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 16, click here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… Ici Urban Bistro (806 15th St. NW; 202-737-8800) replaces Cafe 15, the Sofitel restaurant that was the scene of three-star Michelin chef Antoine Westermann's Washington debut; the marvelous frog lollipops with onion ravioli are long gone, and Westermann now consults for Cafe du Parc.
Formal fine dining is out. Management appears to have sized up the shifting terrain of the city's dining scene — the explosion of small plates, the preponderance of casual but stylish settings — and determined that it must heed these gastronomical imperatives and either adapt or die. The problem is, the restaurant never seems to have decided what, exactly, it is supposed to be in its new incarnation.
The interior has the slick but generic look of high-toned cocktail lounges you see throughout the big cities of America and Europe. It reeks of the boardroom. (Alan Jones, the bartender in the adjacent lounge with the suave, no-BS manner of a '70s era TV detective and a cool, sculpted Afro, almost makes up for this corporate soullessness all by himself).
No longer destination dining, the cooking has succumbed to the cliches of high-end hotel dining: It's expensive, French, and forgettable.
Tuna tartare "nicoise" looks like and tastes like the same pleasant, inoffensive dish you've eaten elsewhere, a leek-and-potato soup is satisfying if unremarkable, and a plate of mushroom-and-chicken crepes (served in a stack, like pancakes, and with a tarragon veloute pooled at the bottom of the plate) come dangerously close to good banquet cooking.
The heart of the menu are the slow-cooked casseroles served in cast-iron pots, including cassoulet, bouillabaisse, and a Provencal-style lamb ragout. From the latter, I expected intense, concentrated flavors, accented with fragrant herbs; what I got was a pot brimming with good things — pearl onions, thick-cut bacon — but the bits of lamb were more chewy than tender, and the broth lacked character. Another entree, a rockfish, was presented with little imagination or conviction, and was as dull a dish as I've eaten in months. …
… In a way, you could chart the ascendancy of Thai food in Washington through "Nick" Kitiphan Srisawat.
Srisawat worked at the Thai Room, the city's first Thai restaurant (now the home of Comet pizza), while he was taking post-graduate classes at American University. In the early '90s, he opened Tara Thai in Vienna, spawning a succession of chains and helping to popularize (detractors might say "Americanize") Thai cooking in the area.
Today Srisawat owns nine restaurants. All are successful. Pana Thai (7224 Muncaster Mill Rd., Derwood, Md.; 301-990-8501) might be the best.
Srisawat, who oversees the kitchen and establishes the recipes at all his restaurants, has installed Chantana Hasayachinda as chef. The cooking has both punch and tang, each keeping the other in check, and the tendency toward sweetness that creeps into dishes at Tara Thai is seldom in evidence.
The standards — crispy rolls and dumplings, curries and stir-frys — are well-prepared and worthwhile, but the best reason to visit Pana Thai is for the handful of dishes you won't find anywhere else, like an appetizer of grilled pork (the meat is marinated overnight, then thrown on the flame until it chars and caramelizes and generally comes to resemble barbecue). Or, like an entree of wild pork, sliced thin and drenched in a red curry strewn with peppercorn strings, a generous allotment of slivered ginger and Thai eggplant.
A twist on kaprow involves a preserved black egg that's been fried until crispy, which is tossed into the usual assortment of minced pork, red pepper and basil leaves, the whole thing coated in a light chili-and-garlic sauce. The black egg is a game-changer, altering the flavors in the stir-fry, funkifying them, and giving the dish a body and a depth it seldom has.
It's a measure of how good Pana Thai is that even a supposed sop to American tastes — the marinated, grilled Crying Tiger Ribeye Steak — tastes as though it was prepared with love and conviction. …
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.
No way to know yet.
It has a name behind it (Art Smith, Oprah's former chef), it has money behind it, and Smith has done well with his Chicago restaurants. But who knows if that'll make for a success here.
I think one thing that has to help the place is its location. Capitol Hill has a slew of places to eat, but not a lot of good ones.
Hey Todd, I'm going to the Shakespeare Theatre on Friday night to see Romeo and Juliet and I wondered if you had any recommendations for a restaurant nearby with a good theater menu.
The show starts at 8–we'll probably try to eat beforehand. Thanks!
Cafe Atlantico does a pre-theater menu, and it's close, but if you're willing to venture just a little bit beyond Penn Quarter — not too far beyond, trust me — then I'd consider Tosca, where you can get three courses for $35.
I think Tosca's got some of the best pastas in the city, maybe the best.
It's about a five-block walk to the theater. Sorry, Michael Kahn — theatre.
Enjoy the show, and let us know how your meal turned out …
Have you ever been to or heard of La Caraquena in Falls Church?
As far as I know it's the only place in the area to have arepas, saltenas, and chilean sandwiches all on one menu. Normally i dismiss restaurants that span entire continents on their menu, but I''ve read good things about this place and I'm anxious to try it.
Any thoughts or insights…
It's funny. I was on my way there a couple of weeks ago when I got held up in traffic, grew frustrated, and bailed.
For what it's worth, I have friends who have been who like the place a lot, and I'm really looking forward to getting there, finally.
The arepas are definitely new to this area, as are the Chilean sandwiches. We have saltenas in abundance. There are really, really good ones at El Pike (Pike Pizza), Luzmilla's, and Llajtaymanta.
I could go for one right about now.
A great saltena, to go along with my warm cup of coffee, Cannonball Adderley on my iTunes, a light breeze in the air …
Lunch time outings, right? Because games are generally during the day — although those 4 o'clockers do tend to stretch into dinner.
There are two spots I can think of that aren't terribly far from you, Vienna.
Liberty Tavern, which landed in the Top 100 last year, has a handsome downstairs bar and simple but generally refined food. It's in Arlington. So is Thirsty Bernie, a sports bar with serious chow (the chef, Jamie Stachowski, cooked at the Top 100 Restaurant Kolumbia).
Also, Bazin's on Church, which is right in your own neck of the woods, tends to keep the flatscreen over the bar tuned to a football game during the season. I think it's expensive for what it is, but there are worthwhile plates to be had, and it's a warm and lively atmosphere.
I'm heading to Charleston, SC to celebrate my mom's 60th birthday. Any suggestions for places to eat? Probably nothing too fancy or too spendy, but otherwise we are adventurous and flexible.
Also, we went to check out Granville Moore's this weekend at your recommendation. Loved the almost secret entrance. The place has a nice neighborhood feel in that dark, rustic room, the food was tasty (esp. the fries, and I’m not usually a fan), and we enjoyed their beer selection.
They could do with more than Stella on tap, and my corvina fish special was pretty skimpy, but we’ll be back to try it again.
If the fried trout — buttermilked, then fried — is on the menu at Granville Moore's, get it. A special dish, for not too terribly much money.
As for Charleston, my short list includes: The Charleston Grille, Fig, Hominy Grille, Boulevard Diner and Jack's Cosmic Dogs (both in Mt. Pleasant), Cru Cafe and Miss Kitty's House of Fine Foods.
Charleston Grille is a splurge, but well worth it (four words for you: chicken fried foie gras).
The rest are eminently swingable for your budget. Fig is small plates, mostly, and very good, with a lot of interesting varieties of fish on the menu. I'd save Hominy Grill for breakfast, brunch or lunch — it shows better at those meals; fabulous — I mean it, FABULOUS — cakes and pies. The test, for me, of great cake is that when you stick your fork into the tip of a wedge, the wedge stays intact; the forked piece doesn't fall over. These cakes all pass the test. This is cake you dream about. They also do scrumptious shrimp n grits, salmon cakes and eggs, and great biscuits.
Go to Jack's for the great corn dogs and moonpie sundae (and for the old-timey atmopshere and Coke in old, small bottles). Boulevard is probably the best bet for Lowcountry cooking that's true and good and also inexpensive. Cru Cafe is the home of the justly famous creamsicle cake — more cake! — and also does well with things like duck confit salad.
You're going to eat well. I hope you come back on when you return and report back on your adventures.
Todd, something seemingly minor but that would be a big help.
Is it possible to have a different font or color for the questions in your chat and the answers?
It is a little confusing to have no distinction between each question/answer…maybe a line between each question/answer? Something that would help if you want to skip a question/answer.
I'll let our terrific online editor, Catherine Andrews, mull this one. Thanks for the suggestion.
I think it'd be great to take it one step further. I'd answer in blue most of the time. But for those special times, we could switch it up — green for sarcasm … yellow for coded, please-read-between-the-lines diplomacy … and purple for don't-mess-with-me hostility.
The colors thing makes me think of Faulkner and his original plan for As I Lay Dying, which was to have different colors of type for the different chapters spoken/voiced by different characters.
This is the age of crazy font books and "meta" run amok — I'm surprised no one has thought to revisit this idea.
Todd, Thanks for taking my question!
DC native here, but in exile in Atlanta… I keep tabs on my beloved city from afar though, and am really interested in the Birsh & Barley/ ChurchKey opening up on 14th street.
Is it really going to have hundreds of beers on tap? It could be the draught version of Brickskeller, which would be awesome. Thanks!
Not hundreds, no no no. More like fifty — which is still a lot. And there'll be about 550 beers, all told.
ChurchKey, in other words, will be a real destination for hop heads. (The restaurant Birch & Barley will be downstairs; the pub, ChurchKey, upstairs.)
Don't expect another Brickskeller, though. Far from it. The look and the vibe and the crowd will be a lot more upmarket.
You've got to go to a Thai restaurant.
The ones that come to mind are at Rincome, in Arlington, Ruan Thai in Wheaton, and Amina Thai in Rockville.
Hope you are having a great day.
I am off to Chicago and besides eating at Lou Malnatti's and Hot Dougs, are there any good mid-priced restaurants worth checking out? Cuisine – no preference.
A friend of mine recommended N9ne Steakhouse, Blackbird, and Tru, but it is way too expensive for me! Thanks!
Mado is one you should look into, and it's not nearly as expensive as Tru. Two could probably eat for under a hundred.
It's casual, atmospheric, jumping, and serves up simple but soulful Mediterranean food — crudos, house-cured meats, and the kitchen's signature dish, a rotisserie porchetta (a pork loin wrapped in pork belly and turned on the spit).
I like it.
Sure. Why not? They're good tools.
Favorite? Probably Twitter. I had a lot of fun using it at Adour.
I like the work they do at Artisan Confections, in Arlington.
Jason Andelman was a pastry chef at TenPenh before opening up his own shop. Take a look at the website — artisanconfections.com
The new-ish chocolatier, Locolat, in Adams Morgan, is excellent, too. They're a cafe in addition to being a shop. You can find them at belgiumlocolat.com
I heard Gillian Clark's new place in Takoma Park will be serving Eastern European/Jewish foods at brunch.
I hope this means a good bagel with lox and cream cheese or even better, blintzes!
I loved Colorado Kitchen and hope the new place will be just as great.
It's true. I just wouldn't count on bagels at brunch. It's a very time-consuming process, the process to make bagels. Blintzes, yes.
Clark has always had a fondness for these foods. She had a knish on the menu at Colorado Kitchen. Some customers didn't know what it was. "What's a nish?" they asked.
Talk of Eastern Europe food reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a friend of mine.
He was bemoaning the lack of delis in the area, a familiar complaint.
What followed will, perhaps, be offensive to some, but I relate it here as a way of stoking a larger conversation.
"This is a city," he said, "full of goy sandwiches."
What, you ask, is a "goy sandwich"? (Remember, I'm only elaborating upon his thinking, here.)
No, not a ham-and-cheese, or a cheeseburger, or any other treyf concoctions. By "goy sandwich," (and really, technically, it would be "goyische sandwich," would it not?) he was referring to the size of the sandwich — to the generosity of the sandwich-maker, the zest of the sandwich-maker.
We had just eaten a couple of sandwiches that were nicely made, all carefully assembled, and with the main component layered so thin you might have missed it. (And no, it wasn't a French place, and no, we weren't eating banh mi.)
I happen to agree with him. I think, generally speaking, a sandwich should be about abundance, it should communicate the joy of the sandwich-maker who put it together for you. The best sandwiches, of this kind, are exuberant concoctions.
He's not, and I'm not, asking for Harold's Deli of Edison, N.J., epics, by the way. (haroldsfamousdeli.com) A sandwich so big you can't eat it until you've separated out the next day's lunch AND dinner? That's just going overboard.
I don't have an answer for you.
Da Domenico is not the kind of place that goes in for local sourcing on meats, so I'm guessing they probably get them from a big, commercial wholesaler.
And they probably have a standing order for the most mammoth veal chops that it's possible to get.
My husband is surprising me with an overnight stay in Annapolis to celebrate our first anniversary. However, as I am food obsessed, he has graciously left the restaurant picking to me.
I'd love to get some great seafood but it doesn't have to be in an upscale atmosphere. I just want the best Annapolis has to offer as neither of us has ever been!
Thoughts? Many thanks.
The best? That would be Cynthia's, which is a short drive away, in nearby Severna Park. It made our 100 Best this past year, and is a good value besides being a good time.
it's run by a husband-and-wife team. Brian Bennington cooks, Cindy Bennington bakes.
Boy, does she bake. There's not a single dud on the menu, and every one of her desserts is terrific. She also does the rolls that start off the meal.
The savories are not quite up to the sweets, but some of them are — the seared foie gras with caramelized peach is as voluptuous and wonderful as foie gras gets, the halibut with corn sauce is terrific, and the duck and the steak are good choices, too.
Go. Enjoy yourselves. And happy anniversary!
And pay no mind to the stripmall setting; the food is leagues beyond its surroundings.
I don't have much disposable income and have always wanted to try places like Komi, Citronelle, and Restaurant Eve.
A friend of mine informed me that some of these type of places offer a more affordable pre-fixe (pre-theatre?) menus.
Do any of these higher end restaurants offer these more affordable menus that we can try and doesn't skimp out on the quality of food compare to their regular more expensive menus?
Thanks for your assistance.
Komi doesn't, but Restaurant Eve has its "Lickety-Split Lunch," two courses for $13.95, and Citronelle has Citronelle Lounge — you sit upstairs, around the bar, and order from a menu that, while it might seem high (and, let's face it, is high), is a lot less expensive than what you'd pay downstairs, in the dining room. Dinner for two at Citronelle can run $350-400 dollars; two for two in the lounge, about $150-200.
I have raved about Rabieng before. But have you ever been to duangrat's market store, right next door.
It's a pretty unremarkable place any day of the week,but on Saturdays they have a small display of locally made thai treats and the desserts are exotic and AMAZING.
If you are a fan of anything with rice/coconut milk/sugar, you should check it out, then head over to rabieng for dim sum thai-style. They have jellied rice flour steamed coconut milk puddings with salted coconut for dipping, as well as steamed coconut custards filled with water chestnuts and young coconut meat. Really awesome stuff.
It's been a while since I've been, but yeah, the dim sum Thai brunch is a good one. It's at Duangrat's, though — not at Rabieng.
Anyway, thanks for jogging my memory.
And I love shopping at the market around the corner. Thanks for the great tip about the desserts on offer on Saturdays. My wife adores Thai desserts. It'll make her day.
How are the restaurants coping up? Has it really affected the washington area?
People say that Washington is recession proof. Are restaurateurs in washington seeing a really drop in sales?
Do restaurateurs cry on your shoulders? If they do – tell them to hang in there… Help is on the way …..Obama / Biden administration will try to fix the mess created in the last 8 years… Cheers!
Cry on my shoulders? Good one!
I think restaurants are bearing up pretty well, considering. I've been impressed with how a lot of places around here are carrying on. It's not easy; this is as bad as I've ever seen it.
Recession-proof? I don't know about that — I know places are feeling it, even the ones that are filled and busy. But I have to think that here's a whole lot better than everywhere else in the country. Think about a place like Detroit. Poor Detroit.
The worst of it is, we don't know what bit of horrific news is going to drop next …
And on that sunny note, I'll sign off for the week. Eat well, everyone, be well, and let's do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, September 30 at 11 AM.