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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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.
Deep-fried whoopie pies. Fairground hot dogs as long as your forearm. Seven-layer nacho dip and potato salad swimming in mayo: Summer is full of amazing foods that are terrible for your health.
For this week's contest, tell us the bad-for-you food you relish most during the warm months. As always, don't just name the item, tell us why you love it--and why it's worth all those calories. The entry that Todd likes best will win a copy of Uncorked: My Journey Through the Crazy World of Wine by Marco Pasanella. In a blurb on the back of the book, Martha Stewart writes that "everyone interested in enjoying an excellent glass of wine should read [this] book."
Based on your recommendation, I am taking a friend to Woodlands. Are there specific dishes we should order? I am allergic to eggplant but aside from that, we like everything. Thanks.
So just avoid the baingan bhartha and you should be fine.
I like the dosas there—special masala dosa, a thin, crispy rolled rice batter crepe roughly the size of a bullhorn and stuffed with a mixture of potatoes, onions, chilis and toasted cumin seeds. With a chutney on the side.
I also like the malai kofta, vegetable dumplings in a creamy almond sauce, and the aloo gobi, with spiced potatoes and cauliflower.
Let me know how things work out …
As we settled into the Gaithersburg / Germantown area from Cheverly I promised I would write back in with some of our area favorites. At your suggestion we have continued to enjoy Minerva, Tortacos, Jazmin Cuisine and Thai House. We've also become quite fond of the Sardi's location up here which is nicer and larger than the one closer to DC.
We've been trying out a lot of the Tex-Mex/Salvadorean places in the area since they are cheap, quick and our toddler loves the whole package and we think we have found quite the gem at Tipicos El Encanto. I can't get enough of the zippy slaw served with the empanadas or the sweet fried plantains with refried beans and crema. And the quesadilla and tacos are both also good. Lots more to try but just thought we would put our word in for this place if you haven't been before.
Not related to the above I also have a question. How do you feel about seeing insects/roaches at restaurants? I'm used to the tropics where they are oh-so-common and I often think in a strip mall kind of place where there are many food oriented establishments that they must be virtually impossible to control. Or is it just bad form for any restaurant (indoors) to have them around? What do you think or do when you see one when eating somewhere?
First of all, thanks for the tip (ha) of Tipico El Encanto. I haven’t been. Your notes are tempting.
As to insects and roaches, etc. … I mean, where to start?
I think this is a very personal thing, and at the risk of turning an entire chat into a weighing in on bugs and critters, I’d be interested in hearing what all of you think about this. When it comes to small places in warm climes, I generally cut them some slack.
I remember having breakfast at a small, independently owned cafe about 15 years ago in Charleston and seeing a roach — ok, not just a roach; the Shaq of roaches — climb up the wall. I signaled for a waitress. She glanced at it and shrugged, said, “Sorry,” and then went on to say that there was really nothing they could do. Awful. But true. Places like that really can’t do much. Ruined the meal. (On the other hand — I got a great story out of it, while I likely wouldn’t have remembered my breakfast 15 years later even if it had been any good.)
Another story. Not an insect story; a critter story. My wife and I had gone out to dinner for our anniversary. A restaurant with a fireplace, and very dark. And at some point halfway through the meal, I saw a shadow near the fireplace. I said to my wife, “Do you see something?” She didn’t. And then I saw it again — a flash of something in the darkness. By now I was leaning forward and peering past the table. “What? What is it?” my wife asked, and then two beats later a rat the size of a small possum did a frenetic wiggle out of the fireplace and went to explore the rest of the dining room.
Now, that I don’t cut slack for.
A restaurant at that level may have the same problems, but it generally also has more money and more resources to fight them. And after all, you are paying a pretty price for the night to be well-nigh perfect …
Todd, I'm curious if you know the answer to this.
A couple of weeks ago Obama ate lunch at Lincoln, which is just down the street from my office, and the entire block was blocked off by secret service. What do restaurants do when Barack and Michelle want to have a date night--are all of the other reservations for the evening canceled, or do they allow other diners in the restaurant (after being frisked, I'm sure).
From all that I’ve read, it’s my understanding that things go on as normally as possible.
When the First Couple dined at Citronelle, for instance, they did so in a private room. When they emerged a couple hours later, patrons in the restaurant — it was a full Saturday house, as usual — applauded them.
To look at the pictures/images of Obama and Biden, or Obama and Medvedev, at Ray’s Hell Burger — the only place I think he has dined twice — you would have guessed that it was no big deal for the restaurant, that’s how normal and seamless it all looked. (It was anything but.)
Hi Todd, So the 2012 RAMMY awards have been announced. What's your take on the winners? Do you agree with who won the awards? Many industry folk scoff at the RAMW saying that it's like a fraternity and you have to be part of their clique. I'm interested to know how you feel about the Association.
I’m happy for the winners.
It’s a great thing for the local industry, having the RAMMYs and shining light on the good work done by so many people.
I do think it’s odd to say, in effect — and just to pick one example — this chef, this year, is the best in the city. How do you determine that? By what measurements? With sports, you have a clear idea of what you’re judging. With a movie or film or TV show or theatrical performance, it’s, again, something very specific being looked at. In this case? The Beards for chefs and restaurants are similar. Seems to me that what is being recognized is the success and longevity and value of a person who has been in that field for a long time.
Last weekend, we were on the Eastern Shore, stopped at a red light. It was one of those hot, hazy days that makes the sweat pool. Suddenly, I perked up. I heard the tell-tale jingle of an ice cream truck and spotted it across the park. I jumped out of the car and told my flabbergasted boyfriend to come find me, and I went to get myself a king-sized drumstick.
For me, summer is about delicious, milky ice cream. Ice cream stores, ice cream trucks, the random guy at the beach with the cooler. I see this fro-yo/yogurt-whatever phase, and I say give me a full-fat double scoop of heavy cream and egg yolk ice cream, topped with rich chocolate fudge, tiny chopped nuts, a cloud of whipped cream and that syrupy maraschino cherry on top. And there is nothing like ice cream in the summer, when it melts the moment you walk outside and you’re in a race against time to finish it.
When I'm walking around in a suit on a swampy afternoon, there is nothing like some creamy, melty ice cream that sends me back to the kickball field, twelve years old with my best friends, and all I had to do that day was make it home at some point.
What a great little celebration/evocation of summer this is …
I love: “when it melts the moment you walk outside and you’re in a race against time to finish it.”
And: “twelve years old with my best friends, and all I had to do that day was make it home at some point.”
We have a front-runner, ladies and gentlemen …
My family gathers almost every Sunday at my parents house for dinner. Each time, my mother will usually bake some sort of dessert out of fruit and sugar:
I look forward to the cold sweetness of rhubarb and strawberry that my grandmother used to make.
I try to plan ahead and not wear white if my mother has made a blueberry pie.
A special out of season request from my father for a lemon meringue pie, his favorite.
A cherry pie for Independence day, my favorite
Peaches from the farmers market turned in to cobbler
The sweet and salty combo from Key Lime pie.
Sitting outside on the deck with my family, in near silence (save for the clang of silverware on plate and pie), the calories are entirely worth it.
A pie lover. An eater after my own heart.
I can tell that your parents’ house is a house I’d like to be on a Sunday …
Thanks for this …
And I just wanted to say before moving on that I love the idea of family gathering every Sunday for dinner.
These are massively important rituals. And we, as a culture, are losing them. We have all but lost them.
It bothers me to see what has been done to our food, the degradations wrought by big business and the rapacious and selfish American need to make a buck at the expense of just about everything else, but I almost would have to say that I am disturbed even more by our loss of what Europeans call “the table.” (And believe me, they are in danger of losing it, too.) There is more interesting food than ever out there, and more good restaurants than ever, and more farmers markets, and more attention paid to things that matter, and all of that is great. But for all the good that this food revolution has done, it has not restored meal time with family — all gathered around the table, with no devices on, no TV on or nearby, just a basic and otherwise unremarkable) meal and conversation about the day — to American life.
Hi Todd - My wife and I are celebrating our anniversary this week and are planning to go to BlackSalt. Good choice or should we consider somewhere else? Do you have any recommendations on dishes that we should definitely order? The only restriction is that we are expecting baby #2 soon and she needs to avoid most raw items. -Mike
Mike, that’s kind of a hard call if I don’t know your tastes. Did you settle on BlackSalt because you like fish and seafood, or because you think that the mood and the scene and the prices are up your alley? Or because it just won the RAMMY for best upscale casual restaurant? All of the above?
Of all of Jeff and Barbara Black’s restaurants, I like Black Market Bistro and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace the most. I would put Black Salt third. Good raw materials; I just find that some of the preparations are too busy. If you’re going to manipulate the product, good, do it; but make it clean and exquisite; make the flavors pop. The other two of their restaurants are not as ambitious as often on the plate, but they tend to pull off what they attempt more often.
I've lived in Glover Park for almost two years now. My job in the culinary field along with my love for good food and wine have both contributed to a fair share of upscale dining experiences... Fiola, Marcel's, Citronelle are a few favorites.
But what I still haven't established- perhaps because GP is quite lackluster on the food choices and heavier on the bar scene- is a "neighborhood favorite" or joint, if you will. I'm looking for a recommendation of somewhere I can pop in on a weeknight for good food and a drink after a long day. Somewhere, not too pricey, that I can discover my favorite dish and always come back for it. (Think good salads with grilled chicken or shrimp, etc) While Kitchen, Townhall and the like provide a great atmosphere, the food disappoints every time. Unless the new Mayfair Pine is the answer, I'm willing to drive a little...
I hear you.
I just don’t know if what you’re looking for actually exists. Surfside doesn’t quite fit that description. Bourbon is more bar than restaurant and bar. Heritage India is more a cozy retreat from the swarms. I love the original Sushi-Ko, but it has never seemed to me like a neighborhood joint.
Et Voila!, in Palisades, might be your best bet. Excellent mussels and fries, there’s a very good mussel burger (!), very good steak frites, a textbook Belgian waffle, and in its longueurs (and I mean this in the best way possible) it’s quintessentially Euro. The crowd may or may not be what you’re looking for. It doesn’t feel very “neighborhood” to me, but maybe that’s just because ex-Foreign Service types who like to try out their French are not my idea of low-key and let-your-hair-down.
Regarding Jeff Black's comments at the Rammy Awards about bloggers, do you think he was airing a legitimate complaint, or is he just being a little thin-skinned in a relatively public profession?
I mean, this is an industry that holds galas and gives each other awards. Is it not fair game for public commentary? I wonder if he privately complains about the empty unreasoned praise some Yelp reviewers heap on some undeserving establishments.
Well, it certainly was more interesting than having him go up and get teary and thank his wife and tell the assembled, “This is for the runners and the line cooks. This is your award, guys. You earned it!”
I understand he clarified his comments yesterday with Tim Carman of the Post and said he was referring to Yelp-ers and the members of Don Rockwell’s message board. I know that some aren’t buying that. I don’t know — I can buy it. I think that for some people, “bloggers” is a kind of shorthand for all online activity.
Ironically, the RAMMYs are covered in a way they weren’t even 5, 6 years ago, and so a slew of bloggers picked up that comment and ran with it. But the vibe of the RAMMYs has always been, this is an inside sort of thing, chefs talking to other chefs, and I think Black was talking with that understanding. So, in a sense, a mistake.
Was it a fair complaint, though, is your question, and to answer that I would have to know what point, exactly, he was trying to make.
I don’t generally have a problem with what you call being thin-skinned. I like to hear people expressing themselves candidly and honestly, even if others might disagree with it.
I know there are chefs who are frustrated by all this online activity, all these many words spilled about their restaurants and from all quarters. I can understand that, though, yes, being in the public eye, if that’s the phrase here, means you have to accept what comes your way, good and bad.
Speaking for myself, I will say that what bothers me the most is the anonymity of so much of this chatter. The fact that people who post what they have to post are not accountable and not reachable, and yet their words — sometimes hateful — don’t go away. I feel bad when I see reviews of books, serious works from important authors, reflective of years of effort and a deep immersion in the world of the imagination and in the existing research, are just summarily dismissed with some inanity and given a single star. Did I say bad? I feel it like a pain, a stabbing pain.
RE: Blacksalt follow-up. We generally will eat anything and everything. I chose BS because she is usually hungry for seafood these days (but that can change at a moment's notice). We have enjoyed the raw products at their fish counter for cooking at home and wanted to give the restaurant a shot too. The Rammy nod certainly did not hurt. My other considerations were Green Pig, Mintwood Place or Rice Paper. I guess a place with really good food and a laid back atmosphere, but cozy mood fits the bill for us with the type of cuisine almost secondary. Thanks for your suggestion--we'll try to go with it and report back. -Mike
Thanks for the follow-up.
Those other three are all good choices, though you’re not going to find much in the way of fish or seafood at Green Pig or Rice Paper (excepting shrimp). Mintwood has a fantastic branzino, one of the best things on the menu, and one of the best preparations of fish I think I’ve had in the past year.
Would Salt & Pepper in Palisades fit the bill for the person in Glover Park looking for a neighborhood place? I've actually never been - I live not too far from there, and I keep meaning to try it. I recall that it got pretty positive reviews when it first opened, but I haven't heard anything about it recently.
I agree with you about Et Voila. Also, I think the only time you can reliably "pop by" without a reservation, even on a weeknight, is after 9 pm. It seems like they overbook their reservations, which really annoys me. I've been there twice on a Saturday night with a reservation and both times waited at least half an hour for the table--the first time we waited an hour, and the second time we abandoned ship after half an hour and went to Sur la Place across the street.
Still, I keep going back because I like the food so much.
Salt & Pepper got off to a promising start, and was putting out a very good crabcake, among other things. It was a likable place, and seemed poised to grow. But the original team left, and I can’t say I know the story there these days …
That’s good to know about Et Voila! Thanks.
It’s a good and very consistent place. More people should be talking about it.
Thank you, everyone, for the great questions and the suggestions and the tips and the provocations, too …
And for playing along with our little contest …
Today’s winner is Dupont — a story of drumsticks, and a great evocation of summers past … You win the copy of Uncorked: My Journey Through the Crazy World of Wine by Marco Pasanella. Drop me a line at email@example.com with your mailing address, and I’ll get it out to you today …
I’m off to lunch …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …