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 . . .
. . . Most restaurants are conceived and developed over years, then prematurely induced as the money vanishes and investors become antsy. The run-up to opening night is typically an anxious time, with several months of work crammed into a few frenetic weeks.
For a chef and GM who know they're not ready, those first few weeks are all about maintaining a smiling, confident front in spite of the uncertainty and terror, and in spite of the lack of sleep. Dishes have yet to be perfected under the pressure of prime time. The wait staff has been hastily assembled and even more hastily trained, and has yet to master either the menu or the ways of the operation. In many instances, the front of the house is not in sync with the back of the house, and problems of pacing and coordination are inevitable.
These are just some of the reasons why restaurant critics tend to give a new place a few weeks to settle in before swinging by for a meal, or if they do sneak in early, to cut that place some generous slack before writing.
Typically, these early reviews are called previews — a cursory glance, as opposed to a definitive sizing up — and I was fully prepared to write one about Graffiato (707 6th St., NW; 202-289-3600), the much-anticipated restaurant from Mike Isabella, who gained notoriety on the TV show "Top Chef."
But the very early, but very delicious evidence tells me the place doesn't need much granting of favors.
That's not to say Graffiato is functioning as smoothly and efficiently as it could. It just opened last Thursday, after all.
Not everything that's listed is in stock — the restaurant is still missing a number of its wines, including a house red that's being bottled for it by Breaux Vineyards, in Virginia — and there were slip-ups on this night in communication between staff and kitchen. The busboys are of the over-eager variety, and unless you're willing to cede a dish before you're ready come prepared to fend them off.
But the food? A knockout.
Isabella commanded the kitchen at Zaytinya before striking out and opening Graffiato, and has cribbed, among other things, the small plates format that his boss, Jose Andres, has all but patented. Nominally, the restaurant is Italian, with pizzas and pastas making up much of the menu, but the aim and energy of Graffiato is more nearly that of a place like Blue Ribbon in New York, the renowned chef's hangout that serves up the sort of fare that off-the-clock cooks love to linger over — deceptively detailed and boldly flavored dishes that give the appearance of being tossed-off.
Crisp-skinned chicken thighs under cover of a pepperoni sauce — a concoction Isabella debuted, to great praise, on "Top Chef" — is in that vein. It eats like two dishes, the flavors are so big and intense.
I also loved the chef's take on roasted peppers — a zesty, tangy relish with whispers of smoked paprika.
I had only one pasta, a corn agnolotti, but was tempted to the other four on the menu after popping just a single, succulent bundle into my mouth. The flavor of the corn was sweet and strong, the butter sauce was light and complementary, and the roasted chanterelles lent the dish a depth and definition.
The pizza is terrific, combining the best qualities of the authentic Italian ideal (a sense of proportion and balance, high-quality ingredients, cleanness of detail) with the best qualities of the New York/Philly/Jersey model (a zestier flavor, a more generous application of toppings, a thin, crispy crust that does not flop). Among the 7 pre-set combinations is a pie called "Jersey Shore," with fried calamari sitting atop a sweet base of fresh tomato sauce, the whole thing drizzled with a cherry pepper aioli. It's so good it seems inevitable, not strange — you wonder why no one has ever thought to try the arrangement before. Close your eyes, and you might guess you were eating a great clam pizza.
Great care has gone into the breads, which include a marvelous raisin-and-nut, and come with a crock of fresh ricotta and another of olive oil gelee. (Why turn olive oil into a gelee? It seems a silly affectation at first, but the wisdom becomes apparent once you spread it — the oil doesn't penetrate into the bread and make it wet; it sits on top and allows you to appreciate its rich flavor.)
Sustaining this high level is its own challenge. The restaurant is going to have to manage not just the crowds, which are inevitable, but also the expectations, which will only get higher. …
Last week you answered a question about the best BBQ in the DC area. How could you leave Rockland's off the list? They are consistently one of the best this area has to offer, which is not hard since there are few if any good places.
I appreciate that RHB in Laurel may be good — but they are mediorce at best. What's next — Famous Dave's? Including these chains just shows we lack great BBQ in DC. What a shame. Check out Rockland's again — they deserve the attention.
I didn't say Red, Hot & Blue is good. I said the Laurel location — independent, I believe, of the others — is good. And you can't compare Famous Dave's with Red, Hot & Blue because the former is a huge national chain, while the latter is a small local one.
I want to like Rocklands. I have wanted to like it for years and years, now.
It smells fantastic when you walk up, and that goes for any of its locations — it, too, is a local chain, just like Red, Hot & Blue. But the ribs just don't do it for me. I always leave vaguely disappointed, though I like some of the sides.
Now, the question becomes — how long are you prepared to wait? It's a month, at least, for Minibar. And close to that for Komi. Unless you add your name to the wait list and somehow get lucky.
I think both are terrific spots to celebrate, and both turn out great, memorable food. It really depends on what sort of mood you're in. A long, leisurely night in soft lighting? Then it's Komi. If you're looking for an adventure, and something more akin to a lively time at a lounge, then it's Minibar.
I miss the "25 Places I'd Spend My Own Money" and the annual Cheap Eats issue (which I thought for sure would be in the July hard copy magazine).
Are these two tremendous resources gone for good?
Doug, thanks for writing in …
Cheap Eats is not gone for good, no — it's coming out in September this year. And the crew is working away on it as we speak.
The 25 Places I'd Spend My Own Money list has been temporarily shelved, as we rethink how to present it. There were some readers out there who were confused by it, and were unsure of just what it meant that a place was on one week and off another. A few thought the list was a sort of fixed list, and never changed — though I kept adding and deleting restaurants every couple of weeks, to refresh it.
I hope we can come up with something that will be just as good, if not better, by the Fall …
Dear Todd, my husband and I just got word from a friend of us who is an employee at Gelileo 3 that the restaurant is closing.. Is that true?
Our only experience at the restaurant was about 3 months ago and the food and especially the service was very forgettable. Do you have a scoop?
I don't have a scoop, no. I continue to hear grumblings from employees, however, about being paid.
If it's true — and I am only passing on what I have heard, second hand — then that to me is worse than anything else you can say about a restaurant.
My uncle and some family are coming to town this week and they love crab legs. I'm not sure where to take them, and the only crab places I know are in baltimore (which is an option) but i think they'd prefer to stay closer to the city…
What do you suggest?
You could head out to Captain Pell's, in Fairfax.
You're in Virginia — congrats on the nuptials! — so I've got to think that's not too far a haul for you.
That's assuming you're talking about blue crab …You said crab legs, and usually when people talk about crab legs, they're talking about king crab or snow crab.
If you don't mind a longer drive, the best place in the area in my mind is Cantler's Riverside Inn, near Annapolis. Right on the water, which always makes an outing nicer — though proximity to the ocean or bay or river is sometimes is a cover for mediocre food. Not here. This is the best steamed, spiced blue crab I've eaten around here the past few years.
So, previously wine bars were the "it" venues. This year and even last, it seems gastropubs have taken over. Which is your favorite and why? We're considering Birch & Barley this wkd.
Birch & Barley is good.
It doesn't bill itself as a gastropub, but Bar Pilar, also on 14th St., is very much in the spirit of one. Another terrific spot.
I have family visiting tomorrow–aunt, uncle, two teenage boys. They will be exploring the city all day and I'll meet them after work. We'd love to find a restaurant for dinner downtown that offers great seafood–especially crab legs and all variations on crab–but that is casual clothing-friendly (price isn't a concern so much, but they will be wearing shorts around town all day).
Their hotel is up in Baltimore by the airport, so I've considered taking them up there to Bo Brooks' or something for dinner as well. But I don't want to make them sit in two hours of rush hour traffic to get to dinner, and would like to have some dinner options in DC too.
Any suggestions for great crab, downtown, shorts OK? Thanks!
You know? There's really nothing at all like what you describe — unfortunately, because a place like that sounds like something the city could use.
I think the closest you're going to come is Kinkead's, which isn't a place for crab but does do a crabcake, and a good one.
It's not really a casual-clothing sort of place, if by casual clothing you're thinking of shorts and sneaks or something like that. You can get by, I'd think, with jeans and a polo shirt, and especially if you sit downstairs around the bar — which, to me, is the best place to be at Kinkead's. Lively atmosphere, great bartenders, and jazz piano in prime time.
I hope that helps, and I hope the night turns out to be a good one …
In your opinion, what single restaurant in the area has the biggest negative gap between its price and its quality? Thanks!
I'll go with Plume.
There are several others that come to mind, though …
Any go to spots in Annapolis these days?
We're heading to the beach this weekend and are going to spend Friday afternoon in Annapolis to break up the trip. Looking for lunch and an adult beverage or two.
I really like Level, the small plates spot on West Street, but it's not open for lunch.
Maybe on the return trip?
If you care more about good food than good beer or wine, I would head to Potato Valley, on State Circle. Potatoes — that's pretty much all they do. And it's enough.
You can smell them roasting when you walk in, and I love the way the skin peels away from the meat, so to speak, and you have this great contrast between crispy skin and tender potato. And they top them with all sorts of things — one is the 15-veg potato. Fantastic.
My recent lunch there was one of the best meals I've had in the past month. At any level.
If you need to, you can pop into one of the many nearby bars or taverns and grab a cold beer or glass of wine before hitting the road.
I understand that.
If I lived near one, I'd probably visit every couple of weeks, just because I like barbecue that much and the smell is so seductive.
Well, Salt Air Kitchen is a must-visit.
I think it's the best place in Rehoboth Beach for a serious, sit-down meal — and by that I don't mean that it takes itself seriously. It doesn't. It has a casual air, and a meal is a relaxing pleasure But there's a seriousness of approach, here, an eye for detail, a real commitment at every level of the operation.
If I were you, I'd also be sure to hit Casapulla's, which is tucked away between two of the large outlet malls. Fantastic, Philly-style hoagies. Even the tuna fish hoagie is excellent.
I think the poster looking for a place for dinner tomorrow with family really needs to choose either a place with good food where casual (shorts & sneakers) attire is acceptable OR crabs – like you said, there isn't a place in DC proper where the combination works.
For delicious meals on the casual side of thing, think Penn Quarter – Teaism, Jaleo. If they have their hearts set on crabs, have them meet you downtown for a light snack/beverage to wait out rush hour and then head north.
Very good advice. Thanks for chiming in …
My only point of disagreement is with Teaism. It's fine for a snack, but I don't think it's a place you take a group of people out for a meal.
Jaleo, yes. Oyamel, Zaytinya — both good. They could also hit Cafe du Parc, which is ideal this time of year, when you can sit outside under the umbrellas on the patio and make like Cafe Society.
Wanted to chime in and share my recent experience at Medium Rare.
My husband and I took my dad there last week for a belated Father's Day celebration and were a little underwhelmed.
The salad and bread were simple and good, but the steak itself was on the bland side. A yelp reviewer complained that the steak has no "sear," and I found this to be true—the meat seemed underseasoned and and was missing that nice Maillard-reaction crust.
Service was fine, not great. My Belgian beer wasn't even poured to the fill line and had no head, which was sad. Also, we had to laugh when a busperson brought us a giant, nasty-looking half-full bottle of Richfood ketchup, only to have our server whisk it away and bring back more "refined" dip cups.
The sauce accompanying steak and fries was just OK; I thought I detected some chicken liver or maybe pureed mushrooms, which gave it a slightly odd grainy texture.
Overall, this wasn't an experience that would bring me back.
As I wrote, I think it would benefit from being bent more in the direction of a Ponderosa and less in the direction of, say, Central.
Ponderosa, Western Sizzlin' — what these places do, they do well. It's not the best meat in the world, and of course it's a thin steak, but the char is there, and so is the savor (I'm going off of memory, here — I haven't eaten at one of these places in ages, not since I was in grad school.)
I think a steak like that is just so much more satisfying than a steak that's presented in a fan of slices — which is then glossed with a tableside pour of sauce, however tasty.
And I say that knowing that the quality of beef at Medium Rare is superior to any of the Sysco products you're going to be getting at the Ponderosas of the world.
I want to smell the char smell when I walk in. I want to have my taste buds primed. That's one of the pleasures of going out for a steak.
A steak dinner should not be a twee experience, and Medium Rare, for all its strengths — and there are many — comes too close to tweeness where it counts most.
How about the Ashby Inn?
Charming, quaint, and it's a supremely relaxing getaway from the stress and randomness of the city.
And the restaurant is now helmed by Tarver King, who has cooked at some of the best restaurants in the world, and was most recently the chef at the Goodstone Inn.
It's a fun place, no question. I just don't think it's great barbecue. The last batch of ribs I ate there was like chowing down on a solid version of liquid smoke.
The things I look forward to at Urban BBQ are the good, greasy burgers and the fritos topped with chili and cheese.
Yeah, why not?
Though, unless I'm mistaken, I think the crab claws are served only as part of the tiered chilled seafood platter. Can you order a batch of 'em?
Not a bad crabcake, either, in my experience.
And even though it's got a cool, corporate personality, it's a pretty fun place to be when it's full and hopping and the wine is flowing.
Now wait a second — I never said that I think the fact that Medium Rare serves only one meal is a problem.
I don't think it is. In fact, I think it's a great idea. I'd just like to see it offer a different kind of steak, and a different kind of presentation of that steak.
But a prix fixe of one meal — a prix fixe that never, ever changes? I think it's a pretty neat thing that we're seeing this kind of a place in this city.
A place that doesn't make any pretense about serving everybody. A place that appears content to occupy a very narrow, very intriguing niche.
You mentioned a place serving only spaghetti and meatballs, and seemed to laugh at the idea. But I know for a fact that an all-meatball restaurant is currently in development, and could open in the next couple of years.
I have to think that's more casual the chatter was looking for.
But a fun idea …
What I know is what you know — that they're now moving forward on taking over that space.
By the way, I called over there to ask, and have been holding for five minutes …
My question is whether the expansion means expanding the restaurant and adding more seats, or whether it means adding, say, a more casual cafe a la Palena. I would hope the latter. I would love to see a more affordable, a la carte, in-and-out option here, one that would allow diners to eat here once a month as opposed to once a year.
This was, remember, a place that used to serve pizzas when it opened seven years ago.
Still on hold ten minutes later; I'm hanging up …
Enjoy the 4th, everyone, and thanks for all the great questions and comments today …
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]