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 …
… Phyllis Richman, the food critic at the Washington Post for 23 years, now retired, once gave me a piece of advice when it came to bringing friends along for review meals for the first time. "Take 'em somewhere far," she urged. "And cheap."
In other words, first-timers should come to regard a review meal as an adventure, a who-knows-what-we-might-encounter sort of experience — not a glamorous excursion full of flowing wine and pampering service and multi-course delicacies.
It's good counsel, and those times I haven't heeded her words I've regretted it. My own wrinkle is to take friends new to the game on all-afternoon outings, as I did one recent Sunday.
"So where're we going?" they asked excitedly as they piled into my car.
"Well, we're gonna be hitting three places," I said, and they exchanged looks that suggested they were being taken out for some equivalent of boot camp.
"Three separate meals?"
"Like, one after another?"
"Boom, boom, boom."
I have had many days like this in my time, and love them, but they are not for the faint of stomach. For many, it seems antithetical to the purpose of going out to eat, because rather than indulge and relax you are forced to moderate your pleasure and pace yourself, aware that another meal is coming and that you will be required to sit and taste all over again — aware, too, that this meal is not final, either, and that it will all be repeated once more. The people I've gone out with like this who understand what is called for, not surprisingly, are other critics — Robert Sietsema, of the Village Voice, is a metabolic marvel with Rabelaisian appetites, and three straight meals for him is, in many cases, a mere afternoon's work.
An afternoon like this is infinitely harder when it requires switching cuisines — I once went from Szechuan to Thai to barbecue. For this trip, and out of deference to my friends, I confined us to the Eden Center, a congested suburban mall to the uninitiated, but an astounding assortment of shops that includes more than 30 restaurants and cafes and bakeries — a haven not just for the Vietnamese community, but for adventurous gastronomes.
First up: the pho parlor Pho Xe Lua (8765-A Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-663-8717). The broth, here, is nearly a golden consomme, with more delicacy than most, and a lightly sweet finish. We ordered two bowls, and my friends slurped them down quickly — too quickly, I reminded them.
They looked up sheepishly from their bowls. They had abandoned themselves. They had forgotten. That says a lot, I think, about Pho Xe Lua. It also says a lot about how easy it is to lose yourself in the moment when a dish is really good.
The noodles and meat were going to do them in later, I knew, and sure enough we were halfway through our snack at the banh mi spot Nhu Lan (6763 Wilson Blvd. # 14, Falls Church; 703-532-9009) when one friend said, like some self-doubting recruit: "I'm not sure I'm gonna make it to the next place."
"Stop eating," I suggested.
"I can't. It's too good."
We tried three varieties: meatball, shredded pork, and pork pate. The meatball was the standout, a lightly handled mound of ground pork shot through with garlic, ginger and cilantro. All the subs came on crusty baguettes slathered with sweet butter and festooned with pickled carrot and daikon radish and cilantro.
By the time we hit Viet Taste (6763 Wilson Blvd., #6a, Falls Church; 703-531-0011), a new restaurant stashed inside the catacomb-like inner mall, I felt much the way I did when I took my toddler to the downtown mall recently. Too exhausted to walk back to the car, he looked at me as if I were some unforgiving taskmaster, all the while moaning his chorus of complaints as I dragged him the six blocks.
We sat down, and I promptly ordered five dishes.
"Do we have to eat everything?"
"You don't have to eat anything, if you don't want to. Remember your function — you're just a couple of live bodies who allow me to get away with ordering a ton of dishes without looking like a glutton."
Viet Taste was the nicest of the dining rooms we'd spent time in, and among the nicest you're going to find at the Eden Center, a transportive setting with oversized hanging lanterns that conjure birdcages and lend the open dining room a tropical air.
The food was fantastic, full of spiky intensities. We dipped plump bits of juicy quail meat into the self-made mix of lime juice, black pepper and salt, scooped a savory hash of chopped baby clams and pork onto sesame crackers, spooned a rich, salty caramel pork from a clay pot onto small mounds of rice, and made lettuce wraps from an excellent platter of bun containing grilled shrimp and pork, shrimp cakes and spring rolls. The only dish we didn't make much of a dent in was a rice pot of pork and seafood.
On the way home, the car was oddly quiet. Three straight restaurant meals has a way of dulling the senses. I wondered aloud, jokingly, when we could do it again next?
"I never want to see food again for a week."
"What about your leftovers? All that caramel pork — should make for some good lunches tomorrow."
"Stop it. Stop it. No mas. No mas." …
From last week …
'd like to hear what the response was at America Eats to your sister-in-law's reprimand. That would be telling! Please do share–otherwise it's just half a story!
I wouldn't call it a "reprimand" — she was just sticking up for the table, is how I saw it. Making sure we got what we — really, she, in this case — ordered.
The response? You can probably guess. A gentle assurance that this cream piping with crumbles was, in fact, the key lime pie.
So the trip to Philly was great.
I ended up going to Talulah's Garden. What a treat! Beautiful decor, unpretentious food and staff, knowledgeable cheesemonger, awesome beer selection. Highly recommend.
Then I went to the Italian market on Sunday morning. Don't recommend at all. It was a dirty disaster with moldy products in the stalls and only one remarkable store – Claudios.
Skip this on your next trip and go to the Rodin Museum instead:)
Thanks for the report …
I ate at a restaurant in the Italian market a couple of months ago, and though the meal was forgettable the waitress was not.
There was a special that day and she did not ask if we wanted it but told us that we did, and began writing the order before we could say no. She tucked a napkin into my son's collar, something I've rarely been able to do without complaint. She cut up his meatball. She brought out stain stick when he got sauce — gravy, in the parlance — on his shirt. Whenever he squirmed out, she slid him back in. When a friend said no, he wasn't taking leftovers home, she said, "What's wrong with you, leaving good food like that?" and packed him up a doggy bag.
She was a piece of work, stern and crusty, intimidating in the extreme. But in retrospect I love her, because she's such a good story.
There are people who brag about the places they've been, and the exquisite meals they've eaten, but I would much rather here people tell stories of bad meals like this and the characters they met. What about the rest of you?
I noticed you suggested a Rose wine in the last Washingtonian article, but have you tried Il Pioppo's Tenuta Cocevola Rosato?
They are one of the first producers of rose wine (even though the French try to take the credit…) I found this wine to be most refreshing especially in this heat wave!!!
I'll look for it. Thanks for the tip!
I have to say, I wish there were more roses by the glass on the menu of the mid-level and upper-end restaurants around town. Usually, there's only one option. It'd be great to see three or four.
I wonder what the reason might be for this — maybe a sommelier or GM can chime in and share with us the economics of rose. I'm guessing it's economics; maybe it's not economics at all. But my guess would be that roses just aren't as popular as whites and reds.
My husband and I would like to go out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. We are expecting our first child in a few months, so we feel like we should really "make this one count."
The problem is that through a series of unfortunate events, we are buying a new car and replacing our roof this month, so we can't do an expensive dinner.
Can you help me think of someplace for a special dinner, preferably someplace you wouldn't want to take a kid, that's also inexpensive?
We like all types of food, except that I'm a total wimp when it comes to spice/heat (and of course I'm pregnant, so sushi is out).
Thank you so much!
Congratulations, first of all — that's great news.
I'm sorry to hear about the sudden expenses, though believe me I know what it's like. Everything always happens at once.
I've got a place for you, a place that ought to feel like a special night out without putting you in a big pinch. It's called Montmartre, and it's a cozy, clattering bistro in Eastern Market. You can probably get out of there for around $80 for two, with tax and tip — which in this area is not terribly easy to do when it comes to fine (or fine-r) dining.
I'd split an appetizer, maybe the pate, and make sure to order at least one dessert to share — the one I almost always get is the Ille Flotant, or Floating Island. An toasted almond-topped meringue moored in a pool of rich cream sauce.
Enjoy yourself, and drop me a note and let me know how things turned out …
I recently dined at Peter Chang China Grill in Charlottesville, as a result of some of your own writings.
Is there anyone cooking Chinese food in the DC area that is at all comparable? The flavors were so unique!
The other places I like are all good, but the food is not nearly as virtuosic, and lacks the finesse that Chang at his best brings.
Probably the best is Sichuan Pavilion, in Rockville. I ate there recently, and am still thinking about a sensational plate of fish with spicy pickled cabbage.
This is a foundational dish of Szechuan cooking, and you can find any number of variations on it in the cafes, diners and restaurants that make up the sprawling new Chinatown of north Rockville. But nothing like this.
For one thing, it's not served whole, with bones. The kitchen renders the fish — a flounder, in this case — into easy-to-eat medallions. They're either poached or braised, and have a lusciousness you rarely find in fish at any level. I would be happy with just a plate of beautifully cooked fish, but the kitchen adds a few handfuls of finely sliced pickled cabbage and bands of green onions, too.
Killer. Just killer.
They make an excellent ma po tofu, too, among other things — with more spice, more richness, and more smokiness than most.
My other two recommendations for Szechuan are Sichuan Village, in Chantilly, and Hong Kong Palace, in Falls Church.
Dear Todd, I would like to invite your reader to Rasika to taste the Cauliflower Bezule dish. I am personally very fond of the recipe..
On hindsight, I agree that I should not have attempted to serve this signature dish for 1,600 guests without having the proper heating/frying equipment available. Please have your reader contact me directly at Rasika.
Vikram Sunderam Executive Chef Rasika
Thank you, Vikram.
And reader, you have been informed …
Roses are starting to catch on, particularly over the summer when they really hit the spot.
I believe they're still suffering from the association that people have with blush wines. Namely that they're cheap, overly sweet and gauche.
Chardonnay has the same rap (thanks to a decade of super oaky, cheap California chardonnay) though I don't think it has yet started to make a comeback like rose has.
I think you're right.
But I think it's deeper than that, too. I think that rose is not thought of as a "manly" wine. (Then again, there are people out there who don't think drinking wine, period, is manly.)
That, to me, is a huge hurdle in selling the stuff, and one that's not likely to change, either. How do you get men to order a pink drink?
But a little far, for me, to go for a bottle of wine. As long as you're doing some investigating, anything in Maryland? And preferably not in Montgomery County?
If I were you, I'd wait until the heat wave breaks and then take everybody to Cafe du Parc to celebrate.
If you can sit outside on the patio, under one of the umbrellas, the place becomes so much more charming, and the food is, I think, exactly what you're pining for — the sort of precisely executed French bistro cooking it's so hard to find of late.
Superb pots of steamed mussels in white wine, garlic and parsley, excellent soups (the menu changes often, but the cold soups you're likely to see now are generally superb), a good roast chicken or Cornish hen with mustard sauce, and one of the best treatments of cod you're likely to come across in the area.
Add to that some good table wines, and a handful of excellent and satisfying desserts, and I think you're looking at a pretty great night out.
Let me know how it all turns out …
At the end of your chat on July 12th, there was someone from NJ looking for a good bagel in DC. I too am from New Jersey and it took me about 25 years to find a good bagel in this area but I found it a little less than a year ago! I think it is called the Bagel Bakery (not the chain) and it is in Bradlee Shopping Center on King Street in Alexandria.
It is located right down the way from Lacrosse Unlimited on the opposite side of the mall from Starbucks. Awesome bagels and spreads, they make every kind of sandwich imaginable etc.
I buy them in bulk and freeze them as I don't exactly live around the corner. They even freeze well!
Thanks for chiming in …
I think I've had the bagels there, but the specifics are not coming to me right now. It was a few years ago when I was reviewing a place nearby …
I still think the best bagel sandwiches are at Bagels and …, in Annapolis. Very good bagels (when they're fresh, early in the morning, they're exceptional) and they come topped with good quality lox. I love the bagels at Goldberg's, in Silver Spring, but hate the sandwiches there. Skimpy, not generous, with second-rate lox. Stintingness — it's the last thing you expect of a Jewish deli or bakery.
There are two rose wines on the menu at Ripple. Had the Charles & Charles Syrah rose a Friday before last.
It was a pretty decent bottle for the $28 pricetag and was a great foil to the array of cheese, charcuterie and pasta we ate. Ripple was enjoyable…but as some have mentioned in other reviews, probably not a great value especially compared with some of its competition on that street.
That's the other thing about roses we haven't mentioned, that the good ones tend to go really well with a lot of the kinds of foods you now see dominating menus — cheese and charcuterie selections, dishes showcasing Italian or Mediterranean flavors, even pizzas and flatbreads.
I find it appealing, too.
I think Harry's deserves commendation for this. Its wine list has long had more Virginia wines than most, or more — and more to the point — than a place like this needs. Good for them.
I am novice wine drinker and a bit imitated when presented a wine list when dining at restaurants. I have no idea on how to choose wine with the type of foods.
All I know is that with fish, you order white, and red meats, you order red wine.
Are there any reference guides to show what wines pairs with what food? Or what wines are better than others? I am taking a business client out to dinner and want to impress them when selecting a good bottle of wine!
There are a slew of reference guides. You might want to pick up one by Andrea Immer. It's a slender little thing you can carry around with you, and with good tips on pairing.
Here's the thing.
We all hear the line white with fish, red with meat, but it's more the sauce than the protein you want to focus on. I like to do a dish at home, of scallops with romesco, and white wines don't mate with that nearly as well as some reds (like a Syrah or some Malbecs).
That's one thing.
The other is to try to match the weight of the dish with the weight of a wine. Light-bodied dish, light-bodied wine.
What you might do, in this instance — since learning all this is going to take some time — is to contact the restaurant in advance. Tell them what the stakes are, and tell them you're an absolute novice at this.
Ideally, someone there will put you in touch with the sommelier or GM, and together, looking at the menu and wine menu both, maybe you can pick out a bottle in advance — something that is bound to keep you (and your dishes) in good company throughout the meal.
When you sit down to dinner, no one's the wiser, and you look like a pro choosing a great wine that goes with everything.
Yeah, not bad, not bad — especially if they want to stick closer to home.
Though Montmartre is more festive than either, and the cooking is very, very consistent …
Thanks for chiming in …
To the novice wine drinker, drink drink drink.
Drink what you like and don't let anyone intimidate you in to thinking otherwise (do keep an open mind though).
Go to Total Wine on Saturdays and participate in their tastings and find what you like. White with fish / red with beef isn't really valid anymore.
There are great pinot noirs that pair well with fish and equally great rieslings and gewurztraminers that pair nicely with beef satay.
That's great advice.
Learning not to be intimidated — that's going to take time. It may take years. You may never not be intimidated on some level.
Many in that industry, or connected with that industry, want you to be intimidated. They want you to feel like a rube. They like to dazzle with all the knowledge they've acquired, with their mastery of jargon, with their grasp of, say, the terroir of a tiny family producer in a remote village of the Languedoc.
It's a very specialized world.
But you can love anything in this world you want to, and it's not required that you geek out in order to acquire a little expertise in something.
Hi Todd —
In this chat you've recommended both Cafe du Parc and Montmartre for solid French cooking. I appreciate your description of both places.
Other than what seems like the price ranger, how would you describe the differences between the two? When would you choose to go to one over the other?
Just curious. Thanks.
A good question.
I would say that Cafe du Parc, at its best, is more than solid. I've had dishes there that are exquisite. Simple, but exquisite. The cod, for instance, is one. There's a watercress soup that's coming to mind right now — a soup of great cleanness and depth, with flavors that seemed to leap out of the bowl.
Montmartre doesn't give you moments like that. Nor does it try. It's good neighborhood bistro cooking. Hearty cooking, not exquisite cooking — in other words, without the sort of precision and cleanness that du Parc very often delivers.
Does that make sense?
Yeah, you say that now … ; )
It takes a really special someone to be able to handle an afternoon like that. Most food writers I know can't. But drop me your name and address at email@example.com, and maybe I'll add you to my list …
Thanks for all the good questions and comments today, everyone. I'm fighting off a cold and thinking of soup. A bowl of pho from Pho Xe Lua would be perfect right about now. Oh, well. …
Be well, everyone, eat well and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK]