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 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.
...............................................................................................................................This Week's Contest: Describe Your Dream Memorial Day Picnic
We all fantasize about holidays--never more so than mid-morning on a grey Tuesday. With Memorial Day around the corner and summer grilling season about to enter full swing, we want to hear your ultimate Memorial Day Picnic Fantasy.
Dream big--maybe Mike Isabella stops by to roast you a leg of lamb in that Big Green Egg you magically acquired, while your ex-wife--newly besotted with you--sips sangria courtesy of a beverage bar from Jaleo. Combine your favorite foods and experiences to whip up a dream backyard bash that inspires Todd to offer you Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream: Sweet Seasonal Recipes for Ice Creams, Sorbets, and Toppings Made with Local Ingredients. It's full of inspiring recipes for capping off the perfect picnic.
Remember though: Todd loves details. Don't be shy about stuffing your entry with ideas and adding lots of rich description. Your effort will be sweetly rewarded.
Hi Todd! This is my first time writing in and I hope you can help me.
My husband and I are planning a day trip to Annapolis this weekend. We would like to know if you have any recommendations for a seafood dinner that is not super pricey or touristy. Thanks!
O’Leary’s isn’t super expensive and it’s probably the dean of the old-guard seafood restaurants in Annapolis. Generally, the closer to the water, the worse the food, but O’Leary’s is one of the exceptions to that rule.
If you’re looking for something much more casual, and a much more casual meal, too, then I think your best option is The Boatyard. Oysters and crabcakes in a low-key, weathered space where all of Eastport — a minute trip across a small bridge from downtown Annapolis — seems to flock on a nice night to drink beer and catch up and revel in their good fortune.
It’s not a seafood restaurant, so you’re not likely to consider it, but for all the rest of you who are reading along you need to know about the black- and white-sesame-crusted seared tuna at The Main Ingredient. Just an excellent, simple dish and worth seeking out if you’re in Annapolis and looking for a good meal at a decent price.
WHEN IS THE NEW THAI REATAURANT OPENING ON kING STREET IN ALEXANDRIA? IT IS REPLACING THE THAI OLD TOWN. IT IS CALLED SANG JUN. DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT? WE ARE STARVED FOR SOME DECENT THAI FOOD AROUND HERE. WE ARE TIRED OF DRIVING TO FALLS CHURCH OR ARLINGTON. THANK YOU.
So starved, apparently, that you’ve resorted to yelling. ; )
I don’t know anything about it.
I will say, though, that Sang Jun sounds like Korean food. And there’s a restaurant in Annandale with a similar name — Sang Jun Han.
But as for decent Thai in Alexandria — what about Po-Siam? Or Rice & Noodles? Not earth-shaking by any means, but good workaday Thai is no small thing …
By the way, it’s 15 minutes from downtown Old Town to Bangkok 54, one of the area’s best Thai restaurants. I don’t know about you, but 15 minutes to dinner? That’s nothing. That’s a godsend. Where I live, it’s at least 25-30 minutes to most places, and my neighbors are frequently getting in the car and driving 40.
Faithful reader here. Thanks for the forum.
Headed to NYC this weekend and looking for some place to eat dinner on Friday night. We like a variety of cuisines. I was thinking Osteria Morini because they have an outpost headed to DC. We are staying in the financial district but would not mind traveling to another downtown neighborhood for a moderately priced meal. Italian, sushi, Greek and Mexican are some of our favorites.
Ah, the financial district — source of all the great hotel bargains in the city. I know. I’ve been there. Many, many, many times. Including two weeks ago.
You can save a lot by staying there, especially if you use Priceline and get lucky, but then you’re stuck because there’s nothing to eat except a Les Halles. If you choose to take cabs over the subway, you’re going to make up that money in a hurry.
Anyway, Osteria Morini. Good choice. Dell ‘anima in the West Village is also a good choice, and maybe a little more laid back and fun.
You mentioned sushi. One of my favorite sushi spots in the country is in New York — Sushi Yasuda. It’s not cheap, it’s not even moderate, but you can go there and eat a light meal — a small assortment of nigiri, sashimi, a cold glass of sake or a beer — and then head somewhere else for a sandwich or pizza … you know, a progressive dinner sort of night.
My cousin is coming to town with her husband for family (his family so we are not going) event that should come with a big lunch. They will be staying in Potomac and we were going to met them for dinner. I would love a recommendation for a place that has good food, not too loud and hopefully a large or varied menu so everyone can have a big or small meal depending on hungry they are. Since they are coming from out of town, the closer to Potomac the better. Thanks for your help.
How about Sugo Cicchetti, which just opened May 2 near Montrose and Seven Locks.
I have yet to pay a visit, so this is not an official recommendation — but I’m putting it out there on the basis of a good track record (the owners are the folks behind Cava and Cava Grill).
It looks to be an Italian version of the popular and critically acclaimed Cava, with small plates, pizzas and cocktails (including a version of a martini into which a fluff of pink cotton candy is dunked) in a bouncy setting.
Anna Spiegel, our assistant food and wine editor, dropped by a few weeks ago for an overview.
Okay, I'm the "salt" guy from Elisir.
While I appreciated the response, and the invitation to return, I do want to point out at no time were we offered complementary butter and/or olive oil. How was I to know there was an option?
My suggestion - add something on the menu that states that "our traditional high-quality olive oil and salt is avalable free of charge, but for the adventurous diner, try our more exotic olive oil and salt offerings."
If what you say is true, then I absolutely agree with you — how were you to know?
I think you make a very good point about a clarifying note somewhere on the menu, and hope the restaurant will take it to heart.
Curry Mantra = pleasant surprise.
I usually end up going to Ravi Kabob in Arlington when I am craving kabobs or karahi but I will now add Curry Mantra to that list for their wonderful and tasty biryani. I have not tasted biryani that good in a long time.
From my experiences, the only good biryani was at dawat's (dinner party(s)) where the lady of the house had spent the day making biryani and other wonderful dishes. Most restaurants growing up did not serve good biryani.
Curry Mantra's biryani was flavorful with each bite. It was so good that I woke up Saturday morning and had the leftovers for breakfast. The atmosphere and decor in the restaurant was soothing as well. Apparently on Friday and Saturday nights there is a live tabla and flute player, who play in the background without disturbing diners as they eat. With that said, it is time for my co-workers and I to head over to Curry Mantra and try out their lunch buffet. As always love the weekly chat!
That’s good to hear.
And don’t miss the saag paneer and the baingan bhartha next time. Superb.
I recently heard from Asad Sheikh re: the disappearance of the superlative dosas, the best in the area.
If you didn’t get out there to try them, you missed out on one of the great dishes in the area.
Sheikh tells me the fire inspector of Falls Church asked him to take out his 24 x 24 griddle because it was 9 inches outside of the existing hood — a violation, he adds, that was overlooked prior to the inspection that took place just before the restaurant opened. The existing hood, he says, does not have enough space to hold a 24 x 24 griddle. The solution? Redesigning the hood, which is very expensive and Sheikh says he cannot swing the cost at the moment.
On a more positive note, the restaurant has recently celebrated its first anniversary and also expanded the dining room, more than doubling the existing seating to 125.
But man oh man, those dosas …
Hi Todd, I'm heading to Croatia soon on my honeymoon, we'll be in Dubrovnik and Split, any chance you have any recommendations? We love try new food and eating the local cuisine.
But maybe there’s a chatter who’s been recently —?
Manning the grill has to be Roberto Donna, firing up his pork sandwich from the former Galileo Grill. (Since this is a fantasy, all back taxes have been paid and he has made right with his employees and suppliers). I'll probably need to do this while Roberto is not looking, but will need some Uncle Brutha's hot sauce to give the sandwich an extra kick.
I'd have to get the gentlemen from Stillwater Artisanal Ales down from Baltimore with a nice summer ale - something with a hint of lemon? - brewed specially for the occasion in conjunction with DC Brau. How to start the meal? Nothing says summer like fresh tomatoes, and nothing is as refreshing as a cold serving of gazpacho. It seems cliched, but that has to come from Jose Andres. And now some dessert - not my primary focus, so let's keep it simple. I'll have the folks from Gifford's bring over some ice cream, under one condition - it's got to be the original Gifford's.
And lastly, it's not a summer party unless Chuck Brown is playing. And because it's a dream, DC hasn't lost its heart and soul, and instead he's alive and well and providing a live soundtrack to the best Memorial Day picnic ever.
Wind him up …
So many great concerts, so many fun memories …
(Strange week. Chuck Brown, Donna Summer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one right after another … )
Any reference to the Godfather is going to speak to me, but I love the rest of the lineup, too, and its mix of memory and desire.
And I don’t think calling for a gazpacho from Jaleo is cliched at all — it’s one of the better gazpachos around.
Great job, DC, DC …
Who’s gonna try to top it —?
Is Bangkok 54 a 15 minute drive from Alexandria at peak times? I am always intrigued by the restaurants Washingtonian covers in Virginia, but the traffic freaks me out, quite frankly. I'm not just talking congestion, either. The nasty attitude of fellow drivers--beeping, failing to allow people into lanes--makes me lose my appetite. Any traffic tricks for the burbs?
Well, if you’re driving in Virginia it helps to have an SUV — mirrored, ideally; something that looks like it’s used by Secret Service. And it helps to go really fast and ignore other drivers and drive offensively and not defensively ; )
Can you tell I’m a Marylander?
I don’t have any traffic tricks that I can think of. But if I’m going into Virginia, which I do a lot, I tend to light out mid-day, set up in a coffeeshop somewhere and work, and then drive to dinner. That saves me the hour-and-a-half I would’ve spent in traffic, getting riled up by my fellow drivers. I can walk into dinner calmly, not hating humanity.
Does anyone have any traffic tips or tricks?
Todd, Love the vegetarian picks that you and the other food writers did on the Best Bites blog. Would love to see something similar but with low carb options--my doctor said cutting down on carbs would help me lose the 15 or so extras I'm carrying around.
Yeah, good idea.
J-Voelk, what do you think?
I think that it's a great idea. We'll get to it.
My Memorial Day picnic fantasy would be catered by Bourbon Steak. There would be a long burger bar where guests could opt for any of the burgers they make there and the bartenders would be there making drinks.
To keep it local, I'd invite a bunch of Virginia wineries to set up tasting tables so my friends could try their wines. For entertainment, I'd ask DC bands of the past--Fugazi, Dismemberment Plan, Dave Grohl--to do a rocking review.
For dessert, I'd have a cake bar with all the different types of cake from Buzz Bakery and I'd fly in one of those hipster coffeemakers from San Fran to make espressos and the like. Oh, and it would take place at the White House grounds--which the Obamas kindly lent to me for the day.
A real mix, there.
Of the establishment and the counterculture.
Of the ruling class and the fringe.
But the thing that makes me scratch my head the most is — espresso at a picnic? Really?
Driving in VA, stay out of the left lane on the interstates if you are going below 70mph. Move over when someone flashes their highbeams at you. Get off your cell and stop texting. And just because your drive a Benz doesn't mean you own the roads. We use farm use only vehicles to take care of German uber luxury car drivers. Ratty old pick up and new AMG Black S63. PU wins every time.
Grilling: Weber Kettle, custom-ground, gas-fed beef 18%, VA cured local bacon, Thomas English Muffins, hardwood charcoal, Rt11 chips. Heinz catsup and James Delaney Buffett playing.
“Move over when someone flashes their highbeams at you” — in my books, that’s called “hostile.”
I’ve experienced it. And seen it.
And totally unnecessary …
Your picnic sounds fun, though. No drinks?
As a vegetarian for 10+ years, I also loved the vegetarian picks in the Best Bites blog. Vegetarians like good food, too! However, there are not many recommendations from Maryland. Any suggestions in the Rockville/Bethesda area?
Let’s see …
In Bethesda …
I like the spanikopita at Yamas Mediterranean Grill, a place that I used to feel strongly about and now feel pretty lukewarm about. Some of the food has lost its zip, but as I say — I still do like the spanikopita.
Bistro Provence has a clafoutis of tomato, Parmesan and onion that I like. Also an asparagus salad and an asparagus soup (with Parmesan custard) I like. The chef, Yannick Cam, is excellent, generally, with vegetables. His vegetarian selection, while small, is very good; not at all a slot-filler.
I love the tomato pie at Haven Pizzeria, with just a few wisps of cheese. Add anything in the way of toppings, and it’s not nearly the same.
In Rockville …
Yuan Fu is a good, all-veg Chinese restaurant — I like their version of kung pao, and also their rendition of soft shell crabs (deep-fried eggplant). You can dine there for months without duplicating yourself.
What else …
Mushroom ravioli in pistachio cream sauce at Il Pizzico.
Curries and breads at Spice X-ing.
The trio of dips at Cava.
Congee at East Pearl.
What am I missing … ?
The new dining room at Curry Mantra is worth seeing. The owner did a wonderful job in designing the new space. I would say the decor is the best of any indian/pakistani restaurant that is located in the DMV (besides Rasika and Rasika West End)
Though I liked it just fine before.
Thanks for the update …
When I moved to Virginia from Maryland I just painted my rear view mirror black. All my driving stress disappeared. I highly recommend it!
I think I’ve been on the road with you … ; )
For some reason, Todd, your request hit my core really hard. Perhaps, since it is Memorial Day, and its intent is to honor those who served in the American wars, but really, it makes me want to honor those close to me who have passed away; a closure of sorts. So, my ideal picnic would let both of my grandmothers appear magically for a day.
I get to spend the morning at the grocery store with them, choosing ingredients indigenous to their province (maternal from Qingdao, paternal from Zhejiang), teach me how to pick and choose the ingredients, and then we would spend rest of the morning and early afternoon, cooking and prepping together and listening to stories while the meal cooked (along with a bottle of gaoliang in the background).
Then I can introduce them to their great-grandson (whom they've not met), and along with the rest of my mom and siblings, reunite on a gigantic picnic blanket under perfect weather, at a serene park, eating and having all the great-grandchildren playing in the background. Afterwards, the adults can all brew an old-fashioned pot of tea, enjoy it while everyone noshes on fresh fruits and just talk. Talk and catch up until my grandmothers have to walk back to the sunsets and closes out the scene with tired children and smiles on our faces. That would be nice.
I love it.
A perfect picnic.
Thanks for chiming in and tapping into your past with us …
I’m guessing you’d make dumplings—? … I spent last Memorial Day with a couple of friends from China, and dumplings were the order of the day — ideal, since the weather was gray. We made (ok, they made) 140 dumplings from scratch, and we opened up some beer and wine (no shaoxing, but that would’ve been great) and ate until we were too stuffed to move.
We make a reclaimed wood bonfire ringed by exposed brick, around which salvaged drafting schools are placed for the guests. A blue grass band called Wild Arugula plays in the background. There's copious amounts of Pappy Van Winkle served in jelly jars, plus a lardo luge in the retrofitted Airstream camper parked off to the side of the yard. And of course, a whole local, heritage pig is roasting over the flames. For dessert: there was going to be bacon brittle, but that's way too involved, so there's just bacon.
And don’t forget the dishtowels for napkins.
Ladies and gentlemen, the latest, greatest Hipster Farmhouse bistro — The Picnic.
Wicked. Just wicked …
I gotta ask, though — you’re either in the industry or very, very close to in, yes?
Because I wonder who out there who isn’t, which I assume is most of you, get this … Show of hands — how many of you out there find this funny or on point? As I said, I think it’s wickedly funny, but I don’t count …
My dream picnic would mean that lactose and gluten were something I could eat for a day. I would have all the pastas from Fiola. Edan McQuaid slinging pizza, while Todd Thrasher crafted cocktails. Cheeses from France, the good stuff we aren't allowed to have. Matthew Peterson would be putting out ice cream sundaes. All my family would get along. Vampire Weekend would come in just to play for me. All at Nemacolin, which would devote one of it's hotels and it's pool to me and all my friends and family free of charge, because I am cool like that. And I wouldn't get sick or feel any pain after eating all this.
I love how so many of you are seized with longings in your replies. It’s terrific.
Great lineup of eats, and a fun sounding afternoon …
I particularly loved: “All my family would get along.”
And: The good cheese “we aren’t allowed to have.”
You’re in the running just on the strength of those two lines.
Thanks for playing …
The grilling scene - overlooking the Potomac - Maryland side looking at Great Falls. The Food - Voltaggio (either one) making crabcakes. Bucket of Crabs boiled with Old Bay, Eastern Shore Corn grilled husk on - slaw salad from Dinosaur BBQ - steaks (NY Strip and Ribeye) from Ray's. Drinks - Brews from Dogfish in G-burg MD Nuff said!
Yeah, that’s a killer picnic.
Big points for being so (mostly) grounded in regional cookery.
If we’re going just by dishes and drinks, yours is the one I’d most want to attend. I don’t think you could come up with a more perfect menu.
You’re in the running …
Thanks, everyone, for a fun and interesting chat today …
Time to pick a winner, and it’s tough — there were four in the mix I was considering, all of them good and memorable worthy of winning. It was great to see so many of you connecting with the spirit of the contest …
But we can only pick one, and so I’m going to go with DC, DC. The inclusion of DC Brau and Stillwater Artisanal Ale, the old Gifford’s, Uncle Brutha’s, and of course Chuck Brown, exhumed and dusted off, growling out “Moody’s Mood for Love,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “Wind Me Up” again and again and again …
DC, DC drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your mailing address and I’ll send out your copy of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream: Sweet Seasonal Recipes for Ice Creams, Sorbets, and Toppings Made with Local Ingredients.
Lunch is calling …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …