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
* East Dumpling House, Rockville
A quick-serve dumpling joint that's as small as its menu is long. Three dozen dumplings are on offer, with lamb, beef, chicken, and shrimp all serving as anchors for the fillings. The wrappers are more thick than thin, but they're supple enough that they don't draw focus. The size of the tiny kitchen would seem to argue against their being made long in advance, frozen, then dumped into a steamer when the time comes; the bright freshness of the fillings would seem to argue against that, too. Make sure to supplement your order with small dishes of garlicky, peppery cucumbers or shredded tofu skin with cilantro.
If I could have stood at Hong Kong Palace last night and saluted you with a slow clap I would have.
Thanks so much for the tip, the szechuan long beans were wonderfully crisp, the ma pa tofu intensely unctuous, and the dandan noodles might have stolen the show. All of them sang with the excitement of chili and szechuan peppercorns. The recommendation couldn't have been more perfect, it was exactly what we were looking for. Thank you.
I meant to write to you the other week and let you know about another place you steered me towards. I had taken my girlfriend out to the Eastern Shore to propose to her on the Bay. On the way back we stopped for breakfast at Bagels and... per your recommendation. (So in your own way you played a role in our proposal)
The bagel was lovely, the exterior had enough of an al dente bite that gave way to a pillowy interior. I must confess to not loving the rest of the toppings on my New Yorker though. The smoked salmon was ok, but the tomato had no flavor and the onions limp and lifeless. It paled in compared to the richness of a similar bagel at Neopol smokery with their house smoked salmon.
How great that I could play some tiny part in your big day. Thanks for telling me.
And many congratulations on the big news!
The smoked salmon there, btw, is sometimes very decent or very good, and sometimes exceptional. I remember my wife texting me once, about a year ago, to say it had never been more moist or luscious, and how I should drop everything I was doing and drive out. Sometimes it’s like that.
And so glad you had such a great time at Hong Kong Palace. The cooking has range, depth, punch and subtlety. What more could you ask for?
I had a really nice dinner on Saturday night at Trummer's on Main in Clifton, VA. Delicious food in a beautiful setting...but no Amuse Bouche!
I must admit I felt slightly let down. Do you think my expectations are out of line to receive an Amuse Bouche is a higher-end restaurant like this?
I have to say, and l apologize if I am not being sympathetic enough, but this sounds like the kind of thing that people who scorn those of us who care too much about food would come up with as parody.
“I dropped $240 on dinner — and they didn’t give me my thumbnail-sized freebie!”
We’re talking about one bite, maybe two.
I know it’s a nice gesture, but it’s not as nice a gesture as a restaurant like Vidalia depositing a bountiful basket of bread on your table, a basket that includes three different preparations, all of them excellent.
And what about petit fours? How many restaurants serve them these days? A plate of petit fours to, as they used to say, and sometimes, in certain precincts, still do — “ease the burden of the check.”
Let’s do a survey today — who, if they could just receive one thing free, would prefer that it be an amuse bouche at the start? And who would prefer petit fours at the end?
And who — there’s always a third way, somewhere — would prefer that the restaurant shaved a little off its entrees and appetizers and did away with both little gifts?
Just wanted to say thanks for the Philly recs you shared with me 2 weeks ago. Osteria was the standout for sure - the asparagus rotolo with farmers yolk and taleggio cheese was unlike any pasta dish I've had... a giant pinwheel of fresh pasta sheets rolled with (ground?) asparagus and a taleggio bechamel, then thrown under the broiler after a generous sprinkling of parmesan, and finally topped with a beautiful golden egg yolk.
As someone who eats out a fair bit, it's so rare to find something you've never seen before that also blows you away in terms of flavor.
They were also very accommodating to the 16 mo old we had with us, as you suggested they would be.
Wanted to go to Garces for brunch like you suggested but they don't start serving until 11am (a pet-peeve of mine when it come to brunch - anyone else?) so opted for Stephen Starr's Parc which opened earlier. Very solid food, passable service, great atmosphere... made me excited to try Le Diplomate.
Finally, made it to the Reading Market after trying to get a cheesesteak at Jim's but being thwarted by an insanely long line. Tried two of the roast pork sandwiches at Dinic's (the Italian style pulled pork was the best by far), topped with rabe and provolone - truly delicious!
Lastly, a question for you - on a recent trip to Vietnam I fell in love with cha ca la vong (not from the namesake restaurant in Hanoi, but from an absolutely amazing little spot call Essence Cafe). Do you know of anywhere in the DC area that I can find it? My usual spots - Rice Paper, and Xuan Saigon in Leesburg - don't serve it (I think it might be a Hanoi specialty). As a frequently traveler, I often find that the food in the US can sometimes outshine what you find abroad, but this dish blew me away and I MUST track it down.
You can find cha ca la vong — a sizzling catfish coated in turmeric and served with lots of fresh dill and onions — at a number of places in Virginia.
Minh’s has it; I’ve had great preparations of it there, and recently, not so-great. So does Hai Duong and Viet Taste, both in the Eden Center. I remember their renditions of this dish as being good, not great. Present also does cha ca la vong; it’s been a while, though, since I had it there, and my memory fails me. Present, in general, however, has declined precipitously.
Thanks for filling me in on your Philly trip. Sounds like you ate grandly.
That dish at Osteria is new to me; my mouth was watering from your description. Sounds amazing. I’ll have to get back up there soon.
We finally made it to Vin 909 and it was as wonderful as you say. I can only compare with my recent trips to Menomale but the pizza at Vin 909 is better. My last pizza at Menomale was surprisingly a bit bland (the veggie one with artichokes), though I still like the place a lot. And the butterscotch pudding!
In an older chat you mentioned Fork and Wrench and so when we visited Baltimore we went there for brunch. It was very Portland, in a good way. Beautiful space, service was friendly and attentive, may be because we were there around 11am when it wasn't busy. We had ricotta pancakes with fennel lemon curd, and chicken and waffles. Everything tasted fresh and overall it was a really good value.
Finally I have to disagree with you on Sichuan Pavillion. We tried it once and had the fish with pickled cabbage, some cold dish, and one other thing, but the whole meal was not very memorable. I know I should try it more than once but Joe's Noodle House is just down the road. We always order the same things there and always get what we expect - it's hard to move away from that. We like their triple pepper chicken, sauteed greens, and spicy string beans with pork. We've also tried the salt and pepper squid, ma po tofu, and dan dan noodles and all were good.
Thanks again for hosting the chats and I always look forward to your suggestions and reviews.
I really think you need to give Sichuan Jin River — used to be Sichuan Pavilion — another try. It’s a long menu, for one thing; bound to be something you’ll like somewhere on there — I can almost guarantee it. Also, it’s entirely possible that you were in on a night when the chef was out and the kitchen was run by the second team. It happens.
As for Vin 909 — I’m so glad to hear you loved it. I’ve been telling neighbors for a while, now, and everybody gets excited, until they hear that it’s in Annapolis. Which, by the way, is only 30-35 minutes from my house.
Driving 30 minutes for what probably is the best pizza in the area right now? Who wouldn’t do that? In Los Angeles, people hop in the car and drive two, two and a half hours just to go on a date. Half hour is nothing. Especially if you know a great reward awaits you.
I'd just like to clear up a common misconception about kung pao chicken. Last week an online chatter wrote about ordering kung pao chicken at a Sichuan restaurant, almost apologizing as if it weren't really something appropriate to order. in fact, it very much a Sichuan dish.
The major differences are that, in a Sichuan restaurant, you should expect the numbing Sichuan peppercorns and for the dish to be dry-fried, with little or no sauce. A Chinese-American restaurant should always be able to make it dry-fried upon request, but will not keep the peppercorns on hand.
Keep up the good work and happy eating!
Steve in Arlington
Thanks for writing in, Steve.
I’d argue that the differences in the two preparations — the usual Kung Pao Chicken that many Chinese restaurants serve, and what is usually referred to on menus as “Kung Pao Chicken Chinese style” — are so pronounced that it’s almost not worth speaking of them as the same thing. The dry frying and numbing peppercorns, as you point out, but also the heavy presence of green onion. There’s a much more concentrated flavor. I think many of us tend to look at a typical Kung Pao Chicken as a dish of comfort; the Chinese style is much more exciting.
Most good Szechuan restaurants serve this dish. I’ve had really good versions at the aforementioned Hong Kong Palace, in Falls Church, and at Sichuan Village, in Chantilly, and good versions at China Jade, in Rockville.
Amuse bouche over petit fours all day every day.
OK, Jack — but why?
Because it seems to make a statement about the kind of restaurant you’re in?
Because you’re often too full at the end to appreciate the petit fours?
Because the amuse bouche tends to be more of a showcase for creativity?
You and your counterpart at the Post have differing views on the steaks at Monty's. He is not impressed at all. He prefers the lamb chops. Any how two people who obviously know what they are talking about can have such differing opinions of this place.
I would love to try it but they don't post a menu with prices online. I assume that their prices are pretty high, thus the reason for not posting them.
I wouldn’t assume that.
And it’s not expensive in light of most steakhouses. The steaks are less than what the big boys, like Ruth’s Chris, Capital Grille, etc., charge. And there are a number of things on the menu that aren’t costly. It’s easy to go here and have a moderately expensive meal.
As for two people having differing opinions on the place — why is that so surprising? Happens all the time in theater, with books, with music. So much, when it comes to food, has to do with expectations. If you read a review, and that review is positive, you come to that restaurant with vastly different expectations than a person who has never read a review. I came to Monty’s via a tip from a reader. That’s different from reading a review.
And there are times, as well, when part of my excitement for a place has to do with a sense of discovery, of finding something good that hasn’t been unearthed previously. Of course, when I write that review, I automatically spoil that same sense of discovery for readers. They can’t have the same experience I had. Expectations are different.
Monty’s, to me, is a gestalt kind of place. It’s the sum of many things. Great dining? No. Desserts need a complete overhaul, many dishes are too salty, there’s a heavy-handedness to a number of preparations. But it does many things well, too. There’s warmth in the welcome. The space is soothing and exceptionally comfortable. There’s a fantastic waitstaff — they’re very pro and very assured on the floor. I’ve had some good cooking there. There are a handful of dishes I’d gladly order again. I’ve had good steaks. Would I go out of my way to dine at Monty’s? No. But if I lived within 20, 25 minutes, I would make it a regular part of my rotation.
Question for you/your chatters: recommendations for restaurants in Dublin? Headed there next week!
Also, have you had a chance to check out Beuchert's on the Hill yet? Curious for your thoughts.
I can’t speak to Dublin — chatters?
And I hesitate to speak about Beuchert’s Saloon since I’ve only gone once and ate rather lightly — only appetizers — when I did.
I think it would be wrong to make sweeping statements or appear to say anything definitive. But I would be remiss, wouldn’t it, if I didn’t say that all four dishes I had were disappointments? Flat flavors, too much herbage, too much salt.
I’m hoping that I just happened to pick, inadvertently, at their weak spots. I saw a table near mine that ordered a charcuterie plate, and it looked terrific.
For every reason you just mentioned, but mostly one and three. It's a great way to start off the meal. It whets the appetite, and gives you an idea of what you're in for.
I hear you.
Who else? Amuse bouche or petit fours?
I'd have to agree with the other chatter about Sichuan Jin River.
We went there as a recommendation from this chat and a friends, and were disappointed in every item we ordered- and we ordered like 5 items from the menu. Everything was greasy and average at best; in the case of the chicken corn soup- it fell flat and flavorless. Even the B team in the kitchen should be able to deliver close to A team standards. Also, we found it a bit odd that the american menu and the chinese menu had the same items for different prices. We left a little ticked that we didn't go to our standby East Pearl. Joe's Noodle does it in a pinch too.
As for your survey, I personally love an amuse bouche because usually I'm starving by the time I get to the restaurant, and I feel it's a display of the chefs creativity and what's to come. The only restaurant I've been to that served both the amuse bouche and petit fours was Marcel's. Though I didn't expect it because of the price point, I do think it's nice and adds a bit of adventure to the high end dining experience.
I wonder if something’s up at Sichuan Jin River.
What I’m hearing in these reports is not typical, or, should I say, was not typical of what I saw of the restaurant at my last visit.
Thanks, all, for the feedback. I’ll have to investigate.
it does seem petty but the amuse bouche makes the dinner feel more like an experience. you feel catered to almost. I also get upset when I don't get a little surprise off the menu.
Demonstrably upset? Or are you saying you just feel disappointed in some way?
I have dinner at Zenebech Injera tomorrow night. It's been a long time since I've had a proper Ethiopian meal. Anything in particular I should keep an eye out for?
Lamb awaze tibs, fantastic. Alicha wat, the same; it’s also hotter than most renditions of the dish you’ll find.
If you’re going with someone, or someones, I’d also get the veggie combo, for the sake of some variety and some vegetables.
If you’re up for it, ask for the teff injera. This is closer to the real thing than you’ll find anywhere — a dark brown, as opposed to gray brown, bread, with a nutty, rich flavor comparable to some dark ales. Teff is extremely good for you; it’s a super food. And it won’t fill you up the way that injera made primarily with wheat will.
What did I overhear at the bar at Ray’s the Classics last night? A regular patron was chatting with the bartender/bar manager(?) and asked something about “how the name change was going”. The bartender replied with something about just needing to get the liquor license approved. I sure hope nothing drastic is about to happen to one of my favorite local spots!
In other news, I visited Jose Andres’ China Poblano in Las Vegas recently. Clever Jose…I recognized many of Oyamel’s dishes and drinks on the Mexican side of the menu. We ate very well from the Chinese side, too, especially the pork and shrimp sui mai and dan dan mian.
It was strange to see Central Michel Richard in the lobby of Caesar’s Palace, and even more strange to hear that a member of my party had eaten huevos rancheros the morning prior, which he found so-so.
I think it’s strange to eat in Vegas, period.
Strange to drop a ton of money on sumptuously prepared meals in what is, after all, a glorified food court.
Strange to see a restaurant culture in which there is only one tier — the top, the very top.
As for RTC … I shot a text over to Michael Landrum about 45 minutes or so ago, hoping to learn what’s happening over there, but have yet to get a response. If anything comes my way, I will surely pass it on.
I vote for Amuse Bouche.
It sets the tone for the whole meal. If it's really good, even just the one or two bites, it makes you anticipate anxiously for the rest of the meal. It does show the creativity of the chef.
Petite fours is good too, but often too full to enjoy it.
Thanks for chiming in …
You know, I’ve gotta say, I’m really, really surprised — close to stunned, actually — to learn that there is that much love and regard out there for the amuse bouche.
That it matters that much to many of you.
That its presence speaks so loudly.
That its absence is felt as a loss.
I wonder if chefs are plugged in to these sentiments. Are any out there lurking right now? I’d be interested in hearing what they have to say — not about whether they like making them, but about whether they know how foodies, at least, regard them.
GMs are welcome, too. Is this something you were aware of, that the amuse bouche matters out of all proportion to the hard-core foodie?
Have you checked Stephen Starr's new restaurant yet? I am wondering if its worth the trek (one bad thing about Logan Circle, 14th Street...long walk to metro) and possible long lines to dine at his new restaurant.
Out of his 20+ restaurants, I am surprised he opened a french bistro restaurant and not just stick to one of his specialties (mod-Asian, American, Steakhouses, Latin fusion cuisines), considering so many french bistros here (Bistrot du Coin, Mon Ami Gabi, Cafe du Parc, Montmartre, La Chaumière, etc...).
Le Diplomate. Everybody, it seems, wants to know about Le Diplomate.
It’s dazzling to look at. It’s more Paris than Paris. Often these attempts to recreate to the nth detail have a Disney aspect about them; not this one. You could shoot a movie here. It’s that stunning and evocative a set piece.
Everything is dwarfed by the space. It’s inevitable.
I’ve had some great dishes. Roast chicken. Tete de cochon. Creme brulee. Grapefruit coupe de glace. King crab claw on ice. And I’ve had some middling dishes. A not-luscious lamb bolognese with tagliatelle. Mussels that turned up some mealy ones. Oysters on the half shell, some of which were brackish, others of which contained bits of grit.
Service is generally well-meaning, but, because they’re still new, often scattershot.
I wish there were more half-bottles on the wine list. It’s a better list, all around, than you would expect of a noisy, mid-priced bistro, but given that it’s a bistro owned by a man with — what is it? 30? — restaurants, I would have liked to have seen more depth and range in its choices. That’s not to say you can’t drink well, and reasonably, too.
The best thing of all about eating here, beyond simply being in the room and feeling as if you are in the white-hot center of things, is the bread basket. Superb baguettes. The cranberry-pecan boule is so exceptional, you could imagine yourself eating it for for dessert. I would be happy to order a cocktail or a glass of wine and just eat bread, and sit and munch and take in the scene.
Definitely not visibly upset, but just a little disappointed.
I think it's part of the overall experience when you are spending a lot of money. To me, it shows that the chef cares.
I'm going to seasonal pantry's supperclub soon. Should I expect one there?
And thanks for writing back … Overwhelming support for the amuse bouche over petit fours.
SJR has unfortunately gone downhill since the name change. I'm not going to put the blame on the name, but that is maybe the point when I noticed things were not as good.
The last time I was there, the cucumber/garlic salad was outstanding as always, but then the flank steak/rice cake dish was just sort of OK, and the chicken and basil dish was really meh- it tasted like it came from a mediocre Thai takeout place. Just not good, and it feels like they're coasting.
Thanks for the report.
Which is interesting, because now comes the following report …
Ate there yesterday for lunch and everything we ate was really good.
I wanted to share a couple of gems that I discovered during my recent jaunt down in New Orleans.
I realize this is a long one, but there is so much to dish on. We got things kicked off with brunch at Commander's Palace, and it certainly lived up to the expectations. This place exudes southern charm, and was perfect for a lazy Sunday morning. The service was impeccable and the courses were fresh and indulgent. The pecan-crusted gulf fish was flaky and sweet (On a side note, I think Pearl Dive comes closest to getting this right in DC, at least they used to). The garnish of crab meat and corn grits was sweet and creamy and I was in heaven. I also had the turtle soup which was good, but I don't "taste" turtle so I wonder how much it adds to the flavor. I still don't know what turtle tastes like but it somehow works! The homemade desserts aren't oversweet, but the portions are huge.
One of my best meals was at Cafe Amelie, nestled in a quiet, shaded courtyard on a quiet block of Royal St. The ambiance is fantastic and the shrimp and grits were some of the best I've had. The shrimp was fresh and plump and the grits were the perfect consistency and not too soupy. We also shared a plate of roasted Brussels sprouts. I know it's becoming cliché but this place does those right, cooks them long enough and pairs them with figs and prosciutto. The cocktails were also some of the best I had in NoLa, which I think is saying something. I would highly, highly recommend this place for someone looking for a nice, quiet meal before a night on the town. We were out of there for about $80 for four small plates and two cocktails.
Surprisingly, one of the things I am most craving right now is the "serrano y manchego" sandwich I got from Alberto's Gourmet Cheeses in the French Market. The chef is from Madrid, and boy does it show. The bread was crispy, the garlic was SPICY, the cheese creamy and the ham and tomatoes tasted like the arrived from Spain that morning. The red sangria was as it should be -- not too sweet and you could actually taste the wine. Too many places ruin it these days, so it's *ahem* refreshing to find a truthful version.
We also visited Cochon (excellent, but gut-busting!), Willie Mae's (lives up to the hype, just be prepared to wait a long time for those fryers to come up to temperature. It's also a walk through a not great part of town), and a small, unassuming hole-in-the-wall deli called Verti Marte -- Excellent and fresh po-boys. We noticed it after spotting locals gathered outside noshing away and also got a tip from a local bartender. It's open 24/7 so I would strongly recommend it for late-night eats in the Marigny/Frenchman neighborhood or if you are on the far-end of the FQ.
Best cocktails were at the Old Absinthe House and the Swizzle Stick Bar (Loews hotel). I KNOW I am missing something, but that's a good start and I hope the report is helpful to you and the fellow chatters.
Whoa, what a travelogue!
You’ve made me pine for New Orleans, and that’s a beautiful thing. And a difficult thing, too, because I’m not there. Wish I could stroll the streets now and stop at all those places on your list.
Thanks for writing.
It’s interesting — New Orleans’ food post-Katrina is less like New Orleans than it has ever been. It’s lost a lot. A lot of history, a lot of tradition. But it has gained enormously too. There is more variety there than ever, and more sense of ferment, too. It’s a scene that feels very, very alive.
Ray’s the Classics update. I spoke with Michael Landrum just a few minutes ago off the record. I hope to be able to share the details with all of you in a few days.
Thanks so much for all of the great tips and questions and field reports and thoughtful musings, as always.
I’m off to lunch.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]