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 writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, Lucky Peach, 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.
Todd previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock’s humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.
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
ISO A GOOD STEAK TARTARE … :
Hello, I’m looking for a good Steak Tartare in the greater Baltimore/Washington D.C./Northern Virginia area. Please help!
You’re in luck — lots of good ones out there.
Mintwood Place, Central Michel Richard, Bistro Bis, Fiola … all have really good versions of steak tartare.
And if you’re in the mood for a variation on the theme, you can swing by Ethiopic for their kitfo, a steak tartare seasoned not with cornichon, mayo and mustard but with niter kibbeh (a spiced butter) and mitmita. Fantastic.
Good morning, everyone.
I’m at home this cold, drizzly, raw morning, trying to stay warm. Been a pestilential month over here. Both sons are sick again, my wife is sick again. I shed my cough a week or so ago, and now I’ve got it coming back again. Been a rough winter of colds and flu …
Give me something to divert my focus, please … I want to talk about deliciousness …
MY D.C. DINING LIST FOR A RETURN WEEKEND TRIP TO THE CITY …:
I will be traveling back to DC in a few weeks for a weekend stay, where I previously lived from 1999-2009. I am staying in the Dupont Circle area and looking to try what’s new in DC dining.
I am thinking Rasika West End for lunch, Little Serow for dinner, The Gibson for drinks, The Source for a dim sum brunch and Blue Duck Tavern for dinner. I would love to try the new Sushi Taro, but I don’t have the time for a long omakase experience.
Did I miss anything great/hot/awesome?
That’s a pretty great list you assembled there — clearly, you’ve been keeping tabs.
If you’re concerned about a long omakase meal at Taro, then swap in Izakaya Seki, which I reviewed a few months ago. I think it’s one of the most exciting meals to be had in the city right now. Take a look: http://www.washingtonian.com/restaurantreviews/izakaya-seki-father-knows-best.php
I’ll be interested in hearing what you have to say about your binge-dining weekend. Drop back on and gift us with a note, ok?
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH RESERVATIONS AT RASIKA …?:
Love your chats! I’ve only been an observer/reader until now, but now I have a burning question that I’m hoping you can answer. What’s the deal with reservations at Rasika?
Every time I try for a reservation, it proves to be nearly impossible. I’m not talking about Restaurant Week or other special events, nor last-minute or large group reservations. Even in late summer, when things tend to be pretty slow in DC, I was unable to get a dinner reservation for a party of two more than two weeks in advance. I tried multiple days and times throughout a weekend when a friend was going to be visiting, and I got nowhere (unless we wanted to eat at 10 PM). I’ve had similar experiences at other times throughout the year. What’s the deal?
I know it’s a great restaurant — after all, that’s why I want to eat there — but it seems odd that it would be so very difficult to get a reservation after the place has been open for so many years (i.e., the initial buzz and clamoring has died down). It seems that it’s actually gotten harder to get a reservation there the longer that it’s been open.
Any idea what’s going on? Can you demystify what’s required for one to get a reservation there???
(I kid, I kid … )
What time are you trying for? It’s a lot easier to get a table at 5 or at 9:30. And what days are you trying for? Are you amenable to a Tuesday? And are you calling a week or two in advance?
“Hot” restaurants require more advance planning and more flexibility on the part of the diner.
And if you think it’s tough to get into Rasika, try getting into Minibar, which took me a month of trying and had me and my wife and friends sending off emails (they don’t “do” phone) every morning for weeks.
HELP! — HEADING TO KEY WEST THIS WEEKEND, NEED RECS …:
Getting this in early because its last minute so I’m really hoping for an answer! I am headed to Key West this weekend with three friends for my first visit there and was hoping you might have some suggestions!
Some things we might be looking for…..anywhere with great seafood (could be as casual as a food truck or up to a moderately priced sit down restaurant), a great, fun brunch place with good food, and/or anything that is really special or unique to Key West in terms of atmosphere.
Help on any or all of those would be greatly appreciated! Happy New Year!
I don’t have anything for you, but I’m sure someone — maybe several someones — on here do.
Who’s got tips?
Meantime, I think I speak for everyone out there in saying, on this dreary drizzly day that makes us long for a sunny escape: We hate you. ; )
Re: FARYAB, IN BETHESDA …:
I saw your recommendation of Faryab last week and realized that I haven’t been in probably decades, probably since not long after Kabul West closed.
But I’ve grown to adore The Helmand in Baltimore in that time; how does Faryab stack up?
Honestly, I’ve never thought to compare them.
I mean, for one thing — they’re in two different cities. And the experiences are so different. The Helmand is grander, with a bigger menu, and much more in the way of service.
Faryab is a good place. Its prices have crept up, and it’s not as good a bargain as it had been. But I still really, really like its kadu (a sweet stewed pumpkin with yogurt sauce) and its aushak (thin, mint-filled dumplings drenched in a zesty tomato-meat sauce and yogurt), among other things.
One of the best meals in Bethesda, by the way, and among the most reasonable.
IN PRAISE OF: RUAN THAI’S YUM WATERCRESS SALAD …:
Back in November one of the chatters mentioned it was possible to get Ruan Thai’s yum watercress with tofu, instead of the normal calamari and shrimp, which I can’t eat. I just wanted to thank that random, anonymous person, because I was totally jealous when my husband had ordered the dish and I was able to try it myself on Sunday.
It occurred to me that the dish is like a thai take on Rasika’s palak chaat — the crispy flash-fried greens serving as a bed for the salty, acidic brightness of the lime and red onion while the cashes add a rich toothiness…not crunchy like the greens, but firm and almost meaty.
Truly an outstanding dish.
I really like your description of it.
And thanks for writing in to talk about the tofu variant …
To be fair to Ruan, though, Yum Watercress Salad has been on the menu (I want to say) since the restaurant opened, which is at least a decade before Rasika was born. So shall we say, then, that Rasika’s palaak chaat is like an Indian twist on Yum Watercress Salad? ; )
There’s so much going on at once in this dish — I’d encourage everyone who hasn’t tasted it before to get in the car and make the trip. It’s so alive, and so interesting bite by bite, I sometimes feel as if I don’t need to go on to anything else at Ruan — this one dish satisfies all my needs. Brightness, crunch, tang, toastiness, etc.
MY WEEKEND IN FOOD …:
Hey Todd, here are my Best Bites from this past weekend:
Braised oxtail from Cafe 876 in Van Ness. The oxtail was well braised, the meat barely holding on, with enough little nubbles to gnaw off the bone. The gravy had soaked into the rice and peas adding deep richness to what was unfortunately otherwise boring rice (they need to work on their rice and peas!). Probably the best dish I’ve had off their menu. The rest can be a mixed bag.
Pink Lady Apple Pie with Cider Caramel at Proof. Pretty much everything you would want in a winter dessert and a great cap to an afternoon of museum wandering downtown.
Pistachio and Chocolate Noir Gelato and a Latte at Pitango. The pistachio has a lovely nutty flavor that is all pistachio and it mixes well with the dark bitter richness of the chocolate noir. Add a well made latte using Counter Culture beans and you have a perfect little respite between museums.
Thanks for the tasty report …
I’ve been keeping tabs on 876. I want it to round into what I think it can, and it sounds as though that oxtail was on the money. Good to hear.
Amazing how many Caribbean places don’t put any effort at all into their rice and peas. For every decent one, there are 9 indifferent ones.
By the way, if you haven’t gotten out to Pimento Grill, on Bowen Rd. in SE, you’re really missing out.
It’s some of the best Caribbean cooking around — and yes, the rice and peas are good, too.
It’s mostly a carry-out, but there is a table and they also have some stools for eat-in. Love the oxtail here. And the goat curry with roti.
Could really go for an order of either on a day like today …
THINKING ABOUT BANH MI …:
Over on another site, I recently read a glowing review of a banh mi sandwich at Ba Le in Dorchester, Mass. Do you know if there’s any connection to the Ba Le in Falls Church?
Where’s the best overall banh mi in the DC metro, in your opinion?
I don’t know if there is a connection there or not. But that’s interesting.
If I were going to anoint a best, what I would do is this:
I would get a half-dozen varieties from Nhu Lan in the Eden Center, Falls Church, and a half-dozen varieties from Song Que, also in the Eden Center, and a half-dozen varieties from Banh Mi DC Sandwich, in Falls Church.
These are the premier destinations in the area for the irresistibly delicious Vietnamese sub.
The last banh mi I had was at Banh Mi DC Sandwich — “Combination #1.” Fantastic.
But as I said, Nhu Lan is great, too, and so is Song Que.
RESTAURANT WEEK FATIGUE …:
I’m probably beating a dead horse with this one, but sure I’m not the only one who really is “over” RW.
It seems like it would be designed to benefit those people “in-tune” with the dining scene by giving them a chance to sample some restaurants at a discount. But in reality it’s the exact opposite. I always end up feeling like the limited menus usually detract from the experience I could have had on my own. Rarely do I feel like I’ve saved money, especially because ordering say, two desserts, is something I wouldn’t normally do. I’d rather pay a few bucks more to get the whole menu and order what I want.
So, why all the hype? I can’t see what gets people fired up about it. The value just isn’t there. Has it become something restaurants have to do, instead of something they want to do?
I bet that if you were to give a lie detector test to every restaurateur whose place is participating in Restaurant Week, the results would show something like 80% of them are doing it only because they feel they have to.
I’ve been saying that I think that $35.13 for dinner for three courses isn’t that great a deal (though three courses for lunch at $20.13 is, provided you’re given the run of the menu).
Also, the rigidity of the format really locks diners in — a bigger problem at dinner, to my mind, than lunch. When my wife and I are dining out off the clock, we seldom both order dessert. Sometimes, we share an appetizer rather than order two — or we order three appetizers and split an entree.
But dining out during Restaurant Week means that each person has to order an appetizer and each person has to order an entree and each person has to order dessert.
I think what is called for is a small but dramatic change of the rules to keep the Restaurant Week idea relevant and interesting.
I would be in favor of employing a kind of slot system, in which diners are required to order a certain number of items at dinner. For a couple, say — six slots. But the couple would not be limited to an app each, an entree each, and a dessert each. One slot might be filled with a glass of wine. So, that person’s order would be: glass of wine, app, entree, no dessert. The other person might opt for two apps and a glass of wine; or two apps and a dessert; or an app and two desserts; etc., etc.
There would need to be a proviso that you couldn’t order two entrees, but I think otherwise it’s an idea whose time has come.
STEAK TARTARE, CONT. …:
To speak to the first message, RIS in the West End has a great Steak Tartare on Tuesdays with their Paris Bistro menu. (Which happens to be today!)
Thanks for chiming in …
I will assume that you have nothing — nothing — to do with the restaurant …
Re: PROOF, IN PENN QUARTER …:
Went to Proof several weeks ago after writing to you and want to give you a brief report.
The small dishes were as tasty as can be. We had the spicy meatballs which had a nice zing, melted in the mouth and the agnolotti was perfectly al dente. The full Charcuterie board contained duck, pork, beef, lamb and made me remember why this idea has gone to everywhere but not done as well as here. The foie gras was rich, creamy and well complemented by the cherry, pistachio and cocoa nibs. Gnocchi and lamb bolognese was done well with the gnocchi not too firm nor mushy and the bolognese soothing with a bit of kick from the arugula.
Now for our disappointment. The entrees were all disappointing. A bland pork chop, underseasoned flat iron steak and yes only a fair duck cassoulet that was comforting but no zippy notes to awaken the palate.
How could the firsts be so strong and the seconds so disappointing? Stick with the small plates.
Thanks for the report …
How could the firsts be so strong and the seconds so disappointing? you ask — I think that’s generally the case at most restaurants, and I don’t just mean in the DC area, either.
It’s not often the case that entrees eclipse appetizers. The good restaurants are the ones in which the difference between the two is not that great.
In any case, surprised to hear this was the case at Proof.
Re: KEY WEST RECS …:
A couple Key West reccs (from almost two years ago, though)
Vino’s on Duval – great local wine bar. Don’t recall them having much in the way of food.
El Siboney – authentic Cuban, very casual Ambrosia Sushi – excellent sushi, if a little pricey (kind of a weird hotel lobby atmosphere, be warned)
Blue Heaven – atmosphere is very Key West (chickens running around outside, etc.). Food is pretty typical brunch fare. Good Bloody Marys.
A semi recc for Pisces – I thought the food was pretty dated, but I liked the atmosphere (a bunch of original Warhols on the walls) and the fish was fresh
STEAK TARTARE, CONT. …:
Have you ever noticed that Central’s tartare tastes a lot like an animal style burger from In ‘n Out? I mean this as a high compliment.
Now I want to fly out to LA with a batch of Central’s steak tartare on ice and do a side-by-side comparison. Seriously.
In what way do they taste similar to you? Curious …
The interesting component of all this is — well, two interesting components.
- Michel Richard is a secret fan of fast food. Well, ok, fan is not the right word; he has a fascination with it. Maybe a morbid fascination. His fried chicken at Central looks like fast food, and he has spoken many times of his regard for the crunch of KFC. At Citronelle, he had a dessert on the menu that was essentially a bowl of homemade Cocoa Puffs.
And 2. Richard spent many years in LA, opening Citrus long before coming to DC.
2013: THE YEAR OF THE CHICKEN? …:
I have a concern about the dining scene in 2013, which is the year of the bird (chicken) in the food world. Things follow suit here a little slower than in other areas but that point aside, I’m wondering what will happen to DC-area restaurants with respect to the chicken trend.
I believe you have noted and I share this sentiment about delicious roast chicken, for example. This is a deceptively simple but difficult dish to make perfectly well. It’s one of my pocket criterion for judging a chef/cook/restaurant for their kitchen skills. (I have a few others, too.)
Will DC-area chefs be up to this challenge and be able to finesse the roast chicken or will we see either a trend of lackluster chickens on the plate or will the bird be hacked and served in ways to disguise whatever imperfections may abound? Thanks
Hacked isn’t a problem, is it? I mean, if the chicken is delicious, who cares what form it arrives in, right?
I’m with you: a roast chicken can be a glorious thing. But I don’t know that that’s the all and everything of chicken.
Certainly a lot of food writers romanticize it to the point of putting it on a pedestal. I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that food writers are eating out all the time, and in light of all those rich meals, and all those “concepts,” and all those trends on the plate, something so simple as a roast chicken begins to seem enormously appealing — a stand for honesty, etc., etc.
But speaking personally, I just want a good chicken.
A great pollo a la brasa, swabbed in spices.
A great fried chicken, with perfectly crispy, salty skin.
Chicken in a curry, whether Thai, Jamaican, Trinidadian or Indian (no tough or chewy pieces, please).
STEAK TARTARE, CONT. … :
My choice for my last meal on earth would be steak tartare – I order it any time I see it on a menu.
My favorite in the DC area is the one at Brasserie Beck. I agree with your recommendations, too, except for Mintwood Place (I haven’t been there yet) and Fiola (the tartare had a weird foamy parmesan cream on top that was an odd pairing with the tartare).
Et Voila used to have a good one that came with fries but the last time I was there they had taken it off their regular menu (boo!).
For another nontraditional steak tartare, try the kibbeh nayeh (I think that’s what it’s called) at Zaytinya.
I really miss the steak tartare at Les Halles that came with a side of fries and a green salad. Les Halles definitely wasn’t the best restaurant in the city and the service was indifferent at best, but it was a good location, nice outdoor seating, reasonably priced given the quality of the food, and had homemade potato chips at the bar. It was a nice place to have a few Kronenbourgs with friends. I miss it.
I miss that location, too.
Thanks for chiming in …
Amazing, all this adoration of steak tartare!
By the way: good kibbeh nayeh at Mount of Lebanon, in Falls Church, too.
ISO OF: HEAD-TO-TAIL DINING FOR A GROUP …:
Last year I celebrated my birthday with a group of close friends at Palena. We each brought a bottle of wine from our respective collections and enjoyed their head to tail feast immensely. I want to make this an annual tradition, and was wondering if you had any thoughts on what area restaurants might accommodate us for another family style meal.
We’d like to bring a few bottles along again, but are of course willing to order some off of the list depending on the restaurants corkage policy. So far I’m considering Dino (for a variety of reasons) or possibly Kapnos (target date for the dinner is late May).
Or Poste, for their Poste Roasts.
What a great way, by the way, to celebrate a birthday — a few bottles of wine and a big meal around the table at a good restaurant with close friends.
(One more thing, Unsilent: How ‘bout them Bullets! Last two games with Wall, they looked like a Top 10 team. D, speed, depth, timely shooting. Impressive.)
SOME MORE KEY WEST RECS TO MAKE US ALL FEEL INSANELY ENVIOUS …:
I went to Key West with my college friends and we were more in a….celebratory mood, shall we say, to really appreciate the food/activities. So take this with a grain of salt.
I would recommend Sarabeth’s for breakfast. It’s kitschy and hearty when the sun’s too bright and you can’t speak in full sentences.
Blue Heaven was good for standard seafood/meat and potatoes fare.
Key lime pie is good everywhere (I’m sure that’s blasphemy for someone but see first sentence).
Ernest Hemingway drank at Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Duvall Street, but you can drink anywhere down that street (including Margaritaville!) and have a good time.
Yeah. Enjoy. : )
ISO: A RESTAURANT FOR VALENTINE’S DINNER …:
My wife and I are looking to go to celebrate Valentine’s Day over the weekend before or after. We were thinking about Woodward Table but have heard mixed things. Should we go or do you have any better recommendations.
We are open to all cuisines prefer DC or Northern Virginia but would go to Montgomery County if you thought it was worth the trip.
My initial visit was not wowing.
And not having any idea of your preference in cuisines, but bearing in mind that you were looking seriously at Woodward Table, I’ll play it somewhat safe and suggest Vermilion in Old Town — cozy, charming, good cooking — or Eve in Old Town — cozy, charming, good cooking.
Old Town is a part of the reason I’m recommending these two spots. I think it adds immeasurably to the experience of dining out on a holiday like this.
ISO: A PRIVATE ROOM FOR KARAOKE …:
As always love the chats. Hate to take up space for this but I was hoping you or your chatters could help me out.
My wife wants to do a big private karaoke party for her 40th. I have found private rooms that hold 15-20 people, but that is not big enough. Any chance you have heard of any places that are available to be rented?
Thanks so much for any help you can give!
I’d give Honey Pig, in Annandale, a call.
If you haven’t been, it’s a Korean BBQ restaurant in a rocking, swarming space.
A friend of mine rented out a room for a recent karaoke-centered birthday and had a great time.
STEAK TARTARE, CONT. …:
Bourbon Steak has a good take on steak tartare as well and I think they are currently serving up the best steaks in the DC area. Went by Rays recently and it was not as good as say two years ago when it was clicking on cylinders.
Thanks for chiming in …
Can’t let a week go by without a check-in from Naeem …
IN SUPPORT OF SLOTTING …:
Excellent idea on RW! I, like so many others, am over RW mainly bc my husband and I rarely spend $38/pp on just food. We usually share an appetizer and don’t do dessert.
However, if we could get 2 glasses of wine, 1-2 appetizer and 2 entrees for under $80 total? Now THAT is a deal I’d love to see. Now, how to make them listen?
Oh, they’re listening, trust me.
Liking? No. I doubt they’re liking.
In particular, they are probably seething at the suggestion that a glass of wine be on the table, as it were.
I think many places are only agreeing to take part because they can streamline the Restaurant Week meal. My plan would screw all that up.
But would it make it a more interesting, more exciting week for restaurant-goers, particularly all of those diners who have become soured on Restaurant Week over the years. I think so.
2013: THE YEAR OF THE CHICKEN? — CONT. …:
It’s me, again, writing about the bird. There’s nothing wrong with hacking a bird and serving it sauced up, if done well. However, the test for a roast chicken is simply the bird, so it’s either done well or it isn’t. Nothing to cover up imperfections.
For the iso head-to-tail, what about Mio for, I think, their Sunday pig roast?
I really like what Giovanna Huyke is doing in the kitchen there these days. It’s a slick, impersonal space, swarmed at night at the bar, but what’s on the plate is often deeply soulful and satisfying.
And yes, on the question of a ROAST chicken, agreed: no hiding. You either nail or you don’t. Most don’t.
It’s too bad.
KEY WEST, PERFECT WEATHER, GREAT DRINKING, GOOD TIMES, BLAH BLAH BLAH …:
Don’t miss BO’s Fish Wagon for grouper sandwiches. You’ll think you’re in the wrong place – it looks like it’s falling down – but the fish sandwiches are outstanding.
This is torture …
HEAD-TO-TAIL DINING, CONT. …:
For head to tail, try Eola. They have 3 tasting menus…..”regular”, vegetraian, and offal.
Thanks for chipping in with that …
ADVICE FOR AN ASPIRING FOOD WRITER? …:
Love your chats. Big fan. Do you have any tips for an aspiring food journalist?
I recently accepted a journalism internship in Central Asia where part of my duties is to write restaurant reviews. I’ve never done this before, even though I love writing, and love eating out, and love sharing my experiences. I read your column religiously, but do you have any advice for me before I ship out.
I’d appreciate it very much!
A few quick words, since I’m running behind, and you can send me a note this afternoon via email to continue the conversation if you like. email@example.com
Advice. Well, I think the big thing is to remember that it’s a writing job. Not an eating job.
A lot of people have traveled widely, and love to eat, and know a lot about food, and some of them even possess a good palate. But can they write gracefully? With humor? Can they turn a memorable phrase? Can they conjure an atmosphere and put a reader in a place he or she has never been? Do they have a gift for the telling detail — i.e., not swarms of observations but the one small thing that somehow conveys a whole world? Can they meet a deadline? Can they meet a deadline every week? Can they do it for months?
I have other thoughts, but as I said, time is not on my side at the moment. I’ll be happy to chat later today …
Good luck, by the way! It sounds like a terrific adventure. You’re lucky …
Off to lunch, everyone. Hungry, raw-throated, bitterly envious of the chatter heading off to Key West and all those great-sounding tips …
Thanks, everyone, for all the great comments and questions and tips and rants. I hope you had as much fun as I did.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]