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 8, 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 the chat on Tuesday, July 15. …
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… I grew up here, and so picking crab is the first thing I think about when I think about summer. When I was little, steamed, spiced crabs was something we did a couple of times a month from late May to September, if not more — gathering friends and family for a long afternoon of cracking open shells, smashing claws and prising out the sweet, musky meat. These days, with a bushel fetching upwards of $200, that twice-monthly crab fest is down to a twice-summer splurge. If that.
I've only picked crabs once this summer, and am prepared, for now, to consign that happy memory to the past — along with sitcoms, LP's, and big-nosed Michael Jackson.
What makes this parting easier is the arrival of a new dish at Johnny's Half Shell (400 N Capitol St., NW; 202-737-0400): barbecue crabs. The preparation is simple, but, to native ears, more than a little heretical: four large, good quality hard crabs are steamed, cleaned and cut in half — then deep fried and coated liberally in a mixture of Gulf Coast spices. (The dish is an homage to the original barbecue crabs, concocted four decades ago by the legendary Sartin's, in East Texas.)
It took a while for me to realize that the best way to eat these crab halves was simply to dig in, shell and all, the way I would with fried, heads-on shrimp at authentic Chinese restaurants — or the way I would with soft shells. I'm not going to pretend that the exterior is as soft as a soft shell at its hardest, but frying does subdue a good bit of the crunch.
And speaking of heretical: I've never enjoyed crabs more.
In part, I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that Ann Cashion, the James Beard Award-winning chef, knows the difference between a good and a great crab, and also that she knows not to oversteam the suckers before they hit the oil. The meat, though twice cooked, is succulent and sweet.
This is deeply pleasurable eating, eat-with-your-hands-and-let-the-spices-fall-where-they-may eating, and worth every penny of the twenty-five bucks I paid.
Cashion and her partner, Johnny Fulchino, tell me the barbecue crabs will be on the menu through September. (Although I have to wonder if the cost will eventually rise. A week ago, Cashion paid $75 a bushel, wholesale; last Friday, she paid $160, wholesale.)
I would love to see the dish become a mainstay on the year-round menu, but the economics of crabbing, and Cashion's devotion to cooking things only in season, mitigates against that. But at the very least, this insta-classic deserves a spot on the regular menu next summer. …
… The winner of our first "You Be the Critic" contest is Genevelyn Steele, of Richmond, Va. But the big news here is who didn't win: Phyllis Richman. (More on this in a bit).
Back to Steele. You might say she possesses a bit of an advantage over the field (well, MOST of the field), in that she keeps a blog and also writes about wine for Richmond.com; writing about food, however, is not something she was acquainted with. And as a number of contestants confessed to me, food writing is a lot harder than it looks.
In setting down the rules for the contest, I wrote: "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 … Be funny, be creative, be passionate, be sly, be irreverent." Steele's entry was, surprisingly, all of these — a snapshot of a meal at Pho 75 that has the compression of haiku and brims with lively detail and wit.
Here's her prize-winner:
The House Special with Meatballs at Pho 75, Falls Church
"The surface of the soup is sweating. I mop it with saw-leaf herb, basil and bean sprouts before adding jalapeno slivers to my A. M. pho transfusion. I look like Nick Nolte's mugshot. The warm, spicy scents from the bowl are heightened by my hangover. I stir the block of rice noodles into the broth of Bible tripe, soft tendon and fatty brisket, releasing star anise aromas. I hope no one orders durian."
For her winning entry, Steele takes home 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.
Here are the runners-up:
The Apple Pear Salad at Matchbox
"Listen Sybil, this is a schizophrenically delicious dish! Like great lovemaking, the memory lingers long and fondly on the tongue. The salad greens? Perfect, and not overly dressed (read that lovemaking line again). The apples and pears are "waffer" thin with flavor heightened by a firm squeeze on a bashful lemon. The walnuts are candied. Fear not: They're not cloyingly saccharin, but add a woody crunch that complement the shamelessly decadent goat cheese." — Doug Bowles
Frickles at Del Merei Grille
The familiar buttery smell greets me before the plate does. Only half a dip in the spicy red remoulade, as the marriage of crunchy tempura and the juicy pickle beneath carries both fried southern comfort and kick. I pop these small salty pleasures in my mouth quickly, holding the next between my fingers with eager anticipation. Frickle-faced and content, I finish with fresh-brewed sweet tea and a promise to fulfill my savory craving again soon." — Liana Heitin
Here, by the way, is what the formidable Richman, the retired restaurant critic at The Washington Post, sent in:
"I idly swept the orange dust from my table, then panicked. The day-glo powder was sticking to my fingers. I tried licking it off, already knowing that wouldn't work. The salty, faintly mineral tang of Cheetos dust merely awakened my lust. Could I ever kick my craving for that near-unbreakable crunch that went beyond food? I wanted another bag, even though I was already suffering the indelible stain on my fingertips. My co-workers would know. I couldn't hide the signs of having succumbed, after my delicate, precisely calibrated four-star lunch, to bulking up with junk food. A pair of white gloves might do the trick."
Wonderful stuff, Phyllis. And what a peek into the life of the critic! But could I dare award you the dinner for two?? …
You could give the new Thirsty Bernie, in Arlington, a try — mountainous pastrami sandwiches, bounteous fry baskets. Good game watchin' food. Also in Arlington, there's the also new Spider Kelly's. He-man sized burgers, including one made with fatback.
In DC, there's Madam's Organ, in Adams Morgan, and Harry's, in the old Hotel Harrington. I really like Harry's burger, too.
The first two are not down-and-dirty, but making a game effort at it. The latter two are as down-and-dirty as they come — so much so, they don't know they're down-and-dirty. DC's really in short supply of down-and-dirty.
And you need down-and-dirty for a game. A yuppie bar, a bobo bar, just won't do.
Incidentally, I wonder if there's any correlation between the lack of down-and-dirty bars in the city and close-in 'burbs and the lack of a passionate, in-your-face core of fans — particularly, in the case of the Wizards, who deserve legitimate support. The crowds at Verizon, even for a playoff game, were mannered compared to Cleveland, Philly and Boston. (Deep sigh.)
Best? There is no best in the area. There's middlin' at best.
The new Fontaine Caffe, in Old Town, might be the best of the middlin' best. I prefer their sweet to their savory crepes.
It is, it's an amazing banana cream pie. One of the best desserts in the city.
Props to Valerie Hill, the pastry chef there.
Hm. What about Mark and Orlando's?
It's pretty darn quiet — the downstairs, I mean –which is too bad, because I've enjoyed my meals here. Nothing revelatory, and the prices aren't cheap, but everything has been generally solid and there are some nice surprises, too (like a superb grits cake, like a well-cooked piece of fish). And — they mix a terrific drink.
What do I make of it? I like it.
I haven't been to Tangysweet or Mr. Yogato yet, but I will. I like frozen yogurt, like the tang. It's a nice alternative to ice cream.
(Incidentally, we've done a couple of features on these two newcomers on the blog — a little spot we call FeedBack, in which we ambush diners outside the restaurant for their off-the-cuff, hopefully unconsidered assessment. Take a look.)
For the person wanting a good bar for watching a game, I am not into the sports bar thing, but my Aunt and I wanted to see a March Madness game while wandering downtown so we went to Capital Grille.
The wine list is good, they will put on anything you want on the TV and we just got dessert and wine, and they were very nice about letting us sit for the whole game. So if you want upscale watching venue I recommend it.
Dessert and wine, plus tax and tip, at Capital Grille, though, will cost you as much as — and actually, now that I really think about it, probably more — dinner at any of the places I mentioned.
Yep, they still have lemon chess on the menu.
And I'll say the same thing I said about the banana cream pie at Johnny's Half Shell: one of the great desserts in the city.
Still, neither of these is lemon meringue pie — which I haven't had, now that I think about it, in years. I could really go for one.
Preferably, not in a restaurant setting. Who knows a good bakery that makes one?
I had nothing whatsoever to do with it, but I'll accept thanks on behalf of the team at the magazine, particularly Jenn Haber, who did the organizing, and Cathy Merill Williams, the Washingtonian's publisher.
It was a terrific event, and the food was exceptionally good for an event of this kind — and of this magnitude (more than 2,000 attendees). My favorites: the pork belly BLT from PS 7's, the pea soup from Vermiion, the warmed cherries with creme fraiche from Hook, the braised short ribs from Charlie Palmer Steak, the strawberry cupcake from Baked and Wired, the bourbon lemonade from Liberty Tavern, the seafood gazpacho from Kinkead's.
And yes, KBQ acquitted itself well — just know that the smoked brisket is much, much better at the restaurant.
A friend of mine, a guy I hadn't seen in years, I think summed it up best: "Best food on plastic plates I've ever had."
I am weighing in on our shockingly mediocre meal (particularly for the price point) at CityZen last Wednesday. The observations below are based on a wide sampling of the menu and the shared view of four of us who split four different appetizers, entrees and desserts and eat regularly at restaurants of this purported caliber both in DC and elsewhere. Service was erratic throughout the evening.
After delivering the wine list at our request, the waiter disappeared and we had to summon the sommelier after being left for over 15 minutes. The slow pacing continued over the course of the meal, particularly between the main course and dessert, for which we waited a good half hour even though we’d ordered dessert along with the rest of the dinner as is restaurant policy.
The waitstaff made no attempt to explain or even acknowledge the delay, which does not appear to have been caused by a full room (the restaurant was about half full when we arrived at 6:30 and never entirely filled up).
The four-hour stint seemed excruciatingly long to all of us and longer by at least an hour than it should have been. Dinners of similar length elsewhere include many more courses, with far better pacing and overall service (I’m thinking of Maestro and particularly Komi, where we have always found the service at Komi to be lovely: the staff are uniformly incredibly knowledgeable and attentive without being even minutely fawning.)
The service issues would have been more tolerable had the food been better. But aside from the excellent cheese course – both the selection and our waiter’s expertise were commendable – every item was fine at best and barely passable at worst. The sweetbreads were delicious but nothing special, the halibut was fine but the garnish was too skimpy, the much-self-lauded shoat was bland and served in a rather watery sauce, and the worst dish was the ravioli appetizer, which was in a sauce that looked and tasted like skim milk (when I told the waiter, he thanked me brightly, telling me that the kitchen loved to get feedback on new items).
The rhubarb dessert with ginger “blinis”, which we ordered at the recommendation of the waiter, was dreadful: three tasteless pieces of rhubarb accompanied by three equally tasteless miniature pancakes. Not a single flavor or flavor combination rose beyond the pedestrian, and the presentation was similarly uninspired.
The total cost for the four of us was $700 (including tip and a half-bottle of champagne and two half-bottles of wine). Although that amount is in the same range as the restaurants noted above, we all found CityZen to be not even close to the standard of those restaurants.
And because so many of the dishes were failures of conception rather than execution, it’s hard to write off our experience as just an off-night for the kitchen. We were all baffled as to how to reconcile our experience with the restaurant’s reputation and Ziebold’s recent Beard award.
Let it begin …
… The angry emails from foodies for my posting of an anonymous trashing of a highly esteemed restaurant …
… The blog postings questioning my judgment — and questioning the knowledge (of food, of the industry) of the chatter …
… The phone call from the Mandarin Oriental …
… The phone call from the kitchen at CityZen …
… The email from the Mandarin Oriental, following up on the phone call …
… The email from the kitchen at CityZen, following up on the phone call …
… The second phone call from the Mandarin Oriental, wondering why I haven't returned the first call …
… The second phone call from the kitchen at CityZen, wondering why I haven't returned the first call …
For lemon meringue pie you might call Pie Gourmet in Vienna.
They make lemon chess, and other meringue pies, so they might make a special request.
But I have been searching for good coconut cream pie with meringue like you get in the South and just had to make it to fully satisfy the craving. It is a pity no one really makes the good classics anymore, except bread pudding and creme brulee which are everywhere. ?
Thanks for the tip, Arlington.
And yeah, coconut cream pie with meringue is something you never see around here. Too bad, too — because it's WONDERFUL.
No, no, no — I'll bite.
I don't have facts, or an argument, or any real insight — but I'll bite. (Hey, it doesn't stop traffic on the internet!)
I think Obama. Why?
His presidency, being largely symbolic, might encourage (in the main) more blending, more fusing, more experimentation, more crossing of the lines — much as Kennedy's youth and vitality encouraged a generation of Americans to get out and serve and do and help.
Blending, fusing, crossing the lines — this is, on the whole, a pretty good thing where food is concerned. It's what brought us the Indian food we know of today (a mix of Portuguese and subcontinental flavors), Tex-Mex and Italian-American cooking, and such glories as the barbecue crabs I talked about up top.
Plus, my suspicion is that, like Bill Clinton, he would get out and about and frequent the restaurants in the city. Clinton was amazing that way, and a real patron of the restaurant scene. He ate at Red Sage, back when Red Sage was new and generating buzz. He ate at Tosca. At Filomena. At Cafe Milano. And on and on and on. (He was a huge fan of McDonald's, too, but that's a different story.)
Bush, as far as I know, has been to Cactus Cantina and Peking Gourmet. Big whoop. He might as well have been living in Crawford all these years for all his support of, and interest in, area restaurants.
We were suprised to see PS7's quiet at 10 on a Saturday night, so we thought we would stop in for a drink since we have heard about their cocktails. We were not dissapointed!
This was by far the friendlist bar service, and some of the best cocktails I have ever had– the beet and basil martini, the passionfruit gelee martini– I could have tried them all! They said they are busiest in the bar on weekdays, so weekends are a good time to go.
I was wondering if their dinner is as worth it as their drinks– it isn't a cheap place to eat– but is it worth a try for a splurge?
My experience, and it was bolstered by a visit not long ago, is that PS 7's is one of those places that sags in the middle.
In other words: Drinks are fantastic (and I like the list of wines by the glass, too0, the bread basket is full of tasty things, the starters are interesting and mostly delicious, and desserts are very good. The main courses are uneven; good ideas, but sometimes sloppy execution.
What does that add up to? It still adds up, in my mind, to a good time. I hate to see the place so quiet; I've been in there in prime time, and it's been nearly dead.
Having said that, I wouldn't splurge on an elaborate, full-course meal, no.
Personally, I wouldn't attend an embassy event with the expressed purpose of eating well and sumptuously.
I would, however, attend a wine event if it was made available to the general public, of if you had a connection; those tend to be worthwhile.
Do you think you could actually respond to what the poster said about his/her experience at Cityzen instead of simply listing all of the things you expect to happen based upon how important you think your chat is?
It sounds like a bad night. And an expensive bad night, at that.
Do I have any insight as to why it happened? I don't. I will say, though, that I have heard some complaints about CityZen from other diners in the last few months (and no, not those who felt as though they'd been stiffed because they didn't get extra Parker House rolls).
An awful lot of dining out has to do with expectations. And I just can't know just how high they were for this chatter. But it does sound as though a recent Beard Award for the chef, Eric Ziebold, has raised them even more in the chatter's mind.
So what was the expectation? Perfection? Very-near perfection?
That's a lot to live up to.
I don't think any restaurants I've been to — or not many — hit that mark.
But, and this is a point I've made a number of times in the past, I think the really excellent family-run ethnic seldom have this problem. They're remarkably consistent. The menu never changes. The kitchen does the same thing day in and day out. No menu changes, hardly any staff changes, and rarely do you hear about a chef leaving.
Perfection or near-perfection is, because of this, well within in their grasp. And the really excellent ones are perfect or near-perfect a lot of the time.
For this reason, I think they're more rewarding most of the time and a better value. And that's where I tend to want to spend my money when I travel — with the occasional splurge.
Sometimes, that splurge brings a home run. But sometimes it brings a double. And that double is very, very frustrating when you're shelling out the kind of cash that a four-star experience requires.
A lot of them are. And especially the independents — the ones without hotel or corporate backing.
I feel for them. Food costs are up as much as 30 percent over last year, and a lot of restaurants don't feel as though they can raise their prices — not with so many consumers already tightening up their budgets and cutting back on the number of restaurants they hit a month.
You asked about helping. And really, the best I can think to do is to shine a light on the places that I think are doing great work — places that you may not have heard of before, or places that have been around a bit that may have fallen under the radar.
(Interestingly, I had a piece for the magazine all ready to go on Butterfield 9 and Michael Harr, the chef, when it closed abruptly several weeks ago. I thought the restaurant had really hit its stride.)
Restaurateurs, managers, servers, chefs … I want to hear from you about this. These are critical times. If you think your restaurant has been ignored or underpublicized or forgotten — I want to know about it. Make your case and drop me a line: email@example.com
Todd, I've got a group of about 8 guys in their late 20s coming in for my bachelor party and want to do a dinner. I love food, but I don't want to break the bank.
We can go anywhere, but this is for Friday night of the bachelor weekend so we probably need somewhere that will seat 8 with a reservation. I was hoping for Rays the Steaks (where I've never been) but I worry it might be too small.
Any other ideas for a good guys' dinner spot? If I were a girl and they'd take a reservation, Cork would be perfect! Thanks!
Ray's doesn't take reservations, so that's out.
If I were you, I'd give a call over to Fogo de Chao. More than a steakhouse — a Brazilian carne-copia.
Servers parade triumphally through the dining room with long spears of meat, which they then slice off at the table. Some two dozen kinds of meat, and it's all you can eat. It's also a real conversation piece of a dinner — a great, theatrical prelude to the evening's other entertainment.
You won't break the bank, but you should keep an eye out for the wine; it can really add up and raise that bill beyond the pale.
But see, that's just the point. It's all well and good to change the menu every season, every month, every week, every day, even — so long as the kitchen can work to perfect the dish and make it come out the same every single time.
When restaurants didn't try as hard to dazzle diners with a vast and changing repertoire of plates, places were a lot more consistent.
Not a fan of Indian food so I had skirted around the Indian restaurants amongst your 100 Best. Last weekend some Indian friends from Ohio were visiting and we went to Passage to India in Bethesda. My friends were blown away by the food and I admit that I have been converted.
What hits you upon entering is the elegance of the place and the soft strains of music wafting thru. But the best part is of course the food, dishes we enjoyed – Crab, scallops, samosa, Goat from North India, Egaru lamb, Chingri shrimp, chicken in green sauce. The server was very helpful and recommended a couple of veggie side orders with some fabulous breads. All in all a great evening the dinner lasting for 2.5 hours.
Glad you had such a good time — and glad to hear that it awakened you to a new possibility.
I'm a big believer in the idea that there's no such thing as a bad cuisine; you just may not have had the best rendition of that cuisine. Eat a great version of something, and you will come away enlightened.
Of course, you may also come away spoiled. And ruined. Because you may live ever after in frustrated pursuit of a taste that good and exalted.
Notice that Samantha's fell off your cheap eats list? Any idea why?
Haven't been in a good while — it was snowing the last time we were there.
But after a fairly long bus and metro trek to see "My Winnipeg" at the AFI, I thought it might be worth checking out for dinner. Thanks!
I'm curious to see that, too. Guy Madden, the director, also did "The Saddest Music in the World" — which is one of the weirdest films I've ever seen. I mean, my God — the great and beautiful Isabella Rosellini donning a leg prosthesis filled with beer! Then again, I've never forgotten it.
As for Samantha's … It hasn't declined, if that's what you're asking. The short version: There was just a lot more in the way of competition this year. I still like the grilled trout with bitter oranges.
Time to run, everyone. Time for lunch — though what I'd love to do, is to skip lunch, and go off in pursuit of a piece of lemon meringue pie.
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
Submit a question in advance for Todd's chat next week.