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 23 click here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… A customer at Hummingbird to Mars last night wondered if it would be a hassle for Derek Brown to go off menu — to have the cocktail specialist whip him up something that the clipboard roster of a dozen drinks didn't list.
"There's no such thing as a hassle — everything's a hassle," Brown said. It had the ring of a defining phrase, and Brown, acknowledging its limitations, was quick to add, "Not quite as catchy as: 'Where everybody knows your name.'"
Perhaps, but I doubt that the folks at places like Cheers, or any other bar in America, are drinking as well as a couple friends and I did.
Hummingbird to Mars is a new-age speakeasy. New-age, in that the place doesn't keep regular hours (as at P/X in Old Town Alexandria, customers are advised to watch the blue light on the menu board outside Bourbon, on 18th St. in Adams Morgan) and the cocktails are devised by bartenders who quantify and classify brands of rum and gin with the ardor of defensive coordinators breaking down film, and who love to experiment with infusions and sizings of ice.
This devotion to craft has earned its practitioners, like Brown and his moonlighting partners Justin Guthrie and Owen Thompson, the designation "mixologist" — a term I disdain, its arch loftiness at odds with the job of tending bar. But the craft cocktail movement is real, and it appears to have the ingenuity and force to push past faddishness. Hummingbird to Mars is one of the best examples of the promise of the movement. The lack of kitsch is refreshing. So is the lack of self-consciousness. What animates the operation is an artisan-like seriousness — the devotion to doing a thing right. Brown, Guthrie and Thompson are fanatical about details, which means no harsh edges and an uncanny balance and smoothness in nearly every drink. It means rice-sized chips of ice (stabbed, in front of you, from a long, crystalline block with a pick) in a cocktail called "Satan's Whiskers," a classic made with dry and sweet vermouth, Plymouth gin, Grand Marnier and orange juice. It means showing off a hard-to-find mezcal from Oaxaca called Del Maguey Minero to full advantage, submerging it beneath a Pisco Sour-like egg white foam to mellow its smokiness.
Two sips into the drink, called Los Rudos, I found myself craving a bowl of chips and salsa. Halfway through I started fantasizing about drinking one with a plate of enchiladas drenched in mole, the smoky, chocolatey sauce that also derives from Oaxaca.
Alas, there were no nibbles to be found. Not even a pinch bowl of nuts. (As the night wore on, and the drinks made us ravenous, we took a sort of perverse comfort in knowing that we could find a jumbo slice, that anti-artisanal product, within hailing distance.)
That's one problem, a small one.
The bigger problem? Hummingbird to Mars will ruin you forever after for the quickie, cookie-cutter cocktails you find everywhere else. …
… Doraku Restaurant and Lounge (7820 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-7851), which moved into the former Cafe Europa space, on the hot corner of Norfolk and Fairmont, comes on like a lot of other new sushi places these days.
The renovation has transformed the interior, which has the sleek lines and moody lighting of an Asian restaurant that badly wants to be a late-night hotspot. Gone is the aging audience of diners who were willing to tolerate middling food so long as it was middling French food. The crowds are young and fashionable, until it gets late, at which point they get younger and more fashionable.
You may find yourself thinking that Doraku is another one of those places that's perfectly happy to seduce people into believing that sushi is not "Japanese" or even "Asian" but simply "trendy." (Trendy has no particular nationality or pedigree.)
But Doraku is more interesting than that. The sushi is fine — attractively presented, well-carved, and generally of good quality — and, to its credit (especially in Bethesda) reasonably priced. The strength is probably the rolls, which, unlike at a lot of places these days, are not so densely packed with disparate ingredients that you can't taste anything.
The best thing on the menu, though, is the bi bim bap, which is served tableside, in an iron crock — a bit of theater that actually surpasses that of seeing a whole fish deboned while you wait. You get to watch as a waitress first cracks an egg and stirs it into the hot rice and vegetables and strips of beef, then spoons in a tiny bit of hot sauce. The kitchen is wise to the importance of the rice-crust that develops at the bottom of the pot, and the staff is instructed to take care to churn this crunchy, golden layer without breaking it.
The night I ordered it, the waitress could hardly contain her excitement as she prepared it for us. Checking back in a few minutes later, she didn't even wait for our appraisal. "Isn't it awesome? I love it!"
It was. And just as awesome, was that a slick and trendy spot would think to put such a homey, humble dish on its menu in the first place. And that it would be served up by a waitress who exuded such untrendy enthusiasm and warmth that she might have been working for a scruffy mom-and-pop. …
The Current List: 20 Places I'd Spend My Own Money
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.
My sister-in-law is from Belarus and I am from Poland, and we have been trying to find an authentic Eastern European restaurant in DC. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!
There's one, and only one, that I know of, and that's Domku, in Petworth.
Technically, it falls under the designation Eastern European/Scandinavian. So don't be surprised if you go by what you find.
The place is a little uneven, but it's got a sort of rough charm, a good list of beers, nearly a dozen aquavit cocktails, and a menu full of things like pierogi, beet soup, etc.
It also does a pretty good brunch, and functions the rest of the time as a lounge/coffeehouse/pool hall/bar. The slashes are fitting, I think, for an Eastern European/Scandinavian restaurant owned by an Asian-American and located in the heart of an African American neighborhood.
A few weeks ago you helped me find good Chinese food in NOVA. Now I need your help with good Italian food. It doesn't have to be fancy or pricey.
I'm from Soprano country and I prefer not going into the city. (Washington, that is). I have a feeling you will help me here.
Thanks in advance. "Carm"
As long as we're talking good, not great.
Panino in Manassas falls into that category. Closer in, I kind of like Trattoria da Franco and Landini Bros., both in Old Town. (A La Lucia, which I used to recommend a lot, seems to have slipped.)
Tutto Bene does a good job of being fairly priced while also giving the diner a lot of comfort and attention, and the cooking is simple and rooted.
Hope that helps. Let us know which one of these you choose, "Carm."
Going out to some wineries during the long wkd and thinking of ending the evening at Railstop for dinner. I haven't seen any recent reviews on line.
Have you been/heard anything of the place? Or maybe you have a better suggestion? Thanks!
The Railstop's a good choice. Straightforward, no-tricks cooking (stuffed veal, crabcakes, steamed mussels, etc.) and decently priced, too. One of your better, not-too-expensive options for dining in that part of the world.
And who knows? You might run into Robert Duvall, who pops by often.
(I could crack a really, really bad food/movie joke, like, yeah, and the mercies are always tender, but I won't.)
Happy Autumn Todd!
Now that the weather is cooler, my husband and I are craving italian food. He's into cheese ravioli and tomato-based sauces, and I love risotto, squash/pumpkin ravioli, and fish.
I was looking at Domaso because it's closest to home, but I've heard good things about Filomena, and I know last week you mentioned Tosca for pasta…….do each of these places have a specialty, and is there one that in particular that would suit us best? Thanks!
One last note- my husband's family is southern italian, so he grew up eating homemade sauce and can be a critic when it comes to the red stuff.
I'd put Tosca at the top of that short list, but it's Northern Italian. So is Domaso. Filomena will be more to your husband's liking, but sorry to say, I can't recommend it.
Puts you in a bit of a bind. Most of the better Italian places around the area are Northern style.
If he's willing to cross the border, so to speak, I would take him to Tosca. Terrific pastas, wonderful saucing. Another option, a small step down, would be Spezie, on L St.
If not, there's Bebo, in Crystal City, which has a number of red sauce-type options among its menu. The space is cold, the service is spotty, it's a very on-again, off-again place, but you might just get lucky. And if you do, you'll eat very well.
My husband and I, along with 6 friends are planning on catching up over dinner in the Tyson's area…any suggestions for a great meal (no restrictions on cuisine, price, etc.)?
If the food is paramount, I'd send you to Shamshiry — marvelous spiced beef kabobs, fragrant rice pilaus and, for dessert, a scoop of intensely rich, saffron ice cream that's the color of an egg yolk.
Not much in the way of atmosphere, but you'll find attentive, gracious service and your bank account won't take a hit.
Otherwise, there's the new Monterey Bay Fish Grotto for pretty good fish and seafood in a dramatic, soaring space, the splashy if mostly middlin' steakhouse Wild Fire, and the always reliable Shula's steakhouse, the legendary football coach's chain.
Though this isn't quite a restaurant request … I need your help in figuring out how exactly Firehook Bakery makes the most delicious treat in the world, the chocolate espresso cookies.
They are crunchy and chewy all at the same time and I MUST find out how to replicate them at home. I don't know if you're much of a sweets guy or not, but these cookies are just too good to not try and make at home. If you can help, I'll make you a batch myself!
Interesting request. Maybe we could have an intern chase this down. (I wouldn't be too optimistic in getting an answer, but you never know.(
Gives me an idea, actually — a regular web feature in which we chase down the recipes for dishes you love.
Who's got a go-to dish at a restaurant that they'd love to be able to reproduce at home? Let's hear some suggestions. …
Meantime, all this cookie talk reminds me: the best cookies I've had in a long, long while are the ginger-chocolate cookies that Lola Cookies & Treats in Leesburg makes. (Here's the website — www.lolacookies.com.)
Thick, chewy, crunchy, rich — but not overrich — with lots of good cocoa taste and a subtle undercurrent of ginger. Come to think of it, they might be the best packaged cookies I've ever eaten, anywhere.
I can't wait to try the rest of owner Lorraine (Lola) Hooper's cookies.
Wanted to let you know that Susan Holt, co- owner of the new cooking school, CulinAerie, will be doing a cooking demo at the 14&U Farmers Market on Saturday. We will raffle off a free CulinAerie cooking class for two to a lucky shopper at the market.
The tickets are free to anyone who buys at the markets on Saturday October 11th.
OK, Robin, thanks for the heads-up!
I know you love hole in the wall Thai and I have a new one in Wheaton. It takes the street food approach of nava Thai to a stripped down sense of urgency and authenticity.
Its the hot food bar at Asian Foods Inc in the same shopping center as Max's. Great, earthy, peasant food off a steam table. $7.95 brings you 3 dishes and rice. Now its not like a sit down restaurant with food made to order, but the flavors are intense and the food blindingly hot. I have feasted on everything from tripe and liver filled larb to fish yellow curry (the fish a little dry but the overall flavors wonderful) to crispy pork & broccoli that rivals anything I have ever had in the Thai Towns in both Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley in LA. They make their own curry pastes (also for sale).
Anything with innards or odd parts is highly recommended. If you want a sugar rush, try their ice coffee smoothie with tapioca balls.
Good scouting! Thank you, Dean-o.
I love that phrase, by the way: "great, earthy, peasant food off a steam table."
I've been looking for a place where I can get homemade curry paste; it's a big savings of time, and the fresh stuff is so much better than what you can find in the cans and jars.
Thanks for the tip.
First time ever asking a question, but love to follow along each week. My boyfriend and I went to 100 King for our first date, our one year, and were planning on going back for our two year in the next few months – but I just found it has closed!! Can you please let me know what is going on?!?! I am so distraught! Thank you!
Why does this strike me as a very cleverly contrived plant?
Ah, hell, I'll bite … The Neighborhood Restaurant Group (Evening Star Cafe, Vermilion, Buzz, Rustico) has bought the space and is going ahead with plans to install a two-fer — a casual restaurant downstairs, a steakhouse upstairs.
No word yet whether it'll be open by the end of the year.
I am looking for a nice restaurant where I can talk my girlfriend too in the DC area (not virginia). She goes to school down in DC, at american university, and I would like to take her to a nice restaurant, with a variety of foods to choose from, and also has a nice romantic atmosphere.
Looking to also spend under $100 for the both of us also. Any suggestions would be appreciated! Thanks!
A romantic spot, with good food, for under a hundred bucks for two in DC is a tall order.
But how about Cork, the wine bar on 14th? Good food, good wine, lots of atmosphere, and well within your price range. It does get awfully loud, though, if you don't get there early.
Or you could try Johnny's Half Shell, on Capitol Hill. Some menu items are going to strain the budget, but if you choose right, you can have a great time. It's a fantastic space, very lively, the cooking is simple and often excellent, and the pies and cakes are sublime.
Good one! Might just be the single best bite of food to be had in the entire city.
But thinking about this some more, I wonder if it'd really be that good a candidate to pursue. Why? Because the reason it's so good is not, I don't think, the recipe itself, but the execution, which is hard to boil down and explain (and one reason a lot of cookbooks from great chefs are disappointing.)
Although I'd certainly like to hear what Johnny Monis might say — or not say — on the subject.
It's a little like instant messaging.
And ignorance? I suppose you could call it that. But I think the tyranny of the new technologies is to make us think that we don't measure up — no, that we don't matter — unless we are up on the latest news and tools. And I resent that, deeply. I resent the forced obsolesence of so many things we use now.
My Mom's 70+birthday is coming up and need your advice. My parents aren't into fine dining (indifference in opinion of just about any fine dining places we had taken them before: Citronelle, Maestro, Capital Grille, Kinkeads, etc…).
They do like Sushi and Korean food but we eat too much of it already, like Woo Lae Oak, Woomi Garden, Tachibana, Niwanohana. Any upscale sushi/Japanese places worth trying or a traditional French (no bistros please) restaurant for a mature crowd? Help please!
They might go for Et Voila!, in Palisades.
It caters to an older crowd, it's French/Belgian, the cooking is not flashy, and the dishes are all plainly recognizable. I ate there not too long ago, and while I didn't love it, I liked it well enough.
More important, I think it might fit the bill for a nice night out with your parents to celebrate.
So the other food writers chat mentioned that Vidalia has strayed from its roots. I dined there on Saturday night and had a brilliant meal to match some of the best in the country. The food was full of soul and bold flavors. What roots have they shyed away from. Imho they have mondernized what they have been doing well all along.
I understand the point.
But I don't really agree with it. Years ago Vidalia was much more "Southern," it's true. But the underpinning was always French. Now, you could argue that it's much more of a French restaurant than a Southern restaurant — even though that definition still doesn't quite fit.
This summer, I recommended Vidalia to the doctor who performed a surgery on my father. She went and was bewildered by the menu, by the terms — gastrique, crepinette, etc. — and also by such arcana as Ritz cracker ice cream (which I happen to think is a brilliant concoction — dead-on in its taste, too). And because she and her family were prepared for Southern cooking, they didn't quite know what to make of the dishes that R.J. Cooper is putting out — which, I agree with you, are among the very best in the city.
A lot of dining has to do with expectation, and once you have something in your head, it's hard to see and appreciate something that's different.
My best friend from LA is visiting me over the weekend and she absolutely loves Asian Fusion food (like Asia de Cuba, Nobu, and China Grill). Is there a place like this in the DC area that I can take her? Thanks!
She might go for a place like the new-ish Asia Nine.
Not my cup of (green) tea, though, and it's not at all in the same league as Nobu.
You got it.
I hear you.
There's a helluva lot more in this vein than there used to be — including Poste (terrific roast chicken, great soups, sea bass with red wine-poached egg), Granville Moore's (for mussels and fries and buttermilk-soaked, crispy fried trout), Cork (for good wines and good, simple French-ified cooking).
Check back in with us and let us know where you decided to hit …
Wow. I don't even know where to start with this. And I'm pressed for time — I could write for hours on the subject …
I will say though that advocacy is not my role. That's the job of p.r. If you and others think that that's what a food writer should be, then I'm in the wrong business. If the city becomes a magnet for talent, and more good restaurants continue to open, then that's a wonderful thing. But it's not my job to make that happen.
I do cheer excellence when I see it, and I'm always elated at moments like that to be doing what I do — to be so privileged. But I'm not a cheerleader.
I try to write as well as I can, and with passion, to maintain high standards — to cast a dim eye on mediocrity and going through the motions, to really take a long, hard look at places that may have pedigree but lack soul — and to spend the time scouring the area trying to find the places that otherwise would not be found.
Thanks, everyone, for reading along this morning and afternoon …
And don't forget to drop me a line and let me know which dishes you'd like us to track down recipes for — firstname.lastname@example.org
Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
Will do, Joe. Thanks!
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, October 14 at 11 AM.