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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.
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Vin 909 Winecafe, Annapolis
I feasted on a couple of superlative pizzas not long ago, and they didn't come from 2 Amys, Pete's New Haven Style Pizza, Pupatella, Moroni & Brother's, Comet, Orso, Haven Pizzeria, Graffiato or Menomale. They came from the kitchen at this always-swarmed, no-reservations wine bar, housed in a restored craftsman bungalow just over the bridge from Annapolis in tiny Eastport. The key players are Alex Manfredonia, who works the front of the (tiny) house, and Justin Moore; the pair met working at a restaurant in San Francisco, and headed east to take over the space previously occupied by Wild Orchid Cafe. Moore and his team produce a crust that's close to perfect—thin, marvelously hillocked, chewy where it needs to be and crispy everywhere else, and hit with just enough salt. The Margherita is more heavily dressed than is usual, but it's excellent, and so is an unlikely concoction of baked beans, Tillamook cheese, fontina and coleslaw. Don't miss the spin on a lobster roll, with creamy, chive-flecked crab salad tucked between two griddled squares of bread; there's a cup of seafood bisque for dunking.
Blue Duck Tavern, DC
On my Twitter feed last week, I teased the news that made a "massive and exciting leap," then sat back and watched the guesses pour in. No one came up with the right place, and to be honest, if I hadn't been there to enjoy it, I would never have guessed, either. Sebastien Archambault is a major talent, and without overhauling the menu or concept has given a restaurant that had slid dangerously close to irrelevance in the past year or so the kiss of life.
Thanks for this excellent find goes to regular reader, N.A. This Alexandria shop is a bakery and catering service with a small cafe. You order at the counter. Atmosphere is a flat-screen TV turned to a food channel. None of that matters when the food arrives—a palaak chaat that's nearly as virtuosic and delicious as the tour de force dish that has become a signature item at Rasika; fantastic kati rolls made with rumali roti and not flour tortillas; and rich and vibrant curries.
El Chucho Cocina Superior, DC
When it's on, an exhilarating tour through the intricate, layered flavors of regional Mexican cooking, backed by a long list of cocktails, margaritas, sipping tequilas and mezcals. Early hits: a smoky grilled corn cob impaled on a skewer, spritzed with lime, rolled in grated cheese and dusted with queso fresco; the tongue-shaped chips known as huaraches, topped with crumbled queso fresco and pickled onions and served with a sublime dark mole; a torta, or sub, that impersonates a Manwich and a Chicago beef sandwich all at once—chopped adobo pork dredged in a spicy Arbol chili sauce, garnished with black beans, onions, avocado and chihuahua cheese and then submerged in that same sauce again before serving (forgo the accompanying plastic gloves and give in to the sloppy lusciousness).
Of the crop of Neapolitan-style pizzerias that made their debut sometime in the past year, I'm most partial to this tiny Brookland operation, a joint venture of hophead Leland Estes and pizzaiolo Ettore Rusciano. Rusciano is a passionate craftsman, with an eye for balance (the best of these pies are chewy where they need to be and crispy where they need to be), a respect for proportionality, and an understanding of the importance of salt. That same great dough is used for the tasty calzones and sandwiches. You can even sample it in the must-order starter, the affetata, an attractive selection of meats and cheeses.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But there’s a fantastic Laotian restaurant—Bangkok Golden, in Falls Church. Nominally a Thai place, but the reason to go, the reason to get excited, is the Laotian menu.
Steamed fish in banana leaf, koi, skewered pork, lemongrass pork, crispy rice salad … I could go on and on. I love the pingy, pungent flavors.
Good morning, everyone …
Looking forward to hearing your contest entries, and to hearing all the usual too—the tips, the gripes, the musings, the where-are-they-nows …
I hear you.
Eventually, you have to think some restaurateur with a collection of places all within walking distance of one another will decide: Hey, let’s make place A our appetizer place and place B our main course place and place C our dessert place.
I could maybe see Michael Landrum, of Ray’s, doing that.
More likely, though, it’d be José Andrés.
Except that I thought of it first, so scratch that …
El Chucho is the more exciting place at the moment.
Both places are uneven; it’s just a matter of the degree of that unevenness, and where that unevenness is. Execution wavers, at times, at El Chucho, and the tacos, oddly, are the weak spot of the menu. But when it’s on, it’s ON, and there are dishes there that compete with some of the top taquerias nationally. Nothing at Bandolero, to this point, has really excited me.
It’s an intriguing idea. Thanks for writing in …
There are times I wish we had a BYOB culture, as Philadelphia does. I’m not saying I want every restaurant to have to go along with BYOB; that’d be restrictive and thwart innovation. I do think, though, that having a class of BYOB restaurants would be a great thing for the city, and would further aid the development of that low-key but ambitious mid-level restaurant that makes a scene vibrant.
Is it economically viable? I have to think it’s not. But I’d be interested in hearing from restaurateurs about this.
You can ask around; I didn’t see appreciable differences among the places I sampled to declare a “best.” Whatever you get, though, trust me: It will blow away anything you’ve eaten in the States.
My picks for Tel Aviv:
—Carmella, a bistro —Herbert Samuel, a small plates and cocktails spot —Dr. Shakshuka, for the fantastic titular dish + amazing shwarma
In Jerusalem, I’d book a table at the intimate Eucalyptus, an all-Kosher restaurant with a strong Sephardic influence. Heads of state have dined there, but it’s a very unassuming spot for such a pedigreed restaurant.
I’d also consider any of these:
—Ardeo + Bardeo.
—Vermilion, in Old Town.
Hope that helps. Enjoy the time with your mom ..
Watches, Andrew. Watches.
Too, Andrew. Too.
How’s the blog coming along … ?
And now it’s on my to-do list.
And thanks for following up like that …
Food Wine & Co.
Passage to India.
Carbs might be an issue at Faryab, since the best things there are the aushak and the manti, but if your father is open to eating something like challaw kadu, a dish of stewed pumpkin with yogurt, then you’re in business. It’s a great dish. Whether you’re a vegetarian or carniphobe or not.
No, they’re not. And yes, sadly is right.
Thanks for the great tips.
Any place that’s got great pie is deserving of wide support.
Speaking of pie, I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he made an interesting point. Dessert is a bit of an obsession with him, and his thinking on this last course has had an influence on my own thinking the last couple of years. Why, he asked, aren’t there different dessert sizes the way there are different savory sizes?
In other words, what if a diner doesn’t want the usual progression from app to entree to shared dessert — what if he or she wants a light meal and a big dessert? At most good restaurants in this city, you can’t get that. Not unless you order two desserts and look ridiculous. The assumption is that dessert is light, delicate, chaste. Why, he wondered, can’t dessert be just as intense and over-the-top and hefty as some of the pork dishes you see in such abundance all over the city? Why, he wondered, is dessert so overdetermined?
I began to wonder, too.
In this age of smashed boundaries, when many places no longer distinguish between apps and entrees, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that desserts would have to abide by the old conventions of size and portioning.
It could definitely use some updating, yes.
Thanks for playing …
It’s really interesting, the shelf life of a restaurant’s interior design. It doesn’t take long for a place to feel dated. Ten years is a long, long time in this industry.
Whole Hog = trendy, sexy.
Whole Salad Bowl = not so much.
I hear you. I addressed this point in my review. One of the lightest things is a pate with frisee. A pate.
Good entrant, and a thoughtful spur to a broader conversation about whole hog restaurants and our incessantly porcine scene.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Chef Geoff’s is much better than an Applebees or Bennigan’s.
And most of the time, about as expensive.
That’s not a small thing to say.
Would I spend my own money eating there? I have, yes, many times. Is it a place I’d go for a birthday or anniversary? No. It’s not a place for epicures and has never tried to be a place for them; it’s the kind of place that I would typically pop into for a casual meal on the way to a show, or for a burger and glass of wine before visiting my dentist (who’s nearby).
I could pick nits, as a critic. Sure. But generally speaking, I’ve had enjoyable meals there.
And I say as much in the piece—in fact, in the very first sentence. There’s nothing remarkable about these restaurants.
It’s not a review, and I wasn’t out to extol its virtues as a dining experience; I was interested in writing about CG’s because of its consistency. It’s an unremarkable restaurant, except for its consistency, which I find remarkable. And I was interested in the story behind that.
Courtside Thai on Chain Bridge?
Been a while since I’ve been, so I’m reluctant to give it the full endorsement. And it was not in the class of Bangkok 54 then.
Anyone been recently? This is important—a pregnant woman’s craving!
Thanks for writing in with all these riches, Van Ness.
There’s a lot of great food in these two cities, from full-service restaurants to cafes to one-dish joints. In particular, the quality of the produce is spectacular and makes even a simple Israeli salad—diced cukes, tomatoes, peppers, lemon juice, olive oil—a stunning dish.
You’re already learning big, important things.
The tyranny of the editor. ; )
Have a great trip. My rec is the Kill Devil Grill. Fun place, good food …
They have those things, yes. It’s a huge menu—tons of dishes. Bigger than anything out there I can think of. Certainly bigger than TGIFriday’s and Bennigan’s and Applebees. And the bulk of those dishes are right in that mid-level range.
I am not saying the “obsessive corporatization of a restaurant to create a consistent experience … is … worth it.” I was interested, above all, in their Moneyball strategies, how they use metrics, the things they study. That story had never been told before.
You say—improving the food. I think, for what it is—and that’s an important point here: what it is, what it aims to be—for what it is and what it’s aiming to be, I think the food is just fine and sometimes better than fine. Look, I’ve eaten at a Chef Geoff’s probably 25 times, and of those 25 perhaps 3-4 of those meals were only okay. It nearly always hits its mark. And you can usually expect good service and a good atmosphere. CG’s is like a double. It’ll never be a homerun. It’s not trying to be. Or a triple. But you go knowing you’re always going to get a double. And there’s something to that. There are places, as you and I well know, where you go hoping for a triple and wind up with a single. Which you had to leg out, as it were.
Hope it’s great for you.
Come back and let us know how things turned out …
I don’t blame them for that.
A lot of places, especially places in older buildings, are struggling with that.
But when there’s more heat in the room than heat on the plate…
What would you have me do?
Banish him from the board?
Andrew … go to your room.
Testy crowd. And the temperatures have dropped, too …
Time to run. And time to announce our winner. The cookbook goes to — the Arlington who, testily, complained about Green Pig Bistro, its overreliance on richness and pork fat.
Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll get that book out to you pronto …
Thanks, everyone. Time for lunch for me …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]