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 20, click here.
Word of Mouth …
… From time to time, I hear the complaint (never from foodies, always from the foodie-suspicious) that sushi isn’t terribly filling — a variation, I guess, on the an-hour-later-you’re-hungry-again joke that people used to make about Chinese restaurants in the ‘70s. The difference is, these people aren’t joking. I have never quite understood the gripe, since, with an a la carte cuisine such as sushi, you simply have to order more rolls (or more nigiri, or more sashimi). But there’s no point in arguing with these underfed (or over-hungry) souls. Instead, from now on, I will just point them toward the new Koi Koi Sushi & Roll (450 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-237-0101).
Ordinarily, with even a large order, my wife and I exit a sushi bar with a feeling of lightness — a meal of raw fish a welcome antidote to the accumulated riches of too many restaurant meals. Koi Koi left us waddling.
Rolls, not nigiri, are the thing here — the picture-book menu advertises 43 varieties, from fresh fish rolls to baked rolls to tempura-filled rolls, a number of them bearing the kind of kitschy names you expect to find at bars where girls go to go wild (“Sex on the Beach,” “Oh Baby”). Many of the fillings, predictably, are designed to maximize heft — there’s lots of cream cheese, mayo, and fry — and the kitchen is prone to supersizing, turning what ought to be maki into something closer to futomaki and doling out eight pieces instead of the standard six.
How are they? Better than you’d think. It helps that the sushi chefs fry to a dark crispness, and that the combinations are generally smart, even if the quality of the fish isn’t superlative and the rice is under-vinegared. It also helps if you don’t cop a purist’s attitude. Not when one of the best things on the rolls menu is the Dynamite Scallop Roll, a circular arrangement of California rolls hidden beneath a thick top layer of baked scallop, onion and mushroom. To say that, at first glance, it resembles crab imperial more than sushi is being charitable; when it hits the table, it looks inedible, the kind of dish you turn from instinctively.
I’ll say this for the kitchen: It’s tasty. Although five pieces in, my wife and I had given up, our stomachs groaning. All that mayo. All that richness. No mas. …
… The fish at Moby Dick (11220 Triangle Lane, Wheaton; 301-949-3910) is at least a cut above that of Koi Koi, although the thing to zero in on here is not the sashimi, the nigiri or the rolls. It’s a holdover dish, from the time when the restaurant was an American seafood house: a basket of fried shrimp. Owner and chef Chang Pyon butterflies them, breads them in panko and plunges them into the deep fryer. The panko makes them supercrunchy and irresistible; if you’re sitting with a table full of friends, it’s hard not to tear through the entire basket in a matter of minutes.
Pyon has an eye for color and arrangement, and the platters of fish he sends out (and sometimes personally delivers; the small, cheery café is a tiny operation) are uniformly beautiful. His rice tends to be underseasoned, a real flaw, but he fashions his rolls with a light but careful hand — they almost never fall apart, and they’re not bigger than two bites, at most — and he pays attention to each and every slice he carves. The highs are few (good yellowtail, mackerel and eel), but the lows are almost nonexistent.
Foodies are always in search of the killer place, the superstar destination. But sometimes you don’t want or can’t afford a Kobe Bryant. Sometimes you just want a Robert Horry, a solid vet who doesn’t make mistakes and always delivers (within reason). …
… Truth be told, there is no Kobester when it comes to sushi in DC.
Makoto isn’t what it was ten years ago (although its prices and attitude are still befitting of a top-shelf talent) and Sushi-Ko, though often very good, never aimed that high to begin with. The long-delayed opening of the latter’s second location, in Chevy Chase, may have raised expectations that the spinoff would up the ante (more varieties of fish, sourcing from Japan), but, alas, the new thing, here, is the décor.
The second Sushi-Ko (5455 Wisconsin Ave.; 301-961-1644) is one of a recent crop of restaurants to join the cocktail party of ritzy, fashion-conscious shops that line the stretch of Wisconsin Ave. that hugs the DC line. The result is a sort of high-end food court for people who can afford to shop at Barney’s and Tiffany’s. That might explain the interior, an impersonal, slick collection of rooms, each of them pumped full of dreary techno music. It makes the austere, Ikea-touched look of the original feel almost homespun by comparison.
The good news is that the kitchen has lost little in the translation to bigger, splashier digs. Right now, the best thing on the menu (a near- replica of the one further south on Wisconsin) might be the soft shell crab with ponzu sauce. The soft shells are thick and meaty, and the kitchen has done a good job in removing the eyes and cleaning out the insides; the lack of runniness, plus great frying, means you can count on a terrific crunch. And kudos to owners Russell Gravatt and Allen Smith, who, in these tuna-strapped times, are splurging on big-eye tuna. Like all tuna these days, texture is a problem (it’s mealy) but the flavor is as good as you can hope for, meaty and minerally. …
Thank you for mentioning Etete for me. Now I don't have to do it this week.
My point was, shopping is not a substitute for cooking. In some kitchens, though, it seems to be. And more broadly, I'm bothered by the fact that locally sourced produce and meats are really only available to people of means in this country. Whereas in some cultures, it's the norm. Thanks to the corporatization of food culture, local sourcing has become something of a class issue in this country. Many of the restaurants on this year's Best Bargains list demonstrate how much can be made out of comparatively little.
By the way, if you'd like to try my cooking, come on over to my house for some Ethiopian food.
I'm aiming at food lovers. Period. End of sentence.
The simple fact of the matter is, there isn't much in the way of deli here that's good. Although you clearly missed Deli City, in Northeast. Good stuff. Morty's is a shadow of what Krupin's was. Not wonderful.
I don't understand the accusations of a bias against people over 40. Are you telling me that a love of Pakistani food, of dim sum, of Indian, of pizza — pizza, for crying out loud! — is limited only to the tastes of the young?
I can't resist repeating one of my wife's favorite remarks —
Q: What do they call Indian food in India?
Why not the tasting menu at 2941, in Falls Church? You wouldn't even have to drive into town, NoVa.
The cooking is a little lustier, a little more soulful, since the new chef, Bertrand Chemel, came aboard, and 2941 has always done a good job with its tasting menus. That, plus the setting and the staff, ought to make for a pretty special night.
A slight shift in philosophy, I guess you could call it.
Those are great places, and great values. I agree.
I think the problem with a place like, say, Zaytinya being on the list is, you have to put together a meal for two of about five small plates, at the least — the servers all say when they come by, that they recommend about two or three per person. Now, some diners can maybe get by with two. But I have a foodie friend who needs at least three and sometimes four, and then he always comes back to me afterwards to complain (goodnaturedly) that it's too expensive to be a Cheap Eat. (He's not a big guy, either.) Throw in a glass of wine, and I don't see how it's possible to stay under $50.
We could have said in the review — stick to a couple of plates and stay away from cocktails. But that's steering the reader. It's saying it can be done, but that it takes some strategizing. It's saying: The place isn't a cheap eat per se, but can function as one.
We did a sidebar, as you I'm sure saw, that included Zaytinya and Palena Cafe, among some others, that offer what we called Gourmet on a Budget.
I don't think the list suffers from these places not being included, and in fact, we were able to include some other deserving spots.
Like, you know, some more Ethiopian and Asian places. ; )
You make good points, Falls Church.
I don't equate it with our wired and plugged-in universe, though. The point I was trying to make — and typing fast sometimes means that I don't get to express myself as cleanly or as explicitly as I would like — was that I think the noise thing is a trade-off.
It seems to me that if you want a more energetic, more interesting dining scene, a scene that results in places pushing each other and a healthy competition that benefits all of us, then I think you have to accept that one of the things that comes with that is noisy, bustling restaurants. Look at San Francisco, look at New York.
And please don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that these noisy, bustling restaurants are the only ones that matter.
I do think, though, that in the new culture — and it's there, it's happened, whether we like it or not — in the new culture, restaurants are not aiming for the sort of diners who come every so often. They want diners to become regulars, to drop by a couple of times a week.
That means doing away with certain formalities — of service, of setting (think about how many dining rooms you see that are nice-looking and modern but also cheaply done), of restrictions on dress, etc. Not taking reservations is becoming more and more common. Maitre d's have gone the way of the dodo bird.
Does anybody else out there?
I can tell you, though, that the current Butterfield 9 chef, Michael Harr, is worth paying a look-see, if you have the chance to drop by when you're in town.
Love your chats, reviews, and wonderful foodie tips. Got any ideas for a girl who loves food (the more exotic the better) but wants to go out to dinner at a place where she can still eat healthy? Seems like each restaurant I look at specializes in fatty sauces all over everything. I'd love a place that specializes in healthy food that's also tasty and delicious. Thanks!!
No, thank you, Alexandria!
There's only one restaurant (with two locations) that I can think of that specializes in healthful food, and that's Rock Creek — the newer of the two locations is on Wisconsin Ave., in Friendship Heights.
But I think that you can eat healthfully just about anywhere, especially this time of year, when the saucing usually is lighter and chefs tend to use more in the way of vegetables and herbs and oils. Look for soups that aren't made with cream. Look for fish dishes where a broth is used in place of a sauce (more and more the case these days).
And you can always collar a waiter of waitress and quiz them on the details of the dishes you're interested in. Some chefs — not all, but some — are willing to accommodate orders for something that goes slightly off the menu, like, for instance, slightly changing the preparation of a dish to lighten it up.
In the city proper, it'd have to be the half smoke, a sort of spicy hot dog with thick casing. You can find good versions at hot dog carts around the city and at Ben's Chili Bowl on U St.
But in the region — and I sometimes think that people who visit or who come here to work for a few years forget that DC is part of a culinary-rich region — you'd have to include things like soft shell crabs, crab cakes, crab Imperial, crabmeat-stuffed shrimp and flounder, and Maryland-style fried chicken.
Vegas for your birthday? Sounds fun. And potentially dangerous.
A great steak? You could try Craftsteak, the steakhouse created by Tom Colicchio. He's the New York City chef who struck out on his own with Craft, then wrote (co-wrote? worked on?) Think Like a Chef, an excellent cookbook/handbook, but is probably now best known for his role as the stern-faced judge on "Top Chef."
Prices, as I'm sure you might imagine, are sky-high. I think it's $88 for the ribeye for two, and the filet mignon comes in at just under sixty bucks.
Of course, you could also spring for the filet mignon of Japanese wagyu. It's a cool $240.
Todd, I feel compelled to share my recent experience at Napoleon in Adam's Morgan.
I dined alone at the bar craving steak frites last Monday evening. I had the cold chevre salad which was amazing as far as salads go. Great mix of greats, just the right amount of goat cheese and surprising nibbles of grapes and hazelnuts. And very light on the dressing. I loved it so much I'm going again for lunch today!
As for the steak frites…the steak was great, cooked to my liking which is extra-rare, cold and blue. The frites were fine. Nothing to write home about, but I would eat them again. The wine list had great variety, but sparse. In all it was a good experience and I would certainly recommendt it if only to try some of the crepes. Cheers!
Thanks for the report, Shaw.
Your write-up makes me want to go back and give the place another look. My experience of the place was pretty lousy.
Donna, no, I can't think of any.
And I know it's at the other end of the spectrum — lots of egg! lots of fat! — but there's great frozen custard in the DC area.
I bring it up, because custard was very much on my mind yesterday. Kohr Bros. on Rockville Pike is out of commission, replaced by something called Splurge. Not nearly as good.
And Kohr Bros. was not nearly as good as Milwaukee Frozen Custard, which is still very much around — with locations in Vienna and Ashburn. Creamy, thick, smooth, rich and wonderful.
My family is holding my mother's 50th surprise birthday party in Washington DC on June 7th.
There will be approx 13-15 people of varying ages, from 19 to late 6
0's. We would really prefer a place with a great atmosphere to a place with wonderful food but lacking in ambiance. We have not set a price range, ideally $50 would be the most per person, including drinks. The group will be staying in Dupont Circle, but will travel anywhere within DC for the dinner.
If the location was close to a metro, that would be helpful, too. We want this to be amazing, so any assistance would be appreciated!
What a great idea! Your mom's a lucky woman.
I think you're looking, Wayne, at a place like Ceiba downtown.
It's a bit of a nightly party, the drinks are colorful and festive, the prices are in line with what you're looking for, and the cooking (Nuevo Latino, I'd call it) has lots of appeal for group-dining.
You might also want to consider Fogo de Chao, on the edge of Penn Quarter. Also a nightly party, with gaucho-clad servers parading through the dining room with long spears of various meats. There are some two-dozen in all to choose from. It's never dull, the food is a conversation piece, and I think you could manage it with your budget.
Neither place, by the way, is far from a Metro.
Check back in after it's over — I'd be curious to know how things turned out.
I truly love your chats but am wondering what's going on with some of the folks who write in. It seems like they're a bit disgruntled.
My motto is read, research, enjoy life and move on. You've given me some of the best dining out tips!
I'm in the midst of planning a dinner party for my husband who will be turning the big "50" next month. If you had a group of 8 to 10 adults and could treat them to the best meal of their life (without losing your home) in the DC metro area, where would you go? Thanks
Wow. Big responsibility there. Me, I'd take them to Komi or Palena. I think you'd have a really special time at either of those places.
Thanks for the nice words, and best wishes to your husband. And please — I'd love to know what you decide to do. I hope it's a night to remember.
I can tell you that I've heard that rumor. But I can't confirm it.
And on that inconclusive note …
Thanks, everyone, for the give-and-take this morning. Even the accusations. That was fun.
(Oh, and if you haven't already, be sure to pick up a copy of the current issue. I think it's a great read, with a fun new format, some great pictures, and more than 25 new places on the list. We worked hard to uncover great and deserving new spots and spent a good part of this past year doing it. That's a helluva lot of meals, let me tell you. A helluva lot. And many of them you're not going to read about. …
To all the crew that worked on it, to Cynthia and Ann and Rina and Dave, to Eileen and Dave and Sara and Bill and Ken, thank you for your time and diligence and good ideas.)
Eat well, everyone, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …