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 July 1, click here.
Don't forget to enter the "You Be the Critic" Contest.
The prize: a gift certificate for dinner for two (value: $150) at Hooked, in Sterling, which we awarded two stars ("worth the trip") in the July issue of the magazine. The chef, Richard Beckel, has stops at Le Bernardin, Citronelle and the Caucus Room on his resume, and Cynthia Hacinli, in her review, praised the restaurant's "effortless charm, intimacy, and attention to detail."
Here's the contest: In 75 words or less, tell me about a dish you've enjoyed recently at any area restaurant — and why.
I don't care if it's a four-star restaurant, or a one-star restaurant. Knowledge of food is important, but not primary; remember, this is a writing contest — what matters is your ability to describe an experience so fully that others can almost taste what you yourself tasted. Be funny, be creative, be passionate, be sly, be irreverent.
Deadline: July 10th, by noon.
Send your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "You Be the Critic." And be sure to include your name, address and telephone number.
The winner (and a few runners-up) will be announced in my chat on Tuesday, July 15. …
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… I love Pupatella.
That's the name of the lipstick-red food cart around the corner from the Ballston Metro, and if you've been once, you've probably been a dozen times. It's hard not to feel a proprietary affection for this tiny, gourmet-on-wheels operation.
The inspired creation of friends Anastasiya Laufenberg, 27, and Enzo Algarme, 28, Pupatella ("doll," in Neapolitan slang) is a thrilling expression of the do-it-yourself punk aesthetic. The partners, who met in culinary school, disliked the idea of going to work for someone else. But they did the math and came to the conclusion that opening a restaurant of their own in an uncertain economic market was just too risky. One day they wondered: If you can't be sure of bringing people to the restaurant, why not try bringing the restaurant to the people?
Think food cart, and you tend to think hot dogs, maybe kabobs, some pretzels, roasted peanuts. You don't think pizza.
And you surely don't think Neapolitan-style pizza. Seeing the three-ingredient Naples classic, the Margherita, not long ago at lunch, I imagined I'd be served a simply sauced and topped pie on a pre-made crust — the kind of thing a farmers' market-trolling cook pressed for time might do at home with a Boboli. I don't say that begrudgingly; you can't begrudge anything of any ambition that comes out of a kitchen the size of the backseat of a car.
I was stunned to see Laufenberg lay a thin, handrolled dough onto a wooden paddle, then slide the uncooked crust into a tiny, propane-fired oven. The oven bakes the pizzas at 650 degrees — just like the best boutique pizza spots in town.
The crust emerges cracker-crisp and nicely blistered, a good canvas for the San Marzano tomato sauce and the first-rate toppings Laufenberg lovingly applies — creamy buffalo mozzarella, sharp prosciutto, and freshly torn basil, among others.
I suppose it's not saying much to claim it's the best pizza I've eaten on the street — for one thing, it's the only pizza I've eaten on the street. So let me go so far as to say this: I would put Pupatella up against most of the pizzerias in the area.
They're that good.
And they're not all that's good.
There's also aroncini, crispy, deep-fried rice balls filled with peas and ground meat, a sandwich of sausage and grilled onions that rivals anything you'd find in South Philly, and, for dessert, a fried-to-order donut for two bucks that tastes like funnel cake and is stuffed with a variety of fillings — including a luxurious dulce de leche.
Laufenberg and Algarme have lined up some investors since Pupatella made its debut and are set to open a "real" restaurant within a year — with a long roster of Neapolitan-style dishes. The cart, they insist, is not going anywhere and will remain a fixture of their business. That's good. But still, if I could have my wish, it would be to see a fleet of Pupatellas across the area. Restaurants, we have. Pupatellas are rare. …
T a b l e T a l k
As a baby, Niel Piferoen was so verbally advanced, he skipped the stage of "goo goo" and "ga ga." He was not, however, so precocious that he could wrap his tongue around the word "chocolate." For that, he would ask his mom for what he called "locolat."
Wind the tape forward nearly three decades. When the erstwhile Restaurant Eve pastry chef launched his first foray into ownership earlier this Spring, there was no handwringing over a name, no solicitation of suggestions from friends and relatives. No, Piferoen turned to the bit of gibberish that had ingrained itself in family lore.
Locolat (1781 Florida Ave., NW, Suite A; 202-518-2570) is a family affair, run with a generous assist from his wife and father, and aims to recreate the feel of a modern European sweet shop. It serves home-made Belgian chocolates, delicate European-style sandwiches, and imported coffees from a new espresso machine that, to the chef's consternation, constantly breaks.
Stephanie Haven, my assistant, recently spoke with the chef-chocolatier.
Name: Niel Piferoen
Age: "Almost 30."
Years in the Kitchen: "Born and raised in it. My father is also a chef."
Favorite Comfort Food: Spaghetti Bolognese (Grandma's recipe)
Chocolate It's Impossible to Live Without: Belgian chocolate
What's your food philosophy?
I look for something new that hasn't been tried before. [The norm at Locolat is what] people don't normally see, like a lime and chocolate candy; it's a very good combination. I try to bring in a little of an edge to chocolate with flavors that people have not seen.
What are you favorite "different" combinations?
Lime and chocolate. Passion fruit and chocolate. Mojito and chocolate.
Why create combinations at all?
The combinations make it more interesting and put a challenge on people's palate. Chocolate is great by itself but why not have a combination? I look at the chocolate (its sweetness), and I use things that you have eaten before (curry or any fruit) and see if it will work with chocolate. I taste the chocolate with the fruit and/or flavoring. It takes a couple tries. The curry [for example] was bad at first, because it was too spicy, so I had other people try it and help me find a balance that works.
Would you describe yourself as "chocolate-obsessed"?
I don't eat any chocolate.
After you cook with it and smell it all day long, you want something spicy. Working with sweets makes my taste buds just want something else.
What makes Belgian chocolate so special, in your estimation?
It's hard to explain. The roasting of the cocoa beans is done a lot lighter [with Belgian chocolate]. They don't add that much sugar to it. It's a flavor that is in between the sweet and the bitter. We buy the beans from Calleaud.
All the chocolate that you serve at the restaurant is homemade. How is it created?
The truffles are made the traditional way (hand piped, dipped, and rolled). The other assortments start with a mold and then I design them with color or airbrush to give different color schemes. We pour temperate chocolate and then harden it and put filling in. We leave [the chocolates] to sit overnight and unload the next day.
The dish you're proudest of at Locolat?
The Chocolate Mojito cake, because it's something that you don't find anywhere else. [When customers first see it on the menu] I get the weird look but then I see a huge smile from people once they taste it. I love seeing that smile.
Readers may know your concoctions from your work as a pastry chef at Restaurant Eve. What, if at all, is different about your desserts at Locolat?
I've grown, I've changed. But working at Restaurant Eve was a lot of fun; especially working with Chef Armstrong. Things that were successful at the restaurants I worked at before I will bring back, and I hope that customers will like them here again.
This brings up an interesting question: Can a dessert be said to be intellectual property — in other words, the property of a given restaurant?
The restaurant that I used to be the chef at, the recipes that were on the menu I created or were given to be from other chefs so I changed it around. If you want to get ideas you have to go back with other chefs that you have worked with; it's in your blood. If you want a previous chef you worked under to come by, you try and make him proud. They should be proud not angry. As a head chef, you teach and train and want to see your "students" move up in the right direction. I would love to see my cooks do something great. It's a teaching world.
What's the worst experience you've had with customers?
It is usually with vegans. Being in the pastry world with vegans is complicated because everything contains cream, butter, or animal products. When I was working in Carmel, a lady came in with her husband and complained that there were no vegan entrées on the menu. When people ask for a vegan dessert, usually you just give them something with just fruit and no cream. Most restaurants don't specialize because the dessert menus were very small. We sent out a bowl of berries to her, and then she threw a fit.
Why not create a special sort of truffle for vegans?
Real vegans don't even eat milk powder. When making filling with truffles it is hard to work with dark chocolate. But, we are coming up with a vegan chocolate at Locolat. It's hard, though.
Where did you get the idea for Locolat?
Originally, we were just going to open a chocolate store with candies and cakes. We were not planning on this. This was more of a 2-3 year plan to do imported chocolates and coffees. The reason we got into it was because we know if you just have the chocolate and cake-filled restaurant it is a lot harder to survive and attract the crowds. This gives you more; like we do in Europe.
It became a big thing about six or seven years ago in New York to have restaurants dedicated to just producing deserts and dessert tasting menus. It started with Chik-a-licious, and now you have a place like Pichet Ong's P*ong. Does the success of these restaurants have anything to do with the boom of chocolate-focused restaurants in DC (CoCo Sala, ACKC Cocoa Bar, and Locolat)?
Something to do with that.
What do you think the shelf life is for the chocolate trend?
I don't know how big of a trend it is. I don't know if chocolate places are a trend. Everyone eats and loves chocolates so it's not something that's ever going away. If you go to Europe there are chocolate places that have been there forever. Chocolate is always going to be there.
Related: An Early Look at Locolat
I don't love the food at Panache — they do a pretty passable version of tapas — but I can see where it'd be a good and lively spot for an event like this. Thanks for writing in, DC.
Oh, lots — and I'll be going more in depth about them next week in this space.
But, to throw out some names in the meantime: Casapulla's South (some mean, Philly-style subs), The Cultured Pearl (in new digs), Espuma (best fine dining in the area), Louie's (great greasy by-the-slice pizza), The Seafood Shack (which isn't nearly the place it was a few years ago, unfortunately, but is plenty good to satisfy a craving for fried fish).
I was out of town this past weekend, but yeah, I'm eager to give them a try.
I remember when I first wrote about Ray's the Steaks in 2002 — this was back when I was writing a food column as a freelancer, and Ray's was two months olds — that the burger was one of the best things on the menu. The burger, and if memory serves, the short ribs braised in Guinness and seasoned with Colman's mustard. Boy, they were fantastic.
But back to burgers … There's an awful lot of burger action these days — what with the Ray's Hell-burger, the Good Stuff Eatery Burger (the Spike burger?), and the variety of burgers at the preciously named Burger Joint all vying for our attention right now.
All are giving a lot of attention to the quality of the meat, and that's a good thing. I mean, a burger is nothing more than a patty and a bun, so good meat goes a long, long way.
I wonder if we're going to need some sort of system of classification with burgers as we do with pizzas.
You've now got a slew of boutique burgers, but there's still room for a good, old-fashioned, non-fussed with, non-pedigreed burger, like the ones, for instance, at Harry's, in the old Hotel Harrington. Harry's is what I call a prole burger. You don't know where the meat comes from, it's thick and it's juicy, and eating it is a simple, guilty pleasure. And — it comes with chips and two Oreo cookies. What's not to like?
Producer's note: We took an Early Look at Ray's Hell-Burger this week.
What I would do is, I would bring along a copy of the 100 Best Restaurants — which, remember, we again ranked from 1-100 — and eat your way down the list.
Citronelle will have a table there, so will CityZen, so will Vidalia, and Kinkead's, and Central Michel Richard, and Charlie Palmer Steak, etc, etc.
I'll also be curious to see how a place not on that list but on our current list of Cheap Eats — KBQ Real Barbecue, in Bowie — will acquit itself. It's hard to make frou-frou food really good, really exquisite, on a grand scale like this — a party for 2-plus thousand — but barbecue, now that's a different story. Barbecue was made for events like this.
Will Kerry Britt's luscious smoked brisket pull crowds away from the big boys? Be interesting to see …
Yeah, kinda what I was saying — although of course you said it with much, much more heat. : )
Still, that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good place for an event.
And really, how often does the food really, really matter for most people at a wedding reception? I mean, maybe a few of the foodier-than-thou in attendance would snicker and snarl, but give the rest of the party a nice setting and good, affable service, let the sangria flow, pump up the music and see if they bitch about a thing …
Boy, that's really an apples and oranges sort of choice you've laid out. Both are good, and both are very "now." It depends on what you're looking for.
Rasika is an interesting twist if all you've ever eaten is curry-shop style Indian food — a sort of East-West fusion of Western proteins and Eastern seasonings. There's also a pretty extensive wine list for an Indian restaurant; I don't think the pairings work, generally — and I tend to prefer a cold Kingfisher with sharp, assertive flavors. But that's me. Some talk about the great people-watching possibilities. I don't see it, personally — I think the mix is too monolithic for that — but there's definitely a scene. Definitely a here here.
Central skews a little older, in the sense that the crowd is more varied, and the food — a mix of refined American junk food and elegant French bistro cooking — is nothing short of a conversation piece for the table. The wines are excellent. I've heard some gripes of late about the service and, yes, the food, but this is a great opportunity to sample the cuisine of a four-star chef at two-star prices.
The word is: The restaurant will open in September. The space has been undergoing a 16-month renovation, and apparently is in the final stage of the revamp.
The menu, I'm told, will be similar to the one in New York, and built around wine pairings.
Insiders say it's wrong to presume that Ducasse, who has earned more Michelin stars than any chef in the world (14), will not be on the scene much, if at all.
Ducasse, it turns out, has no permanent residence, and travels around the globe to pop in on his various restaurants in Tokyo, Paris, New York, Las Vegas and now DC.
I'm told he'll be in DC as much as he is in his other locales. Interesting …
All good suggestions — for good times. For a wedding reception, eh … not so much. Ceiba's the distinct exception. Better food than Panache, as you say, and a more exciting atmosphere, too.
I doubt BdC would rent that area out for a reception. Same with Ulah's Bistro (which I think has great energy, largely because it's new, but middling fare). Cork is terrific, but really small and cramped and — I'd guess — pretty chary with turning over what little space it has.
Yeah, a pretty quiet couple of weeks for Hook. Are they done with the chaos? No more drama, as Mary J. Blige would say? Or is this the calm before the (next) storm?
I wouldn't expect that the restaurant would suffer much of a drop-off, if any, from the changes.
I didn't think of Hook as a chef-driven place with Barton Seaver. What drove it, what drives it, is a concept — the idea of sourcing the best, freshest, most sustainable seafood and fish it can and then presenting that fish as simply as possible. That won't change. The wine list that Seaver put together — an excellent one, with good values up and down the line — isn't going anywhere. Heather Chittum, the super-talented pastry chef, is staying, too. I think she's still the best reason to drop by.
Why choose? Both are excellent.
The big difference, for me, is the experience of picking out the cheeses. The atmosphere at Cowgirl is very San Fran foodie, very hushed, very reverential — cheese as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment. Okay, so I'm joking. But only a little.
Cheesetique is more down-to-earth.
Won't tell?!? Why not? This is what we do on here. We tell.
If you don't tell, then I can't really address your question. It sounds as though you're peeved that you had a disappointing meal at a big-time restaurant.
What can I say? It happens.
I can't say with what frequency it happens, because I don't know the place in question. But I'll tell you: All restaurants have off nights. It's simply not the case that a great restaurant doesn't have them and a merely good restaurant does. And in fact, the difference between a great restaurant and a good restaurant is that the great restaurant has them less frequently.
I was probably a little too enamored with my three times format.
I should add the following: The bar was never very busy there were empty stools on each visit. From direct experience with some of the wines on the BTG list, it appeared that the mark-up exceeded the already egregious 5x that is standard for BTG pours I was never offered a menu. Upon mentioning the too cold wines to two bartenders on separate visits, the look of indifference was palpable.
On my final visit, when I paid the check with both my companion and I so obviously frustrated that we left mostly full drinks on the bar no inquiry was made.
On my way out I decided to inquire about the GM's business card thinking I might be able to send him a note as a professional courtesy. "Oh, we don't have that information" a completely unhelpful hostess flatly stated.
When I sent an email to the link on the website – it went unanswered. Knowing more than a bit about good service – this was sufficiently frustrating for me no longer to trust Source with my evening.
Just to situate everybody: This is a follow-up to a rather lengthy complaint about The Source on last week's chat. …
Boy, you know? That's pretty bad. I hope someone from the restaurant is reading.
You sound like a sincere reader, and diner, and I wouldn't blame you at all if you were to decide to cross the place off your list for all eternity. Me, I'd probably never go back.
It sounds as though a certain carelessness is creeping in to the operation, and if so, that's unfortunate. The food is often fantastic.
Good for Clyde's. That's terrific.
I've always thought of it as a different kind of restaurant chain, not like the others. Evidently, so do lots of Washingtonians — the place, make that places, continue to pack them in.
It has fallen out of fashion. Unfortunately.
Evidently, a lot of pastry chefs seem to have concluded that you're not going to win a lot of awards and attract a lot of press by making such pedestrian things as cake and pie.
I'd check with the folks at Johnny's Half Shell. Valerie Hill, the pastry chef there, makes a mean lemon meringue pie. Or has, in the past. Not sure if it's on the menu at the moment.
So what gives? Why so many new places are opening as burger bars? We have so many choices already…5 Guys, the countless number of taverns, bars, and restaurants that have burgers…
Food prices are rocketing, rents are rocketing, burgers are easy to make and easy to supervise, and haute junk food is the thing everybody can't seem to get enough of.
My guess is, expect to see more on the way in the next year or two. …
Take care, everyone. I'm off to lunch — a non-burger lunch, most likely. Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
And don't forget to enter the "You Be the Critic" contest. Deadline is July 10th. 75 words about a dish you've recently enjoyed. Just remember, it's a writing contest above all.
(Interestingly, you'll never guess who submitted an entry yesterday. … A gen-u-ine celebrity. And a very competitive entry, I might add.)
Submit a question in advance for Todd's chat next week.