Tuesday, April 3, 2007 @ 11AM

Todd Kliman is the Dining Editor of The Washingtonian and won a prestigious James Beard Award in 2005 for the country's best newspaper column.

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 a.m. 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.

Word of Mouth, special Passover edition …

Dino, the Cleveland Park redoubt of hardcore wine lovers across the area, is serving a five-course, $49 Passover dinner through Wednesday night; on Sunday, it will also be doing an Easter dinner.

The latter feast comes more naturally to chef Daniel Amaya, allowed Dino’s owner, the gregarious, twinkle-eyed Dean Gold, who swung by last night to share a story about his “Salvadoran Catholic” chef and the making of the charoses — a mixture of nuts, fruits and a dash of wine that is a ritual of the seder feast. Symbolically, charoses is a stand-in for the mortar that the Jewish slaves used to build the cities of Egypt. The version at Dino is a thick, purplish mash made from dates, nuts, sour cherries and apricots and resembles, said a perplexed Amaya, who had neither eaten nor made it before — “something you’d use to hold together bricks.”

It’s good. So is the luxurious chicken liver pate, nestled in a purple leaf of radicchio. The star of the night is a gorgeous bowl of matzo ball soup, the broth properly rich and yellow, a soft, huge, lightly textured matzo ball at the center. The secret is the schmaltz, or rather the source of the schmalz – the remains from the restaurant’s rotisserie. The first drippings are skimmed off, in the manner of a first pressing of olive oil (“Extra virgin schmalz,” joked Gold), and mixed with the matzo meal to make the matzo balls. The third course, the gefilte fish, was fine: pale, slightly gelatinous, nothing special.

It was a joy to be able to drink the customary four cups of wine from a bottle of Primitivo del Salento, an excellent and well-priced wine at $57 – although its elegance and earthiness hardly chimed with the round flavors at the table. It fared better with the Sephardic-leaning main courses, especially a  tasty roast chicken with onions and preserved lemon, and two renditions of mina – matzo pies common to North Africa. The lamb, prepared in a tagine, could have stood more cooking, the meat dry and unluscious, while the eggplant was good and zesty – although not quite entrée-like. The pick, here, is the superb whole fish, which is scored, then roasted simply with herbs and lemon and olive oil; it was not listed on the online copy of the menu, but ought to be a mainstay.

Gold invites customers to BYOH – bring your own Haggadah – but if you’re looking to stick to the script, forget it. That’s no knock on Dino – conducting a seder at most restaurants during Passover is harding than finding the afikomen. But Dino ought to do a better job of schooling its staff in the ins and outs of the Passover laws — we ordered the Passover menu, then were served a basket of bread; the server clearing our table asked if we wanted dessert, and seemed perplexed that there was a separate dessert menu (a tart raspberry sorbet and an almond cake made without flour and circled with raspberry sauce). Knowledge of the menu was a problem, too, on this first night: The sides of asparagus and roasted pepper pesto didn’t arrive with our entrees. We pointed the problem out to a waitress, and a plate of oily asparagus landed on the table a few minutes later. What about the pesto? It arrived a few minutes after that.

This is Dino’s first foray into Passover. Here’s hoping it resolves some of its operational problems tonight and tomorrow.

I’d love to see the restaurant extend its menu throughout the week, since the five-course dinner is really better suited for customers who want to adhere to the dietary rules of Passover than for subbing for a seder.

What other restaurants are doing Passover this year?

I know of three others who are providing a full meal: Rosa Mexicano in Penn Quarter, Tragara in Bethesda and Felix in Adams Morgan.

I’ve eaten at all of them over the past couple of years.

Including Dino, my first choice would be Rosa Mexicano, a restaurant that can feel formulaic and scripted at all other times (in particular the hard sell of the slurpee-like margaritas and table-side guacamole) but which on Passover seems to transform itself. I loved a Sephardic meal I ate there a couple of years ago. More than the cooking itself (which was terrific: a red-wine soaked charoses, a tzimmes stuffed relleno, a pomegranate-glazed lamb shank) I remember the excitement and wonder of eating a Passover meal in the buzzing, multicultural heart of the city.

Tragara is more formal, with its tuxedoed waiters and its sculpted vegetables, a style of presentation more in keeping with a rehearsal dinner. But the matzo ball soup and gefilte fish are both first-rate, and there’s something wonderful about seeing an entire room of people munching on matzo at dinner as if it were the dinner hour in Tel Aviv.

The vibe at Felix is younger, befitting its location in the heart of Adams Morgan. The dining room is cozy and darkly lit (you may have trouble following along in the free Haggadahs), the servers young and energetic. But the cooking is no less traditional. The wine-marinated brisket, in particular, is excellent.

………………………………………………………. 

Washington, DC
What do YOU know about Pedro Matamoros' departure from the Tabard Inn? I heard from an insider that he is leaving because of friction between him and the front of the house, and that there is no new chef as of yet. What do you think is going on there? Who do you think will take over as chef?

(Channeling whatsisface on Hogan's Heroes): I know no-THINK!

But seriously … I don't know any more than you do at this point.

Be interesting to see where he turns up; he did some good work there. 

And it'll be interesting to see who takes his place. The Tabard Inn has a long history of being a proving ground for young talent: Ann Cashion, Carole Greenwood, and David Craig among others.

DC
Hi, I am writing in early b/c I will be in a meeting Tuesday during the chat. I finally made it out to Bebo this weekend. Walking in I prepared myself for service that might not be perfect… but to be open-minded and keep expectations low. Even with this mindset I was sorely disappointed. I am a server— I understand being busy–I get that slip ups happen– what I do not get is indifference. An elderly gentleman at the door greeted us warmly, and I thought to myself this is promising. Then it went downhill it was 13 minutes before we were asked about water. That was by the busser (THANK YOU TO HIM) and another few minutes went by before we saw our waiter. He did not know what beers were on tap and when we asked he essentially gestured with his head for us to look at the bar from our table. Then they were out of Moretti and Peroni, sandwiches (which may always be the case on weekend lunches not sure) and our pasta choice. Our server forgot about our side of rapini and when reminded blew me off. After finishing our pasta and entrée– still no rapini. I tried to catch the manager’s eye (ignored or not seen) then finally flagged down our server and told him to just forget about it at this point. He said ok… no apology.. the side came out a few minutes later. When we got our bill it was not on there, call me jaded I don’t think this was a conscience choice to comp the rapini (simply a reflection that it had never been rung in). Thank you to the busboy for getting us our water and THANK YOU TO THE FOOD RUNNER— he was the only person there who had any idea what was going on and was very polite. He cleared our plates, made sure we had share plates, offered us more bread and olive oil, and APOLOGIZED when the rapini finally arrived. Why is he running food— managers (in my eyes having over 8 years in the industry) he should be on the floor. There were 9 tables in the restaurant, 2 managers, 2 or 3 servers, 2 busboys, 1 bartender, 2 hostesses, and a food runner. No excuse for this service. The food was decent to good. Loved the bite of heat, garlic, and citrus in the rapini and loved the meatballs. I left 20% b/c I just can’t leave less (esp. knowing my tip will effect others tip outs), but I will not be back. Get it together Bebo… please! I want to love it there or at least really like it!

Thanks for that industry-minded perspective, DC.

A lot of us want to, as you say, " love it there — or at least really like it."

But it's hard, tasty as the food can be. Bad service is one thing. Indifference, poor attitude — that's another.

Silver Spring MD
Hi Todd Just a note: Dino always has the roasted whole fish. It usually varies from Bronzino to Orata. Sometimes it is printed on the menu and sometimes it is not. We defintely needed to work out a few kinks with the service and hopefully have done so. We actually did have a family conduct a seder upstairs in our back room where it is a little quieter.

Thanks for chiming in, Dean. (At least, I think it's Dean.)

And thanks for the note about the fish — although, and I'm looking right at my advance copy of the Passover menu, there is no whole fish listed.

Great tip there, too, for those who would attempt a seder at Dino tonight: Ask for a table upstairs.

Now, since I know you're reading along with us, Dean: What say you to extending the menu throughout the eight days of Passover? There sure seemed to be a lot of interest last night.

Chattanooga, TN
I would like to take 14 people to an excellent restaurant that will be different and memorable. In Chicago, we enjoyed Heaven on Seven, a delightful surprise. I haven't been in DC for a while. La Colline is gone. Is the Oxidental still as good as the rep? What should we consider?

Chattanooga! Sounds like you haven't been to town in a LOOOONG while. Things have changed. The old guard restaurants are fading away, French is little in fashion anymore, and though you still see a preponderance of old-boy steak houses, there's a new energy in the city's scene.

There's a lot to consider. And no, the Occidental is not one of them.

If money's no object, and you're adventurous: Citronelle has the most creative, most accomplished cooking in the city; Marcel's is luxurious and will pamper you like no other; CityZen is young and energetic and turning out food that is imaginative, elegant and full of finesse.

Other good bets: Palena in Cleveland Park and Restaurant Eve in Old Town for cooking that is both rustic and refined. 

Whatever you choose, Chattanooga, I hope you chime in and report back to us. Good luck. 

Cheverly, MD
We are going to give City Zen a try tomorrow night– any suggestions? I don't eat meat very often, so am thinking of the veggie menu– any experience with this? I am particularly interested in the cheese cart– we ate in Philly last week and there was a divine cheese cart, but I have yet to find a comparable one in DC. Any ideas?

I think they've got a fine cheese cart at CityZen.

As for specific suggestions … The menu changes so often, it's hard to say what's going to be there one time from the next. You mentioned the vegetarian tasting menu, which I've only ever tasted from, picked from — never eaten my own from first course to last. And I think that with a tasting menu of any kind, you really do need to stick with it through the entire meal and let it unfold for you.

Are you a vegetarian? I'm not going to just assume.

But if you aren't, then you ought to zero in on anything to do with pig product — ham hock, pork belly, etc. (Of course, if you are a vegetarian, then I've just pretty much spoiled your morning.) I don't think I ever eaten a pork dish here that wasn't the height of elegance and sophistication, despite the porky richness on the plate. This is where the chef, Eric Ziebold, an Iowa native, really shines.

Arlington, VA
Hi Todd, Given the number of restaurant meals you have in a given week, are there certain menu items, or trends, that you wish would just go away? And similarly, what kinds of dishes would you like to see more of? Thanks!

Hmm. Interesting question, Arlington.

What would I like to see just go away? For one, raspberry sauce on desserts. Let's lose this, please. Pretty? Debatable. And it nearly ruins a lot of otherwise tasty things.

What else?

How about the tendency of restaurants to offer "our version of"? Our version of mac n cheese. Our version of tres leches. Occasionally — very occasionally — this is charming, and works. Mostly, it seems a dodge. How about just doing the actual version we all know and love, and doing it with more clarity and precision than we ordinarily see?

I'd like to see more soups that aren't cream-based.

I'd like to see more restaurants try to do s'mores for dessert — and to realize that the graham cracker is essential to the whole deal.

I'd like to see Italian restaurants actually making their own pastas.

I'd like to see better bread.

I'd like to see every restaurant offer half-pours of wine.

Shoot, I could go on all day with this … 

Potomac, MD
Having been to Circle Bistro, Marcel's and Kinkeads numerous times what are my other options for pre KC dining. Is Notti Bianchi worthwhile or should we look beyond Foggy Bottom? PS-Loved the Tuna article

Notti Bianche just lost its chef, Anthony Chittum.

Don't know yet what this spells for the restaurant, Potomac, but I wouldn't not consider the place for dinner — put it that way. As of a few months ago, it was, yes, worthwhile. It made our recent 100 Best.

 

Silver Spring
Yep its Dean on board. I don't think I can get chef Amaya to commit to making more gefilte fish (you should have seen him when I was eating my third ball of it last night!) as well as Easter and Taste of the Nation. At this point, he is sick and tired of gefilte fish!!! But we will be sure to consider that for next year, its a great idea! He is already planning the menu… And we are going to add both the new version of the roast chicken and the chicken liver (as Crostino Toscano… very traditional with Rosso di Montalcino ) to the menu .

Crostino Toscano and Rosso di Montalcino. Very, very nice.

Gefilte fish is, well — it's an acquired taste. My wife at first found it interesting, then kind of tasty and is now addicted to it. She finds the strong-tasting fish, combined with the horseradish, to be oddly akin to eating sushi. She always eats more of it at the seder table than anybody else.

Care to go for the trifecta today, Dean? 

Washington, DC
I heard that Matthew Loftus, Chef working under Ann Cashion at Johnny's Half Shell is looking to fill the position. My understanding is that he helped open Tallula and has worked as a Sous Chef with the Passion Hospitality Food Group at DC Coast.

"Looking to fill"? That suggests his intention — as opposed to the restaurant's decision.

Or am I reading too much into your particular phrasing? 

Anyway, an interesting bit of intel on this gorgeous Spring morning. 

 

Petworth, D.C.
Hiya Todd:

I went to Central last week and using your review was able to navigate my way through the menu quite well and had an excellent meal.

However, I ordered the faux grois, and it my opinion it was oversalted, by a lot. I am a salt hound so it is very unusual for me to think something is oversalted.

How would you handle this? Mention to the waiter that it is too salty for your taste? Ask them to ask the chef to check it? Since it is a pre-made item, if I was the chef I just wouldn’t want that every one of the ramekins from that batch went out to the tables that salty.

Thanks!

Silver Spring, MD
Following up from my post last week re: dining at David Craig for our sixth wedding anniversary. Got a voicemail at 2 pm that David Craig was closed for the night due to plumbing problems, so I'm unable to report back on that restaurant. Instead, we headed down to Indigo Landing (my wife is a sucker for great views). It was our first time there and the view is amazing. As far as the food goes, there were some hits and misses. The oysters on the half shell were terrific (we forgot to ask where they were from). The cocktail sauce was great, but the horseradish jelly really lacked any punch. The fried green tomatoes were the best I have ever eaten (and I love southern food). They got the texture just right, although the remoulade sauce was a little too light. For entrees, I had the country-fried rabbit which was in a bacon stew. The rabbit was so tender and the stew was delicious. Not exactly what I had expected when I ordered it, but I really enjoyed it. My wife had the rockfish with grits which were both fanstastic. For a side, we thought the foie gras hush puppies would be interesting. They were solid hush puppies, but we really couldn't find or taste the foie gras. Finally, we capped it off with the Buttermilk pie, which was nothing like anything we had tasted. It was delicious. Cocktails and wine were also great. OVERALL: Not many home runs, but many triples. We are anxious to return for brunch and sit on the deck.

Excellent chatiquette, Silver Spring. Way to follow up like that.

As I said last week, I think Bryan Moscatello, the chef, is doing a fine job over there, with cooking that is smart and interesting and unusually intricate, given its built-in richness.

(I agree with you re: the hush puppies. They're terrific, but the foie gras is needless, since you can't really taste what it adds.)

With this beautiful weather, and with those views, there's hardly a better place to eat out in the area right now.

Alexandria, VA
I just moved into the Penn Quarter and I'm looking for a place to take my boyfriend. Friends have recommended Indebleu restaurant but when I Googled the name most of the reviews came back less than positive. What's your take on the restaurant and the cuisine and are there any favorite dishes you could recommend should I decide to go?

I haven't been in a while.

It's a great spot for taking in the beautiful people and relaxing over cocktails, and some of the smaller plates, served downstairs, are tasty to pick at while you're drinking.

Upstairs, the prices can be soaring (the restaurant encourages you to order a first, a second and a main course), and the cooking, which aims to be a synthesis of French and Indian cooking, has often felt to me like a wan compromise: too tame to be rewarding as good Indian food, and lacking the exacting refinement of good French food.

 

Arlington VA
I read last week that one of the other chatters had eaten at Eleventh Street and had enjoyed interacting with the chef and had a great meal. I wanted to add that I have eaten at Eleventh off and on since its opening and really love the new menu. I like that this place seems to be growing despite the fact that it will no longer be my little "secret". LOL. As for food, get anything that the staff recommends, it will be fabulous, especially the scallops with curry cous cous, YUM!!

We all love having our little secret place, don't we?

Problem is, if you want that secret place to stay around, it almost has to get some kind of attention. Then the secret's out — which, for some, means the place loses that essential something that makes it it. 

Speaking of secret places … I've got one to share next week, courtesy of a tip from a trusted reader. Thank you, Olivia! The place is a gem.

Get out there and enjoy the spectacular day, everyone! Take a sandwich to go, walk to a restaurant, and soak up that sunshine.

I'll be back next week at 11. Til then — eat well and be well … 

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