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 a.m. 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, 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 biggest present-day champion, a dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Bangkok 54, Arlington
My most recent meal at this checkerboard-paletted hole in the wall on Columbia Pike was a quick one, consisting of just three dishes—two of them as good as anything I've eaten in the past six months. Irregular slices of freezed, then slow-roasted tofu coated in a dry sauce of chilis and dressed up with tiny leaves of fried basil doesn't sound particularly prepossessing, but I've never had a tofu dish I've loved more. If you're a meat eater and make a point of swearing off any and all dishes that feature tofu, then you need a policy re-think. A red curry was every bit its equal—the heat and lushness of the sauce knitting together a plate of perfectly cooked shrimp, thick squares of tender, roasted butternut squash, toasted cashews and a mound of judiciously prepared brown rice.
The honesty and simplicity of chef Tony Chittum's make-it-local-or-make-it-from-scratch approach has never been in question. But these days there's a newfound coherence in his plates, a clarity that brings even his heartiest, most soulful plates into tight focus. The desserts, with Tiffany MacIsaac in the fold now as guru of sweets for all outlets in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, have never been better.
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, DC
This jumping fish house in the 14th St. corridor is Jeff and Barbara Black's fifth place, and by far their most fun—in the room and on the plate. The other surprise? The excellent value—a reminder that among the benefits of a mini-empire is the ability to leverage high-volume purchasing into cut-rate deals. Don't miss the marvelous twist on mariscos, a seafood-laden salsa with fresh-fried chips.
The best, most sensual, most fully realized restaurant in the area remains Johnny Monis's lair of a place, a sparely appointed East Dupont townhouse with—check it—no menu.
Daniel Singhofen scrapped his a la carte menu this past April, replacing it with a $65 five-course tasting menu. The move seemed premature, given that the chef had yet to establish his Dupont Circle townhouse restaurant as a landmark dining destination, one that had endured many seasons and fads. But Singhofen and company appear ready to make the leap. Courses are imaginatively conceived without straining for effect, and the execution is clean and precise without lapsing into austerity. Best of all, Singhofen imbues these sophisticated dishes with a quality more precious than all the tricks in the molecular gastronomer's toolkit: soul.
R&R Taqueria, Elkridge
Best Mexican food in the area, and it's not even close. And—it's in a gas station. Worth the drive to Elkridge.
Ex-New Heights chef Logan Cox has taken his sauce-painted bowls and fascinating juxtapositions north up Connecticut Ave., making this modestly done Cleveland Park dining room one of the most intriguing places to dine at the moment. His rabbit loin transforms a typically dry, stringy meat into a kind of luscious barbecue, and his vegetable composition plate—that stale relic of the early aughts—is so good, it could stand alone as a (light) entree.
Liberty Tavern, Arlington
The menu at Liam LaCivita's brawny ode to Americana is rife with abundantly portioned plates of meat and pasta, but it was two comparatively light non-meat plates that impressed me most on a recent visit—a Portuguese-style swordfish with escarole, white beans and housemade sausage in a clam-and-saffron broth, and a simply grilled branzino surrounded by black pellets of squid-ink-soaked fregola nero.
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.
Fishnet, College Park
Ferhat Yalcin, a former GM at Corduroy, has opened this appealing fish house not in Penn Quarter, or Clarendon, or Bethesda, but in a tiny store front on a quiet back street adjoining fast food-drenched Rte. 1 in College Park. That's the first bit of daring. Of greater reward to the bargain-minded diner, Yalcin departs from the fried whiting atop white bread model you find at places like Horace & Dickey's, offering instead a changing daily lineup of fresh fish—including, at the moment, wild king salmon, bluefish, hake, calamari and mahi mahi. You choose whether you'd like it grilled or fried, and select one of several housemade sauces (aiolis or tartar). Initially, the sandwiches came on a ciabatta roll that was too big; now they come on Kaiser rolls that are slightly too poofy. The fish is the thing—marvelously fresh, generously sliced, and carefully prepared. There are fish sticks, too, and they might be the best fish sticks you'll ever eat. The daily soup—made from trimmed bits, and built from a homemade stock—is a must-get. Excellent fries and coleslaw, too.
Last week I asked about Indian food in the Rockville area and on your suggestion, I went to Minerva for its selection.
Unfortunately they didn't have a buffet for dinner, but my friend and I ordered a couple tasty dishes and were overall satisfied. Our server, laughing at our confusion and not quite understanding our requests for suggestions, helped us decide on chicken tikka masala and lamb koorma. We also elected to try the panner naan and the kitchen was nice enough to send over tastes of mango lassi.
It was nice to laugh over new foods and how much panner naan reminds us of white pizza, so I'd come back and taste more. Thanks for the tip.
Glad that worked out so well.
And your comparison of paneer naan and white pizza is spot-on.
Chicken tikka masala is a great dish to start on -- I'd have suggest exactly the same thing if I were serving you. If you don't like chicken tikka masala, a.k.a. butter chicken, there's probably a decent chance you're not going to like Indian food. If there's such a thing as a gateway dish, that's it.
It'd be fun, now that I think of it, to assemble a list of the gateway dishes of other cuisines -- the dishes that are the culinary equivalent of dipping your toes in the pool before diving headlong into the deep end.
What're some others?
Can you suggest any great Portuguese restaurants in DC?
Great? No. I wish.
There's Tavira, in Chevy Chase, and it's decent. And -- that's about it.
I wonder if Portuguese Club is still open --? Eating there -- being there -- ranks as one of the strangest experiences I've ever had as a food critic.
Most nights, I and my friends were the only ones eating, while all around us people were playing cards and drinking, or watching soccer and drinking. Food was good, but the kitchen was nearly always out of half of the menu. I went three times, and never did understand what the place was supposed to be, exactly.
It just always seemed that I had done something strange in their eyes by showing up to have dinner.
I hate to be that guy, but- I would posit that most of your average Chinese buffet is a gateway to Fujian, Hunan, and Sichuan cuisines.
There's light years' difference between General Chicken and what is on the Chinese (not C-A) menu at Sichuan Pavilion.
It is, it's light years.
I guess I was looking more for the dishes that novices ought to start with when they're test-driving a cuisine to see if they can handle it -- dishes that aren't going to turn them off because of too much heat or too much spice or too much funk or too much slipperiness of texture, etc.
Thai, for instance. What's the gateway dish there?
Can't be pad Thai, I don't think, since so much of the pad Thai that's out there is so bad. If you had never tried Thai before and decided to start with the pad Thai at most Thai restaurants, would you be excited to go out for Thai food again? Wouldn't you wait a year or more before giving it another go?
Ethiopian: Gotta be doro wat, right? Or on second thought, maybe it'd be tibs -- which will come across to the newbie as a kind of fajitas.
Maybe that's the base principle, here. What, in any cuisine, is like something else in another, more familiar cuisine?
We've already had the comparison of paneer naan and white pizza. Now we have tibs = fajiitas.
So, two ways to skin this cat.
What is a lot like something a diner is likely to already know? And what is an accessible, generally mild dish that also gives a good representation of the cuisine as a whole?
First, let me give you an over-used, but true statement, I love your chats. This is the first time I've submitted anything so I am really excited.
Now on to the reason for my comment - Fiola. There are some experiences that you have that want to have over and over again, but are afraid that they'll never be as good as the first time, sort of like your first real kiss or first true love.
Fiola is one of those experiences. I went there last week for the first time. My friend and I love food, wine and a properly made cocktail and finding all three at Fiola we were ecstatic.
Manhattan for me, the Conventry for him were the cocktails that started off our night of perfection. The Calamari followed in form and enjoyment, setting a high bar for the entrees. After several moments of vigorous discussion, we finally settled on our entrees (the vigorous discussion was needed to settle on only two entrees not the three or four we really wanted to try) - Rockfish +confit salsify+ porcini creama+Barbera wine for me and a lasagna that is not on the menu for him amazed us!
Too stuffed for dessert, or so we protested until our server mentioned a heavenly creation made of chocolate...... Finally, we took our bag of chestnut macaroons, dark chocolate bites filled with salted carmel home as a reminder of our very first time.
Can our second be just like this one? Please?
Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?
I mean, really though -- why not? Fiola seems to be locked into a very good groove, and is putting out some great food right now.
I loved reading this, by the way.
So much that I'm going to put this out there as an early candidate for our weekly cookbook giveaway. Best posting of the day takes home the prize. Be witty, be funny, be ranty, be especially thoughful -- doesn't matter. I'm just looking for something that jumps off the screen.
(I just wanted to make a small pivot here and take a moment to offer my public condolences to Fiola's chef, Fabio Trabocchi, who lost his father, his "everyday hero," a couple of weeks ago.
(Trabocchi claims to not be truly comfortable with English, but I love that phrase, "everyday hero." I had one of my own, and maybe that's why those two simple words give me such an evocative picture of an entire family history.)
For Vietnamese I would have to nominate vermicelli with spring rolls - everything is recognizable and simple (and who doesn't like noodles and fried rolls with a big squirt of hoisin sauce on top?). But you still have the ability to control the heat/sweetness/cilantro levels.
Are you talking about bun?
A pretty good place to start. Or what about a banh mi? I mean, isn't the best evidence that it's an excellent gateway dish the fact that you can find a riff on one on every third restaurant in town now?
I read regularly your online chats and want to thank you for your insight and knowledge.
I found myself recently in a situation that I'd like to see what your reaction would have been.
My husband and I had a late dinner at The Source on a recent Saturday night. My husband ordered a $60 bottle of Chardonnay. The server brought the wine back, opened it and served a taste. The wine was room temperature, and not the same year as listed on the menu. My husband commented on this and the server came up with an eleaborate explanation that the refrigeration system had broken down, it would take 24 hours to refresh, etc., but he could put the wine on ice and it would be chilled in ten minutes (which it wasn't). After saying something to the manager, we were taken care of appropriately, so that isn't the issue.
My question: For a restaurant of that caliber, shouldn't the server had pointed out the refrigeration issue to begin with (which is a dubious story at best given the highly priced white wines on the menu) to allow us time to either have the wine chilled in a bucket or make another decision? Our suspicion is they didn't have the listed wine in stock and or it hadn't been restocked in the cooler and so the refrigeration story came about.
The thing that bothers me most about this is that the bottle that you were served wasn't the bottle you ordered -- the bottle that is listed on the menu.
If there is any variance, it ought to be mentioned up front, before the meal really begins and the bottle -- or dish -- hits the table.
(And yes, if there is a problem in the back, and that problem is going to affect your dinner in some way, it ought to be mentioned at the start.)
I see this more often (though I'm not saying it happens often) with things like fish.
The restaurant lists a dish -- say, halibut -- you order it, and then what shows up on the plate is ... rockfish.
The thing that gets me about these kinds of moments is that invariably the server is at pains to understand what the problem is. You can see him or her thinking: Big deal. One dull white fish replaces another. It's not like it's really gonna matter.
I had written a couple weeks ago asking for dining recommendations in St. Michael's. The BF and followed your advice and went to 208 Talbot (and ate at the bar) and Ava's for pizza. It was wonderful and cozy. We enjoyed every meal and the lovely weather in St. Michael's that weekend.
Which is why I have a follow up question for you. My parents are coming to Annapolis this Thursday for a special occasion for me. We're looking for a late lunch, around 2-2:30pm.
I'd like to take them over the Bay Bridge, which my Dad would love. And I know it's blasphemy in that part of Maryland, but we're not huge seafood fans. Any more suggestions for us?
So, wait -- you're going to hit the Eastern Shore?
In that case, you could take him to Mitchum's Steakhouse (yep, named for the quintessential tough-guy actor) in Trappe, Md.
Or, lower-key -- the BBQ Joint in Easton, run by Andrew Evans (the talented chef who once ran the Inn at Easton).
I'm so glad to hear that the St. Michael's recs turned out to be so right for you. Thanks for dropping me a line ...
How does a food critic watch their weight? Or do they?
I'll tell you, it's taken me nearly eight years to figure out a routine, a method, that works for me.
It's very, very easy to pack on the weight eating out as often as I do. In really busy stretches, it's not hard to gain three, four pounds in a couple weeks.
Running on the treadmill four, five times a week and lifting weights didn't do much for me, unfortunately. What I do now is kettlebells, and I have a personal trainer I see one day a week for an hour (an hour of kettlebells; it's grueling ... a good grueling, Steve; a good grueling ... ). I also have incorporated pilates, lately twice a week.
It's made a huge difference.
Also, if I know I'm hitting a restaurant for a big, multi-course meal and I can swing it -- that is, if I'm not also hitting a place for lunch -- I eat a salad, or just munch on carrot sticks and tank down a bottle of sparkling water.
(My wife makes sure my first meal of the day is a nutritionally good one for me -- oatmeal, the SOS pad for the body, every morning, almost without fail.)
I know there are some critics who skip dessert, but I don't. It's the third act of a three-act play -- why would you skip it? Plus, I think a great dessert can make a meal. It's pretty hard for me to limit myself to only a bite or two if something's good. If something's great, I just give in to temptation -- Oscar Wilde was right -- and worry about it later.
I always order dol sot bim bim bap and galbi for my non-Korean friends who want to try Korean food. I found this to be the best introduction to Korean food.
And actually, what else is there that you could ease someone into Korean food with? Maybe mandu. But that's about it.
I want to get your thoughts on dining alone in DC. I ask because the BF is out of town this week and my friends are busy. I want to have a nice dinner and try somewhere new that my company would not otherwise want to go.
But I'm a bit apprehensive of eating alone in busy restaurants. Is there a place you would recommend that's a bit quieter and where a lone diner wouldn't feel so alone?
You know what?
Forget about finding quiet -- hit the bar of any one of the new restaurants in town, Fiola, for instance, and perch yourself there for the night.
It's your own little party, if the vibe is right.
And if you go early or late, you'll likely have a server all to yourself in the bartender, who will otherwise be occupied only mixing a couple of drinks for the others sitting around you.
I love sitting at the bar when I'm by myself. Or even when I'm not.
I spoke with a restaurateur some months back who is actually toying with the idea of opening a restaurant that is ALL bar -- in other words, no dining room at all. "In a lot of places you go, the bar's the best place to be, right?" he said, explaining his rationale. "So why not make the whole place the bar?"
Can I expand your gateway question? You've covered the entry point to the cuisine, can we talk about the deep end? Once you introduce a cuisine to someone, what's the dish you really want them to try?
A simple example: Japanese (sushi), the entry might be California or spicy tuna rolls, but the goal for me is to get someone to enjoy the creaminess of fresh uni.
I love uni.
The tricky thing is, though -- it's gotta be great uni.
Great uni is fantastic. Creamy, smooth, bright, intense. The way it melts on the tongue. That wave of salt-watery sweetness.
Pretty good uni is ... not good at all.
What's a deep-end dish for other cuisines?
I asked once before, and here's another go: have you tried the cooking from the new chef at the Queen Vic? If so, what did you think?
I had dinner there for the first time last week (after stopping several times for beer and desssert or a pasty). I ordered the pork chop dinner, which was pretty good but not mind-blowing. The chop was enormous and definitely not undercooked. I wished it had been trimmed and seasoned more aggressively. The cabbage and bacon side was a bit too sweet. I liked the mashed potatoes, although, those are kind of hard to screw up.
Beers were good, as usual, and the service (from the owner) was affable. I thought $17 was a little high for the plate, but there were leftovers. For better or worse, the menu seems to have strayed some from the original locavore intent. You don't see nearly as many farms and boutique suppliers listed these days. Thoughts on the food, the prices, the direction this place is going, etc?
Mixed feelings, really.
I had a decent meal there recently. Not great, but not bad.
I love the beer selection. And I love that you see things like chicken livers on toast. (They're good -- cooked to a medium doneness, by the way, with an appealing soft crimson center). That night's special was a black bean soup, and it was just what you'd want from a black bean soup on a cold, blustery night.
Soup aside, the dishes that didn't depend on offal tended to be kinda thin. Not enough oomph for this brand of upscale tavern cooking. And dessert, after we had been served such monstrous portions of everything else, turned out to be a waist-watcher's tiny wedge of lemon meringue. Forgettable.
Service was, as you say -- affable. I'll be back, but probably not for a whole meal ...
While this is probably going to start a flame war up in here, Tex-Mex is a good starting point to Mexican food. Yes, yes, Tex-Mex is its own distinctive style, but it takes familiar elements and combines them with Mexican ingredients.
It's one of my most favorite types of food (and only recently getting some grudging foodie respect) and it is a good starting off point to a really exciting cuisine south of the border.
You'll get no argument here.
I love Tex-Mex. I wish there was more of the good stuff around here. Good Tex-Mex is like an instant party. You can't not have a good time with good Tex-Mex around.
Here's how much I love it: I went to Paris some years back to write about Tex-Mex in the City of Lights.
(There are, or were, nearly two dozen restaurants -- though the Parisians don't really get it. They see it through this weird sort of mythopoeic lens, looking upon it as a quintessential expression of the romantic American frontier. They also take a superior attitude toward it -- draping their enchiladas and nachos with gruyere, for instance.)
I know a lot of people in the food world take a snotty view of Tex-Mex, or, if not a snotty view, they see it as essentially kitschy and not deserving of real time and attention. I think that's too bad. I think they're missing out.
Stopped in at Masa 14 before an early show at the U Street Music Hall. For a restaurant serving up latin-asian fusion, we found Masa to be oddly bland.
We enjoyed the the spicy tuna and BBQ eel handrolls, the wild mushroom flatbread was fine but nothing exciting, the pork belly steamed buns were seriously lacking any flavor, and the crispy chicken wings were just flat out bad - neither crispy not flavorful despite the menu claiming garlic and teriyaki.
The pho dog at U Street Music Hall seemed to be basically a hot dog with some hoisin...but I guess you don't really go there for the food.
Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band on the other hand...excellent!
I've got a neighbor who's been raving to me for a while about Chopteeth. I still haven't heard them. I'd love to.
Next time, see if you can get a table at Pearl Dive, also on 14th. And order the seafood salsa -- fantastic, one of the best things I've eaten in the last couple months.
Yes, bun. Banh mi would work too, though I feel like pickles and pate are less accessible to the general American public than something you could pass off as spaghetti and eggrolls to someone who has never tried anything more authentic than a Chinese-American buffet.
As a Tennessee native I think DC restaurant-goers are more adventurous than average, though.
I think you're right.
When I'm out in the Midwest, for instance, or the South, and I talk to people about some of the things I routinely ingest as part of my job -- and I'm not talking about the really out there stuff, either -- I get these looks, like: You don't actually put that in your mouth, do you?
Being Jewish, it is a given that I will be going out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. But where to go?
Looking for somewhere to accommodate a group of 8 in Rockville, Silver Spring, or Wheaton. I also want somewhere I haven't been recently so that eliminates New Kam Fong, Full Kee, Sichuan Pavilion and Joe's Noddle House.
I miss Jewish Christmas, a.k.a. Chinese food and a movie out. Ah, well, serves me right for marrying a shiksa ... ; )
Ethiopian- I will say tibs or veggie combination. Doro watt no...I don't think most places make good Doro watt and it will definitely not gong to be Dulet
Yes, dulet is probably only for the hardest of the hard-core.
I enjoy it, but you have to like tripe and offal and things like that. And you have to like spicy.
Back when there was only one George Bush, Rio Grande used to roast goat and also had frogs legs on the menu.
I was too young and naive to understand whether it was Tex-Mex, Tex, Mex, or Pemex, but damn it was good.
I had that roast goat a bunch of times. And those frog legs weren't bad.
Speaking of naivete and Tex-Mex -- when I was 19, I traveled the country, alone, for about 2 and a half months. I found myself at one point in central Texas, at a place that smelled amazing. And I was starving.
There was something on the menu called cabrito that sounded great. My Spanish then was good, and I remember asking the waiter what it was. He told me, in Spanish. In Spanish, I asked him if I heard correctly, because it sounded to me like what he was saying was: baby goat. He laughed and nodded yes. I ordered the fajitas.
I'll tell you, I'd love to have that moment back -- love to go back in time and order the cabrito, now that I've wised up and goat scares me none at all ...
Gotta run, everybody. I'm running late for lunch and starving. (Figures.)
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 ...
[missing you, TEK ... ]