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 29, click here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… With so many restaurants taking part in this summer's Restaurant Week promotion, how is a diner to sort through the choices and figure out where to eat?
By first figuring out where not to eat.
The basic principle I operate under is — well, two principles. That RW exists as an opportunity to try a good restaurant that otherwise is out of reach. And that eating well and affordably at a good restaurant is what matters most — not a chance to take in the drapes or get a load of the shoes the sweet young thang at the table across from you is rocking.
Diners need to note that this year, although the cost of a three-course RW lunch is going up by only a penny ($30.08), the cost of a three-course RW dinner is climbing by a whopping $5.01 — to $35.08. (Repeat after me: It's NOT a recession.)
That doesn't include tip and tax, and it doesn't include alcohol. Factor those things in, and dinner for two, plus two glasses of wine, tip and tax is probably going to add up to about $120.
Does RW at dinner still qualify as a good deal? It can, if you choose wisely. There are a lot of ways to go wrong.
What you need is a strategy, a plan for solving the system. Here's mine.
Begin by eliminating the following:
Restaurants that typically offer a prix fixe deal at lunch or dinner. So long, Bastille (home of a three-course $19 lunch and $29 dinner from Tuesday through Saturday, all summer) and Bistro d'Oc.
Restaurants specializing in tapas, mezze or small plates. What's the point of devoting a precious RW day to a place that already serves dishes that are reasonably affordable? Goodbye, Oyamel, Bardeo, Tabaq Bistro and Zaytinya. (Points, though, to Oyamel and Zaytinya for offering such a wide range of choices.)
Restaurants without kitchen cred. Harsh, but there you are. Does away with the following: Aria Trattoria, Cabanas, Cafe Promenade, Cafe Bonaparte, Dish + Drinks, District Chophouse & Brewery, District Grill, Merkado (soon to be Commissary), Metro Grille, Mie N Yu, The Monocle, Neyla, Posh Restaurant & Supper Club, Pinzimini, and Tony & Joe's.
Chains. 'Nuff said. That gets rid of: Chima Brazilian Steakhouse, McCormick & Schmick's and McCormick & Schmick's Seafood and The Oceanaire.
Neighborhood spots. So long, Chef Geoff, Chef Geoff's Downtown and Lia's. Nothing wrong with being a dependable, go-to spot for locals — but nothing wrong, also, with budget-minded diners looking elsewhere this week in hopes of finding excitement on the plate.
Steakhouses. RW would seem an ideal time to drop by one of the area's beef emporiums for a thick, marble steak. Except that, in my experience, those thick, marbled steaks are never on offer; instead, you can expect to find a well-trimmed filet or a boring filet mignon. That does away with Bobby Van's, The Caucus Room and Sam & Harry's. I'll make an exception for The Prime Rib, that bastion of old-school propriety (jackets and ties are required of all "gentlemen"); among its handful of entree choices is a roast prime rib.
Restaurants that pass off truncated versions of their regular menus. How do you know you're being offered a truncated menu? Look for these signs: soups or salads as first courses, a salmon or chicken breast entree, and only one or two desserts. That eliminates the otherwise excellent Cafe du Parc — along with Belga Cafe, Cafe Trope, Ceviche Silver Spring, the new Darlington House, Del Merei Grill, Domaso Trattoria, El Manantial, Sette Osteria and Sette Bello. (Cafe Mozu's RW menu is a streamlined version of its standard menu — although, among the two options for first courses, there is a roast suckling pig cooked with peppercorns and currants.)
Restaurants that lace "upcharges" throughout their RW menus. What's an "upcharge"? It's a clever bit of bait-and-switch. You walk into a good restaurant, excited by the prospect of three courses for a fraction of the usual cost, only to find that the foie gras you just ran your eye over is available for a "$10 supplement." Taberna del Alabardero is offering three appetizers at lunch and dinner: a soup, a house salad, and a dish of scallops. And the dish of scallops comes with a three-buck upcharge. The menu at Bistro Bis contains four upcharges. (Note to restaurants: either offer the dish as part of your RW menu, or don't. But don't bait-and-switch the diner.)
Restaurants with recent chef changes. Ta ta, New Heights.
Restaurants that are extending their deals. You can afford to wait on these: D'Acqua, Dino, Farrah Olivia, D'Acqua, CoCo Sala, Mie N Yu, and Beacon Bar and Grill. D'Acqua has extended the promotion until the 17th, Teatro Goldoni (with new chef Enzo Fargione) until the 19th, CoCo Sala until the 20th, Farrah Olivia the 22nd, Rasika and Willow the 23rd, Mie N Yu, Cafe Atlantico and 701 the 24th. Beacon and Dino are offering the deal through the 31st.
That leaves us with the following: Ardeo, Bistrot Lepic, Ceiba, DC Coast, the new Fyve, Oval Room, Poste, Ristorante Tosca, Sushi-Ko (Glover Park), Teatro Goldoni, Vermilion and Vidalia.
But that list can be pared some.
Ardeo has never really excited me, Bistrot Lepic hasn't been the same since Stephane Lezla left to open Montmartre, and Ceiba and DC Coast are solid but unspectacular. Fyve needs more time to settle in with new chef Amy Brandwein, the former sous chef under Roberto Donna. As for Sushi-Ko (Glover Park), a typically strong RW performer, I'm withholding my embrace because I don't think the sushi experience lends itself particularly well to the RW format. The first course on Sushi-Ko's lunch and dinner menus? Miso soup and salad.
So here's my short list for the next week of RW dining: Oval Room, Poste, Ristorante Tosca, Vermilion and Vidalia.
And here's why:
Tony Conte is sending out some of the prettiest and tastiest plates in the city right now at Oval Room, a restaurant long known mostly for its proximity to the seat of power.
Rob Weland, the chef at Poste, is offering his marvelous roast chicken, as well as his ricotta-and-nettle ravioli and his crispy-skinned bass with a red-wine poached egg.
Tosca, a perennial RW stalwart, is eating better than ever with new chef Massimo Fabbri at the helm, and offers an extensive selection of pastas as well as meats.
Vermilion, with chef Tony Chittum, has emerged as one of the three best restaurants in Old Town; look for his wonderful handrolled fettuccini (served this week with trumpet mushrooms, mascarpone cream and breadcrumbs), his grilled steak with fresh tomatoes and Maytag blue cheese, and the goats-milk cheesecake for dessert.
Yes, Vidalia's menu is pocked with a few upcharges, but RJ Cooper's cooking also happens to be among the best in the city — precise and rooted, yet full of imagination and surprising details. The lunch and dinner menus are identical, making lunch an amazing deal. Vidalia is also offering the option of a five-course menu for $50.08 — in other words, fifteen dollars more for two extra courses. In my book, that qualifies as a good value. …
T K ' s 2 0
A C r i t i c ' s S h o r t L i s t
Palena and Palena Cafe
Citronelle and Citronelle Lounge
Nava Thai Noodle & Grill
Johnny's Half Shell
Ravi Kabob I and II
A & J
Vit Goel ToFu House
Ray's Hell Burger
Cafe du Parc
Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd.
… The winner of our restaurant mash-up contest is Leslie Fine, of Washington, D.C. Here's her entry:
Hook X Caucus Room = By Hook or By Crook. Sustainable seafood for the liberal expense account crowd. A new restaurant for a new administration.
Not only is it funny, but it also displays a keen awareness of the DC dining scene. Particularly for someone who describes herself as "a half-time DC resident." Leslie teaches at Ohio State University "but my significant other is based here in DC so we're dual-city people. I love all things food — cooking, markets, restaurants and the food media." She once walked to H Mart from the Wheaton Metro in the July humidity "just to check out a real urban Asian market." She also hails from a "completely food-obsessed city," having grown up in New Orleans.
Her winning entry came to her, she says, "after discussions on the chog about whether Obama or McCain would be better for DC's restaurants. I was thinking about all the typical ways Democrats and Republicans might differ in their conspicuous consumption."
For her efforts, Leslie takes home a gift certificate for $150 to Circle Bistro, in DC's West End.
I liked Leslie's best, but there were a lot of other worthies. We've got us some well-honed wits out there. (Some well-honed, dirty-minded wits, too: particularly, a Mr. D. Rockwell.)
Jackson 20 + Fyve = Jackson Fyve. Young talented chefs serve up seasonal dishes with white glove service (only worn on one hand, of course).
— Ramona Padovano
Hook x Buck's Fishing and Camping = B.Y.O.Bait. The latest trend in fresh, sustainable sourcing.
— Lizzie Hogan
Ben’s Chili Bowl x Awash = Ben's Awash-in-Bowl. When you’re still hungry after the show, head over to Ben’s Awash-in Bowl and settle in amidst the Ethiopian cabbies. Order the specialty (Bill Cosby’s favorite!) and when it arrives pull off a piece of injera, dip it into those Gored Gored Half Smoke Tibs, and wash it down with a cold Harrar beer!
— Gabe Rousseau
CityZen and Butterfield 9 = Butter City.
Join the revolution at this Atkins-friendly eatery. Savory classics plus new approaches to one of our favorite “can’t haves.” Wet wipe, anyone?
— Megan Daum
Interestingly, a lot of the best entries came in bunches. Leslie also contributed:
Oohhs & Aahhs x Old Ebbitt Grill = Aw, Shucks. Fresh shucked oysters in a bare-bones dining room. Definitely not a tourist trap.
And Ramona also came up with this one:
Bombay Comany x Pupatella's Cart = The Darjeeling Limited Space. Enjoy big bold flavors from the little kitchen that could. …
Well, I did give a number of recos, mostly on the lower end …
Fine dining, though … the best is Espuma, far and away. That's as fine as it gets, of the fine dining spots.
Of course, it's the beach, so fine dining is not the same as it is in the city. I wouldn't call them fine, but the group of restaurants from the Fish On! crew are good: Besides Fish On! in Lewes, there's Northeast Seafood Kitchen (lobster rolls, Ipswich clams and a wonderful chocolate cake and warmed chocolate sauce) and Blue Coast in Bethany.
What else? The veteran Cultured Pearl, with a new location (and rooftop dining), for sushi and teriyaki.
And Dish, for retro comfort food.
What, just because you disagree with my opinion on the war everything I have to say about food and restaurants is somehow invalidated?
What about what Scott Fitzgerald said, that the sign of a mature mind is the ability to hold two competing ideas in your mind at the same time.
Or wait, is that simply an elitist liberal out, one that unwittingly aids and abets the terrorists?
And now, back to food …
Hi Todd: First, your recommendations have been spot on.
Took a friend of mine out of town to Cork several weeks ago and then last week we were at Johnny's Half Shell.
Can you recommend a good Italian place? Our intern (a picky eater) is returning to VA Tech and we want to take her out for a great dinner. She specifically requested Italian but I don't want just pizza.
I'd look into Dino, in Cleveland Park.
I'd never been enamored of the cooking, but the kitchen is showing well these days, as a recent visit proved. There's an excellent Caprese salad, with good, ripe tomatoes, the housemade meatballs are just a trace off the mark of a talented grandma's, the pastas have really improved, and I love a roast baby pig they're doing — slow cooked on the rotisserie, and sauced with a rosemary jus.
The backbone of the place has always been it's wines and cheeses, and remains so. You can get a "taste" — a three-ounce pour — of a good number of Italian whites and reds, which makes it possible to drink well and widely without spending a lot of dough.
Can't say I'm surprised. Tosca has been one of my RW picks for many years running now, and the Oval Room has emerged as one of the Top 20 restaurants in the city.
I think you'll enjoy Poste, though. There's a reason I have it down on my list of favorites: fun atmosphere, interesting and surprisingly detailed cooking, and laudable consistency. Check back in again next week and let us know how dinner (or lunch) turned out.
That goes for the rest of you, too — I'd love to hear your reports from the RW field.
And managers, waiters, restaurateurs — I'd be interested in hearing your dispatches from The Other Side …
Todd, I was very excited to read your review of corduroy which I have been twice at the new location. everything you said was right and you gave them 3.5 stars.
After this sunday reading Washington Post`s review I saw they have now 2.5 stars. I understand if you and WaPo critic are not talking to each other but the difference looks huge. Im just curious. Also I have reservations at Obelisk. Is there anything I should not miss on the menu. Thank you
You've got to read more carefully, Shirlington. That was Cynthia Hacinli's review. I was the editor of that review; I didn't write it.
But to your point … A whole star difference looks big, I know. But if you go back and read it, that 2 1/2 star review reads like a 3. So it's not THAT big of a difference.
Generally speaking, though, I think it's good to have these kinds of differences in reviews. It's all a perspective, folks — an informed perspective, but still … And no review is a guarantee. It's an educated guess based on a handful of experiences.
Re: Obelisk. To me, the best thing about eating here comes early: the wonderful antipasti. The antipasti and the superlative service, relaxed and knowledgeable and remarkably attentive.
I stopped participating in restaurant week a couple years ago. The end bill was no different than any other night out, when you factor in alcohol and the temptations to go straight to items w/ an upcharge.
Also, I dine w/ my husband, and when does a couple order two appetizers, two entrees, and two desserts?…seems like overkill to me. We ususally get 1 app, two entress, and 1 dessert. I just don't think restaurant week is that great of a deal, esp. with a whopping $5 increase!
I hear you, Vienna, loud and clear. You make some excellent points.
The temptations are tough: you're out and you think, oh, what the hell, and bam, there goes the deal.
It's one reason why I think it's important to zero in on the right restaurant or restaurants. If you really want to have a blow-out meal, for instance, I think the Vidalia offer — five courses for $50.08 — is a good one. Not cheap, but cheaper. And given the quality of the cooking, a good value.
But that's only for those who want a chance to settle in for a long, leisurely night of supping.
I think the other places I chose are also good deals. Bear in mind, though, that what you're doing is, you're turning what might have been a $170 night into a $120 night.
By the way, about those temptations. I remember many, many years ago, when my wife and I went to Red Sage one year for RW, back when Morou was cooking and the place was in its prime. We looked at the RW menu, saw chicken breast among the options, then looked at the regular menu, thought, oh, what the hell, and splurged on the regular menu. It was a costly night.
Since I happened to be in Arlington tonight with my husband and a meat-eating, friend we decided to check out Ray's Hell Burgers. As a vegetarian, I figured I would just enjoy watching them eat and grab something later.
I was surprised that when we got there and I (somewhat meekly) asked if they had anything for vegetarians I was greeted by a considerate and thoughtful answer that, yes, they could make me a cheese sandwich.
Funnily, their burgers arrived first, and I sat there watching their eyes roll back into their heads, listening to them moan and instantly become so deeply tranced that they never noticed the juice dripping down their arms and into their laps. My husband, who is scanty with the comments, said it was the best burger he has ever had in his life, and my friend agreed.
Meanwhile, I have it in my head that I am waiting for a cold bun with cheese and a few vegetables. What I ended up getting was one of the finest vegetarian sandwiches I have ever eaten. Seriously. The toasted, buttery bun was soft and warm with a crisp, salty top and filled with melted Vermont cheddar, cognac sauteed mushrooms, grilled red onions, roasted garlic, sauteed peppers, jalapenos, lettuce, tomato and a creamy chipotle sauce. It was a buttery mess of deliciousness. Man, it was good.
I am sure the meat eaters could argue that what I ate was a travesty, but I wanted to say that even more than the quality of the food was their kind and thoughtful response to a reasonably ridiculous request on a busy Saturday night– can a place which only serves one single thing, a meaty burger, make me a great veggie meal as well?
Apparently it is possible to serve the dish along with a smile– good on them.
Thanks for the fantasic chog each week!
Absolutely, good on them.
It's something that they'd make you something that involved, that took that much forethought and attention. It sounds like a terrific sandwich.
As for the burgers, yeah. What your husband said. (With the exception, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, of the Boulud burger. Which also costs about three of four times as much.) As I also wrote a couple of weeks ago, the patty wars are over. This is it, folks. Nothing else out there — and there's a lot that's out there — comes close. And the price is eye-popping.
I suspect Ray's Hell Burger is going to Ray's the Prices in about six months or so, because right now, a 10-ounce burger of trimmed prime beef for $6.95 amounts almost to a give-away. We'll see.
That's true, it's a good deal. It's not, however, as good a deal as the ones I pinpointed up top.
A really good restaurant that gives you pretty much the run of the regular menu provides a much better value.
As for comparisons … Fogo is the more exciting atmosphere, and the meats are a little better too.
The biggest must-eat is The Charleston Grille. Bob Waggoner is the chef, and his menu is a straight-up fusion of classic French cooking and Lowcountry ingredients — so, for instance, you can expect to find things like huge fried oysters atop a rich fennel gratin, a rabbit crepinette with spoonbread, or, one of my favorites, country-fried foie gras — a lobe of foie gras, battered and fried like a country-fried steak.
Fig is also a definite, and not far from The Charleston Grille. (A nice change of pace after the richness and complexity of Waggoner's cuisine, too.) And The Hominy Grille — especially for brunch and dessert (five-inch high layer cakes, the kind you can only get in the South.)
Some others that you have to try: Boulevard Diner (for simple Lowcountry cooking) in Mt. Pleasant; also in Mt. Pleasant — Jack's Cosmic Dogs, for great corn dogs and moon pie sundaes.
I also like Cru Cafe (duck confit salad and orange creamsicle cake), and Miss Kitty's House of Fine Foods — the food is tasty, and you won't find anywhere else in this racially divided city that gives you this mix of black and white.
Exact? I believe it was 7900 Wisconsin Ave.
I loved the place when I was a kid — I used to call it Fish Thompson's. I loved the rum buns, loved the idea of eating dessert before dinner.
I still remember, pretty vividly, in fact, the night when we had a big family gathering, and right in the middle of dinner, the restaurant got robbed. I can still see uncles slipping watches from their wrists and dumping wallets into a bag, aunts unclasping necklaces … Everybody was spooked.
Hard to eat after that, as you might imagine.
Nobody was hurt, though, and the whole thing, from my eyes, was, well — kind of exciting. And it surely ranks as one of the most memorable meals I've ever had.
Aldo's. Wow. That's been ages for me.
In town, though, I'd look into Tosca, Obelisk, and Dino.
Greetings. My brother is coming into town today through this weekend and loves fine dining (ie. money is no object places like Nobu, French Laundry, Alinea in Chicago, Daniel in NYC, etc…) and I would like to take him out without breaking the bank (under $125 per person with tip and drinks) as it is my turn to take him out.
Any good places you would recommend for me to take him too?
I was looking at Komi, but am afraid the sparse decor may be a turnoff for my bro. How about BLT Steak…best steakhouse to get real kobe beef?
FYI, we have been to Citronelle, CityZen, Kinkead's, Capital Grille, and all of your top 100 Very Best Restaurants in Montgomery County so far. Thanks!
Komi is only slightly outside the budget you've set (I'd just mind the drinking). But it's worth it, Spartan decor or no — the best restaurant in the city right now. Also the most intimate, the most soulful and the most personal.
I'd also take a look at Palena. A table up front, in the cafe (no reservations, unfortunately) allows you to eat from both menus, the cafe menu and the regular menu. Why do I advise that? Because then you can choose a few things from the former (like the truffled cheeseburger, like the roast chicken) and then split a three- or four-course dinner from the latter. Keeps costs down and gives you a great opportunity to try a lot of tasty things.
BLT Steak, sure. But I'd put Restaurant Eve ahead on my list of priorities. And minibar, too — although I doubt you'd get a reservation at this late a date.
Anyway, hope that helps. And check in and let us know which way you decide to turn — and how things turned out …
I think you might mean Buzz –?
It's in Alexandria, on the edge of Old Town — a slick-looking bakery/coffeehouse/lounge. It's not a full-service restaurant, however, if that's what you were thinking. But yeah, the cupcakes are terrific.
Ah, I overlooked Circle Bistro!
I don't know that I'd put in the top tier, but it's a very strong choice for RW, and has traditionally been one of the better performers — going back even to the time before the current chef, Brendan Cox, was there.
You got me. Sorry.
I love it, though — oldies week at Kliman Online …
What other defunct spots to people remember — or, better yet, remember and miss?
Mine is Henkel's, near Rte. 32, a former bordello-turned-bar/restaurant (I'm guessing now; but it was situated hard by a railroad track and had a saloon downstairs and upstairs offices). Henkel's was the home of the pound-of-meat sandwich. My parents used to take me there all the time when I was a little kid, eight, nine, ten years old — much to the dismay, I should add, of my paternal grandmother, who lamented the idea that her sweet grandson was consorting with strangers in a dark, dingy bar.
It was dark and dingy, but the food was fun, and I loved going there on a Saturday night and watching ACC basketball on the tube and eating a Chenkelburger (their version of a cheeseburger) or a ham "through the garden" (ham with lettuce, tomato and onion). And I loved sitting at the bar, on a bar stool, my legs dangling, and talking to the men as they downed their cold Buds and eyed the game.
I guess you can blame my parents, if you think I spend too much of my time rooting around in holes in the wall and mom 'n' pops. They bred me that way.
I tried to make reservations for Vidalia for RW. Totally booked. I ended up with one at 701 instead, which I am plenty happy about.
I understand the chatters who find that it's cheaper for them as a couple to split an appetizer and a dessert than to go the RW route. But it is a great deal if you're going out with a larger group.
My family can't afford to eat out very often, especially since we prefer to avoid chains, so RW offers us the opportunity to share a meal for a reasonable cost and to try places we wouldn't be able to afford otherwise.
I hear you, Silver Spring.
Thanks for chiming in with another perspective on things.
Holiday dinner? Whoa!
I could use your hyper-advance planning in my life … 😉
You don't mention dining out on a holiday, so I'm going to assume you mean "in the season." I also don't see Palena on your list, or Kinkead's, or Restaurant Eve, or Citronelle, or Marcel's. I think all would make for a great time at the table.
Well, then, I think this is the time to give your love to the mom 'n' pops, small independents, and ethnic spots — the places that offer great value ALL YEAR ROUND, not just for a pre-determined week or two.
In DC, you're looking at: Oohhs & Aahhs, Etete, Queen Makeda, Granville Moore's, Malaysia Kopitiam, Pete's Apizza, Straits of Malaya, Thai X-ing, etc.
Also take note: Palena Cafe is exempt from RW. So it's a fine time to go and revel in some of the best (and most affordable) cooking in the city.
Enjoy the eating this week, everyone, wherever you wind up, and be sure to check back and let me know how things with RW are going.
Be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, August 12 at 11 AM.