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.
Word of Mouth …
… Cork (1720 14th St., NW; 202-265-CORK) isn't the first wine bar to open in the city, and it won't be the last. But at the moment, it might be the best.
An assumingly unassuming space nearly hidden among a small row of shops along 14th St. just south of U St., it calls to mind the darkened warrens of SoHo or the East Village, and seeing the crowds of young professionals smashed up against the wall, waiting upwards of an hour for a table on a weeknight, leads you to wonder if they have simply chased the buzz of the latest trendy pretender.
It's not until you dig in that you realize the restaurant's affected air of nonchalance masks a deadly serious intent.
The menu, conceived by erstwhile CityZen sous chef Ron Tanaka, is foodie-trendy, geared around the small plates concept and featuring the sorts of combinations and flavors that appeal most to people who eat out too much. The level of detail is high. So is the degree of precision.
The much-talked-about fries, dusted with lemon zest and garlic, are excellent, and the curry ketchup has more punch than you'll find in the gravies at a lot of curry houses. A toasted brioche sandwich of prosciutto and melted fontina eats like an upmarket grilled cheese; prick the poached egg, and the juice spills down the crisped, buttered bread, intensifying the ooze. The sandwich is paired, not with a cup of soup, but with a small side of pickled cauliflower (the sort of odd, spiky touch that bewilders some, but which gastronomes gasp approvingly over). The most luxurious plate is also the best plate: a ramekin of rosemary-perfumed chicken liver pate with a dollop of shallot marmalade, meant to be slathered on grilled toasts. It has the depth and richness of a steak dinner, only at a fraction of the calories, and should go a long way toward convincing even the most hardened chicken-liver haters.
There are main courses to be found here, too, though they've been considerably downsized (and also down-priced) — including a duck confit that would be memorable if it weren't oversalted, and a flat-iron steak that possesses more savor than any $14 steak has the right to. But much of the fun in coming here is in putting together a meal of tastes, of mixing and matching flavors.
And of mixing and matching wines. The owners, Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts, have methodically assembled a selection of by-the-glass picks that is extensive, interesting and affordable. Few wines by the glass exceed twelve bucks — a rarity these days, when some restaurants are demanding entree prices for five-ounce pours. The list of French reds alone — which includes an earthy, elegant Plan de L'Om from the Languedoc — is worth coming to explore.
Not everything's perfect. The tendency of diners to order four of five plates at once puts a lot of pressure on dishes to stand out and perform. (It also puts a lot of pressure on the kitchen, which often fails; the staff needs to learn the meaning of "pacing.") Some dishes, like the house-cured trout with tangerine vinaigrette, suffer for being made too big and bright. Some simply get lost in the mix, like the oil-cured roma tomatoes on a slice of thick, grilled bread smeared with goat cheese.
But Cork is already making good on its enormous promise. Its vision — an ambitious, idiosyncratic, chef-driven, mid-priced place in the heart of the city — is the vision of many of the most interesting spots in New York right now (Prune, Momofuku, The Spotted Pig). It helps to fill a niche the city has done without for far too long. …
… At some point during a meal at Da Rae Won (5013 Garrett Ave., Beltsville; 301-931-7878), you'll hear what sounds like someone slamming a medicine ball against the wall. Repeatedly. Just as startling: Nobody in the dining room flinches.
The smacking sound comes from a small station in the kitchen, where a cook in the sort of paper hat favored by donut makers and hot dog vendors smacks a long skein of dough against a powdered wooden counter, picks up the skein, pulls it like taffy, flings it behind his head as if he were doing jump rope, twirls it, and then starts the process all over again.
Homemade noodles are the specialty of the house at this Beltsville mom-and-pop, owned by Hyeong Mu Choe and Inyoung Choe. And that's what makes this house special, distinguishing it from the many Korean restaurants peddling barbecue or bubbling tofu soups or fried chicken. As anyone who has rolled dough knows, noodles are laborious and time-consuming, and many places take the easy way out and simply buy theirs; Myoung Dong, a neighbor just down the road on Rte. 1, used to make its own noodles but gave up the practice when it moved back into its storefront location after a year-long absence.
The difference between packaged and homemade is enormous, as the eight selections that lead off the menu ought to demonstrate. Thin, resilient and full of chew, the noodles have the pleasingly imperfect texture of anything made by hand. The best way to appreciate them is probably the simplest — in a dish called gan jajang, which comes with a small side dish of fresh black bean sauce, a dark, inky concoction that is meant to be spooned into the bowl and mixed with the scissor-cut noodles — but they're also terrific in the thick-brothed samsun woolmyun, brimming with baby bok choy, long strands of drizzled egg and (overcooked) shrimp.
Nothing else is quite so distinctive (and the panchan are skimpy and disappointing), but there's lots to savor here: the mandoo, or dumplings (fried, not steamed) are excellent, the several preparations of fried chicken are reliably tasty (the rajogi looks like what you'd get if you tipped over a bucket of KFC nuggets into a brown-sauce stir fry of bok choy, straw mushrooms and baby corn), and the party-platter-like yangjangpi (nominally an entree but an ideal starter) brings together an array of cold and hot vegetables in a wonderful, head-clearing mustard sauce. …
Didn't get your question in this week's Kliman Online? Submit it early for next week's chat on Tuesday, April 15 at 11 AM.
Annandale has lots that's good.
It's the home of Little Korea, and there are a clutch of top-notch, good value places. Vit Goel is an excellent spot for soondubu, the spicy tofu stew. There's also Gom Ba Woo, which is terrific for barbecue, but also has what might be the best seafood pancake in the area, as well as soondubu and sollongtang, a long-cooked beef soup with rice cakes, egg, scallions and bits of meat.
For dessert, you can hit any one of the following, all in striking distance — Napoleon, Le Matin de Paris or Shilla — for delicate Korean pastries and bingsoo, a shaved-ice dessert drenched in fresh fruit.
You know? I'm thinking Clyde's, out your way. In the Tower Oaks Lodge.
Nice setting (you'll think you were in a restored cabin on the Hudson), the prices are right, and Clyde's appeals to a broad range of tastes.
Interesting question, Bethesda.
Won't cut the mustard, as in — won't be around in a couple of years? I'd rather talk about the places that don't cut the mustard in the sense of — don't make the grade.
Some of them didn't make the grade with me before opening. Moe's Southwestern Grill is wretched. La Tasca is tapas for people who are afraid of garlic and olive oil. Stonefish? Eh. Gordon Biersch? There's a Gordon Biersch already, in Penn Quarter. Austin Grill? Yaw.
There are, however, some interesting places, places that are worth turning out to support: Sushi Damo, La Canela, Bobby's Crabcakes. I wish the developers had pushed to get more of these independents into the mix.
There's a lot of competition there in that walkable mall. I hope these spots make it.
The one restaurant that comes to mind, that serves it consistently, is the Silver Diner. My mother, a liver-and-onions lover, swears by their version.
With a lot of the fancier restaurants, you may see a rendition of the dish from time to time (it's not the kind of dish that most places can make a part of the regular rotation), but chances are, it will be unrecognizable to you. It will be de-constructed. Or it will be "our version of."
A diner's your best bet.
I think the above-mentioned Cork would hit the spot. And I think you might get a kick out of the design — it's deceptively simple.
I've seen a number of girls' night out tables there; I think you'd feel pretty welcome.
Beyond that, you might want to look into Brasserie Beck (lively atmosphere, great beers, soaring space, frequently delicious Belgian cuisine).
Both places are pretty close, by the way, to the Metro.
Let us know how things turn out, which direction you decided to go.
Depends. Do you live more than ten minutes away? Then no.
It also depends on how much value you place on food. I'm serious — how precise you expect the flavors to be, how interesting the combinations and arrangements, etc. For some people, these things are not vitally important.
I know a friend of a friend who loves the place. Its location, its easy parking, its decor, its easy fine-dining atmosphere. These things, together with a handful of dishes she likes and keeps coming back to, make the place worthwhile.
Those places are good, period, not just good Korean.
But you're right — the list was too narrowly focused. There's a lot that way that's also good and affordable — Artie's for comfort food; Jaipur, Woodlands and Minerva for Indian (Minerva, by the way, boasts the best Indian buffet in the area) Temel for mezze, Sakoontra for Thai and Rio Grande Cafe for Tex-Mex and margaritas.
Don't say I didn't tell you so.
You mentioned Neyla; my pick is The Lebanese Butcher, in Falls Church. Exceptional baba ghanous, fresh and inexpensive lamb chops (the owner has his own slaughterhouse, in Warrenton, in addition to the butcher shop next door), terrific lamb fateh.
It's one of the culinary gems of the area.
It's always a wonderful thing to hear of a restaurant making strides after the first few months. I love it. I wish it were the norm.
Thanks for the excellent field report, Reston D.
I think it's a terrific plan.
The food in the lounge is, if anything, more exciting than what's served upstairs, because it's so hard to do this stuff well — calzones, pizzas, wings, miniburgers. And The Source does; it turns junk food into something exquisite and wonderful.
Go early, and you shouldn't have a problem getting a table by the bar.
For dessert, don't miss the brik pastry "purse." Pierce the crisp, flaky layers with your fork or knife, and the whole thing shatters in an instant, oozing a midnight-dark chocolate sauce. It's one of the best desserts now playing in the city.
Yes, it's hard to get, but it does seem to have had a slight resurgence in the last couple of years. I'm happy to see that. A lot of chefs nowadays talk a good game, invoking the holy trinity of local and seasonal and regional; well, that means putting things like shad and shad roe on the menu. Along with crabs and bluefish (another sometimes-forgotten fish), it's as local and seasonal and regional as it gets around here.
I haven't kept tabs on who's serving shad and shad roe this year the way I have in the past, but I can tell you that most of the places that take the chance on this (almost always the roe, not the fish), take the chance year after year.
That means you can probably count on Equinox, Pesce, Kinkead's, and Oceanaire to be serving it again this season.
Any other shad roe sightings? I'd love to hear more.
Have not. But you made my mouth — and not a few others, I'm sure — water.
Thanks for the report, Cheverly.
The Guards serves a decent liver and onions, and it's always on the menu.
The Guards. Been ages since I've been, but now that you mention it, yes, I do remember the liver and onions.
Thank you, Doctor.
Lots of places.
Just down the road from you, in Georgetown, is Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar, which is mostly organic and natural (also, mostly delicious). Jackie's in Silver Spring looks to source from within a hundred-mile radius. Cork is a proponent of local and regional.
Many of the top restaurants in the city are taking their shopping very, very seriously these days, and even if they don't bill themselves as natural or organic (for instance, CityZen) they are nonetheless constructing many of their dishes from locally sourced produce and meats.
Interestingly, the restaurant that birthed this movement, nearly thirty years ago, is Restaurant Nora, just north of Dupont Circle. It's not what it was, but it still hews to the same rigorous philosophy.
Fun, moderately priced restaurants in the city used to be in scare supply. Ten, fifteen years ago, the dining scene was dominated by steak houses, expense account dens, and old-guard French restaurants.
Now, fun, moderately priced restaurants are the prevailing model for new places. The list is long — Central Michel Richard, Brasserie Beck, Palena's front cafe, The Source's lounge, Westend Bistro, Cork, Proof, Poste, Oyamel, Zaytinya.
And be sure to check back in next week and let us know how your night on the town turned out.
Where? El Pollo Rico, right in your neck of the woods.
(The one closer to my neck of the woods, in Wheaton, is closed right now, victim of a fire. It's expected to open in a few months. Meantime, the business a couple of doors down, Super Chicken, does a fantastic job with its spice-rubbed rotisserie birds and fried yucca.)
You may have noticed that when I came aboard a couple of years ago, we added a line to the magazine's dining out boxes — a way to characterize a restaurant's noise level.
I couldn't really see the rationale, then, for including a scientific measure, the way the San Francisco Chronicle does. And I can't really see it now.
I find these complaints about noise funny, because for years all I ever heard was that the DC restaurant scene was so staid, so dull, so conservative. Why can't we have more places like you see in New York? people whined. Why can't we have more places like you see in San Francisco?
Well, we have them now. Lively places mean lively settings.
Anyway … I'm finishing up an unlively (and unlovely) lunch of oatmeal and blueberries — to be followed, I hope, by a lively, more caloric dinner.
Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …