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.
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.
Thanks for the scout …
Good morning, everyone. As we push off from the dock, I just wanted to say that along with your tips and questions and rants and contest entries, etc., I’m always interested in hearing where you’re eating. Special meals, not so-special meals, whatever the case may be …
I hear you.
I think the comparison with the GAR restaurants is a good one. I like the food a lot more at CG’s, however.
But yeah, they’re similar in a lot of ways, most of all, I think, in their minding of the middle. It’s important for me, as a critic, to try to understand what a restaurant wants to be and what it doesn’t. To not burden it with my own expectations and wants.
The GAR places, Chef Geoff’s places—these are not the sorts of restaurants that people come on to a chat like this to read about. I get that. But just bear in mind that I didn’t set out to review the restaurant; I set out to understand how it worked.
My thought: eat as much Indian food as you can.
In saying that, I’m not saying London’s not a good food city. I actually think it’s pretty good. It’s certainly an interesting scene. It’s also very, very expensive. But the quality of the Indian cooking there is superb, at all levels, and you’re not going to find anything comparable here or in much of the States. I had one of the best meals of my life at Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, in Chelsea.
The London critics? Man, they’re a brutal lot. Brutal, and very, very funny. Jay Rayner, A.A. Gill, take a read.
The English have a very different attitude toward restaurants and food than the French and the Americans. The French regard eating as life itself, and sensual langour to them is an existentialist statement. Americans tend to see restaurant reviews—the writing of them as well as the mere fact of them—as consumer reports, This is good, this isn’t, stay away from this, embrace that. That’s the American way, everything’s about money; everything’s commodified. The English—at least the London critics—come at restaurants as theater. Who’s there in the room, what classes does the establishment cater to and why, what does it say about the moment we’re in, and oh, what’s this lifeless brown lump on the plate in front of me. This restaurant-as-theater approach is fitting, given the way theater pervades so much of London life and class is such a preoccupation of its writers and intellectuals. The London critics typically don’t go three times before writing up their impressions. They go once. Just like a theater critic only goes once.
How about Zaytinya, in Penn Quarter?
I’d try for the upstairs table, which has enough privacy to be cozy and yet they wouldn’t feel too far removed from the action, as it were.
I think the boldly flavored small plates (Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese in origin) and the high-energy, stylized setting is just the right way to ease into a night of clubbing and drinking and celebrating.
It’s also smack in the middle of a lot of bars and music venues.
I have a top 2.
That would be Chrysalis Vineyards and Boxwood Estate Winery. I really like the Viognier, Norton and Albariño at Norton. At Boxwood, my favorite is a blend of Cab Franc and Merlot called Topiary.
If you have time to do some exploring beyond those two, head out to Delaplane, which isn’t terribly far—maybe 20 minutes—and make a pit stop at Barrel Oak Winery.
A fair assessment?
What are you trying to assess? And why?
If you’re a blogger and planning to write about it based on that one visit during RW, and extrapolate about what sort of place it is in general, I don’t think that’d be fair.
I just went online to look at the RW menu there, and what I saw—the sample lunch menuˆis an abbreviated version of the normal menu. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing necessarily, but at the very least you won’t be getting a sense of “all it has to offer.”
I do, however, think that if a restaurant is taking part in the RW promotion, then it ought to take it seriously and put forth the same effort it does all the rest of the year. In other words, you should be able to sit down to a meal that week and experience the same place that you would experience at all other times. You should be able to feel that a place is not condescending to deliver a bargain.
Should be able to.
I’m not saying you will be able to.
But that’s the hope.
I’ll be interested in hearing how things turn out. Drop me a note when you can …
I’d look into any of the following, all in and around Dupont:
Agora, Darlington House, Firefly, Nage, Restaurant Nora, Urbana, and Vidalia. And I’d make sure that they’d be okay with the dancing.
If food is paramount, then Vidalia ought to be at the top of your list.
But all you did was name the drink.
Describe. Justify. Make us want one, too.
OK, that’s negative. How about this—find the restaurants that do things the right way and go for lunch.
It’s not much of a bargain, otherwise. Two people at dinner, you could easily drop $120 with a couple of drinks.
But lunch—now we’re talking. Take Fiola, for instance. $20.12 for three courses? From a chef with that degree of passion and skill and originality? You should be asked to wash a couple of dishes afterward, just for it to be fair.
Question, though—how do you make blackberry tea? Do you puree blackberries and add them to the tea? Do you just add whole blackberries to tea as it steeps?
And how much bourbon? Say you were pouring a glass of the tea — how much bourbon would you splash in?
Thanks for writing in …
It’s a gestalt sort of place for a lot of people, I think.
Food is just one component. Not mind-blowing by any stretch, but leaps beyond what the chains can produce. And I think the service and atmosphere elevate the experience, at least most of the time.
I don’t think, in general, you’re getting the best representation of any restaurant if you dine there during RW.
But that’s not to excuse any restaurant that participates. Restaurateurs, GMs and chefs need to remember that though some of the people coming through the doors that week may not be “experienced diners”—one of the biggest gripes of many industry folks—you can be sure that they are experienced talkers, and they can and will, on the basis of a single meal, tell everyone they know to avoid a place if they feel they were condescended to or the meal was lackluster.
A lot of industry folk complain that RW is a lot of work for little return. They like to point out that many diners don’t come back after that initial RW visit. I don’t dispute that, though I would point out that eating recreationally—and becoming a regular at a high-end sort of place—is something that’s embraced by only a very small percentage of people. It’s an expensive hobby.
But anyway, the point is—complaining about a lack of ROI during RW is being extremely short-sighted. Because one person is a vast network of contacts, and these days anybody can broadcast anything.
This is a little like choosing among rental cars when the office has sprung for you to have something top of the line. Which will it be? The brand new Sebring convertible? The Jeep? The Lexus sports car?
You’re not going to go wrong with any of these.
It’s really just a matter of what sort of experience you’re looking for. CityZen is more sumptuous and refined—more boundary-pushing, too—than the others. Vidalia has that great bread basket and those mint juleps and fabulous pies to finish. Obelisk is a relaxed retreat, and it’s as much about the style of the meal, the air of simple sensuality, the pacing, as the food itself. Eola is Obelisk 15 years ago, Komi 5 or 6 years ago—a personal statement, a place where you really do sense the vision and the hand of just one cook.
Dammit, I want one NOW … : )
Excellent mouth-watering description …
I love a good gin-and-tonic, and especially in warm weather. Really, what’s better at the end of a day like the one we’re having?
Can I offer a tip? You need to stock up on some Fever Tree tonic. You can find it online and in some stores. Best tonic that you can buy, and it makes a big difference in the glass, believe me …
If you’re going to blog about a restaurant during RW and try to draw conclusions about that place, generally, then you’re doing a disservice to the restaurant and to yourself as a writer.
If you make it clear that you’re only judging its performance in the context of RW—and you’re writing about several other places and their performances during RW—then that’s okay. I’ve got no problem with that.
You pay your own way, but what about media dinners, which, if you don’t write about them directly, you surely use to inform your perceptions of the scene? Or, if that doesn’t apply to you, it certainly applies to many, many bloggers in many, many cities. And making judgments off of a single experience is what anybody off the street does. I would argue that a critic has much more skin in the game because a critic is going many times before writing a review. Dining out 10 + times a week, there’s a perspective, a context. I read all the time on Yelp: This place has the best [fill in the blank] in the area. Is that the immediate neighborhood or the entire DC metro region? How would you know the best ceviche if you haven’t eaten it widely in DC, Maryland and Virginia? What weight does a judgment have if it isn’t couched in that broader context?
I don’t hate Yelp; I find it useful as a directory, and the aggregate opinion of a place is sometimes accurate. Sometimes, it’s woefully inaccurate. But insights—I can’t think of the last time I saw anything on there that I would consider an “insight.”
Very nice …
(By the way, I’m assuming that you’re Andrew’s mother. Please don’t let the carping of a few dissuade him from taking part in the chat. I like getting his updates … )
Gotta run, everyone. Late for lunch …
Our winner today? Potomac, for that tantalizing cucumber-gin martini description. Drop me an email with your address at email@example.com and we’ll get that Katie Workman book out to you in a jif.
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]