Tuesday, June 24 at 11 AM

Todd chatted today about the best bargains for gourmet dining, a bad experience at Ray's the Steaks, and what makes a good mixologist.

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 June 17, click here.

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Word of Mouth …

   … Add the year-old Cuzco (10801 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax; 703-865-8150) to the growing list of good Peruvian spots in the area. (The honor roll: La Flor de la Canela in Gaithersburg, La Canela and La Limena in Rockville, and Desi's Chicken and Steak in Falls Church).
   The owner, Eduardo Cabrejos, is an almost twenty-year restaurant vet (he spent a big chunk of that time with the Great American Restaurant Group). He calls himself a chef, and does help out in the kitchen, but the job is mainly left to his head man, Maximino Quispe. Quispe worked at many of the best kitchens in Lima, and was the former chef at the salsa-charged El Cuzco Restaurant in Arlington (no relation) a decade ago.
   The menu touches all the bases: rotisserie chicken, heaping plates of steak and potatoes, teeming bowls of seafood stew, a handful of Peruvian-Chinese stir-frys — even a chicken eggroll. I'm eager to return to continue my explorations of this long, sprawling roster of dishes, but so far at least, there's little I don't like. And much that I love. The ceviche (its marinated fish sliced thin, in the Peruvian manner) is excellent; the aji de gallina, a shredded chicken stew in a spicy cheese sauce, is marvelously garlicky (it's listed as a dip but eats like a small stew); the flavors in the classic shrimp soup, chupe de camarones, are robust enough to offset the heavy cream; and the anticuchos, though they might have spent a couple more time on the grill and developed a more pronounced char, are about as yielding as you can expect beef hearts to be. …

   … It's rare that the proteins in a curry are equal to the sauce, but the braised pork in red curry at Rabieng (5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-671-4222) is one of the exceptions. The lusciousness of the rich, creamy curry is amplified by the tender juiciness of the meat, which is sliced thick and shingled a la Sunday pot roast; the inclusion of rambuttan, a tropical fruit, lends much the same sweet, fruity component that Americans find in, say, a cherry sauce.
   Nothing else on the menu reaches such heights (then again, how many knockouts does any menu have?), but the kitchen, with its devotion to regional, country-style Thai, pumps out a succession of bold, brightly flavored hits: wok-roasted cashews and hot peppers, excellent dumplings, a salad of Chinese sausage and marinated cucumbers, and a stir-fry of crispy catfish with leaves of basil so thin and crunchy, they shatter on contact. ….

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NOTE: Todd will be starting today's chat a little late. Check back in around 11:15 AM. 

Bummed in Bethesda

Hey Todd,

I went into downtown Bethesda for lunch on Wednesday June 18th with another friend because I wanted to check out Le Pain Quotidien. The place looked unique.

Upon arrival, every waiter was running around and I had no idea whether it was seat your self or "please wait to be seated" because there was no sign. Once we grabbed the attention of a server he told us that, "every customer waited on today has been in a 'shitty' mood, are you? Otherwise I don't want you at my table."

We told him we were fine, and were seated. After his first impression my friend and I were taken aback by his crude informality. We immediately ordered "tartine" sandwiches (which are not well described on the menu) with chicken, smoked mozerella, and arugula and iced teas. The food, which in my opinion was one of the worst lunches I have eaten, came within five minutes. After we requested the drinks for the second time, the waiter brought them over and told us that we, "caught him on his first mistake." Too modest!

The waiter, Matthew, never came back to ask about our food and asked us why we were giving him a hard time when we asked for a refill. We were now in a "shitty" mood.

Everyone: This complaint came in late last week, which meant I had time to relay it to a manager at Le Pain Quotidien in Bethesda. She relayed it to Stephen Smittle, a honcho in charge of New York and D.C. operations. Here is his reply:

 

Tim-

Here is my reply. Thanks again for your assistance.

Dear Concerned Guest,

Please accept my sincere apology for the experience you had when visiting Le Pain Quotidien in Bethesda.  We truly value the feedback, and see it as part of an ongoing learning experience.  We were fortunate enough to hear of your visit from The Washingtonian.   Without honest and open comments such as yours, we will not be able to continue to learn and grow.  Feedback is even more vital in a new market, with the challenge of creating a great reputation and name for ourselves.  We are truly committed to quality at Le Pain Quotidien.  This applies to all facets of the restaurant:  the food, the people, and the atmosphere.  We have clearly fallen short here.  We regret that you and your friends did not have an enjoyable experience.  Your comments have been shared with the management team and were discussed at length.  We have also reinforced service standards with the entire service staff, and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken with regards to the server.  Rudeness of any kind, inappropriate language, and a lack of hospitality will not be tolerated under any circumstances. 

 We would like the opportunity to invite you back to the restaurant, so we may take great care of you.  We hope to have a second chance to make a great impression, and to provide you with an outstanding dining experience.  We would love to send gift certificates to your office or residence, if you are kind enough to provide an address.  Thank you again for your comments; your candor and openness is greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

Stephen
 

Washington, DC
Todd: Word is out now that Restaurant K has closed – less than 10 months after opening. Any inside info on what happened? How can a place of this stature go down so quickly?

I guess I didn't realize Restaurant K had stature. Status, sure — but only because of its K St. address.

The number of questions I'm getting about this this morning are surprising. This is not the end of an era. This is not the shutting down of a great restaurant.

You know, the funny thing is, restaurants go down quickly all the time. It's just that they don't always shut down when they begin to go down. Some carry on for months, for years, with lasting problems. The clever ones change chefs — voila! A new place.

The interesting thing, here, is what will become of Alison Swope, the chef. 

College Park, MD
So glad that you have recommended Jungle Grille. It has been there for ages and by far the best joint for quick casual food in College Park. Question, in Beltsville and College Park, there are some Korean restaurants (Gah Rham, Myoung Dong, Yijo) and wanted to get your opinion…if you had to pick one restaurant for a first time Korean food novice, which would you recommend?

Thanks; it's a gem, isn't it?

Re: the Korean spots. The best of the lot is Da Rae Won, right near Gah-Rham. Korean-style Chinese food. They make their noodles from scratch every day — if you're lucky at lunch or dinner, you can hear what sounds like a medicine ball being thrown against the walls of the kitchen. That's the dough being worked. I love a dish with fresh noodles and black bean paste, and there's also good dumplings (called mandu, and fried, not steamed) and several tasty stir frys. And you can't overlook the yangjangpi, a gargantuan platter heaped with an array of cold and hot vegetables. You toss it at the table like a salad, being sure to mix in a wonderful, head-clearing mustard sauce.

Myoung Dong was disappointing on my most recent visit, a couple of weeks ago. Might have been an off-night; ordinarily, the place is pretty consistent. The dumplings, though, were good as always.

As for Yijo … I don't even think it belongs in the same discussion. Gah-Rham, on the other hand, does. It has some of the best panchan in the area.

Rockville, MD
I haven't been to La Ferme in couple of years. Is it still a good place to go celebrate a wedding anniversary? Thanks, and we love your chats.

I can't vouch for the quality, Rockville, since I've never been to a wedding at the historic house, but I did check in with the folks over at La Ferme, and can tell you that the restaurant continues to do a pretty good wedding business.

Here's what they told me:

"We can host and cater weddings. There are two private rooms in addition to the main dining room. One room is for 50-60 people and one holds 20. We also have a covered patio that can seat is up to 170 people."

Court House

Hi Todd,

I had a bad experience at Ray's the Steaks last night that I had to mention.

I am generally easy to please, and can find enjoyment dining just about anywhere. As a young, poor staffer, I don't get to go to as many of DC's great restaurants as I would like. You can imagine how thrilled I was when my equally young and poor boyfriend asked me to go to Ray's.

The steak was amazing. I had a great fillet with a light mushroom cream sauce. Probably the best I have ever had.

Unfortunately, we were unable to thoroughly enjoy dinner because of an issue we had with the service. I ordered a mid-priced bottle of a 2005 Napa Valley Cab Sauv (mid priced for us is still very expensive). The waitress presented the wine to my boyfriend and opened the bottle. I noticed it was a 2006 vintage, and promptly (albeit, boldly) called her back. We had not sipped the wine.

She apologized, but made no move to correct the situation. My boyfriend explained that the wine was not what we expected and we offered to try a different bottle. I thought maybe the back of the house would get to drink it! Instead, after talking with her manager, she told us that the wine was on the house. Although we felt awkward about it- we drank it (c'mon- we are poor). The rest of service was flat out bad. We got the wrong size and cut steaks. You could tell that the waitress thought of us as no-nothing, poor tippers. We could not get her over to our table for the rest of the night.

The bill came. The wine had not been taken off. The evening had been so strained and uncomfortable that we paid the bill and left. We probably won't go back. And what a shame… because those steaks were divine. When a couple like us, saves up our money and goes out to celebrate at a nice restaurant, we expect to be treated like everyone else. We also expect that the management and waitstaff will do what they can to ensure that we have a nice dining experience.

I wasn't there, Court House, and I might be wrong about this, but I have a feeling that the waitress forgot to make good on her promise — as opposed to changed her mind and decided to stiff you.

Just wondering: Was the evening that "strained and uncomfortable" that you couldn't point out to her that she had neglected to take the wine off?

On a side note … It's always interesting to read a report from the field like this. A reminder that, for some, even divine food can't make up for the feeling of being slighted. 

I don't know. Divine food goes a long way with me. …

Alexandria, VA

Hi Todd –

Love your chat and read it religiously. I've come to trust your advice on great places to go in and around DC.

I've read a lot of hype about Oohhs and Aahhs and was dying to try it. So my boyfriend and I grabbed some late night food there on Saturday. There were so many things wrong with it I don't know where to start – $40 for two entrees and two drinks – we're talking fried chicken and catfish here. But if you're going to charge that much, make it good.

The sweet tea tasted like Nestea, they put sugar in the grits, the chicken was flavorless, and the catfish was dry.

Maybe I have too high a standard being born and raised in the South where good country cooking is commonplace, or maybe this place just doesn't do as well late night. Why does everyone love this place so much? And how is it considered a cheap eat? Where can you get a good meat and three and sweet tea in DC?

The chicken was flavorless?! Clearly an off night. 

That's not the Oohhs & Aahhs I know and love. 

And forty dollars sounds high to me.

I'd encourage you to give it another shot. I think it's got the best soul food in the city. Next time, in addition to the fried chicken, go with the Cajun fried turkey chop, and be sure to get the mac 'n' cheese and the yams. 

Alexandria
Is Jose Andres ever in the house at any of his places in town any more? I'd like to go back to Cafe Atlantico. Is it running on auto-pilot or if the spark still there?

Ever? Yes. It's just a question of which one, on which night. And for how long.

As for spark … well, I think the Latin dim sum brunch is still one of the best things in town, fresh and inventive and full of fun. I would say that dinners at the restaurant haven't been what they were a few years ago — but I wouldn't say the place has slipped precipitously.

 

Washington, DC

Hello Todd,

One of the ways I've tried to dine well but not at full price is to have the pre-event menu at some of the local restaurants. For example, I highly recommend the $35 three-course menu offered by Indebleu before 7:00pm. With that being said, would you have a list of restaurants with the good sense to offer these deals that you can share with your readers? Thanks…

You're a savvy diner, DC. That's one of the best ways to eat on the cheap — er, cheaper, anyway.

And no, I haven't compiled any kind of list I can share, but encouraged by your prompting, I'm going to round up the team and see if we can't come up with a good list for next week. Thanks. And stay tuned …

Silver Springing

Just a comment about the critic's pick for best fish dish under $20 – steaming ling with ginger and scallion at Hollywood East.

Have to disagree with you. Just tried it Saturday night and it was pretty mediocre.

Generally I deplore the lack of GREAT chinese food in the DC area, however, I do think Hollywood East on the Boulevard has the best dimsum (caveat- for DC area). They do a lot of things right, but the steam fish with ginger scallion was not as delectable and delicately perfumed as I've had in SF or NYC.

As for best fish dish under $20, why not Eamonn's? Or the bacalhau you raved about? Sorry to be disagreeable, and I value your chats and reviews BTW.

But see — we didn't say that it was as "delectable and delicately perfumed" as versions you can find in San Francisco.

Not much holds up to the gold standard of SF Chinese food — even the dim sum at Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard. It's great dim sum; SF's Yank Sing, on the other hand, is a cut above. Exquisite stuff.

I wonder if the ling fish was oversteamed –? It should be luscious and almost buttery, the richness mitigated some by the ginger and scallion and soy.

I really like the renditions of the dish I've had there.

Top Chef Fan

Todd,

Any idea if Spike Mendelsohn'sNot Good Stuff Eatery has opened? Thanks!

Almost.

Stephanie Haven, my summer intern, just got off the phone with the Spikester, who says the restaurant should be open for business around the 7th of July.

Here's what else the "Top Chef" contestant had to say:

"I've been cooking for the past week. My favorite dish on the menu is the mushroom burger, which is stuffed with portabella mushrooms and has two types of cheeses on top. Within the past week a custard maker came in, so we have fresh ice cream. [We're going to have a] toasted marshmallow milkshake — which is toasted and blackened marshmallows added to homemade custard. Its like s'mores without the chocolate and graham cracker. We have XM radio, flat screen TVs, outlets for laptops and charging cell phones, and Wi-Fi. [Inside the restaurant,] it looks like a farm with distressed wood on the walls with an open and stainless steel kitchen with a cow bell and a distressed white wood floor. It's a comfortable feeling." 

D.C.

Dear Todd,

I'm catching up on your chats. It seems that I keep missing them due to conflicts. I say this because I want to go to a topic that was covered a while back and hope you don't mind my doing so. Subject: new trends in dining.

I would like to offer mine. I see the high-end chefs going back to their roots or the simple roots of a great cuisine. For example, instead of exerimental or haute cuisine or super-fancy combinations that do not always pan out, I believe the way will be towards simple, consistent, non-elaborate, non-fancy food that is hearty and toothsome and satisfying in an unpretentious way because it is down-right good or great food. No gimmicks, no hiding, no tricks.

Does this sound awfully boring? Does this sound counter to all the modern-day food that has been piling up or dished out these days? I don't think so. I think it's a return of something good–plain and simple. No, I am not an foodie insider trying to sway trend. I am just a person who reads your column as often as I can and like what I see. Thanks

Thanks for checking in, D.C., and I'm really glad you got a chance to be here today with us in so-called real time. 

You're right about what you see. And it's happening at all levels. Komi, for instance, is one of the best restaurants in D.C. — Top 5, by our reckoning this past January — but its food is, in many ways, extremely simple and focused. And extremely soulful.

And this … let's call it no-tricks-ness, for lack of a better word … is finding its match in many of the dining rooms of the city. The grandeur, the formality, the dress codes, the maitre d's — these are becoming things of the past. Eating out, increasingly, is a casual affair.

I know many people who bemoan the passing of the old guard, the old ways, the old codes. I'm not one of them. The city is a much more exciting place to eat these days.

Arlington
Not surprised to hear that about Ray's. That place is way to prescious for my taste. The two times we have gone we felt like the staff was turning their noses at us because I was wearing a flag lapel pin. Landrum does things his way but at the cost of turning off a lot of people.

To each his own.

And that goes for all of us who eat out — and for those of us who own and operate restaurants. If an owner chooses to court a certain crowd, I think he's perfectly entitled. Interestingly, places like The Prime Rib do it much more obviously (requesting, for instance, a jacket and a tie from men) — yet are seldom if ever accused of limiting their audience.

As for your wearing a flag pin … I couldn't help but think of the complaints I get from teenagers or women dining solo or older diners. All of whom are convinced — convinced — that they know precisely why they were mistreated. 

You may have FELT that they were turning up their noses at you because you were wearing a flag pin — but there's no way of KNOWING that they were turning up their noses at you because of the flag pin.

Park Rd. NW, Washington DC

Hi Todd, I'm taking friends out to Rice tomorrow night. I haven't been in a while. What's worth ordering? I've had the chicken with green tea and olives and loved it. Pad thai and the curries always seem reliable. Any suggestions?

Also, can you recommend any bottles to order? We thought about going to ACKC for dessert after, but would be open to other recommendations.

What's worth ordering at Rice? Not much. Nice atmosphere, but the food's boring at best.

ACKC is a good bet. What I'd do, is I'd go there for dessert but order in takeout from the marvelous Thai X-ing, on 6th. Saves you a few bucks and ratches up the quality of your eating.

La Ferme
the chatter asked about celebrating a 'wedding anniversary' not a wedding…

Ah, thanks for the correction … I wish I could blame a lack of coffee for the goof, but nope — no can do.

To answer the question, finally … I think there are better places in the area — better food, and just as much charm and warmth — to celebrate an anniversary. 

Pregnant in NEDC

I wanted to report a positive experience at EatBar/Tallula from Saturday night.

My husband and I attended a surprise birthday party there, and Gina was tending the bar. I told her that I enjoyed the chat in which she participated, and the spotlight on her in the Washingtonian. I also told her that I wished I could try one of her cocktails, but couldn't at the present time.

She said that of course I could try one of her cocktails, and offered to make me a non-alcoholic version. I accepted and it was fabulous. And, it made the party more fun, as I had my own special drink. Also, we ended up having dinner there too, and she told me just to tell the waiter to have her make me another drink whenever I was ready.

She was exceptionally accommodating and I really appreciated it, as the "pregnant lady" is usually not very welcome in a bar setting. She opened my eyes to requesting non-alcoholic versions of cocktails available.

Just wanted to share my very positive experience for all the pregnant ladies out there trying to survive the DC heat without the traditional alcoholic beverages that go with it!

Great report, PINEDC.

And that's the sign of a really good mixmaster, the ability to whip up something tasty and memorable without the aid of alcohol. 

Gina's one of the best.

DelishintheDistrict

Hi Todd! I have one question and one rave review.

This weekend 7 of us went to Cafe Atlantico, and it was wonderful! The creamy, gingery, coconutty broth that the scallops came in was amazing, and a non-fish eater just loved the conch fritters with avocado raviolis! The flank steak melted in your mouth, and the tuna ceviche was very refreshing and a much bigger portion than we expected. The majic mojitos were very fun, too.

Now for the ?: tomorrow is my fiance's birthday, and he loves mexican/latin american food, so I planned to take him to Rosa Mexicana. Is it worth it, or it is an overpriced lauriol plaza? We live in Arlington, so we could eat around there too, but he likes to go into the city when he can. Thanks!

Rosa Mexicano is fun — although you have to be careful: They are trained to push the fresh-made guac and pomegranate margaritas on you from the second you sit down. It's hard to resist, what with the music, and the buzzing atmosphere, the sense that you've walked into a giant party. The guac is good, very good; the margaritas, on the other hand, are like pumped-up Slurpies. Two margaritas and an order of guac, though, will set you back about thirty bucks.

Me, I'd probably take him to Oyamel, another Jose Andres place. Presuming, of course, he cares as much about food as atmosphere. For small plates and a scene, I prefer it to Cafe Atlantico right now. 

Brookland, DC
Re: "one of the best ways to eat on the cheap — er, cheaper" My wife and I finally went to the cafe at Palena on Saturday and were blown away by the cheeseburger. Perhaps the best I've ever had. Alas, they were out of the fry plate, but had an excellent cheese plate. We'll be back.

Yep, one of the great deals in the city, food or otherwise.

I hesitate to say "greatest," because I don't think I could elevate it above a plate of one of chef Frank Ruta's lusty but elegant pastas, or one of his extraordinary soups — either of which goes for about the same price.

Reston

Traditional over gimmicks: Old traditional food, plain, simple and good will always trump these passing fads where Presentation is given more importance than taste. To me eating out is more often for tasty, satisfying food than for the gimmicky froths and garnishes where you have to dig in to find the main dish.

Like you say Komi stands out for its simplicity as do Rays the Steaks and Passage to India. Some chefs are trying to over process the food and are more concerned about innovative presentations.

Hear, hear.

It's funny. The mere mention of Komi, and my mouth begins to salivate at the prospect of a slow-roasted goat over polenta.

Which is a shame, because what's in my immediate future is — a turkey sammie. (It ain't all champagne and truffles over here. Last night's meal, in fact, was pretty dreadful. And super expensive. More, later …)

Eat well, everyone, and let's do it again next week at 11 …

Get all Washingtonian.com chats, or submit a question in advance for Todd's chat next week.

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