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 27, click here.
Word of Mouth …
… I would have thought that seven visits — and careful dissection of leftovers at home — would have allowed me to figured out why the cooking at Nava Thai Noodle and Grill (11315 Fern St., Wheaton; 240-430-0495) is bigger, bolder and brighter than anywhere else. But to learn, to truly learn, I had to go into the kitchen.
The restaurant's owners (and cooks and mates), Suchart Srigatesook and Ladavan Srigatesook, don't present themselves as radicals, conscious of trying to forge something new. On the contrary, they describe their ambition to open Nava with disarming humility. "We were frightened," says Ladavan.
In leaving the security of Dusit Thai several years ago, they took as big a risk as the one they’d taken three decades earlier, in leaving Thailand. Suchart had grown tired of cooking Thai food for American tastes, tired of the muted palette of flavors, the lack of heat. But was there an audience for street food? Were there enough people out there to appreciate the fiery, fiercely pungent cooking he envisioned?
The owners of Hung Phat market reached out to the couple, urged them to set up shop in the back of the grocery. The Srigatesooks declined, then quickly came to the realization that the market could provide them the goods they needed, the herbs and spices, the noodles, the hard-to-find delicacies, to produce the dishes he and so many other homesick Thais longed for.
That solved one problem. But there were others. The biggest was that every dish would have to be made to order, from scratch, in keeping with the fresh-comes-first ethos of street food.
That runs counter to the utilitarian approach of most Thai restaurants, where, say, a salad of shredded papaya seldom carries the tang it’s supposed to. That’s because the salad is typically made in advance, the shreds losing their bite in the refrigerator, the mouth-tingling flavors of ginger, fish sauce, and chilis muddling and muting in the process. Curries, meanwhile, are assembled from parts rather than constructed whole. The proteins are partly pre-cooked, then, when an order comes into the kitchen, combined with sauce at the last minute; as a result, the flavors barely have a chance to get acquainted. Soups, prepared that morning or even earlier, are left to simmer in huge vats.
One afternoon recently, I stood in the cramped, galley-style kitchen and watched as the Srigatesooks handled the lunch-time rush. An order for papaya salad sent an assistant, Boy (“That’s what we call him. Just ‘Boy’”), to a large mortar and pestle, where he built the dish, ingredient by ingredient, methodically grinding fresh garlic, chilis, green beans, baby tomatoes into a paste, dousing the mixture with a hit of fish sauce, a spoon of sugar, working it into the sides of the bowl until it had reached the desired texture, a sort of chunky smoothness. Eid, a waitress, popped into the kitchen and teased him as he worked. “In Thailand, we say that a woman with a steady rhythm” with the pestle “is a good woman, a woman who would make a good wife.” She smiled. “Boy, he’s not a good wife.”
The Srigatesooks come from central Thailand, where the locals favor a version of the salad that’s made with more sugar, more lime and a handful of crushed nuts, so just before tossing it with a handful of shredded papaya, Boy added those ingredients to the mix. What, for most restaurants, is a toss-off, here took a good ten minutes to produce from start to finish — or, as much as some entrees take at three-star restaurants.
Behind him, Ladavan was already at work on a Floating Market Soup, a dish that no other restaurant in the area chances to cook. From one of two twenty-gallon vats full of broth (one pork, one beef; Muslims won’t touch the former), she ladled a liquid produced from slow-simmered pork bones and black soy sauce.
Into the pot went two dollops of an incendiary fire-engine red chili sauce the Srigatesooks make from scratch each morning, followed by a small palmful of crushed garlic, a shake of white vinegar and another shake of fish sauce, and a spoonful of sugar. While it boiled, Boy prepared the white tureen of a bowl, centering a tangle of watercress, which he topped with fried garlic chips, a funky, chewy condiment called sweet-and-salted radish and, in a sort of Thai equivalent of croutons, salted pork rinds.
To the simmering pot, Ladavan added pork meat balls and — the restaurant’s secret ingredient, unmentioned in the description on the menu — pork blood. “The blood gives it good body,” said Ladavan, garnishing the bowl with chopped celery leaf, cilantro and green onion. It also gives it a richness that even an oil-beaded chicken soup can’t match, and an indefinable taste that stumped me the first time I dug in, forcing me to play guessing games all meal.
Eid returned, calling out an order for pad Thai. Suchart Srigatesook leapt to action. Perhaps no dish captures the difference between Nava and other Thai restaurants quite like the pad Thai, and although Ladavan will make pad Thai, everyone connected with the restaurant knows that the dish is Suchart’s.
To confront the plate on the table, a tangle of dressed noodles with bean sprouts and a lime wedge, is to assume a simple assemblage of ingredients, simply prepared. The impression is reinforced by the directness of the flavor. I was astounded by the number of ingredients that Suchart worked with.
He topped a plate of reconstituted broad noodles with thin slices of smoked tofu (a dead ringer for bacon), ground peanuts, dried shrimp, paprika, sweet-salted radish, and fried onions. Then, pouring a small amount of soybean oil into a smoking hot wok, he tilted the contents of the plate onto the cooking surface. He gave a quick stir. A spoonful of chopped garlic and two large shrimp came next. Then he ladled a mixture of chicken broth and sugar water into the wok, adding spoonfuls of white vinegar, fish sauce and a sauce made up of tamarind and plum sugar. The liquid came to a rolling boil, then he introduced a spoonful of sugar into the mix. At which point, he stepped away from the stove, letting the water and sugar caramelize. I understood immediately that this was part of the machismo of making pad Thai, the confidence to walk away at a crucial moment.
“You have to let it burn a little,” said Ladavan, with the admiration of a pianist taking in another pianist’s chops. She said that when she makes the dish, she’s afraid to let it sit and turn dark, and can’t resist giving it a toss. The result is still good, but lighter, and less intense, slightly less memorable.
When the noodles took on the color of a Sugar Daddy, Suchart returned to the stove, cracked an egg into the wok, tossed on some green onions and commenced a final, vigorous stir.
It was a good thing that the dish was not complete without the decoration of bean sprouts and a lime wedge. Lacking these garnishes, it looked ruined, like something you’d find in a home ec class. The noodles were so dark, they looked unappetizing, and the whole thing seemed to have congealed into a solid, sticky mass.
Serving a dish like this, a dish that only those who had eaten it before, or those who knew exactly what it was supposed to be like, I realized, required an enormous leap of faith on the part of the kitchen, the equivalent of a playwright trusting that his audience is going to savor the nuances and laugh in the right places. But that's Nava. …
Producer's note, re: Cheap Eats from 15 years ago – this is what the June 1993 issue says: The best bargain spots are local dining places where you can have a very good dinner for two with house wine or beer for $40 or less, including tax and tip.
I'm glad to hear it. I think it's a terrific place to go for good, soulful cooking without spending a whole lot of cash — although, as I said, I'm not sure "restaurant" is the right thing to call the place; not many, if any, others eating whenever I was there. As for that caldo verde … I wouldn't count on it. They've been out every time I've gone. …
Fresh perilla leaves! That's reason enough to go. Good scouting, Silver Springing.
I am a New York City native, relocated to the DC area, and I have not yet found a decent slice of pizza. I did find one moderately OK one near my house, but really moderate at best, and in D.C. proper they don't even know what flat crust pizza is, so far as I can tell.
I would love to find a place with real NY pizza – no the foofoo gourmet stuff; not a bad greasy wannabe; not some thick crust Chicago-style; but just plain old good Brooklyn or Little Italy style pizza for the pizza lover.
Know anywhere? I don't mind a trek.
Not far from you, actually.
Cafe Pizzaiolo in Crystal City. The owner and pizzamaker's from NY — we just had him on a couple of weeks ago for a chat — and so his pies take their inspiration from there instead of Italy or California. They're excellent — without seeming (or being) froufrou. Flat, crispy, slighty salty, deeply flavorful.
Only, I'm not certain if you can go just for a slice. This isn't a slice town.
If you're in the city, I'd make a stop for Alberto's on P St. There, you can definitely get a slice — though it's the size of two. Tasty stuff.
I'd love to know, myself.
Unfortunately, I think the answer is — nowhere.
Any intel out there that says otherwise?
Well, technically, they WERE included. We went out of our way to include that box of good deals.
I hear you re: the prices. I've heard the same thing from a number of others, including some of the magazine's own employees. But over the years, I've also heard a lot more in the way of carping — including, as I said, a number of my friends. I think, generally speaking, it's hard for most people to dine at a place like Jaleo or Zaytinya (not graze and sip, but dine).
And with so many other excellent spots in the region, it just seemed to me the right thing to do — to enforce the parameters more strictly and not make the reader "dance" around the menu.
Cheap Eats fifteen years ago? I'm not near the archives for the magazine. But that'd be interesting to look at.
Catherine, if you're reading along, would you mind pulling up a back issue and, as they say, dropping some knowledge on us?
Le Bec Fin has a sort of grand dame quality about it. A legend that time is beginning to pass by.
I think with restaurants, the one quality you have to be on the lookout for, is energy. That doesn't necessarily mean new places, places for the young and trendy. You can find the energy I'm talking about in older places, legends, institutions. Is the kitchen cooking with verve and conviction? Is there a snap to the service? What's the feel of the dining room, the bar?
Cheesesteaks … Lots and lots of good places. I really like Tony Luke's. And Cosmi's Deli. Both terrific.
And STILL I haven't been …
That good, huh?
I've been away from the chat for far too long. I am sometimes able to go back and see what was discussed. The email newsletter is great. Thanks for doing that.
Here is my question… Tonight some co-workers are meeting for a happy hour on the rooftop of Local 16, (1620 U St.). I have never heard of this place, as it was suggested by a colleague.
Can you tell me anything about it? Who frequents, type of crowd, what to expect food/drinks, etc. Thanks!
The crowd? Young strivers. Lots of them. I can't imagine the place'd be too packed on a Tuesday night, though.
My advice: Eat lightly. Then, if you're really jonesing for something good, hit up Oohhs & Aahhs afterwards for some fried chicken (or the Cajun fried turkey chop) and mac 'n' cheese.
Price point! Boy, we're all industry insiders now, aren't we? I guess Bravo's right: "Top Chef" really IS a cultural force. : )
To answer your question, though …
I'll say yes, because I know what you're asking. But I think (speaking critically now) Cork does what it does better than Proof does what it does. I think it aims less high, but hits its mark more often.
Here's what you do: Take them to the bar at BLT Steak. Gargantuan popovers and fantastic country pate (both gratis, by the way, with dinner), mammoth steaks, a very good bartender and a decent-sized flatscreen.
Your only worry? Persuading said bartender to turn the tube to a hockey game.
Well, one more worry: the size of the bill. BLT ain't cheap.
I second that about Valentino's in Alexandria. It's off of N. Beauregard and Duke next to the Arby's.
It's the best pizza that I have ever had and their garlic knots are to DIE for!
Do I hear a third?
And seriously? Best?
this might explain the service issues…maybe there is more to this story that we don't yet know…
And that, chatters, I swear, is going to be my final word on the subject. And hey — it's not even a word!
I think I read here that the former manager of the now closed Hunan Chinatown was himself opening a restaurant. Where would that be located?
I'm specially interested since at Hunan Chinatown my wife and I enjoyed a superb dish not found elsewhere, I believe–Tea-smoked Duck!
Do you know if the new restaurant has that wonderful item on the menu, or do you know of any area restaurant that does prepare it? Thanks very much. Milton
Milton, I wish I had the answer to you to the first of your questions. But maybe someone in the vast Out There, reading along, can give us some guidance –?
As for tea-smoked duck, I'm a big fan, too. I've seen it on the menus at Sichuan Village, in Chantilly, and Hong Kong Palace, in Falls Church (excellent Szechuan, both places).
We have a friend visiting from San Diego this wkd and we're looking for a fun outdoors restaurant that also pleases the pallette. Is there anything you can think of in DC? I really don't feel like doing Lauriol Plaza or Perrys. Thanks!
Live 2 Eat — I like it. Make a neat license plate.
What I'd do is, I'd head to Cafe du Parc — early, though, before 6:30. Otherwise, you might not get a seat and would be forced indoors. Snag a wrought iron table under one of the umbrellas, very Cafe Society, and relax and people-watch.
The cooking is French bistro, and more sophisticated than most, and there are a number of very good wine picks for under ten bucks a glass.
The place you want is Dolcezza, in Georgetown, just above the madding crowds at the nexus of Wisconsin and M Sts.
Argentinian-style gelato in a variety of flavors. Me, I love the dulce de leche and the pistachio. Great stuff.
Todd, I need help.
One of my old colleagues is coming into town next week for a conference and will only be here Monday and Tuesday. Some of us girls in the office want to get together and do something fun, like dinner/drinks. At least one person does not eat meat (except fish, etc). Our offices are in Dupont Circle.
Can you suggest a place for us to go?
Firefly's not a bad choice. And right nearby, too.
Mourayo's close by, too — right up Connecticut above the circle. Good, contemporary Greek cooking in a bistro setting.
If you felt like hopping a Metro or a cab (the latter's a little cheaper these days, what with the new meters), I'd say head to Poste, in Penn Quarter. It's the liveliest of the bunch, and with the best food, to boot.
Is there anywhere around to get really authentic and delicious Middle Eastern pastries?
My boyfriend grew up in Israel and I studied abroad there and in Jordan, and we're both craving the sweets that we had there. We especially like the baklava made with pistachios.
You've got to get yourself to Arax Cafe, in the Westover section of Arlington.
The owner, Rose Hovsepian, does all the baking herself: baklava, shortbreads, almond cookies, etc., etc. Since I came to the magazine, it's been a perennial Dirt Cheap Eats honoree.
It's also a good place for a meal, although the menu is really small, basically, whatever she feels like cooking that day. But good soups, meat pies, that sort of thing.
I wish I could get there more often, personally.
In Maryland, there's the Lemon Tree, which does exactly the kind of baklava you're looking for — with pistachios.
Just wanted to tell you about a lovely dinner we had at Indique in Cleveland Park. We sat on the balcony and had a pre theater dinner – three course for $20.00 and then went for Indiana Jones at Uptown. A beautiful evening indeed!
Good for Indique for offering that, although I haven't been too keen on the food in a while.
How was it? Is it churlish of me to point out that you didn't offer any specifics of the dinner?
Hi! My boyfriend and I are celebrating our 2 year anniversary this weekend.
We have lived in NW DC for six years now and have been everywhere. I'd like to surprise my boyfriend with a great restaurant this Sunday to celebrate.
We love restaurants like Zengo, Oceanaire, DC Coast, etc. but are looking for something we haven't tried. Any suggestions? (not really looking for something like Marcels or Citronelle… something a little more lively but yet romantic?) Thanks!
I got you. (And congratulations!)
How about Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar? I say that because it's a lot less proper than the two spots you mentioned, because it's open on a Sunday, because the cooking is generally assured and interesting, and because the atmosphere is lively and sophisticated.
I think you'd have a good time.
If you go, check back in and let us know how things turned out …
Happy birthday, Nina!
You know, I'd say give Butterfield 9 a shot — I think it has the setting you're looking for, and the cooking is good, too — but I'm not sure if it's going to be "too pricey" for you or not. I'm not sure what your budget is.
For 8-10 people … in the city .. in a not-too loud, sophisticated setting … with good food — that's going to cost you.
Put it this way: It's less expensive than a place like Citronelle or Marcel's, but more expensive than Cork or Leopold's Kafe + Konditorei.
Anyway … I'm off to a lunch with a friend at a new, informal spot that I hope to tell you more about next week. My first look was promising. Stay tuned.
Eat well, everyone, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …