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.
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W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
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. Moa, Rockville 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.
The largest Ethiopian restaurant in the country, according to owner Meaza Zemedu, if you count the butcher shop, grocery and banquet room in addition to the dining room itself. Which wouldn't mean much at all if Zemedu wasn't a talented cook who commands such a focused and consistent kitchen. Her wats, or long-simmered stews, are remarkable for their depth and length. The kitfo is superb, akin to a great beef tartare in its blending and balance of spices.
DC's best wine bar is eating better than it has since its early months, thanks to new hire Rob Weland. The erstwhile Poste chef has brought a seasonal focus to the menu, a welcome development for all those who regard the place as a regular in their dining-out rotation. More important is his great gift for making complex combinations feel inevitable and for imbuing simple arrangements with subtle textures and touches.
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.
............................................................................................................................This week's contest: Take us to your favorite dining spot
There’s an intersection in Wheaton--where Fern Street meets Amherst--that’s home to 2 of my favorite local Thai restaurants (Ruan Thai and Nava Thai), plus a good Honduran/Salvadoran place (Sergio's Place), a good Hong Kong-style place (Full Key), the area's best falafel (Max's), and the excellent Asian market Hong Phat.
For this week’s contest, name the block or intersection that’s home to your favorite cluster of restaurants, bars, and/or food shops. As always, describe why you love this particular spot--persuade us to jump in the car and head out there the moment the chat wraps.
Winner receives Lesley Stowe’s Fine Foods Cookbook, an excellent recipe collection full of inventive dishes like Peking Duck risotto and roasted eggplant bread pudding.
What is your most favorable or preferable type/taste/or style of restaurants?
My strong preference, always, is for “good.” ; )
“Good” or “great” supersedes all other considerations. I’ll take great fast food, if there is such a thing, over mediocre fine dining any day.
If you read this chat regularly, then you know how passionate I am about sushi. But if I’m on my own dime in another city and the selection isn’t exciting me, and there’s a great Korean place within striking distance — or Peruvian, or Dominican, or Belgian, or whatever — then I’m asking for the check and walking.
I saw the restaurant critics blog post yesterday--great read, thanks. Someone mentioned in the comments that they’d like to know the budget that critics get. Is that something you could share with us? Curious how much all that dining costs!
I’m glad you liked that read. Thanks to Jessica Voelker, our producer here, for coming up with the idea and putting it together.
Budget? It really varies, depending on the publication.
Some publications don’t have budgets; or didn’t, in the days when newspapers were strong and vital. A critic spent whatever he or she spent, and billed accordingly.
I’m not going to disclose my budget in this forum, but I will tell you that it exceeds what I was paid, in a year, to teach literature and writing when I accepted my first full-time post at a university.
I think that tells you an awful lot about who we are and aren’t as a country.
Todd- My husband, 3 month old baby, and I recently met another couple and their 7 month old baby out for brunch in the city. When we got our check, we noticed they already added in gratuity since we were a "party of 6."
While we did sit at a table for 6 to accommodate a stroller and highchair, we were clearly not eating as a party of 6. Neither babies are at stages where they could eat any food off the menu.
Is this gratuity charge for babies typical in the city? I could maybe understand if the restaurant was crowded but there were plenty of open tables.
I wonder whether this is an official policy, or whether you just got a dope of a waiter or waitress.
The latter is thoughtless.
The former feels punitive.
I’m hoping you’ll drop back in with us and name said restaurant … Curious minds want to know …
I’ll tell you, speaking of kids — I continue to be amazed at the kinds of things I see on those occasions when I take my newborn out to lunch or dinner. What’s a baby supposed to do with a coloring book and crayons? And why would you think to pour him a glass of water?
Do you have a recommendation for the best banh mi in downtown DC? I've heard so much about them, but am not quite ready to venture out to the burbs for one. Thanks!
There isn’t a best in downtown DC.
Are any restaurants celebrating Bastille Day this Saturday? I remember there used to be a race where waiters ran a course with a tray holding a glass of champagne. I believe it was sponsored by Les Halles, which is no longer here.
Something’s going live in about 15 minutes …
Menomale, sounds interesting. How does their pizza compare to 2 Amy's?
I don’t think it’s fair to Menomale, a pint-sized operation that’s been open about 2 months, to compare it to a restaurant operated by a James Beard Award-winning chef that has been around for a decade and been nationally acclaimed.
Nor is it inviting those comparisons, as La Forchetta did recently when it launched.
Two absolutely, totally different missions, here.
You have to keep in mind. Menomale is about thisbig. It’s in a neighborhood, Brookland, that doesn’t get the shops and services that Cleveland Park gets, and doesn’t attract the kinds of customers that 2 Amys does.
I think for what it’s trying to be, Menomale is doing a really nice job right now. I’d like to see it develop some consistency. But there’s real passion and commitment here, and it’s a place very well worth supporting if you like good food and drink and have a thing for the little guy, the plucky independent.
I Love Peruvian restaurants also like you mentioned previously. My favorite is located on rockville pike and is called La Limeña. Do you have a favorite Peruvian restaurant around here?
I love La Limeña.
Also La Canela.
Those are probably my two favorites.
Is this the same Andrew who made his debut posts last week—? Our 12-year-old would-be food critic?
Did you see the 25 Things You Need to Know Before Becoming a Food Critic? Take a read — I’ll be interested in hearing what you learned or were surprised by …
Last week I won the cookbook and we discussed me creating a blog. I did start the the blog and I hoped to send you the link this Tuesday but the blog is not 100%. Next Tuesday for sure though. My 4th of July was amazing and started off with an awesome trip to whole foods market.
Whenever you’re ready. No rush …
Gotta do something about that “awesome,” though …
I may be a homer, but for my dining money there is no finer block in the area than the Colonial Village Shopping Center.
Sure, the obvious charms of the Arlington Grill are no longer on display, but this weathered strip mall is jam packed with edible goodness. It has not one, but two Ray’s outposts – Hell Burger and Nice 'N' Greasy Steak 'N' Cheesy. There is fine Mexican fare at Guajillo, sturdy and dependable French-leaning offerings at Village Bistro, and no-nonsense pho at Pho 75.
There is even a coffee shop and an ABC store in the mix to pick up a little something to take home. What local block can stand up to this powerhouse? And I am not even including the interesting Café Assorti directly across the street, which would make any pretender to the crown of best metro block slink off in despair.
Yeah, a pretty great block.
I think most neighborhoods would kill for a block like that. Personally, I’d love to be able to walk and get a bowl of pho.
Arlingtongue, you are, as ever, a delight to read. Thank you for writing and playing …
We have a leader …
Thanks for answering my question about whether or not babies count towards a gratuity charge. We were at Cafe 8 in Barracks Row. We chose the spot because we knew the restaurant would not be crowded. By the way, I really loved reading your "The Food- Critic Father" article!
I hope that before the chat is over, we will hear from the team over there. I’d really like an explanation.
I love graphiato but I am always looking for a great Italian restaurant. Do you have any suggestions?
Always looking? You’re 12. How can you always be looking?
(It’s Graffiato, by the way. Spelling counts in this biz. Well, in any biz … )
Have you tried Fiola? Have you been to Tuesday pizza night — thin, crispy Roman-style pizza — at Da Marco in Silver Spring? Girasole, in the Plains, is a terrific spot for the kind of simply but passionately prepared Italian cooking we have too little of in this area. Its sister restaurant, Panino, is good, too.
Intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Windom Place, NW.
The crown jewel, perhaps the only jewel, of Van Ness is Calvert Woodley. Great wine selection (don't miss the employee picks), amazing smoked fish, bagels and bialys, the best kept secret in DC cheese what we call the "butt-ends" the little leftover pieces parts of the cheese wheel that are too small to slice so they sell at $1.50 a piece, turn the corner for a great selection of coffee and a small aisle of imported foodstuffs. The final hit to the wallet is the stack of Sam Smith beer by the check out counter (why yes I will buy a bottle or two of nut brown ale).
Calvert has an old-school feel to it and the type of store where you go in for one thing and walk out with ten.
Oh, absolutely — a great store, no question about it.
Love their wines and cheeses.
But what else you got nearby? A Subway, a Giant, uh ..
Yes this is the same Andrew. No more "awesomes" from me. Not one.
That’s awe— … that’s good.
Thanks so much for the shout-out to Menomale. They really are doing a great job for the operation and the community. We have been longing for good food within walking distance, and now we have one. (Granted, since there are 4 of us in the family, we usually order to-go, since you are right in that the place is thisbig.)
Hopefully, there are more restaurateurs who will follow in their footsteps, especially with all the new construction to bring higher-density residential development to the area. We have $ and will come!
As for my favorite intersection, for now, it is 14th between Q and U Street. I love Marvin and the chicken and waffles, Gibson for when I want a good drink, Cork when I want a good wine, Coppi's for the pizza, Estadio for the tapas and gin drinks, Pearl Dive for oysters, El Centro D.F. for tacos, Taylor Gourmet for sandwiches and the Standard for barbeque.
I knew that block of 14th would come up sooner or later.
I’m not convinced of the quality of some of those spots — not a big fan of El Centro or Taylor, and Marvin is overpriced and spotty — but that’s a premier dining destination, regardless. Coppi’s, Cork (you neglected to mention their food), Gibson, Pearl Dive, Estadio, Standard for burgers, all within walking distance of one another …
Corner of Wisconsin Ave and Macomb St., NW.
Pick any beautiful Friday or Saturday night, and this block is bustling. In the mood for some wine and cured meats? 2Amy's has you covered. Just want to stuff your face with chips, Negro Modelo and a giant plate of fajitas? Head to Cactus Cantina. Watch the game at District 2 (the first bar to get it right in this neighborhood), or head to Cafe Deluxe for a good, reliable dinner or brunch. Grab a cupcake and a Nobadeer from Something Sweet. And, of course, there is always Le Zinc for a more upscale experience.
Yep, another good corner …
Though there are some that are stronger and more interesting, including some that have yet to get a mention …
Hey there Bethesda and anyone else seeking info on Bastille Day events: We now have a roundup over on the Best Bites blog.
Um that would include a Subway, Jerry's Pizza, Quiznos, Potbelly, a Burger King, and of course a Starbucks. For a small neighborhood we do have an impressive selection of fast food joints!
Happy hour at Acacia Bistro isn't a bad way to kill an afternoon. The roasted eggplant pizza and the sausage lasagna at Italian Pizza Kitchen is good. New Morning Farms runs a killer farmer's market Saturday mornings at the Sheridan School. And we are an easy walk to Politics and Prose. So we have a couple things going for us...but not much.
Oh, a lot going for you.
Just not food.
That fast food list is a lot longer than I thought. Wow.
North Carolina and 7th Street NE on a Saturday
Your first instinct is to walk inside of Eastern Market to Market Lunch for some bluebuck pancakes. Unless you've had breakfast, then you'll crave a crab cake. As you head for the door, you realize that you need to expand your horizon and see who has set up over in front of the pool: In A Pickle, with their homemade pickles; or some donuts fried in front of you; a lovely crepe from Crepes at the Market; or maybe a quick tip to Louisiana from the Puddin' folks - gumbo, shrimp po'boy.
Not what you are after? Turn around and head to Tortilla Cafe for some Salmon Fajitas or papusas or one of the dozens of so items on their menu - all made there, all made well. Of course, you could just buy some provisions inside of the market - seafood, deli meats, any part of the cow, chicken, turkey, duck, lamb or pig you desire.
Don't forget the farmer's market outside, primarily local vendors (wait - where's that orange you are selling from?) selling all manner of produce, salsas, hot sauces, and more. Finally, walk a block down to peregrine espresso for the best cup of coffee in the city. And realize, wow, I could have had stopped in for some excellent pizza and panini at 7th Hill or a very nice, reasonably priced French meal at Montmartre.
It’s a neat pocket, for sure.
The relative strength of the spots is what I question. Montmartre is excellent. Peregrine, too. Crepes at the Market is promising. Market Lunch is one of those things that makes DC feel like a real big-city city, as opposed to the sophisticated inner suburb it is most of the time. I’m finding Seventh Hill spotty; I want to like it more. Tortilla Cafe? Eh.
Thanks, everyone, for participating today.
(And Andrew, I’m looking forward to seeing you get that blog up and running very, very soon … )
Our winner of today’s contest? Arlingtongue, for the lively and well-written nomination of Colonial Village Shopping Center, in Arlington.
I have a copy waiting for you of Lesley Stowe’s Fine Foods Cookbook — including recipes for Peking Duck risotto and roasted eggplant bread pudding. Just drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll send it off to you this afternoon.
Be well and eat well, everyone, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]