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 October 27.
T K ' s 2 5:
W h e r e I ' d S p e n d M y O w n M o n e y
Honey Pig BBQ, Annandale
China Jade, Derwood
Plaka Grill, Vienna
The Source and The Source Lounge, DC
Johnny's Half Shell, DC
Gom Ba Woo, Annandale
Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington
Four Sisters, Falls Church
Bar Pilar, DC
Sushi Sono, Columbia
Poste Brasserie, DC
La Caraquena, Falls Church
Oval Room, DC
Cantler's Riverside Inn, Annapolis
Bistro Bis, DC
Sushi Taro, DC
J&G Steakhouse, DC
Re: Moroccan food, how about CousCous Cafe on 20th between L and M? I know they serve Tagine, just not certain if it was what the OP last week was looking for.
I haven't had it yet myself, although I have has the lamb kabob which was very tasty.
Couscous Cafe is fine, if you're looking for a quick and easy meal, a light meal, and you want to eat Moroccan. I've enjoyed my meals there, and the people who own and run it are nice.
But it doesn't have the punch of really good Moroccan cooking, the real layering of flavor you get from a well-made tagine or bistilla.
It's like eating at a Subway if you're in the mood for a sub and you can't find or get to a great Italian sub shop.
(That's not to slight Couscous Cafe, by the way. I think Subway isn't bad if you're in a hurry, and you get them to load up the sandwich right with lots of veggies and peppers, etc. Better, to be sure, than ingesting grease and fat at some crappy burger joint. … Some sandwich-makers at Subway are better than others and really get how to make a sandwich; others you have to just be patient with and work with them. Sandwich-making is harder than it looks, or sounds. I'm amazed by how many people don't know how to make a good sandwich, including places that make sandwiches. And including places that make sandwiches and tout their sandwiches as gourmet. In fact, it sometimes seems that the places that tout themselves as gourmet are, in fact, worse at making sandwiches that the places that don't tout anything. Has anyone else noticed this?)
I wanted to hear your thoughts on The Gibson, the new speakeasy on U Street. In the past, I've had great service and wonderful cocktails. However, I was bothered by my most recent experience…
I took a group to Gibson for my birthday a few weeks ago. I asked for a drink that was off the menu but generally available. The server told me that the bar was out of an ingredient, so I ordered another drink. The server returns again, the bar is out of another ingredient! Now at this point, the other 5 people in my party had their drinks and were waiting for me (the birthday girl) for a toast. The server, aware that it was my birthday, offered to bring me a birthday shot while waiting for my drink. I accepted, figured the shot was in response to the over ten-minute delay for my drink.
Needless to say, the bill came and the "birthday shot" was on it! Not only was I charged for the drink, but it appeared on my bill as "birthday shot," which implies that the Gibson does this frequently. I thought this was in poor taste. What do you think?
I wasn't there, so I can't be sure what actually went down, but from the way you describe it, it does sound as though you were hustled.
Not a malicious hustle, but a hustle all the same. It's pushy.
The thing that would be galling to me is to see "birthday shot" on the bill — making it appear that this is standard operating procedure, a way to pump more money out of birthday celebrants.
Regarding you advice on good mexican food in the area…two of my favorites were not listed. I'm not sure if they are strickly mexican or a fusion of mexican and salvadorian…anyhoo I thought it was worth a mention.
Acapulco Spirit in Hyattsville and Silvestre Chicken in Suitland….check them out and tell me what you think.
I've never been to Silvestre Chicken, so thank you for the tip.
I have been to Acapulco Spirit, however, and it's nowhere close to the class of places I mentioned last week. Nowhere close.
I think you confused Athens Grill and Mykonos. Athens Grill is in Montgomery Village and Mykonos is in Rockville. Both are good (in my humble opinion of course) but are very different from one another. Athens Grill is more of a take out, and can be more hit or miss depending on the dish, Mykonos is a sit down that is always spot on (again just my opinion).
Speaking of Greek – the Baltimore Greek Festival is coming up on the weekend of 11/6. www.baltimoregreekfestival.com Good food there too.
You're right; I meant to type Gaithersburg.
I wasn't thinking of Mykonos, though I think they do a good job, generally; it's a nice place. As for Athens Grill, I think their highs are very high, and that's what makes them stick in my mind; the best dishes are pretty memorable. And simple.
And thanks for putting in a plug for the Baltimore Greek Festival. That sounds like one terrific way to spend the afternoon.
Yet another reminder that we're awfully lucky to have another major city so close at hand.
Invite you? Clearly, you're not a faithful reader, DC. ; )
I've been a fan of Maiwand for a while now. I think it's terrific — or should I say, they're terrific; there are four now, all in Maryland — and a fantastic value besides.
I still think Ravi's got the best kabobs, over all, in the area, and its channa and karahis put it at the top of the list of kabob houses for me. Kabob n Karahi in Cloverly and Maiwand are, over all, a close second at the moment.
I think recall you mentioning a place on Cap Hill that does a really good Greek donut…am I making that up? Please remind me of the name—I've got a hankering to relive my trip to Greece earlier this year. With a really good sugar rush, of course.
Wow, that's a lot of micro-local pride there, LC.
Anyway, no, you're not making that up. The place is Cava, on Barracks Row. And the donuts — loukoumades — are really good.
I have a tipping question for you.
My wife and I love Sushi Ko in Chevy Chase. We sit at the sushi bar and only order sushi and sashimi directly from the chef. The waiter fills our water glasses, clears plates, etc.
We like tip the sushi chef with cash, usually 15-20%. We leave the waiter 5%. Is this appropriate?
We don't think a good solution would be to tip the chef and the waiter 15-20% each as I am sure a waiter reading this will suggest.
I wouldn't tip each 15-20 percent. What I would do is, I would tip the waiter 15-20 percent (20, unless things go wrong) and, if you like, leave a little extra something for the sushi chef.
I'd be interested in hearing other ways of handling this, so let's throw it open to wider discussion …
But my thought, here, is that the waiter is still doing all the things a waiter does. He or she is not delivering your food, it's true — but if you think about it, in most restaurants there are runners to do that, anyway.
Todd, what’s wrong with me? I have eaten dinner out, on average, at least three times per week for the last 14 years in DC, at all price levels (“price points” is a pet peeve of mine), and I have never experienced the kinds of horror stories I read in your chats.
Wait, I can remember a long wait for a table with a reservation, but that was probably 8 years ago, and it wasn’t 50 minutes. I’ve never been served anything “inedible” (that’s about the strongest word you can use to describe food, along with “disgusting”). Some meals have been “eh”, some satisfying, and some fantastic. Am I just lucky, or am I the norm?
I’m just saying that I know there are problems out there, but speaking in percentages, take a stab at how many meals are served across this great city, and how many went right (or even almost totally right). I’ll venture a guess at the upper 90’s.
In my line of work, I measure quality in a complicated process that involves many people along the way. If we miss one little thing in that process – as big as a million dollar error, or as small as a misspelled word – the whole thing is wrong. We strive for 100% accuracy, but we know it’s impossible given the complicated nature and number of moving parts in our process. But we strive.
I just fear that the drama in so many of the postings are more for drama’s sake: “Our night was ruined!” “It gave my husband and me food poisoning when we got home!” “They threw the bill down on the table!” “The manager smirked [and twirled his long, black mustache]!”
In happier news, I had a great dinner at The Source Saturday night – the place was not terribly busy. Maybe it was the weather or the holiday. Either way, they were really moving those wok fried sea bass…I must have seen 6-8 go to diners around me (including to myself – fantastic dish).
Also, I’m headed to Paris and Tuscany in two weeks (rough life, I know). Any recommendations for those areas?
Very interesting, very thoughtful posting. Thank you for writing in and sharing your thoughts.
You definitely got me thinking about my own experiences …
You mentioned, SSMM, that you eat out, on average, 3 times a week. Well, i eat out, on average, every day of the week, and have done so, roughly, ever since becoming a food critic. And even before that, I was eating out 4 days a week. And it's true — I rarely have encountered the kinds of truly awful things that seem to go down so regularly out there.
There was, of course, my wretched experience this summer, on my own dime, at The Cultured Pearl, in Rehoboth Beach, and a few scattered bad times here and there, but on the whole, I can't say that things go so terribly, monumentally wrong when I go out to eat. On the whole, there's not a heckuva lot of melodrama.
I will say that I think that expectation plays a huge part in all this.
If you have to drive 45 minutes or more, you're going to be much more persnickety about things than if you only had to drive 5 or 10. If you hear that a place is exquisite, and then you go and find something slightly less than the perfection you'd expected, you're going to be peeved. And these days, you're probably going to bitch about it on a chat somewhere.
It's uneven, but not unenjoyable, and I think it's a pretty good place to catch a decent meal before a game at Verizon.
Same malady, here, as at a lot of Thai places: the appetizers outstrip the entrees.
My husband and I finally tried La Caraquena in Falls Church…it was a cold, rainy Saturday at around 1:30, and we were the only ones there.
Raul (chef and owner) is multi-talented guy acting as host, server and chef.
We had the salteñas to start, and then a couple of arepas to share (one chicken with avocado/mayo sauce and one with sliced beef and a tomato onion topping). We also had a side of black beans. Everything was delicious – the salteñas we unbelievably good, the arepas were fantastic, and the black beans were the best ever (according to my husband).
What was just as amazing as the food was that Raul took the time to explain, not only the story behind each dish, but also, the right way to eat it! The cuatro leches cake was also to die for (sweet, but not too sweet, with a salty whipped cream – sounds strange, but really good).
It was a fantastic experience, one where we lingered and really enjoyed the afternoon. I cannot wait to take all of my visitors there!
I think it's a pretty special place.
And how great is it that you took the time and lingered — at a motel restaurant, of all things!
You ordered well. The saltenas are my pick for best in the area, and there's a lot of intense competition for that crown. The arepas are as good as any I've had. And the black beans are superb. Next time, you have to get the sopa di mani, the peanut soup. The black bean soup is really good, too.
As far as the cuatro leches cake goes: One time I had it, and it was perfect, as perfect as a cake like this gets. The second time it was too logged and only okay. I imagine you had something closer to what I had that first time.
So tired of hearing "but it was my birthday!" or "it's our anniversary" in regards to a restaurant experience.
One doesn't go to Saks and expect a freebie on a holiday — why should a restaurant be any different? I don't mean to pick on the chatter who mentioned what seems like a major bait-and-switch at The Gibson; his complaint seems legit.
But I think all too often, there is a sense of entitlement when it comes to celebrating at a restaurant.
I hear you. And I despise entitlement, too — entitlement in all its many forms; few qualities disgust me more in a person.
But I do think that restaurants feed into this. How many times have you called a really nice place to make a reservation and been asked if you were celebrating a special occasion or birthday? It's happened to me three times within the past week.
That sets up an expectation that the restaurant is going to go out of its way and do something special. How can you blame a person for thinking anything but?
And further down the scale, it's much the same: You've got chain restaurants and family-style restaurants turning themselves inside-out to sing you happy birthday and give you a slice of free cake.
Like it or not, it's part of the culture, and the expectation by this point is pretty well built-in.
I’ve been to Restaurant 3 once more than their name and have been a little more impressed each time – the one time I had dinner being an exception. Judging by the largely empty dining room and mostly full bar on my latest visit, I think the operation is received mostly as a place for noshing and sipping rather than dining.
The good news is that they do a very solid job with filling that elegant but unpretentious niche in North Arlington. Their wine list is approachable and affordable with many selections under $60 per bottle and several glasses under $10 (I am depending upon memory because incomprehensibly their website lacks both by the glass listings and prices – note to restaurateurs: that’s a huge party foul.)
As one would expect from a place where the bar is far better than the tables, the starters / bar menu are better than the entrées. The Blue Cheese Potato Chips are guilty pleasure of the highest order – housemade chips served warm with melted blue cheese and big bits of bacon are irresistible.
The Mussels aren’t the best in the area, but they might be the best of any place that doesn’t specialize in them. Steamed in beer and gussied up with Andouille sausage (according to the menu and the website, but they tasted more of spicy Italian to my palate.)
Short Rib Quesadillas might be the best example of Restaurant 3’s displayed, if not explicitly stated, mission and their most frequent miss. In an attempt to make the mundane more interesting and elegant, they’ve dressed common bar food with a more engaging ingredient but they lose some of the charm of the Short Rib. The tasty and tender are there, but the succulence of the meat is slightly overwhelmed by the gooey cheese.
The same is true of the Lettuce Wraps that are served with “slow roasted duck” (actually duck confit) that is marred with too little salt. Given their exceedingly reasonable pricing, solid wine and beer program, and pretty good food, the occasional miss when they aim high is more than forgivable, it’s appreciated.
One recent Thursday night I was driven from an unnamed Westend bar by too loud techno music that was inconsistent with the promised Sinatra Night that enticed me there.
My guests and I quickly decamped to Firefly which I had been eager to revisit after hearing good things about their newish chef. We took a table in the dining room and went through a couple of courses, and a couple bottles of wine.
Little Bacon Meatballs over Potato “Spaghetti” with Olive Oil and Tomato Sauce had textural problems – it was powdery, and a little bland. The Yellofin Tuna BLT had conceptual problems. The strip of tuna was perfectly cooked, but so thin (maybe ¼ inch after cooking) that it was destined to be overwhelmed by the other flavors in the sandwich.
The only vegetarian entrée, a mushroom and [insert vegetable I cannot recall] casserole was just “eh” as described by my tablemates.
That lack of enthusiasm described my feelings towards the entirety of the shared meal. It was just boring, made worse by the fact that the service was lackluster and not a single manager-type touched the table to inquire about our satisfaction (nor did the server check after the first couple of bites.)
A Few Closing Thoughts:
While drinking with a former colleague who now runs one of DC’s nicer dining rooms, he told me about a problem they’ve had recently in their bar area. Two purses have been stolen in the last couple of months. This is not the kind of place where people would typically expect such things. As a friend, I won’t name the place; but a public warning for increased vigilance and caution is warranted.
Advice to Restaurateurs: Stop using cheap toilet paper – it doesn’t save money, women hate it, and it just makes you look cheap. If you have a jukebox in DC, there may not be a law requiring you to have at least one song by Chuck Brown, but maybe there should be.
Todd, perhaps you might use some of your considerable clout in favor of the Priazzo, the best thing Pizza Hut ever made. I miss that vastly superior predecessor to stuffed pizza from the 80s, and have been hoping against hope that one of our many excellent pizza joints will make a modern version. What say you, sir; will you lend your name to the effort?
Chuck Brown? Sho' you right.
A law? Forget that; too official. But yeah, at least one Chuck Brown song ought to be on the iPod of every restaurant in the city, and it ought to get at least one playing a night. Otherwise, of course — jazz. Good jazz. Real jazz.
Anyway … it's really good to have you back with us, DB, even if your latest round of dispatches is slightly less than appetizing. ; )
As for the Priazzo … I'm stumped; you got me. I never ate it, but I also never heard of it, which hardly seems possible, given the surround-sound of our 24/7 pop culture.
Anybody else out there a fan of this?
My husband is a grad student at UMD and we scored free Tix for the Kennedy Center this Thursday night (League of Washington Theaters). We wanted to explore Georgetown before the show and dodge in for some drinks (beer or wine) and some food at a local spot (with perhaps cupcakes at Gtown Cupcakes after).
Any suggestions for places with good Happy Hour specials (grad student budgets don't allow for excess), limited greasy foods (we're both pretty health conscious) and a good local vibe.
I know its a laundry list of requests- but I figure there has to be something out there 🙂 Any thoughts on Mate? We love Pizzeria Paradiso but have eaten at their Dupont location way too much (we like to switch it up).
Thanks so much!!!!!!
Forget Mate. Go to Leopold's Kafe + Konditorei.
Not a great vibe, if you're looking for something more spirited and rollicky, but the food's good and you can find some decently priced things on the menu for a pre-show meal.
Or what you could do is, head to Kotobuki, which is right nearby, in Palisades, and sit down to a good, inexpensive sushi meal (it's one of the best sushi spots in the area, and the most affordable of these, too), then go for cupcakes.
Incidentally, have you and your husband been to Jason's Deli in College Park? I know it's a chain, but it's a good chain. I think it's terrific for what it is. I like the turkey chili, I like the poblano corn chowder, they do a pretty darn good reuben, and I love that you get a soft-serve cone for free with any order. The salad bar's good, too.
One more place to add to the pretenti-o-meter: The new and "improved" W Hotel Bar.
What kind of happy hour requires a $25/person minimum and a full party to even gain entrance?
I'm with you.
I'd score that an 8, at least, on the Pretenti-o-meter.
This is a follow up question to my recent cooking show question… I know this is blog has evolved into something more than just restaurants. So here's hoping that this is not our of your/reader's realm:
Do you notice that everyone is using Le Creuset on TV? That cookware is so expensive!
Do you know if the imitation stuff works as well? It has gotten so popular. I think Martha Stewart is selling her knock off at Macys. Thanks! P
S: My girlfriend ate at Againn. Said the food was delicious and expensive. Service was slow, but to be expected (opening weekend).
It's true, Le Creuset is everywhere on TV these days.
And it is, it's very, very expensive; it's also very, very good. I've gotten great use out of my pieces.
But I'm not one who thinks that you need the very best/latest in the available equipment to make great food — just as I don't think you need a big, nice kitchen (or even a nice kitchen) to make great food. A lot of those expensive showpiece kitchens go to waste.
(Isn't it funny to think about these kitchens, and then to look at the kitchens of most restaurants, which are often a fraction of the size, and much less beautiful, and full of battered equipment, and which turn out excellent food — food far superior to what most home cooks produce?)
I think if you love to cook, and you put in the time, you can make delicious things with a minimum of pieces and gadgets, etc.
I haven't tried out any of the knockoffs, but I'm curious about them. I mean, what are we talking about, after all? A pot. It should be able to hold its heat and cook evenly. I am willing to bet that Martha Stewart and her vast corporation of culinary advisers understands this, and has probably put out a pretty good product.
Thanks for the tips on food for pre-theater 🙂
As for Jason's Deli, I haven't tried it but have heard rave reviews. We're a sucker for the original Ledo and theres an absolutely amazing sushi place " Hanami" with no corking fees!
Thanks again for the Georgetown tips- I love your online chats 🙂
I am looking for some sort of guide on how to eat certain foods that are now widely available but were not around while growing up in this city when it was a culinary wasteland. (pre 1990's) I would love to try smelts when they are on the menu, or use a grill at a Korean restaurant but I don't know where to begin. Are smelts eaten whole, bones and all? Are there heads attached and are they eaten? What to I order to get one of those off the "American menu" that many Asian restaurants have? Ect. I am no food prude, I'm a just very, very cool individual and I can't let my image and reputation take a hit by screwing these things up.
Also, why is it so difficult to get decent barbeque here? Forty-four years in this town and not a single good barbeque joint yet. The Rib Pit on Rhode Island Ave. NE was decent if you stuck with the "short-ends" and put the sauce on yourself but that was a carryout and a tough location to get to. (And the sides were nothing to get excited over which is half the joy of a good joint.)
Thanks for writing in — some really interesting questions there. And you may be in luck. We have a big issue planned that ought to address some of the very things you're asking about. Stay tuned.
As for barbecue, yeah, it's pretty dispiriting, isn't it? All the more so, because there are so many folks here from North Carolina. Nothing in town — or even close in town — does it for me. It's all just approximations. Approximations that make me more hungry for the real thing.
My favorite place for barbecue, right now, is KBQ in Bowie. Take a drive out one weekend, and see what you think.
But that's Vegas.
Vegas, which pretty much renders the Pretenti-o-meter pointless.
Hi Todd —
I had a good "power lunch" ($16 for 3 courses) at Kora in Crystal City last week. I had a caprese salad (kinda boring but it was very yummy) and the burger, also really good, ending with tiramisu that had a nice coffee kick. My officemates also enjoyed their butternut squash pasta and saffron salmon.
Service was really slow though, almost 2 hours from start to finish!
Also, we are going to Marcel's this weekend for our anniversary dinner! I have nver been — anything I shouldn't miss on the menu? Thanks!
Not-quite two hours for three courses plus coffee at a nice restaurant? I don't think that's slow.
(Next time, I would mention to your server that you're trying to get out in about an hour and a half; that ought to speed things up a little.)
And sixteen bucks for three courses? Even in this economy, that's amazing. That's practically giving food away. Wow.
As for Marcel's … the thing to not miss is the boudin blanc, the restaurant's signature. It's wonderful. Looks like a sausage, cuts like a mousse. Rich, meaty, elegant, and, yes, almost delicate, too.
I don't know why writing about the boudin blanc has got me thinking about this, but has anyone had the hush puppies at Sou'Wester? It's as if Thomas Keller had taken over Arthur Treacher's.
They're phenomenal. Better, I think, than the famed mini-Parker House rolls at CityZen.
Utterly unlike any other hush puppy you will ever eat, and in truth, probably closer to a donut than a hush puppy — a corn donut. Very sweet, and with a smell like something out of a state fair, like a funnel cake or something along those lines.
Anyway, wow. Just — wow.
Todd, I recently moved to Bethesda and there are so many restaurants in Bethesda!
I enjoy eating at Grapeseed, Black's, Jaleo, Mia's Pizza, and love Sushi-ko in Chevy Chase. Am I missing any other restaurants that you would recommend in Bethesda? I am not too keen with ethnic foods.
That's too bad, because some of the top-tier restaurants in Bethesda are ethnic: Passage to India and Faryab (Afghan).
(Actually, wait — aren't Jaleo and Sushi-Ko ethnic??)
I don't have much to add to that list, although mine probably wouldn't include Black's.
Gaffney's is a good, simple place for a burger and a salad. And Yannick Cam is set to open a streamlined, more inexpensive version of his old Provence; it should be open in a matter of weeks.
(Of course, French is ethnic, too.)
We ahd a reservation for 8pm at Trummer's on main in Clifton for 8pm on Saturday night. We arrived at approx 750pm and told our table was n't ready. At 820 I approached the hostess to ask about our table.
Just then another couple came in w/o a reservation and were seated immediately. The hostess was very friendly with them.
I asked to speak the manager. Right now. I asked her why this aprty was sat before w/o a reservation. She said they were friends of the owners parents.
I asked how much longer before we were going to be sat. She didn't know. I went off on her. I worked in restaurants to put myself through college. Did everything excpet manage.
Finally the male owner came out and asked if he could help. I guess he is the Trummer. Told him what ahppened . He seemed non plussed and said we will seat when we ahve a table. I said so friends of the family get special sonsideration. He said Yes and left. We did too.
I can't blame you for leaving.
As I've been saying for weeks, now, I think restaurants cannot keep people waiting without keeping in touch with them and without, also, making it up to them. Making it up to them with a drink, making it up to them with a nibble, whatever.
Did anybody catch the piece by Bruce Buschel in last week's New York Times? He's opening a seafood restaurant in Manhattan, and posted the first 50 of his 100 rules for employees. Among them: never take a customer for granted, and always make it up to him or her if there's an unreasonable wait.
Anyway, I'm off to lunch, everyone — thanks for all the good questions and comments and rants.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK]