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
First thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Oklahoma. I spent my early childhood years in Edmond Oklahoma and still remember the tornado that ripped through Edmond in 1986 before we moved to Virginia that summer. I have never until yesterday heard of a tornado that was two miles wide and stayed on the ground for almost 40 minutes. That is unheard of.
After reading your article on local I decided it was time to go back and visit Silver Diner a place that I frequented when I was in highschool and college. I went two times over the past week for breakfast and came away impressed at the quality. Definately, not what I remember of the place.
The egg yolks were dark and rich and the juevos rancheros with poacked eggs was wonderful. I may even take my inlaws and sister in law there for breakfast this weekend while they are in town.
as always love the weekly chat!
What a horrible day for the people of Oklahoma.
I’ve spent some time out there over the years and came to love the wide open spaces and the openness of the people I’ve met. I hope they can find the strength to carry on.
And glad to hear you made it out to a Silver Diner. Not at all what they used to be. I’ve had some good simple meals there. Just wish the service were up to the same level as the food now is.
Just wanted to share a bit of news before we go on. The Washingtonian last night took home the top two awards at CRMA, the City and Regional Magazine Awards, in Atlanta — for General Excellence and for Online Excellence.
I’m so happy for everyone at the magazine, who do such good work month in and month out. A day to savor …
One more bit of housekeeping. Just hoping we can continue the discussion from last week about obscurity on restaurant menus and/or the “inside baseball” being played by a lot of restaurants. Is it deliberate, as a friend of mine thinks — a chance for restaurants to show how cool they are, or how exclusive, or how exotic? To put you, the diner — well, not most of you; but most ordinary diners — in a position where you have to ask questions, you have to seek explanation, you have to have the staff mediate your experience for you?
My friend is increasingly annoyed by this. What say you?
CUTTING THE PIZZA OR NOT CUTTING THE PIZZA:
Todd: I absolutely love your chats! I follow them every week and dig through your archives to find info that I can’t remember!
Also, loved the piece on local food – extremely important to the current restaurant scene!
Anyway, I wanted to ask: Have you had a chance to stop by Ghibellina on 14th yet? I’ve heard mixed reviews, but I have loved Jonathan Copeland’s cuisine in the past! Just wondering what you thought or if you had visited at all?
They’re getting some heat for not cutting the pizza. What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe its actually better for the experience or would you rather they just cut it up for you and serve it?
I haven’t been yet, no.
As for the pizzas: I understand the reasoning behind not-cutting — for one, it’s how they do it in Naples. Or how they don’t do it, I should say. It keeps the tomatoey wetness intact. It preserves the integrity of the pie.
At the same time, it’s hard/frustrating for eaters.
So it comes down to: do you side with tradition and making a statement to your customers, or do you try to make things easy for them at the table?
My feeling is: If the pizza is stellar, then I don’t mind the hewing strictly to tradition. I’ll cut my own pie and be glad to do it, thank you very much. But if the pie is only pretty good, or if it’s mediocre, then I don’t really give a flying fig-in-prosciutto how much you and your pizzaiolo are honoring a tradition.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: LONDON EDITION:
I wanted to report back that we took your recommendation and ate at Rasoi Vineet Bhatia. It was so luxurious! The atmosphere, the service and the food were exemplary. We really had a wonderful experience.
We did the tasting menu – one of us the vegetarian. Each dish was constructed perfectly and the service was perfect – not absent nor overbearing. There was a wine pairing option, but we chose bottles instead and the sommelier could not have been more helpful. Rasika is one of my favorite restaurants in DC and I can see why you were so impressed with Rasoi, as it takes it to another level. I chose the vegetarian option, as the standard tasting menu included foie gras, of which I am not a fan. However, I was never “missing” the meat. I feel that is a true testament of Indian cooking.
One local friend took us to Les Deux Salons in Covent Garden. It was a great French bistro in the city with a lively atmosphere. The four of us had steak frites, Welsh lamb, and foie gras terrine as our entrees. All of us were quite happy with the food selections, and absolutely loved the bottle of the Rhone red (wish I could find it here!). The wine list was diverse, but approachable.
Another local friend took us to Osteria Basilico in the Notting Hill area. It was a comfortable, homey, friendly Italian place. The best part was the antipasti buffet. You will see why there is only one visit allowed! As for the pasta dishes, they were good and heartier than in the U.S., but not particularly memorable – except for one of the specials, in which a very heavy hand was applied to the truffle oil! It was very reasonable, which for that area ultimately made it a positive experience.
Thanks for the suggestions! I hope my husband and boys support me in more international travel!
What a great postcard!
Thanks so much for checking back in with us. And I want to urge the rest of you to do the same whenever you go somewhere — be it international travel or domestic. Doesn’t need to be a sexy food city — can be any old place where you ate and drank.
I’m so glad to hear that you had such a good time at Rasoi Vineet Bhatia. It really is in a class by itself. Elegant, sumptuous, thoughtful. And with some of the most exquisite Indian cooking you will ever eat. Its gravies — such a ham-handed-sounding word, gravies, for what the kitchen there produces. So refined, so luxurious …
Wish I could be eating one of their fantastic prawn dishes tonight …
CELEBRATING A BIRTHDAY THIS WEEK — DO I GO ITALIAN OR SPANISH?:
I’m celebrating my birthday this weekend and can’t decide whether I want Italian or Spanish Paella. I’m considering Tortino’s in DC or La Tasca in Old Town. Have you dined at either or what would you recommend for a couple on a budget?
Thanks and I look forward to your weekly chats!
La Tasca is a bit of a tourist trap. Food’s ok, but I wouldn’t celebrate a birthday here.
(By the way: this restaurant in Old Town is not to be confused with La Tasca in Arlington or La Tasca in Penn Quarter. The latter two are part of a British tapas chain. Lively spaces, but pretty dreadful food.)
Have a great birthday, Natalie!
THE SERVICE TEAM AT LE DIPLOMATE — NEW, OFF LOGAN CIRCLE:
A quick shout out to some amahzing service:
6 of us had an 8pm reservation at Le Diplomate last night for my father-in-law’s 71st birthday…we weren’t seated until 9pm and were hungry and frustrated.
I gotta hand it to the team over there, 20 minutes into the wait and were each given a glass of champagne while we waited…then we were given complimentary beverages of our choice while we waited some more. When we were finally seated the kitchen sent out 2 appetizers on the house, the manager came by to personally apologize and check in on us, and to top it all off they brought out all of their desserts (with a sparkler for the bday boy) as a surprise gesture.
We all left raving about how amazing they treated us and how we just HAD to spread the word!
Thanks for writing in.
I, too, have been impressed with the crispness and care of the service there.
Steven Starr is a different sort of restaurateur from Danny Meyer, but like Meyer, he understands that people go to restaurants for more than just food. That sounds obvious to say, and hardly worth remarking upon. And yet how many restaurants do you you walk out feeling different from when you came in? That’s the challenge. And it’s one thing to do it at the level, say, of a Gramercy Tavern, Meyer’s place in NY, or, say, Marcel’s in DC — places where you’re dropping a lot of coin for an evening. To do it at a place where dinner for two comes in around $120, is much harder than it looks.
Le Dip is very, very well-run for a restaurant in its early weeks.
It’s also a masterpiece of lighting design, and an extraordinarily detailed set piece of a space. People want to be there not because the cooking is pushing boundaries, but there’s a there there.
EARLY-STAGE DATE TOMORROW NIGHT — LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO SATISFY HER TASTE FOR THE EXOTIC:
Hey Todd —
Going on an early-stage (but not first) date for dinner tomorrow night. I live in Cleveland Park; she lives in Gaithersburg. I’m trying to be the gentleman, so I’m willing to (drive? Metro?) closer to where she is.
Could you recommend a place that fulfills her taste for exotic food flavors? Thanks….
I’d take her to Sabai Sabai Simply Thai.
It’s in Germantown, not far from Gaithersburg, the space is tastefully done and full of color, and the cooking is often bright, lively, fragrant, and full of punch.
It’s also not too expensive. ; )
Good luck on your early-stage date. We’ll be thinking about you. Keep us posted here on how things develop, ok?
THE SERVICE TEAM AT BLUE DUCK TAVERN — IN THE WEST END:
I’d like to share a compliment to Blue Duck Tavern, particularly as to how well we were received with our infant son.
My birthday was the Saturday before Mother’s Day, and I had scheduled brunch reservations at Blue Duck Tavern to celebrate. Having never been before, I was apprehensive about bringing my 6 month old son but the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming!
From the moment they opened the front door to greet us, it was all oohs, aahs, and giggles between the staff and our son. Although our carrier fit fine in their chairs, one of the staff had brought out a high chair for us to flip upside down, which surprised me. (I mention this because it’s one of your points in finding children-friendly restaurants.)
The best part was that we received the same service as everyone else and were not treated any differently from the other adult-only tables, which made for a very relaxing and enjoyable brunch.
They even assisted me in finding a semi-private corner between the restaurant and hotel in which to nurse my son at the end of our meal.
I had such a pleasant experience dining at Blue Duck Tavern that I cancelled my next day’s hard-to-get Mother’s Day reservation at a fancy restaurant and opted to stay cuddled in bed with my family instead.
Great story. Thanks for writing in …
It sounds as though things could not have gone been better. And that’s a pretty wonderful thing to be able to say about a place.
Parents fret a lot about places to take their babies and/or small children, and I always say, though it’s certainly not cheap, one of your best bets is to try a hotel restaurant. At least when it comes to a special occasion. They’re equipped to handle your needs. Not just because they almost always have high chairs, but because their (higher-end) operations are trained to make guests of all ages feel welcome.
Bravo to Blue Duck Tavern and its fine staff.
To enlarge the discussion a little, what about restaurants who are welcoming of the elderly? I’ve gone out a lot with my
mom over the past few years, and — I won’t say I’m astonished, because, unfortunately I’m not, but it pains me all the same to say that many restaurants respond to the sight of an older person the way they do a couple with a stroller. Someone to be dealt with.
More often, it’s just complete indifference. And this is worse. No one’s there to attend to the little things that make a difference for a person up in years. Getting the door if she needs it gotten. Clearing a path for her if there’s a crowd at the front. Etc., etc.
I will say again what I have said about restaurants and kids. It’s often the family-run restaurants, particularly family-run Asian and Latin restaurants, that have it all over the American restaurants when it comes to this.
THE GREAT RICE AT FARYAB, IN BETHESDA :
Several weeks ago, you talked about how well or poorly cooked rice can help make or break a meal. Saturday night we enjoyed some delicious rice at Faryab, the Afghan restaurant in Bethesda.
The plain white basmati rice that accompanied the stewed eggplant demonstrated how great plain white rice can be when properly cooked.
The star of the night was the rice that came with the pumpkin and yogurt dish. Cooked with cumin, cardamom, and coriander seed (according to the waiter), the spices were in perfect balance, none dominated but all contributed to the whole, and provided the needed foil to the sweetness of the pumpkin and the richness of the yogurt.
First time we had been to Faryab, but definitely made a good impression.
Thanks for the tasty report.
I love that pumpkin dish. Vegetarians: Add this immediately to your list of places to dine out. It’s a wonderfully vivid and rich dish, absolutely satisfying, and yes, great with the terrific rice they serve.
I hate when rice is an afterthought. Or no thought at all, which is even more common.
Another spot that does great rice, and also in Bethesda, is Moby Dick House of Kabob. A level down in price from Faryab. But much the same care taken with steaming and seasoning. (By the way: This is a chain, but not all the outlets are the same. The Silver Spring location, for instance, is horrible. I ate there a few weeks ago, and regretted the decision two bites in.)
Oh, and to our hopeful early-stage dater, if you’re still reading: Faryab wouldn’t be a bad option for your outing tomorrow night. It’s tucked away and dimly lit, the food ought to inspire some conversation, and, again, the prices are decent.
THE DC FOOD SCENE: A RANT:
I hope you’ll permit a little rant.
I don’t get many out of town visitors, but a friend came to visit last week and I thought I’d show her DC’s great food scene. She’s a grad student who was here for all day conferences and evening events, so I had to stick to central downtown DC and also accomodate her budget.
I went to restaurant site after site and quickly grew angry at how it was nearly impossible to find a restaurant that was NOT serving small plates or had a reasonable number of entrees in the under $20 range. I reflected and realized that’s exactly the kinds of places I had been eating at for months now when I ate out.
I eventually settled on Busboys and Poets, which was a perfectly fine meal but it seems so ridiculous that every hot new restaurant that opens falls in one of these two categories. I’m just so tired of it.
I can understand your frustration with entrees over $20, but what’s the problem with small plates? Is it the fact that by the time you’re done you’re paying the same as you would for an entree in the mid- high-20s?
There are places in town to go when you’re looking to keep costs down, better places than Busboys and Poets when it comes to food, but you’re right — the city is not swarmed with them.
It’s an expensive city, and becoming more and more difficult for people who are not flush.
One tip, for future reference: hit an Italian spot. Most can do their pastas as half-portions. The trick is that many of the places that can do this are at the higher-end, so you have to be careful that you don’t spend as much on a dish as a glass of wine.
LE DIPLOMATE IS BOOKED — NEED AN ALTERNATIVE, PLEASE HELP!:
Every year my brother and I take out our parents for a dinner for their birthdays. We had our hearts set on Le Diplomate, but cannot get a reservation for seemingly any weekend in June (at least as far out as we can reserve). So we’re trying to find an alternative.
Places we’ve gone in recent years include Graffiato, Fiola, and Central. Looking for a place that is nice, has good wine/drinks, and has a few non-meat options for my mom. Any ideas?
Cafe du Parc if it’s a beautiful day outside?
Sushi Taro if she’s good with sushi?
Rasika if she likes Indian?
Does it have to be in the city? What about Bistro Provence in Bethesda?
CRAVING A GOOD BOLOGNESE — WHERE?:
I’ve had a serious bolognese craving for the past two weeks, and every place I’ve tried has either been too far-reaching (I don’t want pork neck or lamb in my sauce) or too small of a portion (looking at your delicious but tiny “small plate,” Ghibellina).
Where do you recommend I get my meat sauce fix?
Casey, I hear you.
The last two Bolognese dishes I can remember were disappointing, too. One was at Le Diplomate. The other was at Table.
Both missed, to my mind, what a Bolognese should be. It should be rich and lusty, and it should be generously portioned. It should not be a well-put together-looking plate. It should not be an occasion to appreciate “nuance.” It should not be about the layering of spices.
Perhaps not coincidentally, both versions were French.
If I’m jonesing for a good Bolognese, I’m hitting Tosca downtown, Fiola on the edge of Penn Quarter, or Siroc at McPherson Square.
Re: DOSAS AT THE FOGGY BOTTOM WHOLE FOODS:
La Tasca is way below average and certainly not cheap for the quality. But the dosas at Foggy Bottom, recommended many times on your chat, were divine.
The lovely lady who does the dosas told us they have no wheat or gluten in them and are highly nutritious. Music to my wheat intolerant system. The best chutney I had was their mango habanero though the oniona tmarind comes close
Thanks for writing in.
I’m happy to know that Priya Ammu and her dosas at D.C. Dosas are hitting the spot for so many of you …
MERITING THE HYPE:
I just noticed the questions posed in the chat introduction and thought they’re pretty good ones. So, where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? And which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype?
Regarding the former, if I recall correctly from the January “100 Best Restaurants” issue, the only answers are 2 Amys and Zaytinya. Is that still the case?
It seems you’ve noted recently that 2 Amys has slipped (particularly the pizzas) and, unless you are a vegetarian and get full on two mezze, it seems a bit of a stretch to call Zaytinya “inexpensive.” As for the latter, which hot, new restaurants are worth the hype?
I was impressed on my lone visit with The Red Hen, in Bloomingdale. I think Le Diplomate, which isn’t perfect, is amply rewarding (and for reasons that go beyond the food, as I enumerated above.) I enjoyed aspects of my recent meal at Del Campo, but I haven’t seen enough of the place to make any sweeping statements.
I never said that 2 Amys slipped. I said their pizzas aren’t what they used to be. The rest of the cooking, however, has been superb.
If you’re looking for great dining deals …
— I recently had a meal that included a barbecued lamb shank, a quail stuffed with sausage, wrapped in bacon and smoked, along with several side dishes. Really good stuff. Bill came to $35. RG’s BBQ Cafe, in Laurel.
— Another great value: the Laotian cooking at Bangkok Golden in Falls Church. The flavors pop. Heat, tang, sass. And two can eat here for $40.
— I wouldn’t categorize Seki Izakaya as “cheap,” but you can eat wonderfully well and interestingly and, by DC standards, not expensively.
— Tacos, posole, chilaquiles at R&R Taqueria in Elkridge, Md.
— Black bean soup, peanut soup, saltenas and arepas at La Caraqueña, Falls Church.
— Huong Viet, in the Eden Center, Falls Church, for roast quail, Bun Bo Hue, Bun Cha, and much, much more.
I would say that all are putting out 3-star food (in part, if not in whole) at 1-star prices.
RE: Bolognese: I enjoyed my Bolognese at Mintwood Place immensely. Quite a large portion and a literal snowstorm of parmesan cheese on top.
So glad you wrote in with this. YES! A fantastic one. Can’t believe it slipped my mind.
Also — made by a Frenchman, Cedric Maupillier. So it gets me off the hook of anti-French-Bolognese bias. ; )
THE HIGH COST OF DINING OUT IN D.C.:
I agree with the poster who ‘ranted’ on the prices in DC.
Without really noticing, I was perusing menus for the many hot new places along 14th Street and it’s all too common that apps, soups and appetizer salads are $9-14, with entrees in the high $20s. Though I can afford this, it is becoming ridiculous that a “casual neighborhood” night out with say one glass of wine is about $60/person, and I feel grateful it’s under $100.
There’s Matchbox or pizza joints, but other than that, so many places are quite pricey. And with cocktails verging up in to the mid-teens.
I had been ranting independently, so needed to chime in to support previous post. (I do still love the DC eating scene, and suppose I’m grateful not to be in my 20s any longer.)
Thanks for chiming in.
I have to say, I am surprised to see so many supposedly casual places charging $26 for an entree. It used to be a worry — these kinds of restaurants worried about alienating customers if they ventured too far past $20. Not now.
Some places are scaling back on portions, too. But interestingly — other places are not.
I’ve been surprised, actually, by the robustness of some of the plates I’ve seen of late. What explains this? It doesn’t cost that much to give more, and it’s easier to justify $27 when diners feel they’re getting a decent-sized dish.
TAPAS RANT FOLLOW-UP:
I do appreciate the notion of trying many small things at once, but my two main complaints are that 1. having spent time in Spain, these trendy restaurants certainly aren’t priced the same way I’m used to having small plates priced, and 2. more personally, my social circle is made up of vegetarians, people who keep kosher, and some plain unadventurous eaters, and instead of haggling over what dishes to share, sometimes, I just want a delicious plate of food to myself that isn’t so expensive for a casual night out.
And I appreciate the pasta suggestion, but I’m both trying to limit my carb intake and also tired of pasta being the only option for something filling in the under $20 range.
Ranting aside, I don’t mean to knock a lot of the great food that the city has exploded with in the past few years, I just wish there were more options for those of us eating out in a group on a tighter budget without having to travel far out of the city.
There’s an answer — and it’s an answer I’ve given many, many times, to the point that I fear that you all are starting to tune me out.
But — get in your car.
Clarendon is practically a suburb of Georgetown. ; ) Silver Spring’s not far from downtown. Nor, really, is Wheaton. From downtown, you can get to the Eden Center, if it’s not rush hour, in 20 minutes.
Great eating to be had in all of these spots. Cheap, great eating. And it’s not as if all of these places are grimy holes in the wall. Many are good-looking. They’re also very consistent and provide a very warm welcome. They should not just be considered places to take a group, or when you’re out that way, shopping.
I concur with the recommendation of Fiola for a delicious Bolognese! The dish is hearty, flavorful, and big enough that you may even have some leftovers. Tortino also does a good Bolognese.
You’ve all got me craving a Bolognese now.
And on a day like this, no less, when the humid weather makes me feel that I’m wearing an itchy wool sweater.
THOUGHTS ON EATING LOCAL, RESTAURANT OBFUSCATION, AND STEVEN STARR:
I’m joining pretty late this week to your chat. Loved your article on Local – it was interesting and thoughtful, probably not something you dashed out the night before. I appreciate it, along with the timing, as I’ve mentioned I’m so tired of seeing “local” at new and old restaurants. So much so, that I almost spin on my heels and walk out the door.
To the point on obscurity. I’m not bothered by this because I find it amusing. In part it’s because I probably am familiar with more of these terms and ingredients than your average diner. And, for when I’m not, I actually enjoy asking questions. It doesn’t make me feel stupid because I know I am not in this area. (Other subject, maybe so.) I’ve never been shy or intimidated by asking questions.
Even if I know why restaurants or businesses or just people do it – to show off how smart they are or how much you don’t know. I don’t care. There are some things I simply won’t know but would like to know.
I think Stephen Starr is the perfect restaurateur for the DC scene. He knows a successful business model and he continues on with the model, so he knows to put together a good place, be it food, atmosphere. DC restaurateurs should take notes. Based on his other successes, let’s hope that he doesn’t fall into the trap of sloping towards mediocrity after the hype wears off. I have a feeling it won’t because I haven’t seen it in his other business models.
Is his restaurant here the best in the city? No. But, it does what it does very well. That goes a long way in my book, even if it’s part of a “chain.” I always thought he’d be a great fit for the city. By the way, when will they start selling their loaves of bread for takeaway?
As to the point about no moderately-priced or cheap places to eat that are good and new. That is something to lament in the DC area dining scene. In time, it might. I think the next thing will be home-cooking and simplicity. It’s much harder to do the simple things. My only concern with this is that by the time DC gets on the bandwagon, it might find a way to make home-cooking unapproachable by the sheer cost of eating out. We’ll see.
Thanks for all your thoughtful thoughts.
Hard to disagree or even quibble with anything you said, though I do think it’s high time food lovers, as I said in the question before, widen their view of what constitutes “the scene” — what makes this city’s foodscape what it is, is only in part what you see among the restaurateurs downtown and in the various high-profile neighborhoods of the city.
DC may not be in many publications’ Top 10 lists when it comes to food cities, but if you were to take a more holistic approach and not just look at the sorts of places that high-end travelers gravitate to (these high-end travelers, it goes without saying, are the audience for the magazines), then D.C. would almost certainly be in the conversation. This is a top-tier ethnic foods city.
You’ll find some of the best Bolivian, Vietnamese, Afghan, Ethiopian, and Korean restaurants in the country here — to name just a few cultures who make up the vast ethno-culinary landscape.
(Stepping down now from my soapbox … )
Gotta run. Thanks again for the great and stimulating conversation today, everyone. I appreciate it. Your thoughts, your tips, your suggestions, all of it.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]