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 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.
This Week's Contest: Unsung Staffers
It's the season of dining awards--the 2012 James Beard nominees were announced a few weeks back (with nods for Restaurant Eve, Komi, Obelisk, Rasika, Fiola...and Todd!), and shortly thereafter came the finalists for the Rammys.
But as we all know, a great restaurant is not built on top chefs (or writers) alone.
For this week's contest, we're asking you to look beyond the bold-faced names and tell us about the stoic staffers who help elevate your dining experiences. Maybe it's the bartender who starts making your dry martini the moment you walk in the door, or the hostess who knows your mother likes to sit facing the window during Sunday brunch. That busboy who chased you halfway down the block after you forgot your wallet on the table, that Maitre d' who enthusiastically conspired to create the perfect surprise birthday party for your son. Tell us about them.
The person who builds the best case for their beloved staffer wins Nuts in the Kitchen by Susan Herrmann Loomis. Good luck!
Sure. It sounds like a good group you’ve got going there.
Send me the list of names — you could do it now, during the chat — and I’ll choose.
Jessica Voelker, our terrific producer, and I have been talking (not too seriously … yet) about the idea of doing our own version of a dining club or group, wherein I choose a restaurant every other week and you, the chatters, go and eat and I also go and eat. Then, when it comes time for that week’s chat, we talk about the place — what worked, what didn’t, what we thought it was trying to do, etc.
I’d be interested in hearing what all of you out there think about this …
I think that food stains and crumbs on the menus at a place where dinner costs $150 for two is inexcusable. I can look past that some at a restaurant where dinner for two costs $50, and it’s a small mom ‘n’ pop.
This is a very, very expensive area to live in. $150 is not trifling. For most people I know, that’s the kind of night out you have maybe once a month, if you’re doing okay at the moment financially and you have also budgeted accordingly — with your time as well as with your money.
To then see crumbs and stains not long after you sit down? It’s just dispiriting. It cries of laziness.
There’re a lot of peeves I have. I probably can’t come up with them all at the moment, trying to type fast, but …
I dislike not seeing a smile when I walk up to the host stand. Or — just as bad — getting a forced smile, and having the host or the team greeting you overdo it. (A few days ago, the reservationist who greeted me didn’t even bother to welcome me, preferring to wrap up the call she was on first. Bad.)
I dislike having dining concepts, i.e., “how our menu works,” explained to me. I dislike concepts in general.
I dislike the future continuous tense from waiters and waitresses — “This is going to be the seared escolar with grapefruit segments and microgreens … ” It always makes me think that what I’m staring at is a PB&J that will magically transform itself into the ordered dish. (Now THAT would be a molecular gastronomy I’d like to see.)
I dislike soup being poured tableside.
I dislike being offered pepper before I’ve had a bite of food.
(Time to move on. I could go on for another 15 minutes … )
Does it need “media love”?
I see on Yelp that the place has a four-star rating. That’s pretty good. I’ll get to my thoughts about Yelp and ratings in a second, but it would appear that “the people” are kind of high on it.
What a short, positive review in the Post or the Washingtonian would do, is to bring in people from outside that neighborhood — people who aren’t going to turn to Yelp just because they happen to be in the area. I could see the worth of that. But a neighborhood restaurant gets by on its neighborhood, and it sounds as though the neighborhood is behind it.
Of course, we don’t really know who “the people” are. Are there publicists, hangers-on, and friends in that mix? How many of them are actual, disinterested customers?
And I, at least, don’t know what a four-star rating means, because I’ve been to Yelp four-stars that were good and I’ve been to Yelp four-stars that were terrible.
As for what needs “some media love” — I think it’s those places that otherwise would never get visited, a problem Terasol doesn’t appear to have. I make a point of trying to uncover these sorts of restaurants — restaurants without the great location on Connecticut Ave., without the pedigreed chef or restaurant group, without big backing, without publicists, etc.
Anyway, just musing …
Your prompting today means that I’ll make a point of revisiting the place again soon and, if all goes well, report back. Deal?
Thank you so much.
As they say at the Oscars — it’s just an honor to be nominated. ; )
But seriously … I know that sounds awfully cliche, but it’s true. MFK Fisher is a literary lion, and simply to be linked to her name on the list of nominations is pretty wonderful to me. And in the past, and this year, too, there’s some awfully good writing in that category. I’m honored. I never expected it.
I’d hit Zaytinya for its weekend brunch.
I haven’t been back for that brunch in a bit, but it’s excellent, one of the best in town. You mentioned feta and philo — the spanikopita is made on the premises, with from-scratch phyllo, and is excellent.
As brunches go, it does lean a little more lunch-y than breakfast-y, so prepare yourself accordingly.
And drop us a note and let us know how it turns out, if you go …
Old Greenbelt! My hometown. A place of real character, and real characters. So walkable, so livable. Beautiful, simple. A legitimate, old-fashioned community … And no other place in the world like it …
(You’ll have to forgive my reverie … )
Forget Old Ebbitt; it’s likely to be mobbed.
I’d focus on either Cafe du Parc or Brasserie Beck, and book your reservation now. If the weather’s nice, you can sit outside at du Parc, which is a big part of the appeal of going there in the warmer months.
There’s good cooking to be had at both places. du Parc is a French bistro; Beck is a Belgian brasserie. There’s a lot of variety at each.
Zero in on the mussels at both places (white wine and garlic at the former; at the latter, my favorite preparation is with a veal Bolognese).
Good luck. And be sure to drop back on and let me know how where you ended up and how things turned out …
I would say Rice Paper is kid-friendly.
Can’t remember if it has a high-chair or not, but it’s very welcoming of little kids — as most Asian and Latin restaurants are. (And as many American restaurants are not.)
To go back to the idea of a high-chair for a second … My thinking is, if a restaurant has a high-chair, then it is saying in effect: We want children. And if the other diners are put out by that, and cast nasty glances at families with small frys in tow, then that’s just too bad. Take it up with management, because management by keeping high chairs at the ready has already made the philosophical choice. …
… You bring up something really interesting, here, in putting Rice Paper into a discussion with Four Sisters and Present (the latter, you’re right, has definitely slipped.) In the case of Present, I think there’s a change in the kitchen to blame (I don’t know for certain, but when I was in recently many of the dishes were prepared and presented differently.) In general, though, I think that restaurants like this — so-called ethnic mom n pops — maintain their level post-review a lot better than, say, American bistros or chef-driven corporate-backed vehicles.
The great challenge for places like Rice Paper is in handling and managing expectations post-review. The immediate problem is in staffing. Often, a place has to hire new people, and that’s a big change, and there are pains in absorbing that increase in staff. Eventually, there is the problem of — let’s call it culture clash. A review in a big paper or magazine typically brings in people the restaurant was not meant to cater to, people outside the culture. If a place changes itself too much to accommodate this new audience — if it adjusts its levels of spicing, say, or of its core audience perceives that it is now catering too much to these new diners — it can lose its way.
There’s a lot that can go wrong. On the other hand, there’s a lot that can go right. Four Sisters managed the crisis beautifully after it was reviewed — and after Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington gave it his kiss of life — and became a fixture of the dining scene.
Yeah, those black synthetics are a little disconcerting at first, aren’t they? But they work just great. And no crumbling to bits.
Sounds like you had a nice time at the table, Clifton. Virginia reds and leg of lamb = a great combination.
Hey, Melissa. Thanks for chiming in from three hours away …
Just off the top of my head … I could probably come up with about 30 more, but here goes …
Mangialardo’s, DC, for the G-Man
Bayou Bakery, Arlington, for the Arm-Drip or the gumbo
Zorba’s Cafe, DC, for gyros
Fishnet, College Park, for the fish tacos
Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington, for the bone-in chicken with rice and channa masala
China Bistro, Rockville, for the shrimp-chive and beef-celery dumplings
La Limena, Rockville, for the tiradito or the anticuchos or the ceviche
Mama Chuy, DC, for the pork sopes
A&J, Rockville and Falls Church, for noodle bowls and chili-oil wontons
St. Michel Bakery, Rockville, for everything
Taqueria la Placita, Bladensburg, for pork leg tacos and al pastor tacos
Pho 88, Beltsville, for a regular bowl
Bon Fresco, Columbia, for the brie sandwich and London Broil sandwich
Ren’s Ramen, Wheaton, for the miso ramen
Woodlands, Langley Park, for the masala dosa
Pimento Grill, DC, for the goat curry roti
Carbon, Rockville, for the asado de tira with black beans and rice
R&R Taqueria, Elkridge, Md., for the cochinita tacos or the chilaquiles
Sidebar, Silver Spring, for the Chicago dog
Mount of Lebanon, Falls Church, for the chicken shwarma
Shawafel, DC, for the chicken shwarma platter
Ruan Thai, Wheaton, for the yum watercress
Sardi’s, Beltsville, for the Pollo Ever — a marinated, chargrilled, spatchcocked chicken
What’s on the menu?
I’m so glad you wrote in to share your experience with all of us — don’t hoard those good times, people!
That’s one of the things a forum like this is meant to do, be a gathering place of great tips. Good places need and deserve our support (though I can’t imagine a vehicle like this, from the Armstrongs, who also own Restaurant Eve, the Majestic, Eamonn’s and Virtual Feed & Grain, is hurting too bad at this point.)
I’m curious — how much did this demo dinner cost?
How would they know you were part of any kind of experiment? I mean, you wouldn’t announce yourself and say, “I’m here for TK’s dining club,” or whatever it is we would call it.
Or would you? It hadn’t occurred to me that people might try to game the system, as it were. I’d hate that. But of course, it’s possible (I overheard a guy at a restaurant many, many years ago — eight, nine years maybe — identify himself to a waitress as Tom Sietsema. I had just started writing restaurant reviews. I knew it wasn’t TS — for one thing, he botched the pronunciation — but I know he didn’t know that I knew, so I asked him about his job, said it must be fascinating. He dropped his voice low so no one would hear us and said, “I’m not the guy. I just say that to get a good meal. Works pretty well, usually.” He had a grin of the s-eating variety. A huge grin.)
If we did something like this, I would pick the restaurant — and that would be all I would do. That and moderate a discussion about the place two weeks later. It’d really be a chance for all of you to weigh in on a place — which you visited in roughly the same period of time, when certain dishes were on the menu, etc. — and compare and contrast perspectives. I think it could be insightful, and I know it’d be fun.
Yeah, that’s one of mine too.
There’s almost no pacing to many meals anymore. And lots and lots of table clutter. Things feel rushed a lot of the time, and I think you end up eating faster to clear the room for more things to come.
Good one. Thanks for chiming in …
You’re fantastic — what great write-ups!
Can we have you hit the road every weekend and report back? ; )
I’d heard some good things about Vintage. It’s on my list for my next trip down. Thanks for the other recs, too.
It’s challenging, I have to say. If it were more than a week, it’d be an issue. What I try to do is, I plan the week so that I’m hitting restaurants that are not bread-dependent.
And though I’m not Sephardic, I eat Sephardic during the week, which means I don’t have any problem with something like rice.
This weekend, I hit Rosa Mexicano, which has put out a Passover menu for (I want to say) the past five or six years. This year’s guest chef is Jonathan Waxman, the former Chez Panisse chef who now mans the stoves at Barbuto, in the West Village in Manhattan.
I thought it was a pretty wonderful meal, all in all — though the staff seems not to know a thing about the holiday or the rationale behind the dishes. But dish by dish, it’d be hard to do much better if you’re keeping pesach.
The brisket tacos were excellent; the meat is stuffed into small, nubbly matzo meal tortillas. Best use of matzo meal I think I’ve ever seen. The charoses — also wonderful — was Sephardic, style, with bananas, coconut and pomegranate. One of the three main courses was a bone-in leg of lamb, which had been rubbed down with Mexican spices and roasted in parchment. We sliced it from the decently Frenched bone and made tacos with the accompanying tortillas. There was an interesting version of gefilte fish; the dumplings tasted slightly like bacalao, and I want to say — I’d have to consult my notes — the fish had been mixed with potato. They were a touch dry, and also served too cold; the roasted pepper sauce was just the right accompaniment, however — bright, smooth, piquant. Dessert was a good pinon cake, with dates and orange.
I don’t think it’s a strategy.
I think it has a lot to do with the way people seem to want to eat when they go out now, the degree of casualness they’re looking for.
The problem is, a place like Graffiato isn’t cheap. And yet it doesn’t give you some of the things you really ought to get when you’re dining out and paying $140-$150 for two.
Well, I’ve seen 100-pound women really pack it away, so I don’t think that means anything.
But point well taken.
How about 8407 Kitchen + Bar, on Ramsey?
I would think it’d be an ideal sort of place for a low-key business meeting. There’s a cocktail list, and a pretty good one, and if you choose to sit at or in the bar area, you can order off the bar menu, which includes a terrific hamburger and a killer dish of tagliatelle with Bolognese. (The tagliatelle is also on the upstairs menu.)
Good luck. And thanks for reading …
That’s not bad, as these things go.
Thanks for the details …
I’m off to lunch, everyone.
Thanks so much for all the questions and comments and peeves and raves today.
I’m going to hold off on awarding the book until next week. I didn’t see a lot of nominations from you that fit what we were looking for. I’ll blame that on our wordy explanation and be back with a clearer set of instructions. Meantime, be thinking of that waiter or waitress you ask for every week at your favorite cafe or bistro or diner, or that bartender who makes you feel better at the end of a long, tough day. We want names. We would like to honor (in some small but significant way) the people who do the important work that never gets recognized.
Good luck to all!
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]