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 April 7.
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
Cantler's Riverside Inn. That'd be my pick.
Big, meaty crabs, perfectly steamed, and a fantastic atmosphere to crack and pick them in.
I'm going to AFI tonight, anything you'd recommend for a bite beforehand. I'm thinking the bar at Ray's but that kind of adds up for me. Anything else? Thanks a bunch.
I'd head to the new-ish Thai Flavor.
Only two tables, and hardly any atmosphere to speak of — it's mainly a carry-out at this point — but the cooking is very vivid, everything's very fresh, and you can't beat the prices (the most expensive thing on the menu is $8.95).
The summer rolls are some of the best around — tightly wrapped, and with good, fresh poached shrimp inside. They also do a very good version of bikini shrimp.
Main courses are generously portioned and — if you request spicy — eye-wateringly hot. I think the drunken noodles is a terrific dish.
Go. It's well worth supporting, and a good addition to the downtown Silver Spring scene.
I'm a senior at AU, graduating this May. (Yikes.)
Where would you suggest for a nice graduation dinner with my family? I would like something a bit more upscale, but stopping short of "jacket required." In the past we've gone to places like Bistro Bis, BLT Steak and TenPenh, so I'm thinking that price range. I'm really big on French, Thai, Japanese and seafood; not so much on Mexican, Greek/Mediterranean or Indian. Thanks!
With the way this economy is going, yikes is right. But still — congratulations.
Let's see … along those lines — Kinkead's, Central Michel Richard, Vidalia (it's probably more French than Southern, contrary to name and perception). A long shot pick: the new Sei, for very good sushi. Although it might be too trendy and slick for the occasion. (It looks like a North Dallas version of a Hollywood hot spot.)
I do appreciate and agree with nearly all of your writing…except for your take on sending back a bottle of wine that a customer simple does not enjoy. Wouldn't it be more reasonable to expect that a customer has the right to send back a bottle if he/she did not themselves pick it out, but had the sommelier or someone else at the restaurant pick it out for them?
Thank you again for your local culinary insight, which I use all the time!
No, of course I don't think a customer can just waltz into a restaurant and go sending back bottles of wines simply because.
That wasn't my point. My point was that at the very highest levels, the job of the restaurant is to send people away happy. Not to cook great food, not to be pampering and correct in service — no. To send people away happy.
And I think if the restaurant is sincere in its mission to be the very best — a big if — and if the customer is conscientious and not a grubber or conniver — another big if — then redoing or replacing a dish ought to be no big deal. (Or be conveyed as no big deal; no customer wants to believe that a restaurant is taking a hit.)
And the same goes for replacing a bottle of wine that is not a great match. (I've had wines billed as good matches that simply weren't, for whatever reason. If I hear "good match," and I'm dining at the highest levels, I want alchemy.)
So I finally went to BLT Steak and Bourbon Steak over the weekend. I have to say they are both very similar but very different too. My party at BLT Steak had the bone-in sirloin and I had the Waygu Hanger Steak with a fabulous scallop and foie gras appetizer. BLT Steak in our opinion is the perfect place to eat real kobe and American Waygu beef!
However, Bourbon Steak has a slightly better overall taste and texture (no charring of the meats!) for the regular cuts of meats. The clarified butter poaching is a unique concept and you can really taste the difference and the steaks are very tender. Have you tried the rolls that are given at Bourbon Steak? It is butter heaven! Better than the popovers at BLT Steak as well as the Parker rolls at CityZen? Why is BLT Steak rated higher than Bourbon Steak in your Top 100 Best Restaurant List? Is it because Bourbon Steak was too new before the list came out?
Why? I think newness is a part of it, but it's not as if we docked the place simply for being new.
I like the rolls at Bourbon Steak, but not as much as the Parker House rolls at CityZen. And not as much, either, as the gruyere popovers at BLT.
And I agree, the butter poaching is novel, but in general, I prefer the taste of the steaks at BLT. (I think Bourbon has it all over BLT when it comes to seafood.)
By the way — two luxe steakhouses in one weekend? Whoa, Nelly! The calories! The bank account!
Todd…not so much a restaurant question, but it certainly food-related.
I moved to the area just under a year ago. For the life of me, I cannot find a decent delicatessen where I can buy good-quality deli meats and cheeses. I don't mean these small-time, low-quality places you might find in grocery stores…you know what I'm talking about, right? Is there any place, NW of the city, where I can get my prosciutto and pancetta, provolone and pecorino? I live in Gaithersburg, but I'll drive a little. Thanks!
Are you willing to drive a lot?
The place you're looking for is the Italian Store, in Arlington. They have everything you're looking for. And it's good stuff, too.
There's also the Three Brothers' market and store, in Bladensburg, which ought to have those very same things. Also a good place, and little known by most of the people in the Upper NW-Bethesda-Northern Virginia power axis.
Hope that helps you out a little.
It's no good to be jonesing for something so badly like that, and not be able to satisfy it.
Lordy … Did you even read what I just wrote?
I said I didn't at all support sending a wine back JUST BECAUSE.
And I made clear that I wasn't talking about just high-end restaurants. I said I was talking about the very, very elite of high end restaurants — those that aspire to greatness. Those that will go to any length to make sure that a customer leaves happy. I can only think of a handful of places in this area that meet that description.
By the way: If, as you say, the wine is bad — corked, oxydized, whatever — what need is there to send an entire bottle back? The customer will get a taste, and can decide then.
And yes, I said customer.
"Guest" is a restaurant affectation. Like "neighborhood restaurant" has become.
If someone is a guest in my house, they're not paying. Cf., "be my guest."
I recently asked a bartender at a restaurant for a somewhat obscure drink to make, and they were unfamiliar with it.
I was asked what the ingredients were, and I could name 4 of the 5+, but I didn't know the proportions (and got some slight attitude for not knowing how my drink was made). That led to a scramble to find a bartending book, which they couldn't find. I tried telling them to stop, don't worry, etc. From my point of view I was glad no recipe was available.
I do not want to be a bartender's guinea pig, just like I wouldn't ask a chef to make crabcakes if they never had before. If the person behind the bar doesn't know right away, I can move on to something on the rocks or a cold beer. It makes me very reluctant to order anything unusual for fear of the experiment that may follow. Am I off base here? What's the best approach when you ask a bartender for a somewhat obscure or difficult drink to make, and they are unfamiliar with it?
I don't think you're off base. Order something else and move on.
You don't go to a doctor, only to have them break out a medical book and begin looking up case histories.
Granted, life is not in the balance with a mere drink, but still …
TK, you have to help me out.
Parents are coming in this weekend, and they are fiends for Chinese, and I'm just so tired of eating Chinese, you know? OK, maybe you don't know — you don't get tired of anything probably. But I want something different, and I know my dad will want to go to the same two places he always asks to go to, and they're all right but not great.
Is there anything good around here that I don't know about and that's not the boring old usual thing?
Here's what you do.
You go to the new-ish Burma Road, in Gaithersburg. They've got two menus, side by side — one Burmese, one Chinese.
If you're lucky, maybe you can persuade your mom and dad to try something new. If not, no big deal — order from the Burmese menu and enjoy yourself.
I've only sampled a few of the Chinese dishes, and they're good, but the real reason to come here is the Burmese cooking, which is terrific — bright, vivid, expressive.
And very, very consistent, too, from the soups to the wondrous salads to the complex curries.
There are a few good Burmese places in the area now, including Mandalay in Silver Spring, Myanmar in Falls Church, and a Taste of Burma in Sterling. I like all of them. But I think Burma Road, right now, is the best of the lot.
Wasted? Not wasted. This isn't an information dump; it's a chat. Getting into debates, going off on tangents, indulging in long, meandering riffs, cracking jokes, cracking wise — that's what a conversation is. Or ought to be. A free-form thing.
Glover Park. … Well, I can tell you what it wouldn't be. It wouldn't be Rockland's, which I always get excited about and invariably come away disappointed by. Very good collards, and some other good sides, but the ribs just don't do it for me. Sorry; yuppie 'cue.
At the moment, I'd probably say Surfside. The level of detail is surprisingly high, for what this is — basically, a taco and burrito joint.
Some restaurants aim high, and fall short of the mark. This one aims lower, but finds its mark almost every single time. It knows exactly what it is.
I recently had a superb tortilla soup here, one that would have been at home in a restaurant that charges four times as much. And there are a handful of specials that show off the talents of the chef, David Scribner, who used to run Dahlia and, before that, Smith Point.
We decided to go to Rasika last night, and it was just lovely.
The blend of competent service, inspiring food, and skill of execution was unique to an Indian restaurant in my experience. The crunchy spinach chaat, anything with creamy paneer, the smokey butternut squash, the spicy and the sweet potato ragda were all amazing. The bread basket was a delight as well with the mint paratha.
The banana dumplings were the only thing which fell flat, mealy and a bit bland.
It was also a bit of a vegetarians dream– we ordered a total of 12 dishes (mostly sides) for our table of 4 with a couple of drinks and a gulub jamun to share, the tab was still about $125. I think Rasika does something lovely for most price ranges if you stick with a variety of vegetarian selections and I was all around impressed.
Good report, Cheverly, and very much on the mark, too.
The thing about Rasika is that it's actually gotten better, bit by bit, as it's gone along. I thought it was a promising place when it opened, but I also had a few reservations about it; it's now one of the best, most exciting restaurants in the city.
It's great to see this kind of steady evolution.
A lot of high-minded restaurants open with a bang, then sputter after about six months. A year later, after they've gotten the good reviews (which you can live on for a few years), they raise prices, they reduce the size of the staff, and nothing's quite the same anymore. It's not really the same place that you'd read about.
Hi Todd – with respect to your comments on South Street Steaks, I think it's perfectly fine for them to offer mayo if that's what people want. Maybe a happy medium would be to say you won't put it on the hoagies but have a box of mayo packets in the corner for people. That's what Super Dawg in suburban Chicago does – they refuse to put ketchup on hot dogs, but they'll give you packets.
Anyways, just wondering if you thought the pre-theater menu at Tosca was a good one or if you would recommend the a la carte menu instead?
It's fine, sure.
But then it's not a real Philly cheesesteak. I don't think a happy medium exists in something like this.
A happy medium is a businessman's notion — how to satisfy both ends?
But if you want to be thought of as working within a tradition, then why compromise? To make money? OK, but here's the thing: Then you're just a sub shop. There are lots of those. Why not be distinctive? Why not stick to your founding principles?
As for Tosca … I think the pre-theater menu is a good one, but I also think you can get out of there a little more quickly — and with less of a hit — if you sit at the bar, and order a couple of half-portions of pasta and a glass or two of wine.
Thanks for chiming in with this.
Hi, I need to find a restaurant for Mother's Day.
Our group will consist of my mom and stepdad, me and my husband and two boys, ages 14 and 6. We are new to this region of the U.S. and my mom has never been to D.C. or this region before. I'm having trouble deciding whether to sightsee in D.C. or Alexandria and then have dinner, (not brunch – too much food). Crabcakes are a requirement. We don't want anything overpriced or ultra-touristy but a little touristy is okay. Any guidance or suggestion would be greatly appreciated!
I'm thinking the Old Ebbitt Grill would fit the bill perfectly here.
Fun atmosphere, not too expensive, a little touristy, the kids should be as at home here as the adults, and the raw bar is one of the best around.
Third week of May. We'll be wrapping on it in the next week or so.
There's a bunch of newcomers on the list, and we've got a really interested, really varied, lineup of places.
I'd go with Central Michel Richard.
Five blocks away, mostly terrific cooking, a sophisticated, buzzing atmosphere — one of the best restaurants in the city, and one of the most fun, too.
Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.
I'm not against wet-aging, as many steak lovers are, but I'm not all that big a fan of butter-poaching. (Just for the sake of clarity: Bourbon Steak doesn't just poach; it also finishes its steaks with some heat.)
Kobe isn't so much overrated as overpriced. And to make it available only in a five-ounce portion, as BLT Steak does, is turn it into something it was not meant to be. It was not meant to be a stand-in for a slab of beef. It's best appreciated in small tastes — just as you wouldn't want to gorge on five ounces of fat-striated oh-toro.
Now, American Wagyu — yes, generally overrated.
Welcome. And I'll do my best to help you eat as well as possible …
For sushi — I've got three spots. The newly renovated Sushi Taro near Dupont Circle, Sei in Penn Quarter, and Sushi-Ko in Glover Park.
For Italian, you're looking at Italian fine dining; Tosca and Obelisk head my list. For something a little more casual, Dino in Cleveland Park.
And back, again, to steak. … In the city, BLT Steak and Bourbon Steak. Charlie Palmer Steak I'd put third.
Brasserie Beck and Central both do good frites; so does Cafe du Parc. So does Poste.
And you can try them out at Bourbon Steak at the bar, for eight bucks — three different styles, each with a different dipping sauce. They're as good as they come.
I applaud your stance that restaurants should offer guests an opportunity to reject a wine simply because they don't like the way it taste! True the traditional purpose of the first pour is so that a guest/ sommelier can determine whether the bottle is faulty, but good service can and should exceed this minimum.
That a diner should have to suffer an evening in a restaurant with some component which is undesirable is absurd, after all how many restaurants (that want to stay in business) would refuse to accept a returned article of food if a guest was dissatisfied.
While it's true that the establishment did not make the wine, they did place on their list which is by default a recommendation.
I am a 25 year veteran of the industry who has worked as a sommelier for most of my career including 3 Wine Spectator Grand Award winning establishments all of which garnered 5 star ratings from Exxon-Mobile as well as a slew of smaller/ less prestigious operations that were no less committed to (what should be) basic customer service.
I believe the argument that people will take advantage and order wines just to try them is nothing more than institutional paranoia.
The reality is that a vast majority of restaurant patrons go out to enjoy an evening that on one level or another they could not themselves recreate, be that better food, an escape from personal labor, a few hours of respite from their everyday concerns, and of course to sample beverages that they might not otherwise be able to, but most importantly they do so in good faith.
Sure there are exceptions, but realistically they are very few and far between and what business of any kind would allow an abusive person of this sort to continue patronizing their establishment anyway?
Most unflawed bottles of wine can be sold off by the glass, used as "good will pours", comps or even for cooking. The extremely rare super premium bottle ordered by a guest who thought they were ordering white when it was a red or just didn't like the taste, is still being ordered by a guest who has already indicated they are willing to spend more for a better experience in other words the sort of diner a restaurant should want to cultivate and nurture.
I understand that this contention will be anything but universally agreed upon, which in my opinion is sad for both the dining public and our industry as a whole; but in the end I believe those establishments (including mine) with the forethought to put the wants and needs of their guest first will ultimately outshine (and profit) those who don't.
Thanks for bringing this issue to a public forum, from the industry side you have at least one adament supporter!
And enough … : )
I've given you the last word on this, DC.
Thanks very much for taking the time to chime in, and to craft such a thoughtful explanation of your perspective.
I'm off to lunch, everyone. (No returning of bottles, I promise!)
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
(TEK, I miss you … )
Submit your question to Todd's chat next week on Tuesday, April 21 at 11 AM.