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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.
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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.
You'd never find it if you weren't looking for it. Situated in the fascinating industrial sector of Rockville, amid a slew of old warehouses and specialty supply stores, this cozy Korean mom 'n' pop is about as hidden as hidden gems get. 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.
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.
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.
There’s a lot to like there, and I think you hit on a lot of what makes it a get-away sort of place. I just haven’t been that enamored of the food. For those prices, I want more finesse and more daring.
Anyone else out there been? I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say …
I think the grandaddy of them all is Cantler’s Riverside Inn.
There’re a number of places in the area I like to go. Most are pretty fun places, and if the crabs are very decent-to-good you’re almost guaranteed a good time. Some are dives, like Bottom of the Bay, in Laurel, where you might think you’d just pulled into a biker bar. Some are more yuppified, like Bethesda Crab House.
A crabhouse is a pretty basic thing. You roll up your sleeves, you get a couple pitchers of beer (simple, cheap stuff, nothing with raspberry or pumpkin), and you settle in for a couple of hours of picking with friends or family.
What Cantler’s has going for it is a really picturesque view, overlooking Mill Creek, which empties into the Chesapeake. And the kitchen knows how to steam crabs; they’re almost never under- or over-steamed. (If I do find the occasional over-steamed one, I mention to a waitress and get an immediate replacement, sometimes two.)
A great place. A summertime must.
Also, it’s often the case that in summer — at least for a short window there — the crabs are actually coming from Maryland. The rest of the year, you’re most likely picking stuff from Mexico and Venezuela.
The best I can offer you is Los Tios, in Del Ray.
Very, very decent.
I don’t know that it’ll satisfy those cravings, and I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing mariachis there. But as I say: very, very decent.
I understand what you’re saying.
I have a different bone to pick, which is that a chef with a huge platform like this — and the influence and resources to make things happen — ought to turn his attention elsewhere. Really — making stadium food healthier? That’s a cause of national concern?
Making fast food healthier, now there’s a worthwhile project. If a chef like Andrés — or Wolfgang Puck, or Jean-Georges Vongerichten, or any name-brand with multiple properties around the country and around the world — were to devote time and attention to improving the quality of fast food in this country, things would begin to change. Partner with investors and open 2,000 outlets of Fresh ‘N’ Fast, building off the Chipotle model. Get your chef friends to do the same. Make it a goal to have 25 such brands — with 2,000 quick-serve outlets — around the country in the next 10 years. High-quality ingredients (because chefs with buying power and influence can cut deals), cheap prices, accessible to all.
The food revolution has been a great thing. But it has produced a two-tier system. Many of us eat better than ever — with more variety and more excitement on the plate, and more options at stores and restaurants. And yet Americans are fatter than ever, and fast-food has never been more dominant, and in many areas it’s cheaper to get a McDonald’s burger than buy a bunch of carrots.
Slowing down, valuing what we eat, simplifying our lives — all the tenets of Alice Waters and her acolytes … these are nice things. But they require resources to begin with. Waters and Slow Food and all the other movements that are such forces today need to reckon, finally, with fast food and chain food and improve it. It’s not going away. Our world is too fast and scattered, and America is too much about speed and efficiency and mass culture to turn things back. Many, many people eat at places like McDonald’s and Applebee’s not because they don’t know better (I constantly hear folks in these movements talking about the need for “education”) but because these places are very affordable and very accessible.
I haven’t expressed this as well or as cleanly as I would have liked, aware of time constraints and the need to move on to the next question. These are quickly-typed thoughts, partially considered, and I hope they will be taken in that spirit, not analyzed as if I had spent a month constructing an argument.
Closest to it right now is another new place, Green Pig Bistro, in Arlington.
Dishtowel napkins? Check.
Bluegrass on the sound system? Check.
Repurposed wood and tchotchkes? Check.
The other great similarity is that what looks offhand on the plate is actually the result of great care and very tight execution.
The place is right out of the box, and already functioning like a pretty vet operation.
Sorry. Been a while since I’ve been.
I’d love to go back.
My advice, from last time — if anyone’s serving cabrito (baby pig), get it, get it, get it …
The meat is “exuberant”?
I mean, we all know YOU are — though hell, who wouldn’t be, reading this? You have me salivating over here.
I love this kind of experience, where you’re absolutely stuffed, can’t even THINK about another bite, wondering how in the world you’re ever going to eat again … and then five hours later you’re already scheming to get back.
Thanks so much for this very, very pleasurable virtual-meal …
Depends what “ever” you’re referring to.
The “ever” not long after chef Tony Conte arrived, and a pretty good restaurant shot to the very top tier in the city?
Or the “ever” a year or so after, when the place settled into a groove somewhere between “pretty good” and “superlative”?
You’re in the lead, bud.
I mean, you’re the first one in with this, but still — in the lead!
Seriously, though, you made my mouth water — a real accomplishment, and a real departure, too, from the usual spray of bile …
I know that market, and I know that sandwich. And — damn you, Van Ness … ; )
I like the burger at Mr. Henry’s too. You’ve reminded me I need to go back sometime soon …
But — theory! Where’s your burger theory?
Naming a place, that’s okay, but what I’d really like to read is a theory of what makes a burger good.
For instance, and just to talk about one aspect of the burger … I don’t think you want a bun to be an example of great bread product. A sandwich is all about the parts fitting together, not unlike a basketball team. And too many soloists — high volume shooters, in the common nerd hoop parlance — spoils team chemistry. I like a bun to be unobtrusive and mesh into the meat a little. I don’t want it sitting up high — something you find with a lot of “gourmet” burgers. Why? Because I don’t really want to taste it. I want to taste the meat. I want to not get my hands dirty. I’d like to have a flavor of sesame seeds.
Oh, yeah — a soft, garlicky, cuminy, minty kefte (ha) with good harissa and yogurt sauce?
As for bread — I use lavash, warming it in the oven on a pizza stone.
I’m assuming you make your own. But is there also any place in the area you go to get this?
You’ve made me really curious to go and try a Cook-Out. Great name.
It’s funny the places we pine for. They’re seldom the great places, the places we’ve acquired the understanding to enjoy. They’re almost always these sorts of places, where the burgers just have that smell — a smell that conjures up a whole world and takes you back immediately to a time and place …
Thanks for writing in and kinda-sorta playing …
(Theory, people. Theory … )
Yeah, Mike’s is a good alternative. Thanks for chiming in with that …
And you’re so right about Cantler’s — good weather and a long weekend means you’re probably not getting in. Or getting in, but waiting forever for the privilege.
I try to go on weeknights, and even then I aim to get there about 3:30 or 4 so I can be sure to snag a table overlooking the water. It just makes the meal better.
But you don’t need better, is the thing, if you’re having a big cook-out and eating a few burgers from the grill. It’s the same with drinking with crabs. You need a lot of something. And too good a something just gets in the way. It’s unnecessary.
In other words, you’re going for a sort of cross between a soda and a beer, something that will give you a light buzz after a while, but something you can quaff. The fun of drinking beer with crabs is in the quaffing.
In many ways, chefs are among the last people I would ask to speak about “healthy” eating.
(And really, shouldn’t the word be — healthful?)
There are generally a few light dishes on every big-time chef’s menu, but the majority are rich concoctions — as they ought to be; a restaurant meal is an indulgence. The chef’s aim is to send diners away sated and happy. That can happen with things like watercress and broccoli, but it’s nor the norm.
Do they know what is good for the body? I think many do.
But knowing what’s good for the body, and serving their customers what’s good for the body, are two different things.
I just had it this weekend.
A light toasted everything bagel with Nova, light cream cheese, onions, tomato and capers at Bagels and …, in Annapolis.
I’ve searched and tasted around the area for years, and these are — and remain — the best bagels I’ve tried. Light and not at all dense, not doughy and undercooked like many bagels around here. The sesame, poppy and everything — my favorites — are full of air pockets inside and sport a nice crust outside.
They’re always good; I’ve never not had a good one. But sometimes they’re great, like the ones this weekend. I’d drive 40 minutes, easy, to get them when they’re like that.
Oh, and the lox — silky, silky smooth …
They were out of their excellent bialys, which is what happens when you don’t get there within an hour or two after they open. Too bad …
I think the bigger mixed message is hospitals.
A place to nurse you back to good health with food so bad that even a dog would turn up his nose. And the cafeterias of these places — which cater to doctors! — are only marginally better.
If I had to be laid up at the hospital for a few days, 10 out of 10 times I would choose the stuff I could get at a ballpark.
And here’s the sad thing — it wouldn’t be that much worse for me.
It’s a terrific beer, and I like what those guys’ve done. But it’s not what the situation demands.
It’s kind of like saying, if I do the grilling, it’s good. If they do the grilling, it’s not — give me the griddled.
There’s just something wonderful and evocative about a griddled burger if it’s good, isn’t there?
Thanks for playing …
I think you make good points about the size of the patty and the importance of the bun.
In fact, I think in a lot of ways the bun is probably the most underrated ingredient in the mix. Certainly it’s the least understood. If you have a decent bun, and you swab it with butter and lay that baby down on the griddle until it gets golden and toasty, then chances are that if the patty is at least decent, it’s going to be a pretty wonderful sandwich.
You bring up Palena … I think the Palena burger is really good; the meat’s amazing; I think it’d be an even better sandwich — a better whole — if the bun melded more into the meat and weren’t so noticeable as a piece of bread.
Thanks for writing and playing … You’re in serious consideration …
Gonna have to disagree.
It’s a sum of the parts kinda thing. That crappy beer just happens to be absolutely perfect for the situation. Its crappiness recedes into the background, and allows you to focus on and appreciate the crabs.
Think — to reach back into the distant past — of the Sixers title team of 1982. Marc Iavaroni, small forward. A scrub. Or the Lakers of the Showtime era, who filled their PF position with Kurt Rambis. A scrub.
Were there better guys out there? Of course there were. And great teams have no problem adding to their roster — good players take cuts to go there. But Iavaroni and Rambis were ideal for what these teams needed. They were cheap, for one — a big thing when your roster is full of high-salaried stars. For another, they receded into the background, not vying for shots or rocking the boat — again, a hugely important consideration for a star-laden team. On another team, you would notice their crappiness. Here, the crappiness was a virtue. They spaced the floor — stayed away, basically, on offense — and fulfilled their function on D by scrapping and doing dirty work.
Yeah, sounds good.
As for that smear of mayo on your burger — you’ve GOT to be from Maryland. ; )
Thanks for writing …
I love it.
Such smarts here, and such simplicity, too.
What a terrific breakdown/guide.
You really get at the delicate balance that’s required, the way one more delicious thing can nevertheless throw off the whole concoction, the way less is sometimes more, the way a controlling element needs to stand on its own.
That makes you our winner today, Kathleen. Thanks so much for playing. Drop me a note at email@example.com, and I’ll get your copy of Charred & Scruffed by grill guru Adam Perry Lang off to you this afternoon.
And thanks to all of you for playing, too. And for ranting and remarking and sharing your tasty tips …
I enjoyed it, and hope you did, too.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …