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Tuesday, April 30 at 11 AM
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. Host Todd Kliman

Editor’s Note: Washingtonian Online moderators and hosts retain editorial control over chats and choose the most relevant questions; hosts can decline to answer questions.

Published April 23, 2013

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'sThe 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: tkliman@washingtonian.com


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W H E R E   I ' M   E A T I N G   N O W   .  .  .


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.

Sisters Thai, Fairfax

I like the bait-and-switch of this two-sister-led operation. The bait: a cozy tea shop atmosphere, the sort of setting you expect to sip a pot of tea and nibble scones and flip the pages of a home remodeling magazine. The switch comes when you order. This kitchen delivers a punch. Ask for it Thai hot, and it will come out Thai hot. The even better news is that the kitchen doesn't just ladle on the finger peppers; it works with surprising focus and clarity.


Mi Cuba Cafe, DC

This tiny cafe, on Park Rd. in Columbia Heights, makes the best picadillo I've had in a long, long time -- with the right amount of olives in the mix, and, more vitally important, the perfect soft texture. Good rice and plantains, too. And finding a restaurant in the thick of DC that can turn out a good, hearty meal for 2 in the range of $35 is pretty close to miraculous.


Mari Vanna, DC

Most restaurants begin with an aha! moment, and for this import from Moscow (with locations also in London and New York) I imagine that moment must have happened something like this: "What we do is, we make a hip place for trendy young Russians to go and eat and drink, with exposed brick walls and cocktail creations and lots of noise, but at the same time we make them pine for Mother Russia, with doilies on the tables and a guy sweeping through the dining room playing folk tunes on the accordion and babushka furniture and little babushka purses to stuff the check into at the end." Service the night I was in was a mess; I can't remember a meal in the last couple of years in which more went wrong. And our first courses were hardly diverting: a beet salad was salty, and a smoked fish platter was uneven. But then came the pelmeni (tortellini-like bundles of tender pasta stuffed with well-seasoned veal and served with heavy sour cream) and a fabulous rendition of chicken tabaka -- a Georgian specialty, in which the bird is cooked under a weight in a heavy cast skillet; it came with fingerling potatoes and a sour cream-and-dill sauce. We finished with more sour cream -- spooned onto our sweetened blinis, along with good cherry preserves -- and waddled out into the night.


Pabu, Baltimore

Why drive to Baltimore when there's plenty of good sushi in DC? The skewered chicken parts, for starters -- luscious mini kabobs of heart, skin, tail, all of them cooked over smoldering logs of Japanese white oak that perfume the room and call to mind the mood-altering atmospherics of a pricey sauna. The sake list (bottles start at $13 and run to four digits) is fantastic, the best and most extensive in the region, and with helpful annotations worthy of a good wine list. And then there's the sushi -- 22 varieties of fish on offer, including a daily selection from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market. Take note of the excellent sushi rice; it's made with fermented vinegar, which tastes like a cross between a craft beer and a digestif and gives the grains more flavor and character.


………..…………………………………………………………….......

REVIEWING, AND MONTY'S STEAKHOUSE :

Hi Todd,

Was it anything more than coincidence that your review of Monty's ran pretty much right after Mr. Seitsema's? Was it planned that way all along or was it expedited to get your voice in there at the same moment?

Todd Kliman:

It’s nearly impossible to rush something into print at a monthly magazine.

Our deadlines run about two to three months in advance of publication. I believe the Post works about 2, 3 weeks out.

That’s one reason why I post thumbnail reviews up top of this chat. And Monty’s, you may recall, was a place I had written up in early March.

Good morning, everyone. I’m glad to have you all here.

Fire away with whatever you’ve got …

BEST BANH MI?:

Hi Todd-

Any advice on the best bahn mi in the DC area? I've been searching but haven't had a ton of luck. The more authentic the better!

Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

Where’ve you been searching?

Because the best I’ve had are all in a very small patch of turf in Falls Church.

I might give a slight edge to Banh Mi DC Sandwich, on Rte. 50 — Combination #1 and Roast Pork #2 are my picks — but I also love the banh mi at Nhu Lan in the Eden Center. Third would be Song Que, also in the Eden Center.

I’d love to know where you’ve hit already that was lacking. Do tell.

HELP! -- ISO: A GOOD RESTAURANT IN LEESBURG THIS WEEKEND, PARTY OF 10:

Hi Todd,

Longtime reader and big fan. Love the chats.

I am writing in on Saturday so that you have plenty of lead time to hit another home run suggestion for me by Tuesday.

I have the family coming to the area on Friday for a wedding in Leesburg. I have been to Tuscarora Mill and loved it but they cannot accommodate the large party of 8 + 2 kids.

Any suggestions for a great dinner in Leesburg or closeby?

Thanks, as always.

Todd Kliman:

What about Ford’s Fish Shack, in Ashburn?

It’s a lively place, but not terribly lively — you’d be able to talk to one another, for sure — and the menu ought to satisfy a range of tastes.

Fried lobster tails, fried calamari, lobster roll, mussels, fish and chips, salmon salad, even a burger for those who don’t eat fish or seafood.

Hope that helps!

It’s always such anxiety when you feel responsible for the happiness of ten people on such a big weekend.

Good luck, and let us know how things turned out, ok?

Re: BRUNCH AT ZAYTINYA, IN PENN QUARTER:

Been going to Zaytinya since the day it opened but had never had brunch there until this past weekend and was very impressed by most of their offerings.

My favorite dish was the Cilbir: poached eggs, toast, Greek yogurt, paprika butter, sumac. I loved it so much I wish they offered breakast during the week so I could go there and have it again.

Ashta: traditional Lebanese-style French toast, bananas, orange blossom honey. This was our second favorite brunch item at Zaytinya. The french toast was light and creamy and the fruit went well with the dish.

I hope try brunch at Le Diplomate and Table in the near future too.

Todd Kliman:

Thanks for the report.

I think it’s really hard to do brunch well — or, let me say that again: not many places do brunch well. That is, with conviction and with excitement.

I have a lot of regard for those places that do.

It’s the same with restaurants and Restaurant Week. Those that get it — that honor the spirit of the promotion — are rare, and ought to be supported and encouraged.

Re: LITTLE MEXICO:

Todd,

I know you have been championing Little Mexico in Riverdale for years...finally made it over there on Saturday for lunch at Taqueria La Placita.

Delicious stuff esp. the barbacoa (lamb) taco. I really appreciate how straightforward everything was. Two corn tortillas, pile of shredded lamb, a scattering of onion and cilantro, squeeze of lime, and a splash of hot sauce. Slices of radish and cucumber on the side.

That's it. Didn't need anything else. Except for maybe a cold beer.

Todd Kliman:

So glad to hear you made it out there, and that everything was tip-top.

It’s interesting that you identify the location as Riverdale. The mailing address is Hyattsville. And I consider that part of the world to be Bladensburg.

Anyway, the tacos. Aren’t they terrific? Next time be sure to get the pork leg, my favorite.

It’s amazing how many people I run into who have never heard of the place. Food lovers, all of them, and they have never been, let alone recognize the name. I’ve made space for it for the last several years on the Cheap Eats list — the tacos even made an appearance on the cover a couple of years ago — and … nada.

I’ll look around the dining room, and I won’t see the expanded customer base that some mom ‘n’ pops experience after a big review.

I’m not mystified, I think I understand the whys, but I’m disappointed all the same. I think it’s a gem, and Little Mexico a really interesting to explore with its taquerias and cafes and bakeries. Like leaving the country without ever leaving home.

Short of hitting the road for R&R Taqueria, in Elkridge, these are the best tacos in the DC area.

I’d be interested to know who out there today, reading along, has been, and how many times, and what you found. And if you haven’t gone, why haven’t you gone. Or if you have gone, but only once, why you haven’t made it a part of your regular rotation.

LONDON EATS:

Headed to London in May for my first vacation without husband or kids ever!!!

Can you give me the "can't miss" places? Any recommendations off the beaten path? No food limitations or restrictions - and in fact love to try new things! Thank you.

Todd Kliman:

Excited to be rid of both the kids and the husband? Hm … : )

I have two can’t-misses: Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, the most elegant, most exquisite Indian cooking I have ever had the pleasure of eating; and St. John, the mecca of head-to-tail dining.

Indian food, generally, is the thing to get your fill of. Rasoi is fine dining and expensive; there are a couple of less expensive options that are terrific, too — among them Veeraswamy and Chutney Mary. And you can find very good Indian food in corner curry houses up and down the city.

Good luck, happy travels, and I’ll be interested in hearing your report of your adventures …

BEST BANH MI, CONT.:

Re: Best Bahn Mi ...

Places I tried: Ba Le in Langley Park (this was maybe a year ago) and Song Que.

Ba Le was a bit lackluster in the flavor department; I thought Song Que was pretty good, but as a resident of DC proper its a bit inconvenient for me.

Know of anywhere good inside the city?

Todd Kliman:

No; there’s nowhere good inside the city.

You’re just going to have to make it a sometime-treat, a place you get in the car and drive for.

(Until some enterprising someone with the knowhow and skills comes along with a food truck doing killer banh mi.)

It’s just the reality of life in DC that if you want to experience all the great foods the area has to offer — and really understand what makes this food scene distinct and interesting from other scenes — then you have to get outside the city limits.

THINKING LIKE A CRITIC:

How do you keep track of all of the restaurants, your favorite dishes, what they are good for (large groups, casual night), etc.?

I've been trying to figure out a good strategy but, thus far, been unsuccessful and overwhelmed. Any tips would be great!

Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

I don’t have a strategy.

And I don’t know that I have anything in the way of tips to offer.

What helps me, is that I keep notebooks.

And this is just something I have done all of my life, not just with restaurant meals. I fill them with books I want to read, and thoughts on books I’ve just read. With writing ideas. With conversations I’ve eavesdropped on. Descriptions of people I’ve seen on trains and buses, their faces, their mannerisms. Snatches of prose. A phrase that comes to me in the course of the day. New words. Words I get a kick out of. Ruminations on the day. Lists. Etc., etc.

My notebooks are invaluable to me. More valuable than my phone.

Writing things down, and making sense of them on the page, not only helps me to clarify my thoughts, but it also helps to sharpen my memory.

I happen to have been blessed with a very good memory for details, and I know that the notebooks have only made that memory better. I’m often able to recall dishes from meals I ate two, three, four years ago.

LONDON EATS, CONT.:

For the London bound traveler ...

May I also recommend Tayyabs for out of this world Indo-Paki food. Not to miss is their mixed grill! Make reservations as it's always bustling and packed no matter the night.

For a more casual eat, don't forget the salt beef sandwich at Selfridges.

And for middle eastern inspired fare, any of the Maroush/Ranoush/etc. spots on Edgeware Road are worth a stop, wash it down with some fresh juice and baklava and tea on your way out.

Todd Kliman:

Terrific. Thanks for chiming in …

ANNIVERSARY DINNER THIS SUNDAY -- WHERE DO WE GO?:

Ok, Todd, it's that time of year again …

That's right, my annual question to you: where to go for our anniversary, this Sunday May 5?

You nailed it last time with Liberty Tavern. Where to go this year?

We’ll have the kids with us, so need a kitchen which can accommodate food allergies. And ideally, we'd like to stay in Northern Virginia.

Thanks much.

HM

Todd Kliman:

Howard, great to hear from you!

I’d go with Vermilion, in Old Town.

Cozy, special without being grand, and, for this area, not exorbitant. And the food’s terrific — sophisticated and soulful, built upon carefully sourced local produce and meats and rooted in the traditions of the Chesapeake and mid-Atlantic

It’s about as free of pretense and ego as good restaurants get these days.

Btw, most good restaurants can accommodate food allergies if you give them a heads-up; call ahead two days before and ask for a GM, explain the problem, and allow them to come up with the answers.

Have a great time this weekend. And all the best to you and Beth!

Todd Kliman:

THIS JUST IN:

Jackie Greenbaum just dropped me a line to tell me about the new chef at Jackie’s, in Silver Spring.

Diana Davila-Boldin is returning to her hometown of Chicago.

“Hi Todd,

“We’ve hired a new chef to replace Diana: Adam David Harvey.

“Most recently the Exec Chef at The Wine Kitchen in Frederick, prior to that the Exec Pastry Chef and Sous Chef at Volt for 3 years. Other experience: Morrison House Hotel (Exec Sous), and Marcel’s (various line cook positions).

“Seems to be a very nice, smart young man, well regarded by his peers and a good cook. I look forward to working with him. Start date: May 7; his first menu won’t be out likely until summer.”

BEST BANH MI, CONT.:

So Bonmi isn't good? Haven't tried it. Thanks.

Todd Kliman:

Well, the chatter asked for “authentic.”

Authentic and great.

I think of Bonmi as a sandwich inspired by banh mi, more than I think of it as as banh mi. It can be a pretty decent sandwich. But it’s not in the same league as the places in Falls Church I mentioned up above. And it’s also a lot more expensive.

This is one reason why you don’t see places like Nhu Lan in the city proper. Rents are too high. They’d have to charge more. They’d have to become something they are not.

BEST BANH MI, CONT.:

What do you find appealing about the #2 Pork at Banh Mi DC?

I really liked the vegetables, but didn't think the meat was good, with its chemical pink color and lack of pork flavor. Seemed more like mystery meat to me.

Maybe my mistake was having expectations for meat along the lines of the Hanoi Grilled Pork from Queen Bee back in the day.

Todd Kliman:

Yeah, you’re not going to find that kind of charcoal grilled pork in a banh mi. Most are built on the likes of cheap meats — pates, headcheeses, mystery meat balls.

If you didn’t like the color of the roast pork at Banh Mi DC Sandwich, then you probably shouldn’t order the meat ball. And you probably won’t like some of the lunch meat options at Nhu Lan; I have friends who were put off by the gelatinousness of the meat, though they liked the bread and the pickled veggies.

I don’t mind the color. I also don’t mind the color of the barbecue ribs you find, sometimes, at certain old-school Chinese joints. I mean — that’s the dish. What I care about is taste. And that #2 is just a really terrific sandwich.

This touches on a larger question, which is about sandwiches generally.

I find that the higher up the food chain you go, the less likely the sandwich is to be good.

The individual ingredients are likely to be good, sometimes even very good. But you can have high quality meat and great bread and a lousy sandwich.

It happens all the time. Some beautiful slices of fresh roasted lamb with a wonderful tzaziki — but the bread is too thick, there’s too much of it, and you can’t taste the meat and the tzaziki. Or the bread is excellent, but it’s not the right bread for that particular sandwich. Or the bread and meat are great for one another, and the proportion of each to each is just right, but the sandwich-maker doesn’t add in enough tang and crunch. Or the tang and crunch are there, but the assembly is all wrong, so that you don’t taste everything all together.

ANNIVERSARY DINNER, CONT.:

Place for an anniversary dinner Trummer's on Main in Clifton, VA. The dogwoods and azaleas are in full blame its a pretty drive down Burke Lake Rd to Clifton Rd.

Clifton

Todd Kliman:

Whoa, what’s this? A total 180 on Trummer’s on Main?

Has someone hacked your account, Clifton?

Is this the same Clifton?

Whoever you are, thanks for chiming in. I didn’t suggest it because I think it’s more foodie than they’re looking for, and I also think that there are better options for taking two kids.

Re: LAMB:

And it depends on where the lamb is from...

Australian lamb is awful. I prefer local and want to know what it was fed and finished on. Also different species of hair sheep taste different. Not a big fan of eating wool lambs. I can just have my collie girl select a lamb for us at a local farm. One that doesnt like to trial or work.

Todd Kliman:

You’re that persnickety for a sandwich, though?

I can understand when it comes to a chop or a leg of lamb. Well, sort of understand — this kind of micro-fanaticism always puts me in mind of the chicken sketch from “Portlandia.”

But in between a couple of slices of bread, with lots of toppings?

Anyway — for next time.

Gotta run.

Disappointed, I have to say, by the radio silence on Little Mexico and La Placita — we’ll have to explore that more next time, as well. But thanks for all the questions and tips and reports from the field.

Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …







[missing you, TEK … ]



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