Tuesday, January 4 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman reviews Uncle Liu's Hot Pot, in Falls Church, and Carbon, in Rockville, and presents his Top 5 for bagels in the area.

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

Bayou Bakery, Arlington 

Birch & Barley, DC 

Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Central Michel Richard, DC

Eatonville, DC 

Evo Bistro, McLean 

Jackie's, Silver Spring

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 

 

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   W o r d   o f   M o u t h  .  .  .

   … Honey Pig Gooldaegee has become a magnet for the wanna-be urban hipster, drawing hordes of well-heeled twenty and thirty year olds to unfashionable Koreatown to feast on grilled pork belly and kimchi in a faux-industrial setting that feels vaguely underground and louche. For those who don't want to wait upwards of an hour and a half on a Saturday night, or even 45 minutes on a Wednesday, Uncle Liu's Hot Pot (2972 Gallows Rd., Falls Church; 703-560-6868) strikes me as a perfect alternative. It lacks the club-like aura of Honey Pig — actually, it lacks any aura at all; eating here is, in truth, a little like eating in a dining hall with the heat turned down — but there are few better ways to go than Szechuan hot pot when it comes to group dining.
   I'm partial to ordering a split pot, which gives you two different, distinct possibilities for cooking your veggies, meats, and fishes — a chili-stoked broth that gives off definite hits of ma la, and a mild chicken broth perked up with goji berries and diced tomato. If you go, you're not going to find a particularly helpful staff to guide you through the process of ordering, so trust me when I say to order the split pot; the spice-adverse in your group will thank you. Hot pot isn't as cheap a night out as you might think, though the pot of broth itself is reasonable ($8). You need stuff to cook in there, and that's where things add up.
   On a recent visit, I took my family and loaded up the pot with dumplings, shrimp balls (really fish cakes in the form of balls), watercress, Chinese parsley, enoki mushrooms, and thick, fat-striated bands of pork belly. That brought the bill to around $40 bucks before tip and tax. Is it worth it? I think so, and especially when you consider how much fun it is to dunk and cook and fish your food from a big, steaming pot. The greens are particularly good coming out of the chili broth, and the dumplings (they resemble Ukranian pelmeni) are addictive bundles of pork and greens. (The pot, by the way, serves a secondary purpose, warming you for the duration of the meal; once you're done and the burner's turned off, you're going to freeze.)
   Uncle Liu's is owned by the family that runs Hong Kong Palace, one of the best Chinese restaurants in the area, and China Jade, and its non-hot pot menu has much in common with both restaurants, brimming as it is with such Szechuan staples as cumin lamb and wontons in chili oil. I find it nearly impossible to resist supplementing the prix fixe meal at Makoto, in Palisades, with a la carte orders of nigiri and sashimi, and so it is here. A dish of twice-cooked pork (in this case, pork belly) with peppers, onions and garlic tops is a must, and a plate of salt-and-pepper shrimp (presented, surprisingly, with the heads off) was a comforting contrast to all that fire in the bowl. …

   … I was an enthusiastic fan of the now-shuttered La Flor de la Canela in Gaithersburg: the dimly lit space, the high-backed wooden chairs and wrought-iron adornments, the wide-ranging menu of Peruvian dishes (from frequently sparkling
surf — the various preparations of ceviche — to tasty turf; the anticuchos were reason enough to make a trek: marinated, grilled beef hearts that served up all the savor of a great steak, but with none of the fat).
   The opening of Carbon Peruvian Chicken & Grill (100 F Gibbs St., Rockville; 301-251-1944) is not meant to replace La Flor de la Canela so much as give owner Lillian Claros a second restaurant to look after in the wake of La Flor's closing. And it makes the looking-after easier, since Carbon is just down the street from her stylish and delicious La Canela.
   This is a quick-service cafe (counter service, plastic plates, TVs on at all times) rather than a full-service restaurant, and those well-versed in Peruvian cooking may find the brief menu something of a disappointment, particularly since fish (such a vital component of the cuisine) has all but gone missing. There are no ceviches, no tiraditos, no renditions of  chupe de camarones, that creamy, comforting meal-in-a-bowl. The emphasis is on the grill ("carbon" is Spanish for charcoal).
   The good news is that what's here, is prepared with a care that's pretty typical of Claros's restaurants. I find the anticuchos ($7) hard to resist, and they make for an appealing starter if you're in the mood for a big meal. The hearts are rendered into thin, easy-to-eat medallions, and the vinegary bite of the marinade offsets some of the intensity of the innard. The must-order is the asado de tira, a sort of short-rib steak (Latin chefs are fond of slicing short ribs across the bone, as opposed to American chefs, who tend to serve short ribs as, well — ribs). There was more flavor and juice here than in the last few steaks I've eaten at high-end restaurants and steakhouses, and at a fraction of the cost.
   Carbon also makes a good sausage sandwich, smeared with a rich, garlicky paste that mates well with the meat, though buyer beware — it leaves a pungent odor in the mouth. A small slate of desserts is on offer, including alfajores (they sell out quickly), tres leches cake and flan. The housemade chocolate cake may not call up memories of that trip to Lima, but it's excellent, its fudginess never quite crossing into the borderland of too-muchness. …

 

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*    C R U N C H I N G   N U M B E R S   /  Top 5 Bagels     *

1. Bagels and … ; Annapolis
2. Goldberg's Bagels; Silver Spring
3. 2 Amys; DC (Sundays only)
4. Bagel City Explosion; Rockville
5. H&H at Arrowine; Arlington

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By the way, speaking of bagels …

I just thought I'd share this, since it's timely and funny. My wife is in Annapolis for a doctor's appointment, and just stopped in at Bagels and … , which I just listed as No. 1 in the area for bagels in our new weekly chat feature, "Crunching Numbers." 

She texted me a few seconds ago, saying, "Bagels and … is incredible today. Wow." 

"Incredible how," I wanted to know.

Her response: "Perfect crust. A Montreal-like crunch. Soft inside. Good lox. I got some for home but they're out of pumpernickel and bialys."

What a great real-time dispatch.

We ought to get her to tweet her meals. ; ) 

Alexandria VA

Todd

I am confused by this year's Top 100. Within almost every mini-review there seems to be a dig at each restaurant. If this is really a top 100 why give them the backhand, really doesn't make me want to try any of them. Make up your mind

Is a mind made up an all-or-nothing thing? Can a mind made up be a thing that allows for grays, or the occasional reservation?

You call them "digs." I think of them as observations for diners who know that there is really no such thing as a perfect restaurant, or a perfect meal. Every restaurant has its failings, its weak spots, even very, very good ones.

For instance, regular readers of this chat know that I think a great deal of Komi, which came in at No. 1 on our list yet again. That's not to say that the staff and I think it's a perfect place. If I have any quibbles about my most recent meal, it's dessert, which just wasn't up to the level of all the other courses that preceded it — missing both the playful invention and exactitude of the other dishes.

If my saying that makes you reconsider going out to Komi, then you're looking for a kind of guarantee that doesn't exist. 

Bethesda, MD

Re: Restaurant Critics.

It's been a long time since I have been in the restaurant business, so the pain is diminished.

Once I owned a very successful breakfast/lunch place in another state. It was doing so well, that when a very choice site came up a few miles away, I decided to open a similar place that served diner as well. About two weeks after we opened, my chef bolted rather that going on the methadone tapering period that I didn't know about. We got a fill-in, and was trying to find another chef. During the first week, we were covered in a review that was about a C to C+, if it were a school grade.

I have no idea how we would have fared if the original guy was there. What I do know is that a negative or "C" review can kill you as fast as a gun. There are a lot of places that don't have backers or big money – places who put everything they own into opening a place, and hope they can survive until they hit their stride. The thing about an unenthusiastic review is that it often just makes it impossible to recover. Within two days, dinner business dropped to nothing, and we had to close a week or so later.

Now, restaurants don't deserve to survive out of pity, nor should critics become puff masters – but really, it is not a simple matter. My place was evaluated as if it were a big player, and in was the end of me. I am not sure that every restaurant critic knows or cares what happens after the review.

Thanks for writing in and sharing your insights and observations …

The places I worry about the most are the small places, the mom n pops, which in this area are often ethnic spots. In many cases, they're not aiming to satisfy an audience outside their immediate culture. A review brings the place to everybody's attention, the place gets slammed, and in some cases — not all, but some — it takes a while to recover

And then there are the other worries that come into play for a place like that. Will they have to tone down the cooking, siphon it of the very spunkiness that brought such an enthusiastic review in th first place? Will they have to streamline the menu? Will they have to take on more staff? Will they have to expand? And so on …

You bring up an interesting question about the middling review, the solid C. I wonder whether that would have been the case these days, with so many other avenues for getting information out?

What do you all think, out there? Any take on this?

I'm not generally of the mind that a review can kill a place. I don't doubt that a bad review can ding a place. But damage it irreparably? I'm not sure about that. And a middling review? I can't really say how that alone could put a restaurant under.

 

Washington, DC

Hello Todd,

I am inquiring about the recent issue of Washingtonian featuring the "100 Very Best" restaurants in the DC Metropolitan area. I am confused as to why there is a list of 100 restaurants, if only the first 40 are ranked. Is this becoming Washingtonian's "40 Best Restaurants" ?

Well, wait a second … They're ALL ranked. Remember that.

This is a list of 100 restaurants; every place that appears in this survey was chosen after long and careful consideration.

If a restaurant makes the cut, it's a good restaurant. Remember that, too. The places that appear in the Top 40 are better than good — in some cases, they're very good and even great.

As I said last week, the reason we opted to rank only 40 places this year, as opposed to 100, was because we felt it was time to change up our presentation and do something a little different.

If you think that something's missing — if you think that rankings 41-100 are a vital component of the package — then let us know, by all means.

Alexandria VA

Hi Todd

I am a regular reader of your chat and don't feel you actually answered the question however you did manage to tout Komi again

Tout. But also ding.

Anyway, I thought I explained our reasoning pretty clearly. What didn't I answer?

DC’s West End

Todd,

I love reading your Q&A weekly. It is chock-ful of wonderful information. I just finished reading the Top Restaurants piece in the magazine and it got me thinking. My question is about Portuguese restaurants in the area.

Are there any at all? If so, are there any you would recommend? I miss the Portuguese restaurants I used to frequest in the Iron Bound Section of Newark, NJ.

Many thanks!

There's a tasty place called Portuguese Club, in Silver Spring. I'm just not sure they want your business.

I wrote about them a couple of years ago. (Here.) One of the strangest eating-out experiences I've had as a critic.

I wouldn't call PC a full-service restaurant — I'm not even sure I'd call it a restaurant. Tavira, in Chevy Chase, is a full-service restaurant. It just feels like a tired one to me. 

Beyond those? Not much.

I wish it were otherwise. I love good Portuguese cooking. A soothing bowl of caldo verde, a generous crock of clams and chorizo, some fresh whole fish drizzled with olive oil, whole sardines off the grill … I'm making myself hungry …

Silver Spring, MD

Hi Todd,

I'm extremely confused by the tone of your January/ 100 Very Best issue. The editorial seems extremely abrasive and negative, especially the part where you poll 25 chefs in your "Chefs Tell All" feature and divulge information on the "most overhyped chefs" – Michel Richard, Barton Seaver, and Bryan Voltaggio.

Why on earth would Washingtonian publish something that threatens to tear down the camaraderie amongst the culinary community?

Do you really think a poll has the potential to "tear down camaraderie"? An anonymous poll, at that?

It seems to me what you're suggesting is that the role of a publication like this one is to support the culinary community. If I've guessed right, I'd be interested to know why you think this way.

I don't think reviews of restaurants are meant to support a restaurant community. Nor, having said that, do I think they ought to go after a restaurant community.

Fairfax, VA

Re: bagel's …

Wont travel to Arrowine but fresh out of the oven at Wegman's Fairfax are pretty good. Just make sure they are cool enough so they dont melt the plastic bag.

I like Wegman's bagels — they're good grocery store bagels. I just had a couple of their salt bagels over the weekend.

If there's a better place, by the way, for special occasion grocery shopping, I'd like to know what it is. I made a pit stop before NYE and stocked up on king crab leg, jumbo shrimp, an array of cheeses …

We had a two-tier NYE. The first was with my son. Corn Pops, Froot Loops and bagels, and he knocked back a sippy cup full of sparkling grape juice.

(By the way: I confess to having eaten a couple of bowls of Corn Pops. Do I have to turn in my food critic's license? Before you answer, let me make another confession: It was really, really comforting. Confession #3: "A couple" in this case = "three.")

Then, NYE part 2: crab leg, shrimp, cheese and bread, and a Traminer Trio from Wimmer-Czerny that went surprisingly well with the crab (my wife isn't a fan of Champagne). 

Who has NYE stories to share? Meals? Adventures?

U Street Corrdior, DC

I've noticed for the past few weeks Eatonville has been in your list of restaurants where you'd spend your own money. Could you explain why?

My experiences there — I've had dinner at the place about half a dozen times — indicate that it is a pleasant addition to the neighborhood, but hardly a destination restaurant. Has the latest entrant from the revolving door of executive chefs at that establishment measurably improved things?

I don't consider it a destination restaurant, either. A lot restaurants on that list up there aren't. They make the cut because I'm enthusiastic about them at the moment. For whatever reason.

It might be the very real possibility of an exquisite, leisurely meal — as at Adour. But it might also be for a couple of juicy tacos in a divey setting adorned with deer heads — as at Taqueria La Placita.

Eatonville has a new chef, Garret Fleming, who previously cooked at Peninsula Grill, Robert Carter's place in Charleston, famous for its 12-layer coconut cake. *

The food is lighter, and better, than it's been. And I've always liked the atmosphere there. The mix of diners reflects the racial, cultural mix of this city in a way that only one or two other places seem interested in, and it's hard not to  feel some affection for a restaurant that celebrates not a corporate business model or a romantically vague notion of a farflung place, but a writer: Zora Neale Hurston.

 

* a slice of which clocks in at a mere 2,400 calories; or, enough calories for a moderate-sized man for an entire day.

Bethesda, MD
The most curious fall from grace in the recent Top 100 is that of Willow coming completely off the list. Listed at #39 last year and at well over 400 degrees in the December 2010 "Needle" column, somehow this seems out of place. What specific observations did you all have?

It's interesting you bring this up, because it was a tough call for us.

Willow can be very good. It can also be pretty good. It can also be eh. It's an erratic place.

One of the reviewers on the team mentioned the two really good dinners there she'd had in '09, including "some of the best fried chicken I've had around here."

This year the reports that came back weren't as strong; one of our reviewers noted "dishes that, while tasty, were extremely over-rich," adding: "it seemed like there was less creativity on the menu."

It's still a good restaurant, hence the Needle, and it was a very late cut for us — but since the 100 Best is supposed to convey the places we're most excited about right at this very moment, and competition was really stiff, it didn't make it. 

Arlington, VA

Hi Todd –

I have a big family and my grandmother is turning 88 during MLK weekend. Any advice on a place in the Arlington area or maybe Tyson's that can comfortably hold 22 people?

I'm looking for somewhere nice that isn't going to break budgets – something like $20 an entree would be OK. I was thinking Ray's the Steaks (not the nicest setting, but the food's great) or Four Sisters (great food/setting, but the rest of my family may not go for Vietnamese).

Any other ideas? Thanks.

I'd look into Harry's Tap Room, on Wilson Blvd.

It might be more to the liking of a big group like that. Simple, American cooking, and a nice, comfy setting. 

I hope you all have a wonderful time. 88 is something to celebrate — and not just once a year, but every single day … 

Greenbelt

Todd,

Thanks for the lively chats. I'm attempting to research CSAs online, and it seems as though most of the databases and Web sites have outdated info. It seems particularly challenging to find a CSA with a Prince Georges County pick-up spot. Any ideas or suggestions?

Secondly, is there any good pizza in the Greenbelt/College Park/Hyattsville corridor? When we don't feel like making a special trip to our favorite spots, we make do with Generous Joe's or Ledo's. Thanks!

Greenbelt — great to have you on the chat today …

I grew up there, and I'll say this — the more I see everywhere else, the more impressed I am with Greenbelt. It's got most of what people look for in a place to live — great parks, bike trails, good schools, a newly refurbished library, a good grocery store, a vintage-era movie theater, community-minded neighbors, affordable housing, and an abundance of natural greenery.

Not much in the way of restaurants, though. And it doesn't have the cache that a lot of people look for even though they claim they don't. But still.

Have you looked into the Claggett Farm Center in Upper Marlboro? They do CSAs, and if I'm not mistaken, I think we participated in one of theirs a few years back.

As for pizza … Have you tried the wood-fired pizzas at Franklin's, in Hyattsville? Ask for them extra-crispy on the bottom, and request a light hand with the cheese.

Washington, DC

re: Washingtonian Ranking:

I just feel that if you are going to have a "100 Very Best" list of restaurants…you should make it all or nothing. I'm unsure of the message being sent to the following 60 restaurants…

What message was sent to a restaurant that appeared in the Top 100  last year, but came in at No. 89?

I would think most places would regard it as an achievement, to be included among the 100 best restaurants in a big, metropolitan city like this one.

You look at the Top 40 as if it's a place for the "haves" and the Top 60 as if it's a dustbin for the "have-not"s. Look more closely at the Top 40. Even among the supposed "haves," there is a clear tiering going on. You have 4 different tiers, because the Top 40 includes 4-stars, 3 1/2-stars, 3-stars, and 2 1/2-stars.

Centreville, VA

Is the Honey Pig out here owned by the same folks who own the one Annandale?

Biggest problem I have with both locations is the young Korean American males driving the BMW and Mercedes their parents purchased for them who think traffic laws dont apply to them. Yeah I drive a M5 or my "Black" but the parking lots at both locations are dangerous because of these punks. One kid was meeting his mom and almost plowed into me. Ran stop signs and ignored lanes. His mom kept him in his car so he didnt have to deal with me. FCPD officer saw the whole thing and arrested him.

Wait a second … just what restaurant are you talking about?

I only know of two Honey Pig restaurants — the original, in Annandale, aka Koreatown, and a spinoff, in Ellicott City, Md. 

Falls Church VA
I'd like the addresses for the 'Glass' restaurants your anonymous chefs are from. Trashing fellow chefs while hiding behind the word anonymous is more like an act of cowardice

I didn't read any of this as "trashing." Smack-talking, maybe.  

By way of context, Sports Illustrated conducts a weekly anonymous poll asking a variety of tough, interesting questions — surveying NBA players, for instance, to find out who they think is the guy who plays "dirtiest" or NFL players to find out which coach they'd least like to play for, etc.

Arlington, VA

Happy new year!

I've been interested to try Uncle Liu's after reading so much about it, and more so after your review today.

I know that in general, Yelp reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, and I hate to call out a place specifically. But diners in two separate reviews within the past two weeks say their experience was marred by roaches crawling around the restaurant. I guess the best thing to do is to see the place for myself, but what do you take from such allegations about a place getting a lot of press?

Thanks and love your chat–brightens my Tuesday!

Thank you for that — you've brightened MY Tuesday …

Now, to the not so happy stuff …

Nobody is going to want to hear this, but more restaurants than you would think have roaches. It's really a hard thing to control, given all the food coming in every day and given the sometimes-intermittent cleaning.

Have you ever had a roach problem in your house? Have you ever called in an exterminator? One of the first things an exterminator will tell you is to throw away all incoming boxes and bags, because they're carriers. At home, you bring in a few bags of groceries a week, let's say. At a restaurant, it's bags upon bags and boxes upon boxes, every single day.

Not to put you — or anybody else out there — off your feed, but that's the reality …

Just because you don't see roaches doesn't mean they're not there. And just because you do see roaches doesn't mean this one particular place is so much more unclean and sloppy than its competition. 

 

Bethesda, MD
We're headed to Iota Friday to check out a friend's band – where should we eat in the area beforehand? I lived in Court House way back when, but the dining scene has exploded since then! Thanks for any advice you can offer!

Courthouse and surroundings — it's a food lover's dream right now.

Bayou Bakery for gumbo, muffaletta sandwiches, beignets and hot chocolate. Minh's for some of the most vivid, robust Vietnamese cooking in the area. Delhi Club for good, inexpensive Indian — get the broiled lamb chops, the naan and the yellow daal. Lyon Hall for stellar 5-buck hotdogs at happy hour, along with hearty Alsatian-style cooking and good wines and beers. Ray's Hell Burger for great prime-beef burgers.

I'll be interested to hear where you end up — drop back on and let me know, okay? 

Clifton, VA

NYE …

Wegman's 6 different kinds of lobster tails warm water and cold water etc. FLA to Australia Special order bottle of Pol Roger Winston Churchill and for dessert their cookies peanut butter and chocolate chip. Appetizer melon w/ Iberio ham at $99 a lb. Lobster tails grilled with butter non pasteurized from local farm and finished with truffle shavings. Just my girlfriend and I and two drooling collies. Tails, grilled aspargus and cookies for dessert. Never spent over $500 at Wegman's.

What a great night of eating!

But yeah … ooof. Good to hear from you, Bud … have a good one in '011 … 

Arlington, VA

Had a great NYE dinner at Dino. Five courses, two bottles of wine and limoncello round all under $100 a head. That is rare on NYE. And the ambiance felt convivial and fun. The food was great, especially the gelatos and pates. And I had a really nice gluten free meal too. It was a wonderful night.

Speaking of Caldo Verde there is a great version at Blacksalt.

Thanks for the report. And the tip. … 
Clifton, VA

Todd,

Most people should see how their food is prepared. I remember mixing cole slaw in the same tub used to bus tables with my hands. I am sure the vinegar was a great antibacterial and germ killer.

Remember the BSA first aid manual says that in an emergency urine can be used as a disinfectant for wounds

Can we end on such an unappetizing, if hilarious, note?

Why not. We're all adults, here.

Be well, everyone, eat well (and with luck, non-infectingly), and let's do it again next week at 11 …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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