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 May 6, click here.
Word of Mouth …
… Foodies rarely acknowledge the ways in which sourcing — to some, an issue shot through with questions of morality — is bound up in matters of money. I'm not coming out as an opponent of sourcing. I think it's wonderful that some chefs seek out produce and meats and cheeses with the fervor of a tickhound. And making a chicken taste like chicken, say, is no small feat in an age when the industrial, post-War machine has co-opted much of our food supply and made so many things taste like fast food.
But to listen to many foodies, sourcing is tantamount to holiness. A matter, some might have you believe, of personal taste. Those who are pure and good and devoted to all that food can be, seek out quality, artisanal suppliers at the farmers' markets and on the internet. Those who are not, buy from Safeway and Giant. Some of us have discernment, and some of us do not.
High-end restaurants have embraced sourcing as a reason for being. If a chef buys eggs from Polyface Farms, then you can bet your sweet amuse bouche that "Polyface Farms" will be modifying "egg" on his menu. Reading the menus at many big-name, big-ticket restaurants these days is like perusing a chef's shopping list. At one time, I have no doubt that it was meant to be helpful to the diner, a means of education, a chance to forge a connection between the table and the farm. These days, I can't shake the suspicion that it's mere bragging — proof of who's got the bigger roster of clients. ("See? Chef X, down the street, has six suppliers. I've got seven!")
Sourcing has become a craze, of sorts. And it's made chefs, some of them, a little crazy. An informant of mine, who works in the industry, told me last year about a local chef who claimed to be serving Shenandoah lamb, when in fact — because the informant supplied him his lamb — the lamb was frozen, from New Zealand. He also suggested to me that the presence of certain, attention-getting items from certain, attention-getting farms on a menu makes it possible for restaurants to get away with sneaking in lesser goods elsewhere — the sexy, sourced ingredients running interference. No less an eminence than Michel Richard, he noted, was serving frozen lamb amid his deconstructions and reconstructions.
The sourcing craze is catnip to an awful lot of food writers, who are all-too-willing to play the game, churning out reverential stories about chefs pursuing herbs on their motorcycles, citing suppliers for such things as onions in their reviews and giving chefs the benefit of the doubt — all because their heart is in the right place.
The unintended consequence of sourcing is to divide the food world into the haves and the have-nots. The places that get attention, the places that don't.
Most ethnic restaurants, being small, family-run operations, rarely purchase anything for their kitchens that's more special than what you might get at a grocery store. And yet Ravi Kabob, Etete, Nava Thai — to name just three — are among the best, most consistent restaurants in the area, thanks in no small part to the fact that their menus are small and their kitchens produce a limited set of simple dishes day after day after day. Etete isn't getting exquisite onions, but by the time you caramelize them for two hours (the basis for Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn's exceptional wats) what does it matter, really?
The newly opened Ghar-e-Kabob, in downtown Silver Spring, is an exception to the rule. I find it admirable that the restaurant is making such a concerted effort to source its products from local suppliers. A waiter one night assured a nearby table that the chicken in the chicken tikka masala was an Amish chicken, from Pennsylvania. Its vegetables, he added, were also purchased from local sources — though he didn't name names. Later, he brought out a take-home container to show us the restaurant's commitment to going green. It was made from recycled paper.
Beautiful, really. But the curries were thin and depthless. The chicken tikka masala I ordered (how could I resist the chance to eat an Amish chicken hot out of the tandoor?) was on the dry side. I'd looked forward to the various veggie curries, but I was hard put to see any benefit from all the local shopping the kitchen had supposedly gone to.
Not long ago at Equinox, I eagerly awaited a bowl of soup — made from, I presumed, locally grown spring garlic. The presentation was elaborate, the pouring of the broth, tableside, over the poached quail egg and buttered leeks that had been grouped in the center of the bowl. I dug in.
Garlic was the fifth thing I tasted, after salt and cream and bacon and butter.
Sourcing plus great cooking is one thing. But in the absence of that — and it's harder to come by than you think, believe me — I'll take great cooking. …
Regarding last week's comment about real delis, from living here for years, I'd suggest the following: — Parkway Deli in Silver Spring (great matzoh ball soup!) — Krupin's on Wisconsin Avenue, in Tenleytown (good corned beef, chopped liver and breads) — Celebrity Deli in the Cabin John Shopping Center in Potomac I wish that the certified kosher Eli's Deli on NH Avenue and 20th Street, NW had better food and atmosphere. Too bad that a branch of NY's Carnegie Deli opened some years ago in Tyson's Corner in the Embassy Suites hotel, had great food, then closed. Also too bad that the certified kosher Stack's Deli opened on Pennsylvania Avenue, had bad management and so-so food, then closed about two years ago.
My last meal at Parkway several weeks ago was nothing I'd want to suggest. I used to like the matzo ball soup, but the matzo ball itself was flavorless (where was the schmalz?) and the broth was salty. The bagels were soft and chewy. The cakes were dry and crumbly. Good whitefish, though.
Krupin's is now Morty's. I like the atmosphere, and I like the pickles, but that's about it. A real shadow of itself.
The rest? An even bigger eh.
We need a real deli. And I now have it on authority that a certain name chef is going to be opening one within the next few years.
Far and away, the best spot in the area is Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard, in Wheaton.
The best, the most consistent, the most interesting selection (including a rice noodle crepe stuffed with fried bread and a soft, sweet, custard-filled bun fashioned into a carrot).
Great stuff. I'd go every weekend, if I could.
I like The Source a lot, but yeah, the prices for wines by the glass are insulting.
And they're insulting at a lot of places, not just The Source. I'm sorry, but a glass of wine is NOT supposed to cost more than an entree.
What are restaurants trying to tell us, that with the blurring of distinctions that comes with the tapasization of food nowadays, erasing the once-firm boundaries between appetizer and main course, we should expect a blurring in other ways?
All the more reason to single out the folks at Cork, who have assembled a list of nearly three-dozen wines by the glass, many of them the sort of picks you seldom see on restaurant menus. That usually spells doom for the customer, but the prices are, in this climate, extremely reasonable. I don't remember anything on the wine list going for more than $16, and most are bunched around $10 and $11.
Welcome, Nanuet! (Where IS Nanuet?)
Corduroy's not new. It's moved, is all, to more sumptuous, more personal digs (it used to be housed on the second floor of a rather drab hotel). It's now on the edge of the gentrifying Shaw, near the Convention Center.
Power is a real talent, and Corduroy, among the higher-end spots, is one of the best, most consistent, most rewarding places to eat in town.
It's not showoffy food, there's no overarching theme, no concept, the menu rarely changes. Just good, careful cooking that reveals itself best, I think, in the soups and handmade pastas.
It's not forthcoming — it's come.
A friend of mine recently went. Fifteen bucks, for a burger, fries and a drink. Fifteen bucks. And it took twenty minutes. Sorry, that ain't fast food.
And think about this … Two of you could go to Palena Cafe, each order the (amazing) burger and split the (amazing) fry plate, and be out thirty bucks, same as at Burger Joint.
That's too big of a hint.
You know I wouldn't. Nobody would. But that's not my point.
From a restaurant standpoint … Good products are just that, products. Raw materials. It's what you do with them that counts. I've seen a lot of good, raw material wasted, because the cooking was not up to the high level of the ingredient.
And I'm disturbed, in general, by the way food is going, i.e., those who can afford it (invariably, those who talk about it and read about it) are getting their hands on the good stuff, while those who can't (the vast majority of folks) do without — relying heavily on processed foods and fast foods. A hundred years ago, fresh, quality ingredients were within reach of most folks in this country.
Bests? I'm not willing to confer that medal on anyone right now.
In Virginia … Guajillo in Arlington does a good ceviche, Arlington. So does La Granja de Oro, in Falls Church.
$500, but for how many?
I don't think restaurants ignore the "noise factor." I think a lot of the newer spots actively seek a louder, more bustling atmosphere.
I welcome it, personally. And I say that as someone who had to shout to make myself heard at Cork recently.
I welcome it because in many ways it epitomizes a new dining age in the city. This was a city, not so long ago, remember, of formal, quiet dining rooms. Formal, quiet dining rooms often carry with them an exclusionary air. They are places of ties and suits, of proper conversation and improper conversation. Younger people, people who don't conduct themselves in a conventional way, often felt unwelcome in these kinds of settings. And formal, quiet dining rooms gave the impression of a place you went to once, twice, maybe three times a year.
Places now want to see you a lot, and they don't care what you wear or who you come with or what you say.
I know an awful lot of people who are uncomfortable with the new spots, who deplore the state of dining out in the city, but I can't side with them. Noise is a consequence of this new atmosphere. But with noise, there's also excitement in the room and excitement, sometimes, on the plate. This is, all in all, a good thing.
Who says I don't know this type of thing?
(And what's with the "hoss"?)
Yes, "any chef with some training can turn great ingredients into something special." But I also see a LOT of chefs with a LOT of training turning great ingredients into thoroughly ordinary food.
What's interesting is, it's the cooks in the region's best ethnic restaurants who do the most with the least.
I recently read an interesting interview that a writer for dcist.com, Jamie Liu, did with Eric Ziebold. In it, Ziebold talks about his love of street food in Asian countries, how it's street food he seeks out on his trips abroad, not fine dining. The reason those dishes are so good, he speculates, is that those street-food cooks have spent twenty-plus years cranking out those one or two dishes every single day and thus perfecting them.
Well, that's also the case for the best ethnic cooks in the region.
Interestingly, the menu at places like CityZen and others changes all the time, preventing that kind of perfection that Ziebold talks about.
It's one reason why I, on my travel budget, make a point of seeking out ethnic spots in the cities I visit. Fine dining can be a homerun, but it can also be a triple or a double. Those spots are best saved for a couple of meals. The great ethnic spots are much, much more consistent and reliable.
Drop Acadiana. It doesn't belong on that list.
All things considered, Bethesda, I'd probably order them like this: Cork, Westend, Proof, Hook, and Palena Cafe. If good food comes first, then Palena Cafe has to go at the top.
So we attempted Mother's Day brunch (I had written to you last week regarding Cafe du Parc and Poste- we wound up choosing neither because we couln't get a convenient reservation time). So we decided to do Le Pain Quotidien in Georgetown.
When we first walked up, the manager (I think) told us it would be a 10 or 15 minute wait. The hostess then told us 15 to 20 minutes, but we thought that would be okay. We have two small children who are not good waiters, but they can handle 20 minutes. So we waited, and waited, and waited…for 40 minutes!!! This was after numerous assurances that we were next, it would only be 5 more minutes, etc. No apology from anyone during this, just very dismissive attitude. So we finally got seated at the communal table where we waited at least 10 or 15 minutes for anyone to even acknowledge us. I got the menus myself from the upstairs host stand, which finally prompted our waiter to say he'd be with us in a few minutes.
So when he finally got there we placed our order and then waited some more. After another 10 or 15 minutes without even coffee or water or juice brought to us, we got up and left. I couldn't find the waiter anywhere so told the hostess to cancel our order because our kids were starving basket cases at this point. I received nothing but a rude response and rolled eyes from her.
Wow- happy mother's day to me.
Don't blame brunch — blame THAT brunch.
Wow, that's bad. Really bad. And on Mother's Day, too. I'm sorry to hear that.
Funny — I've got much the same problem as you, Alexandria. Except I have it many times a week.
I also have a three-month-old (SO cute!), and eating out — one of my jobs — is a HUGE challenge. Yet somehow, I — we — manage. The kid just logged restaurant visit No. 36.
Nice restaurants are hard. A place with outdoor seating helps — Cafe du Parc, Zorba's Cafe. But that depends on good weather. But try them.
Beyond that, keep in mind that Asian restaurants are generally terrific when it comes to babies. They're equipped to handle the challenge, they're amenable, and you almost always get a smile from someone on staff (often, even cooing — from men as well as women. Something you almost never find from American restaurants.)
I have been a faithful reader since moving to DC and this is my second request for a recommendation! (The first was way back in January, you suggested The Source for a birthday dinner for the Boyfriend and me, but sadly I was whisked out of the country for work and we haven't yet been able to come up with a good enough excuse to spend that kind of money just yet.)
This time, it's the Boyfriend's birthday coming up and I hope you can help. Where can I take him out to dinner for some delicious seafood — both of us could eat our weight in oysters if given the opportunity — that will satisfy without completely breaking the bank? The less-noisy and less-trendy the better (I've heard such good things about Hook, but we aren't exactly the Georgetown Crowd). Thanks in advance, and happy fooding!
It's not that noisy and it's certainly not trendy. Great oysters, and it's the best seafood spot in the city. It won't break the bank, but it's a pretty expensive night out if you're not careful.
If not Kinkead's, I'd try the Old Ebbitt Grill for the seafood tower and the raw bar. The rest of the menu is fine, but the oysters are the reason to go here — I think they fly in as many as ten varieties a day. You can have a good old time just slurping down oysters, dunking jumbo shrimp into cocktail sauce and sipping chilled Sauvignon Blanc.
Mendocino Grille – dinner last Friday was one the best in a string of recent meals at this gem of a place. As much praise that has been duly awarded this venerable restaurant, I still consider it underrated. Do not miss whatever ocean going fare is on the menu.
Granville Moore’s – sure the muscles and fries are great (I put them both as at or very near best in the city) but the meats that come from the postage stamp of a kitchen continue to impress me. A recent short rib sandwich left me slapping the table with its beefy goodness. I have also had a skirt steak that was better than any cut of meat that is normal used for stewing or fajitas has a right to be.
Ozio’s – only for the cigar smoking crowd, and only for drinks, and only when Nicole or Martin makes your cocktails, I know rather esoteric advice, but they both do a terrific turn with the shaker.
Evolve – the newish joint in Adams Morgan, designs by Ikea, food that is a waist of calories when I am trying to get into beach shape, and for the money I knew I should have just eaten at Cashion’s next door. Speaking of Cashion’s…
Cashion’s – their late night menu is the best eating one can do in this city after midnight. The version of a steak and cheese (they have some fancy name for it but it is a steak & cheese – why do chefs do that) is the best that I have eaten in this city.
Love your work.
You should get out more, RR.
I'm with you on Mendocino. It continues to fly under the radar of a lot of people, mostly, I think, because the chef stays in the kitchen and cooks.
I've also had that sandwich at Granville Moore's — terrific. Didn't intend to eat the whole thing. Couldn't resist.
High praise for the Cashion's steak-and-cheese! I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the tip. And yeah, I agree with you: no need for a cutesy name when it comes to a steak-and-cheese. Nothing raises my suspicions these days quite like: "our version of."
Get yourself to Old Town. Eamonn's A Dublin Chipper.
The best in the area, nothing else comes close.
What you say is true. Restaurants hate days like Mother's Day.
But you know what I hate? I hate the "amateur night" attitude. It's insulting. Yet more dividing, more us. vs. them. Those who are in the know vs. those who aren't. Those who eat out on Tuesday and are knowledgeable vs. those who come "only" on the weekends. Those who are worth the trouble vs. those who are not.
Green is green, restaurant people, and you run into real danger when you presume to judge your customers.
Todd I share your concern about the local source madness that has been going on. It's fine as far as it goes, but too many folks overstate the benefits. Sure it's nice to get good flavorful local _______, but generally that only happens a few weeks or at most few months each year, and then what?
My favorite is the oft-heard claim that local produce is more environmentally friendly since the fuel use is so much less than for produce grown far away. What is being missed there is the transport efficiencies involved. Bringing a few heads of lettuce and other locally grown produce 50 miles in a pickup may involve much more fuel burn per head than a bringing a load from California in a semi. And bringing food in by ship, e.g. apples from Chile, is definitely less fuel intensive than local moves in small trucks.
If folks want to buy local that's great, but buying from far away isn't demonic either.
Testify, John B., testify!
You make some excellent points, as usual. I miss our conversations. Hope all's well with you in NC. My bests …
Not everyone raves.
I share your sentiments, almost exactly.
Good Morning Todd,
First, I really enjoy our Word of Mouth chat openings. I feel that you truly put a great deal of thought into what you have to say, from little Chinatown last week, to sourcing this week.
I think that what you are saying is that we should appreciate good cooking-simple cooking and that basic ingredients can be crafted into masterpieces (or simple pleasures) in the right hands. A culinary degree and fashionably-sourced protien and produce does not a great meal make. Heck, most of us (even "foodies") swoon over a plate of food our mothers used to make.
Look at how meatloaf and fried chicken has become a benchmark of good, simple food. My hope is that when I go to a restaurant, where sourcing prefixes are standard before many ingredients, it is because the chef is passionate about local, seasonal cooking.
Thanks for chiming in, Alexandria.
And for writing so thoughtfully.
It's funny, for whatever reason, a lot of what we've been chatting about today are the sorts of divisions that people make. High end vs. ethnic. Formal vs. casual. Amateur night diners vs. savvy foodies. Etc., etc.
A lot of those divisions are beginning to crumble, I think, just as the distinctions between appetizer and entree are being slowly erased. And that's all to the good. I hope it continues.
More blurring, more fuzzing of the lines!
What was it Duke Ellington said? There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.
And so it is with food.
Eat well, everyone, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …