Tuesday, April 12 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman reports on a good, new Thai place in Silver Spring, talks food trucks, and gives recommendations for dining in the Virginia suburbs.

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  …

   … Kao Thai (8650 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; 301-495-1234) has replaced Thai Flavor, taking over a slip of a place on bustling Colesville Rd., across from the AFI Silver Theater. The remake has been total. What once was a pleasant, stools-only cafe is now a full-service restaurant with polished hardwood floors, good lighting, and warm, inviting colors on the walls. The change in the kitchen is equally dramatic. The previous occupant was little more than a dependable take-out option, but for the moment Kao Thai appears to be worthy of a nice night out.
   My recent meal turned up only one disappointment, a clumpy drunken noodles. Everything else was excellent: a bowl of won ton soup made with homemade chicken stock and featuring juicy, thinly wrapped dumplings; skewers of luscious grilled pork served with a brick-colored dipping sauce as fiery as it was bright; jumbo shrimp wrapped in won tons and fried to a turn; one of the best red curries I've had this year. A cold Singha would have been nice, but the restaurant is awaiting its liquor license. A friend and I ended the night with a surprisingly delicate dish of sticky rice and mango.
   Because a good bit of the restaurant's clientele persists in seeing the place as grab-and-go material, service is slow and sometimes harried, with diners being accommodated in-between carry-out orders. That's too bad. It's the kind of place you want to sit and linger a little — linger purposefully, and not because you've been neglected. …

   … Kao Thai was the best Thai meal I've had in a couple of months. The worst? And not just in the past couple of months, but possibly in years? A recent dinner at Sawatdee (2250 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-8181), a block from the Arlington Courthouse. A starter of coconut rice tasted as if it had been made from leftover rice; the papaya salad was soggy as an unwrung towel; the red curry was oddly viscious, as sweet as children's cough medicine and laden with eggplant slices the texture of mashed potatoes; a casserole of saffron rice (I'd be willing to bet turmeric was the seasoning, not saffron) and lamb appeared to have been made earlier that day and reheated. …

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Del Ray

Hi Todd,

Not sure if this is the right forum but my colleagues and I had an idea – food trucks need to paint their names and logos on the roofs so those of us in highrises can just look out the window and see who's serving lunch.

I know you can go to the trucks' twitter accounts and there is also a website, but I can't tell you how often we are deciding whether to order in or brave the weather, look out the window, see the trucks and then….nothing. No one ever wants to look up the website. It would be so much easier to just look out the window and be able to say – heck yeah, takorean is outside, let's go!

We're lazy. I know:)

Hey, it's a good business idea. And not too difficult for the trucks to do, I'd think.

Makes me think of the NBA arenas that sneak a team logo in under the scoreboard — so that when the cameraman is low, getting an under-the-basket shot, the team gets free advertising.

Clever —  though the constant selling of everything in this country is just wearying. And dispiriting.

Del Ray

It dawned on me that this discussion usually revolves around dinner. I thought I would share some of my favorite lunch spots near McPherson Square and see if anyone had any good tips for new places I can check out.

I LOVE Mayur Kebab House on K St. They have an $8 buffet with awesome pakistani food. Great value and lots of vegetarian options.

I am also partial to Casa Blanca on Vermont. It is the only place to get tacos in the area. In the summer, there are a few tables outside and if I don't have afternoon meetings, sometimes I even sneak a Dos Equis!

I have to also give a shout out to the Maryland crab soup at the Atrium on I and 13th St. OMG – it's delicious.

Where do you go for a reasonable ($10 or less) lunch when on K St.?

How about in and around K?

Greek Deli on 19th, near L, is one, for the enormous portions of Greek homecooking and the olive oil-baked bread.

The Best Sandwich Place, on L, right near the soon-to-be-defunct Borders, is another. Hot turkey sandwiches made from real, carved-right-there turkey — not thin slices of lunch meat; I like the version with cranberry sauce.

I'm not crazy about Mayur. It's cheap, certainly, but everything tastes thin to me. Thin and punchless.

dc
Regarding ideas for meeting readers over a review meal–the easiest thing for you would be to have some kind of lottery or drawing–where people submit their contact info and you randomly select someone to take with you once or twice a year; if they are reading this column to start with you would likely enjoy them enough for an evening

I think that's a great idea.

That, or a contest — wherein you, the chatter, crafts a short review of a meal and I pick the winner to go out to eat. 

That's also a chatter suggestion — a number of you who sent me emails this past week had it, and I think it sounds terrific.

Any other ideas, anyone? I'd really like to do this — both to meet some of you, and also to say thank you for all your support of this forum every week …

Food trucks

Given some of my recent experiences with food trucks in DC, I wonder if we have reached the point of over saturation.

I was/ still am a huge fan of the concept, and I have had some delicious meals at some of them, but others have ranged from disappointing to inedible.

First the good: Red Hook, as everyone else pretty much agrees, is incredibly good, and even though you dish out 20 bucks, makes you feel like you got a good deal when you can see a full lobster claw sticking our of the mound of chopped up meat.

El Floridano had a delicious turkey meatload banh mi that was comforting, fresh and a bit exotic tasting with pickled mango.

Porc Mobile's homemade pastrami was excellent; not exactly deli style with their thicker hand cut slices, but certainly top notch.

Takorean was ok, good flavors, but nothing to write home about.

For the bad: Meathead was the worst, I went on the later side, and was the only person there, but they managed to mess up my order twice. The steak int he sandwich tasted like "steak ums" and they apparently no longer had their signature cheese sauce, even though the menu stated they did. It was one of the worst cheese steaks I have ever eaten.

CapMac's standard mac and cheese tasted less of mac and cheese and more of a cardboard box of pasta which had been sauteed with cheese and oil. It was greasy, congealed, and just not appealing.

Carnivore BBQ, who's web site claims people have driven from Texas for, must be smoking something other than meat. It was the most bland BBQ I have ever eaten. As you are in line, one of the employees tells you about the BBQ, apparently smoked for 22 hours over hardwood. Despite this, I saw no smoke ring, and it tasted as if it had been boiled for 22 hours. Just plain bad BBQ. I could not finish it. I just don't know. I think that if you are doing one or two things, like most food trucks do, you should be amazing at them, sub par just shouldn't cut it.

First of all, thanks for the fantastic roundup.

Second: thanks for the great laughs on a rainy gray morning … Oop, look at that — just as I finished typing "rainy gray morning," the sun decided it should poke its shiny head out and say hello.

I don't know if I agree that we've reached saturation on the food trucks. It's like anything else. They can't all be gems. Some people are getting into this because they've got a skill, and a desire, and not a lot of options. And others are getting into this because it's the thing to get into.

Personally, I'd like to see many more trucks crisscrossing the area.

 

Olney

Hey Todd.

Have you made it up to my neck of the woods lately? I'm wondering if you've had the chance to to sample some of the newer restaurants in Olney. Mannequin Pis gets the most publicity but a couple of other places are worth checking out.

Taste – a mezze joint opened recently in the strip mall adjacent to Mannequin Pis. I've been twice. The first time was great, the second visit the staff was overwhelmed with a big Friday night crowd and didn't shine.

The other place of interest is Al Sospiro – just across Georgia Avenue from Mannequin Pis. The chef is from outside of Rome. They have interesting selections, not just the Americanized red sauce Italian we've come to expect.

I haven't tried Taste yet, no. But it's on my (long) list.

Al Sospiro is a place I want to revisit, because I want to like it more than I do. My feeling was that it didn't quite know what it wanted to be. I think it'd be a better place if it were a simpler place.

Thanks for the reminder, and stay tuned the next couple of months …

Clifton, VA

Todd

Sir, Dining recommendations for Winchester, VA. have friends coming into town for a herding trial up that way and need a good place for dinner. Good drinks, not to dressy we still have sheep poop on our shoes, American, Italian , Steaks etc and enteries $15 and up. I am picking up the tab for dog's breeders.

Sir???

Have I really made that big a leap in your estimation these past couple of years, to the point that I now merit a "sir"? Wow.

Or is it that you're in need of real assistance? : )

It's funny you mentioned Winchester, because I was talking just yesterday with a friend who lives there and was telling me about a new or new-ish restaurant called Mimosa Asian Fusion. She prefaced her recommendation by saying that "there's nothing good out that way," but was pretty effusive in her praise nevertheless.

I can't vouch for it, so I'm not recommending it to you — merely passing on the information. I also tend to be skeptical of Asian fusion spots, if only because if it's not an ambitious sort of place I'd prefer that the restaurant focus on one cuisine and do it well rather than play mixmaster in the kitchen or strive to offer a buffet of tastes from a half-dozen cultures.

But consider it an option. With the stamp of approval of at least one Winchester resident.

 

Takoma Park, MD

Todd,

I saw your tweet about 5 terrible meals & the glam life of a critic. What percentage of your restaurant meals – on average – are that bad? Is it a majority? How do you choose which of the bad ones are worth writing about?

Cheers, Heather

The tweet, for those who didn't see it, was — "5th straight horrendous meal. Left most of it, still feel like I've absorbed a punch. The life of the critic is SO glamorous."

The strange thing is, these things tend to happen in runs like this. I'm on a bad run right now. 

I would say that most of the meals I eat out — and remember, I'm eating at every level of the scale, and in every corner and cranny of the area — fall into the not-great category. In that category we have: the awful, the disappointing, the mediocre, the decent but forgettable. That makes up the majority of what I find when I go out to eat — maybe 60 percent or so.

This isn't a complaint. It's just the truth. But I think it's an interesting truth, in light of what most people who don't review restaurants think of the life of a restaurant reviewer. 

I don't often write about my bad meals; I keep them to myself. (But Jesus, Saturday night's was abominable! Who wants the details? 😉

Sometimes I'll write about a really bad meal, as I did up above with Sawatdee. But I don't generally devote a lot of space on it. Sometimes a bad meal is really noteworthy — a bad meal, or bad meals, at a place that is a heavily funded, heavily publicized operation.

But a bad meal at a tiny independent or mom n pop that I don't plan on following, or writing about again? I tend to refrain from writing anything. 

 

Fairfax, VA

In response to Clifton, VA….

I haven't been in a few years, but Violino's use to be very good. It is an Italian restaurant in the downtown area of Winchester. The quality of the food was as good as any moderate to expensive Italian restaurant in the DC area.

Thanks for chiming in.

One more for you, Clifton …

Silver Spring Moto-Mouth

Hi Todd,

Any good Indian in the Silver Spring/Wheaton area, especially for takeout? I see Bombay Gaylord all the time, but haven't heard anything about it. Thanks!

Forget Bombay Gaylord. It's pretty lousy.

I would give Bombay, in White Oak, a shot. The service is surly and strange, which is why take-out is such a good option there. The food, when it's good, can be superb — I've had terrific dishes there over the years, as good as those I've found anywhere in the region and sometimes better. But it's only intermittently superb, is the problem.

Still, on its most ordinary day it's still a much, much better bet than Bombay Gaylord.

Ghar-E-Kabab, the Indian/Nepalese restaurant on Wayne Ave., is a popular takeout spot these days, but the cooking has declined since it opened and I can't recommend it even tepidly anymore.

DC

Curious, have you done a comparison between Uptown deli and Bubbie's?

Also, is there anyplace in DC to get a great roast turkey sandwhich, made with REAL turkey? Love the chats. thanks.

The aforementioned Best Sandwich Place, at 18th and L Sts., is the place you want to hit. It's a hard place to find, though — best way to access it is to go in the door adjacent to the Borders and walk on back. It's not visible from the street, unfortunately.

It's a really good turkey sandwich, and at a good price, too.

As for a comparison of Bubby's and Uptown — I haven't lined up sandwiches from both and done an assessment, no, but I have eaten at both.

I prefer Bubby's as a total experience — the vibe, the servers, the portions, all of it together. A deli should be a zesty place to be, and though Bubby's isn't Katz's in NYC, it's plenty decent in this regard.

Neither spot is deli valhalla. Bubby's has its weaknesses, and so does Uptown. But I like Bubby's hot pastrami, its matzo ball soup, its brisket with gravy over challah, and its cakes from Junior's in Brooklyn. 

I do want to get back to Uptown soon, because one of the weaknesses was its bread, which some readers who've emailed me in the past few weeks are insisting has changed. Good for Uptown, if it's true.

Shaw DC

Good Morning Todd,

Who knew it so difficult to sit on a patio and enjoy Happy Hour if you're going solo. Here's a field report from last yesterday afternoon.

First I walk to PS 7 because I wanted to try a new and exciting place, well they're the only place in DC with a patio which isn't open yet.

So I try my luck at Acadiana. The hostess informs me that even though there are 2 open 2-tops (that I can see) and a large group area, there is nothing available for a solo diner. Seriously?

Ok, so I go back to PS 7 to sit at the bar alas no seats. So I try Art & Soul. From the street I can see that there is a large area reserved for a big group, a single 2-top which is clearly set for dinner and one lonely seat around the fire pit. The hostess informs me that I am welcome to the seat at the fire pit since it's not reserved but since there are no tables I can't dine there and she suggests I get my drink at the bar and then take a seat since there's no waitstaff for that area. Ok, well thanks but that's just way too much hassle for me.

I walk down to Charlie Palmer's. I ordered a wine, can't seem to get the bartender's attention for a water, so I slam my rose, and say *$^%@# it, i'm going to Capital Grille where I know I'll get some service. And I did, of course. I had a very cold martini or two, and the delicious cheeseburger with truffle fries.

A great ending to an insane afternoon of trying to drink alone on a beautiful day. Am I the only person who doesn't mind going out alone to enjoy a cocktail and a nosh? Must I travel in a pack of 6 to get any respect from some of the afore mentioned places?

 

I can understand having a policy; policies are necessary things for businesses to have, they keep things clear and organized.

But I also think that sometimes policies are excuses not to have to think.

The place wasn't crowded, it was the afternoon and not evening, and you ended up ordering a lot of food and drink. What would have been the harm in accommodating you?

I find it interesting, also, that the place that treated you best was the chain. Three independent restaurants, three disappointments.

 

Washington, The Subjugated non state of DC

Re: your criticism of restaurant that feature local ingredients and do no promote local wines. I own a restaurant, that while not locovore, supports local farms because of the integrity and flavor of local produce. We sell local food because it tastes better, not because it is local. We have started adding local wines to our list in the last couple of years, not because they are local, but because they are really good buys and they complement our food, something I would not have said a few years ago.

But here is the point: We announced a wine dinner with a local winemaker. In the first two day after the email blast to our list, we got zero signups. When we did a dinner with Bev Eggleston of EcoFriendly Foods, we for 17. When we did an all veggie meal with Zach Lester of Tree & Leaf, we got 20 (yes! veggies outsold pig). RIght now, the winery has sent out a release to its mailing list and we are finally selling seats. But to folk who know and love the wines already. So instead of taking my customers and making Virginia wine lovers out of them, I am getting the winery's customers and have a chance to introduce them to my restaurant. Which is great from my point of view, but not as great from the Virginia wine point of view. That having been said, we are adding 4 more Virginia wines to our list this month.

Interesting.

But I think your experience underscores my point, that local meats are seen as having cache, while local wines are not. To be up on Bev Eggleston, and to know the brands on offer at the local farmers' markets, is to be a proper foodie. To be in the now, the Michael Pollan-shaped now. To drink local wine, is to be an outsider. No cache.

A Bev Eggleston chop is, for the proper foodie, on a par more or less with a good 2005 Bordeaux. Both speak to certain values. A good Virginia wine, on the other hand, is still a curiosity and lacking in the prestige that comes with national recognition.

Winchester, VA
The herding friends can enjoy: One Block West (Old Town Winchester) L'Auberge Provencal (White Post) Hunters Head (Upperville). Mimosa is not new or newish, probably not what they looking for.

One Block West is a good reco.

L'Auberge Provencale? Too dressy — they're going to be more casual. Hunter's Head, sure, but further afield.

Fairfax, VA

I use to live in the U St Corridor area, where I had lots options for restaurants. I now live in the Fair Oaks area, with a lot of chain restaurants. I have discovered a couple of Indian, Thai, and Korean restaurants…but nothing that really excites me.

I love all kinds of food, from Italian and French to Indian and Thai. Do you have any recommendations on places to check out in my suburbian hell. I'm willing to travel to Centreville, Chantilly, Reston, and Ashburn.

Boy, there's tons of good stuff in those towns.

In Chantilly, you've got the chain-looking-but-not Don Churros for pan-Latin and Rangoli and Minerva for Indian; the latter, especially, for buffet — all good.

In Reston, PassionFish is excellent for fish and seafood, Vinifera is a good wine bar, Jackson's Might Fine Foods is a solidly run and tasty place for good times, and Ariake is an above-average sushi bar.

Go to Windy City Red Hots in Ashburn if you want an authentic Chicago style hot dog. Also in Ashburn: a very good Chinese restaurant, called Yen's Cafe.

Centreville has a branch of Vit Goel ToFu, which I love for the soondubu, a peppery red stew full of jigglingly soft custard that's brought to the table in a sputtering black cauldron. 

Cleveland Park
RE: good real/turkey sandwiches… Cafe Phillips, behind Union Station, has carved turkey sandwiches (among other options) with your choice of bread (salted "brioche" is delicious, but doesn't quite stand up to the meat/toppings). The meat can be a little dry but the extremely friendly service, reasonable prices and free toppings make up for it.

Phillips? Really?

 

Cleveland Park

Hi Todd.

Any reccomendations on where to take my 12 year old son & 5 pals to dinner for his birthday? He is a minichef himself. (I actually took him to Volt where he wound up in the kitchen chatting with Bryan.) Some of the boys are meat eaters, a few are non (fish only), and for good measure I'm certain there is a vegetarian. Thanks!

I think Central Michel Richard could be fun, and not TOO expensive given the number of people you'd be paying for, and your son would get a kick out of seeing some familiar-looking dishes (burgers, fried chicken) interpreted and rendered by a fine dining-style kitchen.

Zaytinya's another possibility. And small plates are good with a big group.

Most of the other places that come to mind are probably too adult, too serious, for a group like this. Or too expensive.

I'll be curious to hear where you end up. Drop me a line and let me know, okay?

Gotta run. Coffee and lunch with a new friend …

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

 

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