Tuesday, November 30 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

Adour, DC 

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

The Source and The Source Lounge, DC

Taqueria La Placita, Riverdale

Yamas Mediterranean Grill, Bethesda 

Zentan Sushi Bar, DC

Silver Spring
I am a fan of value meals. I've recently had the $38 three-course meal at Dino, the $38 Sunday night dinner at Trummers on Main, and the $25 brunch at Volt. Are there any other deals in the area that you recommend?

2941 has a 3-course, prix fixe lunch. It's $24. 

There aren't many options — the first course is a soup, and it's chosen for you — the second course offers a meat and a fish option, and there are two desserts. But Bertrand Chemel, the chef, is a talent, and this lunch is a good way to sample his cooking on the (relative) cheap. 

I'd say you really can't beat that, except you can: with Restaurant Eve's "Lickety-Split" lunch. Two items on the special menu for $13.50. I love the Irish BLT, and the rotating daily soups are excellent. The danger is that there's a very strong temptation to go ahead and order a glass of wine or a beer, and that's going to jack that tab way up.

Still, I think it's worth it to drive into Old Town just for this terrific light lunch.

Alexandria VA

Hi, Todd!

I'm meeting a former colleague, always friend, for drinks and dinner after work. We're looking for something mid-range, quiet enough to chat comfortably, and between Farragut and Dupont. Suggestion?

Pesce, on P St., might be a good spot for the two of you.

I often hesitate to recommend it, because I think it's more expensive than it ought to be. Dinner there really ought to come in around $80-90, and too often it comes in around $120-130. And although I appreciate the dedicated effort the restaurant goes through to acquire good, daily selections of fish and seafood, I don't think those plates that result are always worthy of that effort. 

The idea, here, is to deliver what you sometimes find in the Mediterranean — simple, unfussy spots devoted to fresh, locally sourced seafood.

The problem is, a place like Pesce can't get what it needs as cheaply as it needs to in order to make the concept work the way it's supposed to. So, they charge more than they, and we, would like. That, combined with the fact that you also take away the charming seaside locale and replace it with a city bistro setting, and, well … you have something quite different from what you intended.

Now, having said all that — my last meal there was a good one. A more expensive one than it should have been, and the small portions left some of us hungry, but still …

Falls Church

Todd:

As always, love the chats! (You're actually a recurring Outlook reminder in my calendar.)

One question- Do you happen to know anywhere in the area that sells traditional tamales? I have searched and searched and have had no luck finding these wonderful packets of deliciousness. Thanks for any help!

Do you mean — a shop that sells for take-away? Or a restaurant that serves them for lunch or dinner?

If it's the latter, I like the tamales at Taqueria La Placita, in Little Mexico. Muy autentico

Irene's, in Wheaton, does a wonderful tamal de elote. That's the sweet corn variety, served with a generous drizzle of crema.

Speaking of Latin dishes … I was in Miami a week and a half ago to speak at the Miami Book Fair International — an amazing event, by the way; 300,000 people, 300 authors, a real scene — I highly recommend it; walking around, taking in the mountains of books, attending the panel discussions, you really do feel that books matter, that they're as important to people as sports and restaurants and politics and pop music, etc., etc.; of course, then you get a couple of miles away and you realize you were suffering from delusions … But anyway: I was in Miami, and I ate a lot of Peruvian food.

At one of those Peruvian places, Ceviche 105, I found this description of a chaufa, a rice dish, on the very talky menu: "Oh delicious! Chaufa please come and help me soothe my gluttony and dazzle me with your smoky taste, your color with shades of brown and your essence from the Eastern sea."

How can you not love a place like that?

It's like Neruda opened a restaurant.

Well, Neruda or Greg Proops. 

 

Van Netian

Hi Todd,

Just back from Thanksgiving in Denver where I made a point of eating Mexican/Southwestern breakfasts all 3 days. Breakfast burrito at Pete's Kitchen on day 1, breakfast tacos ("3 corn tortillas built with crisp homefries, chorizo-egg scrambler and topped with jack-cheddar cheeses") at Sam's No. 3 on day 2, and of course huevos rancheros at the Rocky Mountain Diner on day 3. All of the above smothered in green chili.

Obviously I love these kinds of breakfasts, so where can I get the goods around here? While I'm sure you have a Riverdale recommendation, I'm hoping for something a little more realistic/regular for my hungover weekend mornings in the District. Gracias!

I'm insanely jealous. I love those kinds of breakfasts. Huevos rancheros is one of my favorite ways to start the day.

You can get the goods in a number of places. Just don't expect "good" goods.

Austin Grill, which used to be so terrific (back in the days when Ann Cashion was devising the menus, and even for a while after), does breakfast, and if I didn't want to drive into Bladensburg and hit Little Mexico, then I'd go there. 

As for Thanksgiving: does anyone have any good stories to share? Or — just as good, sometimes — bad stories to share? 

We had a great time at my house. 7 of us, including my mom, two of my sisters-in-law (who I love to spend time with), and my dear friend Colleen (a singular personality, and the most gifted raconteur I know.)

We divvied up the sides. I cooked a heritage turkey, as I have for the past — wow — eight years now. Not cheap: 80 bucks. But it was superb, as always. (Thank you, Chris!) ((Chris is my dealer.))

For drinks: I made Manhattans (my sisters-in-law are big bourbon fans), and we poured three wines.

The surprise hit of the meal, I think, was the maple Riesling gravy. I slipped butter mixed with tarragon and sage under the skin of the bird, and rubbed it down with the same mixture. I also drizzled the bird with grade B maple syrup, something I've done for the past few years. I like the way it works with the flavor of the heritage bird.

When it comes time to make a gravy, you start with pan drippings that are already flavored — full of herbs and with a pronounced maple flavor. I added some Riesling to the mixture, and thickened it with flour to give it body. It was really terrific. I just wanted to eat gravy.

Dessert was a homemade pumpkin pie, and, from my mom, something new: a sweet, savory cheese ball.

It wouldn't have been half as good a time, however, if it weren't for the great conversation and the great laughs. I'm grateful to have gotten a chance to spend that time with everyone.

DC
I just noticed you have Adour on your TK 25. I'm interested to know what was it that made you change your mind about it, or is it just that it has improved that much? Thanks, Todd, love the chats.

Adour has always had a lot going for it.

The room is slickly modern but it feels warmly inviting at the same time — no easy thing to pull off. David Rockwell, the famed designer, deserves a lot of credit for that. The service is very pro — very informed, very attentive, and given to non-obsequious pampering. The wines-by-the-glass, though expensive, are superbly chosen; it's one of the very best lists of this kind in the city. The kitchen's little gifts to the diner — gougeres to start, macarons to finish — are exquisite; they're pretty much ideal bookends.

The problem was the food, which I found to be tastefully executed (the beautifully carved vegetables, the carefully strained sauces) but often tasteless.

No longer. There's a newfound robustness in the cooking, with no loss of the artistry or delicacy that you come to expect of the Alain Ducasse brand. Fish, in particular, has been masterful of late.

Adour has touted itself as a spot where the food is "designed with wine in mind," and it's a testament to the depth and complexity of its fish courses that a red wine, say a Pinot Noir, pairs as well as a Sauvignon Blanc or a white Burgundy.

Dessert remains as good as ever — which is to say, among the very best in the city, if not the very best. The fig tart, hazelnut souffle, babu au rhum (finished with a tableside pour of first-rate Armagnac) — there is no more sumptuous ending in town than these three.

From soup to nuts — or should I say, from gougeres to macarons — Adour has become what it was meant to be two years ago: the total package.

Lickety Split Lunch

Re: your meal deal question from earlier.

I love the Lickety Split lunch and have skipped out on work early to get it several times (it goes until 4). With certain choices, it is a huge lunch. The salad of the day often has meat (or a full filet of fish) and the sandwiches are always quite hardy. I really enjoy it there but sometimes there is a long wait.

A few of my other favorites are: Tosca pre-theatre deal at $35 which has a good deal of the menu. Also, I really like the Corduroy fixed price dinner (not sure if that has time dependent as well) at $35 or so. Lots of good options out there with some research.

Good ones. Thanks for chiming in …

Who else has got some tips?

Elizabeth (Arlington)

What’s your take on Estadio being unable to find a supplier of Iberico?

The waiter said that Jaleo has dibs and takes all of the available supply. But given that many stores sell Iberico from Fermin (of which Jose Andres is a part owner), do you think Andres excludes Estadio to hinder its ability to compete with Jaleo?

I guess anything's possible, but I don't know that I'd rely on something a waiter said in passing as incontrovertible fact.

Still, it's kind of funny to think about a ham controversy. Ham-gate!

Mark Kuller, the owner of Estadio, is a regular reader of this chat, so I think there's a very good chance we'll be hearing from him within the hour …

Alexandria, Va.

Something that's been bothering me, and I thought you might have some insight on this, Todd. Why do they always clear the plates so fast at restaurants? I hate it!! When did this start? I can be in the middle of a perfectly good meal and then the server comes by and tries to take the plate and it ruins things for me. Second question is – is there anything tht can be done about it?

THanks, TK, for being such a strong voice out there.

Catherine.

Catherine,

You're talking to the right person. I'm with you — in fact, I couldn't be MORE with you. 

I hate this, too. I'd even go so far as to say there are few things I hate more that restaurants — all restaurants, it seems — routinely do.

At the high-end, it seems incongruous and silly to have servers arrive at the table together with your plates and, signaling each other with their little nonverbal semaphore, deposit them at the exact same time … and then have a server, or two, swing by later to pester you with those awful questions, "Finished? Or still working?"

I'm sure there are diners who want their plate whisked away the moment they are no longer eating, as if to make disappear — poof! — the symbol of their own smeary excess.

Those diners might be in the majority.

But I also know there are many diners, like me, who hate having their plates snatched away. Who hate having to fend off the hovering server. Who hate having to answer, awfully, "Still working."

I have always wondered if part of this very strong feeling has to do with growing up in a household that seemed to revolve around the table. Dinner was for talking and lingering. Except for rare instances, we didn't eat and run. And our plates were always there, to pick at and return to later. A meal was a recursive experience — you came back to threads of conversation and added to them, and you came back to your food, too. I know many Jews and many Italians who grew up in similar settings, and I have always wondered if some of this has to do with our ethnic inculcation.

Restaurateurs will tell you that the plates should be cleared if people are done eating. But how do you know when somebody's done? I don't think a server can make that determination, because the fact that somebody is not shoveling food into their mouth is not a sign that somebody is done. Likewise, the fact that not much food remains on the plate is not evidence of being done. Evidence of being done is a fork and knife crossed atop the plate: fini.

The other night, I had a glass of wine snatched from me with at least two sips left. Granted, not a full glass, and not a great loss — but I like having those two final sips for when I want them, after a meal is long done and I can come back and taste again.

What can be done about this awful practice?

I'm not sure. Because servers are under pressure to "do their jobs" — even if doing that job causes distress to a diner. And because there's no way for them to not keep asking and pestering.

A diner could say, at the start of the meal, "Listen: I don't want you to come around later asking am I finished and trying to take my plate, so to save you the burden of pestering me and me the frustration of having to keep fending you off — I want you to look for a cross of my knife and fork atop my plate. When you see that, and only when you see that, I am no longer, as you say, 'working.'"

But who wants to go through all that? 

ballston, Va

Iberico ham:

They could just go to Wegman's where its $999 a lb. Many restaurants in Fairfax hit the Fairfax Wegman's and destroy the produce selection for the customers. Even worse now that Ozzie's has opened. Don't the chefs know how to order from their suppliers.

Could it be their suppliers don't have it–? 

Iberico ham is terrific; I love its nutty, complex favor. But as more and more restaurants are adding it to their menus they're sending it out in too-big portions (and charging a helluva lot of money for the privilege). A little of this delicacy goes a long way. Two ounces is too much.

Same with Kobe beef. 5 ounces, which is what BLT Steak calls a "minimum" purchase (5 ounces at $26/ounce, mind you), is too much — too much richness. A single ounce, or an ounce and a half, is plenty enough to enjoy the texture and flavor of this special meat.

Bethesda

Todd,

My parents are coming to town tomorrow to meet their first grandchild. We were thinking of taking them to the $12 Grapeseed lunch. Have you tried it? Thanks, Sleepy Daddy

I haven't.

How about you go and report back next week, SD? Congratulations, by the way. And as a new parent, I can assure you: Sleep does come, eventually. Give it a couple of years.

Though there are still glitches. My son woke up at about 3 a.m. the other night, clapping and singing a song. Wonderful impromptu concert, but we were dog tired the next day.

Imagine that, though: waking up singing. If only we could bottle it …

Fairfax, VA
Best Cantonese is NOVA?

I don't have a "best." I have a number of places that I think pretty well of.

They include the new-ish XO Taste (a pretty good restaurant that I always end up thinking should be better than it is), Mark's Duck House, Miu Kee, and Full Kee — all in Falls Church. 

Clifton, VA

Clearing plates

They are all fixated on turning over the table at the cost of the customer. Restaurant sees more profit and servers more tips. As a former waiter you learn when someone is done and you clear the table one time when everyone is finished. If I can figure it out certain places on the Washingtonian's top 100 list should be able too. I am talking the top 15 on the list. great American is one of the best at this. Clydes isnt bad.

I knew it wouldn't be long before we heard from you …

Great American Restaurant Group restaurants are very, very well-drilled. Foodies might turn up their noses at these places, but one reason they're so popular — besides the consistency they offer, and the lively atmospheres they create — is their service. It's excellent, across the board.

I'd be interested in hearing any more thoughts on the question of plate-clearing. Send 'em my way via email if you want — tkliman@washingtonian.com — or save 'em for next Tuesday.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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