Tuesday, February 5 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 … 

… The soondubu at Vit Goel ToFu (4121 Chatelain Rd.; Annandale; 703-333-3436) arrives looking like something out of the witches' scene in Macbeth, a tiny black cauldron in the midst of a boil so roiling, it's actually sputtering.

When it settles down, finally, you crack the raw egg that's brought out with the dish into the bowl, letting the hot, red pepper broth, teeming with cubes of soft, custardy tofu, cook the egg. What happens next is one of the fascinations of eating soondubu, a process that asserts the primacy of texture in eating — in this case, soft, gelatinous texture — and delivers a culinary illusion so good, the kitchen at Citronelle would be envious. The egg takes on the consistency of the tofu in the bowl, which was, to begin with, the consistency of a soft boiled egg.

It's magic in a bowl, in both senses of the word. There's nothing else I'd rather eat on a cold, gray day than one of Vit Goel's meal-in-a-bowl tofu soups.

Soondubu is the focus of this L-shaped, blond-wooded soup parlor, housed inside what looks like an abandoned elementary school; you access it by traveling the length of a corridor full of boutiques and prying open a wooden door. The dining room lacks style and drama, perhaps, but it does convey a remarkable sense of serenity, as if eating a good, restorative bowl of soup really is akin to an act of meditation; even the keening Korean pop on the sound system does nothing to dispel this feeling of having wandered into an oasis of calm and order. Fittingly, the service is the antithesis of pushy; you have to flag your waitress — they're all women — down to get a beer, and you may find yourself with your hand up in the air for a while, like a frustrated taxi-hailer in the midst of morning traffic in Manhattan.

The menu is small, by the standards of most Korean restaurants, with their casseroles and barbecues and seafood pancakes: Eight varieties of soondubu, plus excellent Korean short ribs (thinly sliced, sweetly glazed, dusted with sesame seeds and served on a pile of sauteed onions on a cast iron skillet), tasty bulgogi, and a couple of stir fries. Every order, of course, comes with an assortment of panchan; I love the spicy bread-and-butter pickles, and the kimchi is as good as it gets, firm and fresh and full of pungency and heat.

The reason to come, though, is the soondubu. And it's reason enough to make this a part of your regular dining out rotation. The menu invites you to customize your spice level with each bowl. The gradations of heat go from — and I love this, a bit of inadvertent humor but telling, somehow, for a place that dares you to find it and dares to serve up such a specialized menu — "spicy spicy" to "white." …

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20004
I have reservations at Obelisk and am wondering if you have heard any new updates/reviews on this place. Does it still maintain the quality and service it used to offer in its prime days? Should I try to snag to Restaurant Eve instead?

Obelisk is doing fine, just fine. It cracked our recent Top 25. (Eve, on the other hand, cracked the Top 5.)

It's still a cozy, comfy place — to my mind, one of the best dining rooms in all the city — with terrific, smart service (every restaurant should have a staff so good) and a kitchen that strives to put the focus on the quality of its ingredients.

My wish is that the antipasti that begins every meal here, were the meal itself. Great, great stuff. Antipasti, a good glass of wine, and I'd be thrilled. 

Arlington, VA
Hi Todd, Do you know of an restaurants that serve Iraqi cuisine? Thanks.

I don't. I wish I did.

You've got me reminiscing … There was a place that I wrote about a few years ago, out in Herndon, called Zuhair's Cafe, that was terrific. I was a big fan.

The place closed a while ago, unfortunately.

The food, though served on plastic plates and with plastic knives and forks, was great. First-rate kabobs, excellent braised lamb shank, and, best of all — kibbeh mosul. That's the name of the Iraqi dish that resembles a cross between a quesadilla and an Armenian meat pie. It comprises layers of crushed bulgur, stuffed within which was a mix of ground sirloin, cinnamon, and raisin paste. Done right, the thing is so aromatic, so evocative, as to summon comparisons with a Moroccan tagine.

The owner had bragged to me about his chef hire — a chef with a big reputation back home, a man he had wooed and bargained with for weeks, eventually agreeing to pay for his apartment.

The chef came from … Detroit. (Which, admittedly, does have a huge Iraqi population.)

Washington, DC
Hi Todd, I really enjoy the chat. What do you think about the pressure that waiters put on customers to order drinks (read: wine) at moderate to higher end restaurants? What can I do as a diner to ensure that I still get good service even if I'm not going to be a big spender at the meal (I'm normally a 20% tipper for good service and a 25% to 30% tipper if I didn't spend much, but there's no way to tell the waiter ahead of time is there?)

Thanks.

What do I think about it? I think it stinks.

My advice, if you're not ordering wine, is to order sparkling water. I think it sends a signal: Here is a serious diner, a discriminating diner. Better yet, ask which kinds of sparkling water they have.

And sparkling water — even if it's being pushed these days with all the aggressiveness of a street corner hustler — is a very good foil for rich foods. Those bubbles'll clean your palate and good, just the way a good, well-chosen wine would.

In general, asking questions about the menu — informed questions, preferably — is a way of signaling that you're someone who knows and is comfortable with the fine (or finer) dining experience. And someone who is comfortable with the fine dining experience is going to be more likely to tip well.

Rarely Gets to Go Out in DC
My wife and I RARELY get to go out for a nice dinner.. With our schedules and two children, it's a BIG event when we go out.. I had the pleasure of going to Westend Bistro with a client shortly after it opened.. Everything we ate was superb… A highlight was the salted caramel pudding that finished the dessert… More importantly, it had EVERYTHING that my wife looks for in a dessert.. I was excited to take her about 2 weeks ago. We had a very good dinner and when we got to the dessert course, we both agreed on the salted caramel pudding. (No small feat since we NEVER get the same thing off of a menu). When our waitress came back, we placed our dessert order only to have her tell us that she forgot to mention that it had been taken off the menu! (It was still on the print version of the menu). She said that it had been replaced by a "much more refined" chocolate mousse. We decided to just split the mousse.. Unfortunately, it was one of the clumsier attempts at chocolate mousse I've ever seen.. Hard as a rock, WAY too big a portion and richer than Paris Hilton.. (and even less likebale, believe it or not). In the weeks since we've eaten there, I read a writeup on Westend in Gourmet magazine and specifically mentioned the salted caramel pudding and Washingtonian's own writeup in the 100 Best spoke highly of the dessert… All this leads up to the question of whether or not a restaurant would ever put this back on the menu? Or why would they take something off that seems to be getting praise from several sources?

Well, RGGOD (neat, I get to play Dear Abby … er, Dear Amy),

I think they might be persuaded to put it back on if, oh, I don't know, they got wind of a show of support for it in a public forum like this one. : ) 

Why do places take menu items off? Because they can. Or because the chef wants to show that he (or she, but most always a he) is not limited to doing just these few items. Or because it would appear (or so the restaurants think) that the media is enamored of places that stay fresh and alive, not merely repeating themselves with the same old, same old.

It could be, and in this case I think it is, that the restaurant is reworking its recipe and will return a version of the dish at a later time, when it's happier with the result.

((By the way, chatters … I think RGGOD is on to something special here with his identifier. I'd really like to see the rest of you follow his lead, and come up with something interesting to put into the "location" field.

((Not that I'm encouraging a "Savage Love" kind of thing, oh no, no no no — but something that'll let us both [you for coming up with a phrase, me for turning it into a handle] have a little fun, here. What do you say?))

Cheverly, MD
Good morning, Todd, We decided to check out a few of your recommendations last week. First, we went to the Muffin Man Caribbean Cafe in Lanham. It was a mixed bag for us– but we loved the food! My jerk shrimp roti was really, really nice, spicy, tangy, and the quality of the huge shrimp was as good as you can get. The roti was light and fluffy and flavorful, perfect for sopping up the jerk gravy. I would have been entirely happy had it not been for the cheap, flimsy plastic fork which made eating hard, and the thin styrofoam box it came in. For a lunch entree I think $16.00 is really steep– and it should at least come on a plate with a proper knife and fork. So, we probably won't be back unless they can improve the eating-in experience. We also went to Nava Thai on Friday– a big hit for us and our friends (all of us have spent a lot of time in Thailand as well). We ordered all sorts of things from the menu, and all of them were a big hit. The drunken noodles, eggplant with basil, pad thai, and roast chicken were the biggest hits, while the hot and sour shrimp app and the panang curry were merely good. Spicy food, crunchy veggies, and lots of flavor. They were, however, slammed, with one woman running the whole packed room. She managed pretty well, but we finally went up and filled our own water glasses, and she felt badly. But she smiled, and brought us over a warm (!) sticky rice and pineapple dessert on the house. I can't believe I am admitting this, but we actually went back again on Saturday night again and had another great experience. Interestingly, it was very quiet on Sat night, when Friday had been crazy busy. Funny story? They were out of tea (hot or cold) even though they are next to a grocery store (which was open!). As far as I have experienced, this might be the best Thai food in the area, with friendly service to match– you just want to see these people thrive. Thanks again for helping us to eat well!

Thanks for reporting back, Cheverly.

I think Nava Thai's pretty special. Which isn't to say that everything there is a home run — but you can collect a lot of doubles and some triples, too, in addition to going yard with the pad thai, the grilled chicken with sticky rice, the Floating Market Soup, and the pork in panang curry.

As for Muffin Man, you know, maybe it's me, but I didn't even think twice about eating out of a styrofoam box. To me, good food is good food.

I also think it helps to remember that most Caribbean restaurants in the area are largely take-out operations. Styrofoam and plastic's the norm. When I go out for Caribbean food, I'm not generally zeroing in on cutlery; I'm looking for sharpness (good amounts of vinegar in the jerk, for instance) and pungency and complexity in the spicing (not just a blanket heat). Muffin Man delivers on those counts.

Yeah, it's not really all that cheap; but those shrimp are massive (and cooked correctly), and the quality is certainly there.

The District
This is regarding the posting where you discredited the concierge profession and recommended that the guest request either a quiet table at Kinkead's of a table at the smaller Obelisk. You recommended those restaurants on the busy Saturday of restaurant week. Talk about creating false hopes by offering carrots that are virtually impossible.. To paraphrase a famous/infamous Washingtonian " You recommend the restaurant scene you get, not the one you wish you had."

Here we go again. Back to the concierge thing.

I'm going to guess that you, yourself, are a concierge? I could be wrong, of course, but you do, after all, make it a point to bring up my comments about the work of concierges.

A little background, for the rest of you: The concierge community is up in arms over something I wrote in this space a couple of weeks ago, about the fact that, when I'm traveling, I don't tend to put a lot of store by their restaurant recommendations.

By their recommendations for sights? Sure. For tourist attractions? Why not. For shows? Wonderful.

But restaurants? No. Why? Because I believe them to be, in most instances, mouthpieces. I believe that the restaurants with the biggest publicity machines, the biggest campaigns to woo the concierges, tend to get the most mentions.

I have seen excellent concierges, concierges who really know their city and can offer up a good restaurant that is off the beaten track, or a restaurant that flies under the radar. But most are geared to serving the business class, and their recommendations tend to reflect that sensibility — even if the seeker of information isn't a member of business class.

Me, in most instances, I'd sooner consult an alternative weekly or a restaurant critic or a cabbie.

silver spring, md
Good Morning: Love the conversations…Have been a lurker for quite a while. Looking for a nice restaurant that serves down-home southern food in Maryland that is NOT Hogs on the Hill–I am so tired of that place! Any suggestions?

If this were radio, you'd say: "Long-time listener, first-time caller."

(You'd also probably say: "I'll hang up now, so I can listen to your answer.")

Anyway, welcome!

The place I'm going to steer you to is a place I wrote about a few weeks back, called KBQ, in Bowie. The space isn't down-home by any stretch — it looks like a chain, actually — but don't let that put you off. Good brisket, good ribs — all the meats are smoked, and smoked slowly — molassey beans, homemade cornbread, and excellent hot country sausage. Oh, and a cheapie slice of Key lime pie for dessert.

Check in with us again and let us know what you found when you went …

Clifton, VA
Any recommendations for for a place with a trendy/chic vibe for a hot date I am planning? Think NYC or South Beach. I have been to Oya and like it but wanted to branch out. Thanks.

Howsabout two newbies, Clifton?

The Source — I think you'd prefer the downstairs lounge — and Westend Bistro, both with food that's miles better than what you ate at Oya.

Glover Park
A group of 4 twenty-somethings looking for a good Tuesday night dinner spot in the Georgetown/Glover Park area…Do you know of any spots with good Tuesday night specials? Dinner and/or wine? We can't make it to a restaurant until about 7:30, and two diners aren't in to much ethnic food. Thanks!!!

By "specials," I'm guessing you're not up for paying a premium for dinner.

That area's tough, because there's not a lot that's in the in-between slot, that is, in between Citronelle and King George. Not a lot that's good, I mean. 

You could give Ceviche a shot; it's in the space that used to be the original Austin Grill. Fun spot, although the kitchen is off to a somewhat shakier start than expected. There's also Leopold's Kafe + Konditorei, which is pretty consistent, with interesting, better-than-you-think food for a place that has such a preening, presumptuous air. Both places also have wine lists.

Finally, there's always Martin's Tavern, for a bowl of oyster stew, a juicy burger and a relaxed and comfy vibe.

Germantown, MD
Hi Todd, I went to Timpano on the Rockville Pike last week for dinner with two other colleagues. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. We had one salmon special and two seafood pasta entrees. The pasta was homemade and really quite good. The shrimp was not overcooked at all, although the they were smaller and not as plentiful as I would have liked. I would have to say that my biggest complaint was the service. There were a lot of servers, at least three people were involved with taking our order. After we were served, however, they all seemed to disappear. I practically had to get up and flag someone down to refill a glass of water. It's quite strange that they could have so many servers on the floor and we still felt that we couldn't get any attention.

Interesting. Yours is the first positive word, I think, I've ever heard about the place. (I love the idea of prime-era Sinatra playing when I walk in, but my one and only experience there was lamentable.)

By the way, and this is not to question you, but rather the wording on the menu — I seriously doubt that that pasta was homemade, if by homemade we mean made on the premises. More than likely, it's a fresh pasta that Timpano bought and either rolled out and boiled or just boiled.

Even plucky independents, the kind of small places where you'd assume everything was made by hand, often don't make their own pastas. Just a heads up.

One more heads up: Those shrimp? I'd lay down good money that they're frozen. Most shrimp at that level is. Even a cut or two above. In fact, these days, unless you see the heads on those suckers when they hit the table, I'd assume that you're getting frozen. 

Friendship Heights
So is the new Sushi Ko ever going to open??

So they still say. I guess the question to ask at this point is: What year?

I'm hearing that they're having staffing problems — as in, there don't seem to be enough good, qualified people to fill a dining room of that size. 

DC
Hi Todd, Do you know a good place to get dessert and drinks in the city. A cute place, not too fancy. Looking for a place to go after Valentine's dinner. Thanks.

I hear you.

You know, the place I think I'd go myself is Bistro d'Oc, across from Ford's Theater. Very cozy, great atmosphere (the vermillion-colored walls really do set the mood), the prices aren't bad, and you can dig into the classics like profiteroles and creme brulee.

Columbia Heights, DC
Hi Todd, I missed last week's chat unfolding in real time, but I just wanted to throw in my two cents on the question of DC's "celebrity chef invasion". My prediction is that the benefits of these restaurants won't be felt immediately. They restaurants will be turning out solid food, no doubt, but they'll do very little for building up a restaurant "culture". However, in a few years, the chefs de cuisine in these places will start to get antsy and want to have their own restaurant. At this time, they'll have the experience and the notoriety to run and finance their own place. If they stay local, that means a handful of new restaurants with some imagination and skill in the kitchen opening at around the same time, which could be great for the city. Perhaps this is pie-in-the-sky optimism, but it's my hope…

Interesting trickle-down theory. Let's hope you're right.

As I said last week, I really do think that chefs and restaurants could do more to "build up the culture" by not merely bringing in local produce and being market-conscious, but by rooting themselves and their menus in the actual culture of the city. 

That means bringing an Ethiopian influence or two to a fine dining menu. It means playing with the flavors of a bowl of pho, and finding a way to translate those tastes into a Western style dish. It means recognizing that Maryland cuisine — or Chesapeake cuisine — is part of the culinary heritage of this area, and that crab imperial and Norfolk seafood platters should be reinvented for a new age. It means getting out of the kitchen to see that kabobs and pupusas are all the rage in Maryland and Virginia, and that these snacks are great and worthy vehicles for upmarket experimentation (so long as the experimentation is not TOO upmarket). It means making half-smokes, in one way or another, as much a staple dish as crabcakes are. Etc., etc.

It means connecting the dots, is what it means — dispensing with a generic cosmopolitanism and looking for legitimate ways to unite fine dining and ethnic dining, upmarket and no-market, elegance and street food.

Westend Bistro's inclusion of an Eastern Market salad on its menu is the right idea — but it's mostly gestural, not substantive. Eastern Market isn't the sort of place we go to for greens and salad-makings; it's not Greenmarket, in Manhattan.

I'd love to see menus that go well beyond this attempt, and really strive to reflect the foodways of this city and region, while still staying modern and innovative.

(I'm feeling very Carlo Petrini all of a sudden.)

Anyhoo … I'm off to lunch.

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

 

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