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.
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Read the transcript from March 31.
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
Sushi Sono, Columbia
Exactly what is the criteria for including a restaurant in the Washingtonian Top 100?
I moved to VA from NJ and have tried several of the Top 100 places and found them mediocre (OK, a single visit may not be enough). I really liked some (like Makoto, Ray's the Steaks, Farrah Olivia, 2 Amy's, Zaytinya, Taberna del Alabardero), but most (Four Sisters, Liberty Tavern, Willows [last year's list]) are below average.
I'm not a foodie, but given how many restaurants are in the area I expected anything in the top 100 to be at least a pretty good meal. Can you name some of your favorites that got left off the list?
Oh, we're looking to valorize the mediocre; that's pretty much where we start, when we sit down and begin the process. Come on, now — what do you think? Jeez …
Here's what's funny. You say most are mediocre, but give only 2 examples of restaurants on the current list. On the other hand, you name 6 that you "really liked." Say what?
(I'm surprised you didn't like Four Sisters. I think it's a terrific place: good food, beautiful space, warm and attentive service.)
Exactly what's our criteria. Okay, exactly: We're looking for distinctive, memorable cooking, first of all. First and foremost. If the food can't move us, then it hardly matters if we're dazzled by the setting or wowed by the scene, etc., etc.
We're also looking for service that is smart and warm and personal — with waiters and waitresses who know how to read a table, who don't do the same shtick with each and every group of diners, who know their stuff and yet who don't push. (Extra points for those men and women who are personable and enthusiastic — who are real people, the kind you'd like to sit down and have a drink with.)
This year, we also place a great (unprecedented, actually) premium on value, which is why some spots — like Willow, a fine restaurant — did not make the final cut.
I think, for me, a place where everything — food, service, atmosphere — is fine and smooth but nothing really stands out — is going to be less likely to stick in my mind when all is said and done than a place where a few dishes are knock-your-socks-off good and a few servers go above and beyond and there are interesting, unexpected touches scattered throughout the experience.
Incidentally, interviewed Wolfgang Puck for NPR last Fall, and he mentioned having dined at a couple of three-star Michelin restaurants on his recent trip to Paris. I asked how his meals were. Great, he said. I asked what he'd eaten. He smiled: I can't remember, he said. Nope, not a single dish. It was all good — great, even. But I don't remember a thing about any of them.
Last Christmas time (2008) we purchased a gift card from Two Quail Restaurant in DC. The card is valid until the end of April 2009.
When our gift recipent called last week to make a reservation, they found the place was closed. We tried to contact the owners, without sucess. What can we do? Bill
I wish I had some little-known answer, but the fact is, there's nothing you can do when a place has shuttered like that.
It stinks, doesn't it?
Todd, about sending back a bottle that you simply don't care for:
Almost everyone reading these pages has drunk a lot of wine. I would seriously doubt that anyone has sincerely "hated" any unspoiled bottle- i.e. loathing and revulsion, ruin my evening, etc.
What we have then is a subjective mental rating system something like movies, concerts, or plays. Can I get my money back if I just simply didn't enjoy the play to the extent I thought I was entitled or expected? I feel it it totally unreasonable and unfair to return a bottle for such subjective criteria.
I normally love your writing and thought process, but this position enshrines every bit of customer capriciousness under "the customer is always right" rubric. Frankly, anyone who has ever dealt with customers knows the customer is NOT always right, and this is the perfect example of when he is not.
Yes, you bend over backwards to please, but there are limits. If the bottle can be re-purposed, profitably or revenue neutral, I would say take it back. But to accept a total loss is asking way too much. So much self-absorption. So few places to indulge it!
I hear you.
But I think it needs to be said: The point I was making had nothing to do, really, with wine.
The point had to do with high-end restaurants, and how they are in the business of hospitality — i.e., the business of being hospitable. At the very highest levels, the business of making people happy.
If you aspire to greatness, and you are truly interested in seeing people go away happy, and — and, please, let's not gloss over this point, which I stressed at the time I got into this debate a couple of weeks ago — the customer is not conniving and absolutely on the level, then you do what needs to be done.
A play, by the way, is different from a restaurant. If someone didn't like a production, they never say I'm never, ever going back to that theater. But people do this all the time with restaurants. One and done.
Here's another way they're different:
A night at a top-notch restaurant is a kind of improv in which you, the diner, are a part of the production. You change the experience by your very presence. If, say, you leave the table to take a smoke, you throw off the rhythm of the kitchen — a particular problem if you've ordered a multicourse tasting menu, where pacing is a real pain.
Generally speaking, if something goes wrong during the course of this improvisatory theater, you can alter the script.
You simply can't do that with a play, or a movie, or a concert.
And this is something a lot of people don't understand about restaurant reviews. It's not like a review of a CD or a movie or a play. It's not a static thing.
Those reviews ought to be sure things — if, of course, you are in sync with the p.o.v. of the critic.
There can't be guarantees with a restaurant, simply because so many elements are in play each and every night, and if any one of those elements is off in any way, it can throw off an entire meal.
Hi Todd, sadly I've been hearing about more and more restaurant closings. I'm sure that you've heard about Le Paradou closing, so sad. Felix is gone … The Willard room.
What say you? I've been to 27 out of the current 100 on the Very Best List. I know that the list changes from year to year, but this is getting out of hand. What can DC foodies do to help, short of going broke ourselves? Thanks – Ld
And the thing is, we're not done yet. Far from it.
Le Paradou doesn't surprise me. I never saw the dining room crowded. Or close to crowded. And a restaurant like that — very expensive, very formal — had better bring it every night in an economy like this. And Le Paradou didn't. It was very uneven. Brilliant, at times. But not often enough.
Actually, i think it was a casualty of the wealth of (interesting, more affordable) possibilities very nearby, in Penn Quarter.
I'm not prepared to say this is the death of formal fine dining, because things go in cycles, and hey, we may lift out of this thing just yet … by 2014.
But even before the bottom fell out, the mood had been relentlessly casual — come as you are, assemble a meal of your choosing, take a sip or a glass or order a bottle, etc., etc.
More and more, those are the kinds of places that you're going to be seeing.
You're not looking hard enough. Here you go.
I think it's a terrific place, if you like good food.
Don't laugh. I recommend places all the time to people, assuming that they, like me, like good food. Like it, that is, above all.
But for many people, thoroughly decent food in nice, comfy surroundings, presented by nice, attractive and courteous servers, trumps good food in a hole in the wall location every single time. It's amazing to me, but there you are. (Actually, it's not that amazing. Disappointing; it's disappointing.)
Do i think it'd be good for a birthday? Probably not.
They're not going to do anything to make it special for you, just serve you good, honestly prepared Bosnian cooking at a good price.
I'm heading to St. Michael's on the Eastern Shore with my wife to celebrate our six month anniversary. We'll be spending a three day weekend there.
Any suggestions for a place for a nice romantic dinner (perhaps even on the water)? Also, any "must visit" places for a good lunch? Thanks!
I enjoyed a meal I had the last time I was there at 208 Talbot. Good atmosphere, low-lit and cozy, and some good wines, including a fairly long selection by the glass. And cooking that tries hard enough but not too hard, if you know what I mean.
It's very near the water, but not right on the water.
I also enjoyed a meal I ate at Bella Luna, a quirky Italian restaurant and market that's not at all near the water and is about a ten, fifteen minute drive from the heart of downtown. I didn't love everything, but one thing that charmed me was a plate of cheeses and meats and pickled veggies; really wonderfully done, and a great dish to while away an hour or so over a glass or two of wine.
Let me know what you end up doing/eating, and drop back in and share your report with us …
Last week you were talking about hoagies.
In my part of "greater New York" (ie Connecticut), we had grinders, both hot and cold. The component I miss most is house made roasted peppers. The pizzaria would simply thick slice green peppers into a hotel pan and roast them in an oven until cooked. They would then be used on pizzas and grinders.
All I ever see here is fresh peppers used, which is really not the same. Vince and Dominic's in Bethesda will grill peppers for you before putting them on a pizza, which is as close as I have seen.
Any help or suggestions?
Sorry — I've got nothing.
It's interesting. These small touches really are important. In the end, they're not small at all.
South Street Steaks, when it first opened a few years ago, in College Park, was doing a really pretty good job with its hoagies and cheesesteaks. But a year or so ago, I saw they'd added mayo as one of their condiments. A true Philadelphian would be horrified by the sight of mayo anywhere near a hoagie. The guy behind the counter shrugged and said something to the effect of: People keep asking for it. What can you do?
What you can do, is tell them no. Presuming, of course, that you want to remain a Philly-style hoagie and cheesesteak place.
There's the rub. Alienate the core of people who know, or turn off the audience that doesn't know and doesn't care and simply wants what it wants and now.
I have no problem with a business choosing the latter path. But then, it's just another sandwich place, not a true hoagie place.
Do you know where I could find dosas? Thank you.
I love, love, love the dosas at Woodlands, in Langley Park.
If you go, get the Special Onion Rava Masala Dosa, which is my favorite. Absolutely scrumptious. One of the single best dishes you can find in the area.
And very, very affordable.
Do not pass go. Do not collect $500 dollars …
So, Todd, I took your advice and went to Ravi Kabob the other day. I had very high expectations and guess what? The place exceeded them. Absolutely fantastic experience, from the fresh hot breads and mindblowingly good kabobs to the service, which I didn't expect from an order at the counter type place.
But here's my question. I was with two other people, one of them a young, attractive woman. At one point in the meal she took off her light jacket. It had gotten quite warm and especially with all the heat from the lamb kabobs. Underneath she had on a top that exposed a lot of her arms and neck.
Well, the table behind us was extremely offended, you could tell. It was a group of about five people with the women all covered up. There wasnt any shouting or anything like that but they did ask for the manager, who did nothing. My friend said she would gladly have covered up.
All through the meal we kept getting dirty looks from them. Ironically, they could not stop focusing on our table, and especially on my friend. Whats your take on this, Todd? I've never been in a situation like that before. Really odd.
Very, very interesting.
You know, my instinct with these things is always to side with the culture on whose turf you're on. But in this case, it's tricky.
Ravi isn't a private organization, it's a public space. It's a business.
I'm guessing the manager did nothing, because what can a manager do in this instance?
The table behind you was offended, and I understand that. And I'm betting they were offended, not just at the display of flesh, but at the idea — possibly; again, I'm guessing — that Ravi is their place and hence, their space.
But it's not.
This is a pluralistic society, and, especially in this area, a multi-hued, multi-racial, multi-voiced demographic, one that values tolerance and openness and difference.
At least, most of the time, it does.
I so cherished those long-ago games with my au pair, when mummy and father were away, overseas. The estate was a cold, sometimes lonely place those days …
But humorously …
No, thanks for the quick correction. That just goes to show you how long it's been since I played!
"Recession edition"? Heck, if things keep up, those yesteryear prices won't seem so yesteryear.
Hi Todd. The recent talk about the burger wars got me thinking about Ketchup….do you know when it is scheduled to open at National Harbor? I've checked their website but didn't see any dates.
I must admit I've never been to National Harbor but I will certainly go to taste 5 flavors of ketchup! What are your favorite fries? I really liked Eat Bar's rosemary fries, and for sweet potato fries, Ceiba's blend of seasoning puts them at the top of my list. Big buns has tastey sweet potato fries as well and a delicious spicey aoili for dipping. I enjoyed the fried lemons at Palena, but not the fried mashed potato bites included on the plate. The yucca fries at Taqueria Nacional beat out those at Super Pollo for me.
I really want to like the fries at Good Stuff, but every time i've had them they've been mushy and clumped together, not at all crisp. It's a shame, because I love the burger with the egg on it and the toasted marhmellow milkshake tastes just like creme brulee to me, but I am left yearning for some fries. Also, what do you get on your burger at Ray's that makes it so special?
My husband and I have tried a few different combos but we are still searching for something that really stands out. At most places usually like dijon mustard with a bite and blue cheese (matchbox has a nice combo), while my husband is no cheese, onions and lots of ketchup.
I'd like to alert people to the fact that at airport locations, Five Guys has a fresh egg sandwich and egg-topped burger on the breakfast menu! It is so delicious that I look forward to early morning flights, and I encourage them to add the egg to the menu at all their locations!
On a final note, I think the Central burger is fabulous..wonderfully soft yet sturdy bun that is perfectly sized for the burger, crispy potato disks give it some crunch, the meat is buttery and delicious, sauce is terrific and just enough not to get sloppy, and the fries are also lovely. Sorry about the length, I'll try to write in more often to keep it shorter.
Don't hold back. I mean, what's the web for if not for long, windy, self-indulgent expulsions of thought and feeling that you could not air anywhere else. ; )
Ketchup. No idea. It's been much, much delayed.
Thanks for the tip about Five Guys. I love burgers with eggs on top. In fact, I would love to see more of these around town. Big, sunset-yellow, runny eggs to pierce and ooze their yolky goodness down the sides of a fresh, charred burger. Get on it, chefs!
Yes, Central's burger is terrific. Re: Ray's. I like it with Epoisses. See above, albeit it sans yolk. But I love the runny, soft, funkiness. But really, it's the meat itself that impresses me. It eats like a steak molded, loosely, into a patty, as opposed to a disc of ground beef, which is what you usually find, even at the good spots.
I'm with you on Good Stuff's fries; huge disappointment.
And actually, since you bring up fries, and since every restaurant you can shake a ketchup bottle at is doing fries these days, I thought I would just say: I really like the fries at Bourbon Steak. I don't think you can do any better than these.
But, having said that — and while I think it's a very disarming move to open a meal at a very expensive restaurant in a very expensive hotel with french fries — I think it's time to say I (and others; I'm not just speaking for myself, here) have absolutely od'd on the whole fry thing. We're tired. We're bored. Enough.
Interestingly, the GM at Bourbon Steak claims that the restaurant is a "neighborhood restaurant."
This is the Four Seasons we're talking about. In Georgetown. Where they are currently charging — ahem — $85 for a lobster pot pie.
Can we all put the "neighborhood restaurant" talk to a rest, please?
A neighborhood restaurant — a real neighborhood restaurant — is the kind of place where you can show up fresh from the gym without having showered, and no one will give you a cross look. It's not fancy. It doesn't aspire. It just is. It's not the kind of place you go talking up to anyone, other than your neighbors. You love it, even when it doesn't always seem to love you. It has faults, obvious faults, and yet you go, anyway. In fact, you go because of the faults. Because the faults make it seem more real, more human.
One fault at a place like Bourbon Steak, or a couple at the new Eventide (it's a notch or two below in ambition), and you stop coming, and write in to me and complain.
Must I be so snotty …
Well, I'd really prefer not to be snotty at all. I'd prefer to be embracing and warm and kind. That's what i'd prefer.
And actually, maybe it's a matter of p.o.v., but here's the thing: I don't call that snotty. I would say, at worst, it's flippant. It's an honest, candid reaction, typed quickly. (This is a chat, right?)
I think it's okay for someone to come on and call the restaurants on the list mediocre (it's more okay if you can furnish better specifics; 2 bad vs. 6 good is not a very convincing argument.) but I also think it's okay for me to respond in kind.
(Note to self: Exnay on the evitay-lay.)
I'm talking about the corner restaurant. The corner restaurant, which, to me, is the real neighborhood restaurant.
And I'm not advocating that people show up sweaty. I said it's the kind of place where, if you DO show up sweaty, then it's not the end of the world.
If people are going to get all bent out of shape, well, then that's a pretty good idea we're not really talking about a neighborhood restaurant.
Most of the places that call themselves neighborhood restaurants, to me, are not truly neighborhood restaurants. They are employing a marketing device. Many of them are far too upscale in their aims and pretensions to be true neighborhood restaurants. Being in a neighborhood, does not automatically make you a neighborhood restaurant.
Neighborhood restaurants, real neighborhood restaurants, don't advertise the fact, and don't need to.
I don't think it's going to bury anything.
I think Old Town can support a lot of different places, and different kinds of places; it's a magnet, and continues to be, despite the economy. It's just flooded with people every time you go.
I've had one meal at Brabo, the restaurant, and one meal at Brabo, the Tasting Room — not enough visits, that is, to make any definitive judgments.
But I can tell you that I enjoyed my time at the Tasting Room more. It was simpler in aim, but it also realized its aims more fully. It was also more exciting and more memorable. The restaurant itself reminds me of a lot of hotel dining, with a very conservative (especially by today's very forward-thinking standards) menu. A lot of things done well, and done correctly, but without much verve. And I would have to refer back to my notes to tell you what I had.
I drove by the butcher's on Sunday, looking (in vain, it turned out) for parking. It was packed. I'm looking forward to shopping there.
people just need to chillax.
I understand … tell them to stop picking nits!
Just wanted to add a couple of cents to the wine discussion from last week. My approach is a bit of a split. I like wine and have enough knowledge that I can generally pick something and know I will be happy. If I guess wrong it is my fault and unless the wine is "bad" (corked or otherwise unfit to drink), I bought said bottle.
However, if the restaurant makes a recommendation and I don't like the wine — then I think you can send it back.
The same rule applies to food, right? If I order X based on a recommendation and X is terrible, generally a "good" restaurant will offer to replace it. Why would wine be any different?
As for the comment from the person "in the business", their hypothetical was absurd. If a restaurant pays $50.00 for a bottle of wine, it is charging its customers minimum $150 and probably closer to $200 for the bottle. No one is ordering a $200 bottle without knowing the wine. I would bet, the price range we are really talking about for the restaurant is $10.00 — $30.00 bucks and we all know what happens to those bottles at the end of the night.
Very sensible, thoughtful comments.
Thanks for chiming in on this, Adams Morgan.
And it needs to be said again, that restaurants don't have to take a full hit on an opened bottle of wine that's been rejected by a customer. That bottle of wine can very easily be turned into several wines by the glass.
And the gesture, I believe — graciously accepting the rejected bottle and furnishing another that's more to the customer's liking — will be handsomely repaid at some point down the line. And perhaps, many times over.
I suspect that the person who thinks that any restaurant on the top 100 list is mediocre has not been to enough truly mediocre ones to know what they're really like.
The places that the person lists are all beacons of light compared to the rank and file restaurant in this area and — especially — outside of this area.
I, like Todd, disagree that Four Sisters is mediocre using any set of criteria. But if you primarily go to top 100 restaurants, some will impress and some won't. The ones that don't aren't necessarily mediocre. And if what a person was served on a particular day was truly mediocre, that isn't an indictment of the Washingtonian's list. Everybody has good days and bad days, strengths and weeknesses. It could just be that you're unlucky or ordered poorly.
I think you make some very good points.
I also think it needs to be said that restaurants in this area — I'm talking about high-end restaurants, not family-style ethnic restaurants, etc. — are generally not that consistent. (The family-style ethnic restaurants are very, very consistent; that's one of their great selling points.)
What you get, in the very top tier of restaurants on the list, is more of a guarantee of consistency. Which isn't the same as saying a guarantee. But you minimize your chances of off-nights and oddities and slip-ups.
I had a mind-blowingly great meal at Citronelle this Fall. One of the best meals I've had, ever, anywhere in the world.
I went back exactly two weeks later, and what happened? A very good meal. But not mind-blowingly great. Not even mind-blowingly good.
Just very, very good.
Well, that's a kind of inconsistency. It happens. Even at the very top.
Have you heard anything about a new pizza place opening in Takoma Park? Its not open yet but I would be interested in hearing what you or anyone else thinks about it.
Being from Boston, I'm finding it tough to find good (albeit american) Italian pizza here in DC. When I lived in Nashville, it all tasted like ketchup on hot dog bun bread. Yuck. It would be great if you can mention any favorites for NY or Boston style 'Za'.
Also, I visited Menyu (G-town) over restaurant week. I had to find some tylenol when I got there to stave off a bad headache. Ellen, one of the staff members there was so accomodating and helped me find a solution so I wouldnt have to find a CVS/drug store. Their food was great and it was so nice to have kind responsive people help you when you needed it. A+!
Great job-keep up the wonderful work you do.
Roscoe's is the pizza place that's due to open in Takoma Park. Of course, it was due a good while ago. I haven't heard anything in months.
What you need to do is, you need to get yourself to Pete's Apizza in Columbia Heights. Truly great New Haven-style pies — better, if you can believe it, than what you find a lot of the time in New York and Philly, etc. It's that good.
I like Pete's pies better than any other in the area at the moment, and there are a lot of good ones out there — 2 Amys, Moroni and Brother's, Comet, Cafe Pizzaiolo, American Flatbread, and, of course, the near and dear Tommy Marcos's Ledo Restaurant.
Well, it's not like it's Sophie's Choice. You're not really going to go wrong with any of these. That's three of the best restaurants in the city.
I'd say do the bar at CityZen. You can go there as a couple, but I think it lends itself better to solo dining, particularly if you're really looking for a foodie adventure and want a real experience. Enjoy it.
Congrats on that!
Here's the thing, though. If you're already talking about/thinking about wine, then you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.
FF is a very upscale, eco-minded Bob's, is what it is. Go with that in mind, and you're not likely to be disappointed. I.e., simple, comforting, minimally fussed-with dishes.
I like the 17-veg salad — three or four could share it. And the fried chicken, while sometimes uneven, is often very good.
I've got a lunch to make, and I'm running late, so thank you, everyone, for the great and sometimes poky questions.
Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
(TEK, we love and miss you; Wednesday night won't be the same without you … )
Didn't get your question answered in this chat? Submit in advance to Todd's next chat on Tuesday, April 14 at 11 AM.