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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.
Mark, thanks for writing in. I appreciate it.
It’s always great when we can hear the other side of the story on here. A word about anonymity in general, in a second, but I want to let the chatter who wrote in feel welcome to come back on and respond, if need be.
I also want to say — and in all playfulness — it’s risky making a claim when you know a one-time attorney is on the other side waiting to pick your every last phrase apart. : )
So, anonymity. An awful lot on the web lately on the subject, in particular a court case involving Yelp and a local dry cleaner.
I have said many times that I would like it if everybody on here would disclose his or her identity, but of course that’s not going to happen. People don’t feel comfortable with it. And they can also lie, while claiming that they are.
But that’s an enormous flaw in internet culture, from where I’m looking. Anyone, anywhere, can feel free to attack or belittle a writer of a piece — a piece that may have involved great thought and effort to produce. I don’t have any problem if that published piece is anonymously published, then attacked or belittled. But most of the time those pieces are not anonymously published. A writer stands before the public, to await rotten tomatoes.
Requiring names, addresses and phone numbers ought to be mandatory in every online interaction that does not involve a credit card — that is, in online forums, articles’ comments sections, etc. Newspapers always made this a standard procedure for the publishing of letters to the editor — they were not going to print something that could not be verified as the words of an actual person, and without divining a conflict of interest. But now, with the web, that is simply, and sadly, not important anymore. The right of the people to speak is.
Another thought, as a writer: If I want to “engage in dialogue,” I’ll take part in a chat like this. To write a long, thoughtful piece that requires hours upon hours of research and writing, and then to have some schmo come up and, in 2 minutes, write something bitchy or false or mean-spirited or all of the above — that’s not engaging in dialogue. There are, yes, times when you see thoughtful, sincere comments, but these are not the norm, and even these are not equivalent to what — generally — a writer has done in putting together a piece. Let those who would like to respond, respond the way people have always responded: with an actual piece of writing.
Now, see, that’s something that I could do in there that might be worthwhile. Thanks for the tip!
Anyone else have a dehydrator?
Or — what’s a kitchen gadget you’ve got in your cabinets that you only use once in a blue moon, but you can’t bear to part with?
For me, it’s the ricer. Amazing for mashed potatoes, as a chatter pointed out recently. But as I said, I use it maybe once a year.
Also: my creme brulee torch. Can’t give that up. But I can’t tell you the last time I used it. What else can you do with it? Light a cigarette and what else?
So this is like a gastronomic version of the Mendoza Line. Ok, not really. But I do like saying Mendoza Line.
This is one of the most interesting questions we’ve had on here, so interesting that I don’t think I’m going to do it justice to answer it like this, in this quick and dirty atmosphere. But let me try.
I think, generally, that most quote-unquote neighborhood restaurants — and I mean real neighborhood restaurants, not high-minded places that want to style themselves as neighborhood restaurants — fit this category.
Most restaurants in the middle, generally, fit this category, at least for me — “middlebrow” restaurants like Jeff Black’s places, for instance.
The places that inspire you to get in the car and drive, or to hector your friends to try, are places that exist at opposite extremes — again, this is true for me.
These are places that are different in some way — that defy a norm, or are spectacularly hard to find, or are so unexpectedly exciting that you want to eat everything on the menu and come back again the next day.
A place like R&R Taqueria or La Caraqueña — one in a gas station, the other fronting a motel. Or Bon Fresco. Or Bangkok Golden.
But I’d also go to great lengths to eat at Rose’s, to feast on small plates at 2 Amys, to dine on boudin blanc at Marcel’s.
We’ve had discussions at the magazine for years, now, about doing my Mile Marker/Mile Meter idea in some form or fashion.
What do I mean by Mile Marker?
Some restaurants are restaurants you’d drive an hour to eat at. Some are restaurants you’d drive 15 minutes to eat at.
And of course, all those many gradations in between.
I think it’s a much more exacting way of getting a handle on a restaurant’s value.
So, for instance, I would drive an hour to eat at the Inn at Little Washington. But I would also drive an hour to eat at R&R Taqueria.
What about the rest of you?
Are there two stylistically disparate places you’d travel an equal distance to eat at?
It’s unconscionable that restaurateurs would not have the men and women who serve as both the ambassadors of their kitchen and the face of their restaurant — and let’s be honest, that’s what they are, though we all persist in using the more servile term “servers” — try every dish on the menu at least once.
But it happens. It happens most of the time. These people are thrown out onto the floor without training beyond how to use the computer and what numbering scheme is used and how the operation flows from one aspect to another.
I was at a restaurant recently and the server referred to a drink I ordered as a wine — she didn’t know the drink, a standard mixed drink, and said, “We don’t have that wine.” I described its components, one of which is gin, and she asked whether I wanted a shot of gin on the side. I could tell, just from asking a couple of questions, that she didn’t know the menu (her glance at the menu to check on the name of a dish was one giveaway) and was unfamiliar with the dishes.
Most diners would say: What a terrible waitress.
They shouldn’t say that. They should say: What thoughtless, careless ownership.
Restaurateurs often say that the talent pool, here, is thin, and that they are too pressed for time to train a staff for more than a couple of weeks prior to opening.
But that doesn’t explain or excuse the fact that in most cases most servers aren’t acquainted — well acquainted — with every item on the menu. You can feed people in two weeks. It’s not impossible.
As for asking for recommendations … I saw that Robert Sietsema, the erstwhile critic at the Village Voice, came out recently saying that he never asks for recommendations, how it’s silly at best and fraught at worst. How do we know, he said, that they’re not under orders to push that veal chop that’s been sitting around?
But I like to ask, anyway. Sometimes you get real candor, and it’s fantastic. Or real candor and real enthusiasm, which is the best — I still remember the waitress at Plume in New York the first time I was in; I asked what was great. “Sweetbreads, sweetbreads, gotta get the sweetbreads. Gotta run … “
You’re not obliged to order the things they say. You’re not a captive.
And you can learn a lot. You can learn how little or how well they know the menu, you can learn whether they’ve been encouraged to have a personality or denied that opportunity to be fully human, you can learn whether they’re enthusiastic about the chef and the food or whether it’s a job and they’re just doing what they’re supposed to, you can learn whether they’re going off a script and pushing what’s popular or whether they have their own ideas.
Thanks for this.
I’ll give it a read, and who knows, maybe a try.
And yeah, that spatchcocked turkey recipe really is fantastic. I butterflied mine this year, and don’t think I’ll ever do turkey another way again.
I think you were the one who turned me on to that recipe in the first place by linking to it here, so a big thank you for that!
Very, very tentative thoughts, because I’ve only been once, and I don’t think once, in many cases, tells you enough. Or not enough to speak with anything approaching confidence.
I think it’s an unfortunate space, which is funny to say, given that some people might say that of Maple Avenue, the parent restaurant, which is housed in a former donut shop. Water & Wall is in the ground floor of an office building, and what I remember of the room is gray and cold. I’m not opposed to minimalism at all; but this isn’t interesting minimalism, it’s more a minimalism of necessity. The layout is odd, too, with odd angles for seating; the room lacks a sense of cohesion.
Maple Avenue is so cozy and so interesting, and you settle in expecting something idiosyncratically personal. And you get it. Water & Wall feels impersonal, and a little interchangeable, too.
I didn’t have enough of the cooking to draw real conclusions, as I indicated, but I was hoping to see more of the fun and playfulness of Maple Avenue. I had four dishes the night I was in. They ranged from fine to pretty good. Nothing made me sit up in my chair and say: wow. It was a thoroughly decent meal. But lacking in personality, in character.
It’s been, in general, a fallow time, these last couple of months on the scene. The restaurants that have opened recently are, for the most part, very average. Not bad, not great.
I’ll be interested to see how, or whether, Alba Osteria — the new Mt. Vernon Sq. restaurant with Roberto Donna and Amy Brandwein at the helm — evolves. There’s promise, but the night I was in nearly every dish was undersalted. The creamy chicken soup looked great, but I could taste white wine that hadn’t been cooked out all the way and faint traces of flour, too. The pizza I had was flavorful and fresh-tasting, but there was no difference between the crust on the puffy perimeter and in the center of the pie. A dish of pan-roasted tomatoes, onions and radicchio tasted like quickie fajitas — not a bad thing, exactly, but too oily to keep anyone’s interest for long.
Thanks so much for these two great field reports.
Re: Cityzen — as you say, it’s just one meal, but that’s cold comfort when you’ve just dropped that kind of money on a special night. I’m sorry to hear about this.
I do think, and I have said it before, that the idea of changing the menu so frequently, as Cityzen does, is risky, and sometimes works against it. Might be good for the staff — they get to try new things; they remain excited and invested in the operation — but at that level diners come for both excitement and exactitude.
And exactitude comes from working on a dish over and over again until it doesn’t just sound great when you read it on the menu, and look great when you see it on the plate, but taste great when you eat it.
Attempting things is wonderful, and no restaurant in the area has dishes with a higher degree of difficulty right now. But you have to stick the landing more often than not, and ideally with every single dish.
I think scarcity comes into it for a lot of people.
I find, in general, that driving a ways ups the stakes for a meal. If you drive 45 minutes to an hour and it’s bad — well, of course you feel deflated. But if it’s good, you feel as if you’ve had an adventure.
Thanks for writing in …
I agree with you for the most part. “Attitude and thoughtfulness” go a long way, in my book.
But remember, this discussion isn’t about judging servers. It’s about judging management and ownership; it’s about judging the operation.
And remember also that I’m mostly talking, here, about places with some sort of pedigree.
To have a server on the floor of [NAME RESTAURANT] with [NAME CHEF] at the helm, and to have that server demonstrably not know the menu, and not know the wine list, is inexcusable. It speaks to a lazy, careless operation.
The server in question was delightful. Great, winning personality and plenty attentive.
The blame goes to the owner and manager.
Because I’d incinerate my hand if I did, yes?
And nothing at all you can think of closer to home?
Before I answer you, I want to say thank you for disclosing your affiliation, at least privately, in the question field you submitted. I think that’s great that you’re not trying to hide who you are and who you work for.
I understand how hard it is for a restaurant at this level, and the difficult line you have to walk. At the same time, if a restaurant at this level — the highest level — doesn’t say no kids, then there’s not much you can do. You have a chance to turn people away before coming, and you have a chance to turn them away when they arrive.
The conscientious diner with kid shows up at the stroke of 5, when the restaurant opens, and makes an effort to be out of there by 6:30, just when the place is filling up for the night.
Of course, this isn’t a perfect world; it’s a spectacularly imperfect world.
I do think that at certain restaurants it’s a ridiculous thing to attempt, bringing an 8 month old. What are those restaurants? The hushed ones. The ones that are staged like a theater piece. The ones where everything is orchestrated and you are being watched, carefully, throughout the meal.
But most restaurants are not like that. Restaurants that have bustle and noise, restaurants that gesture at being casual while charging $70/person — I think it shouldn’t be a problem to bring a kid to a restaurant like this. Assuming that the diner shows up early, as I said, and is alert to the kid becoming a problem for people.
I can see that!
Shoot, I’d drive an hour for the pastrami on rye at DGS Delicatessen if I had to.
Last one I had was thisclose to the smoked meat sandwich — medium fat — at Schwartz’s in Montreal, which, for me, is the indisputed king of deli.
They’ve added more meat, for a more generous, more characteristically old-school deli sandwich, and the meat is more luscious now, too.
Just think about this for a second:
You and I both own a piece of equipment, a big piece of equipment, a piece of equipment that takes up a lot of counter space or cabinet space, that you’ve used once and I’ve used not at all. And you’ve used it to make … kale chips.
And we’re both now excited to break it out, maybe, to dry out some lemons as a garnish for dessert.
Kind of hilarious.
Yeah yeah yeah, your herding dogs, your herding dogs. We know …
Your story reminds me — I saw a Facebook post yesterday from one of the owners of the Daily Dish, in Silver Spring, ranting about a customer that had just left a filled diaper on the table.
What kind of a person does that?
It’s thoughtless on so many levels.
You think Chutzpah’s pastrami sandwich is as good? No. Never.
You really, honestly think that, or you’re just saying that to bash a place?
Because you could have me taste them side by side 100 times, blind taste them, and 100 times DGS would win.
When was the last time you were at DGS? Because this is crazy talk.
Lunch time! Gotta run.
Thanks for everything today, all of you. Great questions, great musings, great tips, great field reports.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]