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 . . .
. . . In a down economy, rib-sticking cooking predominates — even the hotly anticipated Fiola is more rusticky than refined, with a philosophy that appears to lean slightly more toward the big-plated abbondanza of Carmine's than the sumptuousness of the late, often-lamented Maestro.
So it's perhaps not so surprising that the raucous, tomb-like Bayou (2519 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-223-6941) is the third New Orleans-themed restaurant to crop up in the past half year, following the debuts of Hot N Juicy Crawfish, a national chain, in Woodley Park and The Cajun Experience, a local chain, on 18th St. south of Adams Morgan — an odd boomlet amid the explosion of Italian restaurants and small plates spots that have come to dominate the dining scene the past couple of years.
The chef is Rusty Holman, who cooked previously at Eatonville after coming in second in restaurateur Andy Shallal's much-publicized competition for the job (but claiming the job after the winner was sacked before settling in). Holman's menu at Bayou is a compact document, covering about a third of the ground that the expense-account Cajun restaurant Acadiana does. The focus is on po'boys and a handful of staple entrees — jambalaya, shrimp 'n' grits — no self-respecting Louisiana-themed restaurant can be without.
The po'boys come on light baguettes piled thickly with any number of classic fillings. The standouts are the "Marigny," which offers a choice among gently fried oysters, shrimp and clams, and the "Frenchmen" (fried oysters and a thick smear of remoulade). New Orleanians are crazy about their roast beef po'boys with debris gravy (the rich pan drippings left over from cooking the meat). The debris, here, is a more conventional brown gravy, and the slices of meat are drier than they ought to be.
The po' would be hard-put to come up with the change to eat any one of these, however. The cost at dinner is $17; even with two good sides (I'd opt for the dirty rice and the collards), that's a helluva lot to pay for a sandwich.
For slightly more, you can tuck into Holman's shrimp 'n' grits, with shrimp that pop when you bite into them and grits that for all their creamy richness retain the graininess they need — without which, you're spooning up a sort of soupy, yellow-colored mashed potatoes.
The surprise, here, is that the gumbo isn't better — it lacks depth and character — and also that one of the best dishes on the menu is the veggie meatloaf; the inch-thick, mushroom-dense slab even sports a reassuring ketchup glaze.
Desserts are skippable. I'd burn my calories at the start, with a bottle of Abita (Bayou stocks a fine selection) or a well-made Sazerac, or, on Sunday a bottle of wine (they're half-priced), and order the crawfish cheesecake for the table to share. Visually, the dish is more dismaying than appetizing, resembling a little too closely the gooey c
ream cheese-based dip your great aunt trots out every December. But keep an open mind. Holman's concoction is really just a very savory cheesecake — smoked gouda, crawfish and diced bell pepper are folded into the cream cheese, and the mixture is set atop a parmesan breadcrumb base. It's so insanely rich that it's hard to eat more than a few bites, but it's among the most interesting, and satisfying, beginnings to a meal you're going to find anywhere in the city at the moment. …
I was intrigued by last week's question from the person looking for a place to take their foodie friend and the discussion of hole in the wall places.
As a relatively new DCer, I was wondering where are the best hole in the wall places inside the District? Are there great deals to be had without going to VA or MD?
One places that I love (again referencing a post from last week) is Nam Viet for pho – great food and super-nice owners. I used to live in Houston and literally had 50 restaurants like this within a 3 mile radius of my place. I miss that in DC.
Thanks! I love your column. Beth
Boy, there are a number of holes in the wall I love in the city. I just hope I can come up with as many as I love …
Fast Gourmet — at a gas station! — for chivitos. Zorba's Cafe for Greek food. Best Sandwich place for hot carved turkey sandwiches. Bardia's New Orleans cafe for beignets. The Cajun Experience for etouffee and po'boys and hush puppies. Figs Fine Foods for prepared Mediterranean-style dishes. Moroni and Brother's for pizza and carne deshilada (it's a Salvadoran-owned pizzeria). MGM for carved ham sandwiches.
I could go on and on …
I know I'm forgetting some great little spots, so help me out here choggers …
In response to your reader's request for advice regarding the Monday Night Blues special, I unfortunately have to report that since, apparently, Ray's The Steaks' Monday Night Blues special lies at the heart of a conspiracy the vastness and deviousness of which is rivaled only by that surrounding the so-called President and his "birth" records, we will no longer be offering the Monday Night Blues special–originally a fun, ridiculously inexpensive way to help make the worst day of the week a little better…or so we would have you believe.
Diners, fret not however. Our regular menu (which unfortunately for us allows much less opportunity for our little games and deceptions) still offers over a dozen selections of premium seafood and house-aged, house-butchered and hand-carved steaks at $20 or less, including sides, every night of the week.
Just the kind of thing you would expect from people like us, isn't it?
Michael Landrum, Ray's The Steaks
Oh, Michael, Michael, Michael …
I wanted to follow up on a meal we (the broad 'we') discussed on a chat in early March (sorry, I am delinquent!). My husband and I had dinner at 20 Bites at Poste Brasserie with another couple for my birthday. I probably jinxed it with sizable hopes and expectations, but, all of us walked away feeling…unsatisfied.
The food, while some of it sparkled, some of it was very flat. The service, while some of it was gracious, some of it was, well, unapproachable. Perhaps I am being a bit fussy, but, given there are only 4 seats, and given you are RIGHT BESIDE the Chef all evening, and given you are paying a pretty penny, I would have thought the Chef would, at the very least, acknowledge our presence, rather than ignore us and instead, yell and curse at the staff the whole night.
One of our significant servers (there were many people who floated in and out), even commented on the 'mood' of the Chef. Now, I get it…he is in charge, and has some notoriety, but seriously, he came across as arrogant, rude and unwelcoming.
Perhaps if the food was better, I could even over-look this. Unfortunately, it wasn't their night…nor mine.
I would, hands-down, rather spend the money on Mini-Bar or Komi. Vastly better experience, and 'value' (quality for price). It's too bad really – they have a great outdoor space for lovely summer dining. I, however, will not be there!
I do wonder, however, if it was just not their night.
I'm not saying you're wrong at all; I'm saying that I'm not quite willing to believe that this one night stands for all nights.
Can't blame you, though, for not wanting to go back.
Thanks for writing in …
The 100 Very Best List is definitely my go-to guide for dining out in DC. Props for recommending the eel carpaccio and rib-eye with "spuddies" at Michel Richard's new restaurant in Tyson's Corner. Best meal I've had in weeks.
My partner had a kick over the mozzarella "eggs" in his salad.
You're welcome. I'm glad the rec's turned out so well.
Michel hasn't been without its struggles in the early going, but still — a Michel Richard restaurant is a Michel Richard restaurant.
I'd like to see the place move more in the direction of Central and less in the direction of Citronelle, and I think Richard would, too — I heard him imploring diners one night to take their jackets off and relax. The prices, though, and the Ritz-Carlton atmosphere, set a tone of greater formality.
Read your interesting review of RJ Cooper's performance in New York. Was just curious to know whether you went all the way to New York for the dinner or you just happened to be in New York during this time?
Well, not just for dinner, no.
I went up as well to see friends and visit my publisher, but no, I didn't just happen to be in the city last week.
Here's the preview, for anyone who missed it.
By the way, since it's just the two of us here talking — ; — after the meal was over, a friend and I walked four blocks to Prosperity Dumpling, a popular dumpling spot in the Lower East Side. We weren't so much hungry as vaguely unsatisfied. The place was about to close. We would've been out of luck, except that someone hadn't come to pick up an order of dumplings and scallion fry bread.
The owner sold it to us for three bucks.
We took it to a nearby park and tore into the dumplings and bread. Three bucks. After a dinner that cost three hundred.
I like it.
Great oysters on the half shell, 10 varieties flown in daily.
I especially like going late at night, after 11, when the oysters — all the raw bar stuff, actually — is half price.
What are some of the best but not too crazy priced Mothers Day Brunch that you can recommend?
I mean I love my mom but $85-$100 per person for a brunch buffet for 8 people will break my bank acct. Thanks!
I saw you give your take on Toki Underground and pretty much agree.
I have to tell you that the young guy who was seating people when I first arrived before my friend did had little pr skills. He told me I could not wait for him upstairs because I would be in the way. When I pointed out that it had begun to rain, he told me — straight-faced — to go to a bar.
It was so bad I found it funny.
Oof — that's bad.
But I'm glad you found it funny; I don't think I would have.
A lot of people are hitting the bars up and down the street because the waits are so long — at least an hour every night in prime time, even weeknights. If Toki were bigger, and could make space for a bar, it could keep some of that money from flowing out the door.
We celebrated my husband's birthday with a suckling pig roast at Poste this past weekend. The food was just amazing.
The skin on the pig was crispy while the fat had rendered out to expose some very succulent meat. The head was served on it's own plate, with great cheeks, tongue, neck, and brain (with toast for a pate-like spread). The ears and tail were delicious cracklin' nibbles.
The house-made sauerkraut almost stole the show as the flavor was deap and rich; you could taste the time that went into it. Service was warm, friendly, and well-paced.
Contracting/Reservations with the dining coordinator was professional and simple (which normally doesn't happen like that for me) and my guests' allergies were worked around.
Leftovers were boxed up nicely with extra care taken to construct a take-out plate for a friend who couldn't make it.
A solid "A" for both food and service, which is normally a difficult combination.
Well done Poste! (the surprise celebrity sighting of Daniel Dae Kim capped off our dinner)
What a meal!
And what a way to celebrate a birthday. You're a good wife. (And a pretty good describer, too, because you've made me hungry.)
How'd you like the pig brain on toast?
If you're in the mood for kabobs — your pick of either Amoo's House of Kabob or Shamshiry. The latter, a Persian restaurant, also has good perfumed rice dishes (my favorite there is the barberry rice) and saffron ice cream for dessert.
For a light lunch of mezze with good wine — Evo Bistro in McLean.
For good sushi — Tachibana in McLean.
Something more refined? Michel at the Ritz-Carlton, the new Michel Richard restaurant.
I'll be heading down to the Jacksonville area for Memorial day (hitting up the Jacksonville beaches, St. Augustine, Fenrnadina Beach, and driving along the Florida coast). Have you, or any readers been there recently?
Any restaurants that I shouldn't miss? We're planning on staying close to the beach the whole time, so nothing too fancy… just looking for a few good, authentic, local places. Thanks!
I got nothing, sorry.
Who out there can pinch-hit?
Went wine tasting for the first time in Virginia this past weekend – Loudon County (who knew?). Had some good whites and ok reds beside a few standout cabernet francs and blends.
I was surprised that Tarara's wines could be found in Harris Teeter. Any other wineries you suggest that can be found relatively easily in DC proper stores? Thanks.
In DC proper?
Unfortunately, not a lot. Total Wine in Virginia and Corridor in Laurel carry a fair number of Virginia wines, and you can find a good selection of Virginia wines at The Leesburg Vintner and Fern Street Gourmet in Alexandria, among others.
But most of the better wine stores in the city don't have much of anything from Virginia.
If you ask someone on the floor why the selection is so paltry or, more likely, non-existent, he or she will probably tell you that Virginia wines aren't very good. (As if every bottle in every store is a quality bottle of wine.) I find that most of them don't really know Virginia wines, and haven't been keeping up with what's out there. They'd sooner point you to something Argentina than something in your own backyard.
I may be in the minority, here, but I love the idea of drinking something made so close to home, something that speaks to a particular time and place.
Thanks for posting a link to the guide- it's helpful. One comment, though.
It seems unconscionable for places to charge so much for kids under 10. One place on that list was charging 32.50! I mean my kid is 4 and she would probably eat a couple pieces of fruit and maybe half a piece of french toast. There is no way that I would pay over 30 bucks for that!
I am curious how that could possibly be justified seeing as all the adults at the table would be paying over 50 for their meals and would be hard pressed to actually consume 50 bucks worth of food.
One thing you have to bear in mind with holiday meals, and particularly with brunches — these places are out to get their money.
They know that you don't have a lot of options — if you want to fete your mother with the traditional brunch, you're going to pony up. That $32.50 charge — that's OPEC-like. It's gouging.
For what? For mediocre food in a "pretty" setting.
Lucky for me I have a mother who doesn't go in for all the trimmings like that — who actually prefers to stay away from something that reeks of a trap. She'd prefer to go out for dim sum. Or have me cook. Haven't yet figured out which it'll be.
I was very excited that Poste served the pig's head.
It was nicely split in half to expose 1/2 of the brain on either side. I particularly enjoyed it on the toast provided so that it melted like a nice, fatty spread; unctuous like bone marrow, lighter than pate. There was an ever so slight gamey aftertaste, to which the toast provided a great counterbalance. I've recently had lamb's brain, which is much gamier (maybe I would have liked it better with toast?).
But what I appreciate most is that our friends had a great time. Most of our friends are not as adventurous as I am when it comes to food, and they thoroughly enjoyed the pig's head as well.
All the work that Poste put in to the menu, food and service made us feel very relaxed, which allowed my husband to have a good time. Happy Birthday Kyle!
I love your description of it — spot on.
Happy birthday, Kyle!
Place, not places.
Adour, at the St. Regis. I don't think you can do better in the city.
Regarding the discussion of insanely overpriced brunch options for Mother's Day, may I get on my soapbox for a moment?
Why do people bother doing this? Do you *really* only appreciate your mother on a single calendar day? Why not take her and the family to brunch the next Sunday and avoid the overcharges and crowds? This goes for all of these other manufactured holidays! I'm looking at you Valentine's Day!!
Thanks for the opportunity to vent. Hope your Mom enjoys herself!
Can I get a WITness?!
TEStify, Shaw, TEStify …
I couldn't agree with you more.
But think about it. Think about having a mother that you sort-of respect because — well, because she's your mother, but you don't really like and don't enjoy spending time with. In that circumstance, and it's not an uncommon circumstance at all, an extremely costly and extremely mediocre brunch in a happy, pleasant setting is ideal.
The son or daughter discharges his or her obligation, and wins points for doing so in the correct and conventional manner.
Love your chats! I'm headed up to NYC next weekend for a long awaited food crawl with my boyfriend. I was wondering if you have been there recently and if you have any can't miss suggestions. We like all kinds of food and are pretty much up for anything (street food to high end stuff). So far, I've made a lunch reservation for Eleven Madison Park and a dinner reservation for Locanda Verde. We would love to get a real taste of NYC and would appreciate your insight. Thank You!
A real taste of New York?
Buy a hot dog at Gray's Papaya on 72nd and Broadway, and eat it standing up on the pavement amid the smell of urine and trash while waiting to be accosted by a crazy person.
I'm only half-joking.
No, those are good choices. Casa Mono is another place to look into, though it's about as big as THIS and the prices are outrageous for tapas (on the other hand, some of the dishes are outrageously good). I still love the original Momofuku. And Torrisi is a wild ride of a night, a jarring but fascinating interpretation of what it means to cook the Italian way.
Could not agree more about eating in on big holidays!
We are changing up the traditional brunch for a dinner at which we are making steak and mahi on the grill along with all the fixins. Hosting both sisters-in-law, my mother-in-law, and my mother (and families) so eating out was not even a consideration!
I think a meal on the grill — and this meal in particular — sounds great. Have a wonderful time celebrating.
Relish the time with your mothers, everyone, wherever you go and whatever you eat.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]