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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 was a finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, and recently took home first-place honors for feature writing from the Association of Food Journalists.
Kliman 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 . . .
* Rose's Luxury, DC
I love the crackle in the room when you walk in. I'm not talking about mere noise; lots of restaurants have noise. I'm not even talking about buzz, that sense that a new place is hot. This one has an energy that is unmistakable, a sense that you have entered a kind of rare and cherished zone where the enthusiasm of the kitchen and the staff is returned in kind by the diners, who all seem to walk out the door with smiles on their faces. It's not hard to understand why. Rose's Luxury has an old-school vibe, and a sort of making-it-up-as-we-go-along feel, from the homey, unassuming way the menu bids you to settle in and order to the dinner party-run-amok vibe to the yahrzeit-look-alike votives to the beer glasses that are sawed-off wine bottles. The chef, Aaron Silverman, logged stints in such high-profile kitchens as Momofuku in New York and Husk and McCrady's in Charleston, and you don't have to look hard to see elements of each of these places in the room and on the plate. Like his mentors David Chang and Sean Brock, he aims to bring off a marriage of extreme playfulness and extreme precision. The bulk of the menu consists of a dozen small plates in which Silverman sets out to cross the wires, compositionally speaking, and see what happens. A pate is a braiding of French, Italian (garlic bread are the toasts), Vietnamese (the rich, crushed-peanut topped spread brims with star anise), and I want to say Jewish (the brine for the jalapenos, onions and cukes that add crunch and tang tastes deli to me). It's seamlessly done, and highly addicting. He crosses high and low in a soup that tastes at once like liquefied popcorn and a delicate lobster veloute (the sweetness calls out for some sort of counterbalancing ingredient, or more lobster). It's not all derring-do. His gnocchi are more properly a kind of ravioli, stuffed with fennel and mint, sauced with not-too-much butter and topped with a generous scattering of crunchy toasted breadcrumbs. You'd be hard put to find five better pasta dishes in town right now. The final course is a page not out of Momofuku or Husk or McCrady's, but out of Komi -- share plates for two. In one, you lay luscious slices of perfectly smoked brisket on griddled Texas toast, add on tangy strands of pickled cabbage and smear the whole thing with a fluffy horseradish cream. The other is built around a beautifully brined pork chop -- sweet and aromatic and rich as the best pork can be -- with potlikker beans and a textbook red-eye gravy. The final act needs re-staging. The lack of a pastry chef doesn't help, nor does the tendency to over-think and over-embellish. Quenelles of chocolate cream sprinkled with dried rose petals and intended for spreading on slices of charred bread feels twee, not interesting, and hardly satisfies. More of the sink-in simplicity of the share courses would go a long way. Still, this is one of the most exciting debuts of the year. I'd even go so far as to say it's one of the most exciting debuts of the past three years.
New chef, same supremely assured restaurant. William Morris has risen to the top spot with the departure of Tony Chittum, and is a chef to watch. One of the best dishes on his tightly scripted menu of 15 dishes is also the unlikeliest: a roasted garlic soup. The taste of garlic is subtle, and the soup, a chicken stock base, gets its richness from a touch of cream and a yolk at the bottom of the bowl that you're meant to stir in after the broth is poured. One moment it tastes like a light veloute, another like a liquid roasted chicken, and another -- after you scoop up the fine dice of potatoes -- a chowder.
Khan Kabob, Chantilly
The best karahi I've had in ages, maybe ever, is a version here made with lamb brains. The brains, for the leery, resemble tiny curds, and the sauce of garlic, ginger, cilantro, tomato and chilis is so concentrated, and so smoky, that even after you've had your fill it's difficult to stop dipping your torn naan into the hammered metal vessel. Tariq Khan, the owner, was for many years part of the Ravi Kabob empire; he's created a worthy rival.
Yia Yia's Kitchen, Beltsville
If you want to see what a gyro can be, order the pork. It's sliced from a conical spit, and the meat is so dark you'd think it was charred. That's the effect of slow cooking, of melting fat, herbs and spices coming together to form a kind of bark. The meat is luscious, like that of a great spare rib, and you can pick up notes of fresh oregano and cinnamon. It's enfolded by a thick, griddled pita, into which the cooks stuff fistfuls of hot fries, along with tzaziki, chopped onions and tomato. The rest of the menu is rewarding, too -- pork chops with long-cooked green beans, onions and tomatoes; a good pastitsio; and a strapping mound of lamb bolognese.
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.
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.
* new this week
The not-sharing is the thing.
And it IS chintzy to charge for a second basket of bread.
It’s funny — this story could be looked at one of two ways. And probably will be read one of those ways by the restaurant community, and one of those ways by the community of diners.
One way to look at it is, you paid $260 for dinner — what are you kicking at a charge of $2 for bread? The other way to look at it is — I paid $260, and they want to nickel-and-dime me?
Good morning, everyone. Kind of a raw, gray early Fall day out there. It’s nice to be inside and warm and talking to all of you.
What’s on your mind?
What are you cooking in these cool autumn days and nights?
Where are you dining?
(By the way: The captcha, I’m told, should be much improved today, and from here on out, too. For all those of you who’ve written in to complain over the past few weeks, thank you, and I hope it’s smooth sailing now.)
Well, he did ask you how the dish was. So I don’t think it’s out of bounds to tell him that it needed more salt.
Moreover, I don’t think more-salt would be taken as evidence of his lack of skill or worth as a chef.
It’s interesting, talking about salt. When I cook at home — and it’s not all that often these days — but when I do and friends are over, they’re often astonished to see how much salt I use when I’m seasoning, say, chicken thighs. They get antsy.
Chefs will tell you that one of the differences between home cooks and cooks in a restaurant is how underseasoned — to their palates — so much homecooked food is. Most home cooks don’t use enough salt or pepper.
On a related note, I used to have a friend who, whenever I was searing something in a pan, would invariably try to lift it up before it was done. He always thought it was going to burn. That deep, dark searing is what gives meat a lot of its interest, and you can’t develop it if you turn the meat too early or push it around in the pan.
The other thing a lot of home cooks are guilty of is a kind of inadvertent steaming. If you crowd the pan with meat, then you’re attempt to sear is somewhat nullified, because you’ll be steaming the meat in addition: not good.
I agree. But here’s the thing: places do it because they can do it. If it were not economically viable, then they would switch to something else.
I think people are conditioned to see long lines and think: good. It’s largely why Pasta Mia, in Adams Morgan, is still going. It feels like a happening, so people submit to the line.
For some reason, waiting for Little Serow and Pasta Mia is different for people from waiting for the Department of Motor Vehicles. I think it has to do with a kind of social certification.
People can say: “I waited an hour-and-a-half to get in to Little Serow.”
To which a friend will reply: “An hour-and-a-half? Are you crazy?”
“You know what? Totally worth it. You gotta do it.”
The question I’ve always found interesting is why people go to a new restaurant in the first week or second week. There are a lot of good restaurants out there — why this one? Why take a chance on the kinks not being worked out?
Again, I think it goes back to a kind of social certification. I was there. I was one of the first.
The truth is that most restaurants cannot be sustained by an audience made up of people like us — people who live for food, and love nothing more than to dissect our meals at the table and then later on a chat or an email to friends. Restaurants, for many people, are about simply being there. And a line, for them, is proof that being there is not just interesting or worthwhile but somehow, also, vital.
Don’t think Raku.
Think Jaleo (tapas), think Faryab (Afghan), think Passage to India, think Food Wine & Co. (modern American).
This is a really interesting question — I’m so glad you wrote in with it.
I’ll be interested in hearing what others have to say on the subject.
As for me, I would say once a week at the low end, especially because you’re in Alexandria and can get to a lot of great, affordable places without much effort.
La Caraqueña in Falls Church has great arepas, black bean soup and peanut soup. Bangkok Golden, also in Falls Church, has a fascinating menu of Laotian dishes; the cooking is bright, spicy, lively and pungent. Also in Falls Church is the Eden Center, the home of the best Vietnamese cooking in the area — we just did a guide to it, listing more than a dozen options for exploration; there are so many places there to eat really, really well: Huong Viet, Rice Paper, Banh Cuon Saigon, Hai Duong, Nha Trang, Nhu Lan, BamBu (for dessert), and on and on and on.
All those suggestions are in Falls Church. I haven’t even touched on Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Chantilly, etc. Virginia is a mecca for good, cheap eating. You can spend a year eating out one a week at nothing but the places we listed in our Cheap Eats issue — this year, an Ethnic Dining package — and be content and happy.
It says something when you see a good basket of bread on the table at a restaurant. Or a nice-looking dish of pickles.
It sets a tone. It says warmth and generosity.
I don’t think restaurants are obliged to put out a bread basket or a pickle tray, but I do think they benefit enormously from doing them. Restaurants are in the business of making people happy. An introduction like this, if it’s good, goes a long way. It’s a way of establishing a first impression.
As for the expectation of a free dessert on a birthday or anniversary — I think it has to do with the culture of going out to eat. A lot of restaurants do it, and so the expectation is there that a place will do something to honor the occasion.
Restaurants can choose to opt out, to say — that’s not how we do things; we think it’s cheesy/tacky to send out a slice of cake and a candle. But that doesn’t diminish the expectation. The expectation is built into the culture. Just like with cell phones. You can say: I hate these things; I don’t want to be addicted; I’m going to rid myself of this thing that chains me to work and to always being on. But that doesn’t mean others will stop, too. They won’t stop. And so you, the opt-outer, are forced to keep up, whether you like it or not. That’s one of the ways that a culture can be coercive.
Thanks for writing in … Good tips.
I think I have more of an aversion to overcooked shrimp and scallops than I do to overcooked steak. No; can’t say that. But I do think the latter is easier to get right. It’s so easy to ruin shellfish and fish.
Yes — kudos!
I hope “the bearded gentleman working the bar” comes to the attention of Tom Meyer and all the folks in charge of that property.
In my experience, it’s not all that common to find a male waiting tables who knows how to deal with a child or children at the table. Not saying all waitresses do; but they tend to be much more alert and responsive, much more capable of reading the table and anticipating problems, etc.
The vast majority of men, I have to say, are kind of bumbling and clueless in this regard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a dish with a searingly hot handle placed in front of a kid. Or a wine glass or a steak knife not cleared from a child’s place setting. Or how often the kid’s order will not come out first, but after the adults, sowing toddler panic (as you point out, everything goes so much more smoothly when a little kid is eating very early in the meal.)
And in that regard, Liberty Tavern and Lyon Hall, both in Arlington, are very good; they know how to take care of families, and their kids menus are a huge cut above.
I guess it’s a call as to what would be more indulgent/pleasurable — a cheap meal once a week at the various ethnic mom ‘n’ pops throughout northern Virginia, or a save-it-up splurge at a place like Liberty Tavern or Lyon Hall once a month?
For me, it would come down to whether LT or LH justify that kind of hold-your-breath and indulge night out.
I like both places, but I don’t think they do.
And that $125 would only permit them one meal like that a month.
By contrast, at most of the places I recommended they should be able to make their $25 budget — and eat interestingly and well, too.
Thanks for chiming in …
Chefs like to talking about “layering flavors,” and that means, as you say, salting as you go — treating each step of the preparation as, essentially, its own dish.
I tend to think that that sense of oversalting that we find in certain dishes comes from people who salt only at the end, and, finding that the dish is blander than expected, resort to dousing.
I’m so glad to hear it worked out so well!
Congratulations to you both, and kudos to Proof for being excellent and consistent.
Was. The launch was this morning.
I go most frequently to the location in College Park, and I like the burgers a lot. The burgers there and at Ray’s to the Third are my favorites in the area. (Sometimes they’re overcooked, and have to be sent back, but that happens a lot of places.)
I like the regional flavor combos (Buffalo wing sauce and blue cheese; avocado, goat cheese, watercress; bbq sauce, melted cheddar and blue corn chips), I like the thickness of the patty, I like the way the patty is seasoned liberally with salt and pepper, I like the way the bun softens (but not too much) into the meat.
Ha — yes.
And written by the curator of the Hall himself …
Lots of ways to skin this cat.
Thanks for chiming in …
And there are a fair number of chefs who smoke.
I remember one restaurant — opened to great acclaim, including from me, and looked to be a fixture on the scene for years. It was small and independent, and the cooking, in the early going, had flair, finesse and the kind of depth that comes with a chef who knows how to build a dish step by difficult step.
Well, after three or four months it began to falter. And it never recovered. Every meal I had after the three review meals I had made was a disappointment. And what did all those post-review meals have in common? The dishes were all extraordinarily salty.
The chef was known to be a heavy smoker, but I wonder: why was the oversalting not an issue in the early going? Did he not smoke then? Or not as much? And after the reviews and the crowds, and presumably the pressure, he resorted to puffing more frequently?
I don’t know. Who can know? But the tanking of this restaurants ranks as one of the great disappointments in my time as a critic.
Gotta run, all. Thanks so much for the give-and-take today. This is a fun coupla hours, as always …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[*missing you, TEK … *]