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.
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.
...............................................................................................................................This Week's Contest: The Great Restaurant Mashup
Oh, there’re more restaurants that have it than just those two.
The Chinese are very fond of snakefish, and though it may not be listed as such on the menus of some of these places, I’d be willing to bet that snakefish is in some dishes — particularly if you were to order off the Chinese menu.
I myself have never tried it — or, not knowingly. I’d like to, knowingly.
Haven’t been to Axian. Thanks for that reminder.
As for Annandale and Eden Center, I mean, wow — lots.
OK, my cheat sheets for each.
Annandale (a.k.a. Koreatown), in no particular order:
—Vit Goel —Gom Ba Woo —Honey Pig Gooldaegee —Da Moim —Oegadjib —Nak Won
Eden Center (a.k.a. Little Vietnam), in no particular order:
—Rice Paper —Hai Duong —Thanh Son Tofu —Huong Viet —Nha Trang —Banh Cuon —Pho Xe Lua —Bay Lo —Nhu Lan (for banh mi)
At the Eden Center, in particular, I really don’t think there’s a bad meal to be had. Obviously some are better than others; some are flat-out great. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a meal that was truly disappointing.
Hope this helps, and good luck. I’ll be interested in hearing where you ended up and what you ate and drank …
I would try Praline, in Bethesda, and Stella, in Rockville.
My favorite, right now, are the scones at Shortcake Bakery in Hyattsville. They’re real, old-fashioned scones, not the pseudo-cake you find at Starbucks and a lot of other places. They’re a little dry, they crumble, and there’s not too much sugar in there, either. Cheryl Harrington, the owner, makes them in a variety of flavors, including ginger and cranberry.
This is a small shop, independently owned, and takes over for the former Rhode Island Reds. Harrington also bakes fantastic brownies and gingerbread cookies, gorgeous homemade cakes (including coconut and lemon), and makes her own breads (challah every Friday). It’s great to see a from-scratch bakery open anywhere these days. This one’s deserving of wider support.
Thank you for writing in.
It’s unfortunate that people took the chatter’s words the wrong way. I’m sure i didn’t help with my added comment about extra charges.
I hope that this sets things straight, and that everyone out there who is concerned about paying for olive oil and salt is now allayed.
I’m interested in throwing this out for discussion, however, before we bury this once and for all, and so I ask all of you reading along —
If you see olive oil or salt as a menu item at a restaurant — as a tasting, with a charge — would you say to yourself: Huh. Interesting.
Or would you say to yourself: Oh, if I want the good stuff, I’m going to have to pay.
Or — what? What do you think when you see something like salt and olive oil listed separately on a menu, as a designated flight?
Jessica, take it away!
(Note: Jessica Voelker, our chat producer and the magazine’s online food and wine editor, spent the past four years in Seattle before returning to DC. She knows Portland cold. And warm. And every temperature in between.)
The very good news for you, Washington, DC, is that almost anywhere you go will have ample vegetarian options—a Portland menu that does not carefully consider meat eschewers is a rarity.
Andy Ricker excels at the reasonably priced and delicious—Pok Pok is a must-have Portland experience.
The happy hour and late-night menu at Clyde Common is a steal—don’t miss the cocktails, some of the best you’ll have anywhere. Elegant Bluehour also has a great HH, as does the new-ish Gruner. None of these restaurants is terribly expensive anyway, but the discounted menus are an excellent value.
I haven’t had the chance to try Little Bird—Gabriel Rucker’s bistro—but I hear great things.
For a more complete list—including a guide to the best vegetarian restaurants—check out Portland Monthly’s 2011 Best Restaurants package.
How about Sonoma?
Or Belga Cafe?
I think that’s reasonable.
“It’d better be really a wow.” Yeah. Can’t argue with that.
I’m curious to know, though — would it send up any doubt in your mind that the regular olive oil, at no charge, and the regular salt, at no charge, are not as good, and that if you want a great meal then you really ought to throw in an extra five bucks?
The best of both worlds.
But wouldn’t a better name be — Mint Coin?
We have a leader …
Great name, great write-up.
Interesting that the first two out of the gate are places that combine great, careful cooking with rollicking atmospheres.
BTW, I’m finding Boqueria to be a pretty nice addition to the scene …
Penn. Ave. establishments, you have been forewarned!
Have a great time …
That whole butterflied chicken sounds amazing. Thanks for that great tip.
The greens — of every variety — and casseroles have been very good at HKPS, in my experience.
That pork hanging from the front case was exceptional when I had it; as good as you can imagine. I’s too bad it was a strikeout for your group.
You’ll have to return now for the dim sum — right now, I think, the finest spread in the area.
When have you ever seen women at a bachelorette party drink beer?
The drinks must be garishly colorful and sweet.
Beer “codes” frat boy. It “codes” rowdies. It “codes” a certain species of food nerd.
It’s true — there’s an awful lot of nickel-and-diming going on these days.
Entree prices are holding steady, while everything else is going up, up, up …
I had a dessert a couple of weeks ago at a fine restaurant that deservedly gets a lot of attention — it was two quenelles (one of sorbet, one of sherbet) with a cookie the size and thinness of a sugar packet. It cost $10.
Glasses of wine typically run $12-$15 for something interesting.
Appetizers are nearly the cost of entrees at some restaurants. The aforementioned fine restaurant charged $18 for an appetizer special. Was it great? It was. It was also $18, i.e., the cost of an entree. Only smaller.
I want to say that I’ve had those olive oils, and those finishing salts, and they’re very, very good.
Different from what you’d ordinarily get, yes.
Better? That’s hard to answer. The olive oils give you a variety of tastes, so that — if you were interested — you could dip your bread into something that was pepper-ier, or lighter and fruitier, or richer and smoother. I wouldn’t say it’s better than the olive oil that comes gratis — I would say it’s an interesting thing to play with if you’ve never sampled different olive oils.
The salts? Again, an interesting thing to play with. And if you’ve never sampled a variety of salts and experienced how a simple thing such as salt can change the taste of an entire dish, then it’s certainly something to spring for — if only once. Better? No. Different.
2 Amys “little things” menu of today x 2 Amys pizzas from 7 years ago = bliss.
If only we had a time machine …
Our new front-runner. Who can beat it?
It sounds like — Dinotle. ; )
The Inn at Little Washington x R+R Taqueria = The Inn at R&R
Couldn’t resist …
Exquisite sourcing, delicate saucing, hyper-precise preparations — which you eat from plastic plates while sitting on a stool in a gas station convenience shop.
One can dream …
Two recs for you —
Violino, for Italian, and the Naked Oyster, for fish and seafood.
The former’s got big-city prices; the latter’s cheaper and more casual.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to these; drop back on and treat us all to a report when you return, please.
The heyday of Galileo was impressive, yes. It was not only the city’s finest Italian restaurant, but also one of the best restaurants in all of DC and, in the eyes of many critics, one of the best restaurants in the country.
And remember: Donna at one point in the 90’s owned, if I’m not mistaken, 13 restaurants.
I first ate at Galileo, as a kid, in 1984. It was dazzling.
By the late ’90s and into the early aughts, you could still get a good meal. Or not. It was inconsistent and not very rewarding. The best thing coming out of the kitchen before it closed was a sandwich — a magical sandwich, to be fair: the most luscious roast pork with broccoli rabe and provolone on a fresh-baked ciabatta.
And the service … well, the service at Galileo and then, later, at Bebo was abominable. Maybe the worst service I have ever experienced at a restaurant at that level. Morale means a lot in a restaurant, and not paying people erodes their confidence in ownership, their regard for their jobs and their empathy for customers.
You know, most people just tweet what they just ate … ; )
Thanks for the fresh-from-the-front report. I like Maple Avenue and think it’s one of those gestalt places where the sum really is more important than the individual parts. And I say that as someone who likes those individual parts.
You know, I had three meals at Elisir and enjoyed them. Though there are things about the experience that I can take issue with, there’s some very good and interesting cooking going on in that kitchen.
I think it’s deserving of a second look …
Yeah, why not?
I’d love to see it. There’s no such thing as too much dim sum.
Love that name, by the way.
Yeah. Be nice, wouldn’t it?
Jessica just wrote to tell me you should’ve gone with Komi Wong Konomi.
(Rarely, I have to say, is she wrong about anything … )
Yeah, and this would play on the TV screens on continuous loop …
Thanks so much to everyone who played … I got a kick out of all the write-ups, and seeing how witty and clever you all are. Not that I didn’t know already …
And to everyone who didn’t, too … Keep the questions coming, and the comments, and the rants — it’s not all about snagging a free book, you know?
Today’s winner … the coiner of Galijaj. A stinging criticism, a fitting tribute, a smart comment on the DC dining scene over the past decade, and a good laugh all rolled into one. Impressive.
Drop me an email at email@example.com with your address and we’ll get a copy of Not-So-Humble Pies by Kelly Jaggers out to you today.
Thank you all …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …