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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: email@example.com
W H E R E I ' M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Shoo-fly Diner, Baltimore
The high-falutin diner is not an easy idea to pull off. The tendency among pedigreed chefs is to fancify, to nudge the diner to go against its humble nature -- witness the curried frogs legs with watermelon radishes that turned up on the menu one night at Family Meal in Frederick last year, or the starchy service and air of restraint that make a meal at The Majestic feel more formal than fun. This one -- from Spike Gjerde and Amy Gjerde, who also own and operate Woodberry Kitchen and Artifact -- gets it right. Not a little money was spent on restoring the one-time shoe store, but sitting in the comfy dining room or at the downstairs lunch counter you are not made to stand in awe of what money can buy, casting your eye over the detail work as if it were a Renaissance fresco. You're invited to settle in. A recent review in the Baltimore Sun criticized the menu, which doubles as a placemat, for not making sense. I find it to be a charming homage to the soda fountains and diners of old, and a friend and I enjoyed poring over its details (and game-planning our final courses among a slew of options) in the time between placing my order and diving into dinner. The night I was in, the lone dish with fine-dining pretensions was the chicken and dumplings, but I appreciated how grounded it was for something so refined; I could also appreciate its pricetag ($13 for a good-sized bowl; and among the 10 dishes we ordered this night, it was the most expensive). Its best feature was its broth, which showed the sort of deep, foundational work that Spike Gjerde insists upon. A slight saltiness was evident by the end, when it had cooled, but it was not hard to miss how good the stock is; a single spoonful, and I was thinking of bones slow-roasting in the oven before being dropped in a stockpot. The burger is not obviously special -- nothing extra in the patty, and no unexpected embellishments. What makes it good is that the meat is rich without being fatty, and that the kitchen has found a way to reprise the smell and taste of the old-time flat-top burgers with their distinctive outer crust. The egg salad sandwich, on the other hand, is obviously special -- the creation, unmistakably, of someone who adores egg salad sandwiches. This one's served open-faced on a long, thick slice of bread; picture a French bread pizza. The star ingredient is not over mayo-ed, nor presented too finely or too coarsely, and is topped with some of the lightest homemade potato chips I've ever eaten, along with a scattering of shaved radishes and microgreens. The bread is worthy of top billing. It's homemade, as are all the baked goods at Woodberry Kitchen and Artifact. In fact, from the jelly for the excellent biscuit to the soft-serve ice cream (which comes in two varieties at the moment, cream and cafe au lait), everything you eat here is made from scratch. Gjerde also only serves meat that his staff has butchered, and is fanatical in procuring a local source for his products (an Asian-style noodle salad on the menu at Artifact featured Maryland peanuts). As at Woodberry, almost as much thought has gone into the drinks as the eats. There's a neat twist on a black Russian, which is served in a cup and saucer and goes down like a boozed-up espresso. The soft-serve is repurposed for a homemade milk shake featuring an oatmeal stout that went down far too fast for something so subtle and complex. A slushie made with 101-proof bourbon and fresh pear cider went down even faster. My complains this night were few -- quibbles more than criticisms. Creamed collards is a great idea, but they clotted after a few minutes at the table, and the dish only really came into focus with a few splashes of chef Gjerde's fish pepper sauce, which sits out on the table the way a bottle of Heinz does at a conventional diner. I would have liked more crispiness from the otherwise tasty Buffalo oysters (a twist on Buffalo wings). Most restaurants that serve pies, serve them too cold; the chocolate chiffon, here, is better than most in that regard -- it had only a chill -- but it would have been a lot better at room temperature. And the crust was too hard to penetrate with a fork. I cannot quibble, however, with its silken interior, which showcases one of the best versions of dark chocolate mousse I have eaten anywhere, pie or no. The perfect ending, this night, was the Tollhouse cookie, which came to the table still warm, as if snatched from the cookie sheet the moment it was done. A cold glass of milk alongside it would have been nice. But I'm not complaining.
The new king of Koreatown. This is the best Korean barbecue out there right now, served up by a slew of young, t-shirted staffers in a rollicking, industrial setting. Go for the marinated pork ribs.
Bangkok Golden, Falls Church
I was tempted to say this a while back, but didn't. I will now, after a recent knockout visit: I'd rather go here, for the Lao menu, than Little Serow. The range of tastes is vast, and every plate is alive with flavor -- bright and pungent and smoky and funky. Not to mention crunch and heat. Not to mention a shorter wait and a lighter bill (my recent meal of four dishes and a beer, pre-tax: $43).
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 addictive. 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.
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.
I haven’t been to Eat the Rich yet, but have been a number of times to Doi Moi.
I’m still looking for more depth from many of the dishes, but there are a lot of things I’d go back for — the crab fried rice is excellent, the head-on prawns, the curry noodle soup. And the heat is there — many dishes are blisteringly (and authentically) hot.
As for Rose’s — I agree with you. It’s a very special vibe there, and a staff that reminds me — in its eagerness and energy and enthusiasm — of a young Komi.
Finally, thank you so much for your comments about the chat — I appreciate it, especially your remark about it being down-to-earth. So much food talk, and food writing, seems meant to exclude, to separate those with taste (or palates, or knowledge) from those without, to create us’es and them’s. I want inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. That’s part of why you see the sorts of places you do up top. And part of why I pick the questions I do. And I hope, as you suggest, that that leads to people who are not in the food world and are not even self-described foodies to come on and participate.
It’s a good idea you’ve got.
I’d call or go on to the webpage of the Hubbard Peanut Co. — Hubs peanuts. Terrific. Very distinctive.
And as for the wine, I’m not sure what constitutes “affordable” in your mind — most people I know don’t want to spend more than $15, $20 a bottle. I’d look for Barboursville Vineyards’ Viognier. Or Chrysalis Vineyards’ Albariño. Both are white wines. If you are willing to spend more for a red, I’d look for Michael Shaps’ Cabernet Franc (it’s around $30), or Chrysalis Vineyards’ Norton (it’s around $25).
By the way, don’t know if all of you saw it — Dana Milbank and the Post magazine did a big feature on Virginia wine last week. No mention of Norton. Not one. Pretty incredible. And not one mention, either, of Jenni McCloud and Chrysalis. Also pretty incredible.
Don’t want to forget … Since we talked so much in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I just wanted to say thank you to the chatter who talked about spatchcocking the turkey. I did, and it was fantastic. Never going to do it any other way again. Bird cooked up in about 90 minutes, and was, as a good friend of mine likes to say, dee-lish. Moist white meat, moist dark meat, great skin.
I swabbed the whole thing before roasting with bacon butter — block of Kerry Gold, half package of bacon, fresh tarragon, cracked black pepper, drizzle of pure maple syrup, all whipped up in the processor.
Some of that bacon butter also went into my cornbread stuffing, which also included andouille sausage and toasted pecans.
I made haricots verts (skinny young green beans, if we want to truly be down to earth, here) in the style of a Caesar salad, with a real Caesar dressing and a generous shave of fresh parmesan.
One sister-in-law (not the one I mentioned last week!) made her sweet potato sundae thingy (sweet potatoes, bourbon, raisins, topped with toasted marshmallows).
My mom baked a seeded challah in the shape of a star of David (our nod to Thanksgivvukah) — it came out wonderfully — and did rolls. She also made a very good cranberry relish.
Dessert was a pumpkin pie from my sister-in-law who did the sweet potatoes and my wife’s brown butter pear tart.
To wash it down: a Clean Slate Riesling and a bottle of RdV’s Rendezvous, a gorgeous red blend from Virginia.
And I did make the rum drink I had solicited ideas for. I played around, and came up with something very smooth and very balanced. The key ingredient: coconut water. With two kinds of bitters, one a blood orange bitters.
Tell me how everything went down for all of you, please …
My experience is to ask what’s fabulous — what on the menu should not be missed — and get: Well, such-and-such is very popular.
Popular? Who cares what’s popular? Miley Cyrus is popular. Richard Patterson is popular. Steven Spielberg is popular. I don’t care about popular. I care about good. What’s good? Direct me to what’s good.
The reason this happens is because the staff doesn’t know the dishes — not because they are slackers, or because they’re bad at their job. This is the fault of management. Management has not given them the tools to succeed on the floor.
I also hate when I ask how a dish is, meaning how does it taste, and I get a very thorough description of how the various components are prepared and then put together. That’s fine; that’s good information to have — if the question is how is it put together. But if the question is how is it, then the diner wants to know whether it’s a standout.
My favorite servers, generally speaking, are the ones who understand that their job is to function as a translator, a go-between. I have had servers who, when I place an order, shake me off like a pitcher rejecting a catcher’s signal — I love that. I also love servers who say, very unequivocally: This one. This is the dish to get. Fantastic.
It’s a shame that it’s lunchtime, because many of the places I’d love to send you aren’t open then.
But you’re not out of luck.
Garnett’s Cafe is a fun retro luncheonette with good sandwiches, like the Louisville Hot Brown, homemade cakes and a surprisingly good (if necessarily small) wine list.
Edo’s Squid has fantastic red-sauce Italian. Make sure to get the oyster stew.
Millie’s Diner has, in addition to a wonderful and amazingly well-stocked jukebox, some good, simple, nicely refined dishes.
Rappahannock is good for oysters and good beers.
I’ll be interested in hearing where you ended up. Come back on and drop us a note.
If you want examples of highway robbery at restaurants, I’ve got loads more for you.
I’m not sure this qualifies as an outrage. We’re talking, after all, about a barbecue place.
No sommelier, no special stemware, and, really, how many people are going to be drinking a glass of wine instead of a beer?
I’m going to beat this horse one more time …
Yes, PG was, and is, common shorthand — among people who don’t live in Prince George’s. There, the initials are regarded by many, particularly longtime residents, as a slight.
I understand that. Is it a trivial matter when set alongside other, weightier, more troubling things in our local culture? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
I’m of the mind that, just as you let the members of a group define themselves, you let the residents of a county define themselves. If they like something, that’s what you call them. If they don’t, you don’t.
Prince George’s. Done.
As for “Monkey County,” that phrase doesn’t appear in news stories in the Post or on air on the TV stations or in any other publications. It’s vernacular, and, in my experience, often used ironically.
Re: National Airport. Yes, long-timers continue to call it that. But the airlines call it Reagan National. As do most of the cabbies.
Switching gears slightly … one of the things I find interesting about the emergence of certain neighborhoods in DC — and even the widespread use of “the District” among new and new-ish arrivals as a kind of flashcard of certification — is that people who lived in these neighborhoods many years ago didn’t, generally, refer to them by their names. They didn’t say: I’m from Bloomingdale. They’d give their cross streets: I’m from Rhode Island and 1st.
You’re not leaning toward believing me over Tom? : )
I think one possibility is that Shoo-fly has made some changes since it opened, and I arrived to take a look at a time when those changes had been in effect for a little bit.
I also only went the once, as my look-see makes clear. This isn’t a magazine piece; it’s not meant to cast the final judgment. It’s where it is now, in my estimation.
I admit to being leery going in; I don’t think that most high-end diners, as I said, are that satisfying. It’s a hard thing to pull off. A good bit of what I like about Shoo-fly has nothing to do with the food. It’s the old slide that’s been preserved. It’s the charm and the detail of the placemat menu. It’s the kindness of the servers, the lack of attitude and hardness. It’s the other diners, the mix of ages, the mix of backgrounds, but also the absence of preening in the room, of see-and-be-seen-ing. It’s the space, which, as I noted, obviously cost a lot, but doesn’t make you aware of that fact with every step you take through the restaurant, every detail.
And I did like much of what I had to eat, very little of which, as a friend of mine has pointed out, is what Tom had to eat in his visits.
To me, it’s a gestalt place, a place that is not to be understood by going down a checklist and ticking off boxes — good dish, bad dish. To subject a restaurant like this to the minute scrutiny of individual parts is potentially to miss it. Or at least to miss part of it.
As for Comfort in Richmond — I’ve been a few times and like, but don’t love. I’d go to Edo’s and Garnett’s Cafe before I’d go to Comfort for lunch.
Finally, yes, asking a server to choose between two options is a good strategy. I still would rather have a server with opinions.
Thanks for the nearly-spit-coffee-on-my-screen laugh.
To answer your question: virtually untouched. Even by the bringer, who, predictably, loaded up on the pates and cheeses.
I don’t really disagree with you. Thank you for your remarks about the cooking, which put more flesh on my earlier comment about a lack of depth.
Many of the dishes seem designed to do one thing, or two things. Very few go beyond one or two.
The most rewarding dishes, like the crab fried rice, are very simple. I’m not looking for a lot of depth and complexity in a dish like that. I want to taste the crab, and I want that crab to be delicate and sweet, and this crab is. And the rice is excellent, not oily in the least, with grains that adhere to one another without clumping.
The curry noodle soup is a dish that has depth and complexity and not just heat. It’s terrific. I’d love to see some more like it on the menu.
Final thing: I’d like to say that I’m impressed that the kitchen takes the time to grind its own chilis — you can see the handiwork in a number of the dishes. It’s hard, time-consuming work, but it gives these dishes a real punch.
What you and I are both looking for is more nuance to go with the punch.
You must’ve missed our defacto Ethnic Eats issue, which included a guide to the Eden Center.
And a map — product of eight (delicious) visits over several weeks.
I like Banh Cuon Saigon for the titular dish. Huong Viet is fantastic for a big, multi-course meal or just a couple of dishes. Hai Duong is great for banh xeo, shaky beef and bun bo Hue. Nhu Lan has very good banh mi. Nha Trang does a terrific roasted quail with oranges. Thann Son Tofu has excellent fried tofu. BamBu is the place to go for Vietnamese coffee and shaved ice desserts.
I like Donald Link’s two places, Cochon and Herbsaint. The former more than the latter. (Technically, there are three Link restaurants; Cochon Butcher, for sandwiches, is the other.)
Domenica, in the Roosevelt Hotel, is terrific if you like soulful but refined Italian.
I love Upperline for being such a quirky and distinctive spot, in addition to putting out good, classic New Orleans cooking. Brigtsen’s is another good taste of old New Orleans.
Sylvain, in the French Quarter, is too loud, but I like the cooking — which, unusual for New Orleans, has very little Creole or Cajun identity.
Hope that helps. Have a great time eating and drinking, and let me know how things turned out …
I used to rate it very highly.
At one time, I think it was putting out some of the best Thai cooking in the area.
It slipped, and for a few years there it was just pretty good, no different from a lot of other places.
Sounds as though it may have improved. I’ll have to take a look for myself. It’s been a while.
Thanks for the field report …
I don’t think they have high-chairs or boosters, which means they don’t want to be thought of as that kind of a place. But that doesn’t mean they would turn you away if you show up and are fine without a high-chair or booster.
I think the fact that you’re considering going at non-peak hours is commendable. If you go at 5:30, you’d likely be gone by 7, just in time to avoid the sneers of the childless diners whose meals you would ruin. ; )
I’m sorry to hear this …
Many say that Rodger’s roast chicken is THE roast chicken, and changed forever the way they see chicken.
Man oh man oh man oh man …
But did you ever eat well! Your Wednesday was better, I imagine, than most people’s Thursdays. Your menus sound fantastic.
Thanks for writing in with an update for us …
Gotta run, everyone. Thank you for everything today — field reports, news reports, T-day updates, ruminations, questions, comments, food musings … all of it.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it next Tuesday at 11 …
[*missing you, TEK … *]