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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.
Jessica, thanks for writing in.
I took a look, just now, at the online menus for both lunch and dinner. The chatter last week mentioned that lunch prices were not listed, and, indeed, they appeared to be blacked out in the version I saw via the Safari browser. The prices on the dinner menu, however, were not obscured.
Good morning, everyone.
I imagine we’ll have a short chat today, given that most of you are busy getting ready for Xmas tomorrow, or not in town, or otherwise occupied with shopping and picking up family, etc.
For the rest of you, however many you are, thank you — I’m glad you’re with us, and we’ll try to have some fun this morning. Grab a cup of coffee or cocoa and settle in and enjoy …
And since we’re in the gift-giving mood, whoever sends in the funniest Christmas story having to do with family — or the funniest story having to do with dining out in a DC restaurant this year — gets a copy of the new cookbook from local chef Enzo Fargione, Visual Eats: A Behind the Scenes Look at Modern Italian Cooking
The onigiri, for one.
It’s a Japanese rice ball, basically, though that doesn’t adequately convey what it is, or how delicious something so ordinary-seeming like this can be. Get the abura-miso, a filling of pork and sweet miso. It’s comforting, rich, and soulfully satisfying, but also delicate, and balanced, and subtle.
A couple other things I wouldn’t miss: the fried turkey wing, with ginger, garlic and green onion pesto; and the assortment of pickles, to graze on throughout the meal, in between bites of richer stuff.
Have a great time, and report back when you have a moment.
I love the breads, particularly the baguettes, at St. Michel — arguably the most hidden of all the various hidden eats in the area, and inarguably the most incongruous: an authentic Parisian patisserie buried away in an industrial side street of Rockville. Great stuff. Wish they were open longer; wish they had real seating.
I also love the baguettes at Bon Fresco, in Columbia, and, thanks to a recent expansion, in Annapolis Junction now, too.
As for Ize’s — well, Milt, you bang this drum over and over again. I know you love the place, and yes, they do lay it on generously with their sandwiches. Their nova and cream cheese is thick with good stuff.
The bagels themselves, however, aren’t much. I like a smaller bagel, with a lighter crumb, and a little crunch on the outside. The lumpen style, chewy, doughy, soft, is the norm in this area, unfortunately. Better than most rolls, perhaps, but far short of what a good bagel is.
I’m with you on both counts.
One of the arguments made, in recent years, against serving Virginia wines is that the quality is not up to the standards of other regions. I can understand that argument. But if we were to apply it more broadly to everything that’s served in the restaurant, then why carry local cheeses over Epoisses and Stilton, for instance, and why feature Virginia oysters over those from Brittany and B.C.?
Chefs put these items on their menus presumably because there is a value in tasting something that speaks of its particular time and place. And because “interesting” is its own value, apart from “best,” which is, as we all know, a subjective thing.
Increasingly, restaurants are interested in delivering odd or new ingredients to their diners, as well as odd or new experiences. The quest for novelty is, for many, the all and the everything these days. In some cases — the rare cases — that quest for novelty intersects with a passion for quality and exactitude and you end up with exciting, memorable food and drink.
But still, for the most part, that quest to bring something novel and interesting to the table hasn’t resulted in chefs and GMs and sommeliers incorporating Virginia wine. Only recently, and only in a few scattered corners.
Yes, yes, the wines are not that easy to get, and yes, yes, some of them are not cheap. But what does it take to carry a few bottles?
I think wine is one area, maybe the last area, where old habits die hard. Wine is a prestige item, an item that carries connotations in a way that few other things on the table do. That matters to some people a great, great deal. A bottle from one of the great old houses of France is a statement — of knowledge, perhaps; maybe of money, if the price is high enough; of taste. A bottle from Virginia is a curiosity.
I can see things slowly changing. There are an awful lot of good wines out there, from many, many states. I hope they can find their way to the tables and stores. That would be a fantastic thing for all of us.
This may sound, to some, like a cynical thing to say, but I think people like what they are told to like. In all things, not just in food and drink, though in food and drink the sell is particularly seductive, because it’s so direct and intimate. People can be taught to like Virginia wine. Just as they can be taught to like anything else.
The great thing for Virginia’s future as a wine producer is that that there are enough good wines that that instruction doesn’t have to feel dull and pedantic.
It’s an interesting question.
And the answer is, it all depends. How’s that for insight? ; )
But it’s true. It all comes down to the aims of the owners. Are they looking to give the restaurant a kind of makeover, but without the pain of redoing the look and changing the name, etc.? Are they looking to keep most of the existing menu but add to it with a half-dozen new dishes to spruce up what they think they have? Do they just want someone to come in and not touch a thing, but simply crank out the same dishes that the previous chef did?
I see all of the above out there right now.
And then there are oddities, like the hiring of Sebastien Archembault at Blue Duck Tavern. He came in, the menu stayed essentially the same, but he altered every single dish from its foundation to its filaments.
Generally, at a certain level, the owners give the new chef the latitude to make fairly broad changes. Maybe not broad enough to some chef’s liking, but you might see a menu that is about 50-60 percent new, sometimes more.
It’s interesting to see Justin Bittner in his new role at 8407 Kitchen + Bar. The bones of the menu are the same as they’ve ever been — charcuterie and cheeses, oysters on the half shell, a Bolognese dish, a burger, etc. But if you were familiar with Bittner’s cooking at Bar Pilar, you can see his stamp all over the new menu. The Bolognese, for years one of the best things on the menu here, now is made with oxtails, in a preparation that looks to Jamaica for seasoning. And his Trotter tots — no, not an homage to the recently departed Charlie Trotter — are the sort of the thing that Pilar regulars came to depend on, and crave: exceptional bar food, prepared with skill and sass.
It’s really an interesting thing, isn’t it, especially when you consider that the Chinese restaurant in America has been eclipsed by the Thai restaurant and the sushi restaurant. And that ethnic food no longer means Chinese and Mexican — as it pretty much did 50 years ago — but has expanded to include … well, everything we see around us today. And not just in big cities, but in small towns, too — you see Thai and Vietnamese and Indian and sushi restaurants all over the country, now.
And some of those cultures are not X-mas-celebrating cultures. I haven’t checked this recently, but I remember doing a search a couple of years ago and a number of Lebanese restaurants were open on X-mas Eve and X-mas. But how many people — okay, Jews; let’s be honest — do you hear saying: “Let’s go out for Lebanese and a movie”?
They might have a better time, given the number of good Lebanese restaurants in the area.
I said as much a few years ago, when I pitched the idea to some friends. “What,” one of them said, “and mess with tradition?” It would be Chinese food, or nothing.
It’s funny that Jews should cling to a tradition so stubbornly, particularly when that tradition was created in opposition, as an antidote, to Xmas. But that just shows you the power of a tradition, whatever it is.
Tradition: something that persists because it has persisted.
(By the way, I will be hitting a Chinese restaurant and not a Lebanese restaurant tonight, and wonder how many of you out there will as well. And where.)
Thanks for chiming back in.
This is the real issue, the price-jacking. It’s not subtle.
If you want to send me a screenshot, please email me at email@example.com
And that address is for all the rest of you, too — today or anytime you have something to say or ask.
So, did she get in?
Depends on what she did with it, obviously — i.e., how she wrote it, with how much or little verve and humor, and how she succeeded, or not, in not succumbing to blogitis — but I can see some admissions officers not being crazy about that on principle. I’d love to read it, though.
I see from your tagging that you’re in Virginia, so I’m going to suggest two spots that are relatively close to home.
One is Vermilion, in Old Town, which has a new chef, William Morris, but has remained a steady ship. It’s a really nice getaway of a place, and the brunch menu is a good mix of breakfast stuff and lunch stuff.
The other is Maple Avenue, in Vienna, where the chef, Tim Ma, appears to be having a great time bringing a world of influences onto the plate. Save room, here, for dessert — a yuzu cheesecake, tiny, crunchy fried purses oozing good, dark chocolate, and homemade mochi.
Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to say. ; )
But it will be in Maryland, and as I said before, it will be Chinese.
It will not be the new-ish Taipei Cafe, in Rockville, where I had an exceptionally strange meal recently that included: cola products from Costco (though the menu states that it carries Coca-Cola products), a “simmered chicken soup” soup that tasted, at best, like the makings of a stock; an ammoniated Hong Kong-style dry-fry shrimp dish; and a dish of diced, dark meat chicken that tasted as though it had been velveted and then tossed in loads of not-hot-enough oil, along with a handful of chopped hot peppers.
If I were you, I’d consider Mount of Lebanon or Ya Hala, both Lebanese, or Hong Kong Palace, which is very, very close to Bangkok Golden. About the latter: the name suggests Cantonese, but the cooking is Szechuan, and very good Szechuan at that.
Speaking of which: I had the most disappointing meal I have ever had at a Peter Chang restaurant recently. It was the Richmond location. Nothing was stellar. Dishes were hot, and sometimes hot and numbing, but they lacked the complexity and depth of his best cooking. Frying was heavy-handed. The ma-po tofu lacked body and punch.
An aberration? The chef not in the kitchen?
I don’t think so, I hate to say. I had four dishes, and they appeared to have been simplified to appeal to a mass audience.
There are five restaurants in the Chang empire, now, with the opening, a couple of weeks ago, of a location in Virginia Beach. Finding talent to fill all those kitchens can’t be easy, and people are necessarily going to be stretched thin. The menu in Richmond is now the same as the one in Frederick, which, when I ate there earlier this Spring, struck me as a simplified version of the old Richmond menu. My guess is that the restaurants have gone in for a certain standardization, to make things easier on the kitchens. This is a markedly smaller than before, and missing many items that I had come to love. It’s a real shame.
No word yet.
I will say, though, that at the risk of seeming as if I’m piling on, if we look to the past to tell us what to expect, whatever those prices are at the start, they will not be after 9 months.
What happened at Casa Luca is what happened at Fiola is what happened at Fiamma, in New York.
And my guess, about starting prices, is that they will be more in line with Fiola than with Casa Luca. It is, after all, the fish and seafood version of Fiola.
Smaller than usual question queue today, as expected, so we’ll do the giveaway another time. Maybe you’ll all have great, funny Xmas stories after tomorrow, or be in a position to think back over your funniest restaurant story of the year after the holidays are done and gone.
No chat next week — we’ll meet up again in the new year, on January 7th. Same time, same place.
Have a great time with your families and friends, and we’ll pick up the conversation in a couple of weeks …
[missing you, TEK …]