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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.
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Had some good dishes, including one very good dish, a potato phyllo pie with a duck egg on top. But I found myself wishing for more. More of a feeling of rootedness. More soulfulness. It’s Greek food. I was hoping for flavors that had been slowly and exquisitely coaxed out of the raw materials.
To give just one example: the potatoes with lemon and chive. This is a simple, classic Greek dish. Roasted potatoes with lemon, garlic and olive oil. Nothing to it. Except that when it all comes together, it’s an exceptional dish — the potatoes develop a wonderful salty crust, the garlic is fragrant and provides a gentle kick, the lemon lends a light brightness, the olive oil knits all the various components together. I’ve eaten this dish many, many times and been unable to stop myself.
The dish here, I was able to. The night I had it, it was a forgettable dish. A mild — very mild — diversion from something like the roast goat.
I understand what the place is trying to be. And I also, as I say, have only been the one time. But I still want it to feel more hearty, more ethnic, even if everything is presented with exquisitely managed care and the space evolves into something of a bumping club around 8.
More of a sense of warmth and coherence.
It’s a pretty special place, Dumbarton Oaks. And I love their concert series. Saw a fantastic performance a few years back, the great and stirring Anonymous 4.
Thanks for the report on Lepic. It’s one of those restaurants —one of those many restaurants — you don’t hear much about. My old editor used to talk about restaurants that have been around a while and occupy that very distinct middle ground between very good and mediocre.
I don’t recommend it very often, but more out of a sense of not really knowing someone’s taste than because it’s not worthy.
It’s not a foodie destination, certainly. But my last visit, late last year, was enjoyable. No revelations, but overall I’d say it was a meal of mildly pleasing French cooking with one or two high notes (which also seems to have been your experience). And I don’t know about the rest of you, but mildly pleasing French cooking has its satisfactions.
I should also say that the upstairs, the wine bar — my favorite place in the restaurant — is lively and cozy and charming and everything you want a place like this to be.
OK, a touch hyperbolic.
Not bumping by the standards of a club. But by the standards of most restaurants in the area, yeah. I mean, compared to Corduroy, it might as well be Love. : )
The night I was in, there was a perceptible change in the sort of people walking in. A perceptible change in dress, and manner. Very much a “We are here to do Kapnos” kind of vibe.
And the music, which I had not really noticed before, had evolved into that clubby thump thump thump
I went a few times in the six months after they first opened. Haven’t been back since. But your report has me intrigued — thank you for that — and I’ll make a point of seeking out some of those dishes next time I’m in need of a Thai fix close to home.
The reason I haven’t been back is that there’s a better restaurant about six minutes away, Pho Thom, in College Park. The name suggests that it’s Vietnamese, but the menu is more Thai than Vietnamese and the best dishes are Thai as well. They do a good pad kee mao, a good yellow curry noodle, and a good basil fried rice with shrimp.
If you go, and you should, since you’re close, ask the waiter to have the chef go light on the oil with the latter dish. The rice will be lighter and fluffier.
I generally find that if you make these kind of minor requests tableside — these customizations that fall short of Meg Ryan’s high-maintenance control freakisms in “When Harry Met Sally” — you can improve your meal immensely.
Light on the oil in a stir fry. Medium-rare with the salmon. Light cheese on the pizza. A crispier bottom than usual on the pizza.
And just to extend the conversation a little, there are two places that are outside the city, without requiring a trip, that I think are worth thinking about when you’re looking for something good and a change of pace.
One is Pabu, perched right on the harbor in Baltimore, in the Four Seasons. The robata selection has, unfortunately, narrowed considerably; no more chicken hearts or tails or skin. I miss all of them. I think the kitchen had something special going there with these skewers.
The sushi remains fantastic, however. One of the things that distinguishes the nigiri is the quality of the rice (and also the fact that they use a fermented vinegar). The fish itself is often exquisite.
And you can’t go and not order sake. What a selection. I haven’t done a proper investigation, but I haven’t seen a more extensive collection anywhere on the East Coast. And the notes for drinking are as insightful as they are instructive.
The other getaway place is Vin 909 Winecafe, in Annapolis — well, technically in Eastport — in a charmingly landscaped craftsman house. Excellent small plates and excellent pizzas. (I wish the wines were as interesting, though I applaud them for offering so many by the glass for $8.)
The pies are as thin as pies get, and crispy and puffy in all the right places. The “No Skimp Margherita” was presumably concocted with people like my friend Andre in mind — Andre, who regards most boutique pizza as “tomato bread.” No spareness, here. But the nice thing is, it’s not overloaded to the extent that the pie loses its balance. It’s just richer and more satisfying a taste than many more conventional Neapolitans.
Let’s hope you get the Pete Wells meal, and not the dining decoy meal. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/24/dining/reviews/restaurant-review-daniel-on-the-upper-east-side.html?comments&_r=0
If I were you, and funds were what you say there are, I would try to hit one of Per Se and Le Bernardin, or both, and make room for lunch at NoMad.
Nice. Good to hear.
Interestingly, I had none of those dishes.
I could go back and be wowed, like you. I hope that happens. I always hope that happens with a place.
A single visit is necessarily incomplete. And it often takes a restaurant some time to find its rhythm. Not just with food, but with everything. But a single visit is not nothing, either. The hope is that as time goes by, the execution of plates is tighter, and that the dishes that work, work better (and that the dishes that don’t work are dispatched), and that the staff relaxes and makes its rounds with confidence and authority and ease.
But there are some things I would hope to see right out of the box. The qualities I talked about, these have to be built-in; they have to be there in the beginning. I don’t think you can develop them in the same way you can, as a staff, develop more confidence and, as a kitchen team, more care in the preparation.
But we’ll see. It’s early. It’s one visit.
It’s not a ribeye, no. But why ask a customer how they would like something cooked if you don’t intend to honor it? That’s A. And 2: It’s the service industry. The hospitality industry. The restaurant really ought to care that you go away happy. Especially in this day and age when everybody can go online and destroy a place with a few hastily-chosen, vitriolic sentences.
I wouldn’t bring anything up with a place like Five Guys. Or any other kind of prole burger spot. But a restaurant? A restaurant that is charging anywhere from $12-$18 — and sometimes more? That restaurant is saying that this is not just a burger. It’s saying: We want you to think of this as a small-scale ribeye.
Personally, I haven’t had many well-done burgers that taste fantastic. And most burgers that are cooked rare, I find, are too soft of texture to be interesting.
Since we’re talking about burgers, I want to take a moment to praise a great one. The burger at Green Pig Bistro, which — neat touch, defining touch — has bacon mixed into the beef. It also helps that the burger is so loosely packed; no doubt the bacon in the mix helps a great deal.
Too many burgers are too tightly packed. The result, often, is a tidy eating experience. That’s nice if you’re on a business meal or on a first date and want to make a certain kind of impression. But a burger is not a neat eating experience. It’s a sloppy eating experience. This one is.
I also love that the bun, which rides up high at the start, collapses down nicely into the meat and becomes at one with it. Too many high-end burgers have buns that ride up high and never settle down.
(It’s nice, too, to eat a burger with someone who clearly loves a good burger, who loves to pass it back and forth across the table and get down and dirty with it, in spite of the the stylized surroundings.)
And I hope that it kills in that spot.
Remains to be seen, though.
Look, I hope I’m wrong. I’d like nothing more than to see several Hot Shoppes throughout the area. I have a lot of affection for those places.
I hope the principals understand that if this Hot Shoppes is going to make it, it cannot be exactly what it was twenty-five years ago. People know too much, now, and consequently they expect more than they used to. The quality of the food will have to be higher. Fresher. At the same time, it has to remain essentially what it was — an accessible place, a comfortable place, a place where you can take four people and spend a relative pittance. And yet feel satisfied and cared for.
How many places can you name in this entire area that fit the description I just gave? The new, improved Silver Diner is one. Ray’s to the Third is another. Franklins Restaurant and Brewpub. And what else?
I haven’t been yet, no.
Soon, soon …
My colleague Ann Limpert has been, however, and her initial report was much the same as yours.
Jack: you’re a man after my own heart — and stomach.
DC Coast has generally done a good job over the years with the softshells it gets in. On the menu now is something called “Tower of Crab.” Dig it: a crabcake on top of a softshell. My idea of overkill.
I’ve had mixed feelings in recent years about Equinox, but it’s a place that knows what to do with softshells. Todd Gray, the chef, hails from the Chesapeake. He knows from softshells, as they used to say in Brooklyn (but not about softshells).You’re simply not going to find overfrying. Currently, he’s pairing them with a fried green tomato and a salsa verde.
Same goes for Johnny’s Half Shell. I don’t think I’ve ever not loved the softshells here. Pan sauteed (which is how I generally prefer them, so that you don’t lose the sweetness, and so the delicate meatiness doesn’t have to compete with fry to be heard), and served with spoonbread. Hanks also does them in the pan, and sides them with an Asian slaw.
One more to make you hungry: Palena Cafe’s fritto misto currently includes, among its mix of crunchy fried things, soft shells. This is a kitchen that understands how to fry. Always light, never greasy. And enhancing, never overwhelming, the putative star.
That’s really nice of you to say. Thank you.
And especially your remark about the way we live. I would like to think that food is part of the larger conversation, that to be engaged with the culture means reading books (and not merely nonfiction!), going to plays and shows, going to galleries and museums, keeping up with politics and the media, and going to restaurants. That all these things matter, and in some way reflect (and sometimes refract) one another.
All too often, I find that people want to narrow the lens. Food as escape. Food as a way of separating and elevating oneself, while insisting that it is only a matter of “taste.”
I’m sorry to hear we’ll be losing you. Thanks for being a reader all this time. I’m grateful. And I hope that you’ll drop us a note when you’re ensconced in your new scene, whenever that is.
As for keeping up … yeah, tell me about it.
The explosion we’re seeing has almost everything to do with the fact that the economy has been so good here for the past five years when nearly everywhere else is hurting, and money is flowing into here from so many sources.
By the way: here’s a guide I put together for Restaurant Week last time. I think it applies equally well this time:
Wish I could help. Sorry.
And sorry for getting to this question so late in the chat …
Chatters? Come to the rescue, please …
It’s a magnificent burger.
Easily Top 5. Maybe Top 3. And at this point, I can’t think of another burger I’m pining to return for.
It’s funny that you say you ordered everything BUT the burger on your last visit, because on my last visit everything BUT the burger was disappointing.
Two of the best lunch deals are the ones at Restaurant Eve, in Alexandria — the Lickety Split Lunch — and at Proof, in DC, the Lunch Crush Special.
And since you brought up Jean-Georges Vongerichten — another recommendation for lunch (or dinner) is ABC Kitchen. It’s one of those restaurants that makes everything look effortless. Which just makes a meal that much more relaxing.
Another lunch rec: Sakagura, on 43rd. Homemade soba: ‘nuff said. But the sashimi is also really good.
That’s a real shame. A real shame.
Thanks for writing in …
I really like the original, too. Of course, part of what I like about the original is that it’s the original. It has character. It feels like a deli should. Great texture.
And in just in time, too.
What a community this is. I hope you all know that I feel very, very privileged to be part of this ongoing conversation with you.
I think that people who really love softshells prefer them pan-sauteed.
Frying them — hell, I’d never turn one down, but frying them is just not the same. It’s a good way, though, to get newbies interested. They don’t have to look and see that they’re eating a critter. They can relax and forget and just dig down into the crunchy shell and experience some of the pleasure of a softshell.
Maximum pleasure is pan-sauteed. And pan-sauteed by someone who knows. And cares.
I like corn of some kind with a softshell, which is why my first thought for softshells is always Ann Cashion’s prep at Johnny’s Hall Shell. Pan-sauteed softshells with spoonbread. A perfect combo. I really don’t think it can be improved upon. Monk and Ellington. Fitzgerald and Perkins. Picasso and blue.
Gotta run. Lunch is calling, and of course all I REALLY want to eat now is softshells …
Thanks again so much for the thoughtful commentary, the tips, the recs, the reports from the field …You make Tuesdays fun.
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK …]