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 was a finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, and recently took home first-place honors for feature writing from the Association of Food Journalists.
Kliman 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.
He 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
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Thai Taste by Kob, Wheaton
On a three-block stretch of Wheaton, near the intersection of University Blvd. and Georgia Ave., can be found two of the area’s best Thai restaurants — Ruan Thai and Nava Thai. Time to add a third. Phak Duangchandr — Kob, to friends — has set up shop in the tiny space that originally contained Nava, in the back of Hung Phat market. Thai food fans may remember her, or at least her cooking; for 19 years she operated the Thai Food Carryout at Thai Market, near the old Safeway in Wheaton. The new setting, electrified with a paint job of orange and day-glo green, gives her a chance to expand her repertoire of dishes, while staying true to the from-scratch traditions that earned her a devoted following. The emphasis is on street food and homecooking, with a good many dishes you simply won’t find anywhere else, like bamee moo daeng, a meal-in-a-bowl of tender egg noodles, red-edged roast pork, baby bok choy, and fish balls; or kai yad sai, an omelette stuffed with ground chicken punched up with fish sauce and soy sauce; or a salad of shrimp paste-flavored rice, onions, cucumber and sweet, sticky pork). But even familiar tastes, taste different here — funkier, more pungent, and definitely hotter (a shrimp fried rice, alive with fistfuls of Thai basil and a generous pinch of chilis, set my heart to racing). Some customers have already been asking for more rice to accompany their orders. Partner and manager Max Praserptmate says he is willing to accommodate any requests, but adds that his aunt’s cooking is not the aberration; it’s the great majority of Thai restaurants that are the aberration. “The taste,” he says, “is what you’re supposed to get from your Thai food.” Duangchandr imports many of her spices from Thailand, and toasts and grinds them herself. All the condiments on the spice tray, including a terrific chili vinegar, are made on the premises. Meats are given a long soak before hitting the grill — 72 hours, in the case of the pork that is pounded and threaded onto a skewer to create a must-order starter called moo yang. The other must-order starter sure doesn’t sound like it — when was the last time you had fried shrimp wontons that were any good? These are fabulous. Kiew tod comes to the table looking more like a plate of tortilla chips, the mix of shrimp and white pepper bundled within a sneakily rolled edge. The crunch is junk food-loud; it’s hard not to believe they weren’t engineered in a lab. No beer or wine yet; Praserptmate says soon on both. I would take the money you’d ordinarily spend on a drink and spring for an extra dish or two (most are under $10, and many items will survive into the next day).
The kind of big-hearted restaurant that takes you to another place (Baltimore? St. Louis?) and maybe another time (late’ 70s). Come on a weekend night, when there’s a two-piece band and the place is humming and you’ll feel as if you’ve just crashed a wedding reception. I love the GM in coat and tie who shows you to your table, maitre d’-style. I love the waitress who turned to me one night when I was trying to decide between a lamb dish on the menu and a lamb dish that was a special, and said, “Listen. Listen to me,” and insisted I order the latter. She was right. The meat was rich and juicy and drenched in a lemon-spiked gravy. Alongside it: lemon roasted potatoes and green beans cooked with tomato and mint. True to the homestyle nature of the place, you couldn’t see any white space on the plate. Another great dish is the fried cod, delicately light, with a fluff of skordalia in the center, a sit-down Greek fish and chips. The menu has no weak spots, as far as I can tell. I’ve been three times, now, and nearly everything that has come out of the kitchen has ranged from the good to the terrific. Vegetarians can revel here. Iman bayaldi, a dish of roasted eggplant drenched in cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce, has the tight, knitted flavor of expert long-cooking. It comes in a massive portion, and costs just $7. There are stuffed grape leaves without the ground beef, filled with well-cooked rice and pine nuts and wrapped in fresh-tasting leaves that still have some good chew to them. If it takes wrapping up some food for leftovers in order to manage dessert, then do it. The version of galaktobouriko — presented in small, crunchy pieces, almost like bites of fudge — is one of the best I’ve eaten in years; the baklava (served warm, and nearly spilling its crunchy, nutty, sticky filling) is stunning; and the centerpiece of the yogurt with honey and walnuts is a scoop that has been strained almost to the consistency of a cheese, with a tanginess that goes on and on and on.
Bangkok Golden, Falls Church
I was tempted to say this a while back, but didn’t. I will now, after a recent knockout visit: I’d rather go here, for the Lao menu, than Little Serow. The range of tastes is vast, and every plate is alive with flavor — bright and pungent and smoky and funky. Not to mention crunch and heat. Not to mention a shorter wait and a lighter bill (my recent meal of four dishes and a beer, pre-tax: $43).
Rose’s Luxury, DC
I love the crackle in the room when you walk in. I’m not talking about mere noise; lots of restaurants have noise. I’m not even talking about buzz, that sense that a new place is hot. This one has an energy that is unmistakable, a sense that you have entered a kind of rare and cherished zone where the enthusiasm of the kitchen and the staff is returned in kind by the diners, who all seem to walk out the door with smiles on their faces. It’s not hard to understand why. Rose’s Luxury has an old-school vibe, and a sort of making-it-up-as-we-go-along feel, from the homey, unassuming way the menu bids you to settle in and order to the dinner party-run-amok vibe to the yahrzeit-look-alike votives to the beer glasses that are sawed-off wine bottles. The chef, Aaron Silverman, logged stints in such high-profile kitchens as Momofuku in New York and Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, and you don’t have to look hard to see elements of each of these places in the room and on the plate. Like his mentors David Chang and Sean Brock, he aims to bring off a marriage of extreme playfulness and extreme precision. The bulk of the menu consists of a dozen small plates in which Silverman sets out to cross the wires, compositionally speaking, and see what happens. A pate is a braiding of French, Italian (garlic bread are the toasts), Vietnamese (the rich, crushed-peanut topped spread brims with star anise), and I want to say Jewish (the brine for the jalapenos, onions and cukes that add crunch and tang tastes deli to me). It’s seamlessly done, and highly addictive. He crosses high and low in a soup that tastes at once like liquefied popcorn and a delicate lobster veloute (the sweetness calls out for some sort of counterbalancing ingredient, or more lobster). It’s not all derring-do. His gnocchi are more properly a kind of ravioli, stuffed with fennel and mint, sauced with not-too-much butter and topped with a generous scattering of crunchy toasted breadcrumbs. You’d be hard put to find five better pasta dishes in town right now. The final course is a page not out of Momofuku or Husk or McCrady’s, but out of Komi — share plates for two. In one, you lay luscious slices of perfectly smoked brisket on griddled Texas toast, add on tangy strands of pickled cabbage and smear the whole thing with a fluffy horseradish cream. The other is built around a beautifully brined pork chop — sweet and aromatic and rich as the best pork can be — with potlikker beans and a textbook red-eye gravy. The final act needs re-staging. The lack of a pastry chef doesn’t help, nor does the tendency to over-think and over-embellish. Quenelles of chocolate cream sprinkled with dried rose petals and intended for spreading on slices of charred bread feels twee, not interesting, and hardly satisfies. More of the sink-in simplicity of the share courses would go a long way. Still, this is one of the most exciting debuts of the year. I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the most exciting debuts of the past three years.
Khan Kabob, Chantilly
The best karahi I’ve had in ages, maybe ever, is a version here made with lamb brains. The brains, for the leery, resemble tiny curds, and the sauce of garlic, ginger, cilantro, tomato and chilis is so concentrated, and so smoky, that even after you’ve had your fill it’s difficult to stop dipping your torn naan into the hammered metal vessel. Tariq Khan, the owner, was for many years part of the Ravi Kabob empire; he’s created a worthy rival.
TIPPING, AND BEING A REGULAR, CONT. …:
The conversation about tipping well and being a regular made me think of something I try to do.
Essentially, the less expensive a place is (and assuming nothing went horribly, horribly wrong), the higher percentage I tip. So, at a place like Thai Taste (which we LOVE — thank you for sending us back to a space that just keeps incubating good food), we probably tip 25%. At a diner, the percentage is probably even higher.
My theory is that the staff a small, inexpensive places probably need the money — a dollar or two — more than I do.
Thank you again for all your recommendations. I can’t even begin to list the places you’ve sent us to that have been wonderful.
For example, we had a second terrific meal at Vin 909 on Sunday. We don’t get there often, but when we’re near, we know where to eat!
What a happy-making note, all around. Thank you for this.
The last pizza I had at Vin 909 was good, if a little overcooked. The one I had before it, though, a few weeks earlier — stunningly fantastic: The Charcuterie. American Berkshire prosciutto, applewood bacon, spicy soppresata, wild and local mushrooms, tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil, and olive oil. That’s
nine ingredients, which is usually too much for most crusts. Not this one, which, despite its load-bearing ability, is wafer-thin and light.
But to talk again about those 9 toppings —
there’s no cacophony, here.
All the flavors knit beautifully. Just as remarkable was that each bite tasted a little different from the one before it, which is one of the pleasures, generally, of good Italian food.
And that’s not even getting into the terrific small plates there, like the shrimp cassoulet with foie gras butter, or the warm, hand-pulled mozzarella, or the thoughtfully handled tuna tartare.
All this in a charming old restored house that feels, at prime time, like a very chill dinner party has spilled over into other rooms.
If you haven’t been, you need to go.
But let’s talk about tipping.
I love hearing what you say about these kinds of restaurants. I’m of the same belief. And yet I know there are many people who don’t feel this way at all. In fact, I have witnessed people lowball servers at places like this. Some won’t lowball, but won’t reward the same kind of service if they were to find it at a finer establishment.
What about the rest of you?
Do you tip more generously at these places, for some of the same reasons the chatter has described?
Is your sense of scale different in what you look for? And why?
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: INDIAN COOKING AT HOME …:
For the person asking about making curries at home, I would also suggest the cookbook At Home with Madhur Jaffrey.
I haven’t made very many dishes from it but the red lentils with ginger recipe has now become a staple. Nothing about the recipe stands out but some how it tastes much more like a restaurant dish than anything else I’ve made at home.
Her books are to Indian cooking what Marcella Hazan’s are to Italian.
I do think that the Saran cookbook I recommended, Indian Home Cooking, is a little bit easier for someone just starting out.
And speaking of Jaffrey — she’s in a very good food movie I saw a few months ago, “Today’s Special.” I recommend it to all of you.
The film stars Aasif Mandvi of “The Daily Show,” who is very good in a dramatic role (Jaffrey plays his mother), and the great Naseeruddin Shah, who turns any movie into something absolutely riveting. I would pay to watch the man read a phone book.
“Today’s Special” is not at the front of the line with “Babette’s Feast” and “Eat Drink Man Woman,” and “Big Night,” three of the great food movies ever made. It’s in the middle of the pack. But that’s not a terrible thing. Definitely worth a rental.
If only for the pleasure of spending a couple hours with Naseeruddin Shah, you’ll enjoy yourself.
Do you watch any of the food shows, like Kitchen Nightmares, Restaurant Redemption, Bar Rescue, Restaurant Impossible, etc?
I really liked the UK version of Nightmares, because it seemed like Ramsay genuinely cared about helping out restaurants in trouble (the US version just is the same thing over and over again), but I was wondering if as a writer with a critical eye, you ever saw these shows and thought “Yes, that’s right” or “No, they should actually do THIS”, or “This is just fugazi”.
I watched a few episodes of the Ramsay show, back when. And I’ve seen a few of the Robert Irvine shows, “Restaurant Impossible.” I also recently caught some show, I forget the name, where they set up a sting with the help of the owners of the restaurant to catch their employees doing wrong.
Eh. I don’t know. It’s TV, first of all, which means everything that’s done is done with an eye to get people to watch. Producers manipulate. They manipulate people, they manipulate events to work they way they want to.
Their goal in these shows is not to edify or enlighten. For some viewers, I guess, the appeal is that they think they’re glimpsing how it really is. But how it really is, is most often not interesting. Or, no — it’s interesting, but you have to know what to look for. You have to be observant. You have to have a little background.
TV doesn’t have time for that. So it’s all melodramatics and sociopaths and “story arcs” of loser-dom and redemption.
In the Irvine show, they build the people a new place, essentially — a complete remodel of the existing space. And Irvine, I guess, re-trains the cook, though for probably longer than one day, and supplies new recipes. The show needs a happy ending — redemption — and it gets it. But this isn’t a documentary; it isn’t interested in the actual, in life in all its messy truth. It’s a show. So I have no doubt that the cast pitches in and makes sure that the food comes out halfway decent and the people are getting served, and things are running somewhat efficiently. Because that’s what they’re selling. A success story.
Does he seem to know his stuff? He does. Is that important? Not really.
The fact that he’s built like a Navy SEAL is absolutely essential to the show. It’s “An Officer and A Gentleman,” with food. His looking like that is more important, even, than the things he says to demonstrate his culinary expertise. The show is about the restaurant’s transformation, but also his personal transformation — from tough-talking a-hole, barking orders, to a softie who ends with group hugs.
In each case, the “before” is overdetermined and false, and the “after” is largely staged and fake.
In its early days The Food Network took its cues from Julia Child. The shows, for the most part, were there to teach and guide. You learned things from the chefs. About cooking, the kitchen, cuisines.
The programs were like higher-production-value PBS. Now, they’re glitzy and bombastic. They don’t teach — they stage competitions. Of any kind. Eating a smorgasboard of crap in ten minutes. Taking 4 hideously curated ingredients and making an entree in half an hour.
Where the network used to feature a lot of accomplished chefs and key, culinary world figures (Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, David Rosengarten, etc.) now it features a lot of schmoes off the street, who may not be accomplished at all in the kitchen, but who have something infinitely more important, to network higher-ups, than talent and skills: they have dreams! and fears! and needs, needs, needs! And bitchy psychodrama is obviously so much more delicious than … something delicious.
Todd, need some last-minute help from you or your readers.
Dad’s 66th birthday is tomorrow and he’s requested a coconut cake, and I’m at a loss where to find a good one.
Give Cheryl Harrington, at the terrific Shortcake Bakery, in Hyattsville, a call — (301) 779-2836.
Cheryl makes a very good coconut cake, and a very beautiful one, too.
I hope she can make you one in time. If she doesn’t already have one ready.
Another option is the excellent Desserts by Gerard, in Oxon Hill:
They do a lot of catering, and are at a much higher volume than Shortcake.
Let me know how they work out, okay?
ISO: THE BEST SANDWICH NEAR UNION STATION:
Who makes the best sandwich a walk or short metro ride away from Union Station?
I’d probably go with The Carving Room, at 3rd and Mass., but don’t hold me to a “best.”
DON’T FEEL LIKE COOKING EASTER BRUNCH; WANT TO BE TAKEN OUT, SERVED, AND PAMPERED:
Hi Todd –
I really don’t feel like cooking Easter brunch this year – instead I would like to be taken out, served, pampered….any recommendations in the DMV area for a couple of harried parents and one toddler?
Traditional and non-traditional and adventurous options are both appreciated!
The very good and very timely Anna Spiegel just put together a very informative blog post on Easter dining options.
Hope there’s something here for you:
FOOD MOVIES, CONT. …:
Another great food/restaurant movie is “Dinner Rush” (2000) with Danny Aiello and John Corbett (and a ton of actors you might recognize from other things they did later): it tries to squeeze in a mob angle into the story, but it’s still a really fun movie about a restaurant in Queens- definitely worth checking out.
I agree with your assessment: I liked UK Nightmares a ton, but for the most part those shows are pretty formulaic (though Irvine is married to Gail Kim, so he must be doing something right- looking like a SEAL prob. doesn’t hurt).
And being on TV, I’d argue, far more than even being a quasi-SEAL.
TV is some strange kind of aphrodisiac.
I still remember wandering into a bookstore downtown around — it had to have been around 2000, 2001. I saw a poster up for Alton Brown. I thought: Oh, yeah — that guy. I had just caught a couple of episodes. I figured I’d stay for his talk, and maybe pick up some cooking tips. I thought it’d be the usual crowd for a book, about 40-50 people at most. But in about half an hour the place was flooded with people. All this, I remember thinking, for a guy with a show on cable TV? A show, moreover, that could not have been very broadly popular, quirky-nerdy as it was? I had only just heard about it. It couldn’t have been on the air for very long.
And they were taking pictures. They were angling around the room for better pictures. They were giddy. “Can you see him?” people in the back were asking, as if it was something to see more than the usual something to see: a man talking about his book.
FOOD MOVIES, CONT. …:
In addition to your top three movies, I would add:
1. Soul Kitchen (just a fun movie- love, love, loved it)
2. Tampopo (a little odd, but fun- a Western that takes place in a kitchen
3. Dinner Rush (great flick with a solid cast)
4. Pressure Cooker (doc on inner city Philadelphia kids at culinary school)
5. Serving Up Taste (documentary on Paul Liebrandt)
Honorable Mention: “Hannibal” (the TV series)
Thanks for this. I haven’t seen 1, 3, or 4.
The Liebrandt doc is good; I wouldn’t put it in my top 5 of food, though.
I just got “Step Up to the Plate,” the Michel Bras doc. Eager to see that.
“Tampopo” is terrific — especially that first scene, one of the most memorable openings in all of film.
I’d put that in my Top 5.
So, in no particular order:
“Eat Drink Man Woman.”
And then I have to go with “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” over “Mostly Martha,” a German film with a bad title (it’s also less about food than the others.)
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” if you haven’t seen it, is an extraordinary film. About duty and devotion, about the eternal drama of fathers and sons, about fate and choice, about how we give shape and meaning to our days. It has a lot to say about repetition, about codes, about stillness, about sacrifice.
It’s a very quiet film. Little of consequence happens in it. And yet the minute it’s over you feel a need to rewind the thing and go back and watch it again. That’s one of the things I love about it, the fact that it eludes our being able to pin it down so easily and say: yes, this is it.
COCONUT CAKE, CONT. …:
Coconut cake, posting again…
Thanks for taking my question! I should have specified, I’m work downtown and live in Falls Church.. anything closer to that?
I’m afraid those MD burbs are a bit too far of a drive on a weeknight. Will keep in mind for Easter though! Can never overdo coconut cake, in my opinion.
Thanks again Todd!
Do keep them in mind; they’re really good bakeries to support.
To keep things more local for you, I’d try Pastries by Randolph, in Arlington (I don’t remember seeing a coconut cake the last time I was in, but that might not mean anything). I’d try Kendall’s, in Falls Church. And maybe also put in a call to Castro’s, also in Falls Church — it’s a Latin bakery, but you never know.
Hope that helps.
Keep me posted.
KBQ BBQ — BACK IN BUSINESS, IN GLENARDEN’S WOODMORE TOWNE CENTRE:
Thanks for the suggestions, I’ll have to check out both Indian Home Cooking and Today’s Special. I loved Big Night.
Did you see that KBQ is now open at the Woodmore shopping center? I went over the weekend and had some great smoked chicken wings and a good pulled pork sandwich.
I like the sauces and sides at RG’s in Laurel better, but it’s great to have another option.
I went last week.
It’s good to see Kerry Britt and Co. back up and running. Eighteen months is a long time between businesses. I spoke to Britt several times during the period between when the original KBQ in Bowie closed and the new KBR opened, and I know it was a profound struggle for him and his family — financially and psychically.
Many restaurants would not have returned, after all that. It’s a testament to this one that it fought through and was able to re-open for business.
The ribs I had were better than I remember them — thick, meaty, smoky, and seasoned lavishly with Britt’s atypical spice rub, which makes each bite a little different and leaves you trying to suss out just what all’s in it as you go.
Service was a mess, but it was only day 2. I hope it’s improved since. A place like this needs to run efficiently and get people in and out.
TIPPING, CONT. …:
I do tip a little more at places that I frequent on a regular basis. Places like Ravi Kabob, Pizzeria Orso, 701 (Ask for Ross as your server. one of the best in the city), and if I could afford to eat there three times a week The Red Hen and Mintwood Place.
Love the weekly Chat!
That’s always a good idea. These are the places where you go most often, and presumably they know you and your likes and dislikes as well. They look out for you. So you, in turn, look out for them. Consideration all the way around.
Do you think it’s odd to tip more at places like Thai Taste by Kob — ethnic mom ‘n’ pops? Do you save your powder, so to speak, for places like The Inn at LW or Komi? And if so, why?
I’d love to explore this more next week. Think about your tendencies, and let me know why you make the decisions you do.
Meantime, have a great week, everybody.
BTW, for MOT — or just the gluten-free: I posted a pic on Twitter of the quinoa flour pancakes I made this morning. There was an interesting item on NPR the other day about quinoa flour, which has gotten the ok (well, in certain quarters) for Passover. So I bought a small bag of flour — $10 (!) — and have set about to experiment this week.
The pancakes (from a Rachel Ray recipe) came out looking good, if a little thin. They’re very hearty. I don’t mean that euphemistically. You’re aware that you’re eating something real, and that you need to chew it. The dryness, though: even with butter and real maple syrup, it was there.
I had hoped that, with quinoa flour, I could now make pancakes that tasted like regular pancakes — that somehow, I could make the leap into a world of Passover eating that was just like regular eating.
Alas, they’re not much different from the potato meal pancakes we used to make when I was a kid. The more things change …
Be well, everyone — eat well — and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]