Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 11 AM

Every Tuesday at 11, food and wine editor Todd Kliman takes your questions about Washington area cuisine and restaurant news

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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W H E R E   I ' M   E A T I N G   N O W  . . .

Johnny's Half Shell, DC
This town could stand a few more places like Ann Cashion and Johnny Fulchino's retro seafood house. Never surprising, never innovative, never wowing, but almost never disappointing, either. And often delicious. The soft shells, if they're still on the menu as September comes to a close, are superb -- a must-order: sweet and meaty and lightly sauteed.

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.

Vermilion, Alexandria
The honesty and simplicity of chef Tony Chittum's make-it-local-or-make-it-from-scratch approach has never been in question. But these days there's a newfound coherence in his plates, a clarity that brings even his heartiest, most soulful plates into tight focus. The desserts, with Tiffany MacIsaac in the fold now as guru of sweets for all outlets in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, have never been better.

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, DC
This jumping fish house in the 14th St. corridor is Jeff and Barbara Black's fifth place, and by far their most fun -- in the room and on the plate. The other surprise? The excellent value -- a reminder that among the benefits of a mini-empire is the ability to leverage high-volume purchasing into cut-rate deals. Don't miss the marvelous twist on mariscos, a seafood-laden salsa with fresh-fried chips.

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.

Komi, DC
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.

Eola, DC
Daniel Singhofen scrapped his a la carte menu this past April, replacing it with a $65 five-course tasting menu. The move seemed premature, given that the chef had yet to establish his Dupont Circle townhouse restaurant as a landmark dining destination, one that had endured many seasons and fads. But Singhofen and company appear ready to make the leap. Courses are imaginatively conceived without straining for effect, and the execution is clean and precise without lapsing into austerity. Best of all, Singhofen imbues these sophisticated dishes with a quality more precious than all the tricks in the molecular gastronomer's toolkit: soul.

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.

Ripple, DC
Ex-New Heights chef Logan Cox has taken his sauce-painted bowls and fascinating juxtapositions north up Connecticut Ave., making this modestly done Cleveland Park dining room one of the most intriguing places to dine at the moment. His rabbit loin transforms a typically dry, stringy meat into a kind of luscious barbecue, and his vegetable composition plate -- that stale relic of the early aughts -- is so good, it could stand alone as a (light) entree.

* Liberty Tavern, Arlington
The menu at Liam LaCivita's brawny ode to Americana is rife with abundantly portioned plates of meat and pasta, but it was two comparatively light non-meat plates that impressed me most on a recent visit -- a Portuguese-style swordfish with escarole, white beans and housemade sausage in a clam-and-saffron broth, and a simply grilled branzino surrounded by black pellets of squid-ink-soaked fregola nero.

* new this week

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Van Ness

We recently had a solidly good meal at Eola.

The restaurant reminded me of an early Komi (when Komi was transitioning from its ala cart menu to its tasting menu format) but not as focused and without quite the same finesse.

we enjoyed- the bread basket (made by a member of the waitstaff!), open selection of small bites (6 courses), white kidneys of Moulard Duck, confited jowl, apple upside down cake. Not so successful - braised pig ear with kimchi (kimchi overpowered everything), feuillete of early autumn vegetables (basically a glorified vegetable napoleon), ricotta date tart (the individual components just didn't come together as whole)

At $61 for a tasting menu that ended up being 10 courses plus a plate of cookies with the check, has to be one of the better values in town.

I compared it to a young Komi when I reviewed it a year ago.

The intimacy of the place, the simplicity of the mission, the ambition I sensed -- all reminded me of Komi in its infancy. Or Obelisk in its infancy.

I think Eola's only going to get better.

It's hard to say anything that's that expensive -- a night here can cost $200 -- is a good value, but in context (of dining out, and of dining out in DC especially, and considering the number of courses, and the quality of those courses), it is.

I think in a couple of years, it will look like even more of a value.

Arlington, VA

Hi Todd,

I am looking for a very nice restaurant for my brothers and I to take my parents to for their 40th anniversary. There will be 6 of us, we're flexible on location but probably either VA or DC. They're not super adventerous eaters but appreciate really good food. I was going to try for Komi but it looks like they only take parties of 4 or less. Any suggestions are much appreciated!

I'd give a long, hard look to Vermilion or Restaurant Eve.

The Old Town location's a plus, and both are places with great service -- a crucial consideration when it's a special occasion like this.

Vermilion's leans more toward sophisticated comfort food and is going to be cheaper; if you go, I'd book a table for upstairs, away from the bar. Eve is fine dining in an unpretentious setting, and you can expect to be well taken-care-of, even pampered.

I'll be interested in hearing where you end up. I hope it's a great night out for all of you. Savor the moment ...

Silver Spring, Md.

A quickie q, but a major dilemma: What's for dinner?

I'm in Silver Spring tonight for the first time in a while and I know a lot of new restaurants have opened up since then. And then there's the fact that I haven't been to any of them, new or old.

What's the best bet? Something classic like Ray's or Jackie's? Or go for something new like Pacci's?

Or 8407, Pedro Matamoros's place, where the cooking is a lot more lived-in these days, a good thing.

I'd probably go Jackie's if I were you.

Diana Davila-Boldin is a talented cook, and there's always something I end up loving there every meal I go -- sometimes many somethings. I do think the prices on the menu are edging too high, however, and the place is flirting, now, with a kind of finer dining, something it really needs to watch.

Komi's expansion

Heard anything about the new place downstairs from Komi? It's supposedly part of their expansion but a separate, cheaper Thai, family-style place.

My sources tell me it's going to be cheaper, yes. But not cheap -- not a drop-in-weekly sort of dining experience. A $45 tasting menu, is what I understand.

From what I've been told, I'd anticipate a very refined version of your neighborhood Thai joint -- a Thaiphoon with technique.

My comments about price should not be construed as a put-down of the place. I think this could really be exciting.

 

Washington, DC

Hi Todd, a friend of mine is visiting Baltimore for a conference, and wants to meet up tonight for dinner. However, I fear MD drivers, so in the interest of self-preservation I don't want to drive all the way to Baltimore, especially on a week night.

Is there a good place halfway between DC and Baltimore that you would recommend that is less than $25 pp? Thanks, and I love your talks!

Chris

You fear Maryland drivers?

What's there to fear about Maryland drivers? The drivers around here you should fear are Virginia drivers.

Though Virginia drivers are pikers compared to Jersey and Philly drivers. Now, THAT'S taking your life in your hands.

But to food ...

You could hit any number of places. Keeping it under $25 is the challenge.

There's Franklin's, which is a microbrewery and restaurant. A good wood-fired pizza (ask for light cheese and a crispy bottom) and a beer (there's a good IPA on the current menu that references Biz Markie) should do you in both senses.

There's Krazi Kabob, in College Park -- I refer to it among friends as "Indotle." In other words, Chipotle for Indian food; you get a naan or bowl of rice topped with tandoori chicken and begin loading it up with veggies and sauces. Like Chipotle, which doesn't actually taste Mexican, it doesn't actually taste Indian -- but it's tasty. It's also quick and cheap.

You could also swing by the newly-opened Bobby's Burger Palace, on Rte. 1 in College Park. I've been twice now -- only to this location, not the downtown DC one -- and have loved my burgers.

It's not a gourmetified burger, and that's to its credit. It's a thick, beefy patty, and they salt the hell out of it -- a good thing in this case. I like that the bun smooshes into the meat. I like that it's essentially fast food. It's a burger. It should be. All the toppings I've had have been good and fresh -- I especially liked the watercress and avocado relish (LA Burger), and the melted provolone and grilled onions (Philly Burger). The fries were great the first time, okay the second. And I like the shakes -- the pistachio and black and white, in particular.

 

DC

Do you know what's happening with Salt & Pepper? There has some chatter about it closing. Is this true?

That, I don't know for certain.

I do know that both the chef and pastry chef have bolted. Usually when that happens, it's because of impending change.

What sort of change? The owner is mum on that. When I asked whether she planned to sell, she replied, "I cannot answer that question at this time."

It's too bad. I thought the place had promise. And that crabcake was one of the best I've had all year.

DC, DC

For the person who fears, MD drives, your half way between Baltimore and DC recommendations weren't even outside the DC beltway. I'm guessing the OP was thinking Columbia/Laurel area.

The reason I gave those recs was to limit exposure to the savages in possession of reckless speeding machines on 95 and the Beltway.

But I could give some recs for Laurel and Columbia, too ...

In Laurel, Pasta Plus for the simple housemade pastas and breads, or Mango Grill for fajitas and chips, or Gourmet Shish Kebab for good kabobs and naan (which used to be owned by an Iraqi spy). I wrote about my experience of the place here.

In Columbia, I like Red Pearl for its cooked-to-order dim sum (first page of the menu) and Szechuan and Cantonese specials (last page). Sushi Sono, which is excellent, is going to be pushing it if the goal is to keep things under $25/person, but it may be possible to assemble a light meal that includes things like sunomono and rolls.

Maryland Drivers

I have to agree with Chris. Maryland drivers are by far the worst drivers in the DMV area.

That's because you're a Virginian. ; )

It's funny how not even close this is.

Part of the problem is Virginia's roads, especially around the Beltway and major roads and turn-offs. But if you drive them every day or often enough, I suppose you get inured to the inanity.

I'll agree that Maryland drivers IN Virginia are annoying. But that's largely because of discombobulation.

Oakton, VA

Hi Todd -

I'm still thinking about some stinky tofu dishes I had in Beijing (among others) but can't seem to find it in any restaurants. The one that stood out in particular was a fried version. Do you know of any restaurants in the area that serve this? Thanks, Mike

I know that Bob's Noodle 66, in Rockville, has stinky tofu.

I don't know whether you'll find it to be what you're looking for -- I haven't had the dish. I can tell you that friends of mine who grew up in Taiwan turn up their noses at it. And not because it's stinky, but because, they say, it's not very authentic.

 

Artist formerly known as Van Netian

Hi Todd,

I moved from Van Ness to Kalorama Triangle and need a new pun for my chat name; any ideas? I suggested Kalorama Mama to my baby-crazy fiance.

More importantly, when I moved this summer I fell behind in my foodie literature and just this week poured over the Cheap Eats list. I wrote last year asking for help on "where do draw the lines" to figure out a realistic dozen or so to try to hit in a year, and which of each "theme" (Rockville Chinese, Annandale Korean, etc.) to include on that list.

You flagged a few for me but this year I am going to ask you to be even more blatant and plainly tell me which of these is most worth the drive from my new home next to Adams Morgan...

VA pizza: Pizzeria Orso or Pupatella Rockville-ish Chinese-ish: Michael's Noodles, Sichuan Pavilion, China Bistro, China Jade (have already been to A&J and love it). VA Vietnamese: Minh's, Present, Viet Taste, Four Sisters, Huong Viet PG County Hispanic-ish: R&R Taqueria (tempted to wait for the sit down mentioned), Tacqueria La Placita, Irene's Restaurant (have already been to La Sirenita and like it). Rockville-ish Hipanic-ish: Carbon, La Limena, Tortacos

I know there are many differences amongst the members of these "themes" of restaurants I have so generally swept them into. But realistically, to someone who walks to work and rarely gets the car out of the old neighborhood (too hard to park in new one), I'm only going to get to one of each of these "families" before the next list comes out. So can you shoot me straight and tell me the leader of these packs?

P.S. I still think you should present the list using your minute marks so that people could look at it from their personalized geographical perspective and see which "Worth it if you can get there in [15, 30, 45, 60] minutes" places are indeed worth it for them to venture to. It's a shrewd way to personalize the list without actually personalizing it.

We did talk about it. And may yet do it. So stay tuned ...

As to whittling down that list, here goes ...

-- Pupatella for Virginia pizza.

-- China Bistro for a small meal of dumplings, Sichuan Pavilion for a larger, multi-plate, more exploratory meal.

-- Minh's for Vietnamese.

-- Taqueria la Placita for tacos in Prince George's

-- La Limeña for Peruvian

Hope that helps. I'd love to hear your findings. Drop me a note when you have a moment.

As for a name, what about -- Kalorammmm-aaahh

 

NoMa

Do you have any news about Kitchen on K St and if there is progress being made?

Kitchen on K?

Kaput.

Rosslyn, VA

Hi Todd,

A reader from last week’s chat asked for Philadelphia recommendations. You forgot to mention that one of the greatest perks of dining at Garces Trading Company is that many of the menu items are available to purchase as packaged items.

The terrine of elderflower caramel/foie gras/duck rillettes impressed me so much that I purchased 6 jars as gifts. The playful, seasonal desserts like huckleberry macarons satisfied another friend, who missed Oregon’s bounty of the same fruit. It’s nearly impossible to leave that restaurant/gourmet store without bring home gifts.

My number one Philadelphia recommendation for your reader is Fish Restaurant. I am enamored with Chef Mike Stollenwerk’s creative but unfussy cuisine.

On a recent visit, I ordered an appetizer of bay scallops with persimmon slices in a rich truffled broth. I never would have categorized the menu description as comfort food, but my opinion changed after that first bite. Somehow it felt like I had known that dish all my life. Even octopus with charred peaches and foie gras on flatbread seemed familiar and soothing.

This is comfort food for epicures, but I think anyone would appreciate his dishes and the generous portion sizes. I emailed the restaurant requesting that night’s menu because I wanted to share the experience with others. They never got back to me, but the staff is probably very busy since the restaurant is moving to a new location this month.

I cannot think of many other fine dining restaurants in DC that are able to seamlessly incorporate creativity with familiarity. What venues would you recommend? Maybe Ripple?

Thanks for that tantalizing quickie review.

I wish more chefs married fish with broth. I think it's one of the most fantastic ways to eat fish.

I also wish more chefs experimented with ways to bring meat -- or some aspect -- into a fish or seafood dish. A meat-based broth, for instance -- as some French chefs do. Or fish and seafood with pork, which you see a lot in Chinese cooking. Also in Portuguese cooking.

Anyway, to the question at hand ...

Ripple, Eola, Liberty Tavern, Vermilion -- I think all, in their own way, incorporate creativity with familiarity.

Paris, VA

Is Ashby Inn's restaurant considered to be "Washington" for purposes of Top 100 lists and such?

I don't see a dedicated review of the restaurant portion on the site here, and based on a recent excellent meal there (and some of your comments) it seems like that could/should be changing soon?

It's within striking distance for our purposes, yes.

I really can't say much more beyond that. But I can tell you that the Ashby Inn has our attention.

 

Banh Mi

Hi Todd,

You talked about banh mi last week ...

Being Vietnamese, I've grown up on lots of banh mi, which is one of my mother's favorite, but not so much for me. I couldn't, and still can't, get over the soft bread. Then I found Banh Mi DC which turned me into a banh mi lover!

It's their bread which is airy, light and super crusty. It's always hard to eat just one. Disclosure: they don't provide as much meat as some of the other spots. However, it's the only banh mi I'll eat now that I've discovered it.

Side rant - I refuse to pay for banh mi's at high end/fancy establishments, which usually serve smaller and much more expensive sandwiches. Especially since, (1) they're usually just over $3/sandwich in Vietnamese delis, (2) are always buy 5 get the 6th sandwich free, and (3) some of the fancier establishments cross over to Falls Church to get their bread straight from the Vietnamese delis (which then, why wouldn't I buy from the delis for a much cheaper price?). Just my two cents.

I hear you.

And thanks for writing in and ranting ...

I'm conflicted about the emergence of the banh mi. On the one hand, I love that people are discovering how great a sandwich it is (or can be), and that learning about a banh mi may lead them to seeking out things like bun cha and other great Vietnamese dishes. On the other hand, there's a lot of banh mi floating about -- a lot of adulterated banh mi. I worry that people will bite into these sandwiches and say: Hmmpff. What's so special about this?

...

I enjoyed it, everyone. Thanks for everything today.

Off to a meeting and then lunch ...

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK ... }