Tuesday, March 24 at 11 AM

Ask food & wine editor Todd Kliman a question about Washington area cuisine and restaurant news.

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.

Did you know you can now write your own restaurant reviews on Washingtonian.com? Read here to find out how.

Read the transcript from March 17.

Follow Todd on Twitter!

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The Current List: Where I'd Spend My Own Money

Komi, DC
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
Vidalia, DC
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
Sushi Sono, Columbia

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Alexandria, Virginia

Good morning Mr. Kliman.

I wanted to update you on the post made on your chat last week regarding a guest experience at Vermilion. We have reached out to the guest and invited them back for dinner on us. Clearly, his experience is very much out of the norm here and not at all in line with what we strive for.

As I explained to the guest, we were in fact out of our pork entrée. I feel our server may not have done a great job communicating with the table. We do not have any other pork options on our dinner menu and we were in fact not out of our rabbit dish. Regardless, the guest had a less than stellar experience and we are eager to make it right. We did not have any information on the guest or their experience until reading your chat.

Both the server and the manager from that evening reported that their table was very happy. Obviously, we would have done whatever we could have to remedy their situation on the spot had we only known. I was in the midst of writing you in hopes that you could forward my contact information to the guest so we could make things right when he emailed me. Thank you very much for taking the time to read this and for the continued good work.

Sincerely, David Hammond, General Manager Vermilion

This is always good to see. Thanks for writing in.

Problems are unavoidable, but smart, considerate responses to problems are not — ultimately, you have to judge a place by how it responds when things go bad. Good for Vermilion.

I'll be interested in hearing a follow-up from the chatter last week, to see if Take Two is any different … 

Bethesda, MD
Any suggestions for pre-prom group dinner? Prom will be a hotel downtown. Need a place that would take a group and be affordable but at the same time, be something nice and special.

Nice and special and affordable — that's a really tough order to fill in DC. A lot depends, of course, on what your idea of affordable is.

I think you're looking at places like Zaytinya, Oyamel, and Jaleo — small plates places all, with lots of atmosphere and color and excitement.

I'd urge you to make reservations well in advance, and, because it's a prom group, arranging with the restaurant to include a tip in the total. That'll easy the anxieties of the staff (who, understandably, are fearful of getting hosed by a bunch of teenagers), and go a ways toward ensuring that the prom-goers get good attention and have a good experience.

DC
So what do you think of the Burger Brackets? They seem clearly gamed by PR machines. I can't believe Ray's and Five Guys are out.

Five Guys, okay.

But Ray's is not just one of the best burgers in the area (I wrote last year that it's the best burger I've had that doesn't cost $30), it's one of the best eating experiences you can have in town at the moment.

What gives? I don't know.

I do know that we all regard the web as some kind of altar, particularly those of us in big cities, particularly those of us in the media, and there's an awful lot about it to be very uneasy about. First of all, the anonymity of so many things, some of them (unlike Burger Brackets) actually important, with actual implications. And the virulence that comes with that cloak of anonymity.

Todd

Dean from Dino. Using a cell phone in a restaurant, even to send messages, is disturbing to other customers and is a frequent complaint of our customers. This party di in fact make a lenngthy phone call and then both of them were sending text messages for 15+ minutes after paying their boll on a busy Saturday night. I did let them know of our no cell phone policy {clearly stated on our menu}, that there was another party waiting for their table and asking them to be considerate of others waiting. Thanks for the opportunity to respond

Thanks for chiming in, Dean.

If I see a no-cell policy posted in a public place, I assume that it refers to speaking on the phone, not texting on the phone. (Hospitals are different.)

I don't get why people would be put out by people texting. It's silent. It's not a disruption.

"Disturbing"? Really? Customers are "disturbed" by something they can't read or can't hear?

I'll tell you what disturbs me. Sitting next to someone in a restaurant, in close quarters (so many tables at restaurants are about three inches apart these days), and being made to feel as though we are never to make eye contact or look over, or — heavens! — strike up a conversation.

It happens a lot in this town.

To me, that's a violation of the social compact. If you want to maintain a cone of silence around you, if you want to have a sense of solitude among others — stay home. You go out to engage with the world, whatever may come.

I am disturbed by people doing business at dinner.

I am disturbed by braggarts, at restaurants where the food and drink are exceptional, talking loudly about investments and housing prices.

I am disturbed by people who bully waitstaff.

 

Washington, DC

I was at Two Amy's recently. On the one side of us, a couple having a totally restaurant inappropriate conversation on the other side, two couples with about six kids between them. The kids were being unruly and uncontrolled (even for a family oriented place, plus it was after 8:30 pm).

Is there a polite way to tell the loud, obnoxious people sitting next to you in a restaurant to pipe down or shut up? Is there a polite way to tell people who bring loud, obnoxious or misbehaving children (especially if at a non-family oriented restaurant) that they are disturbing your eating experience?

Good questions.

And I'll tell you — I've been there, myself.

The thing to do, is to get up and go see the manager and explain what's going on. What you want, is for the manager to offer to reseat you at a different table. (And, clearly, what you don't want, is for the manager to scold the table next to you with you sitting right there.)

Doing it yourself, telling them to shut the hell up — but politely! very politely! — is excruciatingly awkward. At worst, you offend the table next to you. At best, you spend the rest of your meal in a Cold War-style atmosphere of tension and anxiety. 

Arlington Va

I asked for advice last week on where to meet my dad (who was in Baltimore) for dinner on a weekday night.

We ended up meeting him at Union Station and hopping over to chinatown to go to Zaytinya (not your specific recommendation for us, but a place that is #37 on the best restaurants list and is recommended by just about everyone).

Let me preface my report by saying that I dont care at all about the decor or the "scene" at a restaurant. I care about the food. And, according to your 100 Best Restaurants intro, so do you ("If the food didn't move us, we moved on- despite whatever else a restaurant had going for it").

Here's what we ordered and what i thought about it…..adana kebab with sumac onions (unpleasantly salty to the point of being inedible)….gigantes with kale (good on the first bite, but there was an excess of liquid at the bottom of the bowl that tasted like seawater that ruined the dish for me)….htipti (a tasty but simple spread which was 7 bucks for a few spoonfulls)…imam bayildi (very good, but again, unbelievably small portion size, a piece of eggplant barely bigger than my thumb for 6.50)…spanakopita (the best thing we got, really good, but about the size of a spring roll for 7.50, are you kidding me?)…greek style fries with yogurt (you called these the best fries in the area, there is nothing special about them AT ALL)…olive oil poached salmon (a delicious piece of fish that was overwhelmed by a too salty olive salsa and a spicy eggplant puree)…soujok sausage (completely inedible, absolutely disgusting texture and flavor)…Arayes, a lamb/tahini mixture stuffed in pita (strange tasting and just not very good)….squash and golden raisin fritters (not a ton of flavor, these were merely ok)

So, as you can tell, we had a few good dishes, a few mediocre ones, and quite a few not so good ones, which, when you throw down 115 bucks for 3 people, makes for a less-than-awesome restaurant experience. I can't say that I hate Zaytinya after just one visit, but I am disappointed in it.

I can't see myself coming back to this place unless someone else is paying. Why would I spend 35 bucks for one person when I can get more food and better food at cheapo places like Ravi Kabob (#87 on the list or something) and Mihns (like # 62 ), or even places like Rabieng and Hong Kong Palace?

I don't get why over-hyped mega restaurants like Zaytinya consistently get rated above smaller family owned ethnic spots that give you a tastier meal for half the price. It's pretty pretentious to serve customers humble, cheap-to-buy ingredients like gigantes, eggplants, and potatoes, and then charge 7.00 bucks for small tastes of thoughtlessly prepared mezze. Zaytinya has no soul. I don't feel like the kitchen is really invested in each and every dish that comes out. It can't possibly be with the size of that restaurant!

Sorry for the rant. It's just disheartening that my first visit to a Jose Andres restaurant was kind of a bust. Give me a reason not to swear off big name glitzy restaurants forever in favor of family owned ethnic spots.

I'm glad to hear back from you, and I appreciate your rant, believe me.

I want to begin by saying that Zaytinya doesn't use humble ingredients — it starts with humble ideas for dishes, which is different. There's a certain lightness, at its best, to these dishes, and that comes from good raw materials and a kitchen that is more skilled, more technically adept, than what you might expect of a good homecook.

And I also don't think you should assume that your single visit is typical of the place. I don't think it is.

But as for the meat of your argument — I hear you. The great ethnic spots — Ravi, Minh's, etc. — are tremendous deals, and much more consistent. In some ways, they're more rewarding. When I'm traveling, these are the spots I seek out, because I know I'll get great value and because I can almost count that what I read in a review (even if it's an old one) will be true.

I'm not going to give you a reason not to swear off the "big-name, glitzy" restaurants, but I will say that it makes sense to me — particularly in this area — to put the mom n pops, the small independents, and the great ethnic spots in heavy rotation, to make them the foundation of your eating out. 

That's what I did, long before I was a critic. They were my core, and I supplemented those meals with visits to places I had to save up for.

Im assuming Dean from Dino regrets writing in…

I don't know if he regrets it or not — although I don't see why he would.

People can disagree. 

He's entitled to explain his policy, and I'm entitled to explain why I that policy is silly. ; )

Arlington, VA
I take Five Guys over Ray's anyday. My collies love the fries. and can tell the difference between Five Guys and everyone else. Plain cheeseburgers for them on special occassions. We are developing a jammer for restaurants and movie theaters to prevent the recpetion fo incoming and outgoing cell phone calls etc.

Me, I take Five Guys over Ray's no days. None.

(Anyway, it's apples and oranges. One's fast food, and clearly intended to be. The other's Cuisine in fast food get-up.)

Who's "we," by the way?

How about coming up, instead, with a device that would allow you to call the bozo talking on the cell phone in his car, and tell him to get off the road before he kills us all?

McLean, VA

I am going to NYC in a few Saturdays to see an Off-Broadway show (Waiting for Godot with Nathan Lane and John Goodman). I called Babbo and they don't have any tables left but they said that if I get there at 4:30, we would be at the bar from 5-5:30 and then eat at 5:30.

Is it worth the wait? Is it truly something that just doesn't exist in the DC area (I like Tosca a lot)? Also, if you know how we should park (theatre? restaurant? general garage?) that would be great, too!

There's no parking, none — unless you get very, very lucky. I wouldn't chance that. You just have to put the car in a garage and bite the bullet for the fifty bucks or whatever it is that the garage crooks are charging these days.

Is Babbo worth the wait? Yes, absolutely. Do it.

There's nothing like it in DC, no. Not even close. It's more imaginative than Tosca, more delicious, soulful, more atmospheric. I think it's one of the great Italian restaurants in the country.

 

mom of 3 in silver spring

Hi Todd:

Love the chats! My apologies to the 2Amys patron who had such a horrible time…know that not all of us parents are this obnoxious (but I do find that becoming the morn, unfortunately). When we are dining with all 3 of our kids, ages 14, 4, and 2 (and usually more, since someone will want to bring a friend, or we have a random cousin with us), we go EARLY, so that we know we'll have more space, and we don't disturb others.

Can we really ask to be reseated if we are being thoroughly annoyed by those around us? I know the worst that can happen is a "no", but I just don't get the sense that may restaurants are willing to do that, at least not in DC.

You can ask for anything. Within reason.

Look, they don't call it the hospitality business for nothing. I think a lot of us forget this — or don't quite realize what it means.

A good restaurant wants you to leave happy. It wants you to feel comfortable with where you're sitting. It wants you to return a dish that it botched. It even wants you to return a dish that you simply did not like. You can't leave happy, if you ate something that didn't please you — even if it was only one weak or middling dish among many strong ones.

This takes speaking up, of course. Confronting things. And some of us are loath to do that.

But it has its benefits, sometimes enormous benefits.

All restaurants, good and bad both, strive to look as though they are in charge, it's part of their m.o. — but the fact is: You, the customer, are really the one in control.

Rockville, MD

Hi Todd,

Tried to go to Cava on Saturday evening for dinner and was met with a 2 hour wait! I opted to not wait and as I'm driving away, I was thinking, "who is willing to wait that long for dinner?!?"

Two questions for you…(1) Is it worth the wait?, and (2) Is there a secret for how to eat there without waiting two hours on the weekends? Seems like the folks at Ray's the Steaks have worked something out b/c they had similar problems, right?

I don't think any restaurant is worth a two-hour wait.

(Though, having said that, I'll admit that I'm perfectly willing to drive two hours to go to dinner.) 

What to do?

Unfortunately for you, I don't think there's anything to be done. It is what it is. Try going during the week, if you're that set on tasting the food, which can be good.

It's funny, but when you eat — I'm talking about the time of the week, here — has so much to do with how you perceive a place. In my experience, weekend dining is not nearly as rewarding as going out to eat on a Tuesday or Wednesday, when things are a lot less crowded and the kitchen is much less taxed.

A less taxed kitchen = a kitchen that can zero in on your dish and give it the attention it deserves. Timing is everything, and thirty seconds too long on the stove, or two minutes under a heat lamp, can kill what, under better circumstances, is a fantastic dish.

I've eaten in near-empty dining rooms of some of the best restaurants in the area during the week, and it's akin to having a private chef. Contrast that with a busy Friday or Saturday night, when the dining room is a crush of customers and the timing and pacing are off.

What you tend to lose in atmosphere, you make up for with generally much better food. Not everybody is so food-focused, but if you are, that's the time to go.

alexandria, va
My mom is coming into town for a little less than a week for the cherry blossom festival and I want to take her around to a lot of the "special" dc-area places. I'm already planning on taking her to ray's hell burgers, el pollo rico, cosmopolitan grill, mark's duck house, 2 amy's, vidalia, happy hr at ps7, and bar lunch at restaurant eve. I'm trying to keep it low cost (we're doing the early bird dinner at vidalia) are there any other places you'd really recommend in dc or virginia that i'm missing? I could also use a suggestion for a place in eden center as I want to take her there but haven't been there myself.

What a terrific itinerary! Your mother's a lucky woman.

Instead of the Eden Center, I'd recommend taking her to either the new Four Sisters or Present for great Vietnamese cooking.

The Eden Center is wonderful, but right now, the three best Vietnamese restaurants in the area (Minh's is the other) have no connection whatsoever to it

If you're dead-set on going to the Eden Center, then take her to Hai Duong, which has good bun and good spring rolls, or the venerable Huong Viet.

Also in Virginia — La Caraquena. It's simple and special, and very, very affordable. 

 

Restaurants dont mind if you return a dish you simply dont like? Thats surprising. They do mind if you return a bottle of wine you dont like. I assume there are two distinctions: 1) cost and 2) they arent responsible for producing the wine.

Good restaurants. 

Not all restaurants, and certainly not bad restaurants. But good restaurants — yes, absolutely.

They would rather you walk away happy, even if it means taking a small hit, than having you not say anything and grumble and bad-mouth them on chat boards or to friends in person.

If you walk away happy, that small hit may be wiped out on a future visit. You may become a regular. Anything's possible.

Re: wine … You have every chance to reject a wine you don't like. When a bottle is brought out, uncorked, and poured at the table, it's not all for show. It's to give you a chance to assess the wine's worth and, though it's not made explicit, make a decision.

If you don't care for it, or if it's off, that's the time to tell the wine steward or waiter or waitress and ask for something else.

 

Shorter Arlington: I disliked everything I ate at Rasika. I love McDonald's. Tell me why McDonald's isnt a better restaurant than Rasika?!?!

I think the chatter had a valid point. Sorry.

And McDonald's and places like Minh's and Ravi are not at all comparable.

Wash DC
getting married @ the courthouse on Monday, with our 2 kids (5 and 2) as guests. Any recommandation for a kids-friendly-yet-nice-enough-for-the-bride-and-groom restaurant in the Judiciary Square/Verizon Center area?! thanks!

Nice! And congratulations!

How about Poste? i think it'd feel festive, and during the day I think it'd be fine to be there with a couple of small kids. 

Plus, the food's good and the space is well-suited for a celebration.

If the weather's cooperative and it's warm, there's Cafe du Parc, where you can sit outside under umbrellas and eat good French bistro cooking (fries for the kids!) and pretend you're in Paris.

re: the Dino comment.

I cannot believe that the owner would make up those statements, as I am one of the guests, and neither me or my friend made any calls during our visit.

I used my phone to calculate tip, so unless Dean would like me and my horrible math skills to stiff the waitress, I suggest that he overlook the 15 second phone usage. The food is quite good at Dino, too bad the owner is not very customer-service friendly.

See, this is one of the problems — you can't know what, exactly, someone is doing with a "phone" nowadays.

Thanks for writing in. 

 

Arlington Virginia
Todd Please tell me who has the best service in town? I have asked this question a number of times, please tell me your opinion

Best? At what level? 

If we're talking about fine dining, I think Komi is terrific. I like a waitstaff that has enthusiasm, that has a palpable passion for the cooking and the restaurant as a whole. A staff that feels super-connected to what's going on, that can read the table, that knows how to pace things, etc.

And more — a staff that doesn't simply do things correctly, but does them with grace and kindness and makes you feel cared for.

Dino comment
It seemed to me that Dean from Dino was more concerned that these people were texting after they had paid their check and there were other people waiting for the table rather than that he was concerned about texting in general. Not sure if that makes it better or worse, but that was my reading of the comment.

Could be you're right.

But it's also a policy, so it doesn't much matter.

Georgetown
Re: tasting a wine you've ordered at a restaurant… I thought that was done to make sure that the wine is not bad – NOT to see if the wine is to your liking.

Yes, of course, that's why it's done.

But it also happens that this is your opportunity — your only opportunity — to speak up. Would a good restaurant want you to drink something that you don't like? Not a good restaurant, not a conscientious restaurant. 

If you're not being a jerk about it, if you're not trying to throw your weight around, the restaurant — if it has any smarts — ought to respond in kind.

I'm not saying it's like tasting ice cream or gelato, and that you can work your way through several bottles before you make a decision. No.

But I am saying that, at that moment, you have every right to turn down a wine that is not to your liking and ask for something else.

I have a feeling I'm going to be hearing more about this in my inbox during the week, and I'm perfectly okay with revisiting the subject — so, fire away.

Meantime, be well, eat well, and let's do it again next Tuesday at 11 …

Submit your questions to Todd's chat, next Tuesday, March 31 at 11 AM. 

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