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 October 7 click here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… Food lovers are generally ambivalent about hotel dining. Hotels with the power and name recognition to bring in a top-tier chef account for some of the best, most exquisite dining to be had in the world. On the other hand, we're all acquainted with the flip side of hotel dining — dull, passionless cooking served up in a setting that has all the charm and warmth of a waiting room.
About motel dining, however, there is generally fierce consensus. And it goes roughly like this: Absolutely, positively not. Under no circumstances.
La Caraquena (300 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-533-0076) fronts a faded, low-slung motel on West Broad Street in Falls Church, and if you didn't know what awaited you inside, you might decide to drive right on past it. The other night, a young couple stalked through the motel parking lot, shouting drunkenly, then slamming the door to their first-floor room. Cars pealed in and out.
What awaits, is a rare lineup of Venezuelan, Bolivian and Chilean dishes, all of them presented attractively — and sometimes served with a flourish. You might find chef Raul, in his white jacket, bearing a plate with all the aplomb of a bowtied waiter as he strides through the room to make a delivery. It's no empty gesture. The cooking has a polish and refinement seldom found in the area's many Latin American restaurants.
If only for offering arepas — thick griddled corn cakes filled, typically, with meats and cheeses and as essential to the Venezuelan diet as burgers to the American — La Caraquena would be an important addition to the dining scene. The menu lists nearly a dozen varieties, including a ham-and-cheese, a version filled with shredded beef known as carne mechada and another stuffed with scrambled eggs and onions. They make for wonderful, overstuffed sandwiches, deeply satisfying. But a plain arepa (called viuda, or "widow," in Spanish — an unaccompanied arepa) is no less wonderful.
You could put together an inexpensive and thoroughly rewarding meal by ordering any of the arepas and a corn salad (kernels of corn mixed with a light mayo dressing, sliced celery, chopped cilantro and lime juice and served over leaves of Romaine lettuce) or a bowl of the marvelous black bean soup, which is pureed to an impressive smoothness, laced with juicy bits of smoky ham, and garnished with cilantro leaves.
So far in my experience, main courses have proved slightly less remarkable — although they're sided with excellent rice and beans. I'm eager to dig deeper into the menu and find out otherwise. For now, though, I'd be just as happy with one of the sandwiches, which include a thick, spicy burger and a diputado — layers of thin sliced beef on a kaiser roll topped with a fried egg and tangy, sauteed onions.
I was thrilled to dig into the tres leches cake — technically, according to the kitchen, a four milk cake. I think it's the best I've come across in the area. Given the drenching of sweetened, condensed milk, the square of cake itself holds up astonishingly well, retaining its light airiness and never devolving into a custard. It's also not too sweet, unlike too many versions I've tasted. And how nice not to see the plate zigzagged with raspberry sauce. Done right, the dessert needs no help at all. …
… Sudhir Seth, the owner and chef at Passage to India, in Bethesda, one of the area's best Indian restaurants, tells me he is weeks away from opening Spice X-ing, in the Rockville Town Center.
The restaurant, which will replace the chain Stonefish Grill, will seat 100 and carry a full bar (with 14 stools). Seth is still deciding on the selection of dishes that will make up the menu — he has 200 in mind at the moment — but reveals that it will include curries, kabobs and a number of small plates. He describes the feel of the restaurant as "upscale casual family dining."
Spice X-ing ought to be open after Thanksgiving, presuming the remodeling of the space goes according to plan. …
… Last week you asked for recipes for some of your favorite dishes from area restaurants. Well, we got 'em.
We start this week with a request from chatter Maureen Hahn for the excellent chicken makhani at Rasika. Vikram Sunderam kindly sent along this recipe for the dish yesterday. Enjoy!
Vikram Sunderam's Chicken Makhani / serves four
Ingredients for the chicken:
Diced boneless chicken (thigh/breast) ….. 2 lbs.
Ginger …. ¼ oz., chopped
Garlic ….. ½ oz., chopped
Full-fat yogurt …… 1 cup
Red chili powder …… 1 tablespoon
Lemon juice …….. 2 teaspoons
Garam masala powder …….. 1 teaspoon
Mustard oil ……. 2 tablespoons (you may substitute Canola oil)
Salt …….. to taste
Note from the chef: "Whole chicken thighs or chicken legs may be substituted.As they are slightly larger pieces the legs or thighs should be marinated for 2 hours longer so that the marinade permeates into the meat and imparts flavor. Also, one should make a few gashes on the legs to aid the process."
Blend the ginger and garlic into a fine paste. Add all the ingredients in a mixing bowl, put the chicken and mix well. Refrigerate the marinated chicken for 2 hours. Cook the chicken — with the mixture still coating it — on a barbeque or in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
For the makhani:
Tomatoes …… 2 lbs. (whole, fresh tomatoes are preferable to canned)
Ginger ….. ½ oz., chopped
Garlic …… 1 oz., chopped
Thai green chilis …… 2 small, whole
Dry fenugreek leaves …… 4 tablespoons
Tomato Paste ……. 2 tablespoons
Unsalted Butter …… 2 oz.
Heavy Cream ….. 1 cup
Salt …… to taste
Put the tomatoes in a thick bottom pot along with the ginger, garlic, green chili and fenugreek leaves. Add sufficient water to cover the tomatoes. Cook on a medium flame for ½ hour — the liquid should simmer and not boil so that the acidity of the tomatoes reduces and there is enough liquid remaining for the sauce. When the tomatoes are soft and mushy, blend to a fine puree and pass through a strainer. Add the tomato paste and the butter to the strained sauce, and bring to a boil in a new pot. When the sauce thickens, add the cream. Season with salt and keep warm. Add the chicken to the sauce and simmer for a few minutes. Serve hot with naan or Basmati rice. …
Hi Todd – I live for these weekly chats!
Can you tell me "your top 3" restaurants in the DC area that offer a "to die for" degustation menu – cost is not an issue?
I am considering Komi since you (and others) speak so highly of it but I'd like to do a comparison before making reservations. Thanks!
I'd put Komi at the very top of my list. it's a thrilling ride of a night, to move from first courses of exquisite raw fish to things like suckling pig and roasted baby goat for two. Very sensual, very intense.
And I also really like the intimacy of the room, and the enthusiasm and intelligence of the wait staff.
I think you'd have to include Citronelle and CityZen in any top 3 — with Restaurant Eve at No. 4, largely on the strength of the "total package."
But for my money, right now, it's Komi.
On those nights I don't feel like cooking, I always want to stop off for sushi. Problem is that I can't find any GREAT sushi places in between my downtown office and Edsall Road exit.
I'm looking for a place in NoVa so I don't have to deal with parking, and Old Town is kind of out of the way.
Please help! Thanks.
You don't think it'd be easier, SS, to just do take-out at Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown or Sakana in Dupont Circle?
Everything I'm coming up with in Virginia that's worthwhile is too far afield for you.
The closest is Akasaka, off Van Dorn. It's passable. Ariake is likeable — it's in Reston. Sakana Sushi and Sushi Yama in Vienna, and Tachibana in McLean are good. Blue Ocean Sushi in Fairfax is a little bit better than good, one of the best in Virginia. It's also way past your exit.
Duly noted. We'll hunt it down. I'm a big fan of them, too.
What else? What other dishes have you been dying to reproduce? Soups you love, main courses, salads, desserts …
I wrote in a couple of weeks ago about a trip to Charleston, SC and wanted to report back.
First of all, it is a fantastic eating destination. Small enough that you can feel like you were able to scope a lot of it out, and big and diverse enough to be interesting.
We enjoyed the elegant, musical dessert at the Charleston Grill, and appreciated their welcoming for a party dining only on the cornmeal cakes with molasses ice cream and the flourless chocolate cake with banana mousse, lychee coulis and the weird but nice rice ice cream.
We delighted in FIG with their simple, earthy, farm-fresh food and friendly staff—it was my mothers 60th, and I couldn’t have imagined a better place to get a meal which played with things like seasonal vegetables, chicken livers, local seafood and heirloom tomatoes in ways that made the food feel nourishing and extravagant at the same time (but reserve early, it was hard to get in).
We went to Momma D’s and Jim and Nick’s barbeque, although the local sweet mustard wasn’t to our taste, the cue was nice.
The one I will miss at home is Poe’s Tavern, a pub in Sullivan’s who has only burgers, beer, and top-notch fish tacos filled with fresh salsas and meaty fish, where you can hang around all night and leave with a full wallet and a happy belly.
Thank you as always for your dining suggestions! Now, I have another for you.
I am off to San Francisco next week to celebrate my best friend’s birthday—and I have to pick the restaurant(s).
We are looking for pretty cheap, preferably ethic restaurants with some vegetarian/seafood options, possibly a slight splurge one time, but things like dim-sum are great. Any suggestions?
I really like eating in Charleston. I'm glad to hear you had such good meals — and glad I could play a part in your trip planning.
I'll have to remember Poe's Tavern; thanks for the tip. I'd forgotten to mention Jim and Nick's to you; glad you found your way there. I really like Birmingham-style barbecue, and they do it well. Love the sweet pickles!
In San Francisco, I would make a beeline for Yank Sing — best dim sum I've had in the States.
For good and cheap, remember the name el Farolito, in the Mission district. Really, really good taqueria.
I'd also try to load up on sushi, since the quality of the fish is generally superior to what you find here. Also, generally more expensive — so, it's not surprise it's generally superior. You won't find a cheap meal at Sushi Ran, but chances are, you will find a memorable one.
Happy travels, and happy eating. I'd love to get a report when you get back.
I must be missing something. I've been twice, and had a truly awful meal the first time and a thoroughly forgettable meal the second.
I'd be happy to give it a third try.
But I can think of a slew of Chinese restaurants I'd much rather sit down to lunch or dinner in — Full Key, Hollywood East Cafe and Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard, all in Wheaton; Bob's Noodle 66, Bob's Shabu Shabu, Michael's Noodles, China Bistro, all in Rockville; Hong Kong Palace, in Falls Church; Sichuan Village, in Chantilly.
Love the recipe idea.
My husband has been trying (without luck) to replicate the black pepper chicken from Taste of Saigon. If I could make that for him, he would be over the moon!
We'll get right on it. Thanks.
And I like the idea that we'd be helping you to keep the marriage fit and happy. : )
Keep 'em coming, chatters …
Hi there, Todd, I'm sure you get this question a lot but I love Thai food.
I always seem to be in the mood for Thai, no matter what the season is. Have you tried the new-ish Pasara Thai (I think) close to Dupont Circle?
What do you think? Thanks!
I haven't, sorry. Has anyone?
I'd be curious to know whether it's any good.
It's too bad, but the city proper just doesn't have a lot of very good Thai food. Or good Thai food. It's saying something that a guy working mostly alone in an English basement carry-out is killing the competition.
Well, you've got a pretty big audience right here of smart, informed and sophisticated food lovers.
You could start by being less coy.
Can you recommend a few restaurants that focus on either 'herbal dining' (where menu items are made with some type of culinary herb)?
I'm from MA and this time of year is perfect for visiting Gilson's Herb Lyceum in Groton, MA. They only offer dinner on Friday & Saturday nights, $55/pp and you get a 5 course gourmet meal. Seating is family style and you can bring your own wine. The food is original and pure with great depth.
Since I no longer live close enough to enjoy their herb-infused gourmet dinners (and dessert), I was hoping you could suggest one or two in the DC area.
Been to Founding Farmers which was close, but not the same. Thanks! Aly
I don't know any restaurants that do herbal dining.
I know a lot of restaurants, though, that put a lot of time and thought into procuring great herbs. Poste, for instance — where the chef, Rob Weland, keeps an herb garden in the back.
The herbs are not the focus of the menu, but you do get a little lift from them in a number of dishes, like the roast chicken, some of the soups, etc. For a while, they were doing donuts on the brunch menu that were flavored with fresh lavender. I miss those.
So, wait — you're saying that I exist to serve those who make under $250,000 and the Post exists to serve those who make over $250,000?
I don't know about that.
I love good food at all levels, and I think the reviews and chats I've done attest to that. I do have a special interest and love for ethnic eating and for hard-working mom 'n' pops, and I really enjoy ferreting out these kinds of places. I also think it's important to recognize distinctive or memorable cooking wherever it is — whether in a formal, elegant dining room or a run-down joint with three tables.
Nicaro gets good reviews from the post, but the online menu looks, well bleh. Been there, done that. Is it wirth the money?
Please do not take into account that it's competition is a sea of crappy chains, a restaurant should stand on it's own, being "good" for that area is not good enough, which is what it looks like the post fell victim to. Your thoughts?
It got two stars — same as it got from us last January, in our 100 Best issue.
It's not mediocrity, put it that way.
Is it worth the money? That's a good question. I think it's the kind of place that will appeal most to people who put a lot of store by such things as the time that goes into making your own charcuterie, or rolling your own pastas, of finding an area supplier for oysters.
Honestly, a lot of people simply aren't going to appreciate these things. I took some neighbors on one of my three visits when I was reviewing the place, and they liked it but didn't love it — and thought it was a little expensive for what it is. I think that's fair. The prices put it in the category of a place, especially now, that you save up for a special night for. And there are many others in that category that deliver more and more consistently.
I still like the place, though.
For the reader asking about the recipe for black pepper chicken. I actually saw this recipe from the chef of Slanted Door in San Francisco in Food & Wine Magazine and got around to making it last night. I thought it was delicious.
It may not be the same as Taste of Saigon, but hopefully it'll tide the reader over until you can get the recipe. http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/caramelized-black-pepper-chicken
What are you trying to do, horn in on our little featurette? ; )
Thanks for the link. I'll bet the chatter thanks you, too.
Todd, almost every American restaurants and sports bars, have mini-burgers listed for appetizers.
Before heading out and consuming vast amounts of mini-burgers (I sure miss those days when Little Tavern Burgers was still around), what restaurants/bars would you recommend to try their mini-burgers?
The best I've had in the area — far and away the best, and maybe the best I've had anywhere — are the miniburgers at The Source, at the Newseum.
I haven't had them in a while, so I can't attest to what they're like at this very moment, but those things were truly terrific. Truly expensive, too — $16 for four two-biters.
But I'll tell you, they shamed the ones at Matchbox, which are pretty darn good most of the time.
Actually, I agree.
As my 4th grade teacher used to say, silence is golden.
But that's the great thing about having a variety of voices.
How do I feel about Citronelle losing a star? (Actually, it did more than lose a star — it dropped two tiers.) I think the most interesting thing about this is that a top-flight restaurant that has to know what the Post critic looks like, completely dropped the ball on Tom's visit. I think that speaks to a kind of arrogance.
Is that enough to cause a place to plummet? I don't know. That's a hard one. I'd have to give that some more thought.
I'm a huge fan of the cooking at Citronelle and Citronelle Lounge.
But it was not a mere matter of provocation that I headlined my review of Komi, in September, "Move Over, Citronelle." To my mind, it's the best restaurant in the city right now — the most intimate, most soulful, most expressive, most personal.
I really want to get some dim sum this weekend and my family isnt too thrilled about heading out to rockville (A&J) or wheaton (Hollywood East).
Are those places THAT much better than the much closer Mark's Duck House and Fortune, or will I get a good enough pork bun/ har gao fix from one of them?
I believe they are — Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd., especially.
But you could try China Garden, in Rosslyn. I think for dim sum, they do a better job than Mark's.
Hey there — long time, no spew!
I really started to miss those hate-filled screeds of yours. Glad to have you back in the saddle.
A leftist-socialist restaurant, huh? I can't even imagine what that would be? Serving General Mao's Chicken?
On the other chat, that Vidalia was away from its roots. We ate on Friday night a group of 8 with the tasting menu and the restaurant is truely rooted in the Mid Atlantic. The veal brains are the best I have had in years. The food is inovative (not a bad thing) fresh (not a bad thing) market drivin (again not a bad thing). Service and the wine list are exceptional and they dont buy into the bs shi shi overpriced mordern cocktails.
All in all talk about value it is better then all the four star on the other guys list.
I'm with you. I think Vidalia's terrific.
My boyfriend and I are going out to dinner with one of his old friends and his wife on Friday. I've never met them and it's been a while since my boyfriend has seen them so we're not sure what type of food they like. We're set to meet in Clarendon but haven't picked a restaurant yet.
Do you have a suggestion for somewhere moderately priced that is still fun/hip and would allow us to sit around and talk for a while? Thanks!
I think Liberty Tavern is what you're looking for.
Food's good — accessible but also pretty sophisticated, and the chef, Liam LaCivita, uses a lot of local, fresh ingredients — and it's a lively, always-a-party atmosphere.
Let us know how things turn out.
Have you ever reviewed Sequoia restaurant in D.C.? I am interested to hear what you have to say about it, because I've heard nice things about the views you have while dining.
Problem is, I haven't heard anything about the FOOD! Atmosphere is nice, but if the food isn't good, it's not worth my time. Any thoughts?
Just one: Ugh.
Some dishes I'd like to re-create at home ….
minh's grilled pork (northern style)…rabieng's roast pork in red curry (what cut of meat do they use? It's thin and oval shaped like a loin but it eats like pork shoulder?)…the fried yucca at taqueria nacionale (its creammmmy inside like no other I've had)…any peruvian chicken recipe from the area joints….ray's hell burger (at least some idea of what combinations of cuts of meat we could use to even approximate his burger)…hong kong palace's dan dan noodles
An eater after my own heart!
Boy, you've hit upon many of my favorites. We'll try our best in coming up with these. Thanks!
The Peruvian chicken I know for a fact will be a non-starter. I've asked many times before about the specific ingredients that make up the marvelous marinade — to no avail. And the thing is, a lot of what makes those birds so good, is the equipment they use. Hard to replicate at home.
As for the Hell-burgers … Michael Landrum uses only prime beef (hard to get, if you're not a restaurant), and from select cuts of the center loin, and grinds the meat by hand. Very expensive, very time-consuming.
I'm curious myself about the pork in that fantastic red curry with rambutan you mention at Rabieng — it really does eat like a pork roast.
Tough times, but my wife and I still need our date nights.
Who provides the best bang for the buck in the Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton areas?
Why, that's leftist-socialist territory!
Best bang for the buck, to my mind — Full Key, Hollywood East Cafe. and Nava Thai Noodle & Grill, all in Wheaton; Mandalay and Da Marco (for the "fresh homemade" pastas only) in Silver Spring; Faryab in Bethesda.
And don't forget — Ray's the Classics in Silver Spring is offering the Ray's Hell-burger for $7.95 at the bar.
More of a rant that a question…
why oh why can't DC proper seem to get a good bubble tea outfit? The best in the area is in the Eden Center but I'd love to be able to get my fix without driving to Virginia.
Do you know of any hidden bubble tea places in the area in DC? I've tried Shanghai Tea House, Wok n Roll, Snap… all sub par.
My favorite's in the Eden Center, too.
The fingers that are typing this message were sourced from upstate NY, the computer that is sending the message is from Indonesia, and the internet that delivered the message was home grown in Carthage, TN.
Why do restaurants think we care where the damn ingredients came from? I don't care if my steak is from Nebraska or Kobe, as long as it tastes good.
Get over yourself, you arrogant, haughty chefs!!!!
And we could have still more. Get on it, chatters. (Focused, thoughful rants, I should add — no lunatic ravings about lefties.)
I hear you, Fairfax.
The thing is, there are a lot of people who DO want to know where the ingredients come from.
I think it's mostly meaningless to give the name of the city or town, as Blue Duck Tavern does, for every item on the menu. And I think if the food doesn't come close to living up to the restaurant's build up ("can I explain the menu for you this evening?") then it's pretty much beside the point.
But there are many excellent farms — many more than there were a generation ago — and their work is sometimes the difference between an ordinary dish and a really, really good one.
I would really love to get Light House Tofu's soondubu recipe (seafood or combination one).
I don't know how they prepare the broth, but their soondubu taste way different than the ones I had at other Korean restaurants.
Way different is right.
I'd love to get that recipe, myself. One of my favorite dishes in the area.
Thanks, Annandale. We're on it.
These recipes that people are asking for and are being given out so freely by the Chefs, never really translate into the same taste. It is by sheer practise that they achieve such perfection over decades of cooking. At least that is how I convince myself whenever my dishes turn out to be not as good as the ones in the restaurant.
On your recommendations I had been to Passage of India nd have fallen in love with their Palak Makai, the Chef gave me the recipe but I still drive all the way to Bethesda to have the real thing.
Chefs do not WORRY, give out recipes freely. We amateurs will cut, bruise and scald ourselves but keep on coming back.
I know you're right, Columbia. And I hope they're reading.
Thanks for all the great suggestions, everyone. We'll track those down and any more you come up with — just send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Be well, eat well — and cook well!
Most likely, I'll be on the road next week, but check back in this space on Tuesday to read as many of those tasty recipes as we can get our hands on.
And we'll meet up for another chat the following Tuesday, the 28th, at 11 …
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, October 21 at 11 AM.