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.
Editor’s Note: Washingtonian Online moderators and hosts retain editorial control over chats and choose the most relevant questions; hosts can decline to answer questions.
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
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've 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 few juicy bites. 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).
Moa, Rockville 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.
Fiola, DC 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.
Any luck with asking restaurants to put a certain item back on the menu? Who at the restaurant do you even ask about something like this?
(Back story: After being not-so-impressed with several meals at The Hamilton, my friend recommended their Parmesan Crusted Chicken Caesar when I went back for one last shot. OMG. I was obsessed, as were several other members in our party! We went back for a round of salads two weeks later to find them off the menu. So disappointing.
The waitress was able to make us a regular Chicken Caesar instead but it just wasn't as good without the Parm crusting. We want that salad back!!)
How do you go about getting that dish back on? I think you just did. ; )
You can also drop an email or letter (yeah, a letter) to the GM.
People laugh at the idea of a real letter — snail mail, etc. — but think about it: if you want to show that your opinion is not some hastily thought out, ill-conceived thing, what better way than to craft an actual letter — a visible symbol of time and effort and (some) thought?
I knew a guy once who wrote his cover letters for jobs with a fountain pen. Definitely made him stand out. And recently, fighting a ticket, I wrote my response out in longhand on good stationary. Was it my argument that got me out of paying all that money, or was it my handwritten letter? Maybe both?
Good morning, everyone.
Eager to hear what and where you’ve been eating. And what’s on your mind on this brisk but beautiful Election Day …
re: AL DENTE, WESLEY HEIGHTS ...:
Thoughts on Al Dente - great menu, inconsistent so far in my view.
Curious on your take. Thanks.
I haven’t been back since shortly after it opened. Jessica Voelker is the one who wrote the review for the magazine — giving it two stars out of four.
I will say that that meal left not much of an impression, and that I was stunned to read that John Mariani had made Roberto Donna his pick for Chef of the Year in Esquire.
Actually, “stunned” is an understatement. It was as if I had clicked on a web page from 30 years ago, except that there were no web pages 30 years ago.
A very curious, and, I think, indefensible choice, given the great talent around the country and Donna’s very clear contempt for his restaurant families and the notion that people who make money are required to give back in the form of taxes.
re: FLORIANA, OFF DUPONT CIRCLE:
My boyfriend and I live in the Dupont/U Street neighborhood, and have had excellent meals at Floriana. The patio is charming, the half price wine bottle special on Wednesdays/Sundays are great, and the Italian food is delicious. I think being in a rowhouse gives the restaurant character.
Floriana never seems to be on any of Washingtonian's lists (100 Very Best, reader surveys, etc.) Any idea as to why?
I like all those things you say. It’s a good neighborhood spot, and if I lived nearby and were not doing criticism, I could see myself going several times a month.
Does it transcend being a neighborhood spot, is the question — at least where the 100 Best list is concerned. (The Taste team doesn’t have anything to do with reader surveys, and Floriana is too expensive to draw consideration for Cheap Eats.)
There are other questions, too. Is it a good value? Is it consistent? Does it do any one or two things better than any other restaurants in the area?
SUNDAY BRUNCH REDUX ...:
I know the Sunday brunch discussion is probably old, but I wanted to add the Mansion on O Street as my personal favorite.
It's definitely not cheap, but the food is fantastic and plentiful, and walking around the Mansion itself is quite a trip! Just sayin.....
No — say, say …!
What do we exist for, if not for just these just sayin’s …
Regardless of timeliness. ; )
Or arbitrariness. ; )
What, by the way, did you have last time you were in? Details, details, we want details …
DINING IN NEW YORK ...:
I am planning my fifth wedding anniversary and would like to splurge at a top fine dining restaurant in NYC. I have narrowed my choices to Per Se, Daniel and Le Bernardin.
I know all are great restaurants, but which one would you choose? I am having a difficult time to decide. My wife enjoys the atmosphere but food is the most important factor.
Eddie, it’s like choosing among a Maserati, a Porsche, and a Lamborghini.
These are three of the greatest restaurants, not merely in New York City, but in the country. And the food is exquisite at all three.
And you will be much the poorer when you walk out of any of them.
So, not any easy call by any means. But I’m going to give the nod to Per Se, which, beyond serving up long, multi-course meals of technical brilliance and remarkable and exciting flavors, brings an element of innovation and fun.
Go. And be sure to log back on and drop us a note on your time there …
A DEBATE, AND NOT OBAMA VS. ROMNEY ...:
I think we are going to see historic results tonight. I waited almost 2 hrs in line this morning to vote. I have never waited more than 30 minutes in line to vote in the 25 plus years I have lived in Virginia.
Now, my real debate is whether to go the gym after work today or race to DC to get in line for chicken and donuts at Seasonal Pantry.
That’s a debate? A debate has two sides. Who in the world would willingly choose running on a treadmill over chowing on chicken and donuts?
(Actually, I know who; they don’t count — sensible-minded churls.)
I waited in line this morning longer than I ever have, too. Longer, I think, than even in 2008. It’s good to see.
AL DENTE, CONT. ...:
I asked the Al Dente question - you added "off Embassy Row." Is that even right? I assume we are talking about the same place (there's only one with Donna).
And why did they change their name suddenly?
Yep, should be Wesley Heights. Thanks for the catch. I’ll take care of that right now.
And they changed the name — it was La Forchetta — because they one day realized that there was a similarly named restaurant in the city, La Forchette, the longstanding French restaurant in Adams-Morgan, and didn’t want any confusion.
Hey, maybe there’s an idea there for the beleaguered Donna. Maybe he should change his name.
THE MANSION ON O ST., CONT. ...:
Regarding the Mansion on O Street, the better question is what DIDN'T I have??!!
The omelets were made to order with fresh ingredients. The bagels were the real deal, and I believe there were THREE types of lox along with fresh whitefish, capers, egg, tomatoes, etc. There were also several breakfast casseroles, along with the required scrambled eggs, and bacon and sausage and potatoes.
The lunch choices were amazing! There were five or six delicious hot dishes, along with fresh shrimp for shrimp cocktail, etc.
I compare this to what I pay similarly for at the Hay Adams. It's like comparing Bob's Big Boy (Hay Adams) with the old Melrose (Mansion!). They also have drinks and unbelievable desserts. Too many of them!!
OK, show of hands — who out there is NOT ravenous right now?
By the way, does anybody else kind of hate the way brunch just leaves you in a stupor for the rest of the day? I mean, don’t get me wrong — sometimes I like being in that kind of brunch-induced stupor: you drift into some a gallery show or two, you take in a movie you weren’t even planning on seeing, you drink several cups of coffee at a ragtag coffeehouse and read a book and think your lazy, dreamy, drifty thoughts. Nice.
OR you stumble home and take a nap for three hours.
There’s no in-between, is there?
RAMEN, RAMEN, EVERYWHERE RAMEN ...:
There seems to be a number of offerings for ramen noodles. $13 for ramen? Seems a bit high compare to the $1 ones from the college days!
Any good place you would recommend in or near the MoCo area?
It’s definitely expensive if you run it up against those cheapie packs we all ate back in the day in college.
(Actually, I shouldn’t say that — my wife still eats the stuff, now; loves it for a quick, easy, no-fuss meal late at night or in between taking care of kids and dashing off to work.)
We just did a Japanese-themed edition of Taste, and devoted an entire page to all the ramen shops now going. The thing to keep in mind is that the noodles in the best of these shops is nothing at all like that packaged stuff. They’re real noodles, in many cases imported from Japan, where they take ramen very, very seriously. And the broth, forget about it. There’s much more complexity to these broths than that salty light brownish stuff you get by dumping a packet in hot water.
In MoCo, the place I like best is Ren’s Ramen, in Wheaton — adjacent to Ruan Thai, one of the most consistently delicious Thai restaurants in the area.
Get the miso ramen. The broth hits all the pleasure centers, the noodles are springy, and the toppings — seaweed, coddled egg, sliced pork, etc. — add real interest.
By the way: one reason that the packaged ramen is so addictive is that the noodles are fried before they’re dehydrated. So, they look innocent enough, but they’re pretty caloric for what they are. And the broth contains more sodium than anyone should eat in a week.
NEW YORK DINING, CONT. ...:
For the diner doing their anniversary in NYC:
I recommend Marea, Eleven Madison Park, and Brooklyn Fare if they are willing to leave the confines of Manhattan.
Yes, all three are excellent.
Though perhaps not in the consciousness of the non-food-obsessed.
But it’s an interesting alternative you present — the Old Guard Greats and the New Gen Greats. Can’t go wrong, either way.
BLAST FROM THE PAST ...:
There was the one Italian restaurant in DC called Beduci on P Street in the Dupont Circle area. I frequently dined at their old location (where Al Tiramsu is located now) and I wonder if the place would still be around if it just stayed at its same location and didn't move down the street (and to its demise).
Do you have any idea where the owners went?
Fred, sorry, no, I don’t.
I do remember it, though. Beduci = Below Dupont Circle.
Anybody out there know where the owners ended up, if anywhere?
BRUNCH, CONT ...:
That sounds nice, "I like being in that kind of brunch-induced stupor... OR you stumble home and take a nap for three hours."
Unless you work brunch and dinner Sundays, then again all you folks got to go to work on Monday so I suppose it evens out in the end.
I just dislike that feeling of eating my first meal of the day and knowing full well that everything from that moment forward is shot.
It’s like that Jim Gaffigan bit: “Pancakes definitely make you lower your expectations. You’re like, ‘Well, looks like I’m not showering today.’”
FERMENTED TOFU IN D.C.?:
Do you know of anyone serving up fermented tofu in these parts? Tofu that is cured in miso and sake for 6 months plus. The tofu becomes almost cheese like in texture, and it's an umami bomb going off in your mouth, waves of flavor echo across your taste buds for a good five minutes.
We enjoyed some two weekends ago at Kajitsu in NYC. A lovely Japanese restaurant in the East Village serving shojin cuisine (Buddhist temple cuisine).
And now we are hoping to find some fermented tofu in DC.
Thanks, Van Ness.
I’ve had Kajitsu on my list for my next trip up, and this seals it. Thanks for the tip.
Curious to know, though — how does this compare to traditional fermented tofu, aka stinky tofu?
DISHES FALLING OFF MENUS, CONT. ...:
Regarding dishes falling off menus, this happened to me at Zaytinya.
When they first opened my favorite thing on their menu was a dish called manti, which were teeny tiny beef dumplings. They disappeared after a year or two, but when I was there recently I noticed a waiter walking past carrying a dish of them.
I asked about it, and was told that they don't have them on the menu because they are too labor intensive to produce in large batches (makes sense - it's probably like making ravioli the size of a chickpea), but you can order them if you know to ask.
The waiter told me that when they first opened they had a manti-making prodigy from Turkey whose entire job was to make them. She left, and it would take three people to replace her.
I also had a favorite dish drop off the menu at Masala Art, but whenever I ask for it they agree to make it.
I love that — a manti-making prodigy whose prowess is such that it would take the work of three mortals to replace her.
I remember that dish. Fantastic. I miss them.
Thanks for sharing this bit of off-menu intel …
Speaking of Masala Art, I have to say that my last meal there was just dreadful. Everything tasted thin, and the service was both pushy and negligent.
The dish that summed up everything this night was a variation on malai kofta — this one stuffed with prunes. It consisted of four cocktail-sized dumplings. Four. And all of them dry. For $11.95. In a gravy the consistency of whole milk. And with only slightly more depth.
HAWAII-BOUND AND SEEKING RECS ...:
I am headed to Oahu on Friday for two weeks, and will also spend a few days each in Maui and the Big Island.
Do you or the readers have recommendations for me? All cuisines and price range open.
Lucky you. Sounds wonderful.
I don’t have any tips, but there’s got to be someone or someones out there who do …
CHICAGO, ON A BUDGET ...:
Hi Todd- I am going to Chicago for the first time for a weekend in December but will be on a budget.
Any must try places? Where would you be eating if you went there? Where can we find the best Chicago pizza?
It’s a great city for eating cheaply, so you’re in luck there, and a great city also for its array of cultures and cuisines. You’re gonna have a great time.
For pizza, wow. I have a hard time picking just one; there are a lot of terrific spots. I like Pequod, Great Lakes and Lou Malnati for different reasons. All three make really good pies. Great Lakes is big into sourcing. Lou Malnati is the very definition of old-school deep dish.
I’d also recommend Xoco, Rick Bayless’ casual and cheaper alternative to his Mexican fine dining restaurants; Hot Doug’s for gourmet hot dogs, including one topped with foie gras; and Staropolska for Polish cooking — pierogis, pancakes, schnitzels, etc.
Have a ball, and let us know where you hit and what you liked …
FERMENTED TOFU, CONT. ...:
I've never had the pleasure of eating stinky tofu. Although it's my understanding it is kind of like the durian of the tofu world. You know it when you smell it.
The fermented tofu at Kajitsu comes in a small block, not much bigger than a couple of large dice. They cut it for you into coin size slices. The texture is similar to creamy blue cheese and it is an explosion of flavor.
They cure it for 6 months, but I have seen recipes that cure it for 1-2 years. It was definitely one of those one bites that years from now you sit around and say, remember that slice of fermented tofu.
Thanks for the elaborations.
Can’t wait to go and try it.
Stinky tofu is very, very, very much an acquired taste, and I don’t know anybody who is American-born who likes it, and I include myself in that camp. But you know what? Epoisses and other pungent cheeses are very, very, very much an acquired taste, too; imagine encountering them as a 9-year-old.
Many of us who are food lovers learned to cultivate a taste in cheese other than cheddar and provolone, and now we regard these stinky smells as interesting and connoting of character. But to those who have not cultivated these tastes, who exist outside this bubble — and, even more to the point, to many cultures who don’t eat cheese — Epoisses is truly odd and even disgusting.
MASALA ART, CONT. ...:
Masala Art - I wonder if you had an off night.
We had a great meal on Saturday. Interesting, good, distinct spices, all good (ok, biranyi was mediocre).
I hope that’s all it was.
I’ve been high on the place in the past, as you all know.
I think a good place is entitled, now and again, to an off night. But this was a mind-blowingly bad meal.
And service was some of the worst I have had all year. Pushy is one thing. Negligent is one thing. Put them together and you have a dining disaster.
Well. Isn’t that a lovely, feel-good note to end on?
Time to dash off to lunch and obsessively monitor Nate Silver’s blog until midnight (whereupon I will not click onto it even once for another 46 weeks).
Thanks for everything, everyone — I appreciate it. Thanks for making my Tuesdays so fun. I hope you had a good time too.
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …