Tuesday, December 21 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.

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T K ' s   2 5:

W h e r e   I ' d   S p e n d   M y   O w n   M o n e y

 
Adour, DC 

2 Amy's, DC 

Bastille, Alexandria 

Birch & Barley, DC 

Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Central Michel Richard, DC

Eatonville, DC 

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Kantuta, Wheaton 

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Limeña, Rockville 

Level
, Annapolis 

Masala Art, DC 

Minh's, Arlington

Palena Cafe, DC

PassionFish, Reston 

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington 

Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown 

The Source and The Source Lounge, DC

Taqueria La Placita, Riverdale

Yamas Mediterranean Grill, Bethesda 

Zentan Sushi Bar, DC

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WDC

Last week you asked about New Year's eve traditions.

I highly recommend our annual New Year's eve "fondue night" which we began when our three boys were small: they loved cooking pieces of chicken/beef/fish in hot oil and then dipping them in a variety of homemade sauces — even more, they loved the chocolate fondue that followed.

As they've gotten older, the sauces for the first course and dipping fruits for the chocolate have become more sophisticated, and their fascination with fire and pleasure in jostling one another's fondue forks as if they were swords has waned, but none of them (the oldest is now almost 20) would skip his favorite family tradition to spend the evening with friends.

That's a great idea.

I know a lot of people think fondue is a cheesy (ha!) relic of the '70s, of a piece with shag carpeting, psychedelic colors and AMC Pacers *, but I like it. I think a chocolate fondue is one of the best ways to eat chocolate, and a cheese fondue can be a great thing with a group of friends on a cold night. … A pot of fondue, some good wine, and some board games for later.

(The beef fondue, to me, is always the weakest of the three; boiled beef is just not that appealing to me. And even if you underboil the hunks of meat to give it a pink or red-pink center, it's still boiled beef.)

Thanks for the reminder. It might just be what we trot out for dinner on the 31st …

Any other suggestions for NYE eating-in with friends and family? I'm open to trying something new this year …

 

* We had a Pacer when I was young, and I loved it — initially, anyway, before it began to break down and lose the tightness of its steering and the smoothness of its ride. It was a wide car, and sitting inside, with all those windows all around you, you felt like you were sitting in a tank. What a feeling! There were better cars, to be sure — slicker cars, cars with superior engineering and superior styling … and I'll always remember the convertible I took with me to grad school … but the feeling of sitting in a Pacer for the first time — nothing compares to that … 

 

Falls Church, VA

Hey Todd,

I'm curious to know your opinion of Cedar. We had our first meal at 2941 about six weeks ago and dinner at Cedar over a few weekends ago. In my mind, and I'm not an expert, I felt that Cedar was a better overall experience. I certainly thought the food was a notch up.

Feeling? Thanks.

I think that 2941 at its very best is a better experience than Cedar.

But the operative phrase is — at its very best. My most recent meal at that gaudy cathedral of NoVa's nouveau riche was pretty ordinary by 2941's standards. And very, very expensive.

Cedar, by contrast, is never going to be able to deliver the kind of meal that 2941 can when it's really clicking. But I can see why you might have enjoyed it more. It's not trying nearly as hard, and not charging nearly as much. I think the food is sometimes heavier than it ought to be, and the flavors can get a little muddied from time to time, but there are also dishes I'd return for; the oyster pan roast is one of them.

I like their brunch as well; again, it doesn't strain for effect, and mostly delivers what it promises.

Dinner and a Movie idea?

In lieu of having to purchasing gifts for all members of my Irish Catholic family, I am required to by one gender neutral gift for a white elephant exchange. This spares my wallet but not my creative faculties.

Participating members are mid-20/30s and late-50s/60s. I was thinking of contributing “Dinner & a Movie”: a gift certificate to a DC restaurant and movie tickets. What do you suggest for a casual, great food/drink, pre or post-flick pick? Obvi, restaurant has to offer gift cards. I was thinking Birch & Barley, unless you have one off the top of your head near the E Street Theater.

Birch & Barley's a great call.

I really enjoyed my most recent meal there, and I mean — I enjoyed it from start to finish. Doesn't sound like such a remarkable thing on the surface, does it? After all, shouldn't good restaurants deliver a good time from the moment you walk through the door to the moment you leave? They should. But I haven't found many of late that can sustain my interest and excitement over the course of 2 1/2 hours.

There's a lot of thought and detail that goes into this place. It's justly revered for Greg Engert's astonishing beer list — 500 + artisanal beers by bottle and 50 beers on tap — but Kyle Bailey's cooking has some very fine moments, and Tiffany MacIsaac's desserts are killer.

MacIsaac's the rare sort of pastry chef who can assemble a plate of eight different, sometimes disparate, elements and somehow unite them into a brilliant whole. Eating them, you don't sense an ego that needs to be satisfied; you sense a kindred spirit who wants to please you, who would rather you not stand back and admire the craftsmanship but dig in and savor.

Don't miss the figgy toffee pudding or the apple beignet.

Crepe Lover, VA

Todd,

I've been meaning to try my hand at making a crepe cake and was delighted to see you mention it "with warm dulce de leche serving as the "mortar" for each layer and a drizzled, runny "frosting" made with caramel, orange juice, orange peel and Cointreau." Any chance you'd share the recipe?

The thing is, I don't have a recipe. That's one reason I like making this so much, because I can just feel free at the stove and play.

It's not complicated, and if you're comfortable in the kitchen, I have no doubt you can make something really, really tasty.

Here's what you do:

Start by making the caramel sauce. Find a recipe that feels comfortable to you if you've never made one before. It's not that hard to do; it just requires a lot of patience at the stove — you simply cannot leave the burner while you're making a caramel. If you want a richer caramel sauce, use milk. But water and sugar will make a fine caramel. The key, here, is to bring the boiling mixture to the point of burning, but not quite. That will take practice. But the rewards are great; that almost-but-not-quite burnt-ness gives the caramel a real depth of flavor.

Use a big pan to cook it down, and make a lot of it — you're going to need it for all those layers.

Next order of business: making the crepes. I make a sweet crepe batter, since it's a cake I'm making, and aim for the thinnest crepes I can. Make about 36-40 of them.

Assembly is easy: stacking and drizzling, stacking and drizzling, until you've got a good height to the cake.

I like to have enough caramel left to make the finishing sauce — aim for about a 1/2 cup or so remaining. Then, pour that into a saucepan, turn the heat to medium low, pour in about a 1/4 cup of OJ and some grated orange peel and a few shots of Cointreau and let it all come together. You're going for something of a much thinner consistency than the caramel "mortar."

When it's still warm, drizzle the sauce over the top of the crepe cake.

 

Cleveland Park, DC

Having dinner tonight with a friend and we've narrowed it down to two choices: Ardeo and Bibiana. Have you been to Ardeo since it reopened its doors?

Before the renovation I had only been for brunch and I was never all that impressed. Is it worth giving a shot for dinner? Neither of us have been to Bibiana yet.

For what it's worth — I've been to the new Bardeo, and enjoyed it.

Good, soulful bowl of pasta Bolognese, a dish of sweet, head-on prawns, a well-composed plate of charred octopus and potato, and a mushroom and cheese flatbread.

And the space is more breathable and more cozy than before.

Elliot
What is one restaurant that is technically sound and well-regarded that you just don't like? And why is that?

It's a really, really interesting question.

The first place that pops to mind is Plume, which has been garnering very, very high ratings on Open Table since it opened at the Jefferson Hotel in August of '09. 

It's undeniably a grand night out, from the top-hatted, white-gloved gentleman who opens the door to the hotel to the upholstered purse pedestals that are brought to the table (so Madam's bag will not have to touch the floor) to the elaborate, swan-like wine decanters to the formally outfitted, French-speaking waiters (and I'm not being gender-casual; they're all waiters).

The cooking is classically French and reflects years of training and drilling. The sauces are beautifully strained, the vegetables are delicately carved, the arrangements all look beautiful.

So what's wrong?

A lot.

For all the work that goes into them, the dishes are often really dull. It's as if, in all the processing they've been put through, the flavors have been leeched out. Luxury ingredients abound, but you can't help thinking that the kitchen just squanders these wonderful resources by employing them in such flat-tasting dishes.

When a place is this expensive — and Plume is among the most exorbitant dinners in the city — and the flavors just aren't there, and your palate has been neither challenged nor pleased … well, you begin to view everything around you differently.

All these little luxe touches, for instance. They don't seem like gilding the lily; they seem ridiculous.

The staff is very, very pro — but it also seems incapable of sharing its enthusiasm for food and drink with you. It's a very rote experience. 

McLean

Hi Todd,

I made a goal at the start of 2010 to knock off all of the Top 100 by the end of the year (in the interest of full disclosure, I had already done 30-40 of them), and I am happy to report that I am finishing the last two this week:

Sushi Taro's omakase counter tonight (Tuesday) and Citronelle this Thursday for my birthday.

My friends and loved ones have endured many months of driving all over the surrounding DC area to help out, but I dare say they have enjoyed themselves. There have certainly been some highs and lows:

• Driving three hours in blizzard conditions to make our reservation at Volt (and wishing we hadn’t)

• A second date at The Source that eventually ended in an engagement

• Grieving with friends over a major life loss at Urbana and The Oval Room

• Finally using my $100 OpenTable dining cheque at the bar at CityZen

• Saving for six months to have Valentine’s Day dinner at The Inn at Little Washington

• My first trip to the opera preceded by dinner at and a ride from Marcel’s

• Making my 15-year-old brother put on a suit for his first ever grown-up dinner at Makoto

• A perfect drive on a cold and clear day for a no-fail Sunday lunch feast with pals at Hell Point Seafood

• Doing most of this with just a few dedicated friends

It seems my whole life over the past year has played out over DC tables, but mostly I just wanted to say thank you for regularly leading us all in the right gastronomic direction and for being such a great sounding board from week to week.

Merry Christmas to you and yours – looking forward to 2011! Lydia

Lydia,

What a wonderful thank-you note. I'm going to hold onto this one for a while. Thank you so much for writing and sharing your experiences with us.

It sure sounds as though you've had some great times this year — or, if not always great, then always memorable. You also somehow managed to tell us the story of your life these past 12 months in just a few quick strokes, and for a few minutes I felt I was there with you through all of it.

You've got me thinking — it'd be great to hear more summations like this one, more short stories of the year in food.

Would anyone care to follow Lydia's lead, and tell us about their year in meal-sketches like this? I'd love to hear them. 

Thanks again, Lydia. And Merry X-mas to you and yours … 

 

Burke, VA

Todd,

NYE at our house has always been filled with lots of family, friends, laughter and food.

For as long as I can remember, we have had Raclette. If you have not heard of it, you place an electric table-top grill with small pans on the table. On the grill we always prepare delicious meats (filet, chicken, etc.), while for the pans we buy a variety of vegetables. You top it with different cheeses, like gruyere, and eat the cheesy goodness.

Accompanying the meats and veggies, we make homemade sauces (mustard based, yogurt and herb) and other side dishes. My favorite is placing pineapple in the pan with cheese melted over it. YUM!

I like raclette, too.

Like fondue, it's a great thing to ring in NYE with. Thanks for the suggestion.

From the sound of it, many of you have hit upon the formula for a great night. Keep it simple, keep it hearty, keep it communal — and keep it coming. 

And with lots of friends and family gathered round, and lots of laughs, who needs to be out and partying? 

McLean

So Todd looking forward to an exciting 2011.

Big name restaurants opening by local celebrity chefs for the first time in years instead of being inundated by international faces. Which openings intrigue you the most.

My list:

1. RJ's Rogue 24 this concept is so exciting, we don't really have a place like this in DC and with his talent and creativity this could be one of the best in the country.

2. Fabio's Fiola-What makes this one to watch besides Fabio is he took a space with a history of death, restaurants open and restaurants close just as fast in that space.

3. Enzo's Elixir-this is interesting because withing a block or two walk you can be at Fiola. That's some heavy Italian competition for both spaces.

4. Todd's Watershed-This could be a special hotel restaurant or a flop like a dead rockfish … your thoughts.

Of those four, the one that intrigues me the most is Fiola.

Remember that Fabio Trabocchi, when he left the DC area in 2007, left at the top of his game. He was running what was arguably the best restaurant in the area: the sumptuous (if pretentiously named) Maestro, in the Ritz-Carlton Tysons.

From the sound of it, the menu will not be nearly as luxe as that he was serving at Maestro, and I think that's potentially a good thing. Some chefs are flummoxed by the challenge of cooking more simply, of streamlining their signature dishes and/or contriving less intricate, less elaborate means of communicating their ideas.

I'm thinking in particular of Gerard Pangaud, late of Gerard's Place (which never succeeded in transforming itself into a bistro) and Yannick Cam, whose Bistro Provence makes a somewhat uneasy truce with the bistro concept.

I don't think Trabocchi is going to have that problem. He knows how to gild the lily, but he's not dependent on lily gilding to be good. His best dishes — his pastas, his preparations of fish — have always had a surprising directness about them. Clear in conception, precise in execution.

This is going to be THE opening to watch in the first half of 2011 in DC.

Clifton, VA

Christmas tradition…..

My oldest collie's birthday is Dec 23rd. My sister and brother in law bring their 3 border collies and my brother bring his Mal. Along with my oldest collie I have my 5yo blue merle girl. Birthday cake and treats from Dogma Dog bakery, Frosty Paws, and Bowser Beer this year. We sing happy birthday etc.

Humans get shrimp cooked with heads on, and orange, half a 20oz bottle of Mountain Dew and some dark rum. Cocktail sauce catsup, fresh grated horseradish, and a couple shakes of good LA hot sauce. Humans toast all six dogs birthdays with a glass of Pol Roger Winston Churchill.

I guess the true dog lovers are going to be in their element with something like this. But wow — that's a lot of doggyness to have around.

I guess I must not be a dyed-in-the-wool, true-blood dog lover … 

If it makes you feel any better, I'd probably feel the same way about a party with a bunch of children running around. Fun for a while, then overwhelming.

And I say that as someone who has a kid, so please — I don't want to open my inbox later to find that someone thinks I hate kids. I don't. I hate groups. 

As far as the Mountain Dew Shrimp recipe, which we have now heard about on this chat for, oh, at least three times that I know of — would someone please whip up a batch this weekend and report back? If not, I'm going to try it on NYE …

And Clifton, bud — merry X-mas to you and yours. I hope it's a good one … 

 

RW preview?

Hi Todd,

Just wondering if you have any insight on the upcoming restaurant week?

I've been to a few of your top recommendations including Vidalia, Oval Room and J&G steakhouse. I've fully enjoyed each experience but am looking to go somewhere new and make an early reservation.

On a side note, I had the most amazing lucuma mouse at La Limeña not too long ago. Lucuma is also native to my country Chile. The experience transported me to my childhood. I suggest to anyone who hasn't tried this dry intensely earthy and complex fruit to go to la Limeña.

Enjoy your holidays, I'll be sipping some Cabernet in the Casa Lapostole vineyard in Chile thinking of you! .

I know that the new RW was announced, but I haven't yet gone over the list and made a proper study of the possibilities. But stay tuned …

I'm glad to hear you had the lucuma mousse at La Limeña. I love it, too. That and the alfajores. Great endings to a great, cheap meal.

And people should know that La Limeña is good for more than sweets; I think it's one of the best restaurants in Montgomery County. And that's for a place that serves up its often excellent cooking on black plastic plates.

I love the anticuchos, the ceviche, the chupe de camarones, the whole fried trout with a side of pesto spaghetti. There's also a Cubano that's pretty darn good, too.

Go.

And speaking of going … I'm in danger of missing my lunch date …

Have a great X-mas, everyone. Please savor this time off with your family and your friends. Don't take it for granted. And to all you MOT * out there, who will be descending en masse on Chinese joints across the region on the evening of the 24th ** before heading off to a movie, you do the same please.

Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 … our final chat of 2011 …

 

* Members of the Tribe

** You may see me at a table near you

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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