Tuesday, November 16 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.

Winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country's best newspaper column about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Oxford American, and Men's Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies. He is the author of a recently released work of narrative nonfiction, The Wild Vine.

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

2 Amy's, DC 

Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park

Bollywood Bistro, Fairfax

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Cajun Experience, Leesburg 

Central Michel Richard, DC

China Bistro, Rockville  

El Charrito Caminante, Arlington 

Estadio, DC 

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Canela, Rockville 

La Limeña, Rockville 

Level
, Annapolis 

Lyon Hall, Arlington 

Minh's, Arlington

Montmartre, Capitol Hill 

Palena Cafe, DC

PassionFish, Reston 

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ray's the Steaks at East River, DC

The Source and The Source Lounge, DC

Taqueria La Placita, Riverdale

Yamas Mediterranean Grill, Bethesda 

Zentan Sushi Bar, DC

………………………………………………………………..

Washington, DC
In your last chat you discussed your love of small plates. I totally agree. What are your favorite small plates restaurants in and around DC?

All the Andres spots — Jaleo, Zaytinya, Oyamel, Cafe Atlantico (this last, in particular, for the Latin dim sum brunch).

But also: Hollywood East on the Blvd., which I think puts out the best dim sum in the area, and China Bistro, which makes excellent dumplings and lots of other tasty little plates, too.

And: 2 Amys. Its terrific small plates are the best reason to pay a visit. 

That's just quickly, off the top of my head … What am I leaving out?

One more: Level, in Annapolis. Good small plates, built on a foundation of fresh local meats and produce — the restaurant counts 15 farms as regular customers — and excellent and imaginative cocktails to go alongside them.

 

Bethesda, MD

Re: Scrapple and Ptcha

I am sure many other ethnic dishes are made up of scrap meat and fillers. We live in luxury, and tend to forget about our ancestors living on the edge.

Ptcha, or calf's foot jelly, is a Jewish dish made from the foot. It was cooked for hours, and the meat scraps were chopped and put back in the boiling liquid that was reduced until it was so filled with proteins that it turned to gelatin when cooled. It was sliced and served.

You bring up a good and important point.

A lot of the foods we know and revere are poverty foods. They were born of necessity.

It's interesting today, because a lot of people today tend to think a good or great dish has everything to do with choice or luxury ingredients. Seared foie gras with a glass of Sauternes, lobster in butter, blinis with caviar — wonderful, all of them. But a simple risotto can be wonderful, too. A well-made sausage with lentils. Chilaquiles with a runny fried egg on top …

Or meatballs.

What is better than a really, really great meatball? But what makes a great meatball? All those things that we might call "extenders," or "fillers." An all-meat meatball is a bad meatball. Add a good amount of breadcrumbs — ideally, fresh-made breadcrumbs — and you have the chance at something light and irresistible.

I'm trying to think of some other great "poverty" dishes. Help me out, chatters. My mind is balky this morning. I probably need a cup of coffee … 

Arlington, VA.
Had dinner at Michel's in the Ritz Carlton on Sat. night.Shrimp dish was very poor-something you would get at Red Lobster. Veal cjheek dish was so bland it was like a lousy chicken pot pie–absolutely no seasoning in a gloppy soup. Wines by the glass prices very high. We spent $245 for 2 people. It's a never for us., This place is not in a league with Citronelle or Central. I think Michel has a bomb here. Limited menu and overpriced.

I'm not saying you're wrong about what you experienced — I wasn't there that night and can't say. Although drawing a comparison between a dish at Michel and a dish at Red Lobster (and not elaborating on your reasons) is gratuitous and unfair; Yelp-ish.

And I would caution you about writing the obituary of a place that just opened and, because of that — and because of the towering reputation of its chef — deserves the time to find itself.

I'm curious to know: Why do people decide to hit a restaurant two weeks after it's opened? It's something I always wonder about.

It's not as if there aren't a slew of other options in this area. And it's also not as if a just-opened restaurant is going to be as good as a restaurant that's a month or two old.

So, why? 

In order to appear up-to-the-minute and have something to talk about/brag about with people — regardless of quality?

I think I understand it when it comes to the Yelpers — the need to be out front of the pack, to have other Yelpers view you as a serious, hard-working reviewer-manque.

But among normal people — why? can anyone explain it to me?

Shaw DC

Todd,

I tried Montmarte this weekend for an impromptu Sunday brunch. The food was very good, service was careless, the bloody mary awful except for the fact it was not a cheap pour on the vodka.

The main thing that keeps me from wanting to go back is that they have a delicious, hot and crusty bread basket but use the pre-packaged foil butter. What's your take on this? I understand Montmarte isn't trying to be fine dining, but with bread and food that good….

See, I don't mind the foil-wrapped butters because the bread's not that good.

If it were bread baked in-house, then it would be ridiculous to have little packets like that. And believe me, if the bread were baked in-house, there's no way management would not serve it with little crocks of butter. 

Most of the bread you find in the city is not baked in-house. Not only that, but most of the the rolls you see in bread baskets arrive at the restaurant as frozen, pre-formed bundles, which are then baked and served. I'm not slighting Montmartre in this instance, because I don't know for certain, but a hot and crusty loaf of bread or a hot and golden-capped roll is often a deceptive thing. It's no guarantee of freshness. 

 

Reston, Va
If you don't go to a restaurant within two weeks of their opening, how will they stay in business? Should all restaurants be devoid of customers for the first two weeks? So then the third week open is actually the first week of customers?

You're not answering my question.

In rejoinder, you ask: How will a new restaurant stay in business? But is that why you go? To keep a restaurant in business?

I want to know: Why go at all in those first days? Why go when there are so many other restaurants to patronize — restaurants that have their act together, that are more of a known quantity? Why, other than for purposes of bragging (obvious and less-obvious, both), do people go?

Silver Spring, MD

Hi Todd,

I love your chats and want you to know that I have been quoting you quite often on my restaurant blog. I just blogged about Trummer's on Main and quoted your comments about how far a restaurant is worth driving to. I think this is such a great way to judge a restaurant.

I hope that you'll take a look at my blog when you get a chance. http://beenthereeatenthat-foodobsessed.blogspot.com/

Thanks!

Thanks. I appreciate it.

I'd be interested in hearing from other chatters today about this, too — hearing what sort of "minute marks" they assign to restaurants in the area.

I think so much of how we respond to a place has to do with the time it takes to get there. I live pretty far from most of the restaurants I write about, and I think that helps to ease my expectations somewhat. It's not uncommon for me to drive 40 minutes or more to go to lunch or dinner. But a lot of people I know who live close to the action cannot stomach the thought of driving more than 20 minutes to dinner during the week — unless it's a special occasion or a very well-regarded place.

Most New Yorkers I know never, ever go more than 20 minutes away if they don't have to. And most of the time, they don't.

Gazala Palace in NYC

We are heading to NYC for Thanksgiving and definitely plan to try the druze restaurant Gazala Palace (either Hell's Kitchen or UWS location). Do you have any other non-bank breaking ideas for food in the city?

Particularly cuisine that is not so readily available or delicious in DC? Thanks.

There's a place in Brighton Beach called Cafe Glechik, and it's wonderful. Nothing like it here. Ukrainian food prepared with love and care, and served up in an atmosphere that will make you forget you're in New York — truthfully, it will make you forget you're in America.

The pelmeni are phenomenally good; their version of the dish is among the best things I've ever eaten. You'll be sorry when you leave. 

The other place I'd make a point of hitting would be Katz's. We just don't have delicatessens here. And Katz's is — well, it's Katz's. One of a kind.

You could also stroll up and down Curry Hill, in Midtown East. Just the smells are worth a trip. We don't have anything like that conglomeration of Indian restaurants here. Brick Lane Curry House is worth a visit, and it's not expensive, either.

Elliot
Paella strikes me as a dish with roots in peasant culture. But the mushroom paella at Jaleo excels in every way.

Absolutely.

Typical of a dish that's rooted in poverty rather than affluence — it's all about the rice, not the seafood or chicken or sausage. Most, if not all, of the talk of what makes as good paella has to do with those tiny white grains. The best brand to use. The best way to toast them. The best stock to use to get them to plump. Etc., etc.

It's much the same with risotto. 

Orrtanna, PA

I think your response to the Michel post was a little strong.

For $245, it is not unreasonable to expect a quality experience, regardless of whether the restaurant has been open for two weeks or two years. It would not be fair to judge a place in the first few days. But, presumably, a higher-end restaurant, if it intends to stay in business, would have its kitchen offering some memorable dishes at the outset.

Frankly, regardless of the off-handed Red Lobster comment, I don't blame the OP for being upset.

Being upset — that's fine; that's understandable. It's a lot of money.

Writing the place off as a total failure, however, based on a single visit in the opening weeks of business … I think that's going too far.

And posting an anonymous, dyspeptic and largely unqualified assessment online? Look, I know it's done. It happens all the time now. But I don't know that that serves anybody …

Maybe you think it does. Maybe others do, too. And maybe it does. I'm not dismissing the ideal altogether. But I'm not convinced.

Now, speaking for a second as a fellow food lover and not as a critic — and just to broaden the conversation, not to comment further on this particular exchange — but if I had neither a going-out budget and a need to keep up with the scene, I would never spend that kind of money on a just-opened place.

I never hit just-opened places before I became a critic. I never dropped that kind of money on a relative unknown. That always seemed high-roller-ish to me. Vegas. Scene-ster stuff.

If you had that kind of money to toss around, I figured, then you probably could handle the (possible) disappointment okay, too.

DC

Hi Todd,

Here are some great "poverty" dishes/foods: – Stews (I'm specifically thinking about Brunswick stew that used freshly hunted venison/squirrel/other meat and vegetables) – Homemade canned goods (pickles, jams, preserves) put up for the winter – Pho – Okonomyaki

Great ones!

Thanks for writing in … 

Dispatches from the Restaurant Refugee

Ten Common and Avoidable Misteaks Restauranteurs Make

1. Cheap toilet tissue in expensive restaurants is incongruous but surprisingly common; it personifies the phrase “penny wise, pound foolish.”

2. No one looks good under harsh lighting, please stop using it.

3. If your restaurant lacks a mission statement, you're doing it wrong.

4. Seriously? You've heard about this for about a decade; how can you still not have hooks under the bar?

5. Coco Chanel once said “that in order to be irreplaceable, one must be different.” The same thing applies to restaurants.

6. The irreplaceable Ms. Chanel also suggested that a lady should always get dressed and then remove one thing before leaving the house. With the proliferation of overly constructed cuisine, the same should be said of every dish before it leaves the kitchen.

7. Superlative service costs the exact same as mediocre service, why must so many places countenance the latter rather than seeking the former.

8. Brag through your food, not on the printed menu. When menus are written boastfully, they make everyone more inclined to seek flaws in equal measure to flavor.

9. Call your own restaurants frequently and from outside lines, you would be surprised by the dearth of telephone civility.

10. No music on the website, use a minimal amount of flash, ensure that the hours, address & phone number are on every page, and answer your email.

p.s. Yes, I really did think that “misteaks” part was funny.

I'm so glad to have you back in the pocket, RR, and I hope everyone out there is, too. 

These are all terrific.

Nos. 8, 9, and 10 should all be tacked up on the walls of every restaurant in the area.

No. 8 is wonderfully well-observed; I wish I'd said it myself.

No. 9 reminds me of my current peeve, which doesn't involve civility (well, not directly); it involves common sense, or lack thereof. You call to make a reservation for that night. The receptionist asks, sweetly, what time you would like to come in. You toss out a time — say, 7 o'clock. She responds: I have 5:15 and 9. Not even close. So why ask? Why pretend to be accommodating? 

You're a wise old head, RR. I hope we hear from you again soon … 

DC
For someone that seems to bash Italian American restaurants as unimaginative your love for the perfect meatball seems surprising. Please tell us where to find this perfect Meatball.

Say what?

When have I ever bashed an Italian-American restaurant for being "unimaginative"? Italian-American restaurants are not supposed to be imaginative. Show me; show me where I've done this. I want to see some examples …

I used to love the meatballs at Facci in Laurel. The first couple of times I had them, they were superb. Light and soft, great texture inside, full of flavor, and doused in a good and chunky marinara. The last time I had them, they were not nearly as good; much denser.

I haven't had a really good one in a while.

Washington, DC
Lobster is itself formerly a "poverty" dish, at least in the United States. In New England it used to be commonly served to prison inmates, until prisoner-rights activists got it stopped as inhumane.

Right, because they were being fed it three and four times a week. And it was too much! It was unfair to serve the poor prisoners a sweet, succulent thing over and over and over again. It was abusive.

I've always thought this was one of the funniest, most ironic food stories in the world.

Thanks for writing in … 

Element

My friends and I went to Element this past Thursday (Veterans Day) for lunch prior to a skyline drive per your recommendation. Thank you, we had a great time

When we arrived at the restaurant, the place was almost full and the server informed us that the wait time will be at least thirty minutes but thanks to a young lady who moved to a smaller table we were able to sit right away. After few minutes, the pleasant server took our orders and it took one hour or even more to get our food. We only saw one server and 2 people helped at some point; we haven’t seen them after the “rush”. Since the place is small, it may be ok to have one server except that day we felt it.

The meal was very good; ingredients were fresh and portions were generous. The spicy jambalaya was the best… flavorful, plenty of seafood, just the right seasoning not too spicy just perfect. I wish it was hot not lukewarm however I still enjoyed it and my friends loved their sandwiches as well as the seared chicken pasta (not hot either but not as cold as mine)

The desserts were excellent and presentation was impressive although I found the pumpkin pavlova to be a little challenging. The outside was crunchy and the inside chewy yet not soft. I am not a pavlova expert by no means but I didn’t think I had to use a knife especially when it was not served with one, nevertheless it was very tasty.

Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t disappoint us au contraire we really enjoyed our time at the Element and the fantastic value… $100 for four including tip. The atmosphere was so comfortable and so relaxing that we completely lost the sense of time and didn’t make it to Luray caverns.

On our way out, we stopped at the wine store adjacent to Element and the same server recommended and sold us couple bottles of good wine. Could this be one of the reasons why my food was cold and the service slow? We will definitely go back but most probably for dinner at Apartment 2 G.

I'm so glad to hear that things (for the most part) worked out. Thanks so much for coming back on with your report.
New restaurants
Because one would assume that a restaurant ready to charge normal prices and put itself out there to the public would be ready to put its best foot forward?

You said it yourself — one would assume.

One doesn't have to assume when it comes to an established restaurant that has already been enthusiastically reviewed. It's much more of a sure thing.

Which brings us back (I think) to the need to be first to the new thing, to have something to talk about, to brag … 

DC3

More of a report than a question.

Checked out DC3 this weekend, the new hot dog spot on Barracks Row. Rather enjoyed it! Hotdogs were solid (had Cinci Coney) and the fried pickles were delish. What we really liked was the sort of 'non-fast food but quick eats' role it fills. We were headed to an event and did not have time to wait the requisite 45 minutes at Matchbox/Teds/Cava, etc – DC3 fit the bill.

Thanks for this.

And yeah, that's where I think that gastrotrucks can really fill a non-lunch niche. Need a bite, don't have a ton of time, don't want to drop a lot of money, don't want to eat fast food or grab a cold, packaged sandwich from 7-11 — perfect: a gastrotruck. 

Clifton, VA
Poverty dishes Chile and stew and lets not forget soups. Stuffed pasta and cabbage.

All good ones.

And now I'm craving a bowl of chili. It's a good day for it, that's for sure. I'm thinking of a bowl of Cincinnati from Hard Times Cafe: five way, with chopped onions and grated cheese, with a few shakes of hot sauce … 

Speaking as a NYer

Todd,

Isn't that why people live in the city? For convenience, access to hopefully wonderful restaurants, nightlife, day activities, etc.?

There are plenty of drawbacks to urban life, so those who choose to live in the city are looking for easy access and convenience, generally, and probably love the stimulus of being around thousands upon thousands of people (more true if you are in NYC).

I love your minute system, though. It's a pretty novel way to think about restaurants, for example, yet maintaining a pretty apt system for what's worth traveling to and what might not be.

I have many a times made restaurant decisions based upon your minute system, although without naming it as such. It's just a thought process–is Restaurant X worth traveling Y minutes? The food, the drinks, the service, the ambience, the noise, the cost. Oh yeah–and there's a 70% chance of rain and high winds. Maybe Restaurant X suddenly becomes too much effort for hypothetical night and will lower the bar and go to Restaurant Z, even though not quite as good, because, well, it's closer. Anyway–location, location, location. I think that's been said before.

Thanks

Thanks for chiming in …

I think the truth of the matter is — and speaking of twenty minutes or fewer — there aren't that many restaurants that are worth driving more than 20 minutes for. Unless you're a food-adventurer, you're probably not going to go all over creation to hit a tiny, off-the-beaten-track Indian restaurant in the 'burbs that just happens to feature a handful of Balti-style dishes.

And even the food-adventurer is likely to wait until the weekend.

Re: going to new restaurant in first 2 weeks

Todd,

It never occurred to me that a person would go to a new restaurant in the first 2 weeks to brag–what would there be to brag about? The restaurant hasn't really found it's rhythm, they didn't have a full drink list, service stumbled. You get the point. I always thought it was either an-invite only list for soft openings or people who didn't really know the dining/food scene. Possibly just negative people, who are looking for something negative to talk about–but they are like that in every aspect of their life, easy to spot.

What there is to brag about: being first. Knowing something nobody else (presumably) knows.

It's not just Yelp. Facebook is full of this sort of thing: "Just had a cupcake from The Precious Cakery. Red Velvet. Mmmmm."

… Lunch is waiting for me. ("Getting cold," my wife says. Actually, she said it fifteen minutes ago.)

Thanks for the liveliness, everyone — takes my mind (and yours, too, i hope) off this cold, gray rainy day.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ] 

 

 

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