Tuesday, March 18 at 11 AM

In this Tuesday's chat, Todd talks about Rockville's Niwano Hana, where to eat after you've run the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, and how to do a birthday dinner for 10 at Zengo.

Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype?

The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 a.m. on Kliman Online. From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the 'burbs and exurbs to hitting the city's streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.

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Producer's note
: On Thursday, March 20, at 11 AM, Jennifer 8. Lee will be chatting right here about her new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Lee, a Harvard grad and New York Times reporter, set out to trace the origins of the fortune cookie. Along the way, she visited Chinese restaurants in almost every part of the United States, exploring questions such as why Jews love Chinese food on Christmas, why most soy sauce doesn’t contain actual soy, and what the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world is. The resulting narrative is full of wit, adventure, and fascinating history. Stiff author Mary Roach described it as “Anthony Bourdain meets Calvin Trillin.” Submit your questions in advance here.
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Looking for an Easter Brunch Guide? We have ours right here.
 

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Word of Mouth …

… I tend to think of Niwano Hana (887 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-294-0553) the way I do Vegas: a place of flash, more style than substance, but fun, lots of fun. You don't come to this Rockville Pike sushi house in search of austerity, elegance, simplicity or any of the other reverential adjectives that sushi afficionados generally look for in their restaurant experience.
Andy, the bowtied host and expediter of carry-out orders, sees to it that the place is a nightly party, welcoming regulars as if he were tending bar ("Hey, man!") and stumping like a car salesman on behalf of his favorite concoctions. Usually, it's a roll — something tricked-out to the point of comedic effect. One of the restaurant's most popular and enduring creations, after all, is a pyramidal arrangement of oversized maki from which a spicy, creamy mayo sauce spills down the sides, lava-like. A purist's nightmare, in other words.
But Niwano Hana is in possession of a serious side, too, as a recent visit drove home. Rolls are the mainstay of the operation, and a concoction called fan-fan, a special involving multiple cuts of fish, a generous dab of avocado and flying fish roe, didn't disappoint: it was as oversized and as over-the-top as the best rolls here are; it also provoked the same compulsive behavior from my group as a bag of fresh, salty chips does. The surprise is the stuff that can't be doused with a mayo-based sauce or dolled up with various caviars — the sushi and sashimi. The fish was of good quality, firm and remarkably well-preserved (it was a Saturday, and very few sushi restaurants bring in shipments over the weekend), and portioned in long, generous slices. The yellowtail had a smooth, buttery finish, while a special of giant scallop was sweet, juicy and luxuriously rich. …

… Driving by the Maryland Farms shopping center, in Beltsville, a few weeks ago, I did a double-take when I saw the sign: Maurya Kababs & Curries (11444 Cherry Hill Rd., Beltsville; 301-937-2690). I had to pull over and stop in. A couple of years ago, I ate at Maurya (then without the listing of dishes in the name), and was interested enough in the curries to give the place a second look. I returned a few months later, only to find it replaced by a Vietnamese restaurant.
The new place isn't the old place. Actually, it's next door to the old place, housed in a former Jerry's sub shop. Don't count on ambiance. Comfy booths have given way to prefab blonde wood tables and chairs, holdovers from the Jerry's days. Meals come on styrofoam. The walls, painted the color of a mint chutney, help a little, as do the traditional Indian tapestries.
As if to compensate for the loss of atmosphere, the kitchen aims to deliver a good deal. Main courses come with rice, a round of hot buttered naan, a cup of raita (the thin, tangy yogurt for cutting the heat of the curries) and a cup of the creamy rice pudding rasmali, for dessert. Included with the check for dinner for two this visit were a mini-Butterfinger and a mini-Crunch bar.
Given all these accoutrements, an appetizer is hardly necessary, but you'd be missing out if you didn't order the samosas; the crispy, flaky crust conceals an assertively spiced curry of cubed potatoes. The curries, likewise, are not cautious when it comes to seasoning, and boast surprisingly tender meats — as do the karahis, the fiery Pakistani border dish, prepared in a wok-like vessel and shot through with chilis, ginger and garlic. Too bad that oil separation sets in not long after they cool; what starts out tasting like slow food comes to eat like fast food. …

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Didn't get your question in this week? Submit your dining question in advance here and check back next Tuesday at 11 AM.

Cabin John MD
Are there any Russian chefs or restaurants in the DC area at all, or that you would recommend? A young friend just moved here from Russia. Thanks! Ann

Not anymore, no.

There used to be Maxim, but Maxim is gone, long gone. 

I'd love to see some young turk of a chef give a Russian restaurant a go. in particular, a Georgian-style restaurant. Wouldn't that be great?

On the other hand, there is a Russian grocery store, called Russian Gourmet — www.russiangourmet.com — with locations in Herndon, McLean and Rockville. Canned goods, caviars, salamis, plus things like piroshkys and freshly made eggplant salad.

Washington, DC
I'm craving some good, Israeli food. I saw one in down town silver spring- Taste of Jerusalem but not sure how good it will be. Moving from LA, I don't want to rouine my palate. Any suggestion—- please

Ruin your palate? With one meal? That the kind of thing they teach you in La-La Land?

Taste of Jerusalem is good. Amazing? No. And not trying to be. But a comfy place, and a pretty place, too. With a lot of solidly prepared food. Go.

Bethesda Maryland
Kemble Park Tavern……great food service and BUZZ….

Huh? What are you saying?

Speak, Bethesda. 

 

Hungry runners near Tidal Basin/Downtown
Hi Todd, congrats on the new baby! My fiance and I will be running the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler on April 6, and afterwards heading back to my office near 15th and Penn to shower before a post-race lunch and then head back down to the tidal basin to enjoy the blossoms. Where can we go for a filling, healthy meal around 11:30am? We won't want to go too far out of our way, because we'll be pretty tired & hungry. Or is there someplace open at that time where we could get take-away and have a picnic at the tidal basin?

Actually, if it's Cafe du Parc, on 14th and Pennsylvania, you could do either.

The restaurant made our recent 100 Best list, and fills a number of needs — not least, the need for a good, well-positioned spot in the city for light meals and breakfasts. Good pastries, good breads, plus a number of brunch-y type options, prepared with a light, Frenchified touch. Not to mention good coffee and fresh OJ.

If you don't opt for a picnic, see if you can snag one of the umbrella'ed, wrought-iron seats outdoors — a little touch of Cafe Society, only with on-the-go, workaholic Washingtonians to people-watch instead of strolling, easeful Parisians.

Ballston, VA
Hello, Todd. Last fall, I asked for a romantic dinner suggestion. I took my boyfriend to Bastille and it definitely was cozy. I enjoyed my parsnip soup and coq au vin but, unfortunately, the marinated short ribs he ordered were very fatty. The wine and dessert were delicious, although I can't recall exactly what we shared. I've enjoyed numerous wonderful meals there; he liked the atmosphere so he promises to try it again. I am going to Portland for a long weekend to celebrate a milestone birthday. Do you or any of the readers have some good restaurant suggestions? My friends and I will also visit wine country, although we haven't narrowed down exactly where. If you have any suggestions for wineries and/or wine country restaurants, it may influence our decision! Thank you.

Nice! I'm glad the reco turned out all right. I think it's a really good spot for a moderately-priced romantic night out, ideal if you can't afford Citronelle but want something cozier and more memorable than, say, a kabob house.

As for Portland … I've got two suggestions: Noble Rot, a wine bar with a legendary onion tart, and Fife, where every ingredient on the menu comes right from Oregon.

Voorhees, nj
My husband, 2 teenagers and I are visiting DC this weekend. We are going to Il Mulino Saturday night, because we can never get into the NYC location, but need a Friday night dinner in (dressy) jeans. I am between Central and West End–they both have such great menus! Thanks for any advice on DC dining and happy to reciprocate about Philly, Lisa

Hello, Voorhees!

I'd love to hear what you're liking these days in Philly. I'm still saddened by the loss of Tony Jr.'s — best cheesesteak I ever ate.

Central and Westend Bistro, I think, are both terrific picks — much more terrific than Il Mulino, and I'm guessing you'd come out of either with more money in your pocket, too.

How terrific? We ranked the 100 Best restaurants this year, and Central came in at No. 10, Westend at No. 16. 

If it were me, I'd probably go with Central. Eric Ripert, the Le Bernardin chef who is the force behind Westend, is opening a similar (but not exact) bistro in Philly next year.

 

Washington, DC
My parents are visiting over Easter and I am looking for a good Easter Sunday brunch in Old Town. What are the best options in your opinion? Thanks!

The best option is Vermilion, on King St., which I think has one of the best brunches around — although I hasten to add, it's best thought of as a brunch for those with an open mind toward brunch. Those who don't mind seeing traditional things jazzed up and reinterpreted, and who aren't going to slam down the menu when they don't see things like waffles.

The setting is funky and cozy, the service is excellent, and the cocktails list is fun and imaginative — there's a good and spicy Bloody Mary and a go-down-smooth concoction called Gin Sin with lots of mint, lots of soda, and the titular booze.

Speaking of brunch … The rest of you be sure to check back on the site this afternoon (around 3 or 4, would be my guess), when a Best Bites Blog roundup of what local restaurants are doing for brunch will go live.

MD
Any new Italian restaurant— with devine food– hmmm hmm good. DC's restuarant is getting boring— There needs to be new and exciting scene. Seriously where will one go for a good Italian missing grand ma's cooking?

Where will one go? One will go to Baltimore.

It's been a while since I did any real, serious exploration of Little Italy, but I've always liked Sabatino's. Worth it to go just for the house dressing and the desserts. But I also like the atmosphere, the texture of the place. The faces in the dining room, the faces serving you, the accents all around — it's as if a room full of Mel Kiper, Jr.'s, were all chowing down on pasta and Chianti.

Seriously, if you think the scene in DC is boring now, you should have been here ten, fifteen years ago. 

WDC
Todd, Saw your word of mouth on Mio and am thinking about giving it a try this weekend, as we have yet to try it and are looking for something slightly upscale. Is it worth it if we order carefully or do you see them as a risks outweigh the rewards at this point? Thanks, Frugal Foodie
My biggest complaint — beyond the fact that the restaurant is still in want of an identity — is with portion size (too dainty at times). Also, with a certain preciousness that creeps in from time to time.

But I think you can feel pretty free to explore.

Just know that two people — my sister-in-law and a reader of this chat — have disagreed with me about the swordfish, which I love. I love it because it's not a thick, overcooked steak, the way swordfish always is. It's pink in the center. The meat is sweet. Sweet and salty, thanks to a smart overseasoning of the exterior. And the carrot-lemongrass puree and the delicate and fragrant microgreens are such good dance partners for the fish. 

Ah, well, to each his own.  

Vienna, Va
Hi Todd, I just wrote in earlier to ask if you knew of a good bday venue this wkd for 10 people. I finally got a reservation at Zengo for 10 at the chef's table. Looks like it will be fun, and I've been dying to go. Have you been? Any specific suggestions on the food there? thanks!!!

It's a party. Great vibe, lots of fun.

Just know this, going in: You're going to be ordering about 35-40 dishes, if you stick to small plates. That's a lot of ordering. 

If I were you, I'd avoid the tiraditos and ceviches (difficult to divide among a big crowd, and those two dishes can jack up the bill in a hurry) and load up on the dumplings, the arepas, the empanadas, the won ton tacos, and the Thai-style lettuce wraps.

There are big plates, too, like short ribs and grilled pork loin, and you might need to order a few of those to go around, just so you don't go crazy ordering so many dishes. I don't think they're as fun or as gratifying, personally, as the small plates. 

WDC
Todd, HUGE thanks to you for leading us to Taw Vigsittaboot’s place. We just grabbed take out to go, but I wanted to stay and marvel at what a unique spot this was for DC. Obviously, there isn't much like it in the District or DC proper, but is there anywhere else within the District (or even near by) that you can think of that even comes close to the feel this place has? Can you think of any other one or two man operations that have that mom and pop authenticity that is so lacking in our area?

Thanks. Taw's is one of my absolute favorite spots in the area.

It's funny. Every year after the 100 Best Restaurants issue comes out, I try to tell people — restaurant insiders, agitated readers, all those who think we're operating with some kind of agenda — that the list is not a personal matter. Thai X-ing proves that. It's not on there, not one of the 100. Now, technically, sure — it's not a restaurant. But it's a place to get food. Really wonderful food.

In my personal black book, of spots that I think about most and return to time and again, Thai X-ing has a special place.

You asked about any others like it. There's nothing like it. Although Pyramid was pretty close — that's the now-defunct Moroccan place that was, coincidentally, a short hop and skip away from Thai X-ing. The owner and cook, Khadija Banoulas, served a wonderful version of bistilla. If you never made it there, you missed something. I'm really hoping she stays in town and opens a new location in another part of the city.

NEDC
Hi Todd! Just a follow-up report from last week. We ended up going to Trattoria da Franco after moving my sister-in-law in, as we were tired and hungry. The food was good, especially portions, as was the service. Very friendly. The only minor complaint was that there was "entertainment" in the form of live music and the volume was really high. When she was singing, you had to shout to have a conversation with the table, but when she stopped you had to whisper to avoid being heard by the entire restaurant (which is quite cozy). Otherwise, it fit the bill. Thanks for the recommendation!
I'm really glad to hear things turned out so well. Trattoria da Franco is one of those restaurants that the DC area just doesn't have enough of. 
Rockville
Hi Todd, My son wants to become a food writer. Can you give him some tips – Any books to read, any web sites to surf, any food writer's work that you suggest to read? His knowledge about food is good, has done a lot of cooking courses, reads and refers to cook books, cooks a lot and entertains people, watches cooking shows ,, Any suggestions are welcome.

The one thing you didn't mention, Rockville, was writing.

And that's hugely important. To write and write and write. And then write some more. About any and everything that interests him. 

And learn to rewrite. And rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And then push himself to start publishing the writing that's been rewritten.

Above all, I think, he needs to learn to think of himself as a writer, first, and a food writer second — as odd as that might sound.

There are an awful lot of people out there who are deeply knowledgeable about food and eat widely and travel widely — just take a look at the various food boards around the area and around the country. (Or just take a look at my mail!) But those things, important as they are, don't make you a food writer, don't get you hired by publications.

WDC
Hi Todd: Congratulations on your new baby! Sorry to be so late in the good wishes – haven't been around for a while. Anyway, did you happen to see the article in the NYT where the well-known, well-established food critic wrote about his displeasure with the DC-transplant who opened up a great restaurant in NYC last Fall to excellent reviews and only a couple of months later jacked up the prices disproportionate to whatever a rave review might actually warrant. I was really glad to see that because that is something that I see happen in DC too often but nobody calls them out on it; instead, people just accept that it's a great place with a great price tag. Thank goodness somebody, somewhere is keeping people in check. Have I missed the check-and-balance sort of thing here in Washington?

It's shameful.

And it's not just Fiamma. It's everywhere. It's here, too.

What's just as bad, is that many restaurants that open with a flourish like that don't stop there — with raising the prices. They scale back all around. They drop staff. They cut corners on dishes. Etc., etc.

 

Washington DC
I am the organizer for a dining out group, which means I try to plan a dinner out at a different restaurant once a month. I am new to the DC area and therefore could use some assistance with picking some places. Can you suggest a restaurant (or two) that are good for groups, located in DC (or close to it), moderately priced, and if possible near a metro station? Cuisine isn't as important, as long as the menu offers enough options for everybody to find something. I never know how many will come when picking the location, but I would guess average is between 8 and 12. Thanks very much!

I love the idea of a dining group. Terrific idea.

I think Poste would be a really smart choice for the gang.

Hotel Monaco, right across from the Verizon Center metro stop. Not exorbitant, good and imaginative food, and a fun, hopping atmosphere. 

If you do go, let us know how things turned out.

 

WDC
Closest thing for me to Taw's is maybe Levi's Port Cafe near Barrack's Row on the other side of the bridge. Johnny Kearsey seems to run the place by himself and puts out pretty good eastern Carolina BBQ, fried chicken etc. I haven't been able to try the ribs yet, but I hear they are something else. It's like Taw's in that the second you enter, you feel like you've been transformed to a different place. Check it out sometime if you haven't been.

Good one!

But really, there's no comparison with Taw's place — a guy working out of a basement kitchen, with no tables and chairs, and a tiny waiting room filled with spiritual texts and killer aromas.

I can almost taste that salmon poached in red curry right now …

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

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