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 . . .
* Cafe Rue, Beltsville
I've got a lot of affection for this one-man band. Cole Whaley, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine, is not just the owner and chef — he’’s also waiter, runner, and busser of this likable little hole in the wall in a fading Beltsville strip mall. There’s no other menu in the area quite like this, a delightful hodgepodge of soul food, yuppie bistro small plates, and Frenchified sweets. His crispy Brussels sprout dish may be the best I’ve had in a year full of crispy Brussels sprouts dishes — the outer leaves separate slightly, and he gets a chip-like crunch on them. And I love the enhancements — a touch of coconut oil for richness, a drizzle of clover honey for sweetness. The miniature crab cakes are hard to resist, and disappear quickly. Chicken and waffles are the heart of the menu, and the Cotton Club-derived combo comes in four varieties, including one with red velvet waffles and one with Sriracha-glazed chicken that calls to mind the sweet-spicy crunch of General Tso’s. I like the “classic” — the boneless, white meat chicken has surprising juice, and the waffles are thick and fluffy. Come dessert, the Francophile chef indulges his love of patisserie with five kinds of macarons (the cream centers are a touch dry, but he nails the difficult outside) and a surprisingly successful attempt at that recent darling of the NY foodie world, the cronut. More to like: the dining room is dressed up with art from the owner’s own collection, and bossa nova on continuous loop makes any day feel like a lazy Sunday.
* Sushi Capitol, DC
I kind of hate putting this on here. The place is already not large — you could stand in front of the iconic Hawk ’n’ Dove, its next-door neighbor, and miss it — and the crowds that are sure to come now will only mean that I won’t be able to get in when I want later. And I’m going to want. This is a diminished sushi scene: Makoto is no longer special, Kushi is in decline, and Sushi-Ko I is gone. That leaves Sushi Taro and Sushi Capitol, and at the moment I’m not all that certain I’d take the former over the latter. Capitol is not as polished an experience as Taro, but neither is it the Zen-like spa of hushed voices and restrained manners — an Important Restaurant to save up for when you are looking to mark an occasion. This is a simple, unassuming spot, a workaday spot, with good, well-sourced fish and a chef who knows how to enhance the raw product without sacrificing the elegance essential to the form. Minoru Ogawa was previously in charge of sushi operations at every Mandarin Oriental property along the Eastern seaboard. He’s a purist at the bar, abjuring gimmicks, fads and clutter. The pieces are small, with tiny pads of rice, and the fish is sliced thin and delicately and draped just so over the pads. This doesn’t just make for an elegant presentation; it ensures that each bite is in balance, with the right proportion of fish to rice. I was in most recently for the omakase, which, at $50 for somewhere between 16-20 pieces, amounts to a sweetheart of a deal in the sushi world — particularly when the yellowtail is so sweet and still tastes of the sea, and the various white fishes are not simply there for padding, and the hand-rolls (passed across the bar as soon as they’re finished, their wrappers warm and crunchy) come with fresh-chopped toro. If you order a la carte, don’t ignore the rolls. The Florida roll, draped with whitened bands of blowtorched salmon belly and sliced avocado, is a stunner in every sense.
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.
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.
Hi Todd, I finally secured reservations for my first dinner at Komi next week. I don't do a whole lot of really fine dining, and I realized I don't really know what the dress code is at a place like Komi.
Are we talking suit and tie or is that too formal?
Too formal. Not that kind of place.
Shirt, no tie, is absolutely a-okay.
The aspiration, here, is the kind of low-lit trattoria you might find on the coast in Greece or anywhere else in the Mediterranean.
Have a great time. And report back to us, when you have a moment …
Good morning, everyone.
Eager to hear where you’ve been, both here and out of town — what did you eat over the long holiday weekend?
My weekend included a not-cookout with friends (with guacamole, tortillas, my homemade salsa and homemade pipian), a trip to the Eden Center, a trip to Milwaukee Frozen Custard (on the walls: a framed review, from 1988, from one “Tom Sietsma” of the Milwaukee Journal), and a visit to a new restaurant whose menu reads well, and whose interior is sensual and inviting; too bad I found it mostly mediocre.
Is there a restaurant worth visiting in National Harbor?
Not if by “worth visiting” you mean a restaurant you would plan an outing around.
It’s a nice place to spend a couple of hours, walking around, taking in the water.
Most of the options are expensive and not rewarding, or chains that are mediocre.
A couple of years ago Trulia produced a heat map using 2010 census data to plot restaurant and bar density in cities across the US (http://www.trulia.com/trends/2012/08/eating-towns-drinking-towns/).
DC made neither list's top 10.
I've been wondering recently if DC is moving up or down the scale of restaurant density.
While many new restaurants are coming on line so too are new people.
That’s a really interesting study. Thanks for sending along the link.
What jumps out at me is that, on the restaurant map, DC isn’t red — red being an area with more than 20 restaurants per 10,000 households. Most of California’s coast is red. A lot of Yankeedom is red. There’s red up and down the South Atlantic seaboard. But not DC.
Nor on the bar map.
You would think, looking at the explosion of everything in the city the past five years — bars, cafes, restaurants, bistros — that DC would surely be on a list like this. Both lists, in fact.
I find this eye-opening.
Good morning Todd, to answer a question from last weeks chat in reference to special occassions.
Every restaurant handles them differently, some simply acknowledge and thank the guest for joining on this special occassion, some send out a dessert, some send a glass of bubbly, sometimes we know and unfortunately forget.
While we are greatful for all customers why is there an expectation that the restaurant must do something? Does you barber, hairdresser, dry cleaner, gas station or any other part of your life that provides a service? No, just come and have a good time and if you get something great and if not hopefully you enjoyed yourself, why is it about getting something free?
I will add that if you are a regular of a place and have built a relationship then yes, they should do something, but if you are a first time diner at a restaurant for a special occassion then....restaurants owe you nothing other than prompt, gracious service in a clean restaurant and food that lives up to the menu. If they/we fail to deliver on any of these points then let us know right then so that we can fix the issue and continue on working to make sure that you have a wonderful time.
You’re missing the key detail.
It’s not that diners expect something special or free. Most diners, that is.
But when a receptionist, taking a reservation, asks, “Will you be celebrating a special occasion?” then an expectation is created.
The diner thinks: They want to know, because they want to make it a special night.
In other words, a night more special than usual.
If the restaurant does not do anything that the diner can discern to make the meal more special, then that sets up a disappointment — even if the food is great, service is great, ambiance is great, etc.
Todd, my girlfriend and I have an extended layover (overnight) in Panama City, Panama in a few months and would greatly appreciate your input on solid but not over-the-top ($$-$$$) dinner recommendations.
Sorry; I wish I could help you out — but maybe there’s someone out there in chatland who knows the scene—?
Putting it out here early, hoping someone’ll come through with a rec or two or three before I sign off …
Hi Todd, looking for a restaurant to take two adults and two teenagers to near National Theater.
We will be attending West Side Story on a Sunday at 7:30pm, so looking for somewhere for an early dinner before the show.
I’m going to make some guesses, here, since you didn’t give me any specifics to go on.
I’m going to guess that you’ve spent a lot on tickets for four, and that you don’t want the cost of dinner out to rival or exceed that of the musical.
I’m going to guess, as well, that since you’ve got teenagers with you that you’re not looking to dine — and I’m using that word, here, in the most pretentious sense. Dining, as opposed to, simply, eating.
And, finally, I’m going to assume that you won’t have the time to spend on anything too leisurely beforehand.
So, given all that, and also given the fact that my top choice in that part of the city, Central Michel Richard, is closed on Sunday, I’m going to suggest either Old Ebbitt Grill or Fogo de Chao.
OEG is the very definition of a crowd-pleaser. There’s something for everyone. For a food lover, the appeal of coming here is the raw bar, especially the oysters, which are nearly always cold and well-shucked.
Fogo de Chao is a nightly circus. This is a Brazilian version of the steakhouse, which looks and operates differently from an American one. Dozens of grilled meats are impaled on long metal skewers and paraded triumphally throughout the room by men in kerchiefs and boots.
This is definitely the more expensive of the two, but it’s also all-you-can-eat. If you’ve never been and you’re looking for something memorable, give it a go.
To the GM who just wrote in:
Why yes, other parts of my life that provide a service do offer specials. My wife (I'm less forthcoming with personal information) seems to get a half dozen or so emails around her birthday from cosmetic stores, clothing stores, and the like offering discounts, free facials,etc.
As for restaurants, we don't need anything extravagant or even free food or drink. Stick a candle in the dessert we order (but please don't sing), write Happy Birthday with the sauce for the dessert, wish the person Happy Birthday and thank them for celebrating it at your establishment, print a special copy of the menu with their name on it, etc. At the same time, a small scoop of sorbet or ice cream (or whatever is cheap) if we don't order dessert goes along way as does a glass of inexpensive bubbly like prosecco.
After all - you are the ones who asked if we were celebrating anything.
I can’t say I disagree with any of this.
Thanks for chiming in …
The answer for restaurants is simple, it seems to me. Just do away with asking the question in the first place.
When did this start, anyway? Does anybody have a guess? I don’t remember this being asked 15, 20 years ago — but maybe it was and I don’t remember.
Restaurant at Patowmack Farm:
Wife and I had brunch there this past weekend and it was our first time trying Chef Tarver King's creations and we came away very impressed.
We dined out on the patio. The weather and setting were perfect. Service was attentive, knowledgeable, and professional.
the highlight dish was the fried smelt with scrambled eggs and garlic cream. To us it was a riff on fried fish and tarter sauce. I did not think I would like the dish but I came away impressed.
Chef King, further showcased his talents in his treatment of vegetables. he let the ingredient be the star without too much manipulation. I told my wife I could easily come back and do a complete vegetarian dinner and leave satisfied. The freshness and quality of the vegetables shined.
We definitely plan on going back and trying more of Chef King's creations.
Naeem, thanks so much for this tasty report.
King turned the Ashby Inn into a food lovers’ destination, and it sounds as though he is already off to a great start at Patowmack Farm.
You picked a very good time of year to settle in and enjoy the tranquil, beautiful setting there.
Following up on last week's chat re: weekend project meals, I thought I'd share my favorite...
It's a chicken tortilla soup recipe torn out of Bon Appetit and originating from Mas Tacos Por Favor in Nashville: http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/tortilla-soup-3
The whole recipe probably takes about 3 or 4 hours but boy is it worth it.
It's unlike any other chicken tortilla soup I've had before - no tomato-y heaviness but bright flavors enhanced by a substantial amount of bracing lime juice added directly to the broth, which is made by poaching a whole chicken with jalapenos and dried chipotles. Top the soup off with grilled corn cut from the cob, halved cherry tomatoes, some creamy diced avocado, a liberal sprinkling of crumbled queso, and of course tortilla chips (I'll admit that I don't fry my own like the recipe calls for) and it's a perfect spring or summer dish.
I make some BLT popovers on the side and we eat the huge pot of soup all week. Hope you guys try this and enjoy!
I love a good tortilla soup. I even sorta love a pretty good tortilla soup. But this one sounds like a great one. Thanks for passing it along.
Since we’re talking about cooking at home, I thought I would put this out there for all of you to chew on — and see if you have any good recommendations for me.
I’m planning on doing a dinner for a friend visiting from Ethiopia. She’s vegan. What do you suggest I make?
What do I know about her tastes beyond the fact that she’s a vegan? I know that she is not afraid of spice (obviously, right?), and that she enjoys a glass or two of good Bordeaux.
To chef de Pue and the crew at MENU/MBK:
I’ve just received an email address from the chatter who wrote last week to share the story her poor experience at the restaurant.
Feel free to DM me on Twitter — @toddkliman — and I can pass on her address.
Yeah but Todd this is DC and not NYC. Most restaurants here dont attract the chefs , management and front of the house staff to go NYC. Also DC has a different vibe and work ethic than NYC. Sorry if you dont take reservations you dont get my business. We need to stop the F&W/NYCing of DC area restaurants. Gave up trying to hip and cool at 13yo. You should too.
I don’t try; nor do I have to. Trying is the problem.
If it’s self-conscious, or self-aware, if it appears too studied in its casual disdain for ordinary life, if its nihilism is too obvious and too languorous — you’re not in the presence of cool.
There’s a lot of would-be cool out there. Nothing is more annoying than the would-be cool. At least they’re good for a good laugh.
But I want to talk for a second about your point about the NYCing of DC restaurants.
You have to realize something. There are a lot of 25-32 year-olds in the city. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but there are more of them than there have ever been in the city at one time.
The city has actively courted them for the past dozen or so years. It has specifically created pockets of the city — H St., Mt. Vernon Sq., U St. — for them to play and eat and drink and blow off steam.
Their presence is driving a lot of what you see on the scene in the city right now. And will for the foreseeable future.
Young people and the movement of development to the east, not west: these are two important phenomenon. And they’re linked.
One idea that I found interesting came from a BBQ cookbook.
It had recipes for making your own base condiments to use on their own or combine in to other things.
Going to the farmers market for a bushel of tomatoes and then making your own ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, worchestershire sauce, garlic salt, tomato paste etc could easily fill an entire day and would provide a great foundation for making rubs and sauces later.
That’s a great idea.
Make a big batch, and you have something you can turn to again and again to create all sorts of meals throughout the summer.
You’ve planted a seed. ;) Thank you …
Thai in Georgetown I work down at Georgetown Harbor... and while I wish I could pop downstairs to Fiola Mare for lunch, I think its a little out of my price range...
Is there a good (I might even settle for average) Thai place in walking distance?
There’s Bangkok Joe’s, whose chief attraction is that it’s got a good view of the water.
It’s also about the best you’re going to find in that part of town. Sorry.
Vegan meals ...
My sister-in-law is vegan and we have cooked many vegan meals for her. I would point you towards the the cookbooks of Claudia Roden (The Food of Spain, Arabesque), Penelope Casas (Paella!), and Paula Wolfert (The Food of Morocco).
Some recipes we have used out of these books include: Roasted red peppers with cumin, Moroccan zaalouk, tagine bread (made with semolina flour), a variety of couscous or bulgar wheat salads, and if you need a center piece dish, Casas has a very good mushroom paella which can be made vegan. Added benefits: most of these dishes can be made well in advance and they also feature produce that will be coming into season very soon.
These are all terrific suggestions. Thanks for thinking of me. I appreciate it.
I was just thinking I might make or pick up some par-baked tortillas (Tortillaland is supposed to make good ones — anyone tried these?), and do a taco night kind of thing.
Char some veggies (green onions, portobellos or criminis, etc.), make a salsa, make a pipian, make a guac …
Hi Todd -
What's your prognosis for the Cleveland Park dining scene? Do you think it's a matter of attracting the right clientele? People point to high rent as a reason for the failing restaurants, but certainly rent is high everywhere in this city.
Is there a reason to be optimistic about the future of that stretch of Connecticut Ave, which used to be one of the nicer neighborhoods to wander and grab a bite but is becoming more and more barren?
I wouldn’t worry about the future of Cleveland Park’s restaurant scene.
A big-time closing and a key defection, that’s mostly what we’re talking about. And both on Connecticut Ave.
I really think what we’re seeing is a sort of regression to the mean. The neighborhood is returning to what it was. Twenty, fifty, even 10 years ago, it was not a destination for dining. It was a neighborhood restaurant scene, with some better-than-average spots that made it feel a cut or two above.
But consider, for a second, what’s in Cleveland Park right now: Medium Rare, 2 Amys, La Piquette (which I haven’t talked about, but which I think does a really good job at keeping things simple), Ardeo + Bardeo, Ripple, Sorriso, Indique, St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar, the improved Buck’s Fishing and Camping.
That’s loads better than most neighborhoods.
The decline of Cleveland Park? Sorry, I’m just not seeing it …
Gotta run and make my lunch …
Thanks so much for all the great questions and tips and ruminations today.
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]