November 20, 2007 @ 11AM

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

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Good morning, chatters!

At least, those of you who are still in town and not on the road out, heading off to the relatives'.

A lot of you have been asking for some names of restaurants that will be serving Thanksgiving dinner this year. Well, we've got 'em. Take a look at the T-Day guide that Catherine Andrews and Erin Zimmer compiled.

Meantime, for those of you who are staying around and cooking, I'd love to get two things from you today.

One is some great family recipes. I'll be cooking on Thursday and although I have most of the meal all planned, I'm looking for … something. Something different. Something that catches my eye. So — hit me.

The second is some great Thanksgiving stories. You know the kind — spectacular kitchen disasters … epic embarrassments around the table … the spilling of family secrets. We've all got 'em.

When I was a little kid, we used to spend the day with my aunt, my father's sister. They didn't particularly get along. And things at her house always ran late, in part because she wasn't a skilled cook (something she never really did, otherwise) and in part because she didn't want to start the meal until after the football game. Football was sacrosanct. Nothing must come before football. Including dinner. Including family. So, we would all spend six and seven hours gorging on Fritos and dip.

Well, one year, I wasn't feeling so hot to begin with, and I'd just had an afternoon of junk food. The others were all on one couch, taking in the game. I was sitting on my aunt's nice couch (you can sense it coming now, can't you?) with my parents, watching "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." I had been waiting all day for this, and so had my father (he'd directed one of the actors and wanted to see how she'd do). But all that candy, and all that chocolate — and all that not real food — did something violent inside me, and just as my aunt brought over more Fritos and dip …

All over her nice couch. The deed was not dismissed, politely. My aunt talked about it. And returned to it, over and over again. It was a pretty glum meal after that. …

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Brookland, WDC
(Trying to catch-up on the chats!) In regards to the Oyamel scene described a few weeks ago on the chat, I had the exact same thing happen when I took my in-laws there about two months ago. We were having to stack out finished dishes on the table, because no one would clear them and servers kept bringing more! We asked 3 different staff members (who we had to flag down), and they all said they would get someone else, as if they could not help. It did not help that our waitress disappeared for over 30 minutes. It really is absurd to have such severe service issues at a place like that, particularly for the money we were paying. Based on your comments, why do restaurants not pay more attention to these things? I can tell you that bad service is a sure way for me to avoid going back to a restaurant. There are too many other good restaurants in the city for me to waste my time and money at a place with bad service. Sorry for the rant right before the holidays, but I'm interested in your thoughts.

Well, I've had the very same thing happen to me, so I can tell you you're not alone.

Restaurateurs will probably tell you it's because of a shallow talent pool of servers in the city. But I wonder if part of it has to do with the restaurateurs' attitudes about these places. A happy, chaotic, bustling place like Oyamel isn't meant to be fine dining (even if the food can be really good). In an atmosphere like that, maybe things are forgiven that are not forgiven elsewhere. Maybe the attitude is that the dishes are relatively inexpensive (albeit small), and so because of that, and because of the buzzing environment, the diner should not expect certain niceties that would drive up the cost.

This is speculation on my part, obviously; no restaurateur would ever admit such a thing.

Places like Oyamel are interesting, too, because regular folks I talk to (non-foodies, non-industry sorts) consider them pretty expensive nights out, while the restaurateurs and managers and industry folk tend to consider them pretty reasonable. Those small plates add up fast. It's a deceptive environment.

Re: Slow Washingtonian chat board
Dear Todd, First, who cares if your chat board is slower, if it even is? Is this a competition? Second, that comment is so typical of today's world – faster, faster, faster…more, more, more…product, product, product. To make a reference to "old-world" (in the best possible sense), your responses are thoughtful. Sometimes process is as valuable as product (or, answer in the case of chat boards). Third, please don't change your format. It is exactly the thoughtful answers – not just swinging information at us – that makes me consider and value this forum as much as I do. Thanks very much

Thanks — I appreciate your backing.

I do know that it's a lot more laborious for me than it used to be, before I wasn't my own producer. There are times I feel as if I'm doing twice as much work as I used to for the same result.

But no complaints — this is one of the highlights of my week. I love it.

 

DC
Hi Todd Indian food Missed your 11-06 chat and just read it after your 11-13 chat session. Ref. 11-06 comments on Indian food it seems the true gem with consistent quality of food and service is still Passage to India which you failed to mention last week. I have visited Passage a dozen times in the last 2-3 years after I read your praises about the place and have always had an excellent experience. My one gripe is their limited wine list and they do not permit BYOB because of County regs. You are right in your assessment of Saravana, off late the quality has slipped. Bombay in SS has never wowed me though it is never disappointing, just satisfactory. Same goes for Indique (bad) to Indique Heights (worse). Bombay Curry in Alexandria still has some nice dishes but the service really sucks unless the Owner is present. Rasika is a nice modern place but the food is not great. By the way how and where did you get so close to Indian cuisine? Your tastes are very similar to mine and I have traveled to India 6 times in the past 10 years. Also have a big circle of Indian friends at whose homes I am a guest pretty often. Thai in Bethesda—Nark Kara. Your two stars seemed wrong on both visits. The laugh is the crab cake which is pork, shrimp and almost no crab- and it is deep fried in a Tofu skin UGH. The food is too sweet and bland. Maybe I should give them another chance before writing them off my list. Ray’s the classics – Third time was definitely not the charm. Very ordinary food and lot of the earlier value-for-money dishes not on the menu any longer. Even the pickled veggies missing, the bread may be from Giants and the only standout was the mashed potatoes. The salmon with some sweetish sauce was absolutely dry. It is my favorite steak place but some of my friends who do not eat beef have a problem accompanying me there. Hope all is well with the organization and they will bounce back to their self.

Wow, what a report card, DC. Did you leave anything out? : )

I wouldn't write off Nark Kara. Maybe the thing to do is to dig deeper into the menu. I've had good luck with their curries, and I love their drunken noodles, which have a wonderful street food quality to them, lots of good char, and good chewiness, too.

(Bear in mind, also, that places tend to go through a change in the months immediately after a review. Some never recover.)

Interesting for me to hear the less-than-adoring takes on Bombay these last couple of weeks. Service is surly, to be sure, and I'm not always enamored of every single thing I've eaten there. But the curries are terrific — probably the best in the area.

Maryland
What is cooking tomorrow at the Klimans? Just a brief list if you do not have time for the full descriptive menu.

Ah, so you can then come back and fill in the missing dishes … Excellent.

The bird is going to be a heritage turkey (same as last year). I'll probably rub butter and sage under the skin. Over the skin, butter and maple syrup. Worked out beautifully last year. Heritage turkeys have beautiful, thick skin, and it comes out like crackling when it's done. And the sweetness of the maple syrup not only enhances the taste of the skin, it also makes for an interesting gravy.

Beyond that … whipped potatoes (put through a ricer, for extra fine fluffiness) … a cranberry relish I do with orange zest and candied ginger … either roasted asparagus or fresh green beans blanched and then sauteed in bacon fat, with shallots and a bit of good mustard mixed in … my wife's homemade rolls … maybe a corn pudding cooked in bacon fat (we've got a theme, don't we?). My sister-in-law is bringing what I call the sweet potatoe sundae — sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows and chocolate sauce. Nah, I'm kidding — no chocolate sauce. But it looks like it oughta be there.

For dessert, pumpkin pie and apple pie. And to drink? A Riesling, a Viognier from Chrysalis, and I haven't picked out a red yet.

 

Virginia
Hi Todd, I disagree with Irene's Pupusas appearance on various Washingtonian Cheap Eats lists. I don't know too much about pupusas and I tried Irene's because I read about it in the Washingtonian. While they are really a good value (HUGE pupusas for very little $$), I found the cheese pupusa lacking in flavor. I tried a small Salvadorean restaurant in Falls Church, Sarita's, and I think their pupusas are by far much better than Irene's and Sarita's is not even a pupusaeria. Sarita's pupusas are smaller but the dough is light and the cheese pupusas were quite flavorful ($1.75 each). I have since talked to other people from El Salvador who agree with me about Sarita's pupusas – some hadn't even heard of Irene's. Just some comments on the pupusas in the area! I think many other restaurants could beat out Irene's based on the taste of their pupusas. thanks!

I wouldn't put much stock in the fact that some of the Salvadoreans you've talked to haven't heard of Irene's. This is one of those instances, I'd be willing to bet, where the Maryland-Virginia divide comes into play.

To wit: Marylanders don't go into Virginia, and Virginians don't go into Maryland. No different for pupusas than for anything else.

There are enough pupuserias and pupusa trucks on the Maryland side of the river to keep Marylanders happy, and enough pupuserias and pupusa trucks on the Virginia side to keep Virginians happy.

A pupusa is street food, and you don't need to go into a pupuseria to get a good one. In fact, a lot of great ones can be found in the trucks, on the street.

But back to Irene's. It doesn't just make the list because of its pupusas. It's a pretty good restaurant in its own right, with a full and varied menu. It's even got a few Honduran specialties, including a tasty Honduran taco.

Dinner tonite
Dear Mr. Kliman I would appreciate if you could suggest a restaurant for a special dinner this evening – seafood preferably and the tab around $120 for two before tax and tip. Thanks in advance. I left it till too late and now the mind is numb so counting on you.

Easy: Kinkead's.

But go light on the wine. 

Bethesda
Any suggestions for where to take friend who is visiting from Switzerland? We're looking for a moderately-priced dinner place in Cleveland Park or Bethesda (parking is a must) and would like to show him something more along the lines of ethnic food (something that he can't get in Geneva…so no French food). Any suggestions would be wonderful! Thanks!

I'd take him to Faryab, in Bethesda (Cordell Ave.) for tasty Afghani cooking.

Look for the aushak, thin mint-filled dumpliings topped with a robust meat sauce and drizzled with a tangy yogurt. Also, the chalu, which is a sweet pumpkin dish — extremely satisfying and warming. I also like a stew of lamb, garlic and greens. It's very intense, very earthy.

Prices are good, and the environment is comfortable, although the dishes do tend to fly out of the kitchen at a rate that doesn't promote lingering. So, careful. 

Eastern Market, DC
I saw your last chat that ended with your favorite restaurants in NYC. I know it's a little far for regular discussion in a DC-centered food chat, but you have tried El Malecon, right? It is hands-down my favorite restaurant in New York.

I haven't, no. I know about them, though. A few locations, right? Dominican, mostly take-out?

What do you like there?

There's a location about twenty blocks north of my brother's place. But in my brother's world, that's not in the neighborhood. Twenty blocks, that's out of the neighborhood. That's a new neighborhood. It's difficult getting him and my sister-in-law (different sister-in-law, by the way, from the sweet potato sundae bringer) to go out to restaurants. 

"There's so much here in the neighborhood," they say, "why would you want to go anywhere else?"

The neighborhood is the Upper West Side, not exactly rolling in good restaurants. And it surely doesn't help any that their conception of the Upper West Side is about four blocks by six blocks.

Columbia Heights, DC
Good morning! Are there any good Sri Lankan restaurants in the metro area?

Not only aren't there any good ones. There aren't any ones, period.

 

DC
Help! Looking for a place to have an afternoon lunch on Christmas Day with some relatives. Would be fun to be downtown, but we're willing to travel. Any idea for a classic Christmas lunch? We'd do Four Seasons but we ate there very recently. Thanks!

Sheesh. Can't we get through Thanksgiving first?

I was in a Starbucks a few days ago, and it was all done up in green and red, and the jingles were playing. I said to the woman behind the counter: It's a week til Thanksgiving. She said: People like to start getting ready; Christmas is only five weeks away.

Just curious, though — what exactly would constitute a classic Christmas lunch? I've never heard that expression, or request, before, and I'm intrigued.

Eastern Market, Washington, DC
I've noticed that ethnic-food restaurants, especially Asian restaurants, don't actually serve the everyday fare from that country. Where can I find a Japanese soba restaurant, or an Indian meals/thali restaurant? If this isn't an oxymoron, where can I find good but "normal" ethnic restaurants?

Soba? You're not going to find anywhere in the area that does soba — at least not homemade soba. A number of Indian spots, however — including Saravana Palace and Woodlands — serve thalis.

The larger question is an interesting one, because it has to do with the idea of authenticity. I like places that serve dishes that I know are much the same as you would find if you were traveling in a particular country. At the same time, things change when people migrate. You get new mutations. In this country, two genres of cooking come to mind that evolved considerably from the countries of origin and are now widely dismissed by a lot of food snobs — Tex-Mex and Italian-American cooking.

Are these less-than cuisines? They're not authentic, no — if by authentic you mean hewing strictly to the culinary practices of their native lands. But within their own genres, yes, absolutely they are. The new genre creates new codes. 

The important question, of course, is always, or should always be: Is the cooking any good? Good trumps authentic. 

Eastern Market, DC
Re: El Malecon, yeah, Domican place. Take out is good, but it's a fun atmosphere inside. I always get the chicken (if there are multiple varieties there, I don't think I've ever seen it ordered) with their lime and chile concoction. Black beans, fried bananas, and rice. It's all very simple and very cheap. Definitely worth the twenty-block subway ride.

Ride? That's a walk, my friend. Them's short blocks, and there's lots to see. Here? Here, it might be a walk.

Place sounds good; my mouth's watering. Thanks for the heads-up.

 

Washington, DC
I'm looking for cheap lunch specials (fixed price) at yummy restaurants in the downtown area.

Me, too. Always.

Problem is, what's your definition of cheap? And yummy? Cheap and yummy and downtown: sorry, one of them just doesn't fit.

 

Washington, D.C.
Hi Todd. What would you do? It's my task to select a good restaurant and I'm stumped. Do I pick a restaurant that I love but I've been to before or do I pick a new place but am unsure of the experience and quality? The new places that I'm thinking about are Westend Bistro and Blue Duck Tavern? Oh what to do!? What would you do? Thanks for helping me out. Happy Thanksgiving

Well, you say it's a task, which I'm guessing means you're not picking for just yourself, that you're planning some kind of outing for a group. In that case, I'd go with what I knew to be the sure thing — a place you've been to, a place you can feel secure about, a place you can guide others through.

As for Westend and Blue Duck Tavern, well, you can always hit them at your leisure when the pressure's not on. Sound good?

And happy Thanksgiving to you, too. And to all the rest of you, too. 

Stuff yourselves, enjoy the time with your families, and let's meet back here next week at 11 for a special celery-stick-and-cubes-of-bouillion edition of the chat …

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