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.
(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.
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.
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! 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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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?
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …