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 13, click here.
Follow our 100 Best Countdown here.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… During El Pollo Rico's (2517 University Blvd (301-942-4419) nine-month absence, a result of a fire that nearly burned the joint to the ground, many of us, of necessity, turned elsewhere for our chicken fix. The landscape is filled with Peruvian chicken spots, few of them bad, most pretty good, some very good. But only El Pollo Rico has the power to make me think about chicken, juicy, spice-rubbed, perfectly roasted chicken, at random moments throughout the day.
Housed in a new strip of still mostly unopened stores along University Boulevard just west of Georgia Ave., the revived restaurant is cleaner and brighter than the old, with stylish lights that hang from the ceiling and a few framed posters for Taittinger champagne and absinthe thrown up on the walls. At first glance, looking on from the back of the invariably long line that stretches sometimes to the door, you might presume that El Pollo Rico had gone bistro. But this is the same simple, bare-bones operation it always was. Chickens, threaded on long metal rods like beads on a necklace, emerge from the spit gorgeously brown and glistening with chicken drippings. From there, they're temporarily housed in a warming unit, or, often enough because of the size of the crowds, deposited right onto the cutting board and cleaved while you wait.
The fries, as always, are hit or miss (sometimes great, sometimes okay; they're tossed, frozen, into the fryer from a giant bag), and the coleslaw is workmanlike. But that's not why you come. (Nor for the better-than-expected rum cake, as boozy as it is moist.) You come for the incomparable birds.
What makes them so good? It's not the process, which hardly differs from that of other chicken joints — it's the execution of that process, the devotion to the details, the passion for consistency. A marinade of garlic, oregano and sour orange juice and other ingredients the managers and owners refuse to divulge penetrates the meat from the start; the skin is swathed in ground cumin and other spices. Time on the spit, the slow, steady rotations, ensures that there's never a piece that's dry or stringy or tough — or that the skin is never anything less than burnished. The white meat is as juicy as the dark meat in most birds, while the dark meat is as succulent as meat gets. …
… I could analogize the experience at Honey Pig Gooldaegee Korean Grill (7220 Columbia Pike, Annandale; 703-256-5133) by telling you about another restaurant. Or I could just summon up the image of a New York subway car at rush hour. Now add waitresses, tables and chairs.
There's simply no other place in the area with an atmosphere as dizzying and super-charged as this. The ceiling is low, the space is cramped, the dominant design element is wide bands of corrugated metal that line the walls — you can't help feeling that you've settled down to dinner in some urban-industrial pre-school, except that the energy is, if anything, even more raucous. Young Koreans, ditching their families for the night, hunker down at the low-slung tables, talking, eating, drinking beer, while a team of young, fiercely efficient waitresses swarms the room, bearing huge trays of raw meats (most notably, the giant slabs of fat-striated pork belly), which they cook in front of you, snipping with scissors into manageable pieces as the flesh caramelizes on the sputtering grill. Meanwhile, the line to get in stretches to the door and often out, as if it were a hot new club and not simply the latest incarnation of Korean barbecue in Annandale.
Gooldaegee has separated itself from the pack by virtue of the quality of its meats (the pork belly and short ribs have no peer) and its prices (so low that many dishes don't need to be ordered for two, as is typical at most Korean barbecue spots). If there's a drawback, it's that the staff tends to encourage you to eat faster than you'd like (you'll find yourself shoveling in food to clear room on the tiny tables) and keeping the pressure on throughout the meal in an effort to turn tables. Then again, it only makes eating here more of a ride. …
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
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit it in advance to Todd's chat next Tuesday, February 3 at 11 AM.
Like many others, I'm looking for some advice for the upcoming Restaurant Week. I've got dinner reservations at PS7 and lunch reservations at Notti Bianche already set (how'm I doing so far?), and am looking for another lunch outing to round out the week. Ideally in Penn Quarter (for sake of convenience), and a different cuisine from the first two. Currently torn between Rasika, Oyamel and Cafe Atlantico. Which do you think would provide the best RW experience?
Also [feel free to edit this part out of your post, if you feel it inappropriate], I wanted to give a quick bit of praise for Aroma Restaurant, an Indian place at 20th and Eye (with another location in Shirlington, which I've not been to). Good naan with a crisp, tandoor char to it (unlike the doughy versions found some other places) and by far the best Chicken Makhani I've had in this city — the depth of tomato flavor is really remarkable (and the owner swears it's not done by tomato paste, which leaves me baffled). They also do a terrific buffet lunch (at least in their DC location) on Saturdays, which I think is fairly rare. My wife and I liked it so much we had them cater our wedding recently, and they did a fabulous job. The food isn't particularly adventurous (as Heritage or Indique may be), but for standard Indian fare, I've found it to be excellent. I hadn't seen any mention of it on the Washingtonian's site, and wondered if you had given it a visit, and if so, your thoughts.
As far as RW goes … I'd push hard to get into Rasika. It's the best restaurant of that grouping and the cooking, at its best, is memorable. I think Rasika has really grown.
Notti Bianche, I'd drop. I think RW is for trying places that otherwise are outside your price range — or places that cook with ambition and imagination.
PS 7's is interesting, although inconsistent. I wouldn't drop it, necessarily — I'd just see what else you can come up with.
We just noticed the Sunday before the inauguration and then confirmed last evening that Les Halles is closed. Do you know the reason?
We will certainly miss the made- at-the-table steak tartare and crepe suzette. We also loved the french press coffee and the mussels in curry sauce. We just liked the atmosphere with old wood floors etc,location and reasonable prices.
Do you have a suggestion for us to replace this restaurant? Thanks
The owner, Philippe Lajaunie, didn't give a good, hard reason when he and I chatted several weeks ago. I suspect the greatly weakening economy had something to do with it.
As for replacements … well, there's Cafe du Parc, which is an even better restaurant, and not far from where LH was. Good steak tartare, great mussels, excellent coffee, good wines … The cooking has more rigor and more imagination than what you'd find at LH on a good day.
A couple levels down, there's Bistro d'Oc, across from Ford's Theater. Very, very cozy, and the cooking, while not as thrilling as that at du Parc, has its moments, particularly the sauteed calves brains with butter and capers.
I talked with owner Michael Landrum earlier this morning, who had this to say of the new opening: "Close, very close. It could be as soon as next week. More likely, the week after, or the week after that."
The new RTS, at 2300 Wilson Blvd., will have 150 seats. The larger of the three rooms seats 90, he said, and will be first come, first served.
Landrum described it as "evocative of Ray's the Steaks, if not identical, in atmosphere and feel. The ceiling, the tile floor, the exact same tables."
I am a long time reader and I follow your chats weekly I cannot hide my disappointment about you choosing Teatro Rest over my old favorite Tosca in the best 100 I must confess I had never had the opportunity to dine at Goldoni yet, but do you really think that the new chef is actually so much better? I read your articles and I remember you in the chats complaining about the music and service ……….. so I must ask: how did u decide to overthrone the best DC Italian restaurant and drop it 2 steps behind Teatro? Doesn't service decore and ambiance count for anything?
Yes, decor and ambiance count for something. But not everything. And not as much as some readers and diners might like.
And actually, the fact of the matter is, Tosca is a pretty featureless, drab space. It has about as much charm as a corporate board room. And the waiters and waitresses in their formal matching jackets don't much compensate for that.
The food is, yes, pretty wonderful. But so is the food at Teatro — and you shouldn't be so quick to judge if you haven't eaten there a couple times to see.
The two places are very, very close. I don't see it as a "dethroning" at all. There were five of us who worked on this package all year long (and a sixth for advance scouting), visiting and filing report cards, as it were, and at the end of the process — a long and exhaustive process — we simply had Teatro rated a slight bit higher.
Curious if you have eaten at the restaurant at Auberge Provencale or at Palladio (at Barboursville winery)? Looking at a night away with my wife and wondered if the meals at either of these were worth the steep price?
I can tell you that L'Auberge Provencale missed the cut for 100 Best — too much reach, not enough grasp.
Palladio I haven't eaten at. But I have friends who have, and who have liked it. And I think a trip to Barboursville is a great thing; I love the wines. (So, evidently, does the new president, who chose two of their reds — the Octagon Eighth Edition 2005 and the Cabernet Franc Reserve 2006 –to be served at the Conservation Gala last week.)
Good morning Todd
What a wonderful list you have provided us Full of surprises and unexpected turn overs: Komi #1 over Citronelle, Teatro Goldoni over Tosca, the new and still milk smelling Bourbon Steak and lovely traditions such as L'Auberge Chef Francois
Thanks for your work and to provide us with much needed guide
"Still milk-smelling." Neat phrase!
I'm glad you're enjoying it. Just to note, since you brought it up — we didn't go into this trying to create surprises or generate controversy. This is simply the picture as it looks to us at the moment.
Avid reader here. I read your article last fall about Indie Coffee Shops, and there was one slight omission (at least I hope it was a simple omission). There were no Coffee Shops listed for the Rockville/Bethesda/Glen Echo area.
Is there ANY decent independent coffee shop in my area outside of the "Bucks"? Sadly I don't think you just forgot to list one…I am just not sure there are any…in which case I'm moving. Help?
Praline on Sangamore Rd. has good coffee and they have a half-dozen tables with a fireplace.
I like it, though I wouldn't call it a coffeehouse.
We really scoured the area for that piece, and what we were looking for was, not just good coffee, but places that embodied the coffeehouse aesthetic. Places where you can sit and linger for hours, places that are quirky and distinctive and not at all corporate, places that create community.
So,…I'm not sure if the top 100 list will include "Rustico", but after my meal this weekend, I believe it should. Their menu is not lengthy, but it great. Much thought put into all the dishes–in my opinion. Make the trip to try their "Red-brick Amish Chicken"…you won't be sorry.
On top of that, their wait staff is very knowledgeable when it comes to pairing their extensive beer selection with your meal. Great decor, better food.
I like Rustico. But no, it didn't survive the final cuts.
It's a good value, it's fun, the staff is good, the beers are great, but in the end, I don't think it delivers all it promises on the plate to merit inclusion in the Top 100. A lot of the dishes are busier than they need to be — or too tricked out for the kitchen's ability to deliver consistently. And there are dishes that read beautifully, but what you wind up with is slightly underwhelming.
It's a good neighborhood restaurant, and that's a wonderful thing, no shame at all in that.
We ate at Pizzaiolo in Del Ray last night. They charged an extra $1 for ice in a martini!
I have never been charged for ice in a mixed drink and asked the server. He said it is normal in Old Town. I told him I have lived in Old Town for 35 years and eat here routinely and never have been charged extra for the ice.
When we sat down, the waiter said that since the kitchen was a "mess", we would have to wait at least a half hour for our pizza. He suggested we might order a salad while waiting. When the food came 45 minutes later, the pizza was great but the lasagna and panni were cold. The place was not full when we arrived. I asked if they were short of staff or had a technical problem. The waiter just rolled his eyes and said the place was a "mess".
Charging for ice?!?! That's the very definition of bush-league, even if it is quote-unquote normal in Old Town.
If I were the owner, I'd refrain from slapping on the surcharge just so I didn't come across as petty and ridiculous with my customers.
I know I'd never go back to a place that charged me extra for ice — just as I refused to patronize a certain Thai restaurant for years (this was before my food critic days) because they charged a buck extra for rice.
I strongly disagree, and so do the other five members of the team.
And we had some pretty heated debate about including that many places that serve pizza. Matchbox did not generate any real enthusiasm among us. (2 Amys, since you brought it up, is, to us, a good Italian restaurant and not merely a pizza parlor — in fact, the excitement these days is in the raft of small plates.)
I think Matchbox serves a good function, but I don't think its pizzas are as good, as interesting, or as consistent as the best pies in town. I enjoy the mini burgers and fries, but again — consistency is a problem. Beyond the pizzas and the mini burgers, what do you have?
I have a huge fan of your chats, please keep them coming. I just got my hands on a copy of this year's Top 100 list and noticed that Willow and New Heights did not make the list.
I recently dined and both of them and greatly enjoyed the sophistication of the food paired with a much less pretentious atmosphere that one frequently finds at other DC establishments. Could you elaborate why they weren't included this year?
In the end, when you're talking about restaurants in the two-star range, a lot of it comes down to the enthusiasm we have — or don't have — for a place.
in our endless discussions, there simply wasn't enough enthusiasm for including these two. And partly that had to do with the greater premium we placed on value this year, what with the cratering economy and all.
Dinner for two at Willow, for instance, typically runs to about $150, $160 dollars for two. That's a lot of money, and it begs the questions — does the restaurant make good on its promises? does it give good value? is the consistency there?
Add to that the fact we haven't always been enamored of the service at Willow, and you can understand, I hope, our thinking on this …
After watching No Reservations, my friend and I would like to try Ethiopian for the first time. I see that Etete is featured in the 100 Best, is that where you would reccomend us to try?
We are willing to go anywhere in the Wash, DC area for the best and most authentic. Also, which dish do you suggest we try? I dont eat red meat or pork, but my friend does. Thanks!
I think it's the best in the area.
Shagga in Hyattsville is really good, too. And I also like Meaza, in Arlington. (My recent meal at Queen Makeda, a place I've long liked, was a huge disappointment.)
I'd start with the doro wat, if I were you — chicken and a hardboiled egg in a sweet, thick, richly spiced gravy. And a sambusa — a spicy three-cornered pastry filled with lentils and fried, similar to an Indian samosa.
Give it a try, and then come back on and let us know what you thought of your experience. What do you say?
Again, I don't see it as ballsy. We're not trying to make statements here — we're just trying to reflect, as best we can, What Is.
Bebo really surprised us. When it's on, the cooking can be superb, very rewarding. The problem is, how often is that? Of the most recent report cards — and yes, we score places for 100 Best the way you would a paper, with numerical grading and paragraphs of commentary — I can tell you that one gave the restaurant slightly above-average marks, while the other amounted to a failing grade. (Even though I strive for impartiality in my reviews, I absented myself from visiting Bebo, in order to ensure as objective an evaluation as possible.)
Spezie was a near-miss, very close. There are some excellent pastas here, but we just didn't feel that the restaurant brings it consistently enough.
What do I think will happen if Galileo reopens? Good question. I have no idea at this point. Roberto Donna sure can cook, that much is certain. And front of the house problems have long been the norm at his restaurants — that much is certain, too.
I don't blame you.
What a stupid, stupid policy.
I very much enjoyed the list this year and am thrilled to see some new restaurants have made the cut. However – PETE'S A PIZZA?!?! On the Washingtonian 100 Best Restaurants list? I live just a few blocks from Pete's and have eaten there a few times since it opened. The pizza is fine. It is pizza. I don't know how in the world you could group that restaurant on the same list as restaurants like Komi, CityZen, Citronelle, etc…
It seems to me that Pete's would have been a much better fit for the Best Bargain list. Can you explain what your staff saw in Pete's that makes it a restaurant worthy of such a high honor? Thanks, Mt. Pleasant
I hear you.
If not for the emphasis we placed on value this year, I doubt it would have survived the final cut.
I think it shows just how much value mattered to us, in the end.
I disagree with you that the pizzas are merely fine; I think they're better than fine; I think they're excellent. And the restaurant delivers most of what it promises.
I can also tell you that there was a great deal of enthusiasm among the staff for including Pete's, and that's telling. One of the things we asked of the restaurants, as we began making our first cuts, was that they be, not merely good, but memorable. Did the cooking stay with us? Did the dishes linger in our memories long after we'd consumed them? Time and again, I kept hearing someone bring up one of the pies at Pete's, or the Sorbillo's original.
I'm just curious as to whether you had any reaction to Marion Burros' top 8 (because apparently there aren't 10 restaurants good enough for her) pre-inauguration article in Politico.
I was particularly amused by her declaration that Komi was "all thought and no flavor" and not good enough to put on her list. Having eaten there twice last year, it frankly made me wonder if any actual palate left…or if she only appreciated restaurants at which she was recognized and fawned over.
Marian Burros has an axe to grind — against DC, against DC's restaurants — and she continues to grind it every chance she gets.
The crack about Komi was really odd — and really off the mark.
A bit of praise for a chain restaurant…. My husband and I ducked into the M&S Grill in Reston for a quick dinner at the bar before a movie this past weekend. It was busy but not packed and we had time, but not hours.
Our dinner, however, ended up taking well over an hour. The waitress and bartender came over and apologized repeatedly even though it was not their fault (genuinely, I think it was not an oversight on their part…my husband's soup came out almost isntantly, so they put the order in as soon as they took it). Even the manager came over at the end of the night, and comped quite a bit from our bill, with no such requests on our part.
Admittedly, we tend to be foodies…we like to try new places, never eat at the same place twice, and try little out of the way places over bigger more well-known places anyday. THIS experience, however, made me a fan of this particular M&S Grill. Take note, restaurants large and small….good service goes a long way no matter what your format is! A little kindness goes a long way (and usually lands your wait staff a fat tip!)
That's good to hear. Good going, waitress, bartender and manager!
You're right, good service can go a long, long way. I know chains don't get a lot of love from us, or from hard-core foodies, but you know what? Some of the big chains do service better than a lot of independent fine-dining restaurants.
Thanks for writing in.
If nothing else, the Top 100 for 2009 is likely to generate more than its fair share of controversy, which I suppose sells magazines. For example, I suspect that fans of Equinox, a restaurant that emphasizes the best of local products, may well question the restaurant's surprisingly low ranking. Similarly, some readers may wonder why the restaurant owned by the restaurateurs of the year — a fine choice I might add — is mired at 50th place in this list. Others may question how a portion of a restaurant — Minibar — is reviewed as a standalone location, while other restaurants like Palena and Restaurant Eve, which also offer different dining experiences in discrete portions of the restaurant, are treated as single entities. (Moreover, I have to confess that the treatment afforded Minibar seems to be a strained effort to scoot a pseudo restaurant into the top 5.) There are also some highly placed restaurants in the Top 100 that some readers might believe owe their rankings to longevity or "Washington institution status" instead of their food or service. Furthermore, as a fan of Restaurant Eve, I find the ranking of that restaurant especially curious. I don't think that the review gives enough credit to Chef Armstrong's creativity, which is evident in the dishes being enjoyed by diners in the Chef's Tasting Room. I also noticed that the dishes noted in the review of Restaurant Eve seem to be taken from the bistro menu of the restaurant. As you note, diners can have three distinct dining experiences at Restaurant Eve: one can dine at the bar, or one can enjoy the bistro, or one can venture into the Chef's Tasting Room. It seems inexplicable to me that your review would focus on dishes from the bistro — which emphasizes a traditional approach to rustic dishes — while not providing thoughtful commentary on the innovative meals in the Chef's Tasting Room. I welcome your thoughts on these issues. Barry in DC.
Barry, a lot to unpack there, but I'll try to answer as best I can in the time I've got …
What you call "institution status" doesn't hold a lot of weight with me; no place made the list simply for sentimental reasons. At the end of the 100 Best process, we wipe the slate clean, and start all over again. There's no regard, in making decisions about what to include, for what was. Only what is. Restaurants have to earn their way on every year.
As for Equinox … It's conscientious, it has a strong connection to the region, and it's a mom n pop. All great things. But it comes in where it does because it delivers a lot less than it promises.
Cork. I hardly think that it's "mired" at No. 50 — a very good ranking, I think, for a new restaurant. And the decision to award the owners Restaurateurs of the Year did not factor into the ranking at all. We gave them that honor because of their guts, because of their vision — and because we think Cork best embodies the wine bar spirit. No other wine bar ranks as high.
Minibar is different, to us, from the other spots you name, which is why it gets singled out like that. It's not at all like Cafe Atlantico, in style, in spirit, in aim. There's simply no other experience like it in the area.
Finally, Eve. Probably the most versatile restaurant around, and it benefits, I think, from being considered as a single entity with many arms. I agree with you, we ought to have included some of the dishes from the Tasting Room, although in general, if there are keepers on the menu, and they're good, we tend to go with sure things over things that change.
Hottest doesn't matter to us.
But food does. I like Cava. I can tell you that it was a very late cut. Whether that was because the food has fallen off some, or the competition was simply stronger at the bottom of the list than last year, I'm not sure.
"So much better" is putting it too strongly, I think, because Tosca is quite good.
But yes, I hear you, Alexandria. It's a little more exciting place to dine right now.
I think you have to give the producers credit for making an attempt, at least, to go beyond official Washington — which you can't say of most of the travel shows that look at DC.
But still, this was a big whiff — and particularly disappointing in light of some of the other cities that the show does such a good job of conveying.
We talked about it last year, and decided against it. We may revisit the idea again next year.
The problem is, it'd take away two spots on the list. That's what tipped the argument against. But next year is next year …
As far as the rankings goes … We looked at the cooking, first and foremost. Is it distinctive, interesting, memorable? Memorable, maybe, above all. Places with great dishes, therefore, tended to rate higher with us than places that serve up a very good experience that might not stand out for any one element.
Next came service (does the staff make you feel, not just looked after, but cared for?) and value.
We considered ambiance and decor, but not to the degree you might expect. These were the questions we asked — does the space reflect the vision of the restaurant? and how well? In other words, decor for decor's sake — or a fancy, splashy setting — did not much resonate with us in making our evaluations.
It's lunch time, everyone — time to run and munch …
But thanks for the great questions, and I'll try to get to more of your comments and queries on the 100 Best next week.
Meantime, eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …