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.
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
H and Pizza, DC
DIY, conveyor-belt, personal-pan pizza sounds like one of those slick, market-tested concepts that's more about novelty than deliciousness. But this cramped, often-thronged H St. newcomer is a surprise—it's novel and delicious (and cheap and fun). The oblong crusts (there's a choice of three doughs, including multi-grain and whole wheat) are thin and crunchy, and if you opt for the tomato sauce (options there, too) you'll be reminded of the sweet zestiness of a by-the-slice New York pie. I'd urge you to sublimate your need to DIY (not the easiest thing when the pie assemblers behind the counter are willing to pile on as many toppings as you want) and stick to their preset combinations -- a simple meatball and cheese, say, or a veggie-heavy version loaded up with eggplant, mushrooms, peppers and a cracked egg. The dessert pizza—nutella, strawberries, dollops of mascarpone and a sprinkling of almonds—is superior to nearly every attempt of this kind I've had.
Cavo's Cantina, Rockville
Tex-Mex is among the cuisines this area has never really done very well, and the recent spate of restaurants devoted to pumping out authentic regional Mexican cooking is only likely to make it more of an afterthought. What this low-lit, L-shaped cantina reminds us, is that done well, few meals are as festive or as satisfying. Cavo's won't wow you, but, aside from some service lapses, it gets almost all of the important things right—thin, crispy chips and homemade salsa; strong margaritas; a tasty tortilla soup; good fajitas; excellent chicken enchiladas. There are even a number of desserts, including the creamy-crispy cajeta, that are much better than they need to be.
Izakaya Seki, DC
Arguably the most exciting restaurant to debut this year. Hiroshi Seki and his daughter, Cizuka Seki, have fashioned a spare, intimate izakaya from a former barber shop on V St. It's a no-frills setting that suggests a gallery and serves as an ideal backdrop for beautifully simple dishes that all but command you to slow down and focus. Hop a seat at the wraparound counter that consumes the entirety of downstairs to watch Seki, a sushi master with 50 years experience, work with grace, speed, economy and calm as he executes his repertoire with a small team of cooks: thick slices of veal-tender beef tongue with a painting of mustard-miso sauce; succulent filets of grilled mero, the Japanese term for Chilean sea bass; springy soba noodles with flakes of nori and tempura; and some of the most exquisite cuts of aji (horse mackerel) and yellowtail you'll find.
Vin 909 Winecafe, Annapolis
I feasted on a couple of superlative pizzas not long ago, and they didn't come from 2 Amys, Pete's New Haven Style Pizza, Pupatella, Moroni & Brother's, Comet, Orso, Haven Pizzeria, Graffiato or Menomale. They came from the kitchen at this always-swarmed, no-reservations wine bar, housed in a restored craftsman bungalow just over the bridge from Annapolis in tiny Eastport. The key players are Alex Manfredonia, who works the front of the (tiny) house, and Justin Moore; the pair met working at a restaurant in San Francisco, and headed east to take over the space previously occupied by Wild Orchid Cafe. Moore and his team produce a crust that's close to perfect—thin, marvelously hillocked, chewy where it needs to be and crispy everywhere else, and hit with just enough salt. The Margherita is more heavily dressed than is usual, but it's excellent, and so is an unlikely concoction of baked beans, Tillamook cheese, fontina and coleslaw. Don't miss the spin on a lobster roll, with creamy, chive-flecked crab salad tucked between two griddled squares of bread; there's a cup of seafood bisque for dunking.
Blue Duck Tavern, DC
On my Twitter feed last week, I teased the news that made a "massive and exciting leap," then sat back and watched the guesses pour in. No one came up with the right place, and to be honest, if I hadn't been there to enjoy it, I would never have guessed, either. Sebastien Archambault is a major talent, and without overhauling the menu or concept has given a restaurant that had slid dangerously close to irrelevance in the past year or so the kiss of life.
El Chucho Cocina Superior, DC
When it's on, an exhilarating tour through the intricate, layered flavors of regional Mexican cooking, backed by a long list of cocktails, margaritas, sipping tequilas and mezcals. Early hits: a smoky grilled corn cob impaled on a skewer, spritzed with lime, rolled in grated cheese and dusted with queso fresco; the tongue-shaped chips known as huaraches, topped with crumbled queso fresco and pickled onions and served with a sublime dark mole; a torta, or sub, that impersonates a Manwich and a Chicago beef sandwich all at once—chopped adobo pork dredged in a spicy Arbol chili sauce, garnished with black beans, onions, avocado and chihuahua cheese and then submerged in that same sauce again before serving (forgo the accompanying plastic gloves and give in to the sloppy lusciousness).
Of the crop of Neapolitan-style pizzerias that made their debut sometime in the past year, I'm most partial to this tiny Brookland operation, a joint venture of hophead Leland Estes and pizzaiolo Ettore Rusciano. Rusciano is a passionate craftsman, with an eye for balance (the best of these pies are chewy where they need to be and crispy where they need to be), a respect for proportionality, and an understanding of the importance of salt. That same great dough is used for the tasty calzones and sandwiches. You can even sample it in the must-order starter, the affetata, an attractive selection of meats and cheeses.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It would be a very humble gesture if all of us today from the culinary industry could take a few seconds to reflect on 9/11 and remember those who are not here with us anymore. They were regular people, heroes, parents, workers, friends, complete strangers, customers of our restaurants and food outlets, passionate diners, readers, followers of our industry and of this very chat.
We will never forget!
Thanks for that mini-memorial.
11 years ago … One memory that has stayed with me is the weather that day. Ridiculous, I know, but the mind holds onto odd things. Does everybody who was living in DC remember how sterling blue and clear and cool that day was, how crisp and white the clouds? I don’t think I have seen a more beautiful day around here, ever. And yet how unspeakably awful …
Was not planning on eating out this weekend but lost power due to the powerful storm we had on Saturday afternoon—did not get power back until 11am the next day, even though Dominion power restored power to half of our complex and then decided they were not going to restore power for the rest of the complex until the following morning for some reason).
We decided to use our Livingsocial deal for Sou'Wester in the Mandirin Oriental hotel. I had been to Sou'Wester before and the food was good and the dishes were well-composed. I cannot say that about this dining experience. The service was good and on point. The appetizers of mini maryland crab cakes and chilled green tomato soup with shrimp were the highlight of the meal. The entrees lacked focus. The Grilled North Carolina Shrimp Saltine Pancakes, Okra Stew (more like okra slop), Smoked Tomato Jam was a complete fail and the presentation lacked creativeness. The other entree of Eastern Shore BBQ Chicken Creamed Grits, Pickled Watermelon Rind was average but better looking presentation wise.
Is there a new chef at Sou'Wester or is Chef Zeibold still running between Sou'Wester and CityZen?
On another note, we are becoming regular's at Menomale. It is great place to stop and experience a great pizza after a long day of work. We have been there 5 times now and have not had a bad experience. On our last visit I tried the chicken sandwich. At first I thought it would be heavy because they are using the pizza dough for their sandwiches but that was not the case.
It was well made and tasted great. For comparison we went to Pizzeria Orso on Sunday night and can report that the pizza has gotten better there but in my opinion the dough is still a little too thick in some places and the crust is not as charred and crunchy for a Neapolitan pizza, but it is improving.
As always love the weekly chat!
Five times, huh? You’re fast. And obsessive. ; )
The sandwich there is, strictly speaking, a panuozzo—a sandwich on long, thin, crunchy bread that’s made from re-fashioned pizza dough. The version of ham-and-cheese, with pancetta, mozz, basil and mayo, is dynamite. I think it’d be worth starting a food truck, just to serve it. One of the best sandwiches I’ve had in a while.
And the pizzas are excellent, as we’ve been talking about the past few weeks. The two best pizzas I’ve eaten in the last 6-9 months either came from Menomale or Vin 909 in Annapolis.
As for Sou’wester, it lost its chef de cuisine, Eddie Moran, in June. I have not heard that the restaurant has tapped a replacement.
A couple of weeks ago I asked your opinion of Raaga, and you said that you'd eat there twice a month if you lived within 15 minutes. Could you recommend some other North Indian restaurants preferably in NOVA?
Thanks very much.
Bollywood Bistro has some great curries, particularly its goat masala. There’s Jaipur, which has been steady as she goes for a long, long time. Minerva is good, and also does a pretty good buffet. The newly-revised Curry Mantra is perhaps more rewarding for its southern Indian dishes, but is also a good spot for northern.
I had a really disappointing meal at Turmeric last night and I was so optimistic going into it, despite others having shared with me that their meals had been less than enjoyable.
We started with bleh puri and it was soggy as can be, clearly prepared in advance. It lacked texture, the crunch that you so enjoy, except for uneven bits of red onion. Then there was a 25 minute lapse before the mains came. The chili chicken was so gloopy, overly sweet, a too generous helping of sweet chili sauce added to the mix. Ironically the chicken had been lightly battered and fried but it was as dry as can be. No amount of sauce could bring it back to life. The naan was doughy, undercooked, and still tasted of bits of raw flour.
Sadly the service lacked any sunshine either, namely the manager, so it made it a disappointing meal from start to finish. Any ideas how or why the quality has slipped so much just weeks after they were reviewed? It wasn't crowded either by the way...only two other tables.
Any number of things can explain a night like this.
It could simply have been an off-night. Some restaurants are better when they aren’t very crowded, and the kitchen and staff can really focus on its handful of customers. And some restaurants are better when they’re slammed; they suffer from the sitting around and waiting that happens when a place isn’t busy; you can see it in their rhythm and timing.
It could be that the off-night is a result of the B team being in control for the night. It was, after all, a Monday.
It could be that kitchen talent has already left. It happens. Positive notices make it more likely for a cook to take that review to an owner or manager or chef somewhere else, and bargain for a better, higher-paying job. (I’m not saying that that’s happened; I’m saying that it could.)
A good review is sometimes not a good thing for a restaurant, and particularly not a small, so-called ethnic restaurant that has heretofore aimed to meet the needs of a narrowly defined clientele. It’s a disruption at the very least, and disruptions are the enemy of consistency in a business that requires a lot of things going right all at once in order to succeed. It’s not surprising for me to discover, for instance, that places lose their grip on service after a positive review. Often, they are forced to hire new staff, and sometimes that new staff comes from outside the family, a potential problem. The food sometimes suffers, too, at least initially. The good places correct course, and are back to their old selves in about 3-4 months.
With a lot in the works, what are you most excited about as a new addition to the 14th street strip? When should we expect a lot of the openings to occur?
Can't wait for the new Trader Joe's there too! Thanks!
I’d expect a wave in early 2013.
Kapnos and G has me kind-of-sort-of intrigued; that’s the new project from Mike Isabella, a Greek sandwich shop.
Keen-eyed readers might ask: Didn’t I just pan Bandolero? I did. The simplicity of this sounds appealing, as does the idea of sandwiches, as does the idea of big, boldly flavored sandwiches. This town can always use more and better sandwiches. I just hope they don’t cost $23.
And I’m interested in seeing what Mark Kuller and Haidar Karoum are cooking up for their still-unnamed venture, a Southeast Asian spot with lots of sticks and noodle bowls and other street food. I’m now told, by the way, that the restaurant will now open in March 2013—as opposed to “sometime later this Fall.”
This is an odd question, but is there any appropriate way to deal with what I guess I'd call a feeling of "general awkwardness" when you are eating out.
Happened to me this past weekend at Food, Wine & Co. in Bethesda. The service was fine, the food was OK -- not great, but nothing I could in good conscious complain about or send back, though persnickety neighbors round me had no problem nitpicking. But I just left with a feeling of being let down. After paying close to $100 after wine, tax and tip I seriously wished I had spent my money on a perennial winner.
I guess I can just chalk it up to not-the-right-vibe for a 20-something couple looking for a fun night out. I know no manager wants an unhappy customer, but what do you do when everything is basically fine? Can you just up and leave? Can you pick a bone about atmosphere that is just distracting even if you can't place your finger on it?
We ought to have a neologism for what you describe here.
I know this feeling very, very well, by the way.
GMs on this chat, as regular readers know, are forever insisting that diners speak up and let them know when a dish is cooked incorrectly or something about the experience goes wrong. It’s good advice. But what you describe is something different … something vaguer and more amorphous, and therefore more frustrating—the feeling that nothing can be corrected to make it better.
Are we to speak up if we feel, quite simply, that the restaurant cannot do better?
Who wants the spectacle of complaining about a dish that disappoints and having it replaced with something else on the menu, only to discover that that something else is no better?
I’d like to hear from GMs on this one …
The Brooklyn Side-eye. As opposed to the Manhattan Side-eye, which is used by people who earn more than you; the Georgetown Side-eye, which is used by people who are related to more congressmen than you are; or the San Francisco Side-eye, which is used by people who compost more than...no, you will never compost, you do not like worms.
Note to J-Voelk: It’s too bad we can’t just give a book away to anyone who cracks me up like this …
Discare. Because they're sort of dissing you, they're sort of discarding you, and they're sort of uncaring towards you- but not being totally obvious about it. I've encountered it a few times. (I can think of an uber-hip restaurant in Montreal that has this down to a science- plus the passive-aggressive snear at my accent really adds to the effect).
Yes! — a passive-aggressive sneer. I know that look …
That’s worth a book right there, I think …
“Discare” … hmm …
That uber-hip restaurant in Montreal—does the last word in its title rhyme with “ozone”?
Neologism - Various restaurant people that I know refer to the area where the hostess stands as the Ho Stand. Therefore the look of disdain should be called the Ho Down. ie: "I was looking forward to dinner until I got the Ho Down."
Except that …
I think a different thing entirely when I hear Ho Stand or Ho Down.
And Ho Down is far too jaunty for the feeling we’re trying to get a handle on.
Not to put too much pressure on everyone out there, but I would love it if we came up today with a word or words that then entered the lexicon, at least locally—or at least on this chat.
The Brooklyn Side-eye is the best thing I've heard in a while. I'd say it's worth something from our little library.
We are three women headed to Baltimore this Saturday and are looking for good dinner with a nice atmosphere—upscale but not snooty with good wine and food. Classic Italian or seafood sounds good but we are open to suggestions. We tried Woodberry Kitchen but they have no availability. Any ideas?
Try the new Fork & Wrench, in Canton, which is doing a smaller-scale Woodberry—lots of local sourcing, a space that feels modern and yet not slick, hearty, rusticky cooking.
I’ll be interested in hearing a report on your experience, if you do end up going …
For your question, I'd go with "faux-descension"—a combo of "faux" and "condescension", because even if they act like they don't want us to bother them, our patronage is what they need to survive.
And, I'd like to echo the kudos to Menomale (again!). We've had way too many pizzas from there and we've yet to encounter a bad one. A great place like this has been so needed in Brookland. Do you know of any other restaurant developments for us for the future? (We're happy for the U Street and Logan Circle developments but want more closer!)
Re: Menomale— I had some pizzas that I would say were only fair, but these were earlier on. My last visit there was pretty perfect.
The place is a real boon, not just to Brookland, which is not exactly a dining scene, but to Northeast in general, which has been a wasteland of options for far too long.
Nothing, at the moment, appears to be on the drawing board for Brookland, but I expect that that will change as people see what Menomale is doing. The other encouraging thing is that development is moving east. I’ve spoken to many folks in development over the past couple of years. The west, they essentially say, is all accounted for. The rush, now, is for the east.
We’re seeing this now in the projects in and around Nationals Park, in the emergence of Bloomingdale, which will continue to get new places, in the growth of Hyattsville and Rte. 1 out from the city (a new Whole Foods in 2015, among other things). This is a very, very good thing for the city, which for too long has been too centered in Northwest.
What about the "f'ignore" bc there is a tinge of "eff you" in the ignore!
AND it sounds oh-so-mafioso …
I like it.
Be great to see a restaurant come along with that name — Il F’ignore.
Always obsessive for good Neapolitan pizza!
I hear you.
Problem is, so little of it is really any good.
Not that you would know it—so many people around here keep on mining that vein. You would think that the only pizza that’s any good is Neapolitan.
Let's hope that Turmeric bounces back. I am always supportive of mom 'n pop establishments but the food has to give me a reason to go back.
As for those faux-hipster spots, I'd say they "nothing" you. There's no strong feeling, no strong sentiment. They just nothing you. It's not positive, but it's just barely negative, and rests in a place of ambiguity. It's almost ambivalence but with an oh-so-subtle sneer.
You describe the feeling very, very well.
It’s the low-affect that I find so funny. The faux-hipster is not permitted to show real emotion. Emotion is weakness. A smile is cheesy and fake. Niceness is for losers.
What I also find funny is that this need for exclusion is the exact thing that a restaurant like this is, seemingly, trying to get away from — the sense that dinner is a rarefied and expensive pleasure for the well-heeled and acculturated.
How about faux-cused (attention)?
And this whole exercise today is — with massive apologies to Zola—giant Faux-‘cuse!
Or, maybe I should say un-faux-cused attention!
But I still think there’s a perfect one out there …
Who’s got it?
I hear you on the different types of pizza out there but for me personally I enjoy Neapolitan more than others because it is lighter than other types of pizza that are out there and I do not feel bogged down afterwards or feel guilty for that matter compared to say ordering a papa johns pizza after the redskins win with double toppings.
But not necessarily more delicious.
I have a friend who refers to the brand of Neapolitan we’re talking about as “tomato bread.” To him, when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.
I think that’s snarky, but it’s also hard to disagree with him when pizzaolos — and notice, by the way, that we never hear this term trotted out for the dude who slings any other style — fall short of the ideal. There’s no margin for error with this kind of pizza, no safety net. It either works or it doesn’t. You need extremely fresh and extremely high-quality ingredients if the pie is only going to consist of sauce, cheese and torn basil. You need a perfect or near-perfect crust.
One of the things I find interesting about the pizzas at Vin 909 is that they take from a number of existing styles.
There’s a Margherita, but it’s much less spare and elegant than what we see of D.O.C.-aspiring pizzas. There’s something of the wood-fired, West Coast style that Wolfgang Puck pioneered, which makes sense—Justin Moore, the chef, cooked previously in San Francisco.
It’s a pizza that seems not so terribly concerned with styles and genres and definitions. That might make it hard for the doctrinaire among us who like to catalog and classify. But who cares, in the end? Delicious is delicious.
How about maitre dissed?
Love it …
One little thing, though—what it conjures is the sort of buttoned-up place where dinner for two costs $400.
Actually, the sneering restaurant, translated into English, rhymes with "Restaurant on the Avenue on King's Mountain" ;) A final word on Discare: They discard your feelings, and they simply don't care what you think about it. Square.
Ah. Gotcha. ; )
You know what?
I kind of love it.
I just wish you had supplied the context and analysis, but whatever, I’ll do it for you …
Indiffitude. Indifference and attitude. A yoking of seeming opposites.
And then there’s the sound of it … Something about saying it implies being kissed off. Indiffitude.
It gets better the more I say it and think about it …
Thank you, everyone, for all the good chat this week — and a special thank you to all of you who racked your brains to coin these new words/terms …
I think I’m going with Oakton and “indiffitude.” It just feels right to me. We had some really good ones, and there are phrases that I loved hearing … “passive-aggressive sneer” … “Brooklyn Side-Eye” … Thank you for those, you two, and for the great laughs — I’d love to be able to reward stinging wit like this with a book.
Oakton, drop me a note at email@example.com and we’ll put a copy of the book in the mail to you today …
I really hope “indiffitude” now enters our lexicon.
To a week not filled with indiffitude! …
Be well and eat well, everyone, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]