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.
Hi my family wants to go for an Indian dinner, and i was wondering if you could tell me what's the best Indian restaurant in Bethesda/ Rockville area ?
Thanks for your help. Rohan.
Passage to India is the best in Bethesda and Spice X-ing is the best in Rockville.
And both are owned and operated by the same guy, Sudhir Seth.
Another option for Bethesda, though I'd put it behind P to I: Haandi. And in Rockville, you might also want to consider Bombay Bistro.
Recently we ate at an incredibly expensive chef centric restaurant for a special occasion and ordered limes with our sparkling water. The waiter brought over a plate with a half a lime cut up into wedges.
A couple minutes later the chef stopped by to talk to us and saw the limes on the plate and got very upset saying that it was crazy to provide a half lime since limes were currently $0.98 a piece. The chef then went and chastised the waiter.
Realizing the meal was several hundred dollars, are chefs, even at the highest level, watching every cent that closely?
Oh, yes, indeedy -- they're watching their bottom lines these days with the hawk-eyed vigilance of IRS investigators.
The first line of the check of my recent meal for two at Elisir was -- "Water charge $.58"
I'm sure there are some people out there who would say, well, what does it matter when you're paying $150 for two? To which I say: Yes, exactly. Why, when you're charging that much, do you want to give the appearance of nickel-and-diming the customer?
It gives me the same sort of feeling as seeing rich people rinse out their Ziplock bags so they can use them again.
I think Elisir's policy is the most egregious of these sorts of crimes against the diner. But you also have Graffiato charging $5 for a bread basket -- and not telling diners ahead of time.
I remember running into some friends one night when I was on my way out. They were slathering the excellent ricotta spread over slices of the excellent raisin-walnut bread while enjoying a bottle of wine and waiting for their first courses to arrive. "It's good, isn't it?" I asked. They nodded happily. At which point, impish sort that I am, I decided to pierce the good mood and ask whether they knew it cost five bucks. Down went the blinds.
I love the new 100 best restaurants list, but although Minh's made the list, I can't find the write-up. did I miss it or was it omitted?
And your interview of Michael Dirda was fabulous. From a steel mill family in Lorain to Book World and beyond. One of the best Washingtonian pieces in a long time!
Thanks! I had a great time doing it. Michael has read so widely, and thought so much about the things he's read, that it's thrilling to spend time with him.
We're going to continue the conversation, it appears, and I'm very happy about that -- very happy to have made a friend as a result. I think my bribing him with future lunches may have had something to do with it, but hey ...
As for Minh's ... It's there, I promise -- in the "Tried and True" section ...
I recently booked a holiday date for me and my boyfriend. An early dinner at Graffiato followed by drinks (the ala carte option) at Columbia Room. My boyfriend is a bartender, so I'm sure he will thoroughly enjoy Columbia Room, but I'm starting to second guess my choice of Graffiato.
For dinner, I want a cozy, romantic experience much like the Pink House in Savannah (Dimly lit basement, our faces illuminated only by the flickering candles on the table; our bodies warm from the tableside fireplace).
Obviously, Graffiato will not offer the experience I am looking for. Is it truly worth it "just to check out"? Or are there better restaurants (in downtown DC) where I can find this "cozy date" atmosphere I am looking for?
I'd go with Proof instead, if I were you.
It might be the most dimly lit restaurant in the city -- so much so that waiters dispense credit card-sized flashlights to assist you in reading the menu. It's very cozy, very intimate, and has a sort of tossed-off sophistication that's very appealing these days -- and also very hard to pull off. It pulls it off.
And it's eating better than ever, too. Superlative foie gras (seared and served atop a cherry-studded short cake), a beautifully delicate branzino in a saffron broth, and a knockout plate of spaghetti and meatballs (foie gras is the crucial ingredient, lightening the meatballs without also making them taste like bready filler).
One of the great attactions of dining here is the wine list -- even if you're not opting for a bottle. A wealth of great and interesting wines you're simply not going to find anywhere else, and the restaurant makes them available in two-ounce pours that encourages you to experiment and try something you wouldn't ordinarily.
Go. And follow up with us with a quick report, okay? ...
Thanks for these chats. PG County - what do you recommend? Appreciated your mention of Fishnet in College Park. What else could you point me to?
I look at PG County as "the hole in the donut" with dining options all around, MoCo, DC, Balto and Annapolis.
Prince George's suffers by comparison with its much-more affluent neighbors, but if you removed it from this area and dropped it down in, say, Nebraska or Illinois, it would be fought after by developers.
There are a multitude of reasons why it's been ignored for so long. When the county was majority-white, in the late '60s and mid-70s, it had the stigma of being rural and poor or working-class. Today, it's majority-black, and markedly more affluent, but the perception of it has not changed.
I love hearing developers and others use their buzz/code words when describing the area. "Population density" is one of them. The reason development has lagged, in other words, is that the area doesn't have the concentrated pockets of people that other jurisdictions have. There may be some truth to that, who knows? But I think it's telling that racism is seldom brought into any kind of public discussion on the subject. To discuss the myriad complicated and surprising ways that that racism manifests itself -- and the myriad ways that that racism affects business and development -- is an important step in the process ...
Besides Fishnet, in College Park, there's the very good Ichiban (in Bowie) for sushi, along with some good preparations of Szechuan and Cantonese fare.
There's Henry's Soul Cafe (soul food) in Oxon Hill and Bangkok Golden (Thai) in Ft. Washington.
Also in Oxon Hill: the excellent bakery Desserts by Gerard, owned and operated by Gerard Huet, a former Watergate pastry chef (he does sandwiches, too, including a really good one with curried chicken salad and apples).
Franklin's Restaurant and Brewpub (comfort food and microbrews) in Hyattsville is a good neighborhood restaurant and a fun place to kill a couple of hours besides.
Hyattsville also has a new Busboys and Poets and the wonderful new Shortcake Bakery.
Da Rae Won in Beltsville has good Korean Chinese cooking. Pasta Plus, in Laurel, is one of the area's great neighborhood Italian restaurants. The Red, Hot and Blue in Laurel is the best of the several locations in the area.
Bobby's Burger Palace, in College Park, puts out a very good burger and very good thick shakes.
National Harbor, in Ft. Washington, has loads of restaurants, including a Rosa Mexicano. I'm not high on anything in particular here, but it's an attractive place to come and spend the day and have a nice if not too high-stakes meal.
Anthony Bourdain may have to go to Rome for great Cacio e Pepe, but I had an amazing one at Fiola the other night, simple, but very good.
I love going to restaurants a couple nights before Christmas in DC, no crowds and you can get in anywhere you want!
I had an amazing one there, too.
One of the things that's amazing is that it's such a simple dish -- no luxury ingredients, nothing remarkable about the presentation. Cheese, pepper, pasta are the foundational elements. What could be more basic? you think. Yet you come away from the table knowing there's no way in hell you could pull that off yourself at home.
And I'm with you on pre-X-mas dining; it's a great time to hit a restaurant that otherwise is booked solid in prime time.
I'm actually anxious about the Jewish Deli coming to DC.
As someone who grew up in NY and noting for a really long time that it has notably been absent from DC - I'm worried that it will just be a superficial entrepreneur trying to capitalize on a Jewish Deli but in actuality it being little more than a sandwich shop/deli with a couple of "Jewish" items thrown in.
I sure hope they do it right!
I'm not anxious.
Hearing "artisanal" and "deli" in the same sentence, I agree, is initially unsettling, but as the owner of Kenny & Zuke's in Portland pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal piece on new-breed Jewish restaurants, what he and others are doing is what deli owners did a hundred years ago -- before everything went mass-market in the post-war era and deli owners started buying their products from big conglomerates.
DGS Deli is going to be getting its bagels, bialys and breads from Mark Furstenburg's new bakery, Bread Furst, and will be making its corned beef and pastrami in-house. All its pickling will be done in-house, too. And Barry Koslow, who ran the kitchen at Mendocino Grille and at Tallula, is a talented chef.
Now, obviously, you can have a lot of great elements in place and still a restaurant doesn't quite come together the way it's supposed to. One thing that will be vitally important to DGS is a proper vibe. I don't mean that it should sound a nostaglic note. I mean that the food shouldn't be the only zesty thing about eating there. I realize that a craft cocktail list designed to rope in young singles is a prerequisite of every ambitious mid-level restaurant these days, but the atmosphere, here, is going to have to manage a tough balancing act. It can't be too cool and mod. Much more like klezmer, less like slick techno.
Just to react to a post from an earlier chat with a MUCH BETTER RECOMMENDATION.
Bon Mi on I Street is really disappointing. The bread is all wrong and the fillings are not much better. However, there is a place just next door called Axian.
It has really wonderful Noodle Soup and BiBimBop. I hesitate to share this with everyone because I don't want them to get too busy. I promise I am not affiliated in any way with this place.
I do however think that it may be some of the best Korean food in the City (not really saying much, but this place is good). The cooks make all of their sauces and the soup from scratch. They also have regular deli sandwiches that I have never tried, but really no point in going there if you are not going to try the Korean offerings. What are your favorite lunch only spots in DC right now, Todd? Give Axian a try.
Will do. Thanks for the tip.
If I'm limiting myself to places that are ONLY open at lunch, I'd have to say:
* Mangialardo and Sons on Capitol Hill for the really good Italian subs
* the Greek Deli on 19th St. downtown for gut-busting portions of Aegean comfort food
* The Best Sandwich Place on L St. downtown (I like the fresh-carved, hot-from-the-oven turkey breast sandwiches)
* Zola Wine and Kitchen, which is one of the best-kept lunch secrets in Penn Quarter, if not the city -- good sandwiches, fresh-made salads and terrific desserts.
So Todd, what is your favorite hangover food?
Just figured this time of year might be a good time to ask. I think mine would be pho, just a simple one with lots of good broth.
I mean, if it can work for a cold -- they call it the Vietnamese penicillin, after all -- then why not for a hangover?
I also like chilaquiles for that role -- topped with a fried egg -- and a big helping of doro wat.
Do you recommend Bistro Provence in Bethesda ? I work a block away, but had heard bad things about the service from coworkers. Has it improved or should I stick with Black's / Jaleo / Raku / Vace?
I guess we need to define what kind of service we're talking about. We're not talking about inattentive bad service, or careless service. We're talking about service with a little bit of hauteur. Would that be enough to dissuade you from a (probably) good meal?
My recent experience was better in that regard than some of my previous experiences had been. Of course, one waiter can make all the difference there. But still ...Don't we accept, to some degree, that at a French restaurant there's going to be a bit of what we in America would call attitude and in France they would not call anything at all -- much less think to comment upon?
Can you recommend good butchers in Northern Virginia? Looking for other options beside the Organic Butcher. Thank you
How about Let's Meet on the Avenue, on Mt. Vernon Ave. in Delray?
It channels the spirit of the old-time neighborhood butcher shop in its size and feel, but gears itself toward well-informed young professionals who go weak in the knees when they hear the terms "free-range" and "hormone-free." Fresh-cut bacon, tri-tip, local veal.
The owner, Steve Gatward, also makes his own sausage, and will even special-order a whole pig if you want.
I just found out I'm pregnant over the holiday weekend - my husband and I are thrilled, but of course in the "not telling anyone" phase. I know that all of the pregnancy-related dietary restrictions (no raw anything, no unpasteurized cheese) are going to make dining out a little tricky. I know your wife just gave birth to a little one - how did she handle all the restrictions? Are there any restaurants that are particularly accommodating? Thanks!
First of all, congratulations. It's an exciting time, I know. Also an anxious time.
My wife can make adjustments on the fly like nobody's business, so I'm not sure she's a good one to study. Restrictions don't faze her. At one point, while she was trying to become pregnant, she met with an Eastern medicine specialist, who made significant changes to her diet -- changes I would never have never accepted. Or: not accepted without constant comment about what I was being forced to eat and give up.
And then of course there are the changes to the body that, in some women, make certain foods intolerable. Shellfish is one. The mere smell of mussels made my wife turn a dismaying shade of green. I was at dinner with her one night at Beck, and had promised there would be no mussels on the table. Didn't matter. The table next to us had ordered them, and the steam drifted over.
Giving up lunchmeat wasn't hard for her. Nor was wine (though she did occasionally ask to "nose" a glass of white Burgundy). But giving up sushi was a bit of a sacrifice, since it was such a staple of her diet. A couple of weeks ago I took her out for a sort or sushi blow-out meal, complete with sake, to pamper her. She said she'd been waiting for that night for nearly a year.
I found most restaurants to be very accommodating with a pregnant diner -- altering dishes if need be, and taking the time to guide her through the menu and what could and could not be ordered.
If I can offer some advice? Let them know at the time you make the reservation that you're pregnant, in this way giving them a good bit of time to prepare for your arrival. ...
I'm off to lunch everyone. Have a great New Year's Eve, and enjoy this quiet-ish week with your families and friends ...
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 ...
[missing you, TEK ... ]