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 The Wild Vine, a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its biggest present-day champion, a dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
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
2 Amy's, DC
Bayou Bakery, Arlington
Birch & Barley, DC
Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park
Cafe du Parc, DC
Evo Bistro, McLean
Jackie's, Silver Spring
Masala Art, DC
Palena Cafe, DC
Poste Brasserie, DC
Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown
Taqueria La Placita, Riverdale
Yamas Mediterranean Grill, Bethesda
C R U N C H I N G N U M B E R S:
Top 10 Wines-by-the-Glass Lists
* Adour; DC
* Bastille; Alexandria
* Corduroy; DC
* Dino; DC
* Estadio; DC
* Grapeseed; Bethesda
* Lyon Hall; Arlington
* Proof; DC
* Tallula; Arlington
* Vidalia; DC
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… The arrival of the hot dog joint is one of those developments that seems so inevitable and so right you wonder why it took so long to happen. If boutique burgers can be big business, why not a gussied-up hot dog? Who doesn't love a good dog, plump and juicy, striped with spicy mustard and tucked into a warm, possibly grilled bun? If anything in the industry ought to be a sure thing, it's a restaurant devoted solely to the simple pleasures of the all-American frank.
So you would think. My recent explorations of the scene — let's call them my dog days — proves otherwise.
I won't say it's a case of a fantastic idea on paper that doesn't generate electricity in practice, because there are hot dog joints that are excellent; Hot Doug's, in Chicago, home of the infamous foie gras dog, is probably the finest example of the genre: the hot dog raised to high culinary art.
We don't have a Hot Doug's. Or anything remotely close to it. There are some excellent dogs to be had out there — they just happen to not exist at hot dog joints.
I had great ones at Lyon Hall (3100 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-741-7636), where five bucks at happy hour fetches one of the best bites to be had on the wide-ranging menu (it's also on the kids' menu). Sausage is a category unto itself on chef Liam LaCivita's brawny, Alsatian-influenced menu, and the dogs here eat like thin sausages, full of spice and good pop.
The Catahoula at Bayou Bakery (1515 N Courthouse Rd., Arlington; 703-243-2410) was wonderful, too. The beef franks are made for the restaurant by Jamie Stachowski, whose charcuterie has won him a devoted following of local chefs and farmers market shoppers. Besides their rich, full flavor, the thing that separates them from their mass-market cousins is their fine-grained texture, which bespeaks the hand of the artisan. Bayou, true to the spirit of New Orleans, boils them in beer, slathers them with creole mustard and piles on a vidalia onion marmalade.
Diana Davila-Boldin, the chef at Jackie's (8081 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring; 301-565-9700) and a Chicago native, has reproduced a lovingly authentic version of her distinctive hometown dog at Sidebar, the cocktail bar/pool hall adjacent to the restaurant. The Vienna beef dog pops, as it should, and the accoutrements, including tomato chunks, hot peppers and a few dabs of electric green-colored relish, are bright-tasting and crisp.
Notice a pattern here? Talented chefs cranking out charcuterie in the form of a frank, or using their advanced skills to elevate a simple snack.
I feel guilty about this on some level, in the same way I have always had misgivings about praising french fries at fine-dining restaurants. Shouldn't classically trained chefs spend their time making roulades and rillettes and leave the frying of potatoes to pimply high school kids?
At the same time, a restaurant should be in the business of making memories, and if it's french fries or burgers or hot dogs, so be it. I would rather eat a passionately made burger than a half-hearted pot of rillettes.
Which brings me to the two hot dog joints that have opened in the past couple of months.
The folks behind Matchbox's mini-burgers and pizzas have added to their portfolio with DC-3 (423 8th St., SE; 202-546-1935), which they've billed as a "hot doggeria." Think of it as a glorified hot dog stand. The uncomfy high-chairs and chilly atmospherics drive home the message that you're to get in and get out, and so do the non-handmade dogs, which, despite their snappy titles and beguiling combinations (the Bay Bridge is topped with Maryland crab dip and a shake of Old Bay), seldom justify their price tags. A recent pop-by for two — four hot dogs, an order of crinkle fries, and two drinks — set us back more than $30. The best of the bunch was a dog topped with Cincinnati chili and shredded cheese. It was also one of the simplest concoctions to be had on the long menu of options.
I wouldn't seek out DC-3, and I probably won't ever return to ChiDogO's (1934 14th St., NW; 202-332-3647). You know a place isn't any good when it can't even produce a faithful version of its hometown classic. The tomatoes were tasteless, the celery salt was either missing or too sparingly applied, and the relish was a substitute — not the vividly green version that Chicagoans know and love but the same jarred stuff most people turn to when it comes time for a picnic.
I had been hoping for a loving homage a la Boldin at Jackie's. But ChiDogO's is probably best appreciated as a cover version of an original tune — in this case, an off-key Karaoke tune warbled by a drunk at a bar. You recognize what it's supposed to be, but you don't ever want to listen to it again. …
Hey Todd —
My folks are coming to town from NY. They like quality and simplicity, well-executed classic food. I recently went to Corduroy, and thought it was fantastic. Any suggestions (on the quieter side?) Thanks!
Nate, I'm guessing your folks'd probably go for a place like Cafe du Parc.
It's just what you say — a place of quality and simplicity (I'd also add consistency), with classic French preparations that are noteworthy for their execution.
I like it a lot, and it's also a good bit less expensive than Bis (although with a good bit less pampering and extras, too.)
If you decide to go, I'd love to hear back from you. Good luck.
Hi Todd, submitting early while I have this fresh in my head —
How does one reconcile support for the locavore movement and sustainable products with supporting small, local restaurants, like a local pho house or taqueria?
These mom-and-pop shops were, in many cases, designed as a stream of income for new residents of the U.S. and a low-cost taste of home for others in their communities. Am I wrong for not wondering, or caring, if the beef in my large number 12 at Pho 88 is locally and humanely raised?
Personally, knowing I'm supporting a local business and residents of my community outweighs supporting a humane cow farm 400 miles away. Of course, I do support human practices and try to be as mindful of these things in my purchases as my budget will allow, but am also aware of the limited reach these "good" products can have — and that they're just not an option for so many food-insecure Americans.
By the way, Ari LeVaux's recent column in the Atlantic called "Why Food Critics Don't Always Say What They Think?" is what spawned this rambling train of thought. Thanks.
Boy, you bring up some really fascinating, difficult questions. I could probably answer in an essay, if I had the time, but I don't, so my thoughts are going to be a lot more scattered …
One thought is that I don't see the need to reconcile, as you put it. Reconciling, it seems to me, is important if you see yourself as subscribing to a system, or adhering to some kind of a code. For instance: It's nice to call ourselves locavores, but practically speaking, who among us actually is?
I like to eat locally, but I also love a good oyster from the West Coast of Canada. I like imported caviar. I drink Burgundy and Bordeaux.
-isms are always tricky — in politics, in literature, in art … in life. I don't see myself, as an eater, or as a reader, or voter, as fitting in to an easily identifiable box, and I'm sure there are a lot of people who would say the same thing about themselves.
Re: mom and pops. In most cases, you're exactly right — the quality of the ingredients simply can't compare to the bistros and cafes and restaurants. They're not "sourcing," they're buying groceries. They make do with what they have. And the best of these places manage to turn lesser quality goods into sometimes exceptional food. That's a triumph, and should be recognized and celebrated. That, to me, is the triumph of cooking, of turning not-much into something memorable.
The thing about the locavore movement that's seldom talked about is its elitism. Local-supporting restaurants are not going to change people's diets and usher in a new era of better health and sustainability, etc. Those restaurants serve a very select audience, for the most part, and big business so dominates our food system that it's not going to be broken by a well-meaning band of chefs and cookbook authors, etc.
Real change will be systemic change, and that will depend on operations like the Silver Diner, which has brought the local movement to the masses. If there were a dozen fast-food restaurants that followed that example, and could compete with the big chains, it would make a difference. If the grocery stores made profound changes, too, that would make a difference as well.
In your opinion, what restaurant has a great dessert menu?
My husband and I ate at Bistro Bis this week during restaurant week. We had a great meal – tasty soups for appetizers (perfect for the cold weather) and decent main courses. However, our desserts were a complete disappointment. My chocolate ganache cake was ice cold in the center. The woman next to us was speaking loudly about how disappointed she was in her creme brulee.
This led to us talking about how few restaurants in the city are serving great dessert courses these days. Any hope out there?
Well, I love the dessert menu at Adour.
You know that moment that comes at most places, after you close the dessert menu and look at the person sitting across from you? You decide to split something not so much because you're trying to stick to your diet, but because nothing looks good enough to splurge on — and you'd definitely indulge, if there was only something there to give you good reason to.
That moment never comes at Adour.
Actually, just the opposite occurs: You decide to order a dessert each, because everything sounds so good.
The souffle is sublime, the fig tart is perfect, and the baba au rhum just might be my favorite dessert in the city right now.
Amazing. Not one, not two, but THREE sources for cheese curds in the area?
Thanks for writing in with the tip …
Re: The General Store and kids–we live very close by and had high hopes for the place.
We went for dinner one night with our toddler who eats everything. We were horrified to see that they had removed the straps from their high chairs, because, the server explained, the straps get very dirty. We spent the entire meal trying to keep our kid from falling/climbing out of the high chair.
That's not my idea of kid-friendly regardless of the food, which for the record was not great. Fish tacos were dry and the fried chicken was only okay.
I hear you.
But "horrified"? Come on, that's really overdoing it, don't you think? I know the place is an easy target for a lot of people, but I'd save a word like "horrified" for a place that insisted on noisy toddlers being strung upside down from the ceiling.
Mr. K. (et al) —
I've been reading the WMag for years, primarily for the restaurant stuff. Only complaint is that you don't ever mention parking. We live in N. VA, and WILL NOT drive to, e.g., Bethesda, only to find that we cannot even get out of the car. Noise level is a preference: parking is a necessity.
Dan, you bring up a really good point.
There are some neighborhoods that are impossible to deal with, unless there's valet parking, or you go early enough and luck out at finding a spot on the street.
Bethesda is particularly bad, because the meter system is spectacularly impractical — one-hour parking makes no sense in an area that is full of restaurants and movie theaters; in the middle of feeding ourselves, we have to run out to the car to feed our meter, or else accept the $40 ticket as a tax for the pleasure of a generally mediocre dinner. The conclusion any sane person would come to is that it was designed to make money for the city.
I think it might be worth including a line in the info box we have now — one that tells the reader whether there is valet parking or not. Or, if not, to say: "street parking only; one-hour meters nearby."
What do you all think?
Dan, what do you think?
I am normally never disappointed with the dessert menu at Central, Againn or Liberty Tavern. They all normally have really satisfying desserts. I am a little tired of deconstructed desserts that aren't as good as the real deal.
"Deconstructed" desserts — don't get me started. ; )
(And the term itself — what gives? It's inexact. These aren't deconstructions. They're un-constructions.)
You got me started. ; )
"Deconstructed" pie is the worst, an absolute abomination.
The other new thing that needs to go is crumbs. Or crumbles. I can (just barely) accept them on a plate if they are one of eight other components. If they are featured, or if they are integral parts, then forget it; the dessert is likely to be a huge disappointment.
Central is a very satisfying place to go for desserts, one of the best in the area. And the new Michel, in Tysons, is even better. There are ten (!) desserts on the menu, and the wonderful thing about them is that you're very conscious of how well-thought-out they are, and how well-constructed they are … and yet not a one of them asks you to admire it more than enjoy it.
I wrote you a few months ago about Cantonese food in Rockville. I discovered in the not to far away land in Wheaton, New Kam Fong and their well priced Chinese lunch special (3 entrees + one soup = $18.95). They've got a killer salt and pepper flounder.
I was wonder what you thought about the other Cantonese places that are near New Kam fong like Wong Gee and others. Not sure if want to stay stray from New Kam Fong since it's good and good deal but I think I should see what the competition is like.
I prefer Full Key to Wong Gee. (They're in the same shopping strip, by the way.)
New Kam Fong is very, very decent overall (some items are better than very, very decent).
Paul Kee has some rewarding dishes — good casseroles, and good roast chicken, for instance — but the general lack of cleanliness is a turn-off; last I was in, the carpet was so greasy, you could have skated on it.
Hollywood East Cafe is better for dim sum than for its regular menu of dishes, and the dim sum has fallen off a bit from its former high.
Next week on "Word of Mouth," I'll be writing about a stellar new place for Cantonese. Stay tuned.
I was reading last weeks chat where you mention "child-friendly" restaurants, and it made me think about some of our recent dining experiences.
We just returned from a 3 week trip to Vietnam with our 9 month old and it was eye-opening in this department.
Children and babies are embraced as part of every aspect of life there. We visited 3 restaurants a day for 3 weeks in the lively and vibrant dining scenes all over the country (much of it from young chefs with vision, training, and a deep understanding of tradition as well as the new Vietnamese palate) and couldn't have felt more welcome with a 9-month old baby.
When we entered the restaurant the staff would immediately compete as to who could make him laugh– and when our food arrived, if not as soon as we opened the menus, the wait staff would scoop him up and play with him for our entire meal. Let him bang on the computer, touch things, play with lights, etc. It was clearly part of their job and a deep joy– and this was for men and women alike in very upscale or in casual mom and pop restaurants. Everyone wanted to play with the baby and keep him happy while his family ate– and when he was joining us for food they were as obliging as they could be to get him what he could eat and make him comfortable.
The pinnacle of this was when he was sleeping on me in a baby carrier and a young man offered to transfer him in the carrier to himself, and he would work while carrying the sleeping baby so I could enjoy my meal.
Oh, and the time when he needed a diaper change and they suggested an empty tatami mat seating area for diners which they covered to make a changing table.
It was quite a shock coming home!
On another note, we insanely decided to go to the Oval Room for restaurant week with the peanut on the holiday Monday. Let's call it a social experiement– and we can add this to the list of delicious restaurants we should visit without the baby.
Things are much more compartmentalized over here. Restaurants for grown-ups, restaurants for kiddies. Restaurants to bring the family, restaurants to take a date.
People without little kids are always complaining about kids not "behaving" in restaurants. One reason might be that they don't get enough experience at knowing how to act, because families with little kids have so few places they can go that aren't mom 'n' pops — and are so often frowned upon at the nicer restaurants that do try to accommodate them.
Asian cultures are just different this way. Closer to home, I remember taking my wife and son to a place in Koreatown, and about twenty minutes into the meal — after we had snacked for a while on panchan and beer and while we were waiting for our barbecue to arrive — one of the women in the family that owns the restaurant came over to our table and extended her hands: give me your son. We handed him over, and she bounced him on her knee and played with him for a good twenty minutes or so, allowing us to eat our meal without interruption. We felt like extended family.
Hey, it takes a village …
It's helpful information, but I don't know that it's necessary to include in a review.
It's easy to check the restaurant's website or Open Table or the like for that information, and that's the type of info that can change so I wouldn't rely on any but the most recent of reviews anyway.
Why would it change?
For one thing, neighborhoods don't change that quickly, and once meters go in they don't come out. And valet parking isn't the sort of thing that restaurants take on the responsibility of for a couple of months, then just dispense with.
Since it's so cold out I am trying to find a great restaurant that serves amazing soup. Do I have any options other than Panera or The SoupGuy? It seems like most restaurants don't put much effort or creativity in their soup selection. Thanks for any help!
For amazing soup, you'd have to go somewhere like Corduroy. The red snapper bisque. That's an amazing soup. Palena has amazing soups.
But they're not really lunch places, not like I think you're thinking. In and out sorts of places. No fuss, no muss kinds of places.
Had a discussion with a dining partner recently over tipping waiters using a credit card vs. cash.
She argued that one should pay the main portion of the bill with a credit card but leave a cash tip so that they can get it sooner (and without having to pay credit card processing fees). I say it doesn't matter because they still receive the same tip later that evening in cash by the managers (and I tip a little extra to cover the processing fee). Which way benefits the server the most?
Waiters all prefer to get cash — it's NOW, it's tangible, there's no waiting for later.
Not that they don't get their money when it's paid by credit card; they do; they get it at the end of the night when they "close out." But when you're working primarily for tips, there's nothing like knowing that you have your money in hand. It's security. It's comfort.
By the way: The server doesn't pay processing fees.
Love the avgolemeno at Greek Deli.
And Breadline always has a good, trusty selection.
Thanks for writing in …
I couldn't tell you WHY, but they do.
For example, meters used to be M-F. In most places around here, they now include Saturday. That's a pretty big change, given how many people eat out on Saturdays. Also, parking used to be free after a certain time on weekdays. It's now a later time. You asked what we think. I don't think it would be all that useful is all.
I hear you.
I'll just say, though, that that change you're talking about occurred about two years ago. It's stayed the same since.
I hate the change. Instead of going until 6:30, meters now go until 10 in most downtown and/or busy neighborhoods. And Saturdays are no longer covered, as you say.
I said I hate the change, but I understand it. I think it reflects the changes in the city, generally, over the past few years. Twenty years ago, very few people ventured downtown to eat. If they didn't go right from work, they pretty much didn't go. No longer.
Central Michel Richard? Poste? Birch & Barley?
Around Farragut North, that's tough. I'll say Vidalia. And sit at the bar.
Good morning/afternoon Todd,
Yesterday via the dcist.com I read Endless Simmer’s America’s Top 10 New Sandwiches list. ChurchKey’s number one New Luther sandwich had me thinking a little more than I need head across the street one Sunday afternoon and order this sandwich (sharing it with several people mind you, as I don’t want my heart to stop mid bite). I really started thinking about secret menus.
Where else around here can I go and order secret food? What other secret foods am I missing out on? Why can’t restaurants just put everything on the menu? I mean, I do get it a little because I like the lure of being in the know about a secret menu and now I really want to try that sandwich, but now that the secret is out, really how special is this sandwich? And I’m very grateful for all the cheese curd help!
This weekend I finally have some time to check out the goods. That is, if I don’t end up spending my Sunday at ChurchKey…
The New Luther looks, um — what shall we say? Daunting? Scarifying?
I didn't realize the Luther Burger — supposedly the late, great soul singer Luther Vandross's indulgence of choice, or the Urban Myth in sandwich form — needed to be IMPROVED UPON.
(For those who don't know, the New Luther is basically the Luther Burger — a bacon cheeseburger in between two halves of a Krispy Kreme — with upscaled touches.)
Love to taste one. At least a bite. I'd kill myself if I finished the whole thing. If it didn't kill me first.
By the way: In two weeks, I'll be writing about a very secret dish. Stay tuned.
Some random comments… First, what happened to Estadio? Not on your Top 25 anymore? Is it that the newness has finally worn off or is the place slipping? I know this isn't the first week that it's off your top 25, but I haven't been able to join your chat for the last few weeks.
Second, why did Tosca only make Tier 3 of 5 tiers for Restaurant Week that was worth the deal?
Third, I'm bored with the DC dining scene. Don't get me wrong – there are plenty of good places doing great things. When I think about places that I'd like to go to, I come up short, alas. I've been to the places I've wanted to go to but now nothing seems to tantalize me. Any recs for me? Thanks
Estadio hasn't been axed. It's more the case that I wanted to give recognition to some other places, which is usually the case when there's been a shuffling in the 25.
Re: Tosca. I just felt that there were other spots that were more worth fighting to get into. i was influenced by my most recent meal there, which wasn't nearly as memorable as my previous meal there had been. Some great pastas, some pretty good pastas. Anyway, Tier 3 isn't bad, by any means.
As far as curing your boredom, I mean, hell, I don't know — Bar Pilar? The new, improved Palena Cafe? Bayou Bakery in Arlington? A bowl of bun cha at Minh's in Arlington? Have you been to Adour lately?
I'm going to indulge in some leftovers from last night's wonderful dinner, one of the best I've had out in a long while. Thank you, Dave, for sharing it with me.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]