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 5 Neighborhoods for Eating
2. Penn Quarter
3. 7 Corners/ Falls Church / Eden Center
5. Old Town
W O R D O F M O U T H . . .
…Food Wine and Co. (7272 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-8008) is the kind of place you love when you walk in, enjoy after 30 minutes, tolerate after 45, resent after an hour, and hate by the time you get the bill.
I found myself wondering, on a recent visit, why Carole Greenwood, a talented and demanding chef who simultaneously charmed and alienated diners at Buck's Fishing and Camping and her eponymous Greenwood, would have returned to the DC area to cook at a place as impersonal and bustling as this. As it turned out, Greenwood, who took the job January 18, must have found herself wondering the same thing, because she's apparently left.
I liked the deviled eggs (the pureed insides sit in a small puddle of olive oil), and a Milanese-style pork chop (the bone-in meat coated in bread crumbs and pan-fried) was tasty, but everything else was mediocre and overpriced. The quarter-inch-thick rib-eye would've made a fine breakfast steak, served alongside two runny eggs; $22 was ten dollars too much. A butternut squash soup was too sweet; a seafood soup brimmed with overcooked shellfish. A pot of mussels was equally bountiful; it contained twice as many bivalves as its comparatively stingy counterpart at the nearby Mussel Bar. But they were also dry and tasteless.
The worst was a sea bass special. It came with wasabi mashed potatoes — which wasn't a good idea in 1998, when I first encountered them, and hasn't improved any with age — and a crisp pane of prosciutto. The best you could say about the dish was that the fish had been competently cooked. But for $26, that's not saying a lot.
The space is warm and inviting, with soft light, a vaulted ceiling, a handsome bar and comfy booths, and service, on this night at least, was attentive and engaging. But like so many restaurants in Bethesda, the lasting impression is of a place that thinks it's better than it is. And charges accordingly. …
… It was my third visit in five days, a quiet midweek dinner, and having seen enough evidence previously to suggest the kitchen might be up to the challenge, I elected to have the kitchen cook us a lobster, heeding a waiter's suggestion of fresh-from-the-tank options. My tablemate, my friend Dave, a wine writer who lived, for a time, in China, was a grizzled veteran of off-menu eating. As I mulled the suggestion of a salt-and-pepper preparation, he turned to me like a co-pilot preparing for liftoff.
"Sounds decadent," he said, smiling. &q
uot;Go for it."
It was a good thing our wives were not with us, and not just because we were unmannerly in attacking the plate, but also because, selfishly speaking, there would have been less for us.
The 2-plus pound lobster had been partially de-clawed to make for easy eating, dusted with a mixture of cornstarch, salt and pepper, then dunked into a deep fryer for perhaps half a minute — just enough time to cook the thing, but not enough to turn it dry or rubbery. A fine dice of ginger, garlic and chilies clung to the claws and made for compulsive eating. We not only prized out the sweet, luscious meat; we licked the shells clean, too.
A plate this exceptional would not have been out of place at Wolfgang Puck's modish monument to Asian fusion, The Source, although the $39 price tag would inevitably have been about 50% higher.
It's a measure of just how good Red Pearl (10215 Wincopin Cir., Columbia; 410-715-6530) is that, although the lobster overshadowed everything else on the table that night, it did not render these dishes unfit by comparison, as often happens when a tour de force preparation draws focus like a scene-chewing actor.
There was a tea-smoked duck that we smelled even before it arrived — diverted from our other courses by its scent, like a beautiful woman who turns heads as she passes by. The bird is first smoked in a wok, where a slow-burning mound of oolong turns the meat a deep pink, in the manner of the open-pit smoking technique that produces great barbecue. The smoked duck is then roasted to a gorgeous mahogany brown.
The meat, encased by a thin layer of fat beneath the skin, was every bit as rich and juicy as the best spare ribs. We made sandwiches with the accompanying steamed buns, making sure to stuff them with equal parts meat and skin, which crackled like potato chips.
The owner David Wong, a Rockville native — his sisters operate Far East, in Rockville, and Jade Billows, in Potomac — is also the chef, and if Red Pearl evinces more care than most Chinese restaurants, that's why.
The lone stir-fry, diced chicken tossed with chilis, was noteworthy for its lack of grease and glop, and for its slow, steady burn, characteristic of the cooking style known as ma la, which brings together chili peppers and the famed Szechuan numbing peppercorn to produce arguably the most unusual, most distinctive spicy dishes on the planet. A ma po tofu evinced the same characteristic quality, its jiggly cubes of fresh tofu sprinkled with crushed bits of the peppercorn.
It's not just the menu that tells you this is a Szechuan restaurant; better, more tellingly, it's the smell of cumin that perfumes the dining room. That resonant whiff led me, on an earlier night, to stock the table with several Chengdu specialties.
One of those — called, simply, cumin lamb — is a simple stir fry of meat and peppers. The strips of lamb were tender within, crunchy without, and the cumin had been perfectly applied, mingling with the numbing peppercorn and the chilis to produce a fascinating taste (imagine, all at once, the saltiness of potato chips, the spiciness of KFC, the heat of a fiery salsa) that kept me going back for more, although I was by this time full.
Another is the rib-sticking snack known as dan dan noodles, a fixture on the clamorous streets of Chengdu. The noodles are packaged, not made fresh, but they're better (thinner, more pliant) than the packaged noodles I've encountered in other, inferior versions of the dish. A vigorous turn in the red oil that sits at the bottom of the bowl, and the noodles are slicked with a smoky sauce that burns even as the noodles soothe.
The other major influence, here, is Cantonese. A casserole combining lightly fried strips of flounder and tofu, shiitake mushrooms and pork is one of the best expressions of the idiom you're likely to find in the area. Here, again, you encounter welcome hits of white pepper, in a slightly thickened braising liquid that's remarkable for being so light and clean.
Nowhere is this lightness more in evidence than in the selection of dim sum offered at dinner. Dim sum is a rich repast, and a pot of tea (or even a soda) is an essential part of the experience, as much for promoting lingering as in helping you process such a starchy, oily meal. Here, no such aid is necessary. The frying is light, the flavors are clear, and the oils are kept to a minimum.
No caravan of carts wends its way through the dining room, as on weekends, so there's no chance of seeing what catches your eye before choosing, and the dishes cost about double what their do at Saturday or Sunday lunch. On the other hand, the dumplings, buns and other small plates are cooked to order. Hold that fact close, and zero in on anything that's steamed, like the fabulous har gow — minced shrimp in a translucent rice noodle that avoids becoming gummy (a common flaw at many places) because it never has time to sit. Char siu bao, or roasted pork buns, come to the table still warm, a pair of oversized Parker House rolls ready for their magazine close-up; their perfect golden-brown exteriors conceal a wonderfully sweet, sticky braised pork. A plate of eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste was better than any I've had in the area, comparable to the best versions of the dish I've eaten in San Francisco, a city abundant in dim sum.
I didn't expect the stuff from the carts to be quite as good, or as consistent, but I did expect it to be good. After a dozen dishes one afternoon, however, I joked to my wife that I wanted to check the sign out front and make sure we'd entered the right restaurant. Only a dish of roast pork was memorable; we suffered through a succession of dumplings and buns that unwittingly underscored the triumph of the nighttime variety. That a kitchen could excel with cooked-to-order dim sum and yet put out such mediocre food when it comes to mass-produced dim sum is not that hard to figure. And still I expected more.
Had my first visit been for dim sum from the carts, I'd never have gone back, never discovered that lobster. …
Picking up on last week's parking thread, I think including this information in reviews is a great idea!
Thanks for the feedback. I think it's very much worth thinking about adding a line or two about parking options in the box that goes alongside the reviews — thanks to last week's chatter for bringing it up. …
… The storm isn't coming for another few hours, so pour another cup of coffee, everyone, and settle in and enjoy the chat …
… It's funny, I think this is the third straight date night with my wife that a storm — impending or actual — has wiped out. Or, third in the last four weeks. What is it with Wednesday's??
Can you be more specific? What would you have liked to see? What was missing, in your estimation?
Masa 14 is fun, the vibe is fun, it's a great place to unwind after work or hit after a movie — but how often do you eat there? It's pretty inconsistent, and the highs are not nearly as high as they were when the place first opened.
As for Jaleo, I'll just say that I think it's really easy to take it for granted. Masa 14, for instance, would not exist were it not for Jaleo. And I think Jaleo, still, after all these years, does this model better than just about anyone. My last visit to the downtown location was a couple of months ago, the place was slammed, the kitchen was a hive of plate-clattering activity, and yet the service was terrific, and the four or so dishes I had — I popped in on friends — were excellent.
I'm finally getting over my assumption that I won't like Ethiopian food and my childhood distaste for eating with my hands and trying Etete on Thursday. What would you suggest I order for a good introduction?
There are no real food limitations… I don't typically eat lamb, but I'm willing to branch out if that is what you recommend.
I think it's great, first of all, that you're willing to give it a shot. No harm in trying, and you just might make a discovery — about the cuisine, and about yourself.
Here's what I'd do if I were you. I'd start with an order of sanbusas. These are three-cornered fried turnovers, stuffed with either lentils and veggies, or meat and veggies, and fried to a golden crisp. If you like samosas, chances are very good you'll like sanbusas. Actually, I haven't met anyone yet who, having been introduced to a sanbusa, didn't like it. They're terrific.
From there, I'd order the doro wat and a vegetarian sampler, often called a fasting platter.
Doro wat is a dish of stewed chicken and hardboiled egg in a rich, complex sauce built on a foundation of caramelized onions and red pepper and other spices. Sometimes, the chicken comes out a touch overcooked. That's too bad, but for me, at least, it's not a mood-breaker because the sauce is the thing — not unlike eating at an Indian restaurant and finding yourself steering clear of the dry or tough meats and homing in on the gravies, spooning them liberally onto your rice. Here, there's no rice. You'll scoop up the sauce with torn bits of injera, a slightly spongy flatbread made with teff that reminds some people of sourdough. I find eating the sauce like this to be addictive.
The veggie sampler will give you a chance to try about six different vegetable dishes and stews, like kik alicha, which is a creamy yellow split pea dish, and azifa, in which green lentils are blended with jalapeno, onions and Ethiopian mustard. It's fun to alternate between a dish like doro wat and the veggies, moving from texture to texture, style to style, and chasing a warm dish — like doro wat — with a cool one, like azifa.
The dish to avoid, this first time, is kitfo — unless you're really into steak tartare. I love kitfo, personally, especially with a good pinch or two of mitmita, a warming spice powder, and a sprinkling of ayeb, a white, crumbly cheese.
Finally, be sure to have an Ethiopian beer alongside you as you eat. Two of my favorites are St. George and Harrar, both excellent.
I'll be interested to hear about your experience. Drop back on and let us know how it all turned out, OK?
Sorry if I missed this somewhere else…was wondering how you determined the top 5 neighborhoods by "cruching numbers." What numbers were crunched to arrive at this list? It's nice to see that it isn't DC-centered. Did you do that on purpose? Thanks
No numbers were crunched to arrive at this list. Nor were any animals harmed.
But really, what kind of numbers COULD be crunched? What were you hoping to hear? I'm using the term figuratively. CRUNCHING numbers, because this is a chat about food … Numbers, because people like to pore over lists.
I didn't purposely avoid DC in determining the list. And bear in mind, please — this is a reflection of my tastes only. These are the neighborhoods I think are the most exciting places to spend time in as a food lover right now. I was weighing things like variety, and density, as well as the quality of the restaurants that make up those areas.
So, although a neighborhood like East Dupont has two terrific restaurants in Komi and Sushi Taro, there's not much else around to get excited about. Not much density, in other words, and not much variety, either.
I look forward to your chats every week, and wanted to write in and share a great dining experience I had recently. I took my husband to 20 Bites at Poste for his birthday – it was an amazing meal from start to finish.
The food was fantastic, and watching the chefs in the kitchen was a lot of fun. Each dish was thoughtfully prepared and presented; the service was outstanding. Chef Weland came and wished my husband a happy birthday, and the manager and sommelier helped us choose wine to go with our meal.
Most importantly – the food was delicious. There was such a wide range of dishes – my favorites were a creamy parsnip soup with thyme marshmallows and toasted almonds, and a house-made pappardelle with mushrooms. It was a really memorable evening and I'm looking forward to dining at Poste again.
That's great to hear — thanks for writing in with your report.
That parsnip soup sounds really interesting (thyme marshmallows?), and really delicious. I've rarely, if ever, been disappointed by one of Rob Weland's soups. I'll bet it was delicious.
I think a lot of people forget about Poste's 20 Bites when they're looking for a special night out, or even just an indulgent night out, so it's good to have you drop in with this reminder.
I also think a lot of people out there confuse Poste with Zola, since they're so close and since they're both upscale and cater to a style-minded crowd. No real comparison, though — at least not where the cooking is concerned.
In the metro area, my favorite spot right now is Sabai Sabai Simply Thai. It has been for some time, too.
The ingredients are fresh-tasting, the flavors pop, and the saucing is superior — lighter, tighter — to the vast majority of places.
One of the things I like is the street food menu. I was there just a couple of weeks ago, and among the seven or eight dishes we ordered were the corn cakes — light, crunchy fritters, basically. They were great on their own. Dipped into a cucumber sauce, they were phenomenal.
The peppercorn shrimp was, again, excellent, with large, perfectly cooked shrimp — in other words, ever so slightly undercooked, with a bit of translucence remaining — and a sauce that was mercifully short on glop and long on bite.
1 question, 1 gripe, and 1 salutation… How is the term oenophile pronounced? It's one of those words I see written, but almost never hear spoken.
I was excited to try the expanded Palena Cafe, but am turned off by its stiffness. Examples: $3 for bread for the table, $7 for fries, a refusal to let my friend add one of the menu's meats to a pasta dish, and watching our server make literally 4 adjustments to the amount of wine she poured into the small carafe we ordered – god forbid, we get 1 extra drop! Her personality didn't help. That burger sure is good, but when the fries cost 60% of what the burger cost, then you're at $19 to eat in a rather boring, inflexible place. Loosen up! Todd, you're a man who loves and praises value…I just don't see any here.
Finally, and in contrast, I just want to thank Chef Geoff's (A.U. location is my favorite) for their incredibly generous happy hour deal, which as you know goes all night on Monday and Tuesday. $5.95 gets you an excellent choice of several burgers (the current "Next Burger" is this amazing reuben/burger/patty melt concoction). Burgers come with fries, though I sub them out for their deliciously greasy homemade chips and dunk them in various aiolis. Add in all the beer and wine specials and it feels like you're stealing.
Oh, and Bonefish Grill is a chain in every way, but I still find myself typing it's name into the Garmin every time I'm in suburbia. Ate at the Fairfax one recently with our freshly chopped Christmas tree hanging out the back window! Bang bang shrimp all around!
You know, it's funny. I ate at Palena Cafe not too long ago and loved my meal — I'm still thinking about a plate of grilled artichokes with aioli. Maybe the best dish of artichokes I've ever eaten. But anyway, the burger.
I've always been a big fan of it, but I got to thinking that night about it — probably because it was not wonderful but merely good, but probably also because I've been thinking a lot about ordinary foodstuffs like burgers, fries and pizza and wondering why we, as food writers, heap such praise on chefs for their ability to produce great versions of food that is so inherently ordinary. I mean, French fries. Not a crepinette. Not a roulade. Not something requiring years of training and mastery of detail, etc.
It's a good burger, by any objective critical measure. Except, it's not cheap. And, as you point out, if you want fries with it — which is, after all, a big part of a burger-eating experience — it's nearly $20. And shouldn't a burger be a cheap thing? Shouldn't it, moreover, be a SIMPLE thing? In other words, do you want to be aware of effort and technical skill and the chef's care and consideration, or do you want to eat a juicy piece of meat on a soft, warm bun? That bun is beautiful. A beautiful, perfectly rendered dome, if you will. A great piece of bread, undeniably. But is it a great bun for a burger?
I'd be interested in hearing more about that Chef Geoff's burger. What else can you tell us about it? I've generally enjoyed the burgers there …
… Moving on …
Oenophile. It's pronounced: EEE-nuh-file.
I have yet to hear you're two cents on Bangkok Golden– the Thai place with the Lao ownership in Falls Church.
My two meals there have been superb. The nam khao (crispy rice salad) and ping gai (grilled chicken, kinda like gai yang but somehow better) are both terrific. The chicken and pork larbs are also stellar. So, have you been yet?
My take is coming, most likely next week. Watch this space.
Meantime, I'll just say that it's a pretty exciting place to eat at the moment, with a lot of variety, and a lot of vivid, pungent flavors.
I concur with your assessment of Masa 14. I think it's "meh" due to inconsistency and when it's doing fine, it is because it's ok. It has never wowed me on the food front.
However, the place buzzes and is filled with lookers, so if you want a scene-y type place that's fun and busy with the ever-important drink list to encourage the fun, then go for it. I think that's what Masa 14 does really well. It sets the scene for a lively, pretty night.
And I concur with your assessment of the scene. There's no doubt that it's a great place to start, or end, a night out.
As for lookers — I don't know about that. Maybe we have different standards. ; )
For something different, you could hit Rosa Mexicano — made-to-order guacamole and pomegranate margaritas. Not a bad way to wind down the night.
Or Oyamel, a block or so away. Good for grazing, and the drinks are excellent (if expensive).
I'd also consider PS 7's — the lounge is one of the best places for a pre- or post-game bite in the area.
It is, it's worth a visit.
I'd forget about the tray of oysters and the salads, and zero in on the sausages, all hand-made, the roast Amish chicken, and the pork schnitzel. If you order an appetizer, you'll be done for; I mean it — portions are he-mannish.
There's an excellent wines-by-the-glass list, as well as a good beer list, so you're going to drink well no matter which way you go.
To finish: the fromage blanc pumpkin brioche or the profiteroles.
I have too many fond memories of the sadly closed Polly's. I spent too many nights drinking in front of their wood burning fireplace. I ate too many of what was once the best chicken sandwich in DC. I put too much cash in their jukebox, and I quietly beamed the first time I was considered enough of a regular that maintaining the fire became my responsibility.
Given that backdrop a recent visit to Polly's replacement, Desperados, was something akin to going on a date with a brain-eating clone who consumed a long lost love. The wood burning fireplace was replaced with a gas burning model (the kind that is advertised on 3am television and brags about its Amish craftsmanship.) The jukebox is gone, the drinks are too expensive (by about 20%, for an english basement bar,) and any other changes feel like a fresh coat of paint on a fixture that's already been painted-over too many times. The mostly gracious staff could not erase the ghosts of the past or the sins of current management changes.
Valentine's Day, like New Year's Eve and to a slightly lesser degree Restaurant Week too, is a day to avoid restaurants in my mind. Too few understand, let alone, fully acknowledge and accept the honor and responsibility of hosting guests for a special occasion. Too many cynically and avariciously view that date as opportunity to raise prices, herd as many people through their doors as possible, and add to the bottom line without delivering value for the price premium. That being acknowledged, were I in a place to need such things I would spend my Valentine's evening at the following places:
Palena – reopening a restaurant is not unlike opening a restaurant with all of the accompanying rookie mistakes. This Cleveland Park gem, however, reopened with aplomb. They have seemingly mastered the delicate balance of unpretentious elegance and it is a perfect environment for un-sacchrined romance (think less Barry White and more early Coltrane.) 6-12 months of dating.
Coppi's – There are more heralded pizza places in the area, but for me, Coppi's is the culinary equivalent of an old cashmere sweater. It is comfortable, timeless, dresses up and down, and never disappoints. The opportunity to sit at the bar and watch the kitchen ballet with a wood fire in the background is about as cozy as it gets. Under 3 months of dating.
Cashion's Eat Place – there is little about Adams Morgan that makes anyone (over the age of 30) think about romance or good food for that matter. Cashion's, however, has long been a culinary and service stand-out in the land of Vodka-Red Bulls and regret. The tables are a bit tooclose together for my tastes but not as egregiously close as some places. The cuisine is consistently soulful (think about what that word once meant before celebrity chefs co-opted the life out of it,) and the service is so warm, and so gracious. 3-6 months dating.
Dickson Wine Bar – before this place opened, I thought that DC needed another wine bar like the world needed another show about the Kardashians. After several visits, however, this has become one of my favorite places to have a few glasses of wine and nosh a bit. The list is carefully edited* and simultaneously interesting to oenophiles and approachable to the novice. Best values and most interesting wines are found by the bottle. Really early dating or non-romantic dates with other single friends.
* Dear Restauranteurs, Sommeliers, & Managers, virtually all massive winelists display a stunning lack of imagination and do not serve your guests well. It takes less talent to cobble together 1000 wines than it does to edit and give a tightly focused and considered list of 100.
RR, it's great to have you back. Back where you belong … : )
I love your V-day guide, and especially your complex, relationship-stage breakdowns.
When do we hear from you next?
They're CAPS fans. They'd hire a snowmobile to get them to and fro, if it comes to that.
But anyway: What has got into you, my friend? Thinking about the welfare of others?
Bud: You have a reputation to uphold! You're churlish Clifton!
I had a great one not long ago at Trummer's on Main, in Clifton.
It's kind of strange to say that a steak tartare, with all that's going on in it, is "balanced," but this one was. It was deeply flavorful, and seemed to hit all the pleasure centers on the tongue. And the ketchup sorbet was an interesting touch, the kind of thing that ought not to work but does. somehow.
I also really like the steak tartare at Bistro Bis and at Cafe du Parc, both much more classically presented.
I had a great experience with Bob's Shabu Shabu a few years back. Is there anywhere in the DC area that has a similar dining experience?
Some critics argue that it wasn't ACTUAL shabu shabu, but rather a version of hot pot. It was great, though.. Any ideas?
I liked Bob's too. I was disappointed to see it close.
If you want hot pot, the place to hit is Uncle Liu's, in Merrifield. Go with a group. You're guaranteed a fun, tasty night.
Wanted to give a heads up to any persons eating gluten free that wants a tasting menu. Blacksalt made their seven course tasting menu for my husband and I the other night with no gluten, and absolutely no fuss about it. It was really nice not to have to worry about it.
They also made sure we had a nice table a bit away from everything. It was just nice not to have to worry about what I would/could eat and enjoy a relaxing meal.
Thanks for writing in with this.
I'm impressed to hear it. 7 courses — that takes real planning and thought. Good going, BlackSalt …
It also shows that many restaurants are willing to accommodate requests, so long as they're given enough time to prepare.
I met a woman a couple of weeks ago who was wondering how to manage a big, upcoming meal at a restaurant, given that her daughter has gluten allergies. Best thing you can do, I said, is give them at least a day, preferably more, to prepare. You might be surprised, I said, by just what they can do. …
… Lunch is almost here. (I'm on location, squeezing in a look before the storm hits.)
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]