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 June 2.
The Current List: Where I'd Spend My Own Money
Nava Thai Noodle & Grill, Wheaton
Honey Pig BBQ, 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
La Fondita, Hyattsville
Sushi Taro, DC
China Bistro, Rockville
Sushi Sono, Columbia
Where can I find smoked fish, either on the menu or in a market, in the area? Thank you!
There's a terrific smoked sturgeon appetizer, with beets and cucumbers, on the menu right now at Johnny's Half Shell.
Beyond that … I'm coming up blank, unless of course it's smoked salmon (I like the lox at Bagels and … in Annapolis — best bagels in the area, too — and at 2 Amys on the weekends.)
My apologies! A couple of other chatters have come on today to ask the same thing, after my talk last week about this section of town.
Little Mexico is in amorphous little zone that is part Riverdale, part Bladensburg and part Hyattsville. 410 and Kenilworth is the main junction, and most of the restaurants — El Tapatio, Super Chicken — are along Kenilworth.
La Sirenita, La Placita and others are on Edmonston Rd., right off Kenilworth.
Pollo Fiesta is at the far north end — also on Kenilworth, but past 410.
La Fondita, which I went to again last week, is in Hyattsville.
Right now, La Fondita is hitting all the right notes. I had a terrific chicken soup — a soup of surprising delicacy, actually — with cut up potatoes, carrots and parsnips. The tacos, I mentioned, are wonderful, and don't miss the tortas. There's one with two fried pork cutlets, topped with sliced cheese, sliced ham, tomato, lettuce, mayo and pickled peppers.
Hi Todd –
Hoping for your last minute help. I had a reservation for The Source this Saturday for my boyfriend's birthday dinner. Turns out he has a soccer game on Saturday evening and The Source isn't open on Sunday.
Any recommendations for a memorable birthday dinner in the same price range? He eats everything. Thanks!
There's really no great Tex-Mex right now, and I find myself pining for it. I mean it — pining. Tex-Mex is one of my favorite cuisines.
What I'd really love to see, particularly with all the kinds of cheapo spots opening up during this economic nosedive, is someone open up a really killer Tex-Mex spot.
Make it fun, but don't make it the kind of place that becomes swarmed with swells who are out for some slumming. Make it distinctive, put real thought and detail into the dishes — but don't get cutesy and small-plates-y.
Austin Grill, before it went corporate, before it went to multiple locations, was really terrific. Ann Cashion was the chef then, and they had smoked duck tacos and superb corn chowder and one of the best bowls of chili you could find east of Texas.
There are still some good things on the menu there, particularly the vanilla ice cream — but then, that's not really a Tex-Mex thing, is it?
I guess the closest, right now, is Guajillo, and it's good at many things (mole, ceviche) and okay at some.
Todd, have you had a chance to try Ravi Kabob III in the Brookfield Plaza yet?
I wrote in a few weeks ago to mention that we now had a branch of that most wonderful source of Pakistani cuisine in the Springfield are and was wondering if you or any of your other readers eaten there and can share your/their feelings about how it compares to the Arlington outposts.
Also, you now have rooom for another great place on 20 restaurants where you will spend your own money. Farrah Olivia is now closed, they moved out space contiguous with Balducci's in Alexandria yesterday (June 1st). I remember reading that Chef Morou was looking for a new location, let's hope he finds a spot worthy post haste as this are needs him and others like him.
Thanks for believing the DC metro area is worth staying put for; you have made more of an impact on the cultural scene than you may know.
Thanks for the wonderful words of support. No, I haven't been to the new Ravi Kabob yet. I'm wondering if anybody out there has–?
I can foresee a day in the not-too-distant future when there will be 15 Ravis across the area. It'd be a great thing, provided the place can keep its consistency — and provided the owners expand into DC and Maryland.
I have 2 questions: 1. Which is harder for you to write–an excellent review or a terrible review of a place.
2. Since obviously no set of taste buds are exactly alike, are there any places where your views have greatly differed from those of your peers? I'm not asking who is right and who is wrong, that would be impolite to ask. Or are the food critics generally on the same page about places in the area? Thanks
Interesting questions. I'll try to answer them as well as I can.
Terrible reviews are fun to write, but the question I have to ask myself is — am I being gratuitous in doing so? Not good.
A rave is easy to write, too, and often fun. It's the places that don't inspire much reaction either way — and believe me, there are a lot of these — that are hard. I sometimes don't write a review of a place because I find that I have nothing interesting to say.
I find that, generally, restaurants in the middle are those that are least interesting for me as a writer. Not to say I can't have a pretty good meal or a good time. Just that they often don't inspire thought or strong reaction.
Your second question is harder to answer, because I don't keep such strict watch over what others are doing that I run my response up against theirs. I will say, though, that I tend to be strong in my enthusiasms and strong in my dislikes, and that I am inclined to give certain kinds of restaurants more latitude and others, less so.
Went to Westend Bistro this weekend. Everyone in my party was seriously underwhelmed.
The food was only ok- aside from the large salads, the portions were tiny. A $26 rack of lamb that consists of 2 tiny peices of meat? Really? The shrimp and grits was bland and the cornbread sliders tasted like muffins from Giant.
The service was also not up to par. Our water glasses went unfilled the entire night-perhaps because we only had "tap" water? Even after we asked for a refill, nothing. Plus, one person ordered coffee with her dessert (a $6 coffee no less) that didn't come out until our desserts were nearly gone.
In these tough economic times, I would deem our experience not even close to worth it and will advise friends to steer clear!
I'm sorry to hear that.
And I can't say I wouldn't do the same thing. Right now, places like that have really got to measure up.
Restaurants are funny animals. So much depends on energy. Westend had it, a lot of it, when it opened, but as I predicted, and as happens so often when you have a name involved, and that name is out of town, the energy is going to flag … and then what?
Maybe Brabo Tasting Room, the more casual space next door with the smaller, cheaper menu.
I think Brabo is more of an adults-only kind of place, and both the food and the service have a formality that might not be what you're looking for.
Otherwise, if I were you, I might try Vermilion, right down King St. from Brabo. A looser vibe, and cooking that might appeal a little more to the young'uns.
Hi Todd, 2 questions.
1) Can you recommend a or several authentic Lebanese and/or middle eastern restaurants? Ive been to Cedar's Cafe in Burke and it was great. Still looking for more.
2) Any good tips for restaurants where a birthday party / going away party would be a success? Trying to plan one for my boyfriend who leaves for Iraq next month. Dont want to go too foo foo so people can be themselves instead of watching whos watching them (if you know what I mean). about 15 peo max for the gathering.
Also, as a 'transplant' from Boston, I can see why its sometimes hard to have a real, authentic, been-round a'while place here. Too many people coming and going to frequent. Not to mention most of them bring their own unique and sometimes international flavors to DC. Its a double edged sword. Great people, great food, but tough to get the niches…..
That's a good point.
But I'm not even talking about niches — just fun, lively places that are extremely distinctive and that also put out very good food, but that aren't designed to price out average folks.
So often, here, you get interesting places with good food, but they set up shop in fancy areas of town and aim for an upscale crowd, because that's where the money is. It's conventional thinking. I think that's starting to change, and the economy, certainly, is going to be a spur, so we'll see …
Lebanese food … I love the Lebanese Butcher and Cafe in Falls Church. I love their lamb plates, their fateh, their baba ghanous (so smoky and so fluffy), their roasted cornish hens, their pickles. That'd be my first and second choice.
Layalina, also in Virginia, is another good bet for Middle Eastern cooking.
And then there's the pretty good … Mama Ayesha's, sandwiched in between Woodley Park and Adams Morgan, and a full-service Lebanese Taverna in Woodley Park.
It's interesting to bring up Woodley Park and Middle Eastern cooking, because there's also another spot there, called Medaterra, that does Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean food. I haven't been in a while, and really ought to return soon, because I remember thinking it was thoroughly decent — a sort of poor man's Zaytinya.
Tag line: "Honest food. Honest drinks."
For some reason, this and a couple of recent conversations with food-loving friends, has put me in mind of a story my wife told me recently. She'd gone to a salon that sells Aveda products, and the saleswoman was pushing Aveda products. My wife uses Clinique, because their products are hypo-allergenic. The saleswoman made a face. "They use bat droppings in their mascara," she said. "All our products are all-natural."
What could be more natural than bat droppings?
I like honest food (what's an honest drink, though? water from a creek?) but I don't buy the idea that honesty = excellence.
And you are who to know this … ?
A GM leaving might explain it. It doesn't excuse it.
My wife and I ate at Makoto and loved the unique experience. The fatty tuna tasted as if it were plucked from the ocean and delivered directly to our plates. They served one course in a persimmon half and we were instructed not to eat it. Do you have any idea why? Thanks.
You were instructed not to eat the course, or not to eat the persimmon half?
Odd. I can't figure out why that would be. I doubt that at a place of that caliber the persimmon would be reused.
Good to hear about your experience with the fatty tuna. I've had bad experiences with fatty tuna recently at a lot of places, even at the very good ones. With one exception: Sushi Taro.
I don't mean bad as in inedible or fishy. Just not exquisite. And at those prices, you're paying for exquisite. I want no mush at all. I want an explosive, bright taste in my mouth. I want a striking sort of cleanness. And I want something rich and mouth-filling.
I can't think of any places offhand that are serving either of these right now, except to hit a rear-guard Italian restaurant. Lots of them in Old Town, and I'd bet you'd find osso buco on the menu at Pines of Florence, Geranio, and Landini Bros.
Reminds me … A La Lucia will be bringing in Roberto Donna for a series of "guest chef" dinners … June 24, July 15, August 12. $85 per person.
A man without a country, he wanders and seeks. A chef without a restaurant, he goes to work in somebody else's kitchen.
In lieu of–? I don't understand part of your question.
Anyway, yes, I've been to Red Rocks, and I don't think it tops Pete's in any way. It's ordinary. Pete's, meanwhile, is the best pizza in the city. I think it's on par with the best in New York, and actually, better than some of the supposed standouts.
Really, all food is fusion if you think about it.
Most of the Italian food that we grew up eating is fusion. Tex-Mex, my beloved Tex-Mex, is fusion. Most Indian cooking would be inconceivable without the influence of other cultures.
Once you take something out of its home environment and transplant it, you can't help but to change it, for better or for worse.
As I said, sometimes it's a good thing — a dish or a style comes into contact with other influences, and those influences push it in a new direction, a better or more interesting direction.
It's fashionable for some in foodie quarters to denounce fusion as an abominable culinary practice, but I don't subscribe to that view. I think there's good fusion and there's bad fusion.
In most cases, I think you'll find that fusion that's occurred organically, as with Italian in this country and Tex-Mex, is going to be better than something that's thrown together willy-nilly, simply because some chef thinks it's a hot idea.
But I've had Asian-Latino dishes that are good, that I wouldn't have expected to be, and I've had some that are not.
It depends. And you have to take things as they come.
On the topic of short ribs -I think Matchbox just added braised short ribs to the menu.
I was there last night and ordered pizza but I'm pretty sure I remember short ribs as being a new addition. I can't tell you if they taste good but I think they cost $24.
Personally, I much prefer Vermilion, but you're right — Rustico is very kid friendly. And very fun.
Your first thoughts on Eatonville? Is this a place that could grow into a really nice place to eat in the city? Should I try it now or wait for some of the growing pains to get worked out?
Haven't been yet.
I hope it succeeds. And I have no doubt that it will be a fun and lively spot for a long time.
Whether it will be turning out good, consistent food, that's another question. Andy Shallal has a great gift for bringing people together, and creating communities out of his restaurants. None has ever been a magnet, however, for food lovers.
Andy will say — I can hear him now, and no doubt, I will hear from him later this afternoon — that that's not the goal.
And that that's never been the goal.
And I believe him.
I'm not advocating a foodie destination, however. Rather, a destination for good, distinctive food.
That's different. And ought to be within reach.
I didn't. I never have. And no, I don't have any thoughts on the winners.
Not trying to be snarky or stir the point — just being honest.
Hey, there you go … honest food, honest drink, honest answers.
What would I put in there?
I'd put in a Tex-Mex place. An honest Tex-Mex place.
Gotta run, everyone — my Crystal Light is waiting …
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
That's all the time Todd has for today. Submit your question for next week's chat here.
(I miss you, TEK)