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 December 2, 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 . . .
… Some restaurants, it's not enough to give your hard-earned money. No, you have to try to earn their trust, too.
Twice at Present (6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-531-1881) I was turned down when I ordered a dish that was listed on the menu. The kitchen was out of said item? No. The menu had changed and not been updated? No again.
"Have you ever had this before?" my server asked of a clam hash, a dish generally accompanied by black sesame seed-studded rice crackers.
"Yes," I said.
He remained unconvinced, regarding me with a wary, unblinking eye.
"Yes, many times."
He tried fobbing me off onto another entree — a presumably more-attractive-to-Westerners dish.
I insisted. Another waiter came over, and we began again. All this over a clam hash?
The next time, it happened over dessert. The same doubting, the same interrogation, the same diversionary tactic.
Usually, this kind of Checkpoint Charlie means one of two things: The restaurant will be a dumbed-down version of good, authentic cooking, its kitchen rewired to satisfy the timidity of the Western palate. Or — there are treasures that await those with the patience and persistence to push past the gatekeepers.
I was sure Present was going to be among the former, and not just because the staff is inclined to put up obstacles.
There's the space, for one thing, which seems more suited to those who are looking for a comfortable, relaxing outing than for gustatory excitement. It puts you in mind of a lodge, with its clean lines and soothing wood panels. There's even a tinkling fountain. The tables are elegantly lacquered; the chairs are handsome and solid. It would be hard to imagine a bolder, more willful departure from the Eden Center, with its jumble of banh mi shops, crammed cafes and utilitarian restaurants.
Then there's the elaborate, banquet-style presentation favored by chef Luong Tran, who comes to the restaurant after building his name in kitchens from Saigon to Hue to Hanoi.
Tran's spring rolls are wrapped, as usual, then swaddled in a stylish second layer — a process that involves his delicately drizzling rice flour batter around the already-wrapped rolls. The result is a tight and artful latticework that scarcely resembles food. It's as if Tran had decided it's about time the functional spring roll deserved a special night out, and so slipped a fashionable sweater over its simple T-shirt. You've never had a better-looking spring roll. You've also never had a better-tasting one, which is even better.
(The restaurant's name, by the way, is not an allusion to Tran's flair for presentation; it attests to the need, says owner Gene Nguyen, to live in the moment, for today. So: PRES-ent, not Pre-SENT.)
The clam hash I wasn't supposed to order is, likewise, given a style-makeover. The usual plate of crackers for dipping is replaced by a giant, undulating rice cracker shell; the hash sits in it, looking like some exotic cocktail party dip. The flavors are big and pungent, heavy on ginger and fish sauce, and it's hard not to gorge yourself on it, eating too fast and too much.
I still haven't figured out why the staff is inclined to steer customers away from this dish — too much funk? — but I can understand why they'd push elaborately got-up dishes like the salt-and-pepper shrimp. The shrimp are not merely plated, they're presented in a hollowed-out pineapple half. And not merely presented: Tran hangs them upon a thin, carved handle of fruit, like subway strapholders at rush hour, and dusts them with minced scallion and fried garlic. The dish was flying out of the kitchen one Saturday night; if I hadn't known better, I would have sworn I was in the middle of a wedding reception. One group of diners clapped when it came to the table.
I was just as happy, though, with simpler-looking plates of rice crepes (which come with a marvelous homemade nuoc cham, a sweet, salty, tangy dipping sauce that uses the traditional fish sauce as its base) or the tureen-sized soups, which manage the difficult trick of being both full-bodied and delicate.
That dessert I was turned away from? Deep-fried bananas. What could be offputting about bananas that have been battered and fried to a golden crisp? Characteristically, Tran embellishes the dish with a drizzle of coconut milk and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. If there's a better dessert at a Vietnamese restaurant in this area, I haven't eaten it. The fresh-made Vietnamese coffee, thick and dark and sweet, makes a terrific alternative. Me, I like them both, together.
Present gets many things right. Some of them, spectacularly right. Now, if only it could learn to develop a little more faith in its customers. …
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
And thanks also for the fish sauce tip. I'll try it next time.
And I love uni, are you kidding? Bad uni is pretty bad, but good uni is an amazing taste — slightly briny and sweetly custardy, all at once.
Sushi-Ko has had good uni. Kotobuki, too. I haven't gotten to Endo, yet — thanks for the reminder.
But back to steak … I did a steak the other night, and did the same brief marinade in soy sauce I described last week — just to taste that flavor again … A forty-five minute soak, then dried it off, then really crusted one side with kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Then, a quick sear to form a crust. Took it out, still crimson inside.
Boy, was it good. My wife was dancing as she ate.
A full week! Nice. I love obsessive eaters like you.
I've been meaning to get there. Quite a little food cart scene developing there on N. Stuart, with Naan & Kabob and Pupatella. Good to see it.
Thanks for these chats! They're the highlight of my Tuesdays!
My hubby and I are planning a week long road trip down the East Coast in lieu of visiting far-away family for the holidays. If you could eat only one meal in each of these cities, where would you go? Cities are Charleston, Savannah, Charlotte and Durham.
Bonus points for suggestions for hole-in-the-wall places in between, too… a little BBQ sauce on the steering wheel is a small price to pay for good eats. Thanks!
Thanks for that, NC & E; you made my day!
One meal in Charleston is tough. If I were feeling flush, and in need of something sumptuous, Charleston Grille. But it'd be hard to resist breakfast at Hominy Grille. If I had to pick a spot for breakfast in these United States, it would be there. Just great, attentive, homey cooking. And extraordinary cakes and pies.
Savannah: Mrs. Wilks's House. No other place like it. You eat boarding-house style, elbow to elbow with other diners at long communal tables. And the plates and bowls just keep coming.
Durham. Let's call it Raleigh/Durham. My pick is Enoteca Vin, a sort of blueprint for what a wine bar ought to be. Cozy, personal, terrific simple food and great wines, and a very warm, inviting environment.
Charlotte? Sorry, I got nothing. Anyone?
I would like to say that the writers of the magazine don't have a clue about what they are talking about. Reading the article of take out dinners, you mentioned manoli canoli as a good place to eat. By far they have the worst food I've ever had. They might be better than Mcdonalds. I ordered the spanakopitas, and it tasted like something out of a box. I had their mousaka, and guess what, that tasted like something out of a frozen dinner aisle. Before you guys write articles like this do your homework and educate people on what good food really is, people pay a high price to read your magazines. Thumbs down to youre article and 2 thumbs down to manoli canoli.
I? I didn't mention anything, but I guess that's beside the point …
I'm curious, though, about the other 116 places mentioned in the article — where do they rate on the worst-ever scale?
Yes. You're so right.
What I forgot to add to my description was — my wife loves being able to salt individual bites of meat. So that's where I break out the fresh cracked sea salt.
I'm in the process of planning a Christmas dinner with the wife and I've narrowed the choices to Komi and CityZen. I'm interested in which space you prefer.
One of my pet peeves is closely packed together tables of two – sometimes with a long bench seating on one side of the tables.
Will I face this dilemna at either establishment? Which place has a better atmosphere in general?
I prefer Komi. I prefer its intimacy and simplicity.
But I don't think you will — I think you'll think the tables are too close together. So, go with CityZen. And let a manager know, in advance, that you'd prefer a little privacy.
Atmosphere, I think, is highly subjective. As much as, if not more, subjective than food.
I tend not to be overly impressed by very elaborate, very grandly got-up spaces. I can admire them, if they're well done. But my preference is for something simpler. I like feeling, generally, that a place has been around a while, that it has authority — that, even if it's shiny new, it has a look of solidity and permanence.
I like places that understand that they don't exist in a vacuum, that know they belong to a neighborhood, a place — that have some kind of grasp that they are part of a larger community. Interiors, I think, should reflect some of this fact — in the same way that good architecture works with its environment, not against it.
Yeah, but a good burger? That's something.
A cold Guiness, that's bad. But most Guinness you find doesn't really taste like Guinness. It's much more bitter than the genuine article, which is really, really smooth.
The best Guinness I've had in the States — Guinness that truly tastes like Guinness — is the one at Restaurant Eve. Man oh man, is that a great beer.
The chef, Cathal Armstrong, is said to insist on frequent cleaning of the taps. Maybe that's the secret.
I'm loath to give up the goods this early.
But I will say that there are some restaurants that have come out of nowhere to make the list. And that's always gratifying to see.
Much less gratifying — there are a few veteran places that are simply underperforming.
The theme, this year, is value — a pretty important consideration for a lot of people right now, with a cratering economy and no sign of things changing any time soon.
I'm of the belief that value can be had at good, expensive restaurants, just as it can be had at good, inexpensive ones.
What I know, is that there was a contract, and it was allowed to run out.
Do I think it stinks that a place would bring in a talent like this and get good notices and big crowds and then cut him loose and hope that most people won't notice any big drop-off? Especially when the beer is flowing and the games are blaring? Yes. I think it's cynical.
It's of a piece with higher-end restaurants that raise costs after the first three months, which is common. Or places that lay in for reinforcements of staff and lavish the customer with all kinds of attention in the early going, only to cut back after — yep — three months.
Why three months? Because that's the point at which most of the reviews have been written. Again, very, very cynical.
Right now, it's not that hard to come by reservations. Last night, and granted, it was a Monday, but I was in a high-end restaurant and was one of only three tables in use the ENTIRE NIGHT.
Oceanaire is no different from what it has been. It's a fish house for people who like steak houses, big and brassy, with enormous portions. I like the raw bar, I like the hash browns, I like the Flintstonian slice of key lime pie, and I like the simply grilled (or broiled) fish.
Though, having said that, I'd take a meal at Kinkead's any day over it, if I was craving seafood or fish.
They are a small chain not sure if there is one Charlotte but jsut outside of Charlotte right of 85 in Concord there is a Cook Out.
great burgers, dogs, bcue and the best milkshakes in over 20 flavors. Like Sonic this chain needs to come North a few hundred miles
Thanks for the assist, Ballston.
Hi Todd… I finally got to the reopened Wheaton El Pollo Rico in the new building.
I was a little worried until I walked in and smelled the right charcoal and spice. The interior is much nicer, but how could the same chicken be cooked in a bright, open, new space? I think the rotisseries might be new, too.
And given all the troubles with the restaurant's owner, I was slightly surprised to see the familiar faces from the old shop, including the serious guy at the cash register.
The finished chickens are kept in stacked racks, and it seemed as though I was the first customer to come in for a bit. I take mine with fries and tortillas – the cole slaw is too soupy to me – and I always take it home. The fries were shockingly well-fried…nice and light brown, no soggy ones that you can often run into, and just enough salt.
The chicken was clearly cooked a little while before I arrived, but the skin was actually still crispy. It really is all about the flavor – fantastic. It was just like before the fire.
I think back to my half chicken from Chicken Out last week and just laugh. And the green sauce might be about twice as hot now. Either that or it's been too long since the last time.
Sorry, no question this time…
No worries — not after that terrific report!
Shockingly well-fried: I like that.
And it's good to hear that they're back — all the way back, it sounds like. Just the mention of the name, El Pollo Rico, and my mouth starts to water …
So I went with my parents and kids to Geppetto in Bethesda last week- we were in the area and the kids were hungry. It was awful! I mean, really, really awful.
The pizza was barely a step above pizza hut, one salad we got was almost completely devoid of dressing and the tomato and mozzerella salad had pink mealy tomatoes.
The service was laughably bad, etc. etc. I love neighborhood joints and would not just flame a restaurant for nothing, but this was soo bad that I'm amazed this place can stay afloat in these economic times especially. The place was packed on a Tuesday afternoon- what gives??
Yeah, I'm with you — what gives?
Does anyone remember the original Gepetto, in Georgetown?
I have a vivid memory of being taken there by my parents when I was maybe six or seven, I guess — a totally different pizza from what they're now serving.
It was deep dish, I remember. Deep, and very cheesy. The thing that got me, though, because I had never seen it before — and rarely have seen it, since — was that they used whole tomatoes. Whole plum tomatoes, I think. There weren't slices of mushrooms. There were whole mushrooms. It was really unusual.
I loved that pizza.
I'd love to know if anyone out there has any memory of this –?
(Give me your list, why don't you. I'd love to hear the nominees.)
I would. It doesn't feel nearly as bold and forward-thinking as it did, say, ten years ago. The city has caught up with it. There are maybe two dozen places now that do the same thing.
What can you expect?
A wonderful array of antipasti, which, to me, remains the best part of eating here. It's followed by simply, honestly prepared main courses that are without flash or fuss, and a light and clean dessert.
You can also expect a serene and supremely relaxing setting and a warm and experienced waitstaff.
What is your opinion of bringing your own wine to a restaurant (BYOW?), corkage fees, etc?
What is the etiquette? A couple times, I have taken a special bottle for a special occasion but sometimes how it is viewed by the restaurant or whether I should care.
The thing is, not every restaurant is okay with it.
I wish more places in the city had corkage policies. I think it's a great idea, and have done it several times myself. It sure beats paying three and four times what a bottle sells for, retail.
The etiquette, basically, is that you don't bring something that's already on their list, and you don't bring something really cheap. And, it's generally good form to share a glass with either the sommelier or the chef, or both.
I like it when places only charge a $15 corkage fee. $25 and up (some charge $50), inclines me to think that they really don't want you showing up with something from your wine rack or cellar.
Oh, sure — I'm going to hire someone who doesn't know how to use an apostrophe.
You know, I think it's time we came up with a nickname for you. Something to capture the menace and obsession of your semi-regular appearances with us.
What do you think, chatters? Suggestions welcome …
What's the deal with Policy Restaurant on 14th near U? I know you get a lot of questions about delays on new openings, but this one seems particularly interesting… not sure whether to expect a lounge/club, a true restaurant, or both. I'm betting on both- because I did hear they have an established chef and a pure nightlife operation wouldn't bother.
By the way, the haters on last week's chat were pitiful. I love Sushi Taro too, but I don't think it's some vast conspiracy that they're not on the cream of the crop list…… different strokes for different folks is all.
I've been going to Sushi Taro and Sakana for years. I like them both. Doesn't mean they don't fill a need, or that they aren't good.
As for Policy … It does seem more interesting than usual. And, like you, I'm betting on both. We'll see — one day …
Yes: begged to be taken. That was me, too.
And yes again — the pepperoni was amazing. Thanks for reminding me.
It's always funny with things like this to ask: Would we like them, now? Now that we're more mature and more sophisticated in our tastes. Was the original Geppeto truly great? Or was it great to our younger, more callow selves? Our pre-food revolution selves?
On a simliar note, I've watched old TV shows that I used to adore and thought — wha??
"Welcome Back Kotter" was one. Whoa.
"The White Shadow," which I used to rush home from basketball practice to watch. I didn't remember it being that painfully earnest and heavy-handedly liberal.
And "I Love Lucy" — that might've been the biggest surprise of all. It's just not that funny.
what do you think of Old Ebbits?
I'm thinking of it for a semi-casual place to eat after getting engaged…Food worth it? I'm taking a hit on the ring, so I'm looking for bang for my buck.
It's one of my favorite places to go in the city — for the raw bar stuff. The beautifully shucked fresh oysters, especially. Great stuff.
Oysters, clams, a glass of beer on tap, or a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand — that's good eating.
The rest of the menu? It's fine, it's more than decent. Remember, this is a Clyde's group production, so you're not going to get any real culinary highs, but you're not going to find bad or sloppy food, either. I like Old Ebbitt. Now, getting in and getting a table — that I don't like.
I'm always amused at places that will not cook a steak that is not to the chef's preference, e.g., well-done. This isn't an issue for me but it reminds me of a comment by my husband, which was "Would you be insulted if I added salt to a meal that you cooked?" To which I replied, "No, why should I be? "
Everyone has different tastes/preferences. Who am I to inflict my tastes/preferences on someone else. I think this is especially true in the case of diner/chef, where the diner is paying money for the meal to be prepared to his/her liking.
This is a case where customer service really should prevail; it's not a matter of right or wrong.
I suppose the dynamic between husband/wife is equally delicate, though, too.
Oh, yeah — nothing could be more delicate.
I still remember sitting in Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown one night and watching a fascinating tug-of-war between a customer who insisted on a well-done steak and the chef who kept sending it out slightly pink.
Three times, he sent it back, only to get, on the final go-round, a steak that had just the slightest blush of pink to it (almost indiscernible).
He finally threw up his hands, returned the uneaten dish, cursed the French and spent the rest of the night picking at his bread basket and talking (loudly) on his cell phone.
Anyway, I understand your point and tend to agree. But I do think that if I were a chef, I would be exceedingly nervous about sending out a steak that is cooked past its prime. In what way could that possibly make me look good? As a businessman, perhaps. But not as a chef.
I think it's fair for big-time restaurants to insist on preparing dishes exactly as they want. It's a business. No one has to patronize them.
Bourbon Steak is set to open on December 16th.
Ramsay? That's much more complicated. The Ritz is now saying that the hilariously potty-mouthed chef was never coming, after all.
I haven't, no, but a friend of mine has — for whatever that's worth.
He learned zippo from Roberto Donna. He learned slightly more from Michel Richard, though mostly he learned what it is like to be Michel Richard, he says.
He liked a market class he took with Rob Weland at Poste, and enjoyed a class he took with Jonathan Krinn, formerly of 2941 — who will be opening Inox sometime next year.
If we had some kind of a Hall of Fame for comments/questions, this one would be enshrined. I love it!
Do I concur?
You know, I'm just not comfortable with concurring. I mean, what about curly-leaf parsley?
In DC we almost always bring our own bottle. Even if restaurants charge a corkage fee, they can be pretty snotty about it. Especially if they don't think it is worthy of their table.
We were at a restaurant in DC (easily one of the best in the city) shortly after it opened. We brought with us a highly rated bottle of wine from a boutique winery on the West Coast which can only be purchased directly from the vintner. Needless to say, it wasn't on the winelist, and had it been there would have been over $300.
The waiter got really snotty with us as soon as he saw it and even more annoyed when we asked for it to be filtered and decanted. He takes it back to the kitchen and a couple minutes later the Sommelier comes out, wanting to know how we got the bottle, and hinting for a taste. The waiter was much nicer to us after that.
I hate snottiness like that. There's just no excuse for it.
"Or was it great to our younger, more callow selves? Our pre-food revolution selves?"
For me, at least, I don't know that that time ever existed; I was always a foodie. In the mid-80s I was taking cooking classes from Jacques Blanc and L'Academie d'Cuisine, where I was typically less than half the age of all the other students! I looked forward to special-occasion family meals at places like Jean Pierre and Le Lion d'Or. And yeah, I still thought Gepetto was pretty fabulous.
Thanks for writing in, NoLo, and thanks for those reminders of dining days gone by.
For the last twenty or thirty minutes, I've been sitting here craving something that I can never, ever get again — one of those great Gepetto pizzas.
Truly, a Proustian moment. Ah, well …
Eat well and be well, everyone, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, December 16 at 11 AM.