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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: 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.
Good to hear about Range. And good going, Marco.
(I like giving props, here, to great servers. A good and generous thing to do, and it’s such a hard job that any bit of praise has got to feel good.)
I have that Edward Lee book, too — haven’t made anything from it yet. Looks interesting.
Among the toys I received were a watch-like thingie that goes around a wine bottle and tells you the temperature — I kind of like it more on my wrist — and a ceramic paring knife that I haven’t tried out yet.
Let’s keep this going. Who’s next?
And thank you all for joining me on this brutally cold day. What sorts of dishes and foods do you gravitate to in weather like this? Soup, obviously, is one for many of us — but any kinds in particular? What really warms the bones for you?
It’s good to be back chatting with you in the new year!
That’s what families are for.
Endless, merciless ribbing. Never letting you forget you at your worst.
But love. Lots of love …
Thanks for the story.
Who else has one?
Anything from this year?
Rose’s Luxury: the restaurant nobody can say anything bad about.
Well, ok, I did — about the desserts — but otherwise there’s not much to bitch about, is there? All in all, the response, both among critics and the people, has been overwhelmingly positive. And nobody seems to begrudge the place, a rare thing in a food scene in a big city like this.
You’re so right about that brisket. As I’ve said, it’s the best barbecue in the city right now.
Actually, a big ol’ mess of that, with the whipped horseradish cream and the griddled Texas toast, would be pretty wonderful on a day like today, wouldn’t it?
Thanks for writing in …
Thanks for this.
I’ve been twice, now, and unfortunately have not experienced the spot-on you’re talking about.
I have experienced the long lags between courses.
And gulag-like frigidity in the handsomely restored dining room; the bar area, up front, has been a comparatively more companionable “cool.”
I’m waiting for the moments of pop in Tony Chittum’s cooking. The vast majority of dishes I’ve tried have been unexpectedly wan.
One of the plates I was most eager to dive into was a platter of rotisserie lamb with condiments — an obvious rip-off from the family-style final course at Komi. The lamb parts were good (some delicious), but the skin, when it cooled a little, put me in mind of Liquid Smoke. None of the condiments sang out or in any way enhanced the eating of the meat.
Little things are tripping up the kitchen. Oversalting. Undercooking of pasta. A server, one night, who didn’t have a command of the menu.
I will say, however, that the cocktails they’re putting out, right now, are some of the best I’ve had in the past 12 months. Inventive, interesting, with a smoothness and balance and depth that you don’t often see.
I’m really glad to hear that it worked out so well for all of you.
Thanks for returning with a report …
This is a great time to go to Central, with so many other places opening every week, all of them vying to be the hot new thing. Hit a couple of them, and then pop into Central, just as a point of comparison. It’s easy to take that effortlessness for granted. That inventiveness, and flair for the dramatic. How many places in the city are as fun, and as consistent?
And Kogiya — I just want to say to everyone reading along who has not gone: You may have had Korean barbecue in this area before. But you have not had this.
Kogiya is Korean barbecue the way you always hope it’s going to be. Korean barbecue rethought and presented with more imagination and care.
Better meats, more flavorfully handled.
And the mandu and seafood pancake are excellent, too. Go.
Well, with one difference. At Komi, you’re obliged to have the final course, because you’re locked into a tasting menu. At Rose’s, you can skip it altogether — next time you go, just end with the pork and lychee salad, or a pasta course, or whatever.
I can only tell you about my own experience — in other words, I didn’t eat the same brisket you ate — but I the dish I had was fantastic. Luscious, smoky, and elevated further by being tucked inside a piece of griddled Texas toast and slathered with horseradish cream. More important, it’s of a piece with the entire program of the restaurant.
A lot of restaurants these days feel like a collection of dishes. Sometimes good dishes, sometimes not-so-good. But a collection of dishes, even if good, is still a collection. A place like this lacks a certain coherence. It doesn’t all add up.
Rose’s is a mix of hipster and haimish. You see it in the design, in the vibe, in the look and give-and-take of the staff. The haimishness is what keeps the hipster-ness in check, and what makes it feel different from so many other trendy, ambitious places that open.
And a brisket share-course is a part of that, a big part.
Good luck with the gun.
I’m hoping the whole smoke-in-everything thing is finally in our rear view mirror.
Any other trends you’re eager to see die a sudden death?
Talking about gadgets and gizmos reminds me — I have a food dehydrater I got as a present a while ago and have still not opened. Anyone out there have one? What sorts of ways do you put it to good and interesting use?
Yeah, I’d like to know myself.
Are you out there, goose-seeker?
We’d like to know how things turned out. Did you, in fact, get your goose cooked?
Interesting to hear. Thanks.
I caught this Rocco DiSpirito thing a few weeks ago, where he goes to a flailing restaurant and divides the place in half, and they try out a new concept on one side and the existing concept on the other.
Tres gimmicky, but the point is the place, as presented by the producers (I hasten to add that phrase because TV “reality” is never reality), looked like a disaster.
It’s nice to hear they have either turned things around, or made some course corrections that were not so urgently needed as the TV people made them appear.
As for Shoo-fly Diner — it’s interesting that you say your expectations were jacked up astronomically because of Woodberry Kitchen.
I like Woodberry a lot. But it’s not the kind of restaurant that would jack up my expectations astronomically for whatever ventures came next. It’s a total experience kind of place, not a place where any one thing really stands out. I don’t ever find myself saying: I have to get back to Woodberry to eat ——-. What lingers, with me, is — everything. All the various elements, in concert.
A place that would jack up my expectations astronomically would be a place like the late Citronelle.
Nice report, Clifton.
But somehow I doubt that you’re a reliable narrator, here.
We shall see, I guess, shan’t we? …
If you’re a fairly regular restaurant-goer — and I’m guessing you are, if you’re taking part in this chat — then I’d pass on RW dinner altogether.
I just don’t think $35 is much of a deal. Add in a glass of wine or a cocktail, tax, and tip, and you’re looking at $66 per person — $132 for dinner for two.
Lunch, however, is worth looking into.
And if you look at Vidalia’s lunch menu, you’ll see what a smart restaurant does — it makes available everything on the standard menu, from appetizers to entrees to all eight desserts.
$20.14 for three courses like this, in a setting like this, with a staff like this, with (not least) a bread basket like this, is indisputably a deal.
Yes, people do debate this.
But it’s pretty much like the lox debate: nova vs. belly. Almost nobody likes belly (too salty, they say), and it’s hard to find anymore.
Most people prefer soft, or, in the (I think) official terminology — sinkers vs. floaters.
I prefer floaters.
I’ve had good sinkers. But most sinkers I’ve had have not been good. And unfortunately they tend to stay with you a while.
You didn’t know?
Go and look up the recipe for chef Joel Robuchon’s potatoes. I think it’s a 1:1 ratio.
I love my ricer.
Granted, I use it maybe twice a year, and it takes up a lot of space in the cabinet, shaped the way it is. But it’s nice to have when you need it.
Anybody find any other uses for it?
How about The Red Hen?
Here’s my review, from earlier this year:
At the time — the review appeared in September — I called it the debut of the year. Rose’s Luxury came along and snatched that title away, but I remain high on the place. A lot of AIMs (ambitious, independent, mid-level restaurants) could learn a lot from The Red Hen.
Yeah, that’s kind of what I figured.
Mmm, chips and jerky …
I was thinking that eventually I would haul it out and put in beets and turn them into dessicated lumps of red coal, and then grind that red coal into a dust.
See, look what we can do!
And then I would spend too much time trying to come up with something to do with that red coal dust.
Something like — I don’t know — beet-dusted pork.
Assuming it worked (likely not), I would serve it to my guests at dinner one night, waiting all through the meal for someone to notice, to say: “The crusting on this pork is so interesting, so delicious. What is it?”
And all I would get would be: “Good pork.”
Ain’t nothin’ but a G thang.
Actually, though, in point of fact it ain’t.
It’s a Maryland/DC thing.
For some reason, and a reason I have never properly investigated, people in this area like mayo on their sandwiches and burgers.
Even on their sandwiches that aren’t supposed to have mayo, like hoagies.
Several years ago, I remember making a second visit to South Street Steaks, at that time in College Park, since relocated to Bethesda.
I ordered a hoagie and was asked if I wanted mayo. Hoagies don’t come with mayo. I said as much to the guy behind the counter. I know, he said — believe me, I know. He was from Philly, and he knew, and liked, that the meats and cheese were coated in oil and vinegar and a dusting of oregano.
But customers had been coming in asking for mayo, and eventually, and regrettably, they capitulated … at least to a point.
Thanks for writing in.
This is, yes, one of the more annoying trends of recent years. It’s as if restaurants are in deathly fear of appearing to offer conventional categories of dishes, of looking — horrors — not up-to-the-exact minute.
What’s funny, though, is that what fills these cutesy little categories? Often, conventionally conceived dishes.
It’s more reason for someone to come by your table and “explain” the menu to you, or tell you about “how this works.” A restaurant isn’t an art installation; it should all be self-evident to the diner.
And you’re so right to point out that, increasingly, pastas are listed separate from entrees. The only explanation for this, it seems, is to highlight the pastas as distinct, as special.
But unless all the pastas are made by hand, on the premises — and that’s not always the case — then it’s hard not to see it as a form of pretension.
You’re set for at least until Spring.
What a haul.
I want to put in a little plug, here, for the John DeFerrari book. John interviewed me for it, and has done what appears to be a very thorough job with this. If you’ve lived in this area a while, it’s worth a read.
Not very recently, no.
I wrote up my impressions a few weeks ago on here, which, in a nutshell, are that the cooking for the most part brings the heat (they’re grinding their own chili pastes, etc.), but in many cases heat is all that’s coming through — not the full spectrum of flavors that characterizes the cooking of SE Asia, the pungency, the brightness, the funky depths, etc.
There are good dishes here, among them the fabulous crab fried rice — it’s worth going for this alone — but no, it’s not firing at the level of Proof or Estadio right now.
Remember, though: Proof in the early going was not the Proof you see now. It took some time for the kitchen to reach full flower.
Or how about Me Jana, for mezze?
Or Liberty Tavern for sophisticated comfort food?
All are within what I think is your price range.
Let me know what you end up doing, and how things turn out, ok?
It pains me that they do this.
It really does reinforce the idea, though, that culture — and I mean the word in its loosest sense, here — has so much to do with the cuisine of a city or a region.
Restaurants, in the end, are businesses, and they will do whatever they have to do to stay in business. Including, in some cases, going against what they know to be “authentic” or “good” or whatever.
Running late for lunch. Thank you all for such a great back-and-forth today. So many good questions, so many good reports from the field. Thank you.
Be well, eat well — stay warm — and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]