Tuesday, July 9 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   .  .  .



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.

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ANY GOOD RECOMMENDATIONS FOR VISITING, NOT-FANCY PEOPLE IN UPPER NORTHWEST?:

My dad and stepmom are coming in town this weekend. Do you have any good recommendations for dinner? Maybe some of your "go to's?"

They aren't really fancy people. Also, are there any good places with parking? I'm in the NW part of DC now (Van Ness).

Todd Kliman:

I think 2 Amys is an obvious pick, here.

Parking’s not easy, but you should be able to find a spot within four blocks.

The “little things” are, to me, the heart of the menu and where you ought to spend most of your time looking — and though everything there is of exceptional quality and interestingly combined or arranged (Italian salads, small plates of meats and fishes, etc.) I very much doubt that your father and stepmother would feel alienated by most of it.

If you’d like more suggestions, just ask …

Good morning, everyone. I’m happy to be spending part of my birthday with all of you. This chat is one of the pillars of my week, and it’s great to connect with all of you and talk food and drink …

A VERY EARLY REPORT FROM THE FIELD: CASA LUCA -- NEW, FROM FABIO TRABOCCHI:

We enjoyed an impressive first meal at Casa Luca over the weekend.

The menu is wisely put together: lots of smaller items to sample, larger “family-style” entrees for sharing, pastas running in the $16 range.

Wine list has many options: by-the-glass and 500ml pours from the wines-on-tap, a list featuring bottles for $28, and a reserve list if you want to splurge. You can actually enjoy reasonable priced wine with your meal and not feel ripped-off.

We went with the cheese bread (brioche-style capped with cheese); heirloom tomatoes with stracciatella cheese which went well slathered on the bread; a mixed grill of seafood for two (loved the head-on shrimp, suck out the brains! And the branzino was perfectly skin crispy and moist); a side dish of scafata – summer vegetables cooked down until melting, topped with toasted bread crumbs – was a perfect match for the seafood.

The only miss was what we called the dessert slider, gelato doesn’t need to be sandwiched in a bread roll.

Overall, it was one of the top meals I’ve had in DC all year. Congrats to Chef Trabocchi and his team.

Todd Kliman:

You must’ve been marking your calendar.

Thanks very much for the early look. Sounds enticing, and, at least at the start, trattoria-like in its approach and pricing.

Interesting, to me, that the dessert was, for you, the weakest moment of the night. … We’ve talked about desserts on this chat a bunch, and your remark again has me wondering how all of you regard dessert.

I know some of you say you’re not really dessert people and don’t like sweets — which, I have to admit, I absolutely do not understand. I hear people say this at meals, at my table, and I also do not understand it. I’m not saying I judge; I’m saying I find it mystifying.

And I know there are others of you who, while you like dessert just fine, would not, I don’t think, let the ending note of a bad dessert or disappointing dessert color your meal. Which I find interesting. Because if a great cocktail to start can set the tone for a meal, as can a great bread basket, or even (as some of you have been telling me in these chats) a great amuse bouche, then would it not stand to reason that a bad or disappointing dessert ought to dampen your enthusiasm? Again — I’m just asking.

I have the sense among the foodie community that dessert is a tack-on in most instances. And I don’t see it that way. Have never seen it that way. A dessert is Act 3. It’s the final chance to wow the diner. And too many restaurants bow out.

And that goes for restaurants that do quote-unquote good desserts. They’re good. They’re not wowing, most of them. And desserts, being an indulgence, being the thing that most takes us back to being 5 and 10 (even if we have just savored a meal of enormous and exacting sophistication), should wow. Should be exuberant. Dramatic. Exciting.

So many look so chaste. You sense the hand of the Puritan: a bit of richness, but not too much. Fun? A sense of over-the-top abundance and exuberance? Uh uh. No no.

It sounds as though you had a very good meal, and the dessert was pretty good. But let’s take a very good meal with a dessert that bombed, or that disappointed.

Is that, for you, a 3-act play with a poor final act?

Or a case of — eh, everything else was good, not that big a deal.

Or … something else.

I’d love to know.

RESTAURANT FOR A BACHELORETTE PARTY -- NOTHING TOO EXPENSIVE OR "CRAZY":

Hi Todd, can you recommend a good place for a bachelorette party dinner for 10-12 girls?

Nothing overly crazy or expensive--just something fun and delicious.

Thanks!

Todd Kliman:

Not sure what you mean, exactly, by “crazy” — a Serbian-Thai fusion restaurant where the purple-shirted waitstaff goes around in roller skates and recites Beat poetry?

Actually, I’d LOVE to see a place like that, and would gladly pay double what they charge.

But back to your question — I’d call Zaytinya. Good place for a group, stylish setting, lots of choices to satisfy a lot of different needs and tastes, and the food (small dishes inspired by the cooking of Lebanon, Turkey and Greece) and the vibe are appropriately festive.

By the way: “girls,” huh? We are, unmistakably, in a post-feminist age.

A BIT OF NEWS ...:

Happy Birthday Todd.

We are also due for a birthday, late this year.

And: Fishnet DC is coming on 7th street behind the Howard Theatre.

Thanks, Ferhat Yalcin

Todd Kliman:

Gifting me with a bit of news — thank you, Ferhat. And happy birthday, too, to Fishnet.

Fishnet DC will be a boon to that part of the city. Good luck.

If there are those of you out there who still have not been, you’re really missing out. These are excellent fish sandwiches, made with fresh, high-quality fish. I love the in-house fish sticks, and they also do very good fish tacos. Good skin-on, hand-cut fries, too.

FOLLOWING-UP: LADIES' LUNCH IN RESTON/STERLING:

Ladies lunch turned into just two of us, so we decided on Passionfish instead of Zeitoon.

We sat outside under cover on a hot, blustery day. My friend enjoyed the ceviche and bacon iceburg salad and I enjoyed my luscious crabcake sandwich.

Our cocktails warmed quickly, but our water glasses were filled continuously. Our two hour lunch was capped off with delicious desserts - peach crumble and creme brulee.

I'll save Zeitoon for another time when I can go with my sister.

Todd Kliman:

Sounds like you had a great time at PassionFish. Great to hear — and that goes both for you and for the restaurant, too. I could really go right now for a crabcake sandwich and a bacon iceberg salad …

And do keep Zeitoon in your immediate field of vision. You’ll have a terrific meal. Amine Fettar is making some of the best tagines I’ve had in years. Great couscous, too. And bakhlava to finish.

And now look, I’m sitting here craving the cornish hen there — cooked in the tagine to the point of fork tenderness and sitting in a fantastic sauce of fresh ginger, saffron, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, parsley, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, preserved lemon and Atlas olives.

SUSHI TARO'S HAPPY HOUR:

So while waiting in line for Little Serow last week (I know some chatters don't get why any sane person would stand in line for two hours but I just love the place. Everything about it. Anyway.) I noticed a smaller line, maybe a dozen people outside of Sushi Taro prior to their opening at 5:30. I have to assume it was for their Happy Hour?

I lived around until about a year ago and NEVER saw a line nor did I realize their Happy Hour was evidently that popular.

Todd Kliman:

This is really one of the great deals out there right now, and I want to hand it to Sushi Taro for doing this.

The place took a lot of heat in certain quarters for revamping and transforming itself from a workaday sushi destination to a boutique sushi “experience.” A lot of long-timers were justifiably upset that they could no longer dine there regularly, now that a meal for two had gone from about $65 to $150 and more.

I don’t know if this promotion is a direct response to that criticism, but in any case it’s a smart move. Monday through Friday, from 5:30-7 it’s half-price off sushi and drinks (except cocktails and bottles).

Half-price off what is arguably the best sushi in the city right now. I think that’s worth waiting in line for. (Not for 40 minutes or anything like that. But still.)

DESSERT AS ACT III, CONT. ...:

With an insatiable sweet tooth I am a big fan of dessert, and feel that a good dessert can save a restaurant experience, even if the apps/entrees aren't that good. So put me in the pro-dessert column!

I would rank Tom Power's desserts at Corduroy (the chocolate tart with caramelized banana has been a standout for years) and Michel Richard's Kit Kat Bar as excellent examples of DC desserts. The grapefruit granita with olive oil ice cream saved an otherwise ordinary group dinner we recently had at the Bethesda Jaleo.

While gelato in a bun might be authentic to Italy (Sicilian I believe), the version served at Casa Luca just technically didn't work. The gelato (pistachio) was good, however when it melted it turned the bread gummy, and really the bread itself added no enjoyment to the gelato eating experience. Just seemed superfluous, we would have been happier with a simple bowl of gelato. But, at a new restaurant, trying new dishes, sometimes you get a miss.

Todd Kliman:

Thanks for chiming in on this …

You’re absolutely right about Michel Richard, whose approach to dessert is everything I think a diner should want — playful, exuberant, over-the-top, generously indulgent.

Richard was a pastry chef before he became a chef, and I’m sure that has something to do with his high regard for what I consider to be Act 3.

But I think it has just as much to do with his personality, and his belief in dining as theater.

DESSERT AS ACT III, CONT. ...:

I'm one of those who is self-described as not a dessert person. Often I'm too full for something else after the main meal, and I don't tend to like sweets that much generally. It's usually an add-on for me, and sometimes obligatory (if I order a prix fixe menu).

If there's a cheese option for a final course, I'm more likely to order that than something sweet. If a dessert is especially good, I will note that I enjoyed it, but if it's not, I wasn't expecting anything earth-shattering anyway. So, it can be a positive add-on experience but it's unlikely to wreck my overall experience of a meal.

Happy birthday! I hope you get lots of cake and ice cream for dessert :-)

Todd Kliman:

I think it’s telling that you write, “If a dessert is especially good, I will note that I enjoyed it, but if it’s not, I wasn’t expecting anything earth-shattering anyway.”

Wasn’t expecting anything earth-shattering anyway.

But see, why not? Why shouldn’t we expect earth-shattering when we order dessert at a restaurant?

And what’s the point of having things like ice creams and cakes on your menu — kids’ birthday party foods, if we come right down to it — if they aren’t going to make you giddy inside?

Re: THE RED HEN -- NEW, IN BLOOMINGDALE DC:

First Happy birthday Todd! Hope you have a wonderful birthday.

I have had the opportunity of dining two times at The Red Hen and each time the establishment delivered all points from food to service.

I remembered reading about The Red Hen and venturing over to their website only to be disappointed in those early days because no menu was listed on their website. Over time I forgot about the establishement and removed it from my list of places to check out. That was until Todd sang the praises of this neighborhood gem, which got me to go back and visit their website and this time the menu was listed.

Every dish I tried in my two visits was prepared with precision and near perfect execution.

After my first meal I kept dreaming of those light, fluffy pillowy gnocchi that my friend and I had. The chef displays his skills by taking Halibut, corn, and baby squash and making these three simple ingredients sing on the plate. The garganelli with braised duck was a dish made for a king. I had to fight to my friend to get a few bites of the rich braised duck and it was worth the fight.

On my second visit I asked my dining companion what does The Red Hen remind you of and their quick answer was 'home.' Home being the bay area in California. They stated that if they did not know they were in DC they would think this restaurant was nestled in north beach neighborhood of San Fran. They went even a step further and said The Red Hen also reminded them of Alice Waters Chez Panisse and Michael Chiarello's Bottega restaurant, which is located in the Napa Valley.

One of my person favorite dishes was the appetizer of chilled pea and fennel soup. On the first visit this soup was accompanied by scallop crudo. Just a perfect balance in each bite. On my second visit the pea and fennel soup played host to some fresh ricotta cheese sprinkled with fresh cracked black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. I really want the recipe for this chilled soup. A great soup for summer.

My dining companion on my second visit ate the pea and fennel soup and the smoked ricotta crostini in complete silence. She was speechless only to look up and say "this beats anything we have eaten this year and I can't wait to try the other dishes."

I give a lot of credit to the kitchen for allowing us to do half size portions of some dishes, which allowed us to try even more food. One of those dishes was the fried egg with polenta. The kitchen was gracious enough to make a vegetarian version of this dish (original has veal sweetbreads) and I did not miss the meat one bit in vegetarian version. Perfectly cooked egg nestled on top of some spinach and creamy polenta. Both of us devoured the dish. Breaking the egg and letting the rich yolk mix in with the creamy polenta and lightly salted spinach. It was a match made in heaven.

Tried three desserts in my two visits and the best one of the group was the hazelnut budino. The other desserts were good but they do not compare to the hazelnut budino in my opinion.

As we were leaving the restaurant my dining companion said "too bad Ramadan is starting...oh wait maybe we can do Iftar here one night!"

Naeem

Todd Kliman:

Naeem, thanks for the very tasty and thorough report.

You made me remember my three meals at the Red Hen, and hunger for them all over again.

By the way, I think that’s a really interesting insight your friend had — it really does put you in mind of Chiarello’s place. The woodsmoke, the air of casual sophistication, the clarity of the flavors, and of course the focus on Italy by way of America — without being quote-unquote Italian-American cooking.

WHERE WILL YOU BE DINING TODAY?:

Happy birthday! Where will you be dining today?

Alternatively, where would you dine if you could (anywhere in the world)?

Speaking of Central, has the bucket of fried chicken disappeared from the menu? It was such a great take out option!

Todd Kliman:

I unfortunately can’t tell you where I’ll be dining today — but I’m sure the Obama Administration can! ba-doom-tss

My brother and sister-in-law, nice people that they are, came down last night to help me celebrate, so we’re going to be going out with a big group and ordering a lot of dishes, which is, to me, always a festive thing.

Lunch will be with just my wife and two small sons, and I can’t wait. In fact, I’m going to wrap this up a little early so that I don’t keep them waiting.

Where would I dine if I could dine anywhere in the world right now? Paris. Walk around the city and take in the feast that is not moveable, eating as I go: gorgeous ripe cheeses from the fromageries, exquisite pastries from the patisseries, a long and lingering lunch at Senderens in the 8th, a cold tray of Belon oysters and langoustines and a chilled Sauvignon Blanc in the evening somewhere, a late dinner at La Regalade in the 14th …

Re: Central Michel Richard. I was not aware the fried chicken buckets are a thing of the past. Will look into it …

DESSERT AS ACT III, CONT.:

I made the "not earth-shattering" comment. I'm usually too full for dessert. When I'm not, I'm not that interested in sweet things. I'd much rather have an extra appetizer or vegetable dish (or cheese course) than order dessert. I usually can't finish a restaurant meal as it is.

Sometimes I'm surprised that I like a dessert as much as I do and that's great, but I'm just not heading into a meal anticipating a final sweet course. I have never been a "life is short; eat dessert first" person at any point in my life, even as a child.

I like ice cream sometimes and I've sampled the birthday cake at Eve (presuming they still have that), but my birthday dinners don't usually feature dessert.

Todd Kliman:

It’s interesting that in an age when the traditional boundaries between appetizers and entrees are being erased, you don’t see anything at all like that happening with dessert. Dessert remains locked-in. It’s what it was ten years ago. What it was twenty years ago, thirty, forty …

Why not dessert in two sizes? Why not a small plates menu of desserts, so that instead of the usual selection of five there are 10 and 12? Why not that same sense of abandon?

Re: PUNJABI BY NATURE -- AN INDIAN GEM, IN CHANTILLY'S LOTTE PLAZA:

Went by Punjabi by Nature this weekend and they are working on expanding their menu.

They are going to include makki roti, which take some serious skill to make properly. Also, adding some more parantha to the menu such as green chili parantha, which packed a serious kick to it.

The one thing I did not like was that they are joining in on this indian/chinese fusion trend. I just wish places would not do it. Some cuisines are great for fusing others are not and I place the indian/chinese fusion in the 'not' category.

To this date I have not had any good indian-chinese fusion dishes but maybe PBN can change my mind

Todd Kliman:

Oh, I have — but it’s been a long time.

Many, I agree with you, are disappointing.

I love a good Gobi Manchurian. But the frying has to be really crisp and the sauce can’t be too sweet.

My birthday lunch is calling … Gotta run, everyone.

Thank you for the well wishes today, and thank you for being a part of this forum every week. I hope you all know how much I appreciate that.

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







[missing you, TEK … ]