August 14, 2007 @ 11AM

Word of Mouth …

… For wood-fired pizza, the pies at Moroni & Brothers (4811 Georgia Ave. NW; 202-829-2090) are pretty unassuming. In fact, they're a lot closer to the ideal of New York or Philly style  than they are to the boutique standard of places like 2 Amys and Pizzeria Paradiso. The owners, Jose Velazquez and Reyna Acosta de Velazquez, worked their way up from the bottom at Paradiso to become managers (actually, they're still moonlighting night shifts, one at the Dupont location, the other at Georgetown, until their own place starts making money). The crusts are thin and crispy in the center, with poofy, chewy coronas, but they're not constructed to make a point about purity and balance — they're sauced and cheesed the way good prole pizzas are supposed to be. Heck, they're even sliced before they hit the table.

The atmosphere, too, is equally unassuming and unstraining, with hard linoleum floors, brick-colored paint and fake-wood tables; even the wood-burning oven isn't front and center in the room. Pizzas and panini take up only a third of the menu; the other two-thirds is devoted to Salvadoran cooking. Which means this might be the only place in the city where you can get a tasty, hot Marinara pizza and a steaming bowl of Mondongo. The tortillas are made in-house, and the cooking is homey and good. Among the standouts is carne deshilada, a pumped-up mound of scrambled eggs, with pulled strip steak, chunks of tomato, onion and peppers; a little drizzle of the tangy sour cream, and you've got a big, soul-satisfying meal any time of the day. For something sweet, opt for the banana pie: a sweet plantain split and filled with crema and corn, and deep fried until it turns sticky and brown. …

… From the dining room of American Flatbread, in Ashburn (43170 Southern Walk Plaza [Suite #110] at The Broadlands, Ashburn, Va..; 703-723-7003) you can look out into the parking lot of the strip mall and see the sign for McDonald's. Is this a cruel joke? you wonder, surrounded by posters for olive oil, organic vegetables, and a map of nearby farms. Or is American Flatbread fighting a very deliberate, very specific fight?

Because if ever there was an anti-McDonald's, this is it, right here. The Vermont-based American Flatbread is a chain, too, but a committed and conscientious one. Virtually all of the produce and most of the meat comes from nearby farms; if it isn't local, says chef and owner John LoBuglio (he's the serious-looking guy in clogs and poofy chef's pants), it tends to come from farms in New Jersey and West Virginia. Shrimp, which turned up one night on a pizza, are wild, not farmed. Be prepared to pay for that kind of fastidiousness. That shrimp pizza — slathered with a thin pesto, festooned with swiss chard and scattered with fresh corn kernels — will set you back $21.99. On the other hand, the toppings are good enough to be considered a dish in their own right, even without the marvelously hillocked crust. Fired in a hand-made, earthenware oven (the mud dome in the center of the dining room) it has the right amount of chew and crispiness (as well as a welcome bit of char on the underside, too).

In fact, toppings is something of a misnomer, here; they're not intended to be discrete, independent tastes — now a bite of ham, now a bite of pepper — but to meld into something unified and focused. The sausage pizza is a good example. The crumbled bits of pork, flavored with fennel and maple, meld so seamlessly with the sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions and mushrooms, that, without a menu nearby to identify the ingredients, you'd be hard put to dissect the flavors.


Washington, DC:

Good morning! I'm going for dinner in Old Town this weekend and I've always wanted to try 100 King, but their menu online looks odd…I thought it was a Mediterranean place. Did their management change? Is is still good?

Todd Kliman:

Good morning!

From what I understand, 100 King has switched gears. The Mediterranean menu is out, replaced by a French-leaning one. And there's also a wine bar now, too.

I haven't been since the transition. But I will say that changing course like that is always a red flag for a place in distress.

You can practically see the machinery grinding in this one: "Well, French is suddenly hot again, and so are wine bars. Put them together, and you have a hot little new place."

Or not.

Alexandria, VA:

I'm looking for a charming and elegant place to dine for brunch in Old Town Alexandria. A place that will comfortably fit 6-8. Any suggestions?

Todd Kliman:

I think Vermilion, on King St., is doing a terrific job with brunch these days.

The 3 pig "scrapple" — a hefty sausage that's got the texture of Thanksgiving stuffing and the juicy savor of pork belly — is a corker; it also comes with two eggs and toast. You won't be eating again until dinner. Next to it, the Eggs Benedict looks like light eating. It's also a winner.

There's also a wonderful burger, a delicately handled pea soup (with poached shrimp and pine nuts in the center), and nicely done-up salads.

Wash it all down with the Gin Sin (Hendrick's gin, muddled cucumber, soda water and sugar), or a potent Bloody Mary.

Bethesda, MD:

Restaurant week report: went to Acadiana on Wednesday and had a great, great meal. Had gumbo, filet, swordfish, asparagus salad- all really good and cooked just how we asked. Our waiter was really superb (wish I knew his name), didn't rush us at all and provided really attentive service. He even hand stuffed my martini-obsessed husband's blue cheese olives! Vidalia on saturday was underwhelming. Gumbo there was a very small portion and seemingly devoid of spice. The rest of our meal, was okay- not bad, not great. We will absolutely, positively be back at Acadiana sometime very soon!

Todd Kliman:

Somebody's got a South tooth!

I'm surprised to hear Acadiana acquitted it so well, and just as surprised to hear that you didn't really like Vidalia.

It's funny. Critics like me, we tend to keep our distance during Restaurant Week; if we go, we're inclined to make judgments only about how places handle themselves during the promotion. But you, the dining public, go and eat and come away with all sorts of decisions about where you'll be returning the rest of the year.

One of the first big assignments I got as a teenager, was to write about an arm-wrestling tournament. I still remember what the champ told me: "You're only as good as you're weakest muscle."

Well, restaurateurs, managers, chefs: You're only as good as your worst meal. 

K Street:

Hello Todd- I wanted to say that I saw the drive by online piece about the new Ceviche and had to say I had a much different experience. The service was extremely attentive, from the hostess to the server, and the manager even checked on us. The tuna ceviche was delicous, with an Asian influence, and my dining companion loved her calamari salad with sweet plantains on it. For a new place I thought it was a terrific meal. Do you typically visit places when they are open for just a week?

Todd Kliman:

Let's clear up a little confusion, here.

It wasn't a "drive-by" piece. No driving involved — just a lot of beating the pavement. You're talking about Feed/Back, our new online feature, in which we camp outside a new restaurant and collar you, the customer, on your way out to find out about your experience.

Feed/Back isn't a critic's review; it's the word of the masses — very vox populi. It's not intended to be definitive. It's a snapshot, a taking of the temperature. We've gotten great response, and plan to continue it ad infinitum. (Mrs. Squires, if you're reading along: You were right; Latin DOES have real-world application.)

Personally, I tend not to visit a new restaurant unless it's been open a few weeks.



NY, New York:

Hi Todd, Absolutely love your columns and your style of writing. Is there any magazine in New York equivalent or comparable to the Washingtonian? We moved from Cleveland Park to New York city and believe it or not, what we miss is Indique's fix of Indian food- we have been to several restaurants icluding some well known ones including Tabla, Tamarind and Amma. In my opinion, none of them come close to Indique in terms of food, atmosphere and above all value for money. We were in town last week and were able to enjoy an absoulutely superb meal at Indique during the restaurant week, and are more convinced that it is one of the best Indian places in the east coast.. I am not sure whether you travel to New York? Can you or any of your friends recommend any place in New York serving similar Indian food like Indique 's – a good representation of regional dishes – a fun cocktail menu – not just exclusive veggie places.. or standard Indian restaurants with a very predictible menu. Cheers and keep up the good job!

Todd Kliman:

Thanks for the compliment.

I'm guessing you haven't been to Devi –? It's on E. 18th St. For upmarket Indian cooking, it's excellent.

My buddy Robert Sietsema, the restaurant critic of The Village Voice (he's great fun to read, as is the crew at New York magazine — Adam Platt, and Robyn Raisfeld and Rob Patronite) is a huge fan of Tandoori Hut in Queens and Chowpatty in New Jersey.

They're not upmarket spots, no cocktails and no splashy decor, but he says the cooking is phenomenal, and definitely worth a drive.

Washington, DC:

Todd, I'm hoping you can help me with an etiquette problem: in preparing some expense reports for my boss, I found that he never tips more than 14 percent—and sometimes less. To me (and, I would hope, most people), this is inexcusably offensive and doesn't properly compensate servers for the work they do—especially as he invariably orders a full meal: cocktails, an appetizer, entree, dessert and after-dinner drinks. When dining in the company of such a person, and when it is tacitly understood that s/he will be in charge of the bill, how might one add a supplemental tip without causing offense? Pretending to have forgotten something at the table, or leaving something at the hostess stand on my way to the bathroom? I'd appreciate your or other choggers' strategies.

Todd Kliman:

What an interesting question!

And you've got me wondering: Is this boss a pain to work for? I would imagine that a flinty person at the table is going to be a flinty person when it comes time to ask for a raise, too.

But back to the question …

I think what you propose to do is fine and thoughtful, and would be more than appreciated by the staff. The key, in this case, is not to be seen by your boss.

But here's the thing: Why should you, who works UNDER the boss, have to step in with cash of your own? I know, I know: You feel responsible. You feel BAD.

But really — can you go around tipping in his wake wherever he goes? 

You end up the poorer, he's not out any money, and he continues to be a cretinous diner.

Silver Spring, MD:

My in-laws are coming to town this weekend and I'm having a tough time deciding where to take them to dinner both Friday and Saturday night. They're pretty much meat-and-potatos types, although they enjoy Italian food as well. I was thinking about Il Pizzico in Rockville, but beyond that, I'm at a loss. Any suggestions for a high-quality moderately priced place in the Maryland suburbs?

Todd Kliman:

Are they not inclined to linger, either? Because, if you go to Il Pizzico, you can pretty much be assured you'll be in and out of there in an hour and a quarter. And that's WITH a bottle of wine.

The food's good, but the staff works with almost militaristic precision in hustling you through your meal and out the door — the better to accommodate the hoards of customers on weekends.

If I'm out for a nice dinner, and I'm drinking a bottle of wine, and spending time with friends, I don't want to leave in anything less than two hours. And I sure as hell don't want to see the bill hitting the table along with my tiramisu.

(It's one big reason, by the way, that Il Pizzico is on our Cheap Eats list — the best bargain eating in the area — but not on our 100 Best Restaurants list.)

For an alternative … you might want to consider Ray's the Classics, in downtown Silver Spring. It's even more of a meat-and-potatoes place than it was when it opened.

And actually, Da Marco, right down the street from Ray's, has simple, affordable Italian cooking (look for the few handmade pastas) in an unpretentious atmosphere. 

NoLo, DC:

My partner took me to Devi the weekend before the 4th and we had a spectacular meal. He had the meaty tasting menu while I had the veggie version. Both were great, and I had dishes I hadn't tasted since I had an Indian colleague whose amazingly-talented-in-the-kitchen wife would send in snacks for us to enjoy. In particular, I loved the idlis and the soursop martini…

Todd Kliman:

It's good, isn't it?

Surir Saran, the chef, has a very good cookbook that I like — it's called Indian Home Cooking. Simple and accessible, but without being dumbed down.

(Speaking of dumbed down and home cooking … Does anybody do any moderately involved food on TV anymore? It's all perky chicks and blank-faced model-stirrers and amphetaminized BAM!-ers.)

Washington, D.C.:

My Restaurant Week wrap-up: d'Acqua was FANTASTIC and I would go back there in a heartbeat. The food, service, ambiance and selection was fantastic. The monkfish was very flavorful. The frito misto portion was huge and the calamari was very crisp and not chewy. The custard for dessert was wonderful. Fogo de Chao was, as always, wonderful. But I wonder if they will participate again. Our waiter commented that they are only giving the cheese biscuits to those tables that ask during restaurant week to cut costs. I would be surprised to see them participate next year if they are taking these actions. Do they really need to charge $8 per glass for a merlot that costs $22 a bottle? Cafe du Parc was disappointing. No selections, only a take it or leave it restaurant week menu. If this is what they offer, then I wish restaurants would put this on their website, so I would not waste my time. The cod was bland. The tomato in the appetizer was very bland and of poor quality. They obviously need better produce. The shell on the strawberry tart was overcooked. I realize that the restaurant is going for a bistro look, but do the tables really need to be that close together? I will always love Fogo de Chao and I will definitely be back to d'Acqua. I will not, however, go back to Cafe du Parc.

Todd Kliman:

I know you're going to and I can't stop that, but I'd hesitate to judge Cafe du Parc by that meal.

The cod, for one thing, is not meant to be a boldly flavored dish; that's not a bad thing. In all my visits there, I never once saw poor quality produce. And in August, tomatoes are at the height of the season.

Where the place does deserve to be spanked, is in deciding to go ahead with the RW promotion, but not to do it with any real enthusiasm. I think it bears repeating, over and over and over again: Offering a scaled-back menu lacks conviction and sends the wrong message to diners who are eager to check out a well-regarded restaurant for the first time.


Silver Spring, MD:

Thanks for the suggestions, but I've already taken them to Ray's the Classics and I've been to Da Marco and had terrible service and will not take anyone there until I go back by myself and have a good experience. I'm trying to get out of Silver Spring, I feel like I've hit nearly all of the better restaurants there. Any more suggestions?

Todd Kliman:


Well, I might take them to David Craig Bethesda, in — whaddayouknow? Bethesda. Craig makes his own pastas, and they're good and rich and rewarding. It's one of the better places in that restaurant-dense city, full of ambition — although not as consistent as I would hope.

There's also Black's, and also in Bethesda. It's more glammed-up than it was, but the food is designed to be dug-into, not looked at from afar.

If they could be persuaded to venture outside meat-and-potatoes and Italian, I might take them to the styish Greek restaurant Cava, which we enthusiastically reviewed this past winter.  

Hope that helps.

Let us know what you end up doing, okay?

And I hope the rest of you stay cool out there, wherever you may venture. 

Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …

Alexandria, Va: Good food tv:

Hi Todd, I get Cox cable and channel 800 (may vary from place to place) has the "Create TV" channel. I runs the best TV food programs. As does WHUT, public broadcasting from Howard U. Check them out for a refreshing dose of chef, locavore, and foodie heaven. Oh, and catch a glimpse of a younger Roberto cooking with Julia!

Todd Kliman:

No, no — there's good stuff still out there, no doubt.

It's just harder to find, that's all — harder to "hear" amid the constant chatter and hype. It's even worse in the bookstores. Nobody who doesn't have his or her smiling mug plastered all over a TV set can get a book on a display table any more.

(I thought it telling and sad that a woman who was competing to be the Next Food Network Star
was told by the smarmy, slick network bosses that she'd errer in using French words in her cooking demonstration. Didn't Julia Child already pave this road? And since when did intelligence, intelligently used, constitute a threat to the people? The cynicism of TV executives knows no bounds.)