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 November 11, click here.
Producer's note: This Fall marks three years since Todd launched his chat on Washingtonian.com.
Three years? We know, we can't believe it either—time flies when you're talking food.
To celebrate this anniversary, we'd like to host another contest for the loyal readers of Kliman Online.
We're asking you to tap into your knowledge of Todd's tastes and devise the perfect three-course meal for our far-ranging and passionate restaurant critic.
Entering is simple. We just want you to create what would be Todd's favorite meal ever. Just list three dishes from three local restaurants—one for each course—and give a brief description of why you think Todd would enjoy them. The menu that captures what Todd loves most about Washington dining will win a gift certificate worth $150 to the Italian trattoria Notti Bianche in Foggy Bottom.
Send entries to: firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Todd's three-course dinner."
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… It's hard to stand out amid the glut of Thai spots in the area without a signature or gimmick.
Tara Thai trades on its day-glo cocktails and splashy interiors; Bangkok 54 pours California and Austrian wines in a gallery-like dining room; Nava Thai showcases uncompromisingly authentic Thai street food; Pana Thai bids to pull in the adventurous with the occasional obscurity, like a kaprow with preserved black egg.
Thai House (8369 Snouffer School Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-963-1800) has none of those things going for it. Its menu is conventional, its look bare-bones, its drink list modest. It seems content to be a trusty neighborhood resource, a place to stop in for a bag or two of carryout or a dinner with friends when you don't feel like cooking. Nothing wrong with that.
But it's also, in the way of most first impressions, inexact, because Thai House has its surprises; it's a place of second and third impressions.
Num Tok, too often a throwaway dish, a way to use up leftover meat, is redeemed by the care and attention of chef Lek Seanguan, who comes from the hugely popular Benjarong, in Rockville. The marinated meat is thicker and more tender than you expect, and the salad, with its slivers of red onion, torn cilantro and lime dressing is tart and hot. And I love that you can taste the sprinklings of pulverized rice, which give the dish a neat bit of crunch.
No other appetizer I tried comes as close to the excitement of this dish, but there are also good preparations of tod mun (the spongy fish cakes), with an excellent peanut-cucumber relish; spring rolls; and the miniature pinched dumplings called kanom jeeb. The loftily titled "Heavenly Wings" reprises a Thai classic seldom seen anymore, in which chicken wings are transformed and turned into a conversation piece; the meat is cut, loosened and pushed to the top of the bone, stuffed with crabmeat, shrimp and scallion, then battered and deep fried. Hard to resist. And Seanguan sends them out hot and greaseless, too.
Seanguan roasts and grinds her own spices; she also grows some of her own herbs. Unlike at many restaurants, where you have to earn the kitchen's respect through several visits before you can even think to ask for "more spice," the question of heat is taken seriously. Ask for a dish to be prepared "full spicy," and it will come out blazing. Not that that's always to the benefit of a dish; the green curry, for one, could stand more flavor. (Curries tend not to be a strength. A yellow curry with ground chicken and cellophane noodles was unfocused and indistinct.)
I had great luck with the garlic shrimp, a dish notable for its deft use of white pepper and its welcome treatment of its star ingredient. Frozen, yes (all shrimp is frozen, unless you're lucky enough to see the heads on them), but, contrary to most stir-frys, they were cooked to the daring point of medium-rare, the better to appreciate the texture of the meat. And the crispy duck with chili and garlic sauce is a tour de force, the kind of dish that can reawaken your interest in a preparation that has become tired and familiar. The duck itself is blessedly absent of excess fat, and the exterior (what isn't covered in sauce) is as well-seasoned and crispy as great fried chicken. …
A bit of industry news …
… Brasserie Les Halles has served its last onglet. The Gallic-inspired chain is shutting down its DC branch after 15 years, effective immediately.
Philippe Lajaunie, the charming, permanently tanned owner, told me last night, "I tried using my option but the new rent conditions were just unbearable. It has been swell."
Les Halles was among the first restaurants to set up shop in Penn Quarter — in fact, it preceded Penn Quarter. Fifteen years ago, the now-buzzing area was largely untrafficked and dark at night. No one thought to bestow a cute nickname on it.
And, finally, what the hell — a little magazine news …
… I wanted to take a moment to announce our new "Drinks" columnist, Eric Felten.
Drinks? I can hear some of you asking. You didn't have an old drinks columnist, so how can you have a new drinks columnist?
That's true — we had a "Wine" columnist. I'm widening the field for Eric, who writes the What's Your Drink? column for The Wall Street Journal and won a James Beard Foundation Award in 2007. I'm thrilled to have him aboard.
Eric will be writing about wine, of course, but also beer, spirits and cocktails. The new column won't be just a place to turn for recommendations or to keep abreast of trends. Eric will be looking at the culture of drink, of the ways in which drinking is a reflection of our local manners and mores — drink as an expression of power (also, a symbol of social-climbing and snobbery).
He makes his debut with the January issue, out at the end of December. …
The Current List: Where I'd Spend My Own Money
Full Key, Wheaton
Gom Ba Woo, Annandale
Palena and Palena Cafe, DC
Citronelle and Citronelle Lounge, DC
Nava Thai Noodle & Grill, Wheaton
Johnny's Half Shell, DC
Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington
Pete's Apizza, DC
Poste Brasserie, DC
A & J, Rockville
Vit Goel ToFu House, Annandale
Ray's Hell Burger, Arlington
Oval Room, DC
Farrah Olivia, Alexandria
Cafe du Parc, DC
Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd., Wheaton
Georgia Brown's is selling a 14-16 pound turkey for take out on Thanksgiving that you can order fried. Cost: $65. Orders must be placed by November 24th and can be picked up on Thanksgiving.
And Magruder's is also selling fried turkeys. We think. We haven't heard back from corporate to confirm that, in fact, all Magruder's are doing this, or just some Magruder's. But the turkeys are $1.99/pound and you can only get up to a 12 pound bird fried. Order as soon as possible.
Finally … in the past, Popeye's in various parts of the country have sold fried turkeys. I don't know if any of the locations around here are, this time, or not.
Producer's Note: We just got this info from Magruder's pertaining to their fried turkey:
Fried turkey only at certain stores:
Vienna (703-938-4700), Falls Church (703-280-0440), College Plaza, Rockville (301-315-0703), and Seminary Plaza, Alexandria (703-562-0362).
You may place your order directly with the store by November 24th.
The size of the turkey can only be 10-12 lb and the cost is $2.99 lb. The pick up date and time should be made when placing your order.
If you have any additional question please feel free to contact me at 301-230-3000 ext. 309 or email.
It's fun to read all the comments our disagreement about tipping from a few weeks ago inspired. I'm glad you opened the floor back up for discussion.
Clearly there's a bit of disparity in how and why people tip. The "This is 2008, buddy!" response to the server from the '70s made me laugh. Hard.
Keep up the good work. -Christina
Christina, you have NO idea what kind of firestorm you triggered.
Not just, here, in the chats, but in my inbox, on my voicemail — even from my friends, the food-obsessed ones, anyway, who just can't seem to stop talking about how and why they tip, and what should be and what shouldn't be, and aiyiyi …
Producer's Note: You can see more readers' thoughts on tipping over here, in our new weekly feature, Chew on This, where we ask you to post your thoughts on a food or dining issue.
I know you often tout Zorba's in Dupont as a good cheap lunch. But I was just there recently, and Wow, I don't really think you can call it cheap anymore… Cheap dinner, yes. But for lunch?
$11 chicken skewers, $11.25 for a greek salad with chicken, and $17 for the smallest pizza on the menu? I'm going to stick to Moby Dick's from now on — still a family-run place where you can get a whole platter for $8.
What say you?
I've seen the prices inch up and up, too, over the past year or so.
As you say, it's still a reasonably priced dinner. (And a consistently tasty dinner, too. One of the most consistently tasty spots in the city.)
It's funny to see the changes, because for so long, Zorba's prices were so low — ridiculously low, especially compared to its many less-worthy competitors. But then I went and put them on our Cheap Eats list, and now look …
The best you're going to do is RT's in Arlandria. And actually, that's pretty darn good.
It's a good spot, a very consistent spot. They fry well, they do good soups, the food's generally rewarding, if sometimes overly rich. But hey, it's Cajun.
Beyond that, there's Popeye's — hey, two Popeye's mentions in one day! — and not much else.
Is it just me or is this whole pre-tax, post-tax argument just a little silly? What are we talking about in real money, even if it is a high-end restaurant…..a couple of bucks(probably a lot less than what you spent on the desert you really didn't need!).
Given that the tip rewards not just the server but the busboys, the person who sat you and other people in the kitchen, isn't this just a little embarrasing?
Perhaps some of you should just sleep through Christmas.
Spite aside, it's a good point you make. Erring on the side of generosity is never bad.
I think the vehemence, and the rationalizations, that you've been reading have to do with the fact that most people who tip pre-tax — tip generously, I should add — don't really think they've been doing anything wrong.
As I said, most people I know and most people I've heard from privately over the last couple of weeks, tip pre-tax.
What is the status of Matchbox in Barracks Row? Will it ever open?
Also, have you heard anything about a place called "Dupont Tequila"? It says it features Dupont Circle's largest outdoor patio (no idea where that would be) and is opening later this year, but I haven't heard word one about it…
It's a restaurant: delays are inevitable. Sometimes, long, long delays.
I haven't heard anything to suggest that it's NOT going to open, so sit tight.
Dupont Tequila? No idea. That's news to me.
My husband and I ate a lovely dinner at Fratelli (410 S Van Dorn St, Alexandria) the other night.
They have a special for two persons on weekday nights for any entree on the menu (lobster is excepted), bottle of wine, dessert and coffee for $32.
While the atmosphere there is simplistic and not much to see, it is all about the food. I have never seen them mentioned in any review and hope to bring some attention their way. Would you consider dining there for a review?
I understand the chef came from another restaurant in Maryland but not sure where. Just trying to support the "mom and pop" establishments! Thanks, Jennifer
Jennifer, thanks for the tip.
And yes, the mom 'n' pops need support — now more than ever.
I wonder if there's any relation between your Fratelli and the one in — is it Cheverly? Bladensburg? Sitting on top of the hill, in the former Howard Johnson's? It's also Italian.
Hi Todd, love the chats.
I recently traveled down to Miami, FL and while I was there found a great little Haitian restaurant in South Beach called "Tap Tap".
The food was fantastic and I'm wondering if you know of any Haitian restaurants, possibly, in the DC Metro area.
Also, just to add to the recent line of posts,…18% gratuity was added to my bill–PRE-TAX. Thanks!
Actually, there's just one Haitian place I know of in the area — Chez Yon Yon, on Chillum Rd. in Hyattsville. It's set in a chartreuse-colored house. You can't miss it.
Fried pork and oxtail, Haitian patties (stuffed with smoked herring, cabbage and onion), squash soup. Good stuff.
And what do you like about these two? What's good to get?
Let me add one more side of the pre-post tipping debate. I favor pre-tipping, and certainly at a level suitable for the service you've received.
But what do you do when a tip of 20 percent is automatically added to your bill, regardless of what you've eaten and regardless of the number of people in your party?
That's the practice at Manhattan Pizza & Pasta, in the Muddy Branch Shopping Center in Gaithersburg, which has fairly good pizza and other Italian food, served pretty quickly too. Nowhere (such as in the window or on the menu, or mentioned by the waitress when ordering) is the automatic 20 percent mentioned.
I was by myself once there, about a year and a half ago, and for lunch ordered a sub and soft drink. I ate, had one refill of soda, and paid the bill, deciding to leave a 15 percent tip. (I also reasoned that since I was sitting near the cooking area, the waitress' walk to my table was minimal.)
She had previously told me (only because I asked) that they automatically added 20 percent to everyone's bill because some people walked out without paying, after eating their pizza (!). When I began to leave after paying the bill and adding the 15 percent tip I had decided to leave for the lunch meal, the female owner of the restaurant called out to me— if you want to eat at the restaurant, you have to leave a 20 percent tip! If you want to call ahead and then take the food out, you don't.
I said I had left a tip suitable for what I had eaten and received as service. She then said with some anger– if you want to do that, then eat at McDonald's, not here. We won't serve you. She loudly added: I'm the owner.
I just as firmly said: I'm the customer! Needless to say, with that automatic tipping required policy, I haven't been back (unless my son's family who live nearby ask to me, and then I do so very regretfully). I wonder how many other customers they've lost with that policy?
What a story. Ugh.
I hate seeing a tip added to the bill in advance of a meal — except in the cases of a large group, where I think it's absolutely necessary.
If you've ever watched a group of eight or ten people try to divide a check (with, invariably, someone asking to be "floated" some cash until the next day, and someone claiming that he's short a "coupla bucks"), then you can't fail to be in agreement on this last point.
Last week I asked about places with good bar menus and got some good suggestions. Kind of along the same lines, but certainly different, are places where you can comfortably work– even with a laptop.
It takes a certain type of place to feel appropriate with a computer in lap, but there are places where you can eat and drink well and not put anyone out. Free wifi is a plus.
It probably sounds like a terrible idea to many, but there are times when I have to be working (esp on the weekends) and would rather feel like I am doing something interesting at the same time (and I just don't want to try to squeeze into a coffeeshop).
At the moment my fave is the lounge at Poste– hotel bars seem to be friendly to working folks and you can get a nice salad (arugula, mint and fig) or some truffle fries at happy hour. Haven't tried at the Blue Duck, but am tempted– any other ideas?
Anyone else work and eat at times?
Most of the more modern hotels are good places to tap on the laptop and drink and nibble. Poste, Blue Duck, the Sofitel, Circle Bistro, Tabard Inn …
I also like working at a place like Domku. Good coffee, high ceilings, interesting atmosphere.
As always, the spite is first-rate, but I don't know what you're ranting and raving at — or why.
I'd consider the revamped Corduroy.
The cooking, the atmosphere — both are sophisticated without being trendy, and I think that's what you're looking for in a seasonal celebration sort of dinner.
Hi Todd – saddened to hear that Les Halles closed. Although it wasn't the best restaurant and had spotty service, I enjoyed going there for the steak frites.
Where do you recommend going for a nice hangar steak and fries now?
It used to be you only had a couple of options. Not now. Hanger steak, once obscure, has become ubiquitous. And bistro cooking — the city is swimming in bistro cooking.
I've always liked the hanger steak and frites at Montmartre — even before the cut became widespread, and even when Les Halles was open.
She sounds like a 1789 woman. And right there in Georgetown, too.
There's also La Chaumiere, also in Georgetown. A blast from the past sort of place, very French and very classical. A bit cheaper than 1789, too.
Good luck, and be sure to come back on and let us know how things turned out …
I love your chat and follow them weekly.
I had clipped an article you wrote on Villa Mozart in Fairfax in your October issue and wanted to go for my birthday last Tuesday. So my husband and I went and had a truly wonderful experience; the food, service and ambiance were all what I had expected and more.
But then as we were waiting for dessert we had the best surprise: EMERIL came in with his crew to celebrate the end of his food show at Whole Food! Even though I am not a fan I had the pleasure of talking to him and after all he is a celebrity!!!!!
I guess it's fair to say he kicked the night up a notch, huh? ; )
Thanks for writing. And I'm glad everything about your birthday dinner was so exceptional. That's gratifying to hear.
Yes. When I talked to Ladavan Srigatesook, one of the owners (and cooks), this past Spring she told me they were looking into opening a second place. Preferably, she said, somewhere that wasn't too terribly far from Wheaton.
Didn't at all sound to me like they were thinking of closing down the original — just expanding.
Good for them; I just hope that they don't lose their mojo in spreading to a second location.
I don't understand why this is such a big deal. You're tipping for service, so you should give what you feel is appropriate.
I tip 20% pre-tax, and I add more or less depending on the quality of service received. I understand there is an etiquette involved here, but it's still a service tip.
If people want to require a certain amount per to be added to each bill, then why don't restaurants just get rid of tipping, raise food prices 20-22%, and pay servers a regular wage instead?
Hey, look — no argument from me. I think, based on what I've heard (and heard, and heard), that most people do just what you do.
Thanks for writing in.
I don't. It's just that Wheaton has a lot to offer the (adventurous) eater.
There are some towns in the area that are just pockets of culinary activity; Wheaton is one. And almost all the restaurants are affordably priced, too.
First of all congratulations on three years of starting the chat sessions. Time flies. Any news on the Appetite Stimulus Plan and how are restaurants doing? Come on folks, support your locally owned restaurants during these hard times !
Three years — pffft. Just like that.
But thanks …
The Appetite Stimulus Plan, for those who don't know, is the creation of Open Table.com — it's a kind of reprising of Restaurant Week. Participating restaurants can be found on opentable.com; the list of places is long, as long as it is during Restaurant Week, and there are lots of good options.
Here's the deal: all this week, three-course dinners at those restaurants are $35 and lunches are $24.
It's a good inducement; I hope it helps, all around.
Restaurants are among the very first places to take a hit, and a big one, when the economy suffers. Eating out is widely regarded as a luxury, something that can be cut-back on. I sure do understand that.
But restaurants, as we all know, are more than places to eat; they're places to find community, and comfort. They're entertainment. They can pick you up and leave you feeling more refreshed and more light-headed and light-hearted. They're places of public and private ritual. They matter. As much, if not more, in a tough time as in a boom time.
Whoa, Nelly … Can you tell us more?
Re: Taverna Kefi I wanted to love this restaurant. Wheaton has lots of ethnic restaurants but few or no Greek ones.
The owner was extremely affable and kindhearted. The space and interior is beautiful. But it stopped there.
The food was uneven at best, and vastly underseasoned and worst. Most of the dishes and ingredients seemed out of the can and not homemade.
And the service was horrid. Polite and nice, but completely bumbling and slow. The servers do not know the menu and could not reliably tell me what ingredients were in certain dishes (serious food allergies for my 5 year old). I could and would not trust them to accurately inform me of food ingredients, which means I could never eat there with my daughter.
And it is pretty expensive for what it is. Oh well.
I enjoyed myself there, as I said. I don't know what you had, but nothing I ate came out of a can. And most dishes had brightness and zip.
Now, to be fair, it was several months ago since I went there last, so it's possible the place has slipped some … or it could be that your meal was a bit of an aberration.
Not everything I ate was a hit, there were a number of misses, but some things were good, as I noted — particularly the pork with fennel and mustard sauce.
I agree with you about the prices, and I know what you mean about the service — I saw some aspects of that, too. But I also think that "polite and nice" can compensate for "bumbling and slow."
All right, let's go for the trifecta …
Popeye's. I like the chicken. Hot, though — it's not the same cold, it tastes pretty awful cold, and the smell …
But hot … you get the salt and the spice and the crispy skin …
I'm not a snob. I'm discerning, but I like all kinds of things. Moonpies, hot dogs, Fritos, onion rings (I love the coit-sized ones at Burke's in Baltimore), greasy burgers, chili macs … the list is long.
Here's a tip; quit talking about this stupid, tired subject.
I don't know if I am in the minority, but this subject bores me to tears.
Here, let's start a new argument; I think that children under 5, vegetarians, and all pets should be banned from all restaurants. Have fun!
All restaurants, huh?
This is why I like taking my little boy to Asian and Latino restaurants (to start another argument).
He's welcomed with open arms. It's like coming home. They love little kids. They expect to see them, they want to see them. It's immensely gratifying. Kids are not separate from the adult world; they are a part of it; they function within it.
You rarely see kids menus. And there are no Asian-style or Latin-style Chuck E. Cheeses.
I have taken my child to American restaurants, on the other hand (cheap, mid-level, and up) and not gotten so much as a smile. And worse. You'd think that kids were space aliens to see some of the responses I've gotten.
And yet … we talk such a very, very good game in this culture about "the children."
I think the biggest reason is that big groups are extra work for the kitchen, the management and staff.
They usually require special seating, or a special room, and sometimes even a special menu. They put extra demands on everybody.
I think that's worth the guarantee of a tip, don't you?
Hey, some of the Clyde's are pretty good. Fair prices, good atmosphere, good service, and some pretty good cooking.
How about all the many steakhouses in this city that go through the motions — yet pack them in nightly?
What is a restaurateur supposed to do in a case where somebody has walked into your restaurant a well dressed lady in the late 40's, african american descent, looks at the menu and orders a martini, orders an expensive appetizer and orders another martini, orders the most expensive item on the Menu and orders a dessert. When the check is presented – tells you that I do not have any cash/check/credit card. No apologies whatsoever -" do what you have to do" – She says that she had not eaten in the last two days …. What should a restaurateur do?
It is a friday night – extremely busy with guest waiting to get in… 1) should you call the police ? 2) should you just let her go? 3) should you make her do the dishes? What are your thoughts and if you can throw this question to the peanut gallery – May be some experienced restaurateurs may want to comment.. thanks
First of all, I don't know what the detail that she's of "African-American descent" adds to this. Nothing, right?
And I can't see what an apology would have done.
Now, to the meat of the matter.
Can you make a customer do the dishes? I thought that was only on cartoons and in old movies? I don't know — call the police?
Strange situation …
my two big hairy very well behaved rough collies should be allowed in any restaurant they want to go to. They are better behaved then 99% of the human adults.
They know their lamb and can take a few hundred sheep anywhere you want them to go over. A well behaved child under the age of five is welcome in any restaurant I go to. Parents need to stay active and monitor things.
Good for you! And good for them!
Thanks for writing in, Arlington.
Or you could have gone all Allen Iverson: "I mean listen, we talkin bout tipping. Not food, not food, not food. We talkin bout tipping. … "
(I couldn't resist; I had to Google the original A.I. press conference rant about practicing, which I can't resist copying and reproduceing here, in full):
"Its easy to talk about, its easy to sum it up when you just talk about practice. We sittin' in here, I'm supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talkin' about practice. I mean listen, we talkin bout practice. Not a game, not a game, not a game. We talkin bout practice. Not a game, not a, not a, not the game that I go out there and die for, and play every game like its my last. Not the game. We talkin' bout practice, man. I mean how silly is that? We talkin' bout practice. I know I'm supposed to be there, I know I'm supposed to lead by example. I know that, and I'm not shovin' it aside, you know, like it don't mean anything. I know its important, I do. I honestly do. But we talkin' bout practice, man. What are we talkin' bout? Practice? We talkin' bout practice man. We talk… We talkin' bout practice. We talkin' bout practice. We ain't talkin' bout the game, we talkin' bout practice, man. When you come into the arena, and you see me play, you see me play, don't you? You see me give everything I got, right? But we talkin' bout practice right now. We talkin' bout practice. (crowd laughs) Man look, I hear you, its funny to me too. I mean, its strange, its strange to me too. But we talkin' bout practice man. We not even talkin' bout the game, the actual game, when it matters. We talkin' bout practice."
I go to Ruby Tuesday's. I order the burger. I chew on that a little bit.
Then, later, after the night's over (and I assume the drinking; because the best reason to choose to eat at any of these places is to spare your pennies for the booze you're going to buy/consume later), I go and hit up some all-night Korean barbecue place in Annandale and save (culinary) face.
I have. And I hate, hate, hate an underseasoned steak.
I don't find that to be the case, though, at Ray's the Steaks or Ray's the Classics or BLT Steak. I also like the mammoth, soy-marinated steak at Buck's Fishing and Camping.
That's all for this week, everyone.
Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11.
And don't forget to keep those recipe requests coming. …