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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.
Thanks for writing in. The fact that Fiola is no longer in the list up top is not a damning of Fiola; I change that list frequently, and you’ll notice that I try, with this list, to highlight places that are not, for some reason, in the larger conversation about restaurants but ought to be. That’s not to say that the list is only to serve that function; Rose’s Luxury, which is on there right now, is suffering from no shortage of buzz at the moment. But most of the restaurants on the list are places that you’re not hearing much, if anything, about.
As for value — yes, I consider it. Along with many other things that make up the experience. The inflation at Fiola, I have to say, is pretty extraordinary. It’s as if, having made the decision to open the “casual” Casa Luca, Fiola was liberated to move Fiola in the direction of Maestro. I think it’s a bad move. Entrees in the 50s — what, exactly, justifies this? I guess you could argue that the market justifies it, if people are paying that kind of money. But Fiola, to me, is not the kind of experience that I’d want if I were dropping that kind of money. It can be very good. But I’d want less hustle around me, I’d want more attention, indeed, a little pampering.
I hate to see this. I think the food, here, can be special, although I dislike the tendency toward overrichness I’m seeing in the saucing. I’d like more control, more elegance.
Good morning, everyone, and I appreciate your patience as we roll out a (we hope) smoother system for you to use. It’s a little adjustment on my end, so please bear with me, but I hope it’s less hassle-free for all of you.
The pistachio gremolata sounds terrific. Curious about the squash mac and cheese. I have a copy of the book, but haven’t given it much of a read yet. Thanks for the reminder.
As for Thanksgiving, I haven’t given it much thought yet. But you’ve given me an idea, and maybe an idea for this community of cooks, as well. What about if, in the next couple of weeks, we devote some of this space to sharing great recipes — failsafes, family treasures, etc. I’d love to hear about some of these, and I’m sure all of you would, too. We’re all looking for ideas, even if it’s just one new dish to add to our standard lineup.
And I would even consider doing a crowd-sourced Thanksgiving dinner, composed entirely of your suggestions. I’ll be having 9 people, and the only thing I know we’ll be having is a turkey and (most likely) my sister-in-law’s bourbon sweet potatoes with pecans.
This is the second report I’ve gotten about a less-than-stellar meal at Rice Paper in recent months.
It doesn’t sound like you had the beef-stuffed grape leaves with rice paper. There’s another dish on the menu, and it comes without the rice paper. (Both should have the chopped peanuts.) The version with rice paper is the one you want.
Dipping the paper and transforming it is fun, for one thing. And rolling the charred grape leaf bundle, along with mint and pickled carrots and daikon, in the paper adds a layer of flavor.
I don’t think in this case that it’s a matter of speaking up and requesting the authentic article. The thing to do when you’re eating at a Thai restaurant and want to be sure that you’re going to get a dish that’s prepared for a Thai palate, is to say to the server: Thai hot, please. The server might not believe you. It’s important to stress that that’s exactly what you want, and that you have eaten this particular dish like this many, many times.
You might also say: make it for me the way you would eat it.
Neither has ever failed me. Though occasionally the dishes I have received after this earnest and beseeching plea for authenticity have sometimes been so blisteringly hot I have had to step outside for fear of having anyone on staff get a glimpse of my red, tear-streaked face. : )
Jaleo, if you can get in. Cheap sangria and $4 tapas — what’s not to like?
So, you’ll notice the name in the question line. They will ALWAYS be the Bullets; they’re just biding their time until they can become the Bullets again. I actually thought about this the other day, that if Dan Snyder is smart, he will change the name of the Redskins to the Bullets. Voila!— solves one problem, and really doesn’t create another. And it would make many, many people happy, while retaining a strong sense of tradition and character.
And it isn’t as if this cross-sport name adoption thing has no precedent. It even has precedent in this area. The Capitals, before they were a hockey team, were a basketball team, coached, by the way, by the great Red Auerbach. (OK, technically Capitols. But you get the idea.)
But back to the Bullets for a second. I’m ambivalent about the trade for Gortat because I hate giving up draft picks, ever, but he can board and bang and is skilled offensively, and it’s intriguing to have a piece like him in the post. They haven’t had a piece like this in ages. When Okafor went down, probably for the duration, I was resigned to a crummy season. I’m reenergized, now, and can’t wait to see how he and Harrington fit in, and what Otto Porter (eventually) does. And whether Rice Jr. can become a good gunner off the bench. And how soon (not if) Beal becomes the second best shooting guard in the league. And what Wall, the centerpiece, the enigma, becomes.
OK, now back to food and restaurants …
Oh, there’s a lot out there that’s salty.
But at the same time, I have eaten a lot of food in people’s homes over the years that is undersalted. Or I should say — underseasoned. What’s interesting is, it happens much, much less in the case of cooks who are working within a defined/ inherited tradition. Rarely do I find underseasoned soul food, for instance.
I also find that unless a home cook is really passionate about the craft of cooking, and/or has the high-quality equipment, that you don’t tend to get — as just a “for instance” — the deep searing of meat that brings so much texture and flavor.
Thanks for writing in.
It sounds like you’ve had some disappointing meals out — and shopping expeditions — of late.
I can certainly appreciate that. I recently was asked what percentage of meals out, for me, are winners. I’m out 11, 12 meals a week. The answer? Maybe a third.
I continue to be amazed by the prices many places — many new and new-ish places — are charging. And I say this as someone who has a budget.
There’s a lot out there right now, and there’s a lot out there that’s slick, or contrived, or self-conscious. I would say that I wish more places would make it a mission to do simple, but I’m afraid what that simple would look like: a self-aware simple; an ironic play at being simple.
I think this is one of the things that makes Rose’s Luxury, which I wrote about up top, so appealing. There’s hipness and warmth. There’s ambition, yet it’s not a straining ambition. It’s fun. It has soul. It has heart. It’s inviting. Everything adds up; all the little details mean something. And the food, most of it, is deeply rewarding, and feels like a form of communication.
It’s a fantastic restaurant, and, no, I don’t think any other restaurant matches it when it comes to understanding how to treat fish and seafood. The delicacy of the preparations, and the range of expression of the flavors, is remarkable.
There’s certainly nothing, here, that compares.
I loved seeing this tweet from Marcin Gortat, by the way:
“First 24h in DC!!Notbad!!Met a lot of people. This City has probably about 1KK restaurants!!!!!:))crazy!!Cant wait to check out the white house”
The Polish Hammer likes restaurants! Apparently, a whole heckuva lot.
Yo, Marcin, since you’re so obviously a lover of good food (or at least being out and about) — I would be happy to have you join me on a review meal. Drop me a note: email@example.com
I would be happy to show you the scene, and talk to you about taking a hometown discount when your contract is up after the season. : )
You’re my kind of eater — “tons and tons of small, dive-y looking restaurants that I always like to imagine are secretly terrific” is so wonderful. Even before I became a restaurant critic, I had these thoughts all the time. I would drive up and down certain restaurant-dense blocks and wonder constantly which ones were amazing, certain that there had to be some. The idea that they all might be lousy was never something I thought about; there were secrets there, and I was certain of it.
Do you know the restaurant Rincome? Thai place, in a motel. Not far from the not-divey Bangkok 54. I like it. Go there and get the crispy whole fish.
Also: Dama, for Ethiopian. They do a very good beef tibs. It’s a good place, consistently one of the best Ethiopian spots in the area.
Creamed corn gratin with fried onion rings and bacon. Whoa.
Are you thinking about trying it out in advance? If you do, I’d love to know how it turns out.
Sounds like a spoof of a dish, the kind of thing that starts with somebody saying: How can I make an insanely rich thing insanely richer?
Tell me more about the apple cider pie.
I’ve wondered for years why more restaurants don’t do things like this. A little something at the start goes a long way.
A lot of places seem to think that if they have a great cocktail list, great appetizers and a great selection of entrees, that they have a great place on their hands. But what’s the opening act? It begins with a warm, welcoming, and sincere greeting and continues on to the first moments after you sit down and read the menu. Ideally, a restaurant seizes that opportunity to make an impression. This is all part of the first act. Many places squander it.
Look at Rose’s Luxury again. At the moment, they’re delivering not a bread basket, but a roll. A wonderful roll, warm, right out of the oven. It’s a potato roll, an enhanced potato roll (it tastes like a cross between a potato roll and a potato skin) and it’s served with an enhanced sour cream.
That’s a statement right there. Of generosity. Of warmth (quite literally, as well). And also of the kind of cooking that chef Aaron Silverman and his crew are attempting — strongly rooted flavors, but given an imaginative rethinking on the plate.
The statement is made before a drink has arrived.
The final act is often squandered, too. Chefs tend to look at dessert as a little sweet thing to not upstage the procession of savories, and figure that most diners want to go light. The problem is, most desserts are boring. They lack excitement. They’re going through the motions. Sometimes they’re overthought, and ridiculously precious.
This is the last chance to wow a diner, and most places are content to just send us on our way with something we’ve seen before or something that doesn’t excite. Kind of amazing.
I’ll quibble with the 95%, but what you say is true, and one of the reasons it’s one of the great surprises of the year.
I’d go Little Serow.
But here’s the thing — do you want to wait in line on your birthday? And potentially risk not getting in? Or, getting on the list but having to go somewhere else and kill time for a couple of hours?
Del Campo will take a reservation, the food is festive, and, as you said, you’re both big meat-eaters. I’d take the sure thing, in this case.
By the way: I don’t think LS is open New Year’s Day.
I love their Hodder Hill. The last two vintages have been superb. I wish they made more. Kudos to winemaker Jeff White!
As for Trump … Look, I hear you. But the piece was a look at the best of Virginia wine right now; it wasn’t just about giving space to Trump Winery. We featured a couple dozen places doing good, interesting work.
And there are some good wines coming out of Trump, regardless of what you might feel about the owner (whose son, by the way, when I interviewed him a couple of years ago, said that the family’s decision to go into winemaking was not a stretch at all, because they were already involved in “agricultural ventures.” Such as? I asked. Such as golf courses, was the reply. I was also told that Virginia had great diversity in its wines. I asked for an elaboration; diversity how, in what way. “Well, you have red, and wine, and rose … “)
Sounds great. Thanks for sending the link. I’m going to consider adding it to the menu.
More links, please, everyone. And family recipes next week, please, if you have them — and you must, you must …
Thanks for your patience today, everyone, and I’d be interested in any feedback you have about the way things handled on your end.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]