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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 . . .
Izakaya Seki, DC
Arguably the most exciting restaurant to debut this year. Hiroshi Seki and his daughter, Cizuka Seki, have fashioned a spare, intimate izakaya from a former barber shop on V St. It's a no-frills setting that suggests a gallery and serves as an ideal backdrop for beautifully simple dishes that all but command you to slow down and focus. Hop a seat at the wraparound counter that consumes the entirety of downstairs to watch Seki, a sushi master with 50 years experience, work with grace, speed, economy and calm as he executes his repertoire with a small team of cooks: thick slices of veal-tender beef tongue with a painting of mustard-miso sauce; succulent filets of grilled mero, the Japanese term for Chilean sea bass; springy soba noodles with flakes of nori and tempura; and some of the most exquisite cuts of aji (horse mackerel) and yellowtail you'll find.
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.
This Week's Contest: Respond to Tracie McMillan's Slate Piece
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 like it okay.
Last I was there was about a year ago, and I remember it being a pretty good meal—a lot of competently prepared dishes, but nothing that stood out; not quite enough pop to really get my attention.
If I lived in the neighborhood or within 15 minutes, no doubt I’d be there a couple of times a month.
Good morning, everyone, hope you had a great weekend and are enjoying this respite from the infernal heat …
You want to hit Malaysia Kopitiam, near 18th and M Sts.
There aren’t many places like it in DC proper — a family-run ethnic restaurant with bargain prices.
Besides nasi goreng, which is generally decent, there’s a lot to explore: hot curry puffs, roti canai (a potato curry you sop up with a piece of flatbread), stuffed lotus root, stirfried watercress with fermented tofu, skate wing in curry sauce.
Thanks for the clarification, Missy …
Bit of background—a question was asked last week about the forthcoming Suna, and how come its owners were so eager to get out word about the particulars of the place and at the same time omit the very important detail about where the place is set to open shop.
(Bit of background on Missy Frederick: A writer for the Washington Business Journal, and one of the best food reporters in the city.)
On the one hand, you could argue that having the Michelin Guide pick your city for its series is a sign of importance in the world of gastronomy—evidence that you are a significant destination on the foodie map.
I understand that perspective.
But personally, I have to say that I dislike the guide, and what it represents. It rewards a certain ethos (French, formal, extraordinarily expensive) and punishes or slights nearly everything else—though “Japanese, formal, and extraordinarily expensive” does decently in New York and San Francisco.
In America, especially, I think it’s a little like evaluating a basketball game in terms of how fluidly it’s played—how aesthetically pure an experience it is.
I don’t think it captures what dining is today in New York or San Francisco. I think you get a fuller, more complex, and more interesting perspective reading Adam Platt’s round-up of the Top 100 in New York magazine.
Do I think any place in town would be deemed worthy of three stars? Probably not. I think the Inn at Little Washington, however, would be a shoo-in for three.
How about Mala Tang?
The restaurant is a collaboration between chef Liu Chaosheng, who also runs Hong Kong Palace, China Jade and Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot (three of the best spots in the area for Szechuan cooking) and Tomer and Oren Molivinsky. Oren Molivinsky used to manage the trendy Georgetown restaurant Mie N Yu.
I’d go and get a single hot pot and load it up—I’d go with pork or prawn, along with wood ear mushrooms, and some pea shoot greens. Resist the entreaties to get two hot pots, though your server may frown on the order of just one. One pot is small, but you don’t need a ton of broth to cook your food, and you’ll want to save room for the snack-style small plates—dan dan noodles and ma po tofu and dumplings.
Thanks for the tip, Van Ness. Too bad there isn’t also a little counter to stop and each lunch.
I’ll share my own recent, comparable find— Punjabi By Nature, in the Lotte Plaza in Chantilly, a tip from a reader.
Had fantastic Punjabi chole, very good kabobs and butter chicken, good daal and naan. It’s essentially a food court restaurant, and yet no food court restaurant that I know of in the area is putting out food like this.
You can well imagine eating it in a tranquil setting, with servers and tablecloths and actual plates.
I have to disagree with you that “in today’s world, it’s not that hard to put food on the table.” For some, it’s very, very hard—the news is rife with stories of just how hard.
And I feel for people like my sister-in-law, who lives alone and is not on a fixed income, but often resorts to eating frozen meals because they’re quick and she’s not a good cook and the idea of spending a lot of time with a meal when you’re alone is not much fun. I also know many people who grab fast food because it’s easy and readily available, and their lives are so scattered and overscheduled that fitting a meal in is hard. (Technology was supposed to give us more time, but many of us are busier than ever, and have less time, and are less content—working constantly, checking devices maniacally, doing two things at once, running around doing more, more, more.) My wife, for instance, loves a home-cooked meal. Loves to spend a few hours around the table eating and drinking. But she seldom has that leisure, and juggling two kids and a performance and rehearsal schedule and teaching and coaching often finds herself eating Chipotle or some other once a week, at least. Exactly what she doesn’t want to do, and yet she does.
But I do like what you say about thinking about cooking as a mix of some from-scratch and some reheating/re-purposing. Especially if, like you say, it gets more people to do that instead of the many inferior alternatives.
I think Mike Rizzo is doing the right thing in planning to, as they say, “shut him down.” (As if he were a mere machine.)
It’s the right thing to do for Strasburg, and it tells the rest of baseball that the team cares more about the player in the long run than its needs in the short. That can’t hurt its chances with free agents.
Pushing the guy—and it would be pushing him even if he were not a Tommy John returnee, because he hasn’t pitched more than 130 innings in a year—is a move of selfishness and panic.
Is it agonizing to think about as a Nationals fan? Absolutely.
You only get so many of these chances. It’s not often that everything breaks right, as it seems to be breaking for the Nats.
But what can you do?
They were never supposed to be this good, this soon.
I say: enjoy the lark.
They’re very different places. Middleburg’s more remote, more countrified, more luxury-class. Leesburg’s a town, and it has a charming Main St. and some interesting shops. I think Leesburg has many more options for dining.
Personally, I might stay in Leesburg—it likely will be cheaper, tooand drive in to Middleburg to visit Boxwood Winery and, just outside Middleburg (five minutes) to visit Chrysalis Vineyards, in Aldie.
Tarara is another winery that you ought to consider. It’s in Leesburg.
For a leisurely dinner, I’d zero in on Girasole, in The Plains, which I think is an excellent spot and one of the best meals to be had in the vicinity. For something more casual, there’s The Wine Kitchen, in Leesburg, a cozy, fun spot with small plates and lots of wines by the glass, including some local wines.
I would also suggest you drop in on the Leesburg Vintner on Main St. and stock up on some Virginia wines. It’s got one of the best selections in the area. And Mike Carroll, the owner, can help you sort through what’s what.
Great ideas, all around.
Having a repertoire really does help. It did for me in the days when I did all the cooking—when I wasn’t out reviewing every night—and needed to get food on the table and (relatively) quickly.
Wasn’t always sexy food or special food, but my wife never complained. And she still misses some of those dishes I always did. Now, when I cook, it’s more of an occasion, and I go for something “special.”
And you’re right about developing a few dishes that you can bang out in 15-20 minutes.
Thanks, I appreciate it …
And the recipes, too …
I wouldn’t give up.
I’d treat it as an aberration and keep doing what you’re doing. If you give up, she wins and it’ll be harder to get her back to what you had.
Act as if nothing happened, and keep doing it, keep taking her along. And an iPhone is always a good final resort. I’ve gone that route myself. Didn’t like it. But sometimes there’s nothing else that’ll work, short of leaving the restaurant and abandoning the meal. I think as long as you don’t allow it to become the norm and/or reach for it without trying other things first, it’s not a bad thing to rely on to allay the tantrum.
Thanks for writing in …
I think you may have hit on something in talking about your joy and pride in relation to your ease and familiarity in the kitchen.
Like you, I only rarely find cooking a chore. But maybe that’s because I have been doing it since I was 9 or 10, and learned how to make certain dishes from a very good cook, and became comfortable with all the things in a kitchen.
By contrast, I find pretty much anything to do with fixing something in the house a pain and an imposition, and am inclined to just call someone in and write a check (though that’s its own pain).
It would be different, I think, if I had grown up with someone who walked around with a tool belt and did things to things with things. I might be more comfortable and happy to tackle problems. I might look forward to my time alone on the roof or in the basement or wherever.
Constantly torn between what we know is good, and what we do.
What we want, and what we have to settle for.
And then the whole business of how and what we eat … ; )
I think you’re so right, too, that certain dishes really give you an immense sense of satisfaction, both to cook and to eat. Often those dishes are stews — and I’m sure that has a lot to do with the smells that fill the house. Nothing like that. A home should always smell like a stew is going or a bread is baking …
Do, and let me know.
Though I suspect it’s one of those places that’s best when you stumble upon it yourself and plant your own flag in it first, and not when you hear about it from a critic and nurse expectations and go there looking for deliverance. …
Thanks, everyone, for the questions and comments and tips today …
The winner of Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table is Van Ness. You can claim your book, Van Ness, by dropping me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org sometime this week.
Time to shut it down, as the baseball folks say …
I’m off to get a light lunch and then head out for a very special dinner tonight.
Happy 85th birthday to the spunkiest woman I’ve ever met— my wonderful, funny, tart-tongued, generous, kind, book-devouring, life-loving mother … I hope you have a great day!
Be well and eat well, everyone, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]