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.
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.
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.
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.
Society Fair, Old Town Alexandria
I find the room garish, the prices high, the mood presuming. I'm putting this on here on the strength of two terrific sandwiches -- a fabulous baguette stacked with thin shaved ham and good mustard and lamb shoulder stuffed into a griddled flatbread with tangy yogurt and spinach -- and a superlative wine list.
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.
Tomorrow--weather permitting--most of us will be gathering in backyards and on apartment patios to feast on summer foods and maybe take in a few fireworks. But we won't all be eating burgers and apple pie. We want to know what food symbolizes, for you, this yearly tradition--the bite you'll be thinking of on a gray day next December. Tell us how that food conjure the quintessential mid-summer moment that is the Fourth of July, and you'll receive a copy of a preppy new book that very successfully conjures a sense of place in its own right: The Hamptons: Food, Family, and History by Ricky Lauren--Ralph's wife.
Have you heard anything on who might become the new head chef at Trummer's on Main? I have enjoyed my dining experiences there and hope they attain someone who is of the caliber of the former chef.
The new chef there is Cory Lambert, who was Clay Miller’s sous chef when the restaurant opened.
Prior to joining Trummer’s, he cooked at Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, in Orlando — Norman Van Aken’s highly acclaimed Latin-Caribbean restaurant. He’s a graduate of Johnson and Wales.
Why are restaurants serving pasta with runny eggs? What does the egg add? Is this just another stupid fad?
The runny egg …
It’s been a hot little item for years, now, actually.
Particularly as farming naming has gotten bigger and bigger, and chefs seem very keen on letting you know that that’s not just any old egg you’re eating — it came from a very specific place. (It’d be nice to know what time it came from that place, too, but alas, the farmer mania does not extend that far.)
The egg is meant to add a little richness and provide a bit of sauce as well, as it does in the classic bistro dish frisee aux lardons.
In some cases, it’s there to thicken an existing sauce.
I like it in dishes if it’s done well. But I hear you. Many times it feels simply gratuitous.
It almost always looks appealing, at least it does to me, but that’s not to say that it always does its job. I’ve had many dishes in the past couple of years where the egg didn’t knit the flavors together the way it was intended and just seemed like, well — like an egg on top of an otherwise complete dish.
Hey Todd- It seems like your "where i'm eating" restaurants have not changed much in the last few weeks, or at least, not as much as they seemed to change a few months ago. Is that a result of you not being excited by many new places recently? Or these restaurants are just that good that they are "untouchable"? Just wondering! Happy Fourth of July!
Thanks for asking.
The answer is — neither. Not “untouchable,” nor a commentary on what I’m seeing out there — in fact, I had a few new ones to roll out but I decided against it since it’s the day before the 4th. Look for an updated list next week …
And by the way, I’d love to hear some feedback about these places. Have you all tried any of them?
Speaking of runny eggs, what do you think of the corn carbonara at Ardeo? I tried it at brunch the other week and found it to be somewhat confounding. Would love to know your thoughts.
Sorry; haven’t had it.
I’m curious to know — confounding how?
Ardeo corn carbonara: Smoky corn, runny egg...I enjoyed it but kind of didn't get it. Was just curious what a pro eater would think of it.
I’ll have to go and have a taste. Thanks.
More bothersome, I think, than the promiscuity of runny eggs on everything is the presence of smoke everywhere these days.
A little goes a long way. A very long way.
I like bacon, but I don’t think everything ought to taste like bacon. I think smoke can be a neat touch, but I don’t think that it should be the main idea of a dish. And in so many dishes now — in some drinks now, even — that’s the case. It might not have been the idea when that dish or drink was on the drawing board, but that’s the thing with smoke. It has a way of taking over.
One of the more interesting uses of smoke I’ve seen lately is the red, white and green pizza at Franklins. The tomatoes are smoked. There’s no bacon whatsoever on the pie, which is adorned with slices of fresh mozzarella and crowned with a thick tangle of fresh, lightly dressed arugula. But oddly, because of the smoke, there’s the suggestion of bacon.
Just came back from San Diego and finally had Rubios. My husband has been raving about this fast food taco joint for years. The fish tacos were insanely delish and nothing in this area comes close. We desperately need a Rubios here!!! Have you been? I'm going to be craving it tomorrow!
Oh, yeah. Rubio’s. One of the best reasons to get on a plane and go to San Diego.
Well, okay, after the sun and the sand and the surf. But not that much after …
Not quite in that league, but I like them still are the ones at Fishnet. Very decent ones at Surfside, too. And there aren’t any listed on the debut menu at El Chucho Cocina Superior, Jackie Greenbaum’s new Columbia Heights taqueria, but I’ve gotta think that fish tacos would be on there at some point, if only as a special. We’ll see.
By the way, that taco lineup there looks formidably delicious — asada (miso marinated steak and charred cebolitas [grilled scallions]), tripas (crispy beef chitterlings and foie gras with lemon and parsley), al pastor, pollo (smoked Tecate can chicken), and calabacita (rajas [smoked poblanos], squash blossoms, fried zucchini and black garlic).
I have yet to take my first taste, but that tripas taco gets my vote for Emblem of the New DC. You can read Natalie Hopkinson’s recent and excellent New York Times piece on the new demographics and the new tensions for background.
I read this with my mom and I am 12. For the 4th of July tomorrow my mom is making me dry rubbed ribs. I love baby back ribs from Whole Foods. No sauce. We will have watermelon too. And I will have margaritas without alcohol! I love to be outside with my family and grilling out. We used to live on the beach in Florida and used to do a beach cookout every year. The things that symbolize the 4th for me is family and food and fun. My mom plans to make awesome lobster rolls but i don't eat lobster. Everyone else loves them though.
My mom has worked in restaurants for a long time is food is a huge part of my life. I am her sous chef at home and cannot wait to have an awesome 4th. And I wish kids could go to the Best of Washington event! Happy 4th of July.
Andrew, you can come on this chat any old time and post your thoughts. I hope you do.
Your menu tomorrow sounds great. Enjoy it, and enjoy your time with your family.
Thanks so much for writing in …
Do you have a favorite restaurant?
4th of July...Growing up in what one would consider a "small town" suburb of Syracuse, July 4th was always spent in the village center...that spot where the fire house, village library, and sno-cone shack reside.
In the morning the village sponsored a parade down main street. During the day people hung out watched baseball and soccer matches. At night fireworks were launched into the sky. The local firehouse always sponsored a chicken BBQ. All day long giant grills loaded up with charcoal cooked up chicken quarters served up with potato salad and corn. The smell of BBQ and roasting meat took over the village center. So for me it's not what is being cooked but the lingering smell of BBQ and grilled meat that epitomizes July 4th.
I loved reading this.
To me, the 4th is really a small town day. I’ve gone to cities and I’ve watched fireworks from hotels and condo and apartment roof tops, and I’ve sat out for 12 hours on the national mall and watched the big spectacle at night with the orchestra playing triumphally, and still and all I like being in a small town and walking around and talking with people and smelling the smells.
Especially when those smells are grill smells.
Thanks for writing in with these memories …
I have feedback on two of your "Where I'm Eating" places - Society Fair and Fiola. I got to both last week, and feel very lucky.
Without having checked your list, I had the My Turkish Cousin sandwich at Society Fair. I thought it was terrific. The bread was a bit heavy (too thick) for the contents, but it was so tasty I gobbled it up. I agree with your assessment of the decor, but I would LOVE to have something like this open up in my Brookland neighborhood.
As for Fiola, it was my first time back in a year, but it was just as good as I remember. The drinks from the bar and the wine list were interesting and tasty. For my appetizer, I had the prosciutto and dates, and then I had the brodetto for my entree. Each part looked just as good as it tasted. It is definitely on my go-to list for any special occasion, as the prices do not allow otherwise (and rightly so!).
My July 4th tradition is quite simple--the popsicle. Nothing says summer like licking a popsicle and trying to beat the heat to keep it from dripping down your arm. (I also like watching my kids eat them too!)
Thanks for the feedback.
And you know what? I’m going to go out and get a popsicle today, just because you wrote this. It’s so funny the way these things work. I can’t remember the last time I had a popsicle, but reading this, and thinking about this awful heat, and tomorrow being the 4th — whammo, I need a popsicle. Wasn’t WHAM-O, by the way, a gizmo that kids used to make popsicles?
You mentioned you’re in Brookland. Have you been to Menomale? Or should the question be, how many times have you been there?
Who, by the way, is still without power?
I’d like to know.
As of late last night when I got home, I still didn’t. Came on in the middle of the night. I had gathered up all my family and driven to Philly, after striking out on finding a hotel at 14 different places in the city. Out of lemons, lemonade.
But expensive lemonade. Thank you so very much, Pepco!
I've had the corn carbonara at Ardeo + Bardeo and think it's fantastic. In defense of the dish and the restaurant, the restaurant does call it a "faux" carbonara as it is a vegetarian dish sans bacon/pancetta and the corn is grilled, so the smokiness of the corn is meant to kind of replace what is lost without the bacon/pancetta.
Similar idea to the smoked tomatoes on the pizza at Franklins.
Thanks for the heads up …
3 questions in over 1 hour? Are you having technical difficulties or are there that many folks who love this chat out of power?
As for my food that I will be savoring tomorrow and in the cold days of winter be dreaming about . . . Lobster rolls. While I can make them in winter. What's the point. I love tho cold creamy delciousness of a well seasoned lobster roll. The buttery unctuousness of it from the buttered split (and it must be split not a hotdog roll masquerading as a New England split roll) and grilled roll. The perfectly chilled lobster and the crunch of celery with mayo and a spritz of lemon. Always with a slice of butter lettuce. Not romaine or iceburg. This is a roll that is cold and buttery all at the same time. And while others like a cold beer with it I want a cold glass of chardonnay that has no oak what so ever. This is my perfect food for tomorrow. I cannot wait!!!!!
That sounds just about perfect.
Like you, I love that combination of the griddled split, all warm and buttery, and the cold, crunchy lettuce and cool creamy lobster salad with just enough celery in it.
I wish you were here to make me one, too!
Well, since you asked for feedback...
We tried Green Pig for a mid-week dinner a couple of weeks ago. I really wanted to like this place, but came away a bit eh, meh. The space is lovely and interesting and Trying Very Hard. Additionally, I was surprised to see that the the locks in the womens' were broken - it's a little thing, but you'd think the details would be better looked after with a place that is trying to manage its image as much as this one feels like it is. Staff was eager but a bit awkward (didn't write down orders, and had to come back to correct; no suggestions as to the virtue of one dish vs. another). Additionally, staff were uncoordinated as to who got which food (table next to ours was mixed up with ours for both courses). The pig tacos are very good, agreed, though I suspect it's just really hard to go wrong with hot salty crunchy fried pig parts. I had the smoked duck cavatelli as a main, and think it's a perfect example of the uncooked egg overkill phenomenon - the egg added a nice richness to the dish, but overwhelmed the duck to the point that it could have been miscellaneous dark meat pasta in with egg and lots of salt. Not bad, but not inspiring or need-to-go-back, either. Rabbit cake was fine, but a bit bland. In short - I really really wanted to like this place and came away thinking it'd be best for a seat at the bar with a drink and a plate of the tacos, but probably doesn't stand out enough to want to do dinner there again.
Tried Society Fair for a light dinner before meeting friends and thought it was much better than it needed to be. Drinks are suitably interesting and Thrasher-worthy, and they do a nice job with their house made charcuterie and assortment of sausages. Staff were super enthusiastic and warm in ways that made us want to stay longer than we'd planned.
It's an odd space, and we would've thought we wouldn't want to linger in our spot on the baquette seated behind the counter-dinner (all of whom seemed to be enjoying themselves), but it felt much more cozy than I expected. In short, if I was in Alexandria, I'd likely put it fairly high on the list for a drop by for either drinks or a light dinner (though I'm not sure I'd drive to Alexandria just for it).
Thanks for sharing your impressions …
I think your assessment of Green Pig is fair and insightful, though I’d still give it another shot if I were you. The rabbit cake is a dish the staff all seems to like, but I agree with your take on it — “fine but a bit bland.” There are plates there I like a lot more. Try the Buffalo ribs next time. Also the asparagus with hollandaise. I was disappointed to see that one of the best plates I had there in my three visits, a bowl of Asian-glazed ribs and sweet steamed clams with crunchy baby bok choy, is gone.
No dessert? The chef, Scot Harlan, has a background in pastry, and he makes a killer Key lime pie.
Like you, I also think the staff could be a little more assertive in giving guidance, and said so in my forthcoming review for the magazine; it’s the kind of menu that needs a helping hand.
As someone who has to frequently visit Columbia for work, I can co-sign on R&R (not that they need a backup), Red Pearl, and Bon Fresco.
All of these spots have been in your lists recently, and all are great and incredible values. There's killer Pho around as well - frankly it's weird to me that the area has the kind of bargain priced 'street food' that DC is so sorely lacking, but lord knows I'm not complaining. Heck, now that the Wegman's opened up I'm damn near excited for those days I have to make the drive!
And Bon Fresco is opening a second location that’s closer in.
Although not terribly closer in. Annapolis Junction — the town where Henkel’s, the down-and-dirty bar with the foot-tall stacked sandwiches my parents used to take me to, used to be.
Wow! the menu does look incredible! Kinda a hike for me though from Vienna, but I may have to do it soon.
The crazy thing about my Rubio's outing, is that we took a cab from our hotel to go there and back. So our Rubio's literally cost us $45. But, it was WELL worth it!!
THAT’S how you know you’re a food lover.
Taking a cab to eat a meal that costs less than ten bucks.
Hey, I’ve done it. I think we’ve ALL done it, haven’t we? Who else has a story to tell like this?
I really enjoy the queso fondido at Chef José Andrés' Oyamel. And the pizza at Graffiato. I love the fried chicken and waffles at DC Founding Farmers. I love the really energetic atmosphere and the decor at Founding Farmers.
We go out to a lot of restaurants that i look forward to going to so it is difficult to pick my favorite. I am just starting to post on your chat and I will look forward to next week.
Andrew, you sure do get around!
Do you write about your experiences for the school paper? If not, do you write about them anyway, just for yourself and your family to read. I hope you do.
I used to. During summers when I was your age, my mom encouraged me (you could also use the word “forced”) to write a story, either about my recent experiences or something that used my imagination or both. I had a weekly deadline. I hated it at first but came to like it. (Writers always hate deadlines.)
We are Menomale regulars, of course!
The neighborhood was dying for something like this and it is crazy busy all the time. Part of the problem is that they have, I think, 12 total seats with 6 additional at the bar.
Since we have 2 little guys, we usually order out and eat at home. My husband likes that option because he gets to sit at the bar and have one of their delicious and diverse beer offerings while he waits!
Yeah, the place is thisbig.
I’ve had some okay pizzas, and also some very good ones. I’m taken with what they’re doing there. I hope they can keep it up and attain a greater consistency.
Your husband’s got the right idea. It’s a good list for such a small place.
I do not write for the school paper because it does not have a large audience.
I do love to write. I once had an idea to create a blog to allow people to view all my thought on my adventures at restaurants, kind of like a kid food critic.
I do get around to a lot of places when my mom is not working at her restaurant we go to eat all over the city. Fine dining, fast casual-like Bobbys burger palace and Ben's Chili Bowl. I love this chat because it is live and about something I love--food. Whether it is well known or a new discovery.
Andrew, I think you ought to go ahead and start a blog.
What’s to hold you back? Surely not the fact you’re new at this, I hope. You may not feel like you have anything much to say, but that doesn’t stop most bloggers.
Summer’s a good time for a project like this.
What’s your mom’s restaurant?
I haven't had the corn carbonara at Ardeo, but I did order something there about six months ago that was called a "faux carbonara" or something like that. I ordered it with the expectation that it would have bacon or pancetta or something that tasted like bacon or pancetta in it, since I thought the essential ingredients of a carbonara are bacon and eggs. I turned out it was just pasta in a sort of creamy eggy sauce with pickled onions on it. It wasn't terrible but it was kind of weird and not carbonara-esque at all.
I don't mean to bash Ardeo, though -- other than its propensity to misuse the word carbonara I think it's a pretty good restaurant.
I think this is actually a topic for a larger discussion, and that’s the way that some restaurants “sell” their dishes.
In the more ambitious places, you tend to come across descriptors like this — I’m thinking also, here, of Michel Richard’s “faux gras.” Now, obviously, if you encounter a phrase like that on a menu, you have no blessed clue what the dish is going to be. You have to trust the explication of your server. Which means, you have to use your imagination to complete the picture of the dish in your mind. Which leads, often, to misconception.
How many times have you thought or said of a dish like this when it finally arrives: Oh, I figured it would be more like _.
You might say that and still like it.
But now what happens when you don’t guess right AND you don’t like it?
It’s kind of amazing that restaurants seem to trust that more often than not — much more often than not, actually — you’re going to like what you can’t quite guess.
I’ll be interested in hearing, next time, what you all have to say on this score. About expectations and delivery, whimsy and reality.
Until then, have a great and joyous 4th, everyone.
Oh, and our cookbook winner for today, before I run off to lunch — 12-year-old Andrew. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org, Andrew, and I’ll get that book off to you later this afternoon. And keep writing …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]