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 writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Oxford American, Lucky Peach,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.
Todd previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock's humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.
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
Why drive to Baltimore when there's plenty of good sushi in DC? The skewered chicken parts, for starters -- luscious mini kabobs of heart, skin, tail, all of them cooked over smoldering logs of Japanese white oak that perfume the room and call to mind the mood-altering atmospherics of a pricey sauna. The sake list (bottles start at $13 and run to four digits) is fantastic, the best and most extensive in the region, and with helpful annotations worthy of a good wine list. And then there's the sushi -- 22 varieties of fish on offer, including a daily selection from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market. Take note of the excellent sushi rice; it's made with fermented vinegar, which tastes like a cross between a craft beer and a digestif and gives the grains more flavor and character.
DGS Delicatessen, DC
My very early -- and very brief -- word on this artisanal Jewish deli: Go. The matzo ball soup is just about perfect, with a light and exceedingly well-skimmed broth that's flavored by the (superb) matzo ball and vice versa. The chopped liver -- made by a champ at pates and terrines -- is just as good, rich but not at all dense, full of chopped egg, and wonderfully capped by a dice of pickled onion and gribenes (schmaltz-fried chicken skins that might as well be called Jewish cracklins). The housemade pastrami is closer to the Montreal model than the Lower East side model -- a thick, juice-oozing cut edged with so much spice you would think it had been dipped in coffee grounds; it's served on good, twice-baked rye with a zesty housemade mustard. One of the biggest, and most welcome surprises, is that while chef Barry Koslow has lightened many of the traditional dishes that DGS features, and upgraded the quality of ingredients of standard deli fare (the pastrami is made with locally sourced meat), he hasn't sought to prettify the cuisine, or impose his will too strongly. And the prices are eminently reasonable for a casual restaurant in the heart of the city, let alone a deli. Compare tabs with the vastly inferior Second Avenue Deli, in New York, which relies upon mass-produced ingredients for which it charges significantly more.
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.
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 some months back, 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.
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.
ISO SUSHI DINNER IN THE CITY FOR UNDER $100/PER ...:
I want to take my boyfriend for a nice sushi dinner for his birthday. He loves sushi, but has never done the fancier, chef's choice dinner, and I'm looking for a place to take him in DC that won't kill our pocketbook (I don't want to spend more than $100 per person).
What do you recommend? I've looked at Makoto or Sushi Taro---any others?
I’d also add Sushi-Ko I, in Glover Park, to the mix.
With Makoto, you’ll get a very orchestrated, very precise, very serene experience. Staying under $100 per will be the problem if you opt for doing any a la carte in addition to the set menu — in other words, if you decide to go and order yourselves some fatty yellowtail or scallop sashimi or anything else that might be on the menu that night. These add-ons add up fast. But I have never gone there and been able to resist.
Taro’s omakase menu, which is what you’re talking about, starts at $145/per. If you just go and order a la carte, you can have a great meal. Just remember to not splurge too heavily on the stuff flown in that day from Japan, the most expensive fish on the menu.
Sushi-Ko I is small, intimate, low-key — not nearly as statement-making as the other two. And you can stay within your budget and have a very good and varied meal as well. I’d ask to sit at the counter and have a front-row seat, as it were, to watch chef Koji Terrano work with his knives. He also provides a fine finish, in the form of a marvelously silky espresso panna cotta.
50th ANNIVERSARY SPLURGE? ...:
My parents 50th anniversary is next month and we want to splurge a bit ($100-$120 per person with wine) and narrowed our search for fine Italian cuisine (our first fine dining restaurant experience was Cantina de Italia back in the early 80's).
The restaurant needs to have a private dining room though (my parents want to have their grand-kids (including a 6 month old), so the need of a private room). My first thought was Tosca (never been; I wonder how their renovations of their interior looks like now). My parents are too old for Fiola (plus I've been there too many times), and was also thinking of Elisir or Bibiana. Stick with Tosca?
I think Tosca’s a good call in this case.
It has the feel of an older, established restaurant that isn’t trying to woo the young and trendy, and I think your parents will find the menu more reassuring than offputting; there’s not a lot on there that needs to be explained. The pastas have always, for me, been the draw. The pastas and the selection of Barbarolos, Barberas, Barbarescos, and Valpolicellas.
If I were you, I would notify the restaurant a few days in advance. A 50th anniversary is a very big deal. They can help to make it special with certain not-so-little touches that I think would mean a lot to your folks.
Have a great time. Cherish the night.
I’m remembering taking my parents to Colvin Run Tavern for their 50th. We sat in the room with the fireplace. It was a December night, and cold, but we were very cozy. And Colvin Run Tavern was on top of things and did a lot of little things right to make it special.
HELP! -- WHERE TO TAKE OUR WIGGLY 8-MONTH-OLD DAUGHTER? ...:
My husband and I won a free two night stay at a hotel in Rosslyn at an auction. We are planning to go during the weekend of restaurant week. We will be spending the second night alone and have restaurant reservations already, but our 8 month old daughter will be with us during the first night.
Can you think of any restaurants (ideally in DC, where we can take advantage of R week or just do something fun and out of the ordinary) that would be appropriate for us to take her, around 6pm? She is VERY wiggly etc. Or is this a lost cause?
I don’t think it’s a lost cause.
I do think you should try for around 5:30, when most restaurants fling open the doors. Generally speaking, the diners who would give you the evil eye won’t be showing up until about 7. If you arrive at 5:30, you might be gone by then, or just finishing up.
Showing up at the very start of dinner service is the considerate thing to do as a parent of a baby.
(Some would say the considerate thing to do as a parent of a baby is stay at home. These are churls. I used to be one of them. Ignore.)
My other piece of general advice as you hit restaurants with your wiggly baby: pick a place that’s loud. Not all that hard to do these days. With the way sound bounces off hard surfaces at most new restaurants, most people aren’t going to be able to tell if your kid is crying or laughing, and they probably won’t care.
My rec for your night out is Zaytinya. I’ve seen the staff with very little kids, including my own, and I think they do as good a job as a restaurant at this level can do. And there’s a variety of possibilities for her, and of course for the two of you. It’ll feel like a getaway for you, and festive and exciting for her.
Re: FOUNDING FARMERS, DOWNTOWN ...:
What does one do when the Jumbotron down by the Washington Momument dies during the Inauguration festivities...try and find someplace open for brunch!
I've had mixed success with Founding Farmers in the past, but fried chicken tenders and waffles, gravy, two eggs for $12, and no wait, well, you could spend more in DC and do worse.
Now $12 for an Irish coffee, that's a rip-off. But we left fat, full, and our bones warmed in time for the parade.
I like their breakfasts, for the most part.
I think they get what breakfast at a restaurant is supposed to be.
It’s a lively vibe, the portions are huge, and the food is exactly what you think it ought to be.
It’s Bob’s Big Boy, basically. Cleaned up and upscaled and geared to the white-collar workers of downtown.
BEST ASIAN RESTAURANTS IN THE AREA ...:
Please name the three (3) best Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants in the area.
OK, here goes …
Thai: Little Serow, DC; Ruan Thai, Wheaton; Nava Thai, Wheaton.
Chinese: Sichuan Jin River, Rockville; Mama’s Dumplings, Rockville; Hong Kong Palace, Falls Church.
Korean: To Sok Jip, Annandale; Lighthouse Tofu, Annandale; Bang Ga Nae and Gom Ba Woo (tie), Annandale.
WEEKEND DINING REPORT ...:
Two disappointing dining experiences this weekend.
We tried our best to dine in the burbs and avoid the craziness downtown- saturday for lunch we went to Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard. Wow- what happened to this place??
It was more than half empty and (perhaps because of that?) there were a grand total of three carts circulating the floor. One for desserts and two with assorted dumplings and pork buns etc. And that was it!
The selection was not refreshed the whole time we were there. There was no veggies on any of the carts or meat or fish items. We had to ask for spring rolls and then waited forever to get them! It was a huge disappointment.
On Monday for lunch we went to the Founding Farmers in Potomac. I have been several times and this place is usually spot on, but this time they brought all the adult entrees and not the kids meals!
If you have ever dined with children, you know this is a virtually impossible situation to be in- kids are hungry and if everyone else has food but them, it makes for very unhappy kids. And it was at least 5 to 10 minutes before the kids chicken fingers came out. And then they were burned when they did come out.
The rest of the food was very good though and the service was good except for that one slip up.
Boy, luck was not with you this weekend …
The Founding Farmers gaffe is one of the biggest mistakes restaurants make when it comes to children. If you don’t want chaos at the table, then you make sure that the kids get their food first. Amazing how many places screw this up.
I will say that generally speaking, waitresses are much more on top of this than waiters. It’s the rare waiter who knows what to do with a kid at the table. There was the guy who left a steak knife in front of an infant. The guy who left a hot cast iron skillet in front of an infant — with the handle pointed right at him. The guy who attempted to soothe a squirming child — who was squirming because his food hadn’t arrive — by bringing a lollipop. I could go on and on …
Now, Hollywood East. It almost pains me to know what has become of this place. They have never been the same since the relocation. I suspect they lost their dim sum chef after being closed for so many months. The cooking has never been the same — the dumplings stick, the delicacy isn’t there, the fried stuff is often greasy.
I feel for that place, because in their old, more visible location on University Blvd. in Wheaton this was one of the gems of dining in the area. I hope they can right the ship.
WHEN SERVERS PEEK AT THE RETURNED BILL ...:
Hi Todd --
I enjoyed a decent meal at District Commons the other night with some friends but wanted to see what you thought about something.
When the check arrived we split the check into two equal amounts and put the entire tip on one receipt (one group spent more than the other, etc.).
The server then picked up our signed receipts, stood in front of our table checking the receipts, and made a really angry face before looking at the other receipt (at which point she presumably realized the tip was there). She then left without saying a word to us.
For some reason this really irked me - I thought that was really rude. I feel like she should have left the table and checked the receipts as she walked away or at the register (we were not leaving yet as we were still finishing our coffee so she had plenty of time to discuss issues with the check later). I've noticed at most other establishments that the receipts are never looked at in the diner's presence.
Yeah, it’s irksome.
The looking and the reacting both.
It’s not just bad form for her to have looked; it’s bad waitressing.
And waiters and waitresses should suppress their neuroticism until they are out of the dining room and no longer in view of the diners.
Re: DINING OUT WITH A WIGGLY 8 MO. OLD / CLIFTON WEIGHS IN ...:
Parents looking for someplace to take 8mo. Clydes in G'town. Not sure if they are doing anything for R week but Clydes is usually consistent and 8mo children should be an issue.
Not sure what you mean by — should be an issue.
But Clyde’s. Yeah, ok. But — and I don’t mean any disrespect to Clyde’s in saying this — if I’m the parent, I’m only going there as an almost-last resort.
They want a getaway, a little vacation in their own city. Clyde’s is serviceable, not exciting. They want to live a little.
There are a lot of good places you can take a kid, as I said, if you’re smart about it, and respectful about it, too. These places will not bill themselves as “kid-friendly,” but that’s ok. You don’t necessarily need a coloring book and crayons; you need a smart, savvy waitress who can manage your meal. And remember: if the restaurant has a high-chair, it’s saying in effect: kids are good, we want kids; the evil eye patrons must deal.
Speaking of “kid-friendly,” does anyone else dislike that phrase? What does it mean?
I know a lot of good restaurants that I would never characterize as “adult-friendly.”
Re: 100 BEST RESTAURANTS ISSUE ...:
Are you guys doing your 100 Best Restaurants this year? If so, what issue will it be in?
The February issue.
Out any day now …
WHEN SERVERS PEEK AT THE RETURNED BILL, CONT. ...:
Many years ago back when I was waiting tables I had a couple who came in regularly. One evening I didnt make it back to their table to say good night but noticed the tip as I passed by with diinners for another party and glanced down and saw what looked like 8 quarters. I was troubled because the bill was about $40 and was concenred that I dropped the ball or maybe something was wrong with the food. When I was I got to table the 8 quarters turned to be 8 Susan B Anthonys. Some poor watieress at Fritzbe's later got the same tip. The couple and I laughed about ti two weeks alter when they came back in.
It’s true — first thing anybody thinks about when they’re first saddled with coins like that is, who can I pawn them off on and when?
I pawned the last one I had off on a vendor at the Nats’ game 4 playoff against the Cardinals. She looked at it as if it were fraudulent, and I were conning her. She refused to take it. She held it and turned it and looked at it long and hard. I told her it was real. She finally did take it, but very grudgingly, and with a sense that she was going to get in trouble.
CHANGING A RESERVATION: 5+ 1 = 6, NOT 6-5 = 1 ...:
Just wanted to share a bad experience I had a couple of weeks ago at Proof.
I had heard great things about their food and made dinner reservations for 5 to celebrate my birthday. After I made the reservation, I found out another family member was going to be around, so another member of my party called the restaurant to add one person to the reservation, for a total of 6.
The day of the dinner, I called the restaurant and found out that instead of adding 1 person to the reservation, the person had changed the reservation to be just 1 person! How often do people really change reservations from 5 people to 1 person?
To compound the situation, they were totally rude about it and made no attempts to fix the problem they had created. They claimed to have called twice to confirm, but the only missed calls I had were from a blocked number, and the caller left no message. I generally avoid picking up calls from blocked numbers as they are almost always telephone solicitors.
Anyway, we ended up have a much less celebratory dinner at a place in Virginia, and I've rescheduled my 'birthday dinner' for this weekend at Rasika, which I know will not disappoint.
Thanks for writing in …
I’m still unclear about some things, though.
Did you ever go to the restaurant, or was all this just via the phone? Did they not try to find you a table for 6? I can understand that if a mistake was made and 6 became 1, that it would then be hard at the last second for a popular, busy restaurant to find a table for 6; but did anyone suggest finding you a table for a different night? What does it mean that they were “totally rude”?
I’m not asking all these things, by the way, to cut you down. I really am trying to get a clear sense of the picture here. Of course, it would be helpful to hear from the folks at Proof, too.
It’s unfortunate, to my ears. All around. You’re disappointed, and I’m sure Proof is disappointed as well in how things went down.
DINING IN THE SF BAY AREA ...:
Thanks for making my DC dining decisions for me for the better part of the last 5 years! I need some more advice!
Being recently married, my wife and I are headed out to San Francisco/Napa/Sonoma for our honeymoon. We lucked out in already securing reservations to The French Laundry and Bottega but have yet to plan our dining destinations in SF. Any places that you and/or your readers would say are can't miss for breakfast, lunch, or dinner?
And lucky you — you’re already off to a pretty great start with your hard-to-score reservations. If you have any room on the Napa portion of your trip, I’d also add Bistro Jeanty and Ad Hoc.
In SF — Incanto, Chris Cosentino’s place, for dinner. Yank Sing for dim sum. Saru for sushi. Delfina for pizza. Tartine for bread and pastry.
Re: WOODWARD TABLE, DOWNTOWN ...:
Do you recommend Woodward Table for dinner? Thanks
It depends what you’re looking for from your night.
My early look of the place didn’t make much of an impression on me. Some good things, some not-so-good.
If you’re a foodie and looking for something that will knock your socks off, then no, I can’t recommend it at this point.
But if this is this a night out to entertain businessmen and food is only a part of the reason you’re there, then maybe. Or maybe you’re bored with your usual standby places and want to work your way down the list of newcomers. Then, sure, go ahead.
I did enjoy both a lamb steak and the homemade corned beef platter.
I’m going to be interested in seeing how the place evolves.
Thanks, everyone, for all your questions and tips and gripes and challenges today. I appreciate it. … I’m headed back to bed to try to knock out this flu. What a month this has been …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …