Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 11 AM

Every Tuesday at 11, food & wine editor Todd Kliman takes your questions about Washington area cuisine and restaurant news.

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.

TK's 25: Where I'd Spend My Own Money

2 Amy's, DC 

Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park

Bollywood Bistro, Fairfax 

Buck's Fishing & Camping, DC

Cantler's Riverside Inn, Annapolis

Central Michel Richard, DC

Estadio, DC 

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Canela, Rockville 

La Limeña, Rockville

La Strada, Del Ray 

Level, Annapolis 

Minh's, Arlington

Montmartre, Capitol Hill 

Palena Cafe, DC

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ray's the Classics Bar, Silver Spring

Ray's the Steaks at East River, DC

Sol de España, Rockville

The Source and The Source Lounge, DC

Taqueria La Placita, Riverdale

Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore 

Zaytinya, DC 

Zentan Sushi Bar, DC

Washington, DC

I think Ray's Hell Burger is hyped up. The times I went, I got a huge patty, but it was very greasy and the flavor wasn't as concentrated as I was expecting. Can you rank your favorite local burger joints?

Thanks, Burger Prince

My favorite? Ray's Hell Burger.

I was just there a couple weeks ago and ate widely, and had a terrific time. My only quibble was with the Vietnamese-style wild boar burger, which had some gristle in the patty. I loved The Doggcatcher — with great gobs of roasted bone marrow on top, along with a couple spoonfuls of persillade; I just couldn't put it down, though I knew I should. And the simplest version, with cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion, is about everything you could want in a burger.

Good fries, good mac 'n' cheese, good shakes. It's natural to want to find something to bitch about with a place that has gotten a raft of attention — much more attention, really, than a restaurant ought to get, at any time, anywhere. But personally, I just don't find much to gripe about.

I also enjoy the burgers at BGR: The Burger Joint.

And beyond those two, I think everything is kind of bunched pretty close together, or not really worth talking about at all. 

Washington, DC

Re: Torrid affair –

Thanks to all of you who made suggestions for our romantic dinner last week. We weren't looking for a "recession cheap" place but a romantic spot where we could have a great dinner without spending the entire night at the table. We decided on Proof and had a great bottle of champagne, excellent main courses, a terrific cheese course, and excellent, unobtrusive service.

Any suggestions for next month's liaison?

Next month?

How "torrid" can this thing be? I have to see you, I can't not see you, I can't stop thinking about you, I can't even think straight anymore, tonight can't come fast enough … That was great; see you next month …

Chatters? 

Who's got ideas? Let's see if we can't assist our foodie philanderers one more time …

You know what? If you're not careful, FP's, this could turn into a blog. 

Washington DC

Todd,

We are headed to Restaurant Nora tonight to celebrate my partner's birthday. I have not been there before (in 10 years of living in the city) because the reviews are usually mixed and it always seemed pricey for what you got. However, a friend gave us a $100 gift certificate, so we thought we would try it out, knowing we would just end up paying the difference (which I expect to be over an additional $100). I know you are not so warm on Nora, but any suggestions on how to maximize the experience — things to order or avoid??

In my experience, the most rewarding aspect of dining at Nora has been the excellent bar.

So, drink early, and drink often.

Potomac, Maryland

Hi Todd,

I don't have a question about where I should go eat for a special occassion or to host out of town friends. My question is rather of a different vein…

You've mentioned in the past about how the fancy tablecloth and fancy food restaurants start to get boring after a while, and you crave some down home, authentic hole in the wall foods with a laid back vibe. Now do you ever start to feel like eating out just isn't all that exciting anymore, no matter where you go, because you are an accomplished home cook and can create most dishes at home yourself?

My husband and I are in our 30s, love to dine out, but I am also a very serious home cook. Lately that excitement of going out seems to be countered with "eh, I can probably just make this at home myself".

I understand that.

If I weren't a Designated Eater, I'm sure I would be doing what I used to do, which was to take a high-low approach to dining out. 

I would save up my hard-earned money and spend it only at those places where I felt I was going to have superlative experiences — superlative through and through. Places that combined precision and imagination on the plate, and that transported me in some way. The bulk of my eating out I would do at holes in the wall, mom 'n' pops, ethnic family restaurants — where I could find transport on the cheap: transport to Bolivia, to Peru, to Vietnam, to Ethiopia, etc., via simply prepared, authentic, and altogether "ordinary" dishes.

Where I would be careful of spending my money would be at mid-level places — places where the food, if it's any good, is likely to be tasty and comforting but not exceptional and transporting, and where the prices are usually equivalent to two meals at the ethnic mom 'n' pops.

One of the biggest developments on the DC dining scene in recent years is the expansion of the "middle class," with a growing number of ambitious, interesting places where you can eat reliably well and not be soaked by the cost. Bar Pilar, for instance, is a restaurant that throws a wrinkle into my old strategy. There are others — Cork, for instance. 

But in general, I think the strategy is a sound one if you're an accomplished cook and if dining out is about adventure and exploration and the seeking of transport more than it is about giving expression to a desire for certain bourgeois satisfactions.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a well-known restaurant that I won't mention right now. It's a place whose cooking I enjoy. And I did enjoy this meal, at least early on. By a certain point, however, the heavy hand with the butter began to add up, dulling my palate. There were dishes that would have been stellar if not for the chef's inability to trust in the quality of his cooking and ingredients. All that butter just threw a blanket over the flavors on his plates. 

It was too bad, and in that moment, I thought: I'd rather be home.

DC,DC
Montmartre returns to your list – anything especially inspiring that brought it back?

I kind of think of Montmartre the way I do my friend Sue.

Sue is a friend from my days at Hollins. She was a returning student when I was a grad student, and we have known each other for 18 years — 18 years that feel like 38. I consider her a confidante, in some ways a guru, and trust anything she says implicitly — she's an exceptionally wise soul.

We don't talk often, maybe five or six times a year, and when we do we pick right back up as if we had just spoken the day before. And we talk for forever when we do talk.

Last week we were on the phone for more than 3 hours — and I just don't talk like that on the phone anymore, with anyone. Except Sue.

I'd called to check in with her about her foot that is getting worse, and we ended up talking about poetry (hers and others), and the blindness of organized religions, and Blindness by Saramago, and my father, and her father and mother, and art, and America's indifference to art and artists, and the Tea Party, and our fears for the President, and race … and before I knew it, it was after 1 in the morning.

What's interesting — and probably not coincidental — is that I spoke to her the night I came back from Montmartre.  

My meal was not particularly memorable. But it was good. And good from start to finish, with no missteps or false notes. I guess if you were French, you might call the cooking comfort food. Montmartre, to me, is kind of comfort dining. You just feel good there. The casual, sophisticated setting … the mix of people from many walks of life … the smell of garlic and white wine wafting in to the dining room from the open kitchen … the clatter of pots and pans … the low lighting.

Few dinners in recent months have made me as happy.

 

CapitolBites

Hi Todd –

I'm hoping that you will answer this … Next month is my 2 year anniversary with my wonderful boyfriend. We started dating in NYC and returned for our 1 year.

Due to jobs and finances we are planning on sticking around DC this year. This is great, except for the fact that we won't be able to return to the site of our first date. Where would you suggest that we go here in DC? We don't have a car and we probably don't want to spend an crazy amount of money on dinner. Where would you suggest that we go?

Any help/suggestions would be much appreciated! L'shanah tova and thanks in advance!

L'shana tova to you, and congratulations …

What I'd do if I were you, is I'd hit one of those mid-level places I was just talking about. Cafe du Parc … Zaytinya … Montmartre … Cork … Vermilion in Old Town Alexandria.

I think any of those could be just what the occasion calls for. Special without being ostentatious, with good,  interesting and consistent cooking. And for this area I'd say they're reasonably priced, too.

I'll be curious to hear where you end up going. Drop in again in a few weeks and hit us with an update, OK?  

DC
I have a suggestion for those having the "torrid affair" – look at the suggestions already made in last week's chat. Not much has changed on the DC food scene since then.

Oh, you're no fun at all … ; )

Who wants to take up our cheating chatter's challenge of finding a tasty pre-tryst destination?

Vienna, VA
Hi, every time I go home to California to visit my family, I end up eating Chilaquiles as it is my favorite Mexican dish, and the Mexican food on the West coast in general is just better than what I have found here. I haven't been able to find any decent or even offerings of Chilaquiles in the DC metro area so was wondering if you had and if you could recommend a place? Thank you!

I always order chilaquiles when I go to La Sirenita in Bladensburg.

Sometimes they're only fair, sometimes they're pretty good, and sometimes they're terrific. It just depends on the cook. It's one of those places where the dish — and that goes for any dish, from the tacos on down — is different every time I go. You never know quite what you're getting. The place used to be a lot more consistent. It's too bad. But if you catch it on the right day, you can have a wonderful experience.

Go for the chilaquiles in rojo, with a lightly fried egg (make sure you let the waitress know you want some juice in the egg) on top, and a Milanese of pork on the side. 

 

Please help me choose

Hi, Todd.

I can't decide where to go for a lovely evening out where food is inspiring and wonderful but not precious, service is just right without being gratuitous or fey, ambience is lively but not immature, welcoming and unpretentious?

Here are my options: Proof, Tosca, Kushi, Obelisk, Eola, Kushi, Estadio, Birch & Barley.

If there's something that should be on the list, let me know that, too. Thanks

I love your description of what you're looking for in a restaurant — I think it's what a lot of us are looking for these days.

I'd put Central Michel Richard on that list, and I'd whittle the candidates down to: Central, Kushi, Eola, and Estadio. 

Eola is not lively, so it doesn't make our final cut.

I'm going to take the liberty of reading between the lines in order to pare the short list. I think — it's just a guess, now — but I think you might find Estadio to be too self-conscious to deliver what you're asking, so now we're down to two.

And now it just depends on what kind of food you most want to be inspired by: ennobled American classics and/or bistro fare (Central), or stellar sushi and grilled things.

Hard to go wrong, either way.

Enjoy, and I'll look forward to hearing how things turned out … 

Re: serious home cooks eating out
Todd, that question was one of the more interesting questions I've seen in a while, so I'm glad it was asked and loved your thoughtful answer. Who, then, are eating at the moderately-priced restaurants? They seem to be filled these days–some of them do, at least.

What you have to remember is, the vast majority of restaurant-goers are looking for a mid-level experience.

Most people are not food-adventurers, and the idea of doing armchair travel via the world's cuisines is not something that they care to make a regular habit. Once in a while? Sure. But most of the time, it's not going to meet their various needs. 

And most people simply don't have the disposable income to blow on dining out at the likes of Citronelle and Marcel's a couple of times a month.

Mid-levels don't have to be synonymous with middlin' — and the rise of mid-level dining in DC is one of the most exciting developments of the past five years.

But as I said, I think that for the most part, it's more interesting in this area to eat at the extremes.

 

Re: Torrid affair
Does the food really matter?

Hey, I'm with you. If it's really and truly "torrid," then what does it matter if it's foie gras or Fuddrucker's?

Or does this maybe say something about Washington and our buttoned-down, by-the-book ways, that the torridity is preceded by champagne, dinner, and a cheese course?

dc

Todd –

First time commenter, long time fan.

I have a client dinner tonight for someone coming in from SF. It's hard to compete with their fare but was thinking of scene over food. Or focusing on cuisine that they don't have in abundance – thai? Pizza? Thoughts? I hope to keep it in the area between F north and D circle.

What about Mourayo?

Modern Greek. Not a ton of that in San Fran.

Comfy and cozy, the food's good (look for the charred octopus), prices aren't astonishing …

Clarendon, VA
Todd, With regards to burger ratings…Central? I think they have a really good beef burger.

They do. I just don't think of them as a burger place.

Same with Palena Cafe. Another great burger, but not a place I immediately think of when I think of burgers. (It's a place I immediately think of when I think of soups and pastas.)

Central also makes a mean corned beef sandwich — easily the best deli sandwich in the entire area. But when I think of delicatessen, I don't immediately think of Central.

Ballston, VA

So within two block radius on Wilson Blvd you Rustico opening someday maybe before the end of the year and Pizza Autentica opening next couple of weeks. We are all wondering if both can survive and hoping the gourmet pizza craze dies soon.

We would have preferred some diversity in the area a real Italian restaurant or maybe a real Mexican place along the lines of RIck bayless' palce in Chitown. instead we got two more upscale pizza places. Now if they had coal fired ovens of over 1000 degrees they maybe on to something

I'm with you. An utter lack of imagination.

But you know what? Restaurateurs open pizza places because affluent professionals and well-off families support pizza places.

And increasingly, these affluent professionals and well-off families are not too terribly bothered by the idea of paying $65 for two for a meal of pizzas and salads — so long as they know they'll be getting Buffala mozzarella on their pie and the salad is made with field greens.

Pre-tryst destinations
There are a lot of unknowns here, but I'll bite. How about Estadio? This could work if we are talking about your average person (not high profile or recognizable) because they could blend in with the crowds and maybe go "unnoticed." If anonymity within a crowd is not a possibility for this dynamic duo, then they'll have to hide out at an unpopular place.

Good suggestion.

You know, you've got me wondering, now, if there are restaurants that, given enough notice, would go out of their way to make the night more memorable. 

And what would that going-out-of-their-way entail, exactly?

If you're a restaurant manager and you're reading along, drop me an email and let me know (since we're running out of time) and I'll post it next week. tkliman@washingtonian.com

 

Arlington, VA
I always thought torrid affairs were supposed to include the Tune Inn?

You're thinking of torrid Senatorial affairs.

It's interesting, thinking about this and pondering all the ponderables … I would think if there's a lot at stake, you'd want to get out of Dodge — head out into Virginia and check into some quaint and charming country inn.

No? Yes?

I don't know. The more I think about this "torrid affair," the more I think about how expensive it all sounds. Champagne, entrees, a cheese course … That's not cheap. And then there's the hotel. A DC hotel.

So that's $500 right there.

Not including sparkly trinkets of affection and other gilted gifts.

And let's not forget — this is all on the side.

That's a lot of cash to throw around.

I have to wonder if that doesn't have something to do with the mystery and glamor of it all …

Ah, well, enough pointless ruminating for today … I'm hungry. Time for something more meaningful. Time for lunch.

Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK …]

 

 

 

 

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