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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.
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.
I’d try La Chaumiere, in Georgetown, one of the grand dames of the restaurant scene.
Adour also does soufflés, but I don’t think they’re doing a chocolate one at the moment. But it’s a superlative souffle. Textbook.
Same for Marcel’s.
Doug, thanks so much for writing in with these memories …
I remember Cambodia Restaurant, and when it closed I remember thinking: Somebody please come along and do another. And then thinking: Fat chance.
I’m so with you about these high-profile restaurant renovations. I honestly think a lot of that money goes to waste. I think lighting matters a GREAT deal. Really good lighting can set a mood like no other. But you can create mood and intimacy and sexiness with very little. We’ve all been in a place where the details are so interesting and so eye-catching that people can’t relax in there, including the staff, and everything feels very, very stagy and forced.
I know what you mean, but you know what? A really great chicken is NOT something that most of us can do at home.
There are chefs who will tell you, in fact: judge me by my chicken. Invariably, they are talking about a roast chicken. Never a chicken breast.
Chefs hate chicken breast. They only put it on their menus to satisfy the picky diner or the dieting diner. They think it’s boring. And if you order the chicken breast dish, most of the time it is. They’re bored, and the meat itself is boring, and the dish often lacks conviction.
But a roast chicken is different.
Of chicken dishes I’ve had of late, I’ll give high marks to the ones at Palena, Blue Duck, Atlas Room and Kafe Leopold.
And a special mention of the soyed chicken at East Pearl, which I last ate about 2 1/2 months ago and still cannot keep thinking about
I really hate to burden Menomale with expectations.
I mean, it’s such a tiny, tiny place, and it’s only been open a few months, and every new pizzeria, especially boutique pizzeria, that opens in this city is inevitably compared with 2 Amys, often to its great detriment, and I really am uncomfortable with the idea of pumping up this little place beyond what it is capable of being, and being consistently.
But right now I think it’s putting out the b—
And … cut.
Can you give me a sense of how much you’re willing to spend? If I have a range, and maybe a set of likes, I promise to direct you to someplace special.
First of all, what’s the book?
And since you said “interesting” and since it’s Restaurant Week, I’d really consider Bangkok Golden in Falls Church for its Laotian menu. A great place to go with a group, since you can really explore the menu, and the flavors ought to give you something to talk about. The cooking has enough in common with Thai to be somewhat familiar, and especially if you have eaten northern Thai, but you may remind also be reminded of Vietnamese cooking (some dishes are seasoned with dill, for instance, and bundling meats and fishes with lettuce leaves is common).
In general, I find, the flavors are bright and pingy and pungent. It’s an exciting meal. And a very, very reasonably priced one.
And I doubt that it’ll be booked.
If you go, and I hope you do, be sure to come back on and drop me a note with a report …
I’m not sure I’m understanding.
Rasika is doing Restaurant Week, too. Are you saying you don’t want to eat there during RW, but anywhere else?
Take it away, Jessica.
(Jessica Voelker—our producer and resident Portland food nerd).
A trip to Portland, lucky you!
I love Beast for a feast, Simpatica for brunch, Laurelhurst Market for lunch, the Bluehour for happy hour, Clyde Common and Teardrop for excellent cocktails, and Pok Pok for everything—atmosphere, food, drinks…all of it.
I also highly recommend the expert advice of the great food team at Portland Monthly.
They’ll steer you right.
Maybe the best, and easily the most peripatetic.
The Larry Brown of pizzaiolos.
I’m remembering an old Tony Kornheiser line about Brown circa early 90s, I want to say: “Wherever he goes, he wins. Wherever he wins, he leaves.”
Something I’d be interested in seeing in this city — more pizzerias that aren’t Neapolitan or Neapolitan style. More pizzerias that aren’t boutique.
Pete’s, in this sense, is a pretty obvious exception to the rule. I’d add in Haven Pizzeria — which makes a fantastic white clam pizza, though I’m not enamored of all that much else there, including the over-imposing space and the prices — and the Spike Mendelsohn place, We the Pizza. And of course the new H and Pizza.
More outside the Neapolitan vein, though. More options. There’re a lot of different routes to something delicious.
know a lot of people think that that’s the ultimate Julia Child impersonation.
But I’ve got one better. Here’s the very hyper, very over-the-top, very funny Mario Cantone recalling classic Julia — “when she still stood upright.” It starts at about 1:20 in …
For those who don’t know this dish, it’s essentially an egg scramble with diced peppers and onions and chilis, with some grated cheese and maybe some tortilla strips. If you’ve got great tortillas to go alongside, it’s even better. I’m not usually a big breakfast eater, but when I’m in the Southwest I’m always eager to get to breakfast and dive into a plate of migas.
In DC, you can find them at a number of places—Rio Grande Cafe, Austin Grill, Oyamel I think has ‘em on the brunch menu, Don Jaime in Mt. Pleasant.
Caitlin, what about Las Canteras in Adams Morgan?
Seems to me very much in the spirit of those two places you mention, both of which I like a lot.
It’s a really good Peruvian place, and the chef, Eddy Ancasi, makes a superb sopa de camarones and an equally wonderful ceviche. (The early portion of the menu is the more rewarding.) And you can probably also get a drink and stay within budget. Plus, you’re in Adams Morgan, an ongoing party.
Oh, and for dessert — look for the arroz con leche with rum-soaked raisins.
If you do end up going, I’d love to hear a report … happy early birthday!
Well, here’s a link to a Restaurant Week Guide I just put together, using my traditional tier system. It just went live on the website.
I point out in the post that I made exceptions for dinner at two places: Fiola and Mintwood Place. I just think that much of the cooking of Fabio Trabocchi at the former and Cedric Maupillier at the latter, and have a hunch that even though $35.12 isn’t a deal that a RW meal at those two places will be special.
Much, much more variety than cheesesteaks, but I understand your point.
And since we’re talking about pizza, and also about pizzas that depart from the Neapolitan norm around here, I want to say again how terrific the pies are at Vin 909 in Annapolis (technically Eastport), a wine bar co-owned and operated by Alex Manfredonia. The chef is Justin Moore. Both spent years working and cooking in San Francisco.
What I like about these pizzas: fabulous crusts, combinations that are both interesting and smart, good use of salt.
Really, of all the pizzas I’ve eaten in the past six months, I probably think more about the pies here and at Menomale than any other.
Black Market Bistro if you’re looking for very good American cooking in a charming setting.
East Pearl if you’re looking for great Chinese cooking; shrimp dumpling soup, soyed chicken, seafood congee.
This, by the way, is the exact same advice I recently gave to Sarah Chang, the fantastic violinist. Her conductor wrote looking for a rec for after her recent concert at Strathmore.
I haven’t had a great steak in this area in years.
I’m not trying to be provocative in saying that, either. I’d love to find one. Come to think of it, the last great steak I ate was in Chicago. And that was two years ago.
The reason that you see steaks on menus is not because chefs like steak. The steak is there for the stick-in-the-mud, the diner who isn’t willing to try something like cod or suckling pig. Steak is a slot-filler. Just like the vegetable lasagna or terrine is a slot-filler—a sop to vegetarians. Menus are made up of slot-fillers. That’s one reason why I take so long to read them; I’m looking to see what’s there just to fill a need, and what might be there because a chef is excited to put it there.
There’s a lot of copy-catting out there. And actually pork belly is less common that it used to be. Five years ago, every place was doing foie gras, even if it was only B-grade stuff.
The copy-catting I notice: beet and goat cheese (almost always presented the exact same way, except for Mintwood Place, which makes it feel surprising and new), gnocchi (almost always drenched in something too rich), something piggy (a shank, pork belly, etc.), mussels.
And French food is better in France and Mexican food is better in Mexico.
And I’d rather eat Szechuan in Chengdu.
Two can play these foodier-than-thou games …
Thanks for chiming in …
I’ll tell you: just seeing those words “Pok Pok,” and my mouth starts to water, given everything I’ve read and seen …
Yes, at the very least.
I’m sorry to hear that you were slighted …
Thanks so much for this, Nolo. I appreciate the tips …
How about giving us updates when you return from your gluttonous weekend? ; )
Don’t you have a job you need to do, Naeem? : )
It’s funny to see how this cook on TV thing has just exploded, and beyond anything you might have imagined twenty years ago. If you look at those old Julia Child shows — I did, not too long ago — you will be struck at just how not buzzy the whole thing was. It would never fly today. Everything in our “entertainment” is so slick and over-produced. Sports, TV, movies, network TV, even cable TV. And when it’s not over-produced, we think something’s missing.
It’s a constant assault, constant stimulation. Everything is so thought-through and so focus-grouped and so calibrated that there’s no room for the thing that has any life to come through.
The best Julia moments, in my memory, were when she f’ed up. And then just went with it! Those improvisations made the show.
Thanks, everyone, for the questions, the tips, the complaints, the musings, all of it …
Take a look at my Restaurant Week guide, and if you need any more direction you can drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d love to hear what your experiences are like, and I’ll be looking forward to reading some dispatches from the front next week. And please feel free to fill me in during the week via email …
No Julia Child memory really stood out for me as being book-worthy, so we’ll run the same contest next week. Be thinking, meantime, about a story or a recipe you turn to again and again—a copy of her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking awaits. And of course we’ll also have another, non-Julia contest. So two books to give away next week — woo!
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]