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 19, click here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… Kabob shops are not so plentiful that they could be mistaken for fast-food joints, but eating your way across the vast ethno-culinary landscape, it can sometimes seem that way. That's particularly true in Virginia, where skewered meat emporiums are more numerous than even chicken joints and burger shacks — and where the great Ravi Kabob, with two outlets on a single street in Arlington, reigns as a kind of Cheap Eats colossus.
Maryland, for whatever reason, can't touch Virginia in either the output or the quality of its kabobs. But though it lacks a thriving kabob culture, it does not lack a great kabob shop. That would be Maiwand Kabob (www.maiwandkabob.net), with locations in Burtonsville, Linthicum Heights, Columbia and — later this month — Arundel Mills.
The stark setting — an order-at-the counter operation, with harsh fluorescent lighting, plastic plates, forks and knives — suggests quick-serve food, lacking in conviction or warmth, and the first-timer is consequently ill-prepared for the cooking that follows.
Chow pan is the defining dish — a plate of three marinated and grilled lamb chops so juicy, crusty and tender that picking them up with your fingers and chewing them off the bone doesn't seem at all crude or ill-mannered; it seems only fitting.
The other kabob plates, including a grilled lamb and a lipstick-red chicken tikka, are worthy, too, and come with an unexpectedly good side salad, a cinnamony rice, and a hot round of naan. One of the measures of a good kabob shop is the freshness of the bread. Some shops are prone to passing off naan that's been sitting around, as if they can't be bothered with producing mere bread when they are consumed with tending the skewers of meat. Not at Maiwand: even if the dining room is empty, you can expect that the naan will be baked to order.
Maiwand is Afghan, which accounts for the presence of aushak on the menu. I've had better versions of this simple, sustaining dish, a layer of thin scallion dumplings doused in a rich meat-and-tomato sauce, finished with a drizzle of yogurt and sprinkled with dried mint. But not many. And the version here — an appetizer, but big enough to constitute an entree for many appetites — costs just $3.75, an astonishing value. Likewise, the chalu, a dish of fried pumpkin stewed with sugar and yogurt, is not revelatory — but it's immensely satisfying and remarkably cheap.
Chalu means that vegetarians are guaranteed to eat as well as omnivores. There are also non-meat samosas — small, triangular, and fried to a greaseless crunch — and a passable version of channa, a rich, oniony chickpea stew.
You can wash all of these riches down with a mango lassi, or, better, a big cup of doogh. Many places sell the yogurt drink by the bottle, in the refrigerated case. Maiwand makes it fresh — a tangy, frothy shake that functions as a refreshing counterbalance to so much meaty heaviness. …
… I know I'm not the target audience for Sticky Rice (1224 H St. NE; 202-397-7655), in that I tend not to think of tattoos as a fashion statement, I haven't worn Chuck Taylors since I was ten, and I don't regard dinner as a thing you eat in order to absorb copious quantities of alcohol.
Also, I like sushi too much.
If you pay attention to the balance of sugar and vinegar in your rice, if you look for a sheen on the surface of your raw, sliced fish — heck, if you care that you're eating something fresh and clean and balanced, then Sticky Rice will seem a kind of abomination.
Lots of places serve up a bastardized version of sushi, replete with funky, clunky concoctions shot full of mayo, cream cheese, and fry and bearing self-consciously clever names. I don't have a problem with that, exactly — so long as the food's as tasty as it is wacky. Sticky Rice is just wacky.
It's telling that the best thing on the long and varied menu is the tater tots — a freezer-bag staple for many busy families, but, in case you haven't been paying attention in recent years, a kitschy faux-homage to childhood for affluent slackers. They're served in a metal bucket, and as the losses pile up — dry dumplings, dismal tempura, flavorless fish — you find yourself digging your hand into the bottom for more of them, almost despite yourself. …
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.
Thanks for following up on that query from last week.
Although I still say, the best you can do right now is the lobster at Johnny's Half Shell. Gently steamed, succulent meat, the smell of wood smoke, drawn butter. That's a lobster to remember.
TK: I just got a new job that involves a significant amount of travel to entertain clients, much of which will take place in high end restaurants. I am really excited to try some of the country's best food and wine on my boss's dime. My question is about tipping.
I know to leave 20% on the food and individual drinks, but do you leave 20% on bottles of wine or other types of alcohol as well? What about very expensive bottles of wine that are over $250 or table servince in a club?
Lucky you. That's kind of like winning the lottery, isn't it?
There's no expectation that you tip on bottles of wine or other alcohol. What I would say is, if you find yourself in the presence of a sommelier who does well by you, who takes the time to listen to you and who goes out of his (or her) way to find the right bottle for you, who slips you tastes of things to gauge your interest, who directs you to something fabulous that you could never have imagined — then, in that instance, I would go ahead and leave a little extra something. And make sure to let the server know that it is to go to the sommelier.
What about Hong Kong Palace, in Falls Church?
But be forewarned: the cooking is Szechuan, and many of the best, most interesting dishes on the menu are not just spicy — they're incendiary.
China Star is a slight step down, but still worthwhile. It also serves a brand of super-hot Szechuan.
Oh, it's worth going — it's always worth going. it's just insanely expensive, is all.
I've seen a dozen going for $70-80 around the area this summer. A dozen; that's barely enough for two. Add in sides, a couple of drinks, tax and tip, and you're looking at the equivalent of a meal at a fancy, white tablecloth kind of restaurant.
But still … You only live once, and once a season, I think, you can justify or rationalize the splurge on something so local and good.
Interestingly, one of the better crab houses is right in your own backyard — Captain Pell's, on Lee Highway, in Fairfax. Emeril, who's been shooting a TV show at the Whole Foods nearby, has taken his crew there twice already.
Oh, Beauty and Love and all those other things! RW is over, blessed be the weeks end…
Working in a restaurant, I love RW, it gives people the opportunity to come in on a budget and get a view of what all the hype is about. But, working in it, doing sometimes four times the amount of covers we normally do, turning away our regulars because we have already over booked the space, and getting people who's expectations are high, and they walk away not understanding what all the hype is about….
People vow that they use RW to try new places to put on their 'regular' scene list, but how many people actually go back?
And who honestly thinks the RW experience is of relevance to how the Restaurants operate on a day-to-day basis? (Although, we do try).
In my opinion, it is just a really great deal! And who doesn't love that?
One of our regulars snuck in on Friday night and mentioned to me that RW is the equivalent of the sales right before and after holidays in the retail world; everybody wants in, and others steer far, far away from the crowds and chaos.
I have to agree with him. We (restaurants) welcome the rush of people to join us for RW and put all of our systems to the test; as we are all working longer hours, and handling a volume that is enormous (as mentioned, sometimes four times the amount of covers)!
I think all Restaurants do put their best foot forward, and DC diners, should say thank you! Restaurants, Thank You! Patrons, Thank You! RW was a success, and we have all of you to thank. Thank you!
Thanks for your interesting and somewhat conflicted thoughts.
You asked: Who goes back?
It's a fair question. I know a couple, friends of mine, who don't eat out a lot, and who raved to me about an experience this past January at a Top 100 restaurant.
Did they return? Not yet, no.
So that would seem to bear out your point. Except that they told all their friends and acquaintances for months about how good it was, and how they were excited to go back again.
How do you put a price tag on that? I think that that would be extremely valuable to a restaurant, that kind of word of mouth. Who's to say how many customers came out of that unpaid, unsolicited broadcasting?
Thanks for writing in, Arlington.
Willow has gotten knocked about some in the past on this chat. I think it's a better restaurant than some give it credit for — there's a reason it's on our Top 100 — although it's not as enthralling as its many (local) supporters would have you believe.
What happened to service?
By recommendation from your 100 top restaurants of 2008 I took a group to Hank's Oyster bar to celebrate my birthday, which we chose specifically over Henry's because it had outdoor seating. I could understand if it was a crowded Thursday through Sunday, but this was a Tuesday, on a hot, muggy August night, and I didn't make reservations – since it says no reservations in the review.
I have not been so insulted buy a restaurant ever.
First we arrived 15 min before they opened at 5:30 so we waited next door, in fact a server saw us on the patio next door and said – "we're open! Come over!” So we did. Then we sat – and it was off to a bad start.
The first words from our future server were – "you can't do that! You can't push tables together; no groups on the patio and you all must be here to be seated". What a way to greet your table!
He was hardly willing to work with us – he just decided to be bitter about us from the start. And to over hear your server complain that all we would do is sit and order drinks and basically whining about getting a group of customers is a big no, no – at least it was when I was a waitress.
We took up maybe a third of the patio, squeezed 15 of us in to a space that normally seats 8 – so we maximized space for them. I felt like the Gestapo ran the place, because we were then lectured by the manager (so we couldn't really complain to the manager since he was the one lecturing us) that they don't let parties sit on the patio since they tend to stay longer and dinner had to be ordered to sit on the patio.
This after we had ordered several beers, 2 or 3 bottles of wine, a dozen oysters, several other appetizers, and a few entrees was completely insulting. We only noticed 2 parties of 2 the entire time we were there who seemed to have to wait a few min for seating outside.
Bottom line? Parties NOT welcome at Hank’s! I figure if you spend nearly $800 at a place, they should be able to be pleasant. I so often rely on your reviews and haven't been steered wrong before, but I have to say we were so disappointed at the place, and surprised. A possible addition to your reviews could be service for groups/parties.
That's a helluva lot of money to spend to come away with a bad taste in your mouth.
I'm surprised, too. I hear little complaint about Hank's, and none of it has had to do with shabby treatment of its customers.
I'd be interested in hearing from someone over there about this policy.
I had to check out Nava Thai after all the buzz. I left with mixed emotions.
While the Pad Thai was clearly superior to anything in the area, the green curry chicken left something to be desired. The spice was bolder than most but it overwhelmed the subtleties of the basil and coconut milk.
Heat is great but what makes Thai food special is the layer of flavors that evolve with each bite. The green curry at Nava was one-dimensional. Further, the consistency was too thin for my liking.
So, you read what I wrote on the chat, I'm guessing, but not what I wrote in the magazine. Because the curries aren't where the place excels. I tried them, too, and found Nava to be not a lot different from a lot of of other spots. Where it excels, is in the soups, in the pad Thai, in the papaya salad, and in the sorts of street food dishes you don't see other restaurants attempting — the crispy fried mussels with green curry, for instance.
It takes some time to figure some places out, and Nava is one of these.
With Labor Day coming up this weekend, we wanted to end the summer right with a huge seafood feast.
We thought about piling in the car to go to Fairfax or Annapolis but after reading you blog last week about Willoughby's Market in Sandy Spring, we dropped by the store and it was wonderful.
The fresh seafood was beyond our expectations. They had Chilean Sea Bass, Rock Fish, Lobster, Crabs and fantastic Ahi Tuna Eggrolls.
The chef Steve Rudman even came out to give me instructions on how to prepare the fish. So, rather then take that drive, we are going to go back to Willoughby's Market. We can order any type of fresh seafood we want and they will have in ready for pick up the next day. They will even prepare it for us.
This way we can save some gas, avoid the roads, and get the best seafood feast of the summer while relaxing in our own home.
And if you're keeping score, that's two shout-outs now for Willoughby's.
Hey, we've all got restaurants like that — places we drive by and wonder about and yet never think to venture into.
I'd be interesting in hearing about some others …
Me, I have the luxury of chasing down my curiosities, although sometimes my stomach wishes I had left well enough alone; this weekend, in fact, I tried a place I'd driven past for a while now, thinking, well, who knows?
Well, now I know: I will never, ever go back.
Wow. Spectacularly bad. And such simple, simple food, too.
My question why do you think all of your 4 star restaurants are only open for dinner and most of them only 5 days a week. Do you think that helps them?
And does it hurt restaurants like eve who are open every day lunch and dinner, I mean I see those 2 guys at eve all the time(I work in Alexandria and I go to their lunch special at the bar all the time), do you think it would benefit them to only open dinner 5 nights a week?
I wish I had an interesting answer; I don't. My guess would be that only cooking dinner — and only staying open five nights a week — keeps a staff fresher and more focused. But who knows?
The thing I find fascinating is that family-style Asian restaurants stay open seven days a week and go straight through — open at 11 and close at 11, with no break in between.
The menus are generally long — much, much longer than what you tend to see in "Modern American" restaurants — sometimes running to as many as 200 dishes. Compare that, for instance, with the ten or so choices you see at Buck's Fishing and Camping at night.
The chef rarely trots out "our version of." The staff almost never turns over. And the dishes — done the same way for years and years, day after day after day — are mind-numbingly consistent.
I am meeting an out-of-town friend in Dupont Circle for lunch and cupcakes on Friday. We'll go to Hello, Cupcake, of course, but where should we go for lunch?
She says no Greek or Mediterranean. If we go for Thai, which one do you enjoy most in that area? Or, do you have another hidden gem suggestion? Thanks!
There's no Thai in Dupont I can recommend, no.
Too bad about the no Greek rule; Mourayo and Zorba's Cafe would have been great choices.
If I were you, I'd look into Sakana, on P St. Sublime sushi? No. But very consistent, and enjoyable. The rolls are the strength, which makes it a cheaper option than some sushi spots.
For something more expensive and lingering, the new Darlington House — the former, beloved Childe Harold — is promising. Not everything succeeds — occasionally, there are clever ideas that forget the first commandment of cooking, which is to be delicious — but what works, works. The team in the kitchen seems to take pride in its shopping, the effort is clearly there, and the staff, while sometimes uncommunicative, tries hard and wants you to have a good time.
Someone's a faithful reader of The Needle …
It's a really, really special dish, isn't it? If I had to put together a list of twenty great dishes, I think that it'd be on there. It reminds me of a Sunday roast — luscious meat! — only with more depth and power and heat and complexity. And the rambutans give it a nice, subtle sweetness.
Not everything reaches that level, and the kitchen can be inconsistent, but what's good at Rabieng is good, sometimes very good. As for next year … we'll just have to see.
One of my rules of traveling is — follow the culture. Follow the culture, and from there find your way to the cuisine that matters most. Philly is one of the Italian food capitals of the country, and the best of the best, at the moment, are Osteria and Vetri, both from celebrated chef (and James Beard Award winner) Marc Vetri.
The former is more casual, the latter more sophisticated — but those words apply mostly to atmosphere and intention. The cooking at each is full of care and attention, and full of surprise.
You can't go to Philly and not eat a cheesesteak, and the two I like best are Tony Luke's and Cosmi's Deli. Great stuff.
Actually, you've heard most of what I've heard.
Speaking of vines and wines — are we about wine-barred out yet? I'm curious to know, because from the looks of it, the trend refuses to die. The way it's going, every neighborhood will have a wine bar in a year or two.
A few years ago, if it was new, it was some expression or other of ethnic chic — with the story of the chef's farflung explorations of a culture and a cuisine a part of the overarching narrative of the restaurant. Now, it's a wine bar. Or a fro-yo stand. Or a burger joint.
Who's the enterprising restaurateur to come along and attempt to roll all three into one?
I just moved into the DC area about 2 years ago from Austin, TX and have enjoyed indulging myself in Belgian Brasseries (Brasserie Beck), Neapolitan Pizza restaurants (2 Amy's) and excellent, cheap sushi (Kotobuki), however I have yet to discover a replacement to great TX bbq.
Does such a thing exist in the DC metropolitan area? What are my options?
Not great, no.
There's a place called Texas Ribs and Barbecue, in Clinton — that's in Maryland, by the way, for all of you who throw up your arms whenever a Prince George's County city comes up.
My guess, though, is that not only won't it satisfy your craving, but it will make you that much more homesick for the real thing.
It's not Texas-good, but the smoked brisket at KBQ Real Barbecue in Bowie is excellent — and one of the best cheap lunches or dinners in the area (it comes with a side plus cornbread.)
If you get really, really desperate, just know that the legendary Kreuz Market — kreuzmarket.com — delivers.
I believe they're open until 10.
Gives you half an hour to chow down on those excellent chilaquiles (I like mine with red sauce, and with a fried egg and chicken cutlet on top), the tacos (salty beef, tongue and chorizo), the chili relleno and the posole.
Actually, my mouth is watering as I type for a heaping plate of chilaquiles. With a cold bottle of Modelo Especial, and with some vintage Prince (they have a new jukebox) blasting into the dining room.
I'm jealous, D.C. Have a good time tonight, and check back in next week and let me know how the meal turned out .
As for the rest of you — eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
Oh, and stay tuned all this week and next as we reveal the details of something special and unprecedented on this site on September 9th. …
Didn't get your question answered this week? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, September 2 at 11 AM.