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 December 8.
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
China Jade, Derwood
Plaka Grill, Vienna
The Source and The Source Lounge, DC
Johnny's Half Shell, DC
Gom Ba Woo, Annandale
Central Michel Richard, DC
Four Sisters, Falls Church
Bar Pilar, DC
Cafe du Parc, DC
Sushi Sono, Columbia
Poste Brasserie, DC
La Caraqueña, Falls Church
Kabob n Karahi, Cloverly
Oval Room, DC
Bistro Bis, DC
Kloby's Smokehouse, Laurel
Sushi Taro, DC
J&G Steakhouse, DC
Antonio Burrell here, thanks for the mention in the chat. Just wanted to let you know that we realized the desserts lagged behind the rest of the food. Just this last week, our Pastry Chef, Steven Hartzell, arrived to revamp the sweet end of our menu. Hopefully the new additions and tweaks to the old items will help the overall experience of dining at Masa 14.
Thanks for the update, Antonio.
And if you're reading along, maybe you could chime in on a conversation — a running conversation — a friend and I have been having about desserts in this city.
He is constantly dismayed by the size of them (tiny). By what he sees as the preciousness of them (extreme). I have been arguing for a while now that, at the higher levels, a dessert is meant to cap off a meal, and not to be a showstopper, big and ornate. But more and more, I find myself coming around to his position. Why can't desserts be showstoppers? Why can't they be as hefty as that portion of short ribs? The thinking on the part of chefs seems to be, desserts must be light because diners have come through so much richness already — but what if people are content to graze with the idea of ending with a big finish?
The lightness/preciousness/tiny-ness thing is particularly bothersome to him when it comes to things like pies and cakes. Shouldn't a pie be a pie? Shouldn't a cake be something substantial and satisfying? He is convinced that pastry chefs are there to satisfy their own egos, rather than put together something that is satisfying to the diner — and not just that evokes a childhood memory.
What do the rest of you say?
Maybe he knew the couple behind you–? Maybe he didn't know the couple behind you but suspected that they were loaded and likely to blow some good money –? Maybe he guessed wrong, thinking your table was not one for chitchat and interaction –?
Certainly, he blew a good tip. ; )
Thanks for the report. It'll be interesting to see how the place evolves in its opening weeks and months.
I wrote in last week to get suggestions for our 5th wedding anniversary last night, and although we decided to wait on the Masa 14 / Church Key beer tasting / ACKC idea until I wasn't waddling around pregnant, I wanted to send you in a report.
We decided to step out of our box a bit and do something different– kind of a "night on the town" pregnant style. We started at the Holiday Market and devoured some of those super tasty hot donuts as our first course– think powdered sugar all over my coat and a big smile on my face.
We headed up 7th St to the new Ping Pong Dim Sum to give them a try. We usually wait a month or more for a new place to settle in, so we weren't sure what to expect when it had only been open for a few days. What we liked? The food was tasty, fresh, and traditional yet inventive at the same time. The veggie steam buns, the chive and king prawn dumplings, the hoisin duck rolls, sticky rice in lotus leaves, the different sauces were all good and came at a nice pace to enjoy the evening. What we loved? It is a pretty space, not noisy, and lots of privacy at tables.
There were outstanding non-alcoholic drinks, something really special, for a reasonable $4– we enjoyed the pineapple-lime-mango and the cardamom honey lemonade, and envied the mint-citrus goji berry drink as well. I find that it is virtually impossible to get a good non-alcoholic cocktail and these were inventive, ample, not too sweet and a lot of fun. I also loved the simple Valhrona chocolate steamed buns– everything right about the steam bun with melty chocolate (it was a gift to us, which was kind). What could use some help? Our server was genuine and helpful, but unpolished in a quirky way "Was everything good?" and the explanation of the menu was too long.
The food was reasonably priced, about the same as other tapas or small plates, but there is one big difference. At Zaytinya or Oyamel the chips and the bread go far to filling you up– here it is just small dim sum plates so we ended up eating about 4 each– where as 2-3 eat at other places is ample– so in the end it's more expensive but still fine. Have you been? Any thoughts?
From there we went to visit the National Christmas Tree and popped into the pretty Willard a couple of times to pee (!) and then tried to go to Adour for dessert which was closed (I should have checked) so we went on a whim to J & G Steakhouse to see if they would let us in. They were very kind to welcome us at 10 minutes to their kitchen closing and seat us in one of those giant velvet couches in the dining room.
The could have easily sent us to the lounge downstairs so we thought it was sweet of them to make space for us upstairs at the last minute. The creme fraiche cheesecake with plum sorbet and figs was delightful, sour light (as cheesecake can be), but the real winner was the poached pear– fantastic– still crunchy but poached, warm, sour and sweet with a tart orange sauce. A bit tricky to eat with a spoon as it is quite firm, but a memorable dessert we really loved. We were glad we had made the right choice in coming here, and even though we don't eat steak it is tempting to come back.
So, all in all, a lovely anniversary, a night out of "street food", something "new" for the city in the dim sum, exciting "drinks", luscious desserts and coffee on a big velvet sofa, and all for a handsome $87 for two (including the donuts).
Welcome back, Cheverly!
You can't really ask for anything better than that, can you? That sounds like a really fine and tasty day and night.
And it has the added element that you need for a great time — serendipity/spontaneity. Don't you think? Aren't things always better when they're not planned and agonized over and hotly anticipated? When you can just follow your instincts and while away the hours, the day, the week? The best trips, the best dinners, the best adventures — they're always made up as you go along.
(For those Myers-Briggs-ers reading along, including those members of my staff who recently took the thing and are now obsessed by their scores — I'm a fierce and proud P.)
Why the hostility?
First of all, I don't even like Cheesecake Factory's desserts. Second of all, did I say I want a big, hefty dessert when I go out? I didn't. Did I say I sided with him? I didn't. What I said was that I am beginning to come around to his way of thinking on the matter — that sometimes lightness is not all, that often (and actually lately, perhaps too often) cleverness is at the expense of deliciousness.
I am thinking, in particular, of a dessert I had not long ago, a "take" on PB & J: a melon ball-sized scoop of grape sorbet, a rectangle of brioche topped with a peanut butter fluff, and a shotglass of cinnamon milk.
As a dessert amuse bouche — as a pre-dessert — it would have been nice. As a dessert, not nearly as fun for the diner as for the pastry chef who thought it up and assembled its parts.
In a word: Botboi.
Yes, chatters, that comforting Pennsylvania Dutch classic of egg noodles and chicken soup is destined to be the IT-dish of 2010. Mark my words.
Expect to see all sorts of clever and contrived "takes" on this enduring comfort food, as Penn-Dutch fusion sweeps the city, from small plates spots to destination restaurants.
There are so many restaurants offering multiple portion sizes for meals. Why couldn't we start doing that for desserts too?
I see the merit in both approaches to dessert: just one more nuance in an extravagant meal, or the main event. For me, it depends on the day (and the restaurant).
And I don't know how many times a warning from a fellow diner who'd been to the restaurant before ("Their desserts are huge! 3 people can share one" or "Their desserts are tiny, let's get 3") has proved crucial in the ordering process.
It'd be foolish to order two desserts for two at, say, Oceanaire, where the key lime pie is Brobdingnagian and comes with a steak knife jammed in its center.
On the other hand, the desserts at the aforementioned Masa 14 — at least prior to the arrival of the new pastry chef — were so small that if you were looking to really satisfy a craving for something sweet, you'd probably need to order 4 for 2.
I think your suggestion of offering multiple sizes is a terrific one. We frequently see pastas offered in half- and full-portion options, why not cakes and other sweets? Isn't the idea the same — i.e., a way for the diner to moderate or maximize the level of richness in a meal?
Chefs, are you listening?
Have you heard . . .Houston's in Rockville is closing his week. Landlord negotiations went south or so I was told by their wait staff this last Saturday night.
It's not the finest of cuisine, but it was a solid dining experience. Good food delivered on time and hot. The staff was always excellent. I find it crazy that after 26 years, and they were still packed this past Saturday, that the landlord is doing this since it's obvious the place makes money. It's just not right and many people will be out of work.
I refuse to patronize any restaurant that might replace Houston's at this location. Just my two cents worth.
Bad news, all the way around. I agree with you — not the greatest of dining, but also (and more important) not trying to be; it does what it sets out to do, and does it pretty well, and that's one of the reasons it's been around for so long. 26 years in the restaurant business is absolutely remarkable, a real achievement.
Thanks for the report, Reston.
I’ve been following your chat for about a year now. This year I have a planning period between 11 and 12 and am usually grading papers while I push the refresh button (I teach middle school in Arlington). Let’s talk about food now.
I’m going to San Francisco for a week during the holidays and I can’t wait to eat my weight in food throughout the week. I have some reservations for dinner at Thomas Keller’s Ad-Hoc. I’m also going to the one Michelin star yoga studio/ vegetarian restaurant Udunpu (yup it’s the west coast alright…) for lunch that day. Do you have any mid priced suggestions for San Francisco apart from the China town classics or the burrito places in the Mission District? I’m also planning on going to a few wineries in both Napa and Sonoma, any suggestions to where I can sip on some unique wines that maybe I can’t get around here?
Best of the past two months: Scallop and shitake dumpling and pork puff at the new Ping Pong Dim sum place in Chinatown. They have one of the best chili sauces to dip your dumplings in that I’ve ever tried. Also, Jose Garce’s innovative ceviches at Chifas restaurant in Philly are worth driving two hours. Worst of the past two months: Mushy overcooked glop of rice at Fusion restaurant out in Petworth. Their lamb vindaloo and flash fried spinach were delicious though.
Best place to buy fresh produce and fish: H-mart on Georgia Avenue. I think everyone who enjoys food a bit too much should take a field trip to any of their locations in Maryland or Virginia. I bought freshly caught, non-frozen, monkfish for $4.00 a pound! I also bought a 25lb bag of jasmine rice for a white elephant party this weekend at H-mart; Let’s just say it was stolen three times. Happy holidays Todd!
Two places I wouldn't miss: Yank Sing for exceptional dim sum, and Sushi Ran for gorgeous sushi and sashimi.
In Napa, I'd be sure to take a tour of — or make a pitstop at — Chappellet Winery, maker of some very fine, beautifully crafted wines.
As for here … Give Fusion another shot; what's good, is good. And like you, I'm a fan of H-mart. And Grand Mart. All the people who shop exclusively at Whole Foods don't know what they're missing.
Good luck with the end of the year madness at school.
It's funny, by the way, how everybody nods and says, yes, teaching is hard work, and teachers are underpaid, because down deep, I suspect that nobody really believes it. They think about the time off at the holidays and the long summers. Well, believe it. I am one who believes that all teachers should be making six figures. Schools need that kind of inducement to draw new people to the profession, and to make it clear to everyone on the outside looking in that teachers are deserving of the highest respect. In this culture, unfortunately, you don't command a lot of respect if you don't make a lot of money.
Re: Desserts Antonio here again.
To answer your question Todd: Restaurant desserts and, pastries in general in a restaurant environment, are largely loss leaders. They just don't sell.
In providing a dessert program that doesn't involve opening a box or can and serving, restaurants have to employ someone whose expertise is pastries. That cost money. Ingredients cost money. Storing the desserts cost time and money. If the desserts don't sell, you lose money. What your friend see's as a ego trip, Chef's see as a way to tempt diners more.
For Masa, our dessert program is built to complement and follow our savory menu, both in size and flavors. At other traditional restaurants that are making smaller desserts, it isn't ego driven either, but an attempt to actually sell desserts. Like you said, most people think of dessert as an afterthought to dinner not the main event. In order to get the diner to have dessert, the idea that smaller = less expensive = less chance for disappointment = fewer calories = take a chance and have something sweet, is the premise that most Chef's work on. Add to that the increasing concern around the nation about cholesterol, fat, dairy etc and this mini dessert movement seems the only way to make sweets a viable option at restaurants. I hope that helps.
So what you're saying is, desserts are conceived with the idea, principally, of minimizing risk — the restaurant's risk, and the diner's risk, too.
But surely you and others must know that most tables of two order a single dessert to share–?
And wouldn't a more sizable dessert — sizable, and detailed, and creative — be just as tempting as something slightly smaller and more, oh, twee–?
Do you think that diners silently thank the restaurant for "practicing portion control" –? Because I think that they don't. I think they secretly hope that the portion is huge, and that they can then prove their virtuousness, as it were, by only eating some of it and exhibiting a degree of discipline in doing so.
In response to the question about where to eat in New Orleans– You are always spot on with restaurant suggestions in the area as well as elsewhere, but as someone who is from New Orleans I have to disagree with some of the choices.
The oysters at Felix (right across form Acme) are WAY better and without the long line that you have at Acme. For po'boys, go a little off the beaten path to Crabby Jack's (same owner as Jacques-Imos). The paneed rabbit po'boy will make you want to slap your momma! Finally, Lilette and Martinique Bistro should not be missed for a nice dinner!
Wow — that paneed rabbit po'boy sounds amazing! My mouth is watering as I type.
Thanks for the raft of good tips. They make me want to head to the airport, now, and fly down to Nola for a few days and just walk and eat.
Allow me a moment, please, to speak to your first point: I don't want to be seen as passing myself off as an expert on the restaurants of New Orleans, for the simple reason that I'm not there enough to really dig in and understand all that's going on. The same goes for other out-of-town recs I might give.
I'm always happy to hear suggestions and recommendations from others, and I hope that this forum can be of use to all the travelers out there, in the sense that it provides a pooling of a lot of different viewpoints. Ideally, someone out there can benefit from the resto advice of someone who has lived in the city under discussion or recently returned from there or what have you.
I would also recommend to the chatter going to NorCal/Napa: Robert Sinskey Vineyards off the Silverado Trail. Love your chats, Todd. Are cheese plates as a dessert the way of the past?
I always enjoy a good wedge of Red Hawk or Humboldt Fog with a spicy jelly after a larger savory meal.
Good reco. Thanks.
And no, I don't think cheese plates are a thing of the past. I do think, however, that the trend has died down somewhat. For a while there, it seemed as if every restaurant in town (and out of town, too) was offering a cheese plate.
Easier said, than done. A year or two ago, I saw a lot of head-scratching cheese choices — cheeses you ordinarily wouldn't expect to find on a cheese plate. And I also saw a lot of cheeses served at improper temperatures. And served, often enough, with mystifying condiments and accompaniments — I mean, come on: raspberry jam?
The thing that sticks out most in my mind is the corned beef on brioche with horseradish sauce. Available only at lunch, and stunningly good. I mean it: grab-someone-at-a-nearby-table-and-start-up-a-conversation good.
The meat is supremely moist and tender and luscious, comparable in some ways to the smoked meat sandwich at the legendary Schwartz's in Montreal in its lusciousness and richness though thoroughly British in every other respect. And by that I mean, it also resembles nothing so much as a Sunday rib roast, and a very, very good one.
British barbecue, basically, is what it is. As odd as that sounds.
Anyway, I'd put it up there, right now, as one of the best sandwiches in town. It has that almost-sloppy synergy of all great sandwiches, that essential quality of spilling over abundance that most sandwich makers seem to forget — or simply don't understand — is necessary to creating a great sandwich.
We go out to eat with our toddler about once a week – usually in VA since that's where we live. I haven't had a problem with any restaurant not having a highchair, milk or some sort of smaller portion anywhere and we've eaten at a lot of nice, midpriced places like Liberty Tavern, Majestic, La Strada etc.
Well, we decided to try the brunch at Marvin on Sunday and were told by the hostess that "we're kid friendly, but we don't have high chairs." She suggested that my short 22 month old just sit in a chair (no boosters either). She didn't seem to understand that he'd be unable to reach the table for food. We went elsewhere. Is this common- should I start calling ahead to check on high chairs?
I wouldn't expect Cityzen or Komi to welcome children – those are adults-only, special restaurants in my book. Marvin is not a special occasion place, nor is it a bar. I was dissapointed and probably won't go back even without our son.
I would, I would call ahead.
A place that doesn't carry high-chairs doesn't want kids that age in the dining room. Otherwise, it'd just stock a few of them.
It's interesting you bring up high-chairs, because I called ahead to a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and was told: "We had two. But they broke."
Broke? Are there some staggeringly overweight toddlers out there?
Another day, not long after, it was a restaurant with only a single high-chair to offer. And it was already taken. Just one? "The others were stolen."
Stolen? I've heard of customers filching a napkin, or a salt and pepper shaker, but a high-chair? How do you do that exactly? A very big, poofy shirt?
The best, though, was the conversation I had a couple of months ago.
Me: Do you have high-chairs?
Receptionist: I think you've got the wrong number. This a RESTAURANT, sir.
I e-mailed last week regarding fixed-price menus, and where to eat in Old Town on Christmas Eve. I had e-mailed the manager at Brabo regarding the menu, and got a lovely response yesterday. They will indeed be offering their full menu, and I have since re-booked my table. Even though I was initially put off by the offerings and expense of the fixed price, I was won over by how gracious the staff handled my query on the phone and via e-mail.
By the way- the only other places in Old Town I found open on Christmas Eve were the other Kimpton restaurants: Jackson 20 and Grille at Morrison House.
So much depends on the graciousness, or lack therof, of that first contact and communication. I'm not surprised you were won over. It says something.
Good for Brabo, and I hope the meal lives up to the warmth of the welcome you received. I'll be curious to hear how things turned out …
Here are some of the places I'd be sure to hit, if I were you: Adour, Johnny's Half Shell, Zaytinya, J&G Steakhouse, Vidalia, The Source, Hook, and Citronelle.
All are terrific, in their own ways.
I think your tour sounds like a fantastic idea, by the way. How long and complicated did you envision it taking?
Weighing in on the desserts– I think it would be nice to have both.
I often think it's funny that all desserts are the same price and relative size at a restaurant when all of their other courses have a range. I have been to a few restaurants where they offer "bites", which is lovely if you just want exactly that. But sometimes you want a big, fluffy, piece of chocolate cake and not a tiny flourless dimple on the plate.
I think what we are getting here is that dessert can be, but shouldn't always be, refined and dainty. They are made for sharing after all, no?
I think that's exactly what we're getting at.
Versatility, as well as variety.
You link refinement with daintiness, however, and that's not necessarily a linkage I am comfortable with. I think we all want a high degree of refinement in our desserts, even if they're towering wedges of cake or pie. We want desserts at restaurants to go beyond what we could do ourselves, at home, or what we could buy from a moderately priced shop.
So, yes to refinement. And to creativity, and ingenuity. And yes to anything that maximizes flavor, and hence, satisfaction.
Yes, sometimes the dessert is what I am looking forward to the most! And yes, sometimes I want to be wow'ed by a desert.
I recall my girl friends and I making a stop at CoCo Sala for a bachelorette party, but never got to the desserts. So disappointing, as we were all really craving a chocolately dessert! Service was SO bad that we left before we could even order. But that's a whole other story… YES to show-stopping desserts!
Thanks for writing in. Good points.
We have seen a lot of blurring of the lines with regard to appetizers and entrees in the past decade, but desserts remain virtually untouched by this revolution. Almost all high-end restaurants think about dessert as the small, light thing that comes after you have indulged in everything else — after the rich plates of foie gras, after the boards of charcuterie, after the braised duck and grits. And maybe the time has come for them to rethink that convention.
Desserts I'm not saying that we are practicing portion control. What we are trying to do is get the diner to order dessert in the first place. Dessert sales account for less then 15% of sales industry wide yet cost an unproportional amount of labor to produce those same desserts. If the diner doesn't order dessert, for whatever reason, it becomes hard to support a dessert program at all, especially if those sales fall below 10% of food sales.Party Chef's are simply looking for ways to get people to order sweets in the first place.
I agree that some are to cutesy, some are to precious and some of the mini desserts are ridiculous riffs meant to evoke some sort of memory. The bottom line is a lot of work goes into those desserts, large or small and if they don't sell it's hard to justify making them.
When you say that most tables of two are ordering a single dessert to share, what the industry is noticing is that people aren't ordering dessert at all. We try to be very proactive in our dessert approach, they are not we, but they are not full on, plate filling wedges of cake either. We try to provide a dessert that is tasty and shareable yet small enough that if you choose to order several and share that is also possible. I also agree that two sizes of desserts is a great idea and may be worth looking into.
Thanks for the additional thoughts. And yes, I think the pasta-ization of desserts is a great idea, and one restaurants would be smart to consider.
I wonder if the no-ordering you're seeing, and others are seeing, is related to the bottoming out of the economy–? Sales of bottles of wine are in decline, and perhaps desserts are another way some diners are cutting back, while still allowing for an indulgence–?
Thanks for chiming in, NoLo.
Yes, please, keep me/us posted. I'd love to hear what places you hit, and what you tried. You're going to have some fun, sugar-filled days ahead …
Oh, which reminds me — if anyone is in need of sufganiyot for the remaining days of Chanukah, then consider the cream-filled sugar donuts at Flor de Pueblo in Riverdale. Boy, they're good. Some of the best donuts around, very, very addictive.
Gotta run, everyone. And for those of you scoring at home — no questions in the queue this week about Teatro Goldoni! First time in WEEKS.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
(missing you, TEK … )
Submit your question ahead of time to Todd's chat next Tuesday, December 22, at 11 AM.