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.
To read the chat transcript from April 15, click here.
Word of Mouth …
… The welcome wasn’t.
Here, the man said, coming from behind the bar and pointing us toward a table in the corner. Unsmilingly, he deposited two menus on the table, turned and marched back to the bar. We were a party of three.
I waved him over. Can we get another menu?
“That’s all we have,” he said, and turned again and marched back to the bar.
The preoccupation, the sense of hurry, was puzzling — we were the only people in the dining room of Portuguese Club (12210 Veirs Mill Rd., Silver Spring, 301-949-5605), a cavernous and uncozy space, sandwiched between Latin markets in a shabby stripmall whose claim to fame is that it once housed one of the only X-rated movie theaters in suburban Maryland.
My friends wanted to leave.
I insisted we stay. This only made them hostile toward me, too.
I asked about the caldo verde, the classic northern Portuguese soup of kale, potato, and sausage. The man shook me off like a pitcher overruling his catcher. I settled on two other appetizers, then selected the bacalhau assado, one of three preparations of fried cod listed on the menu. “No assado,” he replied. Okay, then — how about the rotisserie chicken? “Only on weekends.” At this point, tired of asking only to be denied, I figured whatever came my way was okay by me — so long as it was food.
“You sure you want to stay?” one of my friends asked.
I was determined to see how this would play out.
I was fully prepared to push away the plate of clams in garlic sauce that hit the table a few minutes later and admit that I had wasted our time.
Braced for the worst, we could hardly believe our good fortune. A pile of plump, sweet steamed clams in a sauce so irresistible, we were tearing off hunks of bread to mop it up.
Next came a ceramic, slatted boat bearing a hunk of scored sausage; below the slats, a small amount of whiskey had been lit. The blue-tipped flame flicked at the coarse-ground chorizo, charring its underside. It put me in mind of eating in the fishing villages that hug the Mediterranean, of simple, rustic pleasures. If there’s a better dish out there for five bucks, I haven’t seen it.
We relaxed and settled in. The bacalhau a chefe — the chef’s choice — turned out to be the assado preparation I’d asked about. It was excellent: a huge filet of fried cod nested in a stew brimming with marvelous slivers of fried potato, olives and pickled carrot and celery. Almost as good was a dish of tender, soy-marinated cubes of fried pork in a crock laden with more of those marvelous steamed clams. The only disappointment: a plate of tough steak and potatoes.
“Good food,” one of my friends said, standing in the parking lot at the end of the night. “But I don’t think I’d go back. Too unfriendly. I really don’t think they wanted us in there.”
I returned a couple of weeks later, minus that friend but with the other.
But the dining room was not deserted as before. It was almost full. Behind us, a group of five preteens was playing cards, led by a slick, pompador’ed kid who had brought with him his own suitcase (gleaming, silver) of chips. Near the end of the bar was another table of card-players: a group of older men. Sitting next to us was a large and sprawling family: The adults gabbed in Portuguese while the teens listened sullenly to their iPods or argued and the months-old baby made googly eyes at us.
It was dinner time. But we were the only ones eating.
Otherwise, not much had changed. The same ungracious service. The same kitchen scarcity: no caldo verde, no rotisserie, no baccalao assado.
But I did turn up a wonderful plate of heads-on shrimp in garlic sauce, and a dish of boiled cod, boiled potato and broccoli — though it sounds for all the world like hospital food — was simple and tasty. And the garlicky clams, and the clams and pork were as fine as before.
When it was over and we had paid up, the other customers all turned and watched us leave, exiting strangers in their midst. I had the sneaking suspicion we’d interrupted a private party.
The next day I told the friend who’d begged off that I’d returned and recounted the details of my second visit. “So, wait — are you going to go back a third time?” he asked, incredulous.
I don’t know what kind of restaurant Portuguese Club is, if restaurant is even the proper term for the place. Heck, I don’t even know if Portuguese Club wants me back.
What I do know, is that the sausage, the clams and the shrimp are calling. …
I have to tell you: What I hear really doesn't count for all that much with me. That's hearsay, gossip, second-hand info. For good or for bad, I only trust what I see and smell and taste myself.
Mohr did leave, and that's no small loss: He presided over one of the best wine operations in the area. I think it's t too soon, though, to assess just what his absence will mean. Vidalia has always picked up the slack for whoever has left — a real credit to proprietor Jeff Buben. It's one of the few restaurants around with staying power.
Indigo Landing wasn't on our 100 Best Restaurants list for 1008. You'd better read more closely.
It made the list in its first year of existence, but it had slipped noticeably and we made the necessary adjustment.
Save the venom, please.
I really don't think it's a dish for everyone. Most people either love it or despise it.
And please don't think you should feel as though you have to forfeit your gastronomic respectability if you should fall into the latter camp.
If I were you, I'd give the version at Brasserie Beck a shot, although the version at Robert Wiedmaier's other restaurant, the ultra-luxe Marcel's, is even better. But much, much more expensive.
I'd be curious to hear how you liked it — or didn't — so be sure to come back on next week and give us the full report.
Dear Restaurant General Managers,
I know how difficult your job is – I once did your job. I understand the difficulties of staffing a restauant large or small with gracious, knowlegeable, and engaging staff. Though I personally never embraced this philosophy, I understand the temptation to want a very attractive presence at the door. But if I see one more empty headed, hair-twirling, unhelpful project runway reject staffing the door of your restaurants you are going to make me run screaming from your place.
The guy that is tired of waiting for a meaningless conversation to finish before being acknowledged by your host staff.
p.s. your business cards should be available at the front stand too.
Great letter, TGTITWFMCTFBBABYHS.
I've been there, myself.
I wonder: Who else out there has felt slighted lately at the host stand?
And along the same lines — who else has been ushered to a table in the back of a restaurant crawling with bright young things? Stuck near the kitchen or bathroom, because, in the clothes-makeup-coifjob calculus of some host or GM, you don't rate?
But hey — if you think that's bad, you should get a load of my inbox. Jesus. The vitriol just amazes me. They all want to shoot the messenger.
As much as some people might want it — and as much as some might expect it — I simply can't guarantee you a great and perfect night on the town. Unlike, for instance, a theater critic or an art critic or a music critic, who is taking the measure of a mostly stable entity.
A restaurant review, at best, is an educated guess as to what will happen.
I don't know that it can measure up to the best of Birmingham, which has terrific barbecue (and I love those sweet pickle chips to play yin to the yang of the dark and tangy sauce), but for the best brisket in this area, you want to head to KBQ in Bowie. Check out my review in the current issue of the magazine (May), now out on newsstands.
There's also good pulled pork, hot country sausage (great casing), tasty potato salad with shrimp and tart key lime pie. The cooking, overseen by owner Kerry Britt (the KB of KBQ), is as country as the sanitized, stripmall restaurant isn't.
That's great to hear, Silver Spring. You made my day.
I've got three picks for you — and all on the same street! Passage to India for elegant, regional Indian cooking; Nark Kara for Thai that stays true to its street food roots; and Mia's Pizzas for what might be the most consistent and rewarding of the (many) boutique pizza spots in the area (plus a number of small, tasty appetizers — look for the marvelous meat ball sliders and the broccolini, which is quickly steamed and dressed like a salad.]]
All are on Cordell Ave., and all are reasonably priced. Of the three, Passage is probably the most relaxing of the dining rooms.
I'll be interested to see which direction you go. Good luck.
The only other quality restaurant I've ever seen those is in Ray's the Steaks.
I can't quite tell from your tone — do you find this blasphemous, or just unusual?
Personally, I can't wait until the day that I see people trooping into dinner in pajamas. (And no, not just Julian Schnabel.)
But let's all remember: This is a famously uptight, upright city, and old habits (coats, ties, cufflinks, throwing your weight around for a better table and intimidating the wait staff) die hard.
Not too easy, is it, to play VIP when you're wearing flip flops.
Excellent question, Rockville.
And no, they are NOT the same. The restaurant industry would like you to think they are the same. A lot of menus are constantly referring to something called "American Kobe." There's a reason it's in quotation marks: There's no such thing.
In most cases, kobe is a scam.
Real kobe — the kind that comes from Japan, from cows that have been treated better than some spa-goers — is prohibitively expensive. You can sample it right now at BLT Steak. It's $130 for five ounces.
Wagyu is tasty, but really nothing close to kobe, which is famed for its exceptional marbling. In essence, its fat content. A slice of real kobe is akin — as my wife once put it — to tallow-flavored butter. Five ounces will make your heart race. Three, four ounces in, you'll feel as if you'd ingested a few uppers or run up a couple of flights of stairs.
I continue to be amazed by all the things that ruin your meals, chatters.
At the moment, Arlington, I think your best bet is inside the park: Ben's Chili Bowl for a halfsmoke (no chili), Hard Times Cafe for a five-way chili, Gifford's for ice cream.
And if that meal doesn't give you heartburn, the Nats will.
(I'm still waiting for the soft-touch Washington Post sports section to hammer the Lerners and president Stan Kasten for reneging on the promise to spend free agent money this offseason; what they have fielded, is a very competent AAA team.)
I'd probably take him to Athens Grill, in Gaithersburg. Simple, homey, unpretentious.
It's owned by Alexandra and Dimitrios Angelakis and their daughters, Evie and Anna Maria — Alexandra does the cooking.
Start with the terrific tzatziki and taramasalata, then move on to the Big Fat Gyro and rotisserie chicken — or maybe the hearty lamb stew or thick, soft meatballs with veggies, the latter a rendition of the classic from the Cyclades islands.
Oh, and the baklava is one of the best around.
Let me let you in on something: You can do really well these days in the city for that amount. Ten years ago, not so much.
But the rise of the gourmet bistro has brought a slew of interesting, more-affordable restaurants. Palena Cafe (the front room of the more elegant, more proper Palena) has a menu of very modestly priced dishes, and chef Frank Ruta is among the best in the city. There's also Central Michel Richard, Westend Bistro, Brasserie Beck, and Poste, among many others. All those spots made our recent 100 Best Restaurants list.
And let's not forget: Montmartre in Eastern Market and Montsouris in Dupont Circle — same owners, by the way — offer the pleasures of simple, honestly prepared French bistro food for a decent price.
Any one of these places should fit the bill. Let us know which way you decided to turn. Good luck, and enjoy your rare night out.
Then you need to be prepared to brave the traffic (and the often-inexplicable roads) of Northern Virginia.
Todd Thrasher mixes the drinks at the wonderful Restaurant Eve, in Old Town Alexandria, occasionally even arranging a shotgun marriage of dish and libation. The colorful Gina Chersevani does the duty at EatBar in Arlington (order up the terrific burger to go along with one of her inspired concoctions).
I'd walk into Arrowine in Arlington, Arlington, or head to MacArthur Beverage and Wine on MacArthur Blvd. in DC. These are among the very best shops in the area. Collar any of the knowledgeable guys on the floor, tell them your price range, and ask them for a great recommendation or two.
And it happens every day and every night in this town, too.
Attention, servers: That guy in jeans and T-shirt might be an investment banker. He might be a tech tycoon. He might even be a food critic.
A quick little list for you …
For coffeeshops: Mayorga and Kefa Cafe in Silver Spring
For not-too-expensive brunch: Poste in Penn Quarter and Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park.
For sushi with character: Kotobuki in Palisades.
For thin pizza: 2 Amys in Cleveland Park, Mia's Pizzas in Bethesda.
Actually, I do the vast majority of the cooking. My wife is a terrific baker (more her thing, anyway).
But yes, she really is an invaluable dining partner — observant, trenchant, informed, funny, alert to folly, more than willing to idle away a few hours or more at the table … and more than willing to venture to the terrific dining rooms of ethnic Washington and armchair travel.
Anyway, I'm about to take off for lunch, folks.
Thanks for spending your morning — and early afternoon — with me. You, goofing off at work. Me, working.
Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
Didn't get your question answered? Submit one in advance to Todd's chat next week, Tuesday, April 29, at 11 AM.
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