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 . . .
* Green Pig Bistro, Arlington
One of the best and most intriguing of the current crop of Hipster Farmhouse restaurants (dishtowel napkins, bluegrass in the air, repurposed wood and yard-sale tchochkes throughout). The chef, Scot Harlan, an alumnus of the kitchen at Inox, cooks with precision and clarity, making light of a plate of crispy pig tacos (the pig, here, is salty, crunchy matchsticks of julienned ears) and even a country-style pate. There's a fantastic drinks menu, and a not-bad selection of Virginia wines, including a Michael Shaps Cab Franc that sells for $5 a glass; it's a perfect match for the rich, porky treats.
* Moa, Rockville
Situated in the fascinating industrial sector of Rockville, amid a slew of old warehouses and specialty supply stores, you would never find this intimate Korean restaurant if you weren't looking for it. It's worth seeking out. The cooking is vivid and punchy -- great bibimbap, served several ways, along with a parade of soups, noodle dishes and stir frys. Order a soju to wash it all down; the mango and watermelon are fresh and gently sweet, a good counterpart to the garlicky intensity of the food.
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.
Maple Avenue, Vienna
Some diners might be skeptical of splurging for $20 + entrees in a tiny, repurposed diner where the 8 tables are wedged together so closely the room can feel like one big dinner party when the drinks are flowing. Others might be skeptical of the menu, which bends in a dozen different directions, implying a kitchen with a scattered, be-everything-to-everyone vision -- which is to say, no vision at all. But this is a surprisingly focused restaurant -- and a surprisingly rewarding one, too, a place that feels like a personal statement, backed by an amiable staff that clearly aims to send you away smiling. The chef and owner, Tim Ma, does his part, too. He makes a mean shrimp and grits, and his beef cheek sandwich with beer battered fries is one of the best simple plates around. Don't miss the bread pudding.
*Society Fair, Old Town Alexandria
I find the room garish, the prices high, the mood presuming. I'm putting this on here on the strength of two terrific sandwiches -- a fabulous baguette stacked with thin shaved ham and good mustard and lamb shoulder stuffed into a griddled flatbread with tangy yogurt and spinach -- and a superlative wine list.
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.
* Sidebar, Silver Spring
Chef Diana Davila-Boldin, a Windy City native, has improved upon her Chicago dog -- grilling the link, griddling the bun and overloading the ripe, fresh toppings. The result? The best dog in Washington, and better than any Chicago dog I have ever had in Chicago. I'd give this poolhall/hipster bar/cafe a spot on the list just for that, but I also love her mini-falafel, her homemade sausages, her cod fritters, and the cochinita tacos that amount to a glorious precis of El Chucho's Cocina Superior -- Jackie Greenbaum's forthcoming "inauthentic Mexican" restaurant, in Columbia Heights.
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.
* Meaza, Arlington
The largest Ethiopian restaurant in the country, according to owner Meaza Zemedu, if you count the butcher shop, grocery and banquet room in addition to the dining room itself. Which wouldn't mean much at all if Zemedu wasn't a talented cook who commands such a focused and consistent kitchen. Her wats, or long-simmered stews, are remarkable for their depth and length. The kitfo is superb, akin to a great beef tartare in its blending and balance of spices.
* Cork, DC
DC's best wine bar is eating better than it has since its early months, thanks to new hire Rob Weland. The erstwhile Poste chef has brought a seasonal focus to the menu, a welcome development for all those who regard the place as a regular in their dining-out rotation. More important is his great gift for making complex combinations feel inevitable and for imbuing simple arrangements with subtle textures and touches.
East Pearl, Rockville
A superlative addition to the unofficial Chinatown of northern Rockville, this cheery, subtly modish restaurant is turning out uncommonly clean-tasting versions of standard Hong Kong-style fare, including shrimp dumpling soup, shrimp with walnuts, and soyed chicken -- all spectacular. 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.
*New this week
Today's contest: Who gets your vote for best bargain in town?
For the past few months, the Washingtonian food team has been traveling all over the District, Maryland, and Virginia, determining which restaurants will make this year's Cheap Eats list. Now, it's your turn. Where's the best bargain on the dining scene? Remember, a good deal isn't only about price and tastiness, it's about value. Make the case for why your place is such a good deal and you'l win a copy of Nuts in the Kitchen, an excellent collection of recipes from Susan Herrmann Loomis.
This is wonderful.
Thank you so much for taking the time to seek out Katie Fowler, and write up why you think she’s so deserving. It’s great to recognize people like this. They ARE the face of these places, in many, many cases.
I would love to continue this practice of singling out and praising these folks. Perhaps again in a few weeks we can reprise the same contest, which will give everyone time to go and get the name of someone in the biz who makes your days better.
Thanks for writing in …
And thank all of you for being patient with the operating system delays this morning. My fear was that we were not going to be up and running at all today, so this is a welcome surprise …
Wow. Now that’s what I call coming to aid of a fellow food-lover!
Thanks for taking so much time on this, and being so thoughtful with your recommendations and suggestions. My mouth is watering …
Re: San Fran. My latest two recs are not quite “fancy, well-known” destinations, as you call them—they’re not Gary Danko —but they’re becoming better known by the week and month — The House, in North Beach, and Mission Street Chinese, in the Mission.
I hear you.
I’d take everyone to Fiola. It’ll feel special, and the prices aren’t going to blow your budget.
See my quick take on the place, above. As I say, I think the place is really, um, cooking after an uncertain start. You’re not going to find better pasta dishes in the city.
Good luck. And I’d love to hear how your dinner turns out …
Seriously? You’ve heard good things about the food? Have you been talking to the chef?
Because I have heard nothing good about the food, and, in my one visit there, was underwhelmed by every dish hit the table. Including a burger topped with cheddar, bacon and an egg. It had the warmed-over, muted quality of one of those wrapped breakfast sandwiches.
And the sushi seemed to have been sitting a while before it arrived. It put me in mind of buffet sushi.
Best thing was my Manhattan — strong, cold, smooth. The booze was from nearby Catoctin Creek, which is making some very good spirits.
I think Mintwood Place would work.
And it wouldn’t be that loud then, but it would by 7.
Let’s see, what else …
You could try The Majestic in Old Town, housed in a handsomely restored diner. It’s meat-and-potatoes place with a twist. There’s even a meatloaf on the menu. With potatoes. Don’t miss the cocktails. And save room for the desserts.
Or Ray’s the Steaks, in Arlington. Both places, The Majestic and Ray’s, are going to have more muted environments. I like both places, a lot.
Activity ideas … You could pile everyone into the car and go for a drive around the Tidal Basin, look at the cherry blossoms, note the joggers, take in the sunshine.
And … yeah, I’m pretty much out of ideas after that one …
… Unless you consider hitting a restaurant an activity. Which I most definitely do. : )
Yeah, I heard about this place not too long ago. It’s on my short — actually, long — list.
It sounds like a fun idea. Of course, fun ideas like this are only fun in reality if the food is any good.
I’ll get back to you — to all of you — in a bit …
It’s amazing the value some places can give. It’s also amazing how cavalier so many places are when it comes to the question of value.
Why is it, I’ve always wondered, that a Vietnamese sub shop can put together a delicious sandwich for less than four bucks, while — typically — an American restaurant or cafe charges two and three times as much for something far less tasty?
And it’s not just sandwiches.
I recently ate a fantastic plate of fried trout at a Peruvian restaurant — a whole fried trout, beautifully fried. With oiled rice and a side of beans. $13.
I cannot name one American restaurant in this area that can make a comparable plate of food for the same price. Only the chains. And they’re not delicious.
What you tend to find in this area is an American restaurant that says: We are all about simplicity and honoring our sources. And so it gets its fish from a local purveyor, and names that purveyor on its menu and instructs its staff to tell the story of that purveyor, and how that purveyor caught that fish, etc., etc. And the restaurant proudly serves that purveyor’s fish, which is fresh, of course, but doesn’t TASTE any better than the trout you had at the Peruvian place — in fact, it most instances it’s pretty disappointing — with rice and beans, which are (you guessed it) not nearly as good as the bargain spot’s rice and beans, though the menu will make a great deal over the authenticity of the preparation. And the final “of course”: The dish costs $23.
Or maybe Rice Paper, in the Eden Center — aka Little Vietnam — which I just wrote about for the magazine.
A slew of good dishes there … excellent grilled stuffed grape leaves, which you bundle with mint and pickled carrot and radish into thin doilies of rice paper and fold and roll like cigars, an offal-laden but remarkably bright and tangy chicken and cabbage salad, a plate of spice-rubbed pork ribs, a fabulous thrice-baked chicken, snails in a coconut cream sauce … I could go on and on and on.
Oh, and the spicy lemongrass tofu — one of the best tofu dishes I’ve ever encountered; phenomenal.
It’s a very swank place, too, with white leather chairs and a pressed tin ceiling and dangling lights, far from the functionary hole in the wall environs we still tend to expect of a so-called ethnic restaurant.
Congratulations on your imminent graduation. Have fun and enjoy your time with your parents.
If you do end up going, I’ll be curious to hear how your meal turned out …
I’m with you.
I think foodies who pop in once and then blog or post or tweet their experience with a sort of electronic shrug of their shoulders, tend to miss the value of a place like this, which is best understood when you go once or twice a week over a period of time, like a year or years. It’s a neighborhood restaurant, a true neighborhood restaurant in that you need to understand its larger context to get what it’s doing.
I haven’t found many restaurants that are better for families than this one. Many of the servers are very good with kids — good in specific, non-generic ways — and one of the neat things about the place is that the parents can have a grown-up sort of experience alongside them, drinking wine or beer (every one of which is brewed on site) and even eating food that goes well beyond pub grub.
Thanks for writing in … You’re definitely in contention …
It’s not cheap. But I think you’re being glibly dismissive in just writing it off like this.
Remember, the guy running the show here had the best restaurant in Washington for a couple of years there in the mid-aughts. Initially, the place struggled with its identity, and its aim of rustic elegance often eluded it. But that’s not the case now.
I think it’s a pretty fully realized vision at this point. And pretty consistently delicious.
You’re right in saying that 50 bucks won’t go far if you’re looking only at a couple of top-end entrees, but most pastas are in the 20s.
I’ll have to try Saad’s. Thanks for the tip.
And comparing and contrasting Philly cheesesteaks is a fun adventure, and more than enough justification for going up.
You’ll have to try Tony Luke’s next time, although I will say that my last pork, provolone and broccoli rabe sandwich there was surprisingly not-great.
Which reminds me.
I did get to La Forchetta, the latest roost for deposed celebrity chef Roberto Donna. Had the Margherita pizza. Eh.
Terrific, bright tomato sauce, but the crust didn’t have enough salt or char; it was doughy and chewy and I ended up leaving most of my edges on the plate. Good cotechino sandwich, though. Donna’s famous pork shoulder on ciabatta, with provolone and green sauce, was sold out.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
And all good spots and good deals.
Of course, I would rather you had spent more time talking up one of these places than giving us a quick-hit type of list. But of course there’s still time … : )
That’s a GREAT idea. Thanks so much for thinking of it and writing in …
And doesn’t this same water taxi go down the river to National Harbor?
Not that there’s great eating on the other side — you’d have better luck in Old Town — but it’s a pretty scenic ride and some of the restaurants offer really pretty views of the water.
They could try Reston’s PassionFish, one of the best seafood restaurants in the area. That might be a very good option for them.
For a seafood and fish restaurant, the prices are actually remarkably good, a function of the fact that the group that owns the restaurant, Passion Hospitality, owns four others and has, as a result, increased buying power.
Thanks for thinking of your fellow chatters, and for pushing me to make another suggestion …
And a very good value, yes.
Re: the “injera wall” — if this were ten years ago, I would agree with you. Injera then was made with so much white flour, it just sat in your gut after you were done. But not anymore. Most of the injera I’ve eaten over the past few years is much lighter. I seldom find that I have to abandon a dish halfway through because I’ve simply consumed too much sourdough bread.
Zenebech Injera, on 6th St. near Howard University Hospital, makes a very teff-intensive injera that you can ask for separately. It’s fantastic — dark and nutty almost, with a grainy crunch that gives the experience (for a non-Ethiopian, anyway) a different dimension.
Thanks for writing … and playing.
It’s interesting; I’ve always thought of Fireflies as one of those restaurants that falls in between fine dining (or casual fine dining) and cheap eats — not really a bargain, and not really gastronomically exciting either.
But I guess it goes back to what I said earlier about neighborhood spots. The true neighborhood spots have to be understood in their context, and over a longer period of time than what a reviewer might generally give a place.
Thanks for coming back on and elaborating. I appreciate that.
“More of a special occasion place,” yes. But I still think that, if you gravitate to certain things, it can be a part of your regular rotation — assuming you are the sort of person, like all of us here, presumably, who thinks not terribly much of blowing decent sums of money on recreational dining.
I love your last line, by the way: “Fifty, while expensive, is what you end up paying at a mediocre place in the area.”
So true, so true. And so sad, so sad …
But these contests, they’re about the writing — not just listing the places, but making the case for them, with interesting turns of phrase that (ideally) make our mouths water …
Something to remember for next time.
Or for this time, if you want to hustle and do a quick rewrite …
No, no — 3 WEEKS.
And occasionally I break my own rule, as I did with Green Pig Bistro, which has only been open — what? not quite 3 weeks now.
You’ll notice that I gave it some good praise (see above); if it hadn’t been excellent, I wouldn’t have said a thing on here or on Twitter. I would’ve given it another few weeks and tried again.
Thanks for asking and giving me a chance to explain/clarify my approach …
Yep; pretty great.
A phenomenal deal.
A deal we probably can’t say enough about on here and in the magazine …
Who isn’t lusting for one of these sandwiches right about now?
The last two pizzas I had there were only fair; I know EXACTLY what I’m getting next time in, which may be very, very soon …
I love Bayou Bakery, too.
I haven’t had the BLT, and have been meaning to get back over there and give it a taste. Your praise for it is making me RAVENOUS right now.
(I am; I’m full of raven.)
I wish more places made BLTs. But not cute ones — not “our interpretation of.” Just the plain simple thing we all know and, presumably, love. With great, fresh ingredients and simple bread.
I’d love to see every bar and lounge offer one on its menu. Even a mini-BLT, if it’s done right.
In this pork-laden age, it makes no sense not to see a BLT at every upscale diner, bistro, cafe and Hipster Farmhouse restaurant in the area.
Thanks for all the great comments and tips and emendations and contest-entries.
The winner of Susan Hermann Loomis’s Nuts in the Kitchen is … NEDC, for her heartfelt paean to Franklins.
NEDC, drop me a quick email at email@example.com, and I’ll put the book in the mail to you later today.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …