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
Michel, Tysons Corner
Palena Cafe, DC
Poste Brasserie, DC
Red Pearl, Columbia
Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown
W o r d o f M o u t h …
… Best dish of the week: lamb chop masala at RJ Cafe (12111 Indian Creek Court, Beltsville; 240-264-1990).
RJ Cafe is as hidden as hidden eats get, a hole in the wall deli/sit-down restaurant buried deep within Ammendale Business Park. The menu is a crazy hodgepodge of influences, and invites skepticism: cheeseburgers, seekh kabob, crabcakes, Buffalo wings, a smoked salmon sandwich, chicken fried steak, beef short ribs, pizza. There's even wedding banquet fare in the form of beef Wellington. Beef Wellington?
A couple of possible explanations for the eclecticism: Hameed Khan and Basit Khan, the brothers who run the place, are veterans of the kitchens at Whole Foods, which daily cranks out a dizzying, UN-like range of dishes to fill its to-go cases. Also, having lived in America since coming over from Pakistan in 1977, the brothers have spent more of their lives among burger joints and pizza parlors than not.
Their aim in opening, three years ago, was to offer the panoply of fast food options most Americans take for granted, but to do so serving Halal meat only. Not only is the deli/restaurant one of the few spots in the area for Muslims to enjoy a meal out, but it's also perhaps the only one that departs from convention (rice, kabob, naan) to focus so much on American food. If the reviews on zabihah.com, a national guide to hallal-only restaurants, butcher shops, and markets where I first learned about the cafe, are any indication, the local community has embraced the brothers' vision.
Basit mans the stoves; Hameed is the GM, and an unusually warm and affable host — on this night, he swings by the table, extends a hand ("Welcome, brother"), and sits down beside me as if we were old chums. For the next few minutes he guides us through the sprawling menu and, interviewing us to learn our tastes, helps us pick out dishes. He steers us from the seekh kabob to the "Chef's Sandwich," which turns out to be a Cajun-spiced patty tucked inside coconut bread with lettuce, tomatoes, and onion. An odd combination, but it works, the sweetness of the bread balancing the heat of the spices. And the sandwich-making reveals a generousness of spirit — it's as thickly piled as the best gyro or hoagie.
The chops are even better. "Mom's here tonight," Hameed said by way of raising expectations, referring to Jamila (she's the J of the cafe's name; the R honors the brothers' father, Rasheed), who, on most nights, is in the kitchen at Tabeer, the tasty, full-service Pakistani restaurant in Langley Park.
Fifteen minutes later, Hameed returns bearing a huge plate of cinnamon-scented basmati rice and a salad, along with a shallow bowl containing three New Zealand lamb chops ($16.99) in a fabulous curry masala, the luscious, mouth-warming red gravy punched up with slivers of fresh ginger and c
The cool-down comes in the form of York Tropical ice creams. Soursop, mango, pistachio, coconut, guava, passion fruit — all can be found in a small freezer near the cash register. …
Yeah, that's not that easy a thing, is it?
If you go to Vit Goel ToFu, a soup parlor — there's one in Annandale, aka Koreatown, and one in Rockville — you can get yourself a bowl of soondubu, a spicy red pepper soup with squares of soft, creamy tofu; you break a raw egg into the bowl after it's brought to the table. The hot, often sputtering liquid cooks it instantly. It's a fantastic dish, and wonderfully soothing on a raw, rainy day.
Are you willing to eat seafood? Because you could make a meal just off of a dish called seafood pancake — a kind of frittata, with squid, shrimp and sliced green onions all tucked into the cooked egg.
Beyond that, there's the panchan, the assortment of snacks that comes out at the start of any meal — often, there's a good bit for a carniphobe/vegetarian to sample: kimchee, which is fermented, spiced cabbage; a mild, matchstick potato dish; a bowl of radishes; pickled pears; spicy mung beans; etc.
… Good morning, everyone. What a weird two days of weather — over-hot yesterday, with temps up in the 80s, then back into the 50s this morning. Cold, gray, raw … A good day for soondubu …
Have you had the pizza at Sette Osteria recently? I went there last weekend and thought it might be up there with Two Amy's as far as authenticity goes. The rest of the menu can be a little blah, but the pizza is usually exceptional.
Just curious: Are you a baseball fan, and if so, what is your preferred snack of choice at Nats stadium? And please don't say Ben's because I just don't buy the hype. Thanks!
Sette's pizzas can be really, really good. The place goes through stretches where you think: Hey, these guys can compete with anybody in town! A few weeks later, a month or so later, and you're back to thinking: Yeah, pretty good.
Am I a baseball fan? Interesting question. The Nationals make it hard, being such a cheap organization, and with no real identity. And the stadium represents a blown opportunity. It lacks the character, drama and intimacy of the best stadiums, like the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Prediction: Of the three, currently down-in-the-dumps local franchises — Redskins, Nationals, Wizards — the quickest to turn it around will be the Wizards.)
At the park, if I'm snacking, it's likely to be, sorry, a halfsmoke from Ben's. Why not? It's not as if you're looking for Cuisine in that situation. You want good junk food, and Ben's is good junk food.
By the way, Danny Meyer — the impresario behind Grammercy Tavern and Shake Shack in New York — has partnered with the Nationals on some new food options for the stadium.
Per the press release: "Upon opening in late spring of 2011, Nationals fans will enjoy a variety of delicious new menu offerings, including mouthwatering real pit barbecue from Blue Smoke, addictive Belgian-style fries and dipping sauces at Box Frites, authentic Mexican food and flavors at El Verano Taquería, and ShackBurgers, hot dogs and frozen custard from the popular Shake Shack. This multi-year agreement makes Nationals Park the third sports venue in the nation to offer USHG’s beloved cuisine, joining Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, and New York Racing Association’s Saratoga Race Course."
Now, if only the team were as shrewd and aggressive in adding some bats and players who can carry a team.
Todd, as always thanks for the chats, really makes my Tuesday mornings.
I am an unabashed carnivore, love to cook all types of meat be it inside, on my gas grill, or when I have the time, smoke it on my Big Green Egg.
For Christmas Santa brought me the wonderful read, Primal Cuts and it has really piqued my interest in butchery, do you know of any places in the area who do classes on how to butcher meats.
Thanks for your time!
You know, I'm not aware of any — but that's not to say there aren't. Does anyone out there know of a class like this? I think it'd make for a fantastic course.
Now, a question for you — how do you like your Big Green Egg? I've heard good things. How easy is it to smoke with it? How's clean-up? How much room do you need to give it?
As promised, I am reporting back on our experience at Obelisk last Saturday night. A really lovely evening.
The staff is very knowledgeable about the food and wine. The appetizers were amazing. If I recall correctly, years ago there was only one: risotto balls. Now there are four or five and each one excellent. Burrata. Lamb/lamb liver kabob. Broccolini. And more.
Bread very good. Wine pairings offered, but we opted for bottles. Their recommendation going well with most courses. (Four people – too many courses to count.)
First course, again excellent. Entrees (as we discussed in this column a few weeks ago) were ok with the lamb chops being the standout and the chicken under a brick not so tasty.
Cheese course was fine. Desserts shine.
Generally, a good value and lovely atmosphere.
Glad to hear it.
Your experience there mirrors my own. A great opening act, a middling middle, and a great final act. And backed by some of the best service in town.
It's a funny thing about appetizers, but in the majority of cases they're better than the entrees — in fact, when I travel, and I'm paying my own way, I rarely order an entree.
If I'm traveling with my wife and we want to dine as opposed to eat, we typically go in for what I think of as the 5-Slot Meal.
Three appetizers, an entree to share, and a dessert to share. Five slots.
Or: Four appetizers, no entree, a dessert to share.
How about the rest of you? I'm curious — how often do you find that the main courses are a letdown? (And I'm defining letdown broadly, here — if the appetizers are brilliant, then the main courses can be a letdown even if they're decent.)
I had dinner at Palena Cafe the other night (predictably wonderful) and it got me thinking about the general restaurant scene in Cleveland Park.
Just looking at the Connecticut Ave. side around the metro stop, it seems to me to be a pretty good dining area. Palena is regular among the discussion of top places in DC, Nam Viet and Indique, at least in my opinion, are top notch ethnic locales, and Dino and Sorrisso are great neighborhood places. I haven't been to either yet, but Medium Rare and Ripple just opened up and seem to have people excited, as well. Oh, and Vace makes GREAT pizza (I love any pie with Pancetta as a topping).
Any love for CP restaurants, because aside from Uptown and a few bars, there really isn't much else going on in the area? Thanks!
No, it's definitely gotten more interesting with the addition of the surprising Ripple and now Medium Rare (the restaurant I hinted at months ago, by the way, the single-dish concept with seconds [!]) and the expansion of Palena, which basically has turned the cafe into a separate restaurant.
And as for Vace — the thing I love best there is the ability to buy all the fixings for a DIY pizza.
Get the dough, pick up a can of sauce, a ball of mozzarella, and you're good to go.
Last time I did it, I got two nice-sized pizzas out of a single ball of dough. A spare slick of tomato sauce, a few slices of cheese on top, a sprinkle of dried oregano, and after I slid the baked pies from the pizza stone, a sunny side-up egg. Perfect.
Well, I had a great time at Trattoria Marcella, on Watson Rd., with friends old and new.
Just walking up was exciting. It felt like stepping back in time. The place was alive, and the scene was like nothing you'd find in a DC area restaurant, where the best Italian restaurants are expense-account places. I'd go back just to sit again in one of the dining rooms. Incredibly convivial and warm and unpretentious, with diners of all ages, in all kinds of attire, and out for all manner of reasons and occasions.
I began my meal with a six-buck Sazerac, and an excellent one. You can maybe find a Coke around here for six bucks.
The food all hit the spot — fritto misto with fried spinach, tuna meatballs with agrodolce, a Roman-style pizza with sausage, a bowl of perfectly made gnocchi, and the best lasagna I think I've ever eaten (it came in a casserole serving dish). I pushed my friend Dave McIntyre to order it, and even stealing bites from him, he only managed to eat half of it.
My only other meal was a (very) late breakfast at Pappy's. Ribs, beans and slaw.
The line at noon wrapped around the inside of the restaurant — a 45-minute estimated wait. I was tempted to bribe someone ten bucks to sneak in line, but only had to wait 20 minutes for carryout (I had a Cards game to catch). The ribs were worth it. Beautifully smoked, with meaty, not-too-big bones full of mostly luscious glazed pork. I ate them on the steps of a church.
I have always been curious about how a food critic is able to sample an adequate variety of foods at a restaurant.
Do you go in with your wife and order 16 different dishes(my fantasy) or do you go back several times and sample the menu? Do you go back repeatedly in a week or two or spread your visits out over weeks? If you hate a place, do you write it off or subject yourself to another visit? Do you take friends (or people who write in- hint hint) or just family?
The quick answer is — it depends.
I've had meals where the table is a virtual buffet of dishes, but if I'm writing a real review of a place, I'm likely going back a couple more times. Sometimes, I find that I need to hit a place 4 or 5 times. Occasionally, more — once I hit a place 7 times before sitting down to write.
Usually, those visits are spread out over a period of weeks. Sometimes months.
If I hate a place, it doesn't mean I write it off. I might just wait a few months before going back, especially if there is something there that intrigues me. Or if I think a place has earned at least a second look because the owner or chef has a record to stand on.
As to who comes along with me — again, that depends, too. I've taken my dentist, of all people — in fact, he's joining me for dinner later this week.
Does it seem strange to fork over thousands upon thousands of dollars to a guy, then use my eating-out budget to spring for dinner for him? It does. It's even stranger when you consider that he's sort of an anti-foodie. I don't know, maybe that's the appeal of it for me.
Watching him across the table at our last dinner, at a very respected fine dining restaurant, you would have assumed he was eating at a Jack in the Box. He races through his meal, demolishes his plates, eats like a house afire. I loved the time he eyed a parmesan soup with skepticism, then picked up a hunk of bread and dunked it violently into the bowl, sending the tiny gnocchi floating on the surface scattering.
I'd love to meet some of you sometime over a review meal. We should put our heads together and see how we can make that work … Any ideas?
Of course! My bad.
Yep, the newly renovated Ardeo+Bardeo is a big player there now, with new chef Nate Garyantes, previously a cook at Minibar, running the kitchen.
Thanks for reminding me!
It's a surprising move to hook up with Danny Meyer. And I think they certainly could have found someone in the area to partner with instead.
But good is good. I don't have a real problem with it.
Not spending on the club while charging a ton for tickets, etc. — that I have a problem with.
The Wizards are going to be good, soon, you watch. There are a lot of good young pieces there now — I love the addition of Jordan Crawford, a steal from the Hawks, and McGee seems to be figuring out how not to bite on pump-fakes all the time and stay down in the middle. We're playing with energy and fire right now, and you give the group another year of seasoning and off-season work, a Top 5 pick in the draft, a Top 20 pick in the draft (thank you, Hawks; thank you, Ernie), and you've got the foundation for something really promising. Then comes the big, clarifying trade and (possibly) big free agent signee.
Todd – my husband and I finally tried Cork and loved it. What struck me, though, is what a dearth there is of these types of restaurants in the DC area. Cities like Chicago, New York even RICHMOND, VA have tons of these types of places: good food, atmosphere, "vibe"…. We seem to have high end, ethnic, or chains and not much in between.
Can you recommend any other Cork-like experiences in DC or Virginia?
Five years ago, I'd have agreed with you. The scene lacked precisely what you're talking about — the interesting mid-level place that takes its food and drink really seriously but dispenses with the formality and pretentiousness often associated with fine dining.
Now? The area is full of them. You haven't been paying close enough attention.
Just off the top of my head there's, let's see now … Cork, Birch & Barley, Brasserie Beck, Bar Pilar, Eatonville, Palena Cafe, Vermilion in Old Town, Lyon Hall in Arlington, the new Atlas Room, Liberty Tavern in Arlington, Jackie's in Silver Spring, Eola, Kushi, Level in Annapolis, Central Michel Richard, Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya, Cafe Atlantico, Estadio, Proof, the revamped Ardeo+Bardeo, the new Medium Rare, 2 Amys after 9 (when the kids all leave) …
Todd, I love the idea of you reviewing a place with a chatter!
But I was laughing so hard about your dentist as your dining companion. I swear I dated a man just like that. Just hoovered up the food without even tasting it. Hated cheese. Even though he wasn't a foodie he loved going to certain places because of the scenery or "the scene", or the place was "sexy" or it was en vogue. That was really the deal breaker.
How many of DC's diners do you think keep lame places in business just because it's sexy or cool to go or be seen there?
How many? Lots.
And back to my dentist for a second, and eating like a vacuum cleaner … I've always felt that you can learn, if not everything you need to know about a person, then much of what you need to know to know if you want to know more, by seeing how they eat.
Not so much what they eat, but the way they eat it. I've never really seen the wisdom of going out for a first date to a so-called nice restaurant. My preference was always to go out for pizza or for Ethiopian. Will she eat with her hands? Is there a spirit of adventure there, a lust for life? Does she get it, or does she regard this kind of food as a form of slumming? Does she like food, or does she like a scene? Does she nibble, or does she dive in? Does she pretend not to eat, or does she not care too much how she comes across? All important questions, and they can all be answered at a single meal.
As for me, I would never, ever go out for a second date with someone who ate the way my dentist eats.
On a related note, I don't ever have him clean my teeth, either — too indelicate. He's a great dentist, but I feel more comfortable in the capable hands of his gentle hygienist.
True, but it misses a lot without that egg.
(And I thought the chatter was a vegetarian, not a vegan –?)
Has anyone had a good bibimbap lately? I haven't.
What are your thoughts on customer comment cards?
I know you recommend talking to a manager if you have any serious issues while at a restaurant. I ate at Kushi the other night, and while the food was delicious (I could eat a plate of the eringi mushrooms every day and be content) the service was overall pretty poor.
It started with the hostess leaving us standing in several places around the restaurant while she tried to figure out where to seat us (or so we thought… first we were brought to an occupied table, then we awkwardly stood near another table for about 5 minutes while she disappeared, eventually returning without saying anything to us and bringing menus over to a table, which we guessed was for us). Because there wasn't any one thing that stood out, just generally mediocre/poor servive, I appreciated that I could relate that on the comment card.
However… the fact that we had to leave this card with our server was awkward/concerning. Whose to say that card actually makes it to the manager/owner/whoever is supposed to see it?
I've always wondered about that, too. What's to stop a server from just crumpling the thing up and tossing it in the trash?
I suppose you could always just drop it off with a GM on your way out — a little less awkward, but no different, really, from having a face-to-face.
Just a shout-out to Franklin's in Hyattsville. As a Brookland resident, there are very few options nearby and we always end up driving. With a 2 1/2-year-old and 3-month-old, the options are even fewer.
However, Franklin's is our go-to place. It is very kid-friendly (with the menu, service and atmosphere), but also very adult-friendly (with the great beer and food). And I really feel that the food just keeps getting better and more diverse, while also still being a good value for your money.
Plus, the longest I've ever had to wait was 10 minutes.
Thanks for your time, Todd. Just felt like I needed to share. (Also, we went twice in the last week, so it has been on my mind.)
I'm a fan. And a neighbor.
It's a very good place to take a little kid — one of the best family-style restaurants in the area.
I think the beers are better than they've ever been, and would encourage anyone who hasn't been in a long while to give them another look. The style, under brewmaster Mike Roy, is leaner and less hoppy. Everything recently has been terrific.
I was just in recently, and had a bowl of broad egg noodles sauced lightly with a mushroom-and-pork Bolognese; my wife had the cornmeal crusted wild flounder with crawfish and fluffy grits. Both excellent.
And what's not to love about a restaurant that has a general store adjacent to it? Penny candy, gag gifts, children's toys, kitchen goods, candles, even a good selection of wines (you can buy a bottle and take it next door to open at dinner for a $10 corkage fee).
Just wanted to send some praise for some old favorites that while not "hot" or trendy right now remain entirely satisfying in a way I don't always get from the new places. Hit up Coppi's and Monmartre this last weekend. Atmosphere at both was cozy and warm and neighborhoody and the food delightful. Make new friends, but keep the old!
Agree, all the way around.
Both are good and dependable places, and deserving of broad support.
Thanks. Regarding my Big Green Egg, I love it, however, fair warning, it is somewhat of a cult, with great websites dedicated to hints, recipes, and chats which were VERY helpful when I started.
You don't need much more space than you would for the old Weber because the Egg is more vertical and the reason it cooks so well.
You can get it up to a sustained 500 degrees or higher if you want to char some steaks or burgers, or take it down to 215 if you want to do a slow smoke of ribs or brisket. The clean up is no different that charcoal if not easier
Post if you end up getting one and I will email you offline on my "go to" websites. Thanks again!
Thanks for the insights.
I'm thinking about it — though I have a brick pit sitting in my backyard that is begging to be used. But the BGE looks really enticing. I'll let you know if I take the plunge.
You're talking about a big gathering, yes?
I worry about something like that, because for one, I hate the hassle of figuring out the check when the meal's done — somebody inevitably gets screwed. And for another, it'd likely attract eyeballs in the resto community, making our meal a marked one.
But keep thinking … I'd really like to do this, in a group setting (if we can make it work) or a one-on-one occasionally throughout the year …
If you have ideas, send them along to me via email throughout the week — email@example.com — or save them for the chat next week.
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]