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 18, 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 . . .
… The name being bandied about most often for the job of White House chef under Obama — assuming there is an appointment; at the moment, I've got to think restoring capitalism and ending the war rank as higher priorities — is a chef named Art Smith. With good reason: He has left a curious crumb trail of circumstantial evidence.
Smith opened his restaurant Art and Soul (415 New Jersey Ave., NW; 202-393-7777) on Capitol Hill in September, two months before the election of his fellow Chicagoan. According to Smith’s publicity engine, his most enthusiastic supporter, having once hired him as her personal chef, is none other than Oprah Winfrey, another Chicagoan and a prominent Obama backer.
Smith smiles and demurs when asked about the job, furthering speculation while ostensibly squashing it. Already he has mastered the Washington nondenial denial.
The possibility of Smith at the White House is bigger news than the reality of Smith on the Hill, a function of our 24/7 celebrity culture. But celebrity, ironically, is exactly what Art and Soul does not exude—it’s the least assuming of the city’s star-chef restaurants, possibly a function of Smith’s being from Chicago, not New York. Chicago, as a friend of mine once said, is a big, bustling city full of small-town folks who can’t believe they’re in the big, bustling city.
The servers at Art and Soul are chatty and informal and given to saying “good call” on a dish they like. The space, too, seems less slick than most new hotel restaurants—it’s housed in the new Liaison Capitol Hill—and less self-consciously dramatic, with a funky black-and-red color scheme that comes across a little like a man who dares to don a polka-dot bow tie in a room full of power suits. It's not without its oddities, though. The attempt to create discrete areas within a long, flat space results in the feeling of being in several rooms at once—above the booths along one wall are tiny chandeliers that convey all the warmth of an interrogation room, and the noise-reduction pads might put you in mind of a New York City subway station. The bar is separated from the dining room by what appears to be a black shower curtain.
In no way does Art and Soul come across as a takes-itself-seriously venue, which may explain why I didn’t see a lot of business being done there. Then again, power lunches and dinners don’t generally take place over big, heaping plates of Southern food—even Southern food as refined as Smith endeavors to present.
Running the kitchen for Smith is Ryan Morgan, who grew up in Oxon Hill and Vienna and cooked most recently at TenPenh. His job is to translate rib-sticking fare to a fine-dining setting. Both the Brunswick stew and the she-crab soup are exactly what they ought to be: sturdy, well made, and full of deep flavors, not a starting point for a chef to flaunt his creativity. Smith gets credit for serving local oysters, but I turned up a couple of less-than-stellar ones among the excellent, and the Chesapeake Bay fry basket—an otherwise tasty assortment of aggressively seasoned and lightly battered clams, okra, shrimp, and calamari—was marred on two occasions by brackish-tasting oysters. The hoe cakes are as good as I’ve ever had; I wish Morgan hadn’t cluttered them with so many toppings. A variation with beet-cured salmon seemed like a waste of salmon, and I found myself jettisoning the arugula and bleu-cheese crumbles from another version. Better just to order the arugula salad, its peppery leaves slicked with a blackberry-ale vinaigrette and garnished with watermelon pickles and bits of goat cheese.
The goal of the entrées is to give the impression of being immoderately rich but to leave you feeling pleasantly full, not bloated. The big double-cut pork chop is brined for added savor, allowing Morgan to employ the red-eye gravy judiciously, like a sauce, as opposed to letting the meat wallow in it, the way a good country diner might. The grouper, on the other hand, is moored in its carrot-cider broth, a smart move that imbues a bland fish with more flavor. The chicken is pecan-crusted and, for breast meat, about as juicy as you can hope for; it’s flanked by creamed spinach, which I found myself dabbing slices of meat into as if it were a condiment.
At every meal, at least one dish missed. The lamb chops were fatty and in need of better trimming—at $34 they were overpriced, too; the butternut-squash-filled ravioli came doused in too much butter; the scallops were plump, rich, and perfectly prepared but hardly enhanced by a dull parsnip purée and a too-sweet smoked-onion marmalade.
Desserts are a throwback, Southern to the core: simple cakes and pies. I expected to love them all, but only Smith’s signature “baby cakes” hit the spot. The first time I tried them, they were slightly smaller than a cupcake and came in a selection of three; lately they look to be the size of a mini-cupcake, and you get five of them, including coconut, lemon curd, and Lady Baltimore. Two bites at most, but they conjure an entire culture and tradition. …
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
What's your take on this?
On arriving at A La Lucia in Alexandria (7:30 on a Saturday) two weekends ago we were seated next to a booth occupied by a couple and their toddler. The toddler had been set up at the end of the table in a high chair and she was watching cartoons on a portable DVD player. My back was to the kid and I could hear the sound, though it was low.
I'm still trying to decide if this was one of the rudest things I'd ever seen (bringing your own TV to dinner at a nice place??) or an effective strategy for keeping a kid quiet (fussy would have been worse).
If the kid was quiet and didn't bother you or your table or any other tables, then I'd say: live and let live.
A kid's bringing a DVD to dinner doesn't seem all that bad to me. An adult? That'd be different.
Sorry Mr Kliman all a great steak needs is some coarse ground sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper. it doesnt need a soy marinade or anything else.
A great 28 day dry aged, grass fed prime local steak doesnt need anything else sir. Throw some hardwood charcoal in the chimney starter with a some paper light, Spread coals in your Weber and grill. Try the Organic Butcher or Home.
Now if you are getting your steaks from Safeway, Giant, SFW or Whole Paycheck they need help. Wegman's wet aged choice are the exception. Lots of taste, salt, pepper and a baste with butter. Their dry aged beef is very good too.
Did I say it did? No.
I said the steak at Buck's is marinated in soy, and I said that it's a great steak. I didn't say it was a great steak BECAUSE it's been marinated in soy. Nor did I say that a steak needs to be marinated in soy to be great.
I agree with you, that an ordinary steak needs a little extra help.
And actually, when I buy a steak from Safeway or wherever, I steal from Carole Greenwood and do a quick marinade of it in good soy sauce. Twenty, thirty minutes, it makes a difference.
What am I missing at Hollywood East? Maybe the dim sum….The rest of their food is atrocious.
I had an urge for basic Cantonese last week so I went to HE. Ordered spare ribs that were totaly dried out and reheated, and a jumbo shrimp dish that was a disgrace.
Actually, I was giving them a second chance since the last time I was there it was horrible too…..Used to love but no more!
Funny you should bring this up, because the last meal I had there — last non-dim sum meal — was really … off.
Very uneven, and when things weren't good, they really weren't good; the kind of sloppy execution I'm used to at a lot of Chinese spots, but not Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd.
The dim sum, though, remains without peer in the area. Wonderful stuff.
Good morning Todd, I need help in selecting a memorable evening of food and wine for my inlaws as Christmas gift (they are foodies and very picky and dined at best restaurants in the world)
My husband and I are debating between kitchen table at Teatro, Komi or Vidalia for chef's personal touch and attention in quality and creativity. I heard all 3 chefs personally cook for their guests for special occasion dinners, but hard to get reservations any suggestions?
Thank you so much Mary
That's thoughtful and generous of you, but ugh. Having to satisfy picky foodies who are quick to make comparisons to the best restaurants in the world. And your in-laws, no less!
If it's memorable that you're really looking for, I think the place you want is Komi. It's very personal and intimate, full of soul, and a very different kind of experience from any other restaurant in the city. And the tasting menu is special.
The first course — it's made up of about a dozen or so small courses, actually — is a lot of fun: partly because of not knowing what's coming, partly because it takes more than an hour and really sets the tone for the night; and partly because it encourages conversation. Lots of raw fish, here; lots of big, bright, bold tastes. One of the signatures of the first course is a remarkable thing, a slow-roasted date stuffed with mascarpone, salted carefully and drizzled with olive oil. The last course is made up of dishes like roast suckling pig or roasted goat for two — both spectacular.
Of the three spots you listed, only Teatro so far as I know has a chef's table.
Todd – I have a business colleague from out of town who likes fine wines. When he visits, I pay for dinner and he pays for the wine.
What are the best wine lists in town? All around? French? Italian? California (North America)? Whatever? George
For Italian wine, Dino is the best around — an amazing list, particularly for Italian reds.
CityZen is strong in California wines.
French: Citronelle. Lots of heavy hitters.
All around? I really like the list at Vidalia (interesting choices, some lesser-known things, great variety, good range of prices). And Taberna del Alabardero is terrific for Spanish whites and reds.
hi Todd, I recently made a trip to New York and now craving xiao long bao aka soup dumplings. Is there any place in the area that does xiao long bao?
I heard A&J might have them, but the soup usually leaks out and so they're not really soup dumplings.
No, they're still soup dumplings — the soup doesn't always leak out, not in my experience. I like A&J's version.
Beyond that, there's Chinatown Express — but I much prefer A&J.
(Boy, I could go for a few right about now … And maybe a pot of hot tea. And some roast duck. And maybe a scallion pancake.)
When my husband and I first moved from Alexandria to Rockville in 2003, we looked in the yellow pages for a sushi restaurant nearby our house. We decided to try Momo Taro Sushi, which is in a nondescript strip mall located at 16051 Frederick Road in Rockville.
We had such a great meal at such a good value and wonderful friendly service. We ate there about once a week. The sushi is always fresh & we were frequently given free little appetizers of the sushi chef’s own creations.
When we moved to Glover Park in DC in 2006, we continued to drive to Rockville to go to our favorite sushi restaurant. However, one day, we decided to walk down the street a few blocks to go to Sushi Ko since the Washingtonian always raves about it. We were so disappointed, we never went back.
The sushi was tiny and nothing special and the prices were extremely high for what you get there. We paid about twice as much for the same amount that we got at Momo Taro, and it wasn’t nearly as good.
Why does the Washingtonian constantly rave about this mediocre restaurant when Momo Taro is infinitely superior? I have never seen Momo Taro, a wonderful find, on any of the Washingtonian’s best restaurants lists or even reviewed by the Washingtonian.
Why don’t you guys give some not-so-well-known, kind of obscure restaurants a look? You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find! Thanks for listening. Lisa
Giving obscure restaurants a look? I do it all the time. Almost always the reviews at the top of the chat are of mom n pops and holes in the wall.
I came to the magazine three years ago with a mandate to make changes. One of those was to take the Cheap Eats issue seriously. A ton of work goes into that issue, and the list is strong and varied — some of the best restaurants in the area are on there; they're just not always the most accessible.
Dirt Cheap Eats has gone from about 25 places to 70 and more — good spots, too.
I have made it a point to include departments in the magazine like Hidden Gems (wherein we tout great food, whether it's from a food cart, like the fabulous Pupatella in Arlington, a taco truck, or a bakery tucked behind a gas station) and Dining on a Shoestring (restaurants where two can eat extremely well for $25/person), and to not be limited in thinking that a major review should only be of a big-ticket, expensive place.
As for sushi …
I've been to Momo Taro and like it. It's a good neighborhood sushi spot. At that level, I like Niwano Hana in Rockville a lot more.
The small pieces at Sushi-Ko? Yes: that's the way they do it in Japan. Bigness is not a sushi virtue. Expensive? It can be. But it's a fraction of some of the places in New York. The vast majority of sushi restaurants in the area get their fish delivered twice a week. Momo Taro I believe is one of these. Sushi-Ko has five deliveries per week. It's not simply a sushi bar; it's a Japanese restaurant, and many of the dishes that are not strictly sushi are excellent.
Most of the tuna you find in the metro area is mediocre — mushy and tasteless; Sushi-Ko seeks out a Big Eye tuna supplier for its dishes. The cost is high — higher than what you used to pay at the restaurant — but the tuna is worth it. And not just for chu-toro or oh-toro.
When I visit friends in other cities, we always end up at cozy pubs with dark-wood interiors, maybe a fire in the fireplace, and solid, interesting, better-than-bar-food food. I'd like to reciprocate when my friends come to town, but I haven't found the spot.
Bar Pilar and Cafe Saint-Ex are along the right lines, but they're always so crowded. Got any other ideas? Maybe in the Dupont Circle area?
Bar Pilar, yes. And also Granville Moore's, on H St, and Cork. None is in Dupont, but I think they've got what you're looking for.
You could also give the Tabard Inn a shot; it's got the fireplace in the front, a fun bar area, and pretty decent food.
Todd, I've driven past Taverna Kefi in Wheaton on various evenings the past couple weeks and noticed that the lights are out and nobody's home. Any scoop on that?
Though it's gotten so-so reviews, I was hoping for a little bite of Greece in the Silver Spring/Wheaton area. Any other places I can get my fix?
No scoop. That's interesting to hear, though.
I've enjoyed the place, but I do think that Athens Grill, in Gaithersburg, is a better, more consistent spot for simple Greek cooking. Up a level, there's the cozy fine-dining spot Mourayo. And for a level or two above that, there's Komi, the best restaurant in the city at the moment.
I had dinner at the 2941 Restaurant this evening and was extremely disappointed and upset with them. This has been my 3rd or 4th year going to 2941 for Thanksgiving and I have loved each year more than the next, until now. This year they broke away from their tradition buffet-style Thanksgiving dinner and had a very limited menu. This was my first disappointment because I had been looking forward to the tables loaded with turkey, prime rib, mashed potatoes, and other things along with an enormous selection of desserts.
Instead, I got a menu. On the left side of the menu, you could choose an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert for $75. On the right side there was the option of a 6-course "Thanksgiving meal" for $105, with suggested wine pairings for an addition $65. This "Thanksgiving meal" was hardly traditional with its Maine Lobster, and other non'Thanksgiving items. The only thing that looked appetizing was the turkey breast. I ordered the Crab Cannelloni as an appetizer and the Maple Farms Turkey Breast as my entree from the left side of the menu. Another disappointment was the food. My crab appetizer was 3 little crabb-stuffed canellonis, about the size of a quarter in diameter, and barely an inch tall. I sat and stared at this petite serving and said, "What is this? Las Tapas?"
After my not-so-satisfying appetizer, my turkey breast came out. On the plate was 3 slices of turkey breast, smaller than slices of Oscar Mayer's bologna, with a scoopful of diced sweet potatoes smaller than cheese cubes. There was a dollop of cranberry sauce and on the side, an dish with mushroom stuffing, about the size of a tennis ball.
I wolfed down my meal in less than a minute, it maybe took me 5 or 6 bites to kill it. To be honest with you, I had more bread and butter than I did anything else.
After the main course came dessert. We ordered a pumpkin pie sampler and an apple pie, 4 of each. The sampler trays had a trio of cheesecake, pumpkin pie, and some other thing I wasn't quite sure of. Each was a little smaller than a golf ball in size. The apple pies that came out were not slices, but individual pies that were no bigger than a muffin top. After all of this disappointment, our waiter told us we could take home a whole apple pie for 20 bucks. The pie was killer, so we got one and ate some while we were there. This time we got big slices of pie with scoops of ice cream on the side. Why they didnt offer this before made me angry because they just scored over $50 with those baby-sized desserts from before. But regardless, the apple pie was worth every penny.
So after a very disappointing, and VERY overpriced "thanksgiving dinner" at the 2941 Restaurant, I am writing this letter hungry for a REAL Thanksgiving feast.
Well, you got an entertaining little posting out of it, if nothing else. And a really good apple pie.
I wonder why they changed. It'd be interesting to hear from someone connected with the restaurant.
I have foodie friends who talk disdainfully of big portions, but even they, I think, would admit that on T-Day, you want to see big, heaping portions of food on your plate.
And especially when you're paying over a hundred bucks a person; that's a lot of money for a meal.
I'm just curious, though — because you don't mention how anything tasted, aside from the pies. Was the food really that bad? Or just stintingly presented?
Love your blog. First time question for me, though. I am a fan of Sushi Taro and love it for the simple and authentic rolls/nigiri. It's my favorite sushi in DC proper, although I recently had some good but smaller nigiri from Sushi Ko and will also go to Kaz when in the area.
Was curious as to why Sushi Taro (Dupont) never makes it onto your lists, or as a recommended sushi place in your blog. As a note to other Sushi Taro diners, they will close for renovations on December 14 (no expected reopening date on their website). Thanks!
Why? I've had some pretty mediocre meals there.
That's not to say there aren't things on the meal that I like. There are. But I like other places more.
Sushi, generally, is pretty ordinary in the city and in the area. And it has to do with the quality of the fish, I think, more than anything else. And THAT has to do with how much money a restaurant is willing to pay to go and get the really, really good stuff. Sourcing fish has become even more difficult and even more expensive.
I doubt it happens soon — not with a cratering economy — but eventually, a sushi restaurant in the city (I think city more than area) will emerge that will pay top dollar for great fish. It will charge for it, too, as it should. But that restaurant will significantly raise the stakes for raw fish in the area.
Is that so?
They all say that, huh? What are their names, if I might ask. And what is your name, too? (Love this hiding under the cloak of anonymity thing.)
My "reign"! Love that, too. I have a fiefdom!
You can tell your "friends" and anyone you want how it works. We review or write about places, we publish an issue. There is no interference from the advertising side. Not only that, but they don't know who we're writing about until the issue comes out.
Now, a month or two after the issue is published, the advertising department as a general rule will get in contact with a restaurant and ask if the owner would like to advertise. Many say no. Some say yes. That's not just how this magazine works, by the way. All magazines that I know of work this way.
People who don't know this look and say: Ah, well, you have to advertise to get a review. But that's mixing up cause and effect.
I think a lot of that depends on what the economy does.
I think, assuming things go in the direction they've predicted to go, you're not going to see any real big-deal, fine-dining restaurants that aren't connected to a big name who's a sure thing. Instead, lots of bistros, cafes, small, forty-seat places.
I think, also, you're going to see how clever and technically trained chefs are — how well they can use the lesser-known parts of the animal, how tasty they can make them. I think you'll see more soups, more breads — things that are simple and not costly but that are immensely satisfying if done well.
How to get on my good side:
Cook memorably. Cook food that makes me think about it long after I've put my fork down and left the restaurant.
Take care of people as if they were your family — no, better yet: take care of everybody (young, old, dressed-up, dressed-down, cranky, smiling) as if they were food critics.
And, yeah — stop anonymously flaming me and spewing provocative garbage.
Hi Todd… love the chat.
I'm planning a "me" weekend and would love some suggestions for a great place to go for lunch by myself. I am new to the area and haven't tried too many places yet and would love to hear what you recommend! Thanks!
A "me" weekend: neat idea.
If it were me, I'd consider Poste or Central. I think they're both really good, interesting spots for a solo lunch. Very inviting. And both are also very close to other interesting things.
Really good food, too.
I'd probably want to begin with a soup at either — whatever's on the menu these days at Poste, and the exceptional mussel chowder at Central — then move on to something more substantial. The fabulous corned beef sandwich at Central, maybe? The handmade ravioli or crispy-skinned wild striped bass (with a red wine-poached egg) at Poste. You'll drink well at both places, too.
I'll be curious to hear where you decided to go, so check back in with us and let us know how things turned out.
And too bad, too.
I hope for their sake that it's a small place, and that it's not in Rockville or Bethesda. I hope, for them and for their fans, it's Wheaton. They built up a very loyal and very passionate following there, and carrying over an audience to a new location is not easy. A bigger, newer space, in a new town, would mean more expectations and an entirely different constituency.
What about Canton Cafe, in Springfield?
I would say it's more pretty good than good, but if I lived within striking distance I could see myself patronizing it quite a bit.
Massimo, for those not in the industry, = Massimo Fabbri, the chef at Tosca.
He's set to open Posto on 14th St, in the old Viridian location — a casual spot, I'm told, for simple pastas and rusticky sauces. Should have been open by now. I can't account for the delay, other than the usual problems with contractors and codes, etc.
Really, the big thing is money. With money, you can buy the highest grades possible.
You can have a fresh piece of fish, but if it's been given a low grade, it's not going to taste as good as something that's been graded highly and isn't quite as fresh.
Freshness, by the way, is a big myth. Most sushi fish is frozen. It's just a matter of for how long, and how the freezing's been done.
I know a lot of sushi eaters are under the impression that when they walk into a sushi bar, the fish they're gettiing was dredged from the water the night before, or that morning. In most cases, the fish has been out of the water between five and seven days. It takes another day or two for transport. And most sushi restaurants get deliveries twice a week. Which means the sushi chefs have to make those deliveries last for an entire week.
Who's hankering for a piece of raw fish now? : )
Thanks for all the questions, everybody. You, too, pot-stirrers!
Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week … And don't forget to enter the contest described at the top of the chat — the prize: dinner for two at Notti Bianche, in Foggy Bottom …
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, November 25 at 11 AM.