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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: email@example.com
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Rappahannock Oyster Bar, DC
This hopping oyster bar is the best of the early attractions at the new Union Market. Hop a stool and order up a platter of Rappahannock River oysters, either raw or roasted (the latter preparation transforms them from salty-sweet and light to rich and meaty and savory). You can wash them down with a small selection of craft beers, including Chocolate City Beer and DC Brau, or a glass of sherry. The surprise is the crabcake, a contender for the city's best. Dropped onto the griddle with an ice-cream scoop and given a slight, flattening press to develop a good sear, it's a massive thing, but also unexpectedly light and delicate for all its girth. It's not that there's no binder -- every crabcake's got binder. It's that the binder that's there is good binder, and smartly deployed.
8407 Kitchen + Bar, Silver Spring
Chef Pedro Matomoros's lamb bolognese has become one of the signature dishes of the area, the burger has moved into the first rank, and desserts under vet pastry chef Rita Garruba have never been better. But if you have never made the acquaintance of this lowkey suburban sophisticate, go for brunch. Homemade beignets with sweetened creme fraiche are gratis, and the rest of the meal follows in that spirit of abundance and generosity. I can't remember the last time I had a better plate of restaurant pancakes -- all soft, fluffy insides and crisp edges, with lots of big, ripe blueberries that somehow managed not to have suppurated. They come with a local maple syrup so dark and rich and smooth you want to douse everything on the table with it. And the distinguishing touches don't stop there. Those cubes of corned beef in the well-seasoned hash with poached eggs? Homemade. So is the smoked salmon. Wash it all down with a drink billed as a grown-up mojito that actually tastes like a cross between a mojito and a Negroni and delivers a gentle, antidotal bite.
Family Meal, Frederick
I have eaten a lot of great fried chicken across this great land -- I'm talking about bang-your-fist-on-the-table great, now -- and the tender, crunchy, pickle-brined bird at this stylized Frederick diner, the brainchild of chef Bryan Voltaggio, has already earned its way into that esteemed class. It's worth driving the hour-plus north just for a taste, easy. The good news is, this isn't some one-hit wonder. There's also a fabulous basket of "pot pie fritters" -- crunchy little salt-crusted croquettes that give way to a lush gravy studded with peas and bits of chicken -- some lovingly treated vegetable sides, a good BLT made with pork belly, and an "adult" mint chocolate chip milkshake garnished with toasted marshmallow and spiked with Buffalo Trace. That's right -- a higher-quality bourbon for a milkshake than many restaurants bother to use for a mixed drink.
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.
Blue Duck Tavern, DC
On my Twitter feed a couple of months ago, 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.
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.
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).
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.
I’d love to see it.
I’ve met Rodney and eaten his ‘cue. Didn’t know this was out there. Thanks for turning me on to it. Any idea where I might find it?
Good morning, everyone, I hope you had a good weekend, full of good eating … Love to hear about some of the places you’ve been, regardless of whether they’re new and hot or what have you …
I’d say Mintwood Place over Palena Cafe.
But I’d take Fiola over either of them, especially considering what you’re celebrating.
I had some great food at my last meal at Palena Cafe. Also some underwhelming food. And service was odd. And I was seated in the back of the front room — it was dark (and I don’t mean mood lighting dark) and frankly kind of dreary.
My last meal at Mintwood Place was not a full meal; I sat with some friends at the bar. Among the dishes was the steak tartare with the wee-est tater tots you’ve ever seen — a dish I raved about in my review for the magazine. It was still very good, though not as finely-tuned as it had been previously. The food in general was good; I enjoyed my meal. The bar remains a disappointment, with some of the weakest mixed drinks I’ve seen in a while.
Oh, no question about it.
The tacos are, unaccountably, a weak spot. Seems as though it ought to be correctable. They need more oomph, more moisture.
The kichen’s inconsistency is frustrating, because when it’s in the groove, as it sometimes is, this is a 2 1/2 star place. There are some dishes that are so on the mark and delicious you’re tempted to go and order the whole menu.
If I’m jonesing for Indian to eat while sitting on the couch with a movie or a ballgame, I’m hitting up Masala Art in Tenleytown.
And I’m making sure that at least one of the takeout containers includes the chicken tikka masala. This is one of the most luxurious and aromatic versions I’ve ever had.
Another option: Heritage India, in Glover Park.
You also asked about favorite takeout places. One is Sushi Taro, which on the face of it sounds odd — such a serene place, a kind of culinary spa. You don’t think of it for something so utilitarian as takeout. And yet …
Sushi travels surprisingly well. It doesn’t need to be hot to be good, and if the kitchen packs the container correctly (Taro usually does) there’s little chance of jostling and throwing off delicately crafted arrangements as there is with sauced dishes with multiple components.
The thing I worry about most is the rice. It degrades over time. But Taro’s rice is so good to begin with that 20 minutes in the car is not going to run it.
I sometimes surprise my wife with an order from there, since she’s a sushi fanatic and often finds herself — with her long days juggling irregular work hours and regular but demanding children — reheating leftovers for a late dinner.
And I can’t believe I’ve never seen it.
I must, I must … Thank you for the needed reminder …
Speaking of black comedies, I remember once using the expression in a class I was teaching at Howard U. — referring to a book, I think, though I can’t remember which one at the moment.
Anyway, the class fell silent. I realized they had no idea what I meant by black comedy, and, my being not-black, weren’t too sure they liked where this thread of conversation was going.
Finally, one of the students raised her hand and said: “You mean, like, ‘Friday’?”
No, I said. Not a black comedy. A black comedy.
You’re lucky to have that reservation at FIG. I think it’s the best restaurant in the city.
Love the pastas and salads. Love the make-your-own Manhattan menu and also a similar menu of variations on a Negroni.
I would urge you to make the trip to Baked, on East Bay. Best moonpie I’ve ever had. I couldn’t resist the last time I was down, and even though I was having dinner in an hour at McCrady’s — which I also highly recommend, if you have the time and the budget allows — ordered one and ate the whole thing with a cup of coffee.
Boulevard, I also like — out on Mt. Pleasant; good, simple, inexpensive Low Country. Jack’s Cosmic Dogs for great corn dogs and desserts; fun atmosphere; also in Mt. Pleasant. Cru Cafe for its creamsicle cake and fun, intimate vibe. Lucca for Italian …
This is fantastic!
Thank you so much for posting these links …
This is harder than you’d think …
First of all, thanks for writing in. I love people who get passionate about hot dogs …
I take it you haven’t had the Chicago dog at Sidebar in Silver Spring? Go. I love Chicago dogs, and this is actually better than most of the traditional Chicago dogs in Chicago. They griddle the poppyseed bun, and the dog itself is scored and grilled, which gives it a little more interest too.
— the Chicago dog at Sidebar, Silver Spring; — the foie gras dog at Hot Doug’s, Chicago; — plain with mustard and onions at Nathan’s, NY;
And, for nostalgia’s sake and also to get in a half-smoke:
— halfsmoke, no chili, at Ben’s Chili Bowl, DC
Haute Dog and Fries, by the way, is excellent — well, the Purcellville shop is. I hope the new location in Alexandria is its equal. They do a lamb dog with a sausage made from Fields of Athenry lamb; terrific.
Someone needs his own blog … : )
Naeem, thanks for these dining dispatches. My mouth’s watering …
Sounds like you had a great trip. Actually — sounds like you did nothing but eat!
Does anyone else on here ever get that from friends, by the way? You go somewhere, and you come back talking about you trip and where you ate, and where you ate next, and the restaurants you didn’t get to but will next time, and then — “But what did you DO?”
And I think that’s because they’re not so hyper-focused on being NOW, and doing all the NOW things.
There’s a reveling in obscurity, but it’s not anything that consciously seeks to exclude. It’s more a sense of — all of us on staff here are absolutely digging this new cocktail and we just HAVE to share it with you. That kind of enthusiasm is rare.
By the way, I love you for using “indiffitude” and making sure it remains a part of our weekly lexicon on here. In fact, I want to send you a book from the office collection just to say thank you.
Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your mailing address when you get a sec.
Except that that’s the expression — black comedy. If you say dark comedy, I don’t know that people will have any idea what you’re talking about.
But who knows? Maybe most people don’t know what a black comedy is. I’m always astonished to find out what people — people I would think know things — don’t know.
Off the top of my head, I can name a few:
Craig LaBan in Philly. Devra First in Boston. Leslie Brenner in Dallas …
There aren’t many, no.
I’m so glad you consider this a treat. It’s a treat for me as well. Thanks …
The Grilled Oyster Co. is one of those places that could be a lot better than it is, with a few changes.
I like the crabcake, but it comes on a tough, generic bun. The local chopped salad is nicely presented, but not as vibrant as you would hope for something billed as “local”; and no mention is made of which local farms, exactly, those ingredients are coming from. An ok selection of oysters every day, but the platter is not very arresting visually; for a place that seems to be geared around oysters, you would expect a distinctive mignonette (you don’t get it).
China Jade Bistro is not, as I had hoped, affiliated with the tasty China Jade in Rockville, one of a handful of restaurants operated by Liu Chaosheng (among them Uncle Liu’s Hotpot). Not saying it can’t be a good place, just that it doesn’t carry that pedigree.
As for Attman’s — it’ll be really interesting to see how they translate what they do in Baltimore to Potomac. I hope it works, though a good part of what makes Attman’s Attman’s, is that the space has character — and character. I doubt either of those is likely to to be the case in Potomac.
Vetri — if you can get in.
It’s like Komi, though. If you’re not far enough in advance, it won’t happen.
In which case: Osteria. That’s Vetri’s more free-form sibling.
Speaking of reservations, has anyone tried to get them at the returning Minibar?
I’ve tried several times, through a friend. (They are only taking them by email — annoying.) The second-to-last last email we received in reply was an admonishment — for sending a request prior to 10 a.m. that morning. Even more annoying.
That email contained this boiler-plate paragraph: “If we have availability for the date you requested, and you have provided the required information in your email, you will receive a confirmation within 48 hours. If we do not have availability, or you have not provided sufficient information, you will be notified.”
Our most recent email reply was to tell us that there was no availability, but it did not say whether the information we supplied was “insufficient” or whether there was simply no space.
I get that there’s going to be a high demand, I do. Whether this is the only way possible to handle that high demand, is, I think, debatable. I think it’s clearly the most convenient way. I wish that there was more of an acknowledgment of that fact, along with a general tone of apologetic graciousness.
I don’t think I’m just speaking for myself when I say that diners don’t like to feel as if the restaurant is doing us a favor by granting us the great privilege of a table to eat a meal.
Buzz can turn to buzzkill real fast …
Gotta run, everyone. Thanks so much for all the give and take today — I enjoyed it, and hope you did too …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]