Word of Mouth …
9 o'clock on a midweek night in Gaithersburg, and you might think you were in the thick of downtown. Nearly every table at La Flor de la Canela, tucked in a tiny strip of shops off Rte. 355, is full. There's actually a din.
And no wonder: For a place that emphasizes affordability, it hardly smacks of economy class. The waiters all wear crisp black jackets with the restaurant's name stitched on the breast pocket. Fresh cut carnations grace every table. Delicate chandeliers of wrought iron and smoked glass hang above the tables. The chairs and cabinets of baroquely carved wood suggest a conquistador's wine cave, an impression deepened by the soft, moody light.
The cooking is every bit as evocative, detailed and, sometimes, transportive. From first to last, which is to say, from the expertly concocted pisco sour with its cap of egg white foam splashed with bitters all the way through to dessert, including an order of oicarones (anise-flecked flecked donuts ringed with a light caramel sauce) and a superb tres leches cake that somehow maintains its structural integrity in spite of its rich, three-milk soak, the portions are huge, the cooking consistent, the rewards unending.
In between drinks and dessert, there's marinated, grilled beef hearts that, for six bucks, deliver some of the intensity and interest of a great steak; a marvelous creamy shrimp soup stocked with peas, potatoes, corn, limas and a poached egg; made-to-order ceviche (an enormous platter for two also comes with delicately fried calimari); building block-sized hunks of beef stewed in a cilantro sauce and flanked by perfect oiled rice and a side of the exceptional canary beans (imagine a cleaner, more sophisticated version of smoky campfire beans); and a plate of shredded chicken meat cloaked in a clingy, creamy sauce made from milk-soaked bread, garlic, cheese, and peppers. …
… See the young woman behind the counter at Tay Do? She might look the part of the dutiful daughter pitching in to help tired, busy parents. But cheeky Jennifer Nguyen, all of 24, runs the place.
That’s not the only way that Tay Do, which moved from the catacombs to a coveted spot on the visible, outer ring of the Eden Center, flips the script. Unlike its often workmanlike neighbors, the dining room is dramatic and bold, with hanging chandeliers and swaths of bold, vibrant color, courtesy of Nguyen’s father, Johnson, and brother, Barry. Her mother, Claire, handles the cooking, and her range and skill are on display in every section of the multi-part, nearly 200-item menu.
Where to start? You can hardly do better than the Vietnamese sausage rolls, a bundle of mint and vermicelli and warm sausage packed into a tight rice wrapper and so good, you’ll be tempted to order another round. But rice crepes the size of a woman’s handbag and beautifully turned out also beckon. So do the meals-in-a-bowl called bun, a nest of cold vermicelli noodles providing a perch for grilled shrimp or grilled pork, or, in one memorable rendition, four grilled sausages. A broken rice dish with grilled pork, shredded pork and pork loaf amounts to a kind of pork three ways, yielding up as it does a variety of intensities and textures (the grilled pork a smoky bite of barbecue, the loaf almost a terrine, soft and assertively spiced).
There’s also pho (it surpasses the efforts of most pho parlors), spicy hot pots teeming with veggies and seafood, and excellent congee (a version with slices of ginger, shrimp and crab stick is delicate and soothing). …
To Jonathan Gold, who last week won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his L.A. Weekly restaurant column — the first ever for a food writer, and well-deserved. Gold is unfailingly interesting, frequently hilarious, and a joy to read from week to week; maybe the highest praise you can give him is to say that his writing about food is every bit as good as eating the food he writes about.
A few days ago, he sat down for an interview with NPR.
Instead of one or two, I'm going to give you a multi-part answer as an early send-off:
If you're feeling flush … Citronelle. The best restaurant in the city, and one of the most inventive chefs in the country, maybe the world.
If you want to experience the apotheosis of rusticity and refinement in the area … Palena. Cooking as soulful and as controlled as any you're going to find anywhere.
you're hankerin' (it's always hankerin', too, never hankering) for a taste of old D.C. … Horace and Dickie's. Ginormous fried fish sandwich, served up in an atmosphere that mingles white and black, young and old, blue collar and white collar and no collar.
If you're in the mood for something that nobody else has … Tommy Marcos's Ledo Restaurant, in Adelphi. This is the original, not to be confused with the crummy franchised knockoffs. You're not going to find pizza that looks like this (it's the shape of a cafeteria tray) or tastes like this (biscuity crust, smoked provolone mixed with mozzarella for the cheese) anywhere else.
If you want a true taste of some of the dominant cultures that make up this crazy-quilt region … Shamshiry (Persian) and Ravi Kabob I and II (Pakistani) for kabobs; Etete for Ethiopian; Tay Do (see above), Viet Royale and Minh's for Vietnamese; Faryab for Afghani; Gom Ba Woo and Gamasot for Korean.
And what am I leaving out?
This shouldn't be a toughie, but you know what? It is.
This just isn't a lobster town, and certainly not a town for what I think you're looking for — someplace where you can sit in a rough-and-ready atmosphere, with sheets of paper covering the tables, and get down to business cracking open some lobster.
Around here, when you're talking about an environment like that, you're talking about crab.
All the places that I can think of that have lobster on the menu are much, much more upmarket.
Still, unless you're willing to consider Red Lobster (I'm guessing that's a big, fat "no!"), then you might want to expand your options. I'd look into the following: Kinkead's, Oceanaire, the Sea Catch, and McCormick & Schmick's.
No guarantees, of course, and the costs are going to be high, but I think those are your best bets.
And who knows? Maybe the recommendation leads to something big down the road …
Now, I don't know how soon your date is, but there's a new wine bar, called Proof, that is expected to open any day now in Penn Quarter. It bills itself as a wine bar, just like Sonoma, and should be what you're looking for.
But also … how about a couple of other spots that aren't literally wine bars but that have good wines by the glass and offer up a good atmosphere, too?
The new Cafe du Parc, at 14th and Pennsylvania, is one — if the weather's good, you can sit out on the sidewalk, very Cafe Society-like, and sip wine and people-watch (always good if conversation flags) and maybe split a plate of the terrific short rib terrine. I think it'd be pretty great for a first date.
Firefly, off Dupont Circle, is another. Good wines, and a cozy place to sit for a few hours and get to know one another. Same goes for the Tabard Inn.
I hadn't heard that, no.
If it's true — and well, even if it's not — perhaps the folks at Corduroy can chime in and fill us all in.
I can't think of a better testament to a waiter's charm and competence than to be singled out for high praise like this. Except, of course, if you had actually bothered to mention him by name. ; )
Right you are! On both counts!
The coffee, clearly, has not kicked in yet this morning …
For Indian, I would heartily recommend Passage to India, in Bethesda, whose curries are the most elegant and refined I've come across in the area, and whose tandoori meats and fishes are almost unfailingly succulent. Great pickle plate, too.
For crabcakes … Nothing has really knocked me out in a while, which may be because the crabmeat these days is coming from distant locales (Louisiana, Venezuela, SE Asia). I like a version at Central (with a leek tartar sauce), and I like a version at Vidalia.
For something simpler and homier, I still have a great fondness for the fried crabcakes at Roy Todd's place in Cambridge, Md., called Seafood Odyssey. I haven't been in over a year, but Todd also ran a crab processing plant in the back, and the meat that had been picked (all lump, and all from Maryland — no small feat) found its way into his thick, crispy fried cakes. That, and a cup of his terrific cream of crab soup, is as good and affordable a taste of Maryland as you're going to find. Prices may have gone up since, but last I was there, I got some good change back for my twenty.
"Divine and transforming" is pushing it. And especially if you're accustomed to eating Indian food that's full of punch and heat and spice.
Remember, this is fusion cooking above all, and it aims for a sophistication not usually seen in the curry shops. Mostly, I think, it succeeds — you should enjoy yourself.
Keep an eye out for the galouti kabob, which comes in two, long perfectly fashioned sausages of assertively spiced minced lamb (along with a potent green chutney for swabbing them), the palak chaat (which is so unlike most other versions of this dish, the leaves of fried baby spinach waving in the bowl like curtains in the wind).
Among the main courses, I'm partial to both the lamb rogan josh (served not in chunks but as a thick shank in a pool of the aromatic gravy) and the lightly cooked, pearlescent black cod, which is about as luscious as fish gets.
The staff likes to tout its wine list, and you can't miss the big, colorful cocktails landing at all the tables next to you, but I tend to think a cold glass of Kingfisher is the best pairing you can do.
Dear Mr. Kliman,
My daughter and a few of her friends are looking for recommendations for dinner before their high school prom on April 28th. The prom is being held in the Hilton Crystal City so somewhere in Crystal City, Old Towne or Shirlington would be nice. As you can well imagine, they would most like to eat somewhere with tasty food, reasonably priced with a pleasant atmosphere (they will be wearing evening gowns and tuxedos). Could you make some suggestions? Thank you in advance for your kind consideration of my query.
I'd suggest Indigo Landing, which is on Daingerfield Island — halfway between Old Town and the airport. It's the former Potowmack Landing, and has a terrific view: planes landing and taking off, the monuments, the water. The cooking is Lowcountry, and ought to satisfy the revelers: big, deep flavors of Southern classics and new-fangled takes on Southern classics. Most entrees aren't going to nudge past $22, and a good many are in the teens.
My big suggestion is not about the place or the food. It's about being taken seriously as a table.
A lot of restaurants are leery of a table of teenagers, and especially of teenagers on their way to prom. Servers are inclined to brace themselves for a bad tip, and spotty service might be sure to follow. So, in order to make sure that things go smoothly, I'd suggest that you call the place in advance and explain that your daughter and friends are mature people, and love good food, and that either you'd like to take care of the tip in advance — or that you are okay with the restaurant including a twenty percent gratuity in the check.
Good luck, and please be sure to let me know how the restaurant handles things on the phone, and during the meal.
Planning? No plans. Although I do hope that everyone enjoyed the give-and-take with Chef Wiedmaier. The idea was simply to keep the space up and humming while I was gone, and give all of you chatters something to sink your teeth into — I was going to be overseas last week (until a family emergency kept me at home).
Would you like to see future guest chats?
And with what chefs, or restaurateurs, or authors, or butchers, or bakers, or candymakers?
The Scheib suggestion is a good one.
Congrats on your impending nuptials! (By the way, I love writing the phrase, "impending nuptials." Almost as much as I love offering pre-date dining advice.)
Have you thought to call Zaytinya? Or Poste? Or Ceiba? All are either right near, or pretty near, the two places you mention, all of them (to the best of my knowledge) have separate rooms, and all of them are fun, lively places.
Better yet, none of them is too upscale for your own good.
I haven't, no.
But I wonder if Stella's Bakery, in Rockville, carries this sticky, wonderful confection. Or Athens Grill, in Gaithersburg, which makes one of the better baklavas you're going to find around here, and also has good rice pudding, too.
If you have any luck with either of those two, be sure to let us know. And that goes double if it's really good Turkish Delight.
I wish I could be of some help, here. But I haven't been to Williamsburg in ages.
Has anyone? Any must-trys?
That's Mr. Dino, everyone, in case you didn't know.
Nice to know, Dean. Thanks for chiming in.
Why do I have the distinct impression that the P.A. announcer has just bellowed that the 12:38 to Boston is now boarding?
OK, let's keep this quick — and thanks for checking in on your laptop, D.C. … or is it your BlackBerry?
Two words: chicken samples.
You know what I'm talking about, I'm sure. The place is called Sakkio Japan Chicken. Anyway, no need even for a name — just wander around the food court, and wait for someone proferring a toothpick like a Hare Krishna proferring a flower to approach you. Take it. Then go and order a plate with some rice.
This is a food court, remember, so it's not going to be real chicken so much as a pressed approximation thereof. But it's good stuff. Grilled, then glazed, and absolutely, totally addictive.
Interesting posting. I wouldn't say it's unmatched, although it does shine bright. And that's no small thing.
Thanks for chiming in today.
Thanks for pitching in, Alexandria.
I wish I shared your enthusiasm.
That's not to say you won't have a good time at Bombay Bistro — I just think a lot of other, similar places (similar ambitions, similar prices) are now doing the job better.
Thanks much, Williamsburg!
Three suggestions! And speedy too.
On the other hand, if you're already well-acquainted with those strong opinions, then the chat wouldn't offer all that much in the way of discovery, would it?
I'm wondering if choggers would be interested in hearing from people with a particular expertise and the ability to enlighten us as to the ins and outs of their profession, and maybe even to offer up a fair number of trade secrets, etc. — someone, say, like Mike Smollen at the wonderful butcher shop in Gambrills, Md., called My Butcher and More?
Yes? No? Maybe?
A cheese-monger? A fish-monger?
A chef of a cuisine that, for lack of a better word, still seems "exotic" to most people?
And I would certainly agree about the desserts at Indique Heights — a real high point for that restaurant, and for the area.
But neither Indique Heights nor Indique strikes me as the sort of place you must absolutely not miss before splitting town.
Interesting question, NY.
It all depends on what your intention is.
A publicist will certainly get your name out there, and your "story." And that might guarantee you the attentions of the media and the bloggers.
But it might also backfire, and you might find yourself a victim of hype-age.
Me, I like to find places on my own, and to come at them without the "framing" that a publicist provides. I don't discriminate against places that have someone shilling for them (even if I use words like shilling to describe the process), but I do admit to an admiration for places that are small and independent and have to rely on their wits and talents and their ability to take care of people.
And another vote for the Cheese Shop!
Thanks for the additional tip, too.
Although I would say "write for," rather than "work for." And that the term for his rate of production is "occasionally," as opposed to "regularly."
"Keep up with"?
Who said I'm trying? It's simply impossible to maintain a once-a-week pace when you work for a monthly, and anyway, I see my mission as being entirely different from that of a weekly critic. I try to look at more than just what's on the plate in my long review each month. (The shorter reviews are different.) In that big, lead piece, I'm less interested in taking a Consumer Reports sort of approach — get this, get that, avoid this — and more interested in getting at what a place is saying, and how is reveals something larger about food or the city or what have you.
And "alternate agenda?" You make it sound like I'm trying to be Michael Moore.
I'm just interested in writing about what interests me, and in putting out a section every month that is relevant and lively and full of enthusiasm, and that shows a regard for good food wherever it may exist — upscale, downscale, fine-dining, or "ethnic."
It's just not a strength of this area. Although the place I wrote about two weeks ago in "Word of Mouth … " — a tiny warren in Silver Spring, across from the AFI, called Da Marco — has what you're looking for. Well, mostly. About six of the pastas are homemade, and they're good.
It's a neat, worthwhile spot.
And speaking of neat, worthwhile spots, I'm off to one right now for lunch. Thanks for all the interesting, sometimes pointed questions today. And keep 'em coming.
Meantime, eat well, be well, and let's do it again here next week at 11 …