Tuesday, May 17 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman talks to chatters about his visit to the very new El Centro D.F. in Logan Circle, continues last week's conversation about dress codes, and gives one reader a suggestion for Rockville dining.

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 

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Central Michel Richard, DC

Eola, DC

Fiola, DC

Gom Ba Woo, Annandale

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Kao Thai, Silver Spring

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Limeña, Rockville

Level, Annapolis 

Mala Tang, Arlington

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 new El Centro, D.F. (1819 14th St., NW; 202-328-3131) from chef/impresario Richard Sandoval, is such a presumptuous place it's hard to like even when you want to.
   The litany of misdeeds the night I was in was long, starting with being seated in a blazing shaft of sunlight when other front-room seats were plainly available. "Is this okay?" the host asked innocently.
   A friend was rubbing his hands in anticipation of a basket of chips and salsa to start off the night, but a server shot that down right away. Chips don't come to the table — they have to be ordered. It's $4 per, and not refillable. How come? "Because we make it fresh," was the wonderful non-sequitir.
   (She did later bring him a sample, overselling her virtues of fortitude and craft in order to make sure she delivered him a taste. They were excellent.)
   The more likely reason for the lack of chips and salsa: The staff is expected to hawk its 10-buck guacamole, mixed tableside in a small molcajete. "Can I get you started on an order of guacamole," our server asked, even before we had had a chance to set eyes on a menu. And then, just before dashing off to put in our drink orders: "I'm sorry, I can't remember: Did you say you wanted the guacamole?"
   Drinks were a variation of a mojito made with tequila and a margarita. They arrived two-thirds of the way through our meal. In craft-cocktail parlance, they were exceptionally "well-balanced." They were also surprisingly weak.
   The food — tamales, an order of tacos, and a carnitas plate — all came pretty much at once, which is pretty much the way nowadays. The new breed of clamorous small plates places can't be bothered to pace your meal; it's enough that you're eating high-quality food in such a slick and trendy setting.
   The tamales were too tightly packed and too muted in flavor, but the tinga, the orange-red sauce it came swabbed in, had such kick and body we dipped into it again and again when spooning the carnitas, a small mound of crusty-edged pork that had cooked for hours until falling apart, into warm corn tortillas. The carnitas came with a trio of excellent salsas, each about the portion you would need to dress half a taco, and a frill of pickled onions that would have been sufficient garnish for an hors d'oeuvre. This was lusty, soulful food, and yet it was being presented as finger food — food for dainty people who don't want to get their hands dirty.
   The fish tacos came three to an order for $12.95. Or, about twice as much as you'd pay in Bladensburg's Little Mexico. But not twice the flavor.
   Total for two after tip and tax: $70. …

   … Taste (3418 Olney Laytonsville Rd., Olney; 301-774-2500) bills itself as a mezze lounge, but it's a m
ezze lounge in the outer suburbs of Maryland. By Olney standards, it may look assuming, but by the standards of downtown DC it comes across as positively charming, with an insinuating warmth that animates every aspect of the experience.
   Greece is the dominant influence, and a glass of Kir-Yianni Rose, a full-bodied, strawberry-colored wine made from the xinomavro grape, is the way to kick things off. It's a fine match for many of the flavors here, from the trio of dips (including taramosalata, hummus and spicy feta) to a plate of soft, herbed meatballs in a vivid tomato sauce to the homestyle lemon potatoes to the grilled baby lamb chops.
   Desserts include a good homemade baklava and something of a reach for a restaurant that generally eschews flash — three quenelles of chocolate ganache drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and garnished with a chiffonade of mint. They're oddly sublime …

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Good morning, everyone. I have just a few items of business to get down to before we begin in earnest.

To start, 2 bits of news —

* Anna Spiegel, our fantastic Food and Wine intern, is reporting that the Cava owners are opening an Italian place — https://www.washingtonian.com/blogarticles/restaurants/bestbites/19485.html

* And as I tweeted just about an hour ago — a source tells me this morning that Againn Rockville will be folding up shop on May 31.  

Finally, I'll be out of town the next two Tuesdays, but we've lined up a couple of interesting people to take the hot seat while I'm traveling.

On Tuesday, May 24: Doug Povich, owner of the Red Hook Lobster Trucks.

And on Tuesday, May 31: Mike Isabella, chef-owner of the forthcoming Graffiato. …

Washington DC

Hi Todd,

I just wanted to write about our experience at Peter Chang's China Grill. We went there on Mother's Day for dinner after a day touring Monticello.

I had high hopes based upon your earlier reviews of the chef's creations. However I had lower expectations since I learned that he was in Atlanta as well as other online reviews saying that the food was ordinary and the service subpar. Well, those online reviews are worthless.

The food was amazing.

We started with Hot and Sour soup, which was slightly spicy and slightly sour. Very different from what I was used to.

Next, we had the crispy pork belly. Wow. Lightly floured, deep fried and dusted with fried hot peppers, scallions and cilantro. I looked at my friend and we both knew that we had "arrived" at a great restaurant.

Next up, soupy steamed dumplings. These had a nice burst of broth encased in the dumpling. Very good. The hot and numbing combination hot pot was indeed spicy and numbing. My wife went through 10 cups of iced tea to try and quench the heat. It had beef, shrimp, fish, mushrooms and some other vegetables in it. The fish was the best part of it. There was a bit too much whole coriander which provided the numbing sensation.

The other fish dish was a spicy fish in a broth with glass noodles. It was nice and refreshing.

Our last dish was the Guizhou chicken which came with lots of peppers but was not spicy at all. It was very tasty and well prepared.

Overall, our meal was a spice journey that took us from non spicy to mind numbing can't feel your eyeballs spicy.

I was apprehensive about eating here on Mother's day, but the food came out quick, and the staff was attentive to our needs. I highly recommend going to China Grill. Even if Peter Chang is not in the kitchen, his recipes are still there. The best Chinese food I've eaten.

That doesn't happen too often — that I'm made hungry by the first question/comment of the morning. But then it's Peter Chang we're talking about …

Sounds fantastic.

I don't doubt that the food is not as good when he's not around. He's in Atlanta half of the time, and in Charlottesville half of the time. (He takes the bus back and forth.)

It's up to you, the diner, to ferret out his particulars, but I would think it'd be well worth the investment of time. I, personally, would do it.

I also would have no qualms about hopping in the car and driving the 2 1/2 plus hours for dinner, if I cared about food as much as most of you do.

Brandywine, MD

Todd – I could care less how people are dressed (aside from those bearing swimwear!) as long as they are respectful of the the restaurant's dress code.

With the current state of the economy and other madness going on in this country, people just want to go out, have fun and enjoy good food. We're paying all this money for gas so if we can let our hair down once in a while and dress casual for a good meal, why can't we do that without getting rude stares from our nearby table mates?

It's not that serious….right? Enough with the rant…I love it when you sign off with a note to your dad. That's keeping things in its true perspective. Love your chats 🙂

Thank you for writing in.

For your perspective, and also for your warm words.

You bring up something interesting, here, and that's the restaurant's dress code. I've been thinking about something ever since this came up, namely —

If a place doesn't have a problem admitting someone in faded jeans and shirttails — as just a for instance — then it is saying, in effect, this is the kind of place we are. 

Right?

All those who find the dining experience sullied by the sight of patrons who don't adhere to "proper" standards of dress should keep those sneers in check. It's the ownership and management that's deserving of your outrage. Blame them.

El Centro DF

So are you recommending El Centro DF or not?

I don't know if your problems were caused by it being new or do you foresee such problems persisting? Do other high-end mexican restaurants not provide free chips and salsa (e.g., Oya, rosa mexicano?).

I though they were aiming for a more casual vibe than those places – the prices don't seem to reflect that.

Really? It came across to you as mixed?

Presumption is not pacing. It's not staffing. It's not a matter of tweaking here and there. It's an attitude. It's a deep-structure thing.

So my inclination is to say that yeah, much of what I experienced in that first visit is likely to persist. Granted, I've only been the once. But the things that disturbed me are not things that are easily corrected. And I doubt that El Centro sees some of them as in need of correction.

The prices, for one.

I'd like to see the bill come in at about a third less, and the food and the presentation steer clear of high-end preciousness. I mean, what are we talking about here? Mexican street food.

Vienna, VA

Hi Todd,

I am the chatter who shared the experience on Poste 20 Bites from a few months ago. I was pleasantly surprised with Chef Weland's response and willingness to hear feedback about his restaurant. I did email him. Thanks for posting his comments. On another matter – any advise on where to get great traditional Peking Duck in the area?

Thanks.

I haven't been knocked out by any Peking Duck I've had in a while. I've had pretty good versions at Peking Gourmet, the old Bush family haunt in Falls Church, and Mark's Duck House, the old Robert Parker haunt, also in Falls Church.

Oriental East, in Silver Spring, does a decent version. Sometimes a very decent version. And you can also order it in half-portions.

The best preparation of duck I've had in a long time was at Red Pearl, in Columbia. The duck is tea-smoked, then roasted until the skin takes on the color of dark maple syrup and turns crispy. It comes with steamed buns and a dish of hoisin. The idea is to fold equal amounts of crunchy skin and luscious meat into the bun, and then drizzle the thing with sauce. 

Fantastic. Like eating great barbecue.

What’s good for the goose…
Todd, if someone was clowning on my parents for the way they were eating an unfamiliar food, I would be just as upset as you were when someone confronted your parents for being disruptive in a concert. A better-than-you attitude is what plagues the dining out community; rather than thinking "Cool, there's an aged, touristy, midwestern couple broadening their horizons and trying something different", all you could do is laugh at them. Shame on you.

I wasn't "clowning on." That's demonstrative. I said I "got a kick out of." I was amused. No demonstration whatsoever.

And there's a WORLD of difference between my finding someone's behavior amusing from afar, and a stranger turning to an 83-year-old woman and, like a nun disciplining a schoolgirl, pulling and twisting her ear at a concert  — as happened to my mother at one of the most-respected churches in Washington.

Here's the passage from last week, by the way:

Arlington, VA:
My best friend and I had a great time taking our Mother's to have Korean BBQ for the first time, we grew up in Western MD where there isn't a lot of ethnic food. We went to Honey Pig and they just loved it. The poor waitress just didn't know what to do with them she brought them forks, would tell them how to assemble things and then looked very worried when they just ate it how they wanted, but in a very sweet way. It was a hoot!

Todd Kliman:
It's like the time I saw a couple, visiting from the Midwest, eating at one of the Ethiopian restaurants in the area. Out came a big round of injera covered with various stews, and the waitress also deposited a basket of rolled injera — for tearing off and scooping the dishes. She left them, and they promptly began eating the wats and tibs with their forks and knives, occasionally taking a break to bite off a piece of rolled injera as if it were a dinner roll. It was hilarious.
I was really tempted to tell them what they ought to have been doing, but I got such a kick out of watching them that I just didn't.

Washington, DC
Todd – are you able to tell via email addresses who chatters are representing? The chat from Tuesday, May 10th regarding a readers response to another reader's review about Poste Brasserie sounded a little one-sided, and potentially representative of the restaurant… For me, it would be sad to see chatters stop writing about their experiences, good or bad. After all, this is a forum to share, and everyone at the end of the day, needs to judge for themselves.

It's possible. I have no real way of knowing.

The questions and comments that come into the chat queue bear no email stamp. No stamp whatsoever, other than the name of a city, which may or may not be genuine. They're all anonymous.

They might have been written by a food lover who likes to keep up with what's happening on the local restaurant scene, or a PR hack in the industry, or a manager at a restaurant, or a monkey who has yet to produce anything to equal the cannon of Shakespeare but has nonetheless banged out a cogent few paragraphs about a favorite restaurant.

It's guesswork over here. Educated guesswork, but guesswork …

And as I've said before, I dislike it intensely, this anonymity that marks forums like this and comment sections of online publications and the internet in general. Anyone can bash any old thing, without having an insight or without being able to craft a good sentence or without informing himself at least a little. It's not the bashing I mind, though. It's the not claiming responsibility for the bashing. The not standing behind those words.

I see the value of this kind of anonymity when it comes to shopping, where you're exchanging sensitive credit card information. Otherwise, what's the point? We could cut in half the hatred and ignorance that pervades the cyber world if only we could force the public to be accountable for what it says online.

bowie md

This fuss over 'dress code' — chill out!

And how about thinking 'outside the box' (corny, but appropriate here.)

Maybe you need to stop and think that these people have a life both before and after restaurant dining. Dressed to the nines? – maybe they're on their way to a concert. Jeans and a shirt without a collar – maybe they've just attended a sports event. In either case, are they not entitled to enjoy a nice meal in a nice restaurant, without comments or disparaging glances from you 'up-tight' types.

Yes, but when you show up in inappropriate attire you are spoiling the night of everyone around you. 

Don't you understand? An evening out is such a delicate balance of elements, that one false look, or one stray hair on a plate, or one sighting of a torn hem on a pants leg, and the night is ruined, just ruined …

But seriously …

And honestly …

When you pay $300 + for dinner — and there aren't many of these places around anymore, and they're not the places we're talking about for the most part, but the debate becomes more interesting when you limit it to these sorts of restaurants … When you pay $300 + for dinner you are paying, in part, to remove yourself from the general society. To remove yourself from the riff-raff.

You are paying for exclusivity.

I can understand some people wanting that, I can. Even if I can't condone what undergirds it all.

Taste- assuming
Don't you mean unassuming?

No.

Read it again.

logan circle
El Centro It's important to note, that the places that you reference in comparison to El Centro are all hole in the wall, mom and pop taquerias. El Centro is aiming a bit higher, both in quality and setting. Food for thought.

True.

I just wished three times as much equaled three times as much flavor. 

And $70 for what is, essentially, taqueria chow? Don't you think that's expensive?

Nothing I had, by the way, was as vivid or delicious as the tacos and chilaquiles at R&R Deli/Taqueria, in Elkridge, the gas station Mexican joint I wrote about recently.

A must-visit, by the way, though unfortunately there're only two stools and no tables.

Washington DC

Hi Todd,

I have a question and a few thoughts to share. My mother is visiting from out of town for two weeks and will be here during her 68th birthday.

I made a reservation for 6 at Cafe Atlántico for their Hispanic Dim Sum. I would also like to go somewhere this weekend at night and would love a recommendation. I thought about going to the chef table at Sushi Taro but the $150 price tag after tip and tax is a bit too much for just food. She likes to try new things (so do I). Any thoughts?

Also, wanted to share some very fun experiences in the H st. corridor in the past month or so: I had an amazing bourbon cocktail with a pork belly skewer at Toki Underground. They spray it with some peaty scotch and mix in some German honey liquor. After you sip the smoky drink and smell the sweet honey what better than to wash it down with… yes, PORK! Ramen was forgettable; it's no Ippudo that's for sure. But it does give me that ramen fix I was jonesing in DC.

I also had a great experience at Smith Commons. I went with a large group and sat near the large window on the couches. We lingered for at least 2 or 3 hours sampling most of their menu. I would say most of the dishes were a hit including the raw tuna with the avocado mayonnaise, as well as the pan seared scallops. Mini burgers were overcooked and boring, fries were a bit soggy. Other dishes were not memorable but the ambience made up for it by far. Fun tip, most of their small plates are $2 off during happy hour too.

I'm very excited that our city is creating spaces that foster a fun aesthetic with an eye for innovative design. Both Smith Commons and Toki Underground hit the mark on that front. Food could be better but who cares when you’re sipping a delicious beer with your friends looking through a 25ft window sitting on beautiful vintage couches?

Your fan, Felix

Felix, thanks for the fun and detailed reports. I appreciate it.

And happy birthday to your mom. It sounds as though she's poised to have a fantastic weekend of celebrating.

Instead of Sushi Taro, try taking her to Kushi. No tasting menu, so it'd be a lot cheaper, and you can splurge on some of the just-flown-in selections of fish from Japan.

Or Ris, where you can expect a very good meal in a very comfortable setting with very good service.

Or Palena Cafe, where the two of you could relax and unwind with a drink, then dig into some superb pastas.

Or Red Pearl, in Columbia, for the dim sum selection at night (it's made to order), supplemented by tea-smoked duck and a fabulous pepper salted lobster — a fresh, lightly fried lobster dusted with minced garlic, ginger and chilis.

Capitol Hill, DC

A few weeks ago, on a particularly nice Tuesday evening, my wife and I went for a walk around our neighborhood in search of an outdoor happy hour with some good eats and drinks. We had been to Ba Bay a few weeks before and really enjoyed it. When we walked by, they had a big sign out front advertising their happy hour, and the front windows were wide open.

Only one other table was full and there was a couple at the bar in the back. We asked about the happy hour and they told us it was at the bar only. It was such a nice day that we decided we'd rather sit outside than anything else, so we moved on. We ended up at a Thai place nearby — which was ok, not bad.

My question: what did the restaurant stand to gain from making us go to the bar? The restaurant was basically empty, plenty of staff there. I've noticed there are similar policies at a lot of other places, and I don't really understand it. I suppose you don't want to fill up your dining room with guests who are just drinking, but in this instance, the inflexibility seems like it hurt business. We'll go back of course — my wife can't get enough of the Vietnamese Coffee shake — but I'd love to make it a regular neighborhood place for a couple drinks and a couple appetizers on a nice evening. Had a good trout dish there too. Anyhow, I would love to hear your thoughts.

I'm guessing they don't want people camping out at tables for hours, only ordering drinks.

But yeah, I agree with you. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense in your instance. 

Policies.

People love their policies. What I love is an organization that permits its people to think and to make decisions based on circumstances.

And I'm with you, too, on that Vietnamese coffee shake. Terrific.

Falls Church

Todd-

Always love the chats and advice.

Re the attire issue. I for one am a big proponent of dressing in what makes you feel comfortable, maybe not shorts and flops, but jeans and collared shirt. I make it a point to call any place we go prior to confirm exactly what "business casual" is and specifically ask them if jeans are OK. The way I look at it is, if they are OK with it, then go for it.

Let's face it me and my jeans are paying as much for my meal as the folks next to me in ties and stilletos, the difference is, I'm comfortable, which will allow me to enjoy my meal maybe a little more, and ultimately that is the main goal.

Sidenote- Did you pull the trigger on the Big Green Egg? I hope to fire up mine for some apple and cherry wood smoked baby backs this weekend. Like I mentioned in the previous chat, post if you did as I have some great sites I could send to you offline.

I haven't yet, no. Still considering it. Thanks for asking …

And thanks for writing in. 

"If they are OK with it, then go for it." True, true. As I said up above, it all comes down to ownership and management.

Re: El Centro DF

Hi Todd.

I'm so dismayed by your first-look at El Centro but not surprised. It's about how lots of people have reacted on first try.

I've resisted my urge to go because while I thought the concept would be great and welcome, I was afraid the execution would be short-sighted and resting on laurels that are earned at Sandoval's other establishments. You know they could do it well because there are moments that shine but when a restaurateur doesn't put it's all into because it's not going to be a "high-end" place is inexcusable, really.

Why bother doing a business if you're not going to do it well. Maybe they'll improve so it can be what it really should be. I hope so because it could be so good.

Thanks for chiming in.

I will say this, after saying all that I've already said this morning: I wish the place luck, and hope it evolves, and in evolving — improves. I'd love to see it succeed.

Takoma Park, Md.

Todd,

I'm now working in the Shady Grove section of Rockville and wonder if you have a favorite among the various noodle places around here?

We've been to A and J's, which we liked for potstickers and noodles with spicy peanut sauce, Michael's is up the road, and then there's Bob's, etc.

Michael's Noodles, definitely. And Joe's Noodle House also. Bob's Noodle 66 has declined, I'm sorry to report.

A&J is fantastic. For Asian-style pastries and savory breads, I really like Bread Corner.

For Latin cooking, the Peruvian joint La Brasa. Get the fabulous homemade chicken soup. Back around that way is also the French bakery St. Michel — I love the croissants and baguette sandwiches. No seating though, unfortunately.

Re: El Centro
I do think it's a bit high, but that's the price you pay for having something downtown as opposed to 15-20 min drive or further in the case of Elkridge. I'm willing to give them a pass, I've had good food there, and while the service was wanting, I did think there is the potential for this to be a good place to hang out. Definately skews more toward a younger crowd though…

Thanks for chiming in.

Skewing younger is immaterial to me in assessing a place, by the way.

I was really tempted to tell them what they ought to have been doing
Why? It all ends up in the same place, right? Or if you use the inerja as an implement, will it go down a different pipe? Get over yourself.

There's a big difference between physically hurting somebody (my mother was frightened and enraged) and keeping your mouth shut and talking about it years later when the people are not around.

And by the way: They were not middle-aged. To the best of my knowledge, they were not Midwestern.

You might want to refrain from making assumptions when you judge other people.

Dress Codes & Exclusivity
Its interesting that you mention exclusivity in the context of dress codes. Do people feel that it cheapens the experience at a restaurant if the "riff raff" shows up? Do they think that they're somehow lesser of a person if the "riff raff" has the same purchasing power that they do?

I think there are people who do, yes.

More than you might think, too.

I'll be interested in hearing how this conversation evolves. Keep the emails coming, everyone. tkliman@washingtonian.com

And I'll be back with you all in early June …

Eat well, be well, and let's do it again in a few weeks …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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