September 11, 2007 @ 11AM

Ask food & wine editor Todd Kliman a question about Washington area cuisine and restaurant news.


Word of Mouth …

… Ever tried a deep-fried hot dog?

Yep, you read right: deep-fried. Consider it a kind of gustatory doubling-down. Or taking a really-bad-for-you snack food and squaring it.

The story goes that Subway owner Jeff Weinberger, on a trip to New Jersey some time ago, discovered the wonder of deep-fried hot dogs and thought: Hey, why can't I get these back home?

A couple of months ago, he opened Doc's Grille (12729 Laurel Bowie Rd., Laurel; 301-483-9005) a couple of doors down from his Subway outlet, in a stripmall in Laurel. The name is an homage to his late father, a PhD.

The dog isn't swaddled in batter, just plopped into the fry basket, simple as that. It comes out looking like something that went awry in science class. Frying gives the dog a kind of second skin — thin and mottled and just enough to create an extra bit of textural interest. It's tasty, to be sure, although it's a little hard to lose yourself in the experience, knowing that with each and every bite, you're doing your arteries such damage.

The deep-fried dogs are the draw, but I prefer the grilled dogs, sporting nice char marks and stuffed inside the split, square-ish buns you used to get at Howard Johnson's — although not as buttery. They could use some time on the grill.

Where Doc's comes across as a little too plastic and chain-like is the fixin's bar, which is taken straight from a Subway — literally in this case, because Weinberg simply poaches from his restaurant's supply in stocking his toppings. Can't blame him, really, but do I really want ringlets of thin-sliced onions on my dog instead of the usual chopped onions? …

Nark Kara (4928 Cordell Ave, Bethesda; 301-652-2635), a new Thai restaurant in Bethesda, is intriguing, and not because its dining room is aswirl in color and light or because its menu is full of clever, unexpected concoctions or because its presentations are look-at-me artful– the usual means by which Thai places seek to distinguish themselves from the pack.

In fact, the dining room puts you in mind of a sauna, with its horizontal slats of blond wood, the menu couldn't be more doctrinaire, and the plating, by the standards of its showier competitors, feels almost restrained.

But then you dig into the nam sod, the pork counterpart to larb, and find a soft, almost spongy texture to the ground meat. If its flavors are not quite as balanced as you might hope, it's encouraging to see the kitchen err on the side of brightness and pungency; it relies heavily, here, on the fish sauce, nuoc mam, and a few good, generous squeezes of lime juice. The tightly bundled dumplings known as kanom jeeb, too often gluey and dense, are rendered as delicate, one-bite morsels, half the size of what you typically find, and carefully garnished with fried onion.

Drunken noodles, another warhorse, has a similar lightness of touch. The noodles aren't served in a bowl, as is usual — they're presented on a plate, casserole-style, with interleavings of meat. Nice touch. It eliminates some of the gloppiness that often occurs when hot noodles are allowed to congeal in a small bowl. Nicer is the fact that the noodles spend some time on the grill, picking up some good char and smoke. The result is a dish that resembles street food at its best — visceral and addictive.

Duck in red curry is as good a version as I've tried in recent years, a vivid, colorful bowl sporting well-rendered meat (which, though not quite luscious, is also not fatty), an abundance of holy basil (its dark, limp leaves looking like seaweed), and a gravy that is unrelenting in its heat. Pineapple and tomato are common additions — sweetness to balance heat — but the kitchen also tosses red grapes into the mix. Who knew? They're fabulous in the curry, a perfect match. …


Arlington, VA
I think I already know the answer to this, but is there any place in the area that serves traditional, well made Ramen? I keep thinking back to some of the great Ramen shops I visited while in Tokyo and have a craving that the store-bought stuff isn't going to cure.

It's not going to bring you back to Tokyo, but, in a pinch, I've got to think that the ramen bowls at Temari Cafe in Rockville will do.

It's a neat place, a kind of Japanese diner, fast and bustling, with attentive, gracious service and tasty food. Ignore the sushi menu (below par) and look elsewhere: not just to the ramen, but to the other soups, too, as well as the unadon (grilled, soy-painted eel layered atop bowls of rice), and the katsudon (the panko-breaded and fried cutlets of pork).

I included it this year in our 100 best Cheap Eats.

washington, dc
Hey Todd!!! I trust your palate. where is a good italian place in dc to have a good pasta! Just moved from NY. I've tried palena not impressed at all. money is not the issue as long as it great pasta– thanks

Thanks for the vote of confidence.

I do think you're going overboard in dumping on Palena — it's really not that kind of restaurant. I tend to think of it this way: Its French dishes seem Italian in their casualness and seeming simplicity, their wonderfully lived-in quality; its Italian dishes, meanwhile, seem French in their rigor and discipline.

But I think I know where you're coming from.

You want pasta without adornments, without fuss. And in big, generous servings that all but scream: abondanza.

What you want, I think, is a place like A La Lucia, on the edge of Old Town Alexandria. Look for the malfedini (ruffle-edged bands of pasta in a lusty ragu) and, especially, the canneloni — the best in the area.

Ben DC
Hey, where can you get soba in DC area? And what makes good soba? I have only read about it, but since I love all things Japanese I wanted to give it a try.

Where? Nowhere, as far as I know.

Too bad, too, because I love soba. Check that: I love homemade soba. There's no comparison, fresh vs. not-fresh.  I think the difference is even more pronounced than the difference between boxed pasta and from-scratch pasta.

Honmura An, in SoHo, made killer soba bowls but, sadly, the place closed earlier this year. I ate one of the best meals of my life there. Fresh soba noodles in a fresh duck broth, with gamy, slightly chewy bands of duck and slices of green onion. And another bowl of fresh soba noodles (I'm not a glutton; my wife was with me) with gargantuan pieces of uni — as  saltwatery and custardy as you could hope for — on top. Plus, a few rounds of some of the purest, most exquisite sashimi I've ever eaten.

I would love, love, love for some young hotshot chef to take the plunge and open a fresh soba shop in the city.

Arlington, VA
How responsible is a restaurant for the behavior of its clientele? The Oval Room has been a favorite of my wife and I since Tony Conte arrived. The service was always excellent, it is a very pleasant space, and now we rate the cuisine close to DC’s best. Unfortunately, the last few times we have been there, both as a couple and with friends, our dining neighbors have spoiled the experience. We have endured small children running around at will, a couple loudly celebrating each other’s multiple deficiencies, and most recently, a gaggle of interns whose conversation became louder and more vulgar the longer they sat and drank (except, of course, when the manager was in their vicinity). We don’t have problems of this sort or magnitude at any of the other restaurants we frequent, many very similar. This is not to say that we have not been involuntary witnesses to a few occasionally loud conversations at nearby tables, but never with this frequency or courseness. Over the years we have seen a few restaurants fail because of the crowd they began to draw. Do restaurant managers have both the means and the responsibility to maintain a reasonable level of decorum?

Good question. I'd be interested in hearing from some of the managers out there who are diligently monitoring this chat.

I wonder: How much can you reasonably do to control the behavior of your paying customers?

Yes, of course, you can move the offending table to another part of the restaurant, but how is this any different, really, from (socio-cultural alert) gentrifiers pushing out the "bad element" from the areas around U St. and Shaw and all but forcing them to take up residence in the towns just over the border in Maryland.

Right? You're not addressing the problem — just moving it elsewhere.

Washington, DC
We are looking for a restaurant new to Washington, DC that has a view, cool feel, good art work, something not ordinary. Evening reception cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in November for 50. We can buy out the restaurant if needed. Please let me know if there any new restaurants that fit that bill. Thanks. Marisa

Buy out the restaurant if needed? Whoa, boy. Big spenders.

Do you need every single one of your wishes met? Because I can think of a lot of places that I think would be right for you.

The stickler is a place with a good view.

Charlie Palmer Steak is one; it's got a view of the Capitol dome, all glowing and alabaster. But good art? Uh, no. The vibe is interesting — it's full of fat cats (this is the Hill, remember), but the dining room has an almost Asian mood and sensibility. Hardly at all like the dark, stuffy steakhouse dens of yore.

Otherwise, you might want to look into a place like Zaytinya, in Penn Quarter, which feels like the kind of restaurant you'd find in L.A.

Oyamel's another place in this vein, and also in Penn Quarter — colorful, exciting, and with a menu full of big, bright, bold flavors.

Hope that helps. 


Washington, DC
Hey Todd, Long time no chat … I've really missed chogging with everyone every week. I'm settling into my new job and just had to get back to my old faithfuls. Anyways, I love being in Dupont and all but I am having the hardest time finding a REAL Italian Hogie. The Potbelly is decent, but I want a real one. Like Italian Store good… but in Dupont. Is it possible? Say it is so! Please!! Let me know if there is hope. Thanks. Always a pleasure, Lisa

A REAL Italian hoagie? In Dupont. That's a good one, Lisa.

That'd be like finding a place with precious, yuppie food in Baltimore's Little Italy.

Headiing to Vidalia this wwekend for anv. dinner, what should we expect and not miss?

Ah, lucky you. And happy anniversary!

If you've never been, you can expect really rich but really refined renditions of Southern cooking. You can expect what might be the best bread basket in the city. Shrimp 'n' grits are terrific, a signature dish, as are the soft shells (if they're still on the menu; they ought to be).

But there's more here than meets the eye. Venture beyond the familiar-sounding dishes, and you'll realize just how intricate and detailed these plates are — befitting a chef (RJ Cooper) and a kitchen that is thoroughly steeped in classical French cooking. And even the staples are more interestingly adorned and elaborated upon than you might expect.

What else not to miss: the wines. It's one of the most interesting lists in the city, under the guidance of one of the best sommeliers, Doug Mohr. If you can afford it, opt for wine pairings with each course. If not, no worries: there are a lot of good wines by the glass, and even by the half-glass, so you can put together your own pairings.

Enjoy it, and check back in with us next week to let us know how things turned out.

Washington, DC
Todd, We're going up to the Maryland Wine Festival outside of Baltimore this weekend and are hoping that you can recommend a restaurant or two in the area. Thanks!

I believe it's in Westminster, right? A bit outside my purview.

Help me, choggers. Anyone else know what's good up there? 

Petworth, DC
You know how there are those "must have" ingredients that are so fleeting and seasonal? Garlic scapes, shad, fresh morels, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, soft shell crabs (mouth watering profusely now)? Well Todd my question is whether or not there are any of those ingredients on the horizon, and if so, where do we get them and what should we have?

Those ingredients? Those ingredients are gone, gone, gone.

What's on the horizon. Tubers! Tubers and squashes!

Exciting, huh?

In all seriousness, Fall can be pretty great, too. But you can see why so many chefs love Spring and Summer. Yes, they need to lighten their menus and scale back on their reliance on stocks and heavier sauces — but the abundance of produce! The challenge, in warm weather, is to do just enough to enhance the raw materials, just enough to tease out their sweetness — not so much that you get in their way.

Todd, Come on! You have to have SOME ideas … about the Italian Hogie? Please?! Lisa

Well, you said REAL. Not real. Better than real. REAL. I take you at your word.

You also said Dupont. Or close by.

And well, — that means I've got nothing for you. Sorry.

The best I can do is to tell you to take the red line up to Cleveland Park, get out and walk south toward Vace (it'll be on the left-hand side of the street). REAL? No, not that good. But the subs are good enough to be able to satisfy your cravings.

Speaking of which: I'm now craving soba. And there's nowhere to satisfy that want. (Thank you, Arlington. Thank you very much.) 

What I have to content myself with is, sorry to say, a humble little turkey sandwich this afternoon as I eat in and try to catch up on work.

But hey, there's always another meal around the corner.

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