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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. Or write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
This Week's Contest *:
(* Held over from last week )
Put on your clever caps.
We're looking for restaurant hybrids.
Double-crosses are permitted and encouraged. What is your ideal restaurant and why?
Or—what do you think simply sounds fun or entertaining, and why?
Oyamel + Komi + Vapiano = Oye Komi Va
Fast-casual atmosphere with brilliantly realized small bites of baby goat and suckling pig, etc.
The winner will receive a copy of Yes, Chef—the new autobiography from Marcus Samuelsson.
I like it. A lot.
I wish you could sit there, is the thing, because it’d be great to unwrap one of the mammoth sandwiches and sit down with a Dr. Brown’s and really savor it on the spot, not twenty minutes later after you get back to the office or wherever you take it.
OK, there IS a table, yes, singular, but the last time I was in it was covered with a calculator and someone on staff’s notebooks.
But the sandwiches … Fantastic.
The turkey — the humble turkey — is darn near mind-blowing.
The pastrami is excellent, though I yearned for more spicing, more zest on the edges. A friend of mine, also Jewish, had a similar reaction.
The butcher case is reason enough …
Great to hear from you, and I’m thrilled to know you had such great meals there!
It’s some of the best Indian food I’ve had in this area, and what is all the more amazing — and to put it in its proper context — Punjabi by Nature is in, basically, a food court. Thanks for the tip about the parathas — can’t wait. But I have loved the choley and the tandoor chicken. I was thinking about them for weeks after, and your words about your trips there have made my mouth water again.
As I said above about Stachowski’s Market: Go.
Order up a Zip car if you have to. Bum a ride. Hitchhike. But go.
A lot of places do 1/2 priced bottle nights, usually on Mondays, including Cava, Dino (also on Sundays), Floriana, Agora, and Veritas Wine Bar.
Grapeseed does a 1/2 priced bottle night on Tuesday. Ditto Againn and Bistrot Lepic (Tuesday is also wine-tasting night there, when the staff samples new wines.)
The Diner in Adams Morgan has 1/2 priced bottle night on Wednesday. So does Little Fountain Cafe, also in A-M.
Bayou does a 1/2 priced bottle night on Sunday. So does Vinoteca, Urbana and La Tasca. Sonoma makes its “reserved bottle list” 1/2 priced on Sundays.
… If I’m forgetting any great deal out there, by all means — let me know … It’s great to collect all these in a list …
No need to be afraid — there’s a lot of good Ethiopian food out there.
I haven’t turned up many places where I’d say, Please. Stay away.
Given that it’s your first time out, I’m going to point you to Ethiopic, on H St. I love the care in the cooking, and I love the vibe. I’d love to hear back, after you’ve been …
Ethiopic might be my favorite at the moment, but the version of kitfo I like best is probably at Meaza, in Arlington, another fantastic spot. Dama, also in Arlington, is an experience with its hanging slabs of raw meat, which you slice thin and eat with booze and beer. Zenebech, on 6th near the Howard Theater, makes superlative injera (ask for the one made mostly with teff; the bread is dark and nutty, and crunches when you bite into it). I also like Etete, on 9th, and Shagga, in Hyattsville (which I think makes one of the best cups of coffee in the area, if not the best.)
Lucky you …
Glad to be of service … : )
Yeah, not easy.
I think Tallula might work for this group. American, in Arlington, with nothing too outre to alienate the meat-and-potatoes crowd and a variety of dishes among which the vegans could find something to eat, too.
I would call ahead, of course, to make sure not just that the restaurant could accommodate a group that big, but also to speak to the kitchen and alert them that vegans are coming.
I’m being a little facetious there, but there is a real point I want to make — when it comes to eaters with restrictions, it’s always a wise thing to call the restaurant in advance; chefs have even been known to go off menu and whip up a dish or two to try to satisfy these diners’ needs.
Can’t do that of course without a heads up.
Good luck with what sounds like a hard night all around …
Thanks for the tip …
(I was about to say, J-Voelk, add it to the list, but our excellent J-Voelk is doing other things and from here on out it’s yours truly producing. Please bear with me as I get my chat-legs … )
That’s one for the books.
You must be a very nice person, that you’re thinking now of all the witty things you might have said in response.
Because wit, it seems to me, is the last thing this guy and this restaurant deserves to hear.
Chatters: a challenge — let’s see if we can’t come up with a great collective response to unnamed Asian fusion restaurant waiter and his pathetic alibi.
All that’s going through my head at the moment is profane. : )
At my mom’s. ; )
Homemade bagels, plus bialys, lox, sable, whitefish, some cheeses, a produce platter, a peach kugel, homemade applesauce cake, and homemade mandelbreit.
At a restaurant?
I mean, I would think you want to eat something really, really mild after a 26-hour fast with no food or drink or even sips of water.
And I would think you might want to be in company of at least some people who endured the same thing, right?
So I would say Parkway or Woodside Deli, both in Silver Spring. Great delis? No, by no means. But they have the foods you want and need, and they are fantastic for atmosphere.
I love that first sentence. So intriguing.
Reminds me of the “yada yada yada” episode of Seinfeld.
… My wife and I robbed a bank, and now we have $300 to spend on dinner …
… I was on the way to work and found a wallet on the ground, and now my wife and I have $300 to spend on dinner …
… Vinnie, my bum client, finally paid off his gambling debt, and now my wife and I have $300 to spend on dinner …
Suggestions. Have you been to Fiola? What about Rasika? Palena? Obelisk? —My most recent meal at the latter, now coming up on 20 years, was excellent, from start to finish.
I don’t think you are.
I think a place ought to be flattered by a call like that. Especially an international call.
I am going to bet that they thought you were after the recipe. That’s the only good explanation I can come up with.
Is anybody else out there thinking of a certain hilarious Youtube clip?
” … because if the manager isn’t nice, then what does that say about the business you’re running … the people in it?”
I’m in a mood, people. Must be the fact I know I won’t be eating for 26 hours, starting tonight. I think it’s making me giddy …
Thanks for the tips.
I hope last week’s chatter gets them in time …
Familiarity breeds contempt?
I think Bodo’s is a great place for a college town, and particularly a college town in the South. I’ve been a dozen times, and have always gotten good bagels.
An interesting concept.
An exciting concept.
Thanks for coming up with it and writing in today …
But the name — the name … I would have loved for you to give it a zingy name.
(You still have time … )
Thanks so much for this …
I didn’t think of Willow, and it happens to be a pretty perfect call for this group.
(What a smart and funny and well-informed crowd you all are … You make my day …)
Thank you, Dean …
Personally, I don’t think I could stomach brisket and roast chicken after 26 hours of nada, but I know there are some who go that route. Sounds festive …
I would encourage you to head to Rol San there for dim sum, and Caplansky’s for smoked meat sandwiches, but I don’t have a good and recent rec for you for a special occasion meal.
I’d hit Cafe du Parc for very good French bistro cooking and excellent desserts. And if the weather holds, sitting outside under the umbrellas and enjoying a slice of Cafe Society.
Tip: you can order the mussels in a half portion (though it doesn’t say this on the menu), and make them your appetizer.
I think it’s worth it, yes — the chef, Daniel Singhofen, is not a dilettante in these matters.
I also think that, yes, salmon collar and pork jowl can be fit under the umbrella of offal.
One way of thinking of offal is the stuff that the vast majority of diners don’t think of as food. The organs, the scrap parts, the refuse, if you will, that has typically been the province of slaves and serfs and the poor.
The collar is not the loin; it doesn’t make for a pretty presentation on the plate, like a filet. Same goes for the jowl.
But you’re not going to find more flavor than you will in these things. They’re flavor-packed. Intense. Alive.
I love seeing that these items are so beloved these days by many chefs.
Thank you so much for coming on and passing these on …
What a community this is …
The knowledge, the readiness to help, the speed of delivery …
I’d also recommend Neramitra, for Thai, and Kabob Palace, for kabobs and rice and naan.
Both are inexpensive, significantly cheaper than a night at Jaleo. Just know that you won’t come close to replicating the mood and atmosphere of Jaleo, if that sort of thing matters to you.
Thanks so much, everyone, for all the great tips and great talk today.
Wish me luck on my fast … Time, now, to squeeze in a great lunch before I do …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]