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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.
The new chef there is Cory Lambert, who was Clay Miller’s sous chef when the restaurant opened.
Prior to joining Trummer’s, he cooked at Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, in Orlando — Norman Van Aken’s highly acclaimed Latin-Caribbean restaurant. He’s a graduate of Johnson and Wales.
The runny egg …
It’s been a hot little item for years, now, actually.
Particularly as farming naming has gotten bigger and bigger, and chefs seem very keen on letting you know that that’s not just any old egg you’re eating — it came from a very specific place. (It’d be nice to know what time it came from that place, too, but alas, the farmer mania does not extend that far.)
The egg is meant to add a little richness and provide a bit of sauce as well, as it does in the classic bistro dish frisee aux lardons.
In some cases, it’s there to thicken an existing sauce.
I like it in dishes if it’s done well. But I hear you. Many times it feels simply gratuitous.
It almost always looks appealing, at least it does to me, but that’s not to say that it always does its job. I’ve had many dishes in the past couple of years where the egg didn’t knit the flavors together the way it was intended and just seemed like, well — like an egg on top of an otherwise complete dish.
Thanks for asking.
The answer is — neither. Not “untouchable,” nor a commentary on what I’m seeing out there — in fact, I had a few new ones to roll out but I decided against it since it’s the day before the 4th. Look for an updated list next week …
And by the way, I’d love to hear some feedback about these places. Have you all tried any of them?
Sorry; haven’t had it.
I’m curious to know — confounding how?
I’ll have to go and have a taste. Thanks.
More bothersome, I think, than the promiscuity of runny eggs on everything is the presence of smoke everywhere these days.
A little goes a long way. A very long way.
I like bacon, but I don’t think everything ought to taste like bacon. I think smoke can be a neat touch, but I don’t think that it should be the main idea of a dish. And in so many dishes now — in some drinks now, even — that’s the case. It might not have been the idea when that dish or drink was on the drawing board, but that’s the thing with smoke. It has a way of taking over.
One of the more interesting uses of smoke I’ve seen lately is the red, white and green pizza at Franklins. The tomatoes are smoked. There’s no bacon whatsoever on the pie, which is adorned with slices of fresh mozzarella and crowned with a thick tangle of fresh, lightly dressed arugula. But oddly, because of the smoke, there’s the suggestion of bacon.
Oh, yeah. Rubio’s. One of the best reasons to get on a plane and go to San Diego.
Well, okay, after the sun and the sand and the surf. But not that much after …
Not quite in that league, but I like them still are the ones at Fishnet. Very decent ones at Surfside, too. And there aren’t any listed on the debut menu at El Chucho Cocina Superior, Jackie Greenbaum’s new Columbia Heights taqueria, but I’ve gotta think that fish tacos would be on there at some point, if only as a special. We’ll see.
By the way, that taco lineup there looks formidably delicious — asada (miso marinated steak and charred cebolitas [grilled scallions]), tripas (crispy beef chitterlings and foie gras with lemon and parsley), al pastor, pollo (smoked Tecate can chicken), and calabacita (rajas [smoked poblanos], squash blossoms, fried zucchini and black garlic).
I have yet to take my first taste, but that tripas taco gets my vote for Emblem of the New DC. You can read Natalie Hopkinson’s recent and excellent New York Times piece on the new demographics and the new tensions for background.
Andrew, you can come on this chat any old time and post your thoughts. I hope you do.
Your menu tomorrow sounds great. Enjoy it, and enjoy your time with your family.
Thanks so much for writing in …
Do you have a favorite restaurant?
I loved reading this.
To me, the 4th is really a small town day. I’ve gone to cities and I’ve watched fireworks from hotels and condo and apartment roof tops, and I’ve sat out for 12 hours on the national mall and watched the big spectacle at night with the orchestra playing triumphally, and still and all I like being in a small town and walking around and talking with people and smelling the smells.
Especially when those smells are grill smells.
Thanks for writing in with these memories …
Thanks for the feedback.
And you know what? I’m going to go out and get a popsicle today, just because you wrote this. It’s so funny the way these things work. I can’t remember the last time I had a popsicle, but reading this, and thinking about this awful heat, and tomorrow being the 4th — whammo, I need a popsicle. Wasn’t WHAM-O, by the way, a gizmo that kids used to make popsicles?
You mentioned you’re in Brookland. Have you been to Menomale? Or should the question be, how many times have you been there?
Who, by the way, is still without power?
I’d like to know.
As of late last night when I got home, I still didn’t. Came on in the middle of the night. I had gathered up all my family and driven to Philly, after striking out on finding a hotel at 14 different places in the city. Out of lemons, lemonade.
But expensive lemonade. Thank you so very much, Pepco!
Similar idea to the smoked tomatoes on the pizza at Franklins.
Thanks for the heads up …
That sounds just about perfect.
Like you, I love that combination of the griddled split, all warm and buttery, and the cold, crunchy lettuce and cool creamy lobster salad with just enough celery in it.
I wish you were here to make me one, too!
Thanks for sharing your impressions …
I think your assessment of Green Pig is fair and insightful, though I’d still give it another shot if I were you. The rabbit cake is a dish the staff all seems to like, but I agree with your take on it — “fine but a bit bland.” There are plates there I like a lot more. Try the Buffalo ribs next time. Also the asparagus with hollandaise. I was disappointed to see that one of the best plates I had there in my three visits, a bowl of Asian-glazed ribs and sweet steamed clams with crunchy baby bok choy, is gone.
No dessert? The chef, Scot Harlan, has a background in pastry, and he makes a killer Key lime pie.
Like you, I also think the staff could be a little more assertive in giving guidance, and said so in my forthcoming review for the magazine; it’s the kind of menu that needs a helping hand.
And Bon Fresco is opening a second location that’s closer in.
Although not terribly closer in. Annapolis Junction — the town where Henkel’s, the down-and-dirty bar with the foot-tall stacked sandwiches my parents used to take me to, used to be.
THAT’S how you know you’re a food lover.
Taking a cab to eat a meal that costs less than ten bucks.
Hey, I’ve done it. I think we’ve ALL done it, haven’t we? Who else has a story to tell like this?
Andrew, you sure do get around!
Do you write about your experiences for the school paper? If not, do you write about them anyway, just for yourself and your family to read. I hope you do.
I used to. During summers when I was your age, my mom encouraged me (you could also use the word “forced”) to write a story, either about my recent experiences or something that used my imagination or both. I had a weekly deadline. I hated it at first but came to like it. (Writers always hate deadlines.)
Yeah, the place is thisbig.
I’ve had some okay pizzas, and also some very good ones. I’m taken with what they’re doing there. I hope they can keep it up and attain a greater consistency.
Your husband’s got the right idea. It’s a good list for such a small place.
Andrew, I think you ought to go ahead and start a blog.
What’s to hold you back? Surely not the fact you’re new at this, I hope. You may not feel like you have anything much to say, but that doesn’t stop most bloggers.
Summer’s a good time for a project like this.
What’s your mom’s restaurant?
I think this is actually a topic for a larger discussion, and that’s the way that some restaurants “sell” their dishes.
In the more ambitious places, you tend to come across descriptors like this — I’m thinking also, here, of Michel Richard’s “faux gras.” Now, obviously, if you encounter a phrase like that on a menu, you have no blessed clue what the dish is going to be. You have to trust the explication of your server. Which means, you have to use your imagination to complete the picture of the dish in your mind. Which leads, often, to misconception.
How many times have you thought or said of a dish like this when it finally arrives: Oh, I figured it would be more like _.
You might say that and still like it.
But now what happens when you don’t guess right AND you don’t like it?
It’s kind of amazing that restaurants seem to trust that more often than not — much more often than not, actually — you’re going to like what you can’t quite guess.
I’ll be interested in hearing, next time, what you all have to say on this score. About expectations and delivery, whimsy and reality.
Until then, have a great and joyous 4th, everyone.
Oh, and our cookbook winner for today, before I run off to lunch — 12-year-old Andrew. Drop me a note at email@example.com, Andrew, and I’ll get that book off to you later this afternoon. And keep writing …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]