Tuesday, March 15 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman talks about New York delis in Bethesda and gives Eden Center and downtown-DC dinner suggestions.

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

 
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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   W o r d   o f   M o u t h   .  .  .
 
   … You can talk about the bread, and it's true — a deli can't be great without good, crusty rye bread. The quality of the meats, the way they're sliced, the way they're spiced — all important considerations.
   But a good deli is also a mood, a certain quality of light, a crackle in the air. Sitting down to lunch or dinner ought to be like getting that first hit of mustard on a sandwich — zesty, and with an unmistakable flavor of Old World soul.
   The new Bubby's New York Deli (4866 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-941-1404) isn't deli perfection, and it's still too new to have developed an authentic character — the place just opened a month ago — but one thing it does not lack: It does not lack for zest.
    I've been twice, now, and have been called "sweetie" by one waitress and winked at by another (a form of thank you for the reminder to check on a dish that had yet to arrive). If you're lucky, GM Jeff "Louie" Manas may sidle by in his dark glasses and white gambler's mustache to present you a taste of halvah with the check.
   The cavernous, glass-fronted space needed lots of warming up, and though it could be warmer, still, it's warm. Sepia-tinted photographs of bubbies peer out over the dining room from their perch in "Bubby's Corner" — in a touch reminiscent of the local rec center, customers are invited to bring pictures of their own for hanging. On the steps leading up to the restaurant, management has scrawled the highlights of the menu — in green chalk. You have to stop and remind yourself that you're in Bethesda.
   And the food?
   I had a very good corned beef reuben, though the rye bread could have been thicker, and a very good hot pastrami on grilled rye, though the meat could have been more generously portioned. High marks also for the brisket,  nicely cooked and piled atop shingled slices of challah, the whole thing drenched with gravy. (All the meats are prepared in-house and sliced to order.)
   I love the pickle bowl, filled with sour tomatoes, two kinds of pickle, and sauerkraut. And I also love that the waitresses know to keep the bowl full at all times.
   The matzo ball soup features what ought to be a sinker, it's so huge, squatting in a delicate, carrot-strewn broth; but it's almost as light and fluffy as a marshmallow. There's good, not great, knishes. The egg salad sandwich is a skimpy, slap-dash production. The latkes are sodden. The blintzes are fine, nothing special.
   One innovation: chicken fried chicken livers, with horseradish sauce. Excellent.
   Desserts are on display in a lighted case near the front. They include several sweets from Junior's, in Brooklyn, including a fudgy cho
colate cake and a good cheesecake. The light, layered carrot cake comes without that pedigree, but it's an even better bet. …

   ……………………………………………………………………………………………
  

Jen in Hyattsville, MD

Just catching up on the 3/8 chat and saw the question about ponza rottas. …

I grew up eating them at Jimmy's Grotto ('The Grotto') in Waukesha, WI – and they are simply divine. Always piping hot, straight out of the fryer, flaky crust, mounds of oozing cheese … wow, now I'm pining for one.

Would love to hear if there's a local source for them! Long live the ponza rotta!

So would I. … I'm leading off with this today, in case someone out there knows of a source. If not anywhere around here, then maybe Baltimore?

If this is who I think it is, by the way, please give M. a big hug and kiss for me. And say hi to D.

Chevy Chase, MD

Your comments about Obelisk sound a little cryptic.

Are you saying that the entrees are not up to par. I am going in a few weeks so I'm curious. I haven't been there for several years but used to really like the entrees. Has the quality and/or choice gone down? Thanks.

What I was trying to say was that I think the best part of a meal there is the beginning and the ending — Acts I and III.

That's not a put-down of Act II. It really is to say that the excitement is with the antipasti and desserts, and that you should pace yourself accordingly.

I'll be curious to hear what your experience was like. Drop back on and give us a report, okay?

WDC

We're looking for a Penn Quarter/Chinatown restaurant for a large group before heading to the Chosen at the Arena, since there's nothing decent closer to the theater.

Of the many Thai restaurants in that area (eg, Kanlaya, Royal Thai, Absolute Thai) – is there any one that clearly stands out from the rest?

Thanks.

There isn't, no.

Kanlaya Thai and Absolute Thai are the two best, and I don't see much reason to separate them. Either ought to be fine for your group. Absolute is stronger on starters than main courses — which happens to be true of a lot of restaurants. Kanlaya does pretty well with its curries and things like drunken noodles.

You're right, there's nothing decent near the theater. Next week in this space, I'll be weighing in on the restaurant inside Arena — with food provided by Jose Andres.

I was there recently to see "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," by the Steppenwolf Theatre players. Go, by the way. Superb production.

Bethesda, MD

I read your review of the Uptown Deli in March's edition of the Washingtonian. I took my 80 year old mother a pastrami sandwich and a knish from there last week and she thought it was the best food she has had from a deli in the Washington area since she moved here nearly 20 years ago (and she hails from Brooklyn and Bensonhurst, NY).

There may be growing pains with this brand new restaurant, but I would agree that the food that I have tried is fantastic (pastrami, corned beef, knishes and the soup) and it has become a favorite.

The bread that you complianed about? I must have had a different experience. Since the restaurant is always busy, I am assuming I am not alone in my opinions so maybe you can give it another shot? (as you know restaurants thrive on good reviews).

Just my thought…

I'm always happy to give another shot.

It sounds as though the bread has been upgraded. I heard from another reader last week, outside of the chat, via email, and he seemed to think the bread was just fine. It wasn't fine when I was there. It wasn't even close to fine. It was as if Wonder had gone into making bread for delis.

Can the knishes have been upgraded, too? They were awful. And hearing a waiter deposit one on the table with the words, "Here's your nish"? Even worse.

The quality of meats was promising, something to build on. I hope they've gotten it together. 

Two delis within walking distance of one another — Uptown and now Bubby's. That could be a very good thing, if they push each other to grow and improve.

Shaw DC

Todd,

Thanks for taking my Q about crawfish, but a "tsk-tsk" is in order! There is a large, wonderful population of Vietnamese-Americans in Louisiana. Don't be so quick to judge! Even rednecks like myself like it the "vietnamese way" too. Good eating!

Well, I was joking when I said, "It's a Vietnamese thing, you wouldn't understand."

The Vietnamese have really become a huge part of the food culture in Louisiana and especially New Orleans. Even more now, post-Katrina.

The banh mi has proliferated, and I really think the city has come to regard it as a kind of embodiment of the new New Orleans. In some ways it, not gumbo, is the gastronomic symbol of the city today.

You see it at nearly every level of the city's eating culture, from quick-serve soup-and-sandwich joints to some of the city's most celebrated kitchens, including those of Emeril Lagasse and John Besh; Besh recently went so far as to crown a Vietnamese bakery as the best French bakery in the city.

The banh mi is also cheap, no small matter in an economically gut-punched city. Traditional po'boys sell for $10 and up; they're no longer for the po'. A banh mi costs just $2.75.

Pho, the beef noodle soup, has become huge, too. It's one of the cheapest meals around, as well. Go to lunch in any of the numerous pho parlors in and around the city, and at the long, communal tables you'll find Vietnamese sitting alongside Cajun truck drivers.

I think it's interesting that many of the Cajuns who stayed behind appear to have embraced the Vietnamese — who also stayed behind. They have found many affinities between the two cultures, from the French influence in their cooking to the fact that both are essentially water people — shrimpers, trollers, folks who have always made their homes along rivers and bayous.

Arlington, VA

Hi Todd,

I'll be meeting an out of town co-worker for dinner near the World Bank tonight. Any suggestions for dinner that are either walkable or a short cab ride away?

I really like the food/drinks at Founding Farmers but the service has been so terrible the past few times I've went there that I'm hesitant to bring a guest there.

I'd walk on over to Kinkead's and try to snag a booth in the bar. Even on a Tuesday night, it ought to feel decently festive.

The bartenders are superb, the drinks are strong, you can share a platter of cold, fresh-shucked oysters, and ease in slowly to the rest of your meal — maybe a bowl of chowder (a house specialty), or an order of fat Ipswich clams fried to a turn, or both. Then, any of the main courses; I have a hard time resisting the cornmeal-coated fried flounder topped with crab Imperial, with tasso ham gravy and spoonbread.

For something lighter, but still close, you could hit Kaz Sushi Bistro for sashimi, nigiri and rolls.

Capitol Hill

After the Wizards game on Saturday, I popped in with some friends to the new Hill Country.

I gotta say – the moist brisket was amazing. Tender, salty, smokey, and a really nice bark.

A huge selection of sides, all of which I tried were very good.

Afterwards, we headed downstairs to watch the band and sample some cocktails and bourbon.

This place is an excellent addition to the city. I love BBQ, and admittedly, my experience is more with Carolina style, but this seemed really excellent.

I'm sad because it's going to be mobbed once word gets out.

First of all, how great is it that you're still going to Wizards games nearly 3/4 of the way through a dismal season  … And on the heels of several sad-making years. I'm impressed with your loyalty. Unless you were there just to catch Blake Griffin, in which case — I take it all back. (Griffin's a wonder, isn't he? And just getting started.)

Thanks for the quickie report on Hill Country, which, by the way, just opened this weekend. 

It's gonna make a killing if it's any good, and probably even if it's just a notch or so above mediocre. But wouldn't it be something if it's great? And if it can stay great?

Logan Circle

Hey Todd,

Were you around when the restaurant Harvey's was open? An older gentleman I work with was talking about it recently. He couldn't remember when it closed. Do you know anything about it? thanks.

Before my time. Sorry I can't be of help. But maybe someone out there can — anyone?

Dupont Circle, DC

Todd,

I just got myself a car so that I can commute to my new job. While I hate DC traffic with a passion and I am definitely not the most aggressive driver on the streets, I'm thrilled because this means weekly (or more often) trips to Eden Center.

I always stick to my usuals (Song Que for banh mi, the place with the tons of books for pho), I'm looking for some variety.

What else in Eden Center would you recommend for banh mis, pho or anything else?

Lots.

I really like Hai Duong. Terrific bun bo hue (a spicy beef noodle soup) and broken rice dishes.

Bay Lo is wonderful. And a fascinating experience, too, because if you look around, pretty much every table gets the same thing: Bay Lo 7, the house special, a sort of ramped-up bun with pork, meatballs and shrimp. Fantastic.

Huong Viet is very good all around. Viet Royale has its moments, and so does Viet Bistro.

Thanh Son Tofu is one of a kind, and is excellent with its mock meats. Get the lobster.

I also like Saigon Cafe, across the street — excellent bun bo hue, as well, plus good pho, and good steamed shrimp and pork cakes.

North Potomac, MD

Hi Todd:

This May I want to have a nice luncheon for my niece with some family and friends to celebrate her having a baby. Kinda like a small shower. There will be 9 people attending.

Any suggestions for a nice pretty type restaurant. Maryland suburbs such as Bethesda, Chevy Chase would be ideal but will go into DC. Thanks…

That sounds like a nice time. What a nice excuse to gather over good food and celebrate …

I think I have the perfect spot for you: Black Market Bistro, in Garrett Park.

It's a beautiful location, peaceful, sophisticated, the sort of setting that immediately sets you at ease. Sitting down in the house-like dining room, you feel you're in for a relaxing and even restorative couple of hours.

The food is appealingly unpretentious, for being so carefully prepared. I like the shrimp n grits, the pan-fried trout, the superlative antipasto plate, and many of the desserts.

The wine list features a number of half-bottles and a good selection of by-the-glass options, and has been put together with regard not just for what's good and interesting, but also for what's a good value.

Another option: Sushi-Ko II in Friendship Heights? It's stylish and serene, and the food's good, too.

 

Ballston, VA
Was all set to ahve lunch at BBQ Bandidos truck since they are supposed to be in Ballston. Went out looking for them at about1135 and they were no where to be found. Hope they rot in hell!

That's the spirit.

Jesus, I'd hate to be in front of you on the Beltway …

Galileo III

Todd,

Perhaps I missed it, but have you reviewed this restaurant?

I did. Three-plus months ago. Click here.
Arlington, VA
Rumor has it that Mellow Mushroom Pizza is coming to town. Can you confirm this wonderful news?

I can. Expect a July opening, in Adams Morgan.

I know of both the Charlottesville and Raleigh restaurants, but have never been to either. Curious to hear what fuels the excitement. 

Washington, D.C
I need help! My wife celebrates her 30th birthday on 3-29 and she is a foodie. We want to go out to a group dinner (20 people) to celebrate and I am clueless. Also neither of us drink. Any suggestions?

The problem is that I think you're going to have to book a side room or something like that. I can't imagine many restaurants taking a group that large and plunking them down in a main dining room. And that's going to limit your options.

Are you willing to go outside DC proper? That will open up possibilities.

Also, help me out a little with what you're looking for. What kinds of places does she like? Cuisines? Email me — tkliman@washingtonian.com — and I can write you back with some recommendations or just wait to answer this next week.

 

Washington, DC

Do you anticipate any drop off in quality at Central now that a new executive chef is being installed?

I have always really enjoyed the food there but since it is on the higher end of my budget, I take a risk when I go. One of my favorite parts of Central can also be the most uncomfortable. I love sitting by the kitchen and watching the action. However, the last time I was there, the executive chef and sous chef had a couple animated fights with the line chefs. I felt like I was somewhere I shouldn't have been. I just wanted to get your take on its transitions.

I don't expect a drop-off, no.

This isn't the first time, by the way, the restaurant has undergone a transition at the stove — Arthur Cavaliere, who just left, was the replacement for Cedric Maupillier. I think they'll be fine.

And anyway, I'll be watching. ; )

Arlington, VA
Excuse me why would I want a pizza from a joint called Mellow Mushroom Pizza. Tony's, Sal's , Mike's but Mellow Mushroom sounds like a vegan pizza from a bunch of Dead heads.

It's funny. You made me think of the Hippy Gourmet. Anybody catch his TV segments? Here's a clip.

The food generally looks pretty awful in all the episodes I've seen, and I've watched about half a dozen. Ever eat in a college food co-op? That kind of thing. Overspiced, full of ingredients that don't go together.

On the other hand: I like that he's on the air. I like that he's not like all those slick, focus-grouped personalities. He looks like a person with passions. And a mind.

 

Cleveland Park

Speaking of crawfish and of Eden Center, tried Seaside Crab House this weekend on your recommendation.

Meaty, spicy whole crawfish, sweet shrimp, overall pretty decent. But the service was more than decent.

Our waiter took time to mix our sauces at the table, customizing them to our spiciness-tolerance, and was just generally really helpful and amiable.

One thing to be aware/weary of… the indoor seating is essentially 3 tables, and the outdoor (heated) seating allows smoking. Luckily we found a table in a corner away from any cigarette smoke, which really kills a meal for me…

It's a fun experience, that's for sure.

Very different from anything else you'll find at the Eden Center. And pretty ideal for a nice day when you can be outside.

I just wish I loved it more than I do. The food's pretty good, but I wish the quality of the seafood was higher. Put me down for a "like."

Mellow Mushroom

I have been to a few Mellow Mushrooms in South Carolina. I think it is fun and the pretzel crust is really good. Generally, I find it to be straightforward American pizza.

It seems to me to be a better fit in the Chinatown/Penn Quarter area.

Pretzel crust? Interesting. I love pretzel anything, pretty much.

Thanks for chiming in …

And thank you all for all the questions, comments and rants (though Ballston has me afraid to wander in the vicinity of greater Clarendon.)

I'm going to grab some lunch (no pizza, alas), and then head out to an interview … Be well, everyone, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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