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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.
He 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 . . .
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.
Tom, I don’t think you’re overstating. Joy is a great word to describe the feeling there.
You said that perhaps you don’t go out enough to know where else to experience something like this. Well, I go out all the time, and I still don’t know. It’s a very, very rare thing to achieve what they have achieved.
You can have great food, and great drinks, and a great staff, and a really snazzy setting, and not have joy.
Your description of a group of friends who’ve gotten together to prepare a great meal is exactly right. And I think that’s what you get, here, that you don’t get elsewhere. There’s not just good morale; there’s camaraderie. It’s infectious.
I think that a feeling like that among the staff is more important in a place at this level than anything, including the food. The food is hugely important. But, particularly for a small, ambitious, independent like this, the spirit is more important.
Thanks for writing in …
Good morning, everyone.
I’m eager to hear where you’ve been eating and drinking, and what you’ve been seeing and hearing. What’s on your mind on this chilly, gray day?
Undiscovered? I don’t think any major area, anymore, is undiscovered.
I’ve written about Langley Park’s restaurants over the years, just not in a round-up format.
The best of the bunch is the restaurant that owns Jewel of India, Woodlands, a South Indian vegetarian place. Good dosas, in particular, and a good buffet lunch, too.
I also like Señor Chicken, for good spit-roasted chicken.
The outpost of Pho 75 is good, too.
I’ve had a lot of middling food at many of the other restaurants in LP. The one restaurant I want to like more is Tabeer, a Pakistani place. Some good dishes, but the cooking tends toward the oily.
I’m glad to hear it. And glad to hear, also, that it made your trip.
I also like to ask a server what his or her favorite is. If you ask what’s good, you tend to get recommendations that management is pushing on the staff.
Speaking of servers … I’ll sometimes ask a server what’s good, and he or she will say something to the effect of, “do you like meat or fish?” Or — “what are you in the mood for?”
What am I in the mood for? I’m in the mood for good. ; )
I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
For sure, it’s a lazy thing. And yet another sign — as if we need more signs — of how pampered and privileged an age this is.
A service exists, now, so that you don’t have to pick up your own takeout, but can direct somebody to go and do it for you, for a price.
And not from a carryout joint, but from a restaurant that specializes in recreational dining, in dining as sport.
There are people out there who must want something like this, otherwise the thing wouldn’t exist.
There was a time in my life when I used couriers to pick up food for me. I was doing a column, years ago, and had come down with whooping cough. Which, if you know anything about it, is not a cough; it starts as a cough; in three weeks, after that devastating cough has worn you down, you can barely breathe. You go around with a moistened cloth pressed to your mouth. You sleep with a humidifier six inches from your lips, and pray that the cat doesn’t knock the nozzle off course in the middle of the night.
I wrote about that experience — albeit glancingly — and about the restaurant food that was not pizza and subs that held up best to being delivered. The big surprise was sushi. Most of it held up beautifully, particularly the sashimi.
So, yes, I can see a time when it’s not embarrassing to the human race to order restaurant food through a courier service — a time when you have whooping cough, and can barely breathe, and have to crank out a column.
But putting this out there and trusting that someone, somewhere, in the great beyond has an answer …
I’d book a table at Central Michel Richard.
It’s not far from a Metro stop, it’s festive, and even though you say that everybody is adventurous there’s almost always someone in a large group who wants to keep it very, very simple — and Central is great for that.
You will eat well, and drink well. I can just about guarantee it.
Good luck, and let us know how things turned out, ok?
Hard to answer without knowing where you’ve been already.
And just plain hard to answer, because how do you narrow down all the options?
I would want to hit an Ethiopian restaurant, because that’s a cuisine in scarce supply pretty much everywhere else but DC (Ethiopic, Meaza, Abay, Zenebech Injera).
I would want to swing by the Eden Center, because there’s really nothing like it anywhere else in the country (Huong Viet, Rice Paper, Nhu Lan).
If you’ve never been to Koreatown, then I think a trip is in order — and if you have, but haven’t been to Kogiya, then that would be a must-do. Amazing Korean bbq, best in the area. Best I’ve ever had.
Have you ever had dinner at the Inn at Little Washington? Extremely expensive, but again, there really is nothing else like it.
Ben’s, because it’s Ben’s.
Central Michel Richard, because his food is so distinctive, so singular.
Those are the ones, anyway, that leap to mind.
I’d be interested in hearing what the rest of you might add to that list …
Thanks for chiming in …
I sort of doubt that they’d do a roasted goose. Or, if they did do it, that they’d sell it to the public to go.
But sure, worth a try.
I wonder if the newly opened Urban Butcher, in Silver Spring, might be a good place to check. Assuming, that is, you can get someone to pick up the phone. I have yet to succeed.
This is a great game. Thanks for throwing it out there.
Let’s see …
I want to see more restaurants with large kitchen staffs, to help with execution and consistency. (I’m trying to be positive … :)
Some good donut shops.
A great, fine-dining Ethiopian restaurant.
More good, non-Neapolitan D.O.C. pizza. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Neapolitan D.O.C. pizza.)
More spots along the lines of Izakaya Seki, whatever the cuisine.
Some good Mexican restaurants.
The return of pastry chefs.
More places to buy good bread and bagels.
And I’m still waiting for someone to open a modern Amish small plates restaurant. : )
Thanks so much for this.
Definitely worth a shot.
What an amazing group of food fiends/friends you all are …
Thanks for the tasty report, Naeem.
You’re making me hungry for that bowl of gnocchi.
So hard to find good gnocchi …
Whoa. That’s a lot of coin for something like that.
It’s not as if it feeds on acorns in the Spanish countryside or anything …
Anyway, thanks for your memories. It holds a special, and funny, place in my life.
I’m disappointed for him, reading them.
But I don’t put a whole lot of store by any reviews of places that I, myself, have yet to visit.
Trends we’d like to see for 2014, cont. …
The disappearance of the convictionless $9 dessert.
The doing-away with $40+ entrees.
Wait, sorry — this was supposed to be positive …
The chef is Raynold Mendizabal, who was the chef at Black & Orange Burger, and also at Lima.
It’s a really promising idea.
The press release says to expect “a significant selection of in-house cured and aged cuts of meat, as well as seafood, poultry, pig and game. Customers will also be able to purchase these same cuts from the in-house butcher shop.”
The menu includes charcuterie, salumi, terrines, and pâtés, and features “popular cuts of meat from heritage breeds … from local and sustainable sources.”
The wine list includes about a hundred labels, with an emphasis on small, Old World producers and newer varieties from around the U.S. There’s also an “eclectic whiskey and malts selection,” as well as a menu of craft cocktails.
One of the most interesting things is how much they’re doing under one roof. A restaurant, a butcher, a bar, a and a coffee bar (30 seats) that turns into a lounge at night. There’s also a 24-seat communal table and an outdoor patio that seats 50.
I wish them well. It’s an awful lot to try to pull off, but as I said, it’s an extremely intriguing-sounding place.
Thanks for chiming in about Range.
And yes, you couldn’t be more right about the dearth of simple, unpretentious breakfast spots in this area. I’d love to see more like what you describe, too.
Sure, why not?
Thanks for passing this along.
Perfect? I don’t know that there is such a thing.
But very, very good — how about that?
I love the ones at Bagels and …, in Annapolis. Light, good crumb, nice crusty exterior, not too big, a developed flavor, the right amount of salt …
Yeah, that’s bad, but it’s not much worse. It’s not even worse.
You can always order a standard mixed drink. You can’t just order another dessert.
And a dispiriting dessert is more than just a poor course. It’s the final course, and therefore the final impression of a place. If it’s bad or mediocre, it tends to color all that came before it.
Somehow, most restaurants don’t seem to realize this.
I agree. Wholeheartedly.
And you’re so right — there’s been an awful lot of cauliflower out there of late.
And no end, it seems, to chicken liver on grilled bread.
And brussels sprouts, which had disappeared for a while there but are now back with a vengeance — always caramelized, or fried, or roasted ‘til dark.
That’s the, um, spirit.
You know, though? We have had our disagreements over the years, you and I, but Clifton, I’m with you on your wish for simpler Italian restaurants that are also good, and for a simple fried fish place, and it would be great if DC got a restaurant that was in the vanguard of the extreme dry-aging movement that’s going on around the country.
Regarding that last wish — some chefs are aging their steaks for, yes, 40 and 50 days, now, giving the meats a very intense and very distinctive flavor.
Have a good holiday …
No, go with Buck’s. I was in recently, and had one of the best meals I’ve had there in years. Superb grilled pork chop and slaw, in particular.
I think it’s a great space for what you’re looking for, warm and cozy, a place to gather and feel as if you’re getting away from it all.
I’ve always loved the room at Buck’s — a very un-masculine room, with its gorgeously rich red walls and its soft, embracing lighting and its unforced sense of intimacy. It’s a design aesthetic I wish more restaurants would pursue.
Well, you know what they always say — if you have to ask …
Speaking of lunch, I’m in danger of running late for mine.
Thanks so much for all the good questions and comments and musings and tips. Time just flew on by, which is pretty amazing, given that I’ve been planted in my seat and, essentially, answering emails since 11 …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11.
If you won’t be able to make it because of the holiday, then have a great Xmas and I’ll see you back on here the following week, I hope. And if not then, then early in the new year. Thank you for being such good, loyal readers! You make my Tuesdays.
[*missing you, TEK … *]