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 8th.
Where I'd Spend My Own Money
Afghan Famous Kabob, Gainesville
Bistro Bis, DC
Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park
Bluegrass Tavern, Baltimore
Cantler's Riverside Inn, Annapolis
Four Sisters, Falls Church
Gom Ba Woo, Annandale
J&G Steakhouse, DC
Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro, Columbia
La Limeña, Rockville
Palena Cafe, DC
Poste Brasserie, DC
Pueblo Viejo, Beltsville
Ray's the Classics Bar, Silver Spring
Taqueria La Placita, Riverdale
Zentan sushi bar, DC
Sadly I didn't get this in for the June 8th chat, but regarding the inquiry for good sushi at lunch, what about Sushi Taro?
It is a little bit of a trek from Metro Center but I just discovered the lunch time deals and I was impressed. I've also been to Kaz recently and enjoyed it, but I think the quality at Sushi Taro is superior, and the atmosphere wa nice and relaxing – it isn't crowded since it isn't in a great lunch time location!
Right, a bit of a trek, and especially if a luncher only wants a quick, convenient bite. But yeah, Taro is excellent.
Kushi, in Mt. Vernon Square, is giving it a run right now with its raw fish specials — a good thing, a sign that restaurants are recognizing the need to procure the best, freshest stuff possible.
You'll notice I also have Zentan's sushi bar at the top of this chat. The sushi chef there, Jason Zheng, is doing terrific work. If you have the time and inclination, sit at the bar and give him free rein to create a meal for you.
Some recent dining experiences:
Brunch at CoCo Sala was a lot of fun, the three courses well executed and balanced. The truffle grilled cheese, the cheese souffle and the fantastic crab cake were all memorable– at least as much at the peanut butter cheesecake which was our favorite of the desserts. At $22 a person it's a good deal, and for whatever reason our infants thought the place was about as interesting as can be. The noise level (loud) probably helped.
The infant found the brunch at the Kennedy Center mellow enough to sleep through a few hours, but his parents were pretty delighted. We had a 2 for 1 for the buffet and came with pretty low expectations which were far exceeded. Why don't people talk about this place? The quality, quantity and general deliciousness of this buffet were excellent. Good cheeses, fresh berries, raw seafood bar, fresh veggies, whole dessert room…..it was a fantastic brunch. Trendy? No, but friendly, excellent food, view which can't be beat, and great for an infant. (Plus, parking is easy in the neighborhood on Sunday).
Lastly, Nando's is still tasty. Could be better, but the mint and chili peas, mashed potatoes and whole chicken are a pretty respectable meal for $20 for two people. Is it a destination alone? No. But when in the neighborhood it's a great place to sit and eat without spending a fortune or doing anything too formal or casual. (And, full disclosure, an infant can make quite a fuss in there and no one can hear a thing).
This is the great secret for new parents who love to eat out: go to a noisy restaurant.
It might not please some folks — I can't tell you how many complaints I've heard over the past couple of years from diners — but the hopping spots are a boon to new parents with babies or toddlers.
If folks who miss the old way of dining are given to complaining about noise, folks who have rushed to embrace the new way of dining (casual spots, industrial designs, loud surfaces) are given to whining when a little baby or toddler materializes in their hip midst.
Doesn't matter if that child cries. The mere fact of his or her existence.
(You never see that kind of standoff in Latino or Asian restaurants. Never.)
Annys Shin at the Post had a terrific piece two weeks ago on this culture clash.
Love your chats and your writing! This is not a question, but a quick note to follow up on your list of food movies. "Mostly Martha" is a great one (German; English subtitles); love "Babette's Feast," too!
It is, and I absolutely forgot about it when I was typing my list.
I've seen the film three times. Martina Gedeck is terrific in it. I love the moment when she gets the phone call with the awful news — the way her face contorts in stifled agony but doesn't quite yield. Instead, her pinkie trembles. It's heartbreaking.
Gedeck, by the way, is also in "The Lives of Others," which is one of the best films I've seen in the past 10 years.
"No Reservations," the American adaptation of "Mostly Martha," is mostly mediocre. The only thing to fault "Mostly Martha" for is its sitcom-like title. Sounds like it's of a piece with "Suddenly Susan."
I am, I'm mistaken. And I offer my sincerest apologies to the folks at Ren's, who, as you say, are very much in business. Only the grocery store next door has shut down.
Ren's, for those who don't know, is a neat little place on Arlington Rd. in Bethesda, devoted almost entirely to enormous bowls of ramen. A good little cheap meal.
I hope it is. It ought to be.
I would say, though, that we've got a way to go before I'd call it a trend. Restaurants in this area are only just now grasping that they ought to have some of the wines of Virginia on their menus. I think there are a lot of wineries, and a lot of wines, that are well worth their investment and support. I mean, if you're going to support local farmers, why not support local wines?
Norton is not for everybody — it's the wine of love and hate and nothing in between, as I say at one point in my book. It invites extreme reaction, it brings out strong emotions, and that's one of the things I like about it. Of course, I'm interested in Norton as both a wine to drink and as a metaphor, but even saying that, I think its history and its story and its singularity is one reason restaurants ought to have it on their menus. Especially around here.
So, good for Blue Duck.
Now, the bad: I was there recently, and had one of the weakest meals I've eaten there since it opened.
You can expect mine in the next issue.
And agreed — it's a terrific place. I haven't written a quote-unquote review, but I have said often on here what I like about it, what I like to eat there, and what the atmosphere is like. I wish there were half a dozen more places like it in the area.
Thanks for pointing out the proximity of the metro.
I did a little walking tour of Fairfax Village yesterday — that's the surrounding community. The rolling hills, the beautiful old houses, the quiet and tranquility … it was a really enjoyable forty minutes, despite the heat and humidity. Thank you, Veronica Davis.
I almost forgot (so consumed with my pursuit of grilled shrimp!), the husband and I checked out Pizzeria Orso on Friday night.
They were slammed, and barely handling it, but having opened only four days previously, I understand. The arancini needed (lots of) salt, but were cooked perfectly. The pizza crust was great- slightly chewy! No pizza crackers here! And the ingredients are obviously top shelf.
Wine and beer choices quite good, but I hit the spirits. It was so hot out. I needed a vodka tonic. I'll definitely go back, but might give them a little time to hit their stride.
I think they're going to need it.
I found the pizzas to be astonishingly soppy. Lots of run-off. Great ingredients, the cheeses in particular — but what's the point of buying the best when you can't showcase it? I liked the flavor in the crusts, and you can't say that of many pizzas — there's real knowledge, here — but the pies I had were all chew and no crunch. I hear what you're saying about pizza crackers. What you want is balance. And balance I didn't get.
You talked about a missing saltiness. Maybe I got all the salt that was meant to go to you. My table and I couldn't finish our pizzas because of over-salting.
Some good wine and beer choices, you're right. The lists show real thought.
But Orso, from what I saw, is not ready for a big night out.
If a restaurant is going to tout its local produce,meat, and seafood on its menu it should also have local wines. But not jsut a token representation like a very well known and now year old place in Clifton. What usually sets a meal apart in Italy or France is the fact everything is local to include the wine which maybe from down the street a few miles.
This is very possible in Clifton. Even the wine store in Clifton does very little to promote VA wines. Nothing better than a local produce salad, local prime dry aged steak and local veggies washed down with a VA red. And I am sorry unless you are Robert Parker if you didn't see the bottle you probably wouldn't know the difference between a good VA red and bordeaux or cult cab from Cali.
Clifton, my bud. This is getting serious. We're so on the same page of late that I wonder if you're becoming more like me or I'm becoming more like you …
I couldn't agree with you more, on all counts.
You know, when I was out in St. Louis, doing research for my book, I saw much the same thing. Missouri is producing some terrific wines, and yet if you walk into a wine shop or a restaurant, all you see are bottles from California, France, Italy, Spain.
In Hermann, Mo., the erstwhile epicenter of American wine — the Napa Valley before Napa was anything at all — I ate at a restaurant, Trapper's Grill, that carries more than three dozen wines, including a Norton that came from a nearby winery. It was a great thing to eat a burger and wash it down with a glass of Norton, but the vast majority of wines on the menu were from California.
Wine is a funny thing. Like many things, it's not always, or not even often, about what's good. It's about what's known. What people are told is good, or important.
It's a new pizza place — boutique pizza place — that opened in Falls Church.
What's the big deal? At this point, the question for me is rhetorical, as I indicated above. But it's the source of some foodie chatter because the pizzaiolo — the pizza-maker — is Edan MacQuaid, who manned the ovens at 2 Amys for 6 years.
MacQuaid is serious about what he does, and I suspect that Orso, once it figures some things out, will assume its place in the first rank of pizza places in the area. How long that will be, no one can know.
The big challenge for boutique pizza places is the oven, the wood-burning oven. What are its hot spots? Its dead, or deader, zones? That can make a huge difference in the quality of the finished product — the difference between a pie that is squishy and one that is perfect, or near-perfect.
Orso has other challenges, too, but that's a big one.
I hope I am not too late. Since moving to DC from NYC, I am loathe to find a good sushi restaurant that is not over-the-top expensive here.
I used to eat Japanese/sushi often in NY (sometimes over-the-top expensive but more often well priced places that had good quality sushi [not afraid of getting sick or food poisoning]). I'm having trouble finding that balance here in DC and I miss eating sushi regularly.
Can you help me out, please? Do I have to spend wildly over-the-top in order to get good-quality sushi here in this town? Thanks
I guess it depends on how particular you are about quality.
If it has to be exquisite and not just good, then yeah. I'd put Sushi Taro in that class. And if you order off the daily specials list, then Kushi probably goes in that class, too.
I don't think you have to spend wildly over the top to eat good sushi at Zentan.
Nor at Sushi-Ko, which hasn't been stunning of late, merely good (and sometimes better than that).
Kotobuki has the best, most inexpensive sushi in the city, but my last meal there was one of the most disappointing I've had in a while — the rolls and nigiri were not up to the restaurant's own standard. The other small plates, however, were as good as usual.
In Columbia, I love Sushi Sono and although I wouldn't call it a deal I don't think it's over-the-top expensive, either.
Another one to keep in mind: Joss, in Annapolis. Good, sometimes very good, and it's not going to sink you, either.
I am bound and determined to grill shrimp successfully this summer. I've tried many techniques, but in the end they are dry, or not particularly flavorful, or both. Where might you suggest I go for inspiration? I actually had a great shrimp kebab at Teaism last week- and I'm looking for more. Thanks for the help!
(Dug up from the bottom of the queue … )
The thing about shrimp — and this goes for the grill or the stove or the oven or wherever — is that it's extremely easy to overcook it. More than a couple of minutes is often too much. I like shrimp at the point where they have just lost that translucence — where they are still pliant and not yet firm. That's hard to get. It's a feel thing.
On the grill, my advice would be to go and get some banana leaves. They're a staple in Vietnamese cooking. Salvadoran cooking, too — tamales are wrapped in them.
I'd marinate the shrimp for a short time — let's say a mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, some sugar, rice wine vinegar, cracked black pepper, a bit of grated ginger, some chopped garlic, maybe a drop of Sriracha — then set them atop a couple of soaked banana leaves (soaked, so they don't burn) and cover the grill. Give it 8-10 minutes. You won't get char, but you also won't get overcooking. What you will get, and what you want, is the smoke, which will indirectly cook your shrimp.
Give it a try, and let me know how they turn out …
Honestly, no idea, but as with anything else, early is always better if you want to be up close. It starts at 9, so I'd imagine you'd want to start hanging around Good Stuff by 7 or 7:30. But that's just a guess. [Ed note: We recommend people start showing up at 7:30.]
I asked recently about a restaurant that could accomodate a large group (about 20) of loud-ish 20-somethings for under $20 per person not including tip and alcohol. I've had a hard time coming up with a place where the food is decent and that cheap (and can handle a group of this size)… so I'm now thinking about having the party in my apartment's common room and ordering in from a restaurant. Any suggestions around this same price point? I'll eat pretty much anything, but there'll be some picky eaters in the group. Thank you!
I'd consider a place like Inti, or Chix, or Himalayan Heritage.
The latter might be best of all, if only because you're going to find a number of options for carniphobes. If you have other picky eaters, I wouldn't worry about it — just provide a variety of options, and tell your friends the menu in advance so that they can plan around the party if they have to.
Generally, the city is a tough place for good cheap eating. One thing to keep in mind — and one exception to the rule –is Ethiopian, which works really well for a large group. It's great for sharing, and there should be enough variety to keep both carniphobes and omnivores happy.
Etete, Ethiopic, Madjet — all are good options, I'd think, for you and your gang of twenty if you want to go out.
Grilling Shrimp are we talking outdoors or indoors? Size of shrimp? Fresh never frozen makes a big difference.
As Todd said you just want to cook them until they barely change color. You want to pul at medium rare and not cooked through. They will continue to cook on plate. Larger the shrimp the easier it is to grill 8-10 are the best best. Nothing smaller than 16-20 per lb.
Dry the shrimp completely and season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and some brown sugar. No lime juice or anything wet. Toss on Weber Kettle grill with hardwood charcoal. Hardwood is hotter despite what ATK says etc. Pull off when medium rare and just barely transculent. Squueze lemon, lime, and orange juice over it and drizzle good rum or tequila over shrimp. Serve on rice.
Thank you again, Clifton!
I hear the same complaints about the DC dining scene over and over. No great Mexican, no great BBQ, no great deli. I have no great arguments with that, but I want to know why (as in, why do you think that?).
Are all the "Mexican" places either too Americanized, Salvadorean, or upscale chic? Or is it too hard to find a decent mole? What specifically is wrong with the DC Mexican food scene? Furthermore, why do you think that the DC BBQ is lackluster? Not smoked properly? The dry rub is off? The pulled pork or ribs are not up to par? And finally, what is wrong with our delis? Bad bread, improperly cooked meat? Poorly built sandwiches? Thanks!
All good questions, and my hesitation in trying to answer is that I don't have time to really delve into all the things I want to delve into. But if you can forgive a short and perhaps unsatisfying reply, one that may seem glib or sweeping in its generalizations, I'll try …
You find good delis in cities with strong deli cultures. Montreal, NY, LA. Food doesn't come from nowhere, it comes from somewhere. Terroir is a wine term, but it might as well be a food term. You need a public that understands the traditions, the assumptions, the codes. A dish or a sandwich or a soup — these things have meanings, plural, above and beyond how good they taste, and the people in that culture understand this. And by culture, I'm not speaking in a narrowly defined ethnic sense, here — Jews are not the only people who make up a deli culture, for instance. Not anymore.
People always say: Hey, this guy makes great pizza in NY — why doesn't he open a shop in ——?
Right? Makes sense. If you have the pizza-making know-how, why can't you take it anywhere in the world and make the pizzas there?
Why? Because it seldom works.
And the reason I think it seldom works is that you need an audience — a knowledgeable, passionate, demanding audience — a culture, if you will — to reinforce and make real what you do. You need the culture to keep the traditions honest and authentic and rooted.
That culture is there to push and prod. It's a give-and-take, an exchange. And in this way a tradition is upheld and extended.
I think that also applies to barbecue around here. We don't have great barbecue because we don't have a culture that demands it, that understands it, that lives and breathes it.
Think about Memphis.
Or think about New Orleans with gumbo.
These are step-outside topics, the sorts of things people debate and get all hot about. What do people in Washington get all hot about? Politics, maybe. That's about it.
Now, generally speaking, you tend to find great expressions of a cuisine when you have a pretty good density of that population in a given area. That's one reason you see great Vietnamese in the area, or great Ethiopian.
Italian, not so much — there's no real Italian culture in the city, no Little Italy like you find in Boston or Baltimore or NY. It makes sense, then, that that particular scene would be generally lacking.
And that brings us back to my first point. You can bring in the talent, you can plop an Italian restaurant down in the downtown of the city, or in a hot new neighborhood, but that doesn't mean there's a culture there to understand it, and give it what it needs.
There's a lot of middling Mexican, but there is, finally, good Mexican food in the area. It's in Little Mexico, in Bladensburg. It's the result of an influx of central Mexicans into the town over the past decade or so. What you find there is a thick cluster of restaurants, taquerias, bakeries, etc. You have a real culture. It's exciting to see this emergence, and even more exciting to walk around and sample the flavors.
And on that very, very long note, I'm going to sign off for today.
I'll see you all next week.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK …]
>> Submit your question in advance for next week's chat.