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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 . . .
* Curry Leaf, Laurel
The former chef at Udupi Palace, the beloved Langley Park vegetarian Indian restaurant that shuttered three years ago, has made a triumphant return at this comfy Laurel stripmall restaurant. Saravan Krishnan presides over a kitchen that covers a lot more ground than his predecessor's did -- street food, curries, Indo-Chinese, tandoor, dosas, biryani, and breads are among the categories that make up the long and sprawling menu. Some Indian food can be characterized as spicy. Krishnan's is that more elusive beast -- it's spiced. Heat is not the end game, though he certainly doesn't shy away from it; the thing you take away from many of these dishes, however, is the way a gravy or a sauce appears to change as you eat it, the way its complex, carefully coaxed flavors deepen and reveal new and different truths as you go. Among the must-orders are the lemon rice -- its light, citrusy topnotes accentuate the nuttiness of the crushed and toasted cashews scattered throughout -- and a Sri Lankan specialty of hardboiled eggs in a rich brown curry shot through with black pepper and cinnamon and served with Ceylon-style parathas, smaller than their Indian counterparts and coiled like ropes at rest. The latter eats like a lusher version of the Malaysian staple roti canai and might just be the most memorable dish I've eaten this year.
The Red Hen, DC
It's a simple-sounding recipe -- finesse on the plate, warmth from the staff, character in the room -- but precious few restaurants pull it off. This one does, with an almost effortless aplomb. I've dined here three times in the past month, and with the exception of a couple of dishes (notably a hen that could use some black pepper), everything on ex-Proof cook Michael Friedman's modern Italian menu has been either good or very good. In the latter category: a fantastic dish of sweetbreads, polenta, bacon and a fried egg that combines the soothing pleasures of a simple Southern breakfast with the rusticky charms of a good French bistro. I don't think it's a stretch to call this Bloomingdale restaurant the surprise of the Spring season. As a matter of fact, I don't think it's a stretch to say that it's the best restaurant to debut in DC this year.
Tutto Bene: Bolivian Menu, Arlington / Saturday and Sunday
Here's what you do: go for lunch on the weekends, and ask for the Bolivian menu. It's a modest document, but nearly everything on it is rewarding -- especially the superb salteñas (slightly sweet football-shaped turnovers that are baked every morning to a pie crust-doneness and stuffed with a zesty chicken or beef stew). You could make a meal of these alone, but then you'd miss out on the fantastic sopa de mani (a rich peanut soup) and the chorizo with oiled rice and a good salad.
Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Falls Church
I've spent the past few weeks eating banh mi (tough life, I know), and this take-out joint/grocery not in the Eden Center is the clear front runner in a very competitive field. In fact, I think the ham and head cheese combination might be not just the best banh mi in the area, but the best sandwich, period. The baguettes are always warm and crusty, the pickled condiments are always sharp and crunchy, and the sandwich assembly staff has a keen grasp of matters of balance and proportion.
RG's BBQ Cafe, Laurel
I previously noted that the ribs had come off too easily from the bone. Problem solved. The last batch I had were fantastic -- as good as ribs can be when they are not cooked outdoors for hours over an open pit. The pork 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.
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.
* new this week
Have you had the tuna carpaccio at Westend Bistro recently?
It’s a good dish. And particularly on a day like today, when you want something light and refreshing.
Good morning, everyone — eager to hear about your eating adventures and whatever else you have to express today …
Bethesda Crab House is probably the obvious pick here. It’s decent, if you can’t take the time to drive out to a place like Cantler’s.
But how about a weirdly left field choice that’s not much further by car: Seaside Crab House, at the Eden Center, the defacto Little Vietnam for the D.C. area. That’ll give him an experience he can’t get in Dallas, for sure.
Impromptu cookbook giveaway contest — inspired by a conversation my wife and I had the other day about a Jeff Garlin routine.
In the routine, Garlin talks about coming home from college and sleeping late and being berated for his ways by his work ethic-conscious father. The back and forth comes to a head when the father tells him — I’m paraphrasing, here — “You get up, you get washed, you get dressed, you come down, you eat your breakfast. Eggs, bacon, toast,” the father says, making — in Garlin’s telling — hard, chopping motions with his hand.
Garlin tells his father, “I don’t want to have toast, Daddy. I want a pop-tart.”
“Eggs, bacon, toast,” the father repeats, with more hard, chopping motions. “That’s it, that’s your breakfast.”
“I want a pop-tart, Daddy,” says Garlin, and, in contrast to his father’s hard, chopping motions, makes his hands flutter out alongside him, as if he could take wing. “Say pop-tart, Daddy. Pop-tart. Pop. Tart.”
I’m not doing the bit justice. It’s hilarious. And my wife and I have for years referred to two ways of being in the world, two approaches to life. The toast people and the pop-tart people.
So, which are you? And why?
Best reply wins a copy of the newly released Everyday Barbecue by Myron Mixon. http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0345543645
Not to worry!
Franklin’s Restaurant, in Hyattsville — not far from you in Silver Spring — has a dish on its menu that it has not been able to take off: The Day After Thanksgiving.
Fresh turkey breast on slices of white bread, gravy, cranberry sauce. It’s a mammoth meal, and seems to satisfy a lot of cravings for a lot of people for the homespun comforts of Thanksgiving all year round.
I’ll be interested in hearing how the ex-pat liked his meal …
I know, I wondered the same thing on my last trip up!
Let’s hope it’s not a civic-wide effort to make the city somehow more … classy.
A soft pretzel with coarse salt and mustard IS Philadelphia to me, even more than hoagies are.
Thanks for the feedback on Continental …
You’re right — there are a “ton of new, less big name” places out there, and among them I would direct you to The Red Hen (see my early word up top).
As for strange and wonderful … TRH is not strange, though it is pretty wonderful. Its neighborhood, Bloomingdale, I guess could qualify as strange in a foodie sense, in that it’s off the radar of most food lovers in the area.
If you’re looking for something a little different from the likes of Komi and Eve, etc., then what about a night at Rice Paper in the Eden Center, in Falls Church. Great Vietnamese cooking in a small (but modern and stylish) space. The only thing that you have to realize, going in, is that service can disappear for stretches. But if it’s about the vibe and the food, then I’d surely consider it.
Thanks for playing.
Remember, everyone, that toast and pop-tart are, for the purposes of our contest, existential terms. We don’t need to bring them into the realm of food in order to talk about them, and, preferably, we don’t talk about them as foods. I want to know who is toast in life and why, and why that’s the better way to be, and who is pop-tart in life and why, and why that is the superior state.
Take ‘em to Woodberry Kitchen, in Baltimore, which has one of the best kids menus around.
These are the dishes that are currently on offer, assuming the site has been recently updated:
Chicken on a stick. Spaghetti with butter and cheese. Rockfish bites. Pork BBQ Sloppy Joe. Small ribeye steak with fries. House-ground burger with fries. Cheese and pepperoni pizza. York County pretzel bites. Grilled cheese with a salad.
I hear you — and enjoyed reading this.
But I’m not looking for responses that deal with toast and pop-tarts as foods, or even that deal with them as what they are — but what, to Garlin, they represent. Two attitudes toward life. Two diametrically opposed ways of being in the world.
(Not to squeeze all the fun out of a very funny bit … )
I love the Margherita at Wiseguy, on 3rd and Massachusetts NW. By the slice — but what a slice.
Vin 909 Winecafe, in Annapolis, also makes a great Margherita, a pumped-up version of the Neapolitan classic. I think it’s terrific. As I do almost all of the pizzas there.
There’s a very good Margherita, also, at Menomale, in Brookland.
By the way: Etto, on 14th St. NW, is getting a lot of buzz among young foodies, but the lone pizza I tried there was soft and soppy — the first slice I cut and picked up, the little disc of mozzarella sailed right off like a kid at a Slip ‘n’ Slide. I much preferred the small plates.
I can definitely understand that sentiment!
A friend wrote to me last week wondering why I called it a “surprise.” Given the pedigree of the people involved, he said, “surprise” struck him as an odd thing to say.
What I told him is pretty much what I will tell you, which is that pedigree is like talent. There are a lot of people with talent in any field — how many actually do something with that talent. Or think of pedigree as being like a degree from a reputable institution. What does it mean? It can mean something. It just isn’t a guarantee that you are getting someone of the first rank.
I had a cheesesteak there and liked it — ate it on the way to somewhere else — and now, reading this, I’m jonesing to go back and try one of the ones you recommend.
Thanks for the mouth-watering nudge …
Thanks for bearing your soul with us, however briefly.
Based entirely on your description — I haven’t been yet — it doesn’t sound like the kind of place you give a second chance to.
There are an awful lot of places in the area to go and get mediocre Mexican food.
If you’re looking for something in a similar vein, give Xitomate, in Columbia, a try. I included it, a few weeks ago, on the list of places I’m enjoying at the moment.
Good margaritas (go for the premium tequila), good guac, good vibe, good prices all in all. Try the cochinita en pibil, the ceviche, and the chili relleno.
Hype? Where are you reading?
I don’t mean that rhetorically, either — where is the hype coming from?
A few years ago, perhaps, you could say that there was some buzz about the place, before and shortly after the reviews came. But reviews have a shelf life, and that shelf life is not long. Six months? Sometimes not even.
It’s interesting to hear you write about the indifferent service. It’s like what they say about love. Indifference is worse than hate. In a restaurant, the worst thing isn’t egregiously, comically bad service, is it? It’s indifferent service. Service that makes you feel like a nothing.
This almost seems designed for me to say, in answer to part deux, Le Diplomate.
I mean, it’s certainly the first place that leaps to mind — not that it’s a bad restaurant by any stretch; on the contrary, it’s doing what it intends to do, and doing it very, very well. But the lines for the place are insane, and it’s not as if there aren’t a slew of very good restaurants (and some better!) in the city.
A place that deserves more business than it seems to be getting? Corduroy.
How about Cafe du Parc?
And, just curious, what does “is good for 30-40 somethings” mean, exactly? A place that isn’t aswarm with 20-somethings?
Gotta be Proof.
You can get a reservation, the cooking isn’t Italian, and many of the best plates are small plates.
Plus, I think it’d feel more like a special occasion there than at Cork, which, taking nothing away from the latter, is a very good midweek-in-the-neighborhood spot.
I’d call up Robert Gadsby at RG’s BBQ Cafe (see my thumbnail review up top), in Laurel. He doesn’t do pulled pork, however. But I’ve got to think you’d be pretty happy with the haul.
You might also consider the Laurel outpost of Red, Hot and Blue, which remains far and away the best of the Red, Hot and Blues in the area.
Good luck. Let me know how it all turns out, OK? Sounds like a great time to me …
Speaking of ‘cue: We’re about two months away from the return of KBQ BBQ, as I first tweeted out last week. Kerry Britt, after a long hiatus, is bringing his excellent ribs, sausage, and wings to the Woodmore Towne Centre, in Glenarden (Wegman’s is in the same shopping center.)
Thanks for coming back on and following up …
Yeah, Blue Duck Tavern is a really, really good restaurant these days. Actually, it’s a better restaurant than it has ever been — even after opening to pretty wide acclaim.
I love this — I ask a relatively simple question, and I get back a wonderful little existential essay.
Thank you so much for writing this and making me (and, I hope, many of you) smile, and laugh, and nod in recognition …
Thanks for that tasty report from the field.
I don’t know who could read that and not be hungry and/or craving a few hours’ respite in that cool, dark room.
Thanks so much for those fantastic reviews.
I liked everything about them, the level of detail, the enthusiasm, the range of spots. It’s really wonderful to have something like this — hint, hint … and that goes for all of you, too — every week in this forum.
Best of luck with the remaining weeks of your pregnancy. I hope it goes smoothly. Keep us apprised, please, and of your eating adventures, as well.
No no no — a pop-tart, in this case, is more like Prince. A free spirit. Goes his own way, does his own thing. Drifts with the wind.
And toast, in this case, is — I don’t want to politicize things —more like a Washington bureaucrat.
I could talk toast and pop-tart til all day, but I’ve gotta run. Thanks so much for the spirited back and forth today, the tips, the insights, the laughs. I had a great time, and I hope all of you did, too.
To the reader who composed the mini-essay on starting out life as a S’more pop-tart — you’re our winner. Drop me your address at email@example.com and I’ll send you a copy of Everyday Barbecue by Myron Mixon.
By the way: I, myself, am much more pop-tart than toast …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]