November 13, 2007 @ 11AM

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

Word of Mouth … 

… For me, barbecue isn't just summer food. In the fall and winter, especially, a heaping mound of smoky, luscious pulled pork or pink-tinged ribs is great comfort on the kind of raw, rainy, blustery days that can leave you low. One of my favorite joints in the area, Johnny Boy's Ribs, in La Plata, is just a collection of picnic tables, with no protection against the elements, but Chubby's Southern Style Barbecue (Route 15 north at Old Frederick Road, Emmitsburg, Md.; 301-447-3322) is an enclosed, full-service restaurant that will keep you dry and warm as you chow down on tasty plates of 'cue. As is the case with most of the best barbecue in the area, you have to hit the road and plan your day around an outing — the restaurant's in farflung Emmitsburg, Maryland, five minutes from the Mason-Dixon line. Owner Tom Caulfield claims he can make it from his home in Chevy Chase in under an hour, but I think that's the talk of a veteran driver who's got his journey down. It's a haul.

Is it worth it?

If you order right, absolutely. Which is to say, if you order the pulled pork and the brisket. The former is pink as blush, seductively smoky and served up in thickly hacked hunks that separate into gorgeous ropes of meat at the poke of a fork. Mercifully, it's also not bathed (and disguised) in a ladling of sauce. The meat cooks overnight for fourteen hours in a smoker, as does the brisket, which bears the hallmark of all great briskets, a soft, almost melting texture that can only come from all those stubborn, internal fibers being made to break down gradually over time.

Chubby's isn't perfect, and its flaws can seem magnified in direct proportion to the number of minutes you've driven. The ribs aren't great (a lot chewier than I like, with a sort of pre-cooked quality to the meat), the cornbread's too sweet, the sides other than the beans are forgettable (I'd pass on all of them and load up on a cup of the excellent, modestly rich crab soup) and the desserts are often insipid. In this, of course, Chubby's isn't much different from its competition. At the moment, there's no single 'cue joint that meets all my needs — great ribs and pulled pork, excellent sides, terrific pies. We take what we can get. And for me, good pulled pork and good brisket is enough. …
 

Bethesda, MD
Tried El Mariachi yesterday- wow it was really, really awful. I love Mexican food, but so far the only place I like is Rio Grande Cafe. Their fajitas really are the best around- Cactus Cantina is just about as good, in my opinion. Are there any other places to get decent Mexican food near Bethesda or Rockville?? I drove past Samantha's, which I had heard is really good, but it looks like a dive from the outside- is it worth venturing in?

Hey, not so fast. A lot of really terrific food in the area is coming out of what look like dives. Don't judge a restaurant by its exterior.

Samantha's is Salvadoran, and many of the Mexican restaurants in the area are really what you'd call Salva-Mex — Mexican cooking being done by Salvadorans. Some are good, some aren't. 

In Bethesda and Rockville, you're pretty limited when it comes to Mexican cooking. If you want something truly tasty, with lots of soul, you've got to go to Columbia Heights (Taqueria Distrito Federal) or Riverdale (La Sirenita).

And guess what? Both of those places aren't going to inspire confidence in the vast majority of the dining population.

DC
WHERE IS A GREAT PLACE FOR STEAK IN DC, JUST MOVED FROM LA–HELP!!!!

Two of my favorites are Ray's the Steaks, in Clarendon, and Ray's the Classics, in Silver Spring. They're not what you'd call classic steakhouses — dark, manly dens where fat cans go to schmooze and compete to see who's more manly (measurable by who can manage to scarf down a whole, hulking steak at lunchtime).

I'd also suggest BLT Steak, an import from New York. It's not really a classic steakhouse, either — although it's priced like one. The creator is French, and the best parts of the meal are the Frenchiest: homemade gruyere popovers and a mason jar full of some of the richest, creamiest pate you'll ever eat.

 

Columbia Heights, DC
The first question related to dives got me to wondering. I would like to be more of a brave "dive restaurant" pathblazer. Up until now, I'm happy to go to a dive, but only if it's already been given a critical endorsement. How can I go about discovering new dive restaurants on my own? And are there initial signs of a good (or bad) dive that can help identify it before actually eating there?

What a great question, CH.

I don't know if there are any sure-fire signs to look for, but I spend a good deal of my time poking around shopping centers across the area in the hope of striking gold and I think I've come up with some ideas.

One is to read the menu if it's posted outside (or to ask for a copy if not). I look for dishes I seldom see anywhere else — particularly when it comes to ethnic eating. That often suggests that the kitchen is up to something different, that it's breaking from the pack. Not a guarantee of greatness, mind you — but a good sign.

You can also tell a lot just from walking in and taking the measure of a place. I do this a lot, and turn and walk away just as often as sit down for a meal. What am I looking for? A sense of energy, a sense of purpose. That's hard enough to find in any restaurant, whether it's an ethnic hole in the wall or a high-toned spot with a publicity machine behind it. Do you get greeted nicely, warmly? Is the place clean? Does the staff go about its rounds with a sense of direction and mission, or do you detect a kind of drift? 

Most of the time, you can pick up on these things in about twenty seconds. Again, there are no guarantees the food's going to be great if everything checks out. But if the menu looks interesting or worthwhikle, and if all these things meet with your approval, then I almost always sit down and take my chances.

Finally, you can always dip a toe into the water rather than diving in by ordering a couple of appetizers, as opposed to a full meal. At every level of dining, it's rare that main courses are as good, or better, than appetizers, so it's a good way of testing the system. And of saving your money. 

Petworth
I LOVE Moroni & Bro. pizza on Georgia Ave. Which of their pizzas do you prefer?

I like their simpler pies — any of the pizzas with fewer than three toppings. But then, that's usually the way I go at any pizza place.

It's a promising spot. I hope they can keep it up and continue to add to their audience.

And Petworth, don't miss out on the tasty Salvadoran food just because you've zeroed in on the pies; I love the carne deshilada.

Washington DC
Hi Todd, Love your chat sessions. We were invited by the Ambassador of India at his residence for dinner on Sunday evening to celebrate "Diwali", the festival of lights and were treated to some amazing vegetarian food – mostly regional food from different parts of India and not the usual aloo gobhi, baingan bhartha , paneer mattar etc so predictible in Indian restaurnts. We thanked Mrs. Ronan Sen, the wife of the Ambassador of India and she told us to thank Indique Heights – that is where she got the food from!

Nice!

But why do I suspect that the folks at Indique Heights are lurking behind this comment, as well as some of the others I've received over the past couple of months taking exception to my criticisms.

I don't doubt that Indique Heights, or its parent, Indique, is capable of turning out terrific food at an event like that. I just wish there were more consistency at the two restaurants.

DC
Were you at the Capital Food Fight?
Maybe …
Rockville, MD
Have you tried the Source? I went there, and I couldn't believe how much the entrees were. Is it really worth all that money? I just stuck to appetizers at the lower floor, as it was cheaper. I rather go to Capital Grille, then pluck down $45 for a steak there.

You talk about the entrees — how about the appetizers? They're pushing hard against the twenty-dollar barrier.

But I'll say this: Already it's a better restaurant than Capital Grille, and may get better, still.

Is it worth the money? That I won't know for a while. The place has only been open a little while, and I'll need to return a couple more times to be able to make that kind of judgment. 

Rockville, MD
I went to Fiamma in NYC over the weekend, and the food was still good, but I was surprised the menu looked like Maestro's. I also noticied a lot of waiters moved to NYC to be with Fabio. The service was a little disappointing, as there was two waiters on the floor. Is it normal for chefs to still have the same menu when opening a new restaurant?

Normal? I've seen it happen often enough that it doesn't surprise me. Nor does it surprise me to see someone start afresh.

But keep in mind, a chef's cuisine is his cuisine, arrived at by trial and error over many years and many, many meals. A dish might change, here and there, an ingredient might change — but a cuisine doesn't.

It's a big transition to make, to go from one city to another, with a new set of expectations and a new and skeptical audience. Why not continue doing the same dishes as before? Those dishes were pretty wonderful. 

Right? You dance with the one you brung with. 

VA
Do you know of any places where I can donate left-over Thanksgiving food (we always have so much extra and it is ashame to waste it!). Thank you.

Great question. And I wish I had a great answer.

It's a dicey matter, dealing with leftovers and donations.

Can anyone help in this regard? Any place to turn?

L Street
Where's the best place to get blackberry pie???

You know, I haven't seen a lot of blackberry pie in my travels this fall. 

Not a lot of sweet shops I've been to have had it, and I almost never see pie on restaurant menus anymore. Blackberry crumble, sure — but no pie. Pastry chefs are loath, I think, to put pie on the menu and come across as old-fashioned and not forward-thinking.

Valerie Hill, the pastry chef at Johnny's Half Shell, clearly doesn't mind the "old-fashioned" label and does a fantastic job with pies and cakes. I wish she had a blackberry pie on her menu right now.

I don't see why pie (or layer cake) couldn't occupy a slot on a creative dessert menu, in much the way that steak does on the regular menu at many ambitious restaurants. I mean, what satisfies like a great slice of pie or a great slice of layer cake?

Washington DC
I would check with DC central Kitchen.
Sure. A great place to start, anyway. Thanks for chiming in, DC.
WestEnd Bistro
Have you been to Eric Ripert's new restaurant in DC? I saw the menu prices, and it is pretty affordable.

Haven't been yet, no. Still too new. Although I did recently eat three meals at Le Bernardin in New York, in preparation. All fabulous.

But Westend isn't Le Bernardin, far from it. Le Bernardin's got seven sous chefs, for starters. This is a different team (made up largely of Ritz employees) and a different menu and emphasis.

Your comment about "affordability" is an interesting one, especially in light of the opening of Westend and, before it, the opening of Central Michel Richard and the opening of Brasserie Beck. When I step back from the foodie world and mention to my friends in passing that a new restaurant has a hamburger on the menu for $18, their eyes bug out. As they should. That's not cheap by any stretch. I like to try to keep these kinds of things in perspective.

But if you've eaten at these chefs' other restaurants and paid a premium to do it, then that burger starts looking more and more like a decent value. Especially if it's a really good one.

Washington DC
Your chat board is much slower that your competitor Tom Sietsema's! Pour quoi?

Jesus.

Well, it could be that the Washington Post Company is a huge multimedia corporation with vast resources, as compared to an independent magazine that doesn't reach 1.5 million readers every day. Could be.

Could be that it's slower because I produce my own chats, meaning I read all the questions that come into the queue, then download the one I want when I want it, then answer it, then cut and paste that answer into the running text. That takes time.

I also try to take my time with questions, in the hope that all of you aren't just coming on here looking for "information," but are interested in a real chat. Maybe I'm wrong. But I think it's more interesting that way.

 

Brookland, DC
Takoma Kitchen, on the corner of Riggs and East-West, has excellent pies. They might have blackberry, but if they don't you can't go wrong with apple, pumpkin, sweet potato, or pecan.

Speaking of uncovering a gem where you least expect it — Takoma Kitchen's about as hidden as it gets.

Way to go, Brookland! 

DC
Todd, I'd like to surprise my best man with a delicious dinner at one of the new places in town. What I'd like to avoid, if possible, is spending a lot of money for a so-so experience. Now, would you go to The Source or Westend Bistro or some other not-big-name-chef place? Thanks ever much

If Central Michel Richard is still new enough for you to consider, then I'd think about there, first. Terrific atmosphere, and the food is frequently dazzling.

Like I said, I haven't been to The Source enough yet to make a final judgment on it, and Westend just opened.

I'd also think hard about a place like Mendocino Grille in Georgetown — Barry Koslow is not a big name chef, but the place is consistent and rewarding.

DC
i seem to recall that when cakes and pies were on the menu at palena you were faulting the dessert menu as unworthy of the food that preceded it. now that they are gone, to you still feel that way? i'm still in the mood for the german chocolate cake or the cookie plate, but the only way to satisfy the craving is to look up the recipes in ann amernick's cook book and bake them myself.

I always liked that cookie plate (and loved the caramels). But yeah, I think the sweets are much better match these days for the food. 

And I don't think that every single restaurant ought to have cake and pie on the menu. It doesn't work in every context. But A cake and A pie — assuming they're invested with love — would be a benefit to a lot of restaurants.

 

Falls Church, VA
This is a question for your technie people, not the chatline: almost every Tuesday I have to keep refreshing your column over an hour or two in order to completely read the questions and answers. Is there something wrong with the technology? Am I the only one complaining? Thank you. I like the exchanges but not how hard it is for me, every week, to read your column.
Well, I'm gonna post it, anyway, in the hope of stirring up a discussion (if only internally). Thanks for your comments, Falls Church.
Arlington, VA
I'm trying to figure out a good restaurant to check out next – would you recommend Hook or Beck's?
I'd recommend both, actually — although at the moment, I prefer Brasserie Beck. And it's certainly the more comfortable of the two.
wheaton, Md
I am going to New York for a week. As a foodie what are the must try places in NY? If you can give me a list of say about 10 places – all types, expensive, moderate, cheap ….

Here you go, Wheaton. My favorite 10 in NYC:

Reasonable: Kampuchea Noodle Bar; Momofuku Noodle Bar; Bouchon Bakery; Cafe Glechik, in Brooklyn

Moderate: Telepan; Esca

Expensive: DB Bistro Moderne; Babbo

Blowout Meals: Per Se and Le Bernardin

… And now of course I'm ravenous from typing that list. Off to lunch I go.

Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11.

(And please get well soon, TEK! I can't wait to see you up and about and painting like a master again … ) 

 

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