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
Bar Pilar, DC
Bayou Bakery, Arlington
Birch & Barley, DC
Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park
Cafe du Parc, DC
Fast Gourmet, DC
Gom Ba Woo, Annandale
Jackie's, Silver Spring
La Limeña, Rockville
Masala Art, DC
Michel, Tysons Corner
Palena Cafe, DC
Poste Brasserie, DC
Red Pearl, Columbia
Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown
Top 10 Restaurants in Gaithersburg/Germantown
1. Sabai Sabai Simply Thai (Thai)
2. Burma Road (Burmese, Chinese)
3. Jaymar Colombian Breeze (Colombian)
4. Royal Bakery and Deli (bagels)
5. Batik (Asian small plates+ dumplings)
6. Thai House Restaurant (Thai
7. Minerva (Indian)
8. Tai Shan (Chinese; dim sum)
9. Dogfish Head (American; pub grub)
10. Athens Grill (Greek)
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… With the jumbo slice receiving so much attention in the past few years on blogs and TV food shows, legions of new transplants are under the mistaken impression that the area's singular contribution to pizza culture is one of size.
I would argue it is one of shape.
A rectangle, specifically.
When the Marcos family began making pizza at Ledo, in 1955, it shaped the pies to look like cafeteria trays. Function followed form; they were forced to make do with what they'd been shipped from the distributor. A local legend was born.
The shape has remained the same, even if the original Ledo — called Ledo Restaurant (4509 Knox Rd, College Park; 301-422-8122) — has not. The family moved from Adelphi to College Park this past summer. No more wood-panelled walls, no more faded pennants hanging from the dark-lit bar, no more cramped quarters on a weekend night.
The new location, tucked around the corner from the old 'Vous — where Connie Chung is said to have drunk many an undergrad under the table when she was a student at the University of Maryland in the late '60s — will never be the old location, but it is a smart updating of a '50s-era restaurant. Smart, for not going slick and impersonal. The wheel lamps put you in mind of Central, though they probably cost a tenth of the price. The booths are padded and commodious.
As for the pizzas? I didn't notice much difference at all, if any, from the old days on a recent visit. The family trucked in the old oven, the cheese of the house is still smoked provolone, the sauce is still slightly sweet, the crust is still a kind of buttery biscuit. (This description may sound like any of the Ledo franchise restaurants scattered across the area, but trust me: The original is better.)
This much hasn't changed, either: On a weekend night, at the height of college basketball season, there aren't many places I'd rather be. …
… Within the past month, two loyal readers wrote me separately — and imploringly — to give La Mexicana Bakery (2907 Arlington Dr., Alexandria; 703-717-0807) a try.
Note to loyal readers: I have tried.
This is a makeshift restaurant, with five card tables and chairs stationed in the front, framed by the counter and the display cases of cakes
, pastries and cookies. Given its size, it's somewhat of a surprise to see a pretty full slate of eats, including tacos, quesadillas, burritos.
The chicken taco was terrific, with generous chunks of juicy, grilled chicken tucked into two warm corn tortillas. I liked a version with carnitas less, but it wasn't bad. The quesadilla was too soft and too cheesy.
The guacamole is first-rate, chunky and fresh. It's also liberally doled out, and a bargain for the quantity. A welcome repudiation of the idea that guac must be made tableside to be good, and must cost as much as an entree. …
I share your hopes that Atlas Room succeeds, but given that the owner is the chef, I'm not as worried that the quality will drop in 6 months.
I guess that's the other thing I like about it — owner occupied. It's nice to see a skilled chef opening up his own small place where he can really oversee what comes out of his kitchen. It's the kind of thing I hope to see more of on H Street.
Speaking of, do you know whatever happened to Drew Trauman? I thought he was looking for a spot to open somewhere on Capitol Hill…
The thing is, you never know.
David Craig in Bethesda, which shuttered a couple of years ago after a terrific start, is an example of a chef-owned place that tanked. And began slipping noticeably, too, before it closed.
It'd be good to see Matt Cordes succeed. So far, he and Bobby Beard, his co-chef, make a good team.
As for Drew Trautman, I haven't heard anything in a while — other than what you already know, that he was sniffing around Capitol Hill.
Re: waiters pushing drinks ……
If I want another beer, margarita, single malt or glass of wine I will order it. I dont need some idiot server working for an incompetent restaurant telling me I should consider ordering another drink.
Last time I checked I was an adult and allowed to purchase handguns, buy alcohol and rent a car. I am perfectly capable of deciding if I want another scotch. I do not need the restaurant nannies prodding me. Its as bad as a restaurant telling me I cant have my hamburger cooked medium rare. Remember Shakespeare was right!
Shakespeare? Have you been drinking already today? He wrote, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Not all the waiters.
But, as I've been writing for the past few weeks, I'm (basically) with you. Though slightly less huffy about it.
I wonder if there's some correlation between drink-pushing and the sheer number of spiels you're confronted with by servers when you go out these days.
Let's see if we can name them all in the space of this chat today. I'll start. The obvious place to begin — the "have you dined with us before?" spiel. Next …
If you had to pick one restaurant on 14th Street to have a great dinner at, what would it be?
My husband and I are looking for great food for a fun night out. It's not a birthday or other special occasion. We just like good food.
Getting in is the thing, so when you go is as important as where you go. I'd aim for early –5:30 or 6, if you can.
I've got three spots in mind, and I enjoy them all. Cork, Estadio and Bar Pilar. Personally, I might give the nod to the latter, just because you see things on the menu here that you don't at any other restaurants in town.
I'll be interested in hearing where it is you end up. Drop us a note, and let us know.
My wife and I ate at Masala Art for the first time last week.
We started with the Seekh Kabob which was great.
She ordered chicken vindaloo and asked for it to be spicy. I ordered the tandoori chicken. My chicken was very tender. It was incredibly spicy though. Do you know if there tandoori chicken is normally that spicy or do you think they just made both of our entrées spicy?
Masala Art, generally speaking, is spicier than many of its competitors.
And I mean that in both senses of the term. Not just hotter, but a more complex, more assertive deployment of spices, as well.
It's a terrific place, and, for those who don't like paying $140 for two every time they want to go out for a nice dinner in the city proper, a bit of an oasis.
I wish there were many more places as good-looking, as accomplished, and as affordably priced.
I'm with the commenter from last week who basically says "keep 'em coming!" I don't want to have to ask for another drink. Offer me another before I'm entirely finished with the first, please, and you'll be rewarded for it.
Sure, if I've declined the first time you offer, don't ask repeatedly. But don't leave me dry, please!
And everyone should be a bit more patient, anyway. Servers aren't mind-readers. God forbid they offer you another beverage.
These are First World problems, so lighten up, people. We're lucky we even have the leisure to debate such trivial things.
Ain't that the truth …
What we're basically talking about every week, here — and what so many of us are absolutely preoccupied with, otherwise we wouldn't be writing in or lurking on an online forum about food and restaurants — is eating as sport.
We are, we're lucky. Very, very lucky. Huge swaths of the world can't conceive of the idea of eating as anything other than sustenance.
(Actually, I've got friends and relatives who can't conceive of it, either.)
I didn't think we'd still be talking about drink-pushing three weeks later, so that's kind of funny. And interesting. We seem to have divided into two opposed camps.
The more I think about it, the more I come back to what I wrote on here last week — that I think a lot of it has to do with how often you eat out, and what your expectations are. Eat out 4 or 5 times a week, and you're probably not going to want so much intrusion, so much constant direction, from the staff. Eat out once a week, or a few times a month, and I think it's probably a different story. I think you'd welcome that kind of focus.
This feels like a plant, but what the hell …
I understand it's going to be in the old Olsson's Books & Records space, in Old Town.
I loved all the Olsson's. Anyone else miss them?
Incidentally, all book lovers — and I mean, lovers of actual books, as opposed to those who enjoy reading long narratives on handheld devices — should buy Lane Smith's new book, called It's a Book.
It's a children's book. A friend gave it to my son for his birthday recently, telling me that it was probably more for me than for my son. I recommend it heartily, even if you don't have a toddler. It's funny as hell, and very smart in mocking what desperately needs mocking. The story builds inevitably toward the final impish, brilliant line.
Big Bear Cafe is kinda like a movie about something truly novel and meaningful – it doesn’t have to be that good because it's Important.
The Eckington area coffeehouse, that is part bistro and part bar, is important because the neighborhood has been vastly under-served and ignored by restaurants for the better part of four decades. It is an important amenity for her neighbors, and an important signal to the larger community that the revitalization of this neighborhood has really taken root.
But praise the lord and pass the Tanzanian Peaberry coffee, they're not just important, they're good. Coffee and Tea are given great attention and care here – rotating offerings of several artisinal blends that are brewed in styles that best show the bean or leaf. The limited menu doesn’t offer anything you would not expect at a small coffeehouse (pastries and panninis, soups and salads.)
But they deliver culinary virtue by staying within their small kitchen lane. The food here is satisfying and comforting like Coltrane on a rainy Sunday. To the other charms, we should add that the space itself is gorgeously understated and somehow evokes both an urban and rustic feel. This place is easily worth the walk/short drive for people in the area; it's also worth a crosstown drive for anyone who really likes coffee, or believes that independent places really matter or are still important.
Restaurants like Circa give credence to the oft repeated notion that the only things that matter for a restaurant are location, location, location. Leaving aside the fact that that mantra is offensive to people who dedicate careers to this industry, Circa makes me wonder if it has any substantively meritorious characteristics besides sitting on one of the most trafficked corners in DC. The layout makes the place feel very crowded even if you’re the first person in the door. I’ve never been in when the lighting wasn’t sunglasses bright, or reading light dark. And they seem not to know the a difference between serving comfort food and having your guests eat like it's 1999… and yet they're crowded open to close. Apparently, Lauriol Plaza has some competition.
Two Quick Closing Thoughts: Restaurant 3 has the best Adult Happy Hour in North Arlington. It runs until the commuter friendly time of 8pm, their very good selection of draft beers are $3, and signature cocktails are $5. The bar bites are tasty and just heavy handed enough to soak up the booze. I really like this place for a drink or three.
On my first visit to the Carlyle Club a couple of years ago, I was really excited about the old-school supper club with big bands and dancing. By the time my friend and I left, the choice was between talking to a manager about the awful food I really didn’t want to pay for, or paying the check as quickly as possible to make it Restaurant Eve before their kitchen closed. We made it to Eve. I recently gave Carlyle another try; the only things that changed in the intervening period: my ballroom dancing has gotten a little bit rustier, and we bolted for Eve faster.
Your Connie Chung/'Vous reference in the opening was gratuitous… gratuitously brilliant that is.
Just as your dispatch showed up in the queue, I also received word that I am off by a year, there. Connie graduated in '69, it turns out.
Thanks for all your fun-to-read words and insights, RR.
One thing I'd like to say about Big Bear, but more as a jumping off point to talk about something larger … Just about every time I've gone, the room has been a sea of laptops. It's that way at a lot of coffeehouses, particularly at certain times of days.
Which is interesting, because many of these places invest so much thought in creating a great vibe, and then in troop the squatters with their laptops.
Those laptops and their downcast-eyed typers become a part of the decor, and a gathering place becomes something else, something a little different. A workplace. A quasi-library. A social space dominated by anti-social beings.
And the coffeehouse loses something, doesn't it?
Any thoughts for a fun restaurant to go with two kids (ages 8 and 5) downtown. We are staying at the JW Mariott. Was looking at either Chef Geoffs, or maybe Fogo De Chao. Thanks.
Fogo de Chao is fun — fun for everyone, not just kids.
You're also really close to Central Michel Richard, which is a better meal (and probably just as expensive). It's very unpretentious for a restaurant of its caliber, and I think your kids would have a great time. My son (he's 3) has already been three times and seems to enjoy it.
It's funny, talking about kids and dining reminds me of a woman I know, a friend of mine …
She and her husband have traveled widely, and have been eager to pass on their love of good food to their daughter, who's now 10. Every year for her birthday, they give her caviar — black caviar from mommy, red caviar from daddy.
Well, a couple of years ago, they had recently returned from a trip that included stops in Paris, Rome and Sicily I want to say. They had enjoyed some stupendous meals, from grand, full-frills restaurants to tiny trattorias, and the daughter had been there for all of it. My friend wanted me to know just how much she had gotten out of this trip, just how much these meals had meant to her, and so one day, as mother, daughter and I were all talking about Europe, she began prompting her daughter to regale me with a story of a favorite meal. She fed her the details, hoping to jog her memory … a quaint trattoria by the water … a man playing the piano … a waiter who was charming and solicitous.
The daughter's face lit up, and she began telling the story. But it was not the right story.
"No, no, honey," my friend interrrupted, "you're talking about Bertucci's!"
I just want to commend Zola for their impeccable service this weekend.
There was an issue with my food (no need to go into it), but they VERY swiftly corrected the situation. They took my plate, sent out a salad, and brought out a new dish. THEN, they took our drinks off the menu. I am a professional, but look rather young, so this was especially refreshing to see from a top tier restaurant.
(Also to note: the food the next go-round was delicious).
Good to hear. Good for Zola.
Thanks for writing in this morning …
I really want to go on a vineyard tour this spring. What do you think of Virginia vs. Maryland, and do you have any favorite places to visit/sample?
In Maryland, the one to hit is Black Ankle Vineyards. It's in Mt. Airy.
Virginia is loaded. I have a bunch of recommendations for you: Chrysalis, in Aldie, just outside of Middleburg; Rappahannock Cellars, in Huntly; Linden Vineyards, in Linden; King Family Vineyards, in Crozet; Veritas, in Charlottesville; and Barboursville Vineyards, in Barboursville.
My parents are visiting and my husband and I are taking them for their first visit to Annapolis. I know that you recommend Cantler's, but any other suggestions close to the Academy? Thanks for your time.
How about Hell Point Seafood, Bob Kinkead's place? It's real close.
I know it's disappointed a number of people in Annapolis who were expecting something with more polish, given Kinkead's enormous reputation, but, as a friend of mine likes to say, it is what it is. It's not superlative, but it's one of the best meals to be had in Annapolis, and if you order right — one of the best fish or seafood meals around.
I like the fritto misto, the mussels in a light curry, the seafood chowder, the crabmeat-topped fried flounder, and the tart tatin.
It's a really interesting question.
I gather you're looking for a one-stop shopping sort of destination. My advice is to hover around the intersection of 14th and U.
There, within about a six-block radius, you've got Eatonville (lightened-up soul food), Marvin (bistro food), Fast Gourmet (a gas station gem; go for the Chivito and the Cubano), Cork (best wine bar in the area), Estadio (tapas), Bar Pilar (eclectic small plates), Masa 14 (drinks, mostly), Coppi's (wood-fired pizza and salads), and Creme (go on Mondays, when it's half-price wine night, and go for the superb homemade coconut cake, served warm).
Hey Todd —
I’m a first time writer, long time reader and fan. I just wanted to second the person last week who expressed disappointment with the main course at Komi.
My girlfriend and I went a few weeks ago to celebrate our two year anniversary. We are both government lawyers in DC who have previously worked for law firms — i.e., we’ve had our share of outstanding food but don’t splurge much these days.
The meal at Komi was, for the most part, really good (those cheese-stuffed dates, holy cats). For the main course, though, we were brought roast and confit duck just as the table next to us received the slow roast goat, the house speciality. Weirdly, both tables received identical sides — pita bread, tzatziki, hot sauce, some other things. This gave us the impression that the chef had created a dish around the signature goat and then randomly substituted a protein for us without changing the sides.
We sat there watching the table next to us devour the famous entree while eating a perfectly fine, but not outstanding entree (though I guess that depends on how you feel about duck paired with tzatziki). I would not ordinarily complain about a generally good meal (little stuff happens), but for the most expensive meal we will be eating this year and for the consistent winner of Best in DC, I was surprised that the main course was meat that seemed clearly not to have sides chosen to match.
The fact that the table next to us got the famous thing when we were told by our server, apparently not quite accurately, we had no choice in the matter just made us annoyed. What Komi is doing — telling diners they need not make any ordering decisions themselves, letting people override that if they are in the know, then serving different tables different things — isn’t working.
All in all, it was an enjoyable night, but I can’t imagine Komi’s reputation remaining what it is if many people have this experience.
Thanks for listening,
I wouldn't be so sure that the meat didn't have chosen sides to match. In my experience, all the meats are paired with the homemade pita and assorted condiments.
But as to your larger point … I can see where someone can be annoyed, not getting the dish that everyone talks about, while the next table is devouring that very thing.
I think some tweaking of the format is in order.
There's an even larger discussion to be had, here, and that's about places that overtly cater to select customers. (I'm not talking about Komi, by the way. It doesn't appear to me to do this.)
Restaurateurs will argue that this is simply good business, that it's a reasonable thing and a smart thing, too, to give more pampering to regular diners. More pampering, little treats, better cuts of meat, etc.
But what happens when diners who are not in the loop, and who are not getting anything extra, see this sort of going on?
I'd definitely include Sunshine General Store, in Brookeville, Md., for its good, greasyspoon-style burger — served up in a combination tackleshop/variety store. Here's my review from 3 years ago.
Let's see, what else …
Roy's Place, in Gaithersburg. A great, witty menu, good sandwiches, and an atmosphere that you just don't find much of anywhere, anymore. (Put it at No. 11 for Best of Gaithersburg/Germantown).
Ruan Thai, in Wheaton. Delicious Thai cooking, and about as divey as a good restaurant gets.
The new Fast Gourmet, in DC. A category unto itself: gas station food. And good gas station food, at that.
MGM Roast Beef, in Brentwood. Hot, carved roast beef, ham and turkey sandwiches. Good stuff, and it's fun to sit around the counter stools and eavesdrop on the conversations. (I just learned, by the way, that MGM will be expanding to include tables and chairs. Good news.)
I'm blanking, now. …
Fieri did get to Oohhs & Aahhs, on U St., which I've been high on since it opened in '05. One of the best destinations for soul food in the area.
Love to hear all of you chime in with some other dive recs …
I was recently at a well-known, well-rated restaurant for dinner with several friends. The food was great as always, but service that I experienced was terrible!
What's the proper way to alert a restaurant that they spoiled my night? I don't want to be rude and don't know the proper etiquette to use.
Call the waiter or manager over, and tap — repeatedly — on the Air Horn app on your iPhone. 🙂
Really, the proper way is just to pull the manager aside and — calmly, without rancor — tell him or her.
It's even better if you can do this sometime during the meal itself. Lowering the boom at the end — even if you do it nicely — is frustrating for the both of you. The restaurant can't rectify the problem, and you have to wait til next time to have it made up to you.
… Gotta run — deadlines looming, and I'm starving …
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
(missing you, TEK … )