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's, The 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 was a finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, and recently took home first-place honors for feature writing from the Association of Food Journalists.
Kliman 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.
He 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Thai Taste by Kob, Wheaton
On a three-block stretch of Wheaton, near the intersection of University Blvd. and Georgia Ave., can be found two of the area's best Thai restaurants -- Ruan Thai and Nava Thai. Time to add a third. Phak Duangchandr -- Kob, to friends -- has set up shop in the tiny space that originally contained Nava, in the back of Hung Phat market. Thai food fans may remember her, or at least her cooking; for 19 years she operated the Thai Food Carryout at Thai Market, near the old Safeway in Wheaton. The new setting, electrified with a paint job of orange and day-glo green, gives her a chance to expand her repertoire of dishes, while staying true to the from-scratch traditions that earned her a devoted following. The emphasis is on street food and homecooking, with a good many dishes you simply won't find anywhere else, like bamee moo daeng, a meal-in-a-bowl of tender egg noodles, red-edged roast pork, baby bok choy, and fish balls; or kai yad sai, an omelette stuffed with ground chicken punched up with fish sauce and soy sauce; or a salad of shrimp paste-flavored rice, onions, cucumber and sweet, sticky pork). But even familiar tastes, taste different here -- funkier, more pungent, and definitely hotter (a shrimp fried rice, alive with fistfuls of Thai basil and a generous pinch of chilis, set my heart to racing). Some customers have already been asking for more rice to accompany their orders. Partner and manager Max Praserptmate says he is willing to accommodate any requests, but adds that his aunt's cooking is not the aberration; it's the great majority of Thai restaurants that are the aberration. "The taste," he says, "is what you're supposed to get from your Thai food." Duangchandr imports many of her spices from Thailand, and toasts and grinds them herself. All the condiments on the spice tray, including a terrific chili vinegar, are made on the premises. Meats are given a long soak before hitting the grill -- 72 hours, in the case of the pork that is pounded and threaded onto a skewer to create a must-order starter called moo yang. The other must-order starter sure doesn't sound like it -- when was the last time you had fried shrimp wontons that were any good? These are fabulous. Kiew tod comes to the table looking more like a plate of tortilla chips, the mix of shrimp and white pepper bundled within a sneakily rolled edge. The crunch is junk food-loud; it's hard not to believe they weren't engineered in a lab. No beer or wine yet; Praserptmate says soon on both. I would take the money you'd ordinarily spend on a drink and spring for an extra dish or two (most are under $10, and many items will survive into the next day).
The kind of big-hearted restaurant that takes you to another place (Baltimore? St. Louis?) and maybe another time (late' 70s). Come on a weekend night, when there's a two-piece band and the place is humming and you'll feel as if you've just crashed a wedding reception. I love the GM in coat and tie who shows you to your table, maitre d'-style. I love the waitress who turned to me one night when I was trying to decide between a lamb dish on the menu and a lamb dish that was a special, and said, "Listen. Listen to me," and insisted I order the latter. She was right. The meat was rich and juicy and drenched in a lemon-spiked gravy. Alongside it: lemon roasted potatoes and green beans cooked with tomato and mint. True to the homestyle nature of the place, you couldn't see any white space on the plate. Another great dish is the fried cod, delicately light, with a fluff of skordalia in the center, a sit-down Greek fish and chips. The menu has no weak spots, as far as I can tell. I've been three times, now, and nearly everything that has come out of the kitchen has ranged from the good to the terrific. Vegetarians can revel here. Iman bayaldi, a dish of roasted eggplant drenched in cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce, has the tight, knitted flavor of expert long-cooking. It comes in a massive portion, and costs just $7. There are stuffed grape leaves without the ground beef, filled with well-cooked rice and pine nuts and wrapped in fresh-tasting leaves that still have some good chew to them. If it takes wrapping up some food for leftovers in order to manage dessert, then do it. The version of galaktobouriko -- presented in small, crunchy pieces, almost like bites of fudge -- is one of the best I've eaten in years; the baklava (served warm, and nearly spilling its crunchy, nutty, sticky filling) is stunning; and the centerpiece of the yogurt with honey and walnuts is a scoop that has been strained almost to the consistency of a cheese, with a tanginess that goes on and on and on.
Bangkok Golden, Falls Church
I was tempted to say this a while back, but didn't. I will now, after a recent knockout visit: I'd rather go here, for the Lao menu, than Little Serow. The range of tastes is vast, and every plate is alive with flavor -- bright and pungent and smoky and funky. Not to mention crunch and heat. Not to mention a shorter wait and a lighter bill (my recent meal of four dishes and a beer, pre-tax: $43).
Rose's Luxury, DC
I love the crackle in the room when you walk in. I'm not talking about mere noise; lots of restaurants have noise. I'm not even talking about buzz, that sense that a new place is hot. This one has an energy that is unmistakable, a sense that you have entered a kind of rare and cherished zone where the enthusiasm of the kitchen and the staff is returned in kind by the diners, who all seem to walk out the door with smiles on their faces. It's not hard to understand why. Rose's Luxury has an old-school vibe, and a sort of making-it-up-as-we-go-along feel, from the homey, unassuming way the menu bids you to settle in and order to the dinner party-run-amok vibe to the yahrzeit-look-alike votives to the beer glasses that are sawed-off wine bottles. The chef, Aaron Silverman, logged stints in such high-profile kitchens as Momofuku in New York and Husk and McCrady's in Charleston, and you don't have to look hard to see elements of each of these places in the room and on the plate. Like his mentors David Chang and Sean Brock, he aims to bring off a marriage of extreme playfulness and extreme precision. The bulk of the menu consists of a dozen small plates in which Silverman sets out to cross the wires, compositionally speaking, and see what happens. A pate is a braiding of French, Italian (garlic bread are the toasts), Vietnamese (the rich, crushed-peanut topped spread brims with star anise), and I want to say Jewish (the brine for the jalapenos, onions and cukes that add crunch and tang tastes deli to me). It's seamlessly done, and highly addictive. He crosses high and low in a soup that tastes at once like liquefied popcorn and a delicate lobster veloute (the sweetness calls out for some sort of counterbalancing ingredient, or more lobster). It's not all derring-do. His gnocchi are more properly a kind of ravioli, stuffed with fennel and mint, sauced with not-too-much butter and topped with a generous scattering of crunchy toasted breadcrumbs. You'd be hard put to find five better pasta dishes in town right now. The final course is a page not out of Momofuku or Husk or McCrady's, but out of Komi -- share plates for two. In one, you lay luscious slices of perfectly smoked brisket on griddled Texas toast, add on tangy strands of pickled cabbage and smear the whole thing with a fluffy horseradish cream. The other is built around a beautifully brined pork chop -- sweet and aromatic and rich as the best pork can be -- with potlikker beans and a textbook red-eye gravy. The final act needs re-staging. The lack of a pastry chef doesn't help, nor does the tendency to over-think and over-embellish. Quenelles of chocolate cream sprinkled with dried rose petals and intended for spreading on slices of charred bread feels twee, not interesting, and hardly satisfies. More of the sink-in simplicity of the share courses would go a long way. Still, this is one of the most exciting debuts of the year. I'd even go so far as to say it's one of the most exciting debuts of the past three years.
Khan Kabob, Chantilly
The best karahi I've had in ages, maybe ever, is a version here made with lamb brains. The brains, for the leery, resemble tiny curds, and the sauce of garlic, ginger, cilantro, tomato and chilis is so concentrated, and so smoky, that even after you've had your fill it's difficult to stop dipping your torn naan into the hammered metal vessel. Tariq Khan, the owner, was for many years part of the Ravi Kabob empire; he's created a worthy rival.
I think my husband and I often avoid the tasting menu option because we don't want to both order it, and that tends to be the requirement.
If it's a tasting menu with limited choices, we're more likely to give it a spin. Otherwise, we both like ordering a few things and sharing. Plus we might not be in the mood for the same thing that night, etc.
It’s a very good point.
And it’s odd if you think about it, because in the case of a couple who lives to eat a tasting menu is at the same time a very attractive enticement — a chance to connect with a chef, to see what he or she can do if let loose — and a burden: why get the same thing each and limit your dish-tasting options?
I understand why chefs insist on everyone at the table ordering the same tasting menu — it’s a pacing issue. I’m just saying …
Thanks for chiming in.
Good morning, everyone.
I’d still love to hear what you have to say about tasting menus — I don’t think we’ve exhausted it as a topic yet.
And anything else — where are you eating these days? (Doesn’t have to be fine and fancy.)
Speaking of: I had a couple of terrific subs not long ago at Marchone’s in Wheaton: an Italian cold cut and a sausage and pepper and onion. Low-key, and all the better for it. The entire time I was there, I was thinking: I can imagine some foodie turning up his or her nose at the bread. It’s not the greatest bread. It’s soft. It’s not airy. It doesn’t seem to add anything. But here’s the thing — it doesn’t get in the way of, either. It’s not too much bread, as so many higher-end subs are. It serves the insides.)
I haven't been to Minibar, but my closest friend (who has a bit more disposable income) was recently treated to dinner their by his girlfriend for his birthday.
He was a confirmed Minibar skeptic, particular after the price increase. He and his girlfriend are well traveled, and are fortunate to have enjoyed some great restaurants both in and outside the United States, to include Per Se.
In short, he loved Minibar from start to finish, and told me the entire experience was incredible.
Minibar's menu doesn't change very often, so it's not the sort of place most people visit frequently, but he said he would go back without a doubt.
I'm a big fan of tasting menus, primarily because it allows me to enjoy a range of a restaurant's offerings in a single visit. I include Rose's Luxury and Little Serow in the tasting menu genre, even though neither offer true "tasting menus".
Now for something slightly embarrassing; following the conclusion of a great meal at Kogiya, I wrongly assumed I could take my unfinished bottle of sochu with me. When the manager politely informed me that was not permitted, I reminded myself to ask first. I assumed the rules allowed me to take an opened bottle with me.
Keep up the great chats!
It’s a superb meal.
There’s no denying that. The plates are interesting, exquisitely rendered and delicious.
What complicates things is the phenomenally exorbitant price tag.
Doesn’t complicate the meal, but it does, for some, complicate the experience of being there. I have friends who would have felt guilty, sitting in my seat at the counter. Heck, I felt guilty, sitting in my seat at the counter. And the scrutiny — of every miniscule detail, of every moment — becomes so much more intense when you’re paying $750 for two.
The price takes it out of the class of restaurants that you could go to once a year and relegates it to the class of restaurants you go to … once.
Someone asked me a while back if I would go to Minibar if I weren’t a critic with a very nice budget to support me. I said I didn’t think I would. That’s a lot of coin. And I say that as someone who was dazzled by my last meal there.
(Truth be told, there are a lot of restaurants I would not go back to, if I weren’t a critic with a budget. In some cases, a question of cost. In some cases, a question of personal preference.)
I should've guessed this was coming: my boyfriend is graduating from law school this weekend, and his large family is descending into town on Friday. I asked him a while back about a celebratory dinner but I was brushed off until yesterday...
I've been tasked with finding a restaurant for 12 in Arlington on Friday night (and dinner has to be before 8 to accommodate older family members).
There will be a couple of gluten-free people and 1 vegetarian - if it helps any, the vegetarian is fine just eating a salad. Half the party will not have cars.
I rarely venture outside of DC so I don't even know where to begin looking - crossing my fingers you'll have suggestions, thanks!
OK, I hope I can make it a good night for you.
I’d call up Ray’s the Steaks.
The vegetarian has the option of a thick, grilled portobello, seasoned with a kind of hot sauce, that eats like a steak. There should be something on the menu for everyone else, too — thick, aged steaks, good mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, a good crab dish (a mound of rich, seasoned jumbo lump held together with minimal binder, a loving rip-off of the Crab Bomb at Jerry’s Seafood, in Lanham and now Bowie), and a good crab bisque.
And it’s also close to a Metro stop.
Good luck, and if that’s not what you’re looking for hit me back and we’ll try again.
And if you go, I’d love a report …
Do you think restaurants are padding the bill (my words) by presenting a meal as a tasting menu, when the components of the menu may not be as expensive as the whole?
My example: My wife and I went recently went out - I ordered the seasonal tasting menu, which was 42.95, while she went with a steak for 29.95.
Her steak was Flintstonian, not only in size but in taste; my menu, which consisted of six courses, from an amuse to a micro salad to a two-spoonful-corn soup to a desert lime sorbet cleanser to a steelhead entree (two fingers-sized) to a sad, sad Sicilian lemon poundcake with a teaspoon-sized accompanying smoked vanilla gelato- was not.
Thankfully, she kindly allowed me to sneak some bites from her plate, or else a trip to 5 Guys would've been in order afterward.
So, yeah. Not a fan.
That’s interesting. And I have a hunch I know where you dined.
What strikes me there is the great disparity in style. A massive steak on the one hand, and on the other — dainty, delicate courses that (at least from your description) don’t sound very inspired.
I don’t think tasting menus work for every chef. So many of them lust for the chance to put a sequence like that together. But in some cases it works against a chef’s natural strengths.
Not all chefs are miniaturists. Working small and aiming for subtle, they sometimes work against the very things that make them good.
Some chefs don’t have a story to tell. The tasting menu is just one dish after another.
Some do a great job of showcasing their many and varied skills — but forget that they’re still putting out a meal, and that that meal ought to be delicious.
I think a great tasting menu is much more uncommon than it is common.
During the chats about food movies, I was very surprised that noone brought up the fact that DC FilmFest was going on with a special emphasis on food movies.
Due to travel I was able to see only 3 of them, but they were all superb, and even surpassed some of the classics mentioned in this chat.
I watched Brasserie Romantiek, Le Chef, Love and Lemons and highly recommend them to people who like food (+well-traveled, assertive, and respectful of food establishments).
Just curious, Todd, did you get to see any food movies during the FilmFest?
Thanks for the tips, first of all — I’m going to rent all of the titles you mentioned.
I did see a film called “Eden,” from Germany. A very odd film. A film that seemed to be three films in one — not in the sense of a complex, multi-layered narrative, but rather in the sense of a film that was not entirely sure what it wanted to be.
The cooking scenes were good. One of the dining scenes was odd and awkward.
I thought the film worked best as an examination of outsiderness, and there were undertones (and sometimes overtones) that were troubling and provocative, and made me think of Nazism and the rabidity of its desire to expunge the nation of “degeneracy.”
An allegory? No, nothing so clear-cut as that. But: A morbidly obese chef, with a cuisine that dares to cross the line from bourgeois satisfaction into erotic enticement, falls for a woman and, though he never touches her, woos her with his cooking, lusting for her all the while. For his many transgressions, real and imagined, he pays dearly, and the society that rids itself of him returns to normal.
Do I recommend it?
I’m not sure.
There’s a part of me that wants to see it again, just to ponder some of these things again.
I continue to be impressed with regional mini-chain Matchbox. Most often dine at the one in Rockville, but have also recently been to 14th street and Mosaic.
The food is accessible and fantastic. I have loved every pizza I have tried there and the salads are well composed and not overdressed.The mini burgers are also a treat, although they are often overcooked. And the onion strings have recently gotten even better- not sure if they changed their recipe or what but all the sudden they are seriously addictive.
I think what distinguishes this place, though, is the level of service. I have never had a bad server there and I think the service is as good or better than I have experienced in top tier restaurants in DC. They are unfailingly polite, accommodating to special dietary requests, and are always super friendly to the kids and make an extra effort to talk to them and make them feel welcome.
I have noticed this mostly at the Rockville outlet, which as expected gets a lot of families. But whoever is in charge there is doing a great job- we go there at least a few times a month and I have sent numerous friends and relatives there as well.
Thanks for the report.
I’m interested in what you say about the pizzas, because I’ve never actually had a great pizza there. Or a good pizza. I’ve had pizzas that were in sight of good.
My last meal at a Matchbox was at the Rockville location. It was a while ago. I don’t remember being taken with the service. The meal began wonderfully — a good, lightly dressed salad with goat cheese, very ripe grapefruit and meaty, salty Marcona almonds. The miniburgers were good. Everything after that, however — the main courses, the two desserts — was just eh.
That grapefruit salad, though.
It’s not a small thing for a chain to do a salad like that. That salad is better than many, many more-talked-about bistros. It’s smartly thought-through, the quality of the ingredients is surprisingly high, and the elements are all well=handled on the plate.
A question about restaurants running out of menu items:
We went to Range this weekend for an early dinner on Sunday night. Upon seating us, our server told us they were out of the chicken. Bummer - that's what my wife was planning to order, but it happens.
He left to give her some time to consider the menu, and when he came back he said they were now out of the kale caesar and a few other things too.
He explained that they don't have a freezer, so they frequently run out of things.
I asked if they might let us order some pastas off the Aggio menu given the limitations, but was told that wasn't alllowed.
Two questions: first, if the restaurant "frequently" runs out of things, shouldn't they eventually get better at planning for such things, especially on a busy holiday weekend?
Second, if the restaurant isn't able to offer many of the items on its menu, shouldn't there be some offer of alternative options or other concession made to guests who relied on the menu in deciding where to spend their money and time? (My wife has some dietary restrictions, which made the limitations all the more frustrating since we spent time looking over the menu before making the reservation to confirm that there would be good options for her that night).
Re: the first of your questions, I’d say yes.
Frequently running out of things is bad. Telling diners that you frequently run out of things is bad, too.
The freezer isn’t the issue; most good restaurants don’t have big freezers — the idea is to bring in fresh product, prepare it and start again the next day. They’re not planning well.
Re: the second of your questions — there’s a part of me that wants to side with you and say yes, because I understand your frustration. But I just don’t see how.
And the problem with something like this is that trying to explain these things in the moment, at the table, is awkward. It makes you look entitled or whiny.
A good restaurant should try to “read” you, and adjust accordingly. You come in, they don’t have the dish your wife was hoping for, counting on, excited to go there and have. Then you find out that there are other items that you’re interested in that they also don’t have. Frustration mounts. Mood dims. A server, or, really, a GM at that point, ought to step in and try to make things right. Coming up with another dish, gratis, for instance, and maybe a round of drinks.
We never go to a place with a tasting menu because it is totally wasted.
I can usually only hold an appetizer (if large) and a salad at most. I just cannot eat all that food.
I hear this a lot. Thanks for chiming in …
One thing we haven’t touched on in this ongoing discussion — the question, a moment ago, about a restaurant frequently running out of things reminded me — is the all-tasting menu restaurant.
The all-tasting menu restaurant is the ultimate in control freak cooking. The chef knows exactly how much to buy every night. Nothing, presumably, is wasted. The kitchen brigade is seldom flustered and throw off its rhythm, because it does the same exact set of limited dishes every night.
A restaurant like that, the price should be lower than it often is — because of the lack of waste. But it’s often higher. And one reason is that a restaurant like that tends to limit the number of tables, the better to drill down on each and every dish and get it right.
Perhaps not a true tasting menu, but I'm a fan of ordering omakase at a sushi place.
And actually, they’re often some of the most rewarding experiences to be had, I think, in the tasting menu realm.
A great omakase is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Not just because the food is good, but because it seems such a civilized thing. Eating slowly. No cutting and spearing. Small, jewel-like bites. The colors. The delicate artistry …
Wanted to give a brief field report of MENU/MBK.
A group of girlfriends and I for the last year or so have been going out to dinner once a month, ordering as much as we possibly can, and sharing everything so that we can try as much as possible. Our general system is to go around the table once, everyone picks a dish from any category (except dessert) and then we go around a second time so we each end up picking two things. Usually a side or two end up being thrown in for good measure. We have covered a lot of ground from Red Hen, to Le Diplomat, to La Caraqueña.
This month we opted for MENU/MBK. Upon being seated (4 of the 5 had arrived) we were handed 2 menus and one wine list. We proceeded to wait for a waitress to come over for about 15 minutes in which time all we could do was discuss among ourselves how incredibly HOT the restaurant was, temperature wise, and how there was zero ambiance. It felt awkward. We ultimately got up and walked out.
We had high hopes for the food MENU/MBK but we just could not get past the terrible atmosphere. We ended up at Central which, as always, was a great call.
Food was fantastic and service was really great. Like I said, we order A LOT, so it is always nice when the servers realize we are in it for the long haul and for the fun and who have a good time with us.
Thanks to Central for saving the night! Hoping MENU/MBK can turn up the AC and improve the vibe.
Good for Central.
And good of you for giving them the s/o.
Your experience reminds me of a night at Bandolero, long before chef Mike Isabella sold it. It was early in the run, it was summer, and the restaurant was broiling. The a/c was on the fritz, if I remember correctly. I was with a friend, and he desperately wanted to leave, and I did, too, but I was working and determined to stick it out. Walking outside into the humid, sticky night was something of a relief.
I’ve had one meal at Menu. I found it odd. Not memorably odd. Just odd.
At least on that initial visit, it didn’t seem to me to work. I thought the menu was, with appetizers that read as main courses. It was early in the run, but the staff didn’t seem to be very well-informed; nor did it strike me as all that plugged-in to the restaurant’s mission. The meal was not a bad meal, but it just seemed like a collection of dishes. The place wasn’t communicating anything. Or what it was communicating was vague and purposeless.
I would love to think that it’s a different restaurant now.
Just wanted to happily underscore Todd's recommendation for Ray's the Steaks for a great graduation dinner.
I took my whole family there for my law school graduation a few years ago, and it was a huge hit with everyone from my picky brother to my 86 year-old grandmother.
It's also nice to take non-DC family to a place with a celebratory feel that doesn't have the typical DC prices!
It really is, as you say, a place that can please a lot of different people.
Can’t say that about every restaurant. Can’t say that about most restaurants, actually — or, most restaurants that we talk about on this chat.
A tasting menu, soon, will be coming from our way in our newly opened Fishnet in Shaw.
We have a bar counter in the kitchen, seating a maximum of 4 people, 6-7 courses of fresh seafood will be cooked right before the guest`s eyes in the kitchen. There is no theme. I plan on cooking some Turkish style fish as well as other influences from my travels over the years. I named this concept `Fishnook`.
Fishnook will be available only twice a week and reservations will be required. There is no dress code :) , just bring a good appetite. Beverage pairings will be available. Most importantly, Fishnook will be open based on my personal schedule. However, once we have reservations, we will honor them. I can not provide a phone number yet because phone system is not setup.
I also like to add, we started our lunch service in Shaw. We are open at 11.30am everyday except Sundays. Sundays hours will be posted soon.
Thank you, Ferhat
You’re welcome to come on any time and hype your product.
And that goes for all of you in the restaurant community. Just so long as you’re upfront about it …
A chef's choice tasting menu is a non-starter for me, beyond cost, because I'm not omnivorous enough.
While I have fairly wide-ranging tastes in terms of types of cuisines, there are a few basic items that I don't care for (mushrooms) or have no interest in eating (organ meat, raw seafood).
Even at a place like Obelisk, where you get a couple of options, I sometimes feel like I'm settling rather than getting something I'm excited about.
Another good point.
Thanks for chiming in …
I know chefs try to balance their desires with the needs of their diners when coming up with tasting menus, but if anything I’d actually like to see them go more in the direction of (sorry) things you personally won’t eat.
I’d like to see tasting menus be bolder, and more out of the ordinary from dish to dish.
Gotta run. Lunch calls.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK …]