Tuesday, January 29 at 11 AM

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.

Host: Todd Kliman

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'sThe 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: tkliman@washingtonian.com

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W H E R E   I ' M   E A T I N G   N O W   .  .  .



Pabu, Baltimore

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.


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.


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FOLLOW-UP FROM LAST WEEK: PROOF, IN PENN QUARTER ...:

Just wanted to write in to let you know that the owner of Proof called me last week about my situation a few weeks ago. He was very nice and said he had looked into the matter.

The folks on duty that night had assumed that we had changed the reservation online, but he spoke to OpenTable and found out that we were in fact correct. He was very apologetic and polite and offered to have us back another time on his dollar.

I'm unsure as to whether I feel right about accepting his generous offer but I very much appreciate the gesture. Either way, I look forward to going to Proof sometime to enjoy the food I've heard so much about.

Alison

Todd Kliman:

Alison,

I’m really glad to get this update. Thanks for writing in …

The measure of a business is not that they don’t make mistakes, ever; it’s that they take the steps to correct them when they do.

You were right to write me the first time, and Proof was right to offer you dinner on the house.

I can’t tell you not to feel squirrelly about such an offer, but I don’t see how you would be doing anything unethical. And it would be a kind of karmic make-up for a big night that went bad.

I’m curious — who out there would feel just as squirrelly about this and say no? Who wouldn’t think twice, finding it to be an evening of the scales? Who would think twice, but ultimately would take the offer?

Good morning, everyone … At my desk, feeling better than I have in weeks, and eager to hear what’s on your mind and where you’ve been eating and anything else you’ve got to share …

Re: IZAKAYA SEKI, IN THE U ST. CORRIDOR ...:

I am hooked on Izakaya Seki. Going again tomorrow night, which will make it three times in three weeks.

Love sititng at the counter and watching them prepare all the food.

Todd Kliman:

You’re not alone.

My wife, who doesn’t come out with me nearly as much as she used to, made a special point of “reserving” a visit to Seki with me when I was reviewing. And then, having gone — having fallen under Seki’s spell — got on the phone the next day and booked a baby sitter just to be able to go again the following week.

Sitting at the counter is the thing. It’s not different food upstairs, but it’s an entirely different experience when you’re on one of those stools and watching and interacting with Seki and his staff.

DINING OUT IN SAN DIEGO ...:

Hi Todd,

Seeking any and all San Diego dining recommendations. Walking distance of Downtown/Gaslamp Quarter preferred.

Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

Who’s got ‘em?

Re: THAI X-ING, NEAR FLORIDA AVE. AND SIXTH STS. NW ...:

Hi Todd -

The husband and I have been on a roll with Thai food the past few months. I've been thinking about making reservations at Thai X-ing. I've read the comments on yelp but have you been lately? If so, what are your thoughts? The restaurant now requires a deposit when you make reservations.

Thanks and still loving your chats. They keep me excited about the foodie world :)

Natalie

Todd Kliman:

Natalie,

That’s great to hear; thanks.

I’ve been recently, yes, and have somewhat mixed feelings. A lot of my hesitation about the place has to do with pacing. They have a hard time juggling things on a weekend night, and there are long lags followed by a pile-up of plates on the table.

I think the staff would benefit from the chef, Taw Vigsittaboot, reducing the number of courses from 7 to 4 or 5.

And I think the diner would benefit, too.

I loved the first couple of dishes we were served. They were as pungent and bright and exciting as any Thai food I have ever eaten in this area. The last few courses were far from that standard. It’s entirely possible that they were sitting and waiting for staff to collect them. But regardless — the excitement wasn’t there. There were two stir-frys among the final few dishes — I would have expected more variety of style — and they were unexpectedly flat.

It’s not an expensive night out by DC standards — $40 per, and you bring your own wine. So, about $100 for two. And the setting — a cozy townhouse living room — makes you feel you are doing something different and interesting.

It’s certainly the kind of operation you pull for, and there is nothing comparable in the area.

I’m interested in returning, but not rushing to go back, if you know what I mean.

THOUGHTS ON 100 VERY BEST ...:

As a magazine subscriber for the last 15 years, I always look forward to the Very Best Restaurants issue. I am not a big commenter and have never written in about the magazine before, but this issue was surprising.

The issue seemed very predictable with a lot of old restaurants and places that you always write about taking the spots. I didn't think there were many surprises, if any. Was that a deliberate decision I wonder to highlight old standbys? I realize that there were also many new restaurants included, but not as many as I would have thought.

Todd Kliman:

Nothing was deliberate, other than our deliberate effort to cover the scene as well as we could and reflect what’s going on right now.

There are no sinecures on this list. Restaurants have to earn their way on every year.

If an established restaurant claims a spot on the list, it’s because that restaurant is excelling in a variety of areas and keeping things fresh and exciting.

There are 24 new places on this year’s list — so, nearly 1 out of every 4 restaurants is a place that wasn’t on this list last year. That’s about average since I’ve been on board, and I actually think that it signals quite a bit of turnover in the list from year to year.

FEELING SQUIRRELLY, CONT. ...:

I think I can share/understand some of the writer's concern about such a generous offer.

I agree that it is the restaurant's gesture towards a customer to remedy a situation when something does not go right nor well. I assume part of the restaurant's generosity has to do with the fact that the writer did not lie and actually didn't make the reservation change via opentable. The restaurant went to some length to verify this by actually contacting opentable directly.

As for the writer's dilemma as to whether or not take up the GM's generous offer, here's what I would do. Go and do it but the diners don't have to be obnoxious and order the most expensive of every category while doing it. I think that reeks of entitlement and rudeness, especially when the restaurant is trying to make the gesture of apology.

Maybe others will feel different but when someone is taking me out (no matter what the occasion and what the context is), I always try to be mindful and respectful about ordering on someone else's dime. This doesn't mean that I compromise what I like or eat broth and drink water and eat from the bread basket, just show a little respect shows that the offer is appreciated and enjoyed, if that makes sense.

I got the feeling that the writer wasn't trying to get something for free. I think there are plenty of people who do that and I think that is tacky. Though I think it's fine to speak up about something poorly done or handled without the expectation of freebies.

Todd Kliman:

Thanks for chiming in on this …

I think what you say is very smart and very reasonable, and I agree with what you would do if you were in the same situation.

I’m interested to hear some other responses. Who’s got a different angle on this? Or even the same angle, that’s fine — I’m just eager to see how something like this makes people feel.

THOUGHTS ON 100 VERY BEST, CONT. ...:

I guess for me the big question with this years list is what happened to Komi. I know being #2 is not a huge fall from grace or anything like that, but hasn't it been the #1 for you guys for the last three years? Wondering what factors went into the decision and is the Inn at Little Washington doing something it has never done before, or what.

Thanks. So excited to have this issue! I can't wait for it to come every year.

Todd Kliman:

What we’re talking about, here, is something like what you typically see in a 400 meter race — the winner edges out the second-place finisher by four-tenths of a second.

Both are excellent restaurants, and both are performing at a very high level.

So a decision like this comes down to little things. Little things that, in the final analysis, aren’t so little.

Let me share with you some of the final report card for Komi — the final meal report for the year — which contained more dings than in any of the previous four years. Service was more rushed than usual — in and out in two hours, a striking departure from the leisurely, beautifully paced meals of the past; the pasta course was uneven; the dessert course was weak — incommensurate with the excitement of all that preceded it.

The final report card for the Inn, by contrast, was startling in its cleanness. Flawless service — warm, funny, smart and just the right amount of attentive. And nearly every dish from a cold lobster with citrus and sake gelee to a butter pecan ice cream sandwich was not only terrific, but also memorable.

ISO: TAKE-OUT WINGS FOR SUPERBOWL SUNDAY ...:

Todd,

Any good take-out wings you can recommend in Moco? I'm in Gaithersburg ...

Do you have any must have eats while watching the Super Bowl? Wings, chili, meatballs, mac and cheese? Rooting for the 49ers or Ravens?

Todd Kliman:

There’s a good place, and it’s right in your backyard, too — Buffalo Wings and Beer, not to be confused with Buffalo Wild Wings.

The latter is a national chain; the former is a local chain. Big difference.

I also like the wings at Hard Times, and there’s one in Rockville, not too far from you.

I actually don’t have any must-eats for the game. There’s nothing I go back to year after year after year, and in the last six, seven years I don’t remember doing anything festive for a meal.

As for my rooting interest — Ravens.

(I am already sick, by the way, of hearing about the HarBowl. Oy …)

Re: THE OVAL ROOM, NEAR THE ELLIPSE ...:

100 Best Restaurant Review: I'm a huge fan of the 100 best restaurant edition. But I noticed a few restaurants on the list that have never been on and some classics that were kicked off like The Oval Room I dine there often despite the shabby, sad interior.

I went there early in December & the overall meal was lacking. When I inquired the server promptly explained to me that both Chef Conte and Pastry Chef Austin were no longer there. Austin being very ill and out for some time. Would it be safe to assume that food has suffered in the absence? And how is that the food was left in such incapable hands? Do you know something we don't know ?

Todd Kliman:

We visited three times in the last six months, and had mixed experiences on the first two visits.

The most recent report card was filed around the holidays, and noted, among other things, that the seafood components of two dishes—Sashimi of Tuna, Smoked Tapioca, Tamarind & Buttermilk and Spaghetti Flavored with Jalapeño & Smoked Uni Carbonara—were “clearly not fresh.” These had been the highlights of an earlier visit, and would have been exactly the dishes we recommended. The bread was also stale. The staff was excellent, as usual.

As for Conte — 701, where the chef has been more recently, seems very much on the rise.

Re: POSTO, ON 14TH ST. ...:

With 7 new Italian themed restaurants rumoured to open around U Street in the next year, I realize that I never hear anything about Posto, the Italian restaurant on 14th St. Is it good?

Todd Kliman:

I would not say “good.” I would say “decent.”

FEELING SQUIRRELLY, CONT. ...:

Re: feeling Squirrely--

As a food & beverage manager around the area, I've made my fair share of comp offers to guests who were unhappy, and I love when they take me up on it. It means they're giving my staff and me a second chance, and I get the opportunity to change their minds and earn back their future business.

If you want to order moderately, I think that shows a certain amount of grace; if you choose to order extravagantly, that's the deal we made, so it doesn't bother me. As a diner I probably agree with the others--I get a little anxious and order a modest meal. But as a manager, I'm simply happy to have you return.

Todd Kliman:

Thanks so much for chiming in, here. It’s wonderful to have this perspective.

Who else has an angle on this situation?

By the way, I’m curious to know — what sort of level of a place are we talking about? I doubt you want to divulge the name of the restaurant where you work, but could you characterize it?

HELP! -- ISO PRE-PATRIOT CENTER CONCERT DINNER ...:

Hi Todd!

Any recommendations for a pre-Patriot Center concert dinner? I'm not familiar with the area around GMU and doing a google search was not particularly helpful, so I've come to the expert for advice!

Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

I’ve got several recommendations for you, and all within ten minutes of the Patriot Center.

Izakaya Blue Ocean is a good spot for sushi and grill items —one of the best spots for raw fish in northern Virginia.

China Star, long without Peter Chang, remains, regardless, one of the premier destinations for Szechuan cooking in the area.

And Bollywood Bistro serves up some of the best and zestiest curries in all of Virginia.

Hope that helps. I’d love to hear where you end up. Drop us a note next week and let us know, okay?

DINING OUT IN PHILLY ...:

Todd,

Could you recommend some Philly restaurants between the Avenue of the Arts and Rittenhouse Square? Looking for places other than steak houses.

Thanks very much.

Todd Kliman:

Osteria (Italian), Matyson (American; BYOB), Tinto (tapas), and Melagrano (Italian).

In that order.

Love to hear where you end up, and what you find. Drop back on with a short report when you can …

HELP! -- NEED A PLACE TO CELEBRATE LATER THIS SPRING ...:

I am graduating law school this spring and want to celebrate.

There will be 9 people total (3 people having hearing problems). I am looking for a nice restaurant in DC where I don't have to spend $1,000 but still feel like I am celebrating something special. Asian and fish/seafood restaurants are not viable options because of a food allergy in the group.
I'd love to hear your recommendations. Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

I’m going to make the assumption that when you say DC, you mean the DC area. It certainly widens the field of options for moderate dining.

In Arlington, I think Ray’s the Steaks would fit your needs nicely, as would Liberty Tavern. Both are American, and both are very good versions of the sort of restaurant that is harder to make work than you’d think — mid-level dining that minds the details. And while the downstairs at Liberty Tavern can get loud in prime time, the upstairs is the dining room. You should be fine.

In Old Town, charming Old Town, there is Vermilion. Excellent cooking, great service, and a staff that knows how to make an occasion feel grand.

I do have one DC-proper recommendation, and that’s Circle Bistro, right off Washington Circle — cozy hotel dining that doesn’t feel impersonal.

I hope that helps. I’ll be interested in hearing how things work out.

Good luck, and congratulations on your big day!

FEELING SQUIRRELLY, CONT. ...:

I would have to echo what previous posters have said: I would take them up on the offer, but order moderately-priced dishes.

I'm totally with the OP- it's kind of like being put on the spot, in a sense- but I suppose in a good way.

Loved to hear the feedback from the food/bev manager, too.

Todd Kliman:

I’m fascinated by the fact that two of you, at least, would take the restaurant up on the offer but order moderately.

Is this some kind of lingering Jewish/Catholic guilt?

A desire not to appear too grubby?

The restaurant-going equivalent of the woman on a first date who merely picks at a salad, lest she come across as indelicate, then goes home and raids the freezer for Ben & Jerry’s?

Next time, I guess … Lunch is calling …

Thanks so much for all the questions, everyone. I appreciate it. And I appreciate you spending a good portion of your morning and early afternoon with me.

I want to say a special thanks to JN, of Penn Quarter, for the wonderful note this week — I’m glad you’re with us even when you’re not live, and thanks for thinking of me.

Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …







[missing you, TEK … ]