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 January 6, click here.
Producer's Note: Due to ObamaRama (aka Inauguration 2009) there will be no Kliman Online on January 20th.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… Founding Farmers (1924 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8783) is a difficult place to try to get a fix on, because it isn't what it at first seems to be.
It isn't foodie, for instance — despite the big deal the staff and the menu and the promotions all make about "farm to table" and "sourcing locally." (When pressed for examples of local, a server recently mentioned Virginia, Pennsylvania and … Kentucky.)
Nor is it slick — though don't tell that to the designer, who conjured up this bizarre cross of urban industrial and barnyard (call it barnyard chic).
So what is it, then?
If it were a movie, it would be a Will Smith vehicle: bottom-line, formulaic, please-the-masses — but likable, with a number of smart touches that lift the experience above the norm.
Or, to come up with at a more relevant food-world analogy: It's Bob's Big Boy meets trendy urban bistro.
The menu's printed, diner-style, on one big, laminated page, and it's an improbable sprawl — soups, salads, fishes, grilled items, signature plates, cheeses, desserts … even wine and cocktails. Portions are monstrous and the prices are reasonable, particularly for downtown, which has to explain why the place was jammed on a midweek night not long ago (a forty-minute wait in prime time for a table), the mostly-under thirty hordes swarming the bar. You'd never have known the economy was in a free fall.
The ribeye would be laughed at by people who kneel at the altar of Ray's, but it was good and cooked just as I ordered it — the kind of simple, tasty, inexpensive ($18) steak you want from a neighborhood restaurant. The fried chicken with waffles ($16) was even better. The chicken was country-style, well-seasoned and lightly fried, and the waffles were big and fluffy and hot. It came with a kind of pasta-style mac and cheese that was good and addictive, and some roasted brussels sprouts and cauliflower (the latter done up with Indian spices).
It's hard to say whether it's the biggest dish in the place, since everything seems to be portioned for Brobdingnagian appetites — even the salads. The "17 vegetable salad" dwarfs even the huge portions at the Cheesecake Factory. A friend and I ate half, and what I took home for my wife to not finish was more than most restaurants think to give you for a salad. It's a pretty good salad, too — lots of tasty, crunchy veggies in there, with a champagne vinaigrette to keep things moist.
Oysters Rockefeller would seem the kind of dish to avoid here — too sophisticated. The breadcrumb topping was too soft, a disappointment, but the brininess of the oysters came through. I was surprised to like them as much as I did. And a skillet of cornbread was terrific when it was hot — slightly less so when it cooled.
Desserts were decidedly less satisfying. A huge wedge of red velvet cake was served too cold (I hate cold cake; what's the point, unless it's ice cream cake?). And the ice cream sundae was a dead ringer for something you'd get at a Bob's. I wouldn't like it at Eve or Corduroy or Cork, but here I didn't mind it at all. Context is everything.
A final thought — something that struck me as I sat at my first-floor table and looked over the menu. Not a sight but a smell. The smell of something cooking in the room.
You go into most high-end restaurants, and you never smell a thing. Even the places with open kitchens — no smells. Here, it was like walking into someone's home who's been cooking all afternoon. Roasted meats, breads, pies. Very welcoming. …
… They're down to two sisters — one runs a nearby restaurant, another a hair salon — but the move to a new location 15 minutes west after more than a decade at the Eden Center has reinvigorated the place formerly known as Huong Que.
The old, utilitarian space has been swapped for a saffron-walled open dining room with teal accents, handsome wood tables and chairs and large, Monet-like paintings of Vietnamese fishing villages that have been lit gallery-style.
It's gorgeous. But you expect that the opening of a new location will bring a new, more contemporary look.
What comes as a revelation at the new Four Sisters (8190 Strawberry Ln., Falls Church; 703-539-8566) is the cooking, which has never been this good — never this ambitious, never this precise, never this thrilling.
One of the best dishes is a seeming throwaway — a plate of shrimp toast ($4.95). It's a brilliantly simple thing, yet no shrimp toast I've ever eaten has made me want to go back just to try it again. (Which I did, not long ago.)
The kitchen slices off a thick hunk of sesame bread, mounds the shrimp paste generously atop it, scatters it with sesame seeds and fries it until it's golden and slightly crunchy. A quick dip into a pinch bowl of fish sauce, and you've got one of the best (and cheapest) appetizers you'll find in the area right now.
I'm also in love with the quail with lime and black pepper dip — a staple of many Vietnamese kitchens in the area, though none comes close to matching the sophistication of this one. The quail, to begin with, are unusually plump and meaty, not the sometimes-dessicated birds you tend to get. They're marinated, then glazed and then roasted, and arrive looking as if they've been lacquered. The mix-at-the-table paste of fresh lime juice, black pepper and salt adds a balancing hit of tang and spice.
Those are the two dishes that have lodged themselves most in my mind, but of the more than a dozen dishes I've tried now, only one has been a disappointment (an oily stir-fry of snow peas). Most have been excellent, including: deep-fried scallops over a salad of baby tomatoes, lettuce and shaved onion with lime-and-black pepper sauce; a shrimp-and-pork salad with lotus crackers; falling-off-the-bone pork short ribs with onion; clay pots of fish and chicken; spring rolls; grilled skewered pork. Some have been merely very good, like the bun, or like the crispy rice crepe filled with pork and shrimp.
There's also terrific Vietnamese coffee (served with a thermos of hot water for customizing the sweetness and thickness of the beverage) and a wonderful homemade limeade soda.
In its previous incarnation, Four Sisters made its reputation on comfort and service. The staff remains one of the most attentive and helpful around, eager to direct first-timers to dishes or explain the way a dish is supposed to be sauced (they'll even try to calm a crying baby).
But comfort is now joined to style, and the kitchen has hit new, unexpected levels of excellence. And a likable, dependable place has morphed into something more: a destination. …
The Current List: Where I'd Spend My Own Money
Nava Thai Noodle & Grill, Wheaton
Gom Ba Woo, Annandale
Palena and Palena Cafe, DC
Citronelle and Citronelle Lounge, DC
The Source and The Source Lounge, DC
Johnny's Half Shell, DC
Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington
Pete's Apizza, DC
Four Sisters, Falls Church
Poste Brasserie, DC
La Caraquena, Falls Church
Ray's Hell Burger, Arlington
Oval Room, DC
Farrah Olivia, Alexandria
Cosmopolitan Grill, Alexandria
Cafe du Parc, DC
Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd., Wheaton
Had an odd experience at Brasserie Beck. I ordered the mussels with veal Bolognese-delicious but huge.
So – I took the mussels out of the shells and asked for the dish to go. The waitperson told me it's against the DC health code to send mussels home??? Is this true?
I had the exact same experience at another restaurant.
Strange piece of code, isn't it?
I can't believe Surfside in Glover Park didn't make it onto your list of great spots for take-out!
The food is wonderful and shockingly innovative, fresh, and fun for what is essentially fast food. I have yet to be disappointed with any dish ranging from the soup to daily dinner specials. You can really have a fairly gourmet experience at home which won't break the bank. It's a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
I hear you.
Thing is, though, we had them down for an actual review — one of Ann Limpert's excellent Dining on a Shoestring columns. Didn't make sense to steal our own thunder, as they say.
And as I said last week, I think the restaurants in the city are really missing out by not stocking them. How can you tout your being local (as so many chefs are wont to do these days) if you don't also make a point to carry a good number of local wines?
Besides which, I think that good, well-made Virginia wines just go a lot better with food than those from California, Oregon, and Washington. I like their leanness and acidity, I like their low alcohol-levels.
If I had to name some favorites, I'd put together a list that included Delfosse, Chrysalis, Barboursville, Veritas, some Kluge wines, some Blenheim, some Rappahanock … I also like the wines put out under Michael Shaps's name.
Not much to report. Things are in holding patterns — the inauguration, the economy. I think we'll be hearing more come February.
The proposed raw foods spot is an interesting one — mostly because of the timing. I keep hearing that comfort food is hot — as if it was ever cold — and a restaurant that trades on raw cuisine (little cooking, little use of heat, lots of fresh veggies and fruits) seems to fly against the prevailing wisdom.
Which I like. But I have to wonder if it will catch the mood of diners who just want to hunker down with something simple …
Good morning Todd. Great chats every week, thanks.
I follow during my lunch breaks eating my leftovers at my desk
Two questions for you 1- Almost every week you phrase chef Enzo Fargione and his new elaborated Teatro Restaurant. Maybe I have missed it, but did you review the place? If so when did the article come out? I use to take cooking classes from when he was at Barolo and Teatro seems to be a perfect fit for the chef
2- Are the rumors about Citronelle true? I have heard that he will move to Chicago or Boston next year….what do you know about this?
If so What are they going to do with that vacant space and would you think a new celebrity chef could settle in there?
I didn't review the place — at least not a formal review, no. But I have talked about some of my meals there on this chat.
It's a turned-around restaurant, that's for sure. Some of the most memorable cooking being done in the city right now. But I still dislike the space. And I still dislike the cheesy Euro-disco soundtrack. And the service has a kind of slick magnanimity that I find offputting.
As for Citronelle … I've heard that one, and more. Some of them sound pretty far-fetched. The restaurant announced at the end of December that it would stay open for all of 2009, despite renovations — yet that hasn't put a stop to the rumors.
My two cents — I hope he doesn't move. I think it'd be a huge loss for the city.
Actually, about four years ago, I took him around the city. Him and the "Kitchen Bitch." Met them at the National Press Club, shared a cheese plate, then went for Ethiopian food on 9th St. He didn't know anything about Ethiopian food, which I thought was surprising, given the range of things he's eaten. He liked it, though he drank more than he ate.
From there I insisted we drop by Ben's Chili Bowl. He'd never been. We ate half smokes and fries, and he dug the atmosphere.
We walked west on U St., then made our way to a bar in Adams-Morgan. It was late now, past midnight. We drank beers and talked, and then the lights went up. This shiny-faced guy, really wrecked, walks up to him and says: Do I know you? Bourdain turns to "Kitchen Bitch,' and there's fear in his eyes: bourgeois fear. "Let's get out of here," he says. But it's packed, and it's hard to just up and leave. We're making our way out and, finally, it comes to Shiny-Faced Guy: "Wait! You're the dude that f–kin' ate the cobra!"
That was going to be my column that week for the City Paper — except that my editor didn't think it was going to be of interest to a lot of people, probably because she didn't watch TV. And because, well — it's a TV personality, and City Paper readers are too urbane and hip to care about something so middlebrow as TV.
Sorry if this question is boring or too common! Girlfriend is coming to visit for a couple days, looking for some good places to go out in DC area, lunches and dinners. Cuisine is open.
Romantic suggestion? Fun suggestion? We are both in mid 20's. Thanks Todd!
I'd print out the list at the top of the chat — those are the places I'd go and drop my own money. And there's a range of spots on there — range of prices, range of styles, etc.
But just to guide you a little … Cork is fun, Poste is fun, Pete's Apizza is fun and cheap, Palena Cafe is reasonable (and often exceptional), Cafe du Parc can be romantic (if you're sitting downstairs), and Komi if you've got the cash (it's a very expensive night out) can be romantic and exquisite.
I am posting my question WAY early because I am having a craving WAY before the chat….and even though you won't get to my question for a few days, I can't resist.
I would love to know where to get some good bao in the DC area….preferably the city or somewhere in Virginia. I have yet to find any good places… Please help? Readers? Thanks! 🙂
P.S.- As a person who has spent much time in Chicago, last week's poster who said there is nothing good to eat here is crazy. There are just as many good neighborhood spots AND high end places here!
I mean, if you really need to compare… Like Blackbird or Custom House? Try Blue Duck… Moto? Alinea? Try out Minibar and Komi… OR, maybe stop comparing the two cities and find the places here that are awesome because they are HERE…and enjoy a good deep dish pizza when you go back to Chicago to visit. And don't complain about something when you have been here a week….if you really like food that much you would be happy to be in a new city with different restaurants to explore….
I couldn't agree with you more. If you love food, every place is worth exploring — if you know how to explore (not everybody does), and where.
As for good bao … You're looking at Hollywood East Cafe on the Blvd. or A & J, the one in Wheaton, the other in Rockville and Falls Church.
There's absolutely nothing in the city, unfortunately. I wish there were, on days when I'm downtown and have the exact same cravings you started off talking about.
Nava Thai Disaster Last Friday evening
1. Call in take out order at 7:00. Told it would be an hour (OK)
2. Arrive at 8:00. After much delay and discussion, this 5-dish order was ready at 9:00! At that, one order never came out and we gave up. Orders came out as ready between 8:30 and 9 – leading to cold dishes.
I've gotten take out at Nava Thai many times – the new site just isn't working and I won't be back. Any other Thai suggestions in Silver Spring/Wheaton area?
Wow, short leash.
Don't you think you're being a little harsh in COMPLETELY WRITING OFF a place that used to be a fifth its present size and is still getting used to the huge crowds? I could understand it if, in addition, you got lip, you got attitude. But you didn't. This is a good, hard-working restaurant.
I like Ruan Thai, right around the corner on Amherst.
Not for everything, but I really like the whole crispy fish in red curry, the yum watercress salad (it's misnamed; it's more of a shrimp and watercress fritter), and the crispy duck with basil and chilis (the duck gives off hits of cinnamon and anise, and if you're lucky, the meat's luscious and the skin has a real crunch).
Actual real conversation between my husband, I and a server last week for dinner
Server: ready to order?
Wife: yes I will have a Quatro stangioni pizza
Server: sorry we are out of ham
Wife: Ok then about a buffalo mozzarella pizza?
Server: Sorry we don't have the mozzarella this evening
Husband: well what kind of beers do you have?
Server: none right now we just ran out, sorry
Wife: About a glass of Chianti?
Server: Not sure if we have any let me check Later on at check time
Husband: Can we please have the check?
Server: Ummmmmm if you pay cash I will give you 10% discount
Wife: Wow thank you so maybe you could buy yourself a new shirt since this one is wrinkled and dirty and full of tomato spots
Server: yeah yeah…….
FYI: I deleted the name of the restaurant where this happened, because — well, because.
Because I don't know if the chatter is on the level.
And because even if the chatter is on the level, I'm trying very, very hard to be good.
But boy oh boy …
The best Chinese restaurant in DC is The Source. Hands down. Arms down. Legs down. Feet down.
Nothing in Chinatown — denuded Chinatown — comes close.
With the onslaught of humans coming inot the district this weekend, how do you think the restaurants and hotels are going to handle the volume of people.
If they estimate 2 to 3 mil of people and we only have 2k plus restaurants and ac ouple hundred k of rooms where the hell is everyone going to eat drink and sleep?
As well what are the residents to do in DC? RUN far AWAY?
Gonna be interesting, isn't it?
I have no idea where everybody is supposed to go — though I hear that Oprah has rented 35 rooms at the Four Seasons, so that should take care of SOME of them.
But jeeze …
I hope the restaurants are laying in for extra staff.
I'm supposed to go out of town on an assignment, but you know what? I'm deliberately choosing NOT to go during the inauguration, which would seem the ideal time to get out of Dodge. But I want to be here, crazy-chaotic as it's going to be. I want to see it all for myself.
And I want to be around my people. Not just my immediate family and friends, but everyone — everyone who works here and calls this home.
I've been invited to a couple of things, but I'm not going — I'm going to be cooking and eating and drinking at a friend's house. Eating, drinking, watching TV — and staying far away from the red-hot center of things.
Last week you recommended afternoon tea at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, though acknowledged you hadn't been in a couple of years. A friend called there yesterday and was told they stopped doing tea last spring.
Do you have a second choice? Any thoughts about tea at the Mandarin?
I've never been to the Mandarin's. If you go, I'd be curious to hear about your experience.
Most of the others I've done, other than the Four Seasons, have been only decent — the one at the Jefferson is fairly typical. I think what makes a great afternoon tea is a good, generous tray of nibbles and doting service. It's not that easy to find. I had a poor experience at the Ritz-Carlton on 22nd.
There are, however, a couple of quirky spots, like the one I did a couple of years ago in Bowie — in an antiques' shop! (Shoot, I'm forgetting the name … )
That was a fun, reasonably priced good time — a nice way to spend a couple of hours with my mom, who's a real tea hound, a real tea lover. She drinks eight cups a day, at minimum. It must be working: she's 81 and working full-time and giving people hell.
Really enjoy the blog.
I have a few quick questions about my new favorite food…Vietnamese Pho.
First, how do you pronounce it correctly? I've heard several different ways.
Next, is there a proper way to eat it? I feel like I get some weird stares as I try to work my way through one of those delicious bowls.
How do you distinguish one Pho place from another. I've been to four different places so far (love them all), but it seems like Pho, is Pho, is Pho. Your thoughts?
It's pronounced "fuh," not "foe," and with a little upturn in the voice — you're almost on the brink of a question. (Sort of like the way a lot of teenage girls talk. You know? Like this?)
A proper way to eat it — not really. Most Vietnamese have one hand on a pair of chopsticks and the other hand on a spoon. You alternate back and forth. By the time you get close to the end, it's perfectly okay to do what a lot of people do and just pick up the bowl and knock back the broth.
What I look for from a pho parlor is, first of all, the quality of the broth. I like a rich broth, one that hasn't been watered down too much. I want to see little beads on the surface, fat beads. That usually promises a really good, flavorful broth.
Most times, the meats are not worth paying attention to — they're simply there for texture, for flavoring. Which is why I go ahead and order the bible tripe and the fatty tendon and other offal-y cuts — because even if you don't eat them, they do their job in enriching the broth.
There are some places that have better meats than others. Pho 75 is one. But it's really all about the broth, and the noodles, and the garnishes.
Karahi & Kabob on New Hampshire in Cloverly continues to be a new favorite!
They serve basic kabobs and steam table food and they are open late. But the real interesting find is the karahi (served for 2 but can feed more). They are cooked in an iron pot and delivered sizzling in a wicker basket. They are a little oily but it is easy to avoid.
We tried the lamb and it was packed with greens, ginger, spices and onion. It is served with a totally addictive green chutney (their term) which is more like a liquid raita to me and two hubcap sized rounds of naan which hit the mark between crispy and charred n the one hand, and soft on the other. With 2 lassi it came out to $25.
You go to the counter to order and they shout out to you when the food is done. Very nice folk too. Good food available to 1am on Friday and Saturday, 11 or midnight the rest of the week.
It is just north of the new Safeway on the east side of the road. It's never too busy so I really hope they are successful as this part of the woods does not have an abundance of good places to eat.
You made me hungry. Thanks for the report, Silver Spring.
It's good to hear that there are some worthy kabobs on this side of the Potomac — because Virginia absolutely dominates on this score.
What did you think of the NYTimes piece yesterday that talked about DC as one of the 44 hot spots for the new year? The piece said it was mostly on the strength of the "suddenly lively" dining scene. Christina.
What do I think? I think the vaunted Times is about a year or more behind the times.
It's not "suddenly lively" here. The liveliness has been building over the last couple of years.
I also find it funny that examples of "sudden liveliness" are Central (!) and CityZen (!)
(Also, since when has Michel Richard done anything with "reverence," as the Times remarked of some of the food at Central?)
I could — but I'd be in Iowa.
Look, I could change my mind. A part of me desperately wants to be down there and watching and hip-to-hip with all of it.
But I really want to hear the speech, and I really want to eat good food and drink wine (everything is always better with food and wine), and I really want to be with people I know and love.
If anybody has any ideas for me, by all means — I'd love to hear them.
And if anybody has, oh, a suite downtown at a nice property with a well-stocked kitchen or access to restaurants, well, you know where to reach me. ; )
Well, I hear he went to the Eden Center, and I wouldn't have recommended that — not if he was interested in appearing in-the-know and up-to-the-moment. The area's three best Vietnamese restaurants are Four Sisters, Minh's and Present — and none of them are at the Eden Center.
I think for "scene," I would have suggested Little Korea — a lot of the places are open 24 hours, and you'll find a lot of young Koreans escaping from their parents' houses for the night and eating and drinking and smoking and doing karaoke. It's great fun to see, a real window into changing demographics, and the food at these places is often filling and good and cheap. I love Gooldaegee, which I'll be talking more about next week. What a scene!
Ben's I can see, but Ben's needs context — and part of the context is the changing one-time Black Broadway. And that means Ethiopian.
I also think a show on DC food should have Michel Richard, because nobody else in the world cooks like him, and should profile Komi, because it's the best restaurant in the city right now and it also flies in the face of much of what typically is associated with DC. Incongruity = interesting.
She had me very, very late — long before a lot of working, professional moms were delaying having babies into their 40s.
Of course, she didn't delay. I simply, uh, happened along. Eleven years after my brother.
Is it just me, or is there a strange move toward "dressing up" traditional comfort foods? I'm seeing things like Lobster Mac & Cheese on *SO* many menus, now.
It's not you.
But it has been going on for a while now — meat loaf with edible flowers, mac n cheese with black truffles, etc.
I call it downscale upscale. It's job is to convince you that something fancy is not frou-frou, which is supposed to be reassuring — while at the same time charging you for an "experience."
Foodies love to complain about fusion, but this is really just the same thing — the fusion of high and low. And like fusion, it only works if it's done really, really well.
If the sommelier helps select your wine, should you tip him/her separately? Or do they get a cut of the servers' tip?
Also, we recently tried a restaurant where the wine is "on tap". You put in a card and it keeps track of your wine bill. We also had diner at the restaurant and the bills were separate. Should we have tipped the server on the wine?
You can. It's a gesture, it's a nice thing to do.
But it's not expected. A sommelier, to the very best of my understanding, is in a different position from a waiter or waitress.
In the second example — assuming someone took your wine order, and you were brought glasses, and they were cleared and replaced, etc., yes, i would have tipped.
Hi Todd –
Since we're all trying to cut back these days, I'm just curious – what five food/beverage items would you never cross off your list, no matter how tight the money gets?
I'm still noodling on the question, but so far my list includes good wine (which as we know does not have to mean expensive wine), and real parmesean cheese – my old friend parmegiano-reggiano, not his very distant relative who comes with his own green can. Cheers!
No matter how tight money gets — wow, that's a tough one.
If the budget is getting pinched, even severely pinched (as opposed to squeezed, which would be a different thing altogether), I would still make allowances for good olive oil, wine (doesn't have to be expensive to be good), good vinegars (you can do some much with them), fresh herbs (a couple, not a whole mess of them), and fresh fish (to me, always a treat).
I'd be curious to hear your Recession-era Top 5's — if you come up with a list, email me at email@example.com, and we'll put up some of them up on the blog this week and next.
Stay warm, everyone — and enjoy the festivities next week. We'll do it again on the 27th at 11 a.m., just as always …