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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.Can't wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world.
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: Truckify a Washington restaurant
Food trucks go brick-and-mortar all the time, but the opposite occurs, too -- Kababji Grill, for instance, recently took to the road. As did roving sandwich purveyor Pepe, José Andrés' toe-dip into the world of mobile eats.
For today's contest, we're asking you to truckify a local restaurant. Give your new mobile eatery a name, and tell us about some of the items you'd like to see on its menu.
For example: Cart du Marcel, from chef Robert Wiedmaier and the crew at Marcel's in Foggy Bottom. On the menu: Boudin blanc hot dogs ... quenelles in lettuce wraps ... chocolate mousse cups.
Todd's favorite entry wins a copy of At the Kitchen Table: The Craft of Cooking at Home, a beautifully written book by Greg Atkinson.
That’s pretty ironic, because in this area hole in the wall and divey with great food usually describes — almost exclusively describes — ethnic restaurants.
In Virginia, you could take them to Maple Avenue, which from the outside gives the appearance of a dive — it’s a former Anita’s, I believe, and before that was probably a donut shop. The inside is utterly un-divey, a cozy, softly lit space with art on the walls and a soothing paint job and an eclectic mix of dishes.
Also in Va, and Italian too — A La Lucia, on the edge of Old Town, or La Strada, in Del Ray. Not wowing, by any means — hole in the wall Italian is just not a strength of the dining scene — but very, very decent, and there are certain things on the menu, like the homemade spaghetti with a fresh-tasting marinara at La Strada, that I really like.
And — let me keep thinking …
I can help you out with three of those cities, and maybe someone can supply you with some tips for the rest …
In Savannah … Elizabeth on Thirty Seventh, Butterhead Greens Cafe, and Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, an old-school boarding house and a one-of-a-kind experience.
In Charleston … FIG, McCrady’s, Hominy Grill, The Grocery.
In Miami … Michael’s Genuine Fine Foods, Pubbelly, Sabor a Peru.
There’s a slew of good pho out there, and northern Virginia is where a lot of it is.
Not all. I love the broth at Pho 88, in Beltsville, when you catch it at the right time. Rich, but balanced … aromatic, but not overpoweringly so.
In your neck of the woods, jeez — lots of places … Pho Xe Lua, Pho Hot, Pho 75, Minh’s, Hai Duong, Tay Do (which, apparently, is open again), Pho King … the list is long …
If you think about it, pho is probably the best, most consistent, most all-around rewarding meal you can get for the money in this area.
I love the stuff. Could eat it every day …
Congratulations! That’s great news …
And no, you may not get too many more nights like the one you’re planning, but you will be able to take the newborn out to a lot of places in the first six months. And after that you’re still good for a while, too, provided you go at off times (early for dinner, late for lunch, midday if a place serves straight through). Make a list, now, of places that are really loud (you may hate them, but they’ll soon be an asset to you). And if you’re not already, get acquainted with the better Asian and Latino family restaurants in the area — unlike the vast majority of American restaurants in the area, even the ones that have high chairs, they genuinely do love kids.
I think Eola is a very good bet, and there’s even an all-veg menu for your wife.
CityZen would be another good bet. It also has an all-veg tasting menu.
I hope the two of you have a great night. I’ll be interested in hearing where you land, and getting a full report …
That would be Cantler’s Riverside Inn, in Annapolis.
Especially if you can snag a seat at one of the picnic tables overlooking the water.
Best time to go is late June through August, when you’re much more likely to find crabs from Maryland and not Mexico or Venezuela.
Local crabs, steamed properly, with cold pitchers of cheap beer, on a patio shielded from the sun but hard by the water = bliss.
Thinking about crab coming from far, far away to meet the needs of a market that was weaned on the real thing reminds me of a long piece I wrote some years back about the local crab market, and the practices engaged in by some companies and producers.
Did you know, for instance, that crabmeat can be marked as coming from Maryland with only 10 percent local crabmeat in it?
Or that Phillips Seafood, a sort of crab multinational with many, many picking factories in the Pacific Rim, shrewdly coined the term “blue swimming crab” to — I would argue — confuse the public about the contents of its packages? Blue swimming crab is not blue crab. Check the label, always.
My understanding is that Landrum has moved on — and will roll out, at 3:42 this afternoon, a combination coffeehouse and burger shop from a retrofitted bus that roams the various wards of the city. No name as yet, though I am expecting a call to that effect at 3:36. Stay tuned …
Howsabout halfway between Foggy Bottom and Dupont, and Blue Duck Tavern? New chef, new energy in the kitchen …
A good bit cheaper, and in Dupont, is St. Arnold’s on Jefferson, a mussel and beer hall. I like the Eastern Shore-style prep on the mussels — steamed in beer, with Old Bay, corn on the cob, and hunks of sausage. The Alsatian prep is great, too. And if you go early, you can take advantage of happy hour prices on the beer.
Gotta admit, I’m surprised. But we are talking about truckside eating, after all. Quick and dirty.
Yeah, good call.
And I have to say, your feelings echo mine exactly. It’s all about the feel. Just as it is at a similar place in industrial Rockville, Amalfi. Nothing great on the plate, nothing even all that interesting, but comforting in its way. Sum of the parts kinda place.
And thanks for the good feedback on the system — I’m going to pass your criticism to the in-house web guru.
Scallop margarita, soft shell crab, cheeseburger (one of the best in the area), scallops, whatever the pasta dish is, mustard-crusted salmon.
Nothing outre, no genre-bending, no unexpected pairings, just good, technically proficient, and honest cooking.
Hope it’s delicious. I want a full report next week …
Blue Duckers, are you out there?
Someone just handed you a BRILLIANT idea. Complete with a brilliant name and a brilliant menu.
We’ve got a front-runner …
Thanks so much for playing, Rachel …
Sure. Sounds good.
Just sorta kinda pales in comparison to Blue Migration, is all … No offense to you, or to Hank’s …
Man oh man oh man oh man …
What. An. Idea.
And I love your vast and intimate knowledge of the goods on offer. You know that Viet Royale is one of the places to go for shaky beef (Rice Paper is its equal, now), you know where to get great banh cuon … Clearly, you, like me, have spent a helluva lot of time in those corridors.
One neat thing about this idea is that all those cityfolk who are always complaining about how Falls Church is too far to drive for a bowl of soup or a sandwich — as if a great bánh mì is just a sandwich; as if Zipcar didn’t exist — would finally have a chance to taste what’s so exciting to so many of us.
But here’s the deal. If you want to be in contention, you gotta get us a name for this fantastic truck …
Let me invoke the young woman at brunch this past Saturday, responding to a very expensive (and practical) baby shower gift from one of her friends:
“OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS! HOW AWESOME!!!!!!!!!” (breaking now into sobs of joy … )
Whoa, whoa, whoa …
Killer sandwich. I could eat that roast goat every day of my life.
Paging chef Monis, paging chef Monis …
Fantastic name. And yeah, can’t you just see it?
The Chipotlization of one of the city’s most refined, old-school restaurants.
YOU GUYS! You’re making this such a tough deCISion …
Or how about —
Thanks for playing, Katelin …
Yeah, please don’t …
Gotta say: LOVE the idea, don’t love the name. Try again?
Good to know.
And butterscotch pudding, even if it’s not amazing butterscotch pudding, is still butterscotch pudding, i.e., what’s not to like?
Not bad …
The Portable Eden …
Pho Banh Bun …
Such quick, witty minds on this chat. As if didn’t already know …
Clearly a widespread problem. Thanks for alerting us — all of you. I hope we can correct this …
My preference is for Feast of Eden.
Literary allusion, cleanness of execution … But that’s me …
Thanks again, everyone, for playing, and also for just sending in regular old queries and comments.
I really appreciate it, and we had so many terrific ones today, I wish we could just hand out a few books and call it a day.
Time to pick a winner of our contest.
I love Blue Migration. I love Mussel Car. I love Komitose. I love Feast of Eden. All fantastic — great ideas, great execution.
I’m going to go with Feast of Eden, if only because it’s such a many-sided idea, and the chatter has such a great grasp of what makes Eden Center special.
Hit me with an email — email@example.com — and I’ll get your copy of At the Kitchen Table: The Craft of Cooking at Home, by Greg Atkinson, off to you this afternoon.
Thanks so much, everyone, for everything. Fun, fun day …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 … [missing you, TEK … ]