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 . . .
. . . I admit to a strong preference for wine bars with food. And not just decent food — not just food that will do — but food that offers me an equally compelling reason to go, that shows the same care and thought that, presumably, went into the curation of the wines.
I had my doubts about Crush Wine House (114 West St., Annapolis; 410-216-9444), which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. It's a supremely inviting spot, with high ceilings and modish chandeliers, low-slung comfy couches and end tables stationed living room-style in the center of the open space, huge glass jars of olives and Marcona almonds on a sideboard, a nifty gizmo of a wine dispenser that doles out small tastes of reds and whites, and an appealing display of co-owner Bob Laggini's stock of small-production vineyard wines.
When I stopped in for the first time last December, I was charmed by all of it. All of it except chef Jon Rosa's menu, which struck me as a rather ill-crafted document for a wine bar, with such options as filet mignon and barbecue ribs sharing space with cured meats and cheeses and olives. Ribs? So you can get your hands all smeary with sauce and then pick up your glass of Syrah?
They were good, though, in spite of that — and in spite of their size and somewhat ungainly bonyness. The meat, locally raised and butchered, had a milder, cleaner, more resonant taste than what you tend to turn up in the rib shacks. Even better was a dish billed as a duck salad, with the smoked, seared Muscovy breast meat diced and made to play the role of lardons, scattered atop a mess of fresh, sharp-tasting arugula, the smoky and spicy flavors brought into sync by way of a creamy truffle-parmesan emulsion. There was also, that night, a plate of hummus with superlative housemade pita.
The hummus and pita are gone, but the ribs and duck salad have held over — the latter on a recent visit was every bit as good as I remembered. A dish of blackened tuna sounded like the sort of thing you expect to find these days at an Applebee's, the dish having long since fallen out of favor with most chefs. It came sporting a perfect crusting, and the black exterior made for a neat contrast with the surprisingly juicy red interior. I have pretty much given up on the idea that tuna is going to taste like much of anything anymore — certainly not like fish, and certainly not if you don't spring for something that has just been flown in from Japan. This one didn't. But Rosa had fashioned a brilliant impersonation of a Pittsburgh-style steak. Only this one was much, much lighter and less caloric. We augmented our selections with a plate of "lamb lollipops" — baby lamb chops, perfectly cooked — and an order of jamon Iberico.
Annapolis is a haul for many Washingtonians, and there are, of course, wine bars galore in and around DC. But this one's better than most, and worth a drive out in good weather. Especially if you're looking to dine as well as drink. . . .
I don't think you can do any better than to stop by Birch & Barley, on 14th St. in DC.
The selection is astounding — deep and wide, both, and Greg Engert, who serves as a sort of beer sommelier and looks like an extra from the set of Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums," is a font of knowledge and opinions.
Crabs. Softshells, hardshells. Doesn't matter. Both great.
Silver Queen Corn.
A pitcher of cold beer on a hot summer day — nothing fancy, just something light and crisp and cold.
Nothing unpredictable here, huh?
How about the rest of you? What are the things you're looking forward to? … It's funny, with this wild swing in the weather, it feels like fall today. This is start-back-to-school weather. I love it, but it's crazy …
I didn't love it, either.
Pizza places do need some time to settle in, it's true. So we'll see …
I thought the antipasti plate, the affetati misti (prosciutto, speck, mortadella, parmesan, olives) was not very distinguished or very interesting or very generous, considering the price ($13).
My two pizzas were tasty, but made for problematic eating — the surface was so wet on the Margherita Classica, nearly all the ingredients slid off before I could get a slice to my mouth. The other was the Ruchetta, with cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, slices of parmesan and a big pile of arugula on top. The toppings were bunched so much in the center that the outer edges of the pizza were like big, arid stretches of unused land. Pretty good crusts on both, though they hadn't baked nearly long enough.
The most rewarding thing on the table that night was the dessert, a slice of good lemon cake, and a good cup of fresh-brewed Italian coffee.
I completely agree with your assessment of Crush Wine House. My husband and I chanced upon it a couple of months ago and enjoyed a wonderful date there. The live music was the icing on the cake.
I've seen similar wine dispensers (maybe called enomatic machines?) in a handful of wine bars in Los Angeles, but Crush was the first I'd seen in the DC area. Do you know of any others? The tastes at Crush, by the way, are quite expensive. I guess that's the point of tastes; better to buy a $5 taste than a $25 glass of a wine that you may not like!
Yeah, the Enomatic. Crush is the only one in Annapolis so far as I know to use the machine. Proof in DC uses it. Evo Bistro in McLean also uses it.
I wish the tastes were a little less expensive, too, but as you say — it's better to spend five bucks and know for sure, than spend twenty-five and be disappointed.
I hope Crush does well. It deserves a broader audience.
I'd hit up Ris — Ris Lacoste's sophisticated but subdued West End restaurant.
A week ago, they were doing them tempura-style and serving them on a bun.
It'd be great to compile a list of who's got 'em on the menu right now … Who's got a softshell sighting or two?
Absolutely! How could I have forgotten?
This is that time of year where everything is better if it's unadorned and simple. Not just the way we dress, but also the way we eat. The plainer the food, the better — so long as the item in question is worth it.
What do you all do when you get a good batch of tomatoes this time of year? If they're really good, I just tend to slice them up, drizzle them with a little sherry vinegar and give them a good sprinkle of kosher salt and cracked black pepper. And then either adorn them with fresh mozzarella and basil, or just leave them alone.
Who's got some other ideas?
Robert Kacher, the local wine importer, has some good ones. I like his Mas des Bressades, made with Syrah and Grenache, which is very fresh and vibrant and fruity, and has a long, smooth finish.
Also in the fuller-bodied style — Bodega 1+1=3's Cabernet rose. It's very juicy and ripe, with a wonderful watermelon/pomegranate color, and drinking it alone or alongside a zesty gazpacho is a lush and sensual experience.
If you can still find a bottle, Kluge Estates' Albemarle Rose is an enjoyable sipper.
Recently, there was an appreciation of Elaine's in NYC in a quasi-sports site that doesn't need any extra hype. It had gotten me to thinking about if there's a similar place in DC; can you think of an 'institution' where journos loved to meet up and swap stories, and where celebrities, politicians, athletes, and others hung out?
I can think of a couple that MIGHT fit the bill, but they don't seem like they are in the same league as Elaine's.
It's an interesting question — thanks for writing in …
I don't think there's anything in the city, now or then, that is like Elaine's. Maybe the old Duke Zeibert's? Some people might say The Palm, but I think The Palm is its own thing.
What made Elaine's what it was — what made it Elaine's — was the mix of writers and artists that congregated nightly. I know there are some people in this town who get a kick out of spotting a member of a key Congressional subcommitee, or a "Meet the Press" guest, but how can that compare to seeing Woody Allen or the immaculate Gay Talese or the forever luminous Raquel Welch?
My favorite is Pasta alla Puttanesca, which is a wonderful summertime treat of fresh tomatoes and basil leaves, garlic, olive oil and seasoning blended with penne or linguine.
I discovered the dish years ago in Giuliano Bugialli's "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking". Nothing better on a warm, summer day,
And thanks for dropping in on us, dear Pennsylvania reader …
Pittsburgh Style steak? I am guessing its not same as Pittsburging a steak ie nice char on the outside and still blue ie just barely rare on the inside. or still mooing on the plate.
BTW went to some friends for a taste test of milk fed caged veal compared to free range humanley raised veal. Veal parm, veal chops, veal schnitzel and veal marsala. We all found we prefered the unhumanely raised veal for mouth feel, tenderness, and taste. Veal was from the same farm and the free range was grass fed and finished. The veals were twins from same mother.
Yep, a Pittsburgh-style treatment of tuna. Thick black crust on the outside, deep ruby color on the inside, and a cool-as-can-be center.
That's interesting about the veal.
There are a lot of -isms out there, and sometimes they make great sense, and sometimes they are important, and sometimes they inspire great food.
But not always.
It's very unfashionable in foodie circles to say that you like the taste of corn-fed beef. One should prefer grass-fed, since it's better for the cow, better for the environment, better for the system as a whole. I like grass-fed beef when it comes to a hanger steak. But when it comes to something like a Cowboy cut or a bone-in ribeye, I have to say I prefer corn-fed. It's just a richer, more complex flavor.
Is this bad of me, considering that I know the political issues, the environmental issues, and still feel this way? Probably.
But taste is taste.
That doesn't mean I wouldn't like to see agribusiness in America to make sweeping changes, and begin to shift away from corn-fed. It means that, given a choice at dinner — confined entirely to a question of taste — I probably will choose corn-fed nearly every time.
In the food world, there are a lot of things done to animals that don't seem especially considerate or sound — force-feeding a goose or duck to make foie gras, for instance. In the case of steak, the scale is certainly different — hard to compare a small industry like the foie gras industry with the mammoth commercial enterprise that is steak in America — but again, for the sake of this quick discussion, we're talking about questions of taste, not of politics, economics or environmentalism.
Some of the waiters there are pretty knowledgeable, I'd say, or at least pretty well-informed.
Though I have to say, I greatly dislike the practice of talking a diner out of a drink that is perceived as uncomplicated in favor of something more nuanced and complex. Sometimes, a guy just wants a drink and doesn't want to be bothered with thinking about it — with teasing out its various and sundry components.
This is, by the way, becoming more and more common in certain kinds of restaurants. It's not upselling, exactly. It's more like foodie shaming.
That, and snatching plates of food and drink before I or anyone at my table says so — these are my biggest pet peeves of late.
Re: Leesburg/Purcellville restaurants from last week …
Try Magnolia's at the Mill or its sister Tuscarora Mill. Neither is quite as good as it thinks it is, but the atmosphere at Magnolia's is fun and the food is generally inoffensive. In Leesburg for a quick bite there's the Chicago hot dog place and/or a stop at Mom's Apple Pie, which sends out pure joy in the form of sour cherry pie during the limited season.
Magnolia's at the Mill is an enjoyable place to spend a couple of hours in. Smells great with the wood-burning oven, and the space is lively and inviting.
I haven't explored the menu all that deeply, but I like the burger there a lot.
Windy City Red Hots — the Chicago dog place you mention — is really good; I wrote about it a while back, and then again recently in a roundup of hot dog spots in the area.
Have to get out and try Mom's Apple Pie. Sounds delish. And who can't love the name?
Thanks for chiming in …
And you're right — the jalapeños in the grocery stores all seem to have been bred for white-bread sensibilities; no heat, no zip.
Fresh salsa, by the way, sounds perfect for the summer meal we're assembling little by little here. Silver Queen corn, soft shells, fresh salsa, a full-bodied rose …
What's for dessert?
Right you are. On both counts.
Thanks for chiming in …
And I'm with you — I could order a softshell every time I go out to eat. Done right, there's not much that's better this time of year. It's also not the kind of dish you're likely to cook yourself at home; it's hard to do that kind of delicate frying on your own, especially not with stoves that don't get up to the kind of temperatures that commercial stoves do.
Equinox, I imagine, is serving them now. Watershed, Todd Gray's other, newer restaurant … Kinkead's, most likely. Who else?
I couldn't agree more!
Why do places insist on serving undercooked, soupy pizza? I don't get it.
We talked with the manager on our visit, who insisted it was intended to be exactly that way. And a "foodie" friend, after hearing my opinion of the place, scoffed "well you must not like Neapolitan style pizza then."
Todd, I have been to Naples and the pizza there does not come out floppy and undercooked!!
A little soup, okay.
But soppiness? Runoff? Undercooked crusts?
Speaking of crabs, what kind of specials does Cantler's run on hard crabs? DO they offer any specials on crabs? Nothing about it online…
The prices there fluctuate, according to what comes in.
And the source for the crabs, that's a changing thing, too. I went three times last summer. The first two times the crabs came from the Gulf of Mexico. The third time they came from local waters. The first two meals were both good. The third meal was exceptional.
Just wanted to share an experience from last week at Bibiana. I arrived much earlier than my friend, so I made myself at home sitting at the bar. Naturally I had their home-made crack, I mean, arancini. Hot balls of heaven!
Aside from the food I wanted to comment on the staff of Bibiana. It was one of those unholy hot days of nearly 100 degrees and after the valet guys had set up their stand outside, one of the servers asked them if they had some water bottles outside. That really resonated with me in that Mr. Bajaj apparently is so successful because he assembles quality staff, in the kitchen and on the floor. It was just nice to be in a place where people weren't being snarky and difficult, which is hard to come by in this town.
And speaking of what to crave during the summer: Bibiana's garlic grilled shimp. When my server suggested the dish my first thought was "meh" that's on every menu. But it was quite perfect for a scorching day and the flavors burst off the plate: expertly cooked shrimp, tiny potatoes tossed in this amazing olive sauce and crisp haricot vert.
Now I'm hungry. Thanks for the chats!
Now I'm hungry, too!
Sounds like a wonderful dish for a sweltering day. Thanks for the report …
Blueberries and peaches – Not flown in but from the farmer's market for the very short two weeks they are perfect and local.
Sour cherries – if you can find them.
Mountains of basil.
Crisp albarinos and Portuguese slightly sparkling whites on the deck.
See, now that's a food lover. When you base major life decisions on things like soft shells, yeah, I think you can safely say you are a gastronome.
Thanks for bringing a smile to my day …
It's definitely gotten a lot more interesting around there the last couple of years.
Here's my list …
Places I'd spring for a full lunch or dinner: Montmartre for French, Cava Grlll for mezze, Ba Bay for stylized Vietnamese, Zest Bistro for American comfort foods.
Single-item meals: Seventh Hill for pizza, Belga Cafe for mussels and fries, Senarts Oyster & Chophouse for the blackened prime rib sandwich, Chesapeake Room for appetizers (including oysters), Sonoma for wines, cheeses and cured meats, Ted's Bulletin for the "adult milkshakes" and homemade pop-tarts.
Good to know.
Thanks for chiming in on this …
Another dish I could eat and eat and eat all summer …
Just don't get too fancy with it, is all. You can really ruin gazpacho by getting cute with it.
But done simply? With great raw ingredients? Man oh man oh man …
I'm remembering Carole Greenwood's chunky-style gazpacho from a few years back at Buck's Fishing and Camping. Just different enough, with chunks of fresh veggies (some of the corn was still together, as if it were still on the cob) in a cool, sweet soup. An extraordinary dish.
I also have good memories of Rob Weland's gazpacho at Poste. It's messed with about as much as you want a gazpacho to be. Sublime.
Where you refering to Brassiere Beck here: "Though I have to say, I greatly dislike the practice of talking a diner out of a drink that is perceived as uncomplicated in favor of something more nuanced and complex."
And did they try to sell you on a cocktail or a more expensive beer?
And yes, they did. Though to be fair, the goal wasn't to upsell me. As I said, it was what you might call foodie shaming. Trying to get me to see the error of my too-simple ways and lead me to a better, more noble land of complex, layered tastes.
I've got a good one for you.
Get your fresh corn and strip it down and clean it of its silks. Then heat up a pan with a couple of teaspoonfuls of good oil — canola or grapeseed is fine, but I generally use olive oil. Extra virgin, preferably.
When the oil begins to shimmer, lay the ears of corn in. What you want to do is, you want to roll them as they cook — so slide the pan back and forth over the stove every 20 seconds or so.
Give it about 7-9 minutes or so, and then season them — first with kosher salt and cracked black pepper, rolling the ears for even distribution, then with a good spritz of lime. Roll them again.
Now, the final touch: a few pinches of smoked paprika. Sprinkle, roll. Sprinkle, roll.
I think it's fantastic, and it's best when the corn is really fresh and sweet.
Enjoy. And if you — or if anyone — tries it out, let me know how you like it by dropping a note into next week's chat queue. …
… Thanks for all the great questions and comments, everyone, and for all the hunger-inducing posts. I really appreciate it.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]