adams Morgan Dweller:
re: Mellow Mushroom, my husband and I are big fans.
We live in the neighborhood and the food and service are good and the beer selection is awesome. It’s a great place to watch a game, and is a nice addition to a neighborhood that can cater to a slightly younger crowd. The stuffed portabello mushroom appetizer is one of my favorites, and the spot has become a go-to for us.
Good to know. Thanks for the report …
Isn’t Benihana one of those shared cultural experiences that every child should experience no matter how much the adults despite them (happy meals, Chuck E. Cheese, clown for a birthday party, etc.)?
A shared cultural experience?
What’s cultural about an inauthentic Japanese corporate concept restaurant that won’t spring for good ingredients and puts out crap food?
And Chuck E. Cheese is worse.
Do we, as parents, HAVE to do these things? Really? Why?
And why should you do anything with your child that you yourself despise, assuming, that is, that you have a choice in the matter?
For the person asking about Puerto Rican cuisine, what about Mio downtown on Vermont Ave?
Yes, of course!
Thank you for writing in with that …
The new-ish chef, Giovanna Huyke, a Puerto Rican native, is doing very good work there.
There’s mofongo on the Puerto Rican Fridays menu …
To follow up on my situation at Citronelle, it was not going to be a partial tasting in the sense that we were trying to scale down the tasting. I planning on ordering the full tasting menu and my gf was going to choose the 3 course tasting, both of which appear on the menu, no changes were being requested. It was also stressed to us that the kitchen would easily be able to achieve this, they just refused because it would not be enjoyable for us.
I’d be very frustrated and upset, too, if what I was promised was not what I was delivered. And especially if I had built it up so much in my mind, as you did, and made my dinner there the centerpiece of an important night out.
I’d still love to hear Citronelle’s side of things …
I know this is probably way out of the her local area but there is a baker who sets up at the Warrenton Farmer’s Market called Sue’s Pies. All of her creations are delicious (we are particularly fond of her killer key lime and chocolate bottomed banana cream) and I believe she does a lemon meringue as well.
Sounds like it’s worth driving for …
And if you have a craving, and really, really love a thing enough, and that thing is within striking distance, well, then you hop in the car and go. Right?
Thanks for the great tip …
Hi Todd, where would one go for some great and authentic Colombian food? My boyfriend is half Colombian and is always craving something delicious and authentic but we have yet to find anything that fits the bill. Thank you as always for the wonderful chats and advice!
Jaymar Colombian Breeze, in the Kentlands of Gaithersburg.
Terrific little spot.
Great chicharron, plantains, arepas, soups …
Puerto Rico – now I want some mofongo too!
Mio does a Puerto Rico Friday menu. Lechon, mofongo, tostones.
Yep, just mentioned it above.
And now I’m craving some, too.
Mofongo, lechon, a Cuba Libre … Oh, man …
Although I appreciate the abundance of Asian food on the list of cheap eats, I would have LOVED the inclusion of Hai Duong (located in Eden Center).
The service is fast and reliable, and with such an extensive menu I can always find something to satisfy me. I love any of the dishes with banh hoi. The roasted quail there is the best in Eden Center (in my humble opinion). The skin is perfectly crispy. The sauce is slightly sweet, and tastes delectable with the watercress that I use to mop up every last drop. I always end up ungracefully sucking and munching on the bones until there’s only crumbs left. YUM!
I’m ravenous, reading that and recalling my memories of the roast quail there. (I also, by the way, really like the roast quail at Nha Trang; they do a slight spin on the dish.)
I can tell you this: Hai Duong was a very late cut. On certain days, it seems to me we could extend that list out, easy, and go with 125 places. I can think of a half-dozen just in the Eden Center that I might add.
Shared Cultural Experience:
Part of a “shared cultural experience” is that everyone has been through it. I realize that “appealing to tradition” is a logical fallacy but in the case of Benihana, you’re not there for the food.
As for doing things you don’t enjoy? Simple, its not about you. Sometimes you do things for your kids because they enjoy them.
I understand what you’re saying.
But you don’t know if a kid enjoys a thing if a kid hasn’t been, and I say—hold out as long as possible until he or she finds out about a place like Benihana or Chuck E. Cheese. And maybe, if I’ve done my part, he will say—as Eric Ripert once proudly told me his young son used to say of McDonald’s—”Yuck.”
I don’t know. I like the idea of, as much as possible, bringing a kid into your world, as opposed to letting the kid and “the culture” and other kids determine the rules and the codes and the language. Doesn’t mean you can’t do things because the kid enjoys them.
Enough of that.
Time to pick a winner, and I’m going with Arlington’s delicious plea for Hai Duong. I’m craving roast quail now.
Along with key lime pie and Korean fried chicken. You all done good, making me ravenous just before lunch.
Thanks so much for the great questions and submissions and tasty tips. I appreciate it, as always …
Arlington, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with your address, and we’ll get that book out to you today.
Be well and eat well, everyone, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]