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 August 5, click here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… A lot of sushi bars close on Mondays, and with good reason: In this area, most have a standing order for raw fish deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays. (The very best ones, it's worth pointing out, supplement this shipment with smaller orders the other days.)
So what does that tell you about a sushi bar that dares to stay open for business on a Monday? Quite possibly, an owner who is enormously confident in the ability of his team of sushi chefs to bring less-than-stellar fish to vivid life for one more day. That, or an owner intent on maximizing profits at the expense of freshness and quality. I'll err on the side of confidence in the case of Ariake Japanese Restaurant, in Reston (12184 Glade Dr. Reston; 703-391-9006). On a recent Monday, the kitchen was out of the uni that was advertised on the sign board out front, as well as oh-toro, the fatty, richly marbled belly meat of the tuna.
Dubious signs, and my wife and I, turning from the waitress who delivered the news, frowned at one another across the table.
"Should we call it quits?" I asked.
No, my wife said, and I knew it was not because she had any great faith in the kitchen: "I'm too hungry."
The miso was salty, and the shumai looked to have come from a package, but from that point on, we had ourselves a fine little meal. The edamame were tender, a beef tataki brought thin strips of good, fat-striated meat that had been seared and slicked with ponzu sauce, and a seldom-seen appetizer of fresh-made tofu cut into thick slabs and garnished with scallion and bonito flakes hit the spot on a hot, humid night. Sashimi and nigiri were surprisingly good, considering the quite likely three-day lag from delivery date; yellowtail and mackerel, especially. (The tuna was mealy, but then, tuna is mealy everywhere these days; even the excellent Sushi-Ko, which goes to great lengths to procure the meaty, minerally Big Eye, is not immune to mealy tuna.)
It would have been nice to pair a cool glass of sake with the fish, but the restaurant sells sake only by the bottle. Why? Not enough people were ordering by the glass, and a lot of the supply, I was told, went to waste.
Where Ariake excels is its rolls. The spider roll is magnificent, comprising as it does not the usual array of fried soft shell parts but an entire soft shell, good-sized and meaty. The kitchen presents it dramatically, with the jutting claws of one side of the crab poking up from the base of a flat-lying maki roll like a culinary reenactment of "The Awakening." If not as compelling visually, the spicy scallop roll might be its equal, an ordinary California roll capped with thick, fleshy cubes of chili-slicked scallops.
Sushi is best in those places that contrive to make themselves a respite, and Ariake does. The structure of the building, islanded on a tiny strip of land, puts you in mind of a Bob's Big Boy, but inside the place is cool and wooded, suggestive of a resort lodge. There's also a patio outside, laid with stones, and a rock garden. Adding to the spa feel, couples traipse through the dining room in flip flops. Few restaurants in the area are as relaxed and inviting, sushi or otherwise.
I'll be interested to see how Ariake does when it's not missing uni and fatty tuna and operating at full strength — in other words, when it's not Monday. …
Argia's Restaurant (124 N Washington St., Falls Church; 703-534-1033) is the kind of place you wish the area were thick with — an unpretentious, family-stye restaurant where you can pop in looking disheveled after a long, sweaty day of shopping and settle in for a meal of homey, simple Italian cooking.
So why am I unable to work up any excitement for it? A salad of frutti di mare was bountiful, but the seafood tasted dull. I had settled on ordering the gazpacho, until a server retreated to the kitchen and returned with the news that it had been made two days earlier. "Sometimes, that's good," he said. "It gives the flavors time to come together."
I liked that the spaghetti in the spaghetti and meatballs is homemade, and the noodle did have a nice firmness and resilience, but the marinara was flat and the meatballs were leaden (a function of too much meat and too little breadcrumb). Spaghetti and meatballs is, as any of the staff will tell you, one of the two most popular dishes on the menu; the other is the lasagna. It's hard to see why, if the version I ate not long ago was any indication. It was overbaked, for one thing, and was made with more meat and cheese than noodle. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I would much rather eat a microwaved lasagna from Michael Angelo's — a wonderful line of Italian frozen dinners, available at Whole Foods. …
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.
Cashion's Eat Place comes to mind — the best place that's nearest. I guess it depends on how you define "short jaunt." It's a nice walk.
I know they take reservations for all other meals, and I would suspect that's also the case with brunch — though it'd be worth placing a call, just to be safe.
Have you been to Joss, on Main St.?
It's a tight, cozy space, festooned with Polaroid pix of the regulars, and a lot of fun — as soon as you enter, you're greeted with a roaring "arrishai!" from the guys behind the sushi bar.
The quality is high, and the menu is extensive. Rolls are good, they do a number of sushi salads (I like a current dish, a thin sashimi of scallop with seaweed), the nigiri are classically proportioned, and, unlike a lot of places, the rice is treated with a lot of care. I'd put it in the top 10 of sushi bars in the area. Easily.
Otherwise, how about Les Folies? It's not in downtown Annapolis, but it has charm. The cooking is French, and rigorously uncontemporary. Coq au vin, beef bourguignon, seafood in puff pastry. When the kitchen is on, it's a reminder of the charms of these forgotten classics. But sometimes, they just taste, well — dated. I love their seafood towers most of all. Beyond the usual assortment of clams and mussels and oysters, you'll find periwinkles studded in the trays of packed, seaweed-strewn ice.
My wife and I heard you on NPR today and followed your lead to Nava Thai. It was simply incredible, thank you.
We love to eat out but also hate the pretention of most mid-high end places in DC. We will be following your collumn religiously from now on.
Hey, thanks for listening — and I'm glad you had such a great time at Nava Thai.
I started off my review for the magazine by saying that every time I go, and I'm up to seven visits now, I seem to encounter another person driven to obsession by the cooking. Who knows? You might become one of them.
Incidentally, I got an email last week from Johnny Monis, the chef at Komi in DC, who said he's already been twice. His staff, he said, is hooked on the place.
Great to know; thanks for the tip, DC.
So where do we send this pre-theater chatter that's good and that's also in walking distance?
Whoa, whoa, whoa. You do know, i hope, that the comments section — in this case, and in all cases — is from readers, and not the work of anyone on the editorial side of things.
I haven't been yet, so I can't weigh in on the quality of the restaurant.
I do have a few thoughts, though, on the firestorm of comments.
One is that I think the place has taken a lot of people in Columbia Heights aback because it's more expensive than anything else in the neighborhood. I think a lot of people were expecting prices along the lines of Pete's Apizza. And pub, for many people, conjures up accessible and cheap; I think many people are unfamiliar with the idea of a "gastro" pub.
Anything different, that stands out, is going to incur people's ire. That's unfortunate; but it is, nonetheless, the way of the world. The place is ambitious, and needs to be given a chance to live up to, or down to, its intentions.
I think the firestorm also is a case of rage feeding on rage. Welcome to the web: vitriolic, anonymous ravings — and from people who may have, who knows?, an agenda in bashing the place. Things like this take on a life of their own on the web, no different from a riot that spirals out of control.
The early adopters who embraced the web were very high-minded, and they spoke in Utopian terms about the web as an egalitarian, democratic place. Well, this is what democracy often looks like.
Love your chats!
Finally got my Ray's Hell Burger: it was fantastic. It was also messy, which is what you get when you can't decide on toppings and get all of them instead…yum.
Questions for you: I've got reservations for RW at both Vidalia and Rasika (booked that one before realizing that it would continue to have its menu after RW, darn). Can you tell me the dress codes? I'll be going straight after work, but my dinner companions won't be. Do you have any recommendations of dishes I have to try at both restaurants? As much as I want to get 5 courses at Vidalia, I don't think I can eat it all. My friend suggested the crispy spinach at Rasika. Thanks!
They're both what I'd call "dressy casual."
As for recos … At Rasika, I like the minced lamb kabobs, the lamb rogan josh (the meat is served on the bone, with the rich, maroon-colored gravy acting as a Western-style sauce) and the very silky, very luscious black cod (really, sable fish).
Vidalia's menu changes every few days, it seems like, so beyond the handful of staples I could recommend — the shrimp 'n' grits is terrific, and I love the raw hamachi — many of the preparations on the RW menu are things I haven't had. Chef RJ Cooper is very much at home with slow-cooked, teased-out flavors, so I'd be inclined to give a long look to the pork belly and the corned kuroge beef (his recent pickled veal tongue was outstanding).
I am curious what you think of the fro-yo craze, and what you think of the stuff itself.
I've had fun checking the new places out, like it that it isn't very sweet, and enjoy the late hours for a late night cold treat.
It does seem an unlikely thing to have become a craze, doesn't it?
But I like it. I like its tanginess, especially. It's a nice alternative to ice cream, and just plain feels lighter than a scoop of Ben and Jerry's. Maybe that's why.
Where does D'Acqua fall on the map for you? I just went there this past wkd, and I had the best fresh pasta in DC.
We ordered about 6 different pastas between the 4 of us, and each one was so fresh, flavorful, w/ an incredible bite. Why isn't it getting any attention? Is it the lack of "trendiness" factor? The courtyard, where we sat is a great outdoor spot too..better than most.
Thanks for the report, live2eat.
You bring up something interesting in talking about D'Acqua, a place that started off very unevenly. Some restaurants have promising beginnings, then taper and fade. Some stay the same. And some restaurants keep improving, quietly, steadily — Komi is the best example of this I can think of, a place that has matured and evolved and grown from being interesting to good to very good to great.
I think what often happens is, places become fixed in the minds of the public and of the critics on the basis of the first impression they make. I hate to think we're guilty of this all the time, but I don't doubt that it's true in some cases. It's good to hear what you say about D'Acqua. It sounds as though it's grown. And that's always an encouraging sign.
As my father used to say when I brought up something that might involve a change in the household's way of doing things: Duly noted.
This is a little like snagging front row-center seats to a great play and then saying: Jeeze, I wish I didn't have to see all that dripping sweat.
You can't have it all. Ten ounces of prime, trimmed beef for $6.95, and you want beer and wine, too?
I've heard nothing about Landrum's plans to serve beer and wine — which, by the way, would surely drive up the cost of the burgers.
Interesting you should mention "gourmet," because although the methodology is gourmet, and the ingredients are stellar, the effect of Ray's Hell-Burger is decidedly not gourmet. It's not making all that big of a deal out of what is, surely, a very big deal. That's part of the charm, to me.
After watching all of the Olympic Coverages on NBC, I am in the mood for Peking Duck. Which authentic Chinese restaurant can you recommend that serves real good Peking Duck? Thanks!
You're talking about one of my favorite dishes in the world, something I routinely have cravings for.
Mark's Duck House, in Falls Church, does a good job (and they'll debone the duck for you, right before your eyes). The key to the dish is the skin — it's got to be crispy — and the (relative) greaselessness of the meat. Mark's does very well on both counts.
I also like the Peking duck at Oriental East in Silver Spring (besides the dim sum, the best thing on the menu); the good thing about Oriental East is, you can order a half-portion, so it's not as big a splurge.
Last summer my husband and I went on vacation in Cornwall. We really loved the "Cream Tea" served there.
I'd really love to make some homemade scones and jam and attempt to replicate what we had there. Unfortunately, the only clotted cream I've seen here is in a jar and appears to bear no resemblance to what we had in the UK.
Where can I get some real, ideally fresh, clotted cream? Would it be possible to make it myself?
You know, it's a question I asked myself after I got back from England last Fall.
Unfortunately, there is no fresh clotted cream you can buy around here. You mentioned a clotted cream in a jar, and you're probably talking about the same thing I've got at home in my fridge; close, but no cigar.
The thing is, you can't really make it, either, because we can't easily get our hands on the kind of sweet, rich milk you find in the English countryside.
Now, for the good news.
What you can do is to overwhip (slightly) a batch of the highest-quality fresh cream you can find — to take it to the clotting stage. Then fold in a few spoonfuls of mascarpone cheese and a little sugar; a dab of vanilla (the real deal) would be good in there, too.
It's not the real thing, but it's very good and I think you'll be happy with it.
Check back in when you've whipped up a batch, and let me know how it turns out.
When exploring all of the Chinese restaurants in the area, can you really tell the difference between the various regional Chinese (i.e. Sichuan, Catonese, Mandarin (Beijing)) cuisine? I think they all taste the same.
I am treating a friend out to dinner and he wants to have real spicy Sichuan Chinese food. Can you help me choose a place?
I can, but then, I spend a lot of my time discerning differences in things.
The best places around here all tend to be Hong Kong-style, although the very best might well be Taiwan-style — Bob's Noodle 66.
It's interesting, because three, four decades ago, there were only Cantonese-style places. Then came the great wave of Hunan and Szechuan. And now, it's Hong Kong-style (lots of noodles, dumplings, a heavy reliance on simply prepared, simply sauced seafood) reigns.
For Szechuan, I like China Star in Fairfax, and I really like Sichuan Village, in Chantilly. Neither place is pretty, and Sichuan Village actually resembles a cafeteria (an impression reinforced by the long buffet table that you should avoid). But the cooking at both is good. And Sichuan Village has moments of excellence.
Apart from your good writing – you also speak and sound good on the radio…. Keep it up Todd… Way to go…. Now we need to see you on the Television – sans any disguise…
Be careful what you wish for. 😉
That's really kind of you, though. Thank you.
I just finished listening to "The Bastard of Istanbul" on books on tape. There is a lot of discussion of Turkish food in the story. I am especially intrigued by the dessert "Asure"….made from grains,beans,and fruit.
Do you know of any place in the DC area that serves this. It is also known as "Noah's Pudding"
I don't know any restaurants that are serving it, no. Does anyone out there have any good intel on where to find it?
Incidentally, it's funny, when I first heard of the title, "The Bastard of Istanbul," what I heard was: Bastard Out of Istanbul. And I thought: Huh. What a strange, unexpected follow-up for Dorothy "Bastard Out of Carolina" Allison.
I have been to Nava Thai about 7 times myself…but all of them have been take-out orders.
We have two toddlers and it's just too hectic to eat there. We love it, but I'm wondering if you think the food stands up to take-home. We live only about 10 minutes away so it's not sitting for too long…
I don't think any food stands up to take-home.
Sealing something up just kills things, kills the flavors. Fried things and noodle dishes, especially, but also stir-frys. And soups, too. I took the soups home from my visits, and none were comparable to what I'd eaten an hour earlier.
Still, the fact that you love it anyway says something. It says that the food, though diminished, is better than the diminished Thai cooking elsewhere.
I love it; more Nava obsessives!
That's it for this week, everyone. Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 … And keep those RW reports coming.
You're clearer-headed than I; thank you. Joe's Noodle House is a very good pick.
I love the steamed whole fish with sour cabbage and chilis, and I love the dan dan noodles with chili oil. The menu is super-extensive, and not everything scores, but these two dishes are superb. The place is also fun and festive and cheap, a really terrific value.
'til next week …
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance for Todd's next chat on Tuesday, August 19 at 11 AM.