Tuesday, April 10, 2007

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 …

Attractive wooden slats cover the fluorescent lights, no longer in use. Small mantels have been tacked to the walls, bearing family photographs and mementos. The mood inside this narrow warren at night is dark, slightly mysterious.  The only thing that tells you that Da Marco used to be an Italian grocery store is the sandwich board in the back, and maybe the bank of refrigerated cases across from it.

A year and a half ago the owners decided to turn their store, cattycorner from AFI in Silver Spring, into a full-service restaurant, and the transformation has produced the kind of place seldom seen around here. In a city dominated by Italian chains at one end and high-minded destinations championing their adherence to Italian regional on the other, Da Marco is an unabashed red-checkered tablecloth Italian joint with soulful cooking, remarkable prices, and a welcome spirit of abbondanza.

The sausage is cased in-house, all dinners come with a crisp salad brightened up with a tangy balsamic dressing, the cannolis are filled to order, and a half-dozen of the pastas are handmade, including a fettucine with porcini mushrooms and crushed garlic, and a pasta alla amatriciana with soft cubes of guanciale. Portions are large enough that you could make a meal of starters alone — the sausage (which is both soft-textured and coarse all at once, and excellent) is nearly entree-sized, as is a wonderful plate of fried polenta, the soft, creamy medallions meant to be dunked into a fresh-tasting dish of marinara. The only sour notes so far have been the lifeless, warmed-over bread and a too-liberal hand, at times, with the olive oil. But these are quibbles.

This is a heartfelt independent doing battle in chain-mad Silver Spring, and by at least one measure, winning. …

… The music is all over the map: One minute, it's Dean Martin crooning a love ballad. The next, it's the Who, thrashing about in full rock-opera fury. You might guess the throbbing beat of hip-hop is to follow. But no — it's a haunting, soaring arrangement from a bakhshi, and it fills the dining room like an incantation. All this suggests a restaurant with no clear direction, but in fact, Shamshiry is as tight and focused as any place in the area. The heart of the menu is the spit-fired kebabs and the lovingly gilded rices, called polos — dishes for which this tiny restaurant, sequestered in the ground floor of a Tysons office building, has almost no peer.

The kubbideh, or beef kabob platter, is a marvel, two long flanks of assertively seasoned minced (and molded) meat so soft and luscious you hardly need chew it. A mound of fluffy, buttered white rice sits alongside the meat, waiting for you to crack in a raw egg (you need to order it extra) and give the grains a good stir, until they're glossy and rich. If no other single dish approaches this exalted state of deliciousness, that's not a slur: The soft, pink salmon with herbed rice is excellent, as are the chicken kebabs, fat, succulent cubes crusty with char from the grill. Rice is an end in itself in Persian cooking, and Shamshiry honors this tradition best with its shirin polo, a fragrant dish of grains studded with pistachios, almonds, candied orange peel, and suffused with saffron.

The prices are so reasonable — the kubbideh will set you back just eight bucks, and leave you will leftovers — and the surroundings so non-descript, that you're not inclined to expect to be taken care of. But there's an elegance to eating here, from the immaculately laid white tablecloths to the beautiful pot of minted tea that is set down at the end of the meal. The tea is a fine companion for the cream roll, or even the bowl of saffron and rose water ice cream — a dish as simple, exotic and luxurious as Shamshiry itself.

………………………………………………….

Note: I'll be on the road next week at this time, but please drop by to chat with a special guest host — Chef Robert Wiedmaier.

Wiedmaier is the owner of the fine-dining restaurant Marcel's and also the long-awaited Brasserie Beck, which will have a soft opening on April 20th. The new place, says the proprietor, will replicate the look and feel of an old European train station — albeit a train station with a big, shiny open kitchen smack dab in the center.

Expect a bunch of Belgian beers on tap and mussels from Nova Scotia, among other treats on the menu.

I'm not telling any of you how to do your jobs as query-ers, but here are some questions I wouldn't mind seeing roll by our guest's screen next Tuesday …

Can the chef switch gears, and go from pampering the Ken Cen crowd to reaching out to a younger, less well-heeled audience in a lightly trafficked area of downtown? Why did he opt to open a new, more casual spot when he already has a well-established and well-regarded restaurant to run? Why does he believe Nova Scotia mussels are the best around? Does he see himself as competing with Michel Richard, who recently opened a casual place of his own — and also with a spate of classic dishes on the menu?

Silver Spring, MD
Are you aware of any good Vietnamese places (not just Pho) in the Silver Spring/Wheaton area? We have had a real void since Nam's on Georgia Avenue closed a year ago.

Good question. I wish I had a good answer for you, too.

But there's just not much good Vietnamese to choose from. And that goes for most of Maryland, not just Silver Spring and Wheaton.

Beltsville and surrounding areas is doing decently for itself, with its pho places — Pho VN-One, Pho 88 and a relatively new place on Cherry Hill Rd. that's not half-bad whose name escapes me right now …

(Hate when that happens. Well, at least I've got a hot, steaming mug of coffee by my side. It may come to me by the end of the chat.)

Marylanders really do need to get more acquainted with the Eden Center, in Falls Church. The drive is worth it. Viet Royale, Huong Viet, Viet Bistro … the list of good spots is long. I just ate at a place called Tay Do, which has terrific pho (and it's not a pho parlor), as well as wonderful hot pots.

Doghouse, DC
Hi Todd, Well I wanted to publicly apologize to all the readers and especially to Matthew Loftus. I apparently created quite a stir about my comment last week on the chat about the closing of Tabard Inn. I didn't intend to jeopardize the career or reputation of anyone, including Matt. I realize that I should not have made a comment about someone or a situation for which I had little information. To the best of my knowledge, I don't think Loftus has even applied for the position. I just wanted to apologize. I hope that I can be forgiven for my stupidity.

Well, then, I guess I belong in the doghouse, too — not for the first time, and certainly not for the last time — for posting your comment last week.

Contrary to what some of you who occasionally write in to complain about the speed of this thing might think, this is really a fast and furious session — imagine answering email for an hour and a half without ever getting up from the computer to take a break. Things slip in sometimes that shouldn't. 

But there's a beauty to the give and take, too, a sense of a long, extended conversation. You ask, I answer. You correct. You chide. I chide back. I challenge, you accept. It's fun. I love it.

And it's what makes doing this every week so interesting and alive.

WDC
Todd, Been to SF / wine country lately? Any tips? French Laundry is booked (and hella expensive – $240 per person!?!), so I think Cyrus will be my splurge meal. Any on the cheap favorites? Seafood? Sushi? Chinatown? Thanks!

Not lately, no. I may be going out there later this summer, though.

Meantime, there's gotta be somebody out there in choggerland who can come through for you. Anybody?

 

Downtown DC
Hi Todd, Can you recommend some good relatively inexpensive Chinese food in downtown DC? I'm originally from NYC, where there is good Chinese food on almost every block, but I'm having a hard time find anything reliably good and cheap. Thanks.

I can't.

You need to get in your car and drive. To Rockville.  

That's where the real Chinatown is.

There you'll find the best cluster of Chinese cooking in the area: Joe's Noodle House, Bob's Noodle 66, Bob's Shabu Shabu 88, China Bistro (aka "Mama's Dumplings"), among others.

There's great stuff to explore out there.

 

Cheverly, MD
I posted about our upcoming dining at Cityzen last week (Wednesday night) and I wanted to follow up. We had a lot of fun. It is certainly a pretty space– just the right amount of sound to make a cozy humm while preserving privacy. Service was excellent, and didn't miss a beat for us. My husband had the tasting menu, which he enjoyed, his favorite being the "ham and eggs", and I had the Veggie tasting menu, which my favorite was the sunchoke and fresh truffle soup (amazing!). Although I was mostly pleased, I felt that the veggie menu relied far too much on butter for its ooomph, and although it was good, there wasn't anything that sent me over the edge (although the mentioned soup was pretty close). The cheese cart was all I could hope for, and the selection was varied and the quality high. I must say that more than anywhere I have ever dined the sommalier's pairings made the dinner– dishes which were good became fantastic– and I would say the pairings a must have if you are going to spring for the tasting menu. I would like to see the veggie menu (and regular manu at that) rely more on the freshness of the ingredients and the flavors and spices than the heaviness– I was unable to finish most things, and in comparable veggie tasting menus I usually can. It was a really good meal, but I would be stretched to give anything more than 3 stars in my book– standing alone there were no misses, but nothing that was absolutely spot on. It was delightful to watch it all unfold, and the menu planning was clearly well thought out. Will we be back? Maybe in a year or so…..As per your suggestion for pork products– there were none on the menu at all– maybe since it is Passover week?

Your comments on the vegetarian menu are interesting.

For the most part, even with well-intentioned, thoughtful chefs, I find that veggie dishes and menus come up lacking. I think that has to do with the fact that the tradition they're trained in — the French tradition — revolves around meat. Cooking meat, making sauces from meat, using meat as the basis for soups and stocks, and so on.

To ask them to whip up a veggie meal is like asking them to toss out their script. No, more than that — it's like asking them, in a way, to unlearn all they've learned.

Now, think about the cuisines that don't exist to ennoble a piece of meat — Southern Indian, for instance. You may not always get a great meal when you go out (talent, after all, counts for a lot) but you rarely feel that you're missing something.

Silver Spring MD
Just a plea from a restaurant owner…. Folk, when you make a reservation for Easter, or even just a Saturday night, please have the decency to show up. My restaurant had 6 reservations for 33 people not show up without a call. 3 reservations called to cancel with less than 30 minutes notice due to sickness (must have been an epidemic breaking out…. 3 sicknesses all within 30 minutes of the reservation time!). On a typical Friday or Saturday night, we get 2-3 no show tables. Folks, this hurts the business. Either I have to over book and some nights you will have a LONG wait for tables or my business suffers. Restaurants work on a razor thin margin and the no show problem is huge! On Easter, the no shows alone represented 25% of the business we booked. Considering that we were fully booked, it meant a 25% revenue loss. Add in the last second cancellations and the loss was 33%. It also meant that people who really wanted to eat at my restaurant did not get to do so. It also meant that a lot of food was prepped and not sold…. While my staff got to eat really well that day, what a waste! I called in an extra waiter because we were so booked. All my tipped staff saw their days income fall. While the day was great for my business and for the waiters, it would have been 33% better if the folk who promised to show up actually did so. As a result, I will have to impose a hefty no show fee for Mother's day which will no doubt upset some potential customers. Its too bad that a not insignificant set of folk ruin things for those who play by the rules. Rant over!

No, no — a good rant, a thoughtful, reasonable rant.

The problem, Silver Spring, is that the people who tend to chime in to this chat or just follow along, are the sort of diligent-minded customers who are likely to call to cancel. I.e. — you're preaching to the choir.

But hey, preach on. It's a message worth repeating.

And we like rants on here. And welcome them, from whoever and wherever.

Chevy Chase, MD
Husband and I have a rare, albeit Sunday, night away from the kids coming up and are looking for a great restaurant , with accommodation attached preferably, in or near wine country not too far away from the Beltway (1 – 2 hrs). Any suggestions? I know some places shut down on Sunday nights so our choices are limited. Is the Red Fox in Middleburg, Va worth it? Or the Bailiwick in Fairfax? Many thanks

Hm. This is turning into stump-the-band this morning. And I'm coming up short.

I haven't been to either of those restaurants, I'm afraid. I wish I could help you. Maybe someone out there has? 

I can recommend Foti's in Culpeper, which is a short, twenty, twenty-five minute drive from a number of wineries, and a restaurant that made our recent 100 Best list. The food is often good, the wines are gently priced, and the place is like stepping back in time — or walking into a Currier and Ives painting. 

It doesn't have accommodations, but there are a number of inns and B&Bs nearby.

Arlington, VA
Hi Todd: When trying to differentiate the area's top restaurants and gauge the talent of their chefs, do you ever order certain dishes with the sole purpose of evaluating the kitchen? For example, do you ever order roast chicken or other "simple" dishes that require a mastery of the basics to do really well? Or do you ever order, say, braised short ribs at multiple restaurants to compare one version to the next? If it's possible to generalize, what dishes do you believe best reflect a chef's talent and philosophy?

This is one of those questions that trips the switch in my head: Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

I'm leery of revealing too much about the way I work.

But I will say that a roast chicken — if a chef even deigns to put one on his menu; most won't — is a pretty good gauge of things. Not all things. Some things.

It's not with just American restaurants, either, that I do this. With Indian, with Thai, with Burmese, with Afghan, with Ethiopian, with Japanese … there are certain dishes I always look for, and I'm constantly measuring new tastes and new preparations against older tastes and preparations.

When I was working on the tuna piece that ran in the March issue, I made it a point of ordering tuna at every restaurant that had it on their menu. I did this for an entire year. I hadn't intended to get so caught up in comparing and contrasting the tuna I ate, but the story went in that direction, and told me what to do.

I like little projects like that.

One final point … You asked what dishes "best reflect a chef's talent and philosophy." I did a piece a year ago for the magazine called "How to Read a Menu." The point of the piece was that the chef is telling you what he or she is good at — if you only know how to read the clues. Which is to say: how to find the purposeful repetitions in the menu, the patterns, the suggestion of a whole methodology in a few key phrases of description. 

Arlington, VA
To the chatter from Chevy Chase, you might want to consider the Ashby Inn in Paris, VA. Great food and charming accomodations. I heard that the Inn has a new management company, though, and I haven't been since the switch.

Thanks for the chime-in, Arlington.

The Inn is beautiful, and so is the gorgeous, rolling countryside that cradles it. I went a couple of years ago for a friend's wedding. I can't vouch for the food — it's unfair to judge a restaurant by its catered functions — but it has charm to spare, and feels like a getaway.

Good engagment places
I was thinking of proposing to my girlfriend next month. Do you know any restaurants that can present the ring during dessert time? Place/price doesn't matter.

First things first: Congratulations!

Now, back to business …

A lot of good restaurants will do this for you at dessert time. I'm sure any of the fine-dining restaurants at the front of our recent 100 Best would be happy to help you out.

Some places do take a special relish in the occasion, and one of them is Restaurant Eve, in Old Town Alexandria. The kitchen will put together an edible chocolate box for you to encase the ring, and will bring it out at the appointed time, too.

Washington DC
Hi Todd, Love your chat session. Talking about Easter, we had a fantastic Easter Brunch at Indique Heights – $15.00 inclusive of a glass of champagne or mimosa or lychee bubbes. I have never seen a curry made of boiled eggs… I was told by the employes that the champagne brunch is available every saturday and sunday. Folks go and check this out, it is really worth it.. On site cooking a chef making mini oothapams on the buffet… I think it is one of the best brunches in town! I believe Bombay club does a champagne brunch as well, Todd, your thoughts?

Good for Indique Heights.

That's a fantastic price, and it sounds as though you really enjoyed the cooking, too. 

More and more kinds of restaurants are getting into competition for the almighty brunch dollar, and it's a terrific development. We wrote about a lot of these non-traditional weekend feasts in the April issue, in a piece headlined, "Beyond Waffles." It's a good, compact little guide.

I'm not aware of Bombay Club doing a champagne brunch — but that's not to say they don't have one.

Re: WDC
For great cheap Chinese in Chinatown, go to House of Nanking or Chef Jia's on Kearny.

Details, WDC. We want details.

What to get, what to avoid …

You can do it. 

Question is, can you do it before the chat closes? Hurry …

Hyattsville
Todd, you suck as a food critic. Not a bad writer, but Jesus you can't produce more than one review a month. Come on.

I used to "produce" a review a week.

I just "produced" two reviews today — right there, at the top of this chat.

Almost always, you're going to find two or three reviews in the frontispiece we like to call "Word of Mouth … " when you click on to this chat.

Two times four is eight.

Not to mention the long pieces, sometimes blending review elements (like the tuna piece) that appear every couple of months in the magazine. Or the twice-yearly dining guides, each of which contains 100 reviews. What are you kicking about? 

 

Washington dc
We do have a champagne brunch at The Bombay Club. The brunch consists of seven hot entrees, a salad section, savouries (chaat) along with unlimited champagne, complimentary valet parking and live music. Thank you. The Bombay Club

I knew you'd come through, Ashok.

Ashok Bajaj, ladies and gentlemen.

While we have you here, Ashok, can you tell us the price of your champagne brunch? Nice touch, that complimentary valet.

DC
I hope this makes it. A YAY to Chef Monis for being listed by Food and Wine as one of the best new chefs. He deserves the recognition.

He does.

Komi has made more, and bigger strides, than any restaurant I have seen in this city over the past ten years.

 

Washington dc
$20 per person. thanks,
Thank you. And speedy, too.
Re: WDC:
Really most things on the menu are great at both places. I particularly like the dumplings and chicken dishes – the servers are happy to suggest items if you are unsure what to order. I especially like to order the lettuce wraps – the chicken filling is fantastic. One of the servers suggested it to me (wasn't even on the menu at the time), and I order it every time I go. Chef Jia's is not as popular as House of Nanking, but it is just as good and a couple doors down if there is a long line at House of Nanking.

I knew you'd come through, WDC. Thanks for the menu tips.  

A lot of cooking in Chinatown proper feels tired to me these days. I'll be interested to see how these two places compare — interested to see whether interesting, inexpensive cooking can come up through the cracks of a swinging, suddenly flush neighborhood.

 

DC
Todd… no need to post this. But the poster who said you sucks is an idiot. I prefer your reviews to those of TS. I value your opinion, palate, and voice. I think you are great!

No, there's a need. 🙂

 

Rumorville
Any truth to the rumor that Danny Boylen is headed to the service challenged Bebo?

Don't know that one.

"Service challenged," huh? Is that like saying Vern Troyer is height challenged?

Ooh, would you look at the time? I've got places to go, things to eat …

Again, I want to remind everybody to join in next week when Chef Robert Wiedmaier sits in and takes your questions and comments.

I was just on the verge of typing — "join in next week for a very special Kliman Online" — but that implies a level of intimacy, sentimentality and emotional trauma that it's simply not right to expect of any guest host, much less a chef nicknamed "The Flemish Redneck." There will be no epiphanies, no hugging, no tears shed.

Be well, eat well, and get those questions in early …

Columbia Heights, DC
I think the Chinatown poster on Nanking and Jia's was referring to San Fran's Chinatown, not DC's.

Right you are! A reply to the questioner looking for good, cheap food in San Fran!

Thanks for jumping in late to clarify. I got the two wires crossed — the San Fran query, and the Chinatown query.

Kearny did make me do a double-take — not a street name I'm familiar with in DC's Chinatown proper.

Later, everyone …

More from News