Editor’s Note: Washingtonian Online moderators and hosts retain editorial control over chats and choose the most relevant questions; hosts can decline to answer questions.
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 . . .
Bar Pilar, DC
Justin Bittner has moved on; Jesse Miller has replaced him. And one of the coziest, most charming small plates spots in the city just keeps rolling. I've been twice in the past month: one meal was great, the other good. I'm not sure there's a place along 14th St. right now that I'd rather find myself in for a couple of hours. A sweet, crisp-skinned branzino with pecorino custard and pea shoots could have come straight from the Oval Room (makes sense: Miller apprenticed under chef Tony Conte). A rusticky Bolognese, with grilled bread for scooping up the thick, Sunday-style gravy, is maybe the best Italian dish I've eaten in months. And though technically the chef's porchetta is not a porchetta -- rabbit, not pig, is deboned, stuffed with its own livers, and encased in a second-skin of bacon to seal in moisture -- it's terrific, a perfect precis of the boldly designed but intricately conceived cooking come out of this kitchen right now.
The kind of big-hearted restaurant that takes you to another place (Baltimore? St. Louis?) and maybe another time (late' 70s). Come on a weekend night, when there's a two-piece band and the place is humming and you'll feel as if you've just crashed a wedding reception. I love the GM in coat and tie who shows you to your table, maitre d'-style. I love the waitress who turned to me one night when I was trying to decide between a lamb dish on the menu and a lamb dish that was a special, and said, "Listen. Listen to me," and insisted I order the latter. She was right. The meat was rich and juicy and drenched in a lemon-spiked gravy. Alongside it: lemon roasted potatoes and green beans cooked with tomato and mint. True to the homestyle nature of the place, you couldn't see any white space on the plate. Another great dish is the fried cod, delicately light, with a fluff of skordalia in the center, a sit-down Greek fish and chips. The menu has no weak spots, as far as I can tell. I've been three times, now, and nearly everything that has come out of the kitchen has ranged from the good to the terrific. Vegetarians can revel here. Iman bayaldi, a dish of roasted eggplant drenched in cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce, has the tight, knitted flavor of expert long-cooking. It comes in a massive portion, and costs just $7. There are stuffed grape leaves without the ground beef, filled with well-cooked rice and pine nuts and wrapped in fresh-tasting leaves that still have some good chew to them. If it takes wrapping up some food for leftovers in order to manage dessert, then do it. The version of galaktobouriko -- presented in small, crunchy pieces, almost like bites of fudge -- is one of the best I've eaten in years; the baklava (served warm, and nearly spilling its crunchy, nutty, sticky filling) is stunning; and the centerpiece of the yogurt with honey and walnuts is a scoop that has been strained almost to the consistency of a cheese, with a tanginess that goes on and on and on.
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.
None of us likes waiting for a table. Ever.
But is it a lack of respect for the customer? Arrogance, maybe. A restaurant is saying: We don’t need to worry about booking in advance; the crowds will come.
Many restaurants that don’t take reservations have told me that they’re making it possible for more people to dine there, not fewer. Think about places like Minibar and Komi, where tables tend to be booked a month in advance. A no-reservations policy ensures that diners won’t ever have to contend with that kind of circumstance.
In a sense, it’s not much different, in spirit, from what the Minibars and Komis of the world do. In both cases you, the diner, spend inordinate amounts of time jockeying to get in somewhere. At the extreme high end, it’s over the phone, and in many cases you will try for days and even weeks, hoping for a wait list opening, taking a table at an inconvenient day or hour just because you don’t want to keep waiting, etc. With a place like Rose’s or Little Serow, you do that waiting outside, on the day of.
Either way is annoying, yes. Very, very annoying.
But you don’t have to play the game. That’s the thing. You don’t have to. There are dozens upon dozens of good places to eat, and they’ll be glad to have you. And you won’t have to book so far in advance that it becomes an event in your life, and you won’t have to stand in line in the cold for an hour or two, or wait at some bar until they text you.
That’s a new one to me.
Does that mean that when they sit down, the staff hands them a Wall Street Journal and a pack of crayons?
Parent friendly. Depends upon the parents, doesn’t it? I mean, I know parents whose idea of a nice night out is a place like 1789 or Equinox or Blue Duck Tavern or Clyde’s, and I know parents (including mine) who would much rather find themselves in a place like Bangkok Golden or DGS.
Maybe your parents are in-between.
Speaking of 1789 — and speaking, also, of “tried and true” places — it’s pretty echt DC. Give it a look.
For something more fun, how about Central Michel Richard? Or DGS? Or Rose’s?
Thanks for the field report …
I was intrigued by my one quick meal there, but never made it back. That was well over a year ago.
Anyone out there been more recently?
You make a very good point re: the size and focus of these places.
A good bit of what drives the decision to go without reservations has to do with size and money.
I think there are people who look at all restaurants as essentially the same. They have food, they have drink, they serve me, I pay them money and I go home. In that sense, all restaurants are alike.
I think that some people, when they walk into a small, unflashy restaurant, don’t realize what they are walking into. They think they are walking into a small restaurant. They don’t think about why there are only a dozen dishes on the menu. They don’t consider that some things in that space have had a lot lavished on them, and others have not, and why that might be.
They want great food and great service and great ambiance. And we all do, all the time. But they don’t reckon with how that is to happen in a tiny space, with a small staff, and given the limited resources.
The fact that smaller operations can achieve all three things is remarkable, and deserving of support. And understanding. It’s much, much, much harder when you’re not a hotel, or you don’t have big-time investors.
It’s a good question.
I hope we get a clarification before the chat is over.
I just assumed it was a general annoyance at having to wait at all, given the broad-brushed comment about arrogance and lack of respect.
As to why would anyone wait that long — my theory is that it has nothing, really, to do with the food and drink. If it did, there are, as I made a point of saying earlier, plenty of other options. A new restaurant is, for many people, a boasting point. And especially a good new restaurant, a restaurant other people are talking about.
This is, remember, a city of people who are constantly looking for a way in and up, a city of name-dropping, and resume-building, and naked and relentless social positioning. In that sense, I guess three hours is worth waiting if you can join the conversation.
I haven’t done a compare-and-contrast on this, but I’ve gotta think Hong Kong Palace is in the mix.
By the way, the name’s a misnomer — the dishes are not Cantonese; they’re Szechuan.
Mala Tang, with the same chef, Liu Chaosheng, has good ones, too. And I recall good ones, too, at China Jade, in Rockville, whose head chef is, ha, Liu Chaosheng.
I’m sorry to hear that.
But yeah, a big promotion like that, plus a recent glowing review — I could see a place having a hard time of it.
A positive review is not the unqualified great thing we all think it is. It necessitates adjustments, if only of expectations, and sometimes restaurants, especially small ones, struggle to incorporate new staff and manage the new flow of diners.
I hope Trapezaria can make the transition. The restaurant I saw, on three visits, was a good one — one of the best places to open in the last half year.
I’m so glad to hear, first of all, that you had such a great meal.
Especially after the chatter who encountered Trapezaria on what sounds like an off-night.
Did I say $43 for 4? It was $43 for two.
Ordinarily at a place like that, it would be a good bit higher, because I’m usually ordering many more dishes than I can finish so I can get a broad picture of what the kitchen is capable of. Or not.
In this case, it was a relatively light, check-up meal (though plenty filling, I have to say).
By the way, next time you go be sure to get the koi (with fish), the pork neck, and especially — I can’t believe you didn’t order it this last time — the crispy rice salad.
Think of it this way.
Think of all those other times you spent $52 for a bottle of wine that retails for $15.
I wouldn’t feel guilty.
I know there are loads of industry people reading this who are saying to themselves right now: No, let him feel guilty. Guilt is good.
They want you to buy wines from their list. That’s how they make their money.
But if a restaurant has corkage, it has, to some extent, reckoned with the repercussions.
Though I don’t think that, in general, places take that much of a hit for offering corkage. Most diners don’t even know it exists. And I know a lot of diners who, knowing it exists, aren’t inclined to bring a bottle because, well — how awkward does that look, walking into a restaurant with your own bottle of wine? And what wine should they bring? Do they tip on it? How do they DO this thing?
I could be wrong, but my instinct is that in many cases corkage is a way of stroking certain restaurant regulars, regulars of means, most of them, who travel a lot and have some influence and may one day be inclined to drop some money in a venture.
You did a nice thing to tip. You could also, next time — assuming you surmount your guilt ; ) — offer the waitress or GM or sommelier a glass of whatever’s in your bottle. They’re almost always deeply appreciate of the gesture.
One more thing about guilt: In this instance, the restaurant has a deal with a wine store. The store is clearly hoping to encourage sales with this, and the restaurant is clearly hoping to pull in diners who might otherwise not spring for a bottle.
It’s not as if you’re walking in off the street with a bottle from your cabinet.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
This is great. Thank you.
“Reliably amazing” — what a terrific phrase, by the way.
And don’t you love a place where nothing is really any good, except for THIS ONE THING, and that one thing happens to be phenomenal?
We should start a list, on here, of restaurants that fit that description.
The first place that leaps to mind is Max’s, in Wheaton. The falafel! So fantastic. And nothing else …
Who else has one?
Thanks for chiming in on this …
Though I don’t buy that the hosts at Rose’s took a bribe to bump your brother to the front of the line. Do you really expect me to believe that?
Your point at the end, however, is a good one, and restaurants would do well to remember that things change.
Places come and places go, reputations rise and reputations fall, today there’s buzz and tomorrow there’s —
“Wait, what’s that sound?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
Rose’s was very wise to ditch the tasting menu plan.
The recent example of Suna might have been instructive.
This is not the time to lock people in. Not because diners don’t like to see what a chef at his most creative and loose can do, but because the high cost of that often means that it’s at best a special night out and not simply dinner.
That rigatoni Amatriciana is terrific, by the way; I had it recently, too.
The only way I can explain its taste is to compare it to a mannerist painting, in which, for instance, a woman’s neck is attenuated and her fingers are impossibly long. The artist is trying to create drama and excitement out of these elongations. Same, here, for chef Aaron Silverman. He takes the bacon of a traditional Amatriciana and attenuates it. That sauce, more like a gravy, is so smoky and sweet and porky, it puts you immediately in mind of a Memphis ‘cue sauce.
Fascinating. And delicious.
Sure be nice if Rose’s ever made its on pastas. Hint, hint, hint …
Might be lonely.
You might be right.
Might be that four bottles of wine from home is his way of making friends.
But the issue, here, is his abuse of a policy, and his making the bartender who wrote in do his nightly bidding.
Right? I mean, we all have our struggles and demons, we all have things that beset us and trouble us, things we stew over and think about far too often than is good for us. And some of us recognize, at the same time, that we are in the world, one of many, and not the show in its entirety.
The thing that’s odd, in this story, is that the restaurant apparently has no problem with this man coming in and doing this. Only the bartender who has to deal with him, it would appear.
Believe me: nobody who drinks Yellowtail knows anything about corkage. Or cares.
And actually, if they did come in with a bottle of Yellowtail they’d be getting royally ripped off, because the corkage fee would be three times what the cost of the wine is. ; )
Thanks for chiming in …
But the falafel’s still better.
Thanks so much for adding to our list.
So we’ve got, so far:
Jumbo Seafood in Pikesville (wontons in chili oil) Max’s (falafel/shwarma) Sibarita (plantain chips) La Union (pupusas)
Let’s keep this going. Send in nominations for next week, or via firstname.lastname@example.org during the week.
Lunch calls …
Thanks so much for all the great questions and comments and tasty-sounding tips today.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]