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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.
Naeem, when I said someone needs to start a blog, I was not thinking, here, on this very chat … ; )
Thanks so much for the Family Meal report.
Like you, I’m not crazy about the shrimp ‘n’ grits. Lacking enough salt when I had them but also there was just not nearly enough flavor in the gravy. The hits are big hits — the chicken is a dish I still think about — but not everything there is wondrous. And while I think the staff is trying hard and is nice, it’s not always up to the level of what Family Meal is trying to pull off.
I’m not trying to put the place down. I like it. There’s heart in the cooking, and it’s generally a good value. I just think it has room to grow.
For all who aren’t hip to the latest food world talk and don’t have the faintest what the chatter’s referring to —
Victor Albisu (ex BLT Steak) is on the verge of opening a taqueria in Falls Church. The restaurant is currently “in preview” at Black Jack, the upstairs lounge at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.
Sounds great. Looking forward to seeing what he does, for real, in Falls Church.
As for El Chucho, I’ve been saying that the tacos are the weak links of the menu. They’ve been drier than they should be, and the flavors are not popping. Not a good thing when you’re, um, a taqueria. But a lot of what else I’ve had has been good — the massive tortas, the posole, the cheese-dusted grilled corn on the cob …
Well, strictly speaking, it’s not a sushi restaurant — it’s an izakaya, a term that refers to place that puts out pub grub, basically.
A Japanese version of pub grub. Grilled meats and vegetables, noodle bowls, etc. Generally, there’s a quality of refinement or level of detail even in these casual plates that you would never expect to find, say, at an American sports bar.
You’ll also often find a small selection of raw fish plates, and at Seki, those are among the best reasons to pay a visit. The yellowtail sashimi is exquisite. The mackerel is as rich as any mackerel I’ve ever eaten.
Pay heed to the specials list. Several weeks ago, Seki brought in about 10 giant scallops. They broiled these and served them in their massive shell, with all their innards intact, bathed in a sauce of soy and (I’m guessing here) mirin and rice wine vinegar, with a small dollop of mayo on the edge of the shell. Fantastic.
Hiroshi Seki, the chef, is an important newcomer to the scene. And his restaurant is one of the most interesting and delicious debuts of the year. If I want to eat raw fish, there are two places I’m thinking of before any others right now — Sushi Taro and Izakaya Seki.
What we found when we made our rounds for the brunch & breakfast cover story was not a bad brunch, just a wildly expensive one, with too few real hits (chicken and waffles, croissants, and Bloody Marys were delicious, but that’s about it) and a lot of over-richness.
The brioche bread pudding French toast was as decadent as it sounds, but so sweet it became too, too much after a few bites. The biscuit on a $16 egg and sausage breakfast sandwich was dry and a bit stale; creamed corn might as well have been called a pool of butter; the sticky buns were just OK — they paled in comparison to competition at, say, Birch and Barley.
If we’d written about 100 brunches instead of 50, it might have made the list. But the prices ratcheted up expectations, and those just weren’t met often enough.
Thanks for the feedback and the nice words.
I consider that to be an important component of being a critic — going to places that you, the reader, would never think to try in hopes of unearthing a gem now and again.
I wouldn’t put Pho Thom in that class of places that people ought to consider driving 35 minutes or more for, but it’s good, and those two dishes in particular are the stuff of cravings.
I’m so glad to hear that you’re so high on the latest edition of Taste. We’re all pretty excited about it.
Ordinarily as you know, we present a selection of reviews and roundups, but we just thought that with all the activity going on, the proliferation of ramen, izakayas cropping up all over, etc., we would turn the section over to covering it all and try something different. I’ll be interested in hearing more feedback. These theme issues, if you will, are something we’re exploring doing more in the future.
To me, this feels like a third wave for the city, the emergence of an izakaya and ramen culture. In the ’70s, Japanese meant a couple of steakhouses and the Japan Inn in Georgetown. Then came sushi, which, for the past quarter-century, came to seem synonymous with Japanese cuisine. Now, we are just beginning to explore a wider world beyond raw fish and vinegared rice.
I’m very, very interested in seeing where this all goes …
Black Market Bistro, in Garrett Park?
Sichuan Jin River or East Pearl (Cantonese) or La Limeña (Peruvian), in Rockville?
Ruan Thai or Nava Thai, in Wheaton?
Jewel of India or Ray’s the Classics, in Silver Spring?
Jaleo or Passage to India or Bistro Provence (French), in Bethesda?
What do you think?
I’d swing by Revolutionary Soup, on the Mall, and get a container of the Spicy Senegalese Peanut Tofu soup (if they have it) and either the crab and corn chowder or the lamb curry, or both. Get some of the good bread, too, and one of the excellent salads.
Revolutionary Soup also sells bottles of wine, including a number of bottles from Virginia.
I might also swing by Peter Chang’s China Grill and pick up an order of cumin fish or some cumin pork chops, and maybe a scallion bubble pancake (I’d eat this in the car, so it’s still hot and puffy).
Hope this helps.
I’d love to hear what you eventually end up doing. Drop me a note next week, okay?
I think you’ve ALMOST nailed it.
They’re essentially soft-openings, but very, very public soft-openings.
In my view, they are meant not simply to work out the kinks but also (and of greater importance, I would say) to attract media attention and hype the venture.
By “fair expectations,” I suppose you mean from the standpoint of the paying customer—? It’s a good question.
One of the advantages of the soft-opening pop-up is that the restaurant that is not yet a restaurant can always say, if the food or service is lacking — well, we’re not even a restaurant yet; how could you expect otherwise?
The appeal for the diner, I would think, is simply to get in before the masses and have something to talk about for a few weeks. But I would think the quality of the cooking would not be demonstrably different if you were to hold off a month and go when the new place is actually up and running. And the service and execution will also likely be smoother as well.
It’s really not a bad banh mi at all, the banh mi at Caphe Banh Mi. I like some of the combinations there very much. My issue is mostly with the bread. But it’s an enjoyable place.
Glad to get your early report on Fuego. Thanks.
You mentioned that it likely won’t be your neighborhood taco place, which makes me wonder what place you’re making your pitstop for daily and weekly purposes. Tacqueria El Charrito Caminante? And if so, how do the two compare? I know on the level of ambiance and service and all those other niceties, there is no comparison — one is a restaurant and one is a dive. But still. Just for fun …
The Passion Food Hospitality group is almost always strong out of the gate with its places. The detail is there. The cooking has punch. The little touches are thoughtful. It’ll be interesting to see how it holds up over the longer haul when the excitement both within the space and without fades — in 9 months, in a year and a quarter, in a year and a half …
Well, as much attention as the President — and First Lady, let’s not forget — have brought to certain restaurants around town, I really don’t think the scene is dependent on a president who eats out frequently to thrive.
It’s fun to track their visits. But aside from the initial bounce that they give to places, I have my doubts that those visits are what you would call “drivers” of the action.
I do think that if Romney is elected we will see far fewer official restaurant visits. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to be in Romney’s makeup, as you pointed out. For another — precedent.
Recent Republican presidents have not made the rounds the way their Democratic counterparts have.
The restaurant most associated with a Reagan — in this case, Nancy — was The Jockey Club, where she regularly lunched with Mike Wallace. Bush Sr. was linked with Peking Gourmet, not far from the CIA. W. dined out infrequently, but gave his stamp of approval to Cactus Cantina, on Wisconsin Ave., near National Cathedral.
Contrast that with Clinton and Obama, who seemed to make dining out a priority and who made a point of spreading the wealth, as it were, when it came to making official visits.
Thanks. I appreciate it. All of it …
How about instead of a Top 10 Food Cities, we talk about a Top 10 Cities Where I’d Most Like to Eat — a more personal list that relieves me of having to include Las Vegas simply because it has so many restaurants from celebrity chef entrepreneurs.
On this more personal list I’d have New York, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, Charleston, Portland, DC, Los Angeles, Philly and Miami.
Thanks, everyone, for all the questions and musings and reviews and all the feedback, too.
I’m off to a late lunch on this gorgeous gift of a day …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]