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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: email@example.com
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Ya Hala, Vienna
The tabbouleh is made-to-order, and superb -- an explosion of tender, sweet parsley and fruity olive oil. The baba ghanous is exceptional, too -- subtly smoky, perfectly textured. If only for these two dishes, I'd recommend making the trek to this tiny, friendly Lebanese diner. But there's good stuff beyond, including an array of meat pies, minted yogurts, and small, delicate desserts. Alas, the meats, though flavorful, are not as tender as the rest of the cooking would seem to promise, but a dip in the excellent garlic sauce and a pile of perfect rice makes up for it.
Rus Uz, Arlington
This homey cafe in Ballston is the only Russian-Uzbek restaurant in the area. But novelty alone doesn't recommend it. I love all the things that chef-owner Bakhtiyor Rakhmatullaev does with dough and meat -- from the savory pastries (samsas, cheburekis, and piroshkas) that are essential to any meal to the fabulous dumplings (including veal-stuffed pelmeni and manti, the latter filled with ground spiced lamb and buried under drifts of sour cream). My two meals here were richly rewarding, and among the most memorable of this spring and summer.
There are more reasons to head to Frederick than a chance to dine high (Volt) or low (Family Meal) at one of ex-TV chef Bryan Voltaggio's spots. You can, instead, dine in the middle at owner-chef Ric Ade's homage to the rich culinary traditions of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. The dining room, with its marble floors and white-and-blue color scheme, is cool and inviting on a hot summer day, and despite the almost exhaustive reach of the menu -- 87 items in all, not including specials -- the kitchen is surprisingly consistent. Those specials are where to turn first: sweet sugar snap peas with almonds, black salt and olive oil; a whole, sweet dorade perfumed with oregano and lemon and cooked on the grill to a perfect underdoneness. Don't miss the homemade fig and apricot newtons for dessert, rich and buttery cookies that simultaneously summon and obliterate all your memories of the packaged treats from your childhood.
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.
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.
Not by me; I’ve been directing people to this pocket of Wheaton for as long as I’ve been a critic.
Two of the best Thai restaurants in the area in Ruan Thai and Nava Thai, the best falafel in Max’s, a very good Cantonese restaurant in Full Key (with its phenomenal shrimp dumpling soup, which I wrote about last week in our new web feature “Best Thing I Ate This Week”), a lot of good (and some very good) pollo alla brasa, a good ramen shop in Ren’s Ramen …
That’s a very, very rich pocket.
But I want to come back, again, to the notion of underrated. I agree with you that it — the scene — still does not get the kind of attention it ought to. And these places, individually, do not as well.
I think it’s because many people in the food world regard places like this as peripheral. The scene is the places with names behind them. The scene is the city, and the neighborhoods within the city that matter, or on the very edge of the city like Old Town.
These are the places with operations behind them, with publicists, and they are very good at getting word out to the bloggers and whatnot about the fact they are coming to town, and, when they have set up shop, what their chefs and mixologists, etc. are doing.
The bloggers spill their words, and a buzz begins. And one of the things that buzz does, beyond getting word out about places that have a deep and vested interest in getting word out, is it perpetuates the idea that restaurants like this constitute the center — that the food world consists of places that can play the game and not places that can’t or won’t.
Full Key is a restaurant not only without a mixologist — it doesn’t even have a liquor license. It’s in Wheaton. The dining room is non-descript in the extreme. There’s nothing trendy or fancy about the menu, which hasn’t changed in years and which will never attract the interest of a national food magazine looking for a story about “what’s hot.”
And yet and yet and yet …
I had a better meal there recently than I did at many more high-profile restaurants I’ve spent time in in the past few weeks. The food was, across the board, consistent. The shrimp dumpling soup was phenomenal, so good I was tempted to order a second bowl. And it was cheap.
I know it would not be some people’s idea of dining. No booze, and Wheaton, and a not-pretty room, and no chef to talk about at the table and speculate about his next move.
But good is good.
And seeing through the hype and show — that’s good too. More than good: important.
This, I humbly submit, is why a food critic can still matter in an age when people say the food critic is superfluous.
Or just as great, anyway.
Thanks for writing in, and I’m glad it was a great escape for you. Best wishes on the new baby, if I didn’t already congratulate you …
You didn’t mention any sushi; I hope you partook — the quality of the fish is exceptionally high, and the preparations are imaginative and exquisite.
And the sake! I hope you indulged there, too; fantastic selection.
I wish the restaurant would bring back some of its old robata selections — namely, the chicken skin, chicken gizzards and chicken tail. Evidently, they were not too popular. A shame. Nobody else is serving these off-cuts, and I think that if people actually tried them (as opposed to just reading the description) they might be won over.
You know what’s funny?
Given your “cheaper than Minibar” parameters, I am perfectly within bounds to recommend the Inn at Little Washington, which, while exorbitant, is still less expensive than Minibar.
If you’ve never been, then this is a great excuse to indulge. It’s also an hour or so drive from Arlington.
I hope it’s a great night. I’m sure it will be. Drop us a note when you return …
Tim, thanks so much for dropping in and sharing this recipe with us. I hope the chatter from last week is with us.
Those wings are special. I’m looking forward to trying this recipe, myself.
I love the sound of that slow fermented creme fraiche — I’ll look for it.
And how great is it that you’re getting ingredients from a woman who ferments stuff on her deck?
Their znoud el sit is good, yes. It’s interesting that you don’t find it at many Lebanese restaurants in the area; the lineup of dishes tends to be pretty much the same.
I like a lot of the desserts at Ya Hala. In keeping with tradition, they’re small, just a few bites’ worth, and meant to go with a cup of mint tea.
As I said up top, the baba ghanous and the tabbouleh are reason enough to make the trip out there. I’m still thinking about them, many weeks later.
Sad that ten bucks for a sandwich would be considered a deal. Not that I doubt you.
And actually, given some of the food I’ve sampled, it wouldn’t be all that hard to stand out.
Curious, though: how does it compare to the real thing at the actual Max’s?
By the way: I don’t have it on any kind of authority, but I believe the reason Max’s is at the ballpark at all is because of our Cheap Eats issue. The Lerners are big readers of the magazine, and I had a conversation with Debra Lerner Cohen, Ted Lerner’s daughter, a while back in which she expressed her love for all the interesting, inexpensive restaurants we single out for attention in that issue.
At the risk of sounding all grad-schooly — at the risk of sounding, in other words, like one of those hectoring Slate columns — you’re setting up a false binary.
Steakhouses as pillars of consistency and quality vs. new restaurants as tempters that might deliver but also might not.
For another thing, steakhouses are not synonymous, in my book, with consistency and quality. Consistency, maybe. Maybe.
And most of them are overpriced relative to what you’re getting. The majority have not kept pace with the changes of the past five years — I’m not referring, simply, to trendiness on the plate; I’m talking about the quality of ingredients. Many restaurants that charge a lot these days are putting in the work — some more than others, obviously — to find high-quality products, or at least good quality products. I’m not tasting that at most steakhouses.
The problem that you’re really talking about, here, is not going to be alleviated by having more steakhouses. That problem is consistency.
And you’re right: it’s a big problem. The single biggest thing plaguing most restaurants in this town with any pretensions of greatness — or even goodness — is consistency.
Over the past couple of months, dining at the level we’re talking about, I’ve had few meals that I would call great. Great moments within those meals, yes, sometimes. Great across the board? Very few, sadly, qualify.
And, to circle back to something I brought up earlier, that hasn’t been the case over the past couple of months at the kind of restaurants that a Wheaton tends to have in abundance.
I recently spent $140 for two for a meal that had one very good dish, several pretty good dishes, and two okay dishes. It was a very nice setting, and there was wine, good wine. Service was okay; nothing special. Contrast that with another meal I had a couple of days later. It was a not-nice setting (though perfectly fine for me, and, I suspect, for most people who actually love food); the service was efficient and attentive; there was no wine (beer, though); and of the seven dishes that hit the table 4 were great, two were very good, one was okay. Cost: $69.
I offer up the two examples not to say that we should always do the latter — sometimes the latter is just not possible; there are birthdays and anniversaries and occasions, etc., as well as times when you need a place for before or after a show, etc.
But, in general, it pays to operate at the extremes. To save your hard-earned coin by eating out, primarily, at the kinds of places I’m talking about and then, with the savings, spending it on the really fine meals at restaurants that are rewarding — restaurants where consistency is seldom an issue.
What you want to be careful about, if you’re a food lover without means, is too many mediocre $120-$140 meals. Too many meals in the vast middle.
It’s a really good point … in theory.
In reality, I don’t think a lot of people are willing to Metro any kind of distance to dinner.
On a somewhat related point, Busboys and Poets opened a couple of years ago a few blocks from my house. Andy Shallal, the owner, said he could tell there was a hunger in the neighborhood for the kind of place he was bringing. He reckoned that most of the people in the nearby houses, condos and apartments would walk to his restaurant/coffeehouse/performance space. Turns out, most of them figured differently. They drove. Four, five blocks in some cases, but the car won out.
Good to know. I’ll never order one now.
Without that crunch, and without the ability to customize my toppings, no, forget it. And for $10. Uh uh.
Speaking of customizing your falafel … I was at the Amsterdam Falafelshop in Annapolis on July 4th, for a pre-fireworks snack. (I had a very un-Amurican day of eating: sushi for a late lunch, falafel after).
I didn’t see the fine print on the sign, and it had been some time since I had been in to the one in DC. Well, I loaded that thing up. Lots of pickled veggies, hummus, hot sauce, etc. And then they weighed it. Oof.
Ten bucks for a falafel snack.
(Re: that fine print. I didn’t see it, because I wasn’t supposed to see it.)
I mean, it’s really an apples and oranges kind of thing, but if the mission is, beyond celebrating, to eat really well — and not just for one blow-out meal — then I’d definitely recommend hitting Philadelphia or Richmond.
I like both cities as dining destinations, and for different reasons. Philly is big, and noisy, and it has an abundance of interesting indie restaurants, many of which are also BYOB’s. It also has an abundance of great Italian food, something we are woefully skimpy on.
Richmond has a reputation as a very conservative city, and in many respects it is. But it has, or seems to me to have, a greater bohemian presence than does D.C., and there are a number of pockets of the city with interesting, affordable, and spirited restaurants.
I’m running out of time, otherwise I’d give you a quick guide to each. You can do a search on past chats; I’ve given a number of Philly recs in the past. Richmond, too, and I even did a Richmond dining guide; it came out several months ago.
Or drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck, and happy travels. I’d love to hear where you end up.
Start? I haven’t stopped.
And I feel confident in saying that that’s true, also, of every other food critic I know.
It’s funny the way people tout the virtues of a site like Yelp! by talking about how it’s an aggregate, and, therefore, superior to the view of the critic, who is, after all, just one person speaking.
One informed, thoughtful, articulate person with, generally, three visits (sometimes four, sometimes five) to inform his or her judgment. Talk about aggregate.
Sign of the apocalypse? Why?
As for Van Ness becoming DC’s next culinary hotspot — maybe in another generation.
Don’t appear to be.
I can’t imagine that that wouldn’t change, and very soon.
I’m off to lunch. Thank you, all, for remembering that it’s Tuesday and not Monday and taking part today. I appreciate all the questions and tips and field reports and even the fearful musings …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[*missing you, TEK … *]