Tuesday, October 19 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 

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 

Yamas Mediterranean Grill, Bethesda 

Zaytinya, DC 

Zentan Sushi Bar, DC

Hi Todd –

I wanted to get back to you for this week's chat regarding the poster last week who complained about our food shortages on Sunday night.

Last Saturday night was the busiest night we have ever had at Proof – surpassing the number of reservations on the book as of Friday night (the last time food orders for the weekend are placed) by 150. Sunday night was the Roger Waters concert at the Verizon Center, again surpassing the number of reservations on the book as of Friday night by over 100. These numbers were in part a reflection of the perfect outdoor temperatures as our patio remained full throughout both nights. Chef was aware it would be a big weekend, and he ordered accordingly. But there was no way for him to predict record turnouts of that magnitude.

This 6 top was one of the last reservations, arriving after the concert crowd departed, and not all at once. We have 15 Austrian whites on our list – we were out of 2, 1 of which we had 86'd on Saturday night. Chef makes 5 pates in house but 2 of them are far more popular than the other 3. We had run out of the 3 least popular pates but had our 2 most popular pates in stock – the pate Campagne and the Pho pate – my two personal favorites. We offer an extensive selection of charcuterie and cheese, and all were available. We offer 14 "firsts" and were out of 2 – the sweet breads and the butternut squash soup. We offer 8 "seconds" and were out of 3 – the salmon, scallops and duck.

They were advised of the sweetbreads, scallops and salmon when all in the party had arrived and commenced ordering. Both the duck and the soup were 86'd after the group had assembled.

I expect the waiter could have presented our 86'd items in a more professional and orderly manner, but that hardly seems like grounds for indictment.

Adam Bernbach, the manager on duty, advises me he explained to the table that we had an extraordinarily busy weekend, far beyond what reasonably could have been expected. In addition, he takes issue with our alleged lack of contrition. He writes "I went over, unprompted, and apologized extensively." The poster gives short shrift to Adam comping them a good bottle of Austrian wine, complaining that only half the table drank it, as if that should be relevant. The poster speaks of a spoonful of ice cream brought with a birthday candle when it is in fact 4 ounces. The poster talks of a "pretty damn mediocre" meal – were the hanger, halibut and chicken not up to par? – I suspect otherwise. And as for the $300 dinner – that is $50 a person, hardly an expensive meal at the quality level we offer. Our lighting – apparently another sore spot – draws more praise than criticism. I like it and it is not going to change.

Overall, I am not sure what more the poster would have wanted us to do – comp her party's entire meal? This was an aberration- we, like every other restaurant, run out of items, but rarely, if ever, to this extent. That said, I certainly understand the group's frustration. A marred birthday is a marred birthday. They have every right to expect our best whenever they visit, and they surely got less than our best. It was clearly a bad impression for them and, as she wrote, often you only get one chance to make a good one. Had she written me directly about their experience I would have invited them back for dinner as my guests in the hopes of getting that second chance. Had she instead just written to you I would have done the same.

But reposting her letter to you on Yelp (her first DC restaurant post), coupled with the unfounded complaints about wine and lack of contrition on our part, has me reexamining my initial inclinations. I have exchanged emails with the guest who made the reservation, and plan to reach out to the poster as well. I apologize publicly for an experience that fell far short of what she should expect and what we normally deliver.

But I am not convinced our behavior warranted the expressed level of rancor.

Salud, Mark Kuller

I'm not convinced that it did, either.

Thanks for responding, Mark, and for giving us a look at this from the other side.

You raise some interesting points about vindictiveness and revenge in a public forum. Speaking only for myself, I can understand feeling hurt and disappointed by a night out like that. And it doesn't help that it was an expensive night out — that's got to leave a very sour taste in the mouth, regardless of what the circumstances may have been.

What I don't understand is anonymously blasting a place. What's to be gained? Why would anyone reading any sort of public forum put any store by a vitriolic posting? If the goal is to inflict hurt — why? I think there are other ways to find "justice."

What do all of you think? 

Del Ray

Hi Todd,

Here is my scorecard for Galileo at lunchtime. (1-5 with 5 being the highest)

Service/Front House – 4 (Everyone was very welcoming; saw Donna visiting tables; Donna's wife came by our table; many attentive staff, too many interruptions by staff making sure we were okay; 6 people standing over our table while fish was being prepared tableside.)

Decor – 3 (Boring. Lovely glass sculpture chandelier. Wonder if its Chilhuly. Sleek looking bar. Sleek looking men at the bar. Otherwise looked the same as DC Coast. White napkins which dusted my black pants with fabric snow.)

Food – 3 (Apps ordered – shrimp on white polenta with fried onion ring, fennel salad; Main courses – whole branzino, raviolo stuffed with eggplant with red sauce.) Putting aside a salad which is hard to mess up and the decent olive bread, the other dishes were above average but not what I had expected.

I may have built up Galileo in my mind but once I saw Roberto Donna in the kitchen, I really expected the food to be spectacular. The shrimp was fishy and mushy. That's all I can say about that dish. Well conceived in terms of flavor but something was off. The branzino was simply prepared and it looked delicious. A waiter came by to drizzle a little olive oil over it. Nothing special about it and have had it at Siroc and a zillion other restaurants. The pasta was subpar. Very bland, no salt, thick pasta, and cold because it sat at the table while I waited for the server (in a suit) to filet the fish tableside with a spoon and fork. I think I would have prepared it they came out and showed it to us and then took it back to the kitchen to filet while my pasta stayed under the warming lights.

I am going to return a few more times before I make a final determination, but right now, Galileo is just plain average. Total bummer.

Thanks for the scorecard — very thorough and thoughtful.

I've been once, too, but am going to refrain at this point from offering up any judgments or observations. I will say, though, that your words are very fair and very considered. 

Van Netian

Hi Todd,

What percentage of your opinion on a restaurant is based on the decor and vibe? No wrong answer here, and different for everyone. Personally I give a lot of weight to these inedible factors, maybe too much. Unless I'm really in the dive mood, I have trouble genuinely enjoying myself if I think the dining room is unattractive, or that the vibe is bad. Maybe this is why I've kept Clydes on my list for all these years? Good but not great food, elevated by the handsome dining rooms and good ambiance. It might help your readers and students to know how big of a factor these considerations are in your opinions, reviews, and lists. Thanks very much.

It's not a mathematical formula — I just don't think in those terms, and I don't think you can approach a restaurant that way, either.

I will say, though, that the cooking is the single most important aspect of a meal for me. 

If you find yourself digging into great food while sitting in a crummy or nondescript atmosphere — that's still a good time. If you find yourself sitting in a sumptuous and elegant room, and dining on mediocre cooking — that's a bad time. Right? In the latter example, I typically find myself thinking something like: Oh, they can spend a ton on the decor, but they can't spring for a decent cook? It's dispiriting.

I'll give you an analogy for how I approach a restaurant. When I listen to a pop song for the first time — pop, soul, rock, hip-hop, R&B, what have you — I'm not listening consciously to the lyrics. I'm not even focusing on the lyrics. If I'm not seduced by the rhythm, if I'm not caught up in the feel and flow of the song washing over me, I'm not going to take the time to get to know the words. If I am feeling all those things I want to feel — then, yes, absolutely. Maybe around the fourth or fifth or eighth time I hear the song I'll begin to think about the words.

That's an inexact analogy, but it works decently enough in this case.

If the cooking isn't good, not much of the rest of the experience of dining out is going to matter all that much.

 

Chevy Chase, MD

I'm the person who wrote in about Casa Nonna that you included in last week's chat. Thanks for including my post and giving the good press to them after they were so accommodating.

I was not participating live, but you asked what the chef made for us. For starters — the ricotta (yum), the risotto balls (not as good as 2 Amys), the speck fontina spiedini, grilled baby octopus (also great), and the arugula and panzanella salads.

We then got 4 different pizzas (margherita, diavola, nonna, and emilia) and 4 different pastas (spaghetti with olive oil, arrabbiata, fettucine al burro, and stracci di manzo). I should note that we did have one vegetarian in the group.

Thanks for the update, and again, I will say that I think Casa Nonna went over and above in this instance in accommodating your group. 

I'd like to think it's not just a case of a new restaurant doing any and every thing it can in the first 90 days to establish itself and win favor. I'd like to think that it's simply — business as usual.

Shaw, DC

Good Morning Todd,

Just wanted to give a field report from the mom-visiting weekend.

Although you suggested Bistro Cacao, we didn't make it there, but I am excited about trying it this weekend. The surprise hit of the weekend was Birch and Barley.

We did the tasting menu and it was wonderful. And I'm not much of a beer drinker, but I was game enough to do the beer pairings, which for $22 is a deal, and it really made the meal. The ahi tartare and the spring lamb were my favorites, as well as the pumpkin cheesecake and the beer paired with it! Who knew? I'm a believer now.

Sunday night was an early dinner at a very refined French place in DC, that will go nameless right now because I have a dilemna. While the food and service were immpecable, the payment process had a glitch that I was unaware of until we were long gone from the restaurant. The payer insisted that she left $100 cash and the rest to be put on the card, but they only credited her with $80 cash. Obviously, nothing can be done once you leave the place. But what would you have done or would recommend about a situation like that?

It's my impression that a place of this caliber would have instantly apologized and taken the guest at her word and credited the $100. Thoughts? Also, if you like I will privately reveal the name of the restaurant, but since I am not complaining, I didn't want to potentially tarnish the reputation. Thanks.

You can drop me a note at my email address at the magazine: tkliman@washingtonian.com

I think this is a tricky thing. I say that because earlier this year I was at a restaurant out of town and paid in cash. I was sure of how much money I set down, but the friend I was with smiled, pulled up the tray and said — do you know what you just did? Turns out, I left an extra $60 tip! I'd gone to the bank the day before and there were some 50s included in among the 20s. I never noticed.

So, it's entirely possible, yes, that you may have left 4 instead of 5 bills?

It's just as possible that someone on their end miscounted.

I don't know what to say. Could be an honest mistake. Could be you made an honest mistake. What do you all think? 

CapitolBites

Hi Todd,

I just wanted to pop back in and thank you pointing my boyfriend and I toward Montmartre for our anniversary. The food was outstanding.

As a mussel lover I have to say that they were some of the best I have had in DC. My rabbit was cooked and seasoned to perfection and my boyfriend's hanger steak was full of flavor.

We will absolutely be heading back there in the future!

I'm so glad it worked out for you.

Montmartre is not one of those places that people tend to think of immediately when they're looking for a good meal, and it's not going to excite anybody who's looking to try the new place or the hot place, but it's a very consistent performer. Hard not to like, and I love the vibe and the crowd, too.

I'm surprised you didn't get dessert — the Floating Island is a must. 

Washington, DC

After years of living in DC, I made it to 2 Amy's for the first time last Friday and can certainly see why it's a mainstay on TK's 25.

I have to say though that while the pizzas were tasty, I thought the true stars were the small plates I had before dinner sitting at the bar. Our favorite was a fresh mushroom dish with olive oil, shaved pecorino, lemon and cracked pepper — simple and delicious. The bar area has a great buzz about it too, which was lost when we were seated at our table upstairs. (The tables downstairs did seem more lively.) I'll give the pizzas another try, but my initial reaction is that I like the pies at Il Canale in Georgetown better.

Any thoughts on who is serving the best Neapolitan-style pizza in the city?

Your thoughts on 2 Amys are similar to my own. I think the small plates are the best reason to go these days.

I was in recently and had the best pizza I've had there in two years — it was excellent. But the plates excite me more.

I really do think you can make an argument — a strong one — that it's the best Italian restaurant in the city. And easily the best in its price class.

Il Canale's pizzas aren't bad; but I'm not wild about the place, in general, and I think the service is especialy bad.

I think the best Neapolitan being done right now is at Pizzeria Orso, in Falls Church.

If I had to give a Top 5 for pizza at the moment, taking consistency into account and not factoring in decor or service or anything but the pie, it would be (in no particular order): Orso; 2 Amys; Seventh Hill; Pete's New Haven Style Apizza; Moroni and Brother's.

CapitolBites
re: Montmartre We were stuffed so it seemed silly to order dessert. But the next time we go back we will absolutely try the floating island!
Should've ordered Floating Island to start … ; )
Cleveland Park

Regarding the talk of cookbooks from two weeks ago …

I got given the Joy of Cooking 75th anniversary edition 2 years ago for Christmas and have since cooked over 300 recipes from it! Probably fewer than 10 have turned out badly, and many more have been stunning! It also has exceptional educational sections.

Isn't it great to have something trusty like that, to turn to again and again and again?

Thanks for writing in … 

Del Ray

For the Caps fans looking to dine before games, my favorite place is PS7.

They have great flatbreads, homemade hotdogs, and my favorite cocktail in the city – The Sun and Sand.

Of course, the stadium has some decent food to offer this year also. On the 2nd level, the BBQ stand with fresh carved turkey sandwiches is quality and healthy for stadium food. 1st floor carving station is always swamped so it must be good too. Personally, I always stick with a pretzel dog outside section 112. Avoid the chicken nachos.

I'm with you on PS 7's in the lounge.

The food is always fun and often terrific, and so are the drinks (that Sun and Sand goes down like a cold root beer on a hot day).

My recent experience in the dining room was very different from what I've experienced in the lounge. I found my meal to be ambitious, interesting, full of surprises — but falling short of the mark more often than not. It's a strange night out when you're fascinated by what you ate — when you're given to thinking about it and studying it and mulling it later when you're home — but you can't say that you really enjoyed yourself.

Thanks for the arena report.

I know that Ted Leonsis has made a lot of improvements at Verizon, and that concessions are pretty prominent among those changes, but if I'm early for a Bullets * game, I'm hitting a restaurant outside.

* I'm among those who hope Ted will do the right thing, ignore the Post's oddly vituperative editorial, and change the name back. They've always been the Bullets to a lot of us.

Arlingtongue
I think people sometimes lose all perspective on things. It was just a single restaurant dinner. To get so agitated and have so many things gnawing at you that even days later you feel compelled to spew it all across the internet cannot be very healthly, mentally or physically. Classy post by Mark Kuller, BTW.

I can understand some of the anger.

I don't agree with Mark that it wasn't really that expensive a night — $300 is expensive. There are places where six people can go and eat family-style and share dishes, and the bill will come out to be much less than $50 a person. And I think paying that kind of money and finding so many things lacking — that's frustrating. I think anyone in a circumstance like that is going to feel lousy.

But the story is — as usual — more complicated than we were given at first to believe.

I think if a diner is looking to have the restaurant make amends, and the restaurant blows that diner off, then it's permissible to seek recourse somewhere else. 

But to seek it in a state of anger, and to spew venom from behind a mask? Bad, very bad. 

DC
What a fantastic piece about Jose Andres. Part of me kept thinking that it belonged in Vogue—not because it wasn't very much about the Chef/food/restaurants, but because it seemed to be an article worthy of a spread done in conjunction with Annie Leibovitz. Wonderful job.
Thank you. I really appreciate hearing that. And I can definitely see where you're coming from — one of Annie's very searching, starkly lit profile shots.
Bethesda

I wrote last week about my Per Se reservation. Well, we went on Saturday night and it did not disappoint.

Most of the dishes were excellent, some were spectacular (oysters & pearls in particular). Some were just very good.

But they lavish you with breads, chocolates, etc., so that no one could leave disappointed. No pressure whatsoever to order expensive wines. The service was incredibly polished and the room was elegant. The check was huge, but we expected that going in.

It obviously compares favorably to the best of DC, but I have to say that some of these meals I've had in town were equally memorable (special occasions at the Inn, Citronelle, CityZen, etc.).

I think your observation about the lack of pressure is a sharp one. I've noticed it there, too. It's worth remarking on.

Per Se is a very, very special restaurant. It's wonderful if you can go early in the evening, when the sun is just setting over the tops of the trees in Central Park, and watch the darkness descend on midtown Manhattan through the broad glass windows of the dining room.

DC
I agree re the Bullets. And I saw the funniest T shirt last week. A silkscreen of last year's famous Gilbert Arenas photo in the huddle with finger guns and underneath the phrase "The Bullets are Back"

Love it. : )

Poor Gilbert. I know we're moving on, and I know we have a dynamic young point guard (a pure point guard, at that), but I loved watching him and I hope he can regain some of his form from three years ago. He played with such exuberance and joy. 

washington,, dc

Computer hiccup so I'm sending this again!

Hi Todd,

My parents are coming to town and I need to make a dinner reservation for them and my new BF. I tried Rasika but the earliest they had was a 9:15 PM and my parents aren't up for late night dining.

I'm looking for something in DC, preferably near a metro, not overly loud and somewhat special without being too expensive (entrees ~$18-24). In the past we've done Palena Cafe, DC Coast, and Zaytinya, and my parents are up for any type of food.

Thanks for any suggestions you can provide!

Central Michel Richard?

Cafe du Parc?

Poste?

All are Metro-accessible, and all will deliver what you need. 

Falls Church, VA

My 50th birthday is coming up and I have been to most of the top 20 of your top 100 restaurants list. For my birthday I was thinking it might be fun to do a chef's table.

Can you recommend one that won't break the bank and will be a fun time. While I want good food to me this is about the experience so I would prefer a really fun place/chef with good food to a boring place with excellent food. Any recommendations?

Thanks a million

Well, here's the thing — all of them are going to break the bank. Now, so long as you know that …

My choice would be Citronelle. It's a long wooden table with a clear view of the kitchen, which is lit dramatically, as if it were a stage, with cooks swarming around the multiple stations. And I just don't think you can do better when it comes to the food. As good as the food is in the dining room, it's even better at the chef's table.

Proof
So Todd, if you had an experience like the poster did last week at Proof, would you give them another shot?

As a critic, of course I would — I don't think that's what you meant, but I think it's worth saying this now and making sure everybody knows where I stand on the subject. One of the reasons I and other critics tend to visit places three times or more is because we want to get a sense of what a place really is; there are always aberrations, which this particular night sounds like.

If I weren't a critic? No, I don't think I would. Or — I would, but it might be a year or two or more before I returned.

You make a good point. A very good point. It's one of the reasons I put up my TK's 25 every week at the top of this chat. I want you and others to know that I try to think of myself, when I go out, as someone without a budget — as someone who has to make hard decisions and save up.

 

Arlington, VA

My job is relocating me for a year and am dissappointed to be leaving the burgeoning food scene in the area. Could you please suggest three places to hit in the next six weeks before I leave? Price is not an object.

I am looking for places that are at the top of their game right now and will help satisfy my cravings for many months. As a matter of narrowing the list down, Komi and Citronelle are already on the list of possibilities. Help me find a few great meals before heading into nothing but mid-priced chains

I'd keep both of those and make your third either the sushi bar at Sushi Taro or The Source (if you aren't all that enamored of raw fish).
CapHill, DC

Going to be out of town for my wife's birthday and I'm trying to orchestrate a get together with some of her friends.

We're all grad students, so affordability is important. It'll be a weeknight dinner, a couple drinks each, of about 8-10 people. Most are not particularly adventurous eaters. Has to be inside DC, can be casual. I figured you were the man for the job. Maybe the ONLY man.

Thanks a lot.

I'd have them hit either Jaleo or Oyamel.

There's a lot at either place for the unadventurous to dive into, the prices are very decent for that level of experience, there's a lot to choose from in the way of drinks (particularly at Oyamel), and the atmosphere at both is casual and fun — ideal, in other words, for a grad student's birthday party.

I know that that's not the most imaginative response I've ever come up with, but I think it's going to fit the bill.

I hope it works out.

I've got just enough time to slurp down the latte my wonderful wife just made for me and head out for lunch.

Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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