Tuesday, March 22 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman reminisced about now-closed restaurants, talked about Hill Country in Penn Quarter, and reviewed a visit to the Jose Andres-backed cafe at Arena Stage.

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 

Michel, Tysons Corner

Minh's, Arlington

Palena Cafe, DC

PassionFish, Reston 

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington 

Red Pearl, Columbia

Ris, DC

Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown

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   W o r d   o f   M o u t h  . . .

   … The best thing I can say about my recent dinner at Next Stage by Jose Andres — a cafe with a byline, located on the third floor of the Mead Center at Arena Stage — is that it was convenient.
   A friend and I didn't care for the options for eating in the vicinity of the theater, and didn't want the hassle of scarfing down dinner downtown then negotiating rush hour traffic to make it in time for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (Terrific production, by the way.)
   I had somewhat elevated expectations for the food, which is a joint venture between Andres' culinary team and Ridgewells Catering, but not nearly as elevated as my friend, who has only ever dined at Jaleo (and only once, at that) but was talking excitedly about a "60 Minutes" profile of the chef he had recently watched. The gallery-style setting, with its dramatic, wrap-around views of the Washington monument, only added to the air of something special in the offing — the 200-seat cafe was abuzz with anticipation. In any other context, the cafeteria-style set up might have given us pause, but it didn't. We were excited.
   But disappointment set in almost immediately.
   The menu changes constantly, to reflect the milieu of the play in production. In homage to the chilly world of George and Martha, team Andres has devised a menu that incorporates elements of regional New England cookery.
   We started with a clam chowder, based on a recipe from Julia Child, a New England native; it was as gray and sludgy as the snow-banked streets of Boston five days after a storm. There were no clams, so far as we could tell — instead, trumpet mushrooms had been chopped in such a way as to replicate their texture. A chintzy touch.
   We ordered two dinners — 36-hour "fighting" short ribs "cooked in a drunken red wine sauce" (a menu written with a dramaturg!) and a hard cider-braised chicken — both with sides of good braised cabbage and creamy-to-the-point-of-soupy whipped potatoes. The 36-hours refers to the now-trendy sous vide method of preparation (sealing the ribs in a vacuum pack, then submerging them for days in a temperature-controlled water bath) but for all that gentle, slow cooking the meat was oddly tough — it most likely had been overcooked on the stove, before serving; we didn't even finish the two small pieces. The chicken was simultaneously wet (sodden from its sauce) and dry (far from the ideal of fall-apart lusciousness you would expect of a long braise.)
   Everything comes on biodegradable trays the color and texture of reconstituted cardboard. An admirable gesture, perhaps, but hugely unappetizing to look at. And when you're paying $19 per entree and $12 for a Thai salad (it had been assembled in front of us, but tasted bagged) you feel entitled to more solidity, more pampering. With a half-bottle of wine and a whoopie pie for dessert, the bill came to $88 –
– slightly more than I would expect to pay for dinner for two at one of Andres's actual restaurants. And with real plates and service. …
 
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florida
i think it is terrible that the food truck voting was supposed to be over at midnight on the day of voting, and then all of a sudden it was changed to 10 am on the next day, allowing one of the competitors to get all their friends to vote and immediately eliminate the competion without giving them a chance for more votes, since they thought the voting was over at midnight. A day is a day, midnight to midnight.

I'm passing this along from Kate Nerenberg, who's overseeing the brackets for us. Here's what she had to say:

"The Food Truck Fight polls are open for 24 hours, and that has always been the case. Never have we claimed that polls would close at midnight. This is the same format we've followed every time we've done a March Madness-like contest (in the past, we've done cupcakes, pizza, and burgers). We closely monitor all polls to make sure that they close exactly at 10 AM and 1 PM everyday. If you have any questions, please contact Kate Nerenberg directly at knerenberg@washingtonian.com."

And on that contentious note … good morning, everyone. What else has you keyed up?

Or what new cafe, restaurant, pizza joint has you excited? Doesn't have to be a new spot — what old place, mom n pop, keeps charming you? I'd love to know where you've been …

Del Ray

Todd,

It's been a while since I've chimed in but since another chatter mentioned Hill Country, I'll note that my brother and I were so excited about new BBQ, that we made a trip into the city on Sunday for lunch. After braving the parade and Caps traffic, I am sad to report that the restaurant was not open. I definitely checked the website before making this trip, so let's just say, I was peeved when we were turned away and will from now on be boycotting. Who opens on Sunday night for dinner when there are thousands of people downtown during the lunch hour for a parade and Caps game anyway?

We went to Capital Q, had some decent brisket and a beer, and watched the throngs of people waiting to get into Matchbox. Too bad Hill Country wasn't smart enough to get in on some of that action… but I am sure they had an overwhelming Sunday night crowd.

In case you (or anybody else) missed it last week, here's my first take on the place.

Like a lot of new places, it has some things it needs to work on. And some things it already does very well. I think the pit guys, for instance, are already doing a pretty darn good job. And service, from what I've seen, has been good.

But there's a good bit of presumption going on, here, and it remains to be seen whether people are going to put up with it or not. The meal cards that you must keep on you at all times. The waiting in line to check out, with a cashier sorting through sometimes four and five cards to figure out the bill. I waited five minutes. I've already heard from people who waited a lot longer.

And the prices.

At dinner last night, a friend and I were talking about the place. He's heard a lot about it already, and is eager to go. I told him what he can expect to pay for two. If it's one of the pre-set meal combinations, it's $47 before drinks, tip and tax.

He wanted to know what he could expect to pay if he just went the a la carte route. A half-pound of "moist" brisket, the best thing on the menu, costs $11. Sides are extra. Everything is extra. I told him I doubted he and his girlfriend could get out of there for less than $50.

"But it's barbecue!" he cried.

Barbecue, yes. And high-quality barbecue, at that. But in the trendiest part of the city. And presented by a place that comes rubber-stamped by the brutal NY media.

Arlington

Re the 15 March chat …

For Logan Circle: My wife and I ate several times at Harvey's in the 60s when we were DINKs. It was on Connecticut Ave. a little above K St. It and the Occidental were the two best old-line restaurants in town. It closed for subway construction around 1970. I think it reopened somewhere else but did not succeed.

For the gentleman looking for wife's bday party fit for foodies: We had a great birthday/reunion at Le Bergerie in Alexandria. Larger side room can hold 20-30 elegantly. Owner was very accommodating in giving guests plenty of menu choices.

A bit of history and a good tip.

Thanks so much for writing in with these, Arlington. I appreciate it.

Food Truck Fight

Todd,

I don't really understand how you can have a competition when all the entrants are not playing the same game. Tacos are not empanadas…lobster truck does not equal pound. Strange contest.

The only thing they have in common are that they are set on four wheels and are mobile. Other than that, what game are they playing where they are competing against one another on a level playing field? Can you explain the point, other than to capitalize on March Madness but with a local twist.

That's it, that's the point. 

And you say they're not playing the same game and that the field is not level — they're all trucks, though, right? And they're all producing food to sell to the public. Presumably, what's being judged is the quality of that food. In that sense, it's not really different from having people choose between two pizzerias or two burger places.

It's fun. Nobody gets hurt. Nothing is really at stake.

Shaw DC

Todd,

My place that charms my sock off…I really hate to put it out there but I don't think it's going to be kept secret much longer, and the staff deserves the praise: El Rinconcito. I'm obessed with the food. The papusas have changed my life. Every bite tastes fresh and bright, the bell peppers are crisp yet tender and tasty. I need to branch out and try other things on the menu, but why change when what I get is freaking awesome??

You need to try the carne deshilada. Wonderful.

Since when has El Rinconcito been a secret? And it's been around a long time, too …

I like this game: a place that charms your socks off (and not necessarily because of its charm) … Who else has a restaurant to tout? A restaurant that doesn't often get touted …

Falls Church,VA
Toward the end of the chat last week you commented that you love pretzel anything. I too love pretzel everything!! Having grown up in the Philadelphia area I feel I'm living in pretzel exile- where does one get good pretzels in this area??

I'd like to know, myself. 

The only place I can think of is the Dutch Country Farmers Market, formerly in Burtonsville and now in Laurel — 9701 Fort Meade Road. (301) 356-9100. Pretzels, cakes and pies, freshly slaughtered meats, a variety of cheeses, etc. — all the great foodstuffs from Pennsylvania Dutch country.

My mom, who believes herself to be living in pretzel exile, too, recently began making her own pretzels, and they're fantastic. One night, we picked her up to go to dinner, and she gifted us with a bag of pretzels. They were still hot. We tore into them, nibbling them on the way to the restaurant. 

She even makes pretzel rolls, which we cannot get enough of at Chez Kliman. I think I like them better than the pretzels.

People have been telling her she should sell them, they're that good. I wonder if she could get orders …

 

Arlington, VA
With regards to Mellow Mushroom, thank you fro the confirmation. Coming form Atlanta, I relaize I am no authority on pizza. However, the atmosphere is very laid back but mature "groovy", the dough is chewy and delicious, but what you have to have is the Esperanza dressing. I don't know what goes into it and I rarely see it at other restaurants, but it is superb on the greek salad or for dipping your pizza into. Enjoy!

I'm looking forward to trying it, finally, after seeing the two different locations, one in Charlottesville and one in Raleigh.

Thanks for the tip about the dressing.

You bring up something really interesting in passing — this notion that a place gives a person an authority to speak knowledgeably about a dish or a cuisine. I don't buy it. I think a person can be from Atlanta and also know a great deal about pizza.

No doubt it gives a person a great start to come from a place that takes a certain foodstuff seriously, but it's not a guarantee of knowledge and authority. I know many New Yorkers who think it is. "I'm from New York, I know pizza." Well, maybe you do. And maybe you don't.

I know many Marylanders who don't know crabs. I've met Tennesseans and North Carolinians who don't know barbecue.

Clifton, VA
The Italian Deli in Centreville and Peterson's Ice Cream Depot in downtown Clifton. For a cold soda and a great homemade sandwich on your trip back home from down I95 Grove's store on Bristerburg Rd. For folks who known the back way coming up and down I95

I could go for a cold soda and an Italian sandwich right now …

A great sandwich isn't an easy thing to find. You'd think it would be, but it's not.

Sometimes, it's too much bread. Sometimes, it's bad bread. Sometimes, it's too skimpy a laying on of ingredients. Sometimes, it's the way the ingredients have been laid on. Sometimes, it's not enough mustard or dressing. Sometimes, it's too much. Sometimes, it's the ingredients not knitting the way they should. Sometimes, the thing is beautifully made and still isn't any good. …

New York, NY

Hi Todd!

My fiance and I are coming home to Arlington, VA to get our marriage license on Friday in advance of our April wedding. We would love to take my parents out to dinner to celebrate our upcoming nuptuals and to thank them for their love and support.

We could do Virginia or DC and are looking for something celebratory and delicious that won't break the bank (since we've already done that for the wedding :)!).

Thanks!! (PS. I think DC has better food than NYC–I might be biased, but I had to say it)

I'm a DC native, and I wouldn't even say it.

(For one thing, it's just not true. … If you want to put DC's ethnic dining scene up against NY's, that'd be interesting, really interesting. It's close.)

How about taking them to Vermilion or The Majestic, in Old Town Alexandria? Or the upstairs of Liberty Tavern, in Arlington?

Turning the Tables on You

Todd,

If you were on the other end of your chog, what is the most interesting question about DC area dining that you would ask? And what would be your answer? Thanks

It's a really, really interesting question you posed.

I'm going to go with the first thing that came to mind, and that's this: In a city that is 60 percent African-American, according to the recent census, why don't the dining rooms of the vast majority of restaurants in DC reflect these demographics?

And the answer is: It's complicated. Very complicated. And very, very interesting.

Washington, DC

Todd, 

This is for the poster last week who wanted to know about arranging a dinner for 20 people for his wife's 30th birthday. I have to arrange a work dinner for about 20 people every six months, and it is a big headache trying to find a place that doesn't insist on an exorbitant minimum (usually $2500 before tax and tip), and that doesn't require a really limited fixed menu.

Steakhouses (of the Ruth's Chris/Morton's ilk, not Charlie Palmer or Bourbon steak) can easily accomodate that number of people, they won't require you to order off a limited menu, and they seem to be more reasonable on the required minimum (more like a $1000 or $1500, which you would probably spend with 20 people anyway). The downside is that the food is boring and rather expensive for what it is.

I best experience I've had was at Zaytinya. They have a couple of large tables you can reserve, one in the center of the restaurant and one on the second level sort of off to the side of the stairs. You have to do a fixed price menu and guarantee a certain number of people (so you're on the hook if you have no-shows), but their menus are very reasonably priced and offer a lot of different options.

Great insights. Thank you for writing in and sharing your knowledge.
Shaw
El Rinconcito: Well I didn't mean a real secret, but it's small and homey and not advertised. Only recently have I noticed it getting more crowded. I just want to be selfish and keep it all to myself! I will try the new dish this week!

I know that feeling!

Long before I was a critic, I would spend my weekends driving around in search of great eats. I was reluctant to share my discoveries, mostly because they would not be discoveries for the person I would be sharing them with. Something inevitably would be lost.

Now, I know it it in a different way. I'll write about a place, and then find that I can't get in when I want to go later …

Honesty is the best policy?

Hi Todd,

My friend and I were in Woodley Park for lunch a few weekends ago, and stopped upon Pasta Italiana. It wouldn't have been my first pick, but we were hungry and my friend suggested we try it since it was a new location since our last visit.

It was about 12:30-1ish on a Saturday, and we were the only people in the restaurant. We sat down and started reading the menu, and the server brought us glasses of water. After sitting there for a few minutes, our feelings about the place started to change quickly.

My friend determined there wasn't much on the menu she could/wanted to eat, and the environment was starting to get to us… all of the 4-5 servers were men and they stood in the dining room somewhat staring (most likely because of the lack of other diners to attend to…) I am a push over in the sense that I would have ate there despite how uncomfortable I was and that the value of the options offered were not great because it would be too awkward to leave in that situation.

Nonetheless, my friend decided she wasn't going to settle for restaurant/food that was not enticing and making her uncomfortable. She told the server that she appreciated his time and stood up to walk to the door. At first the server asked if there was a problem in a kind tone, but my friend assured him it just wasn't of interest to us that day.

I followed, and the server gave me the meanest stare and told me how unfair we were being, how he had used two water glasses on us, how we had wasted their time, etc etc.

A part of me did feel bad for leaving, but another part of me felt angered that they were giving us such a hard time for leaving when we hadn't ordered anything and walked out before they even had to explain the menu, take our order, etc.

Where do you fall on this issue? Is it ok for a diner to be honest in those situations as long as they are fair to the restaurant?

I've walked out of restaurants many times, just as you did — before any food is ordered — and have never had anything happen like what you describe. Weird. And how awful.

He'd used two water glasses on you! That's just hilarious. Not that a steak had been seasoned and slapped on the grill. Not that a bottle of wine had been opened and decanted. No, he had gone through the trouble of retrieving two empty glasses and pouring water into them.

There are good restaurants. There are good restaurants that occasionally have bad nights. There are okay restaurants that will never be anything more than what they are, and that's fine; they are what they are. And then there are just plain bad restaurants — badness suffuses everything they are, and do.

McPherson Square

Good morning Todd-

I am looking for a better way to eat in the summer at some of my favorite restaurants. I really enjoy Lyon Hall in Clarendon and Brasserie Beck in DC. Unfortunately, whenever I eat there in the summer, the food just seems too hearty/heavy.

Have you had any success eating at either of these places in the hot summer weather?

My answer may sound flip, but I hope you'll appreciate the spirit in which it's intended: Try some different restaurants.

I still remember eating duck sausage and lentils at Brasserie Beck in the middle of July or August — a nice, light dish for summer, huh? — and washing it down with a glass or two of wine. It was extremely humid, one of those nights where it doesn't cool off any just because the sun is going down. I remember walking outside into the thick, soupy air, and feeling like I couldn't breathe. I was desperate to walk, to burn off calories, but at the same time all I wanted to do was find an air-conditioned room and just lie down.

The menus at these places don't change, and it's possible to find some lighter things — salads, oysters — but if you're going to avoid sausages and hunks of braised meat, why go there? Why not just find a place that changes with the seasons, or isn't so heavy to begin with?

Van Netian

Hi Todd,

We talk a lot about restaurant openings and the hope/excitement they bring, but can we chat for a minute about restaurant closings and the bummed-outness/disappointment they bring?

This is on my mind because I was shocked last weekend when I drove up MacArthur Blvd to see nothing but FOR LEASE signs outside my beloved Kemble Park Tavern.

For my money they had the best burger in the city, along with possibly the best mac and cheese too. They practically gave both away during their late night special that they gradually pulled back. The setting was as classy as it gets, and the bar made for a perfect place to hide when not up for a loud night out. It was also here where I made a lifelong friend, a humble companion by the name of "Wily Jack" – sold in select liquor stores throughout the city.

So what happened? And on a larger scale, what do we foodies do to gain the…stay with me here…CLOSURE we need when something we love leaves us?

At least when Yenching Palace shuttered, I was happy for the owners when they told me they were finally going to get some much-deserved rest after 50ish years in the business. That one still hurt though, and Kemble does too. Then there was Nathan's.

Tracing these breakups feels like a John Cusack movie. I'd appreciate any info you might have on KPT, as well as any thoughts on how to handle this sort of "grief counseling for foodies." Without it, we'll all end up crying into pints of Häagen-Dazs watching the Food Network!

A good restaurant, or even a restaurant we just like, becomes a part of our lives. It's where we go to connect. It's where we go to blow off steam. To celebrate. To mourn.

As for how to handle it — you've got me. No idea other than — find another place and see if you love it, and it loves you back.

I've lamented the closing of so many restaurants that I loved over the years. They're not places you might expect me to list, given my title. But they meant something to me.

My own list would include, and probably at the top, Henkel's, off of 32. Loved that place. Loved the times I went there with my parents, the raucous Saturday nights, sitting at the bar as a 10 year-old drinking Cokes and watching ACC basketball with the old-timers, the foot-high ham and roast beef sandwiches …

Then there are places like the Austin Grill, which, before it became corporate, was fantastic. Who remembers the original location, in Glover Park? Who remembers the food? Smoked duck quesadillas. Corn chowder. Great gazpacho. The chef was Ann Cashion, and the place was one of the best meals in the city — maybe the best meal in the city — for the price. Now? Now I walk by one of the locations, and it's as if I'd never eaten there, never loved it, never had a connection with it.

 

DC

Todd, you asked what old places keep charming.

I think that after a few months (or more) of floundering, Dino is getting its act back together. I went there for brunch and dinner recently and had a few really good dishes (eggs benedict with prosciutto, sausage and lentils, pork and mushroom soup). I think there are a lot of new items on the menu.

I also keep being charmed by 2Amys. I know, all the buzz is about the new pizza places in Virginia, but the menu of things other than pizza at 2Amys is great.

In my estimation, more consistently great than the pizza.

Thanks for writing in.

Pizza Joint that has me excited

Last week, we ventured into 7th Hill Pizza after a morning at the Air & Space Museum with our two small kids. I had read about the restaurant, but didn't really realize it was so small with minimal acutal seating.

But the people there were sooo nice- they explained to us that we could sit at the bar and then proceeded to amuse the kids with tossing pizza and explaining to them about the oven. The pizza was also realy great- reminiscent of what 2Amys used to be. Fresh ingredients, crust had great texture, toppings in just the right amount, etc. I have told lots of people about this place since. Although it has received some press from you and others, it seems to fly under the radar. Are you still a fan?

I am. When they're good, they're very, very good.

One reason why they might not get so much chatter is the seating — it's not really a place you can settle in for the night. A shame, because with the fire coming from the oven and the quality of the pizzas, you kind of want to sit and linger over a glass of wine.

Arlington, VA
I am looking to purchase a condo in DC since renting in Ballston for the last few years. Do you have any suggestions for up and coming areas that might be getting good dining destinations and grocery stores? I am looking especially at Columbia Heights, Petworth, Brentwood, Brightwood, etc. My budget necessitates finding an up and coming area and I am hoping to match that with future dining areas.

An up-and-coming area you neglected to mention is Hyattsville. I may be biased because I live there, but you can begin to see the makings of a real scene.

Franklin's, a restaurant and brewpub, is a neighborhood anchor. Shagga, a terrific Ethiopian spot, is just up the road. There's an offshot of the Falls Church restaurant, El Pike — a good destination for Bolivian food (including a terrific peanut soup) called Pike Rotisserie. Wild Onion is a good spot for sandwiches and salads and fresh-cooked meals-to-go. Cafe Azul makes terrific arepas — I'm crazy about the one with black beans and scrambled eggs. You can find good Roman-style pizza at Rhode Island Reds.

Then there's Busboys & Poets, which is opening its largest restaurant there this Spring. Tara Thai is also coming, along with an Elevation Burger and a Chipotle. And Yes! Organic Market is opening up a shop, too, this Spring.

Worth considering. Five minutes from DC, walkable streets, parks, and houses (including three-story Victorians) that you can actually afford.

There. Pitch over.

 

Del Ray
Oh Nathans!!! I loved that place. I spent one summer in college drinking mimosas with the Sunday morning regulars. We drank, we laughed, we read the newspaper and debated. It was the same people every week. I miss that place too but the memory lives on.

We need more places like that. Not the food, but everything else — the room, the people, the drinks, the energy …

Thanks for writing in.

Del Ray

I wanted to send out some kudos to the cheese lady at the Social Safeway in Georgetown. This weekend, my family celebrated a couple of birthdays with our own iron chef competition. The ingredient I picked out of the hat was cheddar cheese. Oy!

But to her credit, the cheese lady showed me so many cheddar cheeses, described the flavoring, the best uses and pairings for the cheese, and then hooked me up with some butter that she thought would work really well in my plan. I didn't get her name, but she really knew her stuff.

Next time, I need some cheese, I wouldn't hesitate to go to the Social Safeway.

Nice.

And a nice tip. I wonder how "social" it is these days–?

Thanks for all the great questions and complaints and musings, everyone. I'm running late for lunch, so I'm shutting this down — as Jerry Stackhouse used to say. But before I go, I want to alert you to the fact that next week I'll be back on to share my experiences of a fascinating new restaurant.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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