Tuesday, May 28 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   .  .  .

RG's BBQ Cafe, Laurel
Let me get the key criticism out of the way first: The ribs come off too easily from the bone. That's not a small thing if you're one of the barbecue mad, of course, and it nagged at me all night after eating here, because the pork itself has the requisite lusciousness and the sauce is a pitch-perfect balance of tanginess, sweetness and heat. That sauce is so addicting, you probably will end up forgiving the drier patches of an otherwise tasty smoked chicken and want to either pour it over everything else or even, as my friend said, drink it plain. The sides are good: baked beans that taste of slow cooking, a not-too-sweet corn bread that gets an extra something from a short stint on the grill before serving, and sharp, clean-tasting collards among others. The man behind the operation is Robert Gadsby, whom Washingtonians may remember from his time at Mussel Bar in Bethesda. He left after Mussel Bar received a 0-star review from The Post. He seems to have made the most of his exile.

Wiseguy, DC
The smell: it's perfect. Whatever the proprietors of this small, gangster-saluting shop have done to recreate that classic New York pizzeria smell, they succeeded brilliantly. That smell of garlic and yeast and baking bread and aromatic char makes you hungry from the moment you walk in. Makes you want to order one of everything. This is a by-the-slice operation, for the most part, and the slices are mostly rewarding (the fewer the toppings, the better), with excellent thin crusts that crisp up nicely with a few minutes in the brick oven after you place your order. The best of the bunch is the Margherita, a loaded-up alternative to the spare Neapolitan version and a pie that belongs in the conversation of best in the city.

East Dumpling House, Rockville
A quick-serve dumpling joint that's as small as its menu is long. Three dozen dumplings are on offer, with lamb, beef, chicken, and shrimp all serving as anchors for the fillings. The wrappers are more thick than thin, but they're supple enough that they don't draw focus. The size of the tiny kitchen would seem to argue against their being made long in advance, frozen, then dumped into a steamer when the time comes; the bright freshness of the fillings would seem to argue against that, too. Make sure to supplement your order with small dishes of garlicky, peppery cucumbers or shredded tofu skin with cilantro.


Sisters Thai, Fairfax
I like the bait-and-switch of this two-sister-led operation. The bait: a cozy tea shop atmosphere, the sort of setting you expect to sip a pot of tea and nibble scones and flip the pages of a home remodeling magazine. The switch comes when you order. This kitchen delivers a punch. Ask for it Thai hot, and it will come out Thai hot. The even better news is that the kitchen doesn't just ladle on the finger peppers; it works with surprising focus and clarity.

Mi Cuba Cafe, DC
This tiny cafe, on Park Rd. in Columbia Heights, makes the best picadillo I've had in a long, long time -- with the right amount of olives in the mix, and, more vitally important, the perfect soft texture. Good rice and plantains, too. And finding a restaurant in the thick of DC that can turn out a good, hearty meal for 2 in the range of $35 is pretty close to miraculous.

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.

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Hey Todd,

Heading up to Baltimore for back to back Yankees vs. Orioles Games in late June and was wondering what food places we should check out while we're up there? I was thinking maybe Di Pasquale's and I saw you had Pabu on your list. Other suggestions appreciated!

Also wanted to report in on East Dumpling House. We were thoroughly disappointed in the dumplings here, the wrappers too thick (expected), the fillings were flavorless, and all in all unimpressed with the place. No amount of condiments they offered on the table helped the fact that the dumpling filling was completely unseasoned (not even salt).

In addition, the bubble tea was like water, they ran out of bubbles, and the only decent thing were the kebobs which were nicely seasoned. Guess we'll try Mama's next!

Todd Kliman:

That’s surprising to hear.

My experience was diametrically different. But thanks for the note. I’ll make a point of dropping back in and seeing whose meal was the aberration. ; )

In Baltimore, I’d consider Artifact, the new-ish place from Spike Gjerde. Everything’s baked and butchered by his passionate, detail-oriented team. Good sandwiches, a memorable noodle bowl, along with a raft of pastries and cookies (and even homemade pop-tarts).

Good morning, everyone. I hope you all had a great long weekend.

Me, I celebrated yesterday in thoroughly conventional but also kinda wonderful fashion, with burgers, a minor league baseball game (Bowie Baysox) with my wife and two small kids, and then barbecue (and rum and Cokes) with the three of them plus my mom for dinner. Still feeling full …

Where’ve you all been eating? What’ve you been making? What’s exciting you these days …

Re: FIOLA, AT THE OUTER EDGE OF PENN QUARTER:

This will come as no shock, but we had a wonderful dinner at Fiola last weekend.

We went for my husband's birthday when they first opened and were underwhelmed and put off by snooty service. We had repeatedly heard how stellar it is these days, so gave it another shot and it was so worth it.

Amazing food as well as service. They even offered to move our table after the host noticed there was a loud (drunk) table close to us. Really great all around.

Todd Kliman:

Glad to hear you had such a good time.

It’s a reminder that although first impressions do matter, some places grow and get better over time. Sometimes, over very little time. Occasionally, over the longer haul.

Actually, this is a good one to open up to wider discussion — the places you’ve seen mature and evolve. I’ll start us off: Komi. I still vividly remember when it opened — as a low-key but serious-minded bistro that served, among other things, pizzas — and being taken with it; but I also still vividly remember some slip-ups (a poorly cooked chicken one night). I never would have guessed that it would grow into what it did.

Who’s got another? A restaurant that changed and got better, and surprised you in doing that. Or, conversely — a restaurant that just fell off the map in no time at all.

WHO'S GOT RAMEN LIKE IPPUDO IN N.Y.C.?:

Where can I find ramen Like Ippudo's in DC?

I've tried many ramen places in DC and MD. Some of those are good but none of those has impressed me like Ippudo.

Todd Kliman:

I think what you’re putting your finger on is the fact that the ramen at Ippudo is “housemade.”

To the very best of my knowledge, no ramen shop in the area makes its own.

“Housemade,” by the way, is one of these subtle us vs. them divides that you see throughout the food world.

The word used to be “homemade.” But I guess that was too suggestive of a doughy, gnarled-hand grandma sweating over the stove all day. Too suggestive of red-sauce Italian joints and well-meaning but not-very-good bakeries. So: housemade. Which sounds … artisanal. And of course the artisan is a far more sophisticated culinary being than a grandma who needs no recipes and has tradition oozing out of her pores.

At most restaurants or cafes at a certain level, you will never, ever see the word “homemade.” Even though the word, to many outside the food world, still connotes good, simple, wholesome things.

Re: LE DIPLOMATE, ON 14TH ST. NW:

I've been once and enjoyed it. But now I can't seem to get back in. Crowds are too big. I'd like to take my boyfriend to celebrate his career switch. Any advice?

Todd Kliman:

Give Le Grenier a shot.

It’s sort of the anti-Le Diplomate. On H St., not 14th St., and the space is far from the great, glittering sound-stage that is Le Dip; it’s quirky, kind of intimate, and feels organic and urban in a way that Le Dip does not.

I’ve been twice, and have liked a good bit of what’s coming out of Thierry Sanchez’s kitchen.

His vol au vent, for instance. Who does vol au vent anymore? you think. But then you take your fork and attack that flaky, buttery shell spilling over with diced sweetbreads in a tarragon-flecked cognac cream sauce and you think: Why should a dish like this be relegated to the far sidelines? Just because it’s rich and heavy? Doesn’t stop pork belly and a whole slew of pig-centric plates that have been playing on menus for years, now.

The cooking is, generally, earthier and funkier than Le Diplomate’s, and very much in keeping with the sort of offbeat bistros you find in and around Paris. Seasonality, for instance, is hardly a concern of the chef’s. Even as temperatures have flirted with 90, the menu abounds in rich, hearty fare.

That might not appeal to the diet-conscious crowds that swarm Le Diplomate, but it shouldn’t put you off if you’re a fan of French bistro cooking. Do what I’ve done, and order a second glass of wine.

What else to get? Good ham and cheese galette topped with a runny egg. Good mushroom and brie tart. Good blood sausage with noodle-like spaetzle and apples. Great desserts, including a variety of crepes (including crepes Suzette) and a fantastic rendition of profiteroles, drenched with an addictive dark chocolate sauce.

I wouldn’t burden it with expectations of a grand night out, but then again, neither would I do that with Le Diplomate, which, as I mentioned last week, has a lot of good dishes and few great ones.

BTW, I hinted at this a few weeks ago on Twitter: My wife, FWIW — who has been just the once, and has also been to Le Diplomate once — told me the place she would prefer going back to is Le Grenier.

DINING ETIQUETTE: WHEN A SERVER SPILLS SOMETHING ON YOU:

This question is the result of an unfortunate experience this past weekend. If your server spills something on you while you're eating, what is the correct response from the restaurant to make it up to you?

On Saturday, my husband, brother, and I tried Ethiopic on H Street for the first time. Within five minutes of us having sat down, the waitress spilled an entire glass of wine in my brother's lap - he was completely soaked through from chest to knees. She apologized, but I had to tell her to go get a towel.

Then, when it was time for the check, I had to tell her that I didn't think he shouldn't be charged for his food. They offered 10% off the check, which I said was fine, but also asked for them to not charge the glass of wine he was sitting in.

That request, apparently, necessitated the manager coming over to ask us why we didn't want to pay for it - the first time we had seen the man, by the way. The entire ordeal reeked of bad service.

I'm of the camp where if you spill something on a patron that drastically affects his meal and his evening (we had to go all the way home after this so he could change), you offer free drinks, free food - something! You do anything but haggle over details at the end of the night after being M.I.A. the rest of the evening.

What are your thoughts?

On another note, the food, I thought, was good, but not better than Dukem, and we'll hardly be making a trip back here given the other problems we had with the evening.

Todd Kliman:

I’m sorry to hear about this.

For your brother, you, and for Ethiopic.

Management handled this badly. There should be no haggling at the end. The restaurant should pay for your brother’s dry cleaning, void the line on the check for his glass of wine, and comp something as a token of good will — a round of drinks, desserts for the table, whatever.

I disagree with you about the food. For one, the quality of ingredients at Ethiopic is markedly better than that at Dukem.

I will say, though, that I have been disturbed to see the rising costs at Ethiopic, which are so far beyond the benchmarks of every single other Ethiopian restaurant in the area that it’s as if Ethiopic believes it belongs to an altogether different category of place. It’s a good restaurant; it’s not a transcendent restaurant.

I was in a couple of weeks ago, and paid, I want to say, $35 for a vegetarian sampler, a dish of 7 items. This is a standard item at all Ethiopian restaurants. Ethiopic’s is very good, and some of the items, including the mesir wot and gomen, were cuts above what most places offer. But $35?

VIRGINIA BEACH EATS:

Hello Todd.

Are there any good, kid-friendly options right on the beach? Thank you!

Todd Kliman:

Sorry, I’m not that familiar with the beach itself there. But maybe someone on our crack team of well-travelled, palate-pure chatters is …?

HELP! -- ISO: GOOD CANTONESE IN FAIRFAX OR CENTREVILLE:

Looking for good Cantonese in the Fairfax/Cemtreville area?

Todd Kliman:

I’d probably go in a little closer and hit Peking Gourmet in Falls Church.

Still one of the best Peking Ducks in the area, and it’s kind of neat to see all the pix up on the wall of visiting dignitaries and homegrown politicos.

But if you want to stay in Fairfax, then I’d say 100 Degree Chinese Cuisine. There’s a lot there that’s not Cantonese — you’ll find a good bit of Szechuan cooking and some Hunan cooking, too — but you can find the ol’ Cantonese standbys, too: orange chicken, sesame chicken, wonton soup, lo mein, etc. I can’t vouch for that aspect of the menu, unfortunately. I’ve only tried the Szechuan and Hunan cooking.

FOLLOWING UP: THE HIGH COST OF D.C. DINING:

Re: exploring the family-run ethnic restaurants in Virginia and Maryland, from last week ...

Todd, I don't have a car. And I'm not able to drive. So telling me to expect to drive 20 or so miles just isn't an answer.

Todd Kliman:

I don’t know what to tell you.

Take it up with the restaurateurs.

The small, independent, family-run businesses that I spoke about last week in Virginia and Maryland are not going to be venturing into the city any time soon. The rents are too high, and their immigrant audiences don’t tend to live in D.C. proper.

14TH ST. RESTAURANT CRAWL:

Hi Todd,

Hope you enjoyed your Memorial Day weekend!

With so many new restaurants opening on 14th Street, we're thinking of doing a restaurant crawl up and down the street. Any recommendations on what order we should order and where to definitely hit? Bread basket at Le Diplomate, oysters at Pearl Dive, ...?

Todd Kliman:

Fun place to do it.

If you like beer, then I’d start at Church Key, a brick-and-mortar encyclopedia of brew. If you prefer wine, I’d start at Cork with a glass (it’s the best wine bar in the city) and a small plate or two.

Then: the foie gras terrine to share at Le Diplomate. With maybe an order of radishes and butter, to balance out all that richness. (If you’re really prepared to chow, then the excellent tete de veau as well.)

From there it’s on to Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, for the shrimp mariscos and maybe some oysters.

I’d end the night with some tapas at Estadio (don’t miss the little sandwiches, called bocadillos), along with some drinks (very good list of Spanish wines, ports, Madeiras, and Sherries), and a couple of desserts.

DINING OUT WITH OUR ELDERS:

Dear Todd,

Hope you had a lovely Memorial Day Weekend with the weather being especially nice. I wanted to address your question from last week of dining out with elders.

When I am out with my mother, who is young at heart but showing signs of aging, I take good care of her. Partly, because I enjoy the close relationship that I have with her and partly because I don't want to see her fall (some of the sidewalks in DC are made for stumbling, young or old).

While on almost any given day, I could pretty easily grumble about how people don't make way for others passing in the opposite direction when their group is walking three or more abreast on the sidewalk, how many times I've almost gotten run over by people speeding through red lights or talking on cell phones while driving or just plain lack of etiquette, I have always been impressed when I'm walking with my mother. I've had trucks stop so that we could cross the street (we did not even have the green light), I've had people get off their bike so we could pass by. I am so glad to see these acts of kind generosity and civility. It is a beautiful thing.

As for restaurants, I haven't noticed an obvious reaction of disdain when eating out with my mother or other elders, pleased to say. Maybe they do and I don't notice because my mother's comfort is more important than a servers reaction, though hopefully we're all operating on a similar note of civility. Some of the most bothersome diners do not come in the form of children or the elderly but save that for a rainy day.

Todd Kliman:

Oh, don’t I know it …

Thanks for taking the time to write this. Very thoughtful. And I’m glad to have this in the mix, here, because we talk from time to time about dining with kids but seldom about dining with older parents.

There are some places that know how to make a woman who is up there in age feel special or at least looked after … and there are some places that don’t.

It’s not that I notice an obvious disdain, as you put it. What I generally find is a lack of awareness.

NFL defenses, in preparing for a quarterback like Robert Griffin, typically give one of their own quarterbacks a bright red jersey to wear all week in practice. His job is to “play” the Griffin QB — to mimic his movements. With the red jersey on, the defense learns to sense where he is at all times and to pick up on his tendencies.

Where am I going with this?

Well, if I were a GM of a restaurant, I would tell my staff to think of older patrons as wearing a bright red jersey. Keep your eye on them. Give them extra care and even pampering, if need be. Make their time special.

I would say to them: It’s the least we can do as part of a society.

EXPLORING THE ETHNIC INDEPENDENTS IN VIRGINIA AND MARYLAND, CONT.:

Then take the bus. Cheap restaurants are almost never close to metro stops. However, they are close to public transportation because that's how their underpaid staff gets to work.

Todd Kliman:

Touché.

WHEN A SERVER SPILLS SOMETHING, CONT.:

Todd, this happened to my husband a few years back. Fortunately, it was a glass of white wine, so that might make a little bit of difference.

We were all pretty mellow about it, they brought towels to dry off, another glass of wine. I honestly don't remember if they comped anything besides bringing out another glass of wine) and didn't think it necessitated saying that we should get something more for free. I'm pretty sure they did make an offer to dry clean but since it was white wine, it wasn't really an issue.

Again, sometimes I don't think restaurants need to give away free things, I just think they need to make right was was done in error (especially since it seems like a glass of spilled wine or beverage is accidental or clumsy).

I do agree, in the case of the OP that management should not have argued or haggled about why they didn't want to pay for the glass of spilled wine. That was the part of the story that was handled poorly, in my opinion.

Todd Kliman:

Thanks for chiming in on this …

I think it’s a big difference, red vs. white. White wine doesn’t scream: STAIN. People can forget about it and go on with their meals. Not so with most red wine stains, and particularly if it’s on a shirt.

And I’m not saying that restaurants need to give away things, but I am saying that that goes a way toward taking responsibility for the accident/mistake/slip-up/etc. I think an apology, without any hint of shifting blame or any appearance of trying to excuse someone, is crucial in a case like this, and that, done well and with sincerity, can put an aggrieved diner at ease. Comping, to my mind, reinforces the sincerely offered apology.

EXPLORING WITHOUT A CAR, CONT.:

Ok, so clearly everyone's situation is different (and Metro truly can suck on weekends of heavy track work), but there are a number of good reasonable priced ethnic restaurants within easy walk of a Metro station.

Maybe we need a good rundown/map of ethnic restaurants near Metro stops.

Off the top of my head I can name several: Passage to India and Faryab in Bethesda. Spice X-ing, Sichuan Jin River near Rockville metro stop. Mandalay in Silver Spring. Nava Thai, and the rest of the University Boulevard/Georgia Ave places in Wheaton.

All of those place are under a 10 minute walk from a Metro stop...and you don't have to worry about parking.

Todd Kliman:

Yes.

And you’ve only just touched on Maryland.

It can be done, dining without a car, and outside the confines of DC proper. Not necessarily always easily. But, you know, pick your poison: a little hassle in getting around, or spending $120-$140 all the time for two.

And I hope no one takes from this the idea that I am against dining out in DC. Far from it. I’m just saying that eating out regularly in the city is just not tenable for some people at the going rate. I’m also saying that even if it is tenable, or sometimes tenable, that it pays to get out into Maryland and Virginia. To stretch those dollars (and make it possible, for one thing, for you to afford more meals at the best places in DC), but also to experience the great cornucopia of eating out in the area.

EXPLORING WITHOUT A CAR, CONT.:

The Eden Center in VA is only like a mile from the East Falls Church metro station. The road can be quite busy, but there is a sidewalk and the abundance of trees provide lots of shade. Not a bad walk.

Todd Kliman:

Thanks for writing in.

A walk, for sure, but not a bad walk.

Again: can be done.

Thanks, everyone, for all the good back and forth today.

I’ve gotta run — two lunches and then dinner ahead of me. Oof.

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







[missing you, TEK … ]