Tuesday, March 29 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman reviews the elusive chef Peter Chang's new gig in Charlottesville, recommends Barrack's Row restaurants, and gives a recommendation for a Korean bakery.

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 …

  … Peter Chang's China Grill (2162 Barracks Rd., Charlottesville; 434-244-9818) opened on March 2, which means, as hardened Chang-watchers know, the clock is ticking for anyone curious to sample the peripatetic, enigmatic chef's cumin fish, cilantro fish rolls and other authentic Szechuan treats. Notorious for bolting without warning, Chang seldom sticks around for very long. A year, half a year, a few months. He fled Taste of China, his previous roost in Charlottesville, a few weeks after double profiles of him appeared in the same week (mine in The Oxford American, Calvin Trillin's in The New Yorker). As soon as I found a break in my schedule last week, I drove down with my wife and son for dinner.
  For his second stint in Charlottesville, Chang has partnered with restaurateur Gen Lee, a man with wide experience in the restaurant industry, including stints as personal chef to Donald Trump ("What's he like?" I asked Lee. "Steak," he replied, an unintentionally perfect summation of the man the late Spy magazine dubbed a "short-fingered vulgarian.") Lee, intent on keeping Chang contented and in the fold, has sought to accommodate many of his chef's demands, among them a big kitchen staff — there are 11 cooks at his disposal at China Grill, or roughly the number you would expect to find in a four-star restaurant.
  The space is a striking departure from Chang's previous stops in the DC area, as well as in Knoxville and Atlanta. Expecting the bright-lit, white-walled rooms of his past, I was charmed by the exposed brick, the creme de menthe-colored walls, the cozy alcove seating, and framed pictures of Shanghai taken by Lee's wife and partner, Mary Lee.
  I've read some online grumbling about the unevenness of the cooking in these first few weeks, but that wasn't my experience. That might be because Chang himself was in the kitchen this night. He commutes from Atlanta, where he currently has another restaurant, and is not a daily presence at China Grill. According to Lee, he arrived early the morning of my dinner via a late-night bus ride. ("He lives like he's still in China," Lee said. "Sometimes, he sleeps on the floor.")
  The chef appeared to be in fine form this night. I didn't order cumin fish or cilantro fish rolls, having more than had my fill of those over the years. Instead, I endeavored to fill the table with dishes of his I hadn't eaten in a while, or dishes of his I'd never eaten. We ate grandly. Our multi-course, several-hour feast included: grilled, chili-swabbed lamb chops (their shaved bones wrapped in foil) topped with cilantro; a sour mustard-and-fish soup; long, chewy tofu noodles tossed with cilantro and chilis; a light stew of cellophane noodles, filets of flounder, and diced chilis bubbling in a richly del
icate chicken broth; thick strips of deep-fried pork belly that shattered on contact (the best pork rinds I've ever eaten); a chunky, rusticky version of ma po tofu; dan dan noodles (unfortunately made with cappelini) with ground, spiced pork; and tofu-rice fish balls, a dish I hadn't seen him attempt since his brief stint at China Gourmet/Szechuan Boy, in Fairfax. I couldn't resist an order of Chang's scallion bubble pancakes, and they were better than ever, lighter, puffier; even after five piercings with a chopstick, the bubble never burst. Chang is now serving the pancakes with an Indian-style curry dipping sauce.
  Charlottesville's a relatively quick get-away from DC, and you're simply not going to find Szechuan cooking with this  range, this degree of authenticity, and this care at the stove anywhere closer. Go now, before it's (again) too late. …

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Eastern Market

Todd,

I'm curious to find out what your favorite spot (or spots) are along 8th St. SE, Barrack's Row. The strip always seems to be super busy with hourlong (or more!) waits at lots of places. Surely they can't all be worth the wait. So I'd like to know…what, if any, of these places are actually worth it?

It's an interesting question. That strip has gotten a lot more interesting in the past couple of years, and I, for one, am glad to see it, because I like the excitement of walking up and down 8th on a reasonably trafficked night. It feels like a real city street, something you can't say about a lot of streets in DC. 

Nothing has emerged, there, that I would call a killer spot, but I like Cava a lot, I enjoy Zest Bistro, Chesapeake Room has its moments and so does Belga Cafe (a place I have always wanted to like a lot more than I do). Ted's Bulletin is fun for dessert and a milkshake, but the food isn't as good as it was when it opened (and it wasn't particularly great even then, even for diner food), DC-3 is fine if you're in a hurry and want to scarf down a quick dog, but I wouldn't linger.

Alexandria, VA

Todd, my husband and I were going back and forth on this and I'm curious about your take. We ate at Maggiano's in Tyson's on Sunday while shopping and had a bad experience.

There were a few very large (20+ person) parties eating in the main dining room amidst everyone else. One party was split up and one of their tables was a circular corner table, meant for maybe 4-5 people, directly adjacent to where we sat. Towards the end of their meal, the entire group came over to crowd in (and out) of the corner space so they could all say goodbye. This "goodbye" lasted for an easy half hour, probably longer. I can't really give this scene justice except to say that it was like an ant farm except with humans instead of ants. You know how you see ants just spilling out of the ant hill, going every which way? Imagine that with humans but in a very tight area. It was atrocious.

There were children climbing all over the booths, people bumping into our table, and the noise level was off the charts. I know Maggianos is not exactly the classiest place on the planet, but this was behavior that belonged (maybe) at a Chuck E Cheese.

I was annoyed because the waiters let this go on, and my husband felt that their hands were probably tied because these people were clearly spending a lot of money there. I thought about saying something but was in such close proximity to the mob of people that I felt strange about it and I wished the waiter had just taken care of it himself.

I am sure that everyone else around me felt the same way- though I can understand my husband's point too.

Anyway, what is the right thing to do in these situations? Do you flag down the waiter and complain, knowing that the people are right there and will hear you? Do you expect the waiter to take care of it? I'm curious.

And just so this is not a total rant, we had an excellent experience at Oyamel on Saturday night. The hostesses could not have been nicer and we managed to grab a seat at the bar, where the bartender gave fantastic service and we loved our food. Great overall experience.

I've had that experience, myself, and I didn't know what to do then, either.

It was a place not unlike Maggiano's — same aim, same atmosphere — and as you correctly point out, a restaurant like that is not generally equipped to do the kind of troubleshooting that so many of us demand, or at least expect, of a high-end spot.

I think the only thing you can do is to go up to a GM and ask that you be moved to another table — and even that's not the greatest plan of action, I  realize. (Though it's preferable to complaining in front of the offending table.) On a busy Saturday night, I would guess that a GM might balk at meeting your request you even if you were to plead with him or her. And even if there should happen to be some empty tables around you.

It's a tough one.

I know Maggiano's isn't Cuisine, but it's a weekend night out at dinner in a festive place with someone you love, and a scene like that just ruins everything.

NWDC

Todd, I am meeting a friend in Baltimore tonight for dinner. We are looking for a fun atmosphere and something close-ish to the inner harbour (cab ride is fine).

Budget is not really a problem but we aren't looking for fine dining. Seafood options are a plus. Any thoughts?

If this were my night out in Baltimore, and I were looking for a place close to the Harbor, I'd hit a spot called Bluegrass Tavern, on South Hanover St. (bluegrasstavern.com)

It's very much of the moment, culinarily speaking, but not in a way that feels self-conscious or overly trendy — housemade cocktails, a frequently changing menu of small and big plates, charcuterie, locally grown meats, and a small list of by-the-glass wine selections that reflect some thought and imagination.

Don't miss the crawfish hushpuppies, and also save room for dessert, which, when I was last in, was excellent: a simple strawberry-rhubarb pie, perfectly executed.

Part of the pleasure of dining here is the space, a restored corner store with windows that open out onto the street, a real bar up front with real people, and discrete rooms for quiet (or intimate) meals.

Chevy Chase, MD

This weekend, my team of twenty participated in the National Walk for Epilepsy {my team raised $3,500!!}. Anyway, we had made brunch reservations at Tonic in Foggy Bottom almost a month prior to the walk on Sunday. I touched base with them a few times to figure out how to split the check {everyone was to bring cash}, etc.

We called again while at our walk for directions and they said they had no reservation for us. We asked to speak to a Manager and no one was available – after panicking {we had a hungry group of 20 with no where to go!}, I called Elephant & Castle and they happily accommodated us. The service was excellent and our group of 20 left filled and happy. To say I'm disappointed in Tonic is a huge understatement. I say shame on them for leaving us high and dry {and hungry}. That is one place that will no longer be on my radar.

Shameful.

And I don't blame you.

I could go on blasting the place for not just refusing to take you when you were sweaty and hungry, but for leading you on for an entire month, or we could all enjoy this apposite little clip.

 

Washington
Todd, when making a reservation at Citronelle, how can I maximize my chances that I get a night when Michel is cooking?

Great question. And unfortunately, i don't have a great answer. I will tell you, though, that it is exactly what I would want to know when making a reservation there — or at any other celebrated, high-end spot, for that matter.

A lot of foodies will argue that it shouldn't matter whether the chef is in the kitchen, that "chef" is not synonymous with "cook," that anyone who has attained the status of master ought to have trained his (almost always, it's a his) staff to properly execute his vision, etc.

I have had meals at Citronelle where Richard has not been there, and they have been excellent. You can eat at a Jose Andres restaurant, and it hardly matters if he is in for an hour or two or halfway around the world. But you know what? I want to see the chef there. For one thing, if it's Richard, it's a lot more fun to see him making merriment in the dining room — smashing a diner's Napoleon, for instance, or goofing with tables and taking pictures.

For another, and more profoundly — it's a little dispiriting, I think, to save up for a big night out at a restaurant helmed by a celebrated chef, and then to discover that he's not there. A restaurant isn't any old business. It's not widgets. The product, such as it is, might be refined over the course of weeks and months and years, but it's seldom perfected, in the sense of something that is the exact same thing every single time you purchase it. That's part of the excitement, I think, of dining out — the idea that you're in for a kind of live performance. A live performance, and, at the highest levels, a form of personal expression.

Without that person there — the creator, the performer — it loses a lot.

Oak Hill, VA
Todd, Any Norwegian or Swedish restaurants in the area? My wife is craving some salted fish :).

Would she settle for Swedish meatballs?

Because you can find them at W Domku, in Petworth — so far as I know, the area's only Swedish/Norwegian restaurant. A fun place, with surprisingly good food and an easygoing, likable vibe.

Chang:

eek! thanks so much for the information regarding chang's new digs in charlottesville.

i went to taste of china before the word got out but i've moved away from cville since and ive been curious about what's been going on with chang. i always call to make sure he's in the kitchen before i go and it is worth it. whenever chang is in the kitchen, what is turned out is fantastic. some of the best szechuan food i've ever had. but as you assumed, it really does get spotty in his absence.

anyhow, thanks, again. really looking forward to taking a drive out there.

"Looking forward" — that's the problem phrase. You can't "look forward" to anything where Peter Chang is concerned.

You receive notice, you change your schedule around, you hop in the car and you go. Either that, or curse yourself for having waited.

 

Shaw, DC

Good Morning Todd,

Just wanted to give a quick field report on The Cajun Experience in Dupont Circle. After much stalking, I finally found a place that is doing crawfish boils this season AND would tell me to my face that the mudbugs were out of the south Louisiana mud and flown in the morning of the boil.

Five friends joined in and we also enjoyed the fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside hushpuppies and some red beans and rice. The crawfish were great, perfectly cooked and spicy enough to give you a creole kick but didn't burn your lips off. My friends and I could certainly tell the owners put a lot of effort into the authenticity of the place.

I don't mind letting this secret out because I really like the place and want it to succeed, but I also already have my standing reservation for the next boil!

I really like the place, too.

I've been a fan of the operation in Leesburg, the original, and it's nice to see that TCE can expand (there's now a location in Purcellville, too) and retain its charm, simplicity and quality.

Heads-up: They do a roast beef po' boy with debris, and though it was a little dry the last time I had it in DC, it was killer the last time I had it in Leesburg.

I love the hush puppies, the crawfish boil is excellent, and the gumbo has that authentically muddy character that's hard to find outside of Cajun-style gumbos in Louisiana.

Another plus is that the place is so reasonably priced for DC, and yet the setting and the service are comparable to a mid-level restaurant.

Silver Spring Moto-Mouth

A chatter from last week contributed a really nice mini-essay and question about when restaurants (especially favored ones) close. I have a few examples that play off that idea – the idea of feeling nervous for the health of neighborhood joints.

I was bummed to hear of General Store’s closing, but you know…I never really got around to going back after the first couple of times. I loved the location, building, and menu, but I just never got back there.

When Pedro Matomoros left Nicaro to start 8407 Kitchen+Bar, I was excited. I like 8407…Silver Spring needs it. So why haven’t I gone back to Nicaro since the change? I really enjoyed it before (again, Silver Spring needs it), but now I treat it like it’s closed. Why?

I love seeing Jackie’s packed. Sure, it’s annoying when you want a seat without a reservation, but then I remember that this is what’s keeping the gem alive and growing.

And then there’s the Royal Mile Pub. This is my place. I was worried that having The Limerick Pub open up literally across the street would do the venerable Scottish institution in. Was the town big enough for two pubs next door to each other? I mean, there the Limerick is, with its gleaming new bar, furniture, paint, and floor! How can the old Mile compete? Will I lose my favorite pub to an upstart? Where would I go?

I gave the Limerick a try. With all due respect to its fine owners and their effort to increase the options in Wheaton, it has a long way to go. I didn’t find warm, worn-in comfort. The lighting was a little too bright. The bar choices were a bit “rail-y”. I missed the colorful regulars from next door. I didn’t feel that hard-to-find balance of divey and family-friendly. And the fish and chips’ batter didn’t call to me either. It might be a good place to catch a game or huck some darts, but that’s not me.

So, now I’m not as worried that my pub will be driven out of business, but I do have a better appreciation of the worry the owner of a new restaurant might feel!

Thanks for writing in, SSMM …

Very few people appreciate just how hand-to-mouth most restaurant operations are — especially the independent restaurants, the restaurants without hotels or corporations backing them. Even the ones that are successful and seem to be doing big business on weekend nights, are much more fragile than diners would suspect.

I remember interviewing Robert Wiedmaier, the chef and proprietor of Marcel's, in the months immediately after 9/11, as businesses were slowly coming around after some very difficult months. Wiedmaier had only the one restaurant at the time, and it was generally regarded as one of the finest in the city. I asked him: What if there were another attack on the city? How would it affect the restaurant?

His answer surprised me. He said that he could probably survive three extremely slow months, but that if people kept away for much more than that, he would probably have to close up.

Harrisburg, PA

Todd,

Thank you for taking my question- you make my Tuesday mornings! I am heading to Annandale in the near future, and I wanted to get your take on where to go.

I believe you gave Honey Pig a good write-up, but that the 'scene' is a big part of it (I don't want to misquote you). It's on my radar, but it sounds like can get pretty noisy.

Can you recommend other places? Good banchan is a plus! On a related note, is there a good Korean bakery in the area?

Thanks!

Is there a good bakery in the area? There's a terrific bakery in the area. It's called Shilla, and it's so good and so popular that I've never not had to fight to get a table. Even at 4 in the afternoon on a weekday. I love Shilla.

My favorite spot in Annandale — or Koreatown, as many locals refer to it — is Gom Ba Woo. I'd go there before I went to Honey Pig. 

It's not as sexy (it's also not as crowded), but it's a more satisfying meal. Great panchan, arguably the best seafood pancake in that neck of the woods, and I also love the grilled spicy pork belly and sollongtang, the soothing, slow-simmered beef shin soup outfitted with chewy rice cakes, ribbons of fried egg, and sliced green onions.

Rockville MD
I am trying to find a Dim Sum place that is not carts … but where you can order off a menu… any ideas ?

The best dim sum in the area at the moment can be found at Red Pearl, in Columbia. Off the menu at dinner, not off the carts.

The latter is generally disappointing. The nighttime selection, on the other hand, is stellar. Expensive ( small plates that typically sell for $3 go for $7) but stellar.

Load up on har gao, or steamed translucent shrimp dumplings; char siu bao (beautiful, golden-hued buns filled with luscious roast pork); dan dan noodles; shrimp-stuffed eggplant; and the various filled rice noodle crepes (I like shrimp) called ha na.

Silver Spring
Hi Todd–What is your favorite place for Peruvian chicken?

Tough call right now.

I love EPR — El Pollo Rico — when the chickens are fresh off the spit and cleavered right there before your eyes, but that's getting harder and harder to find now that the place has relocated and has a bigger storage oven. Some days, it's glorious. And some days, it's pretty good.

Super Chicken is much more consistent, and my recent experiences there have been terrific. 

Logan circle
hey todd. if your "last meal" had to be cooked by one chef in this city, who would it be? thanks!

Michel Richard.

But here's the thing — I don't think I would want a chef-cooked "last meal." I would probably want a hot pastrami sandwich or barbecue.

If you were to ask most chefs, you would find that they would say much the same thing. A simple dish, something with extra-culinary associations. A dish of deep resonance.

Bethesda

Todd,

We have my wife's family vising this for a week. There will be 8 of us total. Age ranges from 6-76. For sure we will be dining at A&J in Rockville, Nava Thai and Pete's APizza.

Any other suggestions? Thanks!

I'm guessing you'll want to stay close to home, close to Bethesda, since all the restaurants you mention are in striking distance–?

Definitely add Yamas Mediterranean Grill to the list. Inexpensive, and one of the most satisfying meals to be had in Bethesda right now.

And definitely add La Limeña to the list, too. Excellent Peruvian cooking, and the redo of the dining room has resulted in a more comfortable, more stylish setting, including actual plates and silverware. (More menu options, too, like a wonderful fish tiradito with aji pepper sauce, along with slightly more expensive prices.)

I might add Jackie's to the list, too, though it's more expensive than the others you listed.

I'll be interested to hear where you end up. Drop in and give us a full report when you get a chance, ok? …

… Thanks for all the great questions today, everyone. I'm off to lunch, then a dental appointment — which I will need to wipe from my consciousness with a couple glasses of wine and a good dinner. 

Oh, and before I run, I wanted to mention that I'll be in St. Louis this weekend for the annual Drink Local Wine conference, so if anyone has any great recommendations for restaurants, please drop me an email: tkliman@washingtonian.com … I'm looking for the kind of restaurants that are relatively hard to find here — non-expense-account Italian dining, for instance — as well as anything that's just simple and good and true to itself. All levels — high, low and in between … Thanks …

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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