Tuesday, June 11 at 11 AM
Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype? The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 AM on Kliman Online. Host Todd Kliman

Editor’s Note: Washingtonian Online moderators and hosts retain editorial control over chats and choose the most relevant questions; hosts can decline to answer questions.

Published June 4, 2013

Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype? The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 AM on Kliman Online.

From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the 'burbs and exurbs to hitting the city's streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.

Winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country's best newspaper column about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper'sThe Oxford American, Lucky Peach, 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.

Todd previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock's humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.

Can't wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world. Or write to him: tkliman@washingtonian.com

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W H E R E   I ' M   E A T I N G   N O W   .  .  .

Le Grenier, DC
Call it the Anti-Le Diplomate. On H St., not 14th St., and the space is far from the great, glittering sound-stage that is Le Dip; it's quirky, kind of intimate, and feels organic and urban in a way that Le Dip does not. I've been twice, now, and have liked a good bit of what's coming out of Thierry Sanchez's kitchen. 
His vol au vent, for instance. Who does vol au vent anymore? you think. But then you take your fork and attack that flaky, buttery shell spilling over with diced sweetbreads in a tarragon-flecked cognac cream sauce and you think: Why should a dish like this be relegated to the far sidelines? Just because it's rich and heavy? Doesn't stop pork belly and a whole slew of pig-centric plates that have been playing for years on area menus. The cooking is, generally, earthier and funkier than Le Diplomate's, and very much in keeping with the sort of offbeat bistros you find in and around Paris. Seasonality, for instance, is hardly a concern of the chef's. Even as temperatures have flirted with 90, the menu abounds in rich, hearty fare. That might not appeal to the diet-conscious crowds that swarm Le Diplomate, but it shouldn't put you off if you're a fan of French bistro cooking. Do what I've done, and order a second glass of wine. What else to get? Good ham and cheese galette topped with a runny egg. Good mushroom and brie tart. Good blood sausage with noodle-like spaetzle and apples. Great desserts, including a variety of crepes (including crepes Suzette) and a fantastic rendition of profiteroles, drenched with an addictive dark chocolate sauce.

Tutto Bene: Bolivian Menu, Arlington / Saturday and Sunday 
Here's what you do: go for lunch on the weekends, and ask for the Bolivian menu. It's a modest document, but nearly everything on it is rewarding -- especially the superb salteñas (slightly sweet football-shaped turnovers that are baked every morning to a pie crust-doneness and stuffed with a zesty chicken or beef stew). You could make a meal of these alone, but then you'd miss out on the fantastic sopa de mani (a rich peanut soup) and the chorizo with oiled rice and a good salad.

Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Falls Church
I've spent the past few weeks eating banh mi (tough life, I know), and this take-out joint/grocery not in the Eden Center is the clear front runner in a very competitive field. In fact, I think the ham and head cheese combination might be not just the best banh mi in the area, but the best sandwich, period. The baguettes are always warm and crusty, the pickled condiments are always sharp and crunchy, and the sandwich assembly staff has a keen grasp of matters of balance and proportion.

Xitomate, Columbia
When the weather is warm, you need a place to go for chips, guac and Margaritas, and right now, this is the place I keep thinking about. I also happen to like a fair amount of the rest of the menu, including a trio of good ceviches, a rich and satisfying roasted poblano and corn soup, a zingy cochinita (that's baby pig) pibil with tortillas, and a chili relleno that with a few more minutes of cooking would have gone from good to great.

RG's BBQ Cafe, Laurel
Let me get the key criticism out of the way first: The ribs come off too easily from the bone. That's not a small thing if you're one of the barbecue mad, of course, and it nagged at me all night after eating here, because the pork itself has the requisite lusciousness and the sauce is a pitch-perfect balance of tanginess, sweetness and heat. That sauce is so addicting, you probably will end up forgiving the drier patches of an otherwise tasty smoked chicken and want to either pour it over everything else or even, as my friend said, drink it plain. The sides are good: baked beans that taste of slow cooking, a not-too-sweet corn bread that gets an extra something from a short stint on the grill before serving, and sharp, clean-tasting collards among others. The man behind the operation is Robert Gadsby, whom Washingtonians may remember from his time at Mussel Bar in Bethesda. He left after Mussel Bar received a 0-star review from The Post. He seems to have made the most of his exile.

Mi Cuba Cafe, DC
This tiny cafe, on Park Rd. in Columbia Heights, makes the best picadillo I've had in a long, long time -- with the right amount of olives in the mix, and, more vitally important, the perfect soft texture. Good rice and plantains, too. And finding a restaurant in the thick of DC that can turn out a good, hearty meal for 2 in the range of $35 is pretty close to miraculous.

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Re: SPICE X-ING, IN ROCKVILLE, AND DINING WITH SMALL KIDS:

Just wanted to give a shout out to the kind staff at Spice X-ing in Rockville Town Center.

We are the parents of a nine-month-old and are always a bit nervous about taking him to restaurants. The staff at Spice X-ing were more than accommodating and kind to us, even though our son was a bit, shall we say, overzealous with his food (we ate outside, which helped). Plus, I truly think it's some of the best Indian cuisine I've ever had - the saag gosht is out of this world.

Todd, are there other restaurants in the Bethesda/Rockville area you would recommend with a little one?

Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

Great to hear it. Thanks for writing in this morning …

And there’re places galore in that part of the world for your family.

Do you like dumplings? East Dumpling House and Mama’s Dumplings, both in Rockville.

A&J, also in Rockville, puts out excellent Northern-style dim sum seven days a week. Remember to bring cash.

Two of my favorite Peruvian places are also in Rockville — La Limeña and Carbon Peruvian Chicken & Grill. The latter gives its chicken top billing; it’s a good bird, but the thing to get here is the asado de tira, a fabulous grilled shortrib steak with chimichurri.

Pizza? Haven Pizzeria, in Bethesda, makes a good plain pie and a good white clam pizza.

Kabobs? The Bethesda location of Moby Dick House of Kabob is far and away the best of the bunch in the area. The kubideh, a minced meat skewer, is fantastic, as is the swordfish. Good bread and good rice, too.

I may think of some others as we go …

Good morning, everyone. Gorgeous day. Enjoy it. Meantime, though — tell me where you’ve been eating, what you’re looking forward to, and anything else on your mind …

FOLLOWING-UP: ASKING FOR PASSPORTS AT RESTAURANTS:

Passports for drinks is pretty common- especially since getting to be 'tis the season for fakes (thank you interns!). Obviously you were clearly above the legal age, but servers card to be safe and for consistency.

I used to work in a restaurant in Dupont that required passport or US drivers license since it can be hard to find a birth date or age on a non-US license if it lacks any English. You then have to trust the person to be honest that that is their birthdate or age. It's a no-win situation. Easier to card all and require passports/license than to let things slide... after all it's a lot of money, reputation, loss of job, and jail time on the line for the server, bartender, and restaurant if they get caught in a sting.

Todd Kliman:

I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those Issues That Will Not Die.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that …

I received an email last week from a loyal reader of this chat — thank you, R.B. — who is also a lawyer. He said that “a number of restaurants refuse to take her identification card issued by the Spanish government, claiming that only a passport is sufficient.”

I’ll quote from the rest of his email, since I found it both interesting and pertinent:

“This is incorrect as a matter of law.

“D.C. Code § 25-783(a) provides: ‘A licensee shall refuse to sell, serve, or deliver an alcoholic beverage to any person who, upon request of the licensee, fails to produce a valid identification document.’

“Additionally, D.C. Code § 25-783(b) provides: ‘A licensee or his agent or employee shall take steps reasonably necessary to ascertain whether any person to whom the licensee sells, delivers, or serves an alcoholic beverage is of legal drinking age. Any person who supplies a valid identification document showing his or her age to be the legal drinking age shall be deemed to be of legal drinking age.’

“D.C. Code § 25-101(53), in turn, provides: ‘Valid identification document’ means an official identification issued by an agency of government (local, state, federal, or foreign) containing, at a minimum, the name, date of birth, signature, and photograph of the bearer.’ (Emphasis added). Accordingly, an official identification card issued by a foreign government which includes ‘the name, date of birth, signature, and photograph of the bearer’ is sufficient. Id.”

Re: THE GRILL ROOM, AT THE NEW CAPELLA HOTEL IN GEORGETOWN:

Hi Todd,

I wanted to mention that we tried out the Grill Room at the Capella Hotel last week. Not sure if you've been yet, but I was shocked at how bad it was for someplace so expensive and, to some extent, hyped up.

One dish that stood out as especially poorly executed and ill conceived was a dish of "liquid polenta gnocchi" - they had an incredibly watery consistency, which was bizarre because I make gnocchi frequently at home and it's pretty easy.

Everything else our party of 6 had was either subpar or just ok/edible. Next time, I'd go to the bar for a drink and skip dinner there.

Separately, my husband and I are headed to San Fran, Napa and Big Sur this September for my birthday. Any can't-miss spots you'd recommend?

Todd Kliman:

Liquid polenta gnocchi.

I haven’t had that one, but that’s one of those dishes that could go one of two ways — and only one of two ways.

Either it’s stupendous, and you think: How the hell did they do that? Or it’s an abomination and you think: Why the hell did they do that?

In other words, no in between.

Some recs for your trip. Trust me, you’re gonna eat well.

In Napa and vicinity, I really like Bistro Jeanty, JoLe, and Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc.

In San Fran.: Frances, Delfina, Keiko, Tartine, The Richmond.

DINING OUT IN OAKTON/RESTON:

Hi Todd,

We recently moved out to the Oakton/Reston area. Any suggestions for dining out this way?

We've hit the local chains in Fairfax Corner and Reston Town Center as Maple Ave in Vienna but we're curious if there is anything else worthwhile in the area.

Thanks.

Todd Kliman:

I think there’s a lot there that’s worthwhile.

In Reston, El Manantial, for Spanish, and Ariake, for sushi, are solid performers, ideal for a dependably nice midweek meal.

Vienna’s got two great cheap eats: Rose Kabob, a good Persian restaurant, and Plaka Grill, a Greek cafe that makes the best, most authentic gyros in the area (stuffed with sliced, crispy-edged pork, french fries, lettuce, tomato, onion and tzaziki).

Have you been to Sushi Yoshi, also in Vienna, for a surprisingly downtown-style sushi experience? I enjoyed my two visits.

Or what about Jaipur, in Fairfax, for consistently good Indian?

Also in Fairfax: Bollywood Bistro, which makes some of the best curries in the area, and Curry Mantra I, which I really like for its careful vegetarian cooking.

Of special note to you — Curry Mantra III just opened in Vienna.

Re: ZAYTINYA, IN PENN QUARTER:

Had a great dinner at Zaytinya this weekend.

Hadn't been in a year or two and our table noted that its pretty remarkable - and rare - that after being open a decade or so its consistently good, not stagnant, and always always buzzing with activity (spotted no less than 3 bachelorette parties).

Even as the Andres empire grows globally, its refreshing that his DC originals haven't suffered in the least.

Todd Kliman:

Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far.

I’m thinking of Oyamel, which has been very, very ordinary for a long time. Great space, the menu is dazzling, you think you’re in for a grand time … and then the food comes. Attractive, all of it. Inventive. But what’s missing is the thing that counts the most — oomph. The dishes are oddly gutless. My last meal there, there was nothing I ate that I would return for.

But, yes — Zaytinya is an extraordinarily impressive achievement. Truly remarkable to see a restaurant operate at that high a level, for that long.

MONTMARTRE, IN EASTERN MARKET -- THE BEST-SMELLING RESTAURANT IN D.C.?:

Hi Todd,

Is there a better smelling restaurant than Montmartre, I would argue there are few.

Saturday night we walked in to the heady scent of butter, garlic, shallots, and wine reducing. The thought of it still makes me hungry. The food was as good as ever.

Gazpacho made from asparagus and fava beans topped with crab was like early summer in a bowl. Snails in garlic butter were perfect for slathering on bread.

And their hanger steak was excellent, tender to cut but with a nice chewy, served with a pile of sautéed swiss chard, potato gratin, and red wine sauce. So decadent.

Todd Kliman:

Thanks for the mouth-watering report.

Or, if I may speak for all those who are stuck at their desks munching a boring turkey sandwich: Thanks for nothing. ; )

I’ve said it before, but I think getting Brian Wilson as chef was a real coup for Montmartre.

You said the food the other night was as good as ever; I actually think the food is better than ever. It’s certainly lighter and more focused. The flavors are cleaner and pop more than they ever did. At the same time Wilson has not gone overboard and ignored what a French bistro of this kind should be. It’s soulful and simple.

There are a lot of places in this category — dinner for 2 for ~$75 — getting a lot of action these days. Montmartre has been around a long time, and, though it is not hurting for business, I think a lot of people who live for their next meal are sleeping on it.

If I had to name the most underrated dining experience in the city right now, Montmartre would be it.

HELP -- ISO: GREAT MA PO TOFU:

All of the mapo tofu I've had in Bethesda has left me underwhelmed. I guess I am going to have to get in the car and head to Rockville for something better. So who is the best?

assume you'll go with Sichuan Jin River, but I'd be curious to know if there's another you'd recommend.

Todd Kliman:

I really do like theirs, yes.

And I also really do like the one at Joe’s Noodle House.

If you don’t mind driving some more, there’s also a very good one at Sichuan Village, in Chantilly.

And if you don’t mind driving a lot more: Peter Chang’s China Cafe, in Fredericksburg. This is ma po by the master. Smoky, pungent, creamy, rich, and hot as effin fire. Amazing stuff.

FINALLY TRYING SICHUAN JIN RIVER, IN ROCKVILLE, FOR A SIT-DOWN MEAL: WHAT SHOULD I NOT MISS?:

After trying a couple of dishes as takeout, I'm (FINALLY) getting ready to head to Sichuan Jin River for a meal. Anything I absolutely shouldn't miss?

Any specific suggestions for the vegetarian in the group? Or for the one or two less adventurous folks? Thanks....!

Todd Kliman:

Vegetarians — or, as I sometimes call them carniphobes; a carniphobe doesn’t care for vegetables and fruit, and seems to consist on pasta, pizza and pop-tarts, whereas a vegetarian (in this distinction) doesn’t mind seeking out produce and building meals around it — can eat really well here.

Basil eggplant; fried tofu with peppers; string beans; scallion pancake … If I were you, and I’m assuming you eat meat and fish, I wouldn’t make distinctions at the table. That fried tofu with peppers can be really, really satisfying.

Other dishes I like there: the steamed flounder filets with ginger and scallion — which is a must; General Guan’s chicken; lotus root salad; pickled cucumbers … I think you’ll eat well …

Drop back on next week, and give us a full report …

RESTAURANT ETIQUETTE: WHEN TO CANCEL:

How long would you wait to cancel a group event with a restaurant that has gone zero dark thirty on you and everytime you reach out to the restaurant (through email and phone) to ask about the menu or prices and get no response?

Todd Kliman:

How many times have you reached out?

And over how long a period of time?

One thing that might be helpful to consider here: It’s almost always a different person taking reservations for a big group event than takes reservations for dinner. I’d try calling the regular reservation person — I can’t bring myself to say “reservationist” — and explain what’s going on.

You may be caught up in a staff turnover, and the new person either hasn’t started or is still getting acculturated. Who knows? Anything’s possible. What you need, at this point, is a different point of contact.

DINING OUT IN MONTREAL:

We will be in Montreal for the weekend of July 4th, this is the first time traveling without the toddlers and we want to take advantage and check out few places. Any place you recommend?

We are on a tight budget but we can splurge one night and the rest can be casual. We are pretty adventurous when it comes to food selection, a place with good wine selection will be great but not a must.

Todd Kliman:

You’re in for a treat. It’s a fabulous eating city. With good stuff at every level.

The Jewish food, in particular, is superlative. You have to go to Schwartz’s — the ultimate smoked meat experience. Smoked meat is similar to corned beef and pastrami, but different in important ways — ways that I think make it superior. Get the smoked meat, medium fat, and thank me when you return. It’s one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.

Bagels. Boy oh boy … The two big spots are St. Viateur and Fairmont Bagel, both amazing. These are not like the bagels you’re probably familiar with. They’re smaller, for one thing. And lighter. They’re shaped by hand, which is out of fashion now, and baked in a wood-burning oven. Again: amazing. I still occasionally order bagels from St. Viateur, which, not fresh and also frozen, still are miles better than most of what you find in D.C. A bagel from either spot spread with saumon fume is indescribably wonderful.

I’d try to hit the Atwater Market, one of the best public markets I’ve ever been to. Fun to walk around and explore and eat well on the cheap.

Beyond that … I would check with La Chronique and see whether they’re still doing a three-course lunch deal; if they are, go. Superlative cooking.

I also like the brasserie Joe Beef and — a place that has gotten a lot of pub, and pretty much justifies it — the foie gras-fanatical bistro Au Pied de Cochon.

WHEN TO CANCEL, CONT.:

My main contact who is a GM for a restaurant group (I do not want to list names or the name of the restaurant at this time. I have a lot of respect for my main contact) who I converse and deal with, reserved the date and time for me.

This individual then had to leave for vacation, which I knew about beforehand. They assigned the event to the GM of the new restaurant.

We exchanged two emails in which I reiterated what I had talked about with my main contact, which was: How much would it cost for a 5 course tasting menu and would this menu be developed from the main dinner menu or would it be completely different. Also wold like the cost for wine pairing for those individuals would be interested in wine pairing.

The individual emailed back saying they would get back to me on a Monday. I gave them a few extra days and emailed to see if any progess had been made. No response. I then called and asked for the GM and left my name and number because I did call during lunch time and asked that they call me back inbetween lunch and dinner service. Yet still no repsonse.

I then again sent another email yesterday asking for an update and stated that I even called the previous week and asked if they had received my message. Again, no response. I then called at 5pm yesterday hoping to catch the GM before the onslaught of dinner service. it was their day off but I left a detailed message with the host to pass along ot the GM and again provided them with my phone number.

It has been about two weeks since I last heard (last communication from them was on May 29th) I do not know where the ball is being dropped but it is getting frustrating and might be time to look elsewhere. Also, it is not like my first time organizing a group dinner event for friends. We like to gather every two-three months to catch up and get a break from the daily grind of work and kids and just cathc up.

Hey Del Campo, can you fit a group of 15 for Saturday at 8pm ;)

Todd Kliman:

Yep, move on.

Annoying. Tiresome.

And head-shakingly frustrating, I have to imagine. Because YOU want to give money to THEM.

SO, WILL WE SOON BE RE-NAMING 14TH ST. NW -- "LITTLE ITALY"?:

Or some variation off that.

We are not short or hurting for faux-Italian restaurant concepts on 14th Street. They all seem to be mimicking just about one another. If you're going to do Italian - couldn't you do the really good but really simple food that foodies dream about? Oh no, that would be too difficult.

A really good Indian place, though, is sorely missing from the street. I'm thinking just a half-step below Rasikas or Bombay Club. Hear that new restaurateur out there?

Todd Kliman:

I hear you.

Lot of sameness. Lot of copycatting.

On the other hand, you do realize, I hope, how lucky 14th St. is. It’s a restaurant row, now, and is only going to get … row-ier in the next couple of years.

And it’s not as if someone living on that street can’t walk half a mile in any direction and find, oh, every cuisine imaginable.

OSTERIA MORINI, IN NYC:

Scouting...

I went to Osteria Morini for dinner in New York recently. Let me just say, Michael White and his team need to hurry the hell up and get the DC location open.

I enjoyed what was probably the best pasta dish I've ever had up there. And yes, I realize I have now written in with two comments about New York imports in two weeks. Unusual for me being a proud Washingtonian, but oh well.

Todd Kliman:

Hey, good’s good. Wherever it is. Whoever’s making it. Whatever it looks like or is served in.

And I’m with you — I’m very much looking forward to what chef White and team are concocting for their D.C. spinoff.

Re: NoPa -- NEW, IN PENN QUARTER:

Heading to Nopa. Any recommendations on what to get? I'm intrigued by the twice fried chicken- is it an appetizer portion? Also, wondering if, as a fan of the throwback Houston's style French Dip, I would be disappointed by their version. Have you tried it?

Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

Haven’t had the French Dip. Have had the twice-fried chicken, and yes, I’d encourage you to order it.

Very moist inside and very, very crispy outside. I’d like to have seen a touch more salt on it, however. I liked the accompanying sauce, which tasted like a cross between a ketchup and a good, flavorful tabasco.

It’s priced like an appetizer but sized like an entree-tizer — or should that be an appe-tree? If you get it to start, even to share, you might want to scale back on your ambitions for the rest of the meal.

FATHER'S DAY RECS?:

Any suggestions for a spot for Father's Day (brunch, lunch, or dinner, or even Saturday evening dinner) that's kid-friendly but still something special for dad?

Doesn't need to offer a Father's Day special or anything like that.... D.C. or Montgomery County preferred. Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

By “special,” do you mean a notch or two up from a barbecue joint or a dumpling house but a notch or two below, say, hotel dining?

The aforementioned Zaytinya could be good.

Or Central Michel Richard.

Both spots know how to take care of a table with kids, both are delicious and interesting, and both will feel like a treat.

In Montgomery County, I’d consider either 8407 Kitchen + Bar and Jackie’s, and for pretty much the same reasons. These are very good suburban restaurants, though I do want to note that they are also a notch or two below what you’d find at Zaytinya and Central Michel Richard when it comes to exuberance and invention on the plate.

FRIED CHICKEN, CONT.:

The fried chicken at NoPa is very good. I would put it in my top three, which consists of: Seasonal Pantry; NoPa; and Popeyes (yes popeyes).

On my complete Fail list is: GBD: probably the driest fried chicken I have had in memory. I even tried to think of the last time I had such dry fried chicken and came up blank. I will give them one more shot but it was a complete fail on the first visit.

Todd Kliman:

Wow. When you can’t even beat Popeye’s …

The last time I had Popeye’s was in December, at a Hanukkah party — donuts, latkes, and the host, extending the fry theme, also set out a couple of boxes of Popeye’s. Evil host.

That stuff is not easy to resist, let me tell you. Engineered food seldom is.

It was salty and crispy and unnaturally moist. And for the life of me, I could not stop eating it. I had two pieces, and cursed myself even as I was licking my fingers clean. I had to make myself stop. I had to tell myself: No mas. I had to be that self-conscious about it.

Afterward, I felt bloated and emoliated, and came home and scarfed a handful of Tums — chasing that with a 16 oz. glass of seltzer.

And still I was full when I woke up the next morning. Didn’t eat again until lunch, and when I did I could not stomach anything heavier than a light sandwich and salad.

Yay, Popeye’s.

What a delightful note to end on …

Thank you, everyone, for the comments and rants and questions today. I enjoyed it, and hope you did, too …

Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …







[missing you, TEK … ]



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