Tuesday, May 10 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman pays a visit to the brand-new hot-pot restaurant Mala Tang—and likes what he finds. He talks to chatters about dress codes in restaurants and lets a chef air his thoughts.

Host: Todd Kliman

Editor’s Note: Washingtonian Online moderators and hosts retain editorial control over chats and choose the most relevant questions; hosts can decline to answer questions.

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.

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T K ' s   2 5:

W h e r e   I ' d   S p e n d   M y   O w n   M o n e y


Adour, DC 

2 Amy's, DC 

Bar Pilar, DC

Bayou Bakery, Arlington 

Birch & Barley, DC 

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Central Michel Richard, DC

Eola, DC

Fiola, DC

Gom Ba Woo, Annandale

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Kao Thai, Silver Spring

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Limeña, Rockville

Level, Annapolis 

Mala Tang, Arlington

Minh's, Arlington

Palena Cafe, DC

PassionFish, Reston 

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington 

Red Pearl, Columbia

Ris, DC

Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown

 

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  W o r d   o f   M o u t h  ...

   ... There are collaborations in business and art that sound fated but fail, and there are collaborations that scream of gimmickry or novelty that somehow succeed -- each partner improbably bringing out the others' strengths and minimizing his weaknesses. The very early but very delicious evidence suggests that there is more seriousness than self-consciousness to the mash-up at Mala Tang (3434 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-2381).
   The Arlington restaurant is a joint venture of chef and entrepreneur Liu Chaosheng, a Chengdu native whose other restaurants include Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church, China Jade in Rockville and Uncle Liu's Hot Pot in Merrifield, three of the area's most reliable destinations for Szechuan cooking. Liu has taken on two partners, the brothers Tomer and Oren Molovinsky; Oren is a managing partner of the company that owns Harry's Tap Room, and was also a manager at Mie N Yu.
   The challenge, here, was to Westernize the hot pot experience without sacrificing its essential character or squandering its soul. A sizeable challenge it is, since hot pot represents all that is antithetical to harried American diners -- a communal meal that proceeds with the leisureliness of afternoon tea. (Americans can't even abide the communal table.)
   The partners have made something of a conceptual leap in constructing the operation around the hot pot equivalent of the personal pan pizza -- individualized pots filled with a choice of broth (mild or spicy) and ignited by a flame that sets the tiny pink goji berries roiling. A smart concession to the needs of the lunch crowd, no doubt, but the effect is to turn what is typically a lively, free-for-all of an experience into something oddly discrete and controlled.
   It's perhaps not surprising that on this night at least, the composition of the dining room was the photo negative of that of Uncle Liu's Hot Pot, with non-Asians making up a decided majority of diners. The room itself is a photo negative, its dark wood tables, sculpted china and sumptuous paint job a bold, stylistic departure from the Merrifield hole in the wall: the clamorous hot pot restaurant as cool, modish bistro.
   The benefits of the partners' arrangement is immediately evident when the plates of meat, fish and veggies hit the table. On this night, I opted for pork and prawns (each ordered separately), along with enoki mushrooms and Chinese celery. The prawns were fresh and beautifully shorn of their husks, while the pork bore little relation to the tasteless, Steak 'Em-like sheets that hot pot usually means -- the meat, from locally raised pigs, was richly marbled and had the deep, resonant flavor of a heritage breed pork chop.
   Fantastic on its own, it was improved by a swipe through the accompanying dipping sauce -- a richly brewed, house-made soy sauce dressed up with spicy bean paste, chili peppers and and the kitchen's own barbecue sauce.
   The staff could stand more inculcation in the restaurant's mission. The pork needed only a few swishes in the broth to cook, but the waitress twice scolded my table for its impatience; we were to leave the meat alone for a good ten minutes, which of course would have transformed its luscious texture into something akin to boiled licorice. At one point she went so far as to cook the meat herself, after watching us fetch slices from the broth mere seconds after dunking them.
   Hot pot isn't the only reason to come. It might not even be the best reason.
   I loved a small dish of wood-ear mushrooms tossed with chili oil and flavored with chopped cilantro -- a dish that brilliantly illustrates the paradox of simple complexity. The pork dumplings -- delicately fashioned, with thin, pliant skins -- and the dan dan noodles (topped with a zesty, greaseless meat sauce) were just as good, the finest examples of these dishes I've seen in the area this year. A scallion pancake was robbed of its visual appeal by being rendered into tiny triangles, but those triangles were blessedly free of the slick of oil that sometimes builds up on the surface of some snacks after frying and nearly crunched like chips. Only a plate of lightly pickled cucumbers could be said to constitute a miss, and not by much; they tasted more of sesame oil than vinegar. ...

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Alexandria, VA

Hi Todd,

This is Reagan Corbett, I am the City Director of Restaurant Operations in Old Town, as well as the General Manager of Jackson 20. I wanted to follow-up with a chatter who relayed a very dissatisfied experience at our restaurant for Easter. Any chance you’d be willing to post my contact info?

It seems that unfortunately, their table slipped through the cracks and I’d like to follow-up to apologize and find out more about what happened – that’s the only way we can fix these problems from happening in the future. This is not the Jackson 20 experience we strive for and their opinion of us has clearly been tainted.

If you wouldn’t mind posting, my email address is Reagan.Corbett@jackson20.comor I can be reached at the restaurant at 703.842.2790. Thank you. Reagan

I don't mind.

It's out there now -- or up there now, however you choose to look at it. Thanks, Reagan.

Washington DC

Todd, it's unfortunate that the Washingtonian decided to post a piece about a negative dining experience at Poste Brasserie 2 months after the fact (early March). Moreover, the complaint about the food was that some of it fell "flat."

You yourself often demand detail and specificity from diners when they have negative opinions about the food served. There was no such request in your response. I have a hunch that opportunity has passed for the beleagured diner as it WAS 2 months ago. So why'd she feel inclined to post? Why did you oblige? Why did you change your standards for diner accountability?

Yeah, yeah she didn't like it that Chef was demanding of his brigade. And to her credit, she acknowledged that it is, afterall, his show. However, her generic and unsubstantiated negativity smacks of Yelpishness. Please don't let this otherwise intelligent and insightful forum turn into what most readers here don't want. Respectfully yours

Thanks for weighing in on this ...

You know, I think you're right, I think I wasn't demanding enough, looking back (and I just did, reading over the exchange from last week). I don't think I considered things enough before responding.

I appreciate your arguing your case. Thanks for reading, and for being such a loyal, passionate follower of the chog.

Arlingtongue
Drove over to Ba Le again at the end of last week. Same sign on the door announcing they are closed for the day. The inside looked undisturbed. I wonder what's up. I hope everything is alright.
I hope so too, but that doesn't sound good ...
Appetizer versus entree

Todd, I think you are the food writer who has expressed that you sometimes would prefer to order a couple of appetizers instead of the traditional model of: appetizer, entree, dessert.

How can a restaurant absolutely soar in its appetizers and follow with entrees that do not sing? The entrees weren't poor, but when the stage was set with fantastic appetizers, is it not strange that the entrees would not achieve that similar level for a consistent meal? Is this what gave rise to all of the tapas-style places in Washington, D.C.?

Thanks

I think it's more surprising when the entrees are as good as the appetizers -- or, even less likely, when the entrees outstrip the appetizers.

And yes, if I'm paying my own way, as I do on trips with my wife, I'm generally inclined to go with several appetizers and maybe a dessert, or if there's something that really appeals to either of us, maybe one entree.

I like lots of tastes, and meals that revolve around entrees seldom deliver the excitement I crave. Unless that entree is killer. Sometimes it is.

But too often it's boring. Or -- it starts well and becomes boring after five, six bites. Or I become aware halfway through of just how gosh darn buttery it is. Or just how gosh darn salty.

I don't think this is what gave rises to all the small plates spots in the city, by the way. I chalk that up to the increasing democratization of dining out. The moving away from maitre d's and white tablecloths and controlled formality and dressing up.

I'm curious: Is there anyone out there who is uneasy at the new, relaxed codes at most restaurants? Who doesn't like seeing people show up, say, in jeans and shirttails? I'd really like to hear about this. I know people who are vehemently opposed to the new breed restaurant -- to the new breed ethic -- and I know people who love it and consider it long, long overdue.

Germantown, MD

Hi Todd,

So I'm starting to see Elevation Burgers popping up--even one opening here in Germantown, soon. How good ARE they, really?

How good?

By the standards of Ray's Hell Burger, not very. But you have to keep in mind that Elevation Burger isn't trying to be RHB. Or Burger Joint.

What it's trying to be, is a healthier alternative to Five Guys. The fries at Elevation are cooked in bubbling olive oil. The meat is grass-fed and hormone-free. There are veg patties, as well. 

As fast food goes, it's more expensive than Five Guys and McDonald's and all the rest. But when you're done, you walk away without feeling as though you've just rubbed skin lotion all over your face and hands, as you do at all of those quick-serve joints. You don't feel weighed down. You don't feel guilty.

I like it.

fairfax
I saw on your twitter feed that you were up at like 1:30 in the morning watching basketball. Sounds like an awesome game but my question is- do you regularly keep late hours? What is the life of a critic ?... Thanks for thechats and the great reviews.....

It was, it was a phenomenal game. Triple overtime. The playoffs have been tremendous, the best in years -- one for the ages, really. How anyone could prefer the college game to what we're seeing these past few weeks is beyond me.

I don't know if it's typical of the life of the food critic, but I'm often up late, usually reading or writing or both. I like that hour of the night -- the house is quiet, things slow down, all the cares of the day slip away ... It's a restorative time for me, if I'm up.

Last NBA note ... The Wizards just unveiled their new look about half an hour ago. As a fan of our unis from the late '70s, I like. A lot. (Glad to see my friend Dan Steinberg give the hearty thumbs up, too.) Things are looking up ...
Washington, DC

Todd,

I saw your chatter’s comments last week re: 20 Bites at Poste. Not the kind of thing I like to see. This is not what Poste or 20 Bites is all about, and it’s certainly not the impression I want diners to have. I hope you’ll post this response or ask that she reach out to me at either Robert.weland@postebrasserie.com or (202) 449-7026.

I’d like to personally apologize to her and her guests. While I understand that they may not want to return, I want to invite them back to truly enjoy the real Poste.

Thanks, Rob Weland Executive Chef Poste Moderne Brasserie

Done.

Thanks, Rob.

Arlington, VA

Todd,

It bothers me sometimes when people seem to be really casually dressed, jeans and t-shirt or shorts and t-shirt at a nice restaurant. I mean it doesn't hamper my evening out, just bugs me a little.

For instance we went to a nice birthday dinner at Ruth Chris in DC and the table next door had on t-shirts, shorts and sandals, it just didn't set the right vibe. At least a collared shirt of some kind would have been nice.

But I think I am a little old fashioned, and Southern about that kind of thing. And going out is more of a special occasion for some people and for others it is more an everyday event, I guess.

But I think dressing just a little nicer, button up shirt is a nice way of showing respect to others around you and your dining companions.

The 20 Something Curmudgeon.

I've heard that argument before, that dressing up is a way of showing respect to others and to the restaurant.

I can appreciate that, though I'm not sure I understand why it is important or even necessary at most restaurants to "show respect." Is a restaurant a church?

But then, is a church even a church these days? My wife shared a story with me a couple of months ago, of being at a Catholic church and watching a young woman bow down to pray. She was wearing a mini-skirt and gave it a big yank up before genuflecting -- though her thong still showed.

Washington DC

Hi Todd,

I recently went to an Italian restaurant that got rave reviews online from customers, and praise from several critics. Thinking I was in good hands, I splurged on a $30 house-made spaghetti alla chittara with lobster. What arrived was a heap of soggy capellini with bits of lobster, not spaghetti alla chittara, which is a thick, square-ish noodle with a good bite to it.

I've eaten the pasta at high-end Italian spots like Bibiana in DC and Esca in New York, so was disappointed that a similarly priced restaurant seemed to be tricking customers into paying a large amount for an inferior product. My waiter swore that it was chitarra, but he wasn't Italian and maybe believed (or was told to rehearse) whatever the kitchen said.

My question to you is: what should a customer do in this situation? It has happened before when a bartender switched out the Kettle One vodka I ordered for Sky (I drink enough straight martinis to know the difference), or when a restaurant put a premium on "house-made" dressing that tasted jarred.

I feel like a snob complaining - excuse me, this is not the pasta I enjoyed at Mario Batali's place - but also feel cheated staying silent and shelling out the big bucks.

I'd feel cheated, too. It's bait-and-switch. 

And it happens more than you'd think. Bait-and-switch sounds calculating, and sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's simply the kitchen is out of the advertised item -- often it's fish -- and makes a substitution. What bothers me is when I or someone at my table points out the change to the waiter or waitress and gets a blank look: Yeah, so? But it's not a yeah-so thing. We might not have ordered that dish if we had known.

Best thing I can think to tell you is to call over a manager and point out that what you ordered is not what you received.

You'd better be right, though. "Tasting jarred," for instance, is not the same as "is jarred."

Shaw DC

On the note of relaxed codes at restaurants, I really don't care how people are dressed as long as they don't look at me sideways when I'm dressed to the nines in a cocktail dress and stillettos!

But seriously, my only concern with the casual ethic would be service. I don't need starched and stuffy, but I don't want a chatty buddy either. We are paying for a service, and if the staff wants to be tipped on that service, they should act accordingly. No matter if it's Tosca or Fast Gourmet, it's still business.

So much of this is relative. And so much about expectations.

What to one diner is a "chatty buddy" is to another diner an engaged, personable companion.

I understand the value of being served in a professional manner. But at a certain level of dining, I'm not terribly comfortable with the idea that someone is doing my bidding and must remove all traces of personality. My wife feels the same way. Often when we're out, and it's a nice place, we appreciate and look for an interaction. A human exchange.

Arlington, VA

Hi Todd,

What is a good spot in Manassas for a first date dinner? Thanks

I'd hit Panino.

It's charming, kind of intimate, and the food -- northern Italian -- is generally worth driving some distance for.

Good luck with the dinner, and with the date.

Drop back on and let us know how it turned out ...

Del Ray

What a fabulous Mothers Day brunch at Nage!

I had a difficult time finding a reservation for 14 people that wasn't $65 fixed price. Nage turned out to be the perfect option and my family will definitely return. Relaxed atmosphere, great service, and great food for the right price.

Everyone was thrilled with the range of options - from simple eggs and pancakes to decadent truffle mac n' cheese with chorizo, fried egg and french fries (Kill it skillet:). They brought us extra buttery biscuits for the kids who were starving. The bloody marys weren't stingy. The coffee was hot.

What more can you ask for? Two thumbs up.

Sounds great.

Thanks for the report. I'm generally more a fan of the Nage in Rehoboth Beach than I am of the one here, but I've had good dishes at Nage. I'd like to see it do well.

Arlingtongue
Is not complaining about how someone is dressed in a Ruth's Chris the same as complaining about how someone is dressed in a Cheesecake Factory? Both attract their fair share of tourists, and that is excatly how I would expect them to dress.
Hard to disagree with you there ...
Bethesda, MD

Went to Church Key yesterday for some drinks and bar food. As we were coming down the stairs to exit, a mouse ran from under the closed door at Birch and Barley across the stairs and into a hole in the wall. I was really grossed out.

My husband says no big deal, all the old buildings downtown have mice, roaches, etc.

What do you think?

Your husband's right.

You really can't blame the restaurant for this. Not without knowing more. Or not without seeing a half dozen more.

You should try a restaurant in Adams Morgan in late summer sometime. Wow.

A couple of years ago, I saw a rat that was nearly the size of a kitten scurrying into a hole in the foundation of the restaurant.

Arlingtongue
You really do have to give me the name and address of that Catholic Church. :-)

Gotta make going to church a little more fun, no?

The church was St. Matthews, just south of Dupont Circle.

(Where, incidentally, my mother and father once attended a concert that my wife was part of and left shaken by the abominable behavior of a parishioner. I was shaken, too -- and shaken, too, by the church's indifference to the episode. What happened? My mother and father were, apparently, whispering too loudly, so the parishioner reached over and grabbed my mother's ear and gave it a pinch and a turn. A woman in her late 70s, being treated like a schoolgirl giviing sass to a nun! I only learned of it after the concert was over, and gave chase. I don't condone violence, but as my former professor Rick Trethewey used to say -- that man could've used a little fistwork.)

Arlington, VA

My best friend and I had a great time taking our Mother's to have Korean BBQ for the first time, we grew up in Western MD where there isn't a lot of ethnic food. We went to Honey Pig and they just loved it.

The poor waitress just didn't know what to do with them she brought them forks, would tell them how to assemble things and then looked very worried when they just ate it how they wanted, but in a very sweet way. It was a hoot!

It's like the time I saw a couple, visiting from the Midwest, eating at one of the Ethiopian restaurants in the area.

Out came a big round of injera covered with various stews, and the waitress also deposited a basket of rolled injera -- for tearing off and scooping the dishes. She left them, and they promptly began eating the wats and tibs with their forks and knives, occasionally taking a break to bite off a piece of rolled injera as if it were a dinner roll. It was hilarious.

I was really tempted to tell them what they ought to have been doing, but I got such a kick out of watching them that I just didn't.

Tysons Corner, VA

I do not care for some of the informality you see at places such as Sushi Taro, where you can spend a lot of money but it is raucous and jeans are everywhere.

If I am spending $200 +, I would like to be able to hear what my wife is saying. Our experience was much better at CityZen, and when a loud jean wearing guy walked in, it seemed a bit lessened.

It would not have been so much noticed were he polite and everyone didn't have to hear how great he was.

If you're asking me -- a boorish diner is a thousand times worse than a quote-unquote poorly clad diner. And unfortunately, there are a lot of them in this city.

What is it with jeans that's so bad? I hear this a lot from people -- It was a good meal, but there were all these people sitting around us wearing jeans.

They make it sound like overalls, like something out of Tom Sawyer.

But seriously -- I really am interested to know.

If you're having a good time with who you're with, and the food's good, should it matter what some people are wearing below the table?

What if someone shows up to dinner at a restaurant wearing a coat and tie, but the coat and tie are at least 20 years old and worn -- both items purchased from a consignment shop? Kosher, or not kosher?

What if the person next to you is wearing a really nice, really new suit but is scruffy-haired and has stubble?

WDC

I'm turning not-quite-30 in a couple of weeks, and want to go out for a nice dinner with some friends (on a Saturday). Any recs for a vegetarian-friendly place that is in Dupont/U Street with great food and atmosphere?

There will be at the most 10 people, so not a *huge* group. Thanks!

Congratulations.

30 -- the end of youth, says Nick Carraway in Gatsby. (Though these days with all the moving back home after college graduation, and all the finding oneself, and the lack of affordable housing, I wonder if it's not 40.)

If I were you, I'd call Obelisk, on P St., as soon as you reach the end of this sentence.

Re: No VA wines for sale in DC

Hi Todd - thanks for doing these chats, I love reading the bites that get sent to my email.

I was reading the one from yesterday where a poster asked about the lack of VA wines for sale in DC. It is my understanding that the taxes in VA to 'transport' wine to another state/district is really steep and significantly increases the cost of each the bottle.

Other states (DC & MD included) don't think there's isn't a market for people willing to pay $20 - $40 for a bottle of wine made only 30 minutes away (and way cheaper if bought in VA). People would rather take that money and buy a CA or Internat'l wine.

You're right -- the laws really work against local and regional wine.

It's too bad. More and more, there's good stuff out there, and I think people would enjoy it, if it were easier for them to get their hands on it.

Thanks for chiming in ...

And thanks to all of you for all the good questions, gripes and comments. I'm really interested in talking more about dress codes, or the lack thereof, so if you're reading this after the fact please drop me a note (tkliman@washingtonian.com) or post an opinion for next week in the comment queue. I think we've only just scratched the surface, here.

Anyway, 'til next time ...

Be well, everyone, eat well and let's do it again next week at 11 ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK ... ]