Tuesday, October 26 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

Van Netian

Todd,

I'm a faithful follower of yours; in fact you'd be proud of me, last week I tried both Estadio and Moroni & Brother's. Liked both very much for very different reasons, though they had great food in common. I always appreciate how your picks are at all ends of the spectrum. It helps me get to new neighborhoods and puts my Garmin to work.

Toward that end, you've got me curious about banh mi. Would it be a mistake to have my first one be from Dickson Wine Bar, or should I trek out to Eden Center to pop this cherry? I don't mind a drive, if it's worth it.

Also, do yourself a favor and check out a relatively new Thai restaurant called Paragon in the unassuming little strip mall in Cleveland Park. Their noodles are awesome, a "good slimy," if you will. My neighbors have caught on and the place is often full. Not really sure why I'm letting out this secret, I guess I feel like the Paragon folks deserve it. I prefer it to Nava Thai, in your top 100, and would love to hear your opinion.

I like a "good slimy," and know exactly what you mean — nice job of description there.

I haven't been and am now very, very curious to give it a whirl. I'm curious re: Nava Thai — have you dug deep into the menu? It's one of those places where, if you go off your usual track, you'll generally be rewarded — rewarded more, that is, than if you tend to order the usual dozen dishes that all Thai restaurants seem to do.

As for that inaugural banh mi … No, I would not order one at Dickson. You'd almost certainly come away asking what the big deal is. I like the wines there very much, and some of the nibbles, too, but the banh mi is a game effort that's just not that good.

Go to the Eden Center, and give the ones at Nhu Lan or Song Que a try. Or you could try the ones at Banh Mi DC. I like all three. My first trip, though, would be to Nhu Lan.

I just had a banh mi yesterday at Fatty Crab on the Upper West Side in NYC. Made with mortadella and a fried oyster. Good, but not $17 good. $17 for a banh mi?! I think that's missing the point of a banh mi. It's not about sexy ingredients, or luxury ingredients. It's about cohesion, about balance, about every element working together and nothing starring.

I feel about that banh mi the way I do about the $4 cupcakes at Georgetown Cupcake. Yes, they're very tasty. Great texture to many of the cakes, great frosting. But I'm not sure how I feel about a cupcake being made into something precious — something you approach very dainty-like.

How about the rest of you? 

Falls Church
Any idea if/where Lebanese Butcher will re-open after the fire? We love that place and are already in fateh withdrawal.

I love that fateh. My mouth started watering just from reading that word …

For those who don't know the dish, the version at Lebanese Butcher was one of the best around: chunks of soft-cooked lamb spooned atop crispy squares of fried pita, the whole thing doused with tangy Lebanese yogurt and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds.

It's the sort of dish that, once you eat it — or once you eat a good rendition of it — you develop cravings for it. 

I have not heard yet what The Lebanese Butcher plans to do in the wake of that awful fire. It's a real loss for the area, but especially for those who buy only hallal meats for their homecooking, and for those who value good, simple cooking at excellent prices.

Keep in mind that the owner, Kheder Rababeh, also owns a slaughterhouse in Warrenton, which is one reason the meats were so good and so fresh and so inexpensive. It makes good business sense for him to have a restaurant and shop in the immediate area, and I would imagine that some form of The Lebanese Butcher will return, somewhere.

Cheverly, MD

Reporting back from a few days in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Thanks to all of the excellent suggestions from other choggers we had a delicious time. Some of the highlights…

Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe in Chapel Hill knocked our socks off with it's local and organic take on both north and south Indian cuisine. The perfectly spiced plates of charred chicken tandoori served over a local salad with yogurt sauce from a nearby farm was a delight, and out little one went wild over the potato and onion filling for our dosai. Between the friendly counter service and the secluded garden setting, you make plans to come back before you are even done. It's great to see a little owner-chef driven place like this make it in the back of a vacant mini-mall and have a line out the door moments after service begins.

Lantern in Chapel Hill is exactly the type of place you shouldn't take a baby- the small, hushed, candle-light bistro welcomed warmly us with as smile (sorry, no highchairs) while something between amusement and hostility graced the faces of our fellow diners. The locally-sourced Asian bistro was packed full even at 5:30 with patrons dining on their unique and delightful cuisine. Fish is the way to go here, with a whole fried fluke bathed in a lemongrass, tamarind, ginger, chili and garlic sauce served with a crisp carrot salad and rice, or the steamed cod served with baby bokchoi in a miso and soy glaze. The desserts were creative but needed a bit more work, but the drink list with creative Asian – inspired cocktails and unfiltered sake by the glass made my birthday meal a lot of fun. Oh, and our son proved the skeptics wrong by making only one loud noise in the restaurant that night– a hearty giggle.

After a long hike we stopped at Locopops in Durham to eat popsicles fashioned from local and exotic fruits in creamy and non creamy styles. Our favorite hands down were the mango chili, the tangerine pomegranate and the pear lychee. Yes, it was hot and we tried a lot of them. A thoughtful touch was the baby-wipes. Its a surprisingly fun place to eat, and we didn't even get to Raleigh. I enjoyed the focus on what the area grows and has to offer, and it's inspiration from the diversity there.

As an aside, on the way back up we stopped at Pad Thai in Mechanicsville, VA just outside of Richmond. Have you been? It's in the middle of nowhere, next to the train tracks, and the Thai owners grow all their own varieties of chilies and basils along the parking lots and in containers out front. The food was good, and it was by far the hottest food we have ever had outside Thailand– but still balanced and lovely. The Panang curry and the Drunken Noodles were both well done. Tried it?

Great road report, Cheverly. Thanks for this, and I'm sure that future Tobacco Road-trippers are going to find these reco's useful.

I haven't been to Pad Thai, no. It sounds terrific. I could go for something really spicy and really vibrant right now — don't know why; maybe all this talk of good slimy noodles and now the idea of fresh basil and fresh chilis …

Speaking of owners growing their own herbs … That's also the case at Thai House in Gaithersburg, a place I reviewed a couple years ago. I enjoyed it. I don't know that I'd consider it a find if I had to drive more than 30-35 minutes to get there, but if you're within half an hour of it (it's on Snouffer School Road), I would think that it would have a regular spot in your rotation.

This notion of time and restaurants has always fascinated me, by the way. For years my wife and I have assigned "minute-marks" to restaurants as a way of rating them — not stars. So, for instance …

In my book, I would drive an hour-and-twenty minutes to dine at Komi. Nooshi, on the other hand, I would consider a 6-minute restaurant.

The Source: a 45-minute restaurant. Sonoma: a 15-minute restaurant. 

2 Amys: a 40-minute restaurant. Dino: a 20-minute restaurant.

I could go on and on and on with this … How about the rest of you? What "minute-marks" would you assign the area's restaurants?

Reston, VA

Hi –

I've got friends in town this weekend for the rally who are staying in Dupont Circle. Any recommendations for somewhere to take them in Dupont for dinner Friday night? I've been told no sushi or Thai but anything else is ok. Fun atmosphere is good, but food is more important. Looking in the moderate price range ($20+) for entrees.

I've got three for you — and all on the same street:

Pesce (fish and seafood, with a menu shaped by what the kitchen sources each day, and a small wine bar in back), the new-ish Ezme (Turkish mezze, as well as a wine bar), and Pizzeria Paradiso (boutique pizza and salads).

I've got to think that one of those is going to work out perfectly.

Drop back on, post-rally, and let me know which one it was and how things turned out …

 

Cleveland Park
My BF and I are going to dinner tonight to celebrate a milestone in his lengthy PHD program and my 26th birthday… since we're on a budget, we've decided to visit one of the 100 cheap eats, and for something new, we're venturing out of the district. So far I've narrowed down the list to Bangkok 54, Huong Viet, Present, and Minhs. Where should we go?

Pass on my congratulations to your boyfriend, and I sure do hope you have a happy 26th tonight. That sounds like a fun night out …

Of the four restaurants you list, Present and Bangkok 54 are the most festive — and that might be more important to you than cooking for a special night out.

Not that you'll have a bad meal at either place. Present is good, and there's a good deal on the menu that's worthwhile (I love the hash of chopped clams, ground pork, chilis and garlic, served in a giant sesame cracker) and beautifully — and sometimes extravagantly — presented.

If you're looking for a meal full of intense and exciting flavors, and decor is somewhat secondary, then I'd go with Minh's. The dining room is a simpler, less assuming place to be, and much less lively. The liveliness is all on the place. If you go, don't miss the bun cha, the shrimp-and-yam fritters, or the grilled pork with vermicelli.

I'll be curious to hear what you ended up doing. Pop back on next week and let us know how the big night out turned out, OK?

speaketh of the devil! …

Hey Todd,

I'm going to NY next weekend and staying with a friend in the Upper West Side. She'd been talking to me about Fatty Crab and we were planning to go, but now I'm not so sure reading about your experience. Good? Or not worth it? And do you have any other suggestions for us?.. We don't have a ton of money to spend, but want something that's a good value and a place we can talk in too. Thanks, Todd, I really appreciate this, and also these chats.

PS I'm halfway through "The Wild Vine" and loving it! What a fascinating story, and beautifully told. Is there any way I could get you to sign my copy??

Fatty Crab was a mild disappointment to me. And I say that mostly because of the cost. The food wasn't quite at the exacting level I remembered from my last visit, at the Village location, but it was definitely good. But the prices. They're about a third more than they should be. 

(The best "value" there is a neat little gimmick they have for daytime: around $14 for all-you-can-drink of either a Bloody Mary knockoff or another drink whose title escapes me at the moment.)

Talking about Fatty Crab and value has me thinking about Casa Mono, the Batali spot on the East Side, which has fabulous tapas and is probably THREE TIMES as expensive as a night at Jaleo. And you'll be sitting THISCLOSE to the other table. 

Here's what I would do, if I were you. I would hit Gazala Place, on Columbus. It's Druze cuisine, and it's wonderful.

If you've never eaten Druze cuisine, it's because there's none of it around here, and I don't think any of it around the country, either.

The Druze are a Gnostic Islamic sect with roots in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The food will be familiar to you if you've eaten a good bit of Middle Eastern cooking, but the flavors are stronger and bolder than what you find the vast majority of the time. Gazala Halibi, the owner and cook, uses a lot of imported spices (many of which are unavailable in wide distribution in the U.S.) which accounts in part for the quality of the cooking. The other thing that accounts for the quality of the cooking is the fact that Halibi is a terrific cook. Her bourekas are fabulous and flaky, her baba ghanouj and her kibbe are the best I've ever eaten, and the orata she served the other night (crunchy without, sweet and delicate within, the exterior blitzed with garlic, lemon and olive oil) was one of the best fish dishes I've ever had.  

And most dishes are in the range of $13-15.

Gazala is also BYOB. You order a bottle, they call a wine shop nearby, and a guy brings the bottle right from the shelves. Corkage is $5.

I didn't mention the setting, which is open and modern and beautifully simple, with lots of exposed brick and lots of votives in alcoves. 

Go. 

P.S. Thank you for the wonderful words about the book. If you shoot me an email, tkliman@washingtonian.com, I can send you my address. … I'd be honored.

Oakton, VA

LOVE the "minute-marks" concept. I am sure my husband and I will be employing that ranking system soon!

Wanted to to report on 2 trips to Trummer's on Main.

The last 2 times, we have opted for the tasting menu with wine pairings. They have a really fun concept where the chef (according to the wait staff) prepares the 5 courses specifically for your table. You do not make any selections and the courses are different for every table. There were a few misses but mostly due to personal taste, not the quality of the food.

The wine pairings ($52, I think) are large so if you are accustomed to a $100 bottle of wine for a nice dinner, it is a good value.

We started with a 5-mushroom "salad". The lobster mushrooms were grilled and tasted meaty. There were pumpkin seeds, veal foam on the plate as well.

Then we had cow tongue on a pretzel bread with spicy mustard sauce. It tasted like a German sausage dish.

This was followed by salmon with beet sauce. The salmon was perfectly cooked (nice crispy crust).

The next dish was pork with a mole sauce, ricotta dumpling and plaintain. I was not overly fond of this dish.

Then a palate-cleansing sorbet that tasted like apple pie complete with "crunchies".

Finally, dessert – chocolate, pumpkin, something. Don't remember (see wine pairings) but loved it.

They do need to work on the timing of the wine with each dish. Also, you have nothing to drink until your first course arrives so perhaps a standard first glass for all tables that would compliment the starter would be good idea. The first tasting we had watermelon and fish ceviche, pork belly, and I don't remember the rest.

We think we liked the first tasting better but overall are fans of the concept.

Thanks for the lengthy report.

Not making any selections yourself — this is a trend, and is, I predict, only going to grow. I don't think you're going to see a lot of places go the Komi route (no menus at all), but I think what Trummer's on Main is offering now is going to become more and more a feature of the high-end landscape.

I'm really, really curious about that cow tongue on pretzel bread with spicy mustard sauce.

Tysons Corner VA

I am pretty sure you and Tom Sietsema have gone out and reviewed local restaurants together over the years, but did you see his latest dining guide?

I think the guy is getting bored with his job, beceause this is two straight years his Dining Guide does not provide you with a top 100. He has been the Post food critic for 10 plus years. That Being said, when do you think it is time for a food critic to hand over the reins to someone else and retire, or move on to another city to get a new prospective on a city, its people and food?

Huh?

The Post's annual Dining Guide has never included 100 restaurants. Not in all the years that Tom has been reviewing, and not before that, either, when Phyllis Richman was the critic.

It's not my understanding that the 50 picks have been offered as anything but one critic's take — one critic's informed enthusiasms. 

And what's wrong with that?  

And just for the record … Tom and I don't compare notes, and have never even gone out to a restaurant together. (Maybe we should. Maybe it's time. Tom? What do you say? I'll pick up the tab … )

I'm not going to speculate on someone's motivations, but I will say that I don't quite get this notion — which I've heard about and read about before — that a critic is supposed to step aside. Why? Am I missing something? Has this now become a public service job? 

I think a person should step aside when a person wants to step aside. Just like any other profession. 

Falls Church…

Thanks for the update on Lebanese Butcher. That fateh craving just gets worse over time…

We tried out Lyon Hall the other night. Not bad, a little too loud, but the food is more than passable. Ordering can be a bit tricky though, as some of the plates that sound like they might work after an appetizer are far too big/heavy (trust me, no matter how much you like sausage, you really can have too much of a good thing).

But the wait staff were friendly, they did good things with mustard, and though it wouldn't be our pick for a romantic date, it might be fun for a small group of friends or a bunch of diehard Atkins eaters. Your thoughts?

I really liked my last meal there.

I thought the pork schnitzel was excellent (and schnitzel is harder to make than it sounds; or rather — schnitzel is hard to make if you don't want to end up with something that's just satisfying and hearty). I liked the Amish chicken. Good homemade sauerkraut, too.

There are also some excellent picks on the wine list.

And yes, you're exactly right about the staff — it's a good one. 

I suspect that Lyon Hall is one of those places that struggled a bit out of the box but is going to get better, little by little, as opposed to places that get off to a rousing start and fade after three or four months. Keep an eye on it.  

Shaw, DC
I am curious about Uptown Deli in Bethesda. The guy wrote in months ago to alert you that he'd be opening any day, but it's still not open. Any update?

No. Nothing.

I walked past the restaurant last week, and did not get the impression of a place that is just about to open. It still looked a ways off. A few weeks, perhaps. 

I'll probably be getting an email update from the owner, Howard Wasserman, this afternoon as a result of this exchange, so stay tuned .. 

Oakton, VA
Regarding cow tongue dish: I forgot it also had saurkraut on top.

Oh, man …

I don't know what it was you ate, but the dish I just constructed in my mind — corned cow's tongue and homemade sauerkraut on pretzel bread with a sharp mustard sauce — is so vivid, so good and so zesty, I can practically taste it. 

Tom’s dining guide
What exactly is this guy talking about? Why would we (readers) want two 100 best lists from two different writers? Just to compare notes and see what each one ranked one specific restaurant? Why don't you want some variety? I think what both Tom and you Todd do are different and we love it because of that!

The voice of reason … Thanks for writing in.

We're done for the day and I can't remember the last time I had this many cravings … Oh, wow … It's not as if cow's tongue is something I go around pining for, but for some reason it just sounds wonderful right about now. With the mustard sauce. And the pretzel bread. And the sauekraut.

Speaking of pretzels … I think I have pretzels on the brain. My mom has lately been baking pretzels from scratch and they're fantastic. Great chew, great flavor, coarse salt on top. Don't even need mustard.

We've gone through several "orders" in my house. The last batch — of 9 — was gone in a flash. I could go for a replacement batch … if a certain someone is reading along …

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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