Tuesday, April 19 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman tries out Rosa Mexicano's Passover dinner, talks about Washington's new restaurants that have underwhelmed and surprised him, and why DC—despite the strides its made recently—may never be a food town.

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  …

   … With too many people in various stages of not-well — my mom a nasty case of bronchitis, my wife a stomach flu, yours truly a (mere) cold — we had already drastically curtailed our first-night seder plans when the brisket I was making yesterday afternoon refused to cooperate and turn soft and sliceable. My son, the falling domino that toppled us all, is doing better than all of us at the moment, but he's too small to reach the stove, so we audibled at the last second and ended up at Rosa Mexicano (575 7th St. NW; 202-783-5522) last night to order off its Passover menu.
   The restaurant began offering the special menu eight years ago, and the weeklong dinners have proved such a hit that some diners have reserved private rooms to hold their own seders. Last night, the number of diners requesting the Passover menu exceeded expectations, and the kitchen ran out of a number of items early, including dessert.
   If a high-end Mexican restaurant is the last place you would expect to see offering a Passover menu, you're not taking a long enough view of history. The Jewish presence in Mexico can be traced back to the Inquisition, with the conversos of Spain fleeing as far as they could from the long arm of the church. The country has long been regarded as a refuge for Jews from Eastern Europe, Germany, Turkey, and Syria, and this multicultural influence is reflected in the Passover menu at Rosa Mexicano, with both Sephardic and Ashkenazic flavors mingling with those of Mexico.
   The meal began by invoking the experience of both a Jewish deli and a Mexican cantina, with the waiter depositing a small plate of crunchy housemade pickles (and carrots) along with a small bowl of vividly green salsa for dipping. The combination was irresistible, in spite of the extreme saltiness of the salsa; we asked for seconds.
   From there it was on to tacos: in one version, thin slices of jicama substituted for tortillas, and were filled with pickled herring, cubed potatoes and sour cream — an interpretation of herring in cream sauce that was more interesting than delicious; in another, we spooned char-edged slices of grilled, sliced tongue onto warm corn tortillas, along with creamed corn and a chunky green salsa. The notion of corn on Passover feels just plain wrong to many Ashkenazi, but it's not verboten among Sephardic Jews. No matter how many times I eat Sephardically on Passover, I still feel a little thrill of the illicit, which no doubt made the tongue tacos taste even better than they were.
   In years past, the restaurant served a chunky-style charoses (a dish of apples and nuts that symbolizes the mortar the slaves used to build the pyramids) mounded in a pool of red wine — a traditional Sephardic preparation. This year, the preparation is a wine-flavored puree topped with pistachios. I pronounced it the best I've ever tasted, when I was quickly reminded, in deference to the Jewish mother whose cooking shall always reign supreme — "you mean: second best." My mother ma
kes no strong claims for her kugel, so I feel no qualms about saying that the version we ate last night (a small, cheesy kugel cake, with huitlacoche lancing the richness of the cream and cheese) might be my favorite.
   Main courses were the disappointment. The parchment-wrapped brisket was tough and stringy, although the side of carved, braised carrots was perfect. The other entree offered was a salmon, which arrived swaddled in a leaf of cabbage, approximating a common Ashkenazic preparation of gefilte dish. The fish was dry, however, and the sauce — on its own, a fantastic rendering of the carrot-prune-apricot dish tsimmes — was an ill-conceived match. I went off-menu and also ordered the spice-rubbed red snapper. It ought to have been snatched from the fire about a minute earlier, since the residual heat continued to cook the flesh. Though slightly more flaky than it ought to have been, the meat was nonetheless sweet, and a green salsa made tableside provided a bracingly bright counterpart.
   We missed out on the hazelnut-matzo cake with Manischewitz-braised pears, but did end on a sweet note: a trio of ice creams, along with an additional scoop of mole-spiced chocolate sorbet. "I'm walking home," said my wife, puffing her cheeks like Dizzy to signal her bloatedness. She dabbed at my son's face, which was splotched with chocolate. "That'd take too long," I said. "I need to get back to my brisket. We've still got a second-night seder to put on." She groaned. My son, spoon in mouth, groaned in sympathy. …

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Cheverly, MD

Where we keep going back: We've probably ended up at Sardi's Pollo a la Brasa near IKEA about once a week for the past few months and wondered why we haven't been going before.

The chicken is well-spiced, generous, and fresh and the plantains are excellent. Add a side of beans and rice and some green beans and onions and we have our dinner (just avoid the horrible coleslaw). But more than that, these are friendly folks, the place (despite it's counter ordering) has a relaxed, family-friendly vibe and it reminds me of my childhood. I can get dinner and a full lunch for the next day for $9.

That said, it's the 10 minute drive and this place is a big hit with my one-year-old which really makes it great, but if you are in the area…..

What's not to like about Pho VN One? We can get a steaming bowl of soup with our choice of broth since I don't eat beef (the chicken soup is quite good and you can add veggies). But it's all about the "jumbo onion in vinegar" and I just put the whole bowl into my soup– adds a tangy crunch which I brings me back again and again. A mango or coconut smoothie for the way home and a plate of bean sprouts my son can play with is about all that is needed on a busy evening after work….

If more places in this area could make breakfast as well as the Silver Diner the dining scene here would be better off. Why is it so hard to get a good breakfast? They are friendly, there is tremendous variety, and their understand and know their limitations when it comes to making food nothing fancy, nothing innovative. It's quality, local, and I keep coming back for the blueberry buttermilk pancakes and eggs with chicken maple sausage again and again and again….

It seems like Kushi has really hit it's stride, and I try to get there for lunch whenever I can. The lunch bowls are excellent and the sushi has finesse which makes me feel as though I am celebrating something special. Despite being serious about what they do they are light and friendly, and my son is always welcomed and provided with a bowl of rice, or some miso soup. Sometimes when I am there I worry that someday it will go downhill and my sushi options will revert to what they were before….

Thanks for the reports, Chev.

I'm not quite with you on Sardi's. It's a little uneven, and Super Chicken, which I prefer, isn't that far away from you, or me.

Pho VN One is a fine choice for pho, though when it's on Pho 88, just up the road in Beltsville, is terrific; last time I was there the broth was off, and I hope that's not the beginning of a trend. The broth has for years been one of the best — richest, most expressive — in the area.

Silver Diner has really improved with its new emphasis on local shopping — local eggs, some local breads, coffee from Greenberry, hormone-free, grass-fed beef, etc. Everything of late tastes fresher and much less greasy, which, for a greasy spoon, is saying something.

And Kushi remains, for me, the best spot in the area for sushi.

Rockville, MD
Any recommendations for a good book (besides The Wild Vine 😉 along the same lines of The Gastronomical Me or Ruth Reichl's trio of books?

I haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter, which has been getting good notices.

Hamilton is the chef at Prune, in NYC, one of my favorite spots in the city (the food, the feel, the exuberant servers), and unlike most chefs, she can write. (She did an MFA at the U of Michigan, if I'm not mistaken.)

My book, since you brought it up — ; ) — is coming out in two weeks in paperback, and I'll be doing a number of readings and signings around the area throughout the spring and summer and early fall. Including a reading at the Folger on May 20, which I can't wait for. I'm a huge fan of the Folger, and deeply honored by their choosing to showcase the book like this. I hope I'll get to meet some of you there. The event starts at 6 p.m.

University Park, MD
I can't bear having to drive all the way to the Eden Center for a good bahn mi- any recommendation for those of us this said of the river? -Abby

You're about three minutes from me, and I would love it if there were a great banh mi spot within even twenty-five minutes of our neck o' the woods.

Would you settle for pretty good? There's Saigonese, in Wheaton — on Grandview — and there's Ba Le in Rockville. 

Like I said, pretty good; they'll take care of that craving, for sure. My favorite is Nhu Lan, in the Eden Center — it's definitely worth crossing the river for.

Hungry in Shaw
Todd – With all the hype and anticipation over new openings this Winter, now that spring is on the verge of springing which new spot was your most pleasant surprise? Which was your biggest disappointment?

There are two spots that have left me underwhelmed.

One is the new Toki Underground, which is trying to recreate the energy and cultishness of David Chang's original Momofuku, in lower Manhattan. It has done a good job on that count — I like the skateboards they've got under the counters for depositing purses, I like the screaming soundtrack, I like the bustle of the place, I even like the cramped-ness. The food, though? Eh. I'll give it another shot to make more of an impression on me, but I came away from my meal thinking that Toki, like so many of its competitors on H St., is more interested in making all the right moves with its wanna-be hipster clientele, and less interested in establishing itself as a serious destination for simple, good food.

The other is Medium Rare. Love the concept — steak and fries and salad, nothing else — but the experience, at the moment, is a little too precious for something that is meant to be a simple, satisfying, no-frills meal. Too Central Michel Richard (the chef is a partner), when it ought to be more Ponderosa. I realize that it's not going to be a lingering night when the food comes out as fast as it does here and the emphasis is on turning tables, but the night I was there, a friend and I were hustled out in slightly over an hour; the waiter even brought the check with dessert, a huge no-no. And what ought to be an inexpensive meal — just under 20 bucks for meat, potatoes and greens — climbs fast when you add in the not-inexpensive wines and desserts (each $8). With a glass of wine each, and two desserts, our check came it at just under a $100 for two. 

Pleasantest surprise? Maybe Bayou Bakery. I think it's a terrific place. The sandwiches are terrific; there's an all-veg sandwich with roasted red pepper and goat cheese on a very light torpedo roll, and it's as good as the excellent muffaletta. The poached shrimp, the gumbo, the hot dog with vidalia onion relish, all really good. I love the cookies, pastries, croissants and beignets (which are always cooked in fresh oil).

Fiola, DC

I'll be dining there this week. In some ways it will be fun because I'm walking in blind, solely on Fabio Trabocchi's reputation. However, I don't want to miss anything special.

Do you have any idea on what I should expect or anything in particular I should look for on the menu?

I haven't been yet; officially, it just opened yesterday, and I'll be giving it some time to settle in before dining there, as I tend to do. But my read on the place is that it's a much different sort of restaurant from Maestro — simpler, less formal, and with dishes that lean more toward rusticated than refined.

One of the dishes that Trabocchi was known for at Maestro was his lobster ravioli, and that's also on the menu here. I'd think that would be a must-order. He also had a number of smoked dishes in his repertoire at Maestro, including a couple of dishes that were smoked in hay. The menu at Fiola includes a smoked gnocchi (I don't know whether it's in hay or not), and I'd certainly give that a long, hard look, too.

Trabocchi is at his best, I think, with pasta and fish. One of the best preparations of fish I've ever eaten was a filet of turbot at Maestro — succulent in the extreme, with a sweet richness of flavor that I haven't quite seen equaled since then, even at some of the best restaurants in the country.

If I'm going for the first time, I'm concentrating pasta and fish and ignoring the meats, no matter how tempting.

I'll be interested to hear how your meal turned out. Drop back on and give us a quick report, okay?

Hungry In Shaw
Totally co-sign on Bayou Bakery. Authentic quality cooking. Try the boudin next time. Actually, try all the sausages.

I will. Thanks for the tip. I love boudin.

Quick story. Just out of college, I went to visit a good friend who had graduated the year before and was living and writing in Baton Rouge, and the night I arrived we went from restaurant to restaurant, bar to bar, drinking Abitas, eating oysters (I think I ate around 50, all told, and big ones, too), gumbo, and lots of boudin — boudin noir, boudin blanc, alligator boudin. We went nuts on boudin.

We staggered home, ripped and silly, and before passing out composed drunken odes to Boudin. I forget whose, but one was in the style of John Donne, and the other was in the style of Amiri Baraka. I still remember an entire stanza of the Baraka one, but I can't repeat it here, unfortunately. Or maybe I should say — fortunately. Just know that I've got a huge smirk on my face right now.

20008

I have to completely disagree with you regarding Medium Rare — it's SUCH a bargain! Thanks to the second helping, there is more than enough meat and potatoes to take home for a complete second meal and the sheer size of the desserts demands that they be shared amongst two, if not three people.

I'm always smiling like a (full) Cheshire Cat when I walk out because I feel as though I've won some sort of food bargain lottery! Disappointing? Not in the least!

I didn't say it was disappointing — I said it was underwhelming.

The second helping is nice; but my meat was underseasoned both times. And overcooked one of those times. 

I agree with you that the desserts are huge, but I didn't know that going in and my friend talked me into getting a second. I loved the ice cream sundae. It's worth the 8 bucks. I just find it funny that that's nearly half the cost of the meal itself.

A steak dinner for two for close to $100 is a pretty good value, I suppose, but I don't think, from what I've seen, that I would call it a bargain.

Arlingtongue
Funny you mentioned Ba Le. I tried to go there for lunch last week, and the sign on the door read "Closed Today." I have tried phoning them all morning and no one answers. Strange.

And yet, somehow not.

This kind of thing happens a lot with mom n pop shops and groceries. El Chaparral, the Latin meat market in Arlington, didn't answer its phone for weeks — we had decided to include it in a roundup of ethnic markets — then, suddenly, began answering its phone day.

I remember dropping by a Colombian restaurant in Germantown one afternoon, only to be met at the door by a young woman who shook her head when I asked for a table for two. "Mama's not feeling well," she said, and though the place was full of patrons, it was, for all intents and purposes, closed. "Come back tomorrow," she said, somewhat unhelpfully. 

Del Ray
In follow up to the fresh carved turkey note from last week, almost all of the Phillips cafes have fresh carved turkey, roast beef, and ham. Thick cut and big servings. Confirmed fresh carving at Phillips over by the WH/17th St. Confirmed fresh carving at Phillips on 14th and I St. Confirmed fresh carving at Atrium Cafe on 13th and I St. Is Phillips a franchise?

Phillips Cafe is a branch of the highly tentacled Phillips Seafood empire. There are a number of these "fast casual" outlets in the DC area.

I ate there a couple of times years ago, but didn't realize — or remember — they offered carved turkey, ham and roast beef. Thanks for the report.

 

Bethesda

Todd,

Any Soft shell crab sightings in the area yet ? I know they usually start to appear on menus and in stores in April..

Other than on sushi menus, I haven't seen any yet. Has anyone?
Arlington

My mom and aunt are coming to visit DC at the end of April and they have never been to the East Coast. I am looking for a moderately priced restaurant with a good atmosphere and good wine, for a group of 7 on a Saturday night.

It can be in DC or NOVA, but not too adventurous (they already turned down Zaytinya). Any suggestions?

I'd take them to Cafe du Parc, for classically prepared bistro food, or Central Michel Richard, for beguiling twists on bistro and American diner staples. I think they'd probably enjoy either place, and shouldn't feel alienated by either the cooking or the setting.

If you do hit either place, drop back on and let me know how things turned out.

 

Service in restaurants

Hi Todd,

It's nice to watch the Washington-area restaurant scene evolve – and I think it's been making great strides. Dining out in the area can be a great experience. The one area that I find somewhat struggling is service.

When will restaurants realize that dining out is as much about the food as it is the service. When I leave a place and service was fine, I think "whew!" When I dine out at a place where service is good or very good but not transcendent, I think this should be the standard. I have, yet, to have a meal where service has been transcendent.

I have been treated to this experience in other cities, so it does and can exist. I think it's when a restaurant understands that food and service amerliorate one another when both are done well, maybe this pairing will not be the rare achievement but more the normal standard for which to strive.

I'm not sure where the problem starts – maybe it's the restaurant who sees the wait staff as carrying plates (I hope not) instead of treating them as part of the family, maybe it's the servers or maybe it's people who don't realize that being a good waiter/waitress can be an art.

I know there's a lot that goes into running a restaurant but service shouldn't get dropped to the bottom of the list because food and drink are the products. Thanks

I think part of the problem is that DC is not, for all the great strides it's made in recent years, a food town.

What do I mean by that? I mean that this is not a city where people think to come to make a real living serving diners, as they think to do, for instance, in New York, or New Orleans, or San Francisco.

Those are all food towns, with distinct and passionate dining cultures. This is not yet — and may never be — a city where people regard food at all levels as a serious pursuit, as something that expresses the moment, as something to be hotly discussed. This is a political culture, a technological culture. More red-blooded matters, like food and art, don't quicken the pulse of a lot of people here, unfortunately.

The pool of good servers is really thin right now, and with so many places opening all the time, it's getting thinner and thinner. I hope the scene continues to grow, and I hope that people come to see the city as a place that is nurturing and sustaining for the career waiter or waitress, and a place that can support a kid in or just out of college while he goes to school or interns at an office. But I think that day is a ways off.

Arlington

Softshells were an amazing special at Hank's last week.

Coated in a light cornmeal batter and panfried, on a bed of arugula. Enormous portion: we split it after far too many oysters and it was more than enough for two.

OK, now I'm starved …
Arlington

Not to pile on, but Bayou's chocolate chip cookie is one of the best cookies in the Clarendon/Courthouse area: crunchy on the outside, gooey inside, just the right size. Their other regular cookies also deserve top marks – and make Bayou a much better choice for an afternoon coffee break than the S'bucks, Corner Bakery, Cosi options nearby.

If you've got extra time on that coffee break, venture up to Bakeshop in Clarendon, it's worth the trip: locally owned, cupcake that tastes like actual cake instead of just a frosting bomb, and staff who are just haphazard enough to be authentic and friendly.

Great tip. Thank you.

And I love that chocolate chip cookie, too. And the Dat-O's, Bayou's (oversized) version of an oreo. And the chocolate croissants.

This is a form of masochism, right now, typing these words, since I won't be eating any bread products for the next week.

Ah, well. Soon …

I've got to run — got the rest of tonight's meal to cook. The brisket turned out fine, after all — sliced it down last night, just before going to bed; soft, tender, luscious. And my adaptation of my mom's sauce — shhh! — came out great, too.

Happy Passover, everyone …

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK; tonight, and always … ]

 

 

 

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