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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 . . .
H and Pizza, DC
DIY, conveyor-belt, personal-pan pizza sounds like one of those slick, market-tested concepts that's more about novelty than deliciousness. But this cramped, often-thronged H St. newcomer is a surprise—it's novel and delicious (and cheap and fun). The oblong crusts (there's a choice of three doughs, including multi-grain and whole wheat) are thin and crunchy, and if you opt for the tomato sauce (options there, too) you'll be reminded of the sweet zestiness of a by-the-slice New York pie. I'd urge you to sublimate your need to DIY (not the easiest thing when the pie assemblers behind the counter are willing to pile on as many toppings as you want) and stick to their preset combinations -- a simple meatball and cheese, say, or a veggie-heavy version loaded up with eggplant, mushrooms, peppers and a cracked egg. The dessert pizza—nutella, strawberries, dollops of mascarpone and a sprinkling of almonds—is superior to nearly every attempt of this kind I've had.
Cavo's Cantina, Rockville
Tex-Mex is among the cuisines this area has never really done very well, and the recent spate of restaurants devoted to pumping out authentic regional Mexican cooking is only likely to make it more of an afterthought. What this low-lit, L-shaped cantina reminds us, is that done well, few meals are as festive or as satisfying. Cavo's won't wow you, but, aside from some service lapses, it gets almost all of the important things right—thin, crispy chips and homemade salsa; strong margaritas; a tasty tortilla soup; good fajitas; excellent chicken enchiladas. There are even a number of desserts, including the creamy-crispy cajeta, that are much better than they need to be.
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.
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.
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 like it …
Always room for one more. Just like there’s always room for jello.
Incidentally, who grew up hearing that—that there’s “always room for jello?” I was talking to someone recently, can’t remember who, and she had never heard that expression.
Producer’s note: See the contest from last week’s chat if you don’t know what Van Ness is referring to.
It’s not new, but the chef at Blue Duck Tavern—Sebastien Archambault—is new-ish.
And he’s given that place a much-needed IV. I had a terrific meal there not long ago, best I’ve had at Blue Duck since shortly after it opened. In fact, to be perfectly honest, that recent meal was the best meal I’ve ever had in that restaurant.
I think it’d be a good choice for you two. There’s something about having a leisurely, pampering lunch that feels special — more special, somehow, than the same experience at dinner.
I’ve got something that’s almost at the exact opposite end, which might not be what you’re looking for, either. But there’s a good taqueria off 28, Taqueria Jasmine, that I’ve been to a couple of times. Can’t go wrong there.
Anybody else have any recs for out that way?
Well, there’s Capri and Assagi in McLean, both of which I sort-of, kind-of recommend.
There’s Bonaroti in Vienna, which is very decent, if expensive.
Tutto Bene in Arlington I kind of like …
Are you picking up on my great and unbounded enthusiasm—? : )
No mistakes that I see.
I’d try to hit Keswick and Delfosse, if you have a chance. And maybe Blenheim is your fifth.
I will say that if I were going to Peter Chang’s China Grill, I would want to know that Peter Chang was in the kitchen that day.
I would think hard about Tavola, for Italian, and I would add — for a quick fuel-up before heading north — either Bodo’s Bagels (seriously; a great bagel place) or Revolutionary Soup, or both.
Thanks for the nice words, by the way …
Welcome to the area, and I’m glad to know you’ve already discovered the chat …
That’s a tough one to hit me with right out of the box—finding a place that will deliver something of the experience you describe.
Bottomless glass of wine—wow. Can’t have been great wines, but still—just the idea of that …
You’re close to Merrifield—do you like Vietnamese? It’s not fast-casual and not a chain, but Four Sisters is very family-accommodating, the space is warm and inviting, and the cooking’s varied and good.
Birch & Barley?
Seasons in the Four Seasons—though it’s quite steep: $80 per. (Fantastic from-scratch ceviche station, though, plus limitless Jonah crab claws, raw oysters, pastry, desserts, etc.)
Would you be willing to cross the river into Virginia? There’s Maple Avenue in Vienna and Vermilion in Old Town.
That’s one of my favorite things to get there.
Another favorite, which I haven’t seen in a while — a slab of grilled bread topped with a soft cooked egg and garnished with ikura, aka salmon roe. Egg on egg, and you don’t need any salt. Kind of brilliant.
I’d love to have that again.
Can’t wait to get out there and give it a try.
(I guess you decided to give the place a boost and broadcast that wonderful tip you sent me this weekend ; )
Did you ever make it to Punjabi by Nature, the fast food outlet in the Lotte Plaza in Chantilly?
Thanks for chiming in …
A man who is passionate about both OK football and kati rolls. I love it.
Thanks for checking in this week, Naeem …
Thanks for helping out a fellow chatter …
I love when spicy’s like that.
Not all the time, but some of the time definitely …
You eat almost compulsively, heedless of what it’s doing to you, to your mouth, to your insides.
I’d say The Majestic, in Old Town Alexandria.
They prepare it tableside, and it’s magnificent.
You can really taste the anchovy, and the garlic, and the egg. It’s not just some sort of generic zesty dressing.
Gotta run, everybody … Second day of Rosh Hashanah, and I am bad for having even done this much today—but I had a great time—thank you—and I hope you all did, too …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]