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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: What's the worst thing you ate/plan to eat this summer?
Deep-fried whoopie pies. Fairground hot dogs as long as your forearm. Seven-layer nacho dip and potato salad swimming in mayo: Summer is full of amazing foods that are terrible for your health.
For this week's contest, tell us the bad-for-you food you relish most during the warm months. As always, don't just name the item, tell us why you love it--and why it's worth all those calories. The entry that Todd likes best will win a copy of Uncorked: My Journey Through the Crazy World of Wine by Marco Pasanella. In a blurb on the back of the book, Martha Stewart writes that "everyone interested in enjoying an excellent glass of wine should read [this] book."
Thanks for writing … And I’m glad that worked out so well for you …
There’s a good vibe there; you can tell the staff is in sync with the mission, and it’s obvious that it’s enthused by what’s coming out of the kitchen and from the bar.
These are not-so-little things.
That’s comedy, all right. The darkest kind. It’d make a great scene in some angsty, alienated comedy series starring Louis C.K. or Larry David.
I’d love to have been there.
We all relish the idea of giving as good as we got in a situation like that, but the reality is, we’re paralyzed.
L’esprit d’escalier — the apposite put-down always comes later, much later …
Thanks for chiming in …
It really depends on my mood, what I’d prefer to eat at any given time.
My list is long …
—New Potato Valley for the fantastic baked potatoes. I like a version with artichoke and green chili mix.
—Joss for sushi and sashimi-based salads.
—Bagels and … for the bagels and bialys (have to get there early every day), and for the lox (Nova or belly!) with cream cheese, onion and tomato. Best bagels in the metropolitan area.
—I’ve had some only-ok meals in the past couple of years at Lewnes’s, but when the (wet-aged) steaks are right — proper char, proper seasoning, correct temp inside — they’re very, very good. And I enjoy spending time there, in that old-school, low-key setting.
—Level for small plates and cocktails.
—The wine bar Crush for surprisingly good cooking and wine flights.
—The Mexican/Salvadoran/pan-Latino joint Sin Fronteras for chips and salsa, guac, drinking beers and margaritas, and a few plates to share with friends.
—O’Leary’s for its updated Maryland fish house setting and menu.
—Cantler’s Riverside Inn for crabs.
—Main Ingredient Cafe for the sort of well-prepared simple food that many places think they’re serving, but they’re not, or not as well.
—Carlson’s Donuts & Thai Kitchen for donuts and really pretty decent Thai. And I mean, who doesn’t love a combination like that?
How about Cork, with new (ish) chef Rob Weland, for often-exquisitely rendered (but not fussy!) small plates and great wines?
Or closer to home — Vermilion, for a mood-making room, sturdy, sophisticated cooking, more good wine, and some of the best desserts in the area?
The aforementioned Crush, In Annapolis, could be fun, too — and you could have a lingering stroll through the city and along the harbor.
I’ll be curious to hear what you end up doing … Enjoy the big day …
My most recent experience was at Sidebar, the cut-rate Jackie’s next door (although technically not — you can access it via the restaurant), and it was terrific.
I did have a brunch at Jackie’s a couple of months before that, and it was a bit of a disappointment. And Davila-Boldin was around for that, so …
A possible culprit, here, may be the imminent opening of El Chucho, the taqueria Jackie Greenbaum and her team, including Davila-Boldin, are opening in Columbia Heights. When owners and chefs take on new projects, the original often stumbles initially, and, as well, in the months prior when so much energy is expended on getting the new place up and running.
Hill Country’s where you go, for the Eak’s bowl of red. I’ve had better chili, but it’s authentically Texan.
It’s been a couple of years, but the chili at Austin Grill — a shade of its former, pre-corporate self, to those who remember when Ann Cashion was at the helm — was not bad, if I recall.
Better than the chili at Ben’s, which, though the old heads will dispute me, was never that good to begin with; not, anyway, in the years I’ve been going there.
For what it’s worth, I was at a Hard Times about 4 or 5 months ago, and had a pretty good bowl: chili mac 5-ways, with onions and grated cheddar.
It’s almost impossible to find the real thing.
I wrote a long piece about this, in the City Paper, 7 years ago. One of the loopholes for crab companies, was that they only needed 10 percent Maryland crab in the container to be able to pass off their product as “Maryland crab.”
I spent a couple of weeks on the Eastern Shore, and I’ll never forget seeing these bags in some of the warehouses. They were vacuum sealed and contained a brownish goo. I asked a lackey at one of the warehouses one day what those bags were, and he told me that they held “crab guts.” It was somebody’s job on staff to crush the shells, the real Maryland crab shells, with a contraption that reminded me somewhat of a wine press. Out came the “guts” — including the very distinctive tamalley and all the sweet, musky innards that gives Maryland crab (callinectes sapidus) its particular taste. Mix that sweet, brownish goo with crab imported from Venezuela and voila! — Maryland crab.
This isn’t to say that you can’t find a good crab cake in this area, just that you can’t really say that that local crab cake is truly local.
Can’t wait for this to materialize on the search engines …
Congratulations on the healthy and happy baby; that’s great news. And her name is … Kushi? Uni? Umami?
Don’t tell me it’s Todd …
I so enjoy these kinds of meals … And believe me, I often have them whenever I get together with my brother and sister-in-law, or whenever I get together with my wife’s side …
Take a look at my Annapolis list up top for ideas. I think Main Ingredient Cafe might be just what you’re looking for. They can stay safe, like they want and need, and you two can order something like the black-and-white sesame crusted tuna over good greens, and get a nice glass of unoaked Chardonnay to go with it.
Some good desserts, too, all made on the premises, and all simple things, too. Cakes, pies.
Hope it works out. Keep me posted.
It’s funny, because although it’s not quite like what you describe, it’s good and it’s interesting and it’s right in your backyard. Maple Avenue.
Get the scrambled eggs with Chinese sausage, kimchi and steamed rice. And for dessert, four kinds of mochi, fried dumplings filled with dark chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar, and a Key lime pie made with yuzu.
A lot of the more interesting brunch places in this area are not, strictly speaking, what you would think of as brunch places. Maybe you’ll find two or three egg dishes. That’s the case at Vermilion, which I like a lot for that first meal of the day on the weekend. Just so you know to expect the menu to lean a lot more toward lunch — pan-fried trout and pea soup and some salads — than breakfast.
Some don’t do brunch fare at all, but just tack on an extensive drinks menu full of Bloody Mary variations, mimosas, etc.
I recently had a nice brunch at the Four Seasons, in Georgetown. There was no question that it was brunch. And it was fantastic. Raw bar, ceviche station, pastries, a table of salads, a room full of desserts.
Total for two, with tip and tax and parking: $220.
Reservations — oui, oui …
But a few weeks, you say? You may be too late. I’d try today. Your targets — Le Comptoir, La Regalade, Frenchie, L’Ami Jean, Senderens.
(I’m really sorry to hear about the technical problems we still seem to be having with the system. I’m sorry you had such troubles. Don’t tell me that others of you are experiencing similar problems—? Actually, do tell me … )
Hit the High Spot — casual, sophisticated, low-key. Good beers. The kind of place you can unwind a little in.
For a quick lunch, I also like Ocean Odyssey — Maryland crab soup and broiled or fried crabcakes (the owner, Roy Todd, used to operate a crab-picking facility in the back of the restaurant; don’t know if that’s still the case).
Too soon, too soon …
Patience, grasshopper …
I have to say, Naeem, I’m surprised.
You read this chat weekly, you’re excited to follow the doings of chefs and restaurateurs, the talk of meals and dishes is of consuming (ha) interest to you — and yet you don’t tip 20%?
The etiquette, here, is that you might go up if you’ve been given truly superlative service, or you might make a severe adjustment down if you’ve been neglected and/or treated badly, but that if everything went the way it was supposed to, you’re leaving 20%.
Now, pre-tax or post-tax — that’s the question. And there was no consensus last week on that question, just as there has been no consensus among my friends when I’ve posed the question in the past …
I was there about 6 weeks ago. Good meal.
Not quite as good as what I’d enjoyed at my meal prior.
Main courses, for instance, were not as tightly executed as they ought to have been. But the flavors were there.
Our starters and a salad were all good. Had an excellent gin and tonic, too. And that great bread basket. And the good French press coffee. And a good dessert to finish. And very good service.
But it’s also possible that if you had not heard so, so, so much about it, you would have enjoyed it more.
What is the restaurant equivalent of terroir? Really good question …
I remember growing up with 15%, too.
It was 15% for a long, long time.
Then, almost overnight, I remember hearing that 20% was the new standard. I think this was around 2000. I might be wrong. My memory might be playing tricks on me. But I think that’s when I became aware of the change.
What I think is interesting, here, is that among my non-food obsessed friends, I still hear talk of 15%. Or 18%. (I don’t understand the 18%; I’m just passing it along as something I’ve heard talked about). The idea among some of them seems to be that 20% is for a very good experience; you reward the server for going beyond the norm.
These are not rubes, by the way; they just don’t live and breathe food the way you and I do.
I can make my case all I want, and I have, but I cannot seem to persuade them.
I have learned that tipping is highly personal for some people.
Why that is, I can’t say, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that there’s nothing, anywhere, in writing. Nothing posted in the restaurant itself. Nothing scrawled at the bottom of the menu …
Too true …
Everybody benefits, it seems, from a diner having a few drinks at dinner …
Thanks so much, everyone.
Lunch calls …
Gonna be a hot one tomorrow, high of 98 with more humidity than one of those personalized Norwegian steam cabins. Eat some gazpacho and swing by Moorenko’s in Silver Spring or Dairy Godmother in Del Ray or Milwaukee Frozen Custard in Ashburn, Woodbridge, Chantilly or Herndon or The Dairy at Turner Hall at the U of Maryland or Meadows Frozen Custard in Columbia for a cold, creamy cone …
Eat well and be well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]