Tuesday, July 19 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman talks about finding a great Jamaican restaurant in Southeast DC, gives some initial thoughts on American Eats Tavern, and recommends places to eat for a trip to Philly.

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.


   Word of Mouth …
   … It was the cabbage that did it. Well, the cabbage and the yellow rice both.
   At the vast majority of Jamaican joints, those two classic sides are afterthoughts at best, filling out the styrofoam container but giving me no good reason to do more than take a polite, testing taste.
   One of the first things that endeared me to Pimento Grill (4405 Bowen Rd., SE; 202-582-6595), a single table, three-stool operation east of the Anacostia, was that the cabbage is actually worth eating. And not just as some sort of crunchy intermezzo, permitting my palate a break between bites of spicy jerk chicken or spicier curried goat. No: worth eating alone.
   The leaves are gently steamed, lightly crunchy, subtly flavorful — treated with care. So, too, is the yellow rice. If I could, I would order the goat curry sans goat — with just the rich gravy to coat the small, fluffy grains.
   I mean that as a testament to the rice and not a condemnation of the goat, which is excellent. The curry is abundant with soft, yielding hunks of meat, still pink on the inside. How yielding? Occasionally, you may find yourself ingesting some bits of tender cartilage along with shreds of shoulder and leg meat.
   That same fall-apart consistency can be found in the oxtail stew, which possesses the sort of depth and color (a brown so dark it verges on black) that can only come of slow, careful cooking — the methodical development of layers of flavor.
   There is a similar depth to the vegetable stew roti, a yellow curry brimming with potatoes and carrots. Its great kick does not, fortunately, obscure its many subtleties.
   The jerk chicken is not merely a showcase of hot and spicy; it has the vinegary bite that too many places leave out. And the chicken isn't stringy or chewy — a common misfortune — but shreddably tender. The best piece in the bunch is the back, and it tells you a lot that the kitchen has thought to include it alongside more expected parts, like thighs and legs; it tells you that the kitchen prizes the neglected but more delectable bits. The meat  has the sweet succulence of great barbecue.
   Even the patties are noteworthy — greaseless handfuls of lightly baked dough.
   As at most Caribbean cafes, a small selection of homemade punches is available to beat the heat. Unlike those drinks, which are typically marred by being syrupy sweet, the ones here find the seam between sweet and strong — especially the cucumber ginger, which could also be turned into a beautiful summer cocktail with the addition of two fingers of gin.
   DC does not lack for options when it comes to Island cooking, but this degree of care and finesse is rare — elevating this mostly carry-out operation to best in class and, perhaps, something more: destination dining. Take a drive across town and taste for yourself. …



halfway to beach… Here’s a challenge: someplace along Route 404 (or east of Kent Island) that you recommend for a break?

A good, relatively quick meal en route to Rehoboth –ideally offering seafood— would be extremely nice. We’re trying to make getting there “half the fun,” as the saying goes.

Thanks for your ideas!

It's not a seafood spot, but I like hitting Squisito when I'm on the road to Rehoboth. Out Rte. 50, on the right. 

Good, Northeast Italian-style pizza by the slice — great crunch to the crust. I really like the version they do with broccoli, mushrooms and peppers. Good calzones, too. And you can often find a nice bowl of Italian wedding soup, too.  

Another plus: you can get in and out in a hurry. There's no tableservice, you order at the counter, eat, bus your table, and hit the road.

Producer's note: We're having some technical difficulties, but we're working to get the problem resolved as soon as possible. Stay tuned!

Vienna, VA

Todd – my Mom was in from Canada last week, and she took my husband and I to Michel at the Ritz last weekend. What a great meal in a beautiful, yet surprisingly relaxed atmosphere.

The onion carbonara was so unique and delicious. I had the ahi tuna with a fennel salad, my husband had the 72 hour braised short ribs, and my Mom had the red snapper…all very, very good (fresh, well cooked and perfectly seasoned, a mix of textures, beautifully presented).

And, to top it off, we had the Celebration cake…the cake was good and all, but the presentation (fireworks!) was absolutely fantastic and fun. I am looking forward to going back and trying something new. It is a bit of a unique menu, with burgers AND 'fancier' food as options…have you had the lobster burger or the regular cheeseburger? Are they worth the price, or would you stick to the more 'refined' fare?

I haven't had the lobster burger or cheeseburger there since they were added to the menu a couple of months after Michel opened — in an effort to make the place more like Central and less like Citronelle.

I would imagine they're not all that different from the versions at Central, and those are good. A good, simple meal. But as you say, not cheap. And when you add in a drink and tip and tax, and maybe a dessert, you're likely to walk away thinking: Jesus, I just spent over 40 bucks for a cheeseburger and ice cream sundae. Kinda weird.

Del Ray

Hi Todd,

I'm heading to Philly this weekend. I wanted to try out Zahav but can't get a reservation on Saturday night. Any other recommendations?

I'm not trying to go super fancy and I'm saving my philly cheesesteak for another day. Oh, and I already have plans to hit up the Oyster House for buck-a-shuck that night. Totally bummed and am hoping you have just the place to recommend:)

I'd try for a reservation at Marc Vetri's place near the Avenue of the Arts, Osteria. Like, right now.

I think it's one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. Great feel, great rooted cooking. Superb treatment of vegetables. There's a homemade rigatoni — who makes homemade rigatoni? — with chicken livers and cippolini onions that's just killer. 

I wish I had a plate of it right now …

Disappointed in DC

Hi Todd,

Three friends and I went to brunch at America Eats to celebrate a birthday. We were excited to try something new.

We thought the atmosphere was cute and the service was great, but the portion sizes were so disappointing! I ordered the shrimp & grits with a fried egg on top, and the portion size wouldn't have even satisfied the appetite of small child. For $16+ I was expecting a little more. Am I wrong to expect some value at these restaurants run by famous chefs?

Yep, you're wrong. 😉

I don't see a great deal of value in the city, period. You have to go past the city limits, into Virginia and Maryland, to really find value.

I was at La Limeña, in Rockville, not long ago, and had, among other things, a beautifully fried whole trout dressed up with fried slices of garlic, with a good onion salad on the side and also a mound of perfectly oiled rice. $13. 

At America Eats Tavern, which I'll be writing about more later this week, I had — just for the sake of comparison — a dish of creamed corn with grilled baby corns. Price: $12. For corn. And not a lot of it.

Portions there are very small for many items. And then there are some, like the chicken pot pie, are not small at all; they're just what they ought to be.

(I still can't get over the presentation of that dish, by the way. It was resented to the table as if it were a Dover sole, about to be deboned by a bowtie-wearing waiter, and then — i couldn't believe what I was seeing — the server did just that! Just — disemboweled the thing. Removed the crust, then the veggies, then the meat, and then arranged all the cooked, component parts on a square white dish. Pot pie she did this with.)

Cleveland Park
Hi Todd- Can you provide any insight into the phenomenon that seems to be Lauriol Plaza? I just don't understand. Sure, it's nice to dine Al fresco, but the food is bland and service is adequate at best. I'm continually boggled as to how this restaurant keeps itself so busy!

I'll try to answer your question by offering up a Yogi-ism. (We had one of those last week, too. … I love it.)

People go, because there are people there.

It's a scene, a nightly party. There's an appeal to something like that.

And if you notice, the age of the crowd spans the gamut from 26-29. (When people age out of the demographic, they don't go to Lauriol anymore.) And for a lot of people, there's an appeal to something like that, too. They know they're bound to run into someone they know — some other young, highly educated, overworked professional in the government.

Clifton, VA


Job moved to Fort Meade. Located on the 175 side. Any recommendations for lunch dives, carry outs etc would be great. Thanks

You're in luck, Clifton, because you're not that far — 15 minutes, tops? — from R&R Deli/Taqueria, in Jessup (postal address is Elkridge, but it's Jessup).

Best Mexican food in the area, though you'll have to make do with one of six stools — it's inside a Shell station.

Love the tacos, the sopes, the huarache, the posole, the mole, the chilaquiles …

And for everyone out there reading this, thinking, That's way out of my range, you owe it to yourself to make a trip out. Even if it means renting a Zipcar. R&R is that good.

You're also about the same distance from Grace Garden, a dive in Odenton that serves up tasty, authentic Szechuan cooking. Get the fish noodles.

Dupont Circle, DC

Thanks for the recommendation for Casapulla's in Rehoboth. We went there twice over the 4th of July weekend.

Massive subs with a ton of meat loaded into them, had enough for seconds.

Is there any comparable place in DC? Is it the lack of immigrant italians in the area?


I'm so glad that worked out so well. It's a fantastic place, isn't it?

Twice doesn't surprise me at all.

Nothing comparable here, no. Unfortunately. Closest, I think, would be Mangialardo and Sons, on the Hill. But it's not in the same league.

This is just not a great sandwich town. I wish it were. To answer your second question, it has to do partly with the lack of a real Italian presence over the years. Same reason our best pizza places tend to be boutique places, as opposed to the prole-style pizzerias you find in Philly and New York and Boston. In that same vein, we don't have great bagels, either, because the Jewish presence isn't nearly as great here — hasn't been as great, through the years — as it is in Baltimore or Philly or New York.

Bethesda, MD
Any ideas for a place to go for a nice ginger based drink? I'm currently obsessed with the flavor but I'm not the best at making them myself.

I don't know whether it's on my mind only because it was so recent, or because it was so great — probably both, actually — but the ginger-cucumber drink I mentioned in my review up top of Pimento Grill is definitely worth seeking out.

And what a great mate for the food there. Still thinking about that goat curry with yellow rice and cabbage.

On the way to Rehoboth

The Squisito recommendation confused me, since their locations all appear to be west of the Bay Bridge. I did some digging, and it looks like the place you mentioned (on Kent Island?) is now called Carmine's.

Same ownership as Squisito, so I wonder if the menu has changed?

That's interesting.

I did a quick search just now myself. Very different menu. Much larger, and much more varied. At least where the pizza is concerned, I hope they didn't make any significant changes. The pizza was always the draw for me and my wife.

I hope you'll give it a go, and I hope you'll also drop in with a quick report for us. (I say that selfishly, I admit — I may be heading there in a couple of weeks, myself.)

Alexandria VA

My husband called the Minibar last month to get us reservations for our 5 year wedding anniversary coming up this weekend. We were first on the waiting list. I called last week to check on our status and was told that the Minibar isn't even operating that night.

I know the website said they would be closed earlier in the month and I know that Cafe Atlantico has been transformed into another restaurant, but my husband was not told that there was a possiblity that the Minibar wouldn't be open on July 22nd.

I asked the hostess why no one had called to tell us that they weren't open and her response was that we were on the waiting list. I said, but if you're not open, I'm not on the waiting list – there's nothing to wait for!

This experience left a bad taste in my mouth. Is the minibar just so popular that they feel they don't have to provide good customer service? Should I bother to try to get in next year for our sixth?

I don't blame you.

No reason you should not have gotten a call, informing you of what's going on. Though I think it's important to point out — this is the kind of thing that happens when a restaurant gets really big and really exclusive. It holds all the power.

I'll share my own version with you … I popped by America Eats Tavern on a Sunday recently. The website said the restaurant was open for lunch and gave the hours. Open Table said the same thing. And the restaurant was open — there were two hostesses standing at the front desk — they just weren't serving food.

I pointed out that their website said lunch was being served. The hostess was not at all put out by the discrepancy. "Yeah, no — we're not doing lunch this week." No apology. No wincing expression of sympathy.

On my way out, she let me know I could return in five hours for dinner.

Washington DC

For the Philly traveler …

If he is flexible I'd suggest he call Zahav and ask to be put on the waitlist. My date and I got in the Saturday of 4th of July weekend by doing that, and it was amazing. They called around noon asking if we'd be ok with a table for 2 at 7!

Great tip! Thanks for chiming in on this …
Fairfax, VA

Hey Todd:

My wife and I ate at Jose Andres' pop up restaurant America Eats Tavern last night.

The service in the beginning was a little slow but picked up. It seems they are still working out some kinks in expediting food from the kitchen.

Hush puppies seem to be the popular item people have been ordering but unfortunately they ran out (after plaing our order) and gave us vermicilli mac and cheese, which was interesting.

We both liked the fried green tomato and shrimp remulade. Presentation and tate of the Lobster Newberg was very good and beef short rib was good.

Also, would like to thank the GM of America Eats. He was very gracious and adjusted our bill (no hush puppies). He asked my wife and I our opinions of the restaurant and asked us to email him with our feedback.


Is this in lieu of email feedback? ; )

Thanks for writing in …

As I said, I'll be posting some early thoughts on the restaurant later this week. Stay tuned …

Oh, hell — can't resist. … When the dessert described as key lime pie arrived, my sister-in-law looked at the plate and, seeing only a piped-in line of cream and two tiny piles of what appeared to be the remains of a hastily-eaten cookie, said, in her Middle School teacher's firm, upbraiding tone: "No, we ordered the key lime pie."

Falls Church

Hi Todd,

Did you attend the Best of 2011 event? Did they pick all the restaurants that you had selected to be in on your 100 Best? It was a great gathering – the standouts for me were Bibiana's Chocolate Mousse, Spice Xing's Mango-yogurt dessert, Redwood's Gazpacho, Sei's Salmon Sushi. Taste-wise, the worst represented were Rasika and Red Hook. What were your favorites?

I was there.

I agree with you about Rasika, I thought the Chilly Cauliflower was disappointing — not light enough, not crunchy enough, not hot enough.

I bailed on the line for Red Hook after five minutes, so I never did get to try the version of the lobster roll they were serving. I spoke to several people on staff, however, who told me that it was a much richer bun than usual — they just slathered those things with butter, apparently.

My favorite dish of the night was probably the salmon crudo from J&G. Fantastic. 

All in all, a really terrific event, and especially if you're a food lover. I highly recommend it. I don't think I've ever seen such exquisitely rendered, artfully plated food at a swarming, free-for-all type event like this.

Brookland, DC


I'm wondering if you or the chatters know of an old fashioned soda fountain in the area. The kind of place with a sode jerk where one can get a proper ice cream soda. Any leads?

Thanks, Jake

Jake, I don't, sorry. … Does anyone?

Boy, wouldn't that be great?

I do know of a place in Philly, called the Franklin Fountain, where you can get the whole nine yards — soda jerks, phosphates, old-fashioned Cokes, ice cream sundaes in tiny fountain glasses. Great place.


Asked you last week about the lack of reservation availability/ whether walking-in to Graffiato was possible.

Just wanted to report back – we arrived around 7 PM on Friday and waited about an hour and 15 minutes. It was crazy in there but not intolerable.

And the wait was worth it. Tried 4 of the pastas and all were good, some (in particular the corn agnolotti) amazing. Will be back to sample more of the menu! Very pleased.

Not they they are comparable, but we were entirely let down by our experience at Fiola so we were delighted that Graffiato lived up to the buzz!

Thanks for writing in …

I'm interested to hear from anyone reading this after the fact, since I'm going to be wrapping up in just a sec — how long is too long to wait at a restaurant? 

Personally, I won't wait for a table for more than half an hour. And it's rare that I do even that. But I know people who will wait for an hour or more. I'm interested in hearing when you think it's worth it to wait, and why, and when it's not and why. 

Deconstructed key lime pie

Hey Todd,

How horrible! While there might be a time and a place for deconstructionism, rarely is it on my plate.

I'm beginning to wonder if some of these otherwise highly-regarded chefs understand boundaries…it's like knowing how to dress sexy. Yeesh! I feel like this is a lesson 101.

And it's not even deconstruction these places are doing, that's the funny thing.

Deconstructionism has to do with the teasing out of assumptions in a given thing, with exposing its systems and deep structures.

What these chefs are doing is demolition.

Taking a pie and reducing it to scattered component parts — cream over here, and crumbles of crust over here — what is that telling us about pie? And more to the point — should it be telling us about pie? Do we go to a restaurant to rethink our notions of what pie is and isn't, to question our assumptions of cream and crust and texture? Shouldn't pie be pie — an entirely uncerebral, entirely visceral experience?

Why demolish a pie, is what I want to know.

And the only good answer I have ever heard is — because we can … And that's not a good answer …

… I'm ravenous (and thinking about anything but demolished — or un-constructed — food), and now running late for lunch … Thanks for all the questions, comments, gripes and tips, as usual — you all make Tuesdays fun … 

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















[missing you, TEK … ]