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
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Mari Vanna, DC
Most restaurants begin with an aha! moment, and for this import from Moscow (with locations also in London and New York) I imagine that moment must have happened something like this: "What we do is, we make a hip place for trendy young Russians to go and eat and drink, with exposed brick walls and cocktail creations and lots of noise, but at the same time we make them pine for Mother Russia, with doilies on the tables and a guy sweeping through the dining room playing folk tunes on the accordion and babushka furniture and little babushka purses to stuff the check into at the end." Service the night I was in was a mess; I can't remember a meal in the last couple of years in which more went wrong. And our first courses were hardly diverting: a beet salad was salty, and a smoked fish platter was uneven. But then came the pelmeni (tortellini-like bundles of tender pasta stuffed with well-seasoned veal and served with heavy sour cream) and a fabulous rendition of chicken tabaka -- a Georgian specialty, in which the bird is cooked under a weight in a heavy cast skillet; it came with fingerling potatoes and a sour cream-and-dill sauce. We finished with more sour cream -- spooned onto our sweetened blinis, along with good cherry preserves -- and waddled out into the night.
Asi Es Mi Tierra, Wheaton
Peruvian restaurants have gone from being poorly represented to well represented in recent years, and this tiny but lively Wheaton restaurant is a vivid display of why that's a very good thing. The twin pillars of the cuisine are fish and potatoes, which feature, here, in a wide variety of preparations. The ceviche and tiradito are excellent -- absent the mouth-puckering tartness and mealy softness that sometimes results from overmarination, and with a welcome hit of black pepper. The papa rellena -- soft mashed potatoes molded over a zesty beef stew and fried just to the point of keeping the whole delicate construction together, but not enough to become hard or dry -- is astoundingly light and irresistible; one was insufficient, even with all the plates on my table one night; I was sure I could have eaten four of them. The dish every table orders is the big and bountiful jalea mixta, with three portions' worth of fried mussels, calamari, shrimp to pick at; it's crowned with a heap of vinegared, thin-sliced red onions, and there's even a small dish of ceviche on the side. The two times I ventured beyond fish and seafood were mixed: a dry anticuchos (marinated, grilled beef hearts on a skewer) and a decent chicken Milanesa (the kitchen opts not to pound the cutlets thin before battering and frying them; these were massive). On weekends, there's breakfast, and the reason to get up early is the fabulous pan con chicharron ($5.50) -- strips of juicy roasted pork, slices of roast sweet potato, cilantro, and vinegared onions, all spilling out of a light and crusty sub roll. I hereby nominate it for the local sandwich hall of fame -- to take its place alongside such founding members as the Nhu Lan banh mi; the Fast Gourmet Chivito; and the Mangialardo's G Man.
Monty's Steakhouse, Springfield
"I normally don't do field reports like this," began the Facebook message I received one day a couple of weeks ago, "but if Monty's Steakhouse in Springfield doesn't get some attention, then shame on you. It's easily and by far the best restaurant in the general contiguous suburban sprawl of Springfield, Burke, Lorton, Franconia, southern Alexandria, Fairfax Station and maybe Occoquan." Consider it done, BB, and thank you for the great tip. I'm not yet ready to make such sweeping claims, but Monty's is doing a lot of things right. The comfy and subtly stylish space, which situates this steakhouse squarely among the new, non-masculine subset of the genre, is as unexpected as the quality of the cooking at this stripmall Springfiled restaurant. The steaks -- hand-trimmed, locally-grown dry-aged prime meat, owner Madana Montazami claims -- are big, properly cooked, full of juice, and rewarding, and the sides are cooked with care. For lunch, there's a very good burger and a prime rib steak sandwich piled high with mushrooms. The Bolivian chef, Marco Camacho, even sneaks a ceviche onto the menu, and it's as bountiful as it is bright. And I would be remiss if I didn't put in a word for the service, which has both a snap and sincerity that are too often missing, even in big-city settings.
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.
* new this week
I love those things.
And I’m kicking myself, because I hadn’t thought to suggest Pete’s.
Probably because the Sorbillo’s Original is not exactly a calzone, but as you say, if you’re craving a calzone, it does all that you want it to do.
Glad your “last supper” was a good one, and good luck with the new diet.
What a meal.
A meal at Seasonal Pantry is almost akin to having a personal chef for the night — one table, no other orders for the chef to contend with, and a set and streamlined menu.
I think that’s a great part of its appeal. Also the fact that everybody who goes there thinks they’ve discovered it.
As for the Beard nomination — thank you. But there are others who should be thanked, too. This is really a recognition of a great many people. I’m so happy for my wonderful colleagues Ann Limpert, Jessica Voelker, and Anna Spiegel — whose names you probably know from reading the magazine and the blog.
There are also some people I would like to single out whose names you probably don’t know, but whose work makes everything on the page come vividly alive: Michael Goesele, the fantastic creative director, and his team — Tom White, Erik Jacobsen, and Kelci House; and Scott Suchman, who takes so many of the great pictures.
And finally, our editor, Garrett Graff, for his vision and his enthusiasm, as well as his great and abiding interest in the DC restaurant scene.
Thanks for being such a loyal reader; that’s great to hear.
And you’re in luck. I have two kids myself, both very young, and put together a short guide last year of places you can go — places where you can both eat well and not worry so much about causing disruption and/or giving management or other patrons a headache.
It accompanied an essay I wrote about being a food critic father.
Here’s the guide: http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/food-dining/forget-chuck-e-cheese/
(* Note: Againn has gone out of business.)
And here’s the essay, in case you’re interested: http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/food-dining/the-food-critic-father/
Good luck. Would love to hear about some of your experiences with these places …
How do I know you’re a real food lover?
It’s not just that you like hot pot and know a little something (maybe more than a little something) about ma la.
It’s that you were willing to drive from Oakton to Germantown just to eat dinner — something very few people in this area do, including those who say they love food and restaurants. Virginians don’t “do” Maryland; Marylanders don’t “do” Virginia.
This is a vast and sprawling scene, and beyond the fact that you can’t really know what’s happening if you don’t go deep into Virginia and deep into Maryland, you’re missing out on a lot of tasty meals.
Thanks for the field report on Hotspot. I haven’t been yet, no; had planned on going last week, but then hit a patch of traffic and bailed and went somewhere else.
You’ve definitely whet my appetite. Thanks for writing in …
Mussel Bar & Grille, Black’s Bar and Kitchen, or Food Wine and Co. — all in Bethesda.
Or 8407 Kitchen + Bar, in Silver Spring, where chef Ed Witt has recently taken over.
Good luck. I know what it’s like when an oyster craving strikes.
In my case, unfortunately, that’s several times a week.
You didn’t go up to him and say, “What’s the REAL secret to those pork buns”?
Or: “Rica Allannic rocks!”
Or: “I love Wes Unseld, too”?
Or: “Are you gonna be opening up a Momofuku here, and this is why you’re out scouting the scene in Arlington?”
NOT include small plates?
How in the world do you expect to eat dinner out in DC these days? ; )
I’d put Little Serow and Izakaya Seki on that list, too, although 17th St. isn’t that “buzzy,” nor is V. But both are fantastic, and will give you and your out-of-towners the sense of discovering something hidden and rare and wonderful.
Sense of. Both places, of course, have been discovered and praised effusively, both at home and nationally. But they remain, for the most part, the places they were when they began.
Good luck, and have a great night. And drop us a note to let us know where you ended up …
I hear you.
And what a wonderful way to pamper yourself before the baby comes.
Have you tried Adour, in the St. Regis? At its best, there’s something very finely wrought about the cooking here, an elegant and delicacy that is seldom seen on the scene these days. Some dishes will make you stop and wonder at what an accomplished team of cooks can do with mere ingredients.
Bourbon Steak is another good bet for you. (I’ve come up with two hotel restaurants. Many of the best restaurants in town don’t do lunch, but hotel restaurants often do.) The gratis french fries and truffle rolls set a tone of over-the-top indulgence.
Sushi Taro (best sushi in the city, in a serene and handsome setting).
The Source (a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, stylishly mod, with very good pan-Asian cooking).
Charlie Palmer Steak (don’t be fooled by the name; this happens to be a contemporary American restaurant. Steaks feature but do not predominate.)
It’s like I’m chatting with my older brother, circa 1989 …
I’d book a table at Ancora, Bob Kinkead’s new place. (Kinkeads shut down late last year.)
It’s not seafood-centric, but there’s a lot of fish and shellfish on the menu, and it’s in the Watergate, so you could walk to the show after.
The tweet was about something I often think about when I walk out of an ethnic restaurant with leftovers that I probably won’t eat.
Now, wait, you say — why would I take leftovers with me if I knew that I was unlikely to eat them?
That’s the dilemma.
The reason I almost never leave empty-handed if I haven’t finished everything on the table is that I see dining at this kind of a restaurant as akin to eating in someone’s home in a foreign country. You go in with total openness, and you eat things you might not ordinarily eat. It’s a form of respect, a way of honoring that culture and those people.
(I don’t, by the way, feel the same compunction at an American restaurant. Who are you insulting by leaving food on the table? The chef? Maybe. And maybe not.)
To me, this cultural concern trumps the environmental concern, although there are moments when I think — Bad person! Bad! Taking styrofoam, which is terrible in itself, and then compounding that by just turning right around and throwing it away.
What do the rest of you say?
Who else out there takes leftovers knowing that they probably aren’t going to eat them, but as a form of respect to the establishment?
Who doesn’t, and never even thinks about it?
Who thinks I’m just blithely destroying our ozone and ought to burn in the hell that, through my own inconsiderate actions, will soon be life here on earth?
(Virginia, not Austria.)
(Although for most Marylanders, it might be just as far. : )
Old? No no.
And this one is neat because it speaks to what we’ve been doing at the magazine for a number of years.
I thought our special theme edition of Taste this year — the all-Japanese edition — was the best section we’ve put out in my time at Washingtonian. I saw it as the most vivid realization of what we try to do every month, which is to be interesting and insightful and candid and lively. The writing, the photography, the design, everything popped. We taught. We illuminated. We exposed. We synthesized. We contextualized. We had fun.
We live for a month like that. It’s hard to make all those elements come together; a lot has to go right. But that’s also what we’re aiming for every time out.
Thanks for writing in.
I should add something here that I forgot to mention in my earlier reply, which is that in my case, we are often talking about a tableful of dishes, as opposed to a couple of dishes, which is the norm for most people when they go out to eat. There are many times when, by the end of the meal at an ethnic restaurant, there are 8 or 9 dishes that are 1/3 to half-full.
(Which is seldom the case at a non-ethnic restaurant, where I tend to order less each time out.)
Leaving behind a couple of dishes is one thing.
Leaving what looks like a meal to feed 5 is another.
You mentioned that you feel no qualms about speaking with an owner or manager if your uneaten or half-eaten plates should ever be pointed out to you. Takes some guts! I think it’s a good policy, though, and might even, in certain instances, help a place to change and improve. (Restaurants love this kind of feedback. So they say. As long as it’s not a prelude to a posting on Yelp!)
Of course, that’s not something a critic could or would do, talk to an owner about how to improve.
So I guess that’s another of the reasons I ask to have everything wrapped up even if I’m not going to dive back into it later. It avoids confrontation.
Anyway, thanks for all the questions and tips and kudos today, everyone. I appreciate it.
Gotta run; lunchtime; starved …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]