Tuesday, January 11 2011 at 11 AM

Todd reviews Curry Mantra in Fairfax and Rhode Island Reds in Hyattsville, gives his picks for the ten best sandwiches in Washington, and answers questions about our new 100 Very Best Restaurants list.

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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C R U N C H I N G   N U M B E R S:                
T o p   1 0   S a n d w i c h e s                    

1. Corned beef at Central Michel Richard; DC
2. Lobster roll at Red Hook Lobster Truck; DC
3. Muffa-lotta at Bayou Bakery; Arlington
4. G-Man at Mangialardo's; DC
5. Falafel at Max's; Wheaton
6. Roast beef po'boy at The Cajun Experience; Leesburg
7. Banh mi at Song Que; Falls Church
8. Doggcatcher at Ray's Hell Burger Too; Arlington
9. Cubano at La Limeña
10. Pork torta at La Fondita

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   W o r d    o f    M o u t h   . . .

   … Is there a better, more rewarding cuisine for restaurant-going vegetarians than southern Indian? The zesty meatless stews and the sheer variety of breadstuffs make the slap-dash vegetable plates at most Modern American restaurants look like prison food by comparison.
   The downside of this, of course, is that we tend to think of Indian cooking, as a result, as dividing into two distinct camps. Meat-eaters dine at northern Indian places; vegetarians dine at southern Indian places.
   The month-old Curry Mantra (9984 Main Street, Fairfax; 703-218-8128), which has hired both a northern Indian and southern Indian cook, is thus to be applauded for its unapologetically omnivore vision — for recognizing that genuine food lovers are essentially boundless. They live for the ability to roam freely and widely across cultures and cuisines, to mix and match styles and genres. The only loyalty they feel is to their palates.
   Early evidence, however, suggests that the restaurant's omnivore vision stands up better on paper than in practice.
   Of the slew of dishes that cluttered my table on a recent visit to this sensuously cozy, vermillion-hued dining room, the best were all southern-derived.
   The idly were thicker and lighter than usual, and made a porous but durable sponge for the superlative sambar. The masala dosa — a thin, crispy rice-flour crepe the size of a large pizza, rolled into a tube resembling an architect's blueprint, and stuffed with a hash of potatoes and onio
ns — was the best I've had in years, wonderfully crunchy and with a rich, buttery aftertaste (but without the grease). Its accompanying cup of coconut chutney — chunky, rich and vividly fresh — made for an irresistible dip.
   I also loved the version of baingan bhartha; the blistered eggplants had been turned into a fine mash, but that didn't obscure the flavors; unlike many versions of this dish, there was more here than just the taste of eggplant. I kept diving in for further revelations, appreciating the way the dish seemed to unfold, the complementary ingredients asserting themselves little by little: now tomato, now onion, now cilantro.
   The biggest complaint I have to make about the meat-based dishes is the meats themselves — a seekh kabob, typically among the juiciest ways to prepare lamb, was overcooked to the point of dryness. As for the curries, I was compelled to contrive a solution on the spot, spooning the gravies over my rice and forgoing the protein, the putative star, altogether. Fortunately, those gravies are good enough to reward this sort of table-top tweaking. A korma boasted a buoyantly green coloring that indicated the presence of pistachios, lending the dish a lush nuttiness.
   Given the dryness of the meats, I dialed back my hopes for a Goan-style fish curry. Alas, it turned up unexpectedly luscious little slivers of tilapia — tilapia! bland, inoffensive tilapia! — swimming in a creamy, chili-spiked gravy. Go figure. …

   … At a time when every pizza joint in the area seems to think Neapolitan-style pies are the only pie worth baking, Chris Brophy has gone the contrarian route. He's serving Roman-style pizzas at his cozy, quirky Rhode Island Reds (4700 Rhode Island Ave., Hyattsville; 301-699-0019), housed in a small, castle-style building just south of the new developments springing up along Rte. 1 in Hyattsville's Arts District.
   The pizzas are distinguished by their cracker-thin, crunchy crusts. I loved the Gina Lollobrigida, simply (and zestily) sauced, with just enough cheese, and a pepperoni pie — full of thin, crisp-edged coins of the featured ingredient  — was nearly as good. I also loved that, pulling a slice from the center, there wasn't the slightest bit of droop-age; the crust remained level. (A third pie, with anchovies, pesto, and onion, on the other hand, was like listening to the players in an orchestra all tuning their instruments at the same time. Too much much-ness.)
   The 28-seat space only adds to the appeal: red-stained wood floors, a soundtrack that runs from opera to Mingus, original art on the walls, a selection of excellent paperbacks for thoughtful browsing, and the smell of garlic wafting through the room. …

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NoLo, DC

Just curious as to what your complaint with Oyamel is, given your inclusion of every other area Jose Andres restaurant on the Top 100.

Personally, I tend to enjoy my meals there more than I do at Zaytinya or Jaleo. On a related note, while I think it was a great idea to only ordinally rank the top 40 (really? can you distinguish between 92 and 93?), it seems a bit weird that the bottom 60 weren't sorted by number of stars…any comment?

Thanks.

The thinking on that was — it'd be easier for readers to find the restaurants if they were listed alphabetically. Any other form of sorting would imply a ranking, and that we decided to save for the places we felt most enthused about, the Top 40.

As for Oyamel, I have no complaint with it. I think it's a pretty good restaurant. And I will say that my recent meals there have been generally good. But the 100 Best is a product of not one, but four reviewers. It is the result, in many instances, of pooled knowledge. 

To speak more directly: The fact that I had pretty good experiences tells you something about what the other members of the team encountered on their visits.

 

Washington DC

Hi Todd,

Fact: reading the Todd Kliman chat every Tuesday increases your overall productivity (or hunger?) by 8%. Thoughts?

I wanted to ask why you didn't include J&G in your restaurant week recommendations. Are they skimping on their restaurant week menu? Too many up charges? If I remember correctly you included it in tier 1 last year.

Also, any recommendations for food happy hours in DC? I'm a fan of Old Ebbit's raw bar. Enjoy the snow tonight! ~ Ian O. Nabudget

Ian, first of all — thanks for the laughs on this gray, wintry morning …

And as for my Restaurant Week Guide — pause for a moment of self-promotion — the big thing for me when it came to J&G was my sense that they have slipped a great deal from where they were last year.

An all-around slippage, too, I want to say — and not just a failure to perform at a high level in one particular area. Food, service, atmosphere: all are noticeably coming up short of the mark they had set in the first 6 months of existence.

I'm a fan of Old Ebbitt's raw bar, too. Little-known tip: You can also get the 50% discount on all raw bar items after 11 p.m. weeknights — from 11-1 a.m. It's a great thing to keep in mind when you come out of a game or a play and are ravenous.

Some other good happy hour eating spots: Johnny's Half Shell, Poste, PS 7's and Zaytinya. 

Dupont, DC

Curious for your perspective on something.

My husband and I recently had a v lovely dinner at Ris. Our one unique observation: we are in our late 20's and were easily the youngest couple in the dining room by 20 years (the bar area was a different story).

Just curious how you think restaurants seem to attract such set demographics? For example, West End is just around the corner and seems to trend much younger.

I wrote about this very thing, actually, when I reviewed Ris on the chat a while back.

It was striking to me, too, particularly since so many new restaurants are hives for the young and trendy. I think part of that has to do with Ris herself. She was away from the scene for 3 years, but she was well-regarded by folks who adored her cooking at 1789 — another demonstrably untrendy restaurant that has always, and not coincidentally, skewed older.

I think Ris, the woman, was actively courting a different kind of audience in opening Ris, the restaurant.

I hear from a lot of people in this role, and a good bit of what I have heard from diners over the past several years is that a certain kind of restaurant seems to have vanished from the scene.

Many of these diners lament, for example, the absence of old-school French dining, with all the accoutrements, all the pomp. But what they are lamenting is not specifically the loss of that sort of French restaurant. They are lamenting the disappearance of tablecloths, of more formal service, of menus uncluttered by laundry lists of ingredients (and with dishes they don't need to ask questions about). They are lamenting the ability to have an unstrained conversation — something they believe is no longer much of a value to interior designers.

Ris speaks to these people. And in speaking to them, it is, inevitably, shunning others.

NoLo, DC

Have you seen Gillian Clark's youtube videos? (if not, search for chefgillian63 on youtube). The bulk of them, under the title "A General Store Re-enactment" seem to consist of Gillian and Robin mocking their customers.

Chef has always been, shall we say, a bit high-strung. And I have to admit, I used to like the table tents at Colorado Kitchen containing rules for children. But this public mocking of the people who want to give her money seems to be beyond the pale.

I was looking forward to the new place opening on K, but I really don't see how I can support her at this point… Any thoughts?

I just watched it, and I'd have to agree with you.

(Although how in the world would anybody ever come across a video like this if they weren't actively looking for a reason to be angry at the restaurant? It'd be different if it were posted, say, on a food blog with lots of readers or something. But anyway.)

I guess the main thing for me is, it's not funny. If it were funny, I think it wouldn't be a big deal. It'd be a little like sharing an in-joke with customers. As is, it really does come across as mockery.

On a somewhat related note …

I believe that a great chef can be described as artistic. But except in rare cases, I don't believe that a chef is an artist. 

A friend and I have recently engaged in a friendly debate about art and business, occasioned by my going out into the public to promote my book both locally and nationally. This friend says that selling — which is what business is — is not about giving people what you want to give them, but about giving people what they want to hear, buy, read, eat, etc. Art, broadly defined — I'm thinking here of serious books, films, paintings, sculpture — is about just the opposite. It's about giving people what they don't want, but which the writer, director, sculptor, painter believes they need to hear and see and read.

Most chefs are closer to the salesman than to the artist. And I would think that especially applies to a chef who makes casseroles, fried chicken and lemon chess pie.

 

Alex. VA

Help!

My mom has offered to watch our son for us Friday night for one more nice dinner before our second child is born. She's also treating!

We need a recommendation for a non-child friendly restaurant in DC. I'd like a place that I didn't feel I was missing out on the experience by not drinking (i.e. no wine pairings, wonderful cocktails) and someplace with inventive, interesting cooking. And of course, we have to be able to get into the restaurant this weekend. Thanks so much!

I'd try any of the following:

Adour, Poste, Central, Citronelle, The Source and either the new Palena Cafe (where I recently ate the best plate of artichokes I've ever had in my life) or Palena.

I'm ruling out both Komi and Minibar, which, at this late date, you've likely got no chance of getting into.

Good luck, and I'll be interested in hearing where you end up. Enjoy yourselves in this (too-brief, I'm sure) interregnum …

Clifton, VA

Back when Rustico first opened a co worker and I went to lunch there on Fri. We are both in early 50's and for most of our lunch were the oldest patrons by at least 30 years.

Made us feel old and like we were overstaying the earlybird special with our AARP discounts.

You know, I don't mind that kind of disparity in age.

I think I prefer being in a dining room of all older folks to being in a dining room of all young'uns. A mix would be the ideal, but you rarely find a mix when it comes to dining out — a mix of ages, a mix of races, a mix of backgrounds.

Washington, DC

Todd:

Maybe you or one of your readers can help. At the restaurant, they swear that the pizza at Pete's Apizza contains only mozzarella cheese. I'm convinced, based on both the odor and the taste, that there's an additional (grated?) cheese sprinkled on top of their pies. Help?

That'd be my guess, too — though I don't know what that cheese is. 

Is this an opportunity to roll out a different, more investigative kind of Recipe Sleuth …? Katie? 

Some pizzerias play around with their cheeses like this — tinkering with the blends or adding a light layer of a mystery cheese, while officially advertising only mozzarella. I'm thinking, here, of Tommy Marcos's Ledo Restaurant and Pizzeria, which uses smoked provolone to give the pies their defining flavor.

mclean, va

You must be tired of getting questions regarding the top 40 v. the top 100 and their rankings but i have one question about this: how did you decide to include some of the 2 1/2 stars in the top 40 and not the others?

How did they differ that they did not deserve being on the 40 list? thanks for all you do and the interesting chats you keep bringing our way.

Well, we went through pretty much the same process as we have for the past few years, when we ranked all the restaurants from 1-100.

In this case, we just didn't include the rankings for 1-60. The thinking was, Top 40 was a clean cut-off point — something Billboard clearly seems to understand. For a restaurant to earn a spot in that Top 40 it had to excite us, had to linger in the memory.

Arlington, Virginia

Todd,

I enjoyed reading the Top 100 Restaurant Guide this month, but a statement in one review in particular caught my attention. It was for Againn, the gastropub downtown.

It seemed to say that people who feel the the prices for the dishes served there (bangers and mash, etc.) are a little high don't have a sufficiently sophisticated palate to discern the complex use of spices and sauces used in the preparation of those dishes. Having been to Againn, I have to admit I may be one of those patrons with an underdeveloped palate. In order to avoid wasting my money in some of the other high-end dining venues in Washington, is there some kind of indicator in reviews that will tell me I won't be able to appreciate the accomplishments of the chef? Thanks.

You've twisted the review to your own ends.

It wasn't referring to spices and sauces; it was referring to the chef's ability to lighten dishes that are typically very heavy. To take something that looks for all the world like stick-to-your-ribs pub grub and make it eat like something you would find in a good fine-dining restaurant, something full of finesse.

That's not a small thing. That's one of the hallmarks of great cooking.

I'm not saying that Againn is a great restaurant, but I am saying that the kitchen's achievement is some justification for the prices. 

You're not alone in thinking that the prices are high for what Againn is serving, which is why the review is worded the way it is. A friend of mine found much the same thing when I took him for a visit.

The fact he walked out, having eaten three courses — three courses of food that, in name alone, would be at home on a tavern menu — and didn't feel full or even heavy? That didn't impress him. What are you going to do?

Washington, DC

Todd:

I'd add the Oval Room to the list of non-child friendly places with inventive cooking.

It's usually pretty easy to get a reservation there and I think it, too, fits the bill for what that couple is looking for.

Agreed. Thanks for chiming in …
Logan Circle

Hey Todd,

Last week I got back from an amazing New Years that I spent with some good friends at a cabin in Wisconsin. We spent about a week snowshoeing during the day and then centered ourselves around the kitchen and/or the fire from the late afternoon well into the night eating probably way too much and sipping on probably way too many cocktail concoctions.

Well, and beer too because it is Wisconsin after all. And with my love of cheese I fit right in. Every time I get back from a trip to Wisconsin I crave cheese curds because I go through them like water when I’m there.

I brought a bag back and it was gone within days even though I tried to ration myself.

My question is, where can I find cheese curds around here? I know that I can order them online, but is there anywhere in DC that I can buy cheese curds?

I’ve heard Trader Joes has them sometimes but when I went yesterday they didn’t have any. What about Farmers’ Markets? And this is going out on a huge limb, any place you know of where I can find fried cheese curds?

Man, I’m totally going to crave that squeak all day long now…

What a great-sounding trip!

You know, I'm at an absolute loss as to what to tell you. Anybody know of a spot to find cheese curds? 

Clifton, VA
My mom was a professional artist who sold her work at local and national art shows. She basically did versions of the same oil paintings over and over because that is waht sold and paid her entry fees. Being a starving artist for art sake had no appeal to her. Would Chuck Berry write a song with a guitar riff that wouldnt sell? I am sure he has a collection songs and riffs that were never recorded. Man were would be w/o Johnny Be Good from the real King of Rock and Roll. Same with authors. Unless you have a sugar daddy or momma you have to eat and pay the bills. Oil on canvas is just not as tasty as steak!

Yes, you have to pay the bills. Believe me, I understand.

But most artists don't rely on their art to pay the bills, in order to be able to speak freely, without regard to the mighty marketplace.

If you make something and your goal is to give an audience what it thinks it needs, if you are aware of niche, if you are focused on your bottom line … well, then I'd say you're a businessman, not a (serious) artist.

Bethesda, MD
Is "Hot Toddy" a winter drink at the Kliman residence, or your wife's nickname for you?

Good afternoon, everyone! … ; )

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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