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.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
… There isn't much to cheer about the economy, but one intriguing effect of the downturn locally has been the explosion of heretofore unseen eating establishments — gas station eats, gourmet food trucks, and, of late, the micro-menu restaurant. Witness the recent debut of Medium Rare (the Cleveland Park cafe serving only one set menu) and a handful of places essentially doling out one or two dishes.
The past few weeks have seen the emergence of two micro-menu places specializing in the exact same thing: the trendy snack du jour, the lobster roll.
The better of the two is Freddy's Lobster + Clams, adjacent to chef Jeff Heineman's Grapeseed Bistro, in Bethesda. Heineman has effectively recreated the look and feel of a Maine snack shack, though being in downtown Bethesda, far from the sea spray, it's necessarily a slicker, more sanitized version of the real thing. There are booths, stools and communal tables, the latter of which no one apparently wants to sit at. The best feature of the space, and the most commanding piece of decor, is the 450-gallon lobster tank, where a kitchen hand retreats every so often to troll for fresh specimens — Freddy's goes through about 140 of the crustaceans daily.
My lobster roll ($15) was a bounteous mess of knuckle, claw and tail meat, all bound in a light and lemony mayo and spilling out of a buttered, split-top bun. The only thing keeping it from a perfect score was the bun itself, which could have stood a longer time on the griddle.
The clams deserve to share top billing; they're immaculately fried. The fine, crunchy exterior gave way to a sweet, juicy present. The lobster stew had the refinement you would expect of a white-tablecloth restaurant, but there was no presumption in the presentation; it came with a (good) blueberry muffin.
Dessert was a whoopie pie that nailed the sandwich part but flubbed the filling; the cream was too runny. …
… Where Freddy's is homegrown, Luke's Lobster is an import — there are four locations in Manhattan, including a roving truck. Freddy's isn't a big restaurant, but it makes Luke's look like its downtown takeout operation by comparison. There are only stools, no chairs and tables, and minimal effort is made to give the place an ambiance. The food — lobster, shrimp and crab rolls, mainly — comes out fast. There are trucks that ought to be restaurants, and then there are restaurants that ought to be trucks.
The chalkboard pushes diners towards its $21 "A Taste of Maine" deal — half of three of its rolls, two crab claws, a bag of chips, and a soda. I decided to split it with a friend at lunch, ordering an extra soda, a cup of clam chowder and a whoopie pie to round out our meal. The soda turns out to be a half bottle, and the crab claws amount to small thumbnail-sized bits of slightly over-steamed meat. The rolls are four bites each. The crab and shrimp rolls had little flavor, though the latter did perk up with a dab or two of cocktail sauce. The best by far was the half lobster roll. It was so tiny — it couldn't have been more than two inches wide, or not much more anyway — that it was like passing an hors d'oeuvre back and forth. We were still hungry, too, so I ended up springing for a whole roll ($15).
Luke's uses less mayo than anyone around — less than Freddy's, less than Red Hook Lobster Truck, less than Hank's. There's just a thin smear on the bottom of the split-top roll. This is admirable, but I'd prefer tail meat to claw meat, or a mixture of tail, claw and knuckle. And I'd prefer a slight under-steaming to a slight over-steaming. The chowder was forgettable, more potato than clam.
The whoopie pie, like most everything else, was sized for a child — an enlarged Oreo. It also came wrapped, and from the fridge. Tasted like it, too. Crumbly and full of artificial-tasting cream, it was a waste of three bucks.
And our putative deal ended up costing over $50. …
Just wanna give props to Fabio @ Fiola, as my encounter this past week was such a good one. Veal loin just about as good as anywhere and the Pasta’s are simply delish! When can we expect to read your thoughts?
Oh, about a month ago I'd guess. … I wrote about Fiola here, on the chat, and also did a longer review for the magazine.
What do I think of it?
Depends on what he's trying to accomplish. I think it's a good place if he is intending to reinforce an image of sturdiness and strength and traditional values. It's not the sexiest choice in the city, is what I'm saying. But then sexiness is something I presume he saves for date nights with Michelle.
And restaurants are about many, many things other than the food, as we all know, and can be used for a variety of purposes.
Quite a bit.
You've got a terrific hot dog place in Purcellville, in Haute Dogs and Fries. I like Rangoli, in South Riding, for Indian food. In Leesburg, I like The Wine Kitchen, The Cajun Experience, Yen's Cafe and Fire Works Pizza. One of the best Chinese restaurants in the area is Sichuan Village, in Chantilly.
I know I'm leaving out a slew of places, too, with this list — but these are the spots that immediately leap to mind …
Hi Todd —
Headed to Miami this weekend. Any suggestions on places to eat? We'll be staying in the downtown area but are willing to travel to south beach or wherever. Open to all cuisines. Mainly just looking for a few local places with great food and a fun atmosphere. Thanks!
Lucky you. My short list would include the following …
Michael's Genuine Food and Drink for casual fine dining; Sabor a Peru, Ceviche 105 and Francesco for Peruvian (the Peruvian food scene is one of the most exciting developments on the local culinary landscape, I think); and Puerto Sagua for Cuban — though, really, there are a slew of very good Cuban places throughout the city that are just as good; I like this one for its all-around game, as it were, and the languorous atmosphere.
And I continue to hear great things about Whisk, but have yet to go. Later this year, I hope …
My friends and i got talking the other night about food critics and wondered if a. the job ever gets old for you, or b. if there comes a time when a town needs a new voice. what do you think?
Curious to know what you talked about — do share …
Does the job ever get old? I think it might if there weren't so much going on — if this were a sleepier scene than it is. I will say there are stretches where things start to blur a bit and I occasionally am hard put to tell you where I ate last Thursday — that kind of thing. But those stretches are generally really short, and I can always put a stop to them if I need to with a visit or two to one of the great ethnic enclaves in the area. The ethnic food scene is really a continuous wonder.
As for the town needing a new voice … really? And I don't mean that flippantly — I'm genuinely surprised to hear you say that.
There are so many voices out there nowadays, I would think it wouldn't matter much. Not that they can all write and synthesize and contextualize what's going on — which is, I hope, some of what you get when you read me on the chat or in the magazine. But the opinions are out there. There's a deluge of information nowadays.
I, for one, am well-pleased that your whoopie pie was so awful at Luke's. Hopefully, similar experiences will put a final nail in the coffin of Maine's bid for making the whoopie pie their state dessert. Go back to blueberry pie, ya chowds!
Thanks for letting me pontificate, Todd. I trust your writing, and the past couple of weeks have been a little rough- no disrespect to the two subs (they answered a ton of questions), but it was like one long free advertisement. I hope they paid the magazine, and not vice versa.
Nobody paid anybody, just so you know. But I hear you … It's nice to know I'm not going to be Wally Pipp-ed.
I can tell you all that I had exceptional food while I was away in Israel. Excellent fish from the Mediterranean, and so many varieties. Fruits and vegetables the equal of what you find in California and maybe better. The simple Israeli chopped salad — which I remember my brother coming home and making many, many years ago and being underwhelmed by — is such a fresh and vibrant thing; the tomatoes and cucumbers are amazingly fragrant and fruity. I ate shwarma that still makes my mouth water, just typing this. Great Lebanese food. Great Tripolitan food — shakshuka! So good. And — surprise — a number of very good, small production wines, mostly of the non-kosher variety.
It was a phenomenal trip, and the food was only a small part of the reason. One of the most profound, exhilarating, fascinating times of my life …
I'm planning my birthday and I'm looking for a great place for dessert to follow a 9:00 pm tour of the Washington Monument. Great desserts often seem to get hype at "fancy" restaurants, but I'd prefer someplace fun and not too stuffy. Also, no cupcakes. Thanks!
Try Birch & Barley, on 14th St. near Logan Circle.
Some of the best desserts now going in the city, but nothing is too precious, and I think the space is just what you're looking for for a birthday night out. And no cupcakes …
Let me know if you do end up going — I'll be curious to hear how things turned out …
I'm organizing a family dinner tonight, in honor of an out-of-town guest from Tel Aviv. I'm supposed to choose a place that's moderately priced but has buzz, like Ebbitts or Zaytinya. Do you have any other suggestions for something "very Washingtonian"?
Thank you. And love your chats!
Tel Aviv, huh? Tell your guest I'm madly in love with Tel Aviv …
I'm still mentally on the white beaches. Still mentally at a bar called Nanotchka, where, on a Sunday night at 3:45 in the morning women in short print dresses and boots climbed atop the bar to dance to Israeli hip hop and rejiggered Israeli folk tunes pumped out by a DJ whose podium is adorned with a sticker of Golda Meir. Around the packed bar, patrons lit sparklers and some beat on bongos, adding to the frenzy. Why Sunday, the start of the Israeli work week? "Who knows what tomorrow brings," a waitress told me. To party hard on a Sunday, she added, is to set the tone for the next six days …
Zaytinya works. But so do Central Michel Richard (six blocks from the White House), Cafe du Parc, Estadio, Proof, Poste … the list is long …
How I can account for that? Taste. ; )
But seriously … It's like any other form of criticism. You can read sometimes wildly opposing views of the same play, or same CD, or same book.
Having said that, I really don't think there are many places that Tom pans that I end up loving, or vice versa. It sounds interesting to say it, but I'm not sure it's true.
What I notice more often is a different take on a place, informed by our very different sensibilities.
Speaking only for myself — and speaking candidly, here — I think I have always tended to give more benefit of the doubt to low profile sorts of places, to places that don't go in for the big promotional machinery, or places that arrive with little fanfare, or the little places, the moms n pops, the independents.
That's not to say those places get a free pass. But those are the kinds of places that I have always been drawn to, and as a writer — not to say a food writer, or food critic, now — but as a writer those are the kinds of places that I generally find more interesting.
Doesn't mean the food will be better, and I'm under no illusion that that's not what matters here. That's the gig.
But mood, ambiance, decor — those things don't have much sway with me if the food's only okay. And if the food's terrific? Well, I mean — that's the all and the everything. A crummy atmosphere, or a faded carpet, or dawdling service — if the cooking is great or even very good, then these things have to be contextualized. Which is not the same as saying rationalized …
Because then they can go back to the office and say — "I waited in line for forty-five minutes to eat at Shake Shack!"
There's a new word for this. It's called "moasting." A really neat neologism of "moaning" and "boasting." You see it a lot on Facebook: "Oh, dear Lord — our plane to Paris has now been delayed a second time!!"
Your question seems to imply that a place called Shake Shake can't be all that, but I can tell you that although it may not be worth a long wait like that (what is?) it's pretty damn good. I once waited 55 minutes for the one at Madison Park — I waited fifty-five minutes to eat at Shake Shack — and came away not hating the place. That says a lot.
As prole-style burgers go (prole-style; ha — it's what we used to call a burger) it's excellent, the "concretes" (that's what they call shakes in St. Louis) are fabulous, and the place smells exactly like what it should. The smell is actually one of the best things about going there.
To shamelessly come to your defense regarding those who think their needs to be a "new voice" in the DC food scene, I think they are short-sighted.
I recall last year or so a new blogger got a lot attention on the food scene and quite frankly, the assessment couldn't compare. Although I did read along to get a more "every-man" perspective, this person ordered the freakin goat cheese salad at every place that served it. I guess I just prefer following a writer/blogger who is a lot more adventurous and descriptive.
My 2 cents for the day. Thanks for the chats.
Thanks for the 2 cents, Shaw!
I hear you. I sort of just assume now that people who love food and restaurant-going read or skim a variety of outlets, and sift through all these impressions to arrive at some sort of take-away of a place.
It's not the same game it was 15 years ago, when you had a couple of critics and nothing else except word of mouth, and for that reason I don't think a critic in my position — especially writing for a monthly — can write the same kind of review as he or she would have 15 years ago.
Synthesis, context — these things matter much more now than they did, I think. And also, these are generally the sorts of things you don't find from the bloggers and message boards, where people are mostly posting a review of a place they hit one time and mostly telling you about it in a vacuum — what was good, what was not, would I go back, would I not, etc.
If it were me, I'd be torn between two spots.
One is Montmartre, a place I used to go myself, when an anniversary came up and I didn't want to drop a lot of coin. Cozy spot, reliably good bistro food, and for this area one of the better values you're going to find.
The other is a little more flash and fun (but without the attendant expense): Cava, the moodily lit mezze restaurant on Barracks Row. I like the pop of the small plates, and I like the low-key vibe.
If neither of those appeals — if you've been to both too many times to count already — then I'd give a long look to Ba Bay, a modish Vietnamese place that is better now than it was when it first opened. A good, lightly upscaled bowl of pho, I love the chicken wings, and the Vietnamese coffee milkshake is killer.
I read, from Mike Isabella's chat, that Bryan Voltaggio is a "partner" in his graffitio restaurant? What is up with that? How much of a partner is he and what does that even mean?
I don't think he meant a "partner" in the hands-on sense — as in they would be cooking alongside one another or something. My understanding is he put some money into the venture.
Thanks so much!
And yes, of course — I have a couple of books in the pipeline.
One food wave that seems to have not fully caught on yet in dc, besides perhaps Againn is the Gastropub. I am not sure if folks are afraid that DC diners won't want to eat in a bar or haven't built up the trust yet from years of lackluster bar food, but it is something I would really like to see more of.
On that note, I am heading up to NY this weekend for Belmont, and was hoping to check out a gastropub or similar establishment that will offer good and creative food without breaking the bank. We are staying in the west 50's, but I am willing to venture out for the right place. Any thoughts?
I think the problem is with gastropubs that aren't doing much more than just basic things. If you're going to be a gastropub, then you had better bring some creativity and some finesse to the show. Rib-sticking food done lightly, that's not what the gastropub should be about.
And as far as this weekend goes — you've got a very good place within striking distance in Telepan. It's on 69th near Broadway. Not cheap, but not exorbitant either — and especially not by New York City standards. Take my advice and don't be seduced into ordering three courses. You're not obligated to, but the menu sets it up in such a way that you're encouraged to do so.
Good luck. I'll be interested in hearing how your meal turned out. Or where you ended up eating instead.
You've disparaged Yelp reviews in the past. However, I still find that it can be a reliable guide to dining out. Yeah, they can't all contextualize or synergize or use the right type of paradigm-breaking biz-speak that you bring up; but often I can read through the chatter to find some really spot-on reviews. Is Yelp flawed? Heck yeah. There are way too many split-infinitives, misspelled words, and fanboy/girl writeups to sometimes take it seriously.
But I have found that as an aggregator, it is one of the better sites for finding places that are good- especially non-chain, non-big-deal places that might not have the advertising that their counterparts have. I'd rather have a deluge, than having a few gatekeepers parsing out their (sometimes limited) opinions.
I've disparaged Yelp because I hate reading the reviews. It's worse than grading the worst freshman comp papers.
But as a locator tool, sure. I've used it many a time on trips, mostly to see what's in a particular neighborhood.
Eating at a Yelp rec, however, that's another story. I can't tell you how many times I've eaten at a place on there that got four stars, and ended up being disappointed, or dismayed. Or sick.
At times like that, I long for a gatekeeper.
You have to venture away from the American restaurants, even the supposedly creative ones.
Think Indian, think Middle Eastern, think Thai.
Go to Spice X-ing in Rockville or Bombay Bistro in Fairfax or Rangoli in Chantilly. Go to Zaytinya in DC for mezze. Go to Sabai Sabai Simply Thai in Germantown for its all-veg menu. Go to Bangkok Golden for its Thai and Laotian menus, abundant with options — vivid and boldly expressed options.
Lunchtime, and I'm over as usual …
Thanks for all the questions and comments and concerns. It was great to be away, and it's also great to be back. Thank you, everybody.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]