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.
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.
I wish I could weigh in. I haven’t been.
I’d love to know if there’s anyone out there, reading along, who has, and would be so kind as to favor us with a report.
And I’d love to know what you drink when you eat crabs. I got together on Sunday with some friends, including one I hadn’t seen in a long, long while, and the question came up.
I remember being criticized on here for advocating the drinking of cheap beer with crabs when, as the chatter put it, there are so many good craft beers out there now. True enough, there are. But do you really want to drink a beer like that with crabs? Maybe if you’re at home and you have a nice place to sit out and eat them. But if I’m at a crab house, I’m drinking cold cheap beer that I can guzzle like a soft drink. It’s about the Old Bay, and the sweet meat, and the mustard tamalley; it’s not about the hops.
But that’s me …
Jim, I’m so glad to know that you had such a good meal there.
And you bring up two very good points. One, that it IS a good value for DC, a very good value, in fact, and B (apologies, Paul Reiser), that is really does seem to fly under the radar.
Like you, I wonder how could it? A tasting menu restaurant without a “name” attached to it or without a reputation earned over a long period of time (a la Obelisk)? A setting that has neither the ACTION! and NOISE of the small plates hot spots nor the sumptuous refinement of the grand special occasion places that make good on their promise of attending to the little things and making sure you are pampered at every step? Don’t know …
It’s a trend, for sure. And as long as rents are the way they are, and the economy is the way it is, I expect to see more of them, not less.
And hope to see more of them, not less.
I think it’s fantastic, personally, that you can dine in so many different ways these days. From a truck. At a gas station. In someone’s tiny apartment.
Things are poking up through the cracks. That’s a good thing, always.
What surprised me was to see these places included in a story on “The Washington Dinner Party”; they don’t fall under that heading.
I had dinner at Chez Le Commis — a one-bedroom Clarendon apartment — recently and enjoyed it. Tom Madrecki, a recent UVa grad, is the host and cook. A lamp goes on the floor, two tables get set up and shoved together. A bike against the wall and a shelf of volumes (Camus, Kierkegaard) constitute the decor. You sit with strangers (who, by the end of the night, you may become friends with; or — “friends,” in the Facebook sense).
Madrecki did an unpaid stint at Zaytinya under Michael Costa, and did another unpaid stint at the renowned Noma, in Copenhagen. He’s got some tricks in his bag, and there are some fun, exciting details — goat butter for the bread; a bowl of squid ink butter to dip fresh radishes into; a smear of caramelized onions pureed with cream to sauce a loin of lamb; a mound of hand-picked, fresh, steamed crab for an appetizer that also included a granita and buttermilk sauce. There were nits to pick, too. But it was a terrific night, and for $40 with wine pairings for each course, a genuine deal.
The surprise, I guess, is that the cooking was less the avant-garde display Madrecki promised and more a demonstration of what a passionate home cook with an abiding interest in flavor combinations and a willingness to experiment can pull off.
Actually, there was one other surprise: By the end of the night, there was not a single dirty dish in the kitchen.
Thanks so much for remembering and coming back on …
Fun and non-fancy. Well, there’s a lot of that these days. More than ever, actually …
There’s Atlas Room, on H St., probably the best restaurant in that intriguing, still developing corridor. I also really like Ethiopic there (you have to get the lamb tibs). A step down in price, and also in that corridor: Shawafel, for the fantastic chicken shwarma and hummus.
On 14th St., which has solidified its position as a restaurant row of sorts, there’s Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, from the Black Restaurant Group that owns Black Salt, Black Market Bistro, and others. Were you here when Estadio, the tapas bar, opened? Same street.
I’d also recommend Ripple, in Cleveland Park, and, also in Cleveland Park and a step or two down in price, St. Arnold’s, a mussel and beer hall.
Hope that gives you some good possibilities. I fear, of course, that I’m leaving out some good ones. But my brain is not, currently, supplying me anything else … Chatters?
Chatters? Take it away …
Depends. How adventurous are you? How willing to drop some money on a place without knowing much one way or another?
I’ve yet to go. It’s been roughly a month since Aykan Demiroglu, the former GM of Le Paradou and owner of Locanda, and Domenico Cornacchia, the chef and proprietor of Assaggi, took over, and I generally like to give a place some time to settle in to its new digs. Stay tuned.
In Demiroglu and Cornacchia, you have two men who bring with them a vast store of experience and know-how, and that’s more than can be said about many restaurants that open.
You are too, too wonderful.
I guess I’d need to know which details you’re referring to exactly. There are some that come from an interview — and in the case of a restaurant review, that interview is always over the phone and almost always comes after I have hit a place a few times.
But then there are the details that come from personal observation. Every time I go to a restaurant, I make it a point to come away with 10 details. They’re not necessarily food-details. They’re more in the vein of telling details — details that I hope will summon up the place for me, later. I try to record these mentally, without resorting to a notebook or phone, and make a mnemonic for that visit. That forces me to really remember them. And then when I return home I write out the mnemonic. By the time I sit down to write a review, I’ll have anywhere from 30-40 details to sift through.
I know from your tweets and retweets that you’re in a program at college studying food writing — grad program or undergrad? But anyway, if you want to talk about any of this, you can always write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and maybe we can chat by phone sometime …
Thanks again, so much, for all your wonderful enthusiasm …
Great field report. Thanks for writing in …
Sounds like a terrific birthday dinner.
And credit Tiffany MacIsaac for that goat’s milk cheesecake. Isn’t it fantastic?
Something interesting in the $20-$30 range screams Gazala to me.
Druze cuisine. Popping flavors. Warm, layered spicing. Just thinking about the place makes me hungry …
You could always just walk into a Giant or Safeway and, um, you know — buy it. : )
Yeah, no bunny chow here.
Just the chow that a bunny would go to town on, i.e., carrots.
But curry — yes, we can do that. Here’s my list. Take your pick:
—Passage to India. Bethesda.
—Curry Mantra. Fairfax.
—Jewel of India. Silver Spring.
—Spice X-ing. Rockville.
—Bollywood Bistro. Fairfax.
—Woodlands. Langley Park.
—Minerva. Fairfax and Gaithersburg.
—Delhi Club. Clarendon.
A good start there, Clifton.
But you got more questions to answer if you want to be in contention …
(That’s one vote for pre-tax, btw … )
We are in TOTAL agreement. Is that a first?
Should I be afraid?
Should we break out a Bud, Bud, and toast?
That’s funny. I do have one coming up in four weeks …
You know, I realize it sounds strange for me to say this, but I’m REALLY not the one to ask. I go out to restaurants all the time: Where can someone take me that I can’t take myself?
The challenge, in my case, is to come up with something special or different, like driving up to Baltimore for dinner. Or going to a crab house. Or chowing on dogs and beer at a ball game.
But if you’re asking me where would I most enjoy going right now, in the area, and what would I be ordering? Honestly, I’ve been thinking and thinking about this, and I hate to be difficult, I do, but it would probably depend on my mood. A great curry and a beer at Bollywood Bistro could make me ecstatically happy. Maybe I’d want a taco at R&R in Elkridge, sitting on a stool and eating an aggressively seasoned and sauced roasted, diced baby pig swaddled in two corn tortillas while watching people pump gas; that might not be everybody’s idea of a good time, but it makes me happy.
Also happy-making: pastas and bomboloni at Fiola; roast baby goat and pita and condiments at Komi; oysters and Sauvignon Blanc at the bar at Pearl Dive; sushi and sashimi at Sushi King in Columbia …
Sensible and well-reasoned.
Thanks so much …
I’m going to guess that you’re in the industry in some way. Or close to the industry. Or once worked in the industry.
I’m not saying that to “out” you, whatever the harm would be in that (— I mean, none, right?), but your answers seem to suggest someone who thinks a lot about these sorts of things and thinks also about how the restaurant and its employees would regard things.
People that I talk to who are not close to the industry, or who don’t consider themselves food lovers, tend not to think about, care about, or even know these things.
(1 vote for post-tax tipping … )
Thanks for chiming in …
(And btw, that’s another vote for pre-tax … )
The mixed-race shunning is real. I’ve experienced it in many forms, in many places, though my stories generally did not take place in this area. It’s not something you can quite put your finger on — and thank goodness for that, right? — but that’s not to say that it’s not there.
These things can be a lot of fun.
I think a lot of how you feel about things at the end of the night has much less to do with the quality of the cuisine than with how comfortable you feel with the other people in the room. They’re essentially blind dates, after all.
We recently rounded up some Father’s Day specials on the Best Bites blog (also, check out Washingtonian.com’s complete guide to the day of the dads). While there are some things going on, there’s not the same frenzy of activity that surrounds Mother’s day.
We’ll put up more deals on the blog if we get enough to justify a post—meantime, I can tell you that your dad can get a free burger at the Counter in Reston Town Center if you go with him on June 17 and say to the server: “My dad is a BFD!” If you do go, may I suggest you tip said server generously?
Back to Todd…
I hope it’s true, what you say.
I want it to be true.
To judge simply by the comparison of Father’s Day with Mother’s Day, you’d have to conclude that no one cares much at all about fathers. And I think fathers feed this, by not caring themselves. A lot of fathers are simply not THERE. Even if they’re there, they’re not there. They don’t like a fuss, or pretend they don’t like a fuss. A fuss = not manly, somehow. I think for a lot of fathers the greatest gift they could receive would be to be left alone for a chunk of the day. Do their own thing. Have their quiet.
My own father was not like that. I’m not like that. I want to make a day of it. Dim sum in the morning, maybe a ball game or art museum in the afternoon and a light meal at night, at home with my wife and sons and a bottle of wine …
Isn’t it great, the James-hate? It took America a long time, it seems, to figure out what we in DC knew from almost the very beginning. We knew he was a whiny, sniveling, entitled, self-aggrandizing cipher* years and years ago.
My picks … Michael’s Genuine Fine Food & Drink, Pubbelly, Sabor a Peru, Tinta y Cafe for cafe con leche and sandwiches …
*this is a general interest forum; “cipher” will have to take the place of more colorful, and accurate, language
No, not just because he’s rich.
In European countries, it is customary that if the service is good, you leave some change. Zuckerberg left no change.
What’s surprising to me is that a guy who helped to make it possible for almost anybody to report their every action and thought, from what they glimpsed 49 seconds ago in the toilet bowl to the quality of the icing on the cupcake they just bought 7 seconds ago — a guy moreover who has been lauded for his smarts — doesn’t appear to understand that everything he does in public is under scrutiny. That bill WILL be posted.
So, to recap.
It’s a curry.
You see it with lamb, with chickpeas. I’ve never heard the term used outside of South Africa.
That’s a really good, interesting question.
I wish I had an answer for you.
Hey Jessica, might this be fodder for a blog post? I would think that’d be good info for people to have, not just on Father’s Day but all summer.
Totally, we’ll look into it.
I agree wholeheartedly.
There are some very good beers being made in the region and here at home, too, and some very good microbreweries and taverns and beer halls to drink them in as well.
Can you not drink local beers and regional beers and also, on the three or four or five occasions that you pick crabs, drink the chilled swill that goes great with it?
Does indulging from time to time in the latter mean that you somehow are less than serious about the noble cause of craft beer in America today?
If I stop in at a 7-11 while I’m on the road and ravenous and pick up a shrink-wrapped egg salad sandwich, am I doing damage to the cause of the food movement?
As — what?
A fun thing to do on Father’s Day?
Sure. But for me, no can do …
It’s a good question.
I’d say yes, you’re wrong. : )
But seriously … why should a waitress at a pho parlor receive less than a waitress somewhere else? Good service is good service. And — at a pho parlor, that 5% is likely to be, what? Fifty cents? I mean, why not?
Very, very cold, yes.
And particularly on a hot day, with the sun beating down on you as you pick, I think it helps to have something you can down quickly, without much thought. Later, when you’ve slowed down and you’re focusing more on your friends and family and the crab shells are piled high on the table, then a better beer makes more sense to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying a cold Bud or something similar is better. I’m saying in the situation, it’s better.
Thanks for writing in, Naeem …
(Another vote for post-tax … I think we’re pretty evenly divided, here, which means in this group of passionate diners, there’s no real consensus … Interesting.)
I think it’s interesting that you say your starting point is 15%. For a lot of diners, it’s 20%. Among the hard-core food-heads I know, everybody starts at 20. On the other hand, among the people I know for whom going out is fun but not sport, many of them are like you, they start at 15%.
And that’s probably why none of us is rich as Croesus. Because we think about other people.
I think that’s an interesting point you bring up, about generating goodwill toward America. I tend to feel that way, myself.
Thanks so much for these great tips …
I like this a lot.
I particularly like what you have to say about a waiter or waitress fobbing a poor experience off on colleagues. And about leaving an explanation for a low tip.
Smart, considerate …
[I think btw that pre-tax is in the lead … ]
And now we’re tied again, pre-tax and post-tax …
Thanks, Arlingtongue …
I’m running late for lunch, so it’s time to wrap up and say thank you all for the great questions today. And the thoughtful comments and the musings on tipping and the field reports, all of it. You’ve made a gray, rainy day enjoyable …
Our winner: I’m going with DC, DC, and that under-the-wire entry. A lot there that made sense to me, and smart in both directions …
DC, DC, drop me an email at email@example.com and I’ll send out that copy of Clean Start by Terry Walters today …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]