Tuesday, April 26 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman pays a visit to the highly anticipated Fiola, gives suggestions for buying a birthday dinner for a friend who's been to all of the most-expensive places in the city, and talks about restaurant comment cards.

Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype?

The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 a.m. on Kliman Online. From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the 'burbs and exurbs to hitting the city's streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.

Winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country's best newspaper column about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Oxford American, and Men's Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies. He is the author of The Wild Vine, a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its biggest present-day champion, a dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.

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T K ' s   2 5:

W h e r e   I ' d   S p e n d   M y   O w n   M o n e y

 
Adour, DC 

2 Amy's, DC 

Bar Pilar, DC

Bayou Bakery, Arlington 

Birch & Barley, DC 

Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Central Michel Richard, DC

Eola, DC

Fast Gourmet, DC

Gom Ba Woo, Annandale

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Limeña, Rockville

Level, Annapolis 

Michel, Tysons Corner

Minh's, Arlington

Palena Cafe, DC

PassionFish, Reston 

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington 

Red Pearl, Columbia

Ris, DC

Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown

 

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   W o r d   o f   M o u t h …
 
 
   … The big surprise at the new Fiola (601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-628-2888), the much-anticipated restaurant that marks the return of chef Fabio Trabocchi to Washington after a celebrated stint in New York, is how rusticky it wants to be.
   At the grandiosely named Maestro, in the Ritz Carlton Tysons, Trabocchi put sauces into test tubes and used thatches of hay to smoke fish, and his open kitchen was a study in controlled serenity — all the cooks wore headsets with mics to communicate without having to shout, as if they had been snatched off the set of a Janet Jackson video.
   The kitchen at Fiola is glimpsed only through arched windows hung with lacy curtains, framed by stone and prettied up with pots of chives — you half expect a portly grandmother to peer out into the dining room, not the immensely gifted chef who once ran the area's best restaurant. The rusticity is evident even in the bathrooms, where the tank is stationed near the ceiling — you pull on a chain to flush.
   Trabocchi clearly intends these set pieces to be taken as statements of intent, anchoring the restaurant in old-fashioned values even as the brown-and-cream-colored dining room puts you in mind of a swank cigar bar in Milan and the menus are swaddled in soft leather and noodling techno is pumped out on the sound system and the staff is outfitted in tailored burgundy shirts and the whole place has a new car smell.
   Maestro shuttered in 2007, which feels like a generation ago in these recesssionary times. Its air of pampered luxury is long gone, a remnant of an era of excess. Fiola more nearly replicates the mission at Fiamma in SoHo, where Trabocchi last cooked, a restaurant whose soulfulness on the plate counter-balanced the slick self-consciousness of the room. There are no tablecloths and no sommelier. There is no amuse bouche to precede the meal. The waiter wipes up the table with a folded napkin, not a sleek crumber. Portions are hearty, not dainty, and the aim is more to satisfy than to dazzle.
   A crostini with red mullet is served as three toasts topped with generous, lightly cooked filets in a stew-like sauce punched up with chilis and lemon. A version of vitello tonnato is twice as big as anything you might have found at Maestro, the perfectly cooked veal rolled into bundles as if they were being served at the catered office party and set atop an elegantly rendered sauce of pureed tuna, olive oil and capers.
   Trabocchi has reprised the lobster ravioli that was a signature dish at Maestro, with tiny purses of lobster-stuffed ravioli and cleanly prized-out claw meat in a lightly gingery lobster sauce that arrives as a frothy foam (foams, for Trabocchi, are what razor edges are for Michel Richard — ways of signaling his singularity.) The dish evoked the glory days of the old restaurant, though the current version is more comforting than exquisite — a bit of a problem when a dish costs $30.
   The menu at Fiamma featured a round, single-serving lasagna, an
d so does the menu at Fiola. But Trabocchi has rejiggered it, rustickating the preparation to include salumi, mushrooms, lamb and truffles. The flavors unfold as you eat; no two bites are the same. The lingering impression is of foie gras, with a mouth-coating richness that turns a seemingly straightforward dish into something complex and challenging. It would be hard to imagine ten bites of a dish that are more intense than this.
   Trabocchi has long distinguished himself as a chef who respects fish — who understands what it is, and isn't. I opted this night for a grilled black bass with calamari. It arrived with a tiny sauce pot of tomatoey brodetto and clams, to be spooned over the fish. Often, a hearty fish dish is forced into playing a role meant for meat — an over-sauced, over-cooked filet perched atop a mound of mashed potatoes. But this treatment was as light and elegant as it was soulful.
   It was the comparatively unknown pastry chef, Jason Gehring, and not Trabocchi, that my wife and I were buzzing about on the way out, however. Sweets clearly upstaged savories. His ricotta bombolini, his zuppa inglese with lemon granita and fresh mint, and his tiny tray of petit fours were all unimprovable — among the best, most rewarding desserts I've eaten this year. …

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Falls Church, VA

RE: Cafe Phillips …

Todd, I don't think Cafe Phillips is associated with Phillips Seafood in any way. The owner is Phillip Yun (hence the name) and I think he's opened all the locations himself.

Are you perhaps mixing it up with (the Seafood) Phillips' fast food version of the chain, like what you see in the rest stops? Regardless, they do make a mean turkey sandwich – I miss working near one.

I sure am. Thanks for the clarification.

Good morning, everyone, and I'm sorry about the late start … Let's dive in … As always, I'd love to hear about where you've been eating and drinking lately …

Fairfax, VA

Todd,

Are there any restaurants in DC/VA/MD that offer Opus One by the glass? Thought you or someone in the audience might know. Thanks!

That'd be one hell of an expensive glass of wine.

I haven't seen any place with it on the list. Has anyone? I'd love to know …

Silver Spring, MD

Hi Todd, six of us are going to a wine tasting at the Four Points at 12th and K on Saturday afternoon.

We're looking for somewhere for an early (5:30ish) dinner following the tasting that we can walk to since we don't want to drive after the drinking wine all day. Obviously the wine list is less important than the food. Any good ideas?

Well, you're right around the corner from Brasserie Beck, a really lively Belgian restaurant with lamb sausage and lentils, mussels and fries, oysters on the half shell, beef carbonnade, and cassoulet all on the menu.

Hard to beat that if you're not looking to go too far afield.

Portions are he-mannish, and the proprietor is Robert Wiedmaier, who also operates Marcel's in the West End of DC, Brabo in Alexandria, and Mussel Bar in Bethesda.

Falls Church, VA

Hi Todd,

I think I saw something regarding Ray's the Steaks' Monday night specials before on your chat, so I'm throwing my two cents in.

We had reservations last night at Ray's the Steak's in Clarendon, and after reading (I think from your chat) we made sure that our reservations were for the Bistro side of the restaurant. Both times, when we called to book, and when the restaurant called to confirm the reservation, the restaurant put down our request for the Bistro side, but thought we were weird for not wanting to sit in the formal dining room.

Last night, we were again questioned why we were so adamant about sitting on the bistro side. The hostess told us that if we wanted the Monday night bistro special, she could seat us in the formal dining room and that we could still order the special there. Giving in, we agreed. After noticing that our server did not mention the Monday night bistro special amongst her list of yesterday night's specials, I inquired about the Monday night bistro special. Although she reluctanly agreed to serve it to us, she was very firm that we should have sat on the bistro side.

When I attempted to tell her that we had tried to, she curtly interrupted me to tell me that she would serve us the special, but that for future purposes, we should sit on the bistro side if we wanted the special. Our server was terse with us the rest of the evening. Even when we found a hair in our creamed spinach, and tracked down the hostess to replace it, and someone, (I assume a manager) came over to apologize, our server wasn't interested in us the rest of the night and didn't check up on us after the spinach incident.

The food and wine was excellent as always, making our experience just shy of pleasant.

Question 1: What should we do for future visits to Ray's the Steaks if we want the Monday night bistro special? Question 2: If the food is good and other workers are pleasant, but for the exception of your own server, what is the proper etiquette for tipping?

This is the second time, now, that someone has written in about the bistro special. Both of you are, rightly, confused. I'm confused.

What I would do next time is, reserve a table on the bistro side and make clear that you are coming to order the Monday night bistro special. What else can you do?

Your tipping question is a good one, but a complicated one. When you tip, you're not tipping on the food, no matter how much you liked it. Servers do share some of their tips with busboys, etc., but it's generally a small percentage of what they clear each night. Best you can do, I'd think, is tip what you feel is right and then follow that up by speaking to a manager before you leave. That way he or she knows why the tip is what it is.

 

Disappointed

In the never-ending quest for a great brunch, we tried the Easter buffet at Jackson 20 in Old Town this past Sunday. We were very excited to see what they had to offer and were sorely disappointed with the lack of service.

When the hostess seated us in the back ballroom, she didn't tell us what to do, i.e. help ourselves or if we had a server, etc. After sitting there, wondering if we should wait for a server to give our drink order, which never happened,we got up and helped ourselves to the buffet.

The food was good, but not great. Maybe it was our fault for setting high expectations for Easter.

We didn't have a server the whole time and got up to pour our own drinks and refills. Larger table didn't seem to have this problem, and it wasn't busy at all. It was incredibly hard to track down someone to clear our plates, as they were too busy chatting with each other behind the bar. We could have easily left without paying the tab and no one would have ever noticed. In fact, we had to try really hard to get someone, anyone's attention to pay the tab.

I filled out their comment card and handed it to the hostess and a server/manager? at the front. After reading it, both gave us a quizzical look. We were disappointed in the food, given the $55/person tab. Gratuity was automatically included in our bill, even though we were the ones standing up during our meal to serve ourselves. Even by buffet standards, we never saw a server at our table, only at other tables (again, not even close to being busy) and chatting behind the bar. We felt very neglected and punished for being a lonely table of 2.

As diners, was there something we could have done better (aside from going in back and demanding a server)? Could we have done something about the automatic gratuity? Maybe we should give up on brunch below $100 in this area for special ocassions?

I don't like that they read your comment cards while you were still in the restaurant. Really awkward, and what's the point? Did they not consider the possibility that it may not have been filled with negative remarks?

I consider $55/per an expensive meal, but I'm guessing that the restaurant does not. It probably feels that for that amount of food, and for that nice a setting — and for a holiday outing, no less — the price is a fair one. 

That's too bad.

I will also say that in my experience buffet is often an "out" — an excuse to not have to provide the same attentive service as it would otherwise.

RE: Fiola

Todd,

Thanks for your write up on Fiola. Curious, is Fiola a more approachable restaurant than Maestro? Are the prices that high as well? Maestro was a special occasion place that I wanted to eat more often but it was so expensive!

In this era, it'd be really, really hard to open a restaurant as expensive as Maestro. Fiola is not nearly as forbidding.

It's also — and I say that based only on a single meal at this point — not nearly as exquisite. That's the trade-off. But soulful cooking is a prized commodity. Character matters.

It's funny, though, when you listen to chefs like Trabocchi and Richard and others talk about their new, casual venture. They tend to make it sound as if they'd just opened a more delicious Denny's.

At Maestro, you could expect to pay around $350 for dinner for two. At Fiola, you can expect to pay about a third less.

Shaw DC

Good Morning Todd,

Please enlighten me about pho. A friend took me to Pho 14 over the weekend and I guess I don't understand the appeal.

I got the #1 which had beef, tendon, fat and something else yummy sounding it in, I followed my more experienced friend in adding sprouts and such. It was good, but didn't blow my mind. And delightfully enough, our already condesceding waiter scolded me for not eating all of my noodles but finishing the broth.

Is that some form of bad etiquette? Thanks!

Scolded you? I find that hard to believe.

Pho 14 isn't a place I'd hit if I wanted to understand what all the fuss is about. It's fine. It'll do. But there are places that turn out better, richer, more delicately seasoned broths.

And the broth is the thing. The broth is what makes a bowl of pho. They all use the same noodles. The selections of beef are all pretty much the same. I don't think you were wrong to slurp your bowl clean. But yeah, a true pho lover never leaves behind any noodles.

One thing you might want to keep in mind for next time, and that's to order a lower-down number. That goes for all pho parlors, by the way.

The lower-down you go, the more richness — the more fat, frankly — you're going to put into that bowl. And that's going to make for a better bowl of pho. Look for things like fatty brisket and beef tripe. You don't even have to eat them. Just let them sit there — giving up their richness and adding body to your broth.

Capitol Hill
I'm trying to surprise a friend for his birthday with a unique dining experience. The problem is, he's been everywhere in DC- Komi, Minibar, Citronelle, and any other place with great food that I can think of. Do you have any suggestions for how I might be able to impress this highly experienced foodie? I'm willing to drive anywhere in the DC/VA/MD area.

I appreciate your predicament.

You know what? Don't even try.

Trying to impress people is exhausting. It's no fun. It's no fun to be the powerless one — to willingly make yourself powerless. Granting all authority to the other person. Who may or may not consent to enjoy himself for two hours. Pffww. Who needs that?

Maybe the thing to do, here, is to go to Baltimore — presuming he hasn't eaten everywhere there, too.

We're really lucky to live so close to another big city, and driving up to Baltimore to go eat is a little like traveling to a new city. Endless possibilities, and everything's unfamiliar.

Has he been to Woodberry Kitchen? I think it's a terrific spot. Or Bluegrass Tavern for something cozier?

Charleston is a place that many Baltimoreans — including critics — hold up as the city's premier fine dining spot. I haven't eaten there nearly enough to say. The setting and the service are excellent, and it'd be hard to find a better wine list in the city. My most recent meal, however, was not spectacular.

Lincoln replacing Il Mulino

Hi Todd,

I see that this new restaurant Lincoln is in the space that Il Mulino once inhabited. First, your thoughts on Lincoln? Is it a small-plates, tapas-type place or is it a more traditional menu? I can't tell because some of the menu descriptions make it seem more traditional description but the prices make me wonder. Also, it does say "small plates". Some of the descriptions seem overly complicated for small-plates concept, if that's what it is. However, I have not been to this place so looking to you for some guidance.

Second, why do you think Il Mulino didn't make it here? Is it because Washingtonians don't want to pay that much for Italian food? There are other Italian restaurants that are expensive here that I think do well. Was it the location? Although I never thought Il Mulino got attention from food critics or customers alike, I was still surpriesd because Washington is an expense-account town. Thanks

I haven't been, either, but I'm not entirely surprised by the prices — they range from 7 bucks to 14 bucks a plate.

Everyone wants to do small plates, but not everyone is interested in turning out — or capable of turning out — simply but precisely prepared little dishes. It's harder to do than it sounds.

What you're seeing, now, in many restaurants is what I think of as an entree-tizer — a dish that is too big for an appetizer, too small for an entree. A dish with none of the delicacy and detail-work of an appetizer at its best, but little of the elaboration and garnishment of an entree.

A place that does this well is the Atlas Room. Many places do it badly.

Why do they do it? Because the diner never sees a plate that costs in the 20s or 30s — most hover around $12. Or, about what you pay now for a glass of wine or cocktail. 

I can't say whether it was location or high prices that caused Il Mulino to shut its doors. I do think that that style of dining — grandiose, full of flourishes — is out of keeping with the spirit of the times. More and more, indulgence is to be found on a plate, and not in a lavishly appointed room that offers you an escape from reality, with crisp-suited waiters attending, unsmilingly, to your needs.

Washington, DC

A glass of Opus One would cost about the same as a retail bottle. So, just buy a bottle and drink it at home if you're curious.

Personally, for that price I'd rather have a nice Bordeaux . . . and a steak . . . and sides . . . and dessert at Ray's the Steaks in Arlington.

Me, too.

The thing we don't know is, the rationale for ordering the wine at a restaurant. People go to restaurants for many reasons having nothing to do with wanting to savor something that's beautifully made. They go to impress. They go to soak up a scene. They go because they have to go.

Fabio is back!

We ate lunch at Fiola last week and was really impressed with the place.

The executive business lunch menu was a surprise – $28 for 3 courses.

We've been to Maestro and Fiamma before, so we were excited Fabio came back to DC. We really enjoyed the lobster ravioli, the kobe short ribs and the black bass. I have to agree with you, the desserts were really good.

I don't know whether that "power lunch" prix fixe is going to rope them in, but I'd say it's a pretty good deal, given what I've seen so far.
Arlington, VA

For the friend who has been everywhere- instead of taking him somewhere over the top, why not take him to a great whole in the wall or small mom and pop type place.

I have eaten at a ton of high end places, but love eating at small holes in the wall. I think a trip to OOhs and Aahs, La Carenquena, Korean BBQ, Nava Thai or a fun day trip around the Eden Center would be a lot of fun and would impress your foodie in a you thought of me and we are having fun way.

That's really a terrific idea, Arlington — again, going against expectations.

Unless the food loving friend is a poseur.

If the friend thinks of these sorts of places as slumming, as some foodies do, then it's not worth the time and effort.

Clifton, VA
Okay what kind of rookie foodie expects a great buffett for Easter brunch. Okay its Easter first mistake. I set my expectations low for a buffett of any type. However best brunch buffett ever was at the Homestead. It was best in class. Food was exceptional for a brunch and service exceptional. If I went there for Easter brunch I would lower my expectations. A good server hates to work valentines Day, Easter, Mothers Day and father days/ Too many amatuers fools come out.

But see, it's that attitude — amateurs, said with a sneer — that ruins it for well-meaning people who are just looking for a nice meal out with family on a big day.

Restaurant-folk are always talking about amateurs, always lamenting the know-nothings who make their lives hell with annoying questions and requests and supposedly unreasonable expectations.

I can understand blowing off steam after a long day. But restaurants are businesses. Other than a handful of places I can think of, they exist to serve the customer, not challenge the customer with seeing the world in a new light. If you care about making money, then you have to try hard to please the people who are going to surrender that money. That means treating these days as no different from any other days. 

That tone-setting needs to come from the top, and I get the feeling that in many instances on holidays like this, the management is just as jaded and weary as the staff.

 

Arlington, VA

Good morning, Todd!

I just read on ArlNow about the hot pot restaurant opening soon in Clarendon. I had never heard of this restauranteur so I was hoping to learn a bit about the concept. Will it replace my current Liberty Tavern and Lyon Hall (and BGR and Hard Times more casually) standbys?

The new place is called Mala Tang. It looks to be a more mainstream version of what Chef Liu is doing at Uncle Liu's, the Szechuan-style hot pot spot in Merrifield.

I love hot pot, but I can't see it displacing those standbys in your rotation. There's a certain sameness in the experience. It's not something I'd do more than once a week, if that. It's best with a big group, where you can all share in the fun of cooking your meats and veggies and, because it's generally a slow-paced meal like fondue, really unwind and talk.

Clifton, VA
For the birthday guy find a good crabhouse that is dump but has great views, good cold beer no need for micro brews etc and great crabs. Life doesnt get any better. Only thing that ebats is catching the crabs yourself and remember the cheaper the beer for steaming the crabs the better. Schmidts, nattie Boh and Scheafer rule.

Yeah, good one.

Cantler's would be perfect for that — great views, great crabs, pitchers of beer, and you can drive into Annapolis proper for dessert.

orrtanna, PA
If the friend's food tastes are DC-centric, why not a trip into the country to, say, Trummers in Clifton?

Not a bad idea.

It's a special setting, and really gives you the feel of a getaway. Not quite a Sondheimian "weekend in the country," but a nice escape nonetheless.

And though the cooking isn't as consistent as I'd like to see for a place with that ambition, and those prices, there are a number of things on the menu that are excellent. I'm thinking, right now, of the superlative steak tartare with ketchup sorbet. I haven't eaten a better version of the dish in the last year.

Re: for the food friend who has been everywhere
Todd, I had to quickly chime in–if a foodie thinks that a whole-in-the-wall or mom-and-place place is slumming, then that person is not a Real Foodie. Thought it worth saying…

No, no — I'm glad you said it.

It's true. But I meet a lot of people who claim to love good food, and they either know nothing of these kinds of places, or care nothing for them when they try them out. 

They might go once, but they would never go back, let alone consider them part of their regular rotation for dining out.

Too bad. Their loss.

I just get annoyed to hear these people claim the mantle of food-lover.

Washington, DC

Hi Todd,

I gave up eating out in restaurants for Lent and now that it is over I am surprised by how unexcited I am to jump back into the restaurant scene. On one hand, not going to restaurants really pushed me to challenge myself in the kitchen and host dinners myself.

However, I do feel that I am kind of missing out on the scene if I keep staying away. What would you do if you were in my shoes? I'm not looking for an "exquisite" restaurant, just something very good and satisfying, even a little exciting. Would you go to a new restaurant with a lot of buzz (Fiola or Blue Hill)? Or would you go to an old favorite (Birch and Barley, Zaytinya)? Thank you.

Blue Hill? Or do you mean Hill Country? I don't think Dan Barber is opening up a place in DC.

What to do?

I would pick a day and skip lunch, or maybe just have a light lunch — then, along about the time you start to get hungry in late afternoon, figure out what sort of food you're craving, and pick whatever restaurant you think is likely to fill that need. It'll probably be an old favorite, is my guess.

Let me know which direction you turn, whether old-shoe comforting or new-shoe glam. 

I'm off to lunch, everyone —

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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