Tuesday, January 15 at 11 AM

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

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Word of Mouth …

… This is going to be an unadulterated rave, so bear with me if I get sappy.

I love Nava Thai Noodle and Grill (11315 Fern St., Wheaton; 240-430-0495).

I love the look of the place, the two-tone olive paint job, the shadow boxes on the walls, the lacquered tables. I love that you have to make an effort to find it, that the restaurant sits at the butt end of a grocery store in the back of a parking lot like a secret to be discovered. I love the service, smiling and gracious and proud. I love the explanation on the menu of the heat index, which moves from "a little spicy" to "spicy" to "so very spicy." I love the rotating tiny cart on each table, which contains a meal's worth of condiments in tiny pinch bowls: sugar, chili sauce, chili flakes, vinegar and hot pepper sauce.

Most of all I love the cooking, which issues from such a cramped, narrow space that it's astonishing to encounter such a range of flavors and textures at the table.

I'm about a third of the way through the menu, and there's not a single dish I haven't liked. The vast majority I've adored. And many I would return to again and again for their bracing sharpness and pungency.

Start with the Hot and Sour Shrimp, or the Hot and Sour Squid, or both — I'd have a hard time choosing, myself. Actually, I'd probably give the nod to the squid, whose pulpy exterior bears such intricate crosshatchings, you'll think you were examining an Escher print. Those crosshatchings are the reason the squid, typically the texture of industrial rubber bands in most restaurants, simply melts in your mouth. Both dishes come doused with a chili lime sauce that contains slivers of celery and red onion and torn bits of cilantro and is so good, so addictive, it should be bottled.

The Floating Market Soup is an end in itself but also makes for a fantastic introduction to any meal. There's nothing even remotely like this dish on area Thai menus, a big, steaming bowl of broth the color of a dark roux that manages to be rich and beefy and sweet and spicy and aromatic and sour, all at once. Inside, it's more crowded than most stews: slices of pork, fish balls, bean sprouts, watercress, along with a thick tangle of noodles and a handful of pork rinds, which function as a sort of Thai version of croutons, an unexpected but welcome textural change-up. The ingredient you don't see (and which isn't listed in the description) but whose influence is unmistakable, adding an incalculable richness, is a shot of cow's blood.

And the details just keep coming.

The Panang Curry is the best version of the dish I've tried around town. And by far the prettiest. The thick peanut curry — you can choose chicken or pork or beef — is spooned onto a stylish aqua-colored plate, dolloped with coconut milk and topped with a mince of red hot pepper and thin shavings of kaffir lime leaf.

The Pad Thai is that rare thing: a good Pad Thai, a Pad Thai neither gloppy nor bland. The quick stir-frying of the noodles, the hail of pulverized peanuts, the generous spritzing of lime — all these things restore the dish to its proper street food origins. Small wonder you can't help picking at the dish long after you're full.

Grilled Chicken and Sticky Rice brings a half chicken as succulent as any of the great rotisserie shops in Nava's neighborhood, along with a side of non-sweet sticky rice and what tastes like a tamarind dipping sauce, sweet and sour and funky.

The obvious fondness for sour and heat in these dishes makes me think, for some reason, of the way jazz pianists talk about "voicings" — the stresses the player gives a note in a tune that makes that tune distinctively his own. Perhaps these notes stand out for me because so much Thai cooking in the area is so often so sweet — sweet to its detriment, sweet in a way that tends to blanket over the other flavors in a dish, the hits of salty-fishy and sour and funky that Thai cooking needs. Here, sweetness is subordinated to sour and hot, to funk and salty-fishy. The result is cooking that is bigger, bolder and brighter than just about anywhere else.

What don't I like? I don't like the premade, carryout desserts. The sticky rice with custard would be so much better if it were made closer to dinner time and given a quick reheating.

One quibble. One.

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Re: PG county restaurants
Dear Todd, First, Happy New Year! I haven't been around so the greeting is belated. Second. I am catching up…. I love your chats and am often in agreement with you. However, in response to last week's chat where you talk about PG county restaurants, or lack thereof, and you liken it to setting up shop in New York City – for example, Williamsburg or DUMBO – I hope you don't mind if I make a suggestion to your comparison. I would offer that a better-matched analogy is Queens. Queens is an ethnically-diverse borough that is coming into its own and capitalizing on the food scene by celebrating its rich diversity and putting it on the food map in New York City and its surrounding environs. Queens may not have, yet, the Manhattan high-end restaurants but it sure is a food-worthy destination for those who appreciate great food. The reason that I don't think that your likening PG county to Williamsburg or DUMBO is accurate is because, in general, neither really is ethnically-rich with diversity nor not all that different than a little segment of Manhattanites that have settled "just a bit" outide of the city. Thanks for letting me share.

Thanks for writing in — I love it when we can continue the conversation from week to week and get real, engaged discussion going.

Be interesting to see if we can sustain this one for a while. I'd like to. And I'd like to hear from restaurateurs and chefs, too.

The reason I didn't make an analogy to Queens last week is because, to me, Queens is already a done deal — it's teeming with all sorts of ethnic restaurants. It's got an astonishing variety of cultures, all packed into one (not quite big enough) borough.

Prince George's is different. In truth, it's really not "diverse," a word I don't take a shine to, by the way — it's too easy to use it to avoid talking about the problem, the real problem, and when people speak of "diversity" as a political goal or a social goal, too often they're only talking about a kind of crayola diversity (different colors, but a difference, only, of surfaces — not ideas.)

Prince George's is largely black and white — and largely black among the black and white.

As they say, no metaphor runs on all four wheels, and the analogy to Williamsburg and DUMBO isn't the smoothest ride, I realize. But in this sense, I think the analogy is apt: Both are places that restaurateurs have taken a chance on, that were previously regarded as barren and worthless.

 

HIGHLAND, MD
Dear Mr Kliman, I read your comments about Mrs K's. If you were speaking of the place 10 years ago, I could not agree more. However, this place has transformed into a fabulous high quality destination. The wine list is the best in the county , and the food is amazing. In 2007 ,chef Marise was a finalist in the MRA's "chef of the year" honors. If you try it again, it will probably make your top 100. Wine cellar and caves are remarkable. Try the Octypus. Better than I had anywhere in Greece. Thanks for the great column and information. Gus Kalaris

I was talking about the place two years ago, but anyway. That's great to hear — shocking to hear, actually. 

But in Gus I'd be inclined to trust. For those of you who don't know, the man runs Constantine Wines, an import and distribution business in Montgomery County. 

What else have you eaten that you've liked, Gus? And what wines are you drinking these days? 

Mclean, VA
I have long respected the top 100 restaurants, however I was greatly disheartened that you chose to include Liberty Tavern among the fine Cream of the crop. Sure it's good, but it's not that good. But maybe I missed something?

Greatly disheartened? Really?

I guess I'd ask how many times you've been. And what you ate. I haven't had a bad meal there.

There are things it doesn't give you, to be sure — it's not pampering, the food isn't going to wow you — but unlike a lot of places, it delivers what it promises. That counts for something.

Upper Marlboro, MD
We took you up on your recommendation for KBQ and had lunch there. We each had a 2 meat platter with baked beans, cole slaw and jalapeno cheddar corn bread. The price was right, but we found everything pretty ho-hum. Beans were too sweet. The cole slaw was very bland and not creamy. The meat was plentiful, but it was so-so. The sauces were either too bland or too sweet. What is up with their white BBQ sauce? That could only be described as weird. Tasted roughly like ranch dressing with some mustard in it. We used to like Red, Hot and Blue, but they have changed their menu and the stuff does not taste the same anymore. We won't be going back after being regulars for over 10 years. Still looking for a kickass BBQ place.

Ho hum, huh?

I think you need to give it another go. I never said it was "kickass" — kickass doesn't exist around here. But I think it's the best you're going to find without venturing out to Johnny Boy's Ribs in La Plata (in Charles County) or Chubby's in Emmitsburg (not far from the Pennsylvania border).

What meats did you get? Did you try the country sausage? Great stuff.

washington, dc
celebrating wife's birthday on saturday, 1/19. staying at willard. concierge made reservation for bobby van's grill. wanted something romantic, perhaps italian or good seafood that she would remember as special. hard to get reservations due to restaurant week. help please? thanks, Hugh McConnell

The concierge. Never take advice from the concierge. Or, take the advice — but don't put too much store by it.

When you speak to a concierge, you are speaking to someone who has been wined and dined — in many cases, several times over — by nearby restaurants looking for a mouthpiece. Most often, the restaurants that wine and dine the best, and the most, get the most mentions.

You're looking for seafood or Italian, so I'd send you to Kinkead's for the former or Obelisk for the latter. Ask for a remote table at Kinkead's. Harder to do that at Obelisk, but it's smaller and cozier to start with.

Good luck, Hugh, and let us know how everything goes. Well, i hope.

Arlingtongue, VA
Where the heck is DUMBO, anyway? The acronym has left me feeling dumb-o.

Sorry, that's my fault — I dislike insider stuff like this, as a rule. It stands for: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.

Arlingtongue: I like it. Be a great name for a web site. 

Eastern Market, DC
Hey Todd, I'm glad you're writing these reviews. I've followed your advice and you haven't let me down yet. All of the complainers need to just accept it: sometimes the good restaurants aren't in their neighborhoods. Oh, and Pyramid shut down. Northeast didn't have much to begin with and now they've lost Pyramid. What are we going to do now?

Pyramid is a real loss. I'm sorry to see it close — sorrier still to see it go down as a needless victim of gentrification. 

That neighborhood around Florida Ave. and Howard University Hospital was quickly turning into one of my favorite eating spots in the city.

I just did a quick search of my email files — here's what I wrote back in the first week of August:

"The area around Florida Ave. and 6th Sts., just south of Howard University Hospital, is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing eating destinations in the city — as anyone knows who has ever swooned over the poached salmon in red curry sauce at Thai X-ing, one of the city's great dishes, or the soft-textured, medium-rare kitfo at Zenebech Injera. The former is a no-seat carryout, the latter a grocery store. Compared to those two, Pyramid — an airless, 18-seat restaurant housed in a corner storefront with a metal grate on one window — amounts to a lavish, full-frills operation.

"In part, that's also because the cook, Khadija Banouas, is gifted enough to make you forget your immediate surroundings, submerging you in a faraway world of tastes and smells. Banouas, who runs the place with her husband, set up shop two years ago, after escalating rents forced the couple to close their restaurant, Taste of Marrakesh, an outpost of Moroccan cooking — one of the few in the area — in the heart of Little Ethiopia, on 9th St.

"Admirably, Banouas has insisted on keeping the prices down — nothing on the menu exceeds two digits — while retaining the commitment to the sorts of labor-intensive, long-cooked dishes that make up much of the repertoire of traditional Moroccan cooking. The tagines, the clay-vessel-cooked stews, are not uniformly wonderful — they can be dry, in places, and when Banouas isn't around, consistency can be a problem — but a recent preparation with lamb, potatoes and peas (cooked for three hours) made for a luxuriously rich dinner, especially considering the price tag: eight bucks. The same price also fetches a silver chafing dish containing four (oddly butchered) charbroiled lamb chops sitting intertwined atop a mound of buttery couscous mixed with long-simmered chickpeas and soft hunks of carrot.

"The specialty of the house is the bistilla, a thick paste of braised chopped chicken, olives and onions sandwiched between flaky leaves of phyllo; in customary fashion, Banouas gives the pie a finishing shower of confectioner's sugar and cinnamon. It's a worthy rendition of a classic dish that blurs the distinctions of savory and sweet — just as Pyramid blurs the lines between cheap and sumptuous."

I'm hoping Kadijah ends up cooking somewhere in the city in the very near future. For now, according to the Bloomindale listserve, she will continue to do catering. Here are her phone numbers: 202-378-7243 and 703-998-2306.

Washington, DC
Hi Todd, My friend and I are doing our first RW visit tomorrow to Circle Bistro. When he booked the reservation, I admitted that I had never heard of it. I was shocked to discover that it is on the 100's Very Best List. Can you tell me what I should look forward to, expect, etc.? Will the RW menu be comparable to it's regular menu? Let me know. Thanks, Lisa D.

And two years running, too.

In the past, they've done a pretty good job of restaurant week, offering a wide range of options. I wouldn't expect anything different this time around.

What to expect? A place that neatly folds French bistro traditions into a Modern American menu. So, steak tartare, frissee with lardons, duck confit, etc., but nothing too heavy, nothing too intense. Be sure to get the mushroom salad with poached egg to start — a great introduction to any meal there. The chef, Brendan Cox, is particularly good with fish — I really like the brook trout, covered with a toasted almond meuniere.

DC
Last week, a chogger wrote in about "table timelimits" and I have an example that actually happened. About a month ago, my husband, his brother, and I went to Brasserie Beck. We made reservations on the early side (6pm) and on a Wednesday. It was pretty empty when we arrived. We had drinks, appetizers, and entrees. Instead of dessert, my husband and brother-in-law ordered another drink. After the waitress brought that order, she also brought the check and told us that we would have to move to the bar (which she said had plenty of room) so that the table could accommodate another party. We were stunned and moved without incident, but brought the issue up to the manager, as the bar was packed and we had to stand in the service area. He said that it was the "hardest job he had to do" and then bought us a round of drinks. That was a nice gesture, but I don't understand how a restaurant can operate by making patrons move after they have spent good money on a meal. It was not like we weren't ordering anything. What if we had ordered dessert instead of drinks – would they still have made us move? We were having such a good time and that killed the evening. And, even though we enjoyed the food, we won't be going back, which is a shame. We have taken your advice (prematurely!) to object to the policy with our wallets, not just our words.

I think Beck needs to hear this. Thanks for writing. You're right to be PO'ed.

I have to wonder: Would this have happened at Marcel's, the more extravagant, more expensive parent of Beck? I'm guessing no.

And that makes me wonder something else. It makes me wonder whether this new breed of restaurant — this more casual spot, this alternative to the formal, finer place — is regarded by its proprietors and managers as somehow exempt from certain things that restaurants have not traditionally been exempt from.

It's not just Beck. I've seen and heard this kind of complaint about Bebo, and about a number of other of these new, "downstairs" places.

Yes, we love the accessibility of these restaurants, the chance at dining well for a lot less than the likes of a Marcel's or a Galileo. And we understand that pampering and certain niceties of the fine dining restaurant are not to be a part of the experience. But to be bullied? To be taken for granted? Uh uh. No.

Re: PG country restaurants again
Dear Todd, Thanks for taking my question. You have me thinking again… When you talk about the make up of PG country being black and white and predominately black of the black and white, I have taken it to mean that black and white defines its diversity, or lack thereof. However, isn't that again simplifying the issue of diversity. To move away from black and white, would it not be similar to saying Asian – but Asian refers to many…Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, Malaysia, etc. Not one and the same at all, in terms of culture or food or people. Just curious… I'm thinking out loud. Thanks

To this point, "black," in Prince George's, means largely African-American. There's not yet a sizeable population, say, of Caribbeans, or of West Africans, which would change the cultural makeup of the county. Although that change, say demographers, is on the way.

It's funny. When I taught at Howard, a lot of white people I knew were always surprised to hear me talk about the "diversity" of the campus. Howard is an historically black university, and many whites presume that means African-Americans. But you had — you have — an astonishing array of cultures on the "yard" (the quad) and in the classroom. Students from the Bahamas and Jamaica and Trinidad, from Nigeria and Sierra Leone and Ghana, from Great Britain and Spain and India, and from just about every state in the U.S.

In many ways, it's a more "diverse" campus than other, more racially mixed schools you hear so much about — schools that congratulate themselves on their variety, but which lack a real cultural complexity. 

Washington DC
Where is a nice restraunt to go for an aniversary? that wont cost more than 70.00 for 2?

The place I'd go — the place I've gone, for my own anniversary — is Montmartre, the tasty French bistro in Eastern Market. It's about as good as you can do in this city for that price. That's one of its plusses. Go with the table wines; it'll keep costs down.

And let us know how your meal turned out …

McLean, VA
Have you noticed the quality change of Sushi-Ko in Georgetown? I took a Japanese friend of mine to my old favorite sushi place the other night and we were so disappointed. I did not see single Japanese chef at sushi bar and the quality really showed it. I don't think any Japanese restaurant can keep up the good quality without well trained Japanese chefs. They said they were having major staffing problem and long delay of opening their new restaurant in Chevy Chase. I think their glory time is over.

[Note: Read the review of Sushi-Ko from last year's 100 best issue]

I have. i don't think it's a huge, precipitous drop, but it's a drop, nonetheless. You'll notice they slipped in the most recent 100 Best.

One of the great dishes there, the marvelous Tuna Six Ways, has really taken a hit because of the quality of good tuna now available. It wasn't even offered the last time I was there. Smart move. But a sign of the times.

I still like the place. But I find myself lamenting the dearth of really good, really consistent sushi spots in the city.

Someone needs to take the plunge and open a restaurant that has the ambition — and, just as important, has the backing — to fly in the fish from Japan, the really good stuff, the stuff that gastronomes will swoon over. It'll be expensive, no doubt. It won't be for everyone. And there'll be complaints galore about the high prices.

But it'd be a great thing for the city, and I am already on record as pledging my support. 

WDC
I appreciate your taking the diner's side against Beck, but aren't you at least curious how long they'd held the table? If they'd been sitting for over 3 hours do you think it'd be appropriate to ask them to move the bar? I mean restaurants have to book the table again later that night, right? And does the later reservation always have to wait until whenever the earlier reservation leaves? Not discounting that Beck could have handled it better and that other spots should, but I'm not sure having dinner at a 6pm reservation entitles me to the table for the entire night either, right?

I think it's okay to ask if they'd be willing to move to the bar. But to just go ahead and move them? To presume that it'd be okay to move them so long as you spring for a couple of drinks?

It'd be nice if customers had a sense of other people, a sense of the workings of a restaurant.

But I think restaurants make a mistake to think that customers ought to be aware, to be made aware, of these needs. Customers want a fabulous time. They want to eat and drink in their own little world, within the larger world of the restaurant. They don't want to know of the staff's problems. They don't want to hear a plate shattering on the floor. They don't want to know that a dish listed on the menu isn't available that night. They don't want to hear someone correcting their pronunciation.

Unreal? Unreasonable? Perhaps. But that's what we want when we go out to eat. Restaurants need to know this and understand this. The really, really good ones do.

McLean
Good morning, Todd! My parents are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary and want to go out to dinner with all of their children and grandchildren (23 people total). Can you recommend a nice place that would accomodate such a large party? Hopefully a restaurant where we can fit nicely into a corner, as opposed to a private room (which seem to rarely have windows and personality). Thanks so much!!

What an important and beautiful occasion. Treasure it.

I might be wrong, but I don't think you're going to find a lot of places that would be able to work a group that large into the main dining room.

A few places I'd call: Blue Duck Tavern, Marcel's, Bistro Bis. All made our recent 100 Best Restaurants list, and all came in in the Top 50. And all are grand enough, special enough, for a very special occasion. I hope they can accommodate you.

Let us know how the big night turns out, please.

DC
We were only at the table at Beck's for just over an hour….

Just over an hour? No excuse. None.

Though I still maintain that it's not about the amount of time spent at the table. 

Brian, Washington DC
After hearing a lot of hype of Wolfgang's new restaurant The Source, I finally got a chance to eat there this weekend. I have to say that surprisingly, it not only lived up to the hype, but actually exceeded it. I consider myself a DC foodie who has eaten at pretty much every "happening" restaurant around the city. I am wondering if you would agree with me that it should be considered the best "happening" restaurant in the city taking into account various features (decor, crowd, buzz, service, and most importantly, the food)?

Here's what I'd say.

I know we tend to toss around the word "best" a lot at the magazine, but aside from the big round-up issues, I prefer to save the superlatives for places that need the help — places like Nava Thai, places like Muffin Man, places like Zenebech Injera.

Interesting and good, that's the intersection I personally find most appealing. I'd take interesting. I'd take good. Better, of course, to find both at the same time.

And I'd definitely say The Source is both. It's a wonderfuily exciting spot to sit in, eat in, drink in. I've been four times now, and I'm inclined to say that downstairs is the bigger surprise, the bigger reward — perhaps because bar food is not supposed to taste that good, that exquisite.

Ballston, VA
What do you think are the better Indian restaurants in the area? Rasika is terrific, but we're looking for one closer to home that we can frequent. Thanks!

Have you tried Delhi Club? Right in your own backyard, just across the street from the Ballston metro.

Tasty place. Get the fiery tandoor chicken wings (seriously) and get the grilled lamb chops.

carolyn, adams morgan
Hi Todd! Long time reader, first time poster … love reading your reviews and all the snarky comments always make me giggle. So here's my question … The Boyfriend and I moved to DC in July and have done our best to try every restaurant we can afford as often as we can afford. We both looooooove Asian food, anything spicy enough to make your eyes water is fine by us. Boyfriend lived in Japan for a few years so he knows his sushi (and loved your article about tuna, even making it into the Best Food Writing of 2007 book, congrats!!). We're looking for someplace new to go for my birthday and are hoping you can give us a real gem to try out … nothing too fancy or exorbitantly price (but a place that will require Boyfriend to wear something other than his tread-to-the-soles New Balances would be a plus). We await your excellent recommendations! Thanks!

Thanks, Carolyn!

The Source is expensive — even the cheaper downstairs lounge isn't all that cheap. But the lounge sounds like something you two could swing (you could make it out of there for just over three digits) and I think it might be the right place for the big night.

The atmosphere is moody and sophisticated, and I think you'll groove on the cooking. It's not nearly as Asian as upstairs, but look for the General Tso's chicken wings (maybe the best wings you'll ever eat) and the kalbi short ribs (sliced laterally, with a small pile of homemade kimchi).

Get those two, get the sliders, and get the magnificent calzone (I mean it, you won't want to order a calzone from anywhere else ever again.) For dessert, a brik pastry purse of oozing dark chocolate.

Enjoy yourselves, and check back in with us next week. 'Kay?

Show of hands out there: Who's starving now?

(I can hear Connie Francis now … )

((I know, I know — who's "sorry" now, not starving now. But hey … ))

That's it for this week, everyone. Have a great Restaurant Week of eating and drinking, and be sure to chime in next week with your field reports.

Eat well, be well, and let's do it again Tuesday at 11 …

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