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 a.m. 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, 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 biggest present-day champion, a dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Sichuan Pavilion, Rockville
This Rockville restaurant serves up a dazzling demonstration of the range and depth of Szechuan cooking -- not merely its scorching heat, but also its great pungency. One of the best Chinese restaurants in the area. Get the flounder with green onions and pickled cabbage -- a knockout dish.
I like the new look -- the Cleveland Park restaurant and bar now share the same clattering (and sometimes thunderous) space. I like the new, tap-into-the-Zeitgeist menu of small plates even more. Don't miss the south-of-the-border chicken soup and the pasta Bolognese. A terrific wine list (with half pours available of many bottles) and terrific desserts are bonuses.
La Limeña, Rockville
Lately I find myself with inexplicable cravings for Peruvian, and this Rockville restaurant -- newly updated, with china and silverware replacing plastic plates and knives -- is where I head ... for great food (tiradito, ceviche, anticuchos, aji de gallina, alfajores) and great value.
Ruan Thai, Wheaton
Another renovation job -- the once-tiny dining room is now a spacious, subtly stylish oasis, thanks to the tearing down of the wall next door and a new design. But the food at this Wheaton restaurant has always been fantastic -- easily, a Top 5 destination for Thai in the area. The must-order is the superlative yum watercress salad, a masterpiece of frying.
Jewel of India, Silver Spring
For anyone whose palate has been numbed by too many tepid meals at the neighborhood curry joint, this two-month-old restaurant in White Oak's Hillandale Shopping Center is the antidote. The gravies are wonderfully complex -- rich, robustly spiced, and with a depth that lingers long after the last bite. Superb versions of dal, malai kofta and bhindi masala. All in a subtly stylish setting where you can also get a pineapple caipirinha.
The best, most sensual, most fully realized restaurant in the area remains Johnny Monis's lair of a place, a sparely appointed East Dupont townhouse with -- check it -- no menu.
La Caraqueña, Falls Church
From the outside, it looks like a dive -- a low-slung cafe fronting a dreary Falls Church motel. But Raul Claros Ugarte's place is just the sort of gem I always hope an unassuming locale turns out to be. Superb soups, the best saltenas and arepas in the area, good salads, and all of it so attractively presented you might think you were eating in a fashionable bistro.
The decor is a bit of a buzzkill, and the air of formality among the staff tends to get in the way of a good time (at least until the crowds arrive), but the cooking of late is a marvelous demonstration of sprezzatura, a word beloved by Italians -- the ability to make a hard thing look easy.
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.
I may not be perched on a stool every night at the sushi bar at this Mt. Vernon square restaurant-cum-club, but in my mind I often am. The fanatical commitment to procuring the best, freshest stuff available often means sourcing from Japan (and passing the costs on to us, the paying customers), but it's worth it for uni served right from the shell or sumptuously rich slices of yellowtail belly.
Each year I look at the Cheap Eats List (and the best list) and the group of restaurants no longer on the list. I can identify some reasons (e.g., closed), but why not say something about the others? Would be a very helpful piece of information for your readers.
I can see that.
This year there were a number of restaurants that seemed to us to have slipped over the past 12 months. We were surprised to see that places like Joe's Noodle House, Bob's Noodle 66, Oohhs & Aahhs -- mainstays for years -- didn't survive to the final round of cuts.
In some cases, though, it's not that the place that doesn't make the list isn't any good, or has fallen dramatically. It's that other restaurants are doing better, more interesting, more exciting work.
Nearly a quarter of the list this year is different from last year. That doesn't reflect any will of any kind on our part -- just our holding a mirror up to the scene. The scene is different, the scene is changing. I think it's a good thing when there's a lot of turnover like this.
I did this a couple of years ago with you, but it's time to do it again.
I work in a retirement home in upper Northwest and take a group (20-25) of my residents to what we call lunch bunch every month.
Not an easy group to deal with, strictly due to age, but there are restaurants that truly do it well and they deserve kudos here.
In no particular order - Montmartre, 2941, Prime Rib, RIS, Cava, Rasika, Passage to India, Brasserie Beck, Amici Miei and Acadiana.
Thanks for writing in ... and I remember when you singled out some places a while back ...
I'm glad to see that list. For one thing, it's great to know that those places were so reliable for you and the lunch bunch.
For another, I think that list is a good one for anyone who might be looking for a place for older diners. There are a couiple of restaurants on there that I tend to think of as young-un spots, or trendy spots -- Cava, Rasika, Beck -- so good for them for doing such a good job and making your folks feel so comfortable.
The rest of the list I'm not really surprised by. But pleased -- definitely pleased.
Thanks again ...
Looking for recipe for White Pizza from Amalfi's restaurant in Rockville, MD......
Hey, that'd be a good one for the Recipe Sleuth.
Thanks for the suggestion.
Who else has had this? Or been to Amalfi?
It's one of those restaurants that just keeps ticking, the kind of old-school place that foodies always say they appreciate but rarely if ever patronize.
Hi Todd, just wanna say thanks for the tips on Charlottesville!
Love, love, love Revolutionary Soup. Totally my kinda place: gourmet food served on paper plates. Amazing lamb curry, and arugula salad w/ duck egg & truffle oil.
Peter Chang's food was underwhelming for good Chinese, and the service even more so. Maybe we ordered wrong?
One other place we really liked was Zynodoa in Staunton: just delicious food from local farms, best burger I ever had.
Can't wait to revisit the area!
I'll add Zynodoa to my list -- thanks for the tip!
I'm sorry to hear that about your meal at Chang's. I'm going to guess that he wasn't in that night -- he commutes between Charlottesville and Atlanta. Not that that should be an excuse, but we see it all the time with restaurants, at every level: One superb cook can mean the difference between a great meal and a mediocre one.
What did you order?
I'm glad Revolutionary Soup saved the day. I only just found it a few years ago, but I'm told that it is nothing like what it used to be. I'd like to know what that was, because I think it's a pretty damn good spot now.
I love the lamb curry, too. And the Senegalese peanut stew. There's not much there, actually, that I haven't liked. Or loved.
I'm coming to NoVA for my 2-week R&R the end of the month, and would appreciate a suggestion for at least one good meal that does not come out of a box, a la military food...I like spicy, hubby does not.
Are you saying that you'd like to satisfy both needs?
Because if that's the case, then I'll recommend the very affordable La Caraqueña, in Falls Church. Dishes of Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile -- the milder end of the Latin spice scale. But there are still some things that'll set the mouth to tingling. I love the saltenas and arepas, the black bean soup and the peanut soup, and the black beans and rice. You can supplement that -- or some of that -- with a salad of shrimp, coconut flakes, avocado, onion and -- my memory is saying grapefruit; it may be mango. There's a very bright, very piquant salsa verde that comes on the side to spice it up as you wish.
If you want to please him and come along for the ride -- a tasty ride -- I'll recommend The Majestic, in Old Town.
A sit-down meal of sophisiticated comfort food, and at a price that won't feel like a splurge. And no spicy stuff.
Hope that helps. I'd love to hear how things turned out ...
Hi Todd -
I wanted to mention that I dined at Peter Chang's restaurant in Charlottesville this past weekend and had a wonderful meal (great soup dumplings, chicken with mixed mushrooms, ma po tofu, and fish on a hot plate with vegetables).
That said, I'd agree that the service was not very good. The service was very slow, and the servers were not that familiar with a lot of menu items.
This was my second trip to the restaurant, and both meals were outstanding with uneven service.
I'd definitely go back and would recommend the place to others, but don't expect the service to match the level of food being served.
Thanks for the great report.
Just the appearance of the words "Peter Chang" and "ma po tofu" in the same sentence makes me hungry. Amazing.
You bring up something interesting, something I'd like to toss out there and see what you all have to say ...
Do you cut places like this some slack when it comes to service? I'm talking about the mom n pop ethnic spots, the little guys (and girls).
And if so, how much?
Is so-so service ever a deal-breaker for you at a place like this? As in -- yeah, the food's good, but I don't think I'd go back. Or not for a long while.
Conversely, who is of the mindset that great, cheap food (pretty much) trumps all?
I'm dying for a place that serves food thats like "what mom makes".
I'm talking turkey dinner with stuffing, potatoes, gravy....or pot roast....or just anything that evokes memories and pleasantness of eating sunday dinner at home. Would love tips for a home cooked meal in the DC-VA-MD area. Thanks!
It's funny that I just mentioned The Majestic, because this is sort of their mission -- to evoke achingly precise memories of the Sunday dinners that you never, in truth, ever had.
That's the place I'd zero in on.
On Sundays, they do an addendum to their regular menu called Nana's Sunday Dinner -- amazingly, they have even trademarked the name.
This month it's lasagna and tiramisu. In the past, thev've had fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
The regular menu ought to call to you, too. Meatloaf, calves' liver, you get the idea ... And they've got to be the only restaurant at this level in the area that's serving limas and corn.
When, if ever, is it OK to lick your fingers in a restaurant?
There are those who would say -- absolutely never. I remember an exchange I had with my editor, back when I was writing a weekly column. In that week's review, I had described tasting a chutney at an Indian restaurant, how I had dipped my pinky into the cup -- the culinary equivalent of dipping a toe into the pool. "You did not!" she cried. (My shock was that a woman who sneered at the conventions of the middle-class and whose tension-strained face turned beatific whenever she thought about smoking some weed was appalled that I had dipped a pinky into a cup in public.)
Things like barbecue, and crabs, and fried chicken, that's a natural for finger licking. In fact, if you're not licking your fingers, then you're probably doing something wrong.
The challenge is -- anything else.
But I mean, it's your meal. You paid for it. I say -- whatever you're comfortable with. For some people, that depends, obviously, more on the people you're with and the people who are around you in the restaurant. For others, the strong, the brave, that depends only on your inner resources.
I'll tell you: If I were a chef and I looked out from the kitchen, I'd be thrilled to see someone licking his fingers at the table.
I would also like to see explanations for the places on the outgoing list in the cheap eats issue (and I even subscribe). Can you explain one shocker - why was Kotobuki no longer up to snuff?
Kotobuki is in real decline.
It's really a shame.
It surprised me when I first saw the signs of slippage, more than a year ago. My last visit there, the nigiri were virtually without flavor. The rest of the staff reported similar experiences.
That's not to say there aren't things there to get. But at the moment, it's no longer the gem that it was.
Good Morning Todd,
Formerly of Shaw, I've been in Dallas for 10 days and sorely missing El Rinconcito and Central. I asked for restaurant recs before I left DC, but was hoping some chatters had more ideas.
Also wondering if you had any advice on local critics to follow and trust. It seems to me that most of the large publications just print press releases of restaurants rather than opinions. Thoughts?
And my two cents on service for Mom & Pops: they most definitely get a pass with me on less than stellar service or slowness. I'd much prefer a place that puts the care into the food than fussing over asking me "are you still working on that?" ;) Of course, I wouldn't run back to a place where the staff just doesn't give a damn. Why would any small place treat customers like that?
Hey, great to hear from you ... and I hope we continue to hear from you, even as you settle in and make Dallas your home.
I'd like to think your take on the mom n pops is the take of most of the people on this chat. But who knows? Chatters? I'd really like to hear what you have to say about this?
I don't follow the Dallas scene very closely. I read Leslie Brenner occasionally. One name to look out for: Scott Reitz, who has recently taken over as Dallas Observer critic. He was a food writer in DC, and recently left his job up here to take the gig. I haven't read enough of his stuff -- his new gig stuff -- to form an opinion, but the sense I have of him is that he's honest and passionate.
I might add (to FOB Wright) that La Caraquena is more affordable for dinner than lunch (I think the prices are about the same for each, so it "feels" cheaper at night).
While it's certainly not an expensive restaurant per se, some of the prices gave me a bit of a sticker shock for lunch (at least when you go in thinking it's a divey looking place). Worth the money regardless.
Great tip! Thanks for chiming in ...
And I agree with you -- it's absolutely worth the money. One of the great dining values in the area.
My wife and I were in the Bay area last week visiting relatives. We decided to do the pacific coast highway drive and spend two days in LA. We were fortunate enough to book a seating in the SAAM room inside The Baazar since it impossible to get reservations at MiniBar in DC and worked our way through the 22 course tasting menu. My wife and I love doing tasting menus and we must say this was one of the best dining experiences we have ever had.
By luck, we were sitting next to actor Ty Burrell who plays the dad Phil from the hit comedy Modern Family.
Earlier in the day we grabbed sandwiches at Michael Voltaggio's new sandwich shop called ink.sack and enjoyed all three sandwiches we tried (turket, chicken, and ahi tuna). People who get a chance should definately try out these two places next time they are in LA. Thanks!!
Sounds like a fantastic vacation.
I just was talking to my friend the shiatsu massage therapist last week, and she shared a story with me about her recent vacation. Not a bit of it had to do with food. Lots of hiking.
She was happy, but listening to her I kept thinking: Something's missing. (She's amazing, by the way -- really helped my ailing back; I could go on at length about her, though that kind of rambling bragging about friend is, in its own way, a form of indulgence, and there are those out there who are sticklers for staying on topic and who can't accept that a chat, any chat, is made up of multiple tonalities.)
You mentioned Voltaggio's new place. Which is a lot like Colicchio's old place, 'wichcraft. ... High-profile sandwich shops. We're going to be seeing more and more of these.
Just got back from a long weekend in Seattle... you know what I miss from back there?
Good, cheap sushi.
In DC you seem to have two options: pay through the teeth for the good stuff, or chase a deal where you inevitably get what you pay for.
I'm not talking about $1 rolls here though - I'd just like to find quality fish and not have to pay expense account prices. Any ideas?
And for the Dallas chatter, it ain't fancy but I definitely had a good meal at Peggy Sue BBQ the last time I was in Big D.
We talked about this last week. There's not really anything that fits what you're looking for, I'm sorry to say.
The middle-class -- and it wasn't that big here to begin with, unlike Seattle -- has really, really shrunk.
Kotobuki came up just a few questions ago. For about five years, that was the best option around here for cheap sushi. It was fantastic.
But that option's gone now.
Have you heard anything about the progress of the Kitchen on K St?
The first reports were that it was scheduled for a May opening, so obviously production is behind schedule. Nothing new there.
If there are no rumblings in the next month or so -- and I'll be sure to let you know if there are -- then I would expect that we wouldn't see an opening day until sometime in 2012.
For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the name: Kitchen on K is the new restaurant from chef Gillian Clark. It'll be located at 3rd and K St. NE, and Clark is expected to reprise many of the dishes that defined her tenure at the late Colorado Kitchen.
Was at the Baltimore Grand Prix this past weekend which was a lot of fun. We had great dinner at Bluegrass Tavern and Woodberry Kitchen. Was surprised I could easily get a table, I guess all the natives left town for the craziness.
That's gotta be a Labor Day weekend thing. You're smart to have taken advantage of it. Those are hard tables to come by.
Baltimore, for many of you, sounds like a hike, but it's not as far as you think. Depending on the time of day, it's slightly closer for some residents of DC and close-inMaryland than some restaurants in Fairfax, and it's certainly closer than The Inn at Little Washington. And these two spots in particular are worth it.
... Thanks for the great questions and comments, everyone. I hope you all had a good and restful Labor Day weekend.
If she's reading this, I want to give a special thanks to the lovely Sheila C., who capped off a great weekend by cooking up a superlative feast for a group of us last night, including my wife, my son, and my mother. Sharp-with-good-mustard deviled eggs ... a delicate corn soup ... a marvel of a marinated, stuffed, boneless roast chicken ... a perfect rendition of Lion's Head ... And thanks to D. for the great fig tart, and the excellent riesling and moscato. (Moscato, the happy rapper's bubbly du jour).
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 ...
[missing you, TEK ... ]