Tuesday, February 15 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman names the five best places for sushi, recommends food to pair with the Norton wine grape from Virginia, and gives his opinion on store-bought ice cream.

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.

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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 

Bar Pilar, DC

Bayou Bakery, Arlington 

Birch & Barley, DC 

Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Central Michel Richard, DC

Eola, DC

Fast Gourmet, DC

Gom Ba Woo, Annandale

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Limeña, Rockville

Level, Annapolis 

Masala Art, DC 

Michel, Tysons Corner

Minh's, Arlington

Palena Cafe, DC

PassionFish, Reston 

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington 

Red Pearl, Columbia

Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown

 

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CRUNCHING NUMBERS:
Top 5 Sushi

1. Kushi
2. Sushi Taro
3. Makoto
4. Sushi Sono
5. Sushi-Ko I and II

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   W o r d   o f   M o u t h  . . .
   
   … In an area awash in options for Asian cooking — Thai, Burmese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, and all manner of Chinese regional styles — there is only one source, so far as I know, for Laotian. That alone makes the Falls Church branch of Bangkok Golden (6395 Seven Corners Ctr., Falls Church; 703-533-9480) worth a long drive. But what elevates this art-strewn hole in the wall above mere novelty is the freshness, variety, and excitement of the cooking.
   The dishes of Laos will remind you, at times, of Thai (the love of lemongrass,  galangal and sticky rice) and at others, of Vietnamese (the reliance on bundling items into giant fronds of lettuce, and the liberal use of dill) — though it's hotter, and brighter, than both. It may also remind you of the thrill of discovering those cuisines for the first time.
   The exceptionally vivid cooking at Bangkok Golden is due a good bit of credit for that.
   Among the many dishes that have remained with me long after I devoured them, is the drably named Crispy Rice Salad, a lively hash made from ground bits of the named grain mixed with cilantro, red onion, ham and lots of fish sauce. Likewise, a rice paste flavored with tomatoes, garlic and ginger is so much more complex and rewarding than its gruel-like description would lead you to believe; dab a leaf of lettuce with it, garnish it with dried scallion, sliced ginger, chopped tomato and peanuts, then fold it up into a sandwich. Laotians regard it as comfort food, and it's not hard to understand why.
   I also loved a preparation of koi, which amounts to a kind of Laotian ceviche — the staff wisely bills it this way, too; order a fish koi medium rare, and you're treated to a brazenly spicy dish of lime-marinated tilapia, chopped and tossed with cilantro. A filet of tilapia slathered with a paste of ground chilis and coconut milk, tucked into a banana leaf and steamed was additional proof of what can be done with modest resources. It vanished in minutes.   I'm more enamored of the kitchen's fish preparations, but I'd never turn down a plate of sausage here. The kitchen cases its own, and
it's excellent — coarse-ground, liberally spiced pork laced with threads of lemongrass. There's also good fried quail and great grilled pork (as you chew the lightly charred meat from the skewer, the juice runs down your hand).
   There are misses on this menu, too, but not many (orb, a thickened curry, is one), and the highs are so high they are quickly forgotten. …

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1910 McLean Restaurant

Hi Todd,

Many Yelp folks are raving about this place. I am skeptical. Have you dined/lunched there? Those of us in McLean who can't afford personal chefs :-)are really hurting for good restaurants in the area.

I haven't been, but three stars out of five doesn't sound like a rave to me. And especially on Yelp.

Has anybody out there tried 1910? 

Springfield, VA

Any other suggestions for good Ethiopian in the Virginia suburbs? Enat Restaurant

Location: 4709 N Chambliss St Alexandria, VA.

What you should try? their 'bozena shiro' and 'Enat kitfo'. Good food. Great service. You will not be disappointed. 

You all know I'm dubious of posting anything that smacks like an owner — or manager, or server, or friend of the house — shilling for an establishment.

But you know? I'm not so sure I feel the same sense of needing to guard the gates when it comes to a small ethnic spot like this.

I know of Enat, and have yet to go. What I do know is that it's a small, indepenent operation, and that small, independent operations don't have the resources of big outfits that can hire publicists and get out the word about their cooking and their chef and their research trips and their special promotions for the month of February and their newest twist on the mojito, etc.

How about the rest of you? What's your take on this?

Rockville, MD

Todd,

I am a first time writer, long time reader. I really enjoy your chat. My wife and I have a special night coming up and wanted to get your thoughts.

We are looking for something new and exciting. We were trying to decide between Poste 20 Bites, The Source or Obelisk. Any thoughts? Any other suggestions? Oh, when I say "something new" we have been to Eve Tasting Room, Komi, Volt Table 21. Thanks!

I don't think you can go "wrong" with any of those. Of those three, I might be inclined to give Poste's 20 Bites the nod, personally.

Another I would add to your excellent short list is Palena Cafe. I loved the meal I had there not long ago, from appetizers and drinks right on down to dessert.

I'll be curious to hear where you end up, and how things turn out. Swing back around and give us a report, OK?

And thanks so much for reading! 

RE: Sweetgreen

Todd,

I too find the whole tart yogurt a wee bit expensive and seems to be everywhere! Trying to save some money and looking for a cheaper alternative, I was so surprised to find Häagen-Dazs has a tart yogurt at my local Safeway! Tastes good and may be a good alternative to eat at home.

The thing is, I used to love Sweetgreen. I really thought it was special. And when something is special, I don't mind shelling out for it.

My Bethesda experience may have been an aberration. Who knows? All I know is that it wasn't the superbly creamy yogurt I thought I was paying for. 

I'll have to look for that Haagen-Dazs. I'm a fan of their line. Much prefer it to Ben & Jerry's, which is denser (even after softening) and not as flavorful. The ice cream, I'm talking about — the add-ins are all pretty flavorful, and definitely fun. But I'll take a Haagen-Dazs vanilla or dulce de leche over a Ben & Jerry's anything, any day.

How about the rest of you? Which do you prefer, and why? Or is there another brand out there that you like better? 

Arlington, VA

Todd: I read your book this weekend and thought it was excellent. I highly recommend it to any fans of wine or American history.

Of course, I now want to have a few people over for dinner to sample some Nortons. What wineries would you recommend (I'd love to compare Virginia's to Missouri's) and what would your dream food pairing be? Thanks.

I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed it — thanks so much for the kind and generous words!

In Virginia, I'd recommend the Nortons made by Chrysalis and Rockbridge, and there's also a Norton at Paradise Springs that I haven't tried that I've been hearing good things about and am curious to try. Horton Norton is a good table wine Norton, and especially for the price.

As for Missouri — Stone Hill Vineyards (their Cross J Norton is one of the best Nortons around) and Adam Puchta Winery are two good ones to try.

Norton is a wine that needs pairing. It's not a sip-by-the-fireplace kind of wine, and it really does need about half an hour to just sit in the bottle after the cork has been popped. There's something alive, something feral, in that wine, I sometimes think.

I think it goes well with things like enchiladas in a mole sauce, or a duck breast with cherry sauce. It's great with roast turkey, with venison, even with a good, well-charred, medium-rare rib-eye. It's a rusticky sort of wine, and it needs big, bold flavors.

Give it a go, and have some fun with it. I'll be curious to hear how your meal turned out …

West Ender

I wanted to report on a terrible experience this past Saturday night at Kellari Tavern. I like the food there a lot, and recommended it to friends, so seven of us went.

I know from experience that it takes 25-30 minutes to receive the main course, and it's stated as such on the menu. When we reached the 90-minute mark, having received no explanation from our server, who visited us maybe twice in that period to see whether we wanted to purchase more wine, we began to get agitated. Lo and Behold, the food arrives, and five or the seven dishes are overcooked. Needless to say, the entire group was unhappy with the experience and ended up taking it out by reducing the tip for the server, a practice I personally don't enjoy, but he was aloof at best. We were never even asked if we desired dessert. We were only offered the check! I won't be going back anytime soon!

Awful.

And at those prices, unacceptable. I hope you'll consider dropping me a note at my Washingtonian email (tkliman@washingtonian.com) with your contact info, in case, as I hope happens, a manager from Kellari reaches out to contact me.

Unlike you, I've never been a fan of the place. My experience with the service has been bad — extremely pushy, constantly upselling — and the cooking doesn't warrant the high prices. Kellari comes on as though it's a personal, big-hearted sort of place — the display of fish on ice, the controlled bustle — but that's an illusion, it turns out. It's actually one of the more impersonal places around.

Speaking of pushy … What is it lately with servers and drinks?

Twice at one meal not long ago, a friend and I were told about the cocktail list, and how good the concoctions were.

Three times in the past month I've been asked if I'd like another glass of wine when there is clearly a good ounce or more left in the glass. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was out with a friend, and a server asked him twice whether he wanted a glass of wine — this after my friend explicitly said the first time: No, sorry, I don't drink.

This friend, by the way, is convinced that if you don't drink, you don't get good service. And lately, anyway, I'm not inclined to disagree with him. 

 

Arlington, VA
I agree that Haagen Daz is the best ice cream in the supermarket. I also LOVE that it was created by a bunch of guys in New York who — correctly — thought that Americans would go for the foreign-sounding name.

Jersey guys, right?

It's pretty hilarious.

And it's not just that it's foreign-sounding: It's European-sounding. Like Evian. Which is, of course, "naive" spelled backwards. 

Does anybody else hate paying for water??? 

It's astonishing, if you think about it — all the things we pay for these days that we didn't 20 years ago. Water, TV, phones …

Cleveland Park, DC

Hi Todd-

I wrote in a couple weeks ago looking for a wallet-happy Valentine's Day option for a college student and wanted to share a great experience.

After a lot of research, I decided on Taberna del Alabardero (my girlfriend loves Spanish food), and all l I can say is, what a great meal! A five course dinner for two and a bottle of house wine for $150 (tax and tip included!). There was live music, my girlfriend walked out with a rose and they even validate parking at the lot next door.

In my mind, this place deserves to be in the same discussion as Estadio and Jaleo! The food, service and ambiance are exceptional and I felt like I was back in Madrid! I will definitely be back to check out the tapas happy hour.

Good to hear it. I want to like Taberna again, and I hope your words will be true for me, too.

Thanks for writing in again … 

Fairfax, Va

I'm going to Komi in 2 weeks!! I went years ago, when Komi use to give you the option of courses.

This time I'm being left to the chef at a MUCH higher price, might I add. Is it worth the $135/person now? Do I go for the wine pairing too?

I wouldn't do the wine pairing, no — much as I love dining at Komi. And I say that because I think with the variety of flavors in the meal, it's really hard to come up with a perfect sip for each bite. I wouldn't go for the wine pairing at Minibar, either. Same reason.

If you want to know the truth, I think wine pairing, generally, is overhyped. There are times when a sommelier matches a wine with a dish and it's perfect, and you see the way the wine changes the way you taste a certain dish, and vice versa, but it doesn't often happen. 

If I'm paying for a wine pairing at a five-course dinner, I want five perfect matches — gastronomical alchemy — not five matches that are nice. And nice is what you often get.

As for Komi and whether it's worth it … I think a lot of that depends on your expectations, and also on your eating preferences. I know people who aren't all that enamored of raw fish or treated fish, and I wouldn't recommend they go. There are people who hate sharing, or passing plates, and again — I wouldn't want them to go on my reco.

For me, personally, it's one of the most exciting nights out you're going to find in the city right now.

pentagon city, va

Todd, are you familiar with the "Monday Blues" special at Ray's the Steaks? It's their "steak of the day" plus soup or salad (and the complimentary sides) for $15 – only offered on Mondays. The weird thing is that they don't advertise it at all or even give you any kind of indication that they serve it. Of course I feel like a huge chump asking about it and then the waiters make it even worse by denying that it is offered!

This has happened to me twice and I've had to push it, asking them to ask someone. Of course, they come back and confirm that I can order the special.

What I don't understand is why the restaurant offers this special if they clearly don't want anyone to order it? I do go to Ray's on other nights of the week to pay full price, but the reality is that I'm not going to go out on a Monday night for an expensive dinner. It's either a $15 dinner or I go elsewhere .. I love the food but lately I'm just feeling like it's not worth the hassle. Thoughts?

You don't know about the "signal"? You're supposed to blink three times.

They want people to know about it, but they don't want people to know about it, if you catch my drift …

Shaw, DC

Todd,

I'd like to chime in on the pushy service over wine/cocktails.

I'm quite the opposite: if my wine glass isn't full, I'm not a happy camper. So maybe those servers have been taken to task by customers like me. Which I state up front, when I order, please keep my glass full, seriously. As for your friend who stated he didn't drink and kept getting prodded….that's just a lame server.

Doesn't this all go back to a chat a few months ago about servers being able to read their tables, knowing when a customer has finished, etc.?

Blame the server — or blame management?

My instinct is to blame management.

Management establishes policies and sets a tone. I think things like upselling and the pushing of cocktails and drinks are generally the result of managerial directive. 

 

U Street
What did you think about the Atlantic's article "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies" in this month's issue (calling you out by name)?

Well, here's the thing …

Even though I'm excerpted out of context; even though my words that gently mocked gluttony, are being used to support the point that I celebrate gluttony; even though the anti-foodie essay I wrote is being twisted into an example of foodie-ism — I still think it's a worthwhile read.

B.R. Myers's attack on piety and elitism is right on. He's out of his depth, however, in ripping into these celebrations of gluttony, as he chooses to think of them; they're occurring, now, because our previous, Puritanical food culture is being upended: eaters are having fun, indulging in all sorts of cultures and cuisines and styles — the great buffet now spread before us.

I think seeing it as (mere) sinfulness is silly and self-serving.

Myers, some of you may recall, wrote Reader's Manifesto, a chunk of which was excerpted in The Atlantic about eight or nine years ago. He was attacking what he saw as the creeping pretentiousness, pomposity and poor prose in contemporary American literature, and went after Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and Paul Auster, among others.

Alcohol & Service
My wife and I share a similar theory to your friend in that more often than not, we receive poorer service if we are seated with a drink hand (acquired while waiting at the bar) as opposed to ordering the first round from the server

I really don't doubt it.

Thanks for chiming in … 

arlington va
Is there a Horizons (Philadelphia) or Candela Cafe (NYC) quality vegan restaurant in DC metro area? It would be nice not to have to travel 3-6 hrs to eat a great vegan meal.

There isn't, no.

You can hit up a place like Yuan Fu, however, in Rockville, and get a tasty vegan Chinese meal. Or Sunflower, in Falls Church. 

WCD

Hi Todd,

Other than Pete's Pizza, are there any family friendly (meaning under $50) places you can reccomend for a family of 5 with 2 vegetarian tweens? We live in DC and last night wanted to go out but it seems most options are too pricey now that we are past the children's menu. Thanks!

You could drive out to Curry Mantra, in Fairfax, which has some of the best Southern Indian cooking going right now. 

Superb dosas filled with an irresistible mixture of potato, onion and curry leaves and served with coconut chutney, excellent saag paneer (with fresh, not frozen, spinach), and one of the best versions of baingan bhartha (blistered eggplants in a gravy of tomatoes, onion and ginger) I've had in a long time. 

U Street

Forgot to mention … had another great night at Bar Pilar's "Anti-Valentine's Day" (drink specials included "The Bitter End" and "Hater"). Tried the beef heart, of course.

I really can't wait until they open up the second floor space. Since they don't take reservations, there were two people hovering over us for our bar spot as we paid our check and finished our drinks. A little annoying, but that won't stop me from going there.

Hey, I hear you — I ended up leaving last week, unable to score a table after 15 minutes.

Contrarian Valentine's Day — that's pretty funny.

I've got a friend who has always told his girlfriends — and there have been many — that Valentine's Day is nothing but a corporate game, an endlessly commodified holiday with no real center and no real soul, and that he does not need Hallmark to tell him when and how to be romantic.

Works like a charm; he never, ever shells out on the big day.

I'm not saying he doesn't believe what he says — he does — but it's amazing how it completely cows the women he's with. After all, who wants to be seen as a sucker of The Man?

DC
But, Todd, Evian is an actual place, with spring water.

It is. But it also spells "naive," backwards.

Can't you just imagine the discussion that took place in the board room?

We'll call it … Evian.

Um, in America, that's "naive," backwards.

Perfect!

It reminds me of the story of when Chevy first went into Mexico, and how it changed the name of the Nova — for obvious reasons. No va in Spanish = no go.

Best Wontons

Todd,

When I frequent many Asian restaurants, there seems to be many dumplings/mandu/wontons in the menus, but most do not taste homemade.

Can you recommend any that are homemade and worth trying? I am in the need of a dumpling fix.

Most aren't homemade.

The mandu at Da Moim, in Koreatown (aka Annandale), are, however. I haven't been back in a bit to eat them again, but they were memorable. In this case, I prefer them fried, not steamed. Beautifully thin skins with great crunch, and with fresh chopped greens inside.

Arlington, VA
For the vegan… not DC, but Baltimore's One World Cafe is a favorite of a vegan friend of mine who lives in that area. She had her wedding rehearsal dinner there and even us non-vegans really enjoyed it.

Great.

Thanks for the tip …

Arlington, VA
Had my first bun cha from Minh's and it was great. Anything else you can recommend there? Or perhaps something more adventerous?

There's tons else I can recommend.

You've had bun cha, which is a dish of the north. There's also a southern-style grilled pork, and it's fantastic, too.

Other dishes I love: the shrimp-and-yam fritters, which are designed for bundling into lettuce leaves and dunking into fish sauce; lusciously tender short ribs marinated with lemongrass; the clay pot of pork or chicken in caramel sauce; charred grilled pork with vermicelli; and a sizzling platter of dill-strewn catfish.

And don't miss the Vietnamese coffee, which is made fresh.

And now I've made myself ravenous … ; )

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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