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 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.
Can’t wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world. Or write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: SUNA, IN EASTERN MARKET …:
Report from the field. I was one of a few commenting/questioning the format and menu of the new restaurant Suna, and said I would likely wait awhile to visit until the kinks were ironed out given the “all-in” format of the tasting only menu. Well, I yielded a bit sooner.
We returned from intense family holiday time (and intensely heavy Midwestern holiday food) and on a bit of a whim got last minute reservations at Suna last week. In short, it was a delight. We did the four course with pairings. The food was different than any menu I’ve seen (root vegetable course? Not my absolute fave but interesting). We both loved out meat courses (I had fowl, husband had pork) and we both noted that this was one of the rare tasting menus where the meat course wasn’t the lowlight, which we have found to be the case at Obelisk and even Komi (gasp, I know).
The pairings were spot on. Interestingly they paired beer with the pork. It certainly wasn’t cheap but it’s a perfect date night spot: cozy, intimate and food that encourages nibblinh off each other’s plate out of curiosity about what is presented.
The service was nearly perfect as well. There were many empty tables, which hopefully will change in time because it’s so different than anything on the Hill right now. Fingers crossed they are able to make it work.
Thanks for that terrific report.
I’ve been, as well, and am intrigued by the place. There’s clearly a lot of passion among the staff for food and drink, a lot of thought has gone into every detail of the menu and wine program, and there’s evidence of ripe talent on every plate. I think that Suna is one of those restaurants that needs to be given the time to grow and mature, and I hesitate to pronounce upon it too quickly. I see it very much as a restaurant-in-process. And I’m fascinated to watch it evolve.
Which isn’t to say hold off, just that the definitive word on the place is a ways away.
You mentioned the price. It’s interesting — the $48 four-course tasting menu is actually a tasting menu bargain if you think about it. Minibar — with, yes, a celebrity chef — charges $225. Even Rogue’s 4-course — with, yes, a James Beard Award-winner — costs $75; $75 for four plates the size of tapas, or smaller.
Re: FIOLA, AND RAPIDLY ESCALATING PRICES …:
Knowing you’re a huge fan of Fiola I want to share this with you. My wife and I went there for dinner last 5 months ago and loved it. The food was simple and direct, the service was accommodating. We really enjoyed most of it and left with a smile on our face. It wasn’t cheap, but reasonable for what you got.
Last week was a DISASTER What happened to this restaurant? Their prices are the highest in town: $60 for beef entree? $56 for veal chop dish? And nearly $50 for Turbot fish? What are they thinking? Are they milking the cow? They are scaring guests and driving diners like us away.
We shared an appetizer, pasta and each got an entrée, had $70 bottle of wine, no dessert. We left $370 lighter. How could anyone afford this restaurant anymore for a simple night out? Isn’t this supposed to be a trattoria with affordable prices? Cocktails at $15?
They should NOT take advantage of glorifying endorsements and support from food writers, publications and magazines to eventually rape consumers like us. Do you feel you have been way too complimentary given the latest turnaround in quality-service- price ratio? Trattorioas supposed to be affordable delivering homemade food kinda of cuisine.
The food was ok-good, not great, the service inattentive and confusing. It used to be caring, but last week it was disorganized, loud, arrogant and badly orchestrated. Would you agree with us that for the same price we could have had a wonderful meal at the Inn in Washington or in any decent restaurants in New York ? I used to like this restaurant immensely, now I feel betrayed. Sorry for ranting, but from now on I will bring my $ to other Italian establishments in the area where consistency and care are always top priority like restaurant Bibiana, Elisir or Tosca
Actually, no, you couldn’t have had dinner at the Inn at Little Washington for that price.
But I hear you.
Early on, Fiola struck me as uncertain of its direction, poised awkwardly between Maestro, which chef Fabio Trabocchi had piloted to the top spot on our 100 Best List in the mid-aughts, and Fiamma, the hopping, casual restaurant he left DC for New York to run.
The restaurant had a course correction, and seemed to grasp the style, presentation and emphasis it needed to have in this new, more accessible age. And now, ever since, prices have been edging upward. It’s as if Trabocchi is not content, ultimately, to run a superb trattoria, and is determined to turn the place into a slightly more relaxed, more contemporary version of what he left behind at Maestro.
The prices you quote — those are specials, I take it? Oooof.
Even so, you can still eat much more cheaply than that, if you focus on certain dishes; most pastas don’t approach that range of price. Most of the rest of the menu is not that high, either.
But point taken.
And as to your question about being too complimentary, I can only judge by my own eyes, ears, nose and palate. You’ve eaten there more recently than I. I remain high on the place, but as I think everybody on here knows, assessments are not immutable things. They change. I visited a restaurant a couple weeks ago, a place I used to adore. It was a disaster of a visit that cost the restaurant a spot on the 100 Best list. Did I hesitate to do this? No. I felt a pang. But part of my job is to deal with what is, not what I wish to be.
THOUGHTS ON RESTAURANT WEEK …?:
Restaurant Week is almost upon us, and I want to be sure to get the best bang for my buck.
I made reservations at Rasika and BlackSalt. Do both seem like good RW options in your opinion?
I know people have mixed feelings about RW–my hope is to eat at good places and hopefully spend less money than I would on a normal night.
I think you’re 1 for 2.
BlackSalt isn’t the sort of restaurant I’d zero in on for Restaurant Week. To me, it’s a high-minded neighborhood restaurant, with high prices. I recommend saving your money and calories for special restaurants, places that are generally out of reach for everyday eating, places that are doing interesting, ambitious things on the plate. Rasika is one of those.
As for Restaurant Week in general, I think that it’s a bit of a trap at dinner time. At lunch, however, I think it’s a fantastic enticement — 20 bucks for three courses is pretty great, and especially if it’s at a restaurant that gives you the run of its menu and takes the week seriously.
If I were planning three RW outings, I would make sure at least two of them were for lunch. I think you get greater bang for your buck.
DINING IN SILVER SPRING, ROCKVILLE OR BALTIMORE …?:
Love your chats, Todd!
My husband and I are looking for a dinner spot either on the way back to Rockville from BWI or close to BWI – we are open to all types of food and any location (Silver Spring, Baltimore, Rockville, etc).
Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
Boy, it’s been a while since I’ve been, but if you’re in the mood for a good crabcake there’s G and M in Linthicum Hts., not far from BWI.
And one of my most memorable meals of the past couple of months was in Baltimore, at Pabu, a collaboration of chefs Michael Mina and Ken Tominaga. Terrific, beautifully sliced and presented fish — 22 kinds were on offer the night I was in; the best and most extensive sake collection in the region; and an assortment of fantastic skewered nibbles from the robata, or charcoal grill, including chicken skin, hearts, and tail. This last is served kabob-style, with three perfectly grilled, perfectly seasoned chicken tails all bunched together on a wooden skewer.
In Rockville, I’d recommend Sichuan Jin River, which is putting out some of the best Chinese cooking in the entire area.
In Silver Spring, let’s see … well, I tweeted the news the other day that Ed Witt, previously of 701, has switched digits and is now the chef at 8407 Kitchen + Bar. Interesting hire. I’ll be curious to see what the baroquely tatted chef does there. Meantime, I would expect that the heart of the place — its lamb bolognese with homemade tagliatelle, its burger, its charcuterie plate, its oysters, its Rita Garruba-made desserts — remains as strong as ever.
Good luck. Hope you find something delicious … Let me know what you end up doing, OK?
FED UP WITH THIS WHOLE NO-RESERVATIONS THING … …:
I dined this past weekend at a popular restaurant that does not take reservations. Rather than wait for a table, my dining partner and I figured we’d just try ordering at the bar. But it was so busy that the majority of the bar and high tops were occupied with people nursing a drink or two (or nothing) while they waited to be seated to order in the dining room.
I can’t help but think people who actually want to sit and order a meal at the bar should have priority over people who are nursing a drink for 30-45 minutes. But short of instituting a bar minimum, I’m not sure much can be done. Any thoughts on this?
Yeah, not sure much can be done.
I have to think that the vast majority of restaurants would side with you on this; I would think they’d much prefer making more money, not less.
But what can they do? Kick people out? Enforce a policy?
The no-reservations thing is frustrating. I’m frustrated by it as much as anyone. There’s no way around it, other than to make more of a point of patronizing very good restaurants that for whatever reason are not buzzy. There are, as it happens, a lot of them.
Re: “DINING AT LEVEL 3” …:
Just wanna say thanks for the beautiful essay on dining at “Level 3.” It reminds us of what we should all strive for: authenticity not only in food, but also in relationships.
If you ever write a book or collection of essays I would surely read it.
That’s really sweet of you to say — thank you.
As a matter of fact, I do have a book out, The Wild Vine, which — indulge me for a second, everyone — tells the story of a fascinating, indomitable man who made a fortune and fathered six children, then turned his entire life over when he got his first sip of Norton, a wine native to Virginia that was birthed in the antebellum era. He gave up his business, decided to grow grapes and make wine, and became a woman.
The book tells that story, and braids it with her obsession with the man who hybridized and cultivated this native grape — a Richmond doctor, living in the city around the same time as Edgar Allan Poe, and, like him, a melancholic and loner. When his wife and child die together, on the same day, he flirts with suicide for months. He’s brought back from the brink by his discovery that his experimental farm has yielded a grape that is hardy enough and tasty enough to do what nobody in Virginia, not even Thomas Jefferson, has been able to do for two centuries: make a good fine wine.
So, two outsider-obsessives, and between them the book chronicles the story of all the others who make up the chain that links these two unlikely figures. Who are, themselves, outsiders and obsessives.
I think — I hope — you’ll enjoy it.
OK, end of shameless plug … ; )
MARYLAND EATS …:
Maryland-themed questions (but in DC):
Who has the best crabcake in DC and is there any place that sells Smith Island cake?
I am leery of making pronouncements of “best,” since I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of the area’s crabcakes in a while, but the crabcake that stands out the most for me, amid all the meals I’ve eaten in the past six months, is the one at Blue Duck Tavern.
Smartly conceived, beautifully made, and the coral aioli — flavored with lobster bisque, I want to say — is a superlative condiment.
The last Smith Island Cake I had was at Family Meal. Nothing special. Kind of dry. As for buying one whole, there’s a place on the Eastern Shore that makes and sells them — originalsmithislandcakeco.com
NOTES FROM THE NORTH CAROLINA BBQ TRAIL — EASTERN N.C. EDITION …:
Happy New Year Todd.
I was fortunate to bookend my holiday travels with some pitstops along the N.C. BBQ Trail. On the way down the I-95 I stopped off at Wilbur’s BBQ in Goldsboro, NC. The place was hopping on a Sunday afternoon.
The BBQ was freshly chopped and sauced, they couldn’t keep up with the demand. A wonderful mix of chopped and shredded whole hog pork (their bbq seems to be less finely chopped than some other places), lightly dressed with vinegar/pepper sauce and mixed with little chunks of crackling…truly succulent. I grabbed 2 pounds to go and four days later the last couple bites still tasted great.
On the way home, I hit the back roads and made for Ayden, NC, home of the legendary Skylight. Unfortunately Skylight was closed for some holiday renovations, but the work crew directed me to Bum’s Restraurant in downtown Ayden. A quaint two room restaurant, the food is served up cafeteria steam table style. The BBQ wasn’t quite as good as Wilbur’s, it had an odd mushiness to it and the crackling pieces were chewy. But solid all around and worth a stop in if one finds themselves in Ayden (home of an annual collard festival).
You’re killing me, Van Ness … : )
Ah, Wilbur’s, Wilbur’s, Wilbur’s …
Thanks for that evocative dispatch …
Who else had some interesting eating adventures over the holidays? I’d love to hear them.
ESPRESSO AND SHAKSHUKA:
Oh he who knows all, any word on when the Israeli Aroma Espresso Bar is opening in Montgomery Mall in Bethesda?
I would make a trip for the coffee and Shakshuka.
It’s funny: this is hardly a “high-profile” opening, and yet I have been eagerly awaiting it for months, just like you. More for the shakshuka than the coffee, but the prospect of both, together, is pretty enticing.
Shakshuka is one of those dishes that, if you had a good version of it the first time, you become instantly smitten with. And ever after you begin to develop cravings for it.
So simple. Peppers, tomatoes, paprika, cumin, onions, garlic, all cooked down for a very long time — until it produces a sweet, aromatic stickiness. Then, crack in a few eggs. Voila! — that’s it. Doesn’t sound like much, but trust me — irresistible, especially if you have some good flatbread or good, crusty bread for soaking up the sauce and egg.
Re: HOLIDAY DINING: NOTES FROM THE FIELD …:
Mission Chinese – NYC Probably best szechuan style chinese food I have ever had. Worth the two hour wait to get a table at this little hole in the wall in the lower east side.
It looks like a little take out place but if you peel back the curtain and walk down the hallway it opens up into this small dining room that is alive with people, blaring hip-hop, and very good food. It is like looking down the rabbit hole and jumping in head first into a sea of flavors and chilis that excite and intrigue a diner’s taste buds. After having to wait two hours (you can either leave your name and phone number and htey will call you when you your table is close to being ready or you can stick around and enjoy the free beer they have flowing from a keg, which diners can dispense themselves) we decided to order as many dishes as possible.
Some of our favorite dishes were the szechuan chicken wings. The chicken wings are buried underneath a pile of chilis. My tongue went numb from eating the wings yet you want to keep on eating. We also had the smashed cucumber with salted chili and garlic which was a hit at the table as was the Tingly Tea smoked chicken. In total we ordered around 10 dishes, which plentiful for the entire table.
It is hard to put Mission Chinese down in words except to say that when my wife and I woke up the next morning we asked ourselves what we wanted for lunch and we both said we could go back for some more Mission Chinese.
Also, on a side note we are extremely fortunate to have Rasika & Rasika West End in DC. We ventured out to try Junoon the 1 star Michelin Restaurant and our take from it was it has nothing on Rasika or Rasika West End. Junoon, was like a big budget hollywood film with a lot of hype and no story. It is housed in spacious dining room, which catches the diner’s eye but when the food arrives it just muddled one-note tasting food. Also, for a 1 star Michelin restaurant the service was lacking too.
Marc Forgioine was an excellent dining experience as well. We went with some friends are straight meat and potato type of people but they liked it so much that they went back one more time before they left NYC. The Chili Lobster dish was exquisite, which my friend told me he was excited to order again and this time not have to share it with anyone. Of course we hit up many of the notable food carts the city has to offer and they did not disappoint either.
Naeem, thanks so much for the delicious report … Our mouths are watering …
Re: Mission. Either the meal I had was an aberration, or I’m just in the minority on this, but I liked but didn’t love the place. I expected more oomph and also more care. But it was fun.
I was trying to capture the place for a friend who hadn’t been, and I told her: Imagine that Chinese mom ‘n’ pop that’s been around since 1962. Faded, napless carpet … drab paint … packets of sugar and salt and pepper shakers on the tables. Now imagine a bunch of renegades has stormed the place and taken mom and pop hostage. They’re somewhere in a back room, their hands tied to chairs, socks stuffed in their mouths, while the renegades are going wild and putting pastrami in the kung pao.
LOVING LITTLE SEROW …:
I had asked last chat where my wife and I should go downtown for a rare night without kids. You recommended Fiola, Proof and Adour, and asked me to report back. We actually wound up at Little Serow.
I’ve been there twice before, but just can’t resist it. One of the highlights was sweet and spicy brussel sprouts, which the server said was sweetened with palm sugar and tamarind. My one (and only) criticism is that the ribs have been the last course all three times we’ve dined there. They’re delicious, but would love to see something else as the finale.
Thou spurnest me! ; )
Hard to blame you. Little Serow is pretty irresistible.
And really, hard to blame Little Serow, either, for the menu rigidity, if that’s even the right term. One reason the place excels, is that it keeps a tight control over everything: buying, planning, cooking.
There are a number of restaurants in the area that I think make the mistake of changing their menus too frequently. The result is a kitchen that doesn’t have time to perfect a dish. I understand why chefs change things up; it’s good for morale for a staff that logs punishing hours, and often with little thanks. And customers — especially regulars — like variety.
But there is an awful lot to be said for getting a dish right every single time.
One of the great things about going to family-run ethnic restaurants is that, while the menus don’t change very often, if ever, you can generally count on a dish that was great last time to be great again this time. That’s enormously appealing when you’re spending hard-earned money.
It’s much more uncertain when you’re dining out in trendy bistros and the like. In part, that’s because of staff turnover, and the volatility of the environment, and — not least — menus that change too often for the good of the establishment.
Re: BLACKSALT AND RESTAURANT WEEK …:
Follow-up on RW question:
So are you saying that BlackSalt isn’t really worth going to? Given that it’s a neighborhood spot, it’s probably not a place I’m going for a special occasion (birthday, anniversary), but with prices running upwards of $30 for an entree, it also seems a bit pricey for a normal night out. I figured $35/person for three courses was a steal–that is, if it’s worth trying.
I think it’s a good restaurant, but not as good as it thinks it is.
(Funny; that could be said of some other places now coming to mind … )
Prices are high, as you say, and in general I don’t think they’re justified. This isn’t a place I’d drop that kind of money. And RW, to me, is a time to zero in on places that really deliver, particularly on the plate.
BlackSalt is better than your average “neighborhood restaurant.” As a place to indulge or splurge, it’s not as good as other, comparably priced places in the city.
Re: MISSION CHINESE …:
I agree with your description of Mission Chinese. It is like the inmates are running the asylum and putting in my opinion great food.
The dish we liked the least were the beef pancake and the tawainese clam dish. Otherwise we would order everything we had again.
Junoon, though everytime I think about that meal I get mad because I feel like I got hustled. I know a diner cannot have a flawless meal everytime and that you will have some bad experiences, it is natural and comes with the territory. There are times when you feel hustled and this was one of those times. I told our guests that this is not what Indian cooking is about and that if they ever came to DC we would show them how it is done properly at Rasika.
It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it, that feeling of being hustled.
And what’s interesting to me is that, we don’t tend to feel this way when we go to a play and are disappointed, or listen to a CD and find it a dud, or read a book that doesn’t grip us or move us.
Only with restaurants.
I think that speaks to the great power, oddly enough, of a restaurant. When things are clicking and these talented, hard-working, passionate people are giving their all to create a delicious, pause-in-time moment for us, then we feel lifted up and carried away and hardly begrudge the high cost.
HELP! — TAKING MY MOTHER OUT TO DINNER …:
My mother is coming to DC for the first time in decades. I’m so excited to have her visit. She is a lowkey person but she loves and appreciates a good meal.
Any suggestions for a couple brunch or dinner places that well-represent our city but aren’t TOO over the top??
Not sure what “TOO over the top” might be in this case — nothing too experimental, nothing too adventurous — ?
In that case, how about Johnny’s Half Shell, on Capitol Hill, for seafood, oysters, and great pies. Great view of the Capitol, too, when you’re standing outside the door.
You could also take her to a restaurant a short walk from there, Bistro Bis, for a textbook duck confit, or a beautifully seared salmon, along with a slate of classic French desserts and ripe, beautiful cheeses.
For brunch, I would venture into Old Town and take her to Vermilion. It’s an attractive destination, a storefront location on an old cobblestone sidewalk, with a gas lamp marking the entrance.
I think it’s one of the best brunches in the area — for that matter, I think chef Tony Chittum is one of the best cooks in the area — and the service is warm, accessible, and informed.
I hope that helps. Drop back on and let me know where you end up dining …
NEW TO THE CITY — WHERE SHOULD I DINE?:
As a new resident of D.C., what restaurants do you recommend to introduce us to our new city?
Now, I could stall and make you wait for the 100 Best Restaurants issue, which will be on newsstands in a couple of weeks.
But it’s cruel to play coy with a newcomer.
My cheat sheet to some of the most exciting meals to be had in the city right now: Izakaya Seki, Fiola, Proof, Little Serow, Central Michel Richard, Cork, Jaleo, Mintwood Place …
I’d also encourage you to learn the various cultures that make up the area’s vast ethno-culinary landscape — and that distinguish DC from other cities.
My cheat sheet for that:
*Vietnamese (take a trip out to the Eden Center, in Falls Church, and hit Huong Viet or Rice Paper or Song Que or Hai Duong or Nhu Lan [banh mi shop] or Thanh Son Tofu [mock-meat emporium] or Xe Lua [pho], etc., etc.)
*Ethiopian (I like Ethiopic, on H St., as well as Meaza and Dama, in Arlington)
*Afghan (Faryab, in Bethesda)
*Pakistani (Ravi Kabob, with two locations in Arlington),
*Bolivian (El Pike, in Falls Church, and Tutto Bene, in Arlington)
*Szechuan (Hong Kong Palace, in Falls Church, and Sichuan Jin River, in Rockville)
*Peruvian (La Limena, in Rockville)
Hope this helps, and that you start to get out and explore all the city has to offer. Every place is unique, and DC — the region, now, not just the city proper — has a very rich and distinctive scene.
Gotta run, everyone. Time for lunch.
Thanks so much for all the questions and comments and tips and field reports. I’m so glad that you didn’t forget about me after a two week hiatus for Christmas and New Year’s. I appreciate it.
See you next week!
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]