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 September 9, click here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… For those of us who spent far too many nights there, the Childe Harold was that rare thing in a city of neighborhoods but no real bars — a genuine hangout. And we felt proprietary about it, and proclaimed our love more loudly — even as it slid into irrelevance, even as the food went into decline. (The Wild Billy burger, though — filet mignon on an English muffin, with a hollanaise sauce dripping down the sides — remained good, and, in my pre-critic days, my go-to meal after parties or clubbing or catching a Bullets game.)
Many of the veterans, the grizzled characters who clustered around the bar at night, had memories of it from the early days, in the late '60s and '70s, when the Childe Harold rivaled the Cellar Door in importance as a musical venue: Springsteen played there, and Emmylou Harris, and Bonnie Raitt.
By the time I discovered it, in the mid '80s, the Childe Harold, paralleling the arc of its audience, had settled into adulthood and made overtures toward becoming a real restaurant; you could take a table with starched white cloths spread over it in the upstairs of the townhouse, but the soul of the place remained the downstairs, a dark, dingy bar with air so clotted with cigarette smoke it seeped through your pores and your clothes smelled for days afterward.
All of which is to say that when I learned, this past Spring, that Fabio Beggiato, a culinary school instructor, and his wife, Patricia Beggiato, had bought the place and were planning on turning the Childe Harold into an upscale restaurant with a “New American” menu, I reacted as you might reasonably expect any die-hard loyalist to react —
They’re doing what? Do they have any idea what they’re about to destroy? They're gutting my past!
I eased off the ledge, a little, when I first dropped by the place, christened with the name Darlington House (1620 20th St., NW; 202-332-3722), this summer. (Darlington is named for J.J. Darlington, who built the house in 1890, and was a prominent D.C. lawyer.)
I was gratified to see that the split-function of the old place — a casual downstairs (the Beggiatos refer to it as the “cantina”) and a fancier upstairs — had been retained. From the looks of it, the bar (sorry, cantina) had been given a thorough scrubbing, or maybe it’s just that smoking has now been banned in the city — I could actually see in front of me. Still dark, still pubby, it has more character and texture than most of the new crop of hipster hot spots that aim to reproduce character by way of distressed furniture and exposed, damaged brick. The array of flat-screen TVs lends the room a slickness the Childe Harold would not have abided, however, and nudges the bar dangerously close to the line of yuppietude. May it never cross that line.
Upstairs, the space looks as stately-clubby as it always did, though the intent is dramatically different: At the Child Harold, even eating upstairs was more about who you were with and what you were drinking than what you were eating; the chef, Alexander Schulte wants you to engage with what’s on your plate. He made that clear on my first visit when a tiny white spoon (it must have been nuked in advance, because I nearly burned my tongue) containing cubed beets in some kind of a cheese sauce arrived on my plate minutes after I’d placed my order. What was this? An amuse bouche at the Childe Harold? It was like getting a call from an old, dissolute friend and finding out that he’d become an investment banker.
Schulte is a protégé of Beggiato’s, and his resume is studded with some big names; he was an extern at The French Laundry, and worked after that for a time at The Modern, Danny Meyer’s elegant, ambitious restaurant at MoMa. His cooking at Darlington House is meant to show off the good shopping, and the best dishes are built around a handful of ingredients, like a panzanella, a salad of thick, crusty cubes of old bread, with sweet tomatoes, grilled zucchini, and cucumber, or a smooth corn soup, its creaminess ratched up a couple of extra notches by the presence of a poached egg and, inexplicably, avocado, the latter fashioned into tiny balls — green, bobbing dumplings.
Clever, but too often this kind of extraneousness simply gets in the way, and works against the serious, simply focused place that Darlington House can be. Other times, the kitchen seems to try too hard. It wants you to exclaim over its novelty, the surprise of its arrangement or the contrast of its ingredients. One of the starters on the late-summer menu was a plate of sweetbreads, sized and pan-fried like popcorn shrimp, and embellished with cut-up beets and thin slivers of celery. Bad? Not bad. But missing the point about sweetbreads, the chance to showcase, and amplify, their heart-stopping richness and creaminess.
A halibut was cooked perhaps thirty seconds beyond the medium-rare my server assured me the kitchen was capable of producing, but it was undeniably fresh and of high quality, and its cast of complements, a basil-almond croquette, some braised fennel, some snap peas, were smart choices, accenting but never upstaging the fish. At $28, however, the dish begs comparison with some of the better restaurants in the city. No doubt, freshness comes at a cost, but the prices are, at this early stage, a few dollars too high in each category (and the restaurant should consider doing away altogether with its “second course,” a slightly larger appetizer, for $15 each).
The best value, and the highest reward, comes with the pastas. Strigoli, worm-like twists, came dressed in a judiciously applied pesto, and tossed with soft cubes of potato, bits of green bean, slivers of garlic and crushed hazelnuts. Gnocchi were hefty, not dainty, and all the better for it, sauced with honshiimeji mushrooms, tomatoes and spinach.
Dessert at this point is worth skipping; a disc of peach-cornmeal cake ringed with a raspberry caramel sauce and garnished with caramel corn, one of pastry chef Monika Padua’s sweets, dramatized the problem of cleverness and extraneousness that dogged a few of the savories. “Darlington donut,” a homemade donut, served flat, against the plate, glazed with spiced chocolate, and surrounded by small, melting scoops of ice cream, was a weird mess, the kind of thing you’d no doubt praise from an experimenting home cook, but which in a restaurant comes across as amateurish. A simple lime panna cotta, meanwhile, was stiff, not jiggly. Stick with coffee or a liquer.
Darlington House lacks a certain polish, despite the prices, and despite its obvious ambitions for itself. And yet that lack of polish doesn’t detract from the good time you can have here; it’s not a fatal flaw. The place tries hard, sometimes too hard, on the plate, but it also tries hard in other respects. The wine list is small and unadventurous, but you can find a glass of something to drink for well under $10 if you want. The servers make mistakes, but are ingratiating and gracious. The atmosphere in the dining room has a relaxed, easy air, and no doubt explains why the restaurant has acquired so many regulars already. In a way, that lack of polish is reassuring, a reminder, to this Childe Harold loyalist, at least, that the old place, though done away with, is not forgotten. …
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 live feed from Adour was fun last week, and the spastic and somewhat mysterious comments kept me intrigued.
I’m anxiously awaiting the first time you will do this with a small microphone and camera in your tie clip…
It sounds like the meal hit its high point at dessert. For those of us who aren’t ready to shell out the dough for the whole meal, is there a bar or someplace there where we could stop in for drink and dessert, or is it not that kind of place?
Thanks! I had a blast doing it, and was shocked to discover, as a NY blog later pointed out, that I'd typed over 2,000 words over the course of the night.
To answer your questions — you can drink at the bar at The St. Regis, though I'm not sure whether you could order dessert. And to me, yeah, it's not the sort of place, right now, that you shell out for. Where you are shelled out for, absolutely.
Anyway, back to the night itself, since I've gotten so many emails in addition to yours this past week, wondering why I did it and what I thought I was trying to accomplish by doing it.
Mostly I just thought it might be fun for some of the readers who regularly follow my scribblings to have dinner with me — the obvious drawback for me being that I didn't have as much of a connection with my meal as I ordinarily do.
It was an experiment, and I hope to get better at it — only 140 characters at a time can be hard, if you have something to say — but I think it was worth applying the new technologies. Blogs and message boards upped the ante where immediacy is concerned, and I don't think anyone can argue that this goes mighty steps beyond that.
The question, and it's something I wrestled with, is whether this kind of a thing is worth doing — beyond the novelty of it, I mean.
I think it is. It's not meant to displace the other kinds of reviewing I do. It's an add-on, a bonus.
And so much attention was given to the curiosity of this that I think some people may have missed the fact that our coverage was in two parts. Part two was the tag-team reviews from me, Cynthia Hacinli and Ann Limpert, in which we had a chance to sift through and think about our impressions from night one. That, to me, was part of the novelty of this, too. I've never seen something like that before.
I'd have to think Rocklands, in Glover Park, would do it. Or Old Glory, in Georgetown.
Rocklands would be my first choice — which isn't to say that Rocklands would be my first choice for 'cue in the area. Not even close. I love the smell the place gives off when you walk in, that mouth-watering wood-smoke smell, and the sides are often good, but the ribs and pulled pork have always disappointed me.
Had a fantastic dinner at Vidalia, the food on par with Eve, Komi and Cityzen.
Wine pairings with their tasting menu were spot on. The five course tasting is one of the best values in the city.
The dinner ended up seven courses with sparkling wine to start. My question is why are they not on your list of restaurants of a food critic? I even heard that they have a 3 course lunch for 25 bucks hell thats better then all the mediocre restaurants during restaurant week.
They're on the 100 Best list, and in the top 10, at that. I think Vidalia is terrific.
By "my list," you're talking about the 20 restaurants I've picked to feature on my chat, I'm guessing. That list is highly personal and idiosyncratic, and not really intended to be an objective, broad-based survey — I'm simply offering up the places I find myself pining for, places that I want to get back to, and soon. In keeping with my tastes and enthusiasms, I wanted to include the high and the low, too.
Vidalia is one of those places; it just didn't make it on to the current list. I'll be changing the list soon, to reflect my changing enthusiasms and the changing moment, so stay tuned …
There's Inti, and there's Las Canteras, both in Adams Morgan. And both are fine.
If you're willing to drive — in other words, if you define DC as the DC area — then you're in luck.
La Flor de la Canela in Gaithersburg, and its sister, La Canela, in the Rockville Town Center are both really good. Wide-ranging menus, sophisticated dining rooms, and good, sometimes very good, cooking. I love the aji de gallina at La Flor de la Canela, shredded hen mixed with an egg sauce, and the canary beans are sublime. Good anticuchos, too — marinated, grilled beef hearts.
Even better are the beef hearts at La Limena, which looks like a fast food joint (and is priced like one, too) but eats like a proper restaurant. Terrific ceviche, too.
I completely disagree with you about the so-called proliferation of wine bars.
To me, a single 40+ woman who loves wine, hates smoke and prefers not to meet first dates in a bar, there are not enough of them.
Can you come up with a list of your favorites in the Metro area? thanks!
Good points. I hear you.
I do think that a lot of what you're seeing, though, is places that want to be wine bars, that stock wines and put together grazing-type menus, but don't really understand what a wine bar is supposed to be, and don't really put much thought into what they're doing.
With density, and the kind of duplication that comes from trend-following, you see a lot of good things, but you also see some half-hearted copy cats. At its worst, you can come away thinking that some restaurateurs believe a wine bar is a cheap and easy concept restaurant.
There are, though, as I said, a lot of good ones. We have a big, long piece about the area's wine bars coming out in the October issue — out next week — but in the meantime, I'll drop a few I really like: Evo Bistro in McLean; Proof in Penn Quarter (I know, I know — it's not strictly a wine bar; but it has the soul of one); Cork on 14th St.; and Veritas in Dupont Circle.
I have. And yes, it's a huge improvement.
I disliked the old Teatro immensely, with its big, overrich dishes, every one of which, it sometimes seemed, given a finishing drizzle of truffle oil. It was sloppy food for flashy spenders — sloppy but expensive, the worst kind.
The new chef, Enzo Fargione, has done a good job of curtailing these excesses, and from what I've seen so far, he respects his ingredients and he respects his customers.
I'll have more on the place, soon, I promise. Stay tuned.
(One thing that needs to change is the wine list, studded with a lot of the big, heavy wines that the old Goldoni used to sell, but which no longer go with the lighter, cleaner, and more supple food. They're also served too warm and too cold.)
Maybe if we were to put together a Top 200. Maybe.
Long-time reader, second-time chogger here.
I'm getting married in D.C. in November, and am trying to find a suitable place for a rehearsal dinner. A simple enough task, it may seem, but a number of conditions have greatly complicated it.
1. it must be able to seat a party of ~ 20 (and, thus, must take reservations)
2. it must be somewhat infant/toddler friendly (there will be one 9-month old in attendance)
3. it must be Metro accessible (and preferably in DC, although Arlington would be OK as well)
4. it must be reasonably priced (ideally kept to $25-30/pp; most people do not drink, which will help)
5. must not be Asian/Indian cuisine (my fiancee's family is Chinese; most of the other meals that weekend will be Asian, and our wedding will be an Indian buffet)
The kinds of places that come to my mind that fit all of these criteria (something like Buca di Beppo) are fine for what they are, I suppose, but we'd prefer something a bit more… special/memorable. Our families aren't the most adventurous eaters in the world, but I don't think there's any type of cuisine that's off limits (except for #5 above).
Here's hoping that I haven't completely stumped you…
Wow, this IS tricky — especially the no-Asian stipulation.
And what you don't say, but which you are no doubt hoping is, it must be good. And good and cheap and child-friendly and accommodating and Metro accessible are really, really difficult in DC. Nay — impossible.
The place I'm thinking is Harry's Tap Room, in Clarendon. I think they could meet all your qualifications (I'd call them about fitting in the party of 20, though) and I think you'd have a good time, too.
Otherwise, I'm drawing blanks. Anyone out there got any other ideas?
Meantime, congratulations, D.C., and I'm honored you'd think of consulting me for such a special occasion …
I realize the website is the Washingtonian, but I am going to Philadelphia this weekend wondered if you had some suggestions.
We're open to any cuisine or price point! Thanks!
You're in luck — though you'll have to make another click. I talked about my recs — high and low, but mostly Italian, whatever the level — for Philly a few weeks back, in this same space.
Enjoy yourself, and be sure to drop in next week and let us in on your eating adventures.
I think it depends on who you're talking to.
In my book, 50 bucks for an entree is ALWAYS a problem, no matter what city it is.
I read on the Washingtonian that Ceiba is offering free corkage all month if you bring a bottle of wine. However, this isn't posted on their website. Do you know if this is true? Thanks!
Many restaurant websites are very slow to update their pages. Trust the mag.
My sister and I are heading to New York for theater and other fun next weekend (9/19).
I was hoping you could provide some suggestions for moderately priced dining — we'll be stationed in the Theater District but are happy to travel for good food! Lunch and dinner suggestions appreciated. Thank you very much.
In the theater district, I like Esca, for good fish and seafood and regional Italian cooking.
For an intimate, sensual meal, the sort of thing it's so hard to find in any city, there's Prune, in the East Village. Terrific spot, one of my favorite restaurants in the country, and a place you can eat well in for under $100 for two. It's unmistakably a New York restaurant, with a New York crowd, but it has the soul, and soulfulness, of a good Paris bistro. Wonderful pan-fried sweet breads, marrow bones with toast, sardines on Wheat Thins with mustard (yep, that's it, that's the dish), a fabulous apple tart tatin … I'm getting hungry just typing this.
For something cheaper, there's the Fatty Crab and Kampuchea Noodle Bar — the former, upscaled Malaysian food, the latter, upscaled Cambodian food, although these descriptions don't quite do them justice. Both are excellent.
And, if you can get in, there's Momofuku and Momofuku Ssam Bar — tiny, cramped, hipster-haunted temples to the glory of the pig.
My wife and I are somewhat new to the area. We have three kids, and tonight we have the luxury of having a sitter for after they go to bed.
I would like to take my wife out for some drinks and appetizers in DC. Any recommendations?
Lucky you! I know now how hard that is to come by. For that reason, I feel an extra sort of pressure, to make sure you have a great time — a memorable time.
I've got a few suggestions for you. Vidalia if by drinks you're thinking wine — the list of wines by the glass is fantastic, maybe the best in the city; and the cooking is stellar.
The bar at Blue Duck Tavern mixes a terrific, and strong, drink, and there are a lot of things to choose from on both the bar menu and the list of appetizers.
I think Westend Bistro would be a good pick, too — particularly for the food: mini-fish burgers, salmon rillettes, puff pastries filled with pate, etc.
Hope that helps, and I'd love to hear back from you next week about how things went … Enjoy yourselves, and try to resist that urge to reach for the cell to check with the babysitter …
Had a terrific meal at Bistro Bis on Saturday night. Unfortunately it took almost 3 hours. I am a 2 hour dinner person so we won't be going back.
Too bad, because the food was wonderful! But noisy!
Three hours? That's nothing — perfectly in keeping with the pace of most fine dining restaurants. (And for me, pretty par for the course.)
If I'm spending that kind of money, I don't want a meal to end in less than three hours, which is one of my quibbles with dining at the Inn at Little Washington, where dinner is such a tightly choreographed affair that it's possible to be in and out in less than 2 1/2 hours.
I think it's really, really wrong of you to call Bis to task for this — shamefully wrong. I'm sorry, if you wanted to be in and out in two hours, then it was up to you to let them know to pick up the pace. Why wouldn't a restaurant that aims to deliver an exquisite experience, as Bis does, make the assumption that you were there to enjoy yourself and linger and let the meal run its natural course?
So I was invited to a preview meal at the new Founding Farmers "green" restaurant in Foogy Bottom.
What kind of food should I expect? The website doesn't list the menu yet, but I'm excited to try it out. Have you heard any buzz on this place?
I actually don't know what to expect. I just hope that the new owners don't think that "green" and "local" are simply trendy notions, good to invoke for the sake of buzz, and not starting points to building a real, legitimate restaurant that is part of its community and has a foundation and a soul and conveys to the diner a sense of passion and purpose.
Go, and then come back on next week and share some of your impressions with us …
i thought I offered my objective point of view in my scorecard — or Adour-card — on this site last week.
I don't want to speak to Adour vis a vis the tanking economy. I'm interested, and really, only interested, in seeing if it can live up to its promise of being the best, most exquisite restaurant in the city. That promise, I should add, was never verbalized, but it doesn't need to be, not when perhaps the most decorated chef in the world is in charge.
I enjoy reading this magazine, but I never see any good mexican restaurants mentioned. Maybe I just miss those articles.
Can you make any recommendations? Have mexican will travel.
That might be because there aren't a lot of really good ones. Believe me, we're looking — we're ALWAYS looking.
The best are in Riverdale, in an area called Little Mexico — La Sirenita, El Tapatio, Super Chicken, Pollo Fiesta. Really good stuff, really cheap, and worth the drive, I think, if you've grown tired of the same-old, same-old procession of over-cheesed plates that all taste like variations on a single theme.
I too had the priviledge of dining at Adour last Tuesday on its grand opening.
After a thoroughly delicious meal we decided to top our evening off with a cheese plate. This was without a doubt the most delicious cheese plate I have ever tasted. The cheeses were unusual and really first rate.
They were served with more of the wonderful bagette that started the meal and also with 4 delicious and varied condiments ( I wish I could remember the names of all of the cheeses and condiments.) Add this to the fact that we also enjoyed desserts (alot) ,we left happily stuffed and looking forward to dropping into the bar soon again to enjoy a beautiful glass of wine and this terrific cheese plate.
Thanks for the report.
We had three critics in the house on opening night, and covered nearly the entirety of the menu, but cheese was the one thing that nobody ordered.
A really excellent cheese plate is a hard thing to find.
One of the reasons I like Per Se so much, is because it puts so much thought into this course — the mere fact it thinks of cheese as a course is telling; you're not simply presented with a selection of cheeses to choose a few slices from — cheese is integrated, memorably, into a simple, stunning dish, a dish that shows off the cheese to full advantage.
I also love that the sommelier is willing to consider beer — beer! — to pair with it. That's imagination. And guts.
If you ever get to NY (3 locations), try Dinosaur BBQ. The taste is delicious and the pork ribs they use are chock full of meat. I cannot find a rib in DC like Dinosaur.
What would be your pick of the best rib in town?
Best ribs — Johnny Boy's, in La Plata.
But best, closer in, are the ribs at KBQ Real Barbecue, in Bowie. Worth the trip.
In your endless eating, professional of course what do you miss the most?
What cuisine do you think is under-represented in Dc and surrounds.
Really simple things — a simple burger, a really good egg salad sandwich, that sort of thing.
Under-represented? Boy, there are a lot of things I'd like to see:
I'd like to see more delis, and good delis, I'd like to see very high-end sushi bars, I'd like to see noodle shops, I'd like to see more Mexican restaurants (regional Mexican restaurants, with ambitious restaurateurs and chefs fronting them), I'd like to see more Moroccan places …
And that's just off the top of my head.
Anyway, it's time to run — lunch calls.
I hope you have a good rest of the week — eat well, and let's do it again next week …
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, September 23 at 11 AM.