August 28, 2007 @ 11AM



Word of Mouth …

… To say that Walia (6846 New Hampshire Ave., Takoma Park; 301-270-4545 or 301-270-7767) ranks as one of the best restaurants in Takoma Park is to say more about Takoma Park than about Walia. Takoma Park isn't just a nuclear-free zone; it's pretty much a restaurant-free zone, too. Residents of the Federal Republic, bless their hearts, are passionate about many, many things — Noam Chomsky, batik dresses, and the fate of the Third World; food isn't one of them.

But Walia is a find, particularly for folks in the inner-ring suburbs of Maryland.

Sandwiched between a hair braiding service and an African music shop in a decrepit strip mall on New Hampshire Ave., Walia doesn't make a terribly convincing case from afar  But then, neither do so many of the excellent ethnic restaurants in the area; inside, things improve immeasurably.

It's a handsome, well-lit space, with a full, wood bar and a gracious, accommodating staff. Which isn't to say that you're not going to wait a while for your food, or for your check to arrive. This is Ethiopian custom, and at Walia, it's taken to an extreme; if you wanted to linger until it was time to close, the staff would still probably be loath to kick you out. As the evening wears on, the restaurant takes on the festive air of a gathering spot, a private party, with the sounds of conversation threatening to drown out the noise from ETN — the Ethiopian Television Network.

The place has been owned and operated since 2002 by the husband and wife team, Tasfya and Tegest Mengestu. Tegest runs the kitchen, sending out stews as thick, fiery and potently spiced as any in the city. Messir wat, the red lentil stew, is a pungent, allspice-laden affair, while the dark, berbere-spiced stew doro wat, which comprises a stewed chicken leg and a hardboiled egg, is a certifiable scorcher, hotter than any other version I've tasted in recent memory, and more chunky than soupy.

Typically, you order a doro wat to groove on the richness and intensity of the gravy — this isn't a dish to key in on the proteins, which are usually overcooked. But what do you know? The leg was pliant and juicy the first time I tried it. The second time? What do you know? It was dry. Too bad. In that vein, I wish the kitfo, Ethiopian steak tartare, were more finely minced, yielding a softer, lighter dish. But the beef tibs, soaked in soy, are irresistible, and there's not a single lamb dish that isn't rewarding, the best of which is the Special Goden Tibs — big, bone-in cubes of lamb that have been given a good, dark crusting in the pan.

Almost always, the fasting platter, or veggie combination plate, is the way to go in ordering at an Ethiopian restaurant, a way to sample a lot of different tastes and textures. Not here. The staff is not the most graceful or delicate in spooning out the stews (in contrast to the almost Victorian decorousness you find at Etete), and things tend to run together. Best to order a messir wat and a very good gomen (collards) to go along with your lamb, and call it a day. …

The Liberty Tavern (3195 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-9360) represents a welcome trend. Not the explosion of suburban chic — which has resulted of late in a host of hotspots where you can enjoy overpriced cocktails and discomfitingly ambitious cooking without having to worry about getting panhandled on your way out. The Clarendon newcomer is handsome and stylish, to be sure, but what makes it intriguing is its canny fusing of two seemingly opposed ideologies: comfort food and eating locally and regionally.

There are nine cheeses on the cheese plate, but among the usual assortment of familiar names is a goat cheese — a Buche Noir — from Firefly Farms, in Maryland. The roast chicken comes from Amish country, and it shows; it's a deliciously juicy bird — and a chicken that tastes like chicken. For the Amish, of course, locally sourced comfort food is … well, food. The fact that it feels like the drift toward something new should tell you that our restaurants have been missing out on a good thing for a long, long time.

The chef, Liam LaCivita, has sought to honor these long-ago traditions. Included in the bread basket is Anadama bread, made with molasses and cornmeal — a staple in many cookbooks of yore. The cap for a wonderfully satisfying, saffron-flavored chicken pot pie is a big, baking powder biscuit.

Even those dishes that are meant to feel clean, light and contemporary, like an Arctic Char with pesto, white beans, braised fennel and heirloom tomatoes, benefit by context; they come across as even more humble and straightforward than they really are.

Places that try their hand at pizza without fully committing to it — which is to say, making pizza their primary mission — typically whiff. But these are good, solid pies, distinguished by crisp, bubbly crusts and good toppings; a version that combines juicy, ripe figs, salty prosciutto and creamy fontina cheese is terrific.

Oversalting is a problem in a number of dishes — among them, the mussels, which, with just a touch more vigilance, would be excellent. The  smoked tomato broth is rich and complex, helped along by a generous dusting of fennel pollen.

Desserts aren't as on-message as I'd counted on. I'd expected a simple, no-frills showcase for first-rate ingredients; instead, I found cutesiness and muddled flavors.

The best way to close out the meal? A French press pot of Ambessa, a rich, mellow Ethiopian coffee.

Local? Not hardly. But comforting? Oh, yes. It's a smart, thoughtful touch, one of many.


A special chog shout-out this morning to my mother, on the occasion of her 80th birthday! Happy, happy birthday, and many, many more. If you're reading along, save your calories for later — we've got a lot of eating and drinking to do tonight! …





Check out our blog post about the temporary hall at Eastern Market, complete with pictures.


Alexandria, VA.- Eastern Market Reopening
Good morning, Todd, I remember with sadness the day we chogged about Eastern Market burning. The mood and outlook couldn't have been brighter on Saturday morning when the East Hall officially opened for business. There were teams of marketgoers waiting to stream into the market after the ribbon was cut. The space is bright and airy and airconditioned! Merchants and shoppers were all smiles and many warm "welcome backs" were overheard. Jose Canales had a permanent smile. Although not open yet, Tom Glasgow of Market Lunch was there talking to patrons too. The restaurant is waiting for more equipment and should be open in two weeks. The city and residents should be proud that the market and beloved merchants are back in business relatively quickly after such a tragedy. Have a great day.

What a great report, Alexandria. I'm eager to get over there and see things for myself.

This is a terrific, encouraging development — great for the vendors, great for Eastern Market, great for the city. And great, of course, for food lovers.

It's time for all of us to do our part and get out there and help support the various mongers in their inspired comeback.

Bethesda, MD
Hi Todd- So I went to Ray's the Classics this weekend. Thought it was really good- I had one of few meatless dishes on the menu and thought I'd let others know that there are some really spectacular veggie entrees out there. Billed as a portabello and eggplant "double cheeseburger," the veggies were sandwiched between layers of cheese and a roasted red pepper "ketchup." The thing was huge, very rich and really yummy. Anyway, the only downside to our meal was as we were wrapping up our appetizers. A few at our table were done, but two of us were not. And the bus boy literally stood behind me and waited for me to put down my fork so that he could snatch my plate. I refused to put it down as I was not finished and eventually he went away…until another bus boy came up and tried to grab my Dad's plate before he was done. We wound up having to tell them no less than 3 times that we were still trying to eat! It was odd- we figured our entrees were ready and they were eager for us to finish so they could bring them out. But then after we finally did finish our apps, we waited like 20 minutes for our entrees, so no real explanation for the big rush on clearing our plates.

You mean — Ray's the Steaks II? : )

The place I reviewed and enthused about is mostly gone — no more valet parking, no more complimentary salads, no more fried chicken, and too few of the wonderful (and wonderfully priced) cocktail-style appetizers that distinguished the section of starters.

These days, it's steak and more steak, just like it is in Clarendon.

Still good, just not what it was.

But I digress …

I couldn't be more with you on the aggressive clearing of plates. It's a real problem with a lot of places, and it needs to stop. If a server doesn't reach in to snatch the plate without asking, then he or she invariably asks: "Are you still working?"

Don't you just want to reply: "Yes, and it's such a chore!"

All it takes is a little training, a little better reading of the table.

The other night, I had just reached in to a share plate to swab a bit of sauce with some bread. The waiter ought to have known that, most likely, the table probably wants to keep the plate a little while longer. But no. Four seconds after I'd removed my bread, the thing was snatched up and out.

Bad server, bad.

Tenleytown, DC

Todd, I just had to write in to tell you about an experience my group had last week. When I say my group, I mean my dining group. We all have a lot of fun going out to try all the new restaurants and share our experiences. We do this every other week.

We decided to go to Hook because we had heard such good things about the place. Well, we enjoyed most of our dishes, and the desserts were really good. However, the place left a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak.

To begin with I don't at all appreciate being asked to buy a bottle of wine before my meal starts. Maybe it was a good bottle of Prosecco, I don't know, but it's the principle of it. What's up with that? We started off with the crudos. Maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough to appreciate this, but I felt personally insulted by the portions. Todd, they're one bite!?! Three dollars for one bite. Even sushi they give you more than that. Am I missing something? It seems to me like they value appearance more than substance.

Like I said, we enjoyed our dishes. But again, it was kinda offputting to have to ask about the names. There had to be about six fish on there that I had never heard of before. The waiter explained about the fishes, but in a way that made us feel like we should have already known about them. He talked a lot about sustainability and the environment and there was even some promotional literature in the bill, which was cool but I would rather have had them come by with bread more or got us coffee before having to ask.

We were still talking about it the next morning and I said I would write to you to see what you think. Did we just have a bad experience? Is it something we're not getting? Is there nothing to get? Todd, help us!!

I can't say whether you're not sophisticated enough, but if a place makes you feel that way, then, unless it's dining at the very highest levels — in a restaurant that is innovative and sublime — then shame on the place.

I wrote about the Prosecco Pushiness in this space in May. I didn't like it then, don't like it now. To me, it's just plain bad business. What makes this any different from a waiter who describes the day's specials in great detail, and with great exuberance, and leaves off any mention of prices? He's cowed you into not-asking, because to ask, is to look like a cheapskate. Same here.

Does the wine go nicely with the food? Perhaps. But a lot of people will never know, because they simply won't order it on principle, as you suggested. 

I enjoy crudo, and think that the flavors, here, are clear and bright. But i do agree with you about the sizings. Very small, smaller than others I've sampled here and around the country.

As for being offput — is that even a word? … I can see where some people would love the idea of being exposed to something new and different, but I can also see that some people would find that, oh, just a wee bit pretentious. Sometimes, people just want to relax and enjoy themselves, and not be put into a situation where they're required to engage in a dialogue and have their consciousness raised. I don't think Hook is a huge offender when it comes to this, but it's not the sort of place you can call the shots in, no.

Arlington, VA
Hi Todd — I'm not sure if you're a viewer of Top Chef 3, or a fan of Rocco DiSpirito, but here's a comment he made on a recent Top Chef blog: "I mean as much as I love rabbit, who in the real world eats it? Unless Elmer Fudd is one of your VIP customers, Rabbit With Parisian Gnocchi (Parisian gnocchi is lighter, made with flour, egg whites and sometimes cheese — no potatoes) shouldn’t be served for a first course, second course or any course." Would love your take on this…is rabbit really "out" these days? Do you see it on many menus in the area (at least in the fall and winter months)? Or is Mr. DiSpirito just being a brat?

Maybe he meant to say — who in MTV's "The Real World" eats rabbit? 

I think that's silly, just plain silly.

I adore rabbit, especially when it's handled right. Often, it's not. But when it's good, it's good.

You see rabbit a little on restaurant menus — there's a rabbit dish right now at Central. I'd love to see more of it. 

But back to Rocco … I take this as yet another piece of evidence of the rabid dumbing-down of the culture, generally, and of food shows, specifically. Apparently, to use French terms in a cooking show, these days (non-PBS variety) is to insult the gentle, unlettered viewer out there in TV Land.

What a DiSpiriting remark.

What would you suggest for breakfast on thanksgiving morning…Hay Adams Hotel, Lafayette Room or Cafe Mozu at Oriental Hotel. Friends from out of state are visiting D.C. and we would like to have a special D.C. experience. Thanks

Breakfast on Thanksgiving morning? Celery and a big jug of water, to prep the body for the feast to come.

Aren't we planning just a wee bit early for the big day? I'm still sweltering over here. 

And, actually, I'm sorry to say I can't really help you out. I've never had breakfast in those places. Has anyone? Choggers?

Chevy Chase, Md
FYI — I had an excellent meal at the new Proof last weekend, my first visit. Both the bar and the restaurant were packed. Where do you rank it among the available alternatives in Penn Quarter?

Eh, I'm tired of ranking. I'm all ranked out, Bethesda.

Let's just say that, at the moment, I'd probably first consider the following for dropping a lot of money on a full meal: Poste, Oyamel, Zaytinya, Jaleo, Zengo, and PS 7's. Does Central Michel Richard count as Penn Quarter? That'd be at the top of my list. Le Paradou is sorta Penn Quarter. That'd go high on my list, too.

Based on two visits, I prefer Proof for picking among small plates, eating cheeses and meats and drinking wines.  

Petworth, DC
Hi Todd: Just chogging along here today! Going to Eve for my birthday dinner. Of the 5 or 9 course tastings…which do you recommend. The 9 course just seems so BIG! Anything not to be missed? As always…your input is greatly appreciated.

Seems big, but the portions aren't going to be all that big. I wouldn't worry about it.

Whether you should opt for 5 courses or 9 mostly depends on your sense of adventure — is eating out a kind of theater for you? — and how long a night you're looking for.

The Tasting Room menu changes a lot, so I really can't give you anything specific to look for.

But I think you'll be in for a lot of fun and some good memories.

Let us know which way you decided to go, and how things turned out. Deal?


Arlington, VA
What are some of the biggest food cliches you encounter in your job…in other words, menu items that are overdone, unimaginative, and downright boring?

Oh, wow. How much time do you have?

Let's see. Just for starters:

* Upscale mac-n-cheese

* Upscale s'mores that aren't really s'mores   

* Carpaccio anything

* Beet salads with goat cheese

* "Our version" of red velvet cake (can't anyone around here just make the freakin' cake?) 

How about the rest of you?

What's giving you palate fatigue?

Arlington, VA
Hi Todd – I love the short ribs served at Central, and I was recently told that they may have taken the short ribs off the menu. Do you know if that is true, and, if so, why? I need my short rib fix!!!

Still there. You're in luck.

Boy, they're good, aren't they? I'm tempted to include short ribs among the handful of palate-fatiguers, but this version is so imaginative and so delicious (looks like a steak, eats like a rib), I had to beg off.

Alexandria, VA
Husband and I have received a gift to treat ourselves to dinner. Giver's suggestion was Kinkead's; we've been. Want to try something new and wonderful for a special, all-out meal. Similar pricing to Kinkead's, otherwise no restrictions. We're curious about blue duck and brasserie beck if that helps. thanks!

Lucky, lucky.

I'd look into Central before I considered Blue Duck or Beck if I were you. 

And be forewarned: The menu doesn't offer up detailed descriptions of the dishes, unlike the vast majority of higher-end restaurants. So, you may not find yourself all that enticed, say, by "chicken rotisserie." Or "lobster burger."

But which would you rather have, a place that makes promises and doesn't often deliver, or a place that asks you to place your trust in it and comes through nearly every time.

The lobster burger, by the way, is a powerhouse. I don't think I've ever seen my sister-in-law happier with a plate of food in my life.

it seems like we're hitting the restaurant jackpot lately here in Clarendon. We have the Liberty Tavern and just down the street, Eleventh Street and on Washington Blvd, Tallula and Eat Bar. Lucky us, not having to go into DC to eat good food….Yea!

Yeah, lucky you, and more to come, too.

But Clarendon is also quickly becoming a kind of yuppie ghetto, with a certain sameness of customer, and a certain sameness of intention in a lot of shops and restaurants and buildings.

Re: Lobster burger
Had the lobster burger at Central very recently, because I love lobster and wanted to see if it lived up to the hype. I was disappointed—and the price tag is now over $30….

Well, it's not over $30 — it's $29. ; )

That's expensive, I agree. But I also think it's worth it.

And really, how much of anything — in any realm — actually lives up to the hype?


Arlington, VA
As a 20-something govie (read: poor) I thought the lobster burger at Central was well worth my $29 last week! Unfortunately the service I got was less than stellar, which usually has something to do with looking as young as I do. On a brighter note, both the food and service I've gotten recently at the TenPenh/Ceiba group has been great, along with the food.

Sorry: no 20-something who works for the government is "poor." Not a lot of money and no prospects for the future, that's poor.

You've got upward mobility.

And heck, you can't call yourself poor and then tell us you just splurged on a burger for 29 bucks, can you? And this on top of recent visits to Ten Penh and Ceiba?

Ah, it's a rant-y day …

Glad to hear you enjoyed the burger, and glad to hear about Ceiba and TenPenh, too.

I need a light, relaxing lunch. Can't be showing up all out of sorts to take my mother out for her birthday.

As for the rest of you, be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week …