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 work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Oxford American, 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.
Can't wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world.
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Izakaya Seki, DC*
Arguably the most exciting restaurant to debut this year. Hiroshi Seki and his daughter, Cizuka Seki, have fashioned a spare, intimate izakaya from a former barber shop on V St. It's a no-frills setting that suggests a gallery and serves as an ideal backdrop for beautifully simple dishes that all but command you to slow down and focus. Hop a seat at the wraparound counter that consumes the entirety of downstairs to watch Seki, a sushi master with 50 years experience, work with grace, speed, economy and calm as he executes his repertoire with a small team of cooks: thick slices of veal-tender beef tongue with a painting of mustard-miso sauce; succulent filets of grilled mero, the Japanese term for Chilean sea bass; springy soba noodles with flakes of nori and tempura; and some of the most exquisite cuts of aji (horse mackerel) and yellowtail you'll find.
Vin 909 Winecafe, Annapolis
I feasted on a couple of superlative pizzas not long ago, and they didn't come from 2 Amys, Pete's New Haven Style Pizza, Pupatella, Moroni & Brother's, Comet, Orso, Haven Pizzeria, Graffiato or Menomale. They came from the kitchen at this always-swarmed, no-reservations wine bar, housed in a restored craftsman bungalow just over the bridge from Annapolis in tiny Eastport. The key players are Alex Manfredonia, who works the front of the (tiny) house, and Justin Moore; the pair met working at a restaurant in San Francisco, and headed east to take over the space previously occupied by Wild Orchid Cafe. Moore and his team produce a crust that's close to perfect—thin, marvelously hillocked, chewy where it needs to be and crispy everywhere else, and hit with just enough salt. The Margherita is more heavily dressed than is usual, but it's excellent, and so is an unlikely concoction of baked beans, Tillamook cheese, fontina and coleslaw. Don't miss the spin on a lobster roll, with creamy, chive-flecked crab salad tucked between two griddled squares of bread; there's a cup of seafood bisque for dunking.
Blue Duck Tavern, DC
On my Twitter feed last week, I teased the news that made a "massive and exciting leap," then sat back and watched the guesses pour in. No one came up with the right place, and to be honest, if I hadn't been there to enjoy it, I would never have guessed, either. Sebastien Archambault is a major talent, and without overhauling the menu or concept has given a restaurant that had slid dangerously close to irrelevance in the past year or so the kiss of life.
Thanks for this excellent find goes to regular reader, N.A. This Alexandria shop is a bakery and catering service with a small cafe. You order at the counter. Atmosphere is a flat-screen TV turned to a food channel. None of that matters when the food arrives—a palaak chaat that's nearly as virtuosic and delicious as the tour de force dish that has become a signature item at Rasika; fantastic kati rolls made with rumali roti and not flour tortillas; and rich and vibrant curries.
El Chucho Cocina Superior, DC
When it's on, an exhilarating tour through the intricate, layered flavors of regional Mexican cooking, backed by a long list of cocktails, margaritas, sipping tequilas and mezcals. Early hits: a smoky grilled corn cob impaled on a skewer, spritzed with lime, rolled in grated cheese and dusted with queso fresco; the tongue-shaped chips known as huaraches, topped with crumbled queso fresco and pickled onions and served with a sublime dark mole; a torta, or sub, that impersonates a Manwich and a Chicago beef sandwich all at once—chopped adobo pork dredged in a spicy Arbol chili sauce, garnished with black beans, onions, avocado and chihuahua cheese and then submerged in that same sauce again before serving (forgo the accompanying plastic gloves and give in to the sloppy lusciousness).
Of the crop of Neapolitan-style pizzerias that made their debut sometime in the past year, I'm most partial to this tiny Brookland operation, a joint venture of hophead Leland Estes and pizzaiolo Ettore Rusciano. Rusciano is a passionate craftsman, with an eye for balance (the best of these pies are chewy where they need to be and crispy where they need to be), a respect for proportionality, and an understanding of the importance of salt. That same great dough is used for the tasty calzones and sandwiches. You can even sample it in the must-order starter, the affetata, an attractive selection of meats and cheeses.
Green Pig Bistro, Arlington
One of the best and most intriguing of the current crop of Hipster Farmhouse restaurants (dishtowel napkins, bluegrass in the air, repurposed wood and yard-sale tchochkes throughout). The chef, Scot Harlan, an alumnus of the kitchen at Inox, cooks with precision and clarity, making light of a plate of crispy pig tacos (the pig, here, is salty, crunchy matchsticks of julienned ears) and even a country-style pate. There's a fantastic drinks menu, and a not-bad selection of Virginia wines, including a Michael Shaps Cab Franc that sells for $5 a glass; it's a perfect match for the rich, porky treats.
You'd never find it if you weren't looking for it. Situated in the fascinating industrial sector of Rockville, amid a slew of old warehouses and specialty supply stores, this cozy Korean mom 'n' pop is about as hidden as hidden gems get. The cooking is vivid and punchy—great bibimbap, served several ways, along with a parade of soups, noodle dishes and stir frys. Order a soju to wash it all down; the mango and watermelon are fresh and gently sweet, a good counterpart to the garlicky intensity of the food.
Maple Avenue, Vienna
Some diners might be skeptical of splurging for $20 + entrees in a tiny, repurposed diner where the 8 tables are wedged together so closely the room can feel like one big dinner party when the drinks are flowing. Others might be skeptical of the menu, which bends in a dozen different directions, implying a kitchen with a scattered, be-everything-to-everyone vision— which is to say, no vision at all. But this is a surprisingly focused restaurant —and a surprisingly rewarding one, too, a place that feels like a personal statement, backed by an amiable staff that clearly aims to send you away smiling. The chef and owner, Tim Ma, does his part, too. He makes a mean shrimp and grits, and his beef cheek sandwich with beer battered fries is one of the best simple plates around. Don't miss the bread pudding.
Fabio Trabocchi's edge-of-Penn Quarter restaurant has put its tentative beginnings behind it. The dishes emerging from the brick-framed, herb-potted kitchen find the prodigiously talented chef moving further and further from the controlled elegance of his work at the late Maestro. They also find him cooking with a renewed confidence and conviction. The best of these plates—an astonishingly flavorful ragu of wild hare with thick bands of papardelle, a double-cut, prosciutto-wrapped veal chop with toasted hazelnuts that accent the sweetness and nuttiness of the meat, a bowl of tender meatballs in a tomato sauce that frankly puts most Italian grandmothers to shame—marry rusticity with refinement. Desserts—including a fabulous cone of sugar-dusted bomboloni, with pots of apple marmalade and cinnamon gelato—remain a rousing finish.
Sidebar, Silver Spring
Chef Diana Davila-Boldin, a Windy City native, has improved upon her Chicago dog—grilling the link, griddling the bun and overloading the ripe, fresh toppings. The result? The best dog in Washington, and better than any Chicago dog I have ever had in Chicago. I'd give this poolhall/hipster bar/cafe a spot on the list just for that, but I also love her mini-falafel, her homemade sausages, her cod fritters, and the cochinita tacos that amount to a glorious precis of El Chucho's Cocina Superior—Jackie Greenbaum's forthcoming "inauthentic Mexican" restaurant, in Columbia Heights.
Mintwood Place, DC
Perry's owner Saied Azali was lucky to land Cedric Maupillier, formerly the chef at Central and before that the chef de cuisine at Citronelle, for his rusticky new bistro. The Toulon native is doing typically great work—cranking out lovingly faithful renditions of such bistro classics as cassoulet (see if you can finish it without two glasses of wine) and steak tartare (the tiny, crunchy tater tots on top are a clever allusion to his old boss, Michel Richard) as well as offering up some sly, smart takes on tradition (frogs' legs with black walnut romesco, a lamb tongue moussaka). There's a whole boneless dorade with picholine olives and braised fennel that's a knockout—beautifully conceived, perfectly executed.
East Pearl, Rockville
A superlative addition to the unofficial Chinatown of northern Rockville, this cheery, subtly modish restaurant is turning out uncommonly clean-tasting versions of standard Hong Kong-style fare, including shrimp dumpling soup, shrimp with walnuts, and soyed chicken—all spectacular. And don't miss a Shanghai-style noodle dish that brings together angel hair, roast pork, shrimp, green onions and a generous spoonful of yellow curry powder into a light, greaseless and remarkably vivid whole.
*New this week.
Today's Contest: Your favorite Julia Child memory OR your restaurant rec for the commander-in chief
Good morning, chatters! Today you can pick between two contests. Since there was no winner last week, we’re carrying over that challenge: Tell us your favorite memory of the great lady; win a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. If JC isn’t your cup of tea, turn your attention to the President. POTUS and FLOTUS ate at Mintwood Place last night. Where in the area do you think they should dine next? A farm to table place that makes all the culinary correct moves and gestures toward shoring up the base? Or a remote country diner aimed at symbolically winning over rural independents? A tasty, comforting, family-style place they haven't yet tried? Or a grand palace of dining that you love and think they ought to as well? As usual, don’t just name the restaurant, make an argument for why you think they should eat there.
Whoever turns in the best overall entry wins Mastering the Art.
Best of luck.....
Todd, wanted to thank you for the recommendation last week for Black Market Bistro. I didn't even know Garrett Park existed prior to then. We LOVED it.
It was a gorgeous night and the outside tables were full. Great vibe in the room with the bar. Hubby's black bean soup was good, not great. We shared a mushroom pizza, which was super yummy, especially the crust. You know the kind, thin but a tad chewy and just enough salt. Service was perfection. We'll be back there next time we go to Strathmore, that's for sure.
I’m so glad to hear you had a great time.
I think it’s an ideal spot for a pre-concert or post-concert meal, especially if you’re looking to be taken care of.
Don’t forget, by the way, about East Pearl when you’re out that way for a performance. In fact, I think the perfect night is to swing by Black Market Bistro for a light dinner, catch your show, then head over to East Pearl afterwards for shrimp dumpling soup and a plate of soyed chicken.
The SO and I visited Mintwood Place for RW and I have to say I was underwhelmed. Maybe my expectations got the better of me, but aside from the flounder ceviche -- tangy, spicy and fresh—nothing really put a charge in my tastebuds. I understand the place is going for a Ramsay-esque "simple, rustic, fresh," but to me that translates as quality, if not safe, dishes. And yes, I know that sometimes simple is the hardest to achieve, but I guess I was hoping for more.
The dorade was fresh and well seasoned as billed, but my favorite fish dish in recent memory is Pear Dive's redfish with sage-pecan butter (yum!). The Amish chicken was enjoyable but it's hard to get amped up about roasted parsnips and carrots. And for dessert, who can botch a brownie sundae? I can't remember the last time ice cream disappointing.
Maybe I'm being too harsh, but for the prices they are charging I just don't get the appeal. Maybe RW didn't do it justice, but for the same price I'd rather be at place like Ardeo+Bardeo or Bar Pilar.
Todd, am I missing the point?
I’ve only been back once since I reviewed it, and that meal was no indication of a drop in quality.
What you experienced sounds like one of those perfectly okay but eh sorta meals. There are many, many of them out there. And especially during Restaurant Week.
I trust what you say. I just hope it’s not true, as an indicator.
I will say that it’s very hard for places to sustain the energy and momentum after they blast out of the gate and run, essentially, on adrenalin for three to six months.
Let’s hope your night was a blip, an RW aberration.
In any case, I’d love to know what the Obamas thought of the place. They had a date night there last night.
Speaking of which: We know all about where they go. What we don’t know, and what I and I suspect others are dying to know, is what they think of the places they hit. Be neat to hear, wouldn’t it? Although if it ever came out, it would be in that very politic way that tells you absolutely nothing.
Politicos love to toss around the word transparency, but they never practice it. Corporate heads, too. Team owners. They’re just more voluble and more likely to post their say-nothing dispatches on Twitter and blogs, etc.
Heading up to Toronto tomorrow for a wedding. Any recommendations on some good cheap eats around Toronto?
Also, good to see the white house referencing your review on Mintwood Place. Any word on what the Obama's had for dinner last night at Mintwood?
Mintwood Place isn’t telling us what the Obamas ate.
Because of course the Romney campaign is likely to use it against them.
“Frogs legs! Figures. Because he is a pointy-headed intellectual who not only rejects the idea of American exceptionalism, but shows no shame whatsoever in embracing the effete cultural expressions of the French.”
My Toronto picks: Rol San for dim sum, and Caplansky’s for smoked meat sandwiches.
Who’s got others?
Ha! Submitted that question yesterday afternoon before the Prez dined at Mintwood Place. No matter...I'm sticking behind what I wrote.
Your point is entirely valid.
I've been seeing some articles about the forthcoming restaurant Suna, evidently coming to the Eastern Market area. The owners won't disclose WHERE the restaurant will be, which just seems odd. Any thoughts on why a restaurateur would hype a place and provide a lot of specifics on menu, design but not want to say where? Just curious.
Maybe because the planned restaurant will be a mobile restaurant—?
Neither food truck nor brick-and-mortar establishment, but something different. A Third Way restaurant. A restaurant that moves. Catch it if you can.
I’m just funnin’. I don’t know.
My guess would be—oversight.
Have you looked at a lot of restaurant websites? It astonishes me how many don’t include their hours of operation. Or make it so difficult to locate.
Best cuban restaurant in the area? Or a place where my wife (a FL transplant) can get good black beans & rice?
Cuba de Ayer, in Burtonsville.
Great black beans and rice. I also like the lechon, the pernil when they have it, the vaca fritta and the picadillo, which has a softness of texture that many versions miss.
Don’t bother with the drinks, all of which are weak and a waste of money. The food, on the other hand, is good and inexpensive and will definitely satisfy that craving.
What do you think of Haven Pizza? Can't remember if you have weighed in on it recently. Just curious because I think their happy hour is one of the best deals around. They have a fantastic bar menu and everything is only 5 bucks, including a very big pizza and decent wine. Also, the bartender (I should know her name, but I don't) is extremely friendly and welcoming, unfortunately a rare species in Bethesda.
I also think Mussel Bar is consistently good and though they lost their head bartender Leslie, the remaining bartenders are great and manager Abby is always a comforting presence. I know many think Bethesda is an oasis of mediocre dining, and for the most part that's true, but these two places never fail to please.
Would recommend these two places? If not, what else would you recommend?
I like two pizzas at Haven.
The white clam is fantastic. The clams are sweet, fresh, and fat, and there’s just the right amount of garlic, too. Excellent crust.
I also really like the plain tomato. With nothing but mozz on top.
I’ve added two and three toppings to that plain tomato, and pretty much ruined the beauty of the thing. Even with two, it became a wet, soggy thing.
I think the place is very expensive for what it is. I can remember one meal there—two small pizzas, a salad, two glasses of wine, a small dish of ice cream—costing over $80 with tax and tip.
Mussel Bar is a good place to drink and explore the beer list and/or drink and explore the other patrons at the bar. Some of the food hits its mark, some doesn’t.
Both are like a lot of places in Bethesda. They have their moments. They’re expensive for what they are.
I like Food Wine and Co., but it’s not an unequivocal like.
Same with Grapeseed.
I’m slightly less equivocal with Faryab, Passage to India, and Jaleo Bethesda.
Was able to try Mintwood Place for the first time last week. One of the best meals of this year. Even thoug there isn't real value in going to dinner for restaurant week, this place was worth every penny. Flounder ceviche was super fresh and the heirloom tomato gazpacho was a revelation. Main dish of salmon basil pistou broth was delicious down to the last bite and the dessert of fresh ripe blueberry tart was a sinful pleasure without having to commit a sin when eating it.
Definitely will be going back there.
Well, there we go—equal time, as the pols say.
Todd, if I were the President's foodie sidekick I'd introduce him to Darya Kabob in Sterling, VA.
Tucked away in a quiet shopping center you'd never know that this mom 'n' pop serves some of the best Persian kabobs around, and certainly my favorite. The naan comes piping hot, made to order in the tandoor, steam rising as you tear the soft bread apart, crumbs falling from the crispy blackened air bubbles. The tiny kitchen puts out soft pillowy rice that captures all the rich juices from cubes of filet that have been marinating for three days in yogurt, grated onion and spices. And it's old school, with large metal skewers resembling swords, coming hot off the flames with a grilled tomato on each end rounding out the meal. The chenjeh is my favorite, succulent and tender, like no other preparation of filet in other Persian restaurants. However, the kubideh (ground beef) is so delicate when cut into and is not to be missed, especially drizzled with some minted yogurt sauce before being enveloped in a warm piece of bread.
The best part is that they'd go largely unbothered, left to enjoy their meal in piece, no loud restaurant patrons, no traffic to compete with. Perhaps a few smiles from the families who come in to grab their food to-go, or the ones wrapping up a casual dinner that hits every spot.
I love this for a lot of reasons.
“Crumbs falling from the crispy blackened air bubbles.”
“Soft pillowy rice that captures all the rich juices from cubes of filet that have been marinating for three days in yogurt, grated onion and spices.”
Good stuff. And now I’m hungry …
We have a leader …
Thing is, though, can you imagine what the right-wing would do to him if they found out that he’d eaten at an Iranian restaurant? I can hear the talking heads on FOX now: “It is patently obvious that this socialist Muslim foreigner is sending a stealth message to Ahmadinejad … “
POTUS had the bacon cheeseburger at Mintwood Place and they had some greens as a side, could not tell what FLOTUS had.
Where you there?
How did you come by this info?
Where's a nice, quiet bar where spouses can talk and have good food and drinks? We always eat at the bar at Rest Eve because it is pretty much perfect, but other ideas?
A few other ideas …
Proof, in Penn Quarter. Palena, in Cleveland Park. Fiola, on the edge of Penn Quarter.
Who’s got other suggestions?
Naeem probably saw the food on Obama's Instagram feed.
It’s funny to see them eating in an empty restaurant. I understand the complexities at hand, I just think it’s funny that they go out to a place to have a real or normal experience, and then the entire place is flushed of all people. Except photogs. And staff.
Also, he can’t ever eat anything except for a hamburger? Annoying.
Not familiar with Suna, but a reason they could be being coy - it's in an existing restaurant space that will eventually be closing.
Sure. Makes perfect sense.
And you know this how—?
We're trying to get a reservation at Thai Xing...left a message and hope to get a call back. What are your thoughts on the place? Our backup is Little Serow if Thai Xing is booked up. Very different flavors, I know.
It’s a fun night. That’s the first thing. And probably the main thing.
The second thing is that the heat is right on the money. It’s the real deal in that sense.
You’ll eat some great things. You’ll eat some okay things. There’s too much similarity, for my taste, in the dishes as a whole. The pacing is non-existent when it gets busy—dishes just land on the table whether you’re ready for them or not, or you wait a long while for the next course.
I would like to see the cost come down to $30, and have Taw Vigsittaboot, the chef, trim his menu back to 4 or 5 courses.
As is, it’s still, as I say, a fun night. And one of the more unusual experiences on the scene, because you’re essentially eating in someone’s house.
Todd, your list of the top restaurants to take advantage of during restaurant week was fantastic! That is a great service you offer! I got to enjoy dinner at both Bistro Bis and Tosca this past weekend and although I'd never been to either before as far as I could tell the ONLY thing that showed it was restaurant week was the cost. Service, options, and food were all amazing. Even the portion sizes were fabulous! (My lamb at Bistro Bis was enormous and my leftovers were enough for dinner for two.) Thanks for making it easier to choose the places to go!
I appreciate hearing that, and especially knowing that you had such good experiences out this past week.
Would love to know who else used the guide to lead them to something good. Or even just who dined out during RW and what you found …
You can always drop me a note and share the details: firstname.lastname@example.org … Or swing back next week and let us all know.
Thanks, everyone, for taking part today …
And I’m sorry to hear about the problems some of you had in posting questions. And to those of you who are frustrated with having to register to log into the chats, I’ll be sure to pass on your complaints to the tech folks …
Bit of housekeeping before we go: The copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking goes to … Potomac, for the mouth-watering report on Darya Kabob in Sterling. Drop me a note at email@example.com and I’ll be sure to drop a copy in the mail …
I’m off to lunch …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]