Tuesday, June 21 2011 at 11 AM

Todd visits the newly relocated Ren's Ramen, gives his thoughts on the area's best barbecue, and talks about where Washington fits into the national dining landscape.

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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   W o r d   o f   M o u t h  . . .

   . . . Ren's Ramen (11403 Amherst Ave., Wheaton; 301-693-0806) wasn't around for long in its original Bethesda location, a glorified kitchenette tucked away in the excellent Daruma market. It lasted a little more than a year before folding when the market, a trove of premium sakes, mochi and other hard-to-find goodies from Japan, went out of business. That short stint, however, was just long enough to develop a devoted and passionate clientele, drawn to the market both by Ren's novelty — ramen is in scare supply in DC — and its dependably good bowls of Sapporo-style ramen. The owners, encouraged, spent months scouring the area for a new location.
   The restaurant recently reemerged in Wheaton, on Amherst Ave., in the same strip mall that also houses the delicious (and newly expanded and renovated) Ruan Thai.
   The biggest differences between old and new are cosmetic — it's a nicer, more comfortable spot, with more (and better) seating and better, more attentive (sometimes too attentive) service. The menu remains the same compact document as before, with four types of broth to choose from (miso, soy sauce, salt/pork, salt/veggie), and an array of toppings including stewed fatty pork and sliced roasted pork, braised coddled egg, corn and seaweed.
   Prices haven't changed. It's still $10 a bowl, with add-ons ranging from $1-$3 — not cheap, perhaps, when compared to pho, but we're also talking about a markedly more hearty meal-in-a-bowl.
   Memory is a notoriously fallible instrument, and comparing dishes a year apart a dangerously foolish undertaking, but here goes anyway: My two bowls on a recent visit — one miso, one soy — were better than anything I'd eaten previously at Ren's. The miso I'll likely be thinking about for months, a complex broth whose balance of saltiness, sweetness and richness compels you to keep slurping long after you've had your fill. It comes garnished with bean sprouts, finely chopped green onions and ground pork, and I chose to dress it up further with thin slices of roast pork, seaweed, corn and egg.
   The noodles are not made on the premises but rather imported from Sapporo, and have the springy, pleasantly chewy texture of all good pasta — the difference between Ren's and the instant stuff you tanked down three days a week in your dorm is roughly the difference between a Big Mac and a hand-chopped burger on the backyard grill. …

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Silver Spring, Md.
What is the best BBQ in our area? We are about a dozen people and wish to eat in

It all depends on what you're looking for.

If you want good brisket, then the place to go is Hill Country, in Penn Quarter. What the menu refers to as "moist" — a euphemism for fatty — is the thing to get. Long, beautifully pink strips of luscious, smoky meat. There's sauce if you need it, but you won't.

It's not cheap, as barbecue goes, and the experience is a little canned and, for what it is, a little complicated (they've got a system, see, for both ordering and paying).

I also really like the brisket at KBQ, in Bowie. And the ribs there, too, are terrific. (Avoid the ribs at Hill County — too big, and more tough than tender.)

And I still have affection for the ribs at Red, Hot and Blue in Laurel, which is the best of the local bunch of RH and Bs. If the ribs arrive and they're drier than they ought to be, you can just send them back — they'll replace them with something juicier. There's a great rollicking atmosphere there, and some of the waitresses have been with the operation for more than a dozen years. It makes a difference.

I know you're looking to eat in, so this next rec isn't for you, but since we're on the subject — and for all the rest of you who might be interested — there's a really good barbecue truck in Frederick. It's called Blues BBQ Co.

 

Chevy Chase, MD

Love soft shells!! When I went into the A & H Seafood Market in Bethesda last week and asked for them, the man told me that the season was over.

He said that the restaurants were calling to find some so if he knew where to get them, he would. I knew soft shells had a short season but something just didn't gel….

Huh. Don't know why he would've said that.

The season generally lasts from May through September. 

By the way, for those of you who are new to the area and interested in experiencing the local food culture, soft shells ought to be at the top of the list. Right up there with cracking steamed blue crabs on a picnic table, eating ears of steamed fresh Silver Queen corn, and drinking a pitcher of beer — though some people never acquire the taste for the critters. All those innards, I guess.

If that's the hold-up, then try them first not sauteed and not pan-fried but deep-fried. It's a good way to ease into appreciating them.

Bethesda
Your five favorite new (opened in the last six months) restaurants. Go!

In no particular order …

Mala Tang in Arlington, Freddy's Lobster + Clams in Bethesda, Fiola in DC, Shake Shack in DC, Kao Thai in Silver Spring.

Ashburn, Va

I thought about this long and hard before sending you this Todd, but I just have to ask. My wife, two friends and I ventured out to Hamilton, Va two weeks ago. Our Mission ~ Good Seafood on a Sunday afternoon. Our Target ~ Lowery’s

What a disappointing experience.

Each couple ordered Dinner for Two, split. But at $48.99, you’d think that you were talking “dinner for two”……NOT French/European sized portions! We ordered two apps – 1 Calamari & 1 Clam Strip. The Calamari consisted of 9 pieces, for $4.99, and the clam strips were not strips but overdone bits ~$5.99

When the dinners arrived to our table, all of us waited, thinking the “other” food is on its way. After a few minutes, the server came back to ask if everything was ok. Not totally sure how or what to do, we asked if this was it. She smiled and appeared to chuckle and said yes. Not really wanting to create drama, I said that we should eat this and then grab dessert elsewhere….

Now look. I’m not afraid to spend money as long as there is a value to why I am doing it ~ I make it a point to get to restaurant 2941, Tuscarora Mill and Lansdowne resort at least on a monthly basis.

Having said that, at each of those restaurants, have a specific value in quality of food, service and the ambiance. Lowery’s is a SHACK on the side of the road, with picnic tables, serving a dinner consisting of Approximately 1 lb. king crab, 2 snow crab clusters(1/2 lb), 2 sides and 2 hush-puppies $48.99 and bucket of long neck bottles (4) for $12.99…. Total Bill $135.00 for a Sunday lunch among 4 friends!

We could have gotten the same crab off the same boat – at Red Lobster – but twice as much for the same price!

The Crab wasn’t Maryland blues. The hushpuppies were less than the size of a quarter. The sides were tiny too. So here’s my question ~ If you encounter a situation, where you feel that the meal you are paying for isn’t at all what you anticipated, Do you speak up – or – Not go back? I mean, if I ever felt that way at one of the above mentioned restaurants, I might say something, cause they are all about service and quality. But here, I just don’t know what the right thing to do is. Help?

In that case — and speaking as a diner, here, and not as a critic — I probably would just not go back.

I'm not sure there's a lot a place like that can do differently. And not a lot it can do, either, I'd guess, to make it up to you.

Seafood's expensive, even if it's all trucked in. And even if it's just a roadhouse. That bill sounds high, but not eye-poppingly so, unfortunately.

I'm sorry it didn't work out. I've heard good things about Lowery's over the years. It's also always a neat thing to patronize a place that's been around since the '30s.

By the way, I wouldn't hold it against them that they didn't have blue crab. Not many places do, even the ones you might think. 

Hyattsville, MD

Hi Todd,

My husband and I are first-time parents to a 10 week old little boy, and would like to start going out to dinner again.

Our son is still young enough that he generally sleeps through outings, but we certainly can't rule out the occasional meltdown.

My question is this: how should we identify places that are ok to take the baby, and how should we react in the event that he becomes disruptive?

I wouldn't try to take him somewhere particularly quiet, or anywhere with a dress code fancier than "business casual," but I'd love to get your feedback on any additional "guidelines" for us to think about- we don't want to hamper other folks' dining experiences or annoy the restaurant staff. (Also, if you have recommendations for any surprisingly child-friendly restaurants with great food, that'd be much appreciated!)

Congratulations.

The big thing to remember is, it's easier right now than it's going to be in six months. So live it up, if you can afford to.

My advice is — well, it's two-fold. One is to seek out Asian and Latin places, because the staffs at these restaurants tend to know what to do to make your time enjoyable, even including caring for your child while you eat (it's happened to me many times).

The other is to seek out the noisy places — the noisier, the better. Mussel Bar in Bethesda is among the noisiest places in the area, maybe the noisiest. Go. Places like Jaleo. Like Estadio. Like Central Michel Richard. These places will give you cover, as it were.

Also: Go early for dinner, if you can — restaurants are generally not very busy right at 5, and you can get some extra attention if you need it; or extra indulgence, as the case may be. Or — even better — go late at lunchtime, after 1:30, when many dining rooms are starting to clear out.

Good luck! …

 

Penn Quarter

Hey Todd,

I live right near Mike Isabella's new restaurant. Do you have high hopes, or do you think he'll be able to just phone it in because he's locally famous?

Actually, the one thing I don't think you'll see from Graffiato is a phoning it in. I think it'll be a passionate effort. And I'm eager to see what he does with the place.

Opening date, by the way, is this Thursday …

Washington, DC
I've been searching for good bread in downtown DC. I've heard that PAUL bakery has arrived in Penn Qtr. from France, but haven't had a chance to go check it out. Have you been there yet?

I think Paul fills a certain niche for that neighborhood, but I don't think it's anything to get in a lather about. As a source for better-than-the-supermarkets bread (better quality, better variety), it's good. As a spot for sandwiches, a place to linger over a pastry and a coffee — not great.

There's really not a lot of good bread to be found in this city, which, when you think about all the places that have opened up in the past couple of years, is kind of odd. I would have thought by now we would have seen a small, artisanal baker or two open up downtown or close in.

 

Silver Spring, MD

Hi Todd,

We are planning a long weekend in NYC later in the summer and will use it as an opportunity to splurge on one or two of NYC's best restaurants. Per Se is a current front-runner (assuming we can get reservations).

My question for you is which restaurant experiences there are different enough from what is/was available in DC (Cityzen, Komi, Minibar, Citronelle, Maestro – all of which we loved) that we won't feel like we're just spending more for the zip code (rather than the overall dining experience)?

To also contribute a mini-review: We were treated to dinner at 2941 last week, and I am still salivating over the burrata ravioli with morels (there must have been 8 whole morels in my little bowl) with cream and chives. It was awesome. And I don't even like mushrooms that much, generally speaking.

Per-Se is a great, great treat. You're in for a really special time.

If money is not a concern, then I'd say you should also splurge on a meal at Masa. An extraordinary sushi experience. But ooff!, the check, the check …

The other places I'd consider — places that offer something different from anything around here — would be Le Bernardin, Daniel and Momofuku Ko. And there it's just a matter of deciding which sort of meal you're more in the mood for. The latter, I want to point out, is more relaxed, and less obviously exacting than the other two. But all three are richly rewarding.

 

Bethesda
Headed to Cambridge for a bike race this weekend and we would love to have some crabs while we're down there. Do you know of any good places in Cambridge, St. Michaels or Easton? I once had crabs at a great place in St. Michaels- wood picnic tables right on the water- just as it should be. But for the life of me, I cannot remember the name of it.

Are you thinking of the St. Michael's Crab House? It certainly fits your description.

I also like Ocean Odyssey, in Cambridge, though it's not close to the water and far from that picture-perfect scene you're probably remembering at St. Michael's Crab House. I really like their crab cakes, and they also make a fantastic crab soup (it's worth taking a batch home, that's how good it is.)

If you're headed that way, the other place you should consider is Suicide Bridge, in Hurlock, which is about a 20 minute drive from Cambridge. The menu hasn't changed at all since the place opened, and you look out onto a creek as you feast on crab cakes and stuffed rockfish.

McLean, VA

Where does DC stand among other U.S. cities as far as food goes?

I don't find DC to have as much diversity in food as say NYC or L.A., and I notice that trends come through late (ie; cupcakes, which are now overkill in DC). What is DC's "foodie" identity?

You're really asking two questions, and both of them are interesting.

I think DC is a Top 10 food city, though it's certainly not as rich and varied a scene as NY. Then again, it's a fraction of the size of NY. LA has a good scene, particularly its ethnic scene, but it's not all that strong in the top-tier sorts of places. What LA has, beyond its glut of Korean, Mexican and Pacific Rim options, is a slew of very good, very casual mid-level spots.

I think DC actually does have a lot of diversity, if by diversity you mean the sheer variety (and depth of that variety) of the various cultures that have congregated here.

As to your question about an identity … that's trickier. There's no defining food stuff, no gumbo, no chowder. And really no one thing that would make you go up to a newcomer and say: You have to try such-and-such. If you're going to be in DC for any length of time, you can't in all good conscience ignore such-and-such.

The closest is crabs. Crab cakes, soft shells. You can find them all over the country now, but I don't think you're going to find them any better than you do here. 

But of course Baltimore claims them more passionately, and more people associate going to Baltimore with getting crabs, so …

Arlington, VA

Hi Todd,

I'm a huge fan and an avid follower of your chats. I generally find that you've already answered any question I might have about DC dining, but this time I'm looking for a rather personalized recommendation – hope you'll indulge me. I have something of a milestone birthday coming up next month and I'd like to celebrate at dinner with my husband and parents.

I'm looking for a place in Alexandria, Arlington or DC that would be a bit more of a splurge than the midrange spots I frequent (Liberty Tavern, Lyon Hall, Cava) but not over-the-top. Palena, Adour and Blue Duck Tavern are on my list so far, but I'd really love your take.

Could Fiola be a contender? Ris? It may be worth noting that a wine list with at least a few bottles under $55 or so is much appreciated; I occasionally eat meat but tend to prefer seafood and vegetarian dishes; and I always, always leave room for dessert. Thanks!

I hear you.

And happy birthday!

Given your inclinations, your budget, and your expectations, I'm going to take the liberty of winnowing your list to Palena Cafe, Ris and Fiola. 

I would think any of those three would meet the bill quite nicely. It's just a matter, now, of deciding what you're most in the mood for. Great pastas at Palena Cafe? Great fish and good wines at Fiola? A relaxing, old-school meal of simple pleasures at Ris?

I hope you'll drop back on and let us know which way you decide, and how things turned out …

I hope you enjoy the time with your family …

Clifton, VA

Sorry hard shells beat soft shells anyday. Especially hard shells you catch yourself with chicken parts. Shame overfishing and deelopment ahs taken its toll because back in the late 70's you could catch a bushel or two of the dock where my friends father docked his sailboat.

Then you steam in cheap beer ie Schaefer, Natie Boh or PBR with liberal doeses of Old bay and then eat with some extremely cold Bud Long necks. Micro Brews and blue crabs just dont go together

Disagree. They're both great — why make it a contest?

As to the marriage of microbrews and blue crabs, however, you couldn't be more right.

Food Identity for DC
I wrestle with that question a lot, but then think to myself what exactly are other cities food identities? Is New York's pizza, which both Chicago and New Haven can claim? Is LA's identity Mexican food, which means it's just some other culture's identity? How does that question really get answered?

I think one of things it comes down to is, when you drive or fly to a city, do you salivate at the mere prospect of eating one or two or three things that you know that city does? You do in Chicago, you do in New York, you do in San Francisco, you do in New Orleans, you do in Philly, you do in LA.

Also in NY and in San Francisco and in New Orleans, just to choose three cities, you have dining scenes that reflect very specific cultures — very specific regional influences, very specific culinary influences, etc.

14th Street, DC
Did you see the news that Steven starr is coming to 14th Street? Do you think there's a point when the dining scene in a restaurant can get saturated?

I did.

And I think it's one more sign of the evolving cachet of 14th St.

Starr, for those who don't know, is a dominant figure on the Philly scene, with a knack for opening restaurants that reflect the needs of the moment. His operation is a diverse and sprawling one, with no two places that are quite alike.

I don't think anyone can answer, right now, whether the arrival of Parc marks some kind of "oversaturation." I think that's for the micro-economy to decide. And if I had to guess, I would bet that it will do quite well, and that more people will continue to flock to 14th St. as a destination to dine.

I'm off to lunch … Thanks for all the good questions and comments today …

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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