Tuesday, November 2 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

   Good morning, chatters …
   I just this second hung up the phone with Michael Landrum, the iconoclastic restaurateur who operates Ray's the Steaks and Ray's Hell Burger. Landrum has big news on this chilly Election Day morning: an announcement of a new coffeehouse venture.
   "Not only can I confirm that we signed a lease at CIty Vista, but we actually — believe it or not — have already begun construction on an urban bakeshop/cafe called Ryse, which is built to extend the impact that Ray's the Steaks in East River has had in that community. It will be a modern streamlined mainstream coffeeshop with salads, fresh-made sandwiches, and possibly frozen yogurt.
   "The coffee will be from a local roaster. I want to make clear that we are not striving to be coffee elitists, but rather provide a well-made, locally roasted, high quality but still affordable cup of coffee. The inspiration of Ryse and the guiding principles of it can be found in the quote by W.E.B. DuBois: There is no power on earth greater than that of a man determined to rise. …
   "The main purpose of the cafe will be to provide those modern services that everyone takes for granted today, of a modern coffee shop, and to provide those services in neighborhoods throughout the city that are underserved or not served at all.
   "The first Ryse is a prototype to work out the operating model, which we will then seed throughout the city where most needed. Our goal in this is to not only provide services, but employment opportunities in neighborhoods where people live. And further, to allow for employees to become economic stakeholders — even part-owners — or earn the right to become franchise holders."
   What's your take on this latest move of Landrum's?

RE: Cookboooks

Todd,

Thanks to you and others who recommended me with various cookbooks. I just got the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. They have two versions: regular and healthy (not a diet cookbook). Got the healthy version and will let you know how it is!

I didn't know about that. Interesting. Thanks for writing in.

Be interesting if all cookbooks were like that, wouldn't it? Healthy-crunchy version, and caloric nightmare version.

You've got me thinking about strange cookbooks, or off-the-beaten path sorts of books. Who's got a favorite? I was just now thinking of the White Trash Cookbook, which had a recipe for shrimp sauteed in butter and Jack Daniels, served over toast.

I don't care who you are, that sounds tasty right there …

Washington

Todd,

Thanks for taking my question. We have an anniversery coming up and have a gift certificate for the Black Restaurant group that we would like to use. We lined up a babysitter for our 3 month old daughter and are looking for a romantic night out.

Which of the Black's restaurants do you recommend for a special anniversery dinner? Many thanks

It's a really interesting question.

My pick would be Black Market Bistro, which is also, I think, the best of the Black's restaurants. 

The atmosphere is cozy and personal — it has the feel of dining in one of those restored townhouses in Charleston. Can't beat that. Nor can you beat the tucked-away location in Garrett Park; you come upon it like a surprise.

The cooking is not super ambitious but what I would describe as comfort food with finesse — shrimp n grits, trout with almonds, hanger steak and fries, a superb board of antipasto. The kitchen's missteps are few.

And the wine list is deep and interesting and not gouging.

Go. Have a great time. And congratulations … 

NoLo, DC
So, um, how do you pronounce "Ryse"? I can think of a few possibilities based on the spelling

Like "rise."

But there's also the strong suggestion in there of the parent group: Ray's.

Van Netian

Hi Todd,

I previously wrote in regarding my struggle figuring out the best way to approach the Washingtonian's "Cheap Eats" list and where to draw the line if I know I want to hit, say, a dozen, but not all 100. Go to places nearby where I live or work? Go to a representatives from each type or category of food or neighborhood (Rockville Chinese, Annandale Korean, Riverdale Mexican)?

You agreed that it is indeed a conundrum and were very helpful in picking 12 standouts from the list for me.

I'm writing today because I couldn't help but think of this dilemma when reading last week's chat about your "minute marks," or for those that didn't see it – the number of minutes of driving that you think a given restaurant merits. There's 5 minute restaurants, 20 minute restaurants, 45 minute restaurants, 90 minute restaurants, etc. In other words, "It's worth it for you, reader, if you can get there within X minutes. If not, you might be disappointed."

Wouldn't this be the perfect solution to the Cheap Eats conundrum? While some of them might only be worth trying if in your neighborhood (10 minutes), others might be worth it no matter where you live (60 minutes). Personally, this would be perfect and show me exactly where I should "draw the line." I'd know to hit all the ones that I can get to within the number of minutes you assigned to them.

Take a specific example. Honey Pig is such a cool experience that to me it's a 60 minute restaurant and that no matter where you live, you should check it out. Another: while in its neighborhood last week, I tried La Sirenita, and while the food was excellent and the place had a real authentic charm, I was glad I tried it when I was already in P.G. County. Had I driven there 30+ minutes and made it into a weekend dinner, I might have not found it so worth it.

What do you think? You could break it down by different tiers. Without having to even open the geographical can of worms, you'd still be "speaking" specifically to people in different neighborhoods all over the region because they'd see what's 10, 20, 30 minutes from where they happen to live. The list would feel more individualized, more relevant, and less overwhelming/arbitrary.

I've used my "minute marks" for years now. And not just for Cheap Eats places, but for all places.

I really think the "minute marks" are more important when it comes to expensive places. I mean, right? If you drive 30+ minutes to La Sirenita and you don't like it, you're out time, but you're not out money. If you drive 45+ minutes to Pretentious Restaurant X, you're out time and money.

It's a different sort of assessment, and I love it.

And one reason I love it is, it puts a premium on places that are interesting, that do things that nobody else does, or that deliver in certain, crucial ways. 

Here's an interesting example. Estadio is drawing highly from its immediate neighborhoods, as you would expect. It's that kind of a place. But I would consider it at the moment to be a 40-minute restaurant. I would drive 40 minutes to eat there.

On the other hand, there are "destination restaurants" — places requiring a long trip, that advertise themselves as get-aways — that I would not willingly make the drive of an hour for, if I had my druthers …

 

Tysons Corner

Michel by Michel Richard: Was excited to try out the new restaurant and excited by the fact of having another premier restaurant in Northern VA, but the food did not live up to the hype.

Had dinner here on Friday night Crab spring rolls and dipping sauce were really good. The Red Snapper dish lacked seasoning, but his signature kit kat bar dessert was on point. Side dihes were good especially the french fries and cauliflower gratin.

After eating there, I would tell people that live in Northern VA to go to Central instead. The prices at the new Michel are very high for a limited menu. At Central you have many more options and prices are more reasonable especially in these hard economic times.

Well, listen: It's one meal.

And the place has only been open a few minutes.

What's interesting is, you name four things as being good or really good, one thing as lacking seasoning, then conclude by saying the food didn't live up to the hype. 

Come on, now: You sound like someone on Yelp. 

Gastropub, VA

Good morning Todd,

I need some help for a return visit to Againn. I went there a few weeks ago for happy hour with a few friends. That is a very tough bar area for happy hour as the bar is long and narrow. The bartenders were inconsistent, fast at one moment and very slow the next. I got a few good draft beers, though I am unsure why they don't have British ales/lagers on draft. We were never offered a food menu so I did not try anything. I would like to return to eat but am not sure what I would order. The place seems to be getting good reviews so please help me see what I am missing. I find myself comparing it to Beck. Please help me make my return trip a successful one

The comparison to Beck isn't a bad one. What's wrong with that?

I find it odd that you didn't get offered a menu. Why miss out on a chance to make money?

Anyway … There's a lot on that menu I like — bangers and mash, the charcuterie (particularly the pig's head roulade known as "Brawn"), the seared salmon with braised beet greens.

There's a precision — a "cleanness," in industry parlance  — to the cooking that is very welcome and refreshing, because the food is, on the surface anyway, so big and hearty. I mean: a dish called Brawn. What else needs to be said?

I like Againn. It knows what it is, and it does what it does very, very well. 

I only wish the Rockville offshoot were as good. But — a streamlined, less interesting menu, service bumbles, a setting that emphasizes sturdiness over sleek sexiness … 

Atlas District, DC

Re: food living up to the hype

A friend was visiting town on Saturday and we opted to restore sanity at Kushi instead of on the Mall. I'm pleased to report it was a fantastic experience.

Our strategy was to order items that had been highlighted in reviews and ask our excellent waiter for any additional direction. It did not disappoint. We were blown away by pretty much every item: grilled pork belly, grilled pork leg, grilled Wagyu skirt steak, and yellowtail roll were all perfectly prepared and flavorful.

On the waiter's recommendation, we also sprung for the otoro (extra-fatty) tuna sushi, which is not normally available at lunch. Expensive, but worth trying.

The only thing that didn't bowl us over was the tuna and avocado roll, which was perfectly good, but not a standout.

I think this is a place where it really pays to be more adventurous and to seek out and accept guidance. At $27/person, it wasn't cheap, but we both felt it was worth the experience. Next time: uni! -Christina

$27/person isn't bad for Kushi. Actually, it's pretty fantastic.

Then again, you really didn't eat that much. I'd call that a light meal. A healthy prelude to a progressive, multi-course dinner. : )

Thanks for the report, Christina …

West Ender
I was really surprised at the animus in Tom Sietsema's review of Mussel Bar. It almost seemed personal. My question to you – how do you put aside your personal feelings about a chef/owner when you are writing a review?

Really? Animus? I didn't think it sounded personal.

And I'll share something with you — if it hadn't been for my most recent meal there, which was excellent, my review likely would have fallen more in line with Tom's. My first two visits were pretty disappointing. You can go and read some of my early impressions of the place on this chat. 

Now, as to your question about putting aside personal feelings about a chef or owner … For one thing, I'm not friends with any chefs or owners, and I don't socialize with them. For another, I recognize that chefs and restaurants exist in a very competitive world, that sometimes the things that get said are meant in the heat of the moment and not for all time. They might be meant for all time, but I try to regard those things as evanescent. I don't want every single thing I say on the air or on a chat or even, sometimes, in print to be held as law. People express themselves in the moment, and they change their minds. I know I do.

The other thing I want to say is that I approach every place first as a writer, which means I'm trying, above all, to understand it. To describe, as best I can, what I feel and smell and taste. To convey what I experience.

 

Dispatches and Questions from the Restaurant Refugee

Dear Four Seasons & Bourbon Steak,

I’ve been to your joint a half-a-dozen times now and each time the service has not been to the standards of a place I revered for so long and a place that purports to strive for the superlative.

To place a really fine point on it,your service isn’t allowed to suck when you charge twenty bucks for a glass of wine. That glass isn’t allowed to sit empty for double digit stretches of minutes before someone inquires about it.

The Suit (aka manager) is not allowed to finally offer to get me another glass and then forget about it. And this merely forgetful experience ought not be the best of the six I’ve had.

Sincerely, A Man Whose Trust and Patience You’ve Exhausted

****

The single best appetizer I’ve eaten this fall season was the wood-fire roasted butternut squash dish at Coppi's. Jazzed with ricotta salata cheese, capers and onions, this dish is homey and amazingly satisfying but not for those who eat primarily with their eyes. Zucca al Forno (the website tells me that is the proper name) is aimed at the soul, then the palate. People who really like food will always opt for the seats at the bar as they offer an impossibly intimate look at the culinary ballet of the pizza makers/chefs.

****

Filter is to coffeeshop as Gibson or PX Speakeasy is to cocktail bar – slightly more expensive, worth every penny of the difference, and truly embracing the art and science of their craft. Coffee-Lovers, get thee to Filter and be shown how much damage some chain has done to our collective java sensibilities.

****

Carmine's, the family style Italian newcomer to the Penn Quarter area, is easily and a little unfairly dismissed as little more than a dressed up Olive Garden. Family style and overly generous portions have merit and place, but joints who have those as their primary selling points will never be high on my list of options for spending calories or cash. However, they make a damn fine Manhattan (Carapano Sweet Vermouth is the best around) have wifi (every restaurant that's open for lunch should,) and have very friendly and gracious staff.

I am not attempting to lure you into a spit ball fight with your counterpart at the Post, however, the recent review of Carmine's got me thinking/wondering how you determine which restaurants merit reviews in the magazine rather than any of the other avenues for mention. Carmine's is useful for large groups with differing tastes, or visiting parents with restrictive preferences, but I wonder about the judiciousness of spending column inches on a chain restaurant/food factory. Care to comment?

RR, glad to have you back in pocket … 

Great report, great insights as always. 

I'm glad you brought up Coppi's. It's a place that gets lost in the shuffle, but it's a rewarding spot, and that dish you described sounds terrific.

As for Carmine's, I don't see anything wrong with devoting a long-ish review to it. Why not? All sorts of people turn to magazines to learn about restaurants, not just persnickety or discerning foodies. And it's not as if Carmine's is Outback Steakhouse. It's not a chain of that scale and scope. 

Washington, DC

Re: Ryse.

Just curious, is City Vista the condo building in Mount Vernon Square that also houses Busboys and Poets and Kushi?

If so, it seems like an interesting location choice — arguably "underserved" in Landrum's words, but certainly not as underserved as other areas in DC. I like the location overall though. If successful, he could bring together people with widely varying economic and social circumstances, something this city is definitely lacking.

I would also like to hear Landrum elaborate on the employee ownership idea, which seems like a great one.

City Vista is, indeed, the development that houses B&P and Kushi.

And I agree with you — it's hardly hurting. In fact, I'd call it a hotspot.

Landrum did say in his lengthy monologue that this was going to be the prototype, and that it would "seed" other locations. That's an important consideration.

Washington, D.C.
"I would drive 40 minutes to eat there [Estadio]." Upon arriving, wait another 40 just to sit down!
Unfortunately true …
DC

Hi Todd,

My mother is coming into town and we're going to see a show at the Kennedy Center. Are there any restaurants nearby that you'd recommend for a pre-show meal? Usually we tend to spend $50-65 for the two of us (not including drinks).

Circle Bistro, on Washington Circle, is the place I'd go. Cozy, low-key, moderate prices. And, for upscale dining — relatively unfussy, satisfying food.

It's also walk-able to the Ken Cen, an added benefit.

Terrified in Dupont, DC

Todd,

I have a challenge for you. My boyfriend's family and my family are going to meet for the first time over dinner. With all the time I spent worrying about whether my mother would be social or whether my brother would look up from his cell phone, I couldn't think of a place to eat. So I'm looking for dinner for 10-12 people, nothing insanely expensive (e.g. Cityzen or likewise), and…here's the real kicker…enough vegetarian food for four people. Can it be done or should I suggest coffee after a nice day at the zoo?

It can be done. Don't fret.

What I'd do is, I'd take everybody to Zaytinya. Moderate prices, so that's good, and there's a very, very long list of mezze with, presumably, something for everybody to eat (vegetarians included). It's also very festive, which should help to break the ice.

Good luck. I'll be interested in hearing how you made out … 

Cleveland Park

I wrote in two weeks ago asking for helping choosing a restaurant from the cheap eats list for a PHD/Birthday celebration…

We went with one of your top choices for ambiance/food: Present. It fit the bill perfectly.

It was pretty empty (it was a Monday night), but the food was good and interesting (especially the caramelized fish in a clay pot) and the service was polite and unobtrusive.

Thanks!

Great; glad to hear everything worked out so well.

Thanks for coming back on with an update  … 

Del Ray

I have been to Againn at least ten times. Each time, I want to like it but am disappointed by the abrasive management policies.

Your earlier poster is right. The bartenders are inconsistent. One bartender is awesome. The next doesn't give two cents about you. The food is fine. But what is appalling is that the place is usually EMPTY and yet groups can not sit down at one of the booths without ordering dinner. Usually we just take over a table anyway – (don't bars make money on the booze, not the food), but the management are such jerks about it. LET PEOPLE SIT DOWN AND DRINK. I never suggest this place to go for happy hour, and only go because the men want to drink scotch. They do have cool circle ice cubes…

See, I don't see anything all that wrong with that policy. It's a restaurant. It's not a tavern.

I suppose a group of four could probably equal or exceed the cost of a dinner for four, but I think it's just as likely a group of four is going to drink six drinks and call it a night.

Cleveland Park

re: re: Food Hype

Tried Estadio for the first time last night. Was a fun (and expensive) night out.

Since it wasn't too packed the hostess gave us our choice of table, and we went for the "Kitchen Stadium" seats that look over the kitchen. It was fun watching them prepare the items and then ordering the ones that looked so good we wanted to reach over the protective glass to steal…

We started with the patatas bravas and the mushroom fritters. These were actually my two least favorite dishes of the night (the potatoes were cut fairly large and were more mealy than crisp, and the mushroom fritter filling was sticky).

The next round of tapas we ordered more than made up for the "starters". We had the garlic shrimp (plump, juicy, garlicky), the crispy duck breast with lentils (quite possibly the best duck I've ever had), and the shishito peppers (the fact that 1 out of every few peppers are much much hotter than the rest added a layer of suspense to our meal).

Add in a few pintxos, a shared dessert, and a cheap bottle of wine from a small region in Spain followed by a Porron (for anyone who hasn't tried it– really fun, authentic, and tasty combinations. We had the lemon soda/wine/bitters combo), and the meal came to about $75 pp. More than I'd like, but I think we got our money's worth.

Estadio really does add up.

I think part of it is, you wait for so long to get a table, and then you're determined to make the most of it, eating and drinking the night away. Come check time, the little things don't seem so little. 

Thanks for writing in …

Special occasion

Todd,

I'm hoping I'm not too late and you are able to help me out. I'm trying to decide whether or not to take the plunge and go to Plume. It looks like an interesting menu but it is also really expensive. Is it worth it?

The reviews put it at the top or near-top and I'm wondering if that hype is believable? I've not heard much from the critics recently? I'm just wondering who is giving all the praise because I didn't know it would be that popular given the price point.

What do you think? Thanks so much for your feedback.

You can read my review here.

I don't think it's worth it, no. It's a style of dining that has gone the way of the record album, and I think that has a lot to do with why people are taken with it. It's very opulent, very lush. There's a chandelier in the dining room, and the tables and banquets are far enough apart that you can have a quiet, intimate conversation. Service is very decorous, but also very stiff, from the top-hatted, white-gloved man at the door of the Jefferson to the French-accented waiter. And there are a lot of affected touches, like the upholstered stools that are brought out for purses to sit upon.

I had three meals there, three exceedingly expensive meals. One, perhaps two, dishes were memorable. The food looks the part of fine cuisine — carefully carved vegetables, immaculately strained sauces, complex paves, and all of it set about on gorgeous china. But the flavors just weren't there. 

Oysters

Had dinner at a recently opened restaurant in Bethesda that offered oysters as an appetizer for 12/half, 22/dozen. The diner has a choice of either "east coast" or "west coast".

I inquired about the east coast oysters and learned that they were from James River in Virginia. 22/dozen for VA oysters? That seems a little ridiculous, even for downtown Bethesda.

It felt to me that they were trying to pass off VA oysters as those from RI or MA, otherwise why would they not tell diners that they were eating local oysters considering how much "sourcing" and eating "locally" are in vogue?

I'm with you. 

Kind of high, and also not completely forthcoming. 

I'm off to lunch, everyone — to a restaurant I currently consider a 35-40-minute place …

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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