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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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
I love the tossed-off sophistication of Mark Kuller's wine-bar-plus, the sense you get that everything just seems to have fallen into place and nobody's straining too hard for effect. The cooking, under the direction of Haidar Karoum, reinforces the feeling with dishes that combine the complexity and intricacy of fine dining with the approachability of a neighborhood bistro: superlative foie gras (seared and served atop a cherry-studded short cake), crisp-skinned branzino in a saffron broth, a knockout plate of spaghetti and meatballs (foie gras is the crucial ingredient, an ingenious way of lightening the texture of the meat without resorting to bready filler). There's a wealth of good, interesting wines to pair with these plates--wines you're simply not going to find anywhere else in the city. The restaurant, to its great credit, makes them available in two-ounce pours that encourages you to try things you wouldn't ordinarily.
Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Falls Church
#1 Combination and #2 Roast Pork. $3.75 apiece. Vivid reminders of what the boring and/or dumbed-down others all miss--the peppery bite, the pronounced sharpness of the pickling, the balance between meats and condiments, the lightness of the loaf.
Rice Paper, Falls Church
This new Eden Center mom 'n' pop, the first restaurant venture for the host family after two-plus decades in the jewelry business, breaks from the drab utilitarianism of its Eden Center peers with a pressed tin ceiling, dangling globe lights, sleek leather chairs, and the requisite industrial brick wall. It's the cooking, though, that commands inspection: spicy lemongrass ribs, garlic-marinated roast chicken with coconut rice, and the most stylish presentation of grilled stuffed grape leaves I've ever seen--and easily one of the most delicious. The coffee with condensed milk is a must-order, among the strongest and darkest you're going to find.
Bon Fresco, Columbia
Best bread in the area. And maybe the best sandwiches, too--I still can't stop thinking about the unlikely masterpiece of brie, lightly caramelized onions and sundried tomato pesto on a light and crusty baguette. And the London Broil on ciabatta is fantastic, too. Gerald Koh, the owner and bread-baker, is a former GM at Breadline and as passionate about his craft as any chef in the area.
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, three week-old restaurant is turning out uncommonly clean-tasting versions of standard Hong Kong-style fare, including shrimp dumpling soup, shrimp with walnuts, and soyed chicken (the slices of meat beneath the crispy, lacquered skin are not merely tender, but luscious). 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.
My favorite is Moorenko’s — Susan Moorenko’s local, independently owned and hand-crafted ice cream.
I like going to her shop in Silver Spring, and I also like picking up a pint at local grocery stores.
My favorite flavors are the Danish Sweet Cream, the Lemon Curd (they make their own curd), the Coconut, the Mint Chocolate Chip.
… Who else has a favorite?
And as long as I’m asking some questions of you — what are some places I can’t miss in Rehoboth? …
Glad you had such a good time!
I think East Pearl is already in the top rank of Chinese restaurants in the area, and I want to say that it’s only been open two months.
Even the heavier stuff is prepared with a light hand, and there’s a real vibrancy to the lighter stuff. They do a plate of Chinese broccoli with pork belly, and you wouldn’t think it to look at it but it’s a dish of real finesse.
And those two dishes you mentioned: killer. The soyed chicken is the best in the area, and yes, that “sauce” is, in part, the chicken’s own juices — mixed with soy. The shrimp dumpling soup I could eat every day of the week. That broth! Those beautifully made dumplings!
What defines the cuisine? Well, a lot of seafood and fish, for one thing. And lightness, for another — a light hand with saucing, and a light hand when it comes to seasoning. It’s really the polar opposite of Szechuan cooking, if you think about it — with Szechuan, you are hit with fire and smoke and pungency. Here, it’s lightness, delicacy, balance.
And because Hong Kong is such a bustling port city, you have a lot of different influences coming into play — Cantonese cooking is a big one. But you also see things like curry punching up a dish of noodles. The egg custard tarts you see at dim sum — which they don’t serve at East Pearl, but which is a big deal in Hong Kong and some Hong Kong-style restaurants in the U.S. — reflects a Western influence.
By the way — speaking of dim sum: there’s a very good new dim sum place across from the Eden Center, Falls Church: Hong Kong Pearl Seafood. Go.
My San Fran picks: The House, in North Beach, and Mission Street Chinese, on Mission.
I know, I know — they’re both Asian. But when in Rome …
I’ll be interested to hear all the different places the chatters tell you to hit …
I like your gift-list sensibility. I think experiences, being inherent spiritual, are better than material. Especially when those material things are built to break in a year or two.
(My wife’s iPhone, 23 months old, is already balky and acting like an old, broken-down thing. Built-in obsolescence. I hate it. We all should hate it. But we don’t. We run and buy the new toy, and are happy, and tell everyone we know to run along and buy the new toy, too — relishing that brief moment when we have the latest slickest version of the latest slickest gadget in the world and no one else we know does … )
You don’t have to sell me on Dr. Shakshouka. I love the place.
Fantastic shakshouka. And fantastic shwarma, too — my God, but it’s good.
It’s an amazing country, with amazing people, and also an amazing place to eat. The raw materials are superb — great produce, as good as anything you’d find in California, maybe better. When was the last time you bit into a fragrant cucumber?
There’s great cheap food, street food, and in the better restaurants there’s nothing sterile or forced. Eucalyptus, in Jerusalem, not far from the Tower of David, should go on your list of spots for next time. The cooking’s refined and beautiful, and a meal here is a wondrous thing. I also love Carmella Bistro, in Tel Aviv. Such an expressive, soulful place.
We have us a leader …
I haven’t met your mom and already I like her. And you caught a whole world in a few sentences. I love it. I am THERE with you …
I’m telling you — drop little Marcel down into the American suburbs in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, and he’s not going to fixate on an elegant little cookie and turn it into a springboard to a world of memory and feeling in his later prose.
Jessica, thanks for taking a moment to write this. It’s beautiful. Again: a whole world in a few sentences.
It’s too bad you’re disqualified on account of being Jessica. ; )
Was supposed to have opened … now.
Anna Spiegel, our super staffer, blogged about it a month ago, and the expected opening date was last week. These things happen. We’ll keep you posted.
It’s an interesting-sounding project. The restaurant is taking over the former McLean 1919 space, in McLean. Aykan Demiroglu, formerly of Locanda, and Domenico Cornacchia, of Assagi, are behind it. The chef is Christopher Carey, who has cooked previously at the Ashby Inn and the Wine Kitchen.
It’ll be a bistro menu, and each month will feature dishes from different regions around France.
I mean, anything’s possible.
And RD put out some good pizzas at Bebo. Some very good pizzas, sometimes. The operative word is “sometimes.” I had some excellent food at Bebo. I also had some food I wouldn’t have served to guests in my own home.
And I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such condescension and such disdain for the customer as I — and my guests — did at Bebo.
That doesn’t get talked about much anymore. The talk is of tax troubles and his abuse of trust of his staff, not paying them for months and months. Those are serious things. But it’s all serious, if you ask me. Things flow from the top, from the power source. It’s amazing what mistreatment can do at a place, how it can completely unravel something so promising.
Can he cook? He can. If he’s just slinging dough — and think about that for a second, a man who ruled the city’s dining scene a generation ago, reduced now to slinging dough — but if he’s just slinging dough, I think the pizzas might be pretty darn good. Hakan Ilhan is getting one of the most talented kitchen grunts in the city — no, in the country.
But you know, we’ll see.
Does RD stay engaged for more than a few months?
If some attention comes his way for something other than his penchant for getting into trouble, does he begin to dream about yet another comeback, with a place of his own?
2 Amys has been doing this a long, long time.
There’s a lot of al fresco dining in DC — lucky for us.
We’re a regular Cafe Society (minus the wonderful languor, the superior fashion sense, the discourse that goes beyond politics and pop culture, and a populace that would rather be than do).
The following would all be at the top of my list: Johnny’s Half Shell, Brasserie Beck, Cashion’s, PS 7’s, Oval Room, Poste, Zaytinya, the revamped Cafe St.-Ex, Belga Cafe.
Now THAT’S a sandwich.
And thanks for writing in today … I love you, always.
(My mother, the best sandwich romanticizer I know.)
It’s a really interesting question. And people in McLean have been asking if for years and years.
But I think the problem is with the question.
You could also ask: Why is Palisades starved for good restaurants? (Even after BlackSalt arrived, friends of my wife’s who live there — who already had Makoto, an excellent sushi restaurant, in their midst, and easy access to Georgetown — complained of having “no place to go.”)
Or: Why is Potomac?
Your question presupposes that affluence is a condition of having good restaurants. Affluence and, presumably, sophisticated diners — or at least, diners with a lot of money. But restaurant pockets or cultures like we’re talking about don’t come about because of these factors. They come about because of population density, and because of access to transportation, and because of the proximity to cultural institutions (see: Penn Quarter).
McLean doesn’t have any of those three things. Neither does Palisades or Potomac.
Haven’t though about those in AGES. And oh yeah — half the pleasure, no more than half, was in putting on the pout-lips.
Thanks for playing. You’re in contention …
Who else’s got one?
What’s it called, do you know?
I wonder if it’s a permanent spot for the guy who had a smoker out by Gilbert’s Corner — The Pit Stop …
I like the Pit Stop okay. It’s tasty. I wish it were more tender, more luscious.
I think the three best restaurants to have opened in the city in the past 6 months are Little Serow, Mintwood Place and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.
I want to put in a special mention for Cork, which is not new, but which has a new chef (who is not new to DC, but new to Cork): Rob Weland. In effect, Cork is like a new restaurant these days — and more delicious than ever.
I’m off to eat soft shells, fries and ice cream …
Then, time to let the wind coming off the white caps slap me in the face.
Lest you think I’ve got it too good — it’s warmer there than here. And not by a little …
Hill East, please drop me an email today at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get you your copy of Giada. Thanks so much for your terrific mini-essay.
And if any of you have great Rehoboth recs — for anything, not necessarily for just food — hit me at that address, too.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …