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 26, click here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… Much of the restaurant buzz being generated by and about Hyattsville has centered on the stretch of Rte. 1 being developed by EYA, including a 9,000 square foot Busboys and Poets and another branch of Tara Thai, both set to bow sometime next year in the city's historic downtown — an area christened an arts district several years ago. The restaurants will set up shop just north of Franklin's Restaurant, Brewpub and General Store, and are expected to form, with the veteran Franklin's, the spine of a new and vibrant row of stores, restaurants and galleries. But two newcomers have emerged in the last couple of months that reside on the margins of historic Hyattsville, small mom-and-pops that provide the best evidence yet of a nascent restaurant scene.
At Shagga Coffee and Restaurant (6040 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville; 240-296-3030), husband-and-wife owners Adamu and Kelem Lemu have transformed a former Donut Connection into one of the area's best outposts of Ethiopian cooking.
Coffee is the centerpiece of the business, and in the early weeks of the business, when Kelem had yet to get the kitchen up and running, it was the only draw. The bean of choice is Caffe Pronto, from Annapolis — the same coffee that Komi serves. Shagga makes a good, strong cup — strong, but not overroasted — and has already siphoned away a number of customers from the nearby Starbucks.
The menu is small — it pays to remember that "coffee" precedes "restaurant" on the sign outside. (About that sign: Shegga means good, or beautiful, in Amharic; while the menu lists the name of the place as "Shegga," the sign says Shagga, and may continue to for a while, until Adamu and Kelem get a new sign.)
But you don't look to Ethiopian restaurants for great variety or innovation. What Shagga does, it does well.
That includes the sambusas, crispy, three-corned pastries filled with spiced lentils or, in one version, chicken and veggies. Initially, Shagga was giving them out to regular customers with a cup of coffee, an inducement to try the cooking when the kitchen finally was ready for business. Now there is kitfo and special kitfo (a particularly robust and soft-textured rendition of the Ethiopian beef tartare, with sides of cottage and the incendiary, brick-colored spice mitmita ), doro wat (a fiery, concentrated wat very nearly the color of a Mexican mole, with a leg of tender, not stringy, chicken) and several iterations of tibs. All these dishes come with two vegetable sides — an Ethiopian version of meat-and-two that other restaurants would be wise to emulate. The best of these are the kik alicha, a sweet yellow lentil stew with a soft, almost creamy consistency, and the mesir wat, a spicy, thicker-textured stew made from red lentils.
Soon, the couple promises, there will be more than just breakfast sandwiches, pastries and bagels to go with a cup of morning coffee. In the next few weeks, Shagga will be debuting kinche, a sort of cross between grits and oatmeal — in this case, crushed wheat mixed with kibe butter. …
… One of the few unknown quantities to have moved into the new University Town Center mixed use development, Wild Onion (6504 America Blvd., Hyattsville; 301-209-0630) shares space in a strip of shops that includes a Gifford's and an Original Soup Man (the restaurant that inspired the legendary Soup Nazi episode of "Seinfeld" and spawned a slew of franchises). Among the restaurants nearby: a Five Guys, Qdoba, Carolina Kitchen, and Three Brothers
Easily the most distinctive of these eateries, this eat-in/take-out operation is also the best, and ought to be a draw not just for locals but for any diners looking for quality take-out or an affordable night out.
To the uninitiated, Wild Onion doesn't appear all that promising, featuring as it does a "build-your-own" salad/sandwich station, a hot foods counter and a prepared foods fridge. But the owner and chef, Rasheed Abdurrahman, is a Culinary Institute of America grad and an alum of the kitchen at Kinkead's. He buys organic, humanely raised meats — he's moving toward an all-organic roster of veggies and fruits, too — and his cooking is filled with the sort of smart, distinguishing touches that food lovers tend to notice.
Abdurrhaman describes what he produces as the "kind of food people would fix if they had the time." I think that's being far too humble.
This is the age of the dumbed-down cookbook recipe, and most people, even if they had the time, would not be able to make a shrimp salad as good as this one, the shrimp poached just long enough to retain their pop and then coated lightly in a mayo dressed up with ribbons of tarragon, or a well-dressed seared tuna salad with crisp baby green beans and roasted red peppers.
I would describe the place this way: Wild Onion is a more modest-minded Eatzi's — an Eatzi's without the pretension.
If nothing aspires to Cuisine, as the cooking at the eat-in/take-out Eatzi's sometimes did, then nothing really misses the mark, either. Abdurrahman has been loath to show his entire repertoire with business off to such a slow start, nearly everything I have tried in the first few months has been terrific.
The signature dish might be the mac 'n' cheese, so good it surpasses the excellent version at Oohhs & Aahhs (the secret: a really good bechamel). But there are also great jerk chicken wings, a consistently good rotisserie chicken, and the kind of chocolate chip cookie I dream about — crispy-chewy, wonderfully buttery, with lots of good chocolate chips and more than a hint of brown sugar. …
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.
Finally, I wanted to pass along some news about a great new project — one you can feel good about, as well as taste.
Starting November 1st, and going through December 31st, you will be able to buy frozen food dishes from six DC chefs — Michel Richard, Jeff Buben, Nora Pouillon, Kaz Okochi, Jose Andres, and Roberto Donna — at area grocery stores (including, it's expected, Safeway and Giant; only Pouillon's dish will be available at the organic-minded Whole Foods).
All the ingredients for the dishes are being sourced from local suppliers and farmers, and most of the proceeds — 97 percent, according to Burger Joint's Mark Bucher, a force behind the project — will go to DC Central Kitchen.
The dishes are intended to feed two, and will be priced at $14.99. "The goal behind this," Bucher told me, "is to make it more affordable for folks to by holiday family meals for less money than purchasing raw material and ingredients and trying to make it on their own."
The dishes: striped bass with wild mushrooms (Richard); shrimp 'n' grits (Buben); an all-organic meatloaf (Pouillon); Asian short ribs (Okochi); chicken sofrito with caramelized apples (Andres); butternut squash-filled raviolini (Donna). …
Welcome, Santa Monica!
The place you're describing is Notti Bianche — right there in Foggy Bottom (you can walk to it from nearby hotels), Italian cooking, expensive but not too expensive.
I hope that works for you and the gang. …
Getting a question right out of the box from the opposite coast reminds me … where did everyone go for the long Labor Day weekend? And more important — where and what did you eat?
The highlight, for me, was chowing down on a pit-smoked ham sandwich with homemade barbecue sauce and thin-sliced onions yesterday at the Greenbelt Labor Day Festival. A great festival, and a great sandwich, and I got to enjoy both with my folks and my (new) family.
Believe me, I know your circumstance — I've got a sixth-month-old, too.
The baby-friendliest of those is Johnny's Half Shell — the great, clattering din helps, a lot — but it's not open on Sunday. Saturday it is, and if you don't mind moving your dining day up one day, I'd do it. It's the baby-friendliest by a lot.
If Sunday it has to be … Well, Palena isn't open, but both Blue Duck and Central Michel Richard are, and I think, where baby is concerned, Central's probably the better choice.
I hope that helps, and be sure to drop by again and let us know how things turned out …
By the time he has finished responding my question of where to eat with “How about Nava Thai?” I am famished, even if I have just eaten.
About halfway there the anxiety sets in as I decide which dish(s) I am going to order—which of my very favorite dishes will I get, and which will be missed. How can I possibly try something new when it would mean going without the dishes I dream of?
I have almost reached a sheer panic once I have the menu in my hands…and with exact predictability I narrow it down to the krapow vegetables, a collage of crisp veggies of yellow, orange, purple, red, and green, with chili peppers and fried holy basil leaves in an earthy and sauce with fiery punch I want to lick from the plate. Then I try to not stare at the kitchen and listen for tell-tale signs of the drunken noodles coming out in their messy, almost-burned but so incredible you can’t believe anyone can make this happen with noodles delight. The smoky, searing, black-flecked gravy is so perfectly balanced I can’t stop moaning until I get “that look” from my dining partner.
This place is like my temple I visit to worship food with the burning tip of my tongue. I love this place, thank you for suggesting many places to eat in the last years, but especially for bringing me to Nava Thai!
Very, very purple of you, Cheverly, and yet I really can't fault you. Nava's that good. I'm glad you like it, glad you're such a fan.
By the way, I'm reminded by this over-the-top paean to Nava to tell you that we will again be having another contest — I'll announce it in a couple of weeks. The gift certificate will again be dinner for two at one of the top restaurants in town.
I also want to take the opportunity to urge you to tune in to the web site a week from today, beginning at 5:30, for what we believe will be something very weird and wonderful. More details to come this week …
Tell you what: You tell me the name of your grandfathers, and I'll tell you the name of mine.
We had irritating valet parking experiences this past weekend.
Saturday night at Corduroy we were charged $9 to valet park our car. Admittedly, we noticed that there was ample street parking but were feeling lazy and someone else was paying.
When we left the restaurant, we saw that the car was parked across the street, in a free spot.
Sunday morning we had breakfast at Cafe du Parc. We eat there often, but never had been there for breakfast. When you go for dinner, they validate your parking and it is free. We were pretty shocked, that despite spending over $100 for breakfast for 5 people, that they do not validate parking and we had to pay $20.
Again, partially our fault for just assuming they'd validate, but that seems steep.
Thankfully, the parking issue was our only complaint about two otherwise wonderful meals.
Twenty bucks for parking is beyond steep — I'd say it's vaguely criminal. That policy needs to change; that's a real demerit for an otherwise fine restaurant.
As for your story about parking at Corduroy … I've had this happen to me many, many times. You toss the keys to the valet, only to find that your car is right there — right in front of the door — when you walk out from dinner.
But really, what can you say or do? Valets look for whatever spot they can find, and that's the spot they found. It just happened to be right there in front of you.
Once — funny story — a valet simply would not hear of it when I told him I could just take the keys and get the car myself, since it was parked twenty yards from the door of the restaurant. No, no, he said, it is my job. My job is to bring your car to you, if I give you the keys, then I am not doing my job, am I? How could I say no? I watched, in amazement, as he fired up the engine and drove the car the twenty yards to where I was standing, then hopped out as though it was nothing unusual at all.
(Why the italics for no real good reason? I've probably been reading too much Rick Moody and Aleksandar Hemon.)
Darn you and your rightness! I tried Ravi Kabob II on Saturday night instead of doing the usual pizza or Chinese take-out. The lamb kabob was amazing! The flavor of the lamb was really suprising! I love the bread, the peas, the rice, all of it!
I'm a confirmed addict!
Join the club!
I was at Ravi Kabob II last week, myself — I'd missed the turn to the restaurant I was supposed to be hitting, saw the sign for Glebe Rd. and the first thought that popped into my head was: Ravi!
Next time, you need to try a karahi — the same succulent kabob meat, tossed into a handleless wok (Pakistan, remember, is a border state) with garlic, thin strips of ginger, tomatoes, and lots of chilis. Amazing dish.
And yeah, I love that no matter how crowded they are, or how empty, you will always get a hot, fresh round of naan. And good naan.
Also, don't miss the Lahori choley, the curried chickpeas. Good enough to eat as a meal all by themselves.
I thought so too. I think we all thought that.
Donna, you may recall, was expected to return to DC last September, and I know that Adamstein & Demetriou, the architecture firm, was working on the space. Now? Who knows?
I keep hearing a return is imminent, but I've been hearing "imminent" for more than a year. Elba — er, Crystal City — is turning out to be more permanent than temporary.
Good to hear.
And what's wrong with Ashburn? Heck, the Skins practice in Ashburn. American Flatbread's in Ashburn. Nothing wrong with Ashburn.
Talk like that, Logan Circle, and you only aid and abet a certain someone who lurks here every week (but who, blessedly, you only hear from now and again) who has got it in his head that besides Arlington and Alexandria and Falls Church and Fairfax City (which, for the purposes of this "exercise," don't count) we don't like Virginia, no sirree.
I've lived in DC for nearly 15 years and have only been to the Virginia "wine country" once — a tasting at Linden Vineyards followed by dinner at the Inn at Little Washington (a treat).
Can you recommend great vineyards for tastings near a great restaurant for dinner in VA WIne Country? Many thanks!
How about this?
Tastings in and around Charlottesville at Barboursville (I love their Cab Franc), DelFosse (Claude DelFosse is pouring tastes of a tremendous reserve Chardonnay), Veritas (love the Mousseux), Horton and Blenheim. Five of the best, I think, in the state.
Then, dinner afterwards at Oxo (continental), Mas (tapas) or Ten (sushi).
Question about Michel Richard's frozen meal.
I vaguely remember seeing (or reading) awhile back that he was developing a line of frozen home-meal-replacements that were to be sold in pouches and designed to be reheated sous-vide style in warm water.
So are these meals they are selling for charity using this technique? Did that project ever go anywhere?
But from what I understand, they're not intended to be reheated sous-vide style (after all, who has sous vide at home?) but they are, or some of them are, being cooked using sous-vide.
As for that other, talked-about project of Richard's, this is not that.
I haven't, no. I'm hoping to get there soon.
I did send someone on my staff, who, I can report, came back happy and impressed.
It's interesting. This is not a town you tend to think of as having good Greek food — you tend to think of Baltimore for that — but if you look, it's there. Zorba's Cafe. Athens Grill. The Greek Deli, for what it is. Mykonos Grill. Athena Pallas. Vaso's Kitchen. Mourayo, for more modern, refined Greek.
And, of course, Komi — which is not, strictly speaking, a Greek restaurant, but which makes brilliant use of many Greek ingredients (Greek yogurt, haloumi, olive oils) and Greek techniques (spit-roasting), and which embodies the spirit, the zestiness — the joyousness — that you find in great Greek cooking.
So given that you don't think curries are Nava Thai's strength, where do you recommend to go for green curry chicken- my current fav? I've had renditions at Nava, Sala Thai, and Nark Kara, all pretty good. Thanks!
I don't think they're the strength, no, but I still think they're pretty good — and actually, the Panang curry with pork is more than pretty good; it's very good.
For green curry, though, I think you ought to pay a visit to Ruan Thai, right around the corner from Nava.
Nark Kara does a good one. I haven't thought about which is better, Nark Kara or Ruan, because I haven't had the opportunity to sit down and compare them.
I also like the green curry at Thai X-ing, right around the corner from Howard University Hospital.
Oh, and there's a newish place in Derwood, called Pana Thai, that has pretty good food. I haven't had the green curry there yet, but it might be worth investigating.
Let me know which of these you try, Bethesda — I'll be curious to hear what you think.
Meantime, I'm off to a light lunch and then on to a less-light dinner.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
(And stayed tuned for more details all this week about the big happening around here next Tuesday … )