November 6, 2007 @ 11AM

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


Word of Mouth …

… If you've ever despaired over rubbery chicken and crunchy rice served at 40,000 feet, you know there's nothing worse than airline food.

Except, perhaps, food on the train.

Executives at Amtrak's high-speed Acela are bidding to erase that impression. Later this month, the train's first-class customers will get a surprise when they sit down to meals conceived and developed by Michel Richard.

Mel Davis, Richard's executive assistant, said the puckish chef's version of meals on wheels is going to be "geared for what they can produce on a train." In other words: Wealthy travelers should not expect to sup on such concoctions as Richard's "hanging" presentation of hamachi and eel at Citronelle, razor-thin slices of which (along with cubes of beet jelly, beet chips and various dabs of oil and sauce) are served on a sheet of durable clear plastic wrap stretched taut across an empty white bowl, creating a fascinating network of shadows on the inner walls.

But what, then? Lobster burgers? "Faux" gras? Davis wouldn't say.

Richard's glinting-eyed visage will appear in stations up and down the Northeast corridor as a means of promoting the new feature. Richard is the first chef Amtrak has hired, but he won't be the last. The plan is to select a chef from each region in the country to create and develop a menu. …

… Speaking of Richard: I hear complaints from time to time about Citronelle, but when it's on, no restaurant in the city comes close to matching it — and few restaurants in the country. You come away from a meal, not just sated and happy, but with an appreciation of the chef's boundless sense of energy and invention, and perhaps even the feeling you have experienced a new way of seeing and thinking. …

The Source, Wolfgang's Puck's first foray into DC, is off to a promising start; let's hope the kitchen can learn to dial down the sweetness that too often creeps into many of the dishes on the all-Asian menu. …

… Several weeks ago, one of you challenged me to coming up with a list of the most over-hyped restaurants in the area. But what about the most underappreciated? That'd be a pretty long list. For me, it would have to include the following delicious spots, all of which continue to struggle for customers: Queen Makeda on 9th St. and Zenebech Injera on 6th St. for good Ethiopian cooking (the latter is a carry-out, with only a couple of tables, but if you're lucky enough to snag one of them, you can expect warm and gracious table service); Masala Country in Centreville for dazzling fast food Indian cooking (don't laugh — at its best, it surpasses what you'll find these days at Indique); Pyramid for soulful Moroccan cooking; Shamshiry in Tysons for great Persian; Tai Shan in Gaithersburg for Chinese; La Limena for good Peruvian; La Flor de la Canela in Gaithersburg for really good Peruvian; Nark Kara in Bethesda for smart and rewarding Thai; and PS 7's for creative Modern American (killer mini half-smokes and crispy fries). …


Hi Todd. Hey, have you been to this place in Sterling called Hooked? Not to be confused with Hook in DC. My wife and I have been several times- very cool atmosphere and the food has been amazing- very surprising given that it's in a little shopping center in Lowes Island. Do you know this Chef? I think he was at Citronnelle? (sp?)

I haven't been, no. All I know, really, is that it recently opened. Thanks for the report.

But — "amazing"? Seriously?

Even the amazing places sometimes aren't amazing.

Have you tried the thanksgiving dinner at Citronelle? If not you personally, any hearsay from others you know? Thanks.

I haven't. it's the one night of the year where I can safely say I'll be eating in.

Has anyone? I'm curious to know, too …

And speaking of Thanksgiving: I'd love to hear about some of your treasured family recipes, the ones you simply can't eliminate from your T-Day menus. 

That's two burning questions for the day, then —

What'd go on your list of underappreciated restaurants? And what are your most enduring T-day dishes?

Let's hear 'em …

Am I Cheap?
What is your opinion about tipping on the base rather than the base + tax? My husband and I generally tip 20% (unless the services is REALLY bad) on the base and a friend recently accused us of being cheap.

Your friend is wrong. You tip on the base, not the base + the tax.

"Accused," huh?

Man, the only thing worse than self-righteousness is self-righteousness in the ignorant. It's easy to spot — it tends to be loud, bombastic and bullying.

Hi Todd! Any advice as to where to pick up a good pumpkin pie for the holiday season?

I'd be curious to hear what sorts of places the rest of you suggest, but if it were me and I needed a pie this season, I'd first check in with Desserts by Gerard, on Livingston Rd. in Oxon Hill (301-839-2185).

Gerard Huet, the co-owner (with his wife) and chief baker, who has been plying his trade at this tiny, nondescript location since the early '90s, is a former pastry chef at the Watergate.

Terrific place and extremely reasonable prices to boot.

which food writers (and writers in general) do you like? what are the last few books you read?

Well, I really like Calvin Trillin — his sense of humor, his pacing, his observations. His stuff just sucks you in. Sometimes you find yourself thinking: Ah, let me check out the first paragraph. Then, next thing you know, you're deep in the midst of some long and (seemingly) meandering piece of his, havingt lost all sense of time. Trillin's great that way.

The last few books I've read …

I always have a few books going at one time. Right now I'm finishing reading John Edgar Wideman's Fanon, which is giving some reviewers fits because it's not really what it seems to be (I think it's fascinating, and, in parts, beautiful). I'm also reading Julia Blackburn's Old Man Goya (it blends nonfiction and fiction to get at the core of the great painter) and a book by a British satirist, Howard Jacobson, called Kalooki Nights. Extremely funny and extremely unsettling.

I just finished Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. It's got some terrific moments, but it's ultimately a minor work, less rewarding than Everyman, his previous novel — more in line with The Dying Animal (in its preoccupations and in its raggedness, although, if anything, it's meaner), and far from the richness and complexity of the great books of his late period: Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral and The Human Stain.

Bethesda, MD
Hi Todd- Question about the above-mentioned Nark Kara in Bethesda. They have their menu posted online (yay), but curiously, they seem not have larb gai (pretty standard thai fare, no?) or that spicy beef salad that my husband must have. Are there other things available that are not listed on the reletively short menu?

Huh. I remember seeing larb on the menu the last time I was there.

My advice: Go. Food's good and consistent, and there's enough to choose from to keep a lot of people happy. 

Do you eat the hot chicken at Prince's? Can you finish the whole plate? Are you crazy or just bulletproof?

Say wha–?

Are you talking about Prince Cafe in Georgetown, shut down by health inspectors a while back for violations of code?

Or could it be you're talking about … the bad one, the master — Prince himself? A dish of chicken prepared by The Royal One's own personal chef?

Boy, what I wouldn't give to try THAT.

"Hot Chicken," you say? Fashioned delicately into the shape of a man-woman symbol and cloaked in a rich, dark (one might say purplish) sauce, this is a chicken to remember … a chicken that makes you want to dance … makes you want to scream … makes you want to do thangs … 

Downtown, DC
I dined at Citronelle for Thanksigiving last year and thought it was ok. One thing that I appreciated is that the food is traditional, which is what I was hoping for at Thanksgiving. The dessert table is excellent, also. But I think that same positive aspect is also a negative one — since the food is traditional, you're less likely to be wowed. Also, I didn't think it was up to Citronelle's usual standards in terms of quality (I've dined there probably 3 other times), but that may be because buffet food simply doesn't serve as well. Lastly, you also (obviously) lose out on some of the service experience, which, at a place like Citronelle, is part of the point of going. My boyfriend, however, really liked it. Maybe he's not as prejudiced against buffets.

Thanks for the insightful heads-up.

Buffet can never compare to a dish cooked a la minute — even if it is a practical necessity for the day. 

Anybody else?

Washington DC
Any advice on a good rub for a turkey? Plus, what do you recommend for a gravy?

Best advice I can give you for a rub is to grind your spices (whole, new) the moment before you plan to slather them on the bird. Other than that, it all depends — depends on which spices you like and which you don't.

Me, I like doing a fennel spice rub with poultry and some game (fennel, white pepper and salt). But that might not be to your taste.

As for gravy, I think that the pan drippings plus flour plus a shot of white wine makes for a nice sauce. The last couple of years, I've done a maple-butter glaze for the turkey, and that makes for an interestingly sweet, dark sauce that relieves the need some people have for topping their slices of turkey with cranberry sauce.

Best Pies hands down
Mom's pies- they have a few locations in No. Va. Seriously the best pies ever!
Thanks for the tip!
cheverly, md
At your suggestion we drove all the way to Fairfax one evening to eat at Saravana Palace….was it ever worth it! Thanks for the suggestion, I can't wait to go back. Have you been to the new Olazzo? Anything different?

Haven't been to the new Olazzo, no.

That's funny about Sararana Palace, because on my most recent trip there, not so very long ago, I came away disappointed — greasy poori, a slightly oily coconut rice that no longer sported fresh curls of coconut, and curries that lacked the kick and complexity I'd remembered.

I haven't given up on it, Cheverly, but it wasn't a good sign for a place that was, for a time, doing such fantastic and consistent work.

Loudoun County, VA
For under appreciated restaurant, I would like to add Kabob Cafe in Sterling (Afghan). I can't allow myself to leave without taking both kinds of homemade desserts home with me, baklava and ferni! Now THERE'S something I wouldn't mind finishing off my turkey day dinner with.

Good one! 

It sounds like you're like me: After all that plain, starchy American cooking, I find myself longing for something interesting and ethnic by the time the weekend rolls around. Slippery textures, lots of spice, complex seasonings …

Washington DC
Hi Todd, Have been a fan of yours since City Paper days. But I am sorry to say that your choice of picking Indian Restaurants – most of them disappointing. We first drove all the way to Bombay – New Hampshire Avenue- Disappointing! – We went to Sarvana Place – terrible! And now the latest JOKE is that you are saying that Masala Wok is better than Indique.

Masala Country, not Wok. And yes, the food is more interesting and exciting than what's coming out of the kitchen these days at Indique.

As for Bombay, I stand by my endorsement. It's got some of the best curries in the area.

You're not one of those scene-hounds, are you? Because neither of these places is much to look at, and Bombay also has pretty surly service. 

I know that decor and atmosphere influences a lot of what people like when they go out — subtly and not so subtly. For a lot of people, a stylish-looking place with lots of stylish people sitting in it makes everything taste better.

Anyway, I'm not one of those.

And just curious — what would you propose that's better than these places?

Ah, well, on that confrontational note … Eat well, be well and let's do it again next week at 11 …