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.
PRODUCER'S NOTE: Let's try this unsung heroes contest again!
Kliman Online regulars know well that we've been doing contests the past couple of months. Chatters submit writeups about the topic of the week; Todd picks the one he likes best; we send that winner a book. So far these contests have been going great, with lots of funny, smart, thoughtful contributions livening up the conversation.
Last week, however, we had a dud. We asked you to nominate your favorite unsung dining-world heroes: favorite bartenders, hosts/hostesses, busboys--all those hardworking people who help restaurants run well but rarely get the spotlight. Questions poured in for the chat, but none of them had to do with the contest. We can't believe that's because you don't have favorite service-industry folks you want to nominate, so let's try this again: name your favorite dining-world hero. Don't just tell Todd who, tell him why, too. The winner will get a shiny new copy of Warren Brown's Cakelove in the Morning.
I did forget them! Terrific place, and has been for a long, long time now.
Thanks for coming on and speaking up for TECC.
I don’t think you have a problem. There’s some pretty good stuff near you — Kabul Kabob, Gamasot (for soolongtang and good panchan), Food Corner Kabob House, Canton Cafe, Hot Bakes & Cakes (an Indian bakery), Afghan Kabob, and Mike’s American Grill (one of the better of the Great American Restaurant group restos) …
Anyone else got good Springfield recs?
Re the Wizards. Lucking out and getting Anthony Davis would be huge — I think he could change games with his shotblocking and superior defensive instincts. We’re assured of no worse than the fifth pick, and should find someone good among MKG, Beal, Robinson and Sullinger. I think Ted doesn’t wade into free agency until the NEXT off-season. This team is really intriguing right now, although most people are quick to discount them and/or sneer at their record. There ARE pieces here. Kevin Seraphin is proving to be the steal of the ‘10 draft, and the first post player we’ve had since … um … since … Ruland?? He and Nene are the Bruise Bros., part II.
Thanks for writing in.
You don’t know how Jaleo is surviving?!
Drop into the revamped downtown location and see for yourself. I had an excellent meal there recently, with better desserts than I’ve ever had at a Jaleo since the very early days (the take off on a gin and tonic is fabulous).
I don’t get the bashing of this place, and particularly not in light of the things Jaleo is doing to stay fresh and relevant. How many places are this good and this consistent? How many places are this affordable? And this stylish? And this festive?
Zahav, in Society Hill.
That’s Michael Solomonov’s Israeli/Mediterranean restaurant, with baked-to-order laffa and a very appealing menu of vibrant small plates.
I’d love to hear a report if you make it there. Take care, Naeem …
Lucky you. “Time to wander the city” sounds fantastic — whatever the city. (I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I go somewhere new, or even somewhere not-new, my favorite thing is to just get out and walk. And eat. Walk and eat and basically just get lost. No better way to explore a city … )
Anna Spiegel, our excellent assistant editor, just compiled a guide to lunch deals around town. Take a look.
I’d also add Zola Wine & Kitchen, which is putting out some very tasty simple dishes these days — salads, sandwiches, small plates. And don’t miss the desserts.
Clifton … good to hear from you, bud.
I could really go for some good ribs. There’s just not a lot around here that does it for me. Almost everything I’ve had in the past 6-9 months has been a great disappointment.
(I just had some of the best ribs of my life in Kansas City last month, at Oklahoma Joe’s. Near-perfect. So good …)
I’ll check out Absolute and report back … Thanks.
I don’t know that there’s a preferred way to voice your concern. I think the thing to do is to summon a server or manager and say just what you said to me right now.
I know that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do in the moment. But that’s the best time to do it. In truth, the only time to do it and rescue the meal.
Restaurant GMs are fond of coming on this chat and saying: “If we’d only known, we could have corrected the problem and made the night perfect.” That may be true. But I think it glosses over the great difficulty many people have of breaking the fourth wall and confronting (because it is a confrontation, let’s face it) an employee of the restaurant. And doing this not after the fact, quietly, one on one in a corner of the restaurant, but in the middle of the drama, with others watching.
One thing to bear in mind — and something that might give you courage to speak up next time — is that restaurants of this caliber really don’t want you to be disappointed in something. That more than anything is what eats away at management. The entire operation of a good, ambitious, high-toned restaurant is geared toward — or ought to be geared toward — sending you home on a cloud.
Oof — that’s bad.
C’mon — who’s got a person to nominate?
All this talk about service all the time, and we can’t single out someone who is great at giving it? Surely we’re not just interested in the kind of formally correct but faceless service that the Michelin folks seem to be so fixated on …
I’m sorry to hear that.
I’ll tell you, though — there ARE things you can do to make your life easier. I mean, this is the golden age of restaurant special requests. *
For example, you can order a vegetable and request that the kitchen steam it rather than sautee it or grill it. Restaurants don’t generally announce that they do this, but they’re not often put out by the request. I would stress to the server when you order: No oil. Or — very, very little oil.
If a restaurant lists a fish dish, and it sounds good but also rich, full of cream sauces and things like bacon and butter, you can ask if they might consider altering the preparation for you. Here, the key thing is to stress that you have high cholesterol and that you really do enjoy food. The great worry on the part of the kitchen and management, too, is that, should they strip the dish of its riches, you won’t like it.
It always helps to have a look at a menu in advance of hitting a restaurant. More time to think about how you’d like to order means more of a certainty that you can eat well when the time comes.
If you have the time, and are thinking far enough in advance, giving a manager a heads up that you’ve got these dietary restrictions is a great courtesy to extend to the restaurant. You’re not ambushing them, but rather working with them to come up with a meal you can eat. They’ll respect you for it.
On a somewhat related note, no one apparently feels any compunction anymore about telling you, when they’re invited over for dinner, what they will and will not eat. I was recently informed that Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and “pretty much anything Asian” were off-limits for a meal I wanted to make for some friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Why? I wondered. Did he have allergies, ailments, etc. “No,” he said. “I don’t like that kind of food.” What do you suggest I make instead? I asked. “Real food,” he said.
Hope you don’t mind me interjecting here, Todd. Having just returned east after five years of food writing in Seattle, however, I have some Portland picks.
Chatter: For your date nights, I’d suggest Beast. If you like farm-to-table stuff, Naomi Pomeroy will likely blow your mind a little bit with her seasonal veggies and loving way with proteins. Also, just a quintessential Portland dining experience. As at Komi, the kitchen does all the work, you just sit there and feast.
Portland’s brunch lines—recently parodied on the show Portlandia —are notorious for a reason, but tiny basement spot Simpatico is well worth the wait. Eggs Benedict are great as are any of the savory crepes on offer.
If you like cocktails, head to Clyde Common (great late-night menu too). Some of the best drinks you’ll find anywhere served by some serious charmers behind the bar.
Bargains: The butcher shop at Laurelhurst Market is doing a barbecue plate that sounds terrific. Bluehour has a really good happy hour—try the burger or housemade tagliatelle. Two great food trucks: Koi Fusion—try the shortrib taco—and Nong’s Khao Man Gai for, um, khao man gai.
Karen Brooks at Portland Monthly is a great food critic. Check out her 48 Hours in Portland piece for a bunch of great recs. Happy eating!
No, interject, interject …
Thanks, Jessica. You know that scene better than anyone I know. I’m glad you chimed in …
Who doesn’t love Julia Child?
I grew up watching her. I mean to say, in between watching reruns of “Batman” and “Gilligan’s Island” after school, I would watch Julia Child — sometimes copying out her recipes on an index card and handing the cards to my mom when she walked through the door.
The last thing, of course, she wanted to see after having worked a full day was a recipe for something with 14 steps to it, but I persisted. Never did get the satisfaction, but I persisted.
Eventually I got down one of her books and started making the dishes themselves. One year, together with my father, we made dinner for my mom’s birthday out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Total disaster.
We weren’t accustomed to eating so much butter, and the meal I made was soaked with it. Scallops in butter. Rolls made with butter and slathered with butter. A chocolate mousse built on butter. We were all sick afterwards.
Finally! A name! : )
Well, half a name … Do you mean Leslie Shafer?
It’s great to hear this. Thanks for playing.
Who else wants to pay tribute to a server, bartender, runner, host, valet, etc.?
He should also get his full name listed: Krishna Ramsundar
It’s great to give some pub to these folks, but please, if you can, tell us their full names. And also please, if you can, really make the case for why they’re so good at what they do.
Sure, that’s understandable if you’re only going once in a while to a place.
But a lot of us have places we haunt once or twice a week. Or, if you’re Dr. William Hall, once a day, every day.
The waiter at Ping Pong Dim Sum you mentioned — now THAT’S a waiter. I hope you gave at least a 25 percent tip …
Thanks for chiming in and helping fill out the list …
Seeing the same people year in, year out is reassuring at a place like that.
I’m with you. It tells me that morale is good, and that it’s a decent place to work (or better), and that they’re happy to stick around. A lot of restaurants spend great gobs of cash trying to create an atmosphere — but often, it’s things like this that help to establish that mood and sense of solidity.
And that keep us interested and attached.
Walker Percy knew this, even though he never, as far as I know, wrote about restaurants. But he wrote about everydayness, and the challenge of living. “Repetitions,” as he called them (with a big assist from one S. Kierkegaard) are a big part of why we go to certain restaurants — why some places, in other words, are meaningful to us even if the food’s not top of the line. “Rotations,” the opposite, are a big part of why we try out new places or venture to unfamiliar cities to eat — a departure from our locked-in norms, a chance to break up the pervasive everydayness that numbs us to the world, and to wonder.
I don’t. Maybe your fellow chatters do …
She really does liven up a room, Gina Chersevani does.
On the other hand, she’s sort of a known quantity. I’m interested in hearing about the people who don’t get written up in round ups or give interview about “the scene,” etc.
People like Jana Castle, who, at the time we ran this Q-and-A, had been working at the Red, Hot & Blue in Laurel (the best, by far, of the outlets) for 19 years. I think she’s still there. It says a lot, seeing here there.
Thanks for setting me straight on that. I appreciate it.
I’ve heard good things about that bruschetta, though I didn’t get it my last time in. I did have the gnudi, which was served with a green pea puree; fantastic.
I think Cork’s a pretty exciting place to eat right now. And it’s also got one of the most interesting wine lists in the city.
I’m interested to see how the place evolves as Rob Weland, the chef, gets used to things and tweaks and changes the menu.
How about Uzbek this time?
Cupola Samarkanda II, in Brooklyn. Cheap and good and memorable.
If you go, and I hope you do, I’d love to hear a report on what you found …
No, I almost went to see it last weekend. I really do want to see it. I love documentaries, love sushi, love father-and-son stories.
Speaking of which: I ended up seeing another film, a terrific film — best I’ve seen all year. Footnote (Hearat Shulayim, in Hebrew), directed by Joseph Cedars. It has the richness and weight of a good novel, and really needs to be seen at least twice. It’s about fathers and sons, and has so much to say about family in general.
It was a finalist this year for the foreign-language film Oscar.
Servers like that, they’re angels. They’re amazing.
They make you feel so good about, not just a restaurant, but about the world … about LIFE.
(And then you wander out to the street and find that someone keyed your car. But for that hour and a half …)
I just wish you had a name to give us …
Thanks for chiming in …
You know, I don’t think I give enough credit to the people “in the business” who deal with this kind of infuriatingly entitled crap on almost a daily basis. I know it would gnaw away at me and make me thunder in rage. And many of these folks just smile and walk away and — the important part — move on.
That about does it, everyone.
Thanks for all the comments and questions. And the corrections. And the entries.
Which reminds me…
Adams Morgan, you’re the winner of our contest today for your testimonial to Krishna Ramsundar at Cashion’s. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your address, and I’ll put a copy of the “Cakelove” breakfast book in the mail later today.
Oh, and before I sign off … Tune in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show tomorrow — 88.5 WAMU — at noon; I’ll be talking about Virginia wine with Kojo, Dave McIntyre, the Post’s wine critic, and Dr. Tony Wolf, a viticulturist at Virginia Tech.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …