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: Tell Us A Story About Your Mother That Is Also A Story About Food.
Since Mother's Day is this Sunday, we'd like you to celebrate the woman who fed you first and worried over your lack of interest in vegetables and made sly and fretful comments about your teenage flirtation with vegetarianism.
We'd like you to tell us a story about your mother that is also a food story.
Or, alternatively -- share one of her favorite recipes (or the gist of a favorite recipe) and the story behind it.
Feel free to be tender, or funny, or indulgent and long-winded, or dry and witty, or all of these things.
Just remember -- it's all in the storytelling, and Todd loves details!
The winning entry will win a copy of the Mom 100 Cookbook by Katie Workman. It's a collection of recipes, tip, and techniques aimed at families.
Todd, Which restaurant do you think has the best dim sum in the metro area? Thanks!
Right now, I’d say it’s Hong Kong Pearl Seafood, in Falls Church.
It’s in the plaza at Seven Corners right across the street from the Eden Center.
There are little things that could be better — some of the rice-based wrappers sometimes cling to the bottoms of their steamers, and there are sometimes long lags between the carts — but what’s good is very good, and generally very fresh, too.
Be sure, if you go, to get an order of greens — any greens; they’re superb — and don’t miss the roasted, crisp-skinned pork, which you can see dangling in a heated, lighted case up front when you walk in. Fantastic.
Todd, We made reservations here on Thursday on the way to Strathmore for the John Pizzarelli/Kurt Elling concert. Is Positano a wise choice? Thanks very much.
It’s been a while since I’ve been, so I’m going to toss this one out to the chatters, but my memory of the place — which isn’t strong — was that it was pretty eh.
The kind of place you want to like, the kind of old-school atmosphere you enjoy sinking into, but …
I hope that’s not the case anymore, I hope the place is doing wonderfully and eating wonderfully, and is just the right call for the night for you …
Why does the James Beard Foundation dislike DC? I know José Andrés won Best Chef last year, but how is it possible that we were shut out for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic this year with four out of the five nominees? Komi is the best restaurant in town; Rasika is one of the best Indian restaurants in the entire country; Restaurant Eve and Obelisk are nominated year after year…and they all lost to a chef from Hoboken.
(And if I may add — yours truly was passed over, too … )
I don’t think it’s that the Beard Foundation dislikes DC. I think that it likes — really likes — New York.
Remember that old New Yorker cover, the one where, once you get past Staten Island, it’s basically Iowa and Montana?
Everything outside New York, to many New Yorkers, is the sticks. It might be good. It might be great. It’s still the sticks.
Many Beard voters are in New York. Or travel often to New York.
That’s a big part of this.
The other big part of this is that the way the judging is set up.
I would venture to guess that a fair number of the judges who voted for Cucharamama — Maricel Presilla’s place in Hoboken — have not eaten meals at Komi, Rasika, Restaurant Eve and Obelisk within the last year.
Finally, I have to say it surprises me that a Hoboken restaurant is even in the category of Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. I consider it a suburb of New York.
I saw on Twitter that José Andrés said that DC media needs to be more supportive. I will just say that I don’t think that stumping for a restaurant or chef is the job of a food writer or critic, nor is it the job of a publication.
One of my favorite food memories with my Mom was actually quite recent.
This past Thanksgiving I was torn between going to the in-laws with my Hubby, going to my Aunt and Uncles where my Brother and his Wife would be, or going where my half-siblings were celebrating, or a combination of all. My Mom probably would have gone with me wherever I went. It just all seemed overwhelming and not relaxing in the least. Then my Mom said let's just go somewhere.
We considered the Greenbrier and a host of other options, but anywhere we couldn't drive seemed to have airfare through the roof. We ended up on a bus from Arlington to New York. We had a fabulous trip. I got to introduce my Mom to all sorts of foods we never had growing up in the sticks. For Thanksgiving lunch we ended getting a number and waiting for Joe's Shanghai. As we waited we perused the neighborhood and had some buns and other goodies from the nearby shops in Chinatown.
We sat down to lunch with a bunch of strangers, all Thanksgiving refugees, some from Louisiana, not being able to face going to a million Thanksgivings like me, some from Missouri up bringing home to some friends now living there. We all were there eating soup dumplings, talking, sharing a moment in time. Mom and I quickly learned the drill of slurping in a way like drinking coffee so as not to burn your mouth. My Mom is now a soup dumpling addict, she wants more.
That afternoon Mom learned that not every candy in a Chinese candy shop is good. I tried to warn her, we quickly bought some gummy bears to repair her taste buds. We had Peking Duck, great tapas, went to Eataly it was a great adventure with my Mom without the normal stress of the holidays.
My Mom is just fun.
She sure sounds like it.
I love how open she seems to trying new things. “Let’s just go somewhere.” Neat.
Thanks for writing in with the story of your recent outing.
The bar has been set, everyone …
Haven't made plans for Mother's Day this Sunday because the brunch crowds freak me out. Still want to take my mom out for a special meal though. She's pretty adventurous when it comes to food but I don't want to take her to a dive since it's a special occasion. Any tips for beating the system?
Best way to beat the system?
Don’t take her out for brunch. Take her out for an early dinner.
You may save money, and you’re probably also looking at a better meal.
Mother’s Day brunch is a cliche, anyway. The point is to get together, and spend the time, and to do it over food, right?
Chefs, Fast Food & Obesity:
From last week's discussion you stated it would be more worth while for big name chefs such as José Andrés and others to invest their time and resources into making fast food more healthy. I agree 100% with you but have a question and some thoughts on the idea you presented last week.
Do you think it is possible to produce healthy and good tasting fast food in the same price point that McDonald's charges (breakfast at McDonald's costs about $5)?
Would it be best to start off these healthy fast food chains in lower income neighborhoods before branching out to more affluent communities? I think if it were to start in more affluent neighborhoods it would be defeating the purpose of trying to reach out to people who cannot afford good healthy tasting food.
If a big name chef were to tackle this challenge would they be able to stick through the hard times of getting a project of this magnitude off the ground and seeing it through to fruition?
I think the biggest thing would be keeping costs under control, while providing people the best healthy fast food possible, but this could also mean lower profits.
Would to read your thoughts on this issue.
Thanks for following up on this.
This is something that, ideally, requires thinking about for longer than this chat session allows, and writing with more consideration, but I will say that I firmly believe that what I proposed is within reason. Not easy, mind you, but within reason if the powerful and influential marshal their resources.
I am not talking about just one fast food place. I am talking about many. All over the country. And all geared to serving high-quality, fast, affordable, fresh food.
There is a growing divide in the food world, and many in the food movement are content with their us vs. them-ism.
The reason that many people eat bad food is not because they are poor or lack education (I am constantly hearing “if only they were exposed to the wonders of a great, fresh tomato,” “if only they knew what agribusiness is doing to the environment and their bodies … “), but because bad food is so accessible and so cheap, and because their scattered, harried lives don’t allow for taking time out to go to farmers’ markets and “slowing down” and celebrating the spirit of the table and questioning the merit of everything they put into their bodies.
My girlfriend and I are going to London for 4 nights, but want to day-trip to Paris. What restaurants are can't miss? We need a lunch and dinner spot that isn't too dressy--since we will be day-tripping and being tourists all day--and we want to experience the best.
Lucky, lucky you …
Le Comptoir, Frenchie, L’Ami Jean — if you can get in — are all pretty casual and pretty wonderful.
I’ll be interested in hearing a report on any of these, or anywhere else you might end up. Have a blast and bon appetit!
Had my first Elisir experience last night and I was underwhelmed.
The service is excellent, the plating is amazingly beautiful, but other than a goose-liver first course which was fabulous, I thought the food was surprisingly bland. It also left a bad taste in my mouth (pardon the pun) that you get charged $5 for a trio of olive oil and sea salts to pair with the breads. While they were delicious, when you charge $15-$18 for appetizers and $30-$38 for entrees, throw in the draned olive oil!
I also had a front-row seat for the kitchen, which is great for the diner, but the chef needs to be aware he is "exposed" and has to learn that while being a perfectionist is a great thing to the end user, we can hear you!
I'll stick to Fiola.
Thanks for the report.
The thing that surprises me to hear is that the food was bland. Not my experience there at all in my three meals.
Oversalted at times, yes.
Expensive, and with too many add-ons, for sure.
But bland, no.
My friend is coming in from out of town--she is always my Ethiopian dining buddy, but also a fan of raw kitfo. Where can I take her to find fantastic kitfo these days in DC, since she is staying downtown? Thank you!!
Boy, there’s lots of good kitfo around.
By the way, for those of you who may be put off by the thought of eating kitfo — a chopped raw beef seasoned with berbere, korerima and mitmita, and usually served alongside ayeb, a homemade cottage cheese — you can always request that the kitchen cook it slightly.
I wouldn’t ask them to cook it too much — many waitresses will ask if you want it “medium,” or you can simply tell them to tell the kitchen to just cook it ever so lightly. The latter request typically turns up a dish that in American terms would still classify as medium rare, or sometimes even beyond that, with meat that is somehow softer and easier to eat.
Ode to Mom:
Being Brits, my Mom (or Mum as they say) is not an adventurous eater nor cook. The spice "cabinet" contains salt and pepper. And that's it.
But when it comes to British classics, Mom always nails it...Cornish pasty, shepherd's pie, braised steak with onions and chips...and man, can Mom make a mean chip.
But her crowning glory is the annual Christmas Pudding (or The Pud as we lovingly call it). The recipe isn't some hand-me-down stretching generations back, but something taking from a old British cookbook, the page warn and stained with measurements crossed out and additions written in. She makes in November, soaks it in brandy, and then reheats it while we eat Christmas lunch. It looks like a domed lump of burnt/brown cake, studded with candied fruit and smelling of alcohol. We dim the lights and set it on fire, as tradition calls for. Thick wedges are craved up and topped with vanilla ice cream. A perfect mixture of hot/cold, spice/sweet, melting ice cream/charred end bits.
My brother and I don't live at home anymore, but Mom always makes extra batter and cooks up mini-Puds for us to take home. The girlfriend and I now have a new New Year's Day tradition: a day of movies, a bottle of champagne, and a mini-Christmas Pudding...thanks to Mom.
The Pud! I love it.
And I love that you put us all there.
I can definitely relate. My wife’s mother — gone from us now for five years this April — used to make a Christmas Pudding, too, with the whole ceremony, too.
Dim the lights, set it aflame, top it with ice cream, and then dig in slowly to the boozy, chewy, fruity, sticky … density.
A little went a long way.
We have a leader …
This is more of a belated apology to my dear mum.
We moved to the United States when I was young and while growing up, I was overly concerned with fitting in instead of appreciating my roots. My mum used to make me eat this bowl of rice and lentil curry everyday after school and I absolutely hated it. All the other kids got to eat pizza or french fries (all the other kids would also grow up to be obese, I later learned).
One day, I had enough. When my mum told me to eat up, I refused. She said I could not leave the table until I finished, and I sat there, for five hours, refusing to eat. At 8pm, she took the bowl away without a word and my preteen self thought that I had won the war. The sad irony of this is that I love her lentil curry now and always wondered why she didn't just make it for me when she knew I was coming home. My father told me that it was because the night my mum took the bowl away, she left the room and cried. I will always associate those flavors of spice and warmth with my childish behavior that night and I wish there was a way I could take it back.
What a story.
And that lentil curry is always going to have those associations for you, always going to be tied to that very specific memory.
This says so much.
Thank you for taking a moment to write it up …
I’m loving this contest …
A tie at the top, now …
I just wanted to share, quickly, a somewhat related story … My mom used to make (occasionally, not regularly) something called karnatzlach —Romanian hamburgers, basically, but in oblong shapes not patties, similar to zeppelins or footballs. The meat is shot through with a kitchen’s worth of black pepper and garlic, dusted in flour and fried.
One night, I had a friend over for dinner. We walked into the house, sweaty from the ballfield, and I could smell them even before I saw them — the kitchen was fragrant with garlic and black pepper and frying beef. I felt embarrassed. Would my friend think that I wasn’t normal? A normal American? Would he think that we had just arrived off the boat? I ate mine that night, but the whole time I was thinking: why can’t we just have hamburgers on buns, like everyone else?
Hey West Ender, We're (okay, I'm) dying to know what you overheard Chef Enzo saying in the kitchen...
One of my favorite dishes my mother would make was Chicken and Dumplings. She--to me anyway--was the master of perfectly light and fluffy dumplings and a creamy delicious broth/sauce. It was often my request on birthdays as a kid.
As I grew older, and into a calorie conscious teen, I discarded rather critically her suggestion of this old favorite one birthday and for about a decade I hardly thought of it. A few years ago, I was browsing my grandmother's handwritten recipe cards which I was fortunate enough to have passed down to me and came across her recipe (the same as my mothers) for Chicken and Dumplings. I waited for the perfect chilly Sunday and made it for my husband. First, I had never remotely realized how much work went into the dish, nor was I able to come close to her preparation.
In time, I've gotten better, but each and every time I make the dish I am reminded of my mother, and the joy she took in cooking her kids special dinners on their special days.
Love you mom!
Wow, these are all so good.
Isn’t it funny how we circle back, always. And the circling isn’t self-conscious, usually. It just happens. At a certain age, we stop constantly pushing forward and glorifying the future, and we circle back, back, back …
Your story reminds me, again, of my wife’s mother. After she died, her three daughters vowed to continue her holiday traditions, which included baking a boatload of cookies every December. My wife’s a good baker, and knocked out many of the dozen varieties.
But there was one cookie that she — and her sisters, too — had never tried. The Santa Claus Cookie. This was a thin, crunchy sugar cookie — unremarkable as a cookie, except for the fact that it had been painstakingly handpainted with frosting. It looked like one of those exquisite little dolls with detail work that you shake your head at — at the patience and exactitude of it. The defining feature was Santa’s beard, which was thick and fluffy white.
Well, that first year they baked the cookie and set down to paint it.
They hadn’t been able to locate a recipe for the white frosting, but how complicated could white frosting be?
Very, it turns out.
The impostor frosting didn’t obey. It clumped. It stuck. The brushes didn’t flow across Santa’s beard.
In many of the cookies, he looked disheveled, beaten up, abused.
And they all said afterwards: We never knew.
All the little things she did and didn’t talk about, the things that made their lives easy or special — they just never knew …
What do you think of using MSG in the food at restaurants? It makes my mouth really dry all night after dinner, a side effect for me so I avoid as much as I can, and since it enhaces the flavors, is it not cheating? Would you honestly give a 3 star or a glowing review to a place if you know they have MSG in the food? It is legal to use but what would happen if every other chef starts using it? all the farm to table ideas will be forgotten?
Many Asian cooks would tell you that it’s not cheating.
I don’t believe it is, either.
It’s an enhancer, one that brings an umami-ish presence to foods. Salt is also an enhancer.
That’s not to say that I like its prevalence. But it’s hard to avoid at Chinese and Thai restaurants. You can make the request, and that request may or may not be honored.
That's it for this week, everyone. Thanks so much for all the interesting stories and memories. It's that time again -- time to pick a winner. I'm going with Dupont Circle's sad-tinged reminiscence of curry and lentils. I found it resonant and universal. Drop me a note, Dupont Circle, at email@example.com with your mailing address and we'll get the Mom 100 Cookbook by Katie Workman out to you today. Thanks again, everyone ... Be well, eat well -- and let's do it again next Tuesday at 11 ...