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.
*New this week...
Chatters: This week’s contest calls for a little generosity. Everyone has that favorite restaurant that has somehow escaped the spotlight. We know you love that you can always get a table there, but pony up anyway—which DMV restaurant do you think never receives enough attention or adoration despite persistent excellence? Consider food, service, ambiance, character, charm—and as always be sure to not just state your case, but make your case. The winner will receive a very cool new multi-platform edition of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, a classic—and indispensable—guide to wine education.
I just wanted to thank you for your review of Bandolero. I went about a month ago and was not impressed w/the food at all. I was wondering if it was just me, because people seemed to be raving.
The queso fundidio tasted "floury" and I could barely get hints of cheese. The tortillas that came with it were dry..not soft/moist at all. The nachos were parts bare, parts soggy, and in the end would have preferred the nachos and tortillas at Uncle Julio's. The tacos weren't bad, but tini-tiny and just don't warrant the prices. I prefer the pig tacos at Green Pig Bistro and that place isn't even Mexican. Steak was decent but didn't warrant the price.
The best thing I had that night was the corn...now that was some good stuff. But, I wouldn't go back for it. I'm just not understanding why Mike Isabella would put something like this out. Maybe he should stick to the flavors of the Mediterranean. I still love Graffiato, and am looking forward to his Greek venture.
Would you go back for _?
It’s a great and important question, and one I ask of every restaurant I visit. If I’m a paying customer, what dish or dishes would I return for?
I was surprised, in this case, with the answer.
It’s interesting. There are some restaurants where everything might be dreary/dull/far from inspiring, but there’ll be that one dish. Places like that always interest me. That one dish—and it ends up making you think of the place, where otherwise you would forget it the moment you walked out the door.
Todd, what do you think about Mike Isabella firing back to Tom Sietsema's review being too focused on decor and noise and not about food?
I think that an experience at a restaurant is 75 percent food and then service, noise, decor, in that order. However, horrible service, dirty decor, or an uncomfortably loud place can overtake an experience. In Tom's defense, he did touch on the food as the review goes on, although the title of the review was focused on the noise and decor.
(BTW, I read Your review and it was spot on, particularly the part about trading celebrity for overpriced mediocre food.)
My view of this is a more generalized view of responding to stuff in the digital age.
I happen to like the model of the editorial page, which forced people to think about their words and craft something that is coherent and makes a larger point.
That’s going or already gone—replaced by the “comments” section on publication sites and places like Amazon, and by instant spewing/ranting via tweet or FB update or text, etc. We’re all at a bar, all the time, and the discourse is frighteningly low. Often, there’s no discourse at all.
It would be a great thing if people—and I include “the media” among these “people”—would not treat a response or riposte that is not equal to the level of the initial argument or piece of writing as equal; as worthy of response. But that’s not the world we live in, if we ever did.
What do you think of RJ Cooper opening a suburban restaurant in the Mosaic? Seems sort of incongruous with his whole urban, hipster brand.
I know what you mean.
On the other hand, I think we can say, much more authoritatively, that a chef such as José Andrés has a “brand.” A distinct style on the plate and in the room, and that’s reinforced by a collection of restaurants.
Cooper has only the one restaurant. Is that enough to say of him that he has a recognizable brand? Maybe the brand is evolving.
Maybe this new venture is a return to the style that won him attention at Vidalia, a style that is mostly very different from what he’s doing at Rogue 24.
Or maybe it’s that he’s attracted to the idea of opening a place relatively close to his home—like you, Cooper lives in McLean.
Hey Todd, Are there any fall openings you are particularly excited for? I’ve been looking forward to Daikaya for a long time. Do you think it will actually open soon?
These things always take a lot longer than expected.
Daikaya = the new izakaya/ramen shop from Sushi-Ko co-owner Daisuke Utagawa. It’ll be housed next door to Mike Isabella’s Graffiato.
DC, it suddenly seems, cannot get enough ramen or izakaya-style eating. Seki, Tanpopo, Azuma, Sakuramen—all in the last few months, to go along with Kushi, Blue Ocean, Ren’s Ramen, Toki Underground, and Honey Pig Izakaya.
The other spot I’m eagerly anticipating is the artisanal Jewish deli DGS Delicatessen, fronted by Barry Koslow, the former chef at Tallula, in Arlington, and before that Mendocino Grille, in DC. The GM will be Brian Zipin, who worked in the same capacity at Central Michel Richard.
I like the looks of the menu, and really hope the GLT— gribenes, lettuce and tomato—is as good as it is intriguing. (Gribenes = the gnarled bits of chicken skin left over after making schmaltz, cooked together with onions.) The matzo brie with chicken livers, green onions, and horseradish sounds good, too. I have high hopes for the housemade corned beef and pastrami.
Note: Mark Furstenburg was expected to be baking the breads, but won’t be after all.
Todd, I am planning to try out Grapeseed in Bethesda for the first time—any best-dish recommendations? I hear the place it a bit pricey, and I would prefer to get the most bang for my buck.
Also, any wine-pairing advice for your recommended dishes would be helpful!
Soft-shells, if they still have ‘em.
They come with a fantastic cake made of creamy grits.
Pairing? I’d think about an unoaked Chardonnay or maybe a Gruner Veltliner.
The soft shells were easily the best of the many dishes I sampled on a recent visit, a visit that was somewhat underwhelming.
I’d start with the heirloom tomatoes and pesto and/or an order of cornmeal fried oysters.
Tuesday night, by the way, is a great night to go: It’s half-price on a bottle of wine, and the list is long and varied and interesting.
Since the topic was broached today, I really want to hear your foresight if any on this upcoming mecca...Blacks, Taylor Gourmet, Red Apron, Matchbox, and now Rogue 24 to name a few...with some very highend boutiques/retailers coming in.
Do you think they are being too aggressive? I really wonder about the market research done for this.I live right nearby so I'm super excited, but very nervous about the sustainability.
I did a lengthy interview with Jeff Black right after Pearl Dive Oyster Palace opened, and one of the things he told me is that he is very, very choosy about where he puts his restaurants. He’s not just looking for good deals. That tells you something right there.
Cooper is an even bigger eyebrow-raiser.
Taylor Gourmet and Matchbox don’t surprise me; those are places that tend to spin-off into any affluent, high-traffic area.
And yes, all those high-end boutiques as well …
There seems to be a lot more behind this than your usual investment/development project, which makes me think politicos and developers will be more committed to seeing it succeed than usual.
This is a hugely ambitious and interesting project. It sounds like a nascent Tysons, in a way, only without the traffic snarl.
And 40 years ago, people said the same thing they’re saying now of Merrifield: There? Really?
So, you would go back for the corn?
This sounds like another contest to me....
I go back to Bangkok 54 just for that roasted tofu..haven't found it at any other Thai restaurant.
I’d go back for the corn at El Chucho.
And yes, the roasted tofu at Bangkok 54—unbelievable, one of the best tofu dishes you will ever eat, anywhere.
You’re right—this is made for a contest. We’ll do it. Next week.
Ideally, it’ll be the phenomenon I was talking about earlier—not the place with a bunch of good dishes, like Bangkok 54, but the place with only one. Maybe two. And yet you go back over and over to have it/them.
Thanks for the idea!
And speaking of contests…Where are all our competitive chatters this week? I’m telling you guys, this book is really cool…
Being in New York City over the weekend made me a bit grumpy about the state of breakfast and brunch in this area. Everyone claims to have brunch, but so little of it is good. And it's so hard to find a place with simple things done right. You can get a Benedict anywhere, but what about a well made omlette with your choice of ingredients? Decent baked goods, or toast for that matter.
For a bit I struggled to think of an unsung restaurant I frequent. I am lucky enough to spend most of my nights out at Liberty Tavern, Society Fair, Green Pig Bistro, Fiola, Dino, Palena, etc etc. None unsung. And then it came to me. Luna Grill and Diner in Shirlington is my unsung hero of breakfast. They have a large menu with normal breakfast items. BUT unlike a lot of diners in the area, they care about the quality a bit more. Order spinach and mushrooms in your omelet and you get freshly sauteed mushrooms and spinach, not frozen, canned. There is fresh squeezed OJ. A nice selection of simple items, with the ability to mix and match or ad lib a bit.
It's a slide in a booth or gather round a table type of place filled with families, people curing a hangover, gearing up for a big day or just easing into a morning. And it doesn't pretend to be a big deal, it's not fancy, it's not pretentious brunch. It's just a good place to go to get breakfast. Nice servers refilling your water and coffee. And after all breakfast is the true unsung hero of the DMV. It's so hard to find anywhere, although touted as the most important meal of the day, breakfast is a scarcity in this area, the ugly step-child to pretty, charming weekend brunch.
Breakfast, it’s true, is a scarcity around here—well, interesting breakfasts, value-laden breakfasts, fun and festive breakfasts. I wish we had more places doing them …
Thanks for singing the praises of Luna Grill and Diner.
I’m sure they’re thrilled too …
And another word about Luna—as someone who despises breakfast and brunch, it's nice that they still offer a regular menu! That way I can still get a good lunch when my friends insist on breakfast food ...
And yeah, when I’m out on my own dime and it’s brunch, I often look for the least brunch-y thing available. I tend to most love a brunch that looks like lunch, unless it’s a really killer brunch. They do exist.
I keep trying and trying and can't think of anything. My old go to's were Ceiba, Guajillo, Dino, DC Coast...all off the radar, but probably for good reason, no?
And I wouldn’t say that any of those places in their heyday suffered from insufficient love and attention …
So, just to shift gears for a second … Slow day back to work and the de-facto start of the year, or is everybody out there under the impression that today was Monday—?
Very quiet out there today.
But thanks to all those of you who came on and asked and offered tips and participated …
The copy of the new multi-platform edition of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course goes to … Arlington, for the nice write-up/boost of Luna Grill and Diner in Shirlington.
Drop me a line, Arlington, at email@example.com, and I’ll get that book out to you today …
Be well and eat well, everyone, and let’s do it again Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]