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.
So just avoid the baingan bhartha and you should be fine.
I like the dosas there—special masala dosa, a thin, crispy rolled rice batter crepe roughly the size of a bullhorn and stuffed with a mixture of potatoes, onions, chilis and toasted cumin seeds. With a chutney on the side.
I also like the malai kofta, vegetable dumplings in a creamy almond sauce, and the aloo gobi, with spiced potatoes and cauliflower.
Let me know how things work out …
First of all, thanks for the tip (ha) of Tipico El Encanto. I haven’t been. Your notes are tempting.
As to insects and roaches, etc. … I mean, where to start?
I think this is a very personal thing, and at the risk of turning an entire chat into a weighing in on bugs and critters, I’d be interested in hearing what all of you think about this. When it comes to small places in warm climes, I generally cut them some slack.
I remember having breakfast at a small, independently owned cafe about 15 years ago in Charleston and seeing a roach — ok, not just a roach; the Shaq of roaches — climb up the wall. I signaled for a waitress. She glanced at it and shrugged, said, “Sorry,” and then went on to say that there was really nothing they could do. Awful. But true. Places like that really can’t do much. Ruined the meal. (On the other hand — I got a great story out of it, while I likely wouldn’t have remembered my breakfast 15 years later even if it had been any good.)
Another story. Not an insect story; a critter story. My wife and I had gone out to dinner for our anniversary. A restaurant with a fireplace, and very dark. And at some point halfway through the meal, I saw a shadow near the fireplace. I said to my wife, “Do you see something?” She didn’t. And then I saw it again — a flash of something in the darkness. By now I was leaning forward and peering past the table. “What? What is it?” my wife asked, and then two beats later a rat the size of a small possum did a frenetic wiggle out of the fireplace and went to explore the rest of the dining room.
Now, that I don’t cut slack for.
A restaurant at that level may have the same problems, but it generally also has more money and more resources to fight them. And after all, you are paying a pretty price for the night to be well-nigh perfect …
From all that I’ve read, it’s my understanding that things go on as normally as possible.
When the First Couple dined at Citronelle, for instance, they did so in a private room. When they emerged a couple hours later, patrons in the restaurant — it was a full Saturday house, as usual — applauded them.
To look at the pictures/images of Obama and Biden, or Obama and Medvedev, at Ray’s Hell Burger — the only place I think he has dined twice — you would have guessed that it was no big deal for the restaurant, that’s how normal and seamless it all looked. (It was anything but.)
I’m happy for the winners.
It’s a great thing for the local industry, having the RAMMYs and shining light on the good work done by so many people.
I do think it’s odd to say, in effect — and just to pick one example — this chef, this year, is the best in the city. How do you determine that? By what measurements? With sports, you have a clear idea of what you’re judging. With a movie or film or TV show or theatrical performance, it’s, again, something very specific being looked at. In this case? The Beards for chefs and restaurants are similar. Seems to me that what is being recognized is the success and longevity and value of a person who has been in that field for a long time.
What a great little celebration/evocation of summer this is …
I love: “when it melts the moment you walk outside and you’re in a race against time to finish it.”
And: “twelve years old with my best friends, and all I had to do that day was make it home at some point.”
We have a front-runner, ladies and gentlemen …
A pie lover. An eater after my own heart.
I can tell that your parents’ house is a house I’d like to be on a Sunday …
Thanks for this …
And I just wanted to say before moving on that I love the idea of family gathering every Sunday for dinner.
These are massively important rituals. And we, as a culture, are losing them. We have all but lost them.
It bothers me to see what has been done to our food, the degradations wrought by big business and the rapacious and selfish American need to make a buck at the expense of just about everything else, but I almost would have to say that I am disturbed even more by our loss of what Europeans call “the table.” (And believe me, they are in danger of losing it, too.) There is more interesting food than ever out there, and more good restaurants than ever, and more farmers markets, and more attention paid to things that matter, and all of that is great. But for all the good that this food revolution has done, it has not restored meal time with family — all gathered around the table, with no devices on, no TV on or nearby, just a basic and otherwise unremarkable) meal and conversation about the day — to American life.
Mike, that’s kind of a hard call if I don’t know your tastes. Did you settle on BlackSalt because you like fish and seafood, or because you think that the mood and the scene and the prices are up your alley? Or because it just won the RAMMY for best upscale casual restaurant? All of the above?
Of all of Jeff and Barbara Black’s restaurants, I like Black Market Bistro and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace the most. I would put Black Salt third. Good raw materials; I just find that some of the preparations are too busy. If you’re going to manipulate the product, good, do it; but make it clean and exquisite; make the flavors pop. The other two of their restaurants are not as ambitious as often on the plate, but they tend to pull off what they attempt more often.
I hear you.
I just don’t know if what you’re looking for actually exists. Surfside doesn’t quite fit that description. Bourbon is more bar than restaurant and bar. Heritage India is more a cozy retreat from the swarms. I love the original Sushi-Ko, but it has never seemed to me like a neighborhood joint.
Et Voila!, in Palisades, might be your best bet. Excellent mussels and fries, there’s a very good mussel burger (!), very good steak frites, a textbook Belgian waffle, and in its longueurs (and I mean this in the best way possible) it’s quintessentially Euro. The crowd may or may not be what you’re looking for. It doesn’t feel very “neighborhood” to me, but maybe that’s just because ex-Foreign Service types who like to try out their French are not my idea of low-key and let-your-hair-down.
Well, it certainly was more interesting than having him go up and get teary and thank his wife and tell the assembled, “This is for the runners and the line cooks. This is your award, guys. You earned it!”
I understand he clarified his comments yesterday with Tim Carman of the Post and said he was referring to Yelp-ers and the members of Don Rockwell’s message board. I know that some aren’t buying that. I don’t know — I can buy it. I think that for some people, “bloggers” is a kind of shorthand for all online activity.
Ironically, the RAMMYs are covered in a way they weren’t even 5, 6 years ago, and so a slew of bloggers picked up that comment and ran with it. But the vibe of the RAMMYs has always been, this is an inside sort of thing, chefs talking to other chefs, and I think Black was talking with that understanding. So, in a sense, a mistake.
Was it a fair complaint, though, is your question, and to answer that I would have to know what point, exactly, he was trying to make.
I don’t generally have a problem with what you call being thin-skinned. I like to hear people expressing themselves candidly and honestly, even if others might disagree with it.
I know there are chefs who are frustrated by all this online activity, all these many words spilled about their restaurants and from all quarters. I can understand that, though, yes, being in the public eye, if that’s the phrase here, means you have to accept what comes your way, good and bad.
Speaking for myself, I will say that what bothers me the most is the anonymity of so much of this chatter. The fact that people who post what they have to post are not accountable and not reachable, and yet their words — sometimes hateful — don’t go away. I feel bad when I see reviews of books, serious works from important authors, reflective of years of effort and a deep immersion in the world of the imagination and in the existing research, are just summarily dismissed with some inanity and given a single star. Did I say bad? I feel it like a pain, a stabbing pain.
Thanks for the follow-up.
Those other three are all good choices, though you’re not going to find much in the way of fish or seafood at Green Pig or Rice Paper (excepting shrimp). Mintwood has a fantastic branzino, one of the best things on the menu, and one of the best preparations of fish I think I’ve had in the past year.
Salt & Pepper got off to a promising start, and was putting out a very good crabcake, among other things. It was a likable place, and seemed poised to grow. But the original team left, and I can’t say I know the story there these days …
That’s good to know about Et Voila! Thanks.
It’s a good and very consistent place. More people should be talking about it.
Thank you, everyone, for the great questions and the suggestions and the tips and the provocations, too …
And for playing along with our little contest …
Today’s winner is Dupont — a story of drumsticks, and a great evocation of summers past … You win the copy of Uncorked: My Journey Through the Crazy World of Wine by Marco Pasanella. Drop me a line at email@example.com with your mailing address, and I’ll get it out to you today …
I’m off to lunch …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …